Thursday, January 31, 2013

“Sorry son, don’t like the haircut”

DAMN I was going to sleep.

This from Malcolm Turnbull:

“NYTimes: Prison Population Can Shrink When Police Crowd Streets”

Oh thank you Malcolm. Another pass-on from America, where someone can get shot for entering the wrong driveway, can get mass-beaten by police, but where the relentless propaganda is that the best way to protect freedom is to curtail the individual and empower the instutution. Let someone carry a gun, but put RFIDs on students; let the gun makers thrive, and use drones to spy on citizens.

Back here in Australia, I am old enough to remember a darker era of policing, exemplified by what was a catch-phrase in the 1970s and 1980s:

“Sorry, son, don’t like your haircut.”

So here’s a story I’ve related before: that I knew someone who was arrested – not gently – on a charge of “resist arrest”. That’s sufficiently recursive to boggle the mind, but the most salient detail – the one that got a 1980s magistrate laughing out loud at an uncomfortable police prosecutor, is this.

At the time of the arrest, and at the court appearance, the individual in question was immobilised by a leg cast (plaster, not one of those plastic scaffolds we use now) that started at the pelvis and ended at the ankle.

The entire thing was a joke: merely a probationary constable getting a dose of the red mist at a cricket match, grabbing someone from behind at random, and taking exception when they tried to brush off the hand. The individual in question is and always was one of the most harmless people imaginable. Not harmless as in “wouldn’t harm a fly”, more “harmless as in Bernie Fraser would need four pounds of dope, a fifth of scotch and a hammer-blow to the head to be so laid back.”

To be more personal. I’ve been spread-eagled by a country cop for the crime of being the first to arrive at a car accident. I wasn’t in the accident, I was just the next car down the road, and someone else called the ambulance, and the ambos called the cops, and my teenage nemesis saw red when he saw me. The ambos talked him down.

Or there’s the friend of mine who didn’t even have to break the speed limit to get hassled: merely driving a 1970s V8 Ford Falcon Cobra (in imitation of the Moffat car that won Bathurst) was enough.

And personally? I’ve never even managed an arrest – which is probably an admission of failure as a journalist – let alone a conviction. I’m boring and somewhat conventional.

No, I won’t feel safer with an infestation of street police to take offence at my haircut or face.

And if I had one wish, it would be for the Liberals to stop telling Australia is should copy America in all things. I vowed long ago never to return to the USA, and I don’t wish it to be imported to Australia.

No, cybercrime isn’t bigger than the drug trade – not even by inflated industry estimates

One of my decisions for 2013 was to moderate how I express myself on Twitter. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy other people slinging it around…

Twitter was host to a row between @Asher_Wolf and News’ Claire Porter, @ClaireRPorter about this article:

Ms Wolf complained that the story was a little too fan-like (euphemism). It’s hard to disagree when the third par says “Amit Yoran is kind of a big deal.”

But it’s this line that I’m going to take issue with:

“Cyber security threats are in fact so common that more money is being made from cyber crime than from drug trafficking, Yoran said.”

Ahem. Here’s a UN source about drug trafficking (

“In 2009, the value of illicit trade around the globe was estimated at US$1.3 trillion and is increasing.”

And here’s a story ( about the value of cybercrime:

“Norton reports that cybercrime is costing the global economy $338 billion a year, overtaking a still a lucrative trade in the underground drugs market.”

Norton is wrong, and ZDNet was unspeakably lazy to report it – since it took me just one Google search to find the UN data (search terms: global drug trade billions – it’s currently the number two result).

It’s also lazy for anyone to cite ZDNet’s report to support their own – not because of any systemic problem specific to ZDNet, simply because it’s not a primary source. Just because a journalist printed it doesn’t make it true.

The long and the short of it is this: the drug trade is worth around three times the cybercrime trade. But the computer industry has a long, long history of making itself bigger. A mature industry now, it still behaves like Chester the dog from Loony Tunes, trying to ingratiate itself with Spike, trying to prove it’s important, stealing gravy to add to its own steak.

Cybercrime is important. But it’s not bigger than the drug trade. It’s self-aggrandising for the industry to claim it; it’s lazy for journalists to report it.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Smithsonian feeds the quacks

“Over thousands of years, gold has been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, inner ear infections, facial nerve paralysis, fevers and syphilis. Now, preliminary findings suggest a new application for tiny grains of gold – destroying cancer cells.”

With that line, the Smithsonian Magazine demonstrates a journalistic habit that undermines science reporting, while at the same time giving comfort to promoters of pseudo-science. A journalist with a story, going in search of a Grand Narrative for the lead.

The rest of the story is fine: a straightforward discussion of research. But the “wisdom of the ancients” is not, I’d suggest, the right “grand narrative” for a serious health story.

“Over thousands of years gold has been used to treat” is linked by the Smithsonian piece to this journal paper. It’s just a throwaway line at the start of the paper, which examines gold-based therapy for arthritis and tuberculosis. Interestingly, that paper notes that “Eventually, gold therapy was extended to arthritis and lupus erythematosus, because of the belief that these diseases were forms of tuberculosis.”

That belief has long been proven wrong … but what of the rest of the list? “Inner ear infections, facial nerve paralysis, fevers and syphilis”. The Smithsonian doesn’t provide a citation, let alone discuss whether any of these treatments were effective.

Ancient Egypt used dung in treatments. That doesn’t somehow suggest they knew something about feces that we since lost; it means they were ignorant and superstitious, and based their treatments on not on science, but on magic.

They’d have used unicorn penis to treat cancer if they could get it: that doesn’t make it an effective treatment, it just sweeps unicorn penis up in the “try everything” pharmacopeia of ancient society.

Spurious credibility is exactly what pseuds, frauds, snake-oilers, ripoff merchants, gull-deceivers, anti-vaxers, crystal-sellers, homeo-sue-anyone-who-disagrees-pathy, chiro-save-a-laywer-for-us-practic and every other quack relies on to draw new, desperate suckers into their net.

Well done, Smithsonian.