Number of the Month

February  2006

A fable for our times

And the king, sorely troubled, sent for his Grand Wizard.

“My agents about the country tell me that the common people are full of complaint and are groaning about the level of taxation. I need the money to cover the increasing size of the court and the requirements of the courtiers. I fear the peasants are revolting.”

“Leave it with me, Sire. They do not have enough to worry about. They have become far too prosperous. The common people cannot cope with prosperity without getting out of hand, they have to be fed with stories of terror. They need to be told about the fairies at the bottom of the Great Palace Garden. Then they will only be too glad to pay more taxes”

“Are there fairies at the bottom of the garden?”

“There are now. Trust me!”

And so it came about that the members of the College of Wizards went out into the country and told the people of the fairies at the bottom of the garden and how they would bring great troubles upon the land. And they constructed gigantic idols with whirling arms, spread throughout the most beauteous parts of the land, fearful of aspect and sound, but guaranteed by the wizards to fend off the fairies. And the people were sore afraid. And they gladly paid more taxes, so that even greater colleges of wizards could be set up to study the fairies at the bottom of the garden. And many learned professors were recruited to the Fairy Research Institute, which issued parchments telling of fearful times to come, when the land would be parched and barren (or possibly frozen and barren) but barren anyway.

And the Great Wizard called together a multitude, representing the leaders of the common people, and he spake thus:

“I have been to a Great Land beyond the ocean and have sat at the feet of a wizard even greater than I. And he has a wand of great power in the form of a stick with an angled blade. When he waves his wand he can see in his crystal ball clear images of past times. I have learned from him that many of the books in our royal libraries and the paintings in our royal galleries are purveyors of falsehood. They tell of the Bad Times, when the land was plagued with cold, famine and pestilence, also of the Good Times, when the harvests were abundant and there was joy throughout the land. This Greatest Wizard told me that there were no such Times. Things have always been constant, but list, list, o list! There are Bad Times just around the corner. And it is all because of the fairies at the bottom of the garden.”

So there came about the Great Burning, when ancient paintings and great leather bound books were dragged out of the royal libraries around the land and thrown onto bonfires.

And the king was greatly pleased; yet he was still worried and called the Great Wizard to him again.

“You have done great things, but there are still pockets of resistance, which I fear will cause us trouble.”

“Have no fear, My Liege, for we are about to hold a Great Council that will settle this matter for good.”

“But my agents tell me that some of the dissident peasants are calling a council of their own, to be called “There are no fairies at the bottom of the garden.”

“That is only because they have heard rumour of our Great Council, but that is to be called “Can we deal with the terrible consequences of the fairies at the bottom of the garden?”

“That is absolutely brilliant, did you think of it yourself.”

Well, Sire, it is a little conceit of my own, but it based on a logical device known to the ancients as Begging the Question.”

“But, what of the peasant’s council?”

“Fear not, Liege, it will be unnoticed. Not for nothing have my wizards been cultivating the Guild of Town Criers. They depend on us for all their news. They know on which side their bread is buttered.

Furthermore, my own little rumour factory is spreading the story that these ragamuffins are secretly wealthy and in the pay of great foreign potentates, who wish us ill and would leave us to the depredations of the fairies at the bottom of the garden.”

“You have done well, my friend. Have a few more titles at my next investiture.”

“Much thanks, Lord, and I trust that it will be in order to use some of the money in the now swollen royal coffers to reward the wizards and learned professors who have made all this possible.”


And the all lived happily ever after. Except for the peasants, of course.

Boris good enough?

Poor old Boris! He turned over a new leaf, giving up some of his more frivolous activities in the hope of political preferment, but his judgement has let him down again. Just as the Green jackboots are marching through Conservative Central Office, he writes a piece in the Telegraph casting doubt on the hell fire predicted by the received religion. Will he never learn?

The exaggerators 

The broad mass of a nation will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.
Adolph Hitler Mein Kampf.

Among others, members of our Forum have noticed the sudden outbreak of Chernobyl fallout among the world's greenies. They are led of course by the BBC, but you have to admire the worldwide synchrony they achieve. One of our more regular correspondents, Professor David Barron, dealt with a little local outbreak in the Southampton Evening Echo:

Dear Sir
Your corresponent Hugh Cleverly (Echo, Tuesday) tells us, apropos the Chernobyl "disaster", that it is estimated that 8,000 people died as a result of this accident. If you consult a reliable source (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) report,) you will find the following statement: 
"28 people died within four months from radiation or thermal burns, 19 have subsequently died, and there have been around nine deaths from thyroid cancer apparently due to the accident: total 56 fatalities as of 2004.
An authoritative UN report in 2000 concluded that there is no scientific evidence of any significant radiation-related health effects to most people exposed. This was confirmed in a very thorough 2005 study."

8,000 or 56? They can't both be true.

Yours sincerely
David Barron

What has happened is that the Greenies have suddenly realised that their hitherto successful efforts to arrest the rise of prosperity are threatened by a possible return to nuclear power. 

New theories for old

The world suddenly abounds with competing theories about the extinction of the dinosaurs. Never let it be said  that Number Watch is behind the times and fashions, so here is our theory.

The small mammals ate their eggs. That is why their only successful descendants are the flying ones that could lay their eggs out of reach. They are now all around us singing in the trees.


It makes you wonder why we dedicated scientists bother to launch our brilliant theories out into the world. No sooner do you do so than people start coming up with specious objections.

The fact that alligators, iguanas and the like exist today has nothing to do with it. The great disadvantage the dinosaurs had was their size. The modern reptiles are of the same order of dimensions as the mammals, and so can be predators rather than prey. A dinosaur could no more protect itself from rat-like mammals than a dog can protect itself from fleas.

The reason no fossil mammals were found with eggs inside them is that they broke the shells of the eggs and lapped up the contents. They were smaller than the eggs. The abounding insects of the time were able to join in the feast as soon as the seal was broken.

Yes mammals could climb trees, but they could not scale cliffs to the sort of ledges on which modern seabirds raise their families.


Thought for the day

It is hard to be an ironist in this modern, literal world.

It’s only weather

Some places get it unusually warm and others do not. Parts of Canada are bathing in cheerful sunshine, while southern England has had a week of gloom and sub-zero temperatures. Ragged-arsed children and crabbed old pensioners huddle round, holding their hands up to the glow of the one-watt standby indicator lights, seeking a little comfort. To oldies with unimpaired memory it is just another standard winter. We had some hard ones in the fifties and sixties, which ensnared the scaremongers of the day into the 1970s New Ice Age scam. They were immediately caught out by a run of warm years and so switched to the global warming scam. Now they take a two-way bet and call it climate change, HIWTYL. At least they learn from experience. You can guarantee that the media will keep the pot boiling with headlines of the ilk of What is happening to our weather?

The absurdity of long and medium range weather forecasting is that, locally, the whole thing depends on random, chaotic and unpredictable events, such as just where the stationary highs settle.



It is extraordinary how really stupid ideas resurface every few years. You bat them down and up they come again, like those little round bottomed dolls. Greenie Watch has spotted a resurgence of airborne windmills. It is nearly the fifth anniversary of the last time that Number Watch dealt with this one. Those designs should be operational by now.

If you don’t make any calculations and ignore the contribution of the likes of Newton, Joule and Ohm, you can make any stupid idea sound feasible. Sometimes it is even done by people who rejoice in the title Professor.

Funny old world!

Footnote: a nice essay in science fantasy here. Note the vagueness about Joule losses and the complete absence of discussion of electrical insulation (and hence weight). There are, however, investment opportunities to be leapt at.

The re-emergence of the airborne windmill proposal set your bending author off on yet another stream of consciousness:


Trivial pursuit

I care not whether a man is Good or Evil; all that I care
Is whether he is a Wise man or a Fool. Go! put off Holiness
And put on Intellect.
William Blake, Jerusalem

Since time immemorial ignorant people have come up with ideas that are self-evidently foolish to anyone with a basic training in science or engineering. It all added to the general entertainment and the gaiety of life. What has changed is that it is now being done by people who, like the snake oil salesman in the classic western film, assume titles such as professor in order to impart authority on their pronouncements. It is all part of a general decline in standards of education and professionalism.

There was a time when every professional served some sort of lengthy apprenticeship. A climatologist graduated in physics and then went on to specialise, an ecologist did the same after graduating in biology. An engineer spent long years calculating mechanical and electrical stresses; so, like a trained footballer bringing a long pass under control without conscious thought, he could immediately recognise a nonsensical proposition by long-honed instinct. No competent engineer would entertain the idea of an airborne wind generator for a second, though he would not need to make the calculations unless called upon to do so. Now we have degree courses in X science, usually of a debased form, so as to be able to recruit students deficient in mathematical skills. The rest of us are then told “You may not comment on X, as you are not an X scientist!” Once you have graduates, it follows as the night the day that you will have professors, then the heritage is secure.

Computer packages are applied by people who have little idea of the mathematical constraints that apply to them. Political leaders are elected at an age where they are yet to learn from their early mistakes in life. The consequences are often dire, but by then the media have moved on to the next big story.

People set themselves up as “The Scientists” and preach to the world, usually to try to scare the pants off it in pursuit of some political (or quasi-religious) objective. When the Hockey Team found it necessary to deny the occurrence of the Little Ice Age, they blamed the end of Frost Fairs on the rebuilding of London Bridge , which had been restricting the flow, thus ignoring the second most fundamental law of physics – continuity of flow. Naturally, when challenged on this they then subsequently brought in talk of tides and weirs, all in line with Langmuir’s 5th law. Of course, they not only deny the physics, but history, art, archaeology and even entomology. It was possible to trace the cold decline of the Viking settlement in Greenland by, for example, the species of flies that dominated, a highly temperature-sensitive indicator. The bones showed that they ate all their livestock, then finally their dogs. Even the President of the Royal Society was either disingenuous or ignorant of basic scientific concepts such as feedback and non-linearity in the diatribe that set off the whole global warming scare.

When the scaremongers were promoting the New Ice Age in the 1970s, they came up with quite ludicrous propositions for changing the Earth’s climate; ones that made the Kyoto suicide pact look positively sane. Every now and then airships are in the news: there is a flurry of activity; then it all subsides. You only have to say one word to damn the concept – wind. On the other hand, and for no apparent reason, canal systems are allowed to fall into disrepair.

Some drugs are condemned before they are even really tried, because of some botched and inadequate trial, while others become the foundation of billion dollar industries on the same basis: a lottery. It is the age of the Expert. Time was when this word was only used by journalists and lawyers; scientists would, perhaps, admit to being specialists. Now half the adverts on TV are for dubious products and behaviours touted by self-styled experts. In Britain , many such promotions are sponsored by the Government and funded by the suffering taxpayer.

Whether it is in art, craft or science, true expertise derives from long familiarity and mastery of detail. In a world dominated by politics and the media, where the transient is king and superficiality the order of the day, people are encouraged to think that they can have several careers in one lifetime, but that of course is only in order to cover up problems of unemployment.  Politicians delude themselves that, because they can destroy a great school overnight, that they can create one in the same timescale, but in reality it takes generations. This is the age of instant gratification; just add water. In just seven days I can make you a man.

So we have these instant inventions, nostrums and scares; not only from common or garden nutters, but also from those who set themselves up as The Authorities.  

He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer, For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars.
William Blake, Jerusalem

The enginasters

Some years ago your bending author coined in private conversation the term scientaster, which by analogy with poetaster represented a producer of trashy science. From the volume of correspondence about the airborne generator schemes, it would seem that there is also use for another neologism, enginaster.

Ask a schoolboy to design some object, say a bridge or an aeroplane, and he will begin by producing an elaborate drawing, with much concentration on the filigrees and curlicues. Train him for ten years as an engineer and he will start with a simple stick diagram to enable him to do some order-of-magnitude calculations of the primary forces.

Ask a Brunel to design an airborne generator and he will begin with a drawing of a blob with a line descending from it in the form of a sort of catenary. As an engineer he would know instinctively that this line is the essence of the whole project. The blob, which represents the turbine, generators, lift mechanism etc. is purely secondary and, at this stage, decorative.

The connecting cable is the most important part of the design, almost the only part. It has to perform a number of vital functions, such as:

  1. sustain the horizontal reaction force against the wind
  2. sustain its own weight
  3. sustain transient wind forces
  4. be free of oscillatory instabilities
  5. minimise the Joule losses (and hence the electrical resistance and current)
  6. hence maximise the voltage in order to maximise the power
  7. hence optimise the internal geometry to make maximum use of the electric strength of the dielectric.
  8. resist lightning strikes and other cloud discharges.

There are a few simple rules, known to all competent engineers. For example, the diameter ratio of the outer to inner conductors needs to be e (the base of natural logarithms), so that the maximum electric field strength is minimised for a given voltage and overall diameter. The most crucial point is the selection and manufacture of the dielectric material; just one gaseous void on the whole length of the inner conductor and the system will be destroyed by partial electric discharges (which is why, more often than not, the roads are always being dug up).

Like our schoolboy, the proponents of these schemes produce elaborate pretty pictures of blimps and turbines, completely ignoring the essence of the problem. They show their ignorance by talking about a tether. If you solve the real problems the tethering comes free. A real engineer (such as Our Man in Puerto Rico ) takes out the proverbial back of an envelope, makes a few rapid calculations. He then screws up the envelope, throws it in the bin and looks for a more feasible project.

An alternative explanation is that they know about the real problems and are concealing them from potential investors, but that would be fraud, so we won’t go into it.

Footnote: For those who need it explicit: there is only one important question. What is the weight of the cable?


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At LLoyds Old Library, London, February 23rd, 1.15 pm.

Non-members need to register.


On the other hand

Number Watch and its associated books by their very nature deal with the lunatic fringe of various branches of science in general and epidemiology in particular. It is important to remember, however, that the tradition of Dr John Snow lives on in the huge organisation of disease detectives, who monitor potential epidemics and organise the international response to them. The BBC has just broadcast an excellent survey of these in a couple of radio programmes. The programmes are available on Listen again on the internet.



When I was a child, I spake as a child,
I understood as a child, I thought as a child:
but when I became a man, I put away
childish things. For now we see through a
glass, darkly; but then face to face: now
I know in part; but then shall I know even
as also I am known.

Corinthians 13 11

Reading correspondence this week brought two childhood optical images. One was the Hall of Mirrors in fairgrounds, in which you saw distorted versions of yourself in mirrors of various curvatures. The other was the representation of stereoscopic pictures by the anaglyph method, which involved red and green glasses (remember, the one that the Sunday Times got confused about).

Anyway, reading hostile critiques of one’s efforts is very much like being in that hall of mirrors. All the bits are there, but grossly distorted. We could dismiss overt politically motivated character-assassination sites such as Sourcewatch and the Australian Adhominator, except that they are then quoted by less obviously biased sources. In our Forum, Dave Gardner writes:

The "source" for Sourcewatch is interesting- it's a project run by "The Center for Media & Democracy". The entry for CMD on the activist monitoring website is as follows:

"The Center for Media & Democracy (CMD) is a counterculture public relations effort disguised as an independent media organization. CMD isn’t really a center it would be more accurate to call it a partnership, since it is essentially a two-person operation.

Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber operate, as do most self-anointed progressive watchdogs, from the presumption that any communication issued from a corporate headquarters must be viewed with a jaundiced eye. In their own quarterly PR Watch newsletter, they recently referred to corporate PR as a propaganda industry, misleading citizens and manipulating minds in the service of special interests. Ironically, Rampton and Stauber have elected to dip into the deep pockets of multi-million-dollar foundations with special interest agendas of their own.

Their books Mad Cow U.S.A. and Toxic Sludge Is Good for You! were produced and promoted using grant monies from the Foundation for Deep Ecology ($25,000) and the Education Foundation of America ($20,000), among others. Along with the more recent Trust Us: We’re Experts, these books are scare-mongering tales about a corporate culture out of control, and each implies that the public needs rescuing. Guess who the heroes in this fantasy are?

Despite his wild claims that federal agencies have covered up U.S. mad cow disease cases, John Stauber has become a quotable celebrity on the subject. In 1997, at the height of the initial mad-cow panic, a CMD press release warned: Evidence suggests there may already be a mad-cow-type of disease infecting both U.S. pigs and cattle. Rampton and Stauber have never provided any documentation to back up this reckless claim; no cases of mad-cow disease have ever been documented in U.S. livestock. John Stauber was one of only four mad-cow experts offered to reporters by Fenton Communications’ media arm, Environmental Media Services."

Bob Burton is getting paid by these people, so he's obviously going to implement their agenda.

It is, however, in the less overtly biased sources that these critics can do their worst, such as Joe Sharp. They see everything through their red-green spectacles. It is inconceivable to them that anyone else can write a critique of a scientific claim from a detached point of view. If he is not one of us he must be one of them. This is demonstrated by the selectivity of their targets. They will ignore a thousand items of dissent and only home in on the ones that they regard as politically sensitive:

In particular, he has disputed the reality of anthropogenic global warming, the relationship between second-hand smoke and lung cancer and the existence of a hole in the ozone layer caused by emissions of chlorofluorocarbons.

They cannot accept that anyone can take the attitude of the executioner in Blazing Saddles – Everyone is equal in my sight.

The red-green transformation is something that is still not widely understood. It is exemplified by Danny Cohn-Bendit, scourge of the old establishment and leading light of the new. The collapse of the Soviet empire left the old fashioned Marxists without a spiritual home, so they found a new one in the environmental movement. The Marxist critics, who were once well established in most universities, could only look at anything (arts, literature, science etc.) through their red spectacles, and could not conceive of anyone taking an apolitical view. They are still there, but with slightly different spectacles.  They specialise in subverting and controlling undemocratic bodies such as the EU. In particular, their army of acolytes set out to demolish anyone they deem to be a contrarian. 

Footnote: Following further correspondence, and with the greatest reluctance, an account of your bending author's political history is appended.

Further footnote (by James Smith): is what is, I think, called a content grabber. When you feed it a search term it grabs the appropriate article from wikipedia, rewraps it in its own format, adds it's own name and advertising to the top, and then presents it as its own work. There are a number of sites on the internet that do this sort of thing, wikipedia being only one of the sources they draw from. Content grabbing is a way of drawing more people to a site, either to increase revenue from advertising or to increase exposure to the idea that the site is trying to promote. For example, a music site might content grab from a lyrics site and then present the lyrics with an offer to sell the user the associated CD. I saw a search interface the other day that basically just passed search results straight through to Google, but the initial interface just had a search box, a nice picture and a quote of the day. 

The wikipedia article was copied from the sourcewatch article. It's been changed since, by myself and others, but trying to turn it into something acceptable to all parties is a frustrating process.


Says it all, really

A fine piece on the "science" of global warming by Dr Gerrit J. van der Lingen, brought to attention by the invaluable CCNet.



Buffoons to right of them,
Buffoons to left of them,
Buffoons  in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd

Charge of the Blight Brigade

It was the week of the buffoons.

The buffoon of the right was David Irving, self styled historian. He is facing a three year jail sentence for “holocaust denial”. The one of the left was Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, who faces suspension from office. He is appealing (pardon the inappropriate ambiguity). The one in front was the Prince of Fools, who is in court to prevent publication of his widely circulated journals.

One of the minor irritations of growing old is hearing historians claim “There is no evidence that it ever happened” to which you cry “But I was there!”

One case occurred to your bending author a couple of years ago, when a “social historian” made this claim about the effects of the pip-squeaking tax policies of  Dennis Healey, who until the apotheosis of Gordon Brown competed with Geoffrey Howe for the title of the Worst Chancellor Ever. It brought back memories of a young academic of thirty years ago, sitting round a swimming pool with a number of businessmen. One commented on the fact that his best man had turned down promotion on the grounds that it was not worth the stress, as the pay rise would all be swallowed up in tax. The conversation then turned to amusing ways of wasting the companies’ money, so as to avoid making a profit. A quarter of a century later the historian claimed that there is no evidence that any of this happened, thereby justifying future tax increases.

Fortunately, not many of us oldies were witnesses of the Holocaust, but we met people who were and saw the films and photographs. Irving is simply a serial liar, but so are the global warmers and the anti-tobacco zealots, among many others of today’s opinion formers.

Livingstone has been making outrageous statements and performing outrageous acts all his political life. The people of London elected him largely because of what he was not – New Labour. He gets away with it by being the "Cheeky Chappie". 

Saying stupid things as a habit might be reprehensible, but in our once free society it was  a basic human right. Now it can get you sent to jail or suspended from elected office by unelected bureaucrats (appointed by, wait for it, none other than Old Two-Jags himself).

The Prince of Fools apparently regards himself as a "dissident". It is a strange form of dissidence that conforms to all of the shibboleths of the New Green Establishment (global warming, Frankenstein foods, even grey goo). It is a wonder that a man can maintain such detached naivety into old age. Who else would circulate dozens of copies of his private journal and then be shocked that it gets into the public domain?

Long live the Queen!

Number of the month -15

Nigel (Millions to drown) Hawkes revels in the latest excesses of the Tyndal Centre. This outfit has long given up the pretence of being a science research centre and is now overtly proclaiming its rôle as a propaganda unit. Regular number watcher Dennis Ambler has been monitoring its activities and his recent findings are published as a timely guest paper. They have once more raised their claim for future temperature rises and now go for 15°C. They must have been surprised themselves as to what they can get away with, so they keep upping the ante. They can now see ahead to the year 3000. Pity they cannot put some of that effort into telling us what the weather is going to do next week.

This is all, of course, part of the traditional hysteria that anticipates a new doomsday report from the IPCC. It prompted among other reactions a delightful specimen of Guardianism – “the naturally conservative IPCC.”

Beam us up, Mr Scott!



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