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Favourite Things 5

February 25, 2013 1 comment

My “favourite things” posts are an excuse to rave on about some cool stuff, according to my rather geeky standards. In the past I have talked about a spacecraft, a telescope, a smartphone, and a car. Today it is time, I think, to talk about another one of my interests: planes. So I will now talk about my favourite aircraft: the SR-71 Blackbird.

Maybe one of the attractions of the SR-71 is that, unlike many other fast jets, it is not a fighter, so it’s main reason for existing is not to destroy things. It’s original role was for high altitude reconnaissance and it was also used by NASA for scientific research near the end of its military career.

But of course the main reason for celebrating the SR-71 is it’s speed. It set a speed record for a jet powered aircraft in 1976 and that still stands today. That is a remarkable achievement considering how technology has progressed since then. In fact, at that time it also set an altitude record but that has been surpassed since.

The actual top speed has never been officially revealed, but the record is 3,529.6 kilometers per hour (2,193.2 miles per hour, or about Mach 3.2) – the equivalent of over a mile every 2 seconds. Many people believe the aircraft could go a lot faster and one person commented if you fully opened the throttle it would just go faster and faster until it destroyed itself!

But even the official speed record is quite impressive. It is literally faster than a bullet. If you shot at the plane as it passed it would leave the bullet behind because of its superior speed. And it gets so hot during flight that the canopy gets as hot as an oven and the plane expands by 30 cm. To allow for this expansion the panels don’t fit together so well when it is cold, so it leaks fuel while on the ground. No sealant was ever found which could handle the extreme temperatures and expansion of the metal during flight.

The engines worked in two modes: as a turbojet below Mach 2, then as a ramjet above that. They used about 30 tons of fuel per hour at full thrust and each of the two engines produced more power than the ocean liner Queen Mary did in total. The engines needed to be turned by a “starter motor” when starting and the only thing up to the job were two V8s with no exhaust mufflers linked together and producing over 600 horsepower. Needless to say, the noise was impressive!

Night time engine tests were truly awesome. Running the engine at full afterburner power produced a flame 30 feet long and the length of a football field away the exhaust was still over 300 degrees and moving at 150 knots. The engine became so hot that some parts of the metal became translucent and the sound was so great that the engineer’s bodies shook uncontrollably even with full protective gear and standing a fair distance from the engine.

The highly modified JP7 jet fuel was actually quite difficult to ignite because it had an additive increasing its flash point which prevented it from breaking down at high temperatures. This made it difficult to start the engines and fire up the afterburners so a chemical called triethylborane was used. It has the interesting property of exploding when exposed to air! There was a tank of this material which was enough to start the engines and light the burners about 16 times during flight.

The plane, which was over 100 feet in length, was made 85% from titanium which actually strengthened after heating. All of the tools used for servicing were produced specially for the job because normal cadmium-plated tools would have caused corrosion.

The pilots wore a suit similar to an astronaut’s and the pre-flight check took over three hours to complete. But despite those issues pilots loved the Blackbird and there are many accounts of it’s incredible performance. Here’s a pilot describing the experience of take-off: “Both burners light at the same time. You can feel the acceleration and you just point the nose at the sky and go. There is nothing… nothing in the world to compare to that feeling.”

On 7 December 1903 Wilbur Wright flew the Wright Flyer at almost 7 miles per hour. I think he would have been rather impressed if he had been taken for a flight in the SR-71, just 60 years later.

A lot of the material in this entry came from the book “SR-71 Revealed: The Inside Story” which is full of interesting information about the Blackbird. There are also many web sites and movies dedicated to this amazing aircraft.

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Corporate Culture

February 23, 2013 6 comments

Note: the following blog entry is based on personal opinion and anecdotes. I have no real scientific evidence to support many of my contentions. I do think it is a valid hypothesis however, because I believe it’s difficult to refute most of my individual points. So, now that you have been warned, here’s the rant…

I often wonder why so many companies produce such mediocre products, provide such terrible service, and generally just don’t seem to reach the potential we might expect of them. I know that there are a few fairly good products around too, and even with the rather lacklustre service many companies provide most issues are eventually resolved, but it still seems to me that things could be so much better.

If you think the products we have today are good then maybe you are right… but maybe you are wrong too. When Apple started producing the iPhone many people wondered why they bothered because the phones then available were, they thought, perfectly adequate. But what has happened a few years later? Just about every advanced phone is either an iPhone or an iPhone look-alike. Maybe those old phones weren’t so good, but we just didn’t realise it until a much better one came along.

I’m sure the same applies to almost every product we use. One of my interests is in user interface design and I am constantly surprised at how terrible the user interface for almost everything is. How many people can navigate the arcane menu systems and change settings in their TV for example? And why are so many web sites so atrociously designed, and why is it almost impossible to get any help with these frustrating situations when they do arise?

I think I know why. It’s because, in almost every case, large companies simply don’t care about their products. The product (or service) is seen as an annoying but necessary ancillary issue to be dealt with on the way to the company’s real goal: making money.

I’m not saying a company shouldn’t make money. Clearly in our modern capitalist system that is an absolute necessity. What I am saying is that making money should be seen as an outcome of doing what the company is really there for (producing a product or providing a service) rather than it’s primary raison d’etre.

Let me give a few examples of where this phenomenon has become apparent. I’m going to talk in generalities here because it’s unfair to mention a company by name without giving them an opportunity to defend themselves, but you might be able to guess who I am talking about in some cases.

I work with many software companies in my professional life and many of them provide software which is really expensive. I also work with products of smaller companies (sometimes just a single developer) which are often quite cheap. Which of these products should we expect to have the greatest reliability and which company should be the most responsive to questions and requests for help?

If you have ever had to deal with a large software company you probably already know the answer. Surprisingly it is often the smaller, more focussed companies which create the most reliable and most functional software. And trying to contact one of the big companies to report a bug, ask for help, or request a new feature is usually a waste of time. On the other hand I have had a lot of positive experiences with smaller companies where they have given answers to questions very quickly.

On the subject of getting help I really must mention the greatest travesty of modern customer service: the helpdesk or help phone system. There are probably cases where these can work moderately well, and there are occasional situations where it’s possible to get certain issues resolved, but the main problem is that they have become the only solution for many companies, not because they give good results but because they are cheap or they are simple.

Many companies operate technical services which might be open to malicious attack or susceptible to highly esoteric problems, but you would expect the experts at these organisations to deal with those issues. In smaller companies where a person with good technical skills is in charge this usually happens but it’s surprising how often in bigger companies really basic errors are made.

For example, email systems might be hacked (just a totally theoretical example, you understand) or software of truly awful design might be produced (by a supposedly talented company). These technical problems happen in big organisations either because the people with real technical skills just aren’t there or if they are there they are constrained by the wishes of their “superiors” (I hate that word) for making money ahead of providing service.

Another cause of these issues is outsourcing. Theoretically this should be a great idea because a specialised company or other organisation can handle a subset of the tasks the company contracting it was previously required to perform and, because that’s their specialty they should be able to do it better.

But by now you should be able to guess what really happens. That’s right, instead of outsourcing to get better results it is done for other reasons: either to save money or to remove responsibility from the company and attempt to evade its responsibility. So, for example, an internet company could outsource it’s email services then blame the company it outsourced to for any (almost inevitable) failures. Again, service is forgotten and quick and easy profit is the sole aim.

So why does this happen in most big companies but rarely in small ones? It’s because of that greatest modern obstacle to progress: managers. Yes, professional managers generally don’t know much about the products and services of their company and they aren’t motivated to try to improve them either. Their focus is on greater profits at whatever cost is necessary: reducing staff, making products cheaper, providing the absolute minimum of service, using cheap foreign labour, etc.

The real problem is that this often works (from the company’s perspective). Many companies who take this approach do make quite good profits, at least for a while. Why don’t the famous market mechanisms operate here? Why don’t consumers just change to a company which still does provide good services and products? Probably for several reasons: most of the other companies are operating the same way so there’s no advantage in changing, the customer is locked in with some sort of contract, they aren’t aware of how poor the service they are getting really is, etc.

And the small companies which might start and are not yet affected by this malaise usually don’t get far before they are either destroyed by unfair competition from the bigger ones or are bought by them and assimilated into their corporate culture.

What can be done about this? I don’t use products from big companies where I can avoid it. For example, I only use Microsoft and Adobe products when I’m helping other users who use them. Unfortunately this means I have had to but licenses for them so in fact I haven’t achieved much there! Also I use almost exclusively use Apple computer products and Apple has grown into one of the biggest corporates of all. But at least there is a focus on innovation and quality of some sort there still.

So in reality there isn’t much that an individual can do without making their own life awkward, because we are all quite tied into the corporate system. But at the very least we know what to expect and why, in most cases: poor service and mediocre products because the leadership just doesn’t care.

Corporate Evil

February 19, 2013 Leave a comment

When are more people going to see that capitalism needs to be controlled? I’m not saying we need to have a Soviet-style socialist system instead, just that we need more government (and therefore, theoretically, voter or citizen) control. I hope that should dispense with those who use the old false dichotomy fallacy (if you’re not a capitalist you must be a communist) which many people invoke to try to discredit criticisms of capitalism.

Right, so that’s the intro, now on to specifics. I know that in some ways this is just too easy, but the target of my displeasure with big business this time is the cigarette companies. Mainly thanks to the minority Maori Party there is now approval to get plain packaging of cigarettes here just like has already happened in Australia. But the whole process is being held up by legal and other more insidious threats.

Everyone knows cigarettes are harmful. Well to be fair I guess there are still a few deniers out there on the lunatic fringe, just like there are deniers of climate change and evolution, but few people would now admit to thinking cigarettes are safe.

If any other product was shown to be as harmful as tobacco would there not be some attempt to eliminate or minimise the harm? For example, lead was removed from petrol because of health issues, asbestos was eliminated as a material for building, and CFCs are now gone from aerosol products. It can be done so why not do it for cigarettes?

Cigarette companies know their products kill many people, they know the advantages are far outweighed by the disadvantages, they know their product is addictive (and that is deliberate on their part) and they know the product is marketed (often through clever indirect methods which bypass laws designed to stop advertising) to young people and naive populations in third world countries. So it’s simple really: cigarette companies are evil!

I don’t use that word lightly (well maybe I do if you look at how often I use it in my blog, but I do crusade against evil a lot here!) but I think it fits. Cigarette companies deliberately produce a product which addicts people then kills them for the sole purpose of making money. If that isn’t evil then what is? Even terrorists are motivated by a misplaced allegiance to a religious or political cause rather than just easy cash. Which of the two is more evil really?

There are counters to this argument, of course. First there is the old free choice argument. That is that people should have the option to buy a product even if it is harmful to them. At the risk of committing the slippery slope fallacy I would ask in that case why not allow cocaine and other recreational drugs on the open market as well?

Then there is the free trade argument. This says that there should be a minimum (or in extreme cases zero) level of government intervention in commerce. Well I would say there should be an optimum level of government intervention in everything. Few people really want zero government, even if they say they do, because few people want anarchy.

So why should be have free trade deals? Who are these really for? I’ll tell you who they are for: they’re almost entirely to produce an environment where large corporations can be free to practice whatever brand of evil (there it is again) they want. Cigarette companies want to be able to kill people for profit. Big tech companies want to suppress new technology so that their inferior products can enjoy a monopoly. And all big corporations want to use the dirtiest tricks possible to minimise any fair contribution to society they make through taxes (more on this in a future blog entry).

So I think we need to be extremely careful of free markets and free trade deals. That word “free” sounds very enticing but whose freedom is it really referring to? It certainly isn’t freedom for the majority of citizens or for their elected representative governments, it’s freedom for big corporations whose sole purpose in life is to exploit the world’s resources and people for their own financial benefit.

So if New Zealand wants to introduce plain pack cigarettes and the cigarette companies don’t like it then we should just tell them to go away and sell their poison somewhere else. And if the WTO doesn’t like it we can say who cares what an organisation designed to maintain the power of the most corrupt groups in society thinks. And if there are laws which might leave us open to legal challenges then let’s just change them. And if all of this makes us a less attractive target for foreign investment (or to use the real word, exploitation) then I say great, who needs it.

OK, so let the big corporations in, let the foreign investment in, even let the cigarette companies operate here. But make them play by the rules that all of the rest of us have to. In fact, because they have so much money and influence they should be held to tighter standards than everyone else. And if they choose to go elsewhere there will always be someone else to come along and take their place. Preferably that will be a smaller local company but if it’s a big foreign company prepared to play fair, then that’s OK too.

But they just need to remember Google’s original slogan (what a joke that is now): “don’t be evil”.

The Cobra Effect

February 18, 2013 Leave a comment

I always enjoy situations where things are not what they seem, where subtle effects produce unexpected outcomes, and especially when the result of an action is the exact opposite of what the original intention was. It’s not so much that I enjoy seeing people fail (although sometimes, depending on the person involved, I do) its just that I like the weirdness the laws of unintended consequences often result in.

The most interesting sub-type of the law of unintended consequences is, I think, the Cobra Effect. In this effect an attempt to fix a problem results in the exact opposite: the problem is made worse.

The law got its name from an alleged incident during the British colonial rule of India. Whether this really happened – and if it did what the exact details were – is disputed, but this is a great anecdote anyway.

Apparently the British were concerned about the number of venomous cobras in Delhi and decided to offer a bounty to get rid of them. Any dead snake a person (mostly native Indians) brought in would earn a reward. Initially things went well and the cobra population decreased, but after a while it was noticed that more and more were being handed in. After a while the British government figured out that some enterprising individuals were breeding the snakes in “snake farms” and then killing them for the reward. Of course the British wanted to stop this so they refused to give out any further rewards. Naturally the farms were no longer viable so the “farmers” released all of their snakes resulting in an even greater population than at the beginning of the intervention!

As I said above, whether the story is accurate is hard to ascertain because the sources I could find were hardly definitive. But that’s not really the point. The point is that the effect itself is real and occurs in many different areas of modern life.

Here’s another example from more recent times…

Road safety experts assumed that cyclists would be safer if they wore a bike helmet. This seems to make sense because head injuries are a common result of accidents. So many countries enacted laws to force cyclists to wear helmets. However some research indicates that people wearing helmets are actually more likely to be injured on the road. Why? Because car drivers assume cyclist with helmets are safer so don’t give them so much space. And the cyclists themselves feel safer so take more risks. This leads to more accidents and because of the way bike crashes happen the helmets often offer only minimal protection anyway. So in fact the number of injuries goes up, not down.

I must emphasise that this research is uncertain and is disputed by many people and cycle helmet laws are still in force in most countries, but the increased risk is real. Whether it really outweighs any protection the helmets offer is unsettled, but it’s certainly an excellent candidate for the cobra effect.

I will now offer an example from the experience of my colleague (whom I have mentioned before – he works in a very similar organisation to mine) Fred (not his real name). When he started at his current place of work (many years ago) there were few rules and not a lot of supervision of what different staff were doing. This meant that sometimes people would work on wacky projects of doubtful relevance, occasionally work odd hours, and not worry too much about keeping track of leave taken, etc.

Over the years a more and more structured model was introduced to control these “rogue” behaviours. Work was charged using a cost recovery model where the client (from the same organisation) had to pay for the time taken to complete the project, hours worked were watched and recorded, and leave taken was strictly enforced.

You would think this would result in a far more efficient workplace wouldn’t you? Well if you have been paying attention your answer should be “no”. In fact the total opposite was achieved. People stopped working on innovative projects and just did the stuff which generated income easily. They deliberately worked more slowly so they could charge more hours. They got sick of the inept management and left the organisation completely. They only worked the standard hours instead of working to all hours of the night to get projects finished. And they used up their total allotment of leave instead of just taking a part of it as was common before it was all carefully tallied.

Not only that but all the extra organisation meant that a large number of extra administration staff were required until it got to the point where there were more admin staff than actual core technical staff (I must admit that he doesn’t have exact numbers on that, but it must be close).

At this point you would think the management would see the error of their ways and at least try to go partly back to the old system wouldn’t you? Well no, in fact they just made the new system more and more draconian and bureaucratic because it go to the point where they forgot about why they were really there and the bureaucracy become their aim in life instead of just being a way to achieve the real goal of providing a good service.

And here is one final example from Fred which bizarrely closely matches one in my own experience. The organisation he works for is audited (obviously, since all similar organisations are) but for some reason (presumably total ineptitude) the auditor couldn’t find any obvious problems. But he had to earn his grossly inflated fee some way so he insisted that the free coffee being provided for the staff should be stopped. That should save a few hundred dollars a year, right?

Well no, and anyone with a modicum of common sense would see the cobra effect would strike there! Instead of sitting in their offices working and drinking coffee the staff now had to go to the nearest cafe, so hours of extra work time per day was lost. The few hundred dollars per year saved was wasted in a week. That should have been obvious before the decision was made, it should have been even more obvious when it happened, but the free coffee and the extra hours of work have never returned. The cobra strikes!

When you start thinking about it you see the cobra effect everywhere. Generally it involves decisions made by people who are fairly out of touch with reality, live in their own pathetic little dream worlds, and are unprepared to really examine the consequences of their actions (in other words politicians, managers, accountants, lawyers, and other similar low-lifes). It can happen to anyone though and that’s why everyone should be prepared to say “we were wrong, that didn’t work the way we expected, we’d better try something else”. But can you really imagine a politician or manager ever saying that? No, me neither.

Favourite Things 4

February 17, 2013 Leave a comment

I’ve always been interested in cars. Unfortunately I don’t have several hundred thousand dollars spare to “invest” in a supercar but that doesn’t stop me from reading and watching videos about them. Top Gear (the British version, of course) is my favourite TV program, although I must admit I don’t really watch TV so there isn’t a lot of competition there! In my list of favourite things there has to be a car, or – because I just can’t commit to one – a list of several cars.

If I had to pick one car as my favourite it would be the McLaren F1. I know there are faster and better handling cars around now, because technology has moved on since the McLaren was first produced in 1992, but the McLaren was just so clearly the best at the time, so important in the progress of car design, and such an uncompromising masterpiece of engineering, that it is impossible to ignore.

And if I was going to make a few other choices as honorary runners up to the mighty F1 I might choose the Pagani Huayra and maybe the Lamborghini Aventador. I would choose the Pagani because it is not only wickedly fast, but also reflects the same uncompromising design philosophy as the McLaren. The Aventador is technically the best “cheap” supercar out there, and by far the most refined, best handling, and fastest Lambo ever.

So let’s have a look at the specs of the F1. The car was one of the first to use a carbon-fibre monocoque and weighed just 2513 pounds. It used a unique (as far as I know) three seat arrangement with the driver in the middle at the front and two passengers behind and to either side. The body was very streamlined, with a coefficient of drag of just 0.32 (the Veyron is 0.36). Downforce was generated by the design of the underbody, and by two electric fans, plus a dynamic spoiler at the back.

The engine was made specifically for McLaren by BMW. It was a 6.1 litre V12 producing 627 horsepower. The standard car had a top speed of 231 miles per hour (a record not beaten for 13 years) and could go a lot faster if the rev limiter was removed (243 mph and probably more if the gearing was changed). Acceleration was also impressive: 0 to 60 miles per hour in just 3.2 seconds. Few cars even today can beat that.

A basic design philosophy was that there should be no compromise on anything, and famously the engine bay was lined with gold to reflect heat. It was an incredible piece of engineering but there was still a dedication to producing a pure driver’s car so there was no power steering, ABS brakes, etc.

There’s a video on YouTube of a test drive of a McLaren F1 GTR – a race model converted back to use on the road – by British car magazine, AutoCar. The presenter is astounded by the handling and speed (claiming the throttle response superior to a Veyron) and also demonstrates its performance in comparison to a “common” fast car (a Porsche 911) where the F1 takes off as if the 911 is standing still.

But for me maybe the most awesome thing of all is the sound. As one commenter said, it’s like the devil himself is tied up in the engine bay and is being whipped! Many ex-race GTRs (where the sound deadening material has been removed to save weight) come with headphones so that the occupants can speak to each other.

The F1 is a true masterpiece and it makes it even better that it is British car (with a German engine) produced by the company which was originally formed in 1963 from the team established by New Zealander Bruce McLaren, so there is a local connection there too.

I do have to say a little bit about one of my other cars here. I have watched a couple of videos about the Huayra and I must say that the fanatical attention to detail on that car is perhaps even more over the top than that shown for the McLaren. For example, the name badge is produced from a single chunk of metal and takes a day to create, and each wheel is made the same way, taking 5 days each!

Every one of the 1400 bolts used in the car is made from titanium, and has the Pagani logo etched onto it, and together they cost (wait for it) well over US$100,000 to produce (remember that’s just the bolts). The fuel system cost a million dollars to develop and the battery is specially designed to save weight and costs US$1800. This car is pure insanity and costs well over $US one million to buy – if you can get one at all.

The Huayra is incredibly fast and has topped the Top Gear test track lap times with a time of 1:13.8 (even beating the Ariel Atom 500 V8 with 1:15.1, the Lamborghini Aventador with 1:16.5, and the “fastest car in the world”, the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport with 1:16.8). The McLaren has never been tested on this track – maybe that would be like giving Einstein an IQ test! It was beaten in straight line acceleration by the Veyron however.

It’s interesting that the Huayra’s basic specs (top speed and acceleration) are actually inferior to the McLaren’s but they are also inferior to the Veyron’s (by a fair margin) and still beat it on the Top Gear track. That track is fairly tight however, meaning top speed isn’t as useful.

The whole confusion over lap times, horsepower, acceleration figures and top speeds does show that pontification on what the best car in the world is based on numbers is generally fairly useless. And that’s one reason I gave 3 cars as my favourites. But you can probably tell that I still think the McLaren is special. If any other car is held in as much esteem and is still as relevant over 20 years after its release I will be impressed!

Unacceptable

February 14, 2013 Leave a comment

This blog entry follows up from my discussion yesterday about extreme views of Islam. This time I want to say something more general about how politically incorrect and highly controversial views are treated by both the general public, the news media, and by public figures.

Before I start I’ll just reiterate and update the situation. New Zealand First MP, Richard Prosser, made a series of very insulting claims against Muslims, such as that they are “a sorry pack of misogynist troglodytes from Wogistan”. He received widespread condemnation from most public figures and the international press, and was forced to apologise today.

As I said, the general view seems to be one of outrage and there have been multiple demands for his resignation. There are also a lot of absolute statements that the comments were “unacceptable”, racist or bigoted, and totally out of touch with reality.

But few people actually went through the claims (like I did yesterday) and analysed them. When you do that you see that he does have some good points… and some very bad ones as well. But even if everything he said was rubbish I don’t think the correct approach is just to outright condemn his opinion with statements such as he is a racist. The correct approach would be to show where he is wrong, because doing that can be far more effective as a counter to extreme opinions.

In fact as soon as I hear the phrase “that is unacceptable” I generally feel a certain amount of contempt for the person making that statement. If I ask why a person doesn’t like something and they say it is unacceptable they are really just being lazy, arrogant, and disingenuous.

Saying something is unacceptable is really just another way of the person saying that they don’t like it. So when I ask why they don’t like something and the answer is that it is because it’s unacceptable then all they’re really saying is that they don’t like it because they don’t like it and feel as if that opinion should be sufficient.

It’s no surprise that the “unacceptable” approach is a favourite of politicians and managers. They both like to avoid any in-depth analysis and both have sufficient arrogance to think their unsubstantiated opinions have some special order of merit above everyone else’s. They are, of course, as in most other things, wrong.

So why shouldn’t Prosser have made these points? I’m sure they are what a lot of people believe anyway. It’s really an opportunity for people who don’t think Islam deserves that kind of criticism to score a win because by refuting Prosser’s argument they can also refute the same opinions secretly held by some sections of the population.

If, on the other hand, they either don’t or can’t refute what he says then they are really just reinforcing that view while pushing it further out of the public discussion. There is one thing for certain I think, the PM and other politicians feigning disgust and outrage without really answering any of the points made just makes it look like political correctness has kicked in to protect a conspiracy of silence on the subject.

So I would really prefer to see the subject treated in a way which criticises Prosser based on whether he is right or wrong rather than whether he is discussing an “acceptable” subject in an “acceptable” way. And admitting that he has made a few points which have some validity isn’t bad as long as it is also pointed out where he has pushed the issue to a ridiculous and totally unsupported extreme which I don’t think anyone could reasonably defend.

Instead of apologising for saying something which is deemed inappropriate he should be apologising for getting so many of his facts and conclusions wrong. That’s what real debate is all about.

Misogynist Troglodytes

February 12, 2013 4 comments

According to New Zealand First MP, Richard Prosser, Muslims are “a sorry pack of
misogynist troglodytes from Wogistan” and Islam is a “stone aged religion”. I don’t think either of these statements are strictly true, but they do have a certain amount impact to them, especially the first one.

He made these comments in an article in the magazine “Investigate” which itself has a somewhat mixed reputation (to be generous). While it has uncovered some interesting factual stories it is also the source of many crazy conspiracies, wacky global warming denial, and some weird and wonderful religious material.

Naturally most people, including all politicians, have made statements condemning the story and there is no surprise there, even though I ‘m sure some of them secretly admire Prosser’s courage in writing it and may even agree with some of his points.

But if you are a public figure and are going to write an article denigrating a particular group you really should make sure that your opinions don’t stray into the area of extremism (particularly ironic considering the topic) and that your points don’t make sweeping generalisations based on little or no evidence which can be extended to the general case.

And that’s where he failed.

This was an opinion piece in a magazine which encourages controversy and there is no doubt it was written in a confrontational and informal style which might be seen as appropriate to that environment. And maybe someone less in the public spotlight would have got away with it. But an MP won’t, especially when the international press gets hold of the story.

But now I want to put all of the ranting, political correctness, and feigned horror aside and look at the specific claims.

Is Islam a stone age religion? Well not literally, of course, because the stone age ended thousands of years before Islam was founded. But the general tone of that statement is true. Islam is primitive and ridiculous, at least in it’s purest, most conservative forms. But unlike Prosser, who doesn’t think Catholicism also belongs in that category, I would suggest that, to varying degrees, almost very traditional religion is based on rituals and beliefs from the “stone age” in that context.

What about the claim that “most terrorists are Muslims”. Again I would suggest there is a lot of truth in that statement. Certainly many of the high profile acts of terrorism and other violence around the world are perpetrated by Muslims so maybe he has a point. According to a report by the National Counterterrorism Center, Sunni Muslim terrorists committed about 70 percent of the 12,533 terrorist murders in the world in 2011. If that statistic is true there clearly is a real problem here.

Of course the majority of Muslims are not violent and would never commit a terrorist act, but just by being part of the same belief system I think they should bear part of the blame. As Voltaire said: “Those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities” so just believing and encouraging the acceptance of an absurd religion in some ways helps foster extremism and violence as well.

But even if you accept some sort of connection between moderates and extremists as I have suggested, that shouldn’t necessarily extend to denying the rights of the moderates and it certainly shouldn’t extend to denying the rights of groups of people just because they have some extremely indistinct association with the group causing the problems.

So Prosser’s suggestion that “If you are a young male, aged between, say, about 19 and about 35, and you’re a Muslim, or you look like a Muslim, or you come from a Muslim country, then you are not welcome to travel on any of the West’s airlines” is absurd. Surely he wasn’t serious about this and it was included merely as a rhetorical point. Or maybe he let his righteous outrage push him past the point of rationality!

FInally let’s have a look at that classic statement, that Muslims are “a sorry pack of misogynist troglodytes from Wogistan”.

Clearly this is extreme and not to be taken literally. For a start, as far as I am aware, there is no location known as Wogistan, except in the writer’s imagination. And few Muslims live in caves so the troglodyte reference is also inaccurate. The claim of misogyny has some merit though, because it’s clear that there is a systematic bias against women in Islam (and in many other religions). Also, are Muslims a “sorry pack”? I think many of them are. I feel a certain amount of sympathy for them because of the way they are trapped by their belief system.

So I think a more moderate statement such as “Islam is a religious and political system constituting a group of mostly good people who are trapped by an outdated belief system which doesn’t give women the same rights as men and who traditionally come from the Middle East” was what he was really trying to say. But that doesn’t sound anywhere near as good, does it?