Betaquestions: who is asking, and why?


Editorial note.  May I point out yet again that the rules of this journal explicitly state that readers should not assume authors actually hold the views expressed in what they write.

In the previous posting my ploy (more or less forced on me by the continued absence of an intern) of replacing useful information and carefully considered opinions and helpful solutions by questions, and thus leaving it up to readers to do the work (rather as with systems of online banking) turned out in practice to be remarkably helpful, to me, and I now see why so many other editors resort to picking up chunks of verbiage from the news tapes, or the free feeds provided by the simple-hearted goodness of advertisers attempting to promote the prosperity of outfits which believe they see further profits cavorting around the margins of their activities and that advertisements are the way to catch them.  Therefore this ploy on my part continues herewith, even if there is a certain amount of the usual stuff lower down.


  (1) Will the World Underwater Hockey Championships (yes, they do exist) charge a team from  Kiribati a fee for participation?  (If you are unable to answer this question, give up (often the best policy in so many modern contests where all the other competitors are probably doped to the eyeballs) and try question (1b): Why was question (1) asked in the first place?)


  (2) To the relief, probably, of many on both sides (and in this context and after this amount of time many may feel it doesn’t matter much which side is counted as ‘us’ and which is considered ‘them’) the Skrepal case seems to have been shifted to the upper archive room downstairs, probably somewhere in the filing cabinets labelled ‘not before 2050 (n)’.  If awards were handed out at annual conventions of espionage agents Bellingcat would surely be in the running for one of the main prizes at the next award ceremony, with a performance allegedly described as ‘sparkling’ even by some neutral observers.   It is true that there are still a number of matters not yet clarified.  After all,  speculation would lose its interest if everything could be tidied up and set out in the display shelves in the exhibition room for tourists.  Why did the young lady claim to work for Pepsico in Moscow, when it seemed the firm had not heard of her?  Does she still?  Indeed where is she now?  Is Yevgeny once again indulging his fondness for travel, and if so where does he get the money?  If the other side was responsible for the chemical attack in Salisbury why did they need to go and investigate the OPCW?  Who was the chap claiming to be a former very senior scientist, now retired, on the other side’s chemical weapons programme, who allegedly volunteered to spill the beans to some western journalists (strangely surveillance-free), and who for the sake of secrecy chose to be found wandering lonely, and conspicuous, along a sandy coast (though apparently the secrecy did not matter once he was talking to them face to camera in full definition through the car window?   Why did the other side make the second trip to Salisbury, almost looking as if they were trying to draw attention to their presence?  One theory going the rounds is that  they were deliberately trying to keep the Russian threat present to the minds of the journalists of the Mail and the British media in general, in order to shore up May’s position, since they thought she would be more effective in bringing disorder and confusion to the British government’s position than anyone else in politics.  I was able to get a question about that to my former colleague and occasional correspondent, Montgomery Skew, but he said he has no special insight into the issue, and he wondered anyway why the Russians would feel a need to mount any operations of their own into fomenting confusion in British politics.


 (3) It is common for humans to try to assess the intelligence of other species, adopting a variety of tests. (It has been claimed that the New Caledonian crow scores particularly well by comparison with other species; however, according to information passed to this journal the sampling in those experiments may have been seriously biassed in their favour, since it consisted of crows attached to the university in Oxford.)  But does any reader have information about the outcome of attempts to use the techniques employed with monkeys in the reverse direction, to assess the intelligence of human beings?  (And if so, which human beings?)  (And what were the results?)


 (4) Can you think of a better way to stifle intellectual progress in a given field than to assemble an encyclopaedia of what is known and understood in that field, choosing of course the most eminent authorities in the field, with their status decided according to the number of citations of their work, backed up if it is felt necessary by similar scrutiny of the standing of those making the citations?  All the more credit therefore to Paracelsus who understood much better 500 years ago: ‘The universities do not teach all things, so a doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them.


Editorial news

Readers will be familiar with the numerous difficulties faced by the editorial staff (currently myself) with putting together and publishing these reports.  One of the major problems has been our reliance on electronic means of communication, partly because of the unreliability of the electricity system here although from my personal point of view that is almost an advantage since it normally excuses me the need to try to make sense of the incomprehensible, i.e. our office computer, and its ‘system’ and, worst of all, the associated ‘help’ manual.  But now there is good news from, of all places, Berthold’s branch of the university in London where they have devised a new and ingenious way to achieve communication –  genetically modified carrier pigeons, controlled in flight by signals sent to an ultra-lightweight aerodynamically efficient bird-helmet.  This is the result of a joint project between the engineering department and the zoologists.  All the sender of a message has to do is to get a secretary to type out the message in the usual way, get it scanned and miniaturised, and then hand it over to the ‘bird operator’ on duty telling him where the message is to be sent which no longer depends on such constraining factors as addresses.  At the other end any competent ornithologist can soon extract the message from the ring on the bird’s leg and then all he or she needs  is a magnifying glass.   Just ten hours from London to La Sarrasine or the reverse!  And currently it’s all free as it’s working on a trial basis.  A new journalistic era beckons.


Thought of the fortnight (seen on an English-regstered car in Bangkok)   Give a man an electronic megaphone.  Then be surprised when he signs up to the globalisation of ignorance


Late news (extract from a letter received this day 16-11-2018 from Montgomery Skew)

By chance I ran into Berthold this morning.  Poor chap is very down in the mouth, feels things are lining up against him (‘just when things had started to go well’ – a comment which I understand includes his fairly amicable break-up with Louella.) .  He believes he has been experiencing a loss of mental acuity recently, which he is putting down to the great amount of time he has to spend in close contact with students.  Whether the loss is real or not I have no way of knowing, but he cited a couple of instances which to me sounded pretty normal for a forty-something politician manqué.  Apparently he made quite a mess of things when he was invited to act as moderator at an inter-school debate on ‘Who is our guide to the future, Darwin or Gresham?’, the idea of the organiser being that with Darwin,  proponent of the survival of the fittest, things get better, whereas Gresham’s observation about bad money driving out good  (a general principle which can effortlessly be exported to other spheres – for instance politics, road surface construction, and government funded health care – and arguably a central pillar of modern capitalism as it operates in practice, whatever the theorists in their comfortably appointed cells may assert) sees things as overall tending to go to the bad.  Predictably the debate got muddled with confusions about the difference between change and the results of change, and between causes and effects, and with other equally predictable distinctions heavily trampled on.  So equally predictably Berthold couldn’t restrain himself  (whoever had chosen him for this job?)   Egged on by his suspicions about diminishing brain power he set about demonstrating his intellectual superiority to these schoolchildren and started scoring points of his own, some on behalf of views with no easily discernible link to the issue under debate at all, and most against any of the teenagers who seemed to him to be advancing rightwing views.  It all ended in uproar and a polite letter from the school principal asking for £25 to replace two chairs beyond repair.  All that however, was of lesser importance than the collapse, just a couple of days ago, of his university’s scheme for using bionic pigeons to transmit messages outside conventional channels of transmission.  Apparently he was there by coincidence when a meeting of the pigeon group was interrupted by the arrival of a very senior officer who identified himself not by name but by his official position, in the cloud-capped peaks, and announced that the bionic pigeon programme was officially being closed immediately, with the whole department now covered by the official secrets act whether they had signed it or not, while those who had taken part in devising the programme were being transferred at two days notice to Camberley where in future they would be working as members of the Ministry of Defence.  The very senior officer was at some pains to assure them that these measures in no way implied criticism of their activities.  To paraphrase: ‘Quite the opposite; we discovered that in a world where for instance an enemy can read a message among ten million being transmitted inside a locked building you have come up with a means of conveying information such that with fairly minor modifications it may be possible to conceal the fact that any transmission at all has taken place.  Best possible form of secrecy.  We want to see if it can be made detection-free, and if so, to use it for our own purposes’.  Poor Berthold; collapse of his dream, already half sketched out, of using the bionic pigeons to rove the world from his swivel chair in the administration block, gathering reams upon reams of interesting and important and up-to-date information at rock-bottom cost, and hoisting himself into the position of world-famous pundit, in a decade or so to see his career turned into a block-buster film.