Wikipedia, the excellent online encyclopedia, has bee suffering from a recent bout of vandalism caused by congressional staffers. One victim, though by no means the only one, is our own Republican Senator Norman Coleman.

This isn’t a partisan issue – Democrats are proving to be just as stupid, vain and controlling as Republicans – but it does highlight the fundamental lack of understanding these people have of the Internet. For example:

“What’s to stop someone from writing in that Norm Coleman was 7-feet-10-inches, with green hair and one eye smack dab in the middle of his head?” he said. “That’s about as silly as this gets.”

Nothing, of course. But there are plenty of things that will stop it remaining there (the correction mechanism on Wikipedia is by no means flawless, but it is often staggeringly quick). And this being one of the internets, the source of the change is visible to all. That’s how Coleman and all the other politicians got caught out.

The best bit about the story, however, is that the relevant IP addresses have been blocked from contributing for the time being. One of the people able to impose these blocks is a 15 year old boy, who it seems is more trusted to behave in a mature way than Congress.

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Skills I don’t have

Several years ago I saw an experiment designed to test a chimp’s ability to defer gratification. The chimp was placed behind a glass panel that had a small hatch in it. The researcher would place a single M&M in front of the hatch. After about 15 seconds the researcher would place several more M&Ms with the original one, open the hatch and let the chimp grab them. Once the researcher felt the chimp got the idea (“be patient, and you can have lot s of M&Ms) he left the hatch open all the time. When he put the first M&M down the chimp would grab it. This prompted the researcher to look sad and not put the other M&Ms down.

The significant thing about the test was that the chimp never quite got it. Or to be more accurate, she got it but couldn’t do it. Every time the single M&M was put down she’d grab it (perhaps after a moment’s hesitation), eat it, then remonstrate with herself for being so stupid. And it was clear that she was irritated with herself; her gestures were incredibly human, and you could almost hear her swearing and calling herself an idiot. But then another, solitary M&M would be placed down, and she’d grab it again.

Last night I went to get contact lenses fitted, and spent an hour trying to jab myself in the eye with one. Every time it touched my eyeball, I blinked. It didn’t matter how much I psyched myself up or relaxed, even if I physically held my eyelid open. If I went faster, I just blinked faster to make up for it. Every time.

I am that chimp.

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I’ve been reading an excellent series about diabetes in New York in the eponymous Times. Today’s installment highlights a factoid that surprised me, even though it isn’t really odd when you think about it.

Even in China, the number of obese people has tripled since 1992 to 90 million, as Western food has become popular and prosperity has made it possible to eat more.

That means there are more obese (not just fat, but, erm, really fat) Chinese people then there are British people, fat or otherwise.

It highlights in a small way the incredible impact both China (1.3 billion people) and India (a paltry 1.1 billion) could have in the near future. Sheer weight of numbers (no pun intended) means that they only have to get things vaguely right, as they are beginning to do in manufacturing and somewhat in IT, to totally change how the world works. I know this might seem like a typical ‘the world is flat’ argument, but I’m not arguing about the technological aspects, or organizational, or even cultural. This is just from the numbers; close to half of the world’s population lives in two countries, so if either or both decide that they really want something, and can get even close to organized, whatever you or I want doesn’t really matter.

The reason I highlight this is because of an article I read by Mark Steyn, It’s the Demography, Stupid (hat-tip to Speckblog). The article makes some interesting points (though I dislike the reference to ‘Queer Studies’; Steyn should know that the correct term of witless dismissal is actually Ass-Bandit Studies, which might appear to exclude lesbians, but as our blessed Queen Victoria herself pointed out, women just don’t do that sort of thing).

Anyway, Steyn argues that the openness and tolerance of European nations to immigrants, particularly Islamic ones, combines disasterously with the relatively low birthrates among those nations compared to those of Islamic peoples. This seems to ignore the fact that it isn’t necessarily the ‘Islamicness’ of these people that makes their populations grow, but their economic condition, and that if the latter is fixed the former declines. Nonetheless such a correction can take many decades, in which time immigrants might gain the critical mass necessary to rest the democracies of Europe, and indeed the notion of democracy itself, from traditional Westerners.

While some of the arguments he makes are interesting, on reflection it seems he has missed the bigger picture. Yes, Islam could roll over the West like a scary tide of this-is-not-what-we-had-in-mindness, but assuming that the idea of Democracy isn’t strong enough to defend itself against that, it’s certainly not up to dealing with even a benign expansion from China or India. The point of democracy isn’t that it’s what white men do, though credit to them for coming up with such a system and making it stick. In fact there isn’t actually any ‘point’ to democracy at all, except for its inherent attractiveness. As a many-generation Western European I find it very difficult to understand how anybody would want to live in something other than a democracy, as comforting as a paternalistic dictatorship might appear, and I hold this belief so dearly that I’m not afraid to say that I’m right and anyone who disagrees is wrong. But conviction doesn’t equal correctness; democracy’s strength has to assert itself, has to be picked up by people across the world, not because I say it’s right but because they can see that it’s right.

That may happen to the wave of Middle Eastern immigrants arriving in Europe, and if it does not things will surely change. But worrying about them is like worrying about getting asbestosis from the building that’s falling on you.

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Avert your gaze

No really.

“Looking at faces is quite mentally demanding,” Dr Doherty-Sneddon told the BBC News website.

“We get useful information from the face when listening to someone, but human faces are very stimulating and all this takes processing.

“So when we are trying to concentrate and process something else that’s mentally demanding, it’s unhelpful to look at faces.”

I do this, and often struggle to convince people that I am focused on what they’re saying. And now I know I’m just embracing my inner eight year old.

On a related note, I also stare at people’s mouths when they’re talking. On more than one occasion I’ve been asked if I’m partially deaf.

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