February 19, 2013

US Supreme Court okays search warrants issued by dogs

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 15:14

A glum day for civil liberties:

Today the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that “a court can presume” an alert by a drug-sniffing dog provides probable cause for a search “if a bona fide organization has certified a dog after testing his reliability in a controlled setting” or “if the dog has recently and successfully completed a training program that evaluated his proficiency in locating drugs.” The justices overturned a 2011 decision in which the Florida Supreme Court said police must do more than assert that a dog has been properly trained. They deemed that court’s evidentiary requirements too “rigid” for the “totality of the circumstances” test used to determine when a search is constitutional. In particular, the Court said it was not appropriate to demand evidence of a dog’s performance in the field, as opposed to its performance on tests by police. While the Court’s decision in Florida v. Harris leaves open the possibility that defense attorneys can contest the adequacy of a dog’s training or testing and present evidence that the animal is prone to false alerts, this ruling will encourage judges to accept self-interested proclamations about a canine’s capabilities, reinforcing the use of dogs to transform hunches into probable cause.

Writing for the Court, Justice Elena Kagan accepts several myths that allow drug dogs to function as “search warrants on leashes” even though their error rates are far higher than commonly believed

Horns on Viking helmets? Let’s all agree to blame Wagner…

Filed under: Europe, History, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 11:37

In The Economist, a sort-of-apology for perpetuating the myth that Vikings wore helmets with horns:

Economist cover with Viking horns

The practice of burying the dead with their goods has left archaeologists with lots of evidence about the Vikings, who were arguably the first maritime superpower. Unfortunately, few Viking helmets survive intact. The small sample size cannot prove the point definitively, but they are all horn-free.

Why, then, do cartoon Vikings, Scandinavian football fans and Economist covers persist in giving their helmets horns? As in the rest of Europe, Scandinavia saw an upsurge of interest during the 19th century in home-grown cultural traditions and images. Folk dances, songs, sagas — all were revived and celebrated. The 18th century had seen most of Europe trying to imitate sophisticated Parisian fashions. Now trolls were cool. Where there were gaps in the historical record, artists often used their imagination to reinvent traditions. Painters began to show Vikings with horned helmets, evidently inspired by Wagner’s costume designer, Professor Carl Emil Doepler, who created horned helmets for use in the first Bayreuth production of “Der Ring des Nibelungen” in 1876, as a reader points out in a letter we publish this week. (For the full story, see Roberta Frank, “The Invention of the Viking Horned Helmet“, published in International Scandinavian and Medieval Studies in Memory of Gerd Wolfgang Weber, 2000.)

Orwell updated: how politicians lie in “plain speech”

Filed under: Government, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:25

Ed Smith shows how Orwell’s warning about politicians lying is now out of date because they’ve mastered the art of using “plain language” in aid of untruth:

Orwell season has led me back to his famous essay “Politics and the English Language”, first published in 1946. It is written with enviable clarity. But is it true? Orwell argues that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words.”

I suspect the opposite is now true. When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction “Let’s be clear”, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.

We live in a self-consciously plain-spoken political era. But Orwell’s advice, ironically, has not elevated the substance of debate; it has merely helped the political class to avoid the subject more skilfully. The art of spin is not (quite) supplanting truth with lies. It aspires to replace awkward complexities with catchy simplicity. Successful spin does not leave the effect of skilful persuasiveness; it creates the impression of unavoidable common sense. Hence the artifice becomes invisible — just as a truly charming person is considered nice rather than “charming”.

Container ships embiggen again

Filed under: Business, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:17

BBC News looks at the soon-to-be-launched Triple-E container ships:

What is blue, a quarter of a mile long, and taller than London’s Olympic stadium?

The answer — this year’s new class of container ship, the Triple E. When it goes into service this June, it will be the largest vessel ploughing the sea.

Each will contain as much steel as eight Eiffel Towers and have a capacity equivalent to 18,000 20-foot containers (TEU).

If those containers were placed in Times Square in New York, they would rise above billboards, streetlights and some buildings.

Or, to put it another way, they would fill more than 30 trains, each a mile long and stacked two containers high. Inside those containers, you could fit 36,000 cars or 863 million tins of baked beans.

The Triple E will not be the largest ship ever built. That accolade goes to an “ultra-large crude carrier” (ULCC) built in the 1970s, but all supertankers more than 400m (440 yards) long were scrapped years ago, some after less than a decade of service. Only a couple of shorter ULCCs are still in use. But giant container ships are still being built in large numbers — and they are still growing.

It’s 25 years since the biggest became too wide for the Panama Canal. These first “post-Panamax” ships, carrying 4,300 TEU, had roughly quarter of the capacity of the current record holder — the 16,020 TEU Marco Polo, launched in November by CMA CGM.

In the shipping industry there is already talk of a class of ship that would run aground in the Suez canal, but would just pass through another bottleneck of international trade — the Strait of Malacca, between Malaysia and Indonesia. The “Malaccamax” would carry 30,000 containers.

Comparison of bounding box of Chinamax with some other ship sizes in isometric view. (Wikimedia)

Comparison of bounding box of Chinamax with some other ship sizes in isometric view. (Wikimedia)

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