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First up, I hope everyone had a good Christmas break. I was in work… - John C. Kirk

Dec. 27th, 2003

11:03 pm

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First up, I hope everyone had a good Christmas break. I was in work until Wednesday (Christmas Eve), but now I'm off until next weekend (back on Monday 5th), so that's a nice break.

I've recently updated my website, and I'm now working on getting my book errata online. This is useful in a wider context, since I'm figuring out SVG, MathML, and XML in the process. The biggest problem at the moment is that IE6 doesn't seem to properly support the standards, so I need to work around its bugs. Anyway, hopefully I'll figure something out on that.

I went off to watch "Return of the King" last weekend, which was very good. I'll put up a proper review at some point, but I definitely enjoyed it. It's been 17 years since I read the book, so I can't really comment on how closely it's stuck to that, but I think it works well on its own merits.

Onto a few more serious things (which is why I delayed this update until after Christmas, to avoid dampening anyone's spirits).

As I mentioned in my last entry, our neighbour asked for the cat back. After chatting to her on the phone, I agreed to this, so the cat left last Saturday. At this point, I'll start referring to the cat as Bubbles again - that name was vetoed while she lived here, but I figure that we lose naming rights once she moves out, and "the cat formerly known as Bubbles, and currently known as Bubbles, but known as just 'cat' for a year in between" is a bit of a mouthful.

Anyway, the neighbour said that she had to give Bubbles away while she was pregnant, since apparently pregnant women shouldn't be around animals. That's the first I've heard of it, but I think this is a case where perception is more important than reality. I.e. it doesn't really matter whether it's true, as long as the neighbour believed that it was true. Anyway, now that the baby's arrived, that's no longer an issue. Meanwhile, Bubbles has been spending a lot of time outside during the day (while I'm at work), and the weather's getting colder. So, since the neighbour is home all day, I think Bubbles would be happier living there. I'm sorry to see her go, but I tried to make the decision that led to the greater good. Also, if I got attached to Bubbles after just one year, I can imagine that the neigbour was even more attached after several years, and I have no wish to be a home-wrecker.

Anyway, I had a couple of days notice, so I was able to make the most of the time in between. And Michael kindly took a few photos of the two of us together before she left, so I'll put one of them up on my website later. I was a bit upset after I'd initially made the decision, but when she actually left, it was all quite quick (no drawn out goodbyes), and it didn't really affect me. I think that's mainly because I'm used to the idea that I wouldn't see her for a few hours in the afternoon, e.g. if I go out shopping. It started to sink in that evening (after I got back from the cinema), when my first reaction was to check outside the back door in case she wanted to come in.

Similarly, when I went to bed in the evening, it took me a while to get to sleep, since I'm used to having her lying on top of the duvet next to me. When I woke up on Sunday morning, and I noticed that she wasn't on the bed, I looked over towards my computer chair to see whether she was lying there instead. Then I remembered. At a conscious level, I've now got used to it, but I think I need to break my habits. For instance, over the past year, I found that I'd sometimes wake up in the middle of the night if Bubbles wasn't next to me (not right away, but if she'd been gone for an hour or so). This was quite useful if she'd gone downstairs, and someone else had let her out, and she'd then got stranded outside. Unfortunately, it now means that it takes me a while to get to sleep, and after I do drop off I then wake up every hour or so. I was hoping to catch up on some sleep while I'm off work, but I'm spending about 12 hours a day in bed and I'm still frazzled. Alcohol helps, but I don't think that's a great habit to develop, and I'll still have to deal with this sooner or later. Maybe when I stop dreaming that Bubbles is still around.

I realise it's a bit silly to talk about her as if she's dead, when she's only moved away. However, I should clarify here that it's actually the neighbour's daughter who's taken Bubbles, and they don't live nearby. So, I doubt that I'll see her again. I guess it's possible that the daughter might ask me to take care of Bubbles if she goes off on holiday or something, but I don't know whether I'd want to. It would be good to see her again, but not so good to let her go again. I don't regret having her here, even though I miss her now, but it's not something I really want to repeat.

I've heard a few writers (e.g. Neil Gaiman, Diane Duane) refer to the "conservation of cats" principle, i.e. that when one leaves another one will turn up. However, I don't think I want another cat for the time being. It's partly because I miss Bubbles in particular, rather than just as a generic fuzzy creature. But it's mainly because I think the same problems would just crop up again. Still, I would like another cat at some point, and I think I'll just try to get a few differences. For one thing, I'd like to start with a kitten, so that nobody else really has a prior claim. Although I've spoken about "adopting" Bubbles in the past, I think that "fostering" would be more accurate in retrospect. And ideally I'd get a kitten whose mother had already handled toilet training, to avoid any more swamps. I think I'll also wait until I own my own place, so that I'm not reliant on the landlord's goodwill. The related issue to that is that I'd like the next cat to be a general household cat, rather than mine in particular (which I think it's fair to say is what wound up happening with Bubbles). If I'm living alone, then that's one easy way to achieve that. Alternately, I'll just need to make sure that I don't marry anyone who's allergic to cat hair...

I've also been keeping an eye on the news in the wake of the Soham trial. While I have no wish to defend Huntley (I'd cheerfully see him executed), I am concerned that the wrong lessons may be learned from this. Specifically, the issue is that since he had unproven accusations made against him in the past, should he have been barred from his job? I would say no. Long time readers may remember the court case that I was involved in a few years ago. (One of these days I'll get round to putting an "anecdotes" section on my website, so that I can dig out links more easily.)

Anyway, to recap the relevant part, at one point the woman involved tried to blackmail me, by saying that if I didn't give her money then she'd tell the police that I attacked her. I didn't give her any money, so she subsequently followed through on this threat, by making this accusation against me to the police when they picked her up. She then repeated this in court later. Now, nothing came of this. The police made it clear to me right from the start that they didn't believe her, and the jury reached a similar conclusion pretty quickly. I remember the police talking to me on the day of the trial (when I was nervous), reassuring me that whatever happened I'd be going home that night. So, the objective here (from her point of view) was to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury, so that they'd let her off, not to actually get me charged or convicted.

But I do wonder what would happen if some of the proposed changes in the law were made. Would it be right for me to get barred from future jobs on the basis of a false accusation? After I failed the MSc project in the summer, I did spend some time thinking about going into teaching (if the PhD thing didn't work out). I never came to a real decision on that - I figured that I'd put it on hold until I see what happens with my retake etc. But I think it would be a shame if that option was taken away, given that I haven't done anything wrong.

Coming back to Huntley's situation, I think there's a danger of circular logic here. There's a tendency to say "Since he's guilty of the Soham murders, that means he's probably guilty of the previous crimes too. And therefore, since he was guilty of them, he should have been stopped before he committed the Soham murders." The question is, before the most recent murders, was there enough evidence to charge him for the previous crimes? If so, then why wasn't he charged? That's the thing that should be under review now. If not, then beware of the "no smoke without fire" saying, since I certainly have experience of that being false.

You might think "Who would bother making false accusations?" In my case, it was attempted blackmail, and we can probably expect to see a lot more of that if the new legislation goes through. In other cases, it might be an ex-partner, wanting revenge after being dumped. And bearing in mind that one of the accusations came from Huntley's ex-girlfriend, I don't think we can be too quick to make sweeping generalisations like "Oh well, ignore those ones".

Anyway, I'll keep an eye on things, and if it looks like it's getting towards the stage where MPs will vote on this issue then I'll write to my MP to express my concern. For everyone else, I'd just encourage you to think about the other side of this, beyond the "protect our children" angle that the media will probably push (thinking of "Sarah's Law" etc. in the past), then make your own decision about where your priorities lie.

Meanwhile, some potential progress on the college front. Not much to report on the MSc - I'm just doing background reading at the moment, but I'm limited by the fact that they haven't issued me a student card yet, so I don't have access to the library. Things are looking up re: PhD, however. I got an email through last week from someone who said "We have a financially-attractive PhD studentship vacancy that needs filling in the Divison of Imaging Sciences, Medical School, KCL. If we can't get a name against it soon we'll lose the funding." I wasn't intending to start applying for PhD places this soon, but this situation suggests that they might be less picky than usual, which has to work in my favour (being realistic about my chances). Full details here. The basic idea is to track the movement of heart/lungs while people are having radiation therapy, e.g. to treat cancer. It doesn't really have anything to do with the areas I've thought about researching in the past, but it certainly sounds like something that's worthwhile. And I think it may have some similarities with what I do in my MSc project this year, i.e. creating computer models of living things. Anyway, I've applied for that, but I haven't heard anything back yet, so I'll just wait and see.

Comments:

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From:bazzalisk
Date:December 27th, 2003 03:08 pm (UTC)
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(I'd cheerfully see him executed)

Realy? I may not be entirely familiar with the situation, but as I understand it this man is no longer a risk, since he will most certainly never get an oportunity to act again - so on what grounds would execution be apropriate?
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From:johnckirk
Date:December 27th, 2003 03:11 pm (UTC)
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Basically, if he's never going to be released from prison, then I wonder whether it's really a good use of money to spend X thousand pounds per year keeping him there. I can understand the theory that this is the mark of a civilised society. On the other hands, there are plenty of other things that would also signify civilisation (e.g. no hunger, no disease, education for all), and there's only a limited amount of money to go around, so it's a question of priorities.

I'm not saying that I'll be out campaigning for a change in the law, to bring back the death penalty. Simply that if he was killed, it wouldn't bother me. Ditto if he managed to commit suicide when a guard wasn't paying attention.
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From:bazzalisk
Date:December 27th, 2003 03:15 pm (UTC)
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Suicide I see no problem with ... I feel that preventing prisoners from killing themselves is perverse - but to kill him denies him the chance to change - and I cannot see any grounds for ever doing that unless one absolutely has to in order to protect society.
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From:johnckirk
Date:December 27th, 2003 03:33 pm (UTC)
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Have you ever read "The Demolished Man" (by Alfred Bester)? There's a scene at the end of that where one character basically says "The death penalty was a really stupid idea, and I'm glad we got rid of it. If you're smart enough to plan a crime like this, then you could be a great asset to society once you're rehabilitated." I can understand that approach. Similarly, one of my favourite comics (before it got cancelled) was "Thunderbolts" (where a bunch of former super-villains seek redemption by turning hero).

However, my concern here is "What's the best case scenario?" E.g. suppose that Huntley saw the error of his ways, and became a changed man. Would he be released? I very much doubt it. Back before Myra Hindley died, I doubted that she'd ever be released, since it would be political suicide for whichever Home Secretary allowed it. And I suspect that a similar thing applies here, although it's a bit early to say (it depends how many people remember this in ten years). So, if he's not released, what will he do? The best case I can think of is that he writes a book, and convinces other would-be child killers to mend their ways. But I think that's unlikely.

More generally, suppose that someone who committed a less emotive crime is released. Quite frankly, I think that a lot of criminals are very stupid, and poorly educated. So, even after release, the best career path they're likely to have is working at the local MacDonalds. Again, it's a question of value for money. Perhaps we'd be better off cutting our losses, and saying "hang the lot of them, then spend the money that we would have spent on these prisoners by improving the education system etc., so that we can remove the causes of crime before it happens". When Thompson and Venables were released (the two boys who killed James Bulger), I remember an interview with a girl the same age as them (I think she may have been at school with them, but I'm not certain about that). Anyway, she was rather bitter that they'd received a far better education than she had (effectively private tuition for 12 years).

The related issue is "how much protection should the state provide for Huntley/Carr?" Arguably, one valid approach would be to take them out of solitary confinement, but put them with people who are near the end of their sentences. Then say to the other prisoners "If you behave yourself, you'll be out on probation next month. If you kill him/her, you'll stay here for another 10 years." That might even provide a useful test of how well they've been rehabilitated.
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From:elvum
Date:December 27th, 2003 05:17 pm (UTC)
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You can't introduce a death penalty unless you're prepared to kill the occasional innocent person along with the guilty. I'm not. Actually I'd oppose killing people even if you could prove beyond *all* doubt that they'd murdered someone, but since that's impossible by definition, the point is a little moot :-)
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From:johnckirk
Date:December 28th, 2003 04:06 am (UTC)
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That's certainly a reasonable point of view. The only comment I'd make is that there are other punishments which are equally irrevocable. For instance, when the Guildford 4 were released from prison, they didn't get those years back. So, I guess it just depends on where you want to draw the line.
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From:elvum
Date:December 28th, 2003 05:23 am (UTC)
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No, but they got the rest of their lives, which I don't think you'd deny is a lot better than being dead. Which of course they would have been, if we'd had a death penalty back when they were convicted.
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From:johnckirk
Date:December 28th, 2003 04:20 am (UTC)
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Just to quantify this a bit, there are some figures here. That says that in 2000/2001, it cost about £40,000/year to keep someone in a high security prison.

By contrast, according to this article, the average teacher's salary in 2002 was about £26,000/year.
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