Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Off on hols

The City of Glass. Nice, isn't it?

To Vancouver on Thursday until five to mid-night Sunday 15th July local time, scheduled to touch down at Gatwick 5.10pm Monday 16th July. Don't expect much sense from this blog in the next few weeks (for a change). However, I will tell some stories and recommend places to go and things to do while I'm over.

Hope all is well with everyone else out there...


Monday, 18 June 2007

Actual Existing Capitalism, Part 47

Inequality is a middle-class issue: Peter Wilby says income disparity should worry Gordon Brown
New Statesman, 14 June 2007

I have long suspected that we are not being told the whole truth about inequality. Growing income differentials in the US and UK, it is said, are caused by the impact of technological change in a global market, which puts a higher premium on employees' skills. The way to a more equal society, therefore, is for the laggards to get themselves educated, preferably in economically useful subjects. If three-year-olds from disadvantaged homes are lagging a year behind their more affluent peers, as the University of London's Institute of Education has just reported, the answer must be more early intervention in family life.

This account is roughly the one favoured by new Labour and, although Brownites seem more inclined than Blairites to utter the word "equality", their policy proposals are almost identical. My suspicion that the standard narrative is, at best, only half true is supported by a new paper from economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Inequality and Institutions in 20th-Century America by Frank Levy and Peter Temin, Department of Economics Working Paper 07-17).

The paper doesn't mention Marx, but it shows the old boy was broadly right. "As capital accumulates," he wrote, "the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse." Since 1980, US productivity has increased by 67 per cent. Median weekly earnings are up only 19 per cent (inflation discounted). In other words, the bosses - shareholders and top executives - have been grabbing more, allowing the richest 1 per cent to double their share of US national income. This is an exact reversal of what happened in the three decades preceding 1980. Median incomes then kept pace with labour productivity while top incomes lagged behind.

Even those bare facts sow some doubts about the conventional wisdom. Millions in the US have acquired word-processing and computer skills since the 1970s and the proportion of Americans who take degrees has long been high by international standards. So why should the difference in incomes have been greater in America than in most European countries?

The MIT paper offers some clues. Whether you consider BAs or high school graduates, median earnings growth since 1980 has still lagged behind productivity gains, and the disparity in incomes within these groups has increased. For example, in 1967, a young Wall Street lawyer's earnings were 14 per cent higher than the median for everyone else of similar age and education. By 2005, they were 120 per cent higher. So, even if you acquire more education and skills, the winner-takes-all rules of the global market will work against you if you come second, third, or lower. The point can best be illustrated in professional football. I doubt the skill levels of Rochdale or Torquay players are significantly lower than they were 30 years ago, or the skills of the top players higher, but the disparity in incomes is far greater.

Sport is a legitimate example of a global market. Since language and local knowledge are of little importance, a player's skills are as valuable in England's Premier League as in Côte d'Ivoire. That is not true of all industries which now have high top salaries. The MIT paper argues that, before 1980, top American salaries were restrained by stronger unions, higher minimum wages, higher taxes, more regulation, and other norms of the "corporate state" that is now so derided. The same applied to the UK. In those days, the social climate didn't favour high pay for bosses. Giving your chief executive a £1m bonus was bad for business. As top people's pay goes out of control - leaving behind even most of the middle classes - that climate could return.

As I argued in this column on 21 May, inequality is becoming a middle-class issue. For example, the scandal of non-domiciled tax status - which allows the super-rich to live in Britain without contributing a penny to the Exchequer - increasingly exercises the Mail and Telegraph, because their readers in the south-east experience direct effects in competition for houses, private school places, childcare and domestic help. The MIT paper quotes examples of how even Americans, who are normally relaxed about inequality, are getting tired of seeing a sharp-suited elite become fabulously rich at everyone else's expense. Perhaps Gordon Brown should hang on to that "old Labour" label a little longer.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

The New Scramble For Africa?

Quite a bit has been heard in the media in the last couple of years about China's involvement in developing and exploiting Africa's mineral resources, not least its oil fields. One could gain the impression that the USA is not interested in Africa, or at best, an impotent bystander. However, ask yourself: is there one area of the globe the USA is not interested in, particularly if oil is involved?

The scramble for Africa's oil: Within a decade, the US will be heavily dependent on African oil. Little wonder the Pentagon is preparing a strategy for the region.
Christopher Thompson, New Statesman, 14 June 2007

The Pentagon is to reorganise its military command structure in response to growing fears that the United States is seriously ill-equipped to fight the war against terrorism in Africa. It is a dramatic move, and an admission that the US must reshape its whole military policy if it is to maintain control of Africa for the duration of what Donald Rumsfeld has called "the long war". Suddenly the world's most neglected con tinent is assuming an increasing global importance as the international oil industry begins to exploit more and more of the west coast of Africa's abundant reserves.

The Pentagon at present has five geographic Unified Combatant Commands around the world, and responsibility for Africa is awkwardly divided among three of these. Most of Africa - a batch of 43 countries - falls under the European Command (Eucom), with the remainder divided between the Pacific Command and Central Command (which also runs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Now the Pentagon - under the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the defence department - is working on formal proposals for a unified military command for the continent under the name "Africom".

This significant shift in US relations with Africa comes in the face of myriad threats: fierce economic competition from Asia; increasing resource nationalism in Russia and South America; and instability in the Middle East that threatens to spill over into Africa.

The Pentagon hopes to finalise Africom's structure, location and budget this year. The expectation is that it can break free from Eucom and become operative by mid-2008.

"The break from Europe will occur before 30 September 2008," Professor Peter Pham, a US adviser on Africa to the Pentagon told the New Statesman. "The independent command should be up and running by this time next year."

A Pentagon source says the new command, which was originally given the green light by the controversial former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is likely to be led by William "Kip" Ward, the US army's only four-star African-American general. In 2005, Ward was appointed the US security envoy to the Middle East and he is reportedly close to President George W Bush. He also has boots-on-the-ground experience in Africa: he was a commander during Bill Clinton's ill-fated mission in Somalia in 1993 and he served as a military representative in Egypt in 1998. Ward is now the deputy head of Eucom.

America's new Africa strategy reflects its key priorities in the Middle East: oil and counter-terrorism. Currently, the US has in place the loosely defined Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative, incorporating an offshoot of Operation Enduring Freedom that is intended to keep terrorist networks out of the vast, unguarded Sahel. But the lack of a coherent and unified policy on Africa is, according to some observers, hampering America's efforts in the Middle East. US military sources estimate that up to a quarter of all foreign fighters in Iraq are from Africa, mostly from Algeria and Morocco.

Moreover, there is increasing alarm within the US defence establishment at the creeping "radicalisation" of Africa's Muslims, helped along by the export of hardline, Wahhabi-style clerics from the Arabian peninsula.

"The terrorist challenge [has] increased in Africa in the past year - it's gotten a new lease on life," according to Pham.

But it is the west's increasing dependency on African oil that gives particular urgency to these new directions in the fight against terrorism. Africa's enormous, and largely untapped, reserves are already more important to the west than most Americans recognise.

In March 2006, speaking before the Senate armed services committee, General James Jones, the then head of Eucom, said: "Africa currently provides over 15 per cent of US oil imports, and recent explorations in the Gulf of Guinea region indicate potential reserves that could account for 25-35 per cent of US imports within the next decade."

These high-quality reserves - West African oil is typically low in sulphur and thus ideal for refining - are easily accessible by sea to western Europe and the US. In 2005, the US imported more oil from the Gulf of Guinea than it did from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined. Within the next ten years it will import more oil from Africa than from the entire Middle East. Western oil giants such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, France's Total and Britain's BP and Shell plan to invest tens of billions of dollars in sub-Saharan Africa (far in excess of "aid" inflows to the region).

But though the Gulf of Guinea is one of the few parts of the world where oil production is poised to increase exponentially in the near future, it is also one of the most unstable. In the big three producer countries, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Angola, oil wealth has been a curse for many, enriching political elites at the expense of impoverished citizens. Angola is now China's main supplier of crude oil, supplanting Saudi Arabia last year. The Chinese, along with the rest of oil- hungry Asia, are looking covetously at the entire region's reserves.

Realpolitik of what suits

Looming over West Africa is the spectre of the southern Niger Delta area, which accounts for most of Nigeria's 2.4 million barrels a day. Conflict here offers a taste of what could afflict all of sub-Saharan Africa's oilfields. Since 2003, the Delta has become a virtual war zone as heavily armed rival gangs - with names such as the Black Axes and Vikings - battle for access to pipelines and demand a bigger cut of the petrodollar.

Oil theft, known as "bunkering", costs Nigeria some $4bn (£2.05bn) a year, while foreign companies have been forced to scale back production after kidnappings by Delta militants. Such uncertainties help send world oil prices sky-high.

The Pentagon's new Africa policy is to include a "substantial" humanitarian component, aimed partly at minimising unrest and crime. But the reality is that a bullish China is willing to offer billions in soft loans and infrastructure projects - all with no strings attached - to secure lucrative acreage.

"It's like going back to a Cold War era of politics where the US backs one political faction because their political profile suits their requirements," says Patrick Smith, editor of the newsletter Africa Confidential, widely read in policy circles. "It's a move away from criteria of good governance to what is diplomatically convenient."

According to Nicholas Shaxson, author of Poisoned Wells: the Dirty Politics of African Oil, "[Africom] comes in the context of a growing conflict with China over our oil supplies."

Africom will significantly increase the US military presence on the continent. At present, the US has 1,500 troops stationed in Africa, principally at its military base in Djibouti, in the eastern horn. That could well double, according to Pham. The US is already conducting naval exercises off the Gulf of Guinea, in part with the intention of stopping Delta insurgents reaching offshore oil rigs. It also plans to beef up the military capacity of African governments to handle their dissidents, with additional "rapid-reaction" US forces available if needed. But - echoing charges levelled at US allies elsewhere in the "war on terror" - there are fears that the many authoritarian governments in sub-Saharan Africa might use such units to crack down on internal dissent.

Raising hackles

The increased US military presence is already apparent across the Red Sea from Iraq, where, in concert with Ethiopia, Washington has quietly opened up another front in its war on terror. The target: the Somalia-based Islamists whom the Americans claim were responsible for the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Earlier this year, US special forces used air strikes against suspected al-Qaeda militants, killing scores.

FBI interrogators have also been despatched to Ethiopian jails, where hundreds of terror suspects - including Britons - have been held incommunicado since Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia in December last year, according to Human Rights Watch. The problem with this more confrontational approach in Africa is apparent. "There's definitely a danger of the US [being] seen as an imperial exploiter," says Shaxson. "The military presence will raise hackles in certain countries - America will have to tread lightly."

Nonetheless, the Pentagon is hoping that Africom will signal a more constructive foreign policy in the region and a break with the past. "Politically [Africa] is important and that's going to increase in coming years," says Pham. "It's whether the US can sustain the initiative."

African oil: the numbers

22% of US crude oil imports came from Nigeria in the first quarter of 2007

25% of US crude imports came from Saudi Arabia in the same period

75% of the Nigerian government's income is oil-related

800,000 Nigerian estimate for barrels of oil lost each day through leaks, stoppages or theft by rebels

$2.3bn cost of building Chevron's Benguela Belize platform off the coast of Angola

Research by Jonathan Pearson

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Public service announcement

Saw this on are all pretty intelligent people out there, but better safe than sorry...

Patrick Goss: Editor - Tech & Gadgets: Don't fall for e-mail hoaxes

I don’t know about you but I don’t know any deposed kings, exiled leaders or righteous princes. I’m fairly certain that I haven’t inadvertently entered any worldwide lotteries and I’m pretty darn convinced that, although I haven’t spoken to him about it, Bill Gates will not be sending me a cheque for thousands of pounds if I forward an email about Microsoft to all my friends.

Because today I am in the world of hoax e-mails, and the really pressing question is: why the hell do people fall for them in the first place?

There was a time when I had a little sympathy for people who fell into these traps – especially when the internet and e-mail were still relatively young and people simply weren’t used to being deluged with requests.

But that was then and this is now – when my parents spend as much time on the internet as I do, and there have been more stories written on these scams, phishers and hoaxes than I care to mention.

Basically – if you fall for one of the hoaxes now then you need your head looking at.

The deposed ruler chronicles

Let’s take, for example, the popular ‘deposed ruler’ e-mail. Now I’m all for giving people the benefit of the doubt, but it beggars belief that someone reads this story and doesn’t raise an eyebrow.

Generally the mail goes like this:

• Hello I’m a Nigerian/Albanian/African prince/PM/president who has been cruelly usurped.
• If you help me then I can make you a millionaire
• All I need is a few hundred dollars to get my throne back. (occasionally this only comes out in later e-mails)

Now, let’s for a moment ignore the first two points (don’t worry I’ll get back to them in a minute) and focus on the third.

You’ve never met this person, never heard of them and they want you to send them money. Would you send money to someone you met at a party once who said exactly what was said above? No. You’d probably laugh in their face and resolve not to go to any other parties the host organises.

Even if the original e-mail doesn’t explicitly state that you need to send your money, you can’t get away from points one and two.

First point, why would they be e-mailing you? Have you got a reputation for your skilful handling of African politics? Have you got a huge bottomless pit of wealth that can restore the person to their ‘rightful’ throne/parliament?

Point two: okay so here’s the hook. You can be a millionaire for no work at all! Really? If this doesn’t raise your eyebrows I can only assume that you have been at an overzealous stag party and don’t have any left. How many people do you know that got involved in get-rich-quick schemes and came out as millionaires? Any?

Perhaps you heard about the FRIEND of someone you kind of know who made a killing in a pyramid scheme or by setting up his own religion, but you probably know as well as I do that get-rich-quick schemes are about as reliable as an ashtray on a motorcycle.

The Microsoft/AOL spoof

One of the hoaxes I have most recently written an article on is a phishing/fraud e-mail that went around purporting to be from Microsoft and/or AOL. This particular version suggested that you had, wait for it, WON a lottery for just using Microsoft / AOL products and were a millionaire.

Great! Show me the money.

Of course, to get your greedy mitts on this cash there are some very minor hoops to jump through. Like giving them your credit card details, your mother’s maiden name, the name of your first pet, your best friend (and their credit card number too if you have it).

The e-mail is headed by a hastily photoshopped Microsoft banner, and starts with the words: ‘Congratulation, congratulation, congratulation!’. I don’t even want to start on the formatting.

I wrote a fairly lengthy dissection of the e-mail on my blog, and thought little more of it, until I noticed that the whole thing was getting a lot of hits from people typing bits of it into search engines – presumably to see if the offer was real.

Which brings me to another point - in this day and age of search engines it really isn’t that hard to check these things out. Although not by any means foolproof, if you get a dodgy e-mail a few brief key taps can fairly quickly establish that you aren’t the only person to have received it.

Don’t forget that scams pretending to be from the likes of e-Bay, Microsoft, PayPal etc are treated very seriously by those companies and they will do their best to publicise that you shouldn’t reply to these e-mails.

So come on people…

I’d really like to never have to write another article outlining the latest phising scam or money hoax, but I know there’s no chance of that. It genuinely astounds me that people who have enough brains to press letter keys in the right order to make words fall for what, even at their most sophisticated, are pretty transparent, pathetic attempts to get personal details or money out of them.

There are big lists of what you should look out for in hoax and phishing e-mails – some of them written by me, but the most obvious list of things you should go through is this:

1/ Don’t be naïve: the best way to find out if you’ve won the lottery is to check your numbers and if a Nigerian Prince needs your help I’m sure he could send one of his minions to your door (although I’m assuming even then you would ring the consulate to make sure).

2/ If you get an e-mail about anything you do online that involves money, treat it with quadruple suspicion.

3/ If you have any doubts don’t respond to the e-mail or click on any links.

So please don’t fall for the scams. They rely on one person in thousands responding to them and that one person is pretty much responsible for a good percentage of the rubbish that clogs up our inboxes.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

2012 London Olympics Logo

Anything has got to be better than the proposed one (someone got £400K to come up with this?).

Perhaps I'm biased, but I like this one (courtesy of Beau Bo D'Or):

The Great Canadian Oil Boom

Saw this in The Guardian and The Georgia Straight. There'll be talk of a North American Union next...

Baghdad burns, Calgary booms: Rather than in Iraq, the U.S. has found its "energy security blanket" next door.
Commentary By Naomi Klein, Publish Date: June 7, 2007

The invasion of Iraq has set off what could be the largest oil boom in history. All the signs are there: multinationals free to gobble up national firms at will, ship unlimited profits home, enjoy leisurely "tax holidays", and pay a laughable one percent in royalties to the government.

This isn't the boom in Iraq sparked by the proposed new oil law–that will come later. This boom is already in full swing, and it is happening about as far away from the carnage in Baghdad as you can get, in the wilds of northern Alberta. For four years now, Alberta and Iraq have been connected to each other through a kind of invisible seesaw: as Baghdad burns, destabilizing the entire region and sending oil prices soaring, Calgary booms.

Here is how chaos in Iraq unleashed what the Financial Times recently called "North America's biggest resources boom since the Klondike gold rush". Albertans have always known that in the northern part of their province, there are vast deposits of bitumen–black, tarlike goo that is mixed up with sand, clay, and water. There are approximately 2.5 trillion barrels of the stuff, the largest hydrocarbon deposits in the world.

It is possible to turn Alberta's crud into crude, but it's awfully hard. One method is to mine it in vast open pits. First, forests are clear-cut, then topsoil is scraped away. Next, huge machines dig out the black goop and load it into the largest dump trucks in the world (two stories high; a single wheel costs $100,000). The tar is diluted with water and solvents in giant vats, which spin it around until the oil rises to the top, and the massive tailings are dumped in ponds larger than the region's natural lakes. Another method is to separate the oil where it is: large drill pipes push steam deep underground, which melts the tar, while another pipe sucks it out and transports it through several more stages of refining, much of it powered by natural gas.

Both techniques are costly: between $18 and $23 per barrel, just in expenses. Until quite recently, that made no economic sense. In the mid 1980s, oil sold for $20 a barrel; in 1998–99, it was down to $12 a barrel. The major international players had no intention of paying more to get the oil than they could sell it for, which is why, when global oil reserves were calculated, the tar sands weren't even factored in. Everyone but a few heavily subsidized Canadian companies knew that the tar was staying put.

Then came the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In March 2003, the price of oil reached $35 a barrel, raising the prospect of making a profit from the tar sands (the industry calls them "oil sands"). That year, the United States Energy Information Administration "discovered" oil in the tar sands. It announced that Alberta–previously thought to have only five billion barrels of oil–was actually sitting on at least 174 billion "economically recoverable" barrels. The next year, Canada overtook Saudi Arabia as the leading provider of foreign oil to the United States.

All this has meant that Iraq's oil boom has not been delayed; it has been relocated. All the majors, save BP, have rushed to northern Alberta: ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Total, which alone plans to spend $9 billion to $14 billion. In April, Shell paid $8 billion to take full control of its Canadian subsidiary. The town of Fort McMurray, ground zero of the boom, has nowhere to house the tens of thousands of new workers, and one company has built its own airstrip so it can fly in the people it needs.

Seventy-five percent of the oil from the tar sands flows directly to the United States, prompting Brian Hall, an energy consultant with Colorado-based IHS, to call the tar sands "America's energy security blanket". There is a certain irony there: the United States invaded Iraq at least in part to secure access to its oil. Now, thanks partly to economic blowback from that disastrous decision, it has found the "security" it was looking for right next door.

It has become fashionable to predict that high oil prices will spark a free-market response to climate change, setting off an "explosion of innovation in alternatives", as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote recently. Alberta puts the lie to that claim. High prices have indeed led to an R&D extravaganza, but it is squarely focused on figuring out how to get the dirtiest possible oil out of the hardest-to-reach places. Shell, for instance, is working on a "novel thermal recovery process"–embedding large electric heaters in the deposits and literally cooking the earth.

And that's the Alberta tar sands for you: the industry already contributing to climate change more than any other is frantically turning up the heat. The process of refining bitumen emits three to four times the greenhouse gases produced by extracting oil from traditional wells, making the tar sands the largest single contributor to Canada's growth in greenhouse-gas emissions. The $100 billion in projected investments from the tar sands have also turned Canada into a global climate renegade. That money is the primary reason why, at the June 6 to 8 G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, my country's oil-friendly prime minister, Stephen Harper, will join George W. Bush in opposing all serious attempts to cap or reduce greenhouse gases. Back at home, his government fully supports the oil industry's plans to more than triple tar sands production by 2020, with no end in sight. If prices stay high, it will soon become profitable to extract an additional 141 billion barrels from the tar sands, which would place the largest oil reserves in the world in Alberta.

Developing the sands is devouring trees and wildlife–the Pembina Institute, the leading authority on the environmental impact of the tar sands, warns that boreal forests covering "an area as large as the State of Florida" risk being levelled. Now it turns out that the main river (the Athabasca) feeding the industry the massive quantities of water it needs is in jeopardy. Climate scientists say that dropping water levels are the result–fittingly enough–of climate warming.

Contemplating the collective madness in Alberta–a scene even the Financial Times has labelled "some dystopian fantasy"–it strikes me that Canada has ended up with more than Iraq's displaced oil boom. We have its elusive weapons of mass destruction, too. They are out near Fort McMurray, in the jet-black goo beneath the earth's crust. And with the help of trucks, pipes, steam, and gas, these weapons are being detonated.

War over Canada's oil reserves: what it could look like...

Monday, 4 June 2007


I had a nice quiet time with my parents and dogs in Lichfield. Came back to IT problems (now solved!). Went for a drink with Anna Chen (see my links) on Friday who lives round the corner from me. Had a bit of an eye opening discussion about the British Left with her! Started reading Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance for the Book Group, which I'm enjoying.

I'm also on Facebook now. if you are, or want to become a Facie, get in touch. I'm still at the developmental stage.

Back at work tonight, so I'll leave you with a piece I saw today in the paper. You will never look at Mr. Bean in the same way again...

Thanks to the Sun and its 'Pecker Checker', now all men can be hung up about being too small: Charlie Brooker, The Guardian, Monday June 4, 2007

It's what you do with it that counts. And, according to the Sun newspaper, what almost half of men "do" is fret about it. "MEN FEAR TOO SMALL PENIS SIZE" bleats the headline, which, like all Sun headlines, sounds a bit like "red injun" dialogue from an old cowboy film (quite a racy one, in this case).

Apparently, Dr Kevan Wylie of the Royal Hallamshire hospital has recently overseen the completion of a 60-year study into penis size, during which 12,000 penises were "analysed" - an average of 200 penises a year. Assuming they took weekends off, that's 0.76 penises a day. At some point you'd drift off and start doodling on them.

The survey ultimately concluded that "the average erect penis was 5.5ins to 6.2ins long and 4.7ins to 5.1ins in girth". And looked hilarious resting on a Petri dish.

If we generously take the average to be six inches, and multiply that by the total number of appendages, it means they examined a total of 72,000 inches of penis, which sounds impressive until you input that figure into a conversion calculator and realise it's a mere 1.136 miles. A frail old lady could cycle that distance in less than five minutes, assuming she could keep her eyes on the road.

Anyway, it wasn't all warm hands and tape measures. The researchers also asked the owners of the penises some probing questions - presumably in a misguided attempt to break the ice, or make the whole scenario feel faintly less awkward. They found that "those with a 'normal-sized' penis often mistakenly thought theirs was too small". Perhaps the researcher had huge hands.

No. It seems pornography is to blame, as "almost 40% blamed their insecurity on watching porn as teens". Presumably they also felt insecure that they weren't a smooth-chested, oily West German pulling a face like a man undergoing an ingrown toenail operation under insufficient local anaesthetic. On the plus side, they'll have learned to pronounce the phrase "Ich komme", witnessed countless body-fluid tributes to Jackson Pollock, and perfected the art of slamming a laptop shut at the sound of approaching footsteps.

The tragedy here is that most of them are anxious for no reason. The Sun reports that "there is no need to worry as 85% of women ARE satisfied with their partner's penis proportions. The study found GIRTH matters more than length to 90% of women." That's how they printed it - GIRTH, in bold capital letters, no messing about. It's a raunchy paper, the Sun.

(Speaking of suns, or rather sons, if I ever have one - a son - I've just decided that I'm going to call him Girth, to give him a subliminal advantage with any would-be suitors. Girth Hammer Lointhump Brooker. He'll thank me for it one day, if only because having a unique Googlewhack-of-a-name is a real boon in our thrilling online age. Finding him on Facebook will be easy, and who wouldn't want someone like that listed among their "friends"?)

To assist worried readers, the Sun thoughtfully accompanied the article with a "Pecker Checker" - a graphic of an actual-size ruler with the "average zone" clearly labelled. In doing so, it is actively encouraging male readers to press their erect penises against the page, which is a cheery way to pass a few minutes on a quiet afternoon - or it would be, if the article weren't surrounded by adverts for MFI kitchens and BT broadband hubs, a column called The Whip topped by an illustration of a gloved hand wielding a lash, a photograph of silver-haired 60-year-old aristocrat Benjamin Slade and, most alarmingly of all, a headshot of Mr Bean hovering perilously close to the ruler's tip, gazing directly into your eyes. Anyone who can maintain even a below-average erection under those circumstances is precisely the kind of psychopath who shouldn't be allowed to own a penis in the first place.

So, then. Penises. Men fret about them too much. The answer, perhaps, is to remain erect at all times, as the moment a penis starts engorging, it drains blood from the brain, leaving the owner incapable of worrying about anything more complex than where he wants to put it. Long or short, fat or thin - they're good for depleting common sense, soiling sheets, terrifying bystanders, creating selfish offspring and precious little else. Plus they look ridiculous. If you've got one, or access to one, take a good look at it this evening and ask yourself: how can this possibly be the work of a sane God?