Wednesday, 28 November 2007

It's possible that this [CENSORED] was [REDACTED] from [REMOVED], I suppose

I'm in a rather interesting situation right now.

You see, I'm about to sign a contract. This contract will mean that I'm working for a company, but I won't be employed by them. In fact, technically I'll be self-employed, but I'll have no customers or clients. So I'll have to declare my own tax information and so on, despite the fact that I'll be receiving a wage.

Except that it won't be a wage, because I'll be working on a basis that precludes the possibility of hourly payment. It's performance-based, but the level of performance isn't measured in anything more than the most cursory way.

On top of all this, if it sounds like I'm not giving much away, that's because the contract also stipulates that I'm not allowed to say anything about the company in question. "Anything" in this case means exactly what it sounds like; taken literally, the text of the contract says that I can't make any form of comment by any medium whatsoever about any aspect of the company for which I don't work but which still pays me a non-performance-based performance-linked not-wage.

Honestly, you make simple enquiries about employment opportunities and before long you're sounding like Jason Bourne...

No, it's not drug-running, prostitution, pornography or anything to do with the security services. Calm down, for goodness' sake.

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Monday, 26 November 2007

Picture of the Week: #47

I'm not sure how long the lovely evening sunlight's going to last now that we're heading towards December, but I reckon it's worth making the most of it. Please ignore the incredibly straggly-looking flowerbed at the bottom of the picture. My family has never really had a reputation as a group of amazing gardeners, being very much of the "let it take care of itself" school of plant care. Well, honestly, if it's incapable of holding its own in our garden it shouldn't be there in the first place, should it?

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Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Kick-off's at eight, and yes, I will be watching. Unfortunately.

It's nothing personal, England - I just kind of hope that you don't beat Croatia tonight.

I've posted before on the subject of football, and how it doesn't hold a candle to rugby as a spectator sport. I still stand by that assertion, but it is nevertheless possible to get a good football game, and it is definitely more fun than American football, footage of which I saw for the first time this week. (Why does association football come out on top? Well, imagine a form of rugby where all the players perform amazing feats of skill and strength for about ten seconds, then have a little break and a chat. It's not a sport, it's a live-action version of Mario Party.) International football tournaments are certainly capable of producing good entertainment - even if the game itself suffers from the higher stakes involved, the atmosphere, crowds and inevitable outbreaks of violence make it fun to watch.

There is a downside to this, however, and it's that I get far too into it. I end up glued to the TV as England struggle to hold onto a 1-goal lead going into stoppage time, or worse, repeatedly fire shots against a seemingly invincible goalkeeper in a desperate attempt to make up a 1-goal deficit. Then one of the players does something stupid (yes, David, we still remember) and it all goes downhill, spiralling into a morass of depression and despair.

Does it sound like I'm making a huge fuss about nothing? Of course it does, that's exactly what I'm doing, and that's precisely why it's a bad idea for England to get into tournaments like this, especially when their performance is so variable. Man for man, the England team is undoubtedly one of the best in the world, and on their day they can be brilliant, but because they're also capable of being one of the worst teams around, it just adds to the stress.

So play as well as you can, England, and enjoy it while it lasts. But...if Croatia beats you tonight...don't be annoyed if I'm not too cut up about it, OK?

UPDATE 10:13pm: So, you know what I was saying about the desperate attempt to make up the 1-goal deficit? Yeah, that was a pretty convincing object lesson. Have a nice relaxing summer next year, boys.

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Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Coming up next on "Phil Inadequately Covers Inflammatory Topics"...

Ever since the publication of The Bell Curve by Herrnstein and Murray, a much-cited and highly controversial book on the subject of intelligence, the question of how race and intelligence interact has been simmering away. It looked for a while as though it had largely blown over, becoming fodder only for the odd dinner-party conversation and white supremacist rally. However, a couple of weeks ago James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA's helical structure, created a storm of publicity with some extremely poorly-judged comments:

"All our social policies are based on the fact that their [Africans'] intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.

As if that wasn't enough to send the world's media into a frenzy, he followed it up by claiming that although it would be nice to think that people of different races are equally intelligent, "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true." Now, before we go any further it's important to note that Watson apologised just a few days later:
"I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. I can certainly understand why people, reading those words, have reacted in the ways they have. [...] To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief."

A good retraction, certainly, and a necessary one, but the damage was already done. No-one remembers the mitigating language of this retraction, and the media feeding frenzy had already begun, leading to people suggesting that perhaps his first set of statements had actually been true. So what, in this horribly difficult topic, is true? (I knew that psychology degree would be useful for something.)

Most of the controversy around The Bell Curve centred on just one fact that its authors highlighted, and I'll reproduce it here. Note the language very carefully - this fact doesn't necessarily mean anything more than it directly says.
In general, Asians tend to score more highly on IQ tests than Caucasians, who in turn tend to score more highly on IQ tests than Africans.

However much anyone dislikes it, that's a pretty sturdy, reproducible scientific fact. However, the problems arise when people assume that its ramifications are much larger than they actually are. Let's go through the conclusions that we can draw from this one fact - and those that we can't.

IQ might not mean anything in the first place.
Critics of intelligence testing have maintained for years that IQ is nothing more than a measure of how well people do on intelligence tests. It's certainly the case that general intelligence, or g, is a controversial concept. It is produced by running a procedure called factor analysis on the scores obtained by individuals on various different types of test; although this procedure does tend to show one main factor driving performance in all of these disparate areas, my experience of factor analysis is that it is almost infinitely malleable and subject to interpretation. If you know what you're doing with the data and can choose suitable settings for the analysis, you can make it say practically anything.

That said, it's not ridiculous to suggest that people who are good at one cognitive task may well be good at others, and it's not impossible to put a single number on this ability. However, because this number will necessarily be a summary of various different results, all of which have their own margins for error, I would be extremely wary of any study which claims to show that tiny differences in IQ are in any way important. An employer who chose to hire someone because his IQ was one point higher than that of another candidate, regardless of any other information, would rightly be regarded as an idiot; why, then, do people suggest that IQ can, by itself, let you draw sweeping conclusions about entire populations?

The differences that we're talking about are minuscule.
One of the difficulties that statisticians find when trying to summarise information about populations is that people vary immensely; the "bell curve" referred to by Herrnstein and Murray is the Normal distribution, a probability distribution that describes natural variation in a population. Now, when these distributions for the IQ of different races are plotted on the same graph, they overlap hugely. Yes, the peaks are at different positions; however, the bulk of the area under each curve is shared with at least one other curve. This means that it's completely impossible to determine someone's race from their IQ, and more importantly, it means that the variation in IQ within each race is considerably greater than the variation between the races. Your chances of accurately estimating someone's IQ from their race are consequently not great.

"But Phil," some of you will (probably) say, "you've admitted that there is a difference between the races! Surely that has practical application?" No, it doesn't, because no-one ever deals with entire populations at a time. We deal only with individuals, and as it's pointless to try to estimate an individual's intelligence from the colour of his skin, the entire question seems moot.

"Race" doesn't necessarily mean very much.
How do you determine someone's race? By the race of their parents. Already we're veering dangerously close to circular reasoning, as the race of the parents is determined by that of their parents, and so on and so on. In the end, either we're all Neanderthals or similar, or we have to determine a cut-off point - and the fact that this is never determined in this type of experiment means that there is great difficulty in being certain that the race definitions of participants mean anything at all. Researchers tend to get around the problem by getting participants to report the race that they consider themselves to be, which means that there's even more fuzziness in the results.

It is incredibly difficult to create a culturally unbiased intelligence test.
Assuming for a moment that researchers did manage to come up with fully acceptable definitions of "intelligence" and "race", how would you go about testing that intelligence? If you use different tests for different groups of people, it's very difficult to draw any conclusions about the comparison of the results; if you use the same test, it will mean nothing to people who aren't familiar with the subject of the questions. Even if researchers use non-verbal tests, like Raven's Progressive Matrices (incidentally the only intelligence test that would also make an awesome name for a band), there is no guarantee that the test paradigm is going to translate across cultures.

To give you an idea of what I mean, imagine that you're a member of a small Ethiopian tribe and have never had to take a school test in your life. If someone shows you a picture with a number of patterns and asks you to select the "correct" pattern to fill in the gap, is it really going to immediately occur to you to complete it in line with logical syllogisms? Because the test can only record "success" or "failure" for each attempt, a "failure" could mean either "was incapable of making the required logical inference" or "was unfamiliar with the concept of abstract logical inferences", and this confusion enormously complicates the conclusions.

The correlation between IQ and success in later life is not as conclusive as it appears.
There is indeed a correlation between IQ and job success, earnings and so forth. However, the first thing to remember is that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. There may be other factors - good nutrition or ability to cope with stress, say - which moderate both IQ and other successes. Secondly, the correlation is not perfect; having a high IQ is by no means a guarantee of later success. And thirdly, the definition used for "success" is itself culturally biased towards the type of society where prosperity is the ultimate goal. Use "satisfaction" or "happiness" and things might be very different - take Ghana, for example, which is apparently in the top 40 countries for happiness but barely makes the top 150 for GDP per capita.

Possibly the most depressing thing about the storm over Watson's comments is that many people wanted to close down the debate entirely, suggesting that this entire topic is somehow off limits. Obviously I don't think that's correct; censoring debate not only means that important topics never get thought through, it also makes them the sole preserve of those who would use them for their own ends.

Although I tend to shy away from qualifying anything I say on this blog with "this is just my opinion" - obviously it's my opinion, otherwise I wouldn't be writing it - I'm going to make an exception in this case because this is a hugely complex topic. Hopefully I've contributed to it in some way, but clearly I haven't said everything that there is to say, and nearly everything that I've written could be challenged by other research. Please do make the effort to look into it further; important topics require careful consideration, and the best outcome we can hope for is that, rather than hiding from the subject, more people will do just that.

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Monday, 19 November 2007

Picture of the Week: #46

The decorators have been and gone in our house, and the chaos has recently subsided. A bit, anyway. This has given my dad the chance to dig out some of his old music collection, and for the past week the house has resounded to Paul Simon, Randy Stonehill, Ry Cooder and Larry Norman. Now, this should give you a clue as to what on earth the above photograph shows. Have a guess, then look behind the cut to see if you were right.

If you guessed "part of a record turntable", you are both correct and very vague. Specifically, it's the edge of the turntable, right next to a little strobe unit. It's a very clever little bit of kit - the strobe flashes at exactly the right frequency so that when the turntable is rotating at exactly 33 1/3 rpm, one row of the reflective squares on its edge appears to be standing still. (It's the wagon wheel effect, if you're interested.) When the turntable is switched to 45 rpm, a different row stands still. It's an ingenious way of calibrating the equipment, and because it's not software-driven, it doesn't crash...

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Friday, 16 November 2007

Bee-deep doop ba dap DAP, dap...

It's quite hard for me, just at the moment, to get things done. This can be attributed to a lot of things; the cold weather, my lack of transport, three unreasonably busy years, they all stack up.

Short-term, though, the main reason why I'm not getting much done has to be VirtualNES. If you're of an age, like me, such that the Nintendo Entertainment System was the must-have gadget when you were six years old, you will undoubtedly remember the strange fascination that this grey plastic box held for so many small children. (Mostly boys, it has to be said, but let's not go stereotyping here.) The graphics may have been basic, the controllers rickety, and the game cartridges requiring someone to blow very hard into their undersides for some reason, and yet the NES was capable of keeping innumerable kids quiet for hours on end.

Sometimes, of course, this led to problems. Terrifying demonstrations of what people can do when given a NES and too much free time are all over the web; see this duel between two masters of the original Super Mario Bros. for an example. The hardware, too, has ended up being used for purposes way beyond its original design - for example, musician Alex Mauer has released two albums on NES cartridges, using the sound chip on the console to produce all of the music. Whether this is an artistic travesty or an exciting way of using retro technology is a question that I'll leave up to you.

The NES was undoubtedly a brilliant piece of work, as were many of the games made for it. And when many of those games are available online, to play for free, it seems that now we have a perfect opportunity to revisit them, to recapture some of that magic. The legality of the site is, I admit, questionable at best - I'd be surprised if their carefully-worded disclaimer protected them from much in the way of litigation - but while it's around, it's a great chance to see what all the fuss was about. And if you can play the first couple of levels of Super Mario Bros. 3 and not be entirely hooked, you're made of stronger stuff than I am.

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Thursday, 15 November 2007

Space Chase nearly made it into this post, too. Be thankful that it didn't.

One of the things that I always used to like doing when I was younger was to flick through the Radio Times' film section, searching specifically for the films with one-star ratings. Why? Because star ratings, useful though they are, are deep magic.

This may be difficult to believe, but it's true. A scale that looks like your average five-point rating scale actually conceals considerably more nuances and subtleties than you might think. Now, towards the top end of the scale this is less true; there's not very many five-star ratings, considerably more four-stars, and a veritable ocean of three-stars. This is as you would expect - a three-star rating is usually labelled "average", so the normal statistical workings of the bell curve come into play. It is as you descend into the lower reaches of the star system that things start to get strange.

The reason for the strangeness is that a film needs to meet a certain (albeit small) level of quality to make it to two-star level, but there is no such requirement for one-star level. The obvious result is that the one-star rating is applied to everything below two-star standard, and this is a large and varied assortment. Join me as we move down through the various levels of awfulness.

Bad Films
Plain old bad films can be produced in a number of ways - too much money spent on special effects and too little on script is a favourite one, but other very simple things like poor acting from just one person can easily push a perfectly good movie right down into this classification. In a sense, this type of film is the worst - it's bad enough that you don't want to watch it again, but not bad enough to be interesting. Most summer blockbusters are perfect examples. Remember Alien3? The film started out poorly by trying to pretend that it wasn't a second sequel (a superscript in the title? Really?), then compounded a horribly slow script with a performance by Sigourney Weaver that clearly said "I don't want to be here", producing a film that made you desperately try to erase it from the franchise. Come to think of it, most sequels fall into this category; how I wish I could live in a world where The Matrix was never given a sequel, let alone two.

Mindless action flicks are in this section too. I saw the end of Steven Seagal's Half Past Dead last night, and yes, I freely admit that I watched it solely because of the title. Well, that, and the fact that a man called Morris Chestnut played the main villain. How can you not love a film starring an actor called Morris Chestnut?

Quite easily, it turns out. Seagal's movies are entertaining in their own way, I suppose, but once you've seen him blow up the enemy complex while apparently preserving a deep respect for the environment and the ways of the US's native peoples once, you don't really need to see it again. Unless you're really into the theory and practice of martial arts, the action sequences have nothing you haven't seen a thousand times before, and if you do know the faintest thing about combat then they just get ridiculous. (Anyone in my living room last night would have heard "She's standing in the middle of an open hallway! Why don't you just shoot her?" being shouted rather loudly.) As such, they aren't good enough to be decent pieces of cinema, and not bad enough to be funny.

So Bad It's Good
The hallowed island of awesomeness, this is a very special place. For a start, it lies in a different place for each person (I fully expect that you're going to violently disagree with at least one of my opinions in this post); what makes it even more special is that it's impossible to find it unless you're not looking for it. Even the laziest film-maker who can't be bothered to get a decent script or actors doesn't try to shoot for So Bad It's Good, he's trying to produce something as good as possible within the very low standards required.

The difficulty in reaching this nebulous category is reflected in the difficulties found when trying to define it. Poor characterisation, scenery, effects or acting aren't enough; the disparate elements have to combine to produce something that's either funny, or poignant, or have some other completely unintended effect. Take Ebirah, The Terror of the Deep (or Gojira, Ebirâ, Mosura: Nankai no daiketto, to give it the original Japanese name), for example. I've only ever seen the dubbed version, and this has only added to the hilarious awfulness of the finished product. Godzilla and Ebirah, the giant lobster of the title, have a duel in the ocean by throwing wobbly animated rocks at each other, Mothra, the giant moth, comes along to help, and in the midst of this four poor young Japanese actors try to work out what on earth they are doing in the middle of this cinematic travesty. The dubbing was apparently carried out with only four voice actors, meaning that "Eh?" and "Uh?" make up a very significant proportion of the dialogue, and the enormous chorus of dancing girls worshipping Mothra for no apparent reason are able to say nothing other than "Moth-a-raaaaa" for the duration of their inexplicable scene. The finished product is very highly entertaining and causes you to laugh throughout the whole thing. The only slight snag is that it was supposed to be a thriller...

So Bad It's Bad
This is a very sad category. Films where the director simply wasn't trying, or everyone takes themselves far too seriously, are very likely to find themselves here. It is in So Bad It's Bad that you'll find action stars who reckoned they were capable of directing or screenwriting (step forward again, Mr. Seagal). Also present are no-budget hack-and-slash thrillers, "teen comedies" which are neither comedic nor appealing to teenagers, and Death Train.

Death Train is deserving of special mention here. It's another film that I watched only for its title, which was handy as there's no way I'd watch it for any other reason. Nominally a suspenseful action film, it starred Pierce Brosnan with a bizarre attempt at an American accent, trying to get on board the eponymous train in order to disarm the nuclear bomb on board. If that actually sounds quite exciting, allow me to list some reasons why it wasn't.

  • The film opens with a nuclear bomb being set off in the middle of Germany, presumably incinerating several million people. The hand-wringing and "oh how terrible" speeches last all of two minutes, then we're back into action, making this perhaps the film with the largest unnecessary body count in the first act ever.
  • The villain of the piece is Russian and played by Christopher Lee. He wants to set off the bomb to restart the Cold War. This plot was tired and overused before the Cold War even ended in the first place.
  • I know I've already mentioned it, but: Pierce Brosnan's American accent. Why would you do that, Pierce? Why?
  • The ending is not only contrived, it is also completely devoid of tension. When your film leaves the audience thinking "Huh. So they didn't all die in a nuclear holocaust. Well, there we go," you know you've got a problem.

If you thought that a film starring Brosnan, Lee, Patrick Stewart, Terrence Hardiman and several other quite good actors couldn't fail to be good, allow me to introduce you to the reason why this film is So Bad It's Bad.

Good Grief What On Earth Were They Thinking
Oh no, SBIB wasn't the last category. There are other films, worse than that. And it is into this classification that Hercules in New York proudly strides. A film that must be the product of either a drunken bet or the drunken gambling away of the entire budget (alcohol was definitely involved at some point), never before has a film been so very, very impressively bad. Arnold Schwarzenegger, almost sinking his career before it began, provides the perfect justification for closing the international borders with his portrayal of Hercules - yes, Greek demi-god Hercules - and his adventures in New York. Arnie was dubbed in the original release, but that couldn't save the movie; if anything, it's better when you can hear his oh-so-authentic Greek accent ("NO VUN IZ SUPEEERIOR TO HAERCULEES!"). The film also boasts repetitive and over-frequent fight sequences - there's only so many times you can see Schwarzenegger push people around with a plank before it gets dull - and, in a great moment of glory, manages to take the crown from Point Break in the category of "Least Convincing Day-For-Night Sequence Ever Filmed".

If you can't work it out, Day-For-Night is a cinematic technique in which "night" scenes are filmed in broad daylight and filters are used on the camera lens to make it look as though it's actually night-time. In Point Break it simply doesn't work - the night surfing scene is spoilt by the fact that the sun's reflection is clearly visible in the water, and everyone is glowing in the sunlight. In Hercules in New York, they don't bother with the filters. Interior scenes, which clearly were filmed at night, are intercut with exterior scenes bathed in golden sunlight, the only concession to the concept of night being that one of the characters is holding a lit torch. This is way beyond bad - this is jaw-dropping.

And this sequence leads in to what is quite possibly the very worst - and most brilliantly hilarious - scene ever committed to film. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...the bear attack.

No, I don't own this video, obviously - it's part of the film. Do I have to tell you people everything?

Hey, look on the bright side. There's nowhere to go from here except up.

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Monday, 12 November 2007

Picture of the Week: #45

Not a lot to say about this one (except "sorry it's a day late again"). I was wandering across some of the local fields (or "private parkland", as its owner informed me - I felt like giving him a long lecture on the public footpath system and why it was to everyone's advantage, but decided not to), and thought that this was too nice a picture opportunity to pass up. Autumn really does provide some of the most beautiful light, and when that's tied in with the local landscape it provides some awesome natural sights.

Now, if it wasn't so darned cold all the time, it'd be perfect...

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Thursday, 8 November 2007

Unrealistic Life Ambitions, #2: Dadaist Song Titles

(Ooh, a repeating blog feature that has actually repeated. That was unexpected.)

If you watch any TV at all, you can't have failed to notice the adverts for new albums that are sometimes produced. Generally voiced by Mark Goodier (in the UK, at least), all of these adverts follow much the same formula: the voiceover lists the names of the standout tracks that are going to make you want to buy the album, accompanied by either a) clips of the band in concert, b) parts of their music videos, or c) abstract bits of artwork.

Even if the artwork option is chosen, the audio will be part of the track that's just been named. And here's the key part: the clip used will always be at the point where the lead singer bellows out the name of the song. If the album in question was a collection of Bruce Springsteen's hits, for instance, part of the voiceover might go like this...

Voiceover: Featuring "The River", "Murder Incorporated, and the smash hit "Born to Run".
Bruce Springsteen (in concert): 'Cos tramps like us, baby we were booooorn to ruuuuuuuun!

There's nothing wrong with this, as such - it's just a bit dull, that's all. Clearly, there's a consensus among advertisers that this is the only possible way to advertise an album, so even if the visuals are really interesting, the audio will be completely predictable.

I say it's time this was stopped. And I know how to do it, too. My unrealistic life ambition is to start a successful rock band - so successful that we can eventually get Mark Goodier to do the voiceover for our TV adverts - without ever mentioning the title of any of our songs anywhere in the lyrics.

Overly ambitious, you say? Not at all! If countless bands can produce tracks whose lyrics consist of nothing but the song's title (taken from because the people without a sense of humour at Wikipedia had the terribly bad taste to delete the article), and if the Flaming Lips can produce songs like "The Wizard Turns On...The Giant Silver Flashlight And Puts On His Werewolf Moccasins", then how hard can it be? You can expect to hear our tender rock ballad "Seamus Heaney Recites The First Three Thousand And Twenty Digits of Pi" any day now.

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Tuesday, 6 November 2007

What's in YOUR wallet?

My debit card expired the other week. I know, I know...this isn't really the most fascinating of topics ever addressed. However, due to a lucky combination of circumstances (1. I didn't put it into an ATM after it expired, so it didn't get eaten; 2. I tend to take almost anything to pieces), I decided that this was the perfect opportunity to dissect the old card. I'm not certain what I hoped to achieve with this activity, but no matter - it successfully wasted several hours, and hopefully you'll find it entertaining too!

A couple of quick notes before we start. First, this post is full of photos. The files aren't huge, but they do load at 800x600 resolution (I'm using the cheater's version of thumbnailing, I'm afraid), so I'm putting all of them behind the cut. If you're on dialup, you may wish to wait until you've found some broadband, or you might be here some time!

Secondly, for goodness' sake don't try this at home unless a) you're using one of your own cards, b) you are absolutely certain you won't need it any more, and c) you completely destroy it afterwards. Identity theft is a major problem nowadays; you'll be able to see what steps I've taken against it later in the post. If that's all OK, on we go with the dissection!

The only things that you'll need for this operation are:

  • An expired credit or debit card
  • A pair of ordinary kitchen scissors
  • A penknife, or Stanley knife, or at a pinch just very strong fingernails

The first thing that I did was to make three horizontal cuts across the card, making sure one of them went through the card number.

This not only helps to make the card number illegible, it also makes it much easier to peel off the card's layers. As far as I can make out, the card is made of at least 7 layers; a central white core, with one hard coloured layer and two layers of transparent film on either side. The two transparent layers are pretty much impossible to separate except by accident, so you can treat them as one; they carry most of the important bits of the card. Specifically, the magnetic strip is part of them, so that's what I tried to remove next.

Scoring a line with the penknife didn't work too well near the edge...

...but it did work right in the middle, making it easy to peel off the magnetic strip in both directions. There was much more resistance at the edges, so I reckon either the glue is stronger there or the layers are sealed more closely.

The text under the strip reads "3 Track HiCo Black Magnetic Tape"; for those who are wondering what that means, scan through the FAQs from I had no way of reading the contents of the tape itself, but I imagine it holds just the card number.

With the magnetic tape's possibilities exhausted, I moved on to the middle segment of the card, and removed the film carrying the hologram. This produced the only completely unexpected aspect of the card...

There's a bird hiding under the film! It's etched into it somehow, making it entirely invisible until the film is removed; I think it's probably a security measure, as it would be fairly obvious that the card's now been tampered with. That's supported by the fact that the bird looks very much like the one on the hologram. It's also visible on the film itself:

The code numbers under the hologram (0 C E 2) return no meaningful hits in a Google search, so they're probably an internal reference to the type of hologram required.

The next thing to come off the card was the film from the bottom segment:

No great revelations here, although it's interesting to notice what's been removed; most of the Visa logo is intact, but everything silvery has gone. Much of the metallic shimmering effect on the card's surface remained, so that must be part of the coloured layer.

Here's the card with most of the transparent film removed from the front. It looks like there might be something drawn on the top segment...

...but on closer examination I think it got there while I was peeling off the film; it does look rather like a fingerprint. Incidentally, this photo shows more clearly how all the silver colouring has come off with the film; the two layers of film are also apparent.

The last bit of film-peeling took me back to the middle segment, in order to remove the signature strip. This was very much like the magnetic strip, especially in that there was something underneath...

In amongst the "VOID"s (I think it's fairly obvious by now that the card's void for purchases, really) there's a line of text reading "Oberthur C.S.3 89302 12/04". (The same text as appears above the magnetic strip and to the right, in fact...have a look at the third photo in this post.) While this produces no Google hits, there is a company called Oberthur Card Systems. So now we know who made the card; what the "3" means is anyone's guess, as is the "89302 12/04". (I got the card in 2006, and I doubt it was sitting in a warehouse somewhere for two years; it's also not a patent, as US Patent No. 89302 is for an "Improvement in Felt Suspender-End".)

Moving on, then, we come to the chip, of Chip&Pin fame. It popped out of its recess with very little force, leaving nothing behind and remaining remarkably intact.

I find it a little worrying that the chip came out quite so easily; the fact that it's the only component which is obviously glued in also seems strange. The film was held on to the plastic very strongly, so what's stopping the chip from being held in the same way? Anyway, it does mean that we can get a good look at the chip itself. It's very, very tiny, with the vast majority of the recess being taken up by the contacts. Each one of these connects to a gold wire (probably gold, anyway), which in turn connects to the chip.

I peeled off the contacts fairly easily, although the central one was much more troublesome, and in fact left a lot of residue on the chip itself. That made it difficult to see properly, and obviously with something so tiny it's difficult to see any details anyway. Time, then, to dig out my dad's old microscope!

The chip's very blurry because we're looking through the glue, although the wires are clearly visible. I'm not certain whether the little circle is a feature of the chip or merely an air bubble. By zooming in, we can see it more closely (along with some of the chip's surface).

We can also see a close-up of the joint between the chip and the wire...

...and part of the circuit on the chip's surface...

...and the (surprisingly detailed and pretty) surface of the glue...

...and the joint between the wire and the contact pad (or where it used to be, anyway)...

Either there was no joint at all between the contact and the wire (and contact was made through pressure alone), or the contacts were created already attached to the wire. I have no idea how that could have been done.

That's all the dissection that I carried out. The only thing left to do was to provide a bit of scale, so you can see just how tiny the chip is...

Here's the final dissected card with its components around it.

Remember I talked about identity theft at the beginning of the post? Here's where you find out how to avoid it...

Nice and simple!

So what does all of this mean? Well, it's clear that credit and debit cards are certainly very sophisticated little bits of plastic - I was surprised at how many different bits go into them, and how much of the visible detail has clearly been assembled rather than simply printed. The chip, in particular, is a beautiful little piece of engineering, and even things like the glue have unexpected details. On the whole, it's a great demonstration of one of the rules of life, as brought to us by the wonderful xkcd: "You can look at practically any part of anything manmade around you and think 'some engineer was frustrated while designing this.' It's a little human connection."

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Sunday, 4 November 2007

Picture of the Week: #44

This is the Meadows building of Christ Church College, which can only mean one thing: I've returned to Oxford. Sadly not for more than one day, though; I came up for a friend's birthday, and as the day after was lovely and sunny I decided to hang around for a bit. I have absolutely no idea what the plant is that's had the bad taste to throw itself over the wall in a passable imitation of a very gory murder. But as it's on part of Christ Church, one of the largest, richest and frankly most obnoxious colleges in the whole city...hey, who cares?

Of course, I'm referring to the college as a single entity, and not to its students, many of whom are perfectly nice people. Just thought I'd clear that up. In really tiny writing.

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