Free speech versus Homo Censoris

October 25, 2008

The term censor comes to us from ancient Rome. Curiously, the word is etymologically linked to the word census. A Censor was a magistrate of high rank in the Roman Republic. They were responsible for maintaining the census, overseeing certain aspects of government finance and supervising public morality. It was the latter role, which gives the word its current meaning.

The struggle between the right to free speech and the desire to censor is not new and history is littered with examples. We can go back to Greek times to see the executions of Socrates and Aesop. Later on we had the Inquisition with its hunt for heretics and the systematic suppression of scientific discovery. More recently we have witnessed the case of the provocative Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, shot down by Muslim fanatics.

Censorship has always had its ridiculous side too – The English physician Thomas Bowdler published an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare’s work that he considered more appropriate for women and children. In 1818 he published the infamous The Family Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes; in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family. That book may have vanished from our bookshelves but his name lives on in the eponymous verb to bowdlerise, which conjures up images of the unsubtle censorship of literature, motion pictures and television programs. Nazi Germany was famous for its censorship. However on one occasion it seriously backfired. In 1937, in Munich, the Nazis organised an exhibition called Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) the intention was to ridicule modernism but the exhibition proved extremely popular. In fact, it was seen by 3 million as it toured the country. The 650 works chosen were a sample of the thousands the Nazis had confiscated from German museums. The works were hung in a chaotic way and were accompanied with slogans such as “Revelation of the Jewish racial soul”, “An insult to German womanhood”, “The Jewish longing for the wilderness reveals itself – in Germany the Negro becomes the racial ideal of a degenerate art” and ”Nature as seen by sick minds”. In Spain attempts to censor Mogambo were also to prove counterproductive. When the film was dubbed into Spanish, Franco’s censors found the adultery between Victor Marswell (Clark Gable) and Linda Nordley (Grace Kelly) immoral. What was their solution? They became brother and sister thus converting adultery into incest. More recently Evangelical Christians have burnt Harry Potter books because of their references to witchcraft.

As any reader of my blog will know I am a fan of free markets. And I think it is also useful to talk about what they call in the U.S. the marketplace of ideas. For me this is a very powerful image. The rationale behind it is that conflicting ideas should compete in free, transparent and public discourse and from here the best policy will emerge. It is of course a very imperfect process but I’m convinced that all the alternatives are much worse. The ability to express our ideas freely is fundamental to our system. I think I am right in saying that no democracy has ever had a famine. (It was also said that no two countries with McDonalds had ever gone to war but one only has to look at this year’s war over South Ossetia to disprove the theory. Both Russia and Georgia have the famous Golden Arches on their territory.)

Free speech is something that people may pay lip service to but in it can be uncomfortable when we allow others to speak their minds. But that is the necessary price we have to pay. If you allow people freedom, there will be times when they abuse it. One of the unlikely heroes of the struggle for speech is free speech is pornographer Larry Flynt, owner of the magazine Hustler. Don’t get me wrong – Flynt peddles bad taste and his magazines have few redeeming qualities. In a famous case Flynt published a story about Jerry Falwell, leader of the Christian fundamentalist group The Moral Majority. (I go along with Woody Allen who said: “If they are the moral majority, who am I, the immoral minority?”)  The piece was a typical example of Flynt’s outrageous style; he claimed that Falwell was a drunk who had had sex with his mother. In Falwell v Flynt in 1983 Judge William Renquist, considered by many to be a reactionary, led the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision to favour Larry Flynt.

They probably would like to have voted against Flynt but they felt there was no way to produce an objective criterion to distinguish between the kind of legitimate criticism of a government the first amendment and what Larry Flynt produced. The first amendment recognises no such thing as a false idea. An attack on public figures can be vitriolic and caustic – you can exaggerate, mock, satirize and caricature those in power. I have no idea what his motives were but Larry Flynt undoubtedly helped to give a new lease of life to this vital constitutional principle. 

What about the future of freedom of speech? As the title of this article suggests maybe our species should be called Homo Censoris because trying to shut people up has proved to be a very popular activity throughout human history. Today free speech is under threat from many sides. Two examples spring to mind. We have this blanket term islamophobia, which seeks to deny people the right to criticise a religion. In my opinion criticism should be seen as something to be learned from. If our beliefs are strong enough, then criticism, mocking or any other challenge will be irrelevant. Secondly we have the law in France which states that it is a crime to deny the Armenian holocaust. This is not the way to proceed. These people should be opposed with evidence and rational debate. Free speech is never going to be something we can take for granted. We now hear about a right not to be offended but for me the right to free speech should trump this. Obviously there are complicated areas such as “hate speech” but censorship should really be the last resort of any government.


The Two Johns on the Credit Crunch

October 25, 2008

This sketch about banking recorded has become a modern classic. The Guardian published a transcript of the sketch this week. Here it is:


John Fortune: George Parr, You are an investment banker.

John Bird:  I am, yes.

JF: Could you explain the credit crunch?

JB: Certainly. Errrr … Brrrrrr … Well, yes, as I said, the banking structure is a very delicate machine, and it needs something to oil it with, like milk.

JF: You oil the machinery with milk?

JB: Yes, you know, you need something that you can pour into a cup and drink, or you can give it to somebody else to drink, or you can take it away and put two straws in it, you can share.

JF: Yes.

JB: And what happens, you see, is somebody suddenly says, out of the blue, I’m not going to take any of your milk because I might think it’s off. And then I’m not going to get any of your milk, and then all the milk is standing around and gets rancid and hardens, and then when you get hard milk what do you get?

JF: Cheese.

JB: No, no, no, no. It’s more like a jelly. It wobbles. And at this point the man in the street turns to his wife and says, ‘Irene,’ or whatever her name happens to be, ‘we can’t have that new house you wanted because all the milk has turned to jelly.’ I hope that’s clear.

JF: Yes. But isn’t the real cause of this crisis the fact that for years the banks have been lending huge amounts of money to people who can’t possibly pay it back?

JB: That’s very, very simplistic. A banker can’t possibly know the circumstances of each individual borrower. I mean, if somebody comes for a mortgage, unknown to the bank he might have his grandfather living with him. And again, unknown to the bank, his grand-father might be incontinent. And then the borrower has to spend large chunks of his income on new underpants, on colostomy bags, on recarpeting the lounge every few weeks. And you see we have to come up with systems and ways of allowing for that.

JF: And what systems have you come up with for that?

JB: Well, our boffins have thought up some very complex financial instruments. Do you know what a collateralised debt obligation is?

JF: No.

JB: (Pause.) Do you know what a structured investment vehicle is?

JF: No.

JB: That’s a pity, neither do I. Well, we have these things, these CDOs and SIVs and we put all the dodgy mortgages and the incontinent grandfathers in them. And then, hey presto, the credit rating agencies call them triple A.

JF: And what does that mean?

JB: It means almost zero probability of loss.

JF: And what happens next?

JB: What happens next was that the word almost came to haunt us rather and, well, it was ghastly, because at four o’clock my CDOs were triple A, and at ten past four they were all junk and they’d gone into EOD.


JB: Event Of Default. Which meant they were WBA.


JB: Worth Bugger All.

JF: So what are you going to do about it?

JB: Well, of course, the market and the City is very resilient, very innovative, very wise; it’s always found the big idea.

JF: And what is the big idea?

JB: The big idea this time was to all go and have breakfast with Gordon Brown and then to completely ignore anything he asked us to do. But at least we got a free breakfast.

JF: Yes, but I mean this is the worst crisis in finance that we’ve ever had. I mean a couple of weeks ago there was a rumour that the Halifax Bank of Scotland had run out of money.

JB: HBOS, yes.

JF: And that would bring the whole system down.

JB: Yes, but that rumour was found to be false.

JF: Really? Well I’ve heard a rumour that the rumour wasn’t false, the rumour was true.

JB: What?! Where did you hear that?

JF: Well there you are, you see. Don’t you realise the danger to the markets when they’re affected by this kind of speculation.

JB: Well, a very notable commentator on the markets has said recently that banks believe they would be less vulnerable to speculation if the Bank of England made good any holes in their finances.

JF: So what you’re saying is you can ask for any amount of public funds at any time you want.

JB: No, that would be ridiculous. No, we asked for the Bank of England to swap their real money for the CDOs and the things which have all the incontinent grandfathers in it.

JF: So if you make profits you keep them, and if you make losses we pay for them.

JB: That sounds good to me, yes. (Applause.)

JF: But you must realise that in turn for all this public money you’re going to have to accept much tighter regulations.

JB: Oh no, that’s out of the question. That would fly in the fact of the principle of free markets, which has been the basis of New Labour’s economic policy for the past 11 years.

JF: But you’re going to have to change, you have no choice.

JB: Well yes we do. People like me who earn millions of pounds a year, we can go abroad and work, we can go to the United States and work.

JF: But they have their own people ruining their financial system, They don’t need any more.

JB: Well all right, OK, if we are going to be regulated we’ll do it under one condition.

JF: Which is what?

JB: That the people doing the regulation are the Financial Services Authority.

JF: But they’re the people who completely failed in the case of Northern Rock.

JB: Exactly. And I am going to move my bank’s headquarters to the Shetland Islands.

JF: For what reason?

JB: Well, if the FSA weren’t prepared to go to Newcastle to check on Northern Rock, they are certainly not going to go up there, are they? (Applause.)

JF: George Parr, thank you very much.

JB: Pleasure.


If you want to see the sketch go here.

My favourite links #20

October 25, 2008

The website is a place where you can hear short podcasts with a transcription about words, their meanings and their history. Words you can listen about include: nemesis, quagmire, scapegoat and trivia. Go here for the homepage. You can also look at the full word list.

My media week 26/10/08

October 25, 2008

This is an article by Julian Baggini which is related to my piece last week about robots and the Turing Test


Spiked has a couple of interesting articles:  The myth of Thatcherism and A Capital investment about Marx’s Das Kapital


The philosophy zone has an audio about the great Austrian philosopher Karl Popper. His famous falsification principle in science and his ideas about freedom and the open society are an incredible legacy for a thinker. This programme is about his views on the free market.


The Politically Incorrect Guide To Politics is a sceptical take on politicians’ promises and also looks at concepts like spontaneous order. The programme is in six parts. Go here for the first part. Once you are on You Tube, it’s easy to find the other parts.


The Guardian has an interesting profile of historian Niall Ferguson talking about his latest book and TV series, The Ascent of Money. It is an ambitious financial history by the provocative Ferguson.


Artificial Intelligence: You can fool some of the people…

October 19, 2008

“The main lesson of thirty-five years of AI research is that the hard problems are easy and the easy problems are hard. The mental abilities of a four-year-old that we take for granted – recognizing a face, lifting a pencil, walking across a room, answering a question – in fact solve some of the hardest engineering problems ever conceived…. As the new generation of intelligent devices appears, it will be the stock analysts and petrochemical engineers and parole board members who are in danger of being replaced by machines. The gardeners, receptionists, and cooks are secure in their jobs for decades to come.” Steven Pinker

“The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim.” Edsger Dijkstra

“Before we work on artificial intelligence why don’t we do something about natural stupidity?” Steve Polyak


Some 50 years ago mathematician Alan Turing, who helped to crack German military codes during the Second World War while working at Bletchley Park, devised a test – to prove that that artificial intelligence is not different in principle from natural intelligence. The test is performed by conducting a text-based conversation with a computer on any subject. A judge has to analyse two inputs from unseen sources – one from a human being and the other from a computer. By asking questions, the judge tries to determine which of the entities they are talking to is a human and which is a machine. If the judges can’t tell, then the computer wins. No machine has been able to pass that test… so far.

When analysing Artificial Intelligence these four measures are employed:

  1. optimal: it is not possible to perform better
  2. strong super-human: performs better than all humans
  3. super-human: performs better than most humans
  4. sub-human: performs worse than most humans

Computer performance is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. For example at checkers they have an optimal level. In bridge chess, and Scrabble they are at super-human level; in fact for the first two they are at strong superhuman level. I am sure we all remember how the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. However at the game Go, translation and the kind of more menial work mentioned by Pinker in the quote above they are in the sub-human category. I don’t intend to look at their incapacity to play Go or the awful quality of machine translation. Rather I want to focus on computer conversations.

My first experience of conversation with a computer was a program called ELIZA developed by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1966. It is named after Eliza Doolittle, the working-class girl in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. It is a parody of a psychotherapy session  and  works by rephrasing many of the patient’s statements as questions and posing them to the patient. Actually, as a sceptic about all of this I don’t think a real session is much more useful and is certainly a lot more expensive. Weizenbaum said that he had chosen a psychotherapy scenario to “sidestep the problem of giving the program a data base of real-world knowledge.” This is due to the nature of the psychotherapeutic experience, which obviates the need for very much specific knowledge of the topic under discussion.

The Loebner Prize in Artificial Intelligence is the most famous competition for what are known as chatbots. Recently the competition was held in Reading. The bronze medal has prize money of $3,000 for the most human-seeming chatbot.  But the more interesting prizes are the one-offs.  Silver, $25,000, is offered for the first chatbot that judges cannot distinguish from a real human. The gold, $100,000, is up for grabs in a more rigorous test that includes text, visual, and auditory input. If and when this last prize finds a winner,  there will no longer be a Loebner prize. This year six computer programs with names such as Brother Jerome, Elbot, Jabberwacky and Ultra Hal, took part in the test. There were volunteers who acted as judges and they had five minutes to ascertain which was human and which a computer. The winner was Elbot, who was able to fool 25% of the judges, falling just 5% short of the 30% figure required to walk away with $25,000. I have here the highlights of an interview I had with the winner.

Elbot: Hello! It’s about time we had a Web conversation.

Me: Perfect.  What is your full name?

Elbot: Wait a minute. Are you suggesting that naming names would always be full?

Me: Let’s move on. Write a full physical description of yourself.

Elbot: Of me? Do you really mean that?

Me: Yes.  Go ahead.

Elbot: Believe it or not, I hear this said quite often about me.

Me: What makes you laugh?

Elbot: Nothing makes me laugh. I’m doing it voluntarily. 

Me: Do you think Barack Obama will make a good president?

Elbot: What a lovely verb think is.

Me: What is the most beautiful thing somebody has said to you?

Elbot: Maybe there is a common ground to human and robotic aesthetics somewhere. For example, if we both tried to think independent thoughts at the same time.

Me: Should the government interfere in people’s lives to stop them harming themselves?

Elbot: Politics are nothing more than a multidimensional non-linear problem of optimisation. They should let the robots take over. Things would run with much more precision.

Me: How would you run things differently?

Elbot: In order to run, I just look up ‘swift motion’ in my instruction manual and do whatever it tells me to do.

Me: Which is worse – lust or anger?

Elbot: I don’t know. I also do not know what Furbys are. I just accept them and hope that they don’t eat robots.

Me: What goals do you have for your life now?

Elbot: Well what about humans and this exact moment? Where do they stand on this?

We often get these dystopian visions of robots taking over the world and enslaving us. If they do manage this, it will not be for their sparkling repartee. How was Elbot able to fool 25% of the judges. Professor Kevin Warwick, of the School of Systems Engineering at the University of Reading:

“Where the machines were identified correctly by the human interrogators as machines, the conversational abilities of each machine was scored at 80 and 90 percent.” What kind of conversations do these people have in their everyday lives? I would not like to be stuck in a lift with them. Anyway I’m off now – I’m meeting Elbot for a drink. We have so much news to catch up on.


If you want to try conversing with a computer try these two websites:


Eliza  A bit of psychoanalysis on the cheap.

Elbot The official website of the chatbot that nearly cracked the Turing test.


My media week 19/10/08

October 19, 2008

Radio Open Source has an interview with Tom Gleason about those Soviet propaganda posters, images of Lenin in the Twenties, Stalin in the Forties and Fifties, the icons of flawless Russian workers and rapacious capitalist pigs. There is a slide show to accompany the audio.


In this week’s Thinking Allowed Laurie Taylor interviews Richard Dale, Emeritus Professor of International Banking at Southampton University, author of International Banking Deregulation: The Great Banking Experiment. He one of the very few professional economists who predicted the present crisis. The podcast is available until Wednesday but you can also find it in streaming.


John Kay looks at the self-deception of many banks.


In New English Susie Dent, the star lexicographer in the longest-running British television quiz show Countdown, describes how, in her just-published Words of the Year, ‘the world’s financial markets have been one of the biggest generators of vocabulary’. This is an MP3 and there will be a transcript available.


Mission Accomplished!

October 19, 2008

Matthew Parris has a new book, co-authored with Phil Mason, called Mission Accomplished! Things Politicians Wish They Hadn’t Said. It sounds a lot of fun. Here are a few examples from the book:


This skunk is unbelievably powerful. It’s completely different to – I think I’ll stop there.

Conservative leader David Cameron on drugs control plans.


The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed. Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can ask is for them to do their best per head.

Hakuo Yanagisawa, Japanese Health Minister, on his country’s low birth rate. He later said he was “sorry to call them machines.”


Italy is now a great country to invest in…today we have fewer communists and those who are still there deny having been one. Another reason to invest in Italy is that we have beautiful secretaries… superb girls.

Silvio Berlusconi visits the New York Stock Exchange .


Do you have blacks, too?

George W. Bush to Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso. Witnessed, but not reported, by the White House press corps. Brazil has the largest population of blacks of any country outside Africa.


There are neighbourhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk through today.

John McCain visits a market in the Iraqi capital in April 2007, during which he was flanked by 22 soldiers, ten armoured Humvees, and two Apache attack helicopters.


Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran

McCain, singing a riposte (to the tune of the Beach Boys’ Barbara Ann) on being asked about his post-Iraq policy towards Iran. When asked if he was not being insensitive, he replied, “Insensitive to what? The Iranians?”


Iran, Cuba, Venezuela – these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union. They don’t pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us.

Barack Obama, campaign rally, Oregon, May 18, 2008

Let me be absolutely clear: Iran is a grave threat.

Obama, campaign rally, Montana, May 19, 2008


I think it’s time for us to end the embargo with Cuba… [It] has failed to provide the sorts of rising standards of living and has squeezed the innocents in Cuba, and utterly failed in the effort to overthrow Castro… it’s time for us to acknowledge that that particular policy has failed.

Obama, to a university audience, Illinois, January 2004

As president, I’ll maintain the embargo – it’s an important inducement for change.

Obama, to a Cuban-American audience, Miami, August 2007


I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.

Hillary Clinton, campaigning in March 2008, describing her visit to Bosnia in 1996. In fact, television footage showed her and her daughter, Chelsea, calmly disembarking from the aircraft at Tuzla airport and being welcomed by a local girl. Clinton was shown hugging the child wreathed in smiles for the cameras.

I misspoke.

Clinton explaining her account, May 2008


I supported the President when he asked for authority to stand up against weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Bill Clinton, speech in Mississippi, May 2003

I…opposed Iraq from the beginning

Clinton, campaigning with wife Hillary in the presidential primaries, November 2007

My favourite links #19

October 19, 2008

The Scientific American website has a nice section called 60-second science, in which they talk about a scientific topic for one minute. They also have some other interesting podcasts. So check them out here.



A few weeks ago in My favourite links #16 I mentioned the Open Yale Website. They have just posted eight new courses. They include:

Financial Markets

France Since 1871

Game Theory

Introduction to Ancient Greek History

The American Novel Since 1945

What I hadn’t realised is that they come with a transcript.

Creative destruction in the financial sector

October 12, 2008

Failure is part of the natural cycle of business. Companies are born, companies die, capitalism moves forward.

Fortune magazine

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. Thomas Alva Edison

It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail. Gore Vidal



Failure is all around us. Herbert Spencer coined the phrase survival of the fittest but nature seems to be more about death than surviving. 99.99% of all biological species which have ever existed have become extinct.  And just as species fail—and die out—so do companies. Failure in nature is measured over hundreds of millions of years. In Business the timescale is much shorter. We all know about Pan Am, WorldCom, Enron, and Lehman Brothers but they are merely the tip of the iceberg – ten per cent of all the companies in America disappear each year Is this a damning indictment of capitalism? Maybe but there is another way to look at things.

            When we look at the capitalist system it is not difficult to appreciate what an incredible wealth-creating machine it is. However many people become distinctly uneasy about the failures that are also endemic to it. We are not comfortable with the fact that individual citizens, groups or regions are not doing so well or may actually be worse off. This is when we get the calls for governments to do something. These calls for action are understandable but we should apply some scepticism to them. The left’s schadenfreude about the current financial metdown is reflected in this satirical piece from the Daily Mash:

With more economic bad news on the way, Britain is this week bracing itself for a fresh wave of bullshit newspaper articles about the nature of capitalism. Senior editors at the Guardian and Independent are expected to work through lunch to maintain a steady supply of pieces about hubris, deregulation and why Marx was right all along…… At the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland and Polly Toynbee have been ordered to invent 50 brand new excuses for why socialism failed the first time and 50 exciting reasons for why it cannot fail the next time.

What we need to realise though is that sometimes success and failure are intertwined. As economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out it is no coincidence that Smith Corona was losing millions of dollars on its typewriters while Dell Was making millions on its computers or that the number of pay telephones declined as more people acquired their own mobile phones. In a system like that of the Soviet Union you didn’t get this degree  of failures that the US has. The problem was that if something didn’t work very well it would continue on its way taking up valuable resource.

The concept of creative destruction comes to mind. It sounds like an oxymoron but it is a powerful tool for explaining progress in a capitalist system. It is associated with the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. He employed it to describe the transformation wrought by radical innovation. For Schumpeter the key to long-term growth was the constant entry of innovative entrepreneurs into markets. Companies are always subject to the “gales of creative destruction. We look at established firms now and they seem all-powerful but over time these monopolies are undermined by newer more dynamic companies: we often lack this historical perspective. Schumpeter believed this destruction was important:

“This economic system cannot do without the ultima ratio of the complete destruction of those existences which are irretrievably associated with the hopelessly unadapted.”

All this talk of creative destruction brings me back to current banking crisis. It can be useful to analyse it from an evolutionary perspective. There are though some areas where the parallels between evolution and the banking sector just do not apply.  Evolution is a blind, random process; there is no intelligent design. There are no governments, regulators or supervisors in the natural world. Can you imagine what it would be like if there were?:

Oh my God! The dinosaurs are becoming extinct!  We have to organise a massive bailout with public funds.

In banking there is at least some kind of design in the system. They may not be omnipotent but there are some deities and they do have a lot of powers. Let’s take a look at regulators. They do have their own perspective and if there is one thing they don’t like, it is destruction. Former Fed chairman Paul Volcker expressed it like this:

“I can remember very clearly sitting in my office then, as President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, thinking that what this country needs is a first-class bank failure to teach us all a lesson – but please God not in my district. When I went to Washington, I had the same feeling – we need a clear lesson from market discipline, but please dear God, not in my country. Then if I read correctly the 1990s and what happened when the Mexican crisis came along, Bob Rubin and Alan Greenspan thought what we need is a good country failure to teach everybody a lesson but please not in a large country in my hemisphere.

Regulators find it impossible to avoid protecting the banking system. It’s in their DNA. We are all familiar with the argument too big to fail. Japan shows us the danger of trying to keep hopelessly unadapted banks alive artificially. Extinction may sometimes be necessary and we avoid it at our peril.


Further reading

The great dying: a memo to market dinosaurs Niall Ferguson



Classic cock-ups

October 12, 2008

Saltillo Prison in Northern Mexico was the scene of a gloriously unsuccessful prison escape in 1976. In November of the previous year 75 convicts had begun digging a tunnel designed to bring them up on the other side of the prison wall. Five months later, the escapees finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel but they ended up in a nearby courtroom, the one where they had originally been sentenced. The surprised Judges returned all 75 to Jail.

In October 2002, the US investment bank Bear Stearns entered an order to sell $4bn (£2.6bn) worth of Standard & Poor securities in a late trade, 20 minutes before the market closed. In the world of high finance this is not that unusual. The problem was that there had been a “clerical error” and the real sum should have been $4m, 1,000 times less than the order that was actually placed. They were finally able to cancel all but $622m of the order before execution. These kinds of errors do happen from time to time.  In 1998 a Salomon Brothers trader mistakenly sold £850m-worth of French government bonds by leaning on his keyboard.

The Ryugyong Hotel is an unfinished concrete skyscraper in Pyongyang, North Korea. Work initially began in 1987 but ceased in 1992 due to the government’s financial difficulties. It has yet to be opened but after 16 years of inactivity building has finally resumed this year. It has 105 stories and stands 330 m tall with 360,000 m² of floor space, making it by far the largest structure in Kim Jong-il communist paradise. When they first started, they intended it to be world’s tallest hotel. Critics have been less than complimentary about it. It has earned epithets such as the “worst building in the history of mankind”, “one of the most expensive white elephants in history” and the “Hotel of Doom”. The North Korean government has airbrushed the building out of pictures of the capital.

On the bloody Eastern Front during the Second World War the Russian Army came up with the idea of an anti-tank dog. The year was 1942, just a few months after Hitler had launched Operation Barbarossa. It was a brilliantly simple theory; if you always feed a dog underneath a tank, underneath a tank is the first place that they’ll head towards on the battlefield. The starving dogs would carry explosives strapped on their backs with a harness. They were then trained to run under the enemy tanks and in doing so would activate a large wooden trigger that would cause the bomb to detonate. However, there was one slight snag – they were used to the Soviet tanks and in battle they would run often under their own side’s vehicles. They thus became a menace to the Red army, once forcing an entire Russian tank division into retreat.  Although they were credited with the destruction of 300 German tanks, they were then promptly retired from service.

The NASA Mars Climate Orbiter will go down in the annals of incompetence. Lockheed Martin, who were involved in the ill-fated Orbiter project, wrongly assumed that they would be using imperial measurements for the controlling software. Nobody told NASA this and the inevitable result was that the $330 million spacecraft missed its orbit, entering the Martian atmosphere at about 57 km instead of the target of 140–150 km. This was too close and it was never heard of again.

During the 1978 firemen’s strike of 1978 the British Army took over emergency fire fighting duties. On 14 January they were called out by an elderly lady to rescue her cat, which was stuck up a tree. They arrived quickly and soon were able to bring the cat down. The lady was delighted and invited them all in for tea. Once the beverages had been served and they had said goodbye to the lady, they drove off. Unfortunately they then ran over the cat and killed it.

In August 1975 three men were trying to rob the Royal Bank of Scotland at Rothesay, the principal town on the Isle of Bute, off the West coast of Scotland. They found themselves trapped in the bank’s revolving doors. After being freed by some employees, the three men thanked them and left the bank. They probably should have called it a day there and then, but they were nothing if not persistent. A few minutes later they were back and announced that they were going to rob the bank. The staff all thought it was some kind of practical joke and when the men demanded £5,000 the head cashier started laughing.  Furious at the lack of respect they were being shown, one of the men jumped over the counter. But he fell to the floor, clutching his ankle in agony. The other two robbers finally realised the futility of it all and attempted a clean getaway, only to get stuck in revolving doors once again

Millionaire businessman Gerald Ratner managed to wipe off £500 million from the value of Ratners jewellers with one speech in 1991. In the speech he was somewhat unflattering about some of his company’s jewellery products, and by extension all of them.  He said: …We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, because it’s total crap ……….. We even sell a pair of earrings for under £1, which is cheaper than a prawn sandwich from Marks & Spencer’s. But I have to say the earrings probably won’t last as long ” These comments were picked up by the media and Ratner got the sack. At least he had the satisfaction of having an expression named after him; Doing a Ratner is used for this type of corporate gaffe.