Thursday, 31 December 2009

2010 Resolutions

Just two this year, in the hope that I can stick to them.

First, I shall make every effort to settle down to sleep at a reasonable hour. That begins tonight, by the way.

Second, I shall use the Landy as an excuse to get out for fresh air and exercise.

Together, these will mean that I will be more awake, alert, and lively during 2010.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Shock News: Blogger heeds own advice

It's the winter, so the greenies are of course discussing "climate change", as they have noticed the hollow laughs that now result from use of the term "global warming". "Climate change" is a much more convenient term, as it allows them to blame anything other than a mid-grey, overcast sky on us - including the recent snowfalls.

It was, of course, back in the dim and distant days of "global warming" that the Indescribably Boring reported* that "Snowfalls are now just a thing of the past". To support this, they are able to quote a no less authoritative figure than Dr David Viner, a "senior research scientist at the climatic research unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia", that:

within a few years winter snowfall will become "a very rare and exciting event"
Please don't laugh all at once. In case I need to remind you, here is a recent view that I posted at Patently Photographic:

One swallow does not make a summer, of course, so here is one from February this year:

Rare and exciting, indeed. So rare, and so exciting, that I have been stranded at home in the snow pretty well every winter since I moved to the Chilterns about 6 years ago.

Anyway, my consistent approach has been that if climate change is happening, then it is (a) by no means certain that we are the cause, (b) by no means certain that we can stop it, and (c) by no means certain that even if we could stop it, the cost of doing so (in both monetary and other terms) would be less than the damage inflicted. Therefore, my prescription is that we should do what we have always done in the face of change; cope.

I am, though, coming to the conclusion that the geomorphology of the Chilterns means that snow is both more likely than in other areas, and essentially impossible to cope with when it does come - at least for those of us who insist on using fat-tyred German rear-wheel-drive cars (see above). So, in line with my own advice, I have decided to cope with the regular snow. Here is my means of coping:

She arrives a week tomorrow. Eat your heart out, Greenpeace.

*many thanks to Albert for the link to the EUReferendum site which refers to the Independent article.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Sunday, 20 December 2009

If Gordon came for dinner

A poll has been published - the pollsters are oviously getting bored with reporting consistent Tory leads, so have added a few "different" questions. It seems that more people would have dinner with Gordon than with Dave.

I'm not surprised. Not surprised at all.

As I tweeted earlier today, I'd love to have dinner with Gordon - I'm just not sure he'd enjoy the experience. Oxford Spring made the scurrilous (utterly scurrilous!) comment that I might spike his cranberry sauce, but in fact my plan was that he would only be there for the conversation. The food would be for us. Just imagine...

"So then, anyone know the current gold price?"

"It must be lovely knowing that the people voted you in to No. 10 ... oh, err.."

Another idea would be to serve up a plate for everyone except Gordon. He would start with an empty plate, but then we would scoop 60% of everyone else's food onto his plate. Then, we could look round to see who had the most left, and shout that this was unfair - so unfair! So, just this year, we should make a special deduction from their plate and pile in onto Gordon's.

What would you say or do if Gordon was coming for dinner?

Monday, 14 December 2009

A Manifesto for a New Politics

(Warning: long discursive post. Go and get a cup of tea)

In the short term, the principal political objective for this country must be to remove Gordon Brown and New Labour from power. When the house is burning, the first step is to get rid of the arsonist. Nothing in this post is intended to suggest otherwise, or to detract from the efforts to secure this end.

However, starting from the premise that the repute in which this country's politics is held has declined hugely over the last decade or so, there is clearly much that needs to be done in addition to sorting out the financial hole in which we find ourselves. This post is an attempt to look at this, and (perhaps somewhat precociously) suggest a way forward.

The first task is to stop the development of politics as a profession. That one single development is responsible for most of the decline in our system. I recall distinctly the students at my university who saw a life in politics as their only ambition; they wanted to become an MP's researcher on graduation so that they could start their climb up the greasy pole, in the hope of reaching the point where they were in charge of a wide range of things - things of which they would have gained no experience or knowledge. I also recall the general intellectual quality of those students; it was not high.

The first phase, therefore, is to convert politics from a career done for personal benefit into a voluntary sabbatical done for the benefit of others. In six steps:
  1. The simplest way to stop politics being a career is to sack any career politicians. The easiest way of doing that is to impose term limits; I would suggest a maximum of two Parliaments, although a specific number of years may be a fairer method. The usual criticism of this is that it weeds out the experienced politicians, but my other proposals (below) will deal with that. I would envisage that the PM would be the only exception.*

  2. To get rid of career politicians, require a mandatory open selection process for every party in every constituency for every election. There will always be safe seats, but they should be safe for the party that holds them, not the incumbent MP. Every MP must know that, come the next election, they will have to justify their continued tenure of their seat.

  3. Each MP's salary should be their income prior to being elected. I have suggested this before, to a mixed response. Essentially, the argument is that if they could survive on it then, they can now. It re-inforces the argument that politics should become a temporary period of your life when you leave your previous career and devote yourself to the country instead. It should be neither a well-paid profitable move, nor such an expense that it is ruled out for any.

  4. Candidates for party selection must not have been MPs before, to prevent the term limits from being side-stepped.

  5. Candidates must have lived in their constituency since the previous election. An MP is a local representative and should know the locality.

  6. MP's expenses should be limited to HMRC-allowable expenses only. Those rules apply to us, and are indeed imposed on us by MPs. If there is a problem with those rules, MPs should change them for all of us. In the same vein, just like the rest of us, the taxpayer should retain ownership of any tangible item that is expensed, be it a duck house or a second home.

These measures should change the nature of an incoming Parliament. It should move politics away from people who see politics as a means for self-advancement, and towards those willing to give up maybe 10 years of the life to the common good.

It then remains to change the way in which that Parliament operates. This requires several adjustments, which are probably just the start. I (personally) do not have the necessary knowledge or experience to go further, but these are the start.
  1. The Lords should remain, but as an amending chamber only, its purpose being to offer expert scrutiny on any subject. Hereditary peers are an embarassment and should not be able to sit. To provide the chamber with the necessary experience, the heads of the various professions should be nominated to sit for a term. To avoid conflicts of interests, they should perhaps gain their seat after they have retired from active work in their profession. The Lords Spiritual and Legal are there to offer expert guidance; in the modern world it is right that they should be supplemented with Lords expert in the worlds of business, commerce, plumbing, building, HR, medicine, forestry, and so on (and maybe even intellectual property). Members of the Lords would be expected to attend, on the same pay & rations as the Commons.

  2. There should be no Ministers in the Lords; their primary task is to scrutinise and criticise government bills. If they need the Minister to attend to explain why the bill is needed, they should summon him/her to give evidence in committee.

  3. PMQs should be twice weekly, and for a hour. Half an hour is not long enough to develop any reasonable discussion. Questions must be answered, if possible, with the session being extended by the Speaker if the PM prevaricates. The only acceptable definition of "impossible" should be if the PM admits there and then that he doesn't know the answer and needs to look it up.

  4. Ministers need not be MPs; anyone selected by the PM who has the necessary experience can be appointed by the PM. It is, after all, his or her job to form a government. Having entrusted that task to the PM, we should grant the PM the freedom to select the people that the PM thinks will do the best job. The pool should not be arbitrarily limited to whoever happens to have been selected for a sufficiently safe seat; we should have the best candidates for the job. To provide scrutiny, incoming Ministers must be presented to Parliament and ratified within a set period after their apointment.

Then, there are a number of major issues that have been shamefully ignored as a result of the staleness of our political system:

  1. There should be an in/out referendum on the EU. The issue is a running sore in UK politics, because it is never addressed. It is long time that it was put to bed; debate it, ask the people, and then live with their answer.

  2. Given the rate at which the EU's policy changes and progresses, there should be a periodic renewal of an "in" vote - say every 10 or 20 years. The aim here is to place a check on the EU's ambitions and on the willingness of UK Ministers to negotiate away things that we regard as important. The message should be simple; engage with the EU, but do not go too far as the people will be getting a chance to vote on it.

  3. Tariffs shold be set at zero for any country that offers reciprocity to us. This would allow us to trade on equal terms with the third world. At the moment, for some of the goods that the third world are able to produce, they have to pay higher EU import tariffs than do US exporters. This is, quite simply, insane. We should take a lead, and say that if any country is willing to drop all import tariffs on all UK goods, then we will do the same for their goods. This is, I realise, inconsistent with EU rules; that is what lawyers are for, though.

  4. In return, there should be no more foreign aid. If such aid was ever going to work, it would have by now. It hasn't. They're still poor. Trade with them instead.

  5. Benefits should be a safety net. They are essential for that purpose. They should provide the minimum necessary on which to survive and look for work. If they have reached the point where they equal or exceed the (market-determined) salary achievable in employment, then they are too high. Harsh, but true.

  6. Instead of paying people to stay at home on benefits, we should encourage employment by lightening employment regulation. This needs a counterbalance, which should be in the form of more widespread union membership. We should encourage the establishment of new unions, one for each employer if necessary. Government could, for example, provide funding for the establishment costs of any new union in the first 'x' years, for any group of employees who wished to set one up. The TUC should be required to allow all the new unions in, on equal terms.

  7. And finally, implement "The Plan" in full.
This is not intended to be a manifesto of the Right or of the Left. It is an approach inspired by the mantra "what matters is what works", which came from someone who is definitely not on my Christmas Card list. It is, as we were told 12 years ago, time to drop the false dogma of right and left, and recognise that there are many other, more accurate, scales - libertarian/authoritarian, freedom/statist, and so on.

I should also add that I have little confidence that Cameron will do any of this, necessary as it is. Nor do I seriously believe that any Westminster party will do it. The only way that I think some of these reforms could happen is by way of an entirely new party, composed of candidates new to politics; a Democratic Reform Party (or the like).

At the moment, Cameron is the best chance of ousting Brown and therefore nothing should be done which imperils this. However, if he does not, if Cameron fails, then it will be time to think about alternatives. It will be time to give up on the Conservative Party and establish something new. Those who are interested in being ready to help build such a party if Labour do not lose convincingly, let me know.

(*Update: Items 1 & 4 of the "Career Politicians" list amended in the light of persuasive comments below. Item 2 edited to take account of this)

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Crime, Justice, and Common Sense

A while ago I posted on the perverse and inconsistent reasoning behind various forms of taxation. I pointed out that there were small taxes that were explicitly intended to affect behaviour, whereas other taxes - orders of magnitude larger - were assumed to be effective because they would not affect behaviour. Today, it is the turn of the criminal justice system.

Now, I'll accept that I am on shakier ground on this subject. I have little personal experience of crime and the criminal lifestyle, and no direct personal experience of the criminal justice system (well, not yet). I do however have experience of temptation and of living a life in which temptation is resisted, and criminality is avoided. I will therefore claim that as my qualification to write, and sally forth - blissfully exhibiting my naivety.

In theory, if someone commits a crime then we catch them, convict them, and sentence them. The purposes of sentencing are, of course, those of prevention, retribution, rehabilitation and deterrence. Arguably, the most important of those is rehabilitation - the process of making it less likely that the criminal will re-offend once the sentence is complete. For prison sentences, we have a system in which the second half of the sentence is almost always not served, the prisoner being released on parole after demonstrating that he or she is no longer a threat to the community.

We also have the Criminal Records Bureau (the "CRB"). This acts to stop known offenders from taking up posts where their record of criminality indicates that they may pose a threat to the community if they take up the post in question.

There is a huge logical inconsistency in these two approaches. For anyone to show up on the CRB's records, they must have been convicted and sentenced. That means that they have completed a sentence that was, in part, designed both to rehabilitate them and to deter them from repeating their offence. If it was a prison sentence, then (in addition) they were released on parole after a parole board decided that they were no longer a threat to the community. So, release from prison indicates that the person is safe to return to the community, whereas the CRB was established precisely because such people are not safe to return to the community.

The existence of the CRB check is, therefore, an admission that our criminal justice system is a failure. It is an admission that, despite completing their sentence, the criminal concerned is still a risk.

Hypothetically, would it therefore not have been better to look more closely at our justice system? To see how it might be improved so that those who had completed their sentence were objectively unlikely to re-offend? I realise that this is no easy task, and is (to a great extent) a pipe dream, but who would say that the CRB is easy to administer and cheap to run?

Surely, the cost and effort of the CRB could be put to better use within the criminal justice system, making the array of CRB checks unnecessary?

A final note. Mrs P works in a field where CRB checks are routine - and I mean, literally, routine; each organisation for whom she works has a member of staff (usually paid, unlike Mrs P) who processes the CRB forms in batches. No-one ever seriously expects the CRB check to return with anything other than a clean bill of health. If any ever did, people would probably faint. This means that no-one seriously thinks that all of this administrative effort, all of this cost, all of this work by so many people, all of the lost opportunity (in the form of what other work these people could do, what other investment we could make with this money) will actually stop anyone taking up the position for which they are applying.

Now, I will readily agree that this could indicate that CRB checks are forming an effective deterrent. but that is a justification for some CRB checking, not universal CRB checking.

The CRB is, therefore, a monumental waste of money, time and effort. As such it is, truly, a testament to New Labour.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Not Science

Anyone who needs convincing that the scientists are not in charge of the climate change message need only look at the current online advert for the "Act on CO2" campaign. It contains the message:

Yes, you saw it there first. Too much of something by the name of "CO2" is causing climate change.

To a scientist, that is a howling error. Not just a little mistake, but one of those awful, unimaginable, screaming-out-loud-oh-lord-how-did-I-do-that kinds of mistake.

I think we can safely assume then, that the scientists are not involved in the media work.

Sunday, 6 December 2009


The BBC recently ran an experiment to see if a team of cyclists could produce enough power to run a house. The message was a good one - to show just how much power is wasted in many small ways - such as leaving the fridge door open and turning on the oven long before it is needed. Rows of frenzied sweating cyclists communicated the message very well.

Sadly, they fell into the usual trap - that of skating over the science in order to communicate the desired message rather than the scientifically accurate one. The example here, which was the point which drove me to switch off - was when a presenter showed how a single light bulb could be used to roast a chicken. Placed in an insulated box with the light bulb and left for 90 minutes, the chicken was tender, juicy and very tempting when removed.

This was, we were told, a stark illustration of just how much heat is emitted by an incandescent light bulb. Now, that is of course true (try holding one*), but the experiment does not prove that. All it proves is that the bulb emits some heat. The temperature in the makeshift oven is simply a function of the balance between the heat emitted and the degree of insulation. It has to be said, they had a lot of very good insulation; a laptop could probably have worked just as well.

The error was then compounded when the presenter said that all that heat was being wasted and that we could reduce our energy bills by replacing them with low-energy bulbs. This is a clear, outstanding example of the most common fallacy of scientific interpretation - that of treating an open system as a closed one.

Yes, if we consider just the light bulb, then the power required to light the same area will be less with a low-energy bulb. However, most domestic light bulbs are in an (err...) domestic setting. Now, the "wasted" heat does not simply disappear merely because the BBC lables it as wasted. It has to go somewhere; it will heat the house in which it is fitted. So, if you replace it with a low-enery bulb then the house will be heated slightly less. Assume that the house is centrally heated (as most now are) and the fallacy becomes evident. The loss of the heat that was emitted by the light bulb will be replaced by an increased output from the central heating system - many of which are gas-powered.

So, our first conclusion is that by switching to low-energy bulbs, we move from the use of a potentially renewable energy source to the use of a non-renewable source. Ooops.

Our second conclusion is that if your aim is to present a specific view rather than merely think the situation through scientifically, it is easy to fall into a misleading fallacy - even without intended to misinterpret or manipulate. CRU, take note.

(*if you're stupid enough....)

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Smug? Moi?

It is, of course, very flattering to see The Times reach the opinion that I published last week in its report on the "Climategate" scandal, i.e. that there should be a distinction between a scientist and an advocate and that the CRU staff failed in that regard.

We now also know that the 1980s raw data on which much of the current thinking is based was thrown away, apparently because there was nowhere to store it. This is truly appalling. Combined with the refusal to disclose the methodology by which corrections were made to the data, it means that the final results that are relied on for modern policy are not scientific; they are fictional.

If the CRU staff were proper scientists, they would realise that such corrections were perfectly acceptable, provided that you also made available the original data and the methodology by which you corrected it. That way, if someone disagrees with you, you can say "Well, go and collect your own data and/or correct it yourself and tell us what you think the answer is", allowing a debate over whose data collection methods were better and whose correction methodology was more valid. That is how science works.

You don't publish a set of data, order the world to change the basis of its economy, then delete the data, refuse to disclose the methodology, and suppress dissenting opinions. That is simply not science.

This is, in fact what I've been banging on about for years, such as my post back in June 2008, bemoaning the inability of climate change advocates to enter into a reasoned debate...