Thursday, 26 November 2009

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics.

I've refrained from commenting on the leaked/hacked emails (etc) from the Hadley Climate Unit in East Anglia. At the very least, I wanted to ensure that it was not an elaborate hoax; on that score it seems that I need not worry.

Let me make on thing clear from the start; I don't think that the extracts which I have seen show any evidence of deliberate distortion or manipulation of the data*. Nor, in fact, do I think that the data has actually been deliberately distorted after collection; whilst that does happen in science from time to time, it is quite rare and is usually associated with scientists working alone or in very small groups.

You will note my careful qualification of the nature of the distortion, though. What the emails do show me is that the researchers working at the CRU (I am avoiding use of the term "scientists") had a very firm view on the subject of climate change, and saw their task as being to prove that climate change/global warming was real and likely to cause us serious harm. In that respect, they were evangelical in nature.

That does not make them bad people. They honestly and sincerely believe that the world faces a serious threat and they want to avert that. Their intentions are good and their motives are proper.

What is does make them, though, is advocates; not scientists. The two are incompatible. A scientist looks for the truth in nature, and takes the data as s/he finds it. Looking at the data, a possible truth may strike the scientist, at which point s/he will construct an experiment to test that. The purpose of the experiment is to construct a set of circumstances in which the outcome will be markedly different according to whether the scientist's idea is true or not.

To do this properly takes huge care. Bias in scientific work is extremely difficult to exclude, but it is of the utmost importance that it is. It can only be achieved if the scientist is either utterly disinterested, or wholly aware of the need to exclude bias and determined to do so.

The Hadley centre is clearly, unequivocally, and evidently neither of these. There was no need for them to distort the data; the means by which it was collected will have provided ample distortion.

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*although I obviously cannot rule that out.

Much Ado About Nothing

Fasten your seatbelts! Brace yourselves! David Lammy (Minister of State for Higher Education and Intellectual Property) is about to make an announcement!

It seems that a major new initiative by the Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property Policy (SABIP) and the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) is being initiated, to spur on the creative and innovative growth of the UK economy. The two bodies will be:
• partnering with the UK Innovation Research Centre (UK~IRC) to deliver focused policy events and fellowships to begin seeding research projects.

• working with National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) and other partners to build on their Innovation Growth Accounting framework to quantify intellectual property rights within the wider economy.

• conducting value chain analysis to assess how copyright value-chains or networks are affected by digital media and the implications of this for copyright law.

Or, to put it in less jargon-laden terms:

• having a meeting with another quango to organise another meeting like today's, and to appoint someone to think about other things they might want to think about

• having a meeting with further quangos to think about ways of counting intellectual property rights

• thinking about how much money people make out of copyright, guessing how much less they make because of the internet, and thinking about whether the odd infringement action might help them make more

Cynical? Moi? Well at least I now know where my taxes go.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Angry, again

I recall from younger days that I was taught many parables. One was the parable in which a rich man who will be away for some time divides his riches between his three servants and tells them to look after it until he returns. One invests it, one puts it on deposit, and one hides it in a hole. When the boss gets back, the one who hid it proudly returns the entire fortune intact and is a bit miffed to be on the receiving end of a telling off for not making some kind of return on it.

(As a brief aside, I see that as a message to bosses to be clear in communicating objectives and setting targets. I don't think that's the official interpretation though.)

Now, imagine how annoyed the boss would have been if, on his return, the servant had explained that a few years ago he had passed the entire fortune on to a former subordinate of his because he wanted to go off and do something else, and that the subordinate had recently passed some of the fortune on to a groups of servants drawn from the houses in the immediate vicinity, and that the group had decided that the lead servant from one of the other houses should look after the collective pot, so the boss really shouldn't look at him for return of the money because it was someone else's responsibility now. Oh, and the group decision was that money could only go into their pot and could not be taken out. I think the boss would be rather put out.

Which brings me to the subject of the Lisbon treaty.

In 2005 we made a temporary loan of our sovereignty to Labour on the explicit promises that (a) Blair would serve a full term and (b) that the EU Constitution would not be enacted without a referendum. Or, that Blair would look after it until he returned it to us in 4 or 5 years and that he would not hand it over to the group without asking us first.

Now, it is a simple fact that the Lisbon treaty is the EU Constitution by another name, and that it hands powers to Brussels. This is not debatable; it is a simple matter of fact. Therefore, it matters not whether the powers handed over are significant or trivial. It matters not whether the powers are best wielded by Whitehall or Brussels. The simple fact is that the powers are being handed over by someone who does not have our authority to do so.

Which is why I am angry. Powers have been handed over without our consent, by a Prime Minister who we did not elect and who Labour had no mandate to appoint, to an EU President who we did not elect and an EU Foreign Secretary who no-one, anywhere, has ever elected.

Roll on March. Please let it be the 15th...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Deliberate?

I distinctly heard the following segue by La Montague on Radio 4 this morning:
Later today it's the Queen's Speech, so now we're going to talk to Lord Mandelson..."
Was that deliberate and pre-meditated? I'd love to think it was...

Saturday, 14 November 2009

I have a New Hero

(Hat Tip: Tory Outcast)

Howling at the Moon

Constantly Furious has used a picture of a dog howling at the moon to illustrate this post about the legal effect of strict liability, and with good reason. Go and read it, and weep.

The moral is, if you were going to do your bit and help out, don't. Just don't. Go home. Your help is not wanted.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Today Glasgow...

Labour's win in Glasgow NE is not the slightest bit surprising. It is indeed a triumph for Labour to retain this seat, even if they have held it since 1935. It is in no way a disturbing disappointment to see turnout fall by 12.5% compared to the previous election in which (by convention) the Speaker stood for re-election, generally unopposed.

This is undoubtedly, in the words of the successful candidate, "a resounding victory ... for Gordon Brown and a vote of confidence in the way the government is trying to get us out of recession". It is without doubt clear evidence that the people "have backed Gordon Brown in his efforts to secure our economic recovery".

Really.

Yes it is.

So go on, Gordon. As you candidate says, "The message for the general election is game on".

Go for it, Gordon. Call a Christmas election. Surf this wave of popular support.

Go on.

I dare you.




Please.

Gordon

Well, the Today 8:10 interview is usually the biggie; today it was Gordon himself. I forced myself to suspend my usual Today game, and to actually listen to the man.

Now, no reader of this blog will be surprised to hear that there was ever even the lsightest chance of him receiving a sympathetic hearing. But I tried. Honestly. And I think I can see why he is hated by so many.

He has a distinct style of discussion. The Spectator calls it his "tractor stats" mode, whereby in answer to any question he will reel off a pre-prepared list of statistics purporting to show how wonderful he is. They have a point, but there is more to it than that. Certainly, he does not regard a question as being something for him to answer, but as a prompt to say what he wants to say - that of course is true of any politician, although most do it with a degree of finess and skill that Gordon lacks. With Gordon, though, there is something more. There seem, to me, to be two aspects.

The first is that Gordon speaks with a steady, relentless manner that is redolent with the certainty that what he has to say is really really important and therefore he is justified in speaking over the interviewer and continuing despite their best efforts to ask another question. Evan tried valiantly to query several of the points Gordon made, but was just brushed aside by the steamroller. This has been, I think, an important factor in his success; it means that the utter fallacies that he often utters are not challenged, because it proves simply impossible to get a word in edgeways.

The second concerns the actual content of what he says. If the BBC post the audio of the interview, then do listen to it. Try to parse any one of the sentences that he produces. Sometimes, it rivals Prescott for the degree of convolution that it involves. Any message that he has is utterly drowned in a sea of subclauses, conditions and asides that are clearly intended to provide a fallback if challenged. The overall impression might be "yes", for example, but look into the sentence and there is support for every view on the spectrum stretching from that all the way to "no, absolutely not".

Take as an example one of the opening sentences of the interview. Asked by Evan what his Afghan strategy is, he explains that one might propose just withdrawing back to a fortress Britain, investing in our border defences, and (effectively) leaving Afghanistan to itself. He rejects that, emphatically. And well he might; that is a reasonable decision to take, and leadership is about taking such decisions.

Except that he didn't say that. What he said was more along the lines that one might propose just withdrawing back to a fortress Britain, investing in our border defences, which, he might add, we are, in fact, doing to a significant extent, and (effectively) leaving Afghanistan to itself. So when he rejects that, emphatically, he rejects something that he is actually doing. Why? Clearly because someone might hear the decisive version and think "But we should invest in our border defences" and Gordon wants to leave basis for defending himself on that score, also. This, though, is a tactic that cannot work; it is intrinsically indecisive, and it means that much of what he says sounds like waffle.

And there, I think, it the root of his unpopularity. Listening to their leader, and putting themselves in the position of his interlocutor, people hear someone who won't let anyone else into the conversation, who waffles on without actually saying anything meaningful, and who is obviously refusing to answer the question. That does not come across in the manner of a leader. It comes across as rude.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Thoughts on MPs' Pay

Listening to the House of Comments podcast this morning on the subject of MPs' pay, I was left thinking that there must be a better solution. In trying to set a pay rate for them, we are trapped between the rock of public opinion (which would prefer to see them in sack-cloth and ashes) and the hard place of attracting the right people.

The argument goes that if we set the level too low, then "only millionaires can afford to be an MP". That is palpably wrong; as Jennie Rigg pointed out, there are many for whom the current level of pay would be more than adequate, if only they could afford to campaign (which Mark rightly pointed out is a separate problem). Yet there are many for whom an MP salary would be a pay cut. Lucky as they are to be well-off, we must accept that, in practice, they will have settled into their current level of income and made arrangements based on that. They will have mortgages and, probably, children in fee-paying schools*. Dropping their income to £60k or so is not an option. We are (like it or not) ruling these people out of politics.

Above them are the real toffs, who can afford to "go without" an income for the time being or who have investment income that will continue regardless. They can afford politics. So politics becomes the preserve of toffs and of those on a low income but with a backer who can bankroll their campaign -i.e. union officials.

So it is the upper middle classes that we are (in effect) excluding. The professional classes**. The successful businesspeople. The people with experience of running organisations. The people who might actually make competent Ministers...

We therefore need to think laterally. It struck me, why not pay MPs what they earned before they were elected? After all, that was the last independent measure of what that MP was worth.

Needless to say, expenses should then be limited to those allowable under HMRC rules. If those rules are good enough for the Commoners, they are good enough for the Commons.

There could be some safeguards. For example, we could set an upper and a lower limit, such as the median salary and ten times the median salary, to avoid gross distortions. For longstanding MPs, their pay could trend towards a central figure of (say) 3 times the median salary - adjusting by 10-20% of the difference for each Parliamentary term. To avoid anomalous results, we could average their income over the previous Parliamentary term, or some other period.

Think about it; it would encourage people to get experience of life before entering politics. It would encourage them to make proper and true tax returns (assuming we use those to guage their past income). It would enable all sections of society to take part. It would remove the annual argument over pay; if you think you're not paid well enough, then leave, get a better job, and come back!

It would also be non-partisan; define income as earned income and the Conservative uber-toffs will be on the same bottom rung as some of the Labour shop stewards.

Discuss!

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*an odd euphemism. I can't find any schools that will pay me a fee for sending my children there...

**yes, I admit that includes patent attorneys. I, however, have no ambitions in that direction ;-)

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

DNA; Do Not Argue

I heard the Sarah Montague's interview this morning with Julie Bindel, a spokewoman from Justice For Women* arguing in support of the proposed rules on retention of the DNA samples of the innocent. Ms Bindel believed that a 6 year retention period for the DNA samples of those arrested for any offence whatsoever was reasonable. She offered two arguments; that it had helped solve crimes such as the Sally Ann Bowman murder, and that it would in fact assist in proving innocence.

Chris Grayling was the next interviewee, and immediately squashed the "proof of innocence" argument, pointing out that a sample taken at the time would be perfectly adequate to do so and that an historic register was in no way necessary for this.

That leaves the Bowman case for me. Now, I know the pub where Mark Dixie (the murderer) worked before his arrest so the case has stayed in my mind. What actually happened there was that Dixie was arrested for an unrelated assault, some time after the murder. His DNA was taken during that arrest, and it matched the samples taken from Miss Bowman's murder. He was therefore investigated for the murder, and convicted.

At no point in the Bowman investigation did the police obtain Dixie's details from a sample taken from a previous arrest that had not led to conviction. The Bowman case therefore offers no support for retaining samples taken from the innocent.

Indeed, the quote offered by the Superintendent who headed the Bowman investigation was
It is my opinion that a national DNA register — with all its appropriate safeguards — could have identified Sally Anne's murderer within 24 hours. Instead it took nearly nine months before Mark Dixie was identified, and almost two-and-a-half years for justice to be done.
Note, he calls for a national register - presumably one containing the DNA of every citizen, not one simply containing the DNA of arrestees. Even then, the benefit is only a matter of months; he perjoratively points to the over 2 year delay in obtaining justice, but that is unrelated to the DNA issue.

So Bowman offers no support for Ms Bindel, and she is left with no examples. She is left making a hypothetical argument, so I can in return. If, as the hypothesis states, those arrested but not convicted are likely to offend again, then it follows that there will be a further opportunity to arrest them. Hence, their DNA will be sampled again, and can (at that stage) be compared to past crime scene samples. Therefore, if the hypothesis advanced in favour of retention is correct, then retention is ipso facto unnecessary.

Ms Bindel's final rhetorical flourish was that she has never heard an argument in favour of not retaining. Montague rightly criticised this, pointing out that surely it is for Government to make the case in favour of such a scheme, but was ignored (presumably because she was right). Well, Ms Bindel, how about this one:

DNA matching is not perfect. The error rate is not settled, but estimates have varied between "almost none" and "one in a million". At the lower end of that scale, the number of people in the UK whose DNA would have matched the samples from Miss Bowman's murder is about 60. Of those 60, at least about 10 would have been within easy access of the London location of the murder. Only one of those was Mark Dixie.

This argument is not, of course, hypothetical. I can only suggest that Ms Bindel asks the Midlands teenager whose DNA matched that of the Omagh bomber what he would have done had he lived in Ulster.

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*Not, as La Montague introduced her, Women Against Rape, who are (presumably) splitters in the same mould as the People's Front of Judea.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Don't Throw Your Poppy Away

Constantly Furious has a far better use for your poppy, once we are past the 11th. Read this to see why. Then read here to see what to do with it.

In short, the train drivers' union ASLEF decided to make a point in its pay negotiations. A quick work-to-rule should do it; Sunday working is voluntary so they'll take the day off. Sod the passengers.

And when would be the "best" Sunday to do this? Why, yesterday of course. After all, no-one will want to travel to the Capital on Remembrance Sunday. Except for a few old men.

Old men who fought for us.

Old men who saw their comrades die for us.

Old men who want to commemorate their comrades.

Old men who have in all probability given far more to this country and taken proportionately far less than the trade unionists behind this ever will.

It was Rick Mayall in The Young Ones who managed to get everyone thrown off a train by telling the conductor that ASLEF was an anagram for "total and complete bastard". Difficult to argue with, really.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Remember

One of the events that I often remember today is the Enniskillen bombing.

This is because as a teenager, I was an Air Cadet. Remembrance Sunday was therefore spent on parade at our local war memorial. It was always a major event; all the local regiments turned out as well ass many local organisations. We would meet up at a sister school (closer to the town centre) and march from there to the assembly point. From there, the entire parade marched to the memorial for the service. After the service, we marched past the town hall and the Mayor, and then the individual groups forming the parade dispersed. We would march back to the school, fall out, and make our way home.

In 1987, I left the school and walked to where my mother had parked, to warm up again and drive home. As I got into the car, she asked if I knew what had happened.

That one day sealed my opinion of Irish nationalism. To bomb innocent civilians for political ends is appalling. To do so on a day of remembrance; to target those assembling at a war memorial literally adds insult to injury.

I remain disgusted that so many of the people who ran the IRA are now free. That they are in government ... words do not express my views on that.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Get Stoned, If You Want

A quick clarification; the strongest intoxicant in which I indulge is the one discussed here, and even that is actually quite rare. I don't smoke, and I have never taken drugs. By choice, I would inhale only air.

Nor do I want to change that. I enjoy the small amount of alcohol that I do drink, but find the spectacle of drunkenness rather pathetic and even the slightest whiff of cigarette smoke disgusting. As for the psychoactive drugs, I feel sorry for the users; my mind on its own is quite capable of keeping me amused and does not need any pharmaceutical assistance. I admit that I fear the drugs themselves; my mind is my source of income, and I would not tamper with it lightly.

Nevertheless, I find myself behind Nutt, not Johnson. The reason is simple; my libertarian instinct prevails. I dislike drunkenness, but if you want to drink yourself into an early grave then that is up to you - provided you don't vomit on my shoes, fall on my table, or shout so loudly that I can't talk to Mrs P. So, to the extent that I favour the prohibition of certain substances, it must be because they are so harmful, so damaging, that we cannot leave it to a matter of personal choice. They must be, in essence, intoxicants that so serious that users cannot help but fall into whatever behaviour is equivalent to vomiting on my shoe. There must be, in other words, no safe zone between abstinence and addiction. Therefore, to my mind, there must be a scientific basis for the prohibition.

Ah, but no, says our Home Secretary. Nutt advises me on the science, and then I make a decision as to what is best for society. Quite right Mr Johnson; that is the distinction between advisor and Minister. But there is one glaring point that seems to have been missed in Johnson's consideration; one point that Johnson (like all his predecessors) is either too stupid to realise or too cowardly to address. And it is this.

If, hypothetically, there was a proscribed substance that did not cause any medical harm that was in any way more serious than traditional, legally-available substances, but which caused far more serious societal harm, then surely that societal harm would be due to the fact of its prohibition, not its medical effects?

Now, I accept that I live in a leafy suburb that is not riven with drug dealers and crack houses. Some would say that I am, therefore, unqualified to discuss this issue and should shut up. To them, I will only point out that my use of the word "Prohibition" earlier in this post was entirely deliberate.

Cameron in a hole

I was a little impolite this morning.

I tweeted that, in my opinion, whilst the Czech result is a huge disappointment, we should not forget who it was, exactly, who denied us a referendum and therefore put us in the position of having to rely on a vain hope that a Czech court would go the way we (or some of us, at least) wanted. @MarkReckons responded, and I stayed around long enough to send a quick response before vanishing into a meeting and leaving Mark's argument unanswered. Sorry, Mark. Work, eh - tsk.

Mark raised a few decent points. Cameron was indeed free to set his policy as he wished. No-one forced him to make a "cast-iron" guarantee of a referendum. Fortunately, Stuart Sharpe was around to leap to the defence of my argument; he went on to make the points that I would have made, had I been there.

Those points are, of course, that Cameron made his cast-iron pledge to a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty early in 2007, when we were expecting that Brown would go the country that Autumn in order to give himself a democratic mandate, and when the Lib Dems were making the same promise. Since then, Brown (the unelected PM) has refused to seek a mandate, and pressed the Lisbon Treaty into place undemocratically, in blatant defiance of his party's manifesto promise.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democratic Party has exercised a thoroughly disreputable, anti-Liberal, anti-Democratic reversal of its promise and showed its real pro-EU colours.

The only politician who has, throughout, kept to his promise that he would hold a referendum, is David Cameron. Every other party has dropped us in it. What is worse, they have dropped us in it so thoroughly, and so deeply, and so irrevocably, that they now actually dare to criticise Cameron for acknowledging that the promise he made is no longer deliverable.

This is, surely, politics at its very worst. Labour and the Lib Dems should hang their heads in shame. Cameron is not perfect, but he is not the contemptible character in this story.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Nanny shoots herself in the foot

Mrs P has just noticed this article in the Torygraph. Apparently;

Popular £10 ‘dinner and wine for two’ offers are fuelling a rise in middle-class drinking, charities have warned.

Charities that are, presumably, incapable of understanding the distinction between being encouraged to buy a bottle of wine, and being forced to drink it all. Presumably, these people are the sort that, if they should find themselves at home with a bottle of wine, are incapable of stopping themselves from finishing it even if they're too paralytic to actually lift the nearly-empty bottle.

Or, in other, words, utter morons.

Personally, I can stop when I've had enough. And this is irritating me beyond measure. Therefore, I've decided to take a stand. I have a new policy; a one-man attempt to stop them. As I tweeted earlier, every time some part of the Nanny State tells me that the middle classes drink too much, I'm having one of these:

Cheers.

Why I will always love Stephen Fry

Those who tweet will probably be aware that Stephen Fry (@stephenfry) has recently gone through a smallish upset. Without wishing to comment on the rather unmerited outbreak of bullying that was unleashed on the person who (seemingly accidentally) upset him, I thought I would explain why Stephen Fry will always be dear to me*.

Those who know me personally will already know this story. It is the tale of the first broadcast of the "General Hospital" episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, in which Blackadder is sent to the field hospital to find the spy who is leaking details of the British plans to the Germans.

Blackadder eventually returns to HQ having identified the nurse as the spy. Asked why, he offers three pieces of evidence; she speaks German, she asked Blackadder about tank movements, and (crucially) she failed to spot that when Blackadder mentioned the "three great Universities - Oxford, Cambridge, Hull", she failed to spot that only two could be considered great.

The punchline was left to Fry, playing General Melchett. He agrees, saying "Yes, Oxford's a complete dump". Stephen is, of course, a Cambridge man. He was, though, playing the scene with Rowan Atkinson, an Oxford man.

I watched that episode live.

While at University.

In the student common room.

A packed common room.

In my college.

A Cambridge college.

The uproar was unbelievable. I don't think any of us heard the rest of the episode. Stephen was being cheered to the rafters and beyond. Twenty years on, I can still remember the scene perfectly. Thank you, Stephen. Please keep tweeting. Even if the odd one or two are boring.

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*not in that way, though....