Wednesday, 31 December 2008

"Predictions are difficult, especially when they are about the future"

The title quote is by Niels Bohr, who was also uncertain about many things. I will, however, attempt to make some predictions for the forthcoming year. A dozen of them in total, I've tried to alternate between the depressing and the less depressing. Well here goes...

1. There will be more cases of our government experiencing embarrassing data-loss. We can be sure that they won't have learnt the lessons from this year's debacles. The only possible reason that they will not be in news, is that they are so common that they are no longer news-worthy.

2. Linux on the desktop will only remain an issue being argued about on discussion lists. For the majority of the users, they will come to recognise that some desktops look different, but do every thing they need. As far as businesses are concerned, an increasing number of smart ones will adopt Free Software solutions to save themselves money.

3. Government economic predictions will continue to be wrong - and they will continue to reassure us that they know what to do. One would have expected that economic decisions made by governments would be right about one-half of the time, unfortunately they don't have the wit to employ a coin to help them. I was always taught not to tamper with things I don't understand.

4. Many people will decide that there is appreciable merit to downsizing. I do not refer to being sacked, but to living a more simple, less extravagant life-style. Unfortunately, many will not or will not be able to, and some of these will experience a rapid crash into poverty and homelessness.

5. Web censorship will be a major issue. Our government seems intent on pushing through more legislation in this area. Choose your side.

6. Internet shopping will really boom. Our high streets will have even more charity shops, and many vacant premises. The flexibility of on-line businesses will be able to cope with the challenges of the economy.

7. The police will continue to overstep the mark, and it seems likely that there will be a series of challenges to their activities - it is to be hoped that these will be in the press and the courts, but I fear that this will spill over to the streets.

8. Many more people will ignore planning regulations. This will range from people quietly putting solar porches on their houses and stacking straw bales around the back, as insulation, through to those setting up home on rural plots of land and in industrial premises.

9. The weather will be weird - probably weirder than that. The denial over climate change will become less strident, and there may even be a rational debate over a big nuclear energy programme.

10. E-democracy will show signs of coming of age. It is probable that the attempts to push through web censorship will encourage this. Large, rapidly mobilised mass pressure groups will become more active and effective.

11. Conflicts over resources will escalate. It is likely that water rights will be more important in creating these conflicts than oil. Most of these will not be covered in the press, or may just get a mention after a particularly violent event.

12. More people will disappear into virtual worlds. A brief review of the simulations available for the games consoles is worthwhile. Guitar heroes will probably never appear on the stage and it is to be hoped that Imagine(d) Teachers will not think they can cope with a classroom.

Let me know how well I did next December.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Compassion Targets

Just when you think the world couldn't get any more absurd a news story comes along that shows you how wrong you were...

"Compassion is listed as a core value in the draft constitution for the NHS in England, and the government is developing methods for measuring it." (from the BBC website).

I rarely find myself speechless for long, but...

OK, let's try and reconstruct the sequence that got us here...
  1. We need a better health service.
  2. If we set targets then performance will improve.
  3. Oh dear, staff are busy meeting targets, so don't have time for patients.
  4. Compassion is important and a word that it is difficult to argue with.
  5. Let's set a target for compassion.
There are so many flaws in the idea of measuring compassion that it is difficult to know where to begin. So I won't.

The whole idea seems to reflect an incompetence that we have been seeing increasingly over the years. At some stage our government got the impression that they were in charge of us, rather than our elected representatives and servants. Let us hope that some way will be found to change the ethos of all our politicians. They ought to realise that they are trusted by their electorate to think things through and do the right thing.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Data loss, cock-ups and vested interests

I was recently involved in an on-line discussion about USB data security. The person with whom most of the initial discussion occurred favoured hardware solutions. The initial recommendation was for one that was well known to be cracked, and then entering in an arms race, proposing the extremely expensive IronKey (TM). I've written a set of recommendations on my consultancy blog.

The cock-up I would like to deal with here, is to do with managers and techies. The situation can be summed up as follows...
  • managers know little or nothing about computers and computer security.
  • techies have little or no respect for their non-technical managers.
  • the two sides speak a totally different language.
So how do these two groups manage to deal with computer security together in the work place?

What should they do...

I would suggest that they ought to:
  • get an external organisation to do a threat analysis and some penetration testing.
  • look at the results of this and act on them.
  • focus mainly on the human issues - training and good practice.
Why won't they...

The managers will not want to bring in external experts because they will not be in control. It is one thing to employ management consultants, because they talk the same language.

The techies will not want to bring in external consultants because they will lose control. If they feel in the slightest bit insecure (and who doesn't?) they will feel threatened.

So what can we expect...

I can safely predict that 2009 will see more data loss. Managers will propose management and procedural solutions. Techies will propose technical solutions. No-one will look at the problem.

Full article and set of recommendations on my consultancy blog.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Government Job Creation Scheme?

or just another cock-up?

The UK's Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, has proposed in an interview with the Telegraph, that web sites be given a classification rating, like films. I won't go into the freedom of speech issues, but ask does this man know anything about the web?

Firstly, there are in excess of 186 million sites, growing by around 1.5 million per month. I can only presume that the secretary has not heard of a search engine like Google.

Secondly, a film is a form of printed media, so once classified, it is unlikely to change. The Internet is different. Websites can change.

I'm sure there is a third, but I'm too stunned at the stupidity of this proposal to think of it.


There could be a conspiracy lurking here. Burnham expects to the ISPs to do this work in the first case - and if they don't succeed then the government can put in place something more restrictive (read censorship).

UPDATE 29th December 2008

Andy Burnham had apparently not registered a twitter account, so he has been helped out...

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Aldermaston - the Edge of Darkness

We hear today that the British government has completely given up control over the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, near Reading. This reminded me of the 1985 series Edge of Darkness - currently being remade as a film. This powerful series had Ronald Craven (Bob Peck) investigating the death of his daughter and getting embroiled in the politics of the privatisation of the nuclear industry. Darius Jedburgh (Joe Don Baker) played the hard bitten CIA agent. If you have not seen the series I wholeheartedly recommend it. Indeed, the statement from Jerry Grogan (Kenneth Nelson) "I do not subscribe to the conspiracy theory of world history" in part inspired the title of this blog.

Is the British government so short of money that it is being paid to promote the new film?

This action was reported on the BBC as removing the control of the production of the UK's nuclear warheads from government control. Frankly, this is an understatement of the implications. If we take the stance of "hope for the best, plan for the worst", then the idea of a private company, not matter how it is audited, controlling any nuclear bomb is terrifying. We may be sleepwalking into a nightmare of unimaginable proportions.

I also did some research on the original 1958 march on Aldermaston, and noted that CND estimate that the 50th anniversary protest had around as many attending as the original march, about 5,000. This is nothing compared to the millions who marched in an attempt to stop the illegal invasion of Iraq, but it is still a remarkable figure. Aldermaston is still a current issue - and well it should be. he question that needs to be asked is what can the thinking citizen do to remedy the current failure of government at all levels?

The answer that I keep arriving at is best summed up in an old joke...

A driver is lost in the darkest depths of the countryside trying to find his way back to the hotel where he is staying. In desperation he pulls over to ask directions from one of the locals. “Excuse me”, he says, “Can you direct me to the Hotel please?”. The local looks at him for a moment, sucks his teeth and says “I wouldn't start from here”.

It strikes me that we cannot get to a sustainable, sensible future from here. We need to find a way of changing the rules so that our society makes its decisions with a millennial view, not the ultimately short term that we suffer.

Do I believe in the conspiracy theory of world history? Well only as a model for working out what will happen. If there should be a conspiracy, it should be formed of thinkers promoting a long view. I urge you to campaign with this in mind in all your actions. As I have said before, 'All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing'.

Update 31st December 2008

The government seems to be intent on recreating nightmare TV dramas - the plan to allow a p
rivate firm to track all email and phone calls seems to be based on the BBC series The Last Enemy. Let us just hope their next target is not Survivors.

Friday, 19 December 2008

A letter to my daughter

This was written in response to a series of text messages from one of my daughters - who is currently in Australia.


It seems pretty certain that in the short to medium term we are going to run out of oil - quite simply they aren't making it anymore. Along side this, petrol cars are a temporary madness that the human race has allowed itself to indulge in. Similarly, mass international air transport - it is pretty obvious that it won't be affordable in say 30 years time (maybe not even in 10). A sensible policy would be to promote local living, production and mass public transport. This could be done by:
  • escalating fuel prices - in fact this was UK government policy, but they bottled it.
  • congestion charging - working in London, messed up in Manchester (they asked the turkeys to vote for Christmas) - this seems to work for city centres, but is unpopular.
  • road pricing - either satellite or some other - this could be flexible but would mainly be used to move journey times, though it might reduce some journeys.
  • lots of cheap public transport - this is very effective in reducing use of private cars, working with congestion charging and road pricing in general.
There are lots of reasons for taxing fuel, and different countries have made their own decisions. Where the government places its tax burden is a local decision, and looking at one measure will probably miss the point. I rather like the Big Mac Index for comparing countries.

I guess you won't like what I said about cars and planes, but you may not realise how new these phenomena are. We have seen air passenger numbers in the UK quadrupling between 1978 and 1999 - they are higher now, and were zero in 1904. Similarly for the number of cars on the roads, increasing by 11 percent in the UK over the period 1998 to 2002. That is about 3% a year - or doubling every 24 years...

This is just not sustainable even for the wealthy countries - but just think about what will happen if the growing economies (China and India for example) try to emulate our so called success! The Europe and North America combined have roughly the same population as either of these potential giants, so that would mean a tripling in the use of our resources. We world doesn't have that sort of resources.

The post-carbon future that you will see in your life time will be wildly other. If the governments manage to adopt sensible solutions, then it may look something like this...
  • many more people working on growing food - both within the cities, and in new greener communities in the countryside, from which people are bussed out to work.
  • public transport being much more available, even to the more rural communities.
  • electric cars being available for hire when you need personal transport.
  • intercontinental travel being a rare event, trains and coach networks will cover the countries and continents.
If they don't adopt these solutions then it will be infinitely more unpleasant and I apologise to you for not having done more to make our elected leaders behave responsibly.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Rowan Williams on Radio 4

I was pleased to hear Rowan Williams on Radio 4's Today programme this morning, offering a considered Christian view on the current economic and world situation. I did understand his stance on the economics - being unprepared to comment on the specific financial measures being taken.

That said, he did argue fairly strongly that spending was not necessarily a good thing, and I am delighted he did. I wonder if he might consider being more direct on this matter? The state of mind of the world seems to me to be that "owning more things makes you happier", and I suspect he agrees with me that this is not the case. For one thing, the world clearly cannot support the demand that this would create were it to be universally adopted. As has been well argued elsewhere, there are two types of 'want' - that for necessities and that for objects that are there to bolster self-esteem. The latter class, of course, are ultimately unsatisfying. When we fall foul of this class of want we cause ourselves spiritual damage, or psychological damage - depending on your viewpoint. You can always try the Affluenza quiz...

The rise of poverty and unemployment, that I fear we shall see in the near future will almost certainly be different to anything that we have seen in history. The word-wide nature of the crash, combined with the limits to growth, will see a minority trying to hold on to their physical wealth. We shall probably also see a new class of impoverished former middle-classed workers. I would hope that a lead from the world's spiritual leaders might help us establish a more sensible future.

I am aware of the risks of recommending 'sensible' solutions.

The needs of all can easily be met, and yet we see people being run into the ground by the solutions preferred by the state. I recently had to break down the door of a friend of mine to find his dead body. John was a good man, who had been crushed and broken by the 'solution' to unemployment in this country. He had been put on invalidity years ago - not because he was incapable of physical work, but because it was deemed politically expedient. It was easier to pay him than to improve his literacy to a point where he was employable in one a modern job. Though I cannot prove it in his case, the statistics demonstrate the shortening of life of those on this kind of benefit.

The movement from an agricultural economy, through industrial to post-industrial has taken a couple of centuries in this country, and has been repeated more quickly elsewhere recently. This happened without being thought through. We can now look at the options and decide our future. The thing that we all need is food. It would surely be sensible to move to a more agrarian society, where our needs for work and fulfillment are directly associated with the fundamental need to eat. This is surely a more sustainable and sound future than manufacturing more cars.

We have arrived where we are through a series of cock-ups, let us now conspire to get out of the situation - by being sensible.

Once again, I'll close with the quote from Farewell to Kings...

When they turn the pages of history
When these days have passed long ago
Will they read of us with sadness
For the seeds that we let grow
We turned our gaze
From the castles in the distance
Eyes cast down
On the path of least resistance

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

May you live in interesting times

with apologies for the pun...

The Fed has just announced that their key interest rate will fall to 0.25%. This is effectively zero. They are now spending money to buy up poisoned assets and their own bonds. What does this mean?

They are panicking

And who can blame them! They, along with the majority of the observers and participants, believe that we are headed for a recession, and are terrified of deflation. As I said in an earlier post, they are effectively printing money. Since they do not really have a clue about what will happen, they are running an experiment with the world-wide economy.

There is good news

But not a lot. A commentator on Radio 4's Today show this morning was talking about nationalising all the banks and scrapping Fraction Reserve Banking. So the good news is that people are talking about the alternatives to the status quo. The problem is that those making the decisions are going to be in a hurry. As outlined in my previous post this is not a good place to be. You worry when our leaders are probably spending less time thinking through the future of the global economic system than where they are going to retire to.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

QCA, SATS and Plausible Deniability

A few thoughts first...
  • Dr Ken Boston was being remunerated to the tune of over £300k per annum
  • The SATs were meant to test both the students and the schools
  • QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) apparently kept changing the specification as they went along
  • The new preferred bidder is Edexcel - the only privately owned exam board in the UK
  • The NAA (National Assessment Agency) is another layer between government and the exams, and seems to not have an address! (
  • Ofqual has been created as the independent regulator of exams and tests in England
  • a marking crisis affecting A-levels in 2002 led to the sacking of his predecessor, Sir William Stubbs
So we have a catalogue of cock-ups. Firstly, there is QCA. They have a history of not doing the job well, so they spawn a set of subsidiary organisations. The government can deny responsibility, and QCA can in turn devolve blame to its offspring. Let us hope that Boston does not get compensated for the last few moths of his contract.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Avoiding Cock-ups

I've been blogging away for a while now on the incompetence of our elected leaders, and thought that I ought to attempt to offer a solution to these problems.

Remember - more haste, less speed

It seems to me, that we are facing a world in which decisions are required nearly instantly. The response to the recent economic problems might easily be described as "knee jerk". Now I am a great fan of the "Garbage Can" model of management. In this model the decision maker is faced with a bubbling mess of "Problems", "Solutions" and "Justifications". When a "Problem" becomes unavoidable, the manager grabs hold of it, and roots around for a "Solution", and then a "Justification". These three are now matched up and the problem deemed solved. Compare this to Gordon Brown's response to the financial crisis and I'm sure you will find a match.

There is no time for reflection, and even less for a systemic analysis. Even when commissions are established, their decisions are reviewed, and often ignored. These commissions are often restricted in their terms of reference, and cannot review all relevant options. If you need examples, then I'm sure your favourite search engine will provide. Even worse, the system that produced the problem is not up for review. The failure of the social work system is assumed to be a failure of the components of that system, not of the overall concept. The failure of the financial system is blamed on foolishness and greed, which did allow it to happen, but little thought is given to potential flaws in the system.

I have studied a fair amount of economics in my time, and in spite of considerable effort have no real idea of how the system behaves. I am, however, convinced that the nature of the 24 hour, globally linked, debt based financial system is inherently chaotic. This is linked with its current failure - and if we patch it this time the next disaster will be worse. Further, this next failure may occur very soon and in a shocking way. The fact that one $50 billion Ponzi scheme has just been exposed in no way precludes there being another ten, hundred or thousand of them out there.

We need to step back and take the time to work out the problem, not just root around amongst our memories for a suitable solution and justification.

Lessons from Free Software

I am a great fan of the Free Software development methodology. It has created great things, like the GNU/Linux operating system, Wikipedia and many other things. It works well in association with conventional capitalist businesses, as shown with the development of OpenOffice, heavily supported by Sun Microsystems. It accepts its own flaws, recognises them and moves to address them. So, though "The Now Show" can have great fun with the clear mis-truths displayed in Wikipedia, very many rely on it for our first view on a subject or topic. We know to double check what we see, and can correct errors. As a result, it no longer reports running triad battles in my village in the Black Country, and the promotion of a piece of proprietary software is no longer so blatant - I know, I edited those pages and now watch them. This is a case of Linus's law that many eyes make all bugs shallow.

How does this apply to government? Well, we have a ridiculous system where our servants, civil or elected, become our masters. They need to be made to realise that they do not have the answers, and often don't even have the correct questions. Opening up government in a real way would allow all decisions to be discussed and constructed correctly. I'm not sure how to do it, but then why should I know exactly the solution? It is only politicians and religious fanatics who believe that they the answers.

Avoiding the vox pop

In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Bob Heinlein proposed a system of government where one house can only pass laws with a two-thirds majority, while the other can only repeal laws, but can do so if one-third wish to do so. This appeals to my hacker mentality. We need to stop passing laws and making decisions in a hurry. We need to slow down our decision making process. We need fewer, not more laws. If we do need a taxation system, it should be clear, simple and unavoidable - see below for a suggestion. We need to get away from our current situation where we have a vox pop by default. Our elected representatives are more worried about the opinion polls than making the right decision. It would be difficult to design a worse system.

We could, of course, assume that our leaders were so involved with the rich and powerful capitalists that they would conspire to support them, even though they were aware that it would repress and punish the majority.

A logical taxation and benefit system

Once again, I should credit Bob Heinlein for this idea. In For us, The Living, published posthumously, Heinlein proposed 'Dividend' system, a form of Social Credit. My suggestion would be that everyone, man woman and child, is paid a living wage - and then they have the decision about what work they take on, and pay tax at a flat moderate rate - say 40% - on all of this income. Before you squeal about this rate, have a look at your marginal tax rate, by the time you've accounted for VAT, NI, pensions, and the rest. This would be equitable and liberating.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Short memory, long problems

  • Censorship
  • environmental damage
  • excessive use of government power
  • the police over-reaching themselves
  • financial crashes
  • house price booms & busts

The list goes on. These problems recur, and yet always surprise us.

Why are we surprised?

Because the human memory is really designed for coping with survival in a much simpler environment. To avoid these repeated cock-ups we, as a race, need to learn to review our behaviour in a the much longer term.

Why does this not happen?

Because it would mean that people with great power and vested interests in the maintenance of the status quo would have to make sacrifices.

The problem is that unless they are forces to accept these changes, then everyone will suffer, and it seems probable that many will die.

As a world we need to find a way of living that is sustainable and sensible.

Let us hope.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The future of censorship

I am relieved to note that the Internet Watch Foundation has backed down over censoring Wikipedia. I believe that the actions of a large number of people have given us the chance toback away from a dangerous and retrograde step. To quote Crosbie Fitch, from a mailing on the Open Rights Group list:

Censorship is like religion. There's no evidence in support of it, and it's caused plenty of problems in the past, but it makes a hell of a lot of people feel more comfortable. It helps governments protect the people against terrorists too, and freedom fighters. What's to lose?

Let us not let the momentum slip in protecting our freedoms. I am please to note that this event may have had effects beyond our borders, and it looks as if Australian plans to censor the Internet have been stalled - and an link has been made with this debacle.

The trend for government to control and direct, at arms length, through bodies such as the IWF, and my personal bugbear Becta, needs to be addressed. Time after time the Government blames its failures on QUANGO type organisations. Our elected leaders slip out of taking responsibility for their decisions - in this case the IWF was clearly promoted by those elected and they have not been held to account.

For a lighter note, see the 'notnews' article.

Oh, and I'm still undecided whether this was a cock-up or a conspiracy.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Internet Watch Foundation and this image

I have just got off the phone with Virgin Media who have told me that there is going to be a press release very soon. The statement was read to me and the content was along the lines of "Virgin have been informed that both IWF and the UK Police authorities have deemed the image potentially illegal and Virgin are therefore are standing by the decision to block the image."

It would appear that the Internet is now censored in the UK.

I would guess that this site is now illegal as it contains a link to the image. The questions I would like answers to are:
  1. Is it illegal to own the album?
  2. What about Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin?
  3. What are the implications of this for civil liberties in general?
  4. Is the logical conclusion to ban not just Wikpedia, but all wikis?
  5. Are the ISPs going to have to filter and scan every packet we send and receive?
This is a bad day for the UK.

The Metro seems to be following the story, noting that it is good news for the sales of the album.

I am still undecided as to whether this is a cock-up or conspiracy.

IWF and Wikipedia & Damian Green - updates

I've spent practically the entire morning on the phone to my ISP and have just had a call back and very interesting conversation. The gist of the conversations are:

  • first thing this morning the 1st and 2nd line teams did not know anything about this - and needed considerable convincing.
  • once convinced of what their employers were doing, the technical staff I talked to were _all_ personally of the feeling that the censorship was unacceptable - and were prepared to say so on calls that were probably being recorded.
  • the ISP has decided to leave the Wikipedia page blocked temporarily while formulating a decision.
  • they were aware that if they took on this responsibility then it would blossom into them having to control/monitor/supervise the complete up and download of their users.
  • this is currently being discussed at the level below Director, and will be run past them before a decision is made.
  • they will be releasing a press statement within the next 36 hours...
  • they had not appreciated the impact of the proxy filtering preventing Wikipedia from identifying posters and therefore requiring that the ip address be blackilisted.
  • no one I talked to knew about the existence of a proxy filer being purely deployed for Wikipedia.

I believe that this is the result of someone making an ill-informed decision to agree to IWF's ruling. I think that the technician side of the ISPs are astonished by the possible implications of following this decision through and will pressure for it to be reversed.

If you have an hour or so to spare I strongly recommend you phone your ISP and ask them the simple question "When did your company decide to become the arbiter of public morality?" - worked for me :-)

Also, there is a petition on the Number 10 website which is worth signing (if you agree with it!)

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Slippery Slopes and Stupidity

As reported on ZDNET and the Open Rights Group's site, Virgin Media, my ISP, amongst other ISPs, have followed the Internet Watch Foundation's lead and installed a proxy filter against Wikipedia. This is apparently to filter content - such as the controversial "Virgin Killer" image. Now there are a few things to say about this...
  1. It is totally pointless, as anyone who searches for this phrase using Google, can instantly get the page by using the 'cache' link - or just clicking here...
  2. It has had the knock-on effect that, unless you were previously registered as an editor with Wikipedia, you will be unable to edit a page. In fact I had problems yesterday editing a page even though I am a registered user.
  3. As far as I can tell, no-one decided to elect the IWF as a arbiter of public morals...
This is a wonderful cock-up. The intent of the ISPs might well have been reasonable, but the consequences of this act have been unacceptable. A Pledgebank petition has been setup, and I ask you to read it and consider signing.

Friday, 5 December 2008

"Quantitative Easing" here we come...

Quantitative Easing is central bank jargon for printing money. Rumours abound that the government and the Bank of England are looking at this as a way of sorting out the current financial crisis.

This search using Google shows the news reports for "Quantitative Easing" in the last week from when you click on it. Well it scared me... Do we really believe that our leaders have better judgement than the average Latin American dictator?

So, might their plan be? Well, suppose they think that we face a major deflationary future, the Bank may be expecting to see 10% price deflation. So, pumping the money supply by 10% per year should stop that. They could also be arguing that the velocity of money has decreased, so increasing the supply will just counter that.

This is so flawed, and so risky. Why? Well, cash money is such a small part of the economy - it is called M0 - is about one fortieth the size of M3 (a broader measure of money supply). However, it is unclear what impact increasing the cash money supply will have on the other figures - my guess is that it will be non-linear, and probably with a cusp in it. Let me explain...

I live just outside of Birmingham, a 12 mile drive. If I need to get somewhere in Birmingham I can either drive or take the train. Recently I needed to be in Birmingham at 9am. I took the train - why? Well, given the unpredictability of the traffic, I know how long it would take me to get there for 8am, or 10 am, but I didn't know what time to set off by car to get there for 9. The traffic is so chaotic that it is impossible to predict what time to leave to get there for 9.

Likewise, the amount of money to print to balance the deflation is probably impossible to predict. I suspect that it is possible to print too much or too little and impossible to print the right amount.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The Ultimate Cockup

Our elected leaders seem to be content to allow us to descend through depression to disaster - and seems that there is nothing that can be done about it. The smart advice, as for example from George Monbiot, gives us a way out of our current problems. He proposes a sensible set of steps that could be taken, that might save the world, but at the least would make the country a better place to survive the impending nightmare. Things like installing insulation and improving public transport are just so damn sensible - so why are our leaders so committed to saving the banks and our debt culture?


The latest announcements allowing those struggling to repay their mortgage to run up more debt seem designed to just make it all worse! The complete lack of thought in what they are doing might seem unbelievable - but unfortunately it is all just too believable.

In Banks' novel Excession, this remarkable author presents the idea of an Outside Context Problem, the kind of problem "most civilisations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop." Our leaders are facing not just one, but two of these. They have let the money game escalate to such a state that they have no idea how they can find a way through it, and have noticed that our capitalist penchance for growth has led to a situation where, even if the disastrous climate shifts don't occur, we still can't supply the wants of the billions who now inhabit this limited globe.

The claim is that this country is richer than it has ever been - yet we cannot consider the massive building programmes from the past. We have lost our way as a country, and probably as a culture. Watching the remake of "Survivors" on the BBC leads me to realise just how much we have lost - these people cannot even build a chicken run - while the representation of a politician as being prepared to shoot a frightened survivor as a looter is just all too believable.

The suggestion is to hope for the best and plan for the worst. Just how do we plan for the worst at the moment? The worst is so incredible that it is impossible to plan for. It is certain that I am not the only to read this in the situation we currently face. Our leaders are so detached from reality that they do not realise just how bad things are. I am minded of the wonderful description from the Illuminatus! Trilogy...

"He spoke with some asperity, since he lived daily with the dread that someday the secret tapes he kept of all Oval Room transactions would be released to the public. He had long ago vowed that if that day ever came, the tapes would not be full of "(expletive deleted)" or "(characterization deleted)." He was harassed, but still he spoke with authority. He was, in fact, characteristic of the best type of dominant male in the world at this time. He was fifty-five years old, tough, shrewd, unburdened by the complicated ethical ambiguities which puzzle intellectuals, and had long ago decided that the world was a mean son-of-a-bitch in which only the most cunning and ruthless can survive. He was also as kind as was possible for one holding that ultra-Darwinian philosophy; and he genuinely loved children and dogs, unless they were on the site of something that had to be bombed in the National Interest. He still retained some sense of humor, despite the burdens of his almost godly office, and, although he had been impotent with his wife for nearly ten years now, he generally achieved orgasm in the mouth of a skilled prostitute within 1.5 minutes. He took amphetamine pep pills to keep going on his grueling twenty-hour day, with the result that his vision of the world was somewhat skewed in a paranoid direction, and he took tranquilizers to keep from worrying too much, with the result that his detachment sometimes bordered on the schizophrenic; but most of the time his innate shrewdness gave him a fingernail grip on reality. In short, he was much like the rulers of Russia and China."

We certainly live in interesting times. Those who are down-trodden will eventually be faced with a desperation, and I cannot think that they will take it as well as they did in the last great depression. Unless our leaders get to grips with the current reality, the future reality will be a nightmare.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

A Police State? or just another cockup

I stand amazed at the action of the police against an elected representative in my country. The BBC report compares the event with the entry of King Charles I into the Commons in 1642 - which led to the civil war.

Did this happen as a result of some grand plan to create a police state in the UK? Certainly not, it is the result of a series of foolish and ill thought through reforms and processes - and of course a number of fools implementing them. The fact that the Speaker of the House of Commons was informed in advance, and did not tell the police to stop, indicates that he is either pathetic or stupid (or both). Yes, I know this is libel. I really don't care.

What we have is a country that probably has more apparatchiks per head of population than the Soviet Union at its peak (or is that trough). The police are so overactive that they can act against a Member of Parliament with apparent impunity. The only question left is how many of our other representatives have the courage to stand up against this and defend hard fought for freedoms.

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. Benjamin Franklin

Saturday, 1 November 2008

The Madness of Crowds

Here comes an association between the Radio 2 debacle and the disappearance of pubs. These are very strange phenomenon. The common feature is that the decision making in these cases is influenced by people who are fundamentally not involved. It reminds me of the response given by an Italian Roman Catholic woman, when asked about the Papal stance on contraception said "He doesn't play the game, so he doesn't make the rules."

So, when the infamous Brand and Ross broadcast was made, there were two complaints. After the red tops (British popular tabloids) got hold of the story it escalated to tens of thousands of complaints. The media and political bandwagon rolled, as did heads. Now please don't get the impression that I approve of the broadcast, but surely there is a strange effect going on here. These complaints are coming from people who are only involved third hand. Do they have a right to express an opinion? Certainly. Do they have right on their side? Well, I doubt it really.

Let's look at the pubs. Since the banning of smoking in British pubs I have seen many of them close. The argument was that when smoking was banned, the non-smokers would fill the pubs. This has been demonstrated to be wrong. What has happened? Well, the non-smokers wanted to be able to go into pubs without being assailed by cigarette smoke. Seems reasonable, except it is pretty clear that they aren't going into the pubs - otherwise they would not be closing. All they wanted was smoke free pubs - not to go into them.

The danger here is that we moving into a society where decisions are made by our political classes doing that which seems popular. This may be a worse expression of vox populi than a society where decisions are made by referenda - and that would be a truly frightening society. The deprecated term is plebicite. The UK has developed a concept of "representative democracy" - where our elected representatives are expected to make up their own minds on matters - not purely reflect the opinions of their electors.

So what next? Well, on the current pattern we will end up with public floggings and hangings. All I can say is watch out. Good people must speak out against this appalling trend. If we remain silent then we tacitly approve of it.

So, so take the cockspiracy analysis, there is no conspiracy to drift towards a fascist state, just a series of cockups removing our traditional attitudes, institutions and freedoms.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Popular Subscription, LPG and Free Software

In the remarkable book "White Mars" by Brian Aldiss (with Roger Penrose) there is a discussion of a concept called "Popular Subscription". I quote:

"We are conditioned to subscribe to the myths of the age. We hardly question the adage that fine feathers make fine birds, or that young offenders should be shut up in prisons for a number of years until they are confirmed in misery and anger. When witch hunts were the thing, we believed in witches or, if we did not believe, we did not speak out, for fear of making ourselves silly or unpopular."

I was at my local LPG filling station, in Lye, the other morning and was chatting with the guy who does the conversions and another owner of an LPG converted car. We were trying to understand why more people did not convert their cars to LPG, when it will pay for itself in abut 2 years and there after almost halve the fuel costs. For myself, I bought a 20 year old Volvo estate, in really excellent condition, for £900 and then paid £1,500 to convert it to LPG. The car has a good decade's life in it and now costs me about 11p a mile, for a luxury car that will carry a massive load - which I need for my work. We could not understand how people could not see the logic of doing the same. Aldiss' concept explains it pretty well, it is that most people cannot consider alternatives to the common views. Everyone runs their car on petrol, so that must be the thing to do. I explained my work with Free Software, and said I faced the same problem. I explain that Free Software is:
  • Free - as in without cost;
  • Reliable - very well maintained;
  • Cheaper - in that you can often run it on older hardware;
  • Sustainable - if you need a specific piece of software, you can maintain it.
I sometimes wonder if I'm wasting my breath. Yes, I'm managing to make a living out of supporting GNU/Linux and the like, but most people just won't get the idea. Just like most people won't get the idea of LPG conversions for their cars. This is not a conspiracy, it's just a cock-up of society that constructs people who conform in their thoughts - they just find it really hard to listen to new ideas.

This morning I filled up again, and when I wandered in to pay, I was brought to a halt. There was a Toyota Prius in for conversion. I had a long chat about the conversion, which was only the second that they knew of in the UK. Now I'm not certain about the Prius, particularly as the key to being green is not driving, but this was interesting. I reckon that it will cost about 4.5p per mile in fuel. Now that is cheap! Is it cheap enough? We not for me, as I reckon that over the five year term my old Volvo will cost me considerably less (about a third of the total cost of ownership).

Originally published on my consultancy blog.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Enough is enough

I still wear my "Make Poverty History" wrist band. I've had to repair it with superglue and I'm pretty sure that it will not last until poverty has been eradicated. Here we are three years later with Blog Action Day on poverty....

We all know the cause. As Ghandi so accurately put it:

"There is enough for everybody's need, but not enough for anybody's greed."

The tragedy goes on. Our political leaders have no vision, think in the 4 minute to 4 year time scale and lie to us repeatedly. And then we vote in replacements who also lie to us.

OK, so we all know the cause, what about...

a solution

We need to change the game. Capitalism is based on exponential growth. A mere 2% growth per annum, leads to a more than 7 fold increase in the economy in a century. The problem is, just like the metaphorical boiled frog, it seems like a steady sustainable growth. But assuming that constant 2% growth, that means we are adding the entire economy of 200 years ago each year. Alright, there was only a population of 11 million in the UK then, but that's still a large increase.

we need to say enough is enough

We can then focus on moving to equality, and inherently tied into this is moving towards local food production - because the only essential daily consumption is of food, heating and drink. Shipping food across the world is unnecessary and wasteful. We need to adopt a simpler life style. Long distance travel should be a rare event.

and if we don't

Then we can be sure that things will go badly wrong for everyone. The bald options are...

equality and enough or a new Dark Age.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Stupidity, theft and incompetence

Warning, this is likely to be a rant, but I hope an informed one.

Our leaders, political, financial and hereditary, have no ability to deal this the current economic crisis. This is obvious from their statements and purely reactive behaviour. They do not understand what is going on, let alone how to solve it. This is my analysis of what is going on, followed by my recommendation for the way out.

Fractional reserve banking is the problem. It allows the generation of pseudo money by those to whom it is entrusted. The banks take in a 1(insert your currency unit here) and mark it as yours in their books and then promptly lend out roughly 87.5% of it. This is credited to someone else's bank account, who then pays it to a third party. The bank takes in 0.875(insert your currency unit here)... OK the net effect is a multiplier effect of eight to one, so every (insert your currency unit here) that is issued by the state becomes 8 by the time the process is finished. Now the cash money supply has been growing spectaculaly for quite a long time. This means that money has been being generated at a spectacular rate. Meanwhile, back at the exchanges, people have been putting huge nominal values on their shares. Remember, until these shares are sold this money is not realised. So the people holding the shares think they have something that is valuable. This is not normally an issue, but consider the following...

British Airways announced a pension deficit of £1.5 billion, as I write this, its market capitalisation is £1.2 billion. I think this means it is bankrupt. Worse, this deficit is probably much worse than this as much of its pension fund is in shares. This probably applies to a substantial proportion of the stock market.

What is the reaction of our leaders to this type of problem? To buy or prop up the banks. They won't say this, but they are electronically printing the money to do this. The UK government, for example, has waved around £500 billion saying that they will use that much money to support the banks. By my estimates this is around one-quarter of the entire M4 money supply! If you listen to them they are saying that they are 'borrowing' it. I simply do not believe them - why? - because one of the problems at the moment is that no-one is lending money. If they are borrowing it, it is from the future. Now, remember that 8 times multiplier. By the time that comes into play, they have offered to almost triple the money supply. At the moment, the banks are asking for around £35 billion. Just multiply that by 8 and that is about one-tenth of the M4 money supply. To put this context, it is almost two-thirds of the cash money supply (M0).

This is going to cause inflation, at the best, and at the worst we could be on the edge of the government just keeping on printing money. Why is this a solution for them? Well, if we have a serious bout of inflation the following happens...
  • Debts effectively reduce;
  • House prices can rise again (though slower than the rate of inflation);
  • Money purchase company pensions schemes are saved.
Winners - Those with debts.
Losers - Those with savings or on fixed incomes.

This is incredibly risky. We could end up with a stagflation, where the economy is stagnant (or shrinking) and the value of the currency falling. Alternatively, it could fail to restart the economy, and we enter a period of deflation. What does this mean?
  • Debts effectively increase;
  • Repossessions rise as house prices continue to fall;
  • Money purchase company pensions are doomed.
So, what would I recommend?

The whole game is flawed. It is inherently unstable and unsustainable. We have to change the rules of the game. If I were in charge, I would...
  • Move towards an agricultural society.
  • Move to a co-operative rather than corporate business model.
  • Devolve decision making.
  • Require banks to become mutual societies.
  • Reduce demand for everything.
  • Evaluate decisions on a 1,000 year time scale, not a 4 year one.
We must move towards only doing those things we need - we cannot have a society that encourages greed and consumption, we need one that encourages happiness.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

So, why don't I stop baking bread and start stacking shelves?

The Fallacy of Mass Production

I enjoy making bread. So what has this to do with mass production? Well, in the UK a standard loaf costs around £1 at the moment. This is really odd, as the cost of baking it yourself is less than half of this - including the gas for the oven.

So what is going on? Well, I'm sure that the bakers pay less for their flour than I do. They probably pay less for the gas as well. They will be using machines so that the human intervention is minimal - and the transport and sales system is meant to be efficient. So why does it cost so much more than it does for me to do it myself?

I've ignored the labour. For me to bake break requires me to be around for several hours. The actual labour is probably only 30 minutes or so, 10 minutes kneading, few minutes here and there while it is proving, rising and baking. So if you charge my labour at even minimum wage, then that loaf costs me two or three times the one from the shop. But does this make sense?

Opportunity cost calculations don't make sense here. Now in economics there is this concept of opportunity cost. This is the idea that while I'm making bread I'm not out stacking shelves in the local supermarket, so I've lost all that minimum wage. So, why don't I stop baking bread and start stacking shelves?

Look at the Utility - not the cost. I enjoy making bread. I enjoy eating my bread. I might enjoy working in the supermarket, but I doubt it. The problem with economics is that it tends to focus on money - which is easily measurable, rather than the utility of the process.

But we can see the flaw in the costs. The flaw in the new business ethos of "mass production" stems from the places where it does work. Trying to build a computer chip or an engine from scratch would be a thankless and extremely inefficient process. Building a car, machine gun or sewing machine with a good machine shop at your disposal would take far more time than it was worth (unless, of course, you valued the activity like I value baking bread). So, what we have is a process that made sense for certain highly complex industrial products being applied to everything.

Food glorious food. In So Shall We Reap, by Colin Tudge, there is a careful and logical argument for changing the way that we grow our food. I find it Tudge convincing, and recommend this book wholeheartedly. I find it hard to find a better way to describe the book than to use the revealing, if lengthy, subtitle "How everyone who is liable to be born in the next ten thousand years could eat very well indeed; and why, in practice, our immediate descendants are likely to be in serious trouble."

We need to spend more of our effort on our food. What is the point in spending all of our time worrying about cars, computers, houses, plasma screen TVs and the like? The life style we are embracing in such a hurry is clearly not sustainable. Growing, preparing and sharing good food and drink are essential for a truly satisfying life.

So why is this a cockspiracy? Well, simply put, these blinkered politicians, capitalists and agronomists aren't really out to destroy the earth, they just haven't thought it through. We need to get back to basics and stop running after the next new toy.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Government interest in 'open source'

The day after the local elections Becta put out a tender for a project to promote 'open source' adoption and development in UK schools. There are two points to note about this - the timing and the performance indicators they chose. If you wish to the the tender documents I've made them available through GoogleDocs.

The Timing

OK - when it comes to politicians I'm a cynic. My reading of the sequence is as follows:

  1. The Tory party received a briefing paper on FOSS.
  2. Cameron makes a speech about open source. This may have been timed to prevent the Labour party responding rapidly, because of the purdah rules about making announcements in the run up to elections.
  3. The day after the local elections, this tender is published.
  4. The period of the project is set to run until just after the expected date for the general election.

I expect that if you look around you will find the most government agencies have just released similar tenders, all designed to counter the spin doctors' expectation of the Tory manifesto.

The Performance Indicators

If you have a look through the KPIs in this tender, you will find they are trivial. I am a member of several free software in schools mailing lists - at least two of them already exceed the KPIs for discussion, and the community developed Schoolforge UK exceeds the communication ones.

This is incredible - the authors of the tender document clearly haven't done their homework. I guess that anyone tendering on this will have to take advantage of the opportunity offered to increase these KPIs.


Is the intent to appear to be doing something? Is this a conspiracy to side track the free and open source communities? No, yet again its a cock-up from a government agency who are looking for the easiest way to fulfil the tasks set them by their political bosses.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Panic Now - avoid the rush

They are not making any more oil.

This is pretty obvious, but I'm just not hearing it from the pundits. They keep mouthing economic platitudes about the market finding a new level, short term fluctuations, and the like. Oh, and I don't mean go out and fill your tank - for how long will that solve your problem?

Buy land. They ain’t making any more of the stuff.
(Will Rogers 1879—1935).

This is the axiom that we need to consider when looking at the increasing price of food. That and, of course, the fact that some mistaken (stupid?) politicians have been convinced that the way out of the fuel shortage is to convert food stuffs into fuel for cars.

Food is going to get more expensive, fuel is going to get more expensive.

I have no doubt that this is correct. People, and politicians, need to understand and accept this and work out how they are going to respond to the impending crisis. I'm guessing that this is going to lead to similar the stagflation of the 1960s or the world-wide recession of the 1930s. So what are the likely impacts?

The poor

The poor are going to become poorer. In the developed world this is going to be uncomfortable and unpleasant. In the developing world this is going to be disastrous - watch for the Four Horsemen: War, Famine, Pestilence and Death. Please don't think I'm predicting the end of the world, but these four nightmares are the synthesis of wisdom from thousands of years of experience of poverty. You might like to note that only death is named in the Christian bible.

The middle class

The middle classes have two basic options:
  • try and keep up, or
  • re-evaluate and adapt.
Personally I'm going for the latter. Enough, by John Naish is a good read if you are thinking about this option. The middle class have the capital or income to cut back and yet improve their quality of life.

Those who try to maintain their current life style are risking running up huge debts.

The Wealthy

Those with considerable wealth run a risk of becoming exposed to the masses. At the moment, their difference is not that obvious. As we drive past their automatic gates we don't feel that jealous. As the gap between wealth and extreme poverty expands exponentially over the next few years they will become more obvious. Painfully obvious. Plus of course, the wealth of many of the people is built on the current economic model. If you are wealthy, my advice is get out of the system now. They won't listen, of course, as I guess that for most of them making money is what they do - and they won't change.

The Politicians

I have a low opinion of politicians. They seem stuck in a model that only looks at the next election at the most. They need to panic. There is cause for panic. Their model is bankrupt. Bankrupt financially, morally and economically. We need a change.

I'll close with a quote. Farewell to Kings...

When they turn the pages of history
When these days have passed long ago
Will they read of us with sadness
For the seeds that we let grow
We turned our gaze
From the castles in the distance
Eyes cast down
On the path of least resistance

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Farewell to the traditional pub?

As part of my work I have done a lot of driving around the West and East Midlands. One of the most depressing sights are the number of closed (and often vandalised) pubs. These stories are beginning to hit the media.

The general understanding is that they are closing because the smoking ban and tax increases on drinks have driven their customers away - presumably to drink and smoke at home.

So is this a conspiracy to destroy the last vestige of working class social life? Is this our current Prime Minister's Scottish Presbyterian frugality coming through? Are the supermarkets manipulating the policies to increase their sales?

Nope, its just another set of cock-ups from a government that just keeps intervening in our lives.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

And now let's buy the banks

So we have another cockspiracy unwinding. The banks made an enourmous cock-up in lending money to those who were desperate to buy stupidly expensive houses. Make not mistake, this was about greedy misselling. The banks are now effectively broke - note the two rights issues in the last week totalling over £20 billions.

OK - 20 billions - sounds innocuous. Start counting now and in 600 years you might reach 20 billion... That is a big number. Add in the other £100 billion that the UK has stumped up to support the banks that is a stupendous number. I guess it is going to be over £2,000 for every man, woman and child in the UK. Add an average £7,000 to every family's debt in the UK and we might end up all being bankrupt.

Conspiracy to destroy our finances? No, just as sequence of cock-ups. You can just hear the treasury grunts saying - "We have to support the banks", no thought of the fact that it was their fault. The true depth of this cockspiracy will take at least 2 years to unwind.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Government Stupidity

OK - place yourself as Chancellor of the Exchequer - yes I know it's an odd request. You want to appear to be on the side of the poor. So, you introduce a 10% introductory Income Tax rate. This is what Gordon Brown did in 1999. This is a cool idea, as it means that you reduce the impact of starting to pay Income Tax. As it happens, this caused problems with the Income Tax system, and ended up with incomprehensible tax statements, as there was a strange fiddle with it being shown as a 'tax credit'. I remember, because I couldn't work out what the hell was going on...

Now, you tell me what this clearly intelligent Chancellor (soon to be Prime Minister) was planning when he removed this Income Tax band.

So, take the cockspiracy view point. He wasn't planning to sting the poor but hardworking. He wasn't planning to commit political suicide. He was just not listening to anyone. He thought "I'm sure I've got this right". Conspiracy to rob those working hard on minimum wage? No. Just another cock-up.