Tuesday, January 26, 2010

UK "Out of Recession"

The BBC has the story here - pre-announced as usual, but this quarter they got it right - by the smallest possible margin, 0.1% of GDP.

The article notes that this is weaker than estimates, is based on only 40% of the figures, and that the figures for every other quarter since 2007 have been significantly revised later - the previous figures changed by 0.2% of GDP from the initial release.

More to the point, the deficit is something like 130x greater than the margin of 'recovery': if the government weren't borrowing, and spending, £178bn/year then we would be much deeper in recession. In real terms, we still are, since this artificial "growth" is paid for by debt which will have to be repaid at some point.

Still, following Laura Kuenssberg's observation on the cabinet going in to Number 10 yesterday, this could well be the news that sends Gordon Brown to the Palace... if the figures are later revised down to 0.0% or negative, he's lost the "recovery" message to hammer the Tories with.

I don't know - and I'm not convinced it's worth worrying about the election date. The Tories have (some) policies and Labour are clapped out and engaging in nothing but bitter points-scoring. Whenever it happens, the outcome is likely to be the same...

- KoW

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

For Want of a Nail...

US news this morning is that Teddy Kennedy's Senate seat has gone to the Republicans (h/t Guido).

I'm not sure what to make of this. I've considered myself right-wing. Tory in the UK and, yet, Democrat in the US. I thought Bill Clinton was great, and disliked both Bushes. But for the last couple of years, I've been less convinced... Al Gore going off on an eco-trip, Hillary and Obama's campaigns, a general leftward shift of both parties, the bail-outs and healthcare row...

Losing this seat means that the Democrats no longer have a majority of 60 in the Senate. This, in turn, means that they no longer have a "filibuster-proof" majority to force through legislation. Without that, they need support from the Republicans or Independents to get President Obama's healthcare plans enacted. And to get that support, they will probably have to compromise on the details - or risk the plans being delayed and derailed.

And therein lie some of my doubts. Healthcare in the US seems, except at the very top, to be a shambles. Millions of people, apparently, have no insurance and hence little or no access to healthcare. Private ambulances, billing people for emergency treatment, hospitals and insurers gaming the system... the US definitely isn't a place to get sick. Something needs to be done.

But I'm not sure Obamacare is the right something - and it looks like it's got a lot of troubles now.

- KoW

Labels: , , ,

Austrian Physicist Demonstrates Explosives Smuggling

Seen in Metro this morning - not on their site though - but mentioned here and also in the original German (with video): "Full body scanners fail TV bomb demo". Says it all, really.

The German name - Nacktscanner (naked scanner) - is rather more appropriate name than "full body scanner". As if the metal detectors only scan your kneecap or something! "Full body" neglects to mention the fact that it's an imaging scanner, and is designed to penetrate clothes but not flesh.

As Ben Wallace MP has pointed out, and that video ably shows, these new technological (anti-)terrors are completely useless. Sure, they are claimed to have maybe a 60% chance of detecting explosives - though, is that a near-certain chance of detecting 60% of explosives, and no chance at all of detecting the rest? That would fit the physics better as objects aren't probabalistically visible, they're either visible or not. And if that were the case it'd be a real shame if the Bad Guys™ thought to use one of the undetectable types, wouldn't it? We'd have pissed away millions on completely worthless invasions of privacy... again...

- KoW

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Education: Big vs Little 'E'

The school league tables were released yesterday and this morning's Metro has a story - Private schools rated 'zero' (p16) - first seen in the Standard last night, but now with a reply from an unnamed official.

Dr Martin Stephen, high master of St Paul's, is quoted as saying:
You need to ask how can we be the highest performing school in the country by every measure except by the government one?

He's absolutely right, of course. Metro has a reply from "a spokesman" from "the Department for Education" - would that be DfES (abolished 2007) or the Department for Children, Schools and Families? This anonymous commenter says it is:
a 'fatuous' argument as 'iGCSEs' did not meet National Curriculum requirements
Which seems to be rather circular logic: an education is only an education if the "Department for Education" says it's an Education?

Public Schools are abandoning GCSEs precisely because of the National Curriculum requirements - which the schools don't feel are stringent enough.

I'm not in a position to say whether or not the requirements, and the resulting exams, are being "dumbed down" - but I am inclined to believe that when pass rates go up and the exams are then publically abandoned by schools with centuries of tradition that standards have, quite possibly, slipped.

I'm rather more concerned by the centralised and centralising bureaucracy that the "fatuous" comment implies, however. Why is a non-specialist minister, or a civil servant (perhaps on an 18-month rotation), making policy (or policy administration, or administration policy) decisions about the - only - curriculum which constitutes an Education? Shouldn't the masters of Eton (founded 1440), Harrow (1572), Charterhouse (1611), St Paul's (1509), Winchester (1382) or Rugby (1567) have some say in what they teach? Aren't they the experts? After all, generations of parents have trusted those schools to provide a good all-round education, wheras the National Curriculum is barely 20 years old!

An education is not the same thing as a state-certified Education and, like with healthcare, it's possible (and even desirable) to support the former without accepting every wart and misfeature of the latter.

What makes Ed Balls think that he knows better than a school paid £10k/term by parents who clearly think that represents value for money?

- KoW

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Stop! Searchy time!

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Section 44 Stop-and-Search is unlawful, which is good news for photographers everywhere.

Or, at least it would be, if it were likely to change anything - remember that they have also ruled the DNA Database is unlawful, and that's still going strong, ditto the (alleged) illegal wiretapping by Phorm.

One interesting revelation in that story is that the whole of Greater London has been secretly designated for stop-and-search for almost a decade - and that this has been rubber-stamped every 28 days by the Home Secretary. Didn't know that...

Of course, all of this ties in with the ridiculous Threat Level - currently Substantial, ironic given the utter lack of substance to threats. This means that "an attack is a strong possibility", compared with the level below (Moderate) where "an attack is possible, but not likely". Who decides the difference between a "strong possibility" and "possible, but not likely" or even "highly likely"? And how do they justify that there is a "strong possibility", given that there haven't been any successful attacks in the last 1650 days and only three unsuccesful attempts - one ("liquid bombs") which was caught long before? The system is meaningless and arbitrary, and seems to exist only to intimidate the populace.

I'd like to ask Alan Johnson - who, as Home Secretary for more than 28 days, has renewed London's blanket anti-terrorist coverage - what evidence there is of an attack in the next four weeks.

I'm sorry, but "London is a capital city and is therefore a target" just doesn't cut it - every major city of every state has been a potential target since time immemorial, and yet on the vast majority of days nothing happens. Come back when you have specific, credible information. Large cities are targets for the same reason they grow: because there are significant network effects from having lots of people near to each other. Business thrives when there are people to do business with.

To use that to justify anti-terrorism legislation implies that anyone who lives or works in a city is a potential terrorist, and the bigger the city the greater that likelihood.

- KoW

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Seventy Million

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, has backed (Metro, p14) the "70 million is too many" campaign from the Cross-Party Group on Balanced Migration.

Like a huge number of Brits, I have some sympathy with their cause. Immigration under Labour has been a shambles, apparently by design. This has overloaded public services, skewed demographics and the housing market, and created feelings of disaffection and culture shock across the country - leading to greatly increased support for organisations such as the BNP.

These issues need to be addressed, and controls on migration - from the EU as well as from the rest of the world - are almost certainly necessary.

The much-vaunted points system is not the answer - under current regulations I wouldn't qualify as a "highly-skilled migrant" despite ten years' experience and a master's degree in IT, so toughening it up will just create a wider disparity between the skilled people coming in and the unskilled/semi-skilled labour from the EU and the native population, leading to more resentment. Bit of an own-goal, really.

I don't agree that there is a fixed, finite limit to the population. Not within an order of magnitude, anyway - Tokyo ticks over with a population density (January 2009 figures) of 5847/km2 - nearly 15x the density of England and 20x the UK as a whole. While high-rise living and working is restricted to city centres, and conjures up Ballardian imagery, it is perfectly reasonable.

The main problems are ones of infrastructure: places to live, places to work, places to play, and moving millions of people between them. The country simply cannot cope, as its infrastructure is inadequate - and crippled by a small amount of snow, as we've seen this week.

Culture is a secondary problem, but of profound importance to the older generations who rarely travelled internationally (except, perhaps, to war) - uncontrolled immigration has resulted in some areas of cities producing the same sort of culture shock that a tourist would experience in Cairo, Delhi or Tokyo: foreign-looking people jabbering away in a strange tongue, weird writing on signs and posters, and nothing that looks familiar - or familiar things that are subtly wrong. It's scary (and exhilarating) when you're in a foreign country, but to someone for whom a week in a caravan in Bournemouth is exotic, getting those same feelings walking down the high street must be deeply unsettling.

In summary, a steady and controlled flow of immigration is likely to remain tolerable for decades - but this needs to be a conscious decision, and substantial efforts must be made in infrastructure and assimilation.

- KoW


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

News in Brief

Lots happening today, so just a few short notes...

Rocking the Boat

Following on from the story yesterday evening, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt have sent out a letter calling for a secret ballot on Gordon Brown's premiership. There are claims that Charles Clarke is associated with it, and rumours that Harriet Harman might be behind it - as deputy PM, a leadership challenge would make her de facto Prime Minister for a few weeks. Haven't heard anyone reporting anything from the Milibands yet...

"I'm just big-boned"

Metro (p11) this morning - 'Bone risk to diet girls' - saying "Those with higher levels of fat tended to have larger and thicker bones, Bristol University scientists found". In other words, they've proven that a fattie/big-bones correlation exists, so we can expect to hear that line a lot more now that it's been scientifically proven.


Metro (p12) this morning also has a story on the DNA database. It only helps in 1 case in 150. On burglaries - a crime characterised by the culprit having buggered off by the time the homeowner returns, so theoretically ideal for tracking technology like DNA or fingerprints - the database has less than 40% success. Shouldn't we be scrapping this huge, expensive, illegal mess and spending money on solving crimes?

Flav still 'fit and proper'

Flavio Briatore's lifetime ban from F1 has been overturned, so he can keep his QPR job, and he's been awarded a paltry £13,500 in compensation. The FIA says it will appeal but, now that Max Mosley has gone, does anyone really care? Bury it with the other scandals of the last decade and move on...

Monsters from the ID

Cambridge is to be used as a testing ground for ID cards for foreign nationals, according to David Howarth MP (h/t fanf). I wonder if this is designed to wind up the local NO2ID and security research people? Or to scare off world-class academics/scholars in an anti-elitist move? Or if it's just a conveniently large location sufficiently far from London that they can expect lower press scrutiny?

Also, it's snowing. Bet the 18:23 out of King's Cross is cancelled.

- KoW

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


Lord Mandelson has finally broken cover, and talked to the Evening Standard, sticking a knife squarely between the shoulder blades of Labour's election strategy. He's spot on in his comments - Old Labour, the core voters, could never win after 1979. And that core vote has been (literally) dying off for 30 years, and defecting to the BNP ("The Labour Party your grandparents voted for"). It brought to mind a quote (paraphrased) from Full Metal Jacket:
In strategic terms, Brown's cut the country in half... the mainstream media are about to wet their pants and we've heard even Mandelson's going to say the election is now unwinnable

The story mentions rumours of a cabinet resignation, and both Guido and the New Statesman (h/t Iain Dale) have identified the minister as Tessa Jowell.

Iain has commented on this, pointing out that Lord Mandelson is too politically astute to have attacked Labour's election strategy without a clear intention - but what that intention is remains a mystery. I doubt he would act alone, or be fooled into thinking it was Game On if there wasn't support - but I don't put it past him to invent a resignation rumour knowing that the press will pounce on every cabinet minister and ask them awkward questions about their loyalty.

The resignation rumour is probably false - anyone quitting the cabinet at this stage would be an utter disaster, and I expect all sorts of carrots and sticks have been applied to ensure it doesn't happen, no matter how unhappy anyone is. Plus, we've all seen the last episode of The Thick of It, and Malcolm Tucker's solution is probably as good as it gets.

Or perhaps that's the intent - rock the boat and hope it forces an early election? Before the budget, before the tax rises from the last budget (and PBR), before the Tories have prepared, and before No.10 can cock it up any further?

Who knows? But speculating is fun!

- KoW

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, January 04, 2010

Defence Industrial Strategy

Douglas Carswell has a blog post about the "Defence Industrial Scam" which he concludes with the words
Getting better value from the procurement budget isn't just about dealing with inter service riviary or dozy officials. It means buying kit off-the-shelf and scapping the Defence Industrial Strategy.
I think this is flat-out wrong. A friend put it very succinctly: "DIS was about the only way of getting cheap kit anyone had ever come up with".

Below is a comment that I tried to post in reply to him last night, but which hasn't appeared for some reason:
Hi Douglas!
The DIS hasn't been implemented, which is part of the problem.

Instead there's a sham of competition where one or two bidders slug it out for months or even years to jump through DE&S hoops before the whole process is tossed aside and something is bought off-the-shelf from someone else, then scrapped after 18 months because otherwise the Urgent Operational Requirement would have to come out of MoD funds rather than from the Treasury as it's deemed to have been part of the Equipment Plan.

Naturally, after being jerked around like that, industry (located anywhere) starts charging more for the hassle of dealing with the UK MoD.

The main benefit to industry from the DIS is not the protectionism, it's the long-term strategy - as with the French 'Loi de Programmation' for the DGA.

Long-term contracts mean that investment can be made, costs cut and risk premiums slashed, lowering the price to the customer, while still being profitable for industry. Short-termism has the opposite effects.

It's either a virtuous or vicious circle, depending on how the hand is played, but the number of players is too small for it to be a free market.

Since the matter has been broached, I plan to write a full post about the DIS. Most likely focusing on the collapse of FRES and the wider AFV sector - a project I have had no direct involvement with, so do not have to worry about confidentiality, but one which I've followed the progress of nonetheless.

UPDATE: The comment has appeared now, must have done something wrong when trying to post it. Apologies all round.

- KoW

Labels: , ,

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Iceland Strategy

A quarter of the population of Iceland have signed a petition asking to be let off for the country's debts.

They didn't seem to mind when the billions in cash were flowing into Iceland, but now they've pissed it all away they don't want to give any back. Hmm. Pretty sure that's not how it works.

Since the debt is in Euros, Iceland can't just devalue its currency and inflate away the debt (and its assets). Iceland can, of course, default on its debts - but as an isolated volcano in the North Atlantic that's not going to help much, as tariffs on (needed) trade will just claw the debt back another way. There's the option that everyone the UK and Holland would like: paying up (over a couple of decades).

Or there's a fourth option: prostitution. Get someone else to pay the debt for you, in return for... services. There are three candidates I can see there: the US, the UK, and Russia.

The UK, despite overwhelming naval superiority, lost the Cod Wars - the expansion of Icelandic fishing rights from 4nm in 1958 to 200nm in 1976. We could take that back, write off our portion of the debt, and revitalise the northern ports - Hull (Alan Johnson and John Prescott), Grimsby (Austin Mitchell since 1977) and Fleetwood. A Labour government so profligate with tax money should easily be able to afford a bung to its heartlands, and might even be able to turn a profit if fishing rights were negotiated well.

Russia doesn't have much access to the Atlantic for shipping, and its submarines are tracked by the sea-bed sonar across the GIUK Gap. Strategically and commercially, Iceland is in a prime location for access to the West. It is also a good source of geothermal power, if the Russian oil/gas oligarchs want to broaden their remits. Of course, the Russian ambassador has publicly refused to get involved.

The US, until 2006, maintained an airbase at Keflavik as Iceland was recognised as strategically important in the Cold War. Given the still-endemic fear of "commies" in the US, if Russia were to show an interest in Iceland then it would be easy to find the money to reopen the base and thereby pump enough money into the economy to pay off the debts. If there's no Russian interest, the US has already shown its intentions by closing NAS Keflavik.

I can't see the EU being interested - too many internal squabbles and no real interest. The most likely involvement would be on trade tariffs if Iceland should default on her debts. China would probably love to help, to be owed a favour, but is literally too far away.

Of course, nice though it would be for the UK to get involved and get some fish to go with our chips, we have already shot ourselves in the foot by invoking anti-terrorist legislation to seize Landsbanki assets when the problems started. So that's about as hostile a relationship as you're going to find anywhere outside of a divorce court.

I think Iceland are screwed.

- KoW

Labels: , , , , , , ,

The Pants Bomber

Catching up on a few things after the holidays. Well, this was the big story on Boxing Day, wasn't it?

To recap the facts as currently understood:
  • A Nigerian man flew from Yemen to Amsterdam and then on to Detroit
  • He had 80g of chemicals sewn into his underpants, possibly including PETN
  • During the flight he tried to inject a liquid into the chemicals which, instead of exploding, caused a fire
  • The fire was extinguished, the man was subdued and turned over to the authorities
Sounds like everything worked out OK, right? In fact, it bears out what people were saying about the liquid explosives plot: that you can't synthesise TATP on a plane because of the amount of cooling (e.g. ice) required. As soon as the reaction starts, it heats up and blows the reagents out of the container, ending the reaction. Oh, and the fact that aircraft designers try to ensure that their jets don't fall out of the skies when damaged - see the Aloha Airways jet that lost half of its fuselage, or the Qantas one holed by its oxygen tanks.

So, naturally, the TSA knee-jerked into banning passengers from using the on-board toilets - and then tried to crack down on whichever one of the thousands of people involved in implementing this policy leaked its details. Clearly it's vital for security reasons that passengers must be sat down and restrained, and not using a book or laptop, whilst pissing in their seats because they're not allowed to use the toilets.

Spotting a bandwagon and never shy of removing civil liberties from the proles, Gordon Brown has authorised the use of Naked Scanners at all UK airports. Never mind that they're completely ineffective against this threat, require the production (legally-speaking) of indecent images when used on minors, and will take even longer to use than the current useless measures... we're going to have them anyway. Fan-fucking-tastic, there's nothing I like more than getting up at 4am, so I can get to the airport 3 hours before my 10am flight due to the time it will take for the rent-a-plod to make an image of my cock.

And, you know what? The next time this happens, and there will be a "next time" because the world is full of bad people, the attacker will just have shoved the explosives up his arse and pulled them out in the toilets after going through the security theatre. Oops. The Naked Scanners and pat-downs don't detect that, you need a body cavity search. And if you start doing that, they'll find some other way - by the time a plot gets to the airport, it's too late to stop it.

But let's go back to the TSA for a moment. The agency charged with protecting US transport security cannot even take care of its memos. They have a track record of incompetence, and trying to invoke "national security" concerns to cover up that incompetence, and have a police state mentality which will - if unchecked - put the every US airline into Chapter 11 within a year.

Why don't they take lessons from real security agencies and accept the fact that since background checks and the most in-depth vetting procedures can't detect spies, devoting one-minute-per-passenger is about as effective as asking "Are you a terrorist?" at check-in. Probably less effective, in fact, as a good poker player would have a field day asking that question.

- KoW

Labels: , , , , , ,