Friday, December 31, 2010

Coalition politics

The country was left in a parlous state by the previous government. Ed Milliband has charged that the cuts put in place by the government since the general election are "born of political choice". My perception as a taxpayer is that the expenditure and tax increases of the previous government was "born of political choice", and in over a decade of Labour government, they failed to get on top of the fact that the departments of government were incapable of making competent spending decisions. They also, for political reasons, did nothing substantive about the appalling black hole in state finances that is the public sector pension deficit, whilst incapacitating the private sector pension industry. It used to be the case that public sector employees had worse terms and conditions than their private sector equivalents, but this was made up for with the pension. The balance shifted during the Labour government - not only did the public sector grow like topsy, so that there were many more people on state salary at the end of their period in government, but the terms and conditions improved at a faster rate than those in the private sector. At least, this is the perception. And through this period, the "productivity" in the public sector did not improve. Simply throwing money - my money! - at "problems" in education, health service, defence and so on did not fix the problems, and resulted in a bloated and inefficient state sector, that simply was not sustainable.

An example of this is what happened with university education. For ideological reasons ("all must have prizes") the government said that 50% of young people should go to university - with first degrees, at that stage, being largely paid for by the government. Needless to say, this was hugely expensive. But no real evaluation has been made, as far as I can tell, of the benefits of having three more years of "education" in general. There is value in doing a degree. Science and technology jobs need people who have learnt more than can be taught by the age of 18. And whilst it may be harder to determine the benefit to the economy of studying arts and humanities, there is, in fact, a need for people who are capable of higher level reflection and expression than is offered up to A-level standard. However, with respect to acquaintances of mine, none of these skills are obtained in a "degree" in Travel and Tourism, or Golf Course Management. If you want to learn about those jobs, just go and do them - don't expect the country to pay for you to study them.

Whilst companies have the right to seek to avoid paying more tax than is necessary, I don't think that personal "tax dodges" can be counted under this heading. So it needles me to see Philip Green in the role of efficiency consultant to the government, for example. But what is the alternative? The civil service has failed to get to grips with how they ought to be spending money - they have shown themselves far too ready to make the sort of spending decision that would lead to serious financial problems if carried out at corporate or personal level - they have failed to grasp the fact that this is not, fundamentally, "their" money, and they should be behaving in an accountable manner with regard to its expenditure. If the only way to achieve that is to employ a money-grabbing capitalist pig to bang their heads together, then so be it.

With regard to the coalition, to be honest, I think you have to pretty much disregard what was in the manifestos of both of the parties in the coalition. Neither expected nor planned for the form of government that they find themselves in now. As a consequence, the policy choices that have been made bear little resemblance to the commitments that either had. The key questions as far as I'm concerned are: would I rather see the Conservatives in power without the Liberal party having some input into their policies? No. Do I want Labour back in power? No, not at all, not at the moment. Would I like to see the Liberals in power on their own? No, not really - they are too inexperienced. The coalition has had to make difficult and unpopular decisions - and this has resulted in some of the cracks showing. But actually, that's the sort of government I want! I don't want one political party able to do whatever it chooses, and not have to take into account the opinions of anybody else. The Conservatives did that for nearly two decades, on the back of around 40% of the popular vote. Then Labour did it for 13 years, on the back of around 35% of the popular vote. I would much rather see the Conservatives and Liberals struggling to work on things together on the back of 60% of the popular vote than anything else I've seen in my lifetime.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Best PV day so far

Today was bright, though somewhat hazy for much of the day. However, it was still our best day so far from the point of view of collecting solar electricity. The peak output of our 2.3kWp system was 397 W, and the total power generated was 1106 Wh.

I mentally batted around some figures, to see if I could calculate from this whether the estimates made by the installing company were reasonable. We are at 50° north (near enough), and since we are at the winter solstice (near enough) the Sun was at 22° south. That means the highest it gets into the sky (at noon) would be to an elevation of about 18°. In the summer, with the sun at 22° north, it will reach an elevation of 62°. Assuming the relative amount of incident radiation varies with the sine of the angle of elevation (from zero at 0° to 1 at 90°), the sun will be (0.883/0.309), 2.85 times more intense on the basis of its angle of elevation in the summer. With the sun flatter in the sky, its radiation will also be attenuated to a greater extent by the depth of atmosphere through which the light has to travel. The modelled estimate of a 1600-1700 W or thereabouts peak in the summer - around 4 times the level we saw today - seems to be a sensible ballpark. We shall see.

Happy Christmas!

Monday, December 20, 2010

More PV information

The scaffolding to put the solar panels up hadn't been removed yet, and hadn't quite been properly blocked. So I climbed up to the roof this morning and had a go at sweeping the five inches of snow away that was sitting on the panels, and stopping them from working. In combination with a slight thaw (2 degrees during the day) and doubtless the dark colour of the photocollector helping to warm the surface up, a lot of the snow and ice on the panels was removed. As a consequence, in some weak winter sunshine, we reached a peak power output of 134 W, and managed to harvest about 112 Wh - still hardly impressive, but a step up from the zero that had been generated in the last few days.

Some more technical details about the installation. It uses 10 x 230Wp Schott panels - it is thus a 2.3 kWp (kilowatt peak) system - and a StecaGrid 2010+ inverter. The efficiency of the inverter is pretty high - even at a 5% load, it is nearly 80% efficient; its published efficiency is given as 93.3%, which is the efficiency it achieves at 30% of its nominal power, 2000W.

Rayotec give a written quotation of the expected performance of the system. They estimate (based on a mathematical model) that the irradiation of the PV array over the course of a year will be about 16,400 kWh, and the amount of power generated will be around 10% of this, 1,683 kWh. This equates to about 729 kWh/kWp.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Quick PV update

I had a look at the data gathered so far - it was only on for a couple of hours fairly late this afternoon. The peak power generated was 181 W, and it has generated 90 Wh so far - enough to run an old-fashioned lightbulb for an hour and a half, in other words.

I'm wondering now about whether it's possible to get the PC/Ethernet interface card added post-installation.

Solar panel installation - photos

Under the stairs - big red isolation switch, and meter. Since we now have two sources of power, both the mains electricity and the inverter need to be switched off prior to any work being carried out. The solar supply feeds a line into the consumer unit, as far as I can tell. Incidentally, in the event of a power cut, or loss of AC for other reason (such as the main RCD tripping), the inverter is switched off, and waits for three minutes after power is restored prior to being re-energised.
The inverter, in the roof space. I may regret having it installed up there. The inverter generates and stores lots of data. Even in the fading light, there was something quite fascinating about watching the changing power output of the system. But I'd rather not sit in the loft and do that ....

Monday, December 13, 2010

Solar panel installation

... this started happening today.

The scaffolding team arrived last Tuesday. They had rung on Monday to say that they couldn't make it in on that day, but would come on the Tuesday. This was something of a surprise, since I was pretty sure they weren't due to be there till Wednesday. However, since they were happy to install it without our actual presence, it didn't matter that much.

They rang again on Tuesday morning, to confirm they would be there at 11ish. We were both out at work by then. By the time we got home, the scaffolding was all in place.

Despite potential disruption due to weather, the roof installation team arrived at 9am this morning. The electrician rang at 9.30, to say he'd be there a little later - which he duly was. The installation has proceeded smoothly so far, the only slight complication being that the panels on one section of the roof don't fit in a tidy array, so three will be lined up "portrait" and two running along the bottom of the roof section "landscape". The panels aren't up yet, but the metal framework that will support them is.

As far as cabling is concerned, the inverter will be in the loft, mounted on a board next to the chimney breast. A cable runs from there close to the boiler and then down to the consumer unit area, using cable ties to fix it to the pipe that takes gas up to the boiler. A meter has been mounted, along with a meaty isolation switch - there will be photos soon!

The installation team have been pleased with how smoothly it has gone, and hope to have finished early - they are implying lunchtime, rather than school pickup time.

How exciting is "arsenic-based" life?

The Guardian reported commentary on the discovery of bacteria that utilise arsenic thus:
A bacterium discovered in a Californian lake appears to be able to use arsenic in its molecular make-up instead of phosphorus – even incorporating the toxic chemical into its DNA. That's significant because it goes against the general rule that all terrestrial life depends on six elements: oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus.
To be fair, many scientists seem fairly conservative in their analysis. The most bullish commentary in the article comes from Professor Paul Davies, who says that the find is
surely the tip of a big iceberg, and so has the potential to open up a whole new domain of microbiology.
Personally, I think this is an overstatement. Arsenic-based life didn't evolve separately, it seems - although the bacterium (known affectionately as GFAJ-1) can use arsenic in place of phosphorus, it actually thrives better in a phosphorus environment. Further, it didn't evolve as a separate lifeform - it has a place on the tree of life that all earthbased organisms are part of, being one of the class of gamma proteobacteria. And whilst phosphorus may be one of the "big six" elements, I suspect that arsenic is much more like phosphorus than any elements are like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen or sulphur. It is always quite remarkable to discover life at "extremes", but it doesn't really change our fundamental analysis of the requirements for life.

Life has proved itself able to adapt to hostile environments, and to "evolve" to develop the ability to metabolise unusual chemicals, even including ones that don't exist in nature. In an interesting quirk of fate, this month sees the publication of the latest paper by Michael Behe, author of "Darwin's Black Box" and "The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism." In this paper (published in a peer-reviewed journal, please note), Behe reviews research on evolution at a molecular level, and demonstrates that most observed evolutionary changes represent loss or modification, rather than gain, of Functional Coded Elements (FCTs). The inference, which isn't drawn in the paper, is to highlight the gap between the claims that are made for evolution and what experimental work has actually been shown to be capable of.

That life is able to adapt to use arsenic in place of phosphorus demonstrates again how remarkable it is, how adaptable and well-designed (or well-designoid, if you like) it is. But the idea of "arsenic overlords" is more than a little premature.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Solar electricity

A possible new strand to the blog - though it should be said that many other new strands have turned out to be very short. We're having solar PV panels installed in the next couple of weeks - assuming the foot of snow that is currently on the roof has gone in time - and I (obviously!) have a vested interest in seeing how this goes.

I've been interested in the potential for using the sun to generate energy locally for a while - both hot water and electricity. Investigations into the costs using the sort of supplier through whom it was possible to get the government subsidies up to relatively recently has made me decide not to do it. The price seemed to be based on the money you would save over the lifetime of the equipment. Here's another way to look at it. If economically the systems were good, companies wouldn't be selling the systems: they would be buying land to install the systems on.

With the feed-in tariff, this has changed. For solar photovoltaic electricity, you have always been able to generate your own electricity, and sell unused power back to the grid (albeit at a ridiculously low price - it's far more worthwhile to use it to reduce your own bill rather than make money back). Now, to encourage people to take up the scheme, the government is also paying a feed-in tariff, which is a much larger fixed amount per unit. The consequence of this is that it is now worthwhile for companies to basically install the systems wherever they can, and use the feed-in tariff to pay for the system. So there are quite a few companies who are now prepared for you to have a system installed "for free" and get free electricity from it, in return for them collecting the government tariff.

The company who we have gone with, Rayotec, discourage customers from doing this. They point out that, given the amount of the feed-in tariff, you are actually better off borrowing money (if possible) to install the system, as you will recover the cost early in the lifetime of the equipment. The equipment has an expected life of around 25 years - their PV panels are made by Schott, who have a 24 year old panel on the roof of their factory, which is still running at 95% of its designed capacity. And with the feed-in tariff, the cost of the system can be expected to be repaid in around 10 years.

We are expecting a 10-panel system to be installed, which should give us a 2.3 kWp system. In addition to this, the system needs an inverter (which converts the DC output of the panels into mains frequency AC), and the gubbins to connect it to the mains and metering system. The scaffolding should be arriving within two weeks, and the system should be installed early in the following week.

I'll keep you posted, dear reader....

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Feminism - radical versus liberal

Having done sciences at university I was never terribly politically "enlightened", so although I have grown increasingly sympathetic to feminism over the years (largely due to a growing awareness of the shortcomings of many men, including myself!), I'd never had any terribly coherent framework for understanding these beliefs on a more organised basis. One of the "blessings" of the book The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles (The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series) - and there were many! It is another book I'd recommend - was a brief introduction to radical and liberal feminism in an essay by Anne Collins Smith, on the fact that the Harry Potter books "resonate with the values of radical feminism".

Liberal feminism, she explains, is grounded in the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill. This holds that women are people, and should be treated as such. This draws inspiration from the Enlightenment philosophy, emphasising individual rights and responsibilities. As a reformed Christian, of course, I'd point out that individual rights and responsibilities are something that flow out of a recovery of a biblical view of humanity, and in actual fact whilst the Enlightenment might have popularised this perspective, it had neatly severed it from its epistemological foundation - as demonstrated by the impact of the French Revolution. But put that to one side for now ....

The liberal feminist view turns out to be "surprisingly problematic". When we say that "women are people too", we are in fact expecting women to conform to a pattern of behaviour established in a world where intellectual life has been dominated by male values. Liberal feminism then, argues Smith, leads to the possibility that women are expected to become "just like men".

Radical feminism approaches the issue differently. It holds that the
root cause of women's oppression is the 'sex/gender system,' a set of social expectations that force identities onto people in such a way that a person's physical sexual identification necessarily determines that person's personality, permissible social roles, and acceptable economic occupations. In a patriarchal society, these expectations will tend to privilege men and disempower women.

"The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy," p.84
Some radical feminists argue that our society would be better if people felt freely able to mix and match "male" characteristics (control, independence, competition)and "female" characteristics (interdependence, community, sharing). The greater adoption of "female" characteristics would benefit society as a whole.

Smith then argues that, although there are relatively few strong female role-models in the Potter books, the values that lead to Harry's victory over Voldemort - love, interdependence, self-sacrifice - are actually "female" values - and that the agenda which is presented in Rowling's books is in fact consistent with a radical feminist agenda.

Again, I'd point out that love and self-sacrifice are, in fact, Christian values, as much as female ones - and community is something that the church should offer. In other words, a radical feminist should look at a church being "done properly", and find much about it which is consonant with his or her own values....

More nerdy fun with Google Instant Search

Following on from my earlier post, it follows that every single concept that Google knows about can be defined by the number of letters of it that have to be typed and its subsequent position on the list. So here's a little challenge - kind of the opposite of Googlewhacking (remember that?). What is the largest number of letters of a concept that you need to type before a concept appears on the top 5 list of possible searches (as Google Instant now seems to have settled on this display format)?

Conditions - either or Google UK, not signed in: say the number of letters (1-12?) you need to type, and the position in the list (1-5) that your target phrase appears. The phrase your looking for does need to be on the list - if it doesn't show up at all, it's not there, and doesn't count. Answers in comments, please ....

There are nearly 39 million combinations of 7 characters (counting letters and spaces), and 1017ish of 12 characters - similar to Googlewhacking, I think you'll have to be pretty obscure to need much more than 7 characters - or for your actual target phrase to be masked by more common long possible search phrases.

"Susan Pevensie" required eight letters (and appeared fourth on the list). I think this is the first search I've thought of which has needed eight letters.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Deathly Hallows 1 - reactions

Well, I enjoyed this. I strongly suspect that even more than the other films, you might struggle with this if you've not read the books. However, it really brought the action of the book to life, and part 2 next summer seems a long way away.

Whilst the principal actors (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint) may not be the best, I feel (along with many other people, I have little doubt) that I have grown with them - they embody the characters they portray. The review in "The Times" was rather sniffy, particularly about Grint. However, they are more than sufficiently competent to allow me to suspend my disbelief - which should be the objective in a film.

A couple of really striking moments: the point right at the beginning where Hermione casts an "Obliviate" spell on her own parents - throughout, I felt Watson did a thoroughly good job of conveying the emotion of a young person comprehending the weight of what was happening to a greater extent, in some ways, than the boys; the way in which Hermione (again!) narrates the story of the Deathly Hallows, with a shadow-style animation; and, for good measure, the sequence with Harry and Ron on his return, and the horcrux.

There are plenty of shock moments - startling even when you know that they are coming - and even (considering the darkness of the story) a fair number of laughs.

Rowling Incorporated have done a very good job of bringing the books to life over the last 10 years or so, and whilst I am really looking forward to the final part, I will also be sorry to see the end of the Harry Potter era.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A sonnet - in honour of C******* H*****

A sonnet, Miss Jones said, I had to write
On any theme or subject, great or small.
I faced the mighty challenge without fright,
Determined not to write mere dogger-all.
I sat and sucked my pencil deep in thought,
As up the mud-filled footpath traipsed my mind,
In fast pursuit of muse, who me had taught
The rules of iambs, feet and all such kind.
But she had gone, long gone - my heart was broke -
To distant regions there to learn herself.
All talent left my mind, my words did choke,
I barely managed to preserve my helf.
So any sonnet slight and naff will seem
Compared to this outstanding, beauteous dream.

Christians and Slavery - another snippet

I blogged here about the fact that the accusation that Christianity should be regarded as somehow particularly complicit in the slave trade was unfair, tracing Christian opposition to abuse of slaves back to the 1600s, and Quaker opposition to the practice of keeping slaves to the mid 18th Century.

I discovered that Christian opposition to the slave trade goes back yet further. In "The Stories of English", by David Crystal, he quotes a sermon in Old English, by Bishop Wulfstan, composed in 1014:
It is also no wonder that things are going badly for us since we now know very well that many men of long ago did not care very often what they did in word or deed. And the people, as it can seem, became very corrupted through numerous sins and through many evil deeds: through deadly sins and through crimes, through greed and through gluttony; through theft and through robbery; through slave-trafficking and through pagan vices, through deceits and frauds ...
In actual fact, he wrote it in Old English - "mannsylena" is the word translated by Crystal as "slave-trafficking". However, in the 11th Century, at a point when the available documentary evidence is quite slight, it is worth noticing that even then slave-trafficking was clearly understood within the church to be worthy of reproach.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What website defines the letter?

Using the set-up as described above (Google UK, Instant Search, signed out from Google account), typing a single letter, what is first on the top of the list of automatically generated websites?

It turns out to be ...
Shop Argos
Broadcaster BBC
Shop Currys
Shop Debenhams
Web service ebay
Web service facebook
Web service google maps
Web service hotmail
Shop ikea
Shop john lewis
Airline klm
Um, broadcaster tie-in? lotto
Web service msn
Shop next
Telecomms o2
Shop pc world
Web service quidco
Web service rightmove
Web service skype
Shop tesco
Web service utube [sic]
Telecomms vodafone
Broadcaster/web service BBC Weather - with Google's guess at local weather first
Broadcaster tie-in x factor
Web service youtube
Shop zara

The labels are assigned in relation to the origins of the website - whilst all the shops listed evidently have a substantial internet presence, they were established as "real world" shops, rather than e-tailers. There are nine such shops, and a further seven websites which are based on "real world" activity, and just nine which are fundamentally web-based activity. Boundaries are blurred, of course - the presence of shops on this list shows a significant internet presence, whilst entities like ebay and Skype have acquired significance on the Internet by changing the way things are done in the non-virtual sphere.

New Google metrics

Using the Google UK page, and Instant Search, signed out from Google account, how many letters of the following words need to be typed before the target phrase appears in the automatically-generated list of options?
Target phrase# Letters requiredPosition in list
Lady Gaga32
van Gogh310
sagrada familia41

Untranslatable words

I only discovered Matador Network this morning, by virtue of a tweet from Lauren Beukes. I think this is probably the first time I've received a remote link (rather than an alert of new material) that I personally considered interesting from Twitter as well - I'm much more interested in people's original content; I know that I don't have time to keep abreast with the internet, and to try would lead to madness.

Anyway, this article is about untranslatable words. My Portuguese/Brazilian acquaintances will be pleased to know that saudades makes the list (I think this is probably the most promoted untranslatable word! - it almost seems to be a matter of pride for Portuguese speakers, in a way that dépaysement, say, simply isn't for French speakers). Welsh acquaintances will perhaps be sad that hiraeth doesn't make the list. There are 489 comments which I didn't read, but I suspect they are further suggested contributions.

Beyond the list, the point at the end of the article is a worthy one - that the hardest part of learning a language isn't learning the rules, but understanding - nay, grokking - the concepts involved -
developing an inner reflex that responds to words’ texture, not their translated “ingredients”. When you hear the word “criminal” you don’t think of “one who commits acts outside the law,” but rather the feeling and mental imagery that comes with that word.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Commercial flying - the downsides

Not a great deal needs to be said about the upside of flying as a career - those people that are considering it tend to be pretty driven, and I do think that I have a great way to earn a living. However, before you start thinking how lucky are the people who are doing it, it's worth considering some of the less positive aspects of it.

- It costs a lot to get into - tens of thousands of pounds. If you don't succeed, that money is written off. Unlike all but the silliest vocational university degrees, half a pilot's licence has little transferable value. Furthermore, being a professional pilot is not a transferable skill. I know; I've tried.

- Whilst the technical knowledge you need to absorb and reproduce is not that complicated, there is a LOT of it.

- At the wrong time in the economic cycle, it is almost impossible to get the first job. In fact, you can end up paying more to get a job than you will be earning from it. Seriously.

- If you want two weeks of summer holidays with the family, don't work for an airline. If you don't want to work on Sundays, do something else. If you have regular commitments during the week, give them up. If you want weekends, forget it. Don't underestimate the significance of this. "That Friday feeling" exists - but not generally on Fridays. When your friends are getting married one every couple of weeks, you are likely to miss half of them with work. If your friends are doing regular jobs, their social activities will be geared around Friday and Saturday nights. Yours won't.

- The flight simulator is not "wow! What fun!" You are defending your job, every six months. If you fail too badly, you won't have a licence, which means you won't have a job.

- You have a medical every year. If you fail your medical, you won't have a licence, which means you won't have a job. There aren't many jobs in which you are challenged about how much you are smoking, drinking and exercising every year.

- If you break your arm, you lose your medical, which means you can't work.

- Whilst you may average only around 35 hours work per week (see my earlier post) with some companies, this masks some serious variations. The legal limit is 55 hours duty in any 7 days, 95 hours in any 14 days and 190 hours in any 28 days. Furthermore, when you've got up at or before 4 am, or got in from work after midnight, four days in a row, you seriously wonder if there have really only been 168 hours in the last week.

- You can't turn up to work with a hangover, and in fact for most of the week, you basically can't drink. You can't take a day's holiday at short notice if something comes up. You will miss half the things your children do at school. If delays mean you're missing an appointment, you generally have to put up with it (or organise the appointment better). The work you expected to do will probably be rewritten - more or less often, depending upon the airline - entailing occasional substantial reorganisation of arrangements.

Um, well, that's some of the stuff that nobody told me before I committed myself to this career. I hope it's useful....

Ryanair spinning pilot salaries

The Times yesterday (there's no point in providing a link, because it now exists behind a paywall. In any case, the quality of the report was low - a couple of quick phone calls to airlines to get their opinions ...) offered a report based on a press release by BALPA.

The gist of the report was that BALPA claim that pilots are having to stump up tens of thousands of pounds to get onto the first rung of the professional pilot career ladder, denying access to all but the wealthiest. (Hmm, that seems a familiar concept.) Frequently the "first rung" is almost at the level of an internship, with the new pilot earning barely enough money to cover the cost of the loans he or she had to take to get that far.

There is a safety issue here - Wikipedia on the Colgan Air crash points out...
Safety issues examined during the accident investigation process, included pilot training, hiring, and fatigue problems, leading the FAA to issue a "Call to Action" for improvements in the practices of regional carriers.
All companies have a responsibility to recognise that their objective isn't simply to make money, but to extend a duty of care to their employees.

However, what particularly annoyed me was a quote from the representative of Ryanair. I can't find the exact words - it's behind the paywall!! - but they said something along the lines of "pilots earn £150,000 and do 900 hours flying a year, which equates to 18 hours per week." This was published without comment from The Times, as the last word in the article.

I would suggest that this is quite naughty of Ryanair, and pretty gullible of The Times to accept the claim as it stands. I simply don't know what it is based on. The proportion of pilots earning £150,000 is negligible. The salary for a captain of a medium-sized jet aeroplane, once all benefits are taken into account, might be of the order of £100,000 - this quote from Ryanair already exaggerates this figure by 50%.

This is still misleading. Only around half of pilots are captains. The other half - first officers - earn substantially less, probably at best half that. And this is based on medium-sized jet aeroplanes and bigger. For people working for regional airlines, or flying turboprop aircraft, take another 30% off.

But what about that "18 hours per week on average"? Again, this is misleading. Yes, if you divide the legal limit of 900 flying hours per year by 52, you come up with an average of 18 hours per week. This would be barely 2 days work, one assumes! However, the more significant measure for pilots is the amount of duty hours they work. They don't arrive at work, sit in an aeroplane and fly, and then go home. Typically, the amount of time spent on duty will be 1.5-2 times the number of hours flown. So that's now 27-36 hours duty per week, on average - still pretty good, by a lot of people's standards, but nothing like the eyewateringly generous figure suggested by Ryanair. Of course, had they said "Our pilots earn an average of £55000 per year and work an average of 30 hours per week", this would hardly have made for such a dramatic soundbite. I suspect it would have been a lot closer to the truth, though.

It is still fairly well rewarded, but before you rush to judgment, there's more that ought to be said about the nature of flying as a career ....

Monday, November 01, 2010

Bidrivals - caveat emptor

The latest variation of Telebid/Swipebids/Swoopo is now advertising on Facebook, called Bidrivals.

It's pretty much exactly the same as the others in the way it runs. You PAY for bids - 40p a pop, basically - whether you win the auction or not. This is the absolutely crucial difference with a proper auction. A quick look suggests that each bid that is received increases the price of the item bid for by just 1p, and increases the time available for the auction by 10 seconds. The effect of the price increment being just 1p means that the sale price stays lower for longer, encouraging more people to bid.

As with the other such websites, I would like to point out that this is NOT LIKE EBAY! Imagine a gadget - say a 21.5" iMac, as is at the top of their list at the moment - that eventually drops at £100. Assuming the starting price is £10 (for the sake of argument), that represents 9000 bids. At 40p each, that is £3600 in payment for bids. You may be the lucky winner and get the computer for the price of one bid plus £100. But there are a huge amount of losers who spent money and have nothing to show for it - and statistically, you are much more likely to be one of them. And the real winner is Bidrivals, who got loads more in payment for bids than the computer was actually worth. This is not an auction site! It's gambling. And as with all institutional gambling, the game is massively loaded in favour of the house.

One small concession Bidrivals have apparently made to real auction sites is a "Buy it now" option. This invites you to buy sell some of the items at what is roughly market price. However, it is also calculated to deceive. When you look at the auction price of (say) £100 creeping slowly upwards, and a "Buy it now" price of £999, the pressure to gamble on the lower auction price becomes even greater.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Boggle(TM), Scramble(TM) and statistics

I've been fiddling around with Boggle letters and trying to learn more about the statistics associated with them. This is partly because of a phenomenon I noticed when playing Scramble, which is a Zynga version of a Boggle-like game that can be played on Facebook.

The phenomenon is that it seemed quite common for a word to crop up on successive boards - eg. the word "IRON" might appear on one board and then also on the next board. This isn't something I'd particularly noticed playing Boggle - the reason probably being is that Boggle games are substantially slower. Did this mean that the algorithm for generating letters was "cheating", or was it actually to be expected?

The short answer is that it is probably to be expected, though there is a lot more analysis that can be done. Here is a page where the most likely words to appear in a Boggle game are listed. I am assuming this is reliable; it's based on a sample size of 50,000 boards. Notice that the most common 4 letter words will each appear on roughly 5% of boards; the most common 5 letter words will appear on roughly 2% of boards.

Furthermore, from the lower graph, the mode number of 5 letter words is around 8, and the mode number of 4 letter words about 28.

The probability of a common five letter word repeating, then, is roughly 1 - (1 - 0.02)8 - that is, around 15% of the time. But the probability of a common four letter word repeating is 1 - (1 - 0.05)28 - that is, around 76% of the time. The probability of a specific word repeating in successive games is much lower - even for a common four letter word, only 5% of the time. But it doesn't have to be a specific word - you just have to notice any word being repeated to think - "That's odd, I had that in the last game."

More geeky numbery stuff to come another time, I expect .... and H/T Sofia Knutson for the link.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tax relief on pension to be reduced

Child benefit cuts and increases in university fees are going to hurt people who are going to struggle to afford it (I am really not happy with people taking on mortgage-sized loans before they have even started working, whether it's for a degree or for flying training). However, I think reducing tax relief on pensions is a good idea.

Paying into a pension currently represents one of the tidiest ways of evading - or at least, deferring - payment of tax for those people who fundamentally don't need the money to live on. In a fair number of cases, I would argue, people are making large payments (or getting employers to make large payments) into pension schemes because they simply don't need the money now. Forget the "people earning higher rate tax are extremely rich" thing: if you can afford for over £50,000 per year of what your employer is prepared to give you to go straight into a pension scheme - you know you are not going to need to spend it until you stop working! - then a) this is clearly money you don't need at the moment and b) your expectation of what you need from a pension in the future clearly has little to do with what you will need to live on when you are unable to work any more.

The fact that there has been none of the outcry over reduction of pension tax relief compared to what there was relating to child benefit and university fees is pretty suggestive of a silent "it's a fair cop" to me....

"English Next" - David Graddol

Well, this was interesting.

It's freely downloadable (duh!) and was suggested background reading prior to starting my next OU course, Exploring the English Language.

It was a brief examination of how the English language has developed as a world language through history, and a suggestion as to how things may develop in the next few years. Graddol argues that we may be at a unique point in history. In the past, English was, to a degree, regarded as the language of "civilised discourse" - particularly by those who wrote its history - ie. largely English-speaking intellectuals. This forced most non-English-first-language people into the role of the "outgroup", since the process of language learning marks native speakers out as the "gold standard", and regardless of whether people were "selected" to speak English or sought to learn, they would always be likely to be distinctively worse at the language then a native speaker.

Various things have led to this changing. The widespread adoption of English as a second language, or in some cases even the use of English as the principle language of education even at secondary level, means that we are currently seeing non-native English speakers of all ages from primary school upwards being taught English - there are possibly as many as 2 billion English learners around the world. China alone produces 20 million more English speakers each year!

Such an explosion lies well beyond the ability of the traditional EFL or ESOL system to support. As a consequence, English is being taught increasingly by non-native speakers. Further, once English is largely known worldwide, spoken increasingly in homes and educational institutions and so on, the demand for English teaching will rapidly be transformed - the need will be for people who can teach English to small children, rather than adults, and as remedial tuition, rather than to the brightest and most ambitious.

The coming era will also be marked by ability in English not being related to accuracy according to native English standards, but by competencies in areas of relevance to the user. The privileged position of the native speaker will thus slip away. Furthermore, as the world population becomes more plurilingual (to use the Euro-in-phrase), it will become harder and more expensive for native English speakers to learn and become competent in other languages, which will (although Graddol didn't labour this point) make them likely to be regarded as the "backward" ones in the new world linguistic order.

Thought-provoking. I'm looking forward to this course ....

Monday, October 11, 2010

Thoughts on "How Fair is Britain?"

This report was written by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, under the chairmanship of Trevor Phillips. It uncovered some interesting facts (at least, as they were reported by the Telegraph).

One of the things that struck me, following some discussion about what constitutes "extreme" wealth, was how this group analysed wealth. The Telegraph report said:
The total net household wealth of the top 10 per cent of the population is £853,000, almost 100 times more than the net wealth of the poorest 10 per cent, which is at most £8,800.
No reference to income is made at all in the context of what constitutes a wealthy family here, and a little analysis of this shows why. If I had a mortgage for £850,000 (supposing such a thing were possible), the interest alone (at around 5%) would cost me in excess of £40,000 per year. To pay £40,000 per year, I'd need additional gross income of £67,000 per year.

Or put it another way. A house worth £850,000 per year would probably be let out for £2500 or more per month. That's an annual income of £30,000.

To live in a house worth that amount not paying rent or mortgage is equivalent to an annual income of somewhere between £30,000 and £70,000. A person may technically have no income at all, and yet the benefit of their capital would mean that they were still better off than somebody earning close to the higher tax threshold.

This is consonant with my intuitive feeling that wealth has a lot more to do with ownership of capital, rather than income. It also helps to explain why even though I am comfortably inside the 10% of top earners, I have never felt as though we were well off, compared to the sort of people at whom newspaper supplements are pitched - if we owned our house, rather than having a large mortgage, we would still not be close to being amongst the 10% most wealthy, according to this measure. And yet the removal of child benefit, the suggested increases in university fees, and tax rises are all based on income, not ownership of capital - they are not targeted at the most wealthy at all.

The headline in the Telegraph talked about how the "coping" classes were struggling - "coping" in the sense of coping with an aging generation of parents and an increasingly expensive generation of children - and suggested that one of the emphases of the EHRC was that continuing to place increasing burdens on this group of people would lead to a backlash or breakdown.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Child benefit and high earners

The universal child benefit is to cease where one earner in a household is in one of the higher tax brackets. Well ... to be fair, we could see it coming, and it's not like we NEED it, I guess. However, while we're at it, are people earning above the higher tax threshold entitled to the state old-age pension? Should we get rid of that, too - another unnecessary universal benefit?

Also, that's another £2500 income we won't have, compared to a lower- earning family of the same size. Incidentally, if I wasn't around, would my wife then get this benefit reinstated? I thought this government were the family-friendly lot?

And I really hope that the government does what it has muttered about if it gets the deficit down, and reduces the tax burden at some stage. The proportion of my income that is paid as tax is pretty staggering. People "in my line" working almost anywhere else take home significantly larger amounts of money.

Grumble grumble.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Can I help you, reader?

A little corner of Twitter fluttered with discussion about the merits of including a glossary in a work of fiction earlier today. It was related to my review of Zoo City, below. There were a fair number of words in Zoo City with which I wasn't familiar - slightly unusual in itself, as I do have a relatively large vocabulary, I guess!

My initial thought was that they were all made up, but Lauren Beukes herself pointed out that they were actually South African slang. She graciously avoided saying so, but I felt guilty of hemisphericist thinking - if I (white, English-speaking, Northern Hemisphere) didn't recognise a word, it must not exist.

Various options were considered to help non-SA readers overcome this. Electronic versions of the book could have mouse-over contextual explanations. A glossary could be added to the book. But upon reflection, the glossary idea was set aside. I think this is a correct choice. There is a place and time for breaking down or stepping through a text, and as was pointed out, there already exist plenty of resources that could help the reader analyse in more detail. But when a person is reading a book, one fundamental thing should be the pace of the read.

For a SA readership, the use of local slang would not interfere with the pace of the book. Non-SA readers have a choice. They could skip the book because they can't cope with the cross-cultural experience. If so, they risk isolating themselves from all cultures other than their own. Or they could accept the book on its own terms, something that represents a voice from another culture ("Framling"), either mentally blipping out the hard bits, and hoping it doesn't interfere too much with the plot, or where necessary accepting a slower read and researching the meaning.

Everything we read is at some cultural distance from us. In the USUK today, we have reached the stage where we accept things like "high school" and "parking lot" as congruent with our own culture, even though it would actually be unusual to refer to things as such in the UK. Other things have become indistinguishable ("shopping mall" with its "food court").

When we read other books, we find ourselves at different cultural distances from our normal lives. How much does the world of Jane Austen, say, or Dostoyevsky, or Ginsberg, really have to do with us? And yet, we become used to inhabiting those mental spaces, even comfortable. It is very unusual, and quite exciting, to have the opportunity to be exposed to something which by occupying a cultural space we've not visited before, really opens our minds to new ideas. It also shows that culture isn't homogeneous - that it's not the case that the whole world aspires to a kind of suburban American dream. I think this was one of the reasons I so enjoyed Beukes' books. To attempt to simplify this with a glossary, flattening the "Framling" ideas into our own cultural grid, would be a retrograde step.

"Zoo City" by Lauren Beukes

From here.

Having read Beukes' previous book, Moxyland, I was really pleased to have the opportunity to review this one. It didn't disappoint.

Beukes is South African, and cut her writing teeth (as it were) as a journalist. Her command of writing is evident - it is a gripping and subtle read. More significantly for a novel, it is a work of strong imagination - labelling is a little difficult: cyberpunk kind of covers it partly, but there's also some SF and fantasy/magic in there.

This is a world in which killing somebody results in you acquiring an animal "familiar" - think of Pullman's daemons in His Dark Materials - which in turn leads to you being stigmatised in mainstream society. However, these bonds strengthen your ability to do "magic" - I think! The first person (there's only one in this book, after the disorientating four in Moxyland!), Zinzi, has a sloth as her familiar, and the circumstances in which she acquired the sloth are only gradually revealed. Her magical gift is the ability to find lost items - things of emotional significance to a person she senses as being connected to them through a psychic thread, which she can follow to locate them.

When a client dies before paying her, she takes on the task of trying to find a lost teen popstar ... and it hardly comes as a surprise that there is more to this case than meets the eye.

It is set against a backdrop of political asylum, urban decay and civil unrest within Africa. It is pretty violent, and yet, as far as I can tell, reasonable in its portrayal of society, as modified by the existential changes that follow from this SF/fantasy premise.

What else is good? It's the right length - around 350 pages! The book comes with extras - an offer for a tie-in CD, some short stories based on Moxyland, acknowledgements which filled in some background. It's interesting to see how the new media have changed the process of writing - Beukes was assisted by various people online and IRL along the way, which leads to interesting echoey depths to the book.

Two niggles. Firstly, the castlist is quite long, and also SA slang terms were used liberally, which I found somewhat disorientating. I probably need to read it again to make sure I've untangled everything. And secondly, the book is very "of the moment" - Lady Gaga, the South African World Cup and a new iPhone being typical reference points. The downside of the largescale absorption of things like this from the culture is that it's fairly likely that a good number of them will, within a couple of years, look dated. That will be a shame - the writing in Zoo City merits a good shelflife.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Passengers with wheelchairs

There is no excuse for discriminating against passengers with disabilities. I believe that airlines and other transport services should not only do everything reasonably within their power to make their services available to everybody, but that this should be done without additional cost to the passenger who needs the support.

However, there is an issue of "reasonableness". A certain airline has been criticised in some quarters because of this case. In short, the airline has expressed reluctance to carry wheelchairs weighing over 60kg for passengers, unless they can be dismantled into manageable sections. On the back of this, "all airlines" are being called upon to change their policy and make it easier for disabled people to fly.

Let's be clear about what is being asked of the airline. A chair that weighs 120-140kg weighs as much as seven heavy cases, and about four times the maximum permitted weight for passenger cases (and as much as two normal-sized people!!). It is also not designed to be manhandled - when it arrived from the factory or store, it would probably have been driven off a lorry, not lifted off. At the owner's house, it would stay on ground level. I have tried to carry one - with three other loaders - and it was almost impossible - as much as anything else, there are no handholds to facilitate it. They are built to move around using their own propulsion system. The passenger's chair is more expensive on its own than the luggage of the average family.

Travel is inconvenient for everybody: nobody really travels "their way" unless they are a millionaire. Airlines have arrangements in place to carry passengers with reduced mobility - including those who are paraplegic. Given this, it seems sententious to me to argue that the airline is discriminating against disability because it is unable to easily transport something that was never designed to be transported in the first place. It is as much the responsibility of the passenger to work with the airline and find out how they can be accommodated. Passengers with specific requirements who realise that they are making unusual demands and are polite about it are generally treated with respect, sympathy and consideration, and generally staff (and other passengers!) will do what they can to help out. People who are perceived to be making unreasonable demands as "my rights!" may get what they want in the short term, but end up alienating themselves from others and hardening attitudes against themselves.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hari on Haiti

I often disagree with Johann Hari, who writes for The Independent. However, if what he says about the role of corporations in Haiti and the complicity of states in the developed world is true, then he deserves to be more widely read, on this issue at least.

Benedict XVI - UK Tour 2010

The transcript of the Pope's speech at Westminster Hall can be found on the BBC website here. He was arguing for the need for a society to continue to have a role for expressions of faith within public dialogue - that the relegation of religion to a purely private sphere is intolerant, and weakens society.

Obviously, he did not name names. However, within secularism, Stephen Gould (in "Rocks of Ages") argued precisely that the "magisterium" of faith should be private, in contrast to science and reason-based knowledge, which should be the basis of public discourse. Inevitably, he did little in the way of epistemology to justify this position. Richard Dawkins goes further in his abhorrence of faith and religion - lumping all religions together with superstitions and anti-science, declaring them to be mental viruses whose influence is entirely parasitic upon society. There are other oft-quoted writers who argue that religion is required for good people to do bad things.

You have to be fairly dishonest (or ignorant) about history to cast out the beneficial influence of some parts of Christianity - though it would be fair to point out that Benedict didn't mention the Crusades or the Inquisition. Whilst I have some sympathy with the content of his speech, and the need for religious conscience to have an impact on public discourse, I would disagree with him when it comes to his suggestion that this discussion will in part be between secular authorities and the "Holy See" as he refers to it. I would suggest that Benedict is carrying out his own form of revisionism in claiming the benefits of dialogue of conscience as being derived in part from the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church frankly does not have a good track record in this regard. Christian conscience, in biblical terms, finds expression primarily in the individual voice reacting to secular powers. The Catholic Church operates as an alternative power (as, for that matter, do many religious organisations - cults, established churches, theocracies, even Calvin's government in Geneva), and it's the defence of that power and the attempt to reinforce that power that has led and continues to lead to abuses.

I believe people must be allowed freedom of conscience - this is a freedom that people over centuries have sacrificed their lives for, and is probably one of the most important marks of a civilised society. But I don't believe this means that institutions (including religious institutions) have the freedom to operate as alternatives to society. It was the sense that Catholicism was supposedly answerable to higher values that, in my opinion, allowed such things as the Crusades, the Inquisition, the abuses that Luther was reacting against at the time of the Reformation, and the abuse of cared-for children. There should be freedom of conscience, and a place for dialogue upon that basis, yes - but between the society and individuals, not between secular powers and religious powers.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The latest variation on "Telebid" ...

... is upon us.

It's called "SwipeBids" - extraordinary candour, since the company running it does pretty much swipe your bids. There are also nice stagey "blogs" promoting the site - here's one. "Due to high levels of spam", comments are manually filtered - though I strongly suspect that although my comment was not spam, it won't be appearing in the comment list.

The model is pretty much exactly as spelt out here. It is not an auction - SwipeBids are fundamentally not interested in the money they get for the item they are using as a "prize" - they get far more from the accumulation of "paid-for" bids. This scheme is nothing like eBay.

By all means play their game if you're feeling lucky. If you know what you're about, it's a better bet than the lottery. However, bear in mind that the better you do out of their website, the more other people are being screwed. That's not a characteristic of a real auction.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

AirPort - self-assigned IP address for Macs

We hit a snag with our Macbook. All of a sudden, it wasn't connecting to the wireless network. Upon investigating how "AirPort" - the wireless network client thingy - was behaving, we discovered that, although supposedly using DHCP to get an IP address, it seemed to have assigned itself an IP address which was totally not going to be on the network.

A little searching came up with this discussion - going back several years! And wading through the pages revealed that a) the problem was relatively common, b) had been around for years and c) there was no obvious fix for it.

The links into MacWorld resulted in suggestions like restarting AirPort (which most times made no difference) and restarting the router (which also made little difference - in any case, we knew it was still behaving, as there are all sorts of other things connected to the network and functioning properly).

The most meaningful suggestion I came across was that it was something to do with the Mac firewall. Going to "Security" under System Preferences and then the Firewall tab, I noted that "Set access for specific services and applications" was selected. I added "configd" to the list of specific services, and it started working again. Whether this was the issue, or whether it will continue to work, I don't know. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Leak of sensitive information!

There was shock yesterday when a list of names, telephone numbers and addresses were unveiled at a press conference. The press conference was called by a security firm, to highlight security vulnerabilities of which the general public might not have been aware.

"Obtaining such information was child's play!" exclaimed Mr Sturmin Ticup. "All we had to do was photocopy pages of a telephone directory - something even the lowest grade manager could learn to do in no more than a few days. In fact, we could have brought the whole telephone directory, except it didn't fit in my briefcase." He added that it also contained phone numbers for various businesses, which could be very useful for people who wished to mischievously ring them up and annoy them.

We showed some of the sheets of sensitive information to a Mrs H. Trellis, who was walking past at the end of the conference. "I'm personally appalled at how easy it is to get hold of this sort of sensitive information," she said, when asked a leading question. "I'm ex-directory, but think how easy it would have been for my own phone number to be in there if that wasn't the case!"

Friday, July 23, 2010

Ofsted and Mission Creep

Nobody could really have an issue with the concept of an Office for Standards in Education. This was, I believe, something that came from the Conservative government of the 80s, with the aim of providing a national, centrally-defined standard for education, and undermining the left-wing agenda that dominated an educational establishment that was largely libertarian and socialist-leaning.

However, I do object to the mission creep that has taken place over the years. School are no longer judged simply on the basis of the standard of education taking place - or rather, the definition of education has been stretched to such an extent that it bears very little resemblance to what the man on the Clapham Omnibus would assume it was. Ofsted doesn't simply inspect schools, it defines the standards that schools are to meet. The goalposts move regularly, requiring significant amounts of management effort simply to ensure that "when HMI calls", the school has jumped through the regulatory hoops. It is difficult to say what value the changes in terminology and pet projects driven by Ofsted add to the education of the children

To an extent, it's not even as though it makes much difference. There are certain aspects of the work of schools which override others. For example, Ofsted currently look at "The extent to which pupils develop workplace and other skills that will contribute to their future economic well-being." But the likelihood is that this section will simply mirror the overall educational attainment of the school - if the school is "adding lots of value" to the children, it will score well here. If not, it will score badly. So why bother assessing it separately? The answer is that it is part of government/Ofsted dogma to show this - a mandate it has taken upon itself. But this is political and social - in my opinion (and that of many others, I'm pretty sure) people are not just units of economic productivity. A debate should be had before the government, or its inspector, asserts that the role of education is the future economic well-being of pupils.

Furthermore, the tentacles of Ofsted have gradually spread over the years. By redefining education as (pretty much) child-rearing, Ofsted have assumed the role of guardians of (broad-sense) education not only in schools and colleges, but in pre-schools and even for child minders.

To a degree this is understandable. Government money goes into this - child-care vouchers and free nursery places - so perhaps the government wants to know that something useful is going on. But to be honest, the standard of assessment is pretty imprecise (most schools wouldn't take seriously the assessments done by nursery schools, and would carry out their own baseline assessment). And for most parents, even the concept of expecting educational objectives to be met by a childminder is utterly absurd - they simply want somewhere safe where their children can play for a few hours (or possibly do homework) until the parents get home from work. Unsurprisingly, the increasing administrative burden and inspection regime on registered childminders has resulted in increasing numbers of people vocationally well-adapted (compassionate, sympathetic, playful) to childminding packing it in, and those people who aren't what a parent would naturally look for in a childminder getting more work and being able to justify increasing charges due to restricted supply.

Even so, it wouldn't matter so much if there was any sense of an absolute standard in such measurements. But it feels as though inspections aren't carried out with any level of objectivity. Schools "in a category" (coded language for having to improve - in special measures, or under notice to improve) find that on repeated visits by people checking progress, they hear them muttering under their breath that they can't see why the school was placed in the category. Different inspectors have their own hobby horses. Inspections for nurseries and childminders are even more subjective than those for schools. My own children's preschool was criticised by one inspector for not having staples in the stapler that was in the office corner. When the staff commented that this might result in injury to the three- and four-year-olds, the inspector replied that they would only hurt themselves on it once.

And even so, since in large sections of the country, parents effectively have little or no choice about where their children will go to school, it's all something of a sterile debate anyway. If the effort that was directed to repeated inspections and implementing initiatives were instead given to the schools (who increasingly understand where they are failing to do the best by their pupils, but are strapped for resources to do much about it), that would surely be more helpful.

As a paradigm for the way government has run over the last 30 years - a central organisation created to address a specific issue which has grown like topsy, and largely unaccoutably - Ofsted could hardly be bettered. Unfortunately, the new government has shown little sign thus far of any willingness to tame this huge, unelected beast which has ended up with such enormous control over the lives of our children.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Scamwatch - make of this what you will

A new telephone 'scam' has arrived.
"I received a call from a 'representative' of BT, informing me that he was disconnecting me because of an unpaid bill. He demanded payment immediately of £31, or it would be £118 to re-connect at a later date.

The guy wasn't even fazed when I told him I was with Virgin Media, allegedly VM have to pay BT a percentage for line rental!

He realized I wasn't believing his story, so offered to demonstrate that he was from BT. I asked how and he told me to hang up and try phoning someone - he would disconnect my phone to prevent this.

AND HE DID!! (NO HE DID NOT!) My phone was dead - no engaged tone, nothing - until he phoned me again.

Very pleased with himself, he asked if that was enough proof that he was with BT. I asked how the payment was to be made & he said credit card, there and then.

I said that I didn't know how he'd done it, but I had absolutely no intention of paying him, I didn't believe his name or that he worked for BT.

He hung up.

I rang 1471 and phoned his fictitious 0800 number – not recognised.

I phoned the police to let them know: I wasn't the first! It's only just started apparently but it is escalating.

Their advice was to let as many people as possible know of this scam. The fact that the phone does go off would probably convince some people it's real.

This is good but he wasn't very ingenious. He gave the wrong number - it should have been the BT Business number 0800 800152. The cutting off of the line is very simple; he stays on the line with the mute button on and you can't dial out - but he can hear you trying. (This is because the person who initiates a call is the one to terminate it). When you stop trying he cuts off and immediately calls back. The sad thing is that it is so simple that it will certainly fool some people. Obviously, if this scam is real, once they have your credit/debit card details, there is nothing to stop them cleaning out your account.
(Notification through the usual friend of friend of friend system)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Apparently ...

I write like
Leo Tolstoy

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

The peace dividend, and other cuts

Back at the end of the Cold War, we were told that one of the big benefits of negotiating a settlement of sorts with the Warsaw Pact would be the "peace dividend" - the money we wouldn't be spending on defence, which could then be ploughed back into tax cuts, or making ploughshares, or whatever. Even in my youth, this struck me as being something of a mixed blessing. £1 million spent on buying a tank, for example, doesn't simply procure a lump of metal. It pays for the salary of the people who are involved in putting it together - which in turn, pays for the salary of the people in the supermarket near the tank factory ... and so on. £1 million cut from the forces budget represents 10 fewer people employed. So the peace dividend is really a cut in spending, which ultimately means (in simple terms) people at some level "lower down" have to find alternative work.

In fact, even with the thawing of the Cold War, the security situation didn't vastly improve (or was it that certain interests couldn't allow the overall security situation to improve? Is that too conspiratorial?). Wildcard governments, international terrorism and religious fundamentalism simply ended up with a greater influence on policy. Money was redirected rather than cut.

With the astringency that we are seeing following the ballooning of public spending over the last few years in the UK, a similar process has to take place. The government talks about spending cuts - but the money that is being spent is largely, ultimately, being spent on people's salaries. So the government says that it is going to do away with ARQ (a random quango) and save £50 million per year - and 200 people have to find new jobs. And the people who depended upon their money - the shops, services, piano teachers, vets, decorators - also risk losing part of their income.

That's the problem with cuts. Everybody wants to see the government spending less taxpayer's money - but when an economy has ended up leaning more and more upon government spending, it hurts everybody to be weaned off it. Too many people don't see the link between "government spending" and themselves. "I think the government should spend more on schools/health/defence/police", the vox pops say - but when asked if they would be prepared to pay more tax to fund it, the answer suddenly changes. Similarly, lots of people assume that government spending cuts are a good thing - until the impact becomes apparent upon people to whom they are close.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Avertible catastrophe?

Report on the Gulf of Mexico oilspill here. Do the Americans really partly have themselves to blame?
The Dutch know how to handle maritime emergencies. In the event of an oil spill, The Netherlands government, which owns its own ships and high-tech skimmers, gives an oil company 12 hours to demonstrate it has the spill in hand. If the company shows signs of unpreparedness, the government dispatches its own ships at the oil company's expense. "If there's a country that's experienced with building dikes and managing water, it's the Netherlands," says Geert Visser, the Dutch consul general in Houston.

In sharp contrast to Dutch preparedness before the fact and the Dutch instinct to dive into action once an emergency becomes apparent, witness the American reaction to the Dutch offer of help. The U.S. government responded with "Thanks but no thanks," remarked Visser, despite BP's desire to bring in the Dutch equipment and despite the no-lose nature of the Dutch offer --the Dutch government offered the use of its equipment at no charge. Even after the U.S. refused, the Dutch kept their vessels on standby, hoping the Americans would come round. By May 5, the U.S. had not come round. To the contrary, the U.S. had also turned down offers of help from 12 other governments, most of them with superior expertise and equipment --unlike the U.S., Europe has robust fleets of Oil Spill Response Vessels that sail circles around their make-shift U.S. counterparts.
H/T Mike Gene via Telic Thoughts.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A small leap (backwards) in dynamic networking

I have a wireless network printer. Windows XP, Windows Vista and Mac OS X all cope with the fact that the printer has a dynamically allocated IP address. They find the printer on the network, and send output to it, with no problems.

Windows 7 doesn't. If the printer doesn't keep its IP address (as it is unlikely to, with about nine or ten devices all of which use the network and a somewhat flaky router/modem setup which needs resetting several times a day), the print spooler just quietly sits on the document, waiting for a printer to pop back up in that place.

Now, the whole point about dynamic allocation of IP addresses is that it means you don't need network administration - the whole thing is done automatically. That was a step forwards.

I had a quick scout around for some ideas about a fix. I found two, on forums.

1) Delete the "old printer" on the network, search the network and add the new one. In other words, pretend that the dynamic wireless network is just a misbehaving static network.

2) Configure the printer with a static IP address. In other words, pretend that DHCP never happened, and we're back with static networks again.

I can add another suggestion. Don't bother deleting printers. Add identical printers at every valid IP address, then the computer is bound to find one when you ask it to print.

The third option was tongue in cheek, in case you couldn't tell. And really, the first two ought to be as well. If there's no way around this in Windows 7, and I can think of no good reason - security, technical, protocol - why there shouldn't be, then the newest operating system on the block has tidily made one of the more useful features of dynamic networking unavailable. Nice one!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The manglation of the English language - 126 in a series of 500

On the back of a Sainsbury's voucher, it says "the code must be inputted into the checkout page ...". I grimace.

Firstly, the word "input" was originally a noun, not a verb. Secondly, if it is a verb, then the relevant participle is surely just "input" - in the same way that one doesn't say "the food must be putted away." Thirdly, surely the whole point about "input" as a verb is that it implies a level of "in-ness" - so saying "input into" is tautological.

Friends, behold the rise of an illiterate generation. And the rise of a bunch of pedants futilely and ineffectually railing against them.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

"The Medium is the Message"

I don't know whether Marshall McLuhan's famous quote was ever intended to reflect upon the situation we have today with the media.

It would be kind of comfortable to think that the news media were detached observers, providing information about the state of the world to people who would not otherwise have access to it. For at least a century, this has failed to work in the context of newspapers. Even a relatively concise history of the early part of the century, such as The Making of Modern Britain: From Queen Victoria to VE Day, highlights the way in which the newspapers barons sought to influence opinions, and eventually to shape the political dialogue.

For a long time, it felt (at least, to those of us with no real axe to grind - okay, so by not being "part of the solution" perhaps we were really "part of the problem") as though whilst the newspapers were partisan, it was at least possible to trust the BBC to be detached and objective. But in the last few months, I have become less confident in this.

It has always been the case that certain programmes ("Today" on Radio 4, "Newsnight" on BBC2, "Question Time") had a public profile that was large enough to match the gravitas of anybody they chose to interview. But at some stage, either the editorial staff or at least the presenters seem to have become aware of this, and no longer happy with merely presenting the news, have seemed to want to direct the news.

Interviews on "Today" rarely seem to be opportunities for a genuine give and take between journalist and interviewee. Instead, the journalist jumps from thread to thread, trying to find a way of getting the interviewees to say something ill-advised or lose their patience, or find a subject that the interviewees aren't able or willing to give a straightforward answer to, feeling little compunction about interrupting them, and more intent on preventing anything being broadcast that the interviewees have prepared to say. The debate on the political side has ended up controlled by spin doctors, who are priming people at government level about what to say. But the net effect is that interviews cease to be an opportunity to hear how politicians justify the issues of the day, and instead becomes a verbal sparring match between two people, with little interest as to what useful information, if any, the listening audience will take away from the interview.

On top of that, particularly over the last few weeks, with the establishment of the new government, it has become obvious that not only the newspapers, but also the BBC, have a bias to "generate news". So news organisations with editorial input, including the BBC, directed much effort to trying to find weak points as the coalition between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives was established. In its presentation, this moved beyond a simple scrutiny of policies, and much closer to a sustained attempt to attack the coalition, and undermine the government. That is no longer news reporting: that is an attempt to generate news.

The same thing happened this week, in my opinion, with both the Question Time issue, constructed by the BBC, and the David Laws issue, largely constructed by the Daily Telegraph. In the case of Question Time, in the week of the Queen's Speech, a platform was given to relative diehards - John Redwood, Alastair Campbell - who frankly have little to do with the attempts to forge a new form of government in the UK. In the case of Laws, the media have not really done anything to improve the financial accountability of elected representatives, but have succeeded in generating coverage of the private life of an MP (something he had specifically been trying to protect) and depriving the government (and thus the country) of an intelligent minister. But no doubt they got lots of hits on their website, and got themselves talked about.

It is too much to expect that any news organisation can be a completely detached observer anywhere. But surely most people still believe that what they read, hear and see should reflect the issues of the day, not be seeking to shape them. It would be great if the mainstream media spent less time convincing themselves that McLuhan gave them a mandate to try and shape society.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Fridge efficiency

Efficiency of electrical appliances (and other things, for that matter) uses a scale of A-G, with A being the most efficient. However, the scale has proved to be inadequate - there are now also A+ and A++ efficiency scores.

I wondered where this would end.

A+++ - this fridge generates its own electricity

A++++ - this fridge converts atmospheric CO2 into coal.

A+++++ - DO NOT SWITCH ON! This fridge reverses the expansion of the universe, and thus the arrow of time, preventing you from switching it back off again, ultimately leading to a reverse big bang ....

Visual Elements

I've really enjoyed John Emsley's book, Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements- an eminently dippable book about the chemical elements. I had started work on a website which would hopefully capture some of the interest of the book, but then I discovered this one, which to be honest does a better job than I am likely to be able to, and which I therefore recommend.

Oddly enough, I take issue with the Damien Hirst quote on the front page - who talks about "The perfect symbol of Man's attempt to understand, and ultimately to control, nature." It's not clear what Hirst was talking about - most likely the Periodic Table, possibly the concept of elements - and a cursory search on the internet failed to provide clarification. However, it implies that the Periodic Table is a merely human construct - that in using it, we are imposing our own order on nature.

As A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Naturemakes clear, though, the periodic table wasn't really invented so much as discovered. It's not merely a matter of interpretation, with one person's opinions as good as another's - the table represents an ordering of nature that exists independently of human minds. An alien species that somehow managed to develop chemistry (though The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discoveryshows just how amazing it is that this should happen!) would also come up with the Periodic Table, ultimately.

Both Privileged Planet and A Meaningful World slant towards the belief that the presence of this order, and the fact it can be discovered (not constructed) by human minds, is evidence of another mind, ordering the universe. The alternative is that something as elegant and complex should emerge as the product of chance - or as just one possible outcome in the infinitude of a multiverse.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Gender and colours

The definitive subjective work on gender and colour perception can be found here. Courtesy of Randall Munroe of XKCD fame.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A quiet revolution

The events of the last week have potentially revolutionised the nature of government in the UK. Things could have been very different. Gordon Brown could have held on until he was defeated with a no-confidence vote. David Cameron could have simply tried to form a minority government, or disregarded the Lib Dems. Both had the sense to realise that they simply didn't have enough popular support for this option to be the way forward. So Brown resigned (once it was clear there was a way forward) and Cameron negotiated hard to co-operate with Clegg - and the Liberal Democrats were prepared to co-operate. None of these were givens; all were necessary for the well-being of the nation; and it is a matter of satisfaction that all happened.

We now have a government which is representative of the votes of a clear majority of the electorate, and one which has a plan of work and a basis for carrying it out.

Certainly, there are some people within the Liberal party who are not happy about the thought of working with the Conservatives. However, the nature of government that the Lib Dem party has been pushing for since they have sought proportional representation was bound to be collaborative, rather than confrontational. Government versus opposition has been shown for decades not to be good for a country - you can't keep pushing in the same direction without ending up somewhere too far from where everybody wants you to be. Perhaps, if the parties can get over their partisanship at least at a governmental level, the ideal would be a government formed with the agreement of all parties, but with the make-up dictated ultimately by the majority party, who also has the prime minister. But that's a way ahead.

Why only potentially revolutionary, though? How might it not work?

The coalition might not hold together. If three, or 15, or 37 months down the line, the coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats breaks down in acrimony, then one or other party - most likely the Lib Dems - is likely to be regarded as having broken the government. The electorate would punish that party in the polls, and there would be an abrupt return to the old system.

The Liberals might lose their identity. This seems unlikely at the moment, and should be unlikely given the structure of the coalition - they have the independence to vote according to their party sensibilities, as long as it isn't a no-confidence vote. So there is no reason that they should simply end up being regarded as a wing of the Conservative party.

The opposition to the setup at grassroots Liberal and Conservative party level could make it untenable for the coalition to continue to work together. This would be a shame, and shortsighted of the grassroots, I think. Membership of the Lib Dems has increased in the last few days, apparently, according to a voice on Twitter - now it is possible to be a Liberal and have a voice in government - it is no longer necessary to align yourself with Labour or Conservative if you want to influence government. The new regime should strengthen the "third way" in British politics. The harrumphs from the people who simply want to be part of a club which will never have enough members to have any influence will be outweighed by the cheers from the people who never particularly wanted to choose between red and blue but couldn't see that there was an alternative.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The case for electoral reform

Conservative seats won: 306
Labour seats won: 258
Liberal Democrat seats won: 57

Votes cast per Conservative seat: 35,021
Votes cast per Labour seat: 33,338
Votes case per Liberal Democrat seat: 119,397

If the seats had been divided in proportion to votes cast:

Conservative: 234
Labour: 188
Liberal Democrat: 149
UK Independence Party: 20
British National Party: 12
Scottish Nationalist Party: 11
Green: 6
Others: 34

One of the effects of PR would be to give the BNP seats in parliament, which is a slightly unnerving thought. But then, since they represent a proportion of the electorate, where their policies aren't actually illegal, a liberal society has to be prepared to give them a voice.

It is very apparent looking at these figures, how strongly opposed the two largest parties will be to electoral reform, which would completely undermine their ability to dominate the political agenda for generations. But it is also very apparent that the fact that one political party can run a government and control the political agenda for 5 years on the basis of less than a third of the popular vote has nothing to do with democracy. Also, if you don't vote for the MP that gets elected in your constituency, your vote is completely irrelevant in the current system - you might as well not have voted. And in most constituencies, one party has such a dominant position that anybody with a different political opinion is in effect disenfranchised.

Sources: Twitter (Rillaith, GdnPolitics), BBC

A hung parliament - what does it mean?

You may know already, in which case you are excused from reading this - and welcome to add comments, and correct me if I'm wrong.

A hung parliament means that there is no individual party that has an overall majority of the seats. With 650 seats in the House of Commons, a single party needs to secure 326 of them to have a majority. Otherwise, all of the other parties ganging up together have the capability of defeating the government when it attempts to pass any law, potentially incapacitating government. Most significantly, this is relevant in the case of a "No confidence vote" - a vote which declares that the rest of the Commons have no confidence in the government. I believe that if the government loses a no-confidence vote, then the prime minister has to resign.

The ball is, initially, in the court of the Prime Minister. Gordon Brown continues to be the Prime Minister, in constitutional terms, until he no longer has the confidence of parliament (ie. he loses a No Confidence vote). He could do various things. He could attempt to form a minority government, although he is the leader of only the second largest party (at the time of writing, Labour have less than 249 seats, whilst the Conservatives have 291 and the Liberals have 50, and about 35 more to be declared). However, this almost certainly wouldn't work - the Conservatives could very reasonably call for a No Confidence vote in these circumstances - Labour had fewer voters and fewer seats, and therefore don't really have a mandate to continue to be the party of government.

Brown's next obvious option would be to seek a coalition with the Liberals. This may still not give the government an overall majority (315 seats, once all the votes are counted?)! By drawing in the other small parties, it may be possible to organise an alliance which technically commands an overall majority. However, alliances of lots of parties tend to be unstable, and it would be unlikely that such a government would last very long.

Incidentally, this is why the situation is regarded as so uncertain at the moment. A lot depends upon exact numbers of MPs, and people are vary cagy about revealing options when they don't know exactly what they might be.

Another option is for Brown to resign. In some ways, this would be the "honourable" thing to do, since Labour "lost" to the Conservatives. There are other potential benefits for the Labour party. The Conservatives also won't have an overall majority, and they are likely to find it harder to form a coalition government with other parties than Labour. The effect of this is that it may also lead to a government that doesn't last long, but the failure of the government would be a Conservative failure.

Probably the best option, given the financial crisis that is being faced, would be for the three parties to recognise that none of them commanded the enthusiasm of the voters, and that they ought to work together to deal with the economic crisis faced by the country. Either Brown or Cameron could organise this - and form a government made up of all three parties. Neither wants to, of course - the party manifestos would go out of the window, and the government would have to work together for what it decided (together) would be the good of the country. But if any conclusion can be drawn about the outcome of the elections, it is that no party has been given a mandate by the electorate to do the things they want to. If the parties take seriously their stated views about "listening to the electorate", this deserves serious consideration.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Don't forget to vote!

That will be all. Thankyou.

"How feminism [messed] up my love life" - Lori Gottlieb

When I asked several women what "feminism" meant, I got a lot of responses that boiled down to having the same opportunities as men. But the more we talked, the more we came up against the fact that our needs are different and that we might not, in fact, want the same things. And when it comes to dating, we don't have the same opportunities as men, especially as we get older.

This might seem obvious, but somehow I thought that I could just have a baby on my own, put my dating life on hold for a year or two, and then get right back in the game. I thought that's what "equality" and "having it all" meant.

Then, when I was ready to date again, I went to a Thursday night speed dating event. I was now over 40 and everything had changed.

"Mr Good Enough", Lori Gottlieb
Somewhat less blunt than Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both, though addressing related issues, is this new book by Lori Gottlieb. Again a journalist, but now writing not as an observer, but as a participant - Gottlieb finds herself in her early 40s unmarried, and wondering, given that this was not how she envisaged her life unfolding, how she got here.

In many ways, this is a sadder book than Unhooked - the women who find themselves unhappy with the hookup culture at least have the option of backing away from it. Gottlieb writes about women whose expectations have been shaped by glossy magazines and dramas (Ally McBeal, Sex and the City) - all written if not by feminists, then with strong feminist sympathies - who discover that Sunday Brunch with the girls every week is not what they really want, but that it's almost impossible now to do anything about it.

I know that this will arouse the ire of various feminists who will say, "But what about men? Doesn't this apply equally to them?" The answer to that is sorry, but it just doesn't, as the quote from Gottlieb above suggests. The reasons are complex, and Gottlieb does a very good job of identifying them, not simply in sociological terms, but from her own experience.