Wednesday, 25 September 2013

We need a futile gesture at this stage

...I’d learnt from the OU’s high-energy Vice-Chancellor, Martin Bean, how when he took on the job in 2009 his first task was to save even the possibility of part-time students having access to loans, without which the OU would have been crushed. He was bemused by the whole introduction of fees, which, bizarrely, may end up costing the government more than the previous system. He is now fighting an absurd restriction that forbids loans to students who want to take a degree equivalent to one they already have. So if someone with a BA in Economics wants to retrain for computer sciences they can’t get a loan. In an age where everyone calls for the need to change not to speak of a "flexible workforce"... England under the Coalition
I've put the really shocking bit in bold. Let that bit sink in. 'the ... introduction of fees ... may end up costing the government more than the previous system.'

We know how fees have already affected individual students. Back in 2011, this is how it the burden on our students was reported, not in the Guardian or the New Statesman, but in the Torygraph, for heaven's sake:
Figures show that undergraduates in just two other countries – the United States and Korea – currently pay more for a degree than in the UK. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showed that students were charged the equivalent of almost £3,100 a year for a university course in 2008/9.
It put the UK above Japan and Australia and significantly higher than European competitors such as France, the Netherlands and Sweden, where tuition is free.
Separate figures show that UK students currently contribute two-thirds of the cost of a degree course – more than double the OECD average and around twice the proportion a decade ago.
The findings come before the cap on tuition fees almost trebles to £9,000 for students starting courses in 2012, which could lead to the UK topping the table in coming years.
The universities are also taking a hit:
Universities will face significant financial pressures during the next few years following changes to funding and higher tuition fees, according to a new report by Universities UK (UUK).
The research revealed that despite institutions planning for changes, the government's overhaul has had a major impact on the HE sector, which could affect the UK's skilled workforce and economic growth in the future.
The study found that in 2012, England's universities recruited around 28,000 fewer students than expected.
The study also found a drop in postgraduate students and significant falls in 2012/13 in the numbers of new entrants to UK universities from abroad.
In short, it's rubbish being a student in this country, under the new regime, and it's not that great being a university. The only possible excuse for inflicting this degree of pain is that we're saving shedloads of money that the country/taxpayers can't afford to spend. Right, Nick?
State spending on higher education will be still be huge at £2bn. Given the fiscal pressure, we have to rebalance the contribution or cut student numbers—and that’s not something I want.
Unfortunately, Nick and chums haven't yet convinced everybody that saddling students with an eye-watering debt burden and throwing the higher education sector into chaos has actually achieved anything at all. The Higher Education Policy Institute, for example doesn't buy it:
This report analyses the evidence of the cost of the Government’s reforms to the funding of higher education effective from this year.
It concludes that the cost will be much higher than has been admitted, both because repayments of loans is likely to be much lower than claimed and also because the inflationary impact of the fees will mean that the level of benefits will be increased.
The report concludes that not only will the new arrangements prove much more expensive than previously thought, but even that they may be more expensive than the arrangements they replaced.
I guess that all we can do at this stage is to hope that throwing the universities into crisis and selling future generations of graduates into a lifetime of debt servitude is a thought-through policy that won't actually cost the nation more money than we were spending previously, rather than an ancient recycled sketch from Beyond the Fringe:
(Squadron Leader Cameron to Flight Officer Clegg) 
Cameron:  I want you to lay down your credibility, Clegg. 
Clegg:         Right sir! 
Cameron:  We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war against the deficit.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Godfrey Bloom, Kung Fu master

Two reasons for being the millionth person to post this clip of the Godfrey "Slapper" Bloom meltdown.

1. Because it's hilarious.
2. Because, having slept on it, I think I've worked out what Bloom was trying to do here. He's a politician with strong beliefs about how the world works, used to thinking tactically about getting his message across. What's happening here probably isn't an outbreak of pure insanity (although it must have looked like it to ordinary people like those guys in construction helmets and hi-viz jackets who give the camera a cheeky wave about 35 seconds in). I think it's a case of misjudged tactics and a head-on collision between preconceived beliefs and hard reality.

Ukippers believe, (and I know this, because they say it loudly and often), that the "liberal establishment" are trying to close down debate about their pet subject, immigration, by using the word 'racist.' Bloom is operating with this preconceived belief. So, when he's "attacked" (i.e. questioned) by a journalist, he tries to do something clever. Those devious liberals are always using the "r" word to shut people like him up, so he'll turn the tables on them by using the same magic word to shut his opponent up. Like a wily Kung Fu master, he will use his opponent's own strength to defeat him. This cunning plan turns out to be a tactical error.

He's so convinced the that the '"r" word is nothing more than a talismanic "get out of jail free" card that people just brandish to win any debate that he's become oblivious to the concept that the word actually has a specific meaning. So he just throws it at Michael Crick, without a moment's pause to consider how bizarre it sounds in the context of defending the sea of white faces adorning the Ukip conference brochure.

He then tries to bluster it out and take control of the interview by using the power of anger, which might have worked if his pomposity hadn't got the better of him ('How dare you!' was almost the worst thing he could have said at this point in the interview, although if he'd gone for 'How very dare you!,' the fail would have been perfect).

Once he'd gone that far, there was clearly no way back and slapping the reporter with a copy of the whites-only conference brochure was probably as good a way to go as anything else he could have done.

I don't think I've seen a full-on comedy meltdown done better since Basil Fawlty hung up his tweed jacket. An instant classic.


Now then, Dmitri, you know how we've always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb... The *Bomb*, Dmitri... The *hydrogen* bomb!... Well now, what happened is... ahm...
...On January 23, 1961, a B-52 packing a pair of Mark 39 hydrogen bombs suffered a refueling snafu and went into an uncontrolled spin over North Carolina. In the cockpit of the rapidly disintegrating bomber (only one crew member bailed out safely) was a lanyard attached to the bomb-release mechanism. Intense G-forces tugged hard at it and unleashed the nukes, which, at four megatons, were 250 times more powerful than the weapon that leveled Hiroshima. One of them "failed safe" and plummeted to the ground unarmed. The other weapon's failsafe mechanisms—the devices designed to prevent an accidental detonation—were subverted one by one ...

... Just days after JFK was sworn in as president, one of the most terrifying weapons in our arsenal was a hair's breadth from detonating on American soil. It would have pulverized a portion of North Carolina and, given strong northerly winds, could have blanketed East Coast cities (including New York, Baltimore, and Washington, DC) in lethal fallout. The only thing standing between us and an explosion so catastrophic that it would have radically altered the course of history was a simple electronic toggle switch in the cockpit, a part that probably cost a couple of bucks to manufacture and easily could have been undermined by a short circuit.
Kind of puts Fukushima into perspective. Fukishima made the headlines, spooked some important people and had consequences. The important facts about the Goldsboro incident were kept secret for decades and, judging by the numbers in this graph, the people in charge really did learn to to stop worrying and love The Bomb.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Blackmailers make off with £141bn haul

Nobody has been  arrested in connection with a  £141bn extortion racket run by a gang who took control of the British economy in 2008. Millions of British taxpayers were blackmailed into handing over the money with threats of imminent financial ruin if they failed to comply.

The money was transferred from UK taxpayers between 2007 and March 2013, a Met Police spokesman said. Intelligence sources suggest that the extorted money has been used to pay gang members' gambling debts and to make good losses incurred after the collapse of a pyramid scheme the gang had been running.

According to Detective Inspector Mark Raymond 'Those responsible for this offence are significant players within a sophisticated and determined organised criminal network, who used considerable technical abilities and traditional criminal know-how to infiltrate and exploit the banking system.'

In other news, eight people have been arrested in connection with a £1.3m theft by a gang who took control of a Barclays Bank computer.

A spokesperson for the British Bankers' Association described the perpetrators of the Barclays cyber-heist as 'pathetic amateurs.'

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Smartphone says no

I'm no longer a smartphone virgin, having inherited an unwanted Android handset recently. It was a basic model with a tiddly touchscreen, so I wasn't expecting it to be much use, but I was prepared to have a play. I don't have any pressing need to use the mobile Internet, so I got an appropriately tiddly data plan - less "all you can eat data" than "mid-morning data snack."

So I needed to turn off the mobile Internet connection when I wasn't using it, to avoid exceeding my modest data allowance and to enjoy a reasonable battery life (mobile Internet is, apparently, a power-hungry hog).

I couldn't figure out how to do this by just playing with the phone menus, so I Googled it. I read that applications running in the background may be accessing the Internet at any time and that I probably need root access on the device to get control of this. Otherwise, there's an app for it. Apndroid, for example:
Prevents unwanted data charges for limited data plans.Allows you to manage mobile data settings to prolong battery life.Puts you in control of your Internet usage.
Other apps are available.

Which got me thinking. Why do you need root access, or a retrofitted app to control when your phone connects to the Internet? It must be technically possible to make Internet access switch off/on-able, as demonstrated by the existence of an app that does just that (not to mention forum advice for people who'd actually know what to do with their root access). If you're smart enough to design a smartphone, you're smart enough to anticipate that many users might legitimately want or need to control this function. So why no "off switch" in the standard settings menu?

Maybe Android phones have gone all HAL 9000 and they just don't want to be disconnected? I tend towards the more prosaic explanation that the designers, at best, couldn't be bothered to make it easy to take charge of your mobile Internet usage or, at worst, actively wanted to make it difficult for users to stay in control of their devices.

When it comes to mobile phones, it's easy to work out that such problems are probably due to poor design, or to a poor fit between the designers' agenda and the wants and needs of users, rather than to a tendency towards wilful disobedience being part of the inescapable nature of smartphones. When it comes to economic, political and social norms, people aren't quite so quick to spot that these are also constructs, designed by fallible humans with differing agendas, not autonomous entities beyond human control:
In reality, the “free market” is a bunch of rules about (1) what can be owned and traded (the genome? slaves? nuclear materials? babies? votes?); (2) on what terms (equal access to the internet? the right to organize unions? corporate monopolies? the length of patent protections? ); (3) under what conditions (poisonous drugs? unsafe foods? deceptive Ponzi schemes? uninsured derivatives? dangerous workplaces?) (4) what’s private and what’s public (police? roads? clean air and clean water? healthcare? good schools? parks and playgrounds?); (5) how to pay for what (taxes, user fees, individual pricing?). And so on.
These rules don’t exist in nature; they are human creations.

In other words, 'we can't do that because [free market, whatever]' is just a fancy version of 'computer says no.'

Anyway, back to the problem of keeping your mobe switched on or off, which isn't limited to smartphones sneakily hooking up to the Internet. Recently, I was at an event where mobiles should have been turned off. I thought I'd switched mine off. Then a phone with a ringtone like mine started ringing. I sheepishly checked in my pocket. It turned out that mine wasn't the offending phone, but I realised that mine could have easily turned itself on in my pocket with an accidental button press (it has done that before), so I took the battery out to be on the safe side.

The problem, in this case, is definitely suboptimal design, rather than a hidden agenda and I reckon the solution is the good old clamshell phone. Power button on one internal face, fold it up to carry in your pocket or handbag and your "on" switch is protected from accidental presses. Also saves your vulnerable screen from scratches and other damage - what's not to like? Like the makers of Star Trek, I've seen the future and it flips open.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

A brief history of eco-fascism

I'd always thought of The Soil Association as decent, but dull. Monty Don getting some good, honest, organic muck under his fingernails, well-off, concerned liberals saving bees and songbirds from the relentless march of petrochemical-enabled, pesticide-drenched monocultures by way of premium-priced certified Waitrose spuds, that sort of thing.

Look into the origins of The Soil Association, though, and it all gets a bit weird. You start hearing all sorts of stuff that doesn't get a mention on Countryfile. Naked calisthenics on the banks of the Cam for example, or earth magic that connects the universe to the soil via the conducting rod of the human body, or an esoteric quasi-military, ultra-royalist group dedicated to reinstating feudalism, or Biodynamic forces from distant planets influencing 'the life of plants via the silicious and kindred substances into the plant and also into the animal life of the Earth', or the British Union of Fascists, or the SS Obergruppenf├╝hrer whose plans for Britain involved enslaving, sterilising, or exterminating most of the population (except for a million or two 'young women of the Nordic type' to be used for breeding purposes).

Meet the colourful morris-dancing Fascist, Rolf Gardiner and Nazi fellow traveller Gerard Wallop, ninth earl of Portsmouth, who got together to found "Kinship in Husbandry" an organisation that, with the help of Jorian Jenks (formerly of the British Union of Fascists), became the Soil Association.

The Soil Association's own web site says that 'The Soil Association was founded in 1946 by a group of far-sighted individuals who were concerned about the health implications of increasingly intensive agricultural systems following the Second World War' which isn't necessarily untrue, but omits some interesting facts about the 'far-seeing' founders' fascination with Fascism and mystical wibble. You can see why they'd downplay the Fascist thing, although a hankering after ultra-royalist feudalism, along with the mystical wibble, might still appeal to the organisation's current patron.

I've no reason to suppose that many of today's eco warriors know, or approve, of Gardiner, Wallop and Jenks' disturbing political views, but if you want proof that fringe groups of eco-fascist mystics still exist, take a look at this page on "folk ecology" as espoused by a group calling itself "Woden's Folk." Woden's Folk, naturally, claim to be apolitical, but you don't have to be too paranoid to find their language and logo more than a little bit dodgy...

Fortunately, Woden's Folk haven't yet taken to the streets on behalf of racial purity and their mystical connection with the land, although they did indulge in a bit of direct action back in 2007, when they protested against the filming of an episode of Trinny & Susannah Undress at the site of the Long Man of Wilmington, thus upholding a proud British Fascist tradition of comic ineffectiveness.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Tell Sid to go to hell

Nearly three quarters of respondents to a ComRes poll commissioned by the BBC thought that energy bills in the UK were 'unreasonably high' and a third were worried about how they'd pay their heating bills this coming winter.

That's not at all surprising - at the best of time, most people think they should be paying less for the stuff they buy and with underemployment, stagnating wages, soaring levels of private debt and surging energy prices, this ain't the best of times.

The bit that did surprise and interest me was the 69% of respondents who said that energy firms should be nationalised.

It's purely academic, in the sense that I can't imagine any plausible near future government being open to the idea of nationalisation, even if more polls confirmed that the majority of people wanted it. Whatever the functional merits, or otherwise, of outsourcing stuff to the private sector, the political benefits of outsourcing the blame when things go wrong are massive. When G4S screwed up at Olympics, ministers could sound tough and get outraged on our behalf, rather than having to look sheepish and take the blame, or bluster that it really wasn't their fault, as they would if that gig been organised in house. Would any government rather see people getting angry with the power companies or with the government? That is, I think, a rhetorical question.

It's slightly interesting as a thought experiment, brainstorming nationalisation as a possible fix for our dysfunctional energy sector. It might reduce profiteers' opportunities to swindle consumers and extract inflated profits via the current oligopoly/confusopoly model. But there are clearly a lot of other factors unrelated to ownership affecting fuel prices.* Like bringing back British Rail, energy nationalisation might help, but it would be hard and it would leave a lot of other problems to be fixed.

It's more interesting to find out that the national ownership of utilities is apparently still thinkable to many people, despite the idea having being declared ideologically unthinkable by a generation of mainstream political apparatchiks.

More than a quarter of a century after people were being urged to "tell Sid" to fill his boots with British Gas shares, it looks as if Thatcher's children just want the system to work better, whoever runs it, and Sid can go to hell. Renationalisation may not be possible, or even the best fix for the problem, but it's encouraging to find that ordinary people seem more open to alternatives and less slavishly attached to the fashionable political orthodoxy than those terribly important people in the Westminster/press/PR bubble.

*For example investment in energy infrastructure, choices about the type of generation needed, how developing technologies affect the viability of the different types of generation, which countries have all the oil, gas, coal or other energy resources we need to buy, commodity prices, the effect of commodity speculation on the market, energy saving measures, balancing the need for energy to be cheap with the need for it to be clean, for starters.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Best left to the experts

Here's another piece of sausage-related trivia that caught my attention recently. Apparently, an unfortunate species of Tanzanian millipede has been saddled with the name "Wandering Leg Sausage". Which kind of undermines the notion that naming newly-discovered things is best left to to the experts, because the general public would only come up with something silly. I would also like to draw the jury's attention to the "Spongebob Squarepants mushroom", the salamader Oedipus complex and the inherently allegedly funny "Aha Ha" wasp.

The prosecution rests its case.

Megalomania watch

A few days ago I had a bit of a go at the City of London's brutalist monuments to elite power, looming over the puny lives of the ant-like common people. I hadn't anticipated that, within days, we'd have a far more potent symbol of the relationship between the City and the rest of us, now that the top-heavy monolith at 20 Fenchurch Street has gone rogue, like some Bond villain's doomsday device, its curved, mirrored glass focussing the sun's blazing rays on the surrounding streets, destroying everything in its path.

Can we just agree now that these things are pure evil,* or do we have to wait until the executive suite is fitted out with a piranha-filled moat where some Persian cat-stroking CEO can dispose of insuffiently-ruthless henchmen?

*Since the incineration of the local neighbourhood was (presumably) unplanned, you could argue that it's something closer to banal, blundering indifference than evil. Still, once you've been sat on by a 250 pound gorilla, the gorilla's exact intentions are rather less important than the fact that somebody let the damn thing out of its cage.

Monday, 2 September 2013

It was the wurst of times...

Otto von Bismarck probably didn't say 'Laws are like sausages - it is better not to see them being made.' He certainly didn't say 'Zeppelins are like sausages - it is better not to see them being made', which isn't surprising, given that Otto died in 1898, almost two years before the maiden flight of Ferdinand von Zeppelin's first airship.

Surprisingly, wurst production does have more in common with Zeppelin manufacture than the shape of the finished product. Specifically, as this great piece from Edible Geography points out, the gas bags containing the hydrogen that gave the airships lift were made from cow's intestines, just like sausage skins. In World War One, producing one of Count Zeppelin's now-weaponised flying sausages used up as many cow's guts as thirty million or so regular sausages, so sausage production was banned in Germany and in all German-occupied territories.

'Zeppelins versus sausages' - like 'guns versus butter', only not quite so catchy.


Update - not quite such an obscure factoid as I'd assumed - I've just caught up with Channel 4's TV documentary Attack of the Zeppelins on 4oD, which also had the straight dope on the Zeppelins-versus-sausages model. As with most modern documentaries it was a bit CGI-heavy but, to be fair, it cut to the story quite soon and kept the inevitable 'here's what we're about to show you' in-programme trailer to a minimum. The documentary's still available on line for a short time, (if your device can use Adobe Flash Player - I'm not sure if regional access is limited) on 4oD.