Sunday, February 25, 2007

The canyon and the singularity

I've been reading the Meaning of the 21st Century by James Martin. Being a 'realistic' future vision, it discusses and explains many of the old familiars:- soil erosion, world population growth, climate change, genetic engineering and nanotechnology. This will be news if you've never read a 'futures' book before, don't remember school geography and/or would be too embarrassed to loiter in the science fiction section of Borders.

If you have, then I'd recommend this book anyway. Why?

First, it was the first time I'd read about fourth generation 'pebble bed' nuclear reactors. These have the potential to be small, mass-produced and automatically shutdown before they lose containment. In theory, they address some of the concerns about nuclear energy raised by David Howarth MP during a talk I attended late last year in Cambridge. He was concerned that large nuclear reactors would force the UK's electricity to continue to be provided by a centralised grid, excluding microgeneration from the energy mix and incurring maybe a 20% energy loss during transportation between the power station and user. In addition, large conventional reactors tend to have a place-specific design that imposes a high 'first-build' cost. Mass producing small pebble beds would avoid these problems.

Second, his overarching thesis is relatively original even if the individual technologies are not. He claims that today's teenagers, the 'Transition Generation', will have to successfully pass through a 'canyon' of rising environmental problems. If humanity fails to pass through the 'canyon' and create a sustainable society, we will return to a dark age. If we succeed, we will hit the 'singularity', a concept familiar to anyone who has read 'Singularity Sky' or 'Iron Sunrise' by Charles Stross. James Martin (and Charles Stross) identify a macrotrend of accelerating increases in computer power where computer power is a proxy for the ability to manipulate 'bits' of information, non-biological or biological. The 'singularity' is the area on the technological growth curve at which the gradient of the trend line tends to infinity (illustration included for the non-mathmos amongst you). The singularity would be driven by self-evolving computers and other technologies that would develop without direct human input. James Martin's contribution seems to be fleshing out the moments before the singularity; he stops just beyond the canyon. Charles Stross and other science fiction writers imagine the possibilities of a society someway beyond the singularity.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

The lesser mud splattered child

The Grauniad has commissioned a survey on the state of childhood in Britain today. The results are a bit of a 'dog bites man' story. You may not be surprised to discover that parents don't expect that their sunny faced little angel is going at it like a rabbit with occasional breaks for a spliff.

LibertyCat's dissection of the UNICEF report found that 'behaviours and risks' (basically smoking, drinking and shagging) were the only area in which Britain was 'worse' than the other surveyed countries. I've placed 'worse' in inverted commas since it's not clear to me that having lots of sex is bad for the well-being of your average 15-year old.

I've been reading reports by Demos discussing the privatisation of public space (think Bluewater and hoodies) and the tendency for adults to supervise and micromanage children's activities. I can't help but wonder if there's a connection between these things - micromanaged children and rebellious teens. This article certainly seems to think so:
At the Hoek van Holland school, children can wear what they want and they say this is why they are happier... The children believe it is this tolerance that stops them pushing too many boundaries. They say they are treated like adults and are allowed to grow in their less rigid environment... "In Holland, we are much more free," explains Menou, who has a friend in Farnham. "In England, you have uniforms and we get to do more things with clothes and make-up and express ourselves."
Perhaps we should just take the old-fashioned approach - releasing our small people into the muddy wilds armed with wellies and a stick.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

Why YouTube attack ads will not work

I noticed that this post on Lib Dem Voice was in the top five posts on LibDemBlogs. So I think a response is in order.

Essentially, Rob Fenwick's argument is that internet TV sites like 18 Doughty Street and the rather more famous YouTube allow people to circumvent the laws against political adverts on TV, opening the way to US-style attack ads and all the bad consequences they entail. I am not worried, because internet TV is fundamentally a poor medium for distributing political attack ads.

Political adverts (whether attack videos, FOCUS leaflets, or billboards) are designed for rapid, gut-level appeal to floating voters with an effective mental age of about 14. People who look for information about politics on the internet are typically educated people with strong political views. A politically aware person who sees the Livingstone ad Fenwick is complaining about will not be surprised by the contents - we all knew that Ken was into self-publicity, Commie-hugging and tax-raising when we elected him. The people who the ad might persuade are the people who voted for him because he was a loveable cheeky chappie who promised to sort the busses out.

The difference between a TV ad and a website is that the TV ad interrupts a TV programme and is seen by everyone watching the programme, whereas a website is only seen by people who positively seek it out. The people choosing to watch 18 Doughty Street are almost entirely either Tories looking to have their prejudices confirmed or Tory-haters working out whether to point and laugh or cry foul. Neither will have their political views changed by a 2-minute attack ad.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Calling Labour or Conservative party members...

Does anyone have a ballpark figure for how much it costs to:

a) Book the smallest exhibition stand
b) Book a fringe meeting for 50 - 100 people

at Labour and Conservative autumn party conference? It would be for a small not-for-profit organisation, loosely university-linked and probably without Charity Commission status (I'm currently looking into this since it appears to be eligible for charitable status).

I've just got involved in an exciting new project which is (cross fingers) hoping to launch in September of this year and is thinking of launching at the party conferences of the three main political parties, provided it was in the right price range.

Any info would be greatly appreciated.


Sunday, February 18, 2007

Why UNICEF are wowzers

Sorry for not posting earlier as Femme-de-Resistance had promised. The UNICEF report (pdf) helpfully presents its raw data in a format that I couldn't just paste into Excel, so I had to do a lot of typing to understand what was going on.

The first point to make is that trying to produce a "league table" by combining indicators as disparate as relative income poverty and smoking rates is an inherently absurd exercise. Precisely what percentage of average household income is it worth not to smoke? The report tries a sensible approach (normalising every indicator to have the same mean and standard deviation) but still has to decide which indicators are most important.

The report weasels this by saying
Equal weighting is the standard approach used in the absence of any compelling reason to apply different weightings and is not intended to imply that all elements used are considered of equal significance.
which is rubbish. If the overall indicator is a measure of how well a country treats its children, then the weighting of the various elements reflects how important a certain indicator is to measuring this. In any case, the report doesn't weight each indicator equally. It rather arbitrarily divides the indicators into six dimensions, and three components within each dimension. Each component then gets equal weighting. This allows the report to (among other wierdnesses) give a three times higher weight to relative poverty (which gets its own component) than absolute poverty (which is merely one of three indicators of "reported deprivation"), thereby "proving" that children in Greece are better off economically than children in the UK.

So lets look at the six dimensions.

We start, reasonably enough given that poverty prevents children from reaching their potential, by considering poverty. The "component" system exaggerates the weight of a relative poverty measure that the report admits is close to meaningless, because it uses 50% of national median household income as a poverty line. The standard reasons given for why relative poverty matters, given that Bill Gates does not in fact make me any poorer, are
  1. Not being able to afford the same brand of trainers as their peers means children get picked on.
  2. Seeing images of incredible affluence in the mass media makes children envious and therefore unhappy.
Number 1 suggests that local rather than national incomes should be used to define the poverty line, whereas number 2 implies that international standards should be used (which makes relative and absolute poverty look remarkably like the same thing). Both of these changes would benefit the UK's position - a lot of income inequality in the UK is due to a north-south divide, with incomes being more equal within regions.

Next up is "Health and Safety". Here the UK does badly mainly because of a low rate of childhood immunization due to the MMR scare. However, patriotic Britons need not worry - British children are actually healthier and safer than foreigners, with a death rate 41% below the OECD average. Based on weighting vaccinations equally with not dying, the UK places 12th out of 21.

Then on to "Education". English children do better than the OECD average in native-language literacy, maths and science. But the UK nevertheless places 17th out of 21, because the "component" trick is used to give participation in further education (with no quality measure included) twice the weight given to the quality of primary and secondary education. "Achievement" is only one component, whereas participation in FE counts under both "Beyond basics" (where it gets a whole component to itself) and "Transition to employment" (where it reduces the number of 15-19 year olds not in employment, education, or training). FE in the UK is a national scandal, but it isn't 50% more important than getting the basics right. The last indicator in this dimension shows another unhealthy pattern in the report - it treats a value judgement by the authors as an objective measure of well-being. Countries are marked down if not enough children aspire to highly skilled work. Given that not everyone will get a highly skilled-job, this raises the question of whether aspirations which may well be unrealistic are an unalloyed good thing.

The dimension of "Relationships" is where the report starts getting silly. One of the indicators (heavily weighted, getting a whole component to itself) is "percentage of 11,13 and 15 year olds finding their peers kind and helpful". This is a completely subjective measure, and belongs in the dimension on "subjective well-being". The other two indicators both reflect value judgements - that children are best brought up by two biological parents, and that families should eat together. While I agree with these judgements, plenty of people dont, or don't think that these things are important.

Next comes "Behaviours and risks", on which the UK comes bottom by a country mile. Equal weighting has some interesting consequences here - using cannabis even once is considered as bad for a child's well-being as getting addicted to tobacco, or getting seriously drunk twice. My favourite value judgement is taking off points for 15-year olds having sex. When I was 15, sex would probably have improved my well-being. I imagine that is true of most 15-year olds, just as it is true of almost all adults. Apart from laughing at this point, I can't argue with the overall conclusion - that British children are more likely than foreigners to do the kind of things their mothers tell them not to do.

Last is "Subjective well-being". Wowze wowze wowze. Seriously, there is a whole field of happiness economics which starts with the assumption that asking people "How happy are you?" generates useful information, and goes downhill from there. As the linked article points out, individual answers to this question tell you more about who has a sunny and optimistic disposition than who has a good quality of life. The wowzer claims that when you do large-sample comparisons between countries then disposition should cancel out, but this assumes that there are no differences between national cultures. Since the English are notoriously a nation of grumblers, it is unsurprising that we come out bottom. I don't see what this says about how well our children are treated. My favourite riposte to the happiness wowzers is figure 5 of this report which shows subjective well-being being completely flat throughout the economic collapse of the 70's, the social collapse of the 80's, the unemployment and reposessions of the early 90's, and the recovery from all the above under Major and Blair. Perhaps it just isn't a very useful indicator.

Just for fun, I tried reanalysing the data in a slightly less wowzerish way. I excluded all the purely subjective indicators, as well as the ones based on controversial value judgements. I also weighted all indicators equally, without dividing them between components. This left three themes: poverty, health (including behaviour indicators like smoking) and education. The UK comes out below average in all three areas (only just in the case of education), but is nowhere near the bottom. You might think that the report was rigged so that the UK did badly.

For the real cynics out there, Peter Preston points out that the report's author, being a Brit involved in campainging on a number of issues that the report deals with, has an incentive to make the UK look as bad as possible because it gives his campaigning more impetus. I'm not that cynical - I just think that the report reflects the subconcious biases of the kind of authoritarian lefties who love to work for the UN and think that individualism is an ilness.

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Crook of the week

You don't get better than this. It reads as if it could be science but it's as "the great Professor Richard Feynman described Melanesian religious activities 30 years ago: "During the war they saw aeroplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head as headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas - he's the controller - and they wait for the aeroplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No aeroplanes land."

It's no coincidence I've nicked the Feynman quote from the Grauniad article about Gillian McKeith. Both she and Kazmer Ujvarosy (who's an 'Academia Consultant') are great believers in truthiness. However, at least Gillian McKeith doesn't suggest injecting your own sperm.

Hat tip, Sal

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

What the UNICEF report dragged in

The UNICEF report has generated a plefora of both sane and insane 'childhood in UK'-related articles.

This is one of the insane ones...

There are some parts I agree with. I agree that:
Labour [has] pursued policies that encouraged more parents of young children to enter the workplace
Further, I agree with the implicit suggestion made in the article that the government has encouraged children to be placed in state-sponsored childcare. Working Tax Credits pay for 80% of the cost of childcare up to £175 per week for one child and £300 per week for more than one child. However, crucially, this is only for state approved childcare. This provides an incentive for the adoption of state licensed childcare over more informal or family-based arrangements.

However, I disagree with the remainder of the article. The crucial problem is that it assumes that 'women' (where women has no preceding caveat such as 'many' or 'a majority of' or even 'some') have a naturally caring nature which means that 'women' should:

hav[e] careers as men do — but not at the expense of their role as mothers.[Whereas] men [should] becom[e] much more involved in caring for their small children and invest... less in their careers

As a liberal who views society from the perspective of maximising individual choice, the policy implications of this sort of group think horrifies me.

It is my experience that many, although certainly not all, women who I have met who are married and in full-time 'jobs'* and not careers often wish they could go part-time or give up work entirely. If they have the option of affordable childcare, they often prefer part-time working so that they can keep in touch with colleagues and have the opportunity to spend time in an 'adult' role. This is entirely rational - if you don't feel that your work is giving you personal fulfilment and/or contributing to some higher purpose then raising your own children is going to be a more satisfying alternative.

Given this, it's obvious why female Labour politicians find this attitude somewhat incomprehensible. They feel that they are contributing to a higher purpose and are positively or negatively (depending on your political position) touching the lives of people outside of their immediate family. Compared to this, childcare really does look "hard, thankless and intellectually dull" and "a threat to your mental health". And the attitude of people like Oliver James does look an assault on women, a way of forcing them to undertake a job that compared to their role in parliament is anything but "the most exacting of roles".

As a liberal, I don't think what we:
desperately need... is a government whose main goal is to correct the balance of the household economy that has been wrecked by the market and its workaholic ways. We need to erect a large and impenetrable barrier against them outside every home with small children.
I think what we desperately need is a government who appreciates that women are a heterogeneous group who have a diverse range of personalities, life experiences and aspirations. I'm currently sharing an office with a lady who works part-time and spends the remainder of the time caring for three children under 12. I can't think of anything more soul-destroying than spending the rest of my life dividing my time between a 'day job' and taking 3 under-12s to the zoo. I can imagine she can't think of anything worse than envisaging a life apart from her children or child-free pursuing a 'career' in the field in which I want to work. Horses for courses. People are different, women are different.

Seen this way, the whole group childcare thing is a red herring. Pre-1950s, very few women looked after children full-time. Being a house wife was about struggling with labour intensive devices and not childcare. The idea that children need continuous care, nurturing and attention is a relatively recent idea. The most important thing is adult choice. Both Oliver James and the government need to get this simple concept. Rant over.

* by a job I mean something that is done purely for the money and which does not have a formal or informal trajectory to a more responsible or management role

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Lies, darned statistics and UNICEF

Another post questioning the statistical basis of the UNICEF report but going into more detail (I skimmed the report).

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Think of the children

LibertyCat has read the full UNICEF child poverty report and was planning to blog about it.

However, as a taster... Femme-de-R notices that of the 6 dimensions used to measure child poverty, material well-being was measured as 'relative' comparative to conditions in that country (the report acknowledges that this is controversial).

It is for this reason that Grauniad is on debatable ground when it claims that:

Today's findings will be a blow to the government, which has set great store by lifting children out of poverty...

In addition, at least two of the dimensions are entirely subjective (family relationships and subjective well-being). Is 'eating a main meal around the table with parents' a good indicator of family bonds? And are the responses of children to a survey asking them about their well-being an adequate indicator of variations in well-being between countries or reflect something else entirely (e.g. culture norms or media messages)?

Hopefully LibertyCat will blog on this further...

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For someone who has everything except fidelity...

An amusing parody on carbon offsetting.

I don't think I agree with them since investing in renewable energy should produce a continued reduction in future emissions (unlike a couple agreeing to be faithful for a set period).

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Would you trust your lawyer to fix your car?

The Adam Smith Institute link to this post that makes the point that climate scientists are probably not the best people to comment on economics. This is somewhat self-evident - if I want my hair cutting, I wouldn't ask an architect (well, I might but that's a different story).

This point entirely conceded, I'm somewhat confused why Dr Alister McFarqhur (an agricultural economist) and Dr Madsen Pirie (an ex-professor of logic and philosophy) feel anyone should take them at all seriously when they comment on the science of climate change.

NB: LibertyCat questions Piers Corbyn's credentials as a meteorologist. A little judicious googling suggests Piers Corbyn may fall into that category of experts occupied by Gillian McKeith who has also made millions promoting untestable methods.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Mice travel free

Lets be Sensible lists some of his favourite rejected petitions on the Number 10 Downing Street website.

Here are some of my favourite rejected petitions.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

What's Left? How Castro-mourning, McDonald's firebombing loopy lefties lost their way (keep the liberals out of it)

Apologies for the lengthy hiatus in blogging; the author has been passing a PhD viva and moving house.

In my absence, the Grauniad has been making a meal of Nick Cohen's book "What's Left? How Liberals lost their way". The Grauniad might be getting excited about Nick Cohen's latest but I don't see why anyone else should given the inherent problem with the book, so perfectly encapsulated within its title. I'm a liberal and I don't feel I've lost my way at all. I belong to a proud ideological and philosophical tradition that has included such greats as John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith and The Anti-Corn Law League.

Nick Cohen doesn't seem to grasp that the people who have lost their way are a small group of "rebels without a clue" who divide their time between incoherently blathering on Comment is Free and forming a intellectually deficient 'rent-a-mob' on yet another march nominally about poverty/climate change/war/top-up fees but in fact about Palestine/ Pacificism/ Palestine / Bush/ Palestine / McDonalds /Palestine / The BNP... /Palestine... It is debatable whether this particular group had a way to lose in the first place.

The Grauniad includes an excerpt from the book which highlights the extraordinary narrowness of its political perspective. It really ignores the diversity and complexity of the contemporary political landscape. I commend Nick Cohen for belatedly realising the things that many political operators have realised all along:

I still remember the sense of dislocation I felt at 13 when my English teacher told me he voted Conservative... I must have understood at some level that real Conservatives lived in Britain - there was a Conservative government at the time.... But it was incredible to learn that my teacher was one of them, when he gave every appearance of being a thoughtful and kind man. To be good you had to be on the left.

Yet for all the loathing of Conservatives I felt, I didn't have to look at modern history to know that it was a fallacy to believe in the superior virtue of the left: my family told me that... He [my father] knew how bad the left could get, but this knowledge did not stop him from remaining very left-wing. He would never have entertained the notion that communism was as bad as fascism. In this, he was typical. Anti-communism was never accepted as the moral equivalent of anti-fascism, not only by my parents but also by the overwhelming majority of liberal-minded people. The left was still morally superior. Even when millions were murdered and tens of millions were enslaved and humiliated, the 'root cause' of crimes beyond the human imagination was the perversion of noble socialist ideals... Every now and again, someone asks why the double standard persists to this day.

In the above paragraph, Nick Cohen finally realises that the left does not have an inherent monopoly on goodness and feels the need to labour this entirely self-evident point. Well, self-evident to a 'liberal' anyway, although not self-evident to 'rent-a-mob'. Many people in politics (and in other spheres such as business) are there because they want to improve society. Political distinctions come from differing belief systems - people clash over what constitutes an improvement and how to achieve it.

I assumed that once the war was over they would back Iraqis trying to build a democracy, while continuing to pursue Bush and Blair to their graves for what they had done. I waited for a majority of the liberal left to off er qualified support for a new Iraq, and I kept on waiting, because it never happened
Possibly because there is no 'new Iraq'. I opposed the war because I saw the lack of commitment that Bush was showing to improving things in Afghanistan (rather than sending more troops there and concentrating funding on infrastructure) and reasoned (correctly) that they would barge into Iraq, blow it to bits and then... erm... erm... If the Bush administration were reading the book "How to organise a p**s-up in a brewery" they'd have been stumped before they got to the contents page.

However, it soon becomes obvious that Nick Cohen isn't aiming his tirade at me. He's not attacking people who were against the war for reasons other than being, erm, someone who wears Che Guevara t-shirts and thinks Fidel Castro is a top bloke (because Cuban healthcare is so good):

Why is it that apologies for a militant Islam which stands for everything the liberal left is against come from the liberal left? Why will students hear a leftish postmodern theorist defend the exploitation of women in traditional cultures but not a crusty conservative don?
So we're not talking about the 'liberal-left'. No, we're talking about Marxist academics who used to write long turgid articles interpreting obscure bits of Das Kapital and now write long, jargon-filled opinion pieces about postmodernism (have you ever written an essay about postmodernism? I sympathise with your pain).

Why is Palestine a cause for the liberal left, but not China, Sudan, Zimbabwe, the Congo or North Korea?
Search me, Mr Cohen. Nothing to do with me, guv. Although I would switch China for somewhere like Belarus.

Further down the page, Nick Cohen continues broad brushing the entirety of two major philosophical traditions into the dustpan occupied by an unholy alliance of the SWP, The Grauniad and Marxist theorists:

liberals and leftists are far more likely than conservatives to excuse fascistic governments and movements, with the exception of their native far-right parties.

On average, maybe, but is an unquantifiable 'on average' enough to write a book about? Are we talking about a politically relevant and influential group? Or are we talking about the sort of people who express solidarity with the working class by eschewing soap and are interested in international development because assisting the British poor might mean they had to deal with pensioners and people wearing Burberry?

Nick Cohen answers this question. It's the latter:

Socialism, which provided the definition of what it meant to be on the left from the 1880s to the 1980s, is gone.

Not socialism, Mr Cohen, communism. Social democracy remains an entirely useable proposition for government.

Disgraced by the communists' atrocities and floored by the success of market-based economies, it no longer exists as a coherent programme for government. Even the modest and humane social democratic systems of Europe are under strain and look dreadfully vulnerable. It is not novel to say that socialism is dead. My argument is that its failure has brought a dark liberation to people who consider themselves to be on the liberal left. It has freed them to go along with any movement however far to the right it may be, as long as it is against the status quo in general and, specifically, America. I hate to repeat the overused quote that 'when a man stops believing in God he doesn't then believe in nothing, he believes anything', but there is no escaping it. Because it is very hard to imagine a radical
leftwing alternative, or even mildly radical alternative, intellectuals in particular are ready to excuse the movements of the far right as long as they are anti-Western.

So the crux of Nick Cohen's book is that communists are having problems finding something to believe in now the argument that Stalin, Mao, etc. resulted from the misimplementation of Marx's ideas has got a bit stale. Instead of supporting a really bad idea promoted by secular authoritarian genocidal maniacs, communists have started supporting a really bad idea promoted by religious authoritarian genocidal maniacs instead. Nick Cohen is wrong - communists are not believing in 'anything', they're believing in a different flavour of exactly the same thing. This is a dog bites man story... No fundamental change there.

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