Saturday, October 28, 2006

Bloggers at South-Central ? 

Any LibDem Bloggers planning to be at South-Central Regional Conference (to be held on the OU Campus in Milton Keynes) on Saturday November 3rd? I will be around...

By the way we still have a few tickets (£25 each) available for the MK Annual Dinner on the Friday evening 2nd November, but caterer needs to know numbers by 30th October.



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Friday, October 27, 2006

Thumbing for a drink 

Well how about this then?

A biometric scheme that scans drinkers' thumbprints before they enter a pub has
helped cut alcohol-related crime in the South Somerset town of Yeovil.
South Somerset District Council said it has seen a 23.5 per cent drop in alcohol-related violent crime inside licensed premises in Yeovil since the system was introduced, compared with figures from the same period last year.
Under the pilot scheme every drinker must supply a thumbprint, name, address and date of birth before being allowed to enter any of the seven licensed premises in the town centre using the technology.
A drinker barred from one pub is then automatically barred from all pubs using the system.
A spokesman from the South Somerset District Council said the thumbprint technology is considered to be a contributing factor to this decline in
alcohol-related crime.

Hat tip (as they say) to the Silicon.com website for the report in the quote.

Just to note that the political composition of SSDC is 39 LD 15 Con and 6 Independents. Anyone from South Somerset around to comment on this experiment which might have some bearing on debates on things like, ooh, identity cards and data protection?

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Open Learning - an exciting project for an Open and Liberal Society 

This is all great news as Sarah Teather says - even if her press release does suggest she has not quite looked at all of what the new Open University project 'Open learn' actually does.

This is what the 'welcome' page for the OpenLearn project says:

Welcome to The Open University's OpenLearn website - free and open
educational resources for learners and educators around the world.
You are in the LearningSpace where Open University learning materials are freely
available for you to study in your own time, away from any formal teaching environment.
Visit the LabSpace to share and reuse educational resources.
Download some learning materials, adapt to your needs: translate, shorten, extend, add examples... and then of course, place it back for others to benefit!

In sort this is not just a collection of material or even 'lectures' available online but an invitation to form part of a learning community. Even to contribute materials for common use. And it is free. All you have to do is register and you are in.

What sort of materials?

Well eventually every single course taught by the OU will be up and accessible. For now there is a selection. Lets look at a couple that are relevant to our current concerns.

Take E500 'Global warming'. If you study this material you will:

Develop an understanding of the current evidence for global warming.
Model and apply the techniques of ‘measuring’ the Earth's temperature.
Understand the current warming in relation to climate changes throughout the Earth's history.
Explain factors forcing climate change, and the extent of anthropogenic influence.
Assess the ‘best predictions’ of current climate models.

Might be useful? Even just to get immunity from phrases like "anthropogenic influence" (caused by people)?

Or how about this from the Social Sciences? DD100-1 "The Meaning of Crime"?

give a definition of crime (in terms of society)
state the steps and factors that lead from a crime to conviction
illustrate how society views crime "with fear and fascination"
give examples of the relationship between crime rates and the evidence to support these claims.

Or even this, from E500-2 "School Governors - Organisation and Practice"

to explain the composition of governing bodies and to consider the respective roles of the ‘officers’ of the governing body;
to understand the sharing of the governing body's workload within an agreed formal
committee structure;
to develop governors as effective managers of their role through critical self-evaluation;
to encourage governors to undertake appropriate training as a means of establishing good practice within the governing body.

I know some governing bodies that could do with imput from this! Maybe there are one or two in your patches?

Do you think it would be helpful to set up a 'Liberal Democrat Open Learning Online' group to look at how these openly available materials could impact on policy making and presentation and campaigning?

I am really proud of my former employers right now.

Edis (former OU Technology Faculty Lecturer, former Business School Project Officer and former OU IT course Associate Lecturer)

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Harpooning - more than you ever wanted to know 

The Icelandic decision to resume commercial whaling previously lamented does also raise the question - just how are Whales killed? According to the Harpooning for Dummies page over in Science Blogs nobody know how humane this proceedure is, and no other slaughter procedure with this degree of uncertainty would be permitted on any other mammal in any well-regulated farming or hunting practice.

Note that explosive harpoons are not the only means used to catch whales.

The harpooning for Dummies writer, Shelley Batts says about the International Whaling Commission documents on harpooning:

Essentially, what they are saying is that while explosive harpoons are agreed upon to be effective and lethal, whether or not they are humane or quick is still not known. In addition, with explosive harpoons are recommended, they are by no means the only method used. Methods described here in the 2003 Report of the Workshop on Whale Killing Methods and Associated Welfare Issues in Berlin listed hand-held harpoons, cannon harpoons, aboriginal dart guns, and even rifles shot at whales.

And I said mammal, avoiding the upcoming uproar on whether fish feel pain.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

O Tempura! O Island! 

A sad decison by Iceland to resume commercial whaling.

Something I have to oppose in principle despite my great feelings of moral indebtedness to Iceland. Years ago, when Lithuania was struggling to re-establish its indepedence from the Soviet Union Iceland became the first -and for years the only- nation to recognise Lithuanian independence. It got massive grief from the USSR including economic sanctions that hurt.

I recall at the time hoping to help repay Iceland someday and helped arrange support for an budding Icelandic historian ( Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson) to write a thesis on Iceland's support for the Baltics.

ButI also hoping that Iceland would never put me on the spot by restarting whaling. Now that day has come, and I am really torn...

By the way, last time I looked,Reykjavic University had an Icelandic interest in the Baltics through a course taught by Gudni Johannesson. Reflecting on themes discused by Cicero on the occasion of the Queen's October 2006 tour of the Baltic States.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Orchards and Peace - a musing on Afghanistan 

With British troops becoming even more involved with fighting in Afghanistan maybe we should all take time to learn a bit more about that country. I am only an interested amateur but here are a couple of snippets…

The TV pictures from southern Afghanistan show vast acres of arid fields. Surely nothing can grow here but Opium? Well actually this was once one of the great orchard areas of the world with many hundreds of square miles of carefully irrigated fields producing superb quality fruit. Only Afghan peaches would do for the courts of the Moghul emperors of India for example. This was the centre of a vast trading network.

But the irrigation systems that took centuries to build up were destroyed by the wars of the last 50 years.

Now another thought. The Pathans of Pakistan apparently refer to themselves as ‘Afghans’, though without necessarily claiming any state political implications, perhaps like the Irish saying they are Celts without necessarily making a political observation about (say) Wales. The border is however meaningless for many Pathans. And it is really not possible to discuss the present situation in southern Afghanistan without taking into account the experience of the Pathans of Pakistan.

The Pakistani authorities have an uneasy relationship with their Pathan citizens not least because the North-West Frontier Province of British India wanted to go with India rather than with Pakistan at the time of partition (The NW Provincial Government was the only Moslem-majority province in all India to include Hindus as Government Ministers as a matter of course).

The leaders of the province at the time were an extraordinary bunch who took on board Ghandi’s non-violent approach and persuaded the famously belligerent Pathans to support this. The dominant political force was the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) which raised an army of a 100,000 Pathan men equipped without guns or other weapons to carry out non-violent opposition to the British. KK leaders spent many years in British prisons before independence and many spent even longer in Pakistani prisons after independence. Their writings from exile are full of wistful references to the orchards of their homes…

Peace I suspect will have the symbolism of orchards for the peoples on both sides of the line drawn through the Pathan lands in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Somehow I don’t feel that fighting more wars over these fields will bring back the irrigation and the fruit. But only by rebuilding such peaceful infrastructure will there be a measure of peace in this area.

It would I suppose lead to TESCO generating massive air-miles to fly this fruit to Milton Keynes and that would have an impact on global warming… but I do wish that this was the problem we faced today …

The point of this musing is that we (ordinary Britons and the Government alike) seem to know nothing about the peoples we so confidently wish to influence through military means. Perhaps we should learn more before we are surprised at what happens next.

See this book for some background on the extraordinary Pathan non-violence movement which has so sadly been betrayed:

A Man to Match His Mountains; Badhsah Khan, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam.
Eknath Easwaram (1984) Nilgiri Press

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Green taxes - not necessarily 'in the bag' 

Thinking about it, the pay-to-dump plan for general household rubbish as in a previous post raises other issues. Again, I think it would be helpful to think these through as a test case in designing effective Green taxes before we set out on the Grand Vision outlined in our new Green Policy initiative.

Firstly, there is the psychological effect – does the new charge encourage a change in behaviour or provide a legitimisation for current behaviour? The modern classic example in economic theory is the childcare centre that introduced fines for parents who were late collecting their children – and found a big increase in the number of late collections. Many people treated the fine as an additional fee legitimising their late arrival, rather than as a deterrent. This actually happened in real-life case studies.

Would a low per-bag collection charge deter the accumulation of non-recyclabe rubbish or would it provide a legitimisation of that rubbish on the lines of “I have paid for it to be taken away, so take it away”.

And on reflection, there are alternatives to fly-dumping bags to avoid the charge – some people might slip rubbish into a neighbours bin thus forcing them to pay. The possibilities for neighbour-from-hell bin-rage seem rather high – do we really want to provide more plotlines for desperate soap opera scriptwriters?

I am coming to the conclusion that a per-bag rubbish collection charge might not be a good idea from a Green Shift perspective. Or at least we need a much harder look at how it could work out and what the alternatives might be.

An effective Green Tax policy needs to present clear costs that give clear information to people at points where avoidance is expensive and inconvenient, and where savings on costs are most easily achieved by green-friendly action. It needs to have as many automatic cause-and-effect links as possible and as few ‘regulatory discretion’ links as possible.

Again the classic ‘control system’ argument comes in. One way to prevent a factory polluting a river is to have a battery of regulations and inspectors and fines fore breaches of statutory requirements. Another way is to make the factory draw its own water supply from a point on the river downstream of the point it discharges its waste.

The ideal for green taxes is to develop consequences links in a market structure that are rather like the second case, so positive responses to the Green Initiatives follow on from rational self-interest.

There will be enough need for regulation and inspection and prosecution and (shudder) even targets without taking on unnecessary tasks.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Ok so here is a poem on National Poetry Day... 

Conscientious Objector
Edna St Vincent Millay

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,business in the Balkans,
many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man's door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

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The Green Tax market approach - need to get it right at all levels 

Now an interesting one on micro-chipped wheely Bins. This is one of those doorstep issues that will help frame public understanding on much bigger themes so we need to get it right because if it balls up it will reduce credibility on wider issues.

The point of polluter pays charging, and the justification for the wider Green tax policy, is that economic pricing will lead to changes in behaviour as people take on board the information provided by the pricing. Now this change of behaviour through market information can be what us desired - a shift from waste channelled into landfill to waste channelled into recycling, and possibly a reduction in non-recyclable waste generation by households. All good stuff, as outlined by Chris Huhne in his support for this kind of initiative.

The Liberal Democrats support the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Allowing councils to charge for waste by weight provides an incentive by which householders can be rewarded for recycling their rubbish, by reducing the amount they pay. Any council embarking on waste charging must ensure that it has a state of the art recycling scheme. However, councils cannot be allowed to use such powers to simply raise extra tax – if people waste less, they should pay less. (Huhne)

But there is also the possibility of a market response in undesirable ways such as fly-tipping, dumping or whatever.

A number of local authorities already have problems with dumping of non-recyclable rubbish on roadsides, back alleys or whatever. If this change is not handles right I would expect the imposition of a per-bag collection charge for non-recyclables to lead to a visible increase in dumping and thus an increase in costs for surveillance, and for prosecutions for offenders if detected.

If the result of such schemes is indeed and increase in visible non-compliance this could lead to questioning of the logic of the wider Green Tax policy and a loss of public support for it.

Charging policies would need to be carefully worked out to increase the possibility of virtuous market compliance so that we don’t need an increase in state supervision and criminalisation of individuals.

For my part I have a feeling that per-weight charging would only have an effect if the charge was really appreciable, and that non-compliance would be so simple that the market solution would indeed be to mock the aims of the scheme through widespread dumping. I think we need to look very carefully at how all this could be set up if we are not to risk discrediting our new green tax initiatives.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Brands, bottoms and Tories 

The policy-Lite stance of The Tories may actually make some sense, but only if you accept the conventional wisdom of the modern advertising industry.

There isn’t much mileage in ads listing lots of good things about a product, as the audience simply discounts these as puff. This is quite a problem when you have one specific item like a house or an used car for sale which is why estate agents and used car advertisers are so distrusted in popular culture. However if you have a big class of items for sale you can try selling a general image – which is where Brands come into play.

And the trick is to get across one or two simple ‘mood’ themes that get associated with the Brand. Its the real thing. Vorsprung durch Technic. Or whatever. Most people pay little attention to details but do pick up an impression of moods. So when they actually think about buying your kind of product, then they notice your second-level advertising which includes boring details.

The great example at the moment (and I think a brilliant meta-piss-take of the whole genre) is the series of car ads that has an earnest sales executive trying to describe the wonders of the car and all everyone else is interested in is how like a sexy bum the boot looks. The visuals are full of often very shapely people shaking their butts at the camera. The intention is to leave people with a slightly warm memory even if they can’t immediately remember the make of car, so that when they do come to buy a car they remember the warm moment and are more open to the sale.

So when Cameron speaks to the faithful at Bournemouth think leaping bums and you will understand what is going on. As a PR and media professional Cameron will be very aware of what he is doing and he expects it to work. So do his Kitchen-Blog Cabinet.

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