Friday, September 28, 2007

The politics of a pound a litre 

A forgotten bit of the last budget is coming home to roost on October the First when a deferred increase in Excise Tax will put up the price of petrol and diesel at the pumps. Under present conditions this may see the £1 litre on sale at many forecourts within a few days. We can expect some public uproar about this…

Not you would think the best background for a governing party contemplating an October election campaign. And it may not be the best context for a party like ours seeking to make the case for radical Green Taxes. Most people will come across our new Tax Policy for the first time when the wider row breaks on these prices.

Do you think Gordon forgot about this upcoming tax hike when he crossed the corridor from the Treasury to Number Ten? If not, he must have some tactical plan to mind to turn it round on his opponents during an election. I trust our front line team is prepared…

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Election Registration and October 

It is less disastrous than it used to be, but one disadvantage of holding an October election is that the annual review of the Electoral Register will be in full swing.

October 15th is of course the deadline date for voters to get annual registration documents returned. This is usually a peak work month for staff in Democratic Services departments in the principle Local Authorities. Could they cope with (say) a 28th October poll day as well?

Of course newly registered voters on this registration cycle come on the register on 1 January 2008 –or do they? This is the first time we have the possibility of an October G.E poll since the electoral registration process was modified to allow for late registrations after the annual date so I suspect there are a lot of rules that haven’t been called into force before. Would some annual registrations make it onto the GE register because submitted some weeks in advance of October 15th while others coming in nearer that deadline get excluded? Is there a possibility of some confusion?

Some areas of Milton Keynes have a 20% turnover in the electorate between Registry updates so this could have an impact on at least two marginal seats.

I hope we get some guidance from our National Agents on this.


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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Money goes? 

A thought on G. Browns Annual Conference speech.

Last year the Prime Minister would never have got this uncosted gut-Labour shopping list past the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his Treasury watchdogs.

“What has changed in the meantime?” asks not-terribly-puzzled of Milton Keynes.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

That Seet Enemy and our Eurocandidates 

In early autumn a LibDems thoughts lightly turn to selection of EuroMP candidates. So many claims for support with my first preferences.

For my part I hope that every aspirant has read ‘That Sweet Enemy’, a remarkable book about the relationship between France and Britain since the wars of the Sun King Louise XIV. If you want to understand how France sees the world in a different way to people of British tradition, and how this complicates and mediates the politics of the European Community. A hugely good read, not only a compendium of wars but also of changing cultural influences and how stereotypes can shift or get reborn. How for example did rare beefsteaks shift from being a disgusting example of english cookery butchery to being the signature comfort food dish of France?

There are some sobering points raised for any supporter of European Union and for anyone hoping to evolve a more positive European engagement for Britain in our European home.

Written by two historians who happen to be married to each other, One French the other British.

Isabelle and Robert Tombs ‘That Sweet Enemy’ (Cette exquise ennemi) has numerous reviews, notably in 'Foreign Affairs', 'European Affairs' and the 'New York Review of Books'

candidates, dont get caught out at public histings by people who have read this if you haven't read it yourself!

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Who when I scream will hear me amongst the Angelic Orders? 

If you thought the TASER was a horrific bit of kit, take a look at the Silent Guardian.

Manufactured by RAYTHON, These are examples of ‘active denial systems’, colloquially known as less-than-lethal devices. They are intended for use in crowd control by throwing an energy beam that causes intense pain.

Even the Daily Mail is shocked about the torture possibilities of this device.

A square transmitter as big as a plasma TV screen is mounted on the back of a Jeep. When turned on, it emits an invisible, focused beam of radiation - similar to the microwaves in a domestic cooker - that are tuned to a precise frequency to stimulate human nerve endings. It can throw a wave of agony nearly half a mile.
Because the beam penetrates skin only to a depth of 1/64th of an inch, it cannot, says Raytheon, cause visible, permanent injury. But anyone in the beam's path will feel, over their entire body, (an) agonising sensation ….
Silent Guardian is supposed to be the 21st century equivalent of tear gas or water cannon - a way of getting crowds to disperse quickly and with minimum harm. Its potential is obvious…. In tests, even the most hardened (US) Marines flee after a few seconds of exposure. It just isn't possible to tough it out.
This machine has the ability to inflict limitless, unbearable pain.

Daily Mail 18th September 2007

The next thing up are the Pulsed Energy Projectile Weapons, lasers that throw a beam precisely tuned to generate a plasma of superheated gas if it hits human skin. It has a range of about 18km.

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Never thought I'd see Rilke quoted on a Lib Dem blog ... you've made my evening!
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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Resistance is futile you will be assimilated 

So you find an Urban Legend, or a largely inaccurate story of any kind, doing the rounds. The thing to do is to put out a calm clear statement setting the record straight. Obvious and logical, no?

Well not according to recent studies which suggests that rebuttals can actually lead to a strengthening in belief of the inaccurate information. Take this example:

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a flier to combat myths about the flu vaccine. It recited various commonly held views and labeled them either "true" or "false." Among those identified as false were statements such as "The side effects are worse than the flu" and "Only older people need flu vaccine."
When University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz had volunteers read the CDC flier, however, he found that within 30 minutes, older people misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.
Younger people did better at first, but three days later they made as many errors as older people did after 30 minutes. Most troubling was that people of all ages now felt that the source of their false beliefs was the respected CDC.
The psychological insights yielded by the research, which has been confirmed in a number of peer-reviewed laboratory experiments, have broad implications for public policy.

The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.

Washington Post 4 September 2007

Making a denial repeats the ‘information’ that needs to be denied and this repetition makes it more easily remembered that the refutation.

There are sobering reflections for the political process because the human mind

…. is not good at remembering when and where a person first learned something. People are not good at keeping track of which information came from credible sources and which came from less trustworthy ones, or even remembering that some information came from the same untrustworthy source over and over again. Even if a person recognizes which sources are credible and which are not, repeated assertions and denials can have the effect of making the information more accessible in memory and thereby making it feel true…

Washington Post, ibid

An example is the Great Killer Banana Scare of 2007 which flooded the mailboxes of many people in the USA and still pops up sometimes.

Of course being a LibDem doesn’t make us immune to this distorting process..

Incidentally a discussion of this report on the Metafilter (Hat Tip) raised an interesting side discussion on the “Toxic ‘leader’ meme” which may be of interest in our present mutters about press coverage.

The studies refreed to in the WP article are (all .pdfs, note)


Weaver et al (2007) Inferring the Popularity of an Opinion From Its Familiarity: A Repetitive Voice Can Sound Like a Chorus

Mayo et al (2002) ‘‘I am not guilty’’ vs ‘‘I am innocent’’: Successful negation may depend on the schema used for its encoding

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Genius, finances and the Rocks 

I don’t want to be too pessimistic, but with the current Northern Rock uproars John Kenneth Galbraith’s little book ‘A Short History of Financial Euphoria’ looks all too relevant.

Basic point. Speculation buys up the intelligence of those involved.

The only safeguard against market shipwrecks is good market ‘seamanship’ which recognises what a wrecking coast and adverse winds and tides look like.

Unfortunately the power of money means that a period of prosperity lessens the sense of danger. So-called new financial instruments re-invent old methods of profiting from risks and those involved bask in reputations for financial genius. ‘The world of finance hails the reinvention of the wheel over and over again, often in a more unstable version’ says Galbraith.

All is well so long as the risks don’t come back to leverage disproportionate havoc, as has come about from the innovative repackaging of high risk loans in the USA. The real problem comes from the hedge funds, and from the fact that financial institutions have been borrowing and lending on packages of assets which have been packaaged and re-packaged so often nobody actually knows where the risks are, and how many times they have been multiplied by being repeatedly spread around.

‘Financial genius comes before the fall’, as Galbraith memorably summed up his argument.

One depressing component of any situation where geniuses are discovered to have the wheels coming off their cunning plans is that the Official Great And Good are required to make public pronouncements about the underlying situation being sound regardless of what the situation really is.

I sincerely hope they are this time right about the Northern Rock uproar and the associated troubles.

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You are guaranteed 100% of the first £2,000 and 90% of the next £33,000 by the government. Of course if Northern Rock goes bankrupt (a major possibility) you'll be asking for your money back, along with millions of other savers. You won't see a penny for months (or possibly over a year) and will lose the interest you'd have gained if you'd transferred your money on Monday. The price you'll pay is maybe a few tenths of a percent in interest. What price is peace of mind?
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Monday, September 10, 2007

A fusty nut with no kernel - Shakespeare authorship and political myths 

Oh Good Night! Another round of the so-called controversy (see this Observer report) about who wrote the plays of Shakespeare.

Looking at these weird argumenst may however help us to understand why some current controveries carry on the way they do.

It seems that just about anybody alive at the time and a few who were not are candidates for the authorship. Francis Bacon. The Earl of Derby. The Earl of Oxford. Queen Elizabeth the First. Christopher Marlow (from his grave). A secret committee organised by the Queen’s chief spymaster Burghley to spread pro-protestant propaganda. A secret committee organised by the Society of Jesus to spread pro-Catholic propaganda. Anyone at all it seems except the actor from Stratford. If I had a brother I would say ‘Zounds I have never been so bethumped with words since first I called my Brother’s Father Dad’.

One of the things that really annoys me about all this is the patronising assumption that an ordinary man from the sticks could never have written these works- it had to be someone with aristocratic connections and with a top-level University education.
Well, my past experience of tutoring Open University students has given me a huge respect for the knowledge, intelligence and creativity of people from all kinds of backgrounds.

Another, and politically very depressing thing is the way that fantasies, misunderstandings and straight-forwards fictions that have in the past been patiently examined and refuted re-appear as blinding new insights pedalled by uninformed enthusiasts. Something like Conservative policy groups then.

An example is in the Observer story – the throwaway line that Shakespeare came from an illiterate household.

Please! As is well documented, Shakespeare’s Father John was twice Bailiff (equivalent of Mayor) of Stratford . He served a second term after his successors made such a mess of the town’s accounts that a rescue operation had to be mounted, bringing John Shakespeare back to office to oversee this. Some illiterate. As someone remarked ‘ A false conclusion: I hate it as an unfilled can’.

Stratford had one of the famous Tudor Gramamar schools and this was operating when young William was a boy and John Shakespeare was a leading citizen. The schools were a revolutionary innovation. The schoolmasters were top scholars from the Universities, people quite capable of holding University lecturerships, who formed a national corresponding network between themselves for upholding learning. Bright boys from the Shires had unprecedented chances to learn about the world. And if they went on to London they had an equivalent of the Open University available to them – a huge publishing industry putting out self-help books on all kinds of subjects and a cosmopolitan population bringing news from around the world. The first printed books in Polish were produced in London for example. Shakespeare the actor lodged for years with a refugee Huguenot family – we do have records of this – which gave him access to the French-speaking community, and stories about events and places on the continent.

There being no TV the equivalent of ‘Big Brother’ as entertainment were the Law Courts – legal terminology was bandied about in common parlance, as any reading of other literary works of the time will confirm.

One of the silliest suggestions in the Observer article is that Shakespeare made no references in his works to Stratford, or events in his own life. So the Forest of Arden was in Kansas then? And how many references to their own circumstances did Shakespeare’s contemporary rival writes make? ‘Such a dish of skim milk’ as someone else probably didn’t say instead of the Bard.

Lets take a look at just one thing which, of connected to any of the so-called claimants would be screamed to the rooftops as proof of authorship.

When Shakespeare was an adolescent there was a huge scandal in Stratford, which got recorded in various diocesian court archives. A young woman fell desperately in love with some young man and being rebuffed fell into a deep depression. Her body was found floating in the river decked out with flowers. Her family pulled lots of strings to get her death declared an accident (falling from a tree) instead of suicide, so she could be buried in consecrated lands. It is a story eerily parallel to that of Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’.

The name of the Young Woman was Catherine Hamlet.

Does this prove that the ‘Stratford Actor’ Shakespeare wrote the plays? No. But it is much much better evidence than ANYTHING suggested in favour of any of the other so-called claimants.

As you may guess I rather do take the position that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

I wish I could say ‘this babble shall not henceforth trouble me’ but I rather expect it will be back along with other absurdities of the same intellectual strength, like the non-existence of the Holocaust, the alleged mystery of the collapse of the twin towers in 9/11 and the second marksman on the grassy knoll at Dallas.

And yes there are serious political implications in investigating this kind of misleading though, because such myths are of huge political power. So understanding what is going on in all this Shakespeare Claimants nonsense can perhaps help train us to survive current traps and absurdities.

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This is a fascinating area of scholarship, with most modern-day scholars agreeing that William Shakespeare was not Shakespeare. The problem for all other candidates however, is finding a connection to the undisputed home or 'base' of the Bard. This is not a problem for the strongest candidate; Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke who was the Recorder of Stratford and who had residence down the road in Warwick Castle. He was a 1st class genius, a poet, soneteer, statesman, soldier, sailor, Chancellor as well as many other profiles that the true 'Shakespeare' must possess. That is not to say that other fine men (or women) of the age did not play a part, but Greville is the only candidate to have claimed the title of 'the master of Shakespeare'. If this subject may be of interest, and for more information, see the website www.masterofshakespeare.com. The new book; 'The Master of Shakespeare' by A.W.L. Saunders is sure to be a hit!!
The start of our disagreement James is that I believe most modern scholars agree that the actor from Stratford wrote the plays.
As Edis points out, the key word is "scholars," and hardly any of them think that someone other than the Stratford Shakespeare wrote the plays. For an original approach to (the Stratford) Shakespeare's life, work, and times, there's the recently published "The Shakespeare Diaries."
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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Industrial heritage and encouraging tourism 

An interesting point raised by Frank Little on industrial heritage and tourism, talking up the potential of sites in Neath and Port Talbot.

This is very much a developing trend. See the ‘European Route of Industrial Heritage’ webpage to see the sort of tourism that is emerging. Yes we need to do more to understand our industrial and commercial past.

Raises the question for me.. Are there any bits of the Briton Ferry Ironworks still around? I have not been back to The Ferry for 30 years or more...

Just south of Neath and Port Talbot (in Pen-y-Bont ar Ogwr) there is the site of the first ironworks in South Wales (founded in the 18th century by my great-great-mumble-great-Grandfather John Bedford of Cefn Cribwr). After industrial activity ceased, this site was saved by intelligent initiatives of the then local authority... This is actually featured on the ‘European Route’, so industrial tourists are already being channelled into that area.

And is there anything around to commemorate the first use of Re-Inforced concrete in the UK, which was in the Swansea area?

Edis Bedford Bevan

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Haes the Union ower muckle pouer? 

That is a crucial question we should be putting to our prospective candidates for MEP in the current hustings and candidate selection process.

As the article on the EU in the Scots version of Wikipedia says:

The European Union (EU) is a group o 27 member kintras in Europe. The Union was pitten thegither for cultural an economic ettles. Monie kintras in the Union uises the same siller, the Euro.

The'r grand debate in monie airts o the Union the nou anent whit pouers the Union shuid hae ower an abuin the member kintras. Some fowk argies that the Union shuid hae mair pouer, wi some sayin that aa European kintras shuid come thegither in a federal superstate; ithers believes that the Union aareadies haes ower muckle pouer, an shuid gie some up, or e'en that the Union shuid dissolve aathegither.

Could't have put it clearer myself, in any language.

There is an useful table on how the distribution of seats between EU countries has changed for the upcoming election on this page.

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Economic crackpottery? An interesting read... 

An interesting book out in the USA doing a hatched job on such supply-side concepts as the ‘Laffer Curve’ (which purports to show that cutting taxes can lead to an increase in tax revenue). The argument of the book by Jonathan Chait is that an economic cult has driven out sensible economic discourse and tries to show the nature of that cult.

If it is a cult, what are its traces in the UK? Supporters of the
Laffer Curve in particular might like to review the arguments of this book.

Excerpts for Chait’s book ‘The Big Con’ are in ‘The New Republic’ this month.

Like most crank doctrines, supply- side economics has at its core a central insight that does have a ring of plausibility. The government can't simply raise tax rates as high as it wants without some adverse consequences…... And there are justifiable conservative arguments to be made on behalf of reducing tax rates and government spending. But what sets the supply-siders apart from sensible economists is their sheer monomania.

And the core of the argument under attack?

The core principle is that economic performance hinges almost entirely on how much incentive investors and entrepreneurs have to attain more wealth, and this incentive in turn hinges almost entirely on their tax rate. Therefore, cutting taxes-- especially those of the rich, who carry out the decisive entrepreneurial role in the economy--is always a good idea.

Chait says of the propounders of such theories that “'some of them (are) ideological zealots, others merely greedy, a few of them possibly insane".

The work of two authors (George Gilder’s “Wealth and Poverty” and Jude Wanniski’s “The Way The world works” come in for particular rubbishing:

The literary and intellectual style of "The Way the World Works" is immediately familiar to anybody who has ever sorted submissions at a political magazine. It is the manifesto of the misunderstood autodidact--an essay purporting to have interpreted history in a completely novel and completely correct way, or to have discovered the key to eternal prosperity and world peace, or some equally sweeping claim. The Way the World Works fits precisely into this category, except that, rather than being scrawled longhand on sheaves of notebook paper and mass-mailed to journalists, it was underwritten by the American Enterprise Institute, has been published in four editions, and features introductions attesting to its genius from such luminaries as Bartley and the columnist and ubiquitous pundit Robert Novak.

Another interesting read, too many books to catch up with …sigh.

Jonathan Chait “The Big Con: the true story of how Washington got hoodwinked by crackpot economics” Houghton Mifflin Sept 2007

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The Laffer curve does not say that tax cuts are always good though.

It says that there's an optimal level of taxation to maximise government revenue. It is thought most governments are actually above this point.

I think that's perfectly reasonable - if you tax too much you reduce economic activity and therefore takings, as well as making the incentive to avoid taxation higher.
Also the costs of collection go down with simpler tax systems, and simpler ones are often lower.

People who support tax cuts below this point on the curve have other reasons - shrinking the state, its functions and its power mostly (a noble aim in my book).

Tax cuts for the rich - well, if you're taxing them until their pips squeak then you're actually going to get little tax revenue from them since they have the resources to avoid it (inheritance tax is easily avoided by the rich for instance) so lowering taxes makes sense, hence the increase in revenue which can come from a flat tax (although they never say if other taxes do increase or not).

So, the Laffer curve seems sensible to me, but its use by politicians to justify some things is just window dressing to disguise other motives.
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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A road by any other name - musings on the database society 

It isn’t as important an issue as the DNA database errors noted by Lynne, but the odd glitch I came across when my son moved house does illustrate part of the problems of the emerging database ‘snoop and categorise’ society.

My son e-mailed me his new university address but not the postcode. I looked up the street on the online maps services –and nothing turned up. Tried various alternative spellings and finally one popped up showing his road with the alternative spelling for the name.

Thing is, my son spelled it right first time. It is an error that has crept into some database and been picked up by seemingly all the online map services. Including the one you get when you click the Brighton Council website for a map of the city.

Asking around, it seems this is not an unique problem.

So how does anyone correct this globalised error now that it entrenched in some database? Will the mis-spelled name start to become the ‘real’ one? Will my son have problems if he gives his correct address but some official or law-enforcement or financial database search fail to make a match? How about the emergency services? As I said not itself at the moment an earth-shattering problem, but something to think about before plunging into Universal Identity Databases..

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