Sunday, 2 August 2009

Some musings #2

How smart is Tony Blair..?

Well judging by their university results, Tony Blair is about as smart as Nick Griffin. Who should be the most worried about that?

The DNA Database

It seems an individual who had his DNA entered into the database, then went all the way to the Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg to have it removed (on the grounds that he was acquitted of the charge that lead to his DNA being sampled in the first place, not to mention the fact that he was only 11) has now been convicted of several other offences including possession of drugs.

Not surprisingly the police are claiming that this supports the current position that anyone arrested should have their DNA sampled and stored in the database, but equally unsurprisingly this exposes a lack of analytic ability. The facts of this case mainly, and quite clearly, show that the detection of this individual's further crimes or alleged crimes did not depend on having his DNA on the database at all.

The police presumption is clearly that anyone who commits one crime will commit more. Actually there is considerable statistical evidence to support this, however this isn't the basis on which DNA samples are taken (in England at least).

If it was the case that DNA samples were taken from those convicted then there would be few to oppose this, however it isn't even the case that samples are taken from those charged, they are taken from anyone who is even arrested! Therefore the actual police presumption is that anyone arrested will be a criminal, if not for the alleged crime that lead to the arrest, but for some future crime and therefore it is only sensible to take their DNA in order to detect future crimes.

What clearer example of guilt until proven innocence could there be?!

Of course in some cases the police will be right, but we do not have, and can never have, a perfect justice system. Our constitution is based on the presumption of innocence and the recognition that it is better to let the guilty go free than to convict the innocent. The DNA policy must reflect this.

Harriet Harman the sexist!

Is Harriet Harman a sexist..? Well as Equalities Minister you'd really hope not, but this pronouncement, as reported in the Telegraph (which to be fair is hardly one of her supporters) casts considerable doubt on this hope:


Here she says that, "Men cannot be left to run things on their own." The point she is trying to make is that there should be a mix of the sexes in the leadership (specifically the Labour Party leadership), which seems reasonable. However if you swap the wording of her statement we get: "Women cannot be left to run things on their own."

Now if any man said this I think it would be fair to accuse him of sexism, therefore the equivalent statement by a woman must be equally sexist. In other words this pronouncement of Harman's is sexist.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Is the BNP racist?

Is the BNP racist..? Well, probably, but to answer properly I'd need to actually research their policies and pronouncements, and I care too little about the BNP to do so. Are there racists within the BNP? Almost certainly I'd say. Does the BNP not allow non-whites to join? Apparently so. Does this in itself make the party racist? And there's the difficult question, many commentators would just say "yes", as if it was self evident, but actually it isn't.

And this is where we get into serious trouble, because this is something Nick Griffin knows as well. And this is why the BNP cannot be written off entirely, you see Nick Griffin is actually quite bright (for a politician, there is a different intelligence scale for politicians, so one has to keep perspective here). Considering the shower that is New Labour, Nick Griffin is up there amongst the brightest of them (with a 2:2 no less!), and when it comes to saying things you believe despite what others think, Nick Griffin can teach an awful lot of politicians a thing or too.

So why do I eulogise him so? Well partly to emphasise how dumb most of our politicians are, but partly because of a point he made to Jon Humphries in a Today programme interview. When challenged about the whites-only policy of the BNP, he replied that this would not be a challenge put to the Black Police Officers' Association, who don't allow white policemen to join (as I understand it, and a point largely ignored by Humphries). And indeed he is right, and this exposes the weakness surrounding most thinking on race in current political life.

Why is the BPOA not racist but the BNP is? The common answer to this is that it is OK to be discriminatory if you are the minority (which is the central assumption that I challenge). Because the BPOA has "black" in the title, we know they are of the minority and therefore it's OK. Conversely the fictitious White Police Officers Association is racist. What nonsense!

Lets do an experiment, take the "clue is in the name" aspect out of it, and create two police officers' associations: the "Tetraphone" Police Officers' Association (TPOA) and the "Quadrulike" Police Officers' Association (QPOA - I hope it's clear I've made those names up). Each association bars policemen of a certain race from joining, or restricts its membership to those of a certain race. Which I ask you is the racist association? Thing is, either both are, or neither are.

New Labour

This is a point made by others, and probably better made too, but what better emblem of New Labour is there than their ineffectual plotting against Gordon Brown? If ever we doubted their incompetence, now we know for sure. As one cartoonist expressed it, James Purnell headed out the door shouting "follow me", only to hear the door slam behind him as various ministers looked to self interest rather than country or even party.

And then there were earlier manoeuvrings, notably of course Hazel Blears. Having made a point of opposing GB, with a one newspaper interview in particular, then actually resigning (which, to be fair, puts her ahead of various others), she now has recanted the whole thing. This isn't like some long regretted act of violence, like the repentant murderer released after spending the majority of his adult life in prison. This contrition has come in un-seeming haste, prompted by her local party who are blaming her for the electoral success of the British National Party and threatening to de-select her as a consequence.

So which way is it for Ms Blears? Was she wrong then, when she spoke out against GB, or wrong now? Is she a malcontent and incompetent plotter, or more than normally self-interested? Either option isn't much in the way of a compliment, but the more worrying aspect is that this behaviour is pretty much par for the New Labour course, and even more worrying, these people were, and still are, running the country!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

A whole new experience

There's a line in a Blackadder episode (Blackadder II I think, where he's captured by a Hugh Laurie character). The eponymous Edmund says to Baldrick:
"Thank you for introducing me to a whole new experience, being pleased to see you!"
This week I have had a similar, wholly new, experience: being disappointed in Gerry Adams.

No one who knows, or knows of, Gerry Adams would doubt either his abilities or his commitment to his particular cause and in fact for anyone on the counter-insurgency side of life, rather than the insurgent side, to underestimate him would be a serious mistake. Like some others in his cause (but by no means all) he has attracted from those who oppose him what would ordinarily be called a "grudging respect", so it is with some regret that we learn that he's been claiming dubious expenses from the British taxpayer just like the rest of them.

Of course Sinn Fein see it differently, but that's only to put them in the same boat as all the others. Secondary home allowance is there to pay the additional costs of keeping a home in or near Westminster, but if you're an abstentionist this is hardly necessary. Sinn Fein MPs refuse to take their seats because they refuse to take the oath of loyalty to the Queen. Which is fair enough, in itself, but you can't have it both ways. If our Queen isn't good enough for you then our money shouldn't be either.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Whats wrong with treason?

What's wrong with treason, in the sense of "what's wrong with charging people with treason?" From the OED:
"treason, violation by a subject of his allegiance to Sovereign or State ..."
The actual definition goes on to add "punishable by death" which, you'd have to say, is one of the things wrong with it, assuming you are opposed to the death penalty. Then again, just because it's punishable by death does not mean that death is always imposed, or ever imposed.

But why the sudden interest? Well here is a quote from a man who had some association (but not in any criminal or conspiratorial sense) with the July 7th suicide bombers:

"It started with the anti-war movement in 2003 – they were expressing their willingness to kill British soldiers abroad. I thought these guys were going to join the Taliban."
(this is quoted from the Telegraph: link)

Whilst not being a lawyer, it would seem to me that a statement of this sort, if actually representing peoples thoughts, is easily treason. So what, you may be thinking. Well the point is that if these people had been convicted with treason it seems very unlikely that they would have gone on to carry out their bombings. Mostly because they'd be in prison, one hopes, but even if that wasn't the case, the kind of terrorism we face thrives in secrecy (as does all terrorism really). Even a charge of treason would expose the general environment in which these people were living and that in itself would reduce the risk, just by drawing attention to things.

This is not to say that use of treason as an offence will eliminate the threat we face, but at the moment even getting people to the point of being charged is proving difficult and mere interdiction of plots (I say mere, whilst recognising the effort that that involves) will only hold the line. A charge of treason would allow an early intervention but more importantly provides an opportunity to directly address potential terrorists before they become actual terrorists.

By contrast current policy seems entirely aimed at legislating to reduce civil liberties whilst justifying this by reference to "secret briefings" (of the threat see: link), with the classic side-effect that the consequences of such policy fall equally on all of us instead of being focused on the offender. Why introduce new legislation, why not use existing statute?

By the way, the notion that the law abiding have nothing to fear from such legislation is completely bogus. I don't need to be actually arrested for the liberties under which I live to be reduced; generally speaking that attitude is the first step towards a police state.

Treason, that is a charge of treason, is not something we should be ashamed of. We are all citizens, it is entirely reasonable that we should expect the same degree of loyalty from all our fellows. When this is lacking we should have the confidence to say so, and where necessary take action. After all we now know what failing to take action can lead to.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Is the Prime Minister losing it?

The Prime Minister in this case being Gordon Brown, just in case this changes in the future... This is a quote from a "minister close to Mr Brown":

“We can still turn this round, but Gordon is not listening. He is lashing out and reacting to headlines. It’s all so reminiscent of the last months of John Major."

A comparison between John Major and Gordon Brown is in fact very interesting, but mostly for the contrasts it brings out not the similarities. Assuming for the moment that the relationship between No 10 and its parliamentary colleagues is in fact reminiscent of the last days of the Major premiership, this is what a comparison reveals:

  1. John Major was elected in 1992 with a majority of around 20, which by the end had dwindled in one way or another to practically zero.
  2. Gordon Brown inherited a majority of 64 or so. Which has declined slightly but is still far greater than the best that Major ever had (in his 2nd term).
Despite his tiny majority John Major was able to pass crucial legislation, such as the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, in the teeth of determined opposition from within his own party. And before one forgets, one of the principle beneficiaries of this treaty has been Gordon Brown himself as without it we would have been obliged by treaty to enter the Euro, something even GB himself recognised as being a bad idea. Whatever you may think of his relations with his backbenchers, John Major's policies were sound.

By contrast Gordon Brown, with his far larger majority, is now finding that he cannot get his legislation past his own backbenchers. Of course this isn't helped by taking the wrong side of the argument as he did over the rights of Gurkhas to settle here, but that is just a simple demonstration of his lack of sound judgment and bad policy making.

(As an aside: is this a sudden loss of good judgement, or do you believe he never had particularly good judgement?)

The economy that John Major handed over to Gordon Brown was thriving, with steady growth and falling unemployment; the economy that GB is going to hand over to David Cameron is characterised by deep recession, rising unemployment, record bankruptcies and national debt and budget deficits that defy the imagination they are so large. This is what the comparison between John Major and Gordon Brown reveals.

(Afternote: for the view from the horse's mouth, so to speak, see: Link)

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

A fairer future

Yes, we are to have a fairer future, Ms Harman (Leader of the House of Commons) has so ordained. If you want to read in more detail here's a document:

A Fairer Future

This legislation is attempting to do a number of things, one of which is to bring together a number of other Acts relating to discrimination such that all the relevant legislation is in one place. Which is fine. However it also seeks to do some more novel things, amongst these are the use of public procurement to improve equality and the power of Ministers to require employers to publish so-called "pay gender gap" reports.

The use of public procurement to improve equality is an interesting concept. Here is one description of how it could be done:

"A local council is commissioning a significant building project, in the context of a large social regeneration scheme, in an area where women are particularly affected by disadvantage.This requires work from plumbers, carpenters and plasterers, trades in which women are under-represented nationally.The contract for this work could include a condition that the contractor runs a positive action programme to train women in these skills."
It's the last sentence that really gets me, the root to greater equality is by running "positive action programmes" to train disadvantaged women in plumbing and carpentry. What is a positive action programme anyway and how does it relate to training? Is training better if it's positive action training?

Note that this paragraph includes a hidden assumption that lies at the heart of much of this Government policy, that is if raw numbers show a disparity then inequality must be the cause. I think few would doubt that there are more male plumbers than female, but does this mean that women are under-represented in these trades? Could, just could, it mean that relatively few women want to become plumbers in the first place..?

In an interview Ms Harman has also said:

"All other things being equal, if there are two companies bidding for a contract and one has a much better equality record, then it would be down to the procuring authority to choose that one."

But if you read the documents, it is claimed that promoting equality is good for business, so the company with the better equality record should be superior to the other bidding company anyway, in which case the situation described will not arise.

The Fairer Future document is also fond of the word "trump", for example:
"Social class still holds a powerful grip over people’s lives: class trumps ability..."
"... class trumps gender when it comes to life expectancy."
But it seems a clear consequence of this legislation that equality policy is likely to trump other more mundane things such as value for money and quality of work, but then when has this Government ever been interested in such things when it spends the public's money.

The Gender Pay Gap is another classic case of using statistics to mislead. In the section "Why we need the Equality Bill", the first cited reason is: "Despite progress since 1997 to reduce the gender pay gap, women still earn, on average, 22.6% less per hour than men."

This figure on its own is just completely meaningless, it takes no account of demographics and makes no reference to the concept of equal pay for equal work, which is actually what the pay gap is supposed to be about. Wouldn't it be ironic if the Government takes the power to order employers to publish their gender pay and equality reports only for them to show that there isn't much of a pay gap after all!

Some musings #1

#1 implies subsequent #2's etc. Time will tell...

What is art? A tough one to start with really, but here are some thoughts:

If Damien Hirst fixes a bathroom cabinet to the wall, it's art. If I do that, it's DIY. Similarly Tracey Emin's (in)famous bed is art, whereas mine is just where I sleep, unmade or not. The only conclusion of this is either that art is something done by an artist (but then what is an artist) or art is something on display in an art gallery. Sadly both of those definitions are circular, so no help really.

Abstract art, well this may be easier to define: "if the best experts in the world can't work out which way up it's supposed to be, then it's abstract."

The scientific method: Aristotle said that heavier things fall faster than lighter ones, everyone assumed this was the case until someone bothered to try it out. Nowadays scientists are more sceptical, but the problem with some theories is that there is no practical way of testing them, string theory being an example.

However modern science is more subtle than "it's true until proven otherwise". For starters you don't get as far as "it's true" until you've done some sort of experimental verification to show that it is at least true in certain circumstances, never mind being true generally.

Then there are laws which are really axioms, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics being a good example. And there is also the difference between theory and theorem: theorems are in fact true, we know this because they come with definitive proofs. Theories on the other hand can rarely be proven, at most they are shown to be true within the limits of experimentation and measurement.

Finally one thing we do know to be true, because it is a theorem, is that proof and truth are separate concepts. An assertion may be true, but can also be un-provable. Therefore is it is quite incorrect to say that if you can't prove it, it cannot be true. There are so many people who have a public stage of one sort or another who need to understand this.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Satisfactory is..?

"Satisfactory is not good enough." This is a direct quite from Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for (amongst other things) Education, on today's Today programme (0733 item). On the other hand we have:
satisfactory a. causing satisfaction (to), meeting expectation or need, good enough, adequate. (OED)
In other words, the man Balls doesn't understand the language he speaks, which is scary considering his role.

Further on in the interview he says 75% of schools are good or outstanding, so the remaining 25% are either satisfactory or worse. How can this be the case? Surely satisfactory is the median rating, but here we have more than half rated better than the median, which is contradictory.

Of course this isn't surprising, grade inflation is widespread in the current education system, and this is exactly what we have here. If schools rated satisfactory are actually not satisfactory at all, then the grade has clearly been inflated, so the problem is with the assessment process.

So why isn't the Secretary of State coming on air to say how he is sorting this out? Well the obvious answer to that is that he doesn't understand the concept of grade inflation, he clearly can't recognise it even when his own words directly imply it. And the worrying thing about that, is that it further means Balls is never going to sort out the bigger problem of grade inflation in the exam system.

Saturday, 28 March 2009


Or rather male-preference primogeniture, for that is the system used in the UK to determine the line of succession to the throne; anyway seems it's one of the things on Gordon Brown's mind at the moment. Not the imminent G20 conference, nor the state of the economy, the threat of deflation (or Islamic terrorism), the unprecedented size of the national debt or the fact that for the first time since New Labour came to power an auction of UK gilts was under-subscribed or even the worst fall in quarterly GDP since 1980. Nope, none of those things have priority, it's the possibility that at some point in the future Prince William's eldest child might be a girl that's the thing to be worried about! Does anyone else suspect this is something of a diversionary measure? Well yes, lots of people are saying just that, but that's no reason not to join in.

Of course you can argue that male preference primogeniture discriminates against women, and "the government is against all forms of discrimination", but this is where it starts to go wrong. The basic idea is to replace the male preference system with absolute primogeniture, that is the throne passes to the eldest child regardless of sex. So instead of sex discrimination, lets have age discrimination instead! This is why it looks like a measure designed to get the awfulness of the Brown premiership off the front pages for a bit, its a typical un-thought-through policy. If discrimination is the issue, then don't discriminate.

To use an analogy: imagine it isn't the throne, it's the position of CEO of a large and wealthy corporation. To appoint a new CEO the shareholders/board generally invite applicants and/or consider potential candidates, carry out an assessment then make a choice. Imagine instead that they have primogeniture like rules that lay out who the next CEO has to be, and for the sake of the analogy these rules state that the role has to go to the eldest male applicant. Actually the analogy makes more sense (as appointing the eldest applicant is clearly nonsense) if the rule is that it has to go to the first male applicant to apply - the analogy still works as it retains the element of timing. So, we have to appoint the first bloke who gets his CV through the door!

Now the female applicants all cry foul, saying this is discriminatory. OK we reply, you're right, it is, lets do what Gordon Brown proposes and replace the "first male applicant" rule with a "first applicant" rule. Fantastic, we no longer discriminate on grounds of sex, but if anything we've made the process more stupid not less; we certainly haven't made it more sensible by removing the element of sexual discrimination. And this is the thing, if you're against all forms of discrimination then replacing one with another is contradictory if not hypocritical.

The point of rules of inheritance is that otherwise someone actually has to make a decision. In many cases this is fine, but in the matter of thrones it has lead to wars in the past, so a clear set of rules is by no means a bad thing. You might argue that discriminatory rules can never be a good thing, but any such rule has to be discriminatory by its very nature and basing discrimination on age is no better than discrimination based on sex. So whats the alternative?

Well clearly one alternative would be to abolish the monarchy, but then you have the even worse position of a politician becoming head of state. Is there another way, well yes: an elective monarchy. It's still discriminatory, but now we discriminate on grounds of merit, and that can't be a bad thing surely.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

A levels

There is no doubt that more pupils pass more A levels than they used to and more pupils get higher grades. The Government insists this is indicative of an increase in standards, whereas everyone else says its due to A levels getting easier. One of the reasons the Government insists on flying in the face of widespread opinion is that they have pumped a lot of cash into the state system in the last 10 years or so. They need to be able to point to a measurable improvement of some sort to avoid the charge of having wasted all that money.

The latest reported figures show that 30.3% of fee-paying pupils gained three or more A grades compared to 7.6% in comprehensives. Ten years ago the figures were 16.9% in independent schools against 4.7% in comprehensives. The telling point is not so much that there is a gap but that it has widened and widened considerably. Furthermore these figures don't reflect other research that suggests that the "harder", more rigorous subjects, which are more widely taken by independent school pupils, are also marked more harshly, that is if one adjusted for this then the relative performance in the independent sector is even better than the headline number indicates.

So how can this have happened? Perhaps the independent sector has increased their budgets even more quickly than has the state sector. Actually, no; since around 1998/99 the Government has been increasing "school based expenditure" by up to 7% a year. This figure excludes the costs of various centrally provided services eg school buses, the costs of local authority admin and particularly the costs of financing capital expenditure, thus the true increase is likely to be higher. In parallel private school fees have also been increasing, for example fees rose by 43% in the five years to 2006 which is an average yearly increase of 7.7%. When one bears in mind that private school fees necessarily include an element that is used to finance capital expenditure, the lesson is not the bare numbers themselves, but that increases in the private sector are roughly the same as in the state sector. In other words the independent sector is investing at broadly the same rate as the state sector. Given that the independent sector started from a much higher base (in terms of A level results), they ought to be into diminishing returns, but instead the opposite is happening. So the widening gap in performance can't be down to greater increases in funding in one sector.

Perhaps the gap is about the absolute level of funding, not just the relative increases in the past few years. Here one has to admit that independent schools have at least twice as much money as do state schools, but this factor is pretty much stable given that both sectors have been increasing funding at roughly the same rate. Again the killer fact is that the independent sector is increasing funding from a much higher base, yet it seems to be the state sector that is suffering from diminishing returns, not the higher spending independent sector.

Perhaps its not so much down to money, but general Government policy ie policy other than budget increases - curriculum changes etc. Here there are broadly 2 options, the independent sector either implements Government policy, or it does not. If you assume that across the board the independent sector has implemented every Government policy and initiative that the state sector has, then you'd have to say that the independent sector has done a better job. But who actually thinks that the independent sector implements Government policy? The harsher truth is that the independent sector is accelerating away from the state sector partly because it is not implementing Government policy. Or put another way, Government policy is holding back state schools.

What else could it be? You often hear the Government saying that pupils and teachers are working harder nowadays, hence the improvement in results. Is this the case? Was everyone over 30 lazy when they were at school? Again, if this is the cause of better results, or even contributory, then the conclusion must be that fee paying pupils are working even harder than their state educated peers. Working harder as well as doing more sport, playing more music, performing more drama etc.

The uncomfortable truth is that whatever the Government has done in state schools, the independent sector has either done it better or recognised it as detrimental and avoided doing it all. All the additional money that has been pumped into the state sector has either been wasted or any benefit it might have had has been nullified by policy.

Finally, does this say anything about the A level itself? In an absolute sense things have clearly moved forwards, but in a relative sense the state sector is actually going backwards. Concentrating on the absolute measure is misleading as it is the relative measure that is the better one as it removes any effect of "goal post shifting" - if the posts have moved at all, they've moved equally for both sectors, so by comparing the 2 we remove the effect. The trouble now is that by one measure things are improving, but by the truer measure things are actually getting worse. If the goal posts have not moved, then worsening education ought to show a drop in achievement, but we don't observe this. Thus achievement must be being inflated, and the means by which this is done is to make A levels easier.

This in itself only explains the contradiction, it doesn't explain why the independent sector shows the greater improvement. The reason for this can only be that the independent sector is better able to take advantage of the easier exams. The important, but ironic, conclusion we draw from that is that if you want to close the gap between state and independent sector, you need to make A levels harder!

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Is Parliament representative?

One of the most commonly heard sayings in political commentary is that, "... there aren't enough women in Parliament." Of course this begs the immediate question, what would be the right number? But that actually trivialises the underlying issue. It isn't about numbers it's about how Parliament should represent the people.

To address this, the first question that should be asked is, what are MPs? What are they..? Well they are legislators. From this simple fact should flow all manner of deductions about the make-up of Parliament, but the main one ought to be that Members of Parliament should be the best legislators what we have available. In practice the route to the House of Commons is by election, and therefore you can't just choose the best legislators (interestingly an appointed House of Lords does allow you to do this); however it would be a good aspiration to be able to say that MPs are at least drawn from the best legislators available.

On this basis we can then consider the proportion of women that there should be in the House of Commons, but we must first consider this question: "is there any evidence that women are better legislators than men?" If there is such evidence then it is absolutely clear that there are not enough female MPs. However I have neither seen nor heard of any such evidence; one's quality as a legislator clearly varies but there is no evidence that sex is a determinant factor. So the right answer to "how many woman MPs should there be?" is that there is no right answer, or rather that all answers are right. So long as MPs are good at legislating then it does not matter if they are male or female.

This brings us onto the wider question of the nature of representative democracy. In our current system each MP represents his or her constituency, where this is a geographically defined portion of the United Kingdom; crucially MPs are representatives and not delegates. Note that this definition does not allow for Parliament as a whole to be representative of the population as a whole. Nevertheless people observe that there are comparatively few women in the House of Commons and they therefore state that this makes Parliament un-representative. Unfortunately this analysis is wrong, because it ignores the constitution, and wrong-headed because it would lead to a ridiculous conclusion.

If we assume for the moment that Parliament as a whole should reflect the population as a whole (and here we see the first mistake, representing the population is one thing, reflecting the population is another), then clearly there should be many more female MPs; but the requirement is to reflect the population as a whole, not just the sex of the population. Therefore there should be a proportionate number of Muslims, Hindus, Jews; a proportionate number of homosexual men and a proportionate number of lesbians too. If Parliament is to "represent" the people in this way then it needs to be the people in microcosm: there should be a certain number of MPs under 30, a proportion over 60; most MPs should be English (and not just from English constituencies); and so on and so on.

The problem is that if this is your goal, your intent and desire, then you cannot pick and choose the aspects that are represented. So my question to those who propose this model, and therefore have an idea of how many women there should be in Parliament, is this: how many MPs should be stupid? Or perhaps more kindly, how many MPs should be of less than average intelligence (and I'm not equating this description with stupidity)? The answer to that is roughly half, and if you don't understand why, then you're probably one of them.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Borrowing from Fred Goodwin's Bank

Thought I might as well lay in on this one, everyone else is after all.

Imagine for a moment that I, Gordy Braun, am a businessman. Having drawn up a business plan I approach a bank, RBS in fact (clearly you can now see this post is a work of fiction). The bank, having seen my business plan which they really like (I have an MBA from Harvard so my business credentials are automatically of the highest order), agree to lend me the cash to set up my new business - CastlesBuiltOnSand Ltd. But in common with all such lending, the loan is secured. It's initially secured against company assets but backed by a personal guarantee from the Directors (ie myself) which is in turn secured against my house. Anyway, cash comes through and off we go...

Then what happens? Oh no! Calamity! The world market has turned against me, there's a global recession, I did not see that coming! My company can't pay the interest, so the bank calls in the loan. But it's too late the money has been spent, so what happens now? Well the bank invokes the guarantee and I lose my house, but the bank gets its money back so that's OK really.

This scenario is not unusual. Banks just do not lend money without security, and when it goes wrong they will take your house off you. Of course they are very happy to borrow huge amounts of money without offering security, but they won't lend any of that to you. And this is where the ordinary person (or at least the ordinary businessman) starts to get annoyed; there is truly one rule for me, a better rule for you (if you happen to be the director of a bank).

Now we turn to Sir Fred Goodwin. RBS has this week posted the largest loss in UK corporate history, consisting of a £8billion trading loss and £16billion write down on good will, mainly due to the disastrous acquisition of ABN Amro. Sir Fred was the CEO at the time of the ABN acquisition and was the principle architect of the deal, the prime mover. At the time of the deal many said that RBS had paid too much, and we now know this to be true. Subsequently Sir Fred was forced out along with the rest of the Board of Directors (and who can say they didn't deserve it). To top this we also learn that under the terms by which Sir Fred left, he receives a £690,000 pension for life, which amounts to a pension pot of some £16million or more!

The question is, why, if I am responsible for repaying the money RBS has loaned to me, are not the Directors of RBS responsible for the money that was loaned to RBS? In fact why when they have made such a bad job of it do they leave with anything at all, why are they still wearing shirts? There is no good answer to this. The obvious one, that no-one (on the whole) could provide a guarantee to cover the amount that RBS has lost doesn't really cut it.

We also hear that the Government has very nicely asked Sir Fred to hand this pension back. Sir Fred has refused (at time of writing, is refusing), on the overt grounds that this was the deal agreed at the time. The underlying reason is quite different - most people's spending aspirations top out at under £1million; by the time you've bought a big house, a fast car, a holiday in the sun etc, it's actually quite hard to spend even larger amounts of money. What Sir Fred is therefore getting is more money per year for as long as he lives than most people could imagine spending at all. I know I for one would be pretty happy to suffer even quite high levels of opprobrium for £690k per year for life, well who wouldn't? Who is going to give this back if they don't have to?

The better question is, if Sir Fred had known that he risked his pension, would he have quite so happily risked the bank on the ABN deal? Would the Board have done the deal if they knew they stood to lose their shirts? The answer to bank regulation is not to make it tighter, it's to make it self regulating. You do this by imposing on the directors of banks the same requirements as any other business. Do you think we'd be in this mess if we'd done that when we set up the FSA?

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Thought experiments

Thought experiments - simple to carry out (no equipment, so to speak, needed), but the results can be profound. Thought experiments lead to Einstein formulating special relativity, in other cases they are useful in demonstrating or refuting otherwise abstruse laws of physics. For example Maxwell's Demon and Feynmann's Brownian Ratchet both require or lead to analyses of the second law of thermodynamics; Bell's spaceship considers relativity and so on. Then there are many famous examples in quantum mechanics, notably Schroedinger's cat.

Of course one of the better advantages of the thought experiment arises from its position as a theoretical or analytical tool. As the experiment takes place in one's mind, we can happily ignore the limitations of the practical, the current state of engineering and anything else we like, provided we don't break the laws of physics.

Although thought experiments are most common in physics, the technique can be used in other fields to expose what is essentially ridiculous. Here we consider what may at first appear to be an unlikely topic: British Law, or at least that part of it that prevents us from returning anyone to their country of origin if they are thought likely to face torture or be executed. This is the case no matter what laws they may have broken before fleeing, nor how heinous their activities on British soil are, no matter what hatred or violence they incite or have incited in the past, no matter what laws they may break whilst over here.

Consider this hypothetical case: a citizen of some unnamed country that has the death penalty is a terrorist. Whilst at large he perpetrates a number of outrages both against his own country and others; large numbers of entirely innocent people die. During the course of one attack the authorities in his country manage to gather absolutely convincing evidence of his guilt, but don't manage to capture him. What is the best course of action for this terrorist?

Well if he stays he will be captured, tried, convicted and put to death, so best not to hang around. Question is where to go..? Well clearly he'd prefer some absolutist regime that more or less supports his aims and will therefore harbour him. However such places do tend to be unstable, so he thinks he should look around for somewhere better. At this point a lawyer points out the British Law mentioned above, so he comes over here.

At first he lives a blameless life, he breaks no UK laws and lives undiscovered. Then his identity is exposed and he is arrested, however he has committed no crime within UK jurisdiction so the only option is to extradite him. But, of course, we can't because his home country will clearly execute him, so what happens..? We have to shelter him!

Another example: two identical crimes are committed in a foreign jurisdiction, by identical criminals in identical circumstances (OK, unlikely I know, but you see the advantage of the thought experiment...). They are both tried in identical ways and sentenced to identical punishments, death in this case. Only now do the cases diverge, one criminal escapes the other does not. The one that escapes gets to the UK, he is extradited but the terms of the extradition are that he must not be executed once he is returned; the other criminal is executed. Clearly we have created an unjust situation. Either one criminal has been unfairly executed, or the other has been unfairly reprieved or possibly a society has been unfairly deprived of its right to act according to its own laws.

Another example, this time with a real character. Imagine after his trial but before his execution Saddam Hussein escapes (this is a thought experiment, so we don't need to consider how, in theory it's possible). Where does he go?

Why he comes here of course and our laws prevent us from returning him to Iraq. So after all that time, effort and money spent removing him from power, we end up having to harbour him because otherwise he'd be extradited and subsequently executed.

You may be thinking to yourself that this is absurd, but the only unlikely aspect of this scenario is the escape, the rest is clearly true but also clearly ridiculous. This is the classic result of the thought experiment - reductio ad absurdum, the reduction of ones initial assumptions to an absurd conclusion.

Ordinarily this is used to prove that ones initial assumptions must be incorrect, and hopefully that the opposite assumption is correct. In physics or mathematics this technique is used to advance knowledge or dispense with theories that are wrong and we can move on, the better for things. Here we don't get to move on, instead we get to watch whilst the lawyers argue it out, the politicians who created the mess just watch and the rest of us stand with open mouths!

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Is Prince Harry ginger?

Clearly this post isn't about the colour of Prince Harry's hair, it's about his (sadly) well publicised "home video" commentary. It seems the scene was waiting for a flight along with his fellow cadets and he took the opportunity to make a quick video of everyone, complete with descriptions. One of the cadets in his platoon was from Pakistan and Prince Harry referred to him as "our Paki friend". The video clip some years after the event has now been leaked to the press.

As soon as the word "paki" was heard, everyone jumped straight to the racism conclusion without really thinking about it. This isn't surprising, as much modern commentary is of the speak first, think later variety, but this particular happening also demonstrates the superficial thinking that surrounds the issue of racism.

Racism nowadays is so strongly verboten that even the slightest tinge is enough to have people running for cover. The result of this is lack of proper, sensible debate and the consequence of no debate is that we now have no idea of where the boundaries lie between out and out racism (ie bigotry) and fair comment and freedom of speech. So instead of leaping to the worst possible conclusion about Prince Harry, lets just apply a little thought.

The first thing to think about is context. In fact context is so important, its worth saying again:

What is the context?

In this case it was several things: a privately made video set in an extremely close knit group. Setting aside the issue of privacy (who reading this would be happy for their every private comment to appear in the national press?), the key issue is the relationship between Prince Harry and his fellow Officer Cadets.

The course at Sandhurst is a year long, it's arduous and demanding both physically and mentally. This should be no surprise as the end result is the Queen's Commission, and we do hope these are not given away lightly, or given away at all. The point being, that such long and arduous courses lead to a level of camaraderie that is uncommon outside military life - other examples might be the better sports teams, arctic explorers perhaps and so forth. In that context, words and phrases that might otherwise have negative connotations can lose all their baggage and either revert to their basic meaning or perhaps take on new meaning all together. So in the case of Prince Harry, its quite possible that referring to a fellow cadet as a Paki was not even harmless but actually affectionate. After all "Paki" is just the diminutive of Pakistani, and we do know that the cadet so referred to was from Pakistan.

And that's just to consider the immediate context. The wider context is more illuminating yet; Sandhurst is there to train and prepare men to operate as leaders and commanders in the harshest of environments, to do this the cadets need to be tested in equally harsh environments. One way to generate a harsh environment is to use a degree of verbal abuse. To anyone thinking that this would be inappropriate I'd say, what do you propose instead? If a cadet messes up in training he gets an unpleasant talking to amongst other things; if he messes up on operations he may end up dead, or, possibly worse, someone else ends up dead! If you can't handle a little bit of the verbal, what are you going to be like when the shooting starts? As it happens we know a couple of things about the Pakistani cadet: he wasn't offended and he can handle worse than a bit of verbal.

And what do you think Prince Harry was called during his training when he messed up? Do you imagine that someone might, just might, have referred to the colour of his hair, maybe? Is it out of all likelihood that he was ever referred to as a "ginger tosser" perhaps, maybe with a smile and a laugh, or possibly with greater venom if the occasion demanded it.

Taken out of context, such things can sound offensive or worse, but that isn't the point. You have to judge words in their context, what's more if you're not yourself familiar with the context perhaps you should make no judgement at all.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Is Gordon Brown Scottish?

Is Gordon Brown Scottish? Well yes, we know that...

Is Gordon Brown "one-eyed"? Yes we know that as well, not least because he's told us; it was the sad result of an accidental kick received whilst playing rugby in his youth.

Is he an idiot? Well arguably no, he's actually quite well qualified, with a PhD and all, I believe. So he's probably not an idiot in any objective sense. Of course wherever there is freedom of speech, this allows him to be called an idiot, and not even GB himself would object to that (well the freedom of speech bit anyway).

So is he a one-eyed, Scottish, idiot? Is the question offensive? Can linking two objectively known facts to a supposition create an insult?

Lets assume for the moment that it's the last of the three assertions that's the known fact, the other two being unknown, and also concentrating just on the Scottish assertion. So we know he's an idiot but we don't know if he's Scottish. Is asking if he is a Scottish idiot offensive to Scots? I don't see how, the "Scottish" is just a qualifier: given that he is an idiot, this serves to separate him from those English idiots (for example). Seeing that the word "Scottish" is a qualifier, does this make any link between being Scottish and being an idiot? Again no, other than that the qualification implies that there are Scottish idiots. If we knew that there were in fact no Scottish idiots then you could argue that the question is unfair, in that it presupposes something that is somewhat offensive and isn't true. But we are pretty sure that there do exist Scottish idiots, so identifying GB as one of them is merely an observation and therefore not an insult. This applies regardless of which of the two assertions we previously knew to be true, we assumed for the sake of the argument that it was the idiot description, but the argument remains valid if we start with the knowledge that he is Scottish.

How about the one-eyed aspect? This is where Clarkson is arguably out of order as anything that hints of a disparaging attitude towards the disabled is going to get you into trouble. So we shouldn't be surprised to hear that Lesley-Anne Alexander, chief executive of the RNIB, has weighed in with the following comment:
"Mr Clarkson's description of Prime Minister Brown is offensive. Any suggestion that equates disability with incompetence is totally unacceptable. We would be happy to help Mr Clarkson understand the positive contribution people with sight loss make to society."
Here we see where the problem is supposed to lie, by calling GB a "one-eyed idiot" we haven't offended GB we've offended the one-eyed because we've equated the one-eyed with the incompetent. Well the idiotic actually (Lesley), idiocy and incompetence are not the same. But never mind that, is the RNIB assertion true? By qualifying idiot with one-eyed have we made a link between the two? Have we in fact equated a sight impairment with idiocy?

If we have then such an equation would persist however we changed the words. Lets see: "Paris Hilton is a blonde woman". By the RNIB's understanding of English syntax and semantics this ought to equate "blonde" with "woman", but clearly it doesn't. How about "Paris Hilton is a blonde idiot"? Well here some might argue that I am making a link between being blonde and being an idiot; "Paris Hilton is a blonde genius" ... Somehow I don't hear any complaints about this one.

Why the difference? It seems that the link of equivalence is only suggested if a less than complimentary assertion is made, at which point those on the side of the blondes immediately cry foul. Well I say, if the hat fits wear it. If you don't mind the compliment, you can't complain about the insult. If Clarkson had called GB a one-eyed genius would we be hearing the RNIB announce a link between sight impairment and high intelligence? I don't think so, the reason being that there is no such thing. In other words English sentence structure does not equate a qualifying adjective with the noun it is qualifying. Blondes are not idiots because they are blonde, Scottish idiots are not idiots because they are Scottish and Gordon Brown is not an idiot because he is one-eyed or because he is Scottish.

(This post relates to a comment made by Jeremy Clarkson in a press conference in Australia in which he referred to Gordon Brown as a one-eyed, Scottish, idiot.)

Friday, 13 February 2009

The Golliwog

Subtitle - is Carol Thatcher a racist or does she have anything to apologise for?

Answer - in my view, no.

There are maybe 2 issues at the heart of this scenario, not including whether or not "green room" conversations are in any sense privileged. The 2 issues are:

  • Is the golliwog intrinsically offensive?
  • Is comparing someone to a golliwog offensive?
Addressing the first point, well clearly a wide selection of commentators think so, for example:

Telegraph Comment

Note that in this case there is no argument presented, it's just stated that golliwog is an offensive term, and herein lies part (if not all) of the problem - there is no debate, it is just assumed or stated as fact that such a thing must be offensive. So lets be grown-ups and have some debate.

What is a golliwog? Well it's a doll, particularly popularised by the jam maker Robertson's. It isn't the only doll you may or may not be surprised to know, there are others out there, and they often have exaggerated features or proportions. For example the Barbie doll has particularly long limbs; the Bratz dolls have big eyes etc etc. However it is just a doll and as such it is widely considered an item of affection. My own sister, as I recall, had a golliwog and there are many women of her generation, and before and after, who will have fond recollections of their dolls, the golliwogs included. So is a golliwog intrinsically offensive? Well no, how could it be..?

If we generalise here, the question is, "is a doll intrinsically offensive?" Well clearly a doll could be offensive but this isn't necessarily the case. Is a doll of a black person offensive? Well, no, not because the doll is black (it might be offensive for other reasons, but the colour can't be the issue). Put another way, is a doll of a white person offensive? Is a Barbie doll offensive? Is a Bratz doll offensive? Is Action Man offensive? Would a black Action Man be offensive? Is a doll intrinsically offensive because its a doll of a minority? The answer to all these is no.

But what about the exaggerated features (the hair particularly)? Well, as observed above, lots of dolls (and seemingly the more popular ones) have exaggerated features, but I don't see people pulling Bratz dolls from their product lines because they have big eyes!

So is a golliwog intrinsically offensive? No, it's a doll and the object of wide affection, it's no more offensive than a Barbie doll or a Bratz doll.

The second point, is comparing someone to a golliwog offensive? Considering the linked item above, at one point the author says:
At what point did comparing a black person to a doll, initially described by its creator as 'a horrid sight, the blackest gnome', become okay?"
Well this is typical of the lack of debate we have. If we dissect this comment a little we get:

"At what point did comparing a black person to a doll ... , become okay?"
Well at what point did it become not OK? Given that a doll is generally an item of affection, why would comparing anyone to such an item be offensive? You'll note that I've omitted what at first sight is the key phrase, but here the author is guilty of selective quotation (and here I'll admit to using Wikipedia as my reference, but the wording is so similar that you'd have to think that the author did the same). The full quotation is:
"a horrid sight, the blackest gnome, but who quickly turned out to be a friendly character ..."
So the above should read:
"At what point did comparing a black person to a doll, initially described by its creator as a horrid sight, the blackest gnome, but who quickly turns out to be a friendly character, become okay?"
Now I think the argument behind the whole article is exposed as being superficial, shall we say (I'm being kind). Is comparing someone to a friendly character offensive? Wouldn't that be a strange world. Is comparing someone to an object of affection offensive? Again, no.

Could comparing someone to a doll be offensive? Well yes, but you'd need to consider the context and the particular circumstances. In particular you need to consider the validity of the comparison; if the comparison is valid then how is it offensive? The truth does not offend, not in this context anyway. Anne Hathaway (the American actress) to my mind has particularly big eyes, I think she looks like a Bratz doll. Have I insulted her, I don't think so, the comparison is valid, what's the problem..?

So lets grow up and debate these issues. Racism is a problem, but bad journalism makes it worse not better.

(Anne, if you are offended, I'm more than willing to apologise over dinner next time you're over here.)

(This post refers to an incident where Carol Thatcher made an off-camera remark comparing a tennis player to a golliwog and got banned by the BBC when she refused to apologise, broadly speaking.)