Saturday, 21 April 2012

Shock horror: Universe goes missing

A bright visualisation of dark matter
Scientists have found that most of what Mr Rumsfeld, 69 (Where he? Ed.) might have called the 'known unknown' Universe has gone missing. Dark Matter, that one could not see or smell, but which scientists have confidently assured us for years makes up the majority of the Universe, has been found to be not there, or at least not where it should be. It may just have gone off somewhere else (Bahrain for example), either for a brief visit or permanently, but, like many of our lesser luminaries, it is not where it ought to be.

However, scientific research continues, and, as one scientist remarked after an earlier exercise to extend our knowledge of said matter, 'After completing this study, we know less about dark matter than we did before' Matt Walker, a Hubble Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. (I think he must have meant to say 'than we thought we did before' - or else things are getting complicated, but that, I suppose, is science for you.)

I hardly like to tell them how simple the answer is. As all devotees of Withnail and I will know, it's in the sink.

No doubt we will all soon be able to make our own with 3D printers.

A fairer cop

The public image of Scotland Yard (once 'New' Scotland Yard but now only too much the 'old' Scotland Yard) seems irredemiably compromised. It has the whiff of a Private Eye (how appropriate) mocking reference of Ealing comedies.

Yet as senior ex-commissioners slip away, each out from under (usually) his own gathering little cloud, to write columns for corrupt newspapers, or shore up the columns of corrupt and dictatorial middle eastern states, we need to recognise that it is public confidence in the police as a whole, and that historic Robert Peel aim of a police with civil assent, that is being eroded.

Whether it be persistent racism, falsification of evidence, an apparent impununity to any real consequences for misconduct (sometimes combined in one unholy brew), mistreatment of people in custody, or an underlying acceptance of the use of force as the ultimate answer to civil unrest, there are reappearing, like a fruiting fungus pushing its way through the tarmac, the old corrupting strands that we have periodically been assured are things of the past, only newly reappearing in our newspapers because of the law's delay (that is 'the law' in every sense).

Meanwhile the response of South Yorkshire Police, those people who brought you the Hillsborough disaster and the Battle of Orgreave, is to propose that uniformed police be withdrwan from all publicly visible duties and replaced with 'Community Support Officers'. (You can tell just by the language that creation was a bad idea.) With their sights forever set on the wrong target, this, they explain, will enable them to deliver (I did not check but I expect they used that much abused word) a better service to the public.

So, instead of fostering trusting and respectful encounters between the law-abiding public and those who are recognised as genuine policemen (many of whom in some communities still retain popular confidence), the powers that be think they should foist upon us individuals who are often perceived as ill-groomed hybrids of traffic wardens and private security guards more likely to stop you photographing the Houses of Parliament than be able to direct you to the nearest public convenience.

The other approach, favoured by the West Midlands and Surrey police forces, is to outsource to private security firms a very substantial section of their public duties including investigating crimes, managing intelligence, patrolling neighbourhoods and collecting CCTV footage. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is frustrated that the Government fails to empower them to investigate the conduct of private staff carrying out police duties. Deborah Glass, deputy chair of the IPCC, has said: 'We believe it is vital for public confidence that all those who perform police-like functions and powers are subject to independent oversight...It cannot be right for someone doing the same job as a police officer not to fall within the IPCC's remit simply because the police have contracted the job to a private company. But any change in this area requires a change in the IPCC's powers.'

The problem is to large extent appears to be a failure of government policy and also of police leadership. What is it about the police service (how long before that becomes the police agency?) that prevents it from generating within itself sufficient emlightened leadership at all levels?

Never mind: we'll soon have elected police commissioners. That will sort it all out, won't it?

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Better to give than to receive - but you can do both

Why is there so much fuss about George Osborne's capping of tax relief on charitable donations (amongst capping it on other things)?

Surely, the innocent (and forgivably ignorant) might think, the charities would not like it at all but the donors can go on giving the same amount from their pockets as before. Is it not that the government just will not top up their donations by paying the charities the tax that the donor would have been paid?

Not so (or at least only for basic-rate tax-payers).

As Polly Toynbee points out:

'Here's another eccentricity: if a basic-rate tax payer – ie 87% of the population – gives £1, the state adds another 25p in gift aid to the charity, but the donor gets no tax relief. Only 40% or 50% tax rate donors can claim a personal benefit and get their tax bills cut. Since those in the bottom 10% give a higher proportion of their income than those in the top 10%, that seems unfair.'

So there is a direct financial benefit at stake that is only available to the higher-rate tax-payer; it is not just a potential loss to charities. I do not think many understand that.

And perhaps the rich donors face other, less tangible losses as well:

'I want to talk about what charity can do for us ... What do you do now you've got all the toys? ... You've already got all the houses, yachts, cars and jets you can use, so what comes next is charity ... I get invited to places I'd never have seen otherwise.' 

Lord Fink, Conservative Party Treasurer, generous donor, ex-Citibank, ex-Man Group, ex-investment partner of Lord Levy (ex-chief fund raiser of the Labour Party and ex-friend of Tony Blair - see 'Cash for Honours') at a Lord Mayor's breakfast in the City of London

And the underlying argument remains that state funding of 'good causes' should be directed by a democratically accountable government rather than by the choice of the rich.

Seemed like a good idea at the time

So this won't get the UK out of its economic hole (20 trillion cubic feet) - lucky old Norway again.

Or will it?

Estimates of the amount of shale gas in the UK vary widely. Cuadrilla puts the potential resources in Lancashire alone at a 200 trillion cubic feet – an amount that could supply the whole of the UK's gas needs for more than five decades.


But using more conservative methods, the British Geological Survey put the likely resources at 4.7 trillion cubic feet, one-40th of the company's figure.

Or maybe as little as 325 million cubic feet:

Even then, only about 5% to 10% of that figure is likely to be recoverable.

To get which:
...there will need to be six to eight wells per square mile around each of the tens of sites to be explored, including as many as 800 in Lancashire and more in areas such as Sussex.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Postcards from the USA

I am indebted to Viable Opposition for these figures.

Hooverville 1930s

Sacramento 2009
Only £270000 now in Detroit

Textual revision

A young lady consults a lexicographer
Commenting on Stevenson's softening of his original ideas, Jamie Andrews said that sometimes individual words, lines or paragraphs were deleted. "There's a sense of bits being too sensitive to be published." For example, Stevenson deleted the following line: "From an early age, however, I became in secret the slave of certain appetites." He replaced it with: "And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition… hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public."

Education, government and 'localism': one view

That is the big story. Schools are being privatised, but also nationalised, which may sound contradictory but not to a government which, while it believes ideologically in deregulation, wants to stay in control. Power in education was once dispersed, with teachers, parents, local councils and central government all having rights and responsibilities defined by statute. Change required persuasion and negotiation. Gove has ensured that, in future, it will occur by Whitehall diktat. On that, we should all share the teachers' seasonal anger.

Withered government: leave it to the rich

Former prime minister Tony Blair joined the debate over the role of philanthropy. In a speech in the US, he said: "The best philanthropy is not just about giving money but giving leadership."The best philanthropists bring the gifts that made them successful – the drive, the determination, the refusal to accept something can't be done if it needs to be – into their philanthropy.

"It is creative not passive; it seeks to disrupt not follow conventional thinking. It steps into areas government is too fearful or too risk adverse to go. It uses technology and its power to change the world in innovative ways."

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Bot world

'Automated trades comprise 70% of the Wall Street stock market, whereas in the UK over 30% of equity trading is conducted by algorithms. The pressures of global capitalism led by and built upon this "black box" trading are forcing us to be economically reliant on the algorithm, prompting technologist Kevin Slavin to suggest that we are now "living in an algo-world" – or as novelist Daniel Suarez describes it, a "bot-mediated reality". Automated softwares perform the analysis of medical x-rays to find abnormalities, while risk-assessment algorithms decide a person's suitability for a credit card based on their financial history. Our lives are in their hands, if indeed they have anything resembling hands.

'But increasingly it's getting personal. In the online environment of social media, Edgerank algorithms edit and remix our Facebook identities, determining which friends we interact with. Google's page-rank algorithm anticipates what we want to find, creating what Eli Pariser calls a filter bubble, where we see what Google thinks we want to see.

'Bots create 24% of tweets. Half of the internet traffic clicking through our websites and profiles is not human. Even Wikipedia is not immune: 22 of the 30 most prolific Wikipedia editors are bots. And as increasing numbers of us use online resources and social media in connection with our jobs as well as our personal lives, we need to realise how many of our "co-workers" are in fact algorithms, because we will have to live up to their standards. Bots are becoming our peers.

'It used to be an insult to speak of someone "behaving mechanically", but now such behaviour is becoming both economically and socially desirable. It pays for bloggers to write articles optimised for search engines and crawler bots rather than human readers. Twitter, on the other hand, asks us to reduce our social discourse to 140 characters of hashtags, links, and @ handles, in imitation of the code webpages are written in.'

Is this blog written by a bot, I ask myself - or do I?

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Easter thought

Dying we live: live at the edge of our knowledge and at the edge of safety.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The need for silence

Three years ago, high court judges hearing the Mohamed case said the CIA material which the US and British governments were fighting to suppress "could never properly be described in a democracy as 'a secret' or an 'intelligence secret' or a 'summary of classified intelligence'". Rather, what it revealed was "admissions of what officials of the US did to BM [Mohamed] during his detention in Pakistan".

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

More for the little people

Leona Helmsley, the American billionaire tried for tax evasion in 1989, famously observed, as it was claimed at her trial, 'We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.' Although Helmsley was convicted and, briefly, imprisoned, the principle of which she availed herself has flourished, internationally, ever since.

Now in the UK we have a new measure, or an 'updated' one, proposed for the little people: communications surveillance. This is touted as simply a necessary measure to keep check on serious crime and terrorism. Some of its supporters claim that it is doubly necessary as we face threats associated with the Olympic Games and the Queen's Jubilee. It is a sign of our times that every occasion for celebration and jubilation turns into a focus of yet more hazards and attack, against which the security services must take new measures to protect us - measures of course that will be permanent not temporary. The government is sensible enough to avoid references to the Olympics and the Jubilee since this new legislative measure cannot possibly be on the statute book before the year after they take place, but the current climate of apprehension will help them get it through.

Yet serious criminals and terrorists, as well as the internet savvy, will be able to avoid the surveillance without difficulty. It is the little people and their imagined conspiracies and threats who will be affected. One has only to note the exhaustive triviality of past physical monitoring of people who were clearly no threat to the state or society, and the ability of the authorities to overlook information they already had access to in advance of major outrages, to see the way it will work out.