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Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Cash for policy

When you hear Ed Miliband or the BBC going on about Conservative donors having dinner with the people to whom they have handed a six figure number:

Labour pledged to ban tobacco advertising in its manifesto ahead of its 1997 General Election victory, supporting a proposed European Union Directive banning tobacco advertising and sponsorship. At this time all leading Formula One Teams carried significant branding from tobacco brands such as Rothmans, Benson and Hedges, West, Marlboro and Mild Seven.

The Labour Party's stance on banning tobacco advertising was reinforced following the election by forceful statements from the Health Secretary Frank Dobson and Minister for Public Health Tessa Jowell. Ecclestone’s legal adviser, David Mills, was in fact Jowell’s husband.

Ecclestone appealed 'over Jowell's head' to Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff, who arranged a meeting with Blair. Ecclestone and Mosley, both Labour Party donors, met Blair on 16 October 1997, where Mosley argued:

"Motor racing was a world class industry which put Britain at the hi-tech edge. Deprived of tobacco money, Formula One would move abroad at the loss of 50,000 jobs, 150,000 part-time jobs and £900 million of exports."

On 4 November the "fiercely anti-tobacco Jowell" argued in Brussels for an exemption for Formula One. Media attention initially focused on Labour bending its principles for a "glamour sport" and on the "false trail" of Jowell's husband's links to Benetton.

On 6 November correspondents from three newspapers inquired whether Labour had received any donations from Ecclestone; he had donated £1 million in January 1997. On 11 November Labour promised to return the money on the advice of Sir Patrick Neill.

On 17 November Blair apologised for his government's mishandling of the affair and stated "the decision to exempt Formula One from tobacco sponsorship was taken two weeks later. It was in response to fears that Britain might lose the industry overseas to Asian countries who were bidding for it."

In 2008, one year after Blair stepped down as Prime Minister, internal Downing Street memos revealed that in fact the decision had been made at the time of the meeting, and not two weeks later as Blair stated in Parliament.

Recent Correspondence

I emailed my MP this morning (I paid nothing for the access):
Dear Sir [Bufton Tufton],
I welcome the news that MPs will be debating the provision of iPads to all Members of Parliament.
It is to be welcomed that the House should be so concerned about the use of technology to improve productivity.
May I however point out that whilst such tools improve the productivity of MPs, the services provided by the MPs do not change, and thus with the extra productivity afforded by the iPad, the amount of work required from each MP will decrease.
It would therefore seem appropriate to reduce the salaries of MPs by an appropriate amount, perhaps £300 a year, and the saving would repay the cost of the new technology over 2 years.
I admit that I haven’t done a precise costing which would have to take into account VAT, income tax and national insurance, but I suspect my proposal would represent value for money for the tax payer.
Best wishes
I received a reply 10 minutes later:
Dear Alex
Thank you for the email.
We are not in fact about to debate iPads; the House of Commons is going to consider whether they should continue to be purchased individually by MP’s or whether the House of Commons should provide them centrally.
MP’s workloads continue to rise, as more and more constituents contact us by email. IT helps us to keep abreast of this growing pressure and provide a good service to our constituents. MP’s salaries are, rightly, frozen for two years.
Best wishes, [Bufton Tufton]
Moral: Write to MPs about their pay, and you will have their undivided attention. 

Utter Balls

Ways and Means Budget 
Resolutions and Economic Situation 
 12.55 pm Ed Balls (Morley and Outwood) (Lab/Co-op): The British economy is stagnating, unemployment is rising month by month, the Government’s deficit reduction plans have gone wildly off track, middle and lower-income families and pensioners are facing rising petrol prices, rising energy bills and falling living standards—and what did the Chancellor do in his Budget yesterday? Did he admit that his economic plan has failed? Did he act to kick-start the stalled recovery? Did he give any hope to young people facing long-term unemployment? Did he set out any vision of how, over the next 20 years, Britain can compete in the world and win the investment and skilled jobs we need? Did he ease the pressure on families by cutting fuel duty, or by cancelling perverse and unfair cuts to tax credits and child benefit? No.

The centrepiece of the Chancellor’s Budget, his top priority, and the political imperative for this oh so political Chancellor, was to spend more than £3 billion next year cutting the top rate of income tax for existing top rate taxpayers. People earning more than £150,000 a year—300,000 of them—are getting an average tax cut of £10,000 a year. How out of touch can he get? To add insult to injury, the Chancellor sprung another surprise tax rise by freezing the age-related personal allowance for 4.5 million pensioners and abolishing it entirely for soon-to-be pensioners. People on modest incomes who have worked hard and saved hard all their lives will be hit by the Chancellor’s tax grab on pensioners while he gives a £40,000 tax cut to 14,000 millionaires. What can we say about that?

Let me say to the Chancellor today: some of the electorate he really cares about—the selectorate in his own Conservative party—may be cheering, although after this morning’s headlines, I am not so sure. As the Financial Times reports this morning: “Some Tory backbenchers offered support for the measure”— on pensioners— “although they refused to be identified for fear of alienating their elderly constituents.”

Perhaps in a second some of those Conservative Back Benchers will break cover and back the pensioners tax grab in the Budget, but they are right to be worried, because all across the country, the real electorate will be thinking, “A tax cut for millionaires, paid for by millions of families and pensioners across this country? Same old Tories: looking after their friends while families and pensioners pay the price.” We will have to wait to see the details. There will be some winners and some losers, but the one thing that we can categorically confirm today is that thousands of pensioners in the hon. Lady’s constituency will lose up to £300 a year as a result of yesterday’s Budget. She did not say whether she supported that—hardly a clarion call of support for the Chancellor’s pensions tax grab.

I will make it absolutely clear: we will vote against the change in the Budget debates and I hope that he will join us in the Lobby. We will vote against it, but the Chancellor knows very well that I will not go through every tax rate, relief, allowance or spending commitment and make commitments for three years’ time. But if the election were called tomorrow, our manifesto would be clear—we would rescind the measure and the Government would go ahead with it. That is the difference.


Question put, 
That, notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the practice of the House relating to the matters that may be included in Finance Bills, any Finance Bill of the present Session may contain the following provisions about income tax taking effect in a future year— (a) provision that for the tax year 2013-14— (i) the basic rate is 20%, (ii) the higher rate is 40%, and (iii) the additional rate is 45%, and provision about other rates of income tax.

The House divided: Ayes 319, Noes 22.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Hang on Dave

Prime Minister David Cameron has said there will be a inquiry after secretly filmed footage showed the Conservative Party co-treasurer apparently offering access to the prime minister for a donation of £250,000 a year.
In a claim made to Sunday Times reporters, Peter Cruddas said £250,000 gave "premier league" access, including dinner with Mr Cameron and possibly the chance to influence government policy.
Mr Cameron said that it was right that Mr Cruddas had resigned and said he would make sure there was a Conservative Party inquiry.
Which doesn't really answer the real question. Was there any truth in Mr Cruddas' assertion that a quarter of a million quid gets you dinner in the PM's private apartment at 10 Downing Street?  One of the people who knows the answer is the Prime Minister.

There are times when I really hate all professional politicians.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Make money fast - maybe

An interesting paper has been published by some US and one UK academic looking into how to make money from Ponzi schemes without going to jail.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar, a Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that pays returns to its investors from their own money or the money paid by subsequent investors, rather than from profit earned by the individual or organization running the operation. The Ponzi scheme usually entices new investors by offering higher returns than other investments, in the form of short-term returns that are either abnormally high or unusually consistent. Perpetuation of the high returns requires an ever-increasing flow of money from new investors to keep the scheme going, until suddenly it disappears.

OK, so how do you make money?  Well the easy answer is to get out before the crash, on the basis that while money is still coming in, the organisers are hardly likely to refuse a redemption if that would cause suspicion, so there is a window of opportunity, and this is monitored by specialist websites.

An extensive online ecosystem has developed in support of HYIPs, involving discussion websites, digital currencies, and third-party ‘aggregator’ websites that track HYIP performance. These aggregators list dozens of active HYIPs, tracking core features such as interest rates, minimum investment terms and funding options. They operate forums in which individuals can report their experiences; but more significantly, the aggregators appear to make their own investments in some of the HYIPs and report on when interest payments cease.
But as the academics wisely note:

Given that all HYIPs are fraudulent, it is natural to ask whether the reports from aggregators should be trusted. While ascertaining ground truth is impossible, we have devised a number of measurements to assess the relative accuracy of data reported on HYIPs.

One of the websites quoted in the report has already gone offline. It it looked too gopd to be true, it probably was.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Red Ken's 20/20 foresight

In an interview with BBC London, Ken Livingstone said “When I was leader of the GLC I said to Mrs Thatcher we needed broadband linking every home and City in the country”.

Here is a timeline for those whose memories are measured in nanoseconds:

1969: The first node is connected to the internet's military ancestor, ARPANET using 56 kbit/s circuits.
1973: University College of London is one of the first international connections to ARPANET.
1974: The TCP/IP protocol suite is adopted for use on ARPANET.
1984: Joint Academic Network (JANET) built to connect UK universities over the internet.
1986: The GLC is abolished.
1988: The backbone (now known as NSFNET) is upgraded to T1 (1.544 Mbit/s) links.
1988: First Interop trade show for vendors to demonstrate systems supporting TCP/IP.
1989: Tim Berners-Lee and his team at CERN fuse markup languages and internet protocols to create the World Wide Web.
1991: The NSF decided to move the backbone to a private company and start charging academic institutions for connections.
1990: Mrs Thatcher resigns as PM.
1992: Dial-up access is introduced in the UK by Pipex.
1992: Demon Internet is established as the second UK ISP.
1993: ANS builds a new internet backbone using T3 links (45 Mbit/s).
1995: The NSF awards MCI the contract to build the very high performance Backbone Network Service (vBNS) to replace ANSNET, operating at 622 Mbit/s.
2000: ADSL launched as a commercial product by BT.

So whenever the conversation between Livingstone and Thatcher took place, it was at least 14 years before the commercialisation of broadband.

Let us not forget that 25 years ago, the typical IBM PC was based on either a 4.77MHz 8088 or a 6 MHz 80286 processor.  There probably wasn't a communications port and either way it would have cost about £2,000 (other makes are available) at a time when average salaries were less than £10,000 a year. If you wanted a modem to connect to your serial cable, you would probably have to pay another £200 and it would give you 4800 bps; 9600 bps modems didn't really become standard until the late 1980's, and 64k ISDN wasn't standardised until 1988 and the modems initially cost £1,000, but higher speeds didn't come along until the mid 1990's with cable connections and then ADSL.

How prescient, Mr Livingstone.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

A gendarme told me and he ran away

Nobody can be too surprised about the identity of the gunman in Toulouse.  I think its OK for me to say that without being accused of prejudicing a fair trial, because he appears to have declared his guilt and chucked the murder weapon out of the window.  We like to be fair-minded and I suppose his defence lawyer will plead a stitch up and extreme mental pressure  to extract a confession, but on the whole the French police are to be congratulated on a speedy resolution.

Except it isn't quite like that over at the BBC, where the story all day yesterday was  that this was likely the work of the far-right, or at least that was the "theory" http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17441244
But why the widely differing choice of targets: soldiers and Jewish children? One theory is that the man is a deranged far-rightwinger. It is noted that the three dead soldiers were of North African origin, and a fourth who was injured is from the French Caribbean.
The killer has a clear affinity with guns. Could he be a neo-Nazi type - maybe an ex-soldier or a member of the criminal underworld - with a hatred of all minorities, Jews and Muslims?
This "theory" featured prominently on the BBC website all day yesterday.  When the truth emerged, the BBC spun this as being a line being pout out by the French police.

This of course could hardly be further from the truth.  The French police actually made a statement yesterday that they had checked out a suggestion that three former French paratroopers had been responsible and found that they all had alibis and were cleared from all suspicion http://www.lefigaro.fr/flash-actu/2012/03/20/97001-20120320FILWWW00445-toulouse-ex-paras-nazis-hors-de-cause.php  Meanwhile, the BBC kept running their anti-right wing story.

As the the media now report, the actual suspect had been on the police radar for some time and a police official  told Agence France-Presse news agency the suspect had been "in the sights" of France's intelligence agency after the first two attacks, after which police had brought in more "crucial evidence". If the police had been following this line, why would they be telling the BBC that it was the work of the far right? Obviously they didn't.

It turns out that he had been arrested in Kandahar, which is a long way from home for a Frenchman, even one of Algerian extraction, and he had rather given the game away by trying to get his scooter resprayed and have the GPS tracker disabled.

Sounds like his contacts with al-Queda weren't that close or they would have given him a bit more training.

Also sounds like the BBC could do with some training in impartiality, reporting the facts and not jumping to conclusions.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

They don't like it up 'em

For years wee Alec Salmond has been making a meal of the Scottish position and has been telling the people of Scotland people how much better off they would be if they followed him to the promised land of oil-powered prosperity.  All a load of tosh of course.  The oil industry provides employment for many around Aberdeen, which would not change on independence, but the total UK government revenue from Scottish oil (excluding English gas) is less than UK Government gives away in foreign aid.  If Salmond thinks he is going to continue to pay for the Scottish NHS and free university education with less than the amount of UK foreign aid, he has got his sums very wrong.

But more than one can play at that game, as the Orkney and Shetland Islanders have discovered for themselves. Perhaps they read this blog.  Anyway they have taken a shine to the several billion of oil revenue and figured that it will go much further if kept in the islands rather than being shared with the Glasgow trade unionists and Edinburgh lawyers. They might prefer to stay with the rest of the UK, or they could go it alone.

Salmond, caught on the hop without a real answer, resorts to personal abuse and calls them "troublemakers".

Monday, 19 March 2012

Stupid times 5

One of the less flattering comments about George Osborne comes from Professor Laurence W. B. Brockliss, of Magdalen College, Oxford, courtesy of a daughter who studied there a few years back.  I cannot vouch for Professor Brockliss' impartiality on the subject (he is by all accounts a bit of a lefty), but his statement is unequivocal:  George Osborne was by far the most stupid person he had ever tutored.

And based on Osborne's pronouncements, that is not surprising.  Magdalen is one of the more academic colleges at one of the top three universities in the country, but even so, Osborne is living proof that that is no guarantee of smartness.

Stupid #1: Last week, we had Osborne's announcement that he was going to investigate the possibility of issuing long term bonds because of the UK's currently low cost of borrowing.  Elementary schoolboy mistake, George.  Or rather the sort of mistake that a dim banker makes at the lunch break on his first day of training on interest rate swaps and the yield curve.  Short term yields are low, but longer term zero coupon yields tend back towards historic norms and par trading bond yields will be an arithmetic blend of the two; except that as there is no market in 100 year bonds, there will be a premium to pay for the lack of liquidity.  If you really think you can outsmart the yield curve, you are in the wrong business.

Stupid #2: Then we had the idea that Civil Service pay should not necessarily be fixed at national levels (I can't disagree with that), but that it should be fixed at levels comparable to pay in the private sector (dumb, dumb, dumb).  There is of course very little employment in the private sector in many parts of the country, with the inevitable result that any pay comparison would drive down public sector pay and drive the more able public sector workers into the more prosperous parts of the country.  Do we set the pay of nuclear scientists at Sizewell according to the average Suffolk agricultural wage or the pay of brain surgeons by reference to the pay of FX traders or glass factory workers depending on whether they live in Mayfair or St Helens?  Thankfully no.

Does he think that MP's would accept their pay being calculated on the same basis?  Of course they wouldn't, but here is an alternative: pay MP's less in safer seats and fix their pay from the time that they enter parliament.

Stupid #3:  A still unresolved point, but as it stands it still looks as though a family with one wage earners on £43,000 will not receive any family allowances but will contribute to the allowances of of a married couple who may earn a combined salary of more than £80,000.

Stupid #4: The government is planning to privatise part of the road network - not a bad idea in itself if done properly, but Osborne’s preference is for the road network to be handed over to private companies on long leases. He thinks that means the government can avoid the word “privatisation”. Yeah, sure thing George, just like Eaton Square is on 99 year leases from the Duke of Westminster, so it doesn't really belong to the leaseholder.  Nobody is going to be fooled by that, nor by the enormous risk the government takes in getting the roads back in an appropriate condition at the end of the lease term.

Stupid #5: The Conservatives made the same mistake over rail privatisation, and they will probably do the same again, but for the really stupid comment of the week, year or maybe decade, we have Osborne's question:

"Why is it that other infrastructure - for example water - is funded by private sector capital through privately owned, independently regulated, utilities... but roads in Britain call on the public finances for funding?"

Why? You really want to know why?

I guess that it has something to do with the £40 billion (I'll write that out in big numbers: £40,000,000,000.00) that we pay every year in fuel and vehicle excise duties.

Let me ask a question back: How do you get to be Chancellor when you are so unbelievably stupid?

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Mordorous lawyers

An American firm that rejoices in the name of SZC (for all I know that stands for Saruman, Zigur and Carcharoth), is threatening a Southampton pub with legal action because it using the name "The Hobbit". SZC says it owns the worldwide rights to several brands associated with author JRR Tolkien, including The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings.

Well bully for them, but I happen to know that the word "Hobbit" is not a brand name but a generic term for a folkloric supernatural creature that appeared in the works of Michael Aislabie Denham (d.1859), printed in volume 2 of "The Denham Tracts" [ed. James Hardy, London: Folklore Society, 1895], a compilation of Denham's scattered publications. Denham was an early folklorist who concentrated on Northumberland, Durham, Westmoreland, Cumberland, the Isle of Man, and Scotland.
What a happiness this must have been seventy or eighty years ago and upwards, to those chosen few who had the good luck to be born on the eve of this festival of all festivals; when the whole earth was so overrun with ghosts, boggles, bloody-bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, specters, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hobgoblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubuses, spoorns, men-in-the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tales, knockers, elves, rawheads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprets, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yeth-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag-foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraiths, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gallybeggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars' lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, bugaboos, kows, or cowes, nickies, nacks necks, waiths, miffies, buckies, ghouls, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy-carlins Gyre-carling, pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricauns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles korigans, sylvans, succubuses, blackmen, shadows, banshees, lian-hanshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sibyls, nicknevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties, and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its specter, or its knocker. The churches, churchyards, and crossroads were all haunted. Every green lane had its boulder-stone on which an apparition kept watch at night. Every common had its circle of fairies belonging to it. And there was scarcely a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit!
So you can pile all you malice and hatred into your pursuit of world domination, Sauron, but you will never destroy those plucky, little .... cont p.94

Friday, 9 March 2012

Bank of Scotland guilty of serious misconduct

The FSA has found the Bank of Scotland guilty of serious misconduct in the way it lent money to businesses between 2006 and 2008. They say the bank pursued "an aggressive growth strategy" that focused on high risk lending. That policy contributed to the bank having to be bailed out by UK taxpayer.

The bank has escaped paying a substantial fine. The FSA said imposing a fine would have meant the taxpayer effectively paying twice "for the same actions committed by the firm".

OK, same old whitewash. So who was running the FSA at the time.  Well one of the board members was Sir James Robert Crosby, Deputy Chairman of the FSA from January 2004 until he resigned on 11 February 2009. Surprising that he didn't nip it in the bud, particularly because he was also chief executive of Halifax Bank until its merger with Bank of Scotland to form HBOS, of which he was Chief Executive until July 2006, when he stepped down in favour of "his young protégé" Andy Hornby. Hornby was an HBS alumnus whizz-kid who had gone through starring roles at Asda and Blue Circle, but new next to nothing about banking before Crosby let him into the top spot at HBOS, which was a bit like letting the lunatics run the asylum.

Any chance Crosby will be stripped of his knighthood? Doubt it.

The sting in the tail

Greece triggered the payment on default insurance contracts by using legislation that forces losses on all private creditors, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association said on Friday. Greece said it would use this legislation, known as a collective action clause, to force private creditors into a bond swap. This follows creditors' voluntary tendering of 85.8 percent of the 177 billion euros in bonds regulated by Greek law. The use of CACs should boost participation to 95.7 percent.

The ruling means a maximum of $3.16 billion of net outstanding Greek credit default swap contracts could be paid out, though the actual amount is likely to be lower because bondholders do not lose all their original investment. The payout is not immediate and the exact amount of money changing hands will be determined by an auction procedure which is expected to take place in the coming weeks.

But the big question we want to know is: how many of the private bond holders who were resisting any compromises over their bond swaps were doing so because they could pick up big payouts on a credit event?

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Nicolas Sarkozy says France has too many foreigners

I quite agree, and most of them are French.

Does my deficit look big in this QE?

Hows yoiur pension looking? According to the National Association of Pension Funds, not so hot. In fact, in total net pension fund values are down £90 billion, with a deficit of nearly £500 billion since the start of quantitive easing.

This isn't so much due to the loss of interest to date, or even the loss of asset values, although both are a factor, but is mainly due to the fact that in the current interest rate environment, the discounted value of the funds' liabilities look a lot bigger.

So expect your pension pot to be cut again or capped, all to keep those nasty banks in business.  First they screwed the tax man, now they are taking your pension.

N.B. this of course does not apply if you are on an unfunded public sector pension scheme, notably working at HM Treasury. Your pension is unaffected by this measure.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Overblown, over budget, over here

In 2004, Tony Blair's Labour government said it would establish cost-saving centres to save £159m by sharing "back-office" functions such as information technology, personnel and procurement between Whitehall departments.

The initial start-up costs were budgeted at £900m.

Assuming a cost of funding this at about 6%, which was the gilt rate in 2004, this would have given a payback over 7 years, which frankly isn't that fantastic.

By 2011, the total establishment costs had risen to £1.4 billion, so that if we still believe the purported savings the payback period with interest has jumped up to 13 years and we are still 5 years away from seeing any saving. The most amazing statistic is that increases in the budget for this £159m cost saving exercise were running at over £70m a year.

Moral: when a politician says they can fix a problem, don't.believe a word.  They have neither the ability nor the commitment to do so when they are chasing the next soundbite. And don't believe the Treasury when they measure value for money on PFI schemes

Monday, 5 March 2012

Frenchman caught with trousers down, sues Google

As you would of course. A Frenchman living in a little village in the Maine-et-Loire is suing Google over a Street View photo that shows him peeing in his garden As with most people in Street View pics, the image is somewhat blurred, but seeing as how it is a small village, everyone knew where he lived, so it was a bit of a give away. He also thinks €10,000 worth of Google Ad revenue would repair his hurt feelings.

Being such a provincial, he thinks that he can sue Google France, whose crafty avocat says that he should be suing the parent company who are actually the publisher.  This seems a bit petty given that Google seems to hide behind a myriad of offshore companies and yet projects itself onto our screens wherever we are.

Pay up Google or expect to be pissed all over in the French courts.

Hat tip: Ouest France, details in French here

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The dumb majority

Yesterday, there was a report that 50% of working-age Britons are functionally innumerate.

50%? Incredible. That's more than half.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Pi in the sky

I have been following with interest the progress of the Raspberry Pi.  For benefit of those who have followed the hype, the Raspberry Pi is a single-board computer developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. The foundation plans to release two versions, priced at US$25 and $35. It is intended to stimulate the teaching of basic computer science in schools.

It is a very cool device and its creators are obviously well intentioned, I doubt that it will encourage anything significantly educational. The "device" is not a complete computer.  At the moment it is just a single board computer laid out on a PCB with all the right device connections but no case and no connections.  OK, so you don't really need a case for a bare bones computer, but you probably need a screen - count $50 for that, plus a keyboard ($10-15)  and a mouse ($5-10), power supply ($10), a video cable ($5) and at least one SD card to boot from ($5), so right now this $110 computer with less computing power than a Pentium 4 (but probably the same amount of memory-256Mb) is going set our aspiring student at least $115. For much less than that the same student could probably pick up a not very worn out second hand PC with higher specs.

Well not quite higher specs because the Raspberry Pi has a very high end GPU for a device that is basically mobile phone technology with the phoney bits thrown away, but our aspiring computer scientist doesn't really need that to printf("Hello world!")

Rather than try to wrestle with Linux, gcc, X11 and all manner of baffling complications, if young kids really want to learn to program they will get an old PC, a copy (probably free) of some ancient C or C++ compiler or maybe some newer variant such as Java or Python, and prove to themselves that they can write programs that show 3+4 really does equal 7.

So who was really up at 6 o'clock in the morning yesterday trying to buy the 10,000 that went on sale, bringing down the websites of RS and Farnell?  Not schoolkids, who don't have credit cards. This Raspberry Pi thing is going to be bought up by people who can afford to buy a more expensive computer and probably already own one. It is useful to people who are looking for low power consumption PC's or nifty toys. Will it turn poverty stricken countries in to educational proving grounds for teams of developers? No.

Will it work for schools, when the average IT teacher knows and cares about little more than Power[point and Excel?  No, because the quality of support will so abysmally poor and the Raspberry Pi Foundation which claims to be a charity (they are registered) seems to think that all the support will come from the geek user community.  In practice current policy in schools is that PC's are shipped in in boxes by box-shifting companies, who may give little user advice, but they know how to get the boxes up and running?  Will there be any similar support from the R-Pi "user community"? Dream on.

Worse than that the Raspberry Pi Foundation to think the fact that they don't intend to trade at a profit means they can avoid any commercial responsibility for their product.  You can tell that from their behaviour when the board was "launched" yesterday.  It seems that at 6am hundreds of thousands of hobbyist geeks were lined up with their credit cards, ready to respond to months of BBC hype, only to find that the distributor's websites were either jammed or not actually sellin the products yet, but taking pre-order to be fulfilled later.  And what did the R-Pi group do?  The shutdown their servers and responded to the likely hundreds of thousands of complaints by whining on Twitter that their customers didn't appreciate them.

Well probably not because although the R-Pi techies may have spent tens of thousands of man hours trying to decide where and how to glue all the various components onto a PCB, in the first few hours of selling their potential customers wasted hundreds of thousands of man hours pressing F5.

Meanwhile one of the founders of R-Pi, rather than sorting out the mess they had created (they could have had a more orderly procedure if they actually honoured the pre-registration procedure that they had been running for weeks before), was actually out media whoring with the BBC and anyone else who would listen, ramping up demand for a product when demand was already way higher than they could fulfill.  So much for customer service.

"It has been six years in the making; the number of things that had to go right for this to happen is enormous. I couldn't be more pleased," Eben Upton, of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, told the BBC. He said that the organisation had been overwhelmed by the interest in the tiny computer, and urged customers who had missed out to pre-order now to ensure they get hold of one. Demand for the device was so strong that the website of one of the main suppliers actually crashed. "We didn't realise how successful this was going to be," Mr Upton added. Obviously.

But the real issue is that for all the fuss, having a stripped down PC doesn't actually make computing power any more accessible.  There are plenty of old clapped out PC's that people are willing to give away and while they may not be able to keep up with the World of Warcraft,. they are perfectly capable of running whatever sort of programming environment a beginner may need.  And because they are cheap and easily repaired, they can be fixed.  I have lost count, but I think we have had 7 desktop machines in this house, three still here, and the others passed on to a good home when asked.  The world is full of PCs available for young hackers and it doesn't need another one to get young people programming.

In fact, you don't need much in the way of a computer at all.  I attended the same Cambridge College as the aforementioned Mr Upton, indeed it was the alma mater of Prof Maurice Wilkes who built one of the fiurst electronic computers.  What did we use for programming?  An IBM 370/165, one of the biggest and fastest computers of the time with a 80 nano second clock cycle (call that a 12.5MHz machine) and a main memory of 3 megabytes later upgraded to 4 at great expense.

All that shared between about 150 users at a time and a generous weekly allowance of "CPU time" amounting to 30 seconds! yes 30 whole seconds a week for an undergraduate course at supposedly the top scientific university in the country, and some say in the world.  Or to put it another way, about the same amount of computing in a week that the Raspberry-Pi could achieve in half a second.

But that was not the problem with the course.  The main issue was that keen as the world was to have new computer scientists, and as keen as the university was to provide them, there were no tutors available who knew the evolving syllabus.  I was offered a choice of tutors, one who was nominally responsible for the computer in the engineering department but knew nothing about computers beyond that, and another, a mathematician and a very nice man who worked in the Computer Department, spent many years developing and supporting the line editor used on the university mainframe, but knew nothing about the subjects that we were taught.

And that is the same problem we have today.  We can supply schools with the whizziest and cheapest hardware, load them up with all the open source software they are going to need, but if you don't have teachers with the right expertise, then the whole exercise will grind to a halt.