Selling England by the pound

Sell! Sell! - Bye Bye

Sell! Sell! - Bye Bye

I hear that the government want to sell off public forests. I guess we should have known that the Tories are still hell bent on privatising the entire planet. Surprisingly, Julian Glover in The Guardian seems to think this is a good idea.

Mr. Glover’s case rests on the the assertion that “The Forestry Commission only controls 18% of Britain’s woodlands and has by no means been the best guardian of them”. In other words, we haven’t got much left and the people who are supposed to be doing it are crap.

Julian Glover is TALKING BOLLOCKS!

Firstly we should be startled to discover that the state only owns 18% of woodland and ask why and who the hell owns the rest of it? A little hunting around reveals that the owners are the same people who own the Tory party. i.e. The British aristocracy. According to an articles in The Independent and the Daily Mail it seems that 36,000 individuals, that’s 0.6 per cent of the British people, own 69 per cent of the land and if we are talking about rural land those 0.6 per cent own 50 per cent of land.

As hopeless as New Labour were it seems that they were attempting to get an understanding of who owns the land. It seems that land that has not been sold or mortgaged does not need to be registered and so land owned by aristocratic families does not appear on public records. – One has to wonder about the tax implications for the wealthy land owners!

The argument that because the aristocracy have managed to hang on to the land which they expropriate hundreds of years ago we should therefore give them ownership of the rest is farcical. Its rarity value means that we should prize it even more.

I’d go further, rather than flogging off more land, the government should be completing the survey initiated under New Labour, figuring out who owns the land and asking the question: Why, in the 21st Century, a lot of people descended from the Normans still own Britain and how they could possibly be paying correct tax if their assets were not fully disclosed.

As for the argument that the Forestry Commission are doing a bad job, well perhaps they are. But if your garage does a bad job to you sell your car? If you plumber is hopeless do you sell your house?

The fashion these days is for outsourcing and this could easily be done with all sorts of functions where the government considers privatisation the only option. If the Forestry commission are not up to scratch and there is a private company that think that they can do a better job then fine; draw up a fixed term contract, have the two organisation submit tenders and allocate the contract as you would any other. It’s not rocket science.

But to lurch to the conclusion that the land must be sold merely reveals that the Tories have the same idiotic obsession with privatisation which Britain has endured under both Tory and Labour since the rise of Thatcher. When Thatcher came to power the state owned and incompetently managed far too much. There was an argument for privatisation back then but continuing this simplistic doctrine when there’s nothing left to sell but the land itself is vandalism.

The land should stay in public ownership because it belongs to the people of this country, because we treasure it and because we want our children to own and treasure it.

Of course the government will argue that they will put in place safeguards which will ensure public access and, no doubt, in the first decade or so, this will be true.

But private capital thinks long term and has patience. I’m now old enough to understand the modus operandi of big money. They will agree to all sorts of conditions just to get their hands on the deeds. Then they will work slowly and quietly over the years. Governments will fall, MPs will leave, new people will be appointed who are unaware that the land was ever publicly owned and who are completely uninterested in some fusty old rules protecting ramblers. Political donations will be made, young naïve MPs will rise to cabinet ministers.

One day some poor rural area will be shouting for jobs and a large corporation will be looking for a place to build its latest factory and if only it were not for those silly out of date restrictions on public access. The people will be too worried about their jobs and the politicians too eager to bring unemployment figures down and bit by bit the “safeguards” will be dismantled and the only people to remember that we, the people, ever owned our country will be historians.

Not that the people will lose access completely. The marketing industry will kick in and the little patches of woodland remaining will be converted to forest themed entertainment parks complete with visitors centres, car parks with wheel chair access, pay toilets and a shopping mall with a handful of trees dotted around between the Pret-a-bloody-Mange and Star Bucks.

Phew!

To continue on the topic of who owns the land the situation in London is no better. The metropolis is largely owned by the Duke of Westminster, the Earl of Cadogan, Viscountess Townshend and Viscount Portman and his family.

If we started wondering who owns the Bank of England the situation becomes even murkier. Like a fool I had assumed that it was me, the tax payer, but according The Tap not only am I mistaken but the official owners are a state secret.

Email your MP

Save Our Forest campaign

Trees In Silhouette

Trees In Silhouette

45 minutes to get out of Asda car park

As I was in the area, today, I thought I’d drop in to the Asda in Brighton Marina. Big mistake. Whoever owns Brighton Marina has been steadily building more and more shops and flats. As the Marina is artificial it only has one access road which runs down a sort of flyover. Add to this the way that the Asda car park entrance runs around a bend so that you cannot see the mass of traffic before you until it’s too late and you’ve joined the queue for the car park. I queued patiently and parked. When I emerged it took me 45 minutes just to get out of the car park.

All this is, of course, ghastly but it made me wonder about the new development which was being planned for Brighton Marina which, according to some reports, could include 1,280 new apartments.

It makes me wonder what our city council is thinking of. What possible sway could large rich developers have over city councillors? It beats me.

the mechanics of love

Browsing around the web, as one does, one comes across the facinating, the inane and he stupid. Today I disciverred that Wikipedia have a graphic showing the Chenical Basis of Love. Good, so at least that’s sorted out.

 

The mechanics of luuurve

The mechanics of luuurve

Inequality in America

The rise and rise of the cognitive elite

The rise and rise of the cognitive elite

Last week’s Economist had an interesting article on inequality. It mentioned Dutch economist named Jan Pen who thought of a striking way to picture inequality in the United States.

Imagine people’s height being proportional to their income, so that someone with an average income is of average height. Now imagine that the entire adult population of America is walking past you in a single hour, in ascending order of income.

The first passers-by, the owners of loss-making businesses, are invisible: their heads are below ground. Then come the jobless and the working poor, who are midgets. After half an hour the strollers are still only waist-high, since America’s median income is only half the mean. It takes nearly 45 minutes before normal-sized people appear. But then, in the final minutes, giants thunder by. With six minutes to go they are 12 feet tall. When the 400 highest earners walk by, right at the end, each is more than two miles tall.”

flying fish and the inefficiency of Capitalism

Worth his weight in paper clips

Worth his weight in paper clips

I have started to speculate about the efficiency of Capitalism.

While having sympathy for Socialistic ideals I can see that Socialism is more prone to bureaucracy and autocracy than Capitalism. The reason I say this is that Socialism has no in built mechanism to correct activities that are wasteful, inefficient or detrimental. This is somewhat broad and debatable so an example may help understand my meaning.

In the Soviet Union irrigation of land meant that less and less water flowed into the inland Aral Sea which started to dry up. Leave aside whether this itself was good or bad for the moment and consider the factories on the edge of the Aral Sea which canned the fish for delivery to customers. Of course these factories had less and less work to do. The solution fond by the bureaucrats was to fly in fish from Vladivostok. This was, of course, tremendously wasteful but it didn’t matter in the Soviet Union. Waste was not an issue. Nobody was watching the bottom line.

In a capitalist economy flying in the fish would have been so expensive that the company would have gone bust and that would have been the end to the madness.

This “evolutionary” tendency seems to me to be built into capitalism. It works to eradicate inefficiency and, when working at its best, it works to provide the best goods and services to the consumer. Admittedly there can be detrimental effects to this tendency within capitalism but for the moment let’s leave them aside. I think it is generally accepted that Socialism is less efficient and less adept at modifying its processes to suit the general public.

I had seen this as a feature of Capitalism which made it simpler and more efficient than Socialism but recently I have been wondering about this.

Let us suppose that we tried to create a mechanism within Socialism to provide this feedback. A mechanism which forced factories to adapt to produce what the consumer wanted and to close down wasteful industry. How might it work?

One way it could work would be to employ an army of bureaucrats working for a separate government department to monitor activity. It would be the responsibility of this department to review the workings of industry and to assess whether the desires of the general public were being met.

At a practical level this would mean industries being forced to record information on their work which would be raked over by officials who would then direct them to stop flying in fish and close down the canning factory.

It would also mean thousands of bureaucrats visiting a representative sample of households and interviewing them on their satisfaction with their products. It would mean more officials analysing the statistics.

On the doorstep:

“Are you happy with your television set?”
“When you last purchased a car what colour did you choose?”
“Was your first colour preference available”

In the office:

OK people we have work to do. In brighton the people have started to listen to their radio in the bath so we need to make radios with suckers to attach to the tiles and we need water proof front panels. We also need to produce more red cars.

OK, OK, This is, of course, absurd.

It is the sort of plan that might be dreamt up by silly bureaucratic state officials in the old Soviet Union but in a modern, democratic capitalist country nobody in their right might would try to implement such a scheme.

But hold on.

That is exactly what has happened.

Consider all the activities which we take for granted in a Capitalist economy which provide no basic function but merely exist to enable the workings of the system.

Consider insurance, audit and finance. Consider that Financial Services was the second biggest contributor to the British exchequer in 2008 after oil and gas. Consider the Financial area of London. The City and Docklands. Consider the thousands, if not millions, of people who commute into London every day from the home counties. Consider the advertising industry and the marketing departments. Consider the customer relations people, the complaints departments and the public opinion survey organisation such as Gallup.

And consider that in capitalist economies the people who work for banks and finance institutions are not low skilled bureaucrats but extremely well paid professionals.

Of course I don’t know the figures and I doubt that anyone does but one has to wonder.
With all that activity, with all that money spent on secondary tasks one has to consider whether it might have been more efficient to simply modify socialism a little bit.

I work with a guy from Pakistan. He observes the way we in England spend enormous amounts of time weighing up the pros and cons of every purchase. (Should I buy the Prius because it’s green or the Avensis because it’s got a big boot?) He is amused at this for, as he says, these things are not important. And of course he’s right. A car is a car. Despite what the guy from the finance company says and despite what the advertising industry would have us believe differing models of cars will really not make a difference to our lives.

Efficiency in motion

Efficiency in motion

Web site Terms and Conditions are bollocks

Read carefully or you might invalidate the guarantee

Read carefully or you might invalidate the guarantee

Today I bought a plant sprayer. A fairly simple plastic bottle with a plunger to compress air and a trigger to spray a fine mist over plants. Getting it home I took off the top to fill it up and found a 12 page instruction leaflet inside. 12 pages in about 10 ten different languages. The leaflet included a guarantee which was voided if the thing was not used in accordance with the instructions.

All this for a plastic plant sprayer.

This reminds me of an incident in the media last year where a man bought a ticket from one destination to another. The train stopped at an intermediate station and for some reason could go no further. The man got off the train and tried to exit the station to finish his journey by alternative means. The ticket inspector refused to accept his ticket and he was fined for not having a valid ticket. Yes, this happened, and some imbecile railway official was interviewed on the radio and pointed out that the man had bought the ticket over The Internet and had therefore been fully informed of the terms and conditions which state “No break of journey is permitted in either direction”.

The spokesman said that the he must have been aware of this condition as would have had to tick the box indicating that he had read and understood the terms and conditions.

When we make a purchase we are entering a contract with another person or company. Most countries have general laws about sales but often a contract is implied. However, modern technology allows the supplier to write reams of conditions and present them to the buyer at the last moment. The buyer is then expected to read these, consider them carefully and tick a box to indicate acceptance. This is bollocks!

A quick perusal of The Web uncovered a generic web site Terms and Conditions document made available by SEQ LEGAL LLP. The document is intended to for use in in relation to “websites with common kinds of interactive features, such as blogs, bulletin boards, forums and chat rooms”. The document runs to seven pages and the first sentence reads: “These terms and conditions govern your use of our website; by using our website, you accept these terms and conditions in full.”

The process of presenting a person with seven pages of legalistic nonsense just seconds before he engages in an activity has been enabled by modern technology without any thought of whether this is reasonable or even legal. If we accept this sort of bollocks then companies will use it more and more.

It’s bad enough that pubs now have bouncers on the doors but pretty soon you will be required to swipe a card or text a number to signify that you agree to the pubs Ts & Cs.

As for the specific condition of Southern Railway that “No break of journey is permitted in either direction” – this is obvious bollocks. What are we passengers or kidnap victims?

Choose debt?

Choose Debt

Choose Debt

I just caught the end of The World Tonight a serious pontificating BBC Radio 4 program where the “expert” said that everyone is treating the financial crisis as a crisis of liquidity whereas in reality it is a crisis of debt. I’m no expert on this but Wikipedia defines Market liquidity as “an asset’s ability to be sold without causing a significant movement in the price and with minimum loss of value” and Accounting Liquidity as “a measure of the ability of a debtor to pay his debts as and when they fall due.”

I think that what the guy was getting at is that the great and the good thought that if we print more money then we can introduce liquidity and buy the distressed debt. Yeh, great, but all that achieves is that some other sucker (the tax payer) owns the debt.

The Economist this week mentioned again that all that has really occurred since the financial crisis is that the private debt which the banks owned has become public debt.

So in the opinion of both BBC expert and The Economist the debt has not gone away. The BBC expert said that some countries (implicitly Greece and Ireland) do not have the resources to repay their debt and merely giving them loans from the EU does not change this.

I believe that free market capitalist theory says that when the debtor cannot repay then the debt is written off and the lenders lose their money. It is easy to scoff that the money is lent by a lot of rich institutions but we must remember that in many cases these institutions are the pension funds of ordinary working people.

So what is to be done?

I have heard that Argentina defaulted on its debt in 2002 yet my recollection is that The Economist has had some good things to say about its economy recently. Iceland also hit troubled times and let its investors face write offs yet an Economist article on Ireland cagily suggested that Ireland could learn a thing or two from the way Iceland handled its crisis.

It seems that all the “experts” are suggesting that the debts be written off. Yes, the lenders (read your pension funds and rich bastards) will lose out in the short term but perhaps this is no worse than dragging the problem out for years and arriving at the same conclusion years later.

So why are the debt not being written off? In whose interest is it to maintain bad debt on a companies book?

Ah yes, The Bankers. It is in the interest of the bankers to pretend that the idiotic loans which they made will eventually come good because it make the banks balance sheet look better and therefore gives the CEO some leverage in bumping up his already considerable salary.

Wikileaks have opened a Pandora’s box of hypocrisy

Hypocrisy Rules

Hypocrisy Rules

Confusion reigns regarding legitimacy of Wikileaks but they may have done the world a favour by opening a Pandora’s box of hypocrisy over secrecy, privacy and information security.

Wikileaks have been dispersing information “leaked” by government or corporate employees for years now. However, what really put the cat amongst the pigeons when they released details from thousands of “cables” between United States Embassies around the world. The Americans responded by getting Paypal and Mastercard to stop processing payment transactions for Wikileaks though apparently these companies agreed without any legal intervention.

Meanwhile, the Swedish government is trying to extradite Wikileaks editor in chief Julian Assange from the United Kingdom under charges of rape. In accordance with Swedish law, the names of the alleged rape victims are confidential but Naomi Wolf in The Guardian is calling for the names to be published.

The U.S. authorities then issued a court order to get details of private Twitter messages for seven people whom they believe to be involved with Wikileaks. The original order stipulated that the court order must be kept secret so that even the people whose messages were being accessed would not be told. Wikileaks challenged this in the courts and we now know that the court order exists and that one of the people being investigated is an Icelandic Member of Parliament named Birgitta Jonsdottir.

A blogger who appeared on Channel 4 News on the 7th January complained that the U.S. authorities were spying on everyone and that nothing was really “private”. A lawyer interviewed worried that journalists were being prevented from defending the anonymity of their sources.

Then we have The Daily Telegraph sting where Business Secretary Vince Cable was prodded into a conversation where he discussed threatening to bring down the coalition. The Telegraph initially omitted to mention that Mr. Cable also claimed to have “declared war on Mr Murdoch”. This last tidbit was later leaked to the BBC.

We must not forget that the debate over information security takes place amidst a climate of fear of terrorism. Under New Labour the United Kingdom suffered more and more intrusive security measures justified by the need to confront the threat of terrorism. Police encourage this hysteria by preventing members of the public from taking photographs in public places.

The rational conclusion from this rumpus is that the concepts of privacy and freedom of information are under strain, that none of our data is secure and that all parties are behaving hypocritically.

However, Wikileaks may have done us all a favour by bringing the arguments to a head and this could be good for democracy if governments acknowledge and address the underlying issues.

The driving force behind the rise of Wikileaks and the challenges to privacy and freedom of information is modern information technology. In the past information has been stored on paper and was therefore difficult to copy and disperse. Though this may have been comparatively inefficient it meant that keeping information secure was relatively easy. Today’s technology allows vast amounts of data to be stored in devices no bigger than a postage stamp. It provides that data can be easily analysed and it facilitates easy dispersal via The Internet.

There are two aspects to the current chaos over information security. Firstly the data is obviously not adequately secured and secondly there is no agreement on what data should be freely available.

While securing information is technically possible, human factors make the process extremely difficult. Further, as data has become so concentrated, once a system is compromised the quantity of information dispersed can me enormous. All this has been known to information security professional for years yet we have not faced up to the fact that our efforts to secure information are not working.

All bureaucracies, such as governments, have a tendency toward secrecy. Rather than selecting information to be kept secret they prefer blanket regulations which keeps everything secret. Following pressure to release information the British Government responded with the Freedom Of Information Act 2000 which allows that some information can be released dependant on a public interest test. This is the wrong way around.

Rather than keeping everything secret and then allowing exceptions we should make everything freely available and only keep secret selected information.

Two things need to happen.

Firstly democratic countries need to define more clearly the information which can legitimately be categorised as secret or confidential and what information individuals can expect to keep private. All other information should then be freely available.

Secondly government and corporations should wake up to the responsibilities that is theirs because they hold vast amounts of other people’s information. This realisation should feed into some high level thinking about how to carry out effective information security and this should put a greater emphasis on professionalism together with standardisation of systems and processes. This will probably accelerate the current trend toward cloud computing.

Greater clarity over the rules on information security together with greater realisation of the challenges in securing that data can only be a good thing.

Google ngram

Talking Bollocks ngram

Talking Bollocks ngram

I’ve known for a while that Google have been digitizing books. Good plan. Hopefully by the time the decade is out they will have digitized the whole of reality. If they do then one hopes that they can contain the whole of creation in a smaller space than it currently takes otherwise the question arises: Where will they put it.

But I digress. The Economist informs me that Google have started analysing the digitized books and collating the derived data. This is an amazing idea. This means that we can now perform statistical anayslsys on massive quantities of text. We can analyze what ideas and subjects people were engaged with throughout recent history. One upshot is Ngram Viewer which allows us to plot a graph of the occurrence of a word or phrase in all the books analysed by Google.

I have to say that this is FANTASTIC! Until now this sort of thing has been completely impossible yet now anyone with Web access can get results in seconds. For example the occurrence of the word Glory has declined drastically whereas the occurrence of  police is generally on the rise. Lust has declined gradually and is now into something of a plateau whereas sex is on the rise despite a brief dip in the 90s. – Ooh Mrs!

These may be frivolous examples but sociologists must love this tool. One interesting finding, though counter intuitive, is that the occurrence of the word terror has been declining for 200 years.

Lastly it is satisfying that the phrase Talking Bollocks began a steep increase in popularity in the 1990s though this  dipped around the year 2000. Surprising as New Labour did not get evicted until 2010.