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2010-10-11 05:32 pm

Benefits & family size

So, this Jeremy Hunt chap is saying that the cap on benefits will encourage poor families to "be responsible" in planning their family size, ie. not have more children than they can afford. Obviously, the reactions to this in the media have varied between "what a courageous stand, it's about time someone was brave enough to say this - we shouldn't have so many poor people around" and "oh, good grief, what a clueless authoritarian twat".

Most of the non-barking-mad commenters have, of course, been quite clear on the principle that having children isn't something you should have to "afford"; that support for your children isn't something you should have to deserve; and that a government minister has no business even having an opinion about the proper size for someone's family, let alone engaging in social engineering.

What I don't think has been highlighted enough, however, is that this statement implies that a family on benefits will be there for a long time - for the kind of planning horizon which allows for several pregnancies and childhoods. It's either stunning ignorance, or an attempt to assume (and persuade us about it by stealth) the existence of an underclass of long-term benefit claimants who are content with that lifestyle and chose to be there. That one would be a classic othering/scapegoating strategy, which we've seen applied to a lot of groups over this country's political history.

Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised by either or both. This is what we get for a government of rich people, very few of whom have ever had to work a badly paid job, let alone lived only on benefits. (Do any of you know of any MPs who'll admit to having done this, by the way? I don't, but I'm willing to believe there might be some ex-benefit-claimants amongst them, and if there are we should bend some energies into getting them a Ministerial brief.)
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2010-05-07 01:45 pm
Entry tags:

A case for electoral reform

(simplistic, obviously, but it's a nice illustration)

If the number of seats won reflected the popular vote (as reported by the BBC, with 634 649 of 650 649 seats declared), we'd have this.

CON 235
LAB 189
LIB 150
BNP 12
SNP 11
Green 7
Alliance 1
Other 24

(and one still to come)
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2010-05-06 01:32 am
Entry tags:


If you have a vote in the General Election, you'd better use it.

I'd like to say I don't mind who you vote for, but that's only true if it isn't one of the barking-mad lunatic fringe parties who want to drag the UK back into an imagined lily-white 1950s utopia. So: no BNP, UKIP, or Conservative votes, please.

I have good friends with Conservative beliefs; I don't have any issues with those, and share some of them. It's the character, habits, and values of the overwhelming mass of the parliamentary Tory party that I abhor. It's their endless paternalistic sense of hierarchy and entitlement, their disdain for the poor based on an illusory sense of proof-of-ability, less a meritocracy than an inheritocracy. And their dithering incompetence at even tasks that should have been trivially easy, like hammering Gordon Brown down to 2% in the polls by now.

But mostly, I want you to take the damn vote seriously. It's yours; your ancestors (well, someone's ancestors) fought and died so you could have it, and so that it could mean even the little it does right now.

If I made the rules, not using your vote (and spoiling your ballot paper, by writing "no to safe seats", "no to illegal wars", "no to bankers' bonuses", "no to expenses", or anything else you want to protest about on it, is a very good vote) would get it taken away and given to someone in Iraq or Afghanistan who'd be properly grateful for it. Casting your vote ironically, on the other hand, would mean you'd have small children throwing stones at you in the street, and little old ladies pinning copies of Amanda Palmer singles to your lapel. Seriously, that's the grade of "irony" this is. And yes, I've heard it suggested, though thankfully not by anyone I know.
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2010-03-08 01:21 pm
Entry tags:

Cameron's Tories pull off a miracle

Initially detoxifying the Tory brand? That's hard.

On the other hand - making Gordon Brown's Labour government look competent, consistent, and caring? That's a bloody miracle.
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2010-02-14 02:59 pm
Entry tags:

Scientific advisors, policy, & independence

This Guardian article by Sarah Boseley talks about new government proposals to ensure that official advisors and ministers "agree on a position", and why scientists aren't having any of it.

To add to it: it's a one-way relationship. Science informs policy, not the other way around. Trying to do it both ways risks getting into a feedback loop, where the scientists end up telling the ministers something very close to what they already know, and confirming their prejudices.

Insisting on agreement also makes the Minister look both weak and dishonest - if he has the courage of his convictions, he shouldn't be afraid to disagree. It's not as though all scientists agree with one another, and they're rarely afraid to say so.

Besides... they're advisors. If you always agree with your advisors, people will start wondering whether you actually do anything yourself - or whether there's any point in them, and if they're being brave enough.
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2010-02-11 08:37 pm
Entry tags:

GM Crops & global food security

What the problem is

In a nutshell: people are starving. They can't feed themselves, for two basic reasons: incentives for others to prevent them, and lack of infrastructure. The incentives are easier to address, so I'll talk about that first.

To us, starvation is a tragedy. To others, it's a business opportunity. There is a strong strand of thought that views poverty and inequity as good things; they provide the motivation for improvement, and a motor for economic growth. This is a naïve view at best, so I'm not going to waste time refuting it here.
As far as infrastructure goes – well, let's think about what's needed to eat well )
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2010-02-03 05:37 pm
Entry tags:

Rights and, er, other rights

Simon Jenkins has been grumping about rights again, starting with Pope Benedict and moving on to Harriet Harman.

Obviously, Jenkins has an internally consistent view, but where he falls down - in my opinion - is in the basic principle that some people Have Rights To Do Things, and other people Try To Stop Them[1].

This is quite a naive model of rights, and it's rather more complicated than that; we all have intersecting, overlapping, and occasionally opposing rights. In the first case he discusses, the Catholic organizations have the right to decide their own hiring policies, but the employees have the right not to be discriminated against (and not to be pressured either to reveal or to conceal their orientation) and the people they serve, many of whom are also homosexual, have the right to be served by people who will understand and not discriminate against them.

(NB: I'm using "right" in a moral rather than a legal sense here, with the attendant fuzziness, ambiguity, and imprecision. This fuzziness, ambiguity, and imprecision is a feature not a bug.)

So, this situation is inevitable; there are basically two ways for it to be dealt with.

First, no interference, which is to say whoever's got the power makes the rules. Except in very rare cases, employment is a buyer's market, and in cases like this with long-established policies of discrimination it's even more so. The prospective employee has no leverage. The problem with this sort of entrenched power situation is that it will inevitably amplify itself, further increasing and solidifying the inequality in power relations, because that's what capitalistic setups do.

The other is for an outside body to arbitrate, and to judge which right is more important. It can - will - do this on whatever grounds it likes, without necessarily making reference to the internal logic either party uses to justify its arguments. At the moment, the government is doing this. It's making decisions based on a number of factors, including harm to the people involved; harm to the organisations involved; satisfying its own obligations under domestic and EU law; and its own reputation.

What the government isn't doing, on the other hand, is either serving or opposing anyone else's agenda. It isn't a case of considering one party's actions and either permitting or denying them; instead, they're balancing two requests-to-carry-on and deciding which one will do less harm and be more socially useful.

[1] And the bit where he drifts off into frothing hatred of Harriet Harman and all her works, obviously.
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2009-12-03 10:16 pm
Entry tags:

Support the troops - end the war

Jock 'No, that really is his name' Stirrup, who is the UK's official chief militarist, has carefully explained why it's all our fault that our brave lads and lasses are dying in Afghanistan without actually having toppled the Taliban, offed the opium barons, and abolished Al-Qaeda.

Apparently, they get disenheartened and upset when the GBP starts thinking they might not actually be doing any good over there, they might not be able to provide a pony in every Afghan back yard, and they might actually be encouraging foreigners to dislike our country (and potentially try to blow bits of it up) rather than spreading goodwill.

Nothing to do with the military establishment's reluctance to give them adequate housing, helicopters, injury compensation, or even body armour, then. Nothing to do with the political leadership's insistence on the ludicrous idea that we have to fight a land war in Asia to avoid fighting a land war in Aldgate. Nothing to do with the way they and their allies keep blowing up wedding parties, killing innocent people, and encouraging the locals to use the Coalition forces as pawns in inter-tribal warfare.

Seriously, though - I appreciate the importance of morale when fighting a war. I just don't think that we ought to be fighting wars as a general principle; I don't think we are doing anyone any good fighting this specific war; and I haven't seen anything to convince me that they even know what winning would look like, let alone how to get there.

And I am damned if I am going to be told to shut up and cheer.
ACM Stirrup added: "Support for our service men and women is indivisible from support for this mission.

"Our people know that they can succeed, that we'll only fail if we choose to fail. We owe it to them, and to those we've lost, not to make that choice."

Indivisible, eh? Would you care to substantiate that allegation, because it's about to be arrested for vagrancy...

As for his second para, this is the classic loser's streak philosophy. It doesn't matter how much you've lost; it only matters that you win in the end. And the only way to do that is to keep doubling down.

If he were only spending his own money - or his own blood - then I wouldn't care. But he's throwing away taxpayers' money, the tattered vestiges of the UK's good international name, and a lot of other peoples' lives. Even if only Coalition soldiers had died, that would be completely unacceptable.

And now he's asking us to help him do it. No, actually, he isn't asking... he's telling us off for not helping, and explaining that it's our duty. From the same BBC article, one David Wakefield says: "The Taliban is not going to defeat us militarily, but we want the same patience, courage and discipline that soldiers show here from the public at home."

Sorry, mate. Ain't signed nothing, ain't getting paid, ain't going to surrender my judgement to anyone - especially not anyone with the kind of track record the UK military establishment has racked up by now. So you can fuck right off.
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2009-10-18 11:55 pm
Entry tags:

Guardian, Trafigura, Carter-Ruck, &c.

So there's been a huge mess on; you probably all know about it by now. Bunch of unethical corporate cowboys, gang of lawyers, Byzantine (not to say Kafkaesque) legal proceedings obsessed with letter rather than spirit, left-wing newspaper fighting back by sticking to the letter of Parliamentary procedure and making the spirit do triple reverse somersaults.

Not my field, so I'm not going to comment further on that, but I have just read the Minton Report (PDF link) and have some comments to make about the chemistry involved.

Most of them are unrepeatable, but can be summarized as "they did WHAT? WHY? What the BLOODY HELL did they think they were doing?"

In short, they found a nice-looking process to refine their partially treated crude, decided that using an actual chemical plant and some sensible procedures was too much like work, churned all the stuff together in the hold of a ship, and then slung in some more caustic soda for good measure, presumably on the age-old pharmaceutical principle of "well, if a little bit is good for you, a lot must be much better, right?"[1]. After that, they separated out the bit they wanted[2] and threw away the rest.

"The rest" in this case consisted of a total of about 285 metric tons of foul water, naphtha, caustic soda, and mercaptans. Mercaptans, also known as thiols, are the foulest-smelling substances known to humanity. One afternoon at Cranfield, I accidentally let about 10 cc of a harmless mercaptan loose from the fume cupboard (I'd been working with them too long, and couldn't smell them any more) and the entire School of Engineering spontaneously evacuated itself. It took me half an hour and a lot of waving the MSDS around to convince the builders working on the outside of the building that it was safe to go back to work.

When I say "harmless", I mean that it wasn't toxic, and that in those concentrations all it did was smell bad - we didn't get anyone choking and coughing, vomiting, or crying uncontrollably. That was mostly because it was a nice clear summer's day, with a good strong breeze, and it dispersed quickly. Most mercaptans will do all that, and are poisonous too; the ones released at Abidjan were. Oh, and there's another problem, too; when exposed to acid, mercaptans turn into hydrogen sulphide. H2S isn't just the smell of rotten eggs; it's corrosive and highly toxic. UK Occupational Health guidelines allow exposure to 10 parts per million H2S for 15 minutes. If the concentration goes over above about 20 ppm, it stops being possible to smell it, which means you breathe a lot more of it. The Minton report goes into a lot of detail on the dangers of these compounds, and the only other thing I'll highlight from there is that the waste dump is extremely environmentally damaging as well as toxic. Burning and salting the fields does not even make the list in comparison.

And they dumped this crap right there. If you're keen on the letter of regulations, it's possible to make an argument that what they did was not illegal yet; on the other hand, that's missing the point rather. It's also possible (and wearisomely inevitable) to make the eternal "That was the blokes we hired - nuffink to do with us, guv" argument, but I do hope none of my readers will insult our collective intelligence by doing that.

Trafigura have stated in several places since then that standard handling and disposal practices were followed. This is what we technically call "an outright lie". It may be standard if you happen to be a cowboy with neither common sense nor empathy; it may be possible to argue that that sort of slapdash unconcern comes as standard in the business; it does nobody any credit to do so.

[1] It isn't. It made the reaction less efficient and more wasteful, and made it produce a much higher proportion of more toxic volatiles in the waste.
[2] Which still contained plenty of mercaptans. This procedure doesn't even get more than half of them out.
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2009-09-08 06:31 pm
Entry tags:

Benefits applications & disability

Or, Why filling in the forms really is hard work, and why the process sent my mental health spiralling downwards.

A lot of you, O my readership, have been on government benefits or had a partner or close friend who has, and for you there is no need to explain that it really is unpleasant, counterproductive, interminable, and soul-destroying. On the other hand, there's a pervasive sense amongst some sections of the British public (and the media) that benefits are money for old rope; all you have to do is fill in a couple of forms, turn up to a couple of interviews, and then you're living the life of Riley.

So here's how it works. )
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2009-08-26 01:56 pm
Entry tags:

Filk - Roots

Not complete; assistance appreciated. Source: Show of Hands, "Roots". Inspired by this LibCon article, quoting from the News of the World:

…local council candidates John Coombes, of Maidenhead, Berks, and Dick Hamilton of Marlow, Bucks, were sitting with others around a brazier.
Hamilton’s ghettoblaster blared out songs supporting Hitler and attacking “ni**ers”.

And a fascist thug said his hope and dream
Is events where everybody's white as cream.
Call it a festival? What d'you call
Events where no-one sings at all

And everyone stares at the same small dream
Losing at cricket and letting off steam
With piss-weak lager and combat boots
Whingers and thugs in cheap-ass suits

And we oughta be ashamed of all these trends
Of the way we treat our cousins and friends
Without their cooking or their sounds

How will we know where we're all bound?
I've lost St. George and the Union Jack
That's my flag too and I want it back

Laugh away boys, let them go
On and on in their lonely show
We've gained more than we'll ever know
From the open shores of England.
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2009-07-15 12:54 pm
Entry tags:


For a country that's simultaneously in the middle of two wars, a pandemic, and a serious recession, most of the population are really quite relaxed. Or obsessing over something completely different, of course.

[Poll #1430133]
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2009-07-01 04:42 pm
Entry tags:

Another MP gone

Latest Labour MP to resign over the expenses scandal is Harry Cohen, who's been my MP for three years. He wasn't completely awful (some good positions, some really bad ones), but his responses to my letters have been almost entirely useless or nonexistent. I wonder whether we'll get a shiny new Tory MP next time...
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2009-06-18 01:50 pm
Entry tags:

MPs' expenses

So they're being officially published online, with some key details blacked out.

Heather Brooke says: "I can see that avoiding embarrassment has been the key motivating factor of what's been deleted."

Clearly, not letting everyone in the world know MPs' addresses, their regular travel patterns, their bank details, their NI numbers, their signatures, and the names of people who deliver to their houses is entirely due to a desire to spare the government any more embarrassment.
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2009-06-12 07:01 pm
Entry tags:

Seed, bud, flower, fruit

While I was looking around for some folk lyrics, I found this interesting FT article on folk music and constructions of Englishness, focusing on Show of Hands and their song Roots.

Attempts to write English national songs tend to founder on the question of conservatism: does English identity mean no more than an insistence that nothing should ever change?

Well, obviously the answer to that is "no", but I think there are some interesting questions about moving forwards involved. They're basically not in favour of SoH's approach, but I think that ignores one of the most important strands of folk history & practice, which is the protest song.
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2009-06-08 10:50 am


So, Labour have been beaten into third place by people who can't work out how to unfold their ballot paper, and who would have preferred us not to have been voting in that election at all.

I'm not holding any brief for Labour, but this is dismal.

The European Union is a fundamentally good thing. We're all Europeans together, and always have been. The UK's never been separate in any real sense - even after the sea levels rose and we weren't joined on any more, there's been constant economic & social traffic between island and continent. The whole island-race, silvery-sea thing is a propagandist delusion.
longish )
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2009-06-04 11:54 am
Entry tags:

I voted

Lib Dem, for the record - was considering Green, but their science is about as rigorous as a rubber banana. If you can and you haven't, go do it. Polls close at 10 pm.
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2009-05-27 05:14 pm
Entry tags:

Censorship & access restrictions considered harmless

This BBC article talks about content restriction based on user profiling, in order to make an archive more accessible.

The Warumungu community were interested in repatriating a lot of historical data about their people, but they have restrictions on who can view what - "[F]or example, men cannot view women's rituals, and people from one community cannot view material from another without first seeking permission. Meanwhile images of the deceased cannot be viewed by their families."

So this kind of soft restriction, based on user-reported profiling, is actually quite harmless... it's almost like, oh, what's the word, a thing that will let some data past but not others, based on a predefined pattern. If only we had those everywhere. Not sure why they're reporting it as a new kind of DRM, really.
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2009-05-26 12:42 pm
Entry tags:

The measure of vile matter...

...is when using a Tory party election leaflet to save you having to handle it seems like a good idea.

However, it did stir a slothful attempt at minor political activism... which was foiled by Hope Not Hate being useless.

It's a nice idea, but they seem like a bunch of flailing incompetents. I wanted to download an A4 poster image, that I could print out and stick in the front window. You'd think that would be a no-brainer for them, hm? "I want to give you free advertising with no effort whatsoever on your part." After the six-pointless-steps-to-send-a-form-letter episode I had from them the other day, this is irritating me unreasonably.

What they do want to do is mail me ten posters if I pay them £3.00 (including P&P, at least) or 100 for £20.00. And they don't specify the size of their posters anywhere, either. Really very helpful, isn't it...

I mean, I can see the win for them in getting people to hit the streets and convince others to display posters. However, that's not me - the cost-benefit analysis comes down firmly on the wrong side of that for me. And it's not as though they're making any noticeable profit on those posters - it'd cost me as much as the highest per-unit price there to print out my own onto half-decent paper.

Anyone in a sensibly contiguous London location got some? Or, alternatively, are there enough sensibly contiguous people interested to make it worthwhile ordering a batch? (I'm not going to faff around mailing them to people I can't meet up with.) They do have badges too, but if the total goes above £5 then I'm going to want micropayments in return.

[Poll #1405871]