Financial Olympics

July 19th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

The 2012 Financial Olympics:

Sailing – It’s going to be tough with so many competitors sailing so close to the wind this year. Barclays opted to do their own rigging, having allegedly refused the advice of their BoE advisors, however the sudden suicides of the team captain and cabin boy have left an opening for Iran’s HSBC crew. With more storms forecast this year, we expect many of the field to be capsized. Team US-JPM have already spent billions on repairs having hit a whale.
100 meters – Facebook reached the 100 yard mark in record time but didn’t quite manage the full 100 meters. Having thought they had won, they returned 30 meters back down the track and sat down moaning that the banks had guaranteed their victory.
Kayaking – The Greek team have excelled throughout the past 3 years, navigating the most extreme of rapids. Experts are left amazed that they are still afloat at this point in the competition despite their leaky craft, complete lack of leadership and large debts.

The price of milk

July 14th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Rowenna Davies has a justified rant about milk, oligopoly, and the urban bias of left-wing politics.

Britain’s milk industry, she points out, is dominated by three companies. Sheer size gives these the power to squeeze dairy farmers, who are locked into ungenerous contracts and have nowhere else to turn. They’ve been steadily grinding down the price of milk, forcing farmers out of business. She wants government intervention:

They could introduce a law allowing farmers to terminate a contract with three months notice (although the minister says EU rules prevent this). Or they could increase investigations and sanctions for price collusion. These measures wouldn’t block the free market; they’d empower it. Farmers could also help themselves here by starting co-operative processing chains of their own.

“I don’t think politicians realise what it’s like,” says Rob, “They should come and do a milk internship for a few weeks and see what we do here. See what it’s like to deliver a calf or get bruises or broken fingers from young heifers. The dedication we have to show.”

Pew: the world distrusts capitalism

July 13th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

The world is losing faith in capitalism, says Pew.

The American pollsters have just released their Global Attitudes Report, soliciting opinions primarily on the economy. Everywhere, people are gloomy about it — no surprise there. More striking is how deep the mistrust goes:

The global economic crisis has eroded support for capitalism. In 11 of the 21 nations surveyed, half or fewer now agree with the statement that people are better off in a free market economy even though some people are rich and some are poor.

Pew also asked whether “most people can succeed if they are willing to work hard“. The results are a little odd. The US comes out among the believers in hard work — this is the American Dream codified, after all. But it’s pipped by Pakistan, where 81% believe in hard work. Tunisia, Brazil and even India follow close behind. But in China, which seems from outside the paragon of workaholism, less than half accept the idea.
Pew give no historical data, and there’s sufficient international variation in Neither/Don’t Know answers to make me wonder if the question was misunderstood in some countries. Still, interesting thing to ask.

Students and immigration figures

July 12th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Ah, it’s nice to see the government contorting themselves, attempting to get around the stupidity of their own policies. Case in point: immigration. Allowing foreign students should be a no-brainer: people come, pay money, get indoctrinated, and leave. Put in the most cynical terms, it’s soft power with a negative cost.

It’s just a shame that the only way to get this through is by cooking the books. The government have promised to reduce immigration, thus their only way out is to stop counting students as people:

Prime Minister David Cameron is understood to be concerned that visa restrictions are stopping wealthy foreigners from studying in British universities.

The idea of removing students from official immigration figures was floated by a Conservative and Labour MP yesterday, who say they are trying to build a cross party consensus on the issue.
Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi and Labour MP Paul Blomfield said there was a “growing perception abroad that in terms of higher education, Britain is closed for business.”

The problem is, it’s a fix:

The idea of excluding students was rejected by immigration minister Damian Green last month, amid concerns that he would be seen as “fiddling” the figures.

Well, yes, it is fiddling the figures. Maybe we need separate categories for ‘profitable immigrants’ and ‘unprofitable immigrants’? At least then the statistics would, um, reflect government priorities.

Clegg, the NHS and the Lords

July 11th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Today’s news: Nick Clegg sold the NHS.
Worse: Nick Clegg sold the NHS, and got nothing in return.

The Times has the story. After the humiliation of the Lib Dems in the electoral reform referendum, Cameron gave Clegg another shot. He could choose another change in policy, and get the Prime Minister’s backing:

The Conservatives thought Mr Clegg would aim high, perhaps asking them to drop the troubled Health and Social Care Bill, a recommendation they would have acepted readily.
Instead Mr Clegg and his team came back with only two demands: ltax-raising powers for local councils and help in making Lords reform finally happen

Personally, I’m furious that Clegg would sell out the NHS in favour of Lords reform. You can’t say it’s backhanded: the one unchanging fact about his party is their obsession with electoral reform. I’m pretty sure that the rest of the country, of all political stripes, cares more about doctors than Lords.

But, weren’t the Liberal Democrats supposed to be good at coalitions? That’s what they claimed at the last election: to have strategised every possibility, and to be ready to punch above their weight through their deep understanding of coalition politics.

Since then, they’ve spectacularly messed up. Their main demand was, not PR, but a referendum on PR. That is, a referendum they were sure to lose. It was a miscalculation, obvious at the time, and which can be blamed squarely on the top of the party. And then this: choosing a distant and unenforceable promise over saving the NHS.

So all in all, this party aren’t just obnoxious. They’re obnoxious and incompetent.

City of London Corporation

July 10th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

The Corporation of the City of London is the pet anachronism of the capital’s finance industry. Local government for the square mile, the Corporation is a hodgepodge of archaic pomp which has been only superficially squashed into conformity with the rest of the country. It is government chosen by business, run as a business, lobbying for the interests of business.

Here, companies literally have the vote. The Corporation claims it “act[s] rather like a trade body, representing finance and business interests. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism thinks of it more as a lobbying body. It’s one embedded deeply in British government, to the point of having a special place in parliament:

Sitting facing the Speaker’s chair is Paul Double, a City of London official known as the Remembrancer. Described by Nicholas Shaxson in his book Treasure Islands as ‘the world’s oldest institutional lobbyist’, the Remembrancer scours every piece of parliamentary legislation….to ensure the Corporation’s interests are never undermined again. The Remembrancer enjoys an annual budget of £6m– a portion of which is spent on his six in-house lawyers.

Homelessness consultation

July 9th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Before the Tories came into power, homelessness in the UK had been steadily decreasing. Since then it has shot up — 37% in the past 2 years*. The government are doing their best to increase it further — removing housing benefit from the under-25s, for example, just plain evil.

There’s more. Previously, the homeless were entitled to council homes. They might be offered private accommodation, but had the right to turn it down. Now, under last year’s localism act, councils can put them into any rented accommodation.

Given how shoddy some private accommodation is, we can expect a lot of the homeless to be dumped in grim, unsafe housing where nobody would freely choose to live.

A consultation is now in progress, over what requirements there will be for private-sector accommodation. It’s pretty weak:

we would expect that a local authority officer, or a person acting on
behalf of the authority such as a letting agent, would visit the property. In
doing so they should take account of the property’s general condition and
state of repair, such as signs of damp, mould, loose or cracked windows.

No need for a detailed inspection by somebody qualified. No set standards for quality — “there are difficulties with making legislation
that would prevent local authorities from using properties with Category 1 (or
any other) hazards

All in all, it’s horrible stuff. We have until 26 July to respond to the consultation. I don’t have much hope, but this is one of the last chances to have any impact at all.

Iranian oil backlog

July 8th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Iran, under sanctions, can’t sell its oil. Nor does it have anywhere to put it — the country has continued production, using up all storage capacity. So it’s down to the last resort: tankers.

Iran has insufficient space to store the crude it cannot sell. So while it furiously works to build storage capacity on shore, it has turned to mothballing at sea.
The unsold crude is being stored in what has been estimated to be two-thirds of the Iranian tanker fleet. Most of the ships are sailing in circles around the Persian Gulf as Iran tries to sell the mostly heavy crude at bargain-basement prices.

International oil experts estimate that Iran is now warehousing as much as 40 million barrels — roughly two weeks of production — on the tankers. An additional 10 million barrels are in storage on shore.

Benefits of cash

July 7th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Slick mobile-phone payment methods have a big downside: they make it too easy to spend money:

the easier and cheaper it is to spend money, the less control we have over our own spending. Which in turn means that ultra-convenient payments, probably using your phone in some way or another, are realistically going to be a luxury for the middle classes and a cause of stress and danger for families living paycheck-to-paycheck.

from the Daily Mash

July 6th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

The daily mash fantasizes about what happens when the Big Society meets de-mobbed soldiers:

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said: “This is the Big Society sprung into hard-hitting, shotgun-pumping, no-mercy action.

“The former soldiers will return to their once-peaceful home towns, only to find police cuts have turned them into hotbeds of drugs, gambling and prostitution, probably controlled by a gang called ‘The Skulls’ with mohicans and matching leather jackets.

“That’s when our heroes spring into life — paranoid, embittered and ready to start a war

Beyond Reasonable Doubt

July 5th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

What does it mean for a defendent to be found guilty “beyond reasonable doubt“? The courts aren’t telling. Not in the UK, not in the US, not in any of the other countries where it’s the basic standard of criminal justice. The US Supreme Court thinks that “Attempts to explain the term “reasonable doubt” do not usually result in making it any clearer to the minds of the jury“. So the most you get is state-level definitions, such as that of California:

It is not a mere possible doubt; because everything relating to human affairs, and depending on moral evidence, is open to possible doubt. It is that state of the case which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, leaves the minds of the jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge.

The courts, in particular, are vehemently opposed to any attempt to put a numerical probability to beyond reasonable doubt. It requires more than a 50% likelihood of guilt, and less than 100%. But between those, it’s anybody’s guess.

So what happens when you ask people? Teach them some basic probability, give them a definition of “beyond reasonable doubt”? It’s been tried. A fifth of people interpret it as 90%, with slightly lower numbers choosing 95% or 99%. But fully 27% think 80% certainty, or less, would be enough to convict.

Another experiment asked half of a group to act as jurors, declaring defendents guilty or not. The other half put a numerical figure on how likely they were to be guilty. Matching up the decisions of the two groups should show what probability corresponds to “beyond reasonable doubt”. Here it seems a guilty verdict requires 0.70 – 0.74 probability of guilt.

Pensioners aren’t poor

July 4th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Baked into my head somewhere is the idea that pensioners mostly live in grinding poverty, barring a very few who are resting on 40 years of civil service pension or the like.

I was wrong. The rate of poverty among the elderly is lower than among children or adults.

Le Guin on genre, again

July 3rd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Ursula Le Guin, aside from being a great writer, has the knack of being on the right side in any debate going. Currently, she’s doing sterling work defending genre fiction against put-downs. That is, not so much trying to break out of the ghetto, as taking pride in it.

It really got going in a tussle with Margaret Atwood over the definitions of Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Fantasy, and Literary Fiction. Atwood, official Great Treasure of Canadian Literature, has built a career on writing SF that is presented as literary fiction. Le Guin has accepted her position in the genre ghetto, and won critical acceptance in spite of that.

Now, along comes a New Yorker article, beating on genre with a series of backhanded compliments:

Commercial and genre writers aim at delivering less rarefied pleasures. And part of the pleasure we derive from them is the knowledge that we could be reading something better. For the longest time, there was little ambiguity between literary fiction and genre fiction: one was good for you, one simply tasted good.
…Skilled genre writers know that a certain level of artificiality must prevail. It’s plot we want and plenty of it. Basically, a guilty pleasure is a fix in the form of a story.

In wades Le Guin, beautifully calling Mr. New Yorker on his apparent belief that Great Fiction just isn’t fun:

Anybody who reads a lot is, if you like, an addict. The people who put their initials on the fly-leaf of a library copy of a mystery so that they won’t keep checking the same book out over and over are story addicts. So is the ten-year-old with his nose in The Hobbit, oblivious to dinnertime or cataclysm. So is the old woman rereading War and Peace for the eighth time. So is the scholar who studies the Odyssey for forty years.

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