Saturday, October 27, 2007

MessageSpace is Annoying

I don't think I'm the only one who finds Message Space Ads infuriating.

Absolute rule number one of producing a usable content-rich website, except for in certain corporate cases, is that you should never play sounds without your user requesting them. This is particularly true for websites, like blogs, that people read late at night or while at work when they don't want sound suddenly blaring out of their speakers. If I'm checking the blogs for relevant stories in the morning I don't need Charlie Falconer's opinions on a ban on lies or an imitation of 24 being played to a quiet office.

It's particularly frustrating because the sound often doesn't play immediately and when I am browsing I tend to switch between tabs at a blinding rate. I'm left flicking through the different sites I have open looking for the ad so that I can shut it up.

This isn't in the interests of advertisers for two reasons:
  1. I usually stop the sound by stopping the advert playing so do not see their message.
  2. If I do see the ad it will be after it has annoyed me which is an association most advertisers don't want me to be making.
If someone associated with MessageSpace reads this then please adopt the practice of the advertising agencies that place ads on newspaper websites - make it possible to turn on the sound but by default have it off. That way I'll watch more of the ads and will often turn the sound on out of curiosity if the ad is good. Your advertisers will thank you.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Gracchi on the demise of the Union

Brilliant post by Gracchi on devolution and the Union. He sets out how the "uncomplete and incomprehensible" structure set up by the "ad hoc opportunists of Millbank" could lead to the Union's ruin. Scottish politics becomes ever more militantly anti-English as leaders seek to differentiate themselves and offer a narrative to their new nation. He doesn't mention the other side of this, the English feel steadily more aggrieved and will prove unwilling to pay bribes to keep the Scots onside.

This post comes about as close as Gracchi gets to real anger. His rage is well placed. Inspired leadership could bring about a renaissance for the Union yet but it now seems probable to me that it will not make its 400th anniversary. Those ministers responsible might well be dead when the United Kingdom passes into history but they will still bear a shame with only a few dismal historical parallels. They will have destroyed one of history's great nations.

It is almost unfashionable to really love the Union these days. Most English men and women will react with indifference or hostility if you tell them their loyalty should be to a United Kingdom. However, while I do increasingly feel English myself I still find the decline of the United Kingdom unutterably sad. Three hundred years of matchless achievement; of glory, genius and creativity; of a unique presence in the world, would be over. The nation that built the greatest Empire the world has ever seen might die.

The most recent historical analogy I can think of is 1453 when the Byzantine Empire made its last stand. While the Greeks would revive later, as I trust the English will, the Roman Empire was gone. While the role of Constantine XI, the leader who presides over his nation's death, is not yet filled the role of that nation's destroyer is clearly played by the "ad hoc opportunists of Millbank" who set up a federalism of such inequity and imbalance it cannot last.

If all this comes to pass and blame is laid where it is deserved the names of Blair, Brown and the rest will attain a genuine and lasting infamy. History will judge them harshly.

The Union Modernisation Fund still allows the Unions to buy taxpayers' money

Labour haven't had the easiest time fundraising over the last few years. The honours scandal was both symptom and, in turn, cause of that weakness. In 2005 they created the Union Modernisation Fund. Possibly the most venal act of the Labour government.

Francis Maude was right to describe it as "very, very direct sleaze. That is buying influence and buying taxpayers' money." Guido's graphic sums up the process nicely:

The Government's rationale for this is that the unions increase productivity and this would help them continue to do so. This doesn't fit the historical record, union power led to a dismal productivity record that only improved when Thatcher weakened the unions enough that working practices could be reformed. Even if unions did improve productivity there is little reason to think that giving them money to train their senior officers or produce an elaborate website would strengthen that effect.

On 11 September this year the second round was announced (DOC). The big unions, USDAW, CWU, NASUWT and others, got more taxpayer money. Some unions that don't donate to the Labour party also got funds but that's a pretty thin smokescreen, it only means anything if you assume the Government have some aversion to spraying taxpayers' cash around. It doesn't make this scheme look any less like an elaborate laundering of taxpayers' money to me.

What I didn't know until today was the identity of the head of the Union Modernisation Fund Supervisory Board. Under any honest scheme the UMFSB's chair would be a disinterested sort who could provide an independent perspective on the unions' projects and assess which would best contribute to an efficient workplace. Instead, we have Sir Bill Connor. He left a senior position in the union movement, General Secretary of USDAW, the shop-workers union, and, went straight across to head the agency supervising the distribution of Union Modernisation Fund money. Some of the money even goes to USDAW. The Government doesn't just fund the unions, it allows them to distribute it themselves.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Jeremy Leggett on Renewable Power

Leggett's article for Comment is Free is so idiotic it is positively painful. I'll fisk it and then quickly conclude with a little examination of his dubious byline:

"When Britain and Germany raced to scale up their aircraft industries for war in the 1930s, the British competed rather well. Recovering from a late start, we rapidly produced machines capable of winning the Battle of Britain.

Today, the two nations are on the same side in a different battle, but Germany alone is mobilising as fast as it did 70 years ago."

If we're on the same side why would we want to race the Germans? Who cares if they win. Their gain is not our loss. Quite the opposite. If they develop the renewable technologies we can use them. Welcome to post-mercantilist economics.

"Our common enemy is global warming, and it is already at our gates. But while our German allies are turning out the renewable energy equivalents of Messerschmitts by the factory-load, Britain is again slow to spring into action."

Okay, they can bring the renewable power technology; we'll bring the City, Canary Wharf and associated financial innovation. We can't produce everything so why should we distort our investment market in an effort to race the Germans for the renewable energy market? Specialisation can make us all better off.

"Worse, as we learned yesterday, officials responsible for UK mobilisation have told the prime minister it is impossible for us to build modern-day Spitfires in any number. We should instead oppose European targets set recently for such mobilisation and join other laggards in order to persuade the Germans to scale back their own efforts."

Perhaps they've realised that big subsidies for renewables may not be a particularly efficient way of reducing emissions.

"On Tuesday one of the main architects of Germany's renewable energy policy, Hans-Josef Fell, was in London to give a press conference on peak oil. In this issue lies another, related imperative for nations like Germany and Britain to be mobilising for renewable energy as if for war. A group of German scientists, the Energy Watch Group, has completed the latest in a crop of studies showing that oil is depleting far faster than previously estimated, and that a global energy crisis is imminent. Renewable energy and energy efficiency are the only technologies that offer any hope of staving this off in time."

Anyone who pretends to have a good idea of the amount of oil left in the ground is trying to fool us or themselves. Besides, shortages of hydrocarbons aren't an externality so the market will create the proper incentives to switch to other sources of power. There is no market failure here for government to address.

If all you're worried about is dwindling reserves then you're worried about them increasing the cost of hydrocarbon-based power. The idea that the best response is raising the cost of hydrocarbon power is pretty bizarre.

"Fell spelt out Germany's success with renewables. In 2000, when he and other parliamentarians pushed through a law to fast-track renewables markets, such sources contributed 6% to the national electricity mix; the target was 12% by 2010. Three years ahead of the target, they are approaching 14% - and have created 200,000 jobs in the process."

Have they created more jobs than would have been created if the free-market had invested the capital instead of it being forced by the state into the hands of renewables companies? Opportunity costs!

"International investment patterns tell the story. Some $1 trillion, globally, will go into energy this year, and more than $100bn of that will be invested in renewables. Renewables make up just 2% of the global mix, excluding large hydropower schemes, and yet about a tenth of global energy investment now flows into them. Renewables companies are lining up to be quoted on stock exchanges, and those already listed have strong share prices. But as things stand, only a tiny proportion of this investment bonanza is heading into Britain."

Almost all of that development is utterly dependent on subsidies. It isn't a competitive industry at all. What that means is that each country pays for the investment either from its exchequer or through a levy on energy production.

"The German renewables market is being fed by funds raised from a levy on energy bills to guarantee premium prices for renewable electricity. Britain's Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform says the UK's renewables obligation, a certificate-based scheme for growing renewables markets, works better. Ofgem and the Carbon Trust are among the many who disagree. It is easy to see why. In 2006 the cost to the average German household of the tariff was £12 a year. The average UK household paid £7 a year under the renewables obligation, but that delivered significantly less renewable capacity. German windpower capacity is 10 times that of the UK today, and the energy it produces is 30% cheaper; German solar power capacity is 200 times that of the UK."

An energy production levy is particularly cruel as it means taking money from the very poorest. We demonstrated in the TaxPayers' Alliance report on green taxes (PDF) how regressive any measure increasing the cost of electricity is. Poor families pay more, as a portion of their income, than the average and the rich pay the least. While £7-12 pounds isn't a lot of money it is significant and could be spent in another way or deliver a tax cut that might make a small but meaningful difference to a number of poor families. That is quite a price to pay to distort the market in favour of renewables.

"Consider the stakes here. If we fail to contain global warming, we put the economy at risk. If we continue to ignore peak-oil warnings, we will plunge into the chaos of a third global energy crisis. If we continue to allow investment to flow uncontested into countries with a renewables vision, UK plc loses out on any prospect of a serious share in the next global business revolution."

1) Britain's renewables subsidy won't make a significant difference to global emissions. It makes no important difference to the amount of risk the economy is at from global warming.

2) I've dealt with 'peak-oil' already. "Oh no! An energy crisis is coming and we'll all suffer as energy gets more expensive. Better make it expensive now to end the suspense!"

3) There are plenty of plausible "next global business revolution". I think the market is better at identifying them. Renewables, which are dependent on big subsidies, are a particularly poor candidate.

"· Jeremy Leggett is author of Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis"

The Guardian's byline tells us only that he has written a book about energy policy. This suggests that he is an 'expert' in the field and little more. How has such an expert produced such a poor article?

It appears the reason is that the article is more corporate PR flyer than intellectual search for truth. If you look at his profile on Comment is Free it turns out that instead of being an independent expert he is actually "chief executive of solarcentury the UK’s largest independent solar electric solutions company". If that isn't enough "he is, in addition to his solarcentury role, a director of the world’s first private equity fund for renewable energy, Bank Sarasin’s New Energies Invest AG". This is a man with a massive personal stake in subsidies for renewable power that guarantee its future. For the Guardian to put him up as merely a concerned author writing on his subject instead of mentioning front and centre that he is a part of the renewables business he wishes to see subsidised is an abject failure of journalistic standards.

I'm all for business leaders speaking for their industry. I don't mind newspapers printing what they have to say. However, that depends upon two key conditions being met:
  1. They must have something interesting and coherent to say. Instead, this article just ignored basic economics and spouted phony analogies about Spitfires.
  2. It must be clearly acknowledged - in a prominent position on the same page as the article - that they have an interest in the matter.
Neither condition was satisfied with this article. Deeply shoddy.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The far left combusts

RESPECT are tearing each other to pieces. I think this sort of thing happens about once a decade to serious consternation within the far left and general amusement among the roughly half dozen people outside that movement who notice. There are some truly hilarious statements flying around. For the right-winger who wants to have a bit of a smile at their incompetence there are a couple of decent sources in the blogosphere, thanks to Dave Cole for alerting me to all this - he has his own thoughts and questions:

  • Dave Osler first links to various statements from the SWP, Worker's Liberty and a couple of other sects and then expresses his own exasperation with it all.
  • Harry's Place has a statement from George Galloway and assorted cronies. Dave Dudley then offers what I'm pretty certain is a satire of it all.

When you see what this crazy lot are up to it is a potent reminder of how precious the relative unity of the centre-right is.

The Barnett Formula Question

I don't know anything about the Justice for England group but this ad, via James Forsyth on the Spectator Coffee House, is one of the best low budget political virals I've seen. The music isn't great and the production values aren't exactly Hollywood but the simple message is superbly presented and well-focussed. Justice for England have done a great job:

Forsyth asks why the West Lothian question doesn't come up. He shouldn't be so surprised. A clever political campaign won't use up scarce public attention dealing with constitutional matters if they don't need to. People are slow to get worked up about procedural issues because those issues don't have the same tangible and direct effect on their lives as fiscal ones.

Is it really surprising that those outside the Westminster bubble will find the West Lothian question's procedural problem far less galling than the idea that they might die or remain ill because of an unfair distribution of public spending? Or that their children might not get the same standard of education?

This is aimed at the elderly concerned for their health and parents concerned about their children. It is expertly targetted at what people actually care about. An outraged video about the West Lothian question wouldn't be nearly as effective. The numbers of the people in the UK who really care about the details of the constitutional settlement probably number in the low thousands. Those who care about drugs to treat the elderly and schools and universities for the young form a majority of sixty million.

Making political dishonesty illegal

Gracchi has already blasted the "Ministry of Truth" film calling for a lying by politicians to their electorate to be made illegal. He points out that one man's lie is almost always another's truth. That truth itself is an uncertain commodity in politics. Unity, at the original Ministry of Truth, argues that the programme is based upon a flawed conception of the British constitution.

When I first saw the film a couple of weeks ago I was endlessly frustrated by the programme's failure to consider the unintended consequences of such a law. The massive problems the proposed law would create seem pretty obvious but the film didn't address them at all. Here are two big ones:

1) What is a lie?

Incautious statements, mistakes, exagerrations as a result of differing priorities and values sets and simple disagreements with a heavy majority have all been termed lies over the years. These are not the outright lies that the programme clearly aimed to prohibit but disentangling straight "he said this when he absolutely knows that it is untrue" lies from statements which are more difference of opinion than lie would be an essentially arbitrary process in many cases. The massive grey area that surrounds lying would make for messy, unpredictable and possibly arbitrary legal sanction.

2) Giving the courts a veto over candidates for office

This law would mean that the courts would rule on whether a politician had lied or not and, on the basis of that ruling, whether they can stand for office. That would mean that rule by the people would be replaced by rule by the legal oligarchy. Ordinary voters would only be allowed to choose within the confines of honest and trustworthy politicians not condemned by the courts. We would be using lawyers instead of theologians but otherwise our system would bear a marked semblance to Iran's.

The legal process isn't perfect. It can be abused by those with better lawyers or the sympathies of an unrepresentative legal community (very capable of swaying juries if this is a matter for jury trial). The courts have already, in my opinion, gone too far in assuming a power to fight democratic decisions. No body so free from democratic accountability should be given such broad powers to decide who is fit for office.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Fixed Term Parliaments

I'm not exactly fiercely opposed to fixed term parliaments. I doubt they would bring the country crashing to a halt. It just seems that those proposing them haven't really identified a problem. While Conor Burns clearly really hates Brown all of the other examples he brings up of governments that went to the polls early he thinks are legitimate. See these sections of his ConservativeHome article:

"Looking back over all the elections since the Second World War there have actually been very few serious accusations of the incumbent Government abusing the constitutional right of the Prime Minister to seek a dissolution of Parliament before the end of the full term. Some mild, and predictable, partisan noises have been made about advantageous budgets prior to the elections of 1955, 1966, 1970, and 1987 (2 Labour, 2 Conservative). In both 1964 and 1978 it is arguable that the governing party postponed by 6 months from their planned election date in the expectation or hope of better conditions at the latter time (1 Labour, 1 Conservative)

So where then would Gordon Brown’s aborted snap election have sat in the historical sweep? It would have clearly been out of kilter with every other election we have seen since the Second World War.

Did Brown require to get a working majority as Wilson did in 1966 or October 1974? No, Labour has a working majority of 69 seats.
Does Brown face a national crisis such as Ted Heath confronted/created in 1974? Not that we yet know about.
Did he want to call a snap ‘mandate’ election a la Eden in 1955? Well Eden called an election quickly. Brown has been Prime Minister since the summer.


Every previous Prime Minister has had profound respect for the British constitution. All of them have used their power to call an election in order to win – but only because each has believed that their vision would be best for Britain. Not this one."

If most Prime Ministers do not seek to abuse the system, Conor Burns argues that only one has, then there is only a problem if those that abuse the system benefit. If they do then others will have an incentive to emulate their misbehaviour which will mean things get worse and those that have misbehaved will have benefitted from their misdeeds which is morally distasteful. However, the only Prime Minister identified by Conor Burns as abusing the system has gained nothing. In fact, he has taken a massive beating in the media and the polls.

That's the system working! A successful constitution (written or unwritten) is not one that no one can abuse seeking partisan gain. Such a system does not exist. Instead, a successful constitution is one where that partisan gain does not materialise. Gordon Brown's comically unsuccessful attempt to manipulate the electoral calender to his own ends demonstrated the strength of the British system, not its weakness.

Iain Dale further confuses matters by arguing that Fixed Terms are great because they don't need to be fixed. What the point of these unfixed Fixed Terms is supposed to be I'm unsure.

We should all be cautious of constitutional changes that initially seem sensible but address no significant problem. Constitutions are complex creatures and the most successful generally evolve slowly over decades and centuries. There can be major unintended consequences to any changes. Screwing with the British constitution, one of history's most stable and effective, for transient or insubstantial reasons is dangerous.


I watched Idiocracy this evening. It bombed in the US and I'm not even sure it went on general release in the UK. The basic idea is that two very average people are put into an extended hibernation and wake up 500 years later thanks to a mistake. A pretty standard sci-fi device. However, instead of a sinister dystopia or a flawed utopia the hero and heroine wake up to a world gone stupid.

While it is very much in the style of director Mike Judge, creator of Beavis & Butthead and Office Space, it is pretty funny. I watched it because I read, some time ago now, a review by The American Scene writer Reihan Salam who asked whether it was actually making an interesting point, there is some evidence that growth in intelligence has stalled, and suggests that it was commercially unsuccessful because it genuinely challenged the people watching:

"If Office Space is about taking responsibility for your own happiness, Idiocracy is about something larger, namely our responsibility for our shared future. Like all the best dystopian fables, Idiocracy is a scathing indictment of our own society. And so it begins in the present with a brief portrait of the villains who are destroying America, represented here by an affluent couple and an imbecile ne'er-do-well named Clevon. The two yuppies are shown agonizing over the decision to have a child. It's never the right time, until the right time finally comes—and the couple is infertile. The yuppies will leave no legacy behind. Clevon, in contrast, lustily and enthusiastically impregnates not only his wife but a bevy of gap-toothed harridans, each one dumber and uglier than the next. The screen slowly fills with his spawn, foreshadowing the nightmarish future to come.


Because Joe occasionally enunciates, he is immediately under suspicion as a "faggy" and otherwise obnoxious person, infractions that somehow lead to his incarceration. Eventually, Joe—with the help of the defrosted Rita—chooses not to "get out of the way." At great personal risk to himself (he narrowly escapes death at the hands of a monster truck built to resemble an enormous metal phallus), Joe saves the world from starvation. But he also saves himself from his own laziness and self-absorption, not least of all when he starts a family with Rita.

Now, Idiocracy isn't perfect. Despite being only 84 minutes long, it drags at points and feels more than a little shaggy. Plus, there's obviously something a little creepy about all this. Is Mike Judge really saying that some people should breed and others shouldn't? Well, sort of. But he's also taking on the laziness and the self-absorption, and the materialism and the willful ignorance, of his own audience. Watch Dogville or Fahrenheit 9/11 or even The Passion of the Christ and you get the distinct sense that you're being congratulated for believing the right things. Rare is the movie that challenges your beliefs. Rarer still is the movie that tells you you're a fat moron, and that you should be ashamed of yourself. The unmarried adultescents swarming the cities, the DINKs who've priced families with children out of the better suburbs, the kids who never read—these are Hollywood's most prized demographics, and Mike Judge has them squarely in his sights. Is it any wonder 20th Century Fox decided Idiocracy would never be boffo box office?"

If you get over the idiotic "what, are you a nazi?" response to anything smacking of eugenics it is hard to argue with the logic of the central thesis here. If evolution means anything then it is that the traits in any species most associated with breeding large numbers of surviving offspring will rise to prominence. It is hard to escape the conclusion that these days less intelligent people are more likely to have more children and with modern healthcare and agriculture even the least intelligent can usually be kept alive through their idiocy and are unlikely to starve to death.

Even the suggestion in the film that the smartest couldn't work out how to save the species as they were too busy inventing hair loss and erectile dysfunction remedies makes some economic sense. What makes capitalism so moral and so democratic is that the best are forced to make themselves useful to the mass market. That market has usually contained enough variety and enough intelligent people that an intelligent person would only have to sacrifice a limited amount of income if they catered for a refined niche, particularly with the smart often - although definitely not always - commanding greater buying power. Dumbing down has been less of an issue than snobs would suggest. However, if the tastes of the masses degrade sufficiently the difference in economic returns between doing something smart and catering to the stupid could be sufficient to drag down all but a tiny minority of the highest minded doomed to irrelevance and slow extinction in ivory towers.

However, the problem I have with all this, and eugenics in general, is that the theory has such a dismal predictive record. I've seen adverts from the early twentieth century, when eugenics was still considered a liberal and progressive thing to believe, that showed a similar complaint that the less intellectual were breeding faster. Despite that no one thinks that the pattern of increasing intelligence stalled in the twentieth century. What happened?

I don't have any answers but with such a glaring failure to predict I think that we need to do some thinking about the complexities surrounding genetic change.

China's 'what if?'

I watched the Painted Veil this evening having missed it at the cinema. It shows the age of its material with a pace that is on the slow side but if, like me, you have the attention span it is a rewarding film. Set in twenties China it describes a young English couple whose trainwreck of a marriage recovers in the face of the adversity of a cholera epidemic.

The landscapes are stunning and the entire film is shot and acted with reserved but effective emotion. The story follows a familiar arc but does so with care and dignity. This film is well worth watching on a quiet, unhurried, evening when you have time to savour the ambience.

The portrait of the early days of the Chinese Republic is only fleeting and you should not watch this film expecting to learn much (there are Chinese films which can do that if you do want a cinematic introduction to Chinese history) but I still found it fascinating.

I find almost any portrayal of China between Sun Yat-sen's founding of the Republic and the Communist takeover fascinating. China is so massive and so important that it is incredible to think back to when its fate really hung in the balance, when things could have been so radically different. My impression is that Chiang Kai Shek, while no liberal, had limits. It seems utterly incredible that he would have descended to the horrors of the great tyrants of the twentieth century as Mao did. If mainland China had made anywhere near the progress Taiwan has instead of falling into the madness of Maoism then we would be facing a very different world, millions of Chinese would not have died unnecessarily and the culture of an incredible nation would not have been ransacked.

But perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps the horrors of Maoism were the product of grand forces and a mighty collision between a fumbling modernity and ages old tradition. Certainly, there are few examples of the transition being made cleanly.

There are deep methodological questions underlying any attempt to answer China's great 'what if?' Tolstoy's War and Peace critique that we should look to underlying causes rather than the sparring of kings, chairmen or generalissimos cries out at anyone supposing that Mao or Chiang Kai Shek could have made such a massive difference to the progress of such a large portion of mankind.

Still, all of my experience of the place and people and the example of Taiwan and Japan suggest that there was no force compelling China to lapse to dictatorship. Could things have been different? Should we concede that the horrors of Maoism really were the result, in the end, of such relative trivialities as Stalin kidnapping Chiang Kai Shek's son and using that as leverage to defend Mao's vulnerable revolution?