Monday, 22 October 2018

Elections in the digital age

The Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) of the European Parliament Research Service has just posted:

Until recently, discussions of technology and elections focused primarily on e-voting. Controversies highlighted the potential for modernising the voting system, as well as the security flaws that open opportunities for interference and manipulation. Now, the role of technology in elections is much broader – and so are the controversies.
On one hand, social media platforms have made communication between politicians and the electorate more direct than ever. On the other, electoral campaigns can target smaller groups of people with highly customised messages, which can lead to the fragmentation of debates and the emergence of polarised political bubbles. The opportunities for outside interference and manipulation have multiplied, as any actor can deploy targeted messages, even if they are not part of the official campaign. Furthermore, automated ‘bots’ flood social media platforms with messages that simultaneously promote various extreme perspectives with the ultimate aim of polarising society.
Information about these messages is imbalanced in favour of the platforms and their paying clients. They have access to masses of information and analytical data about the citizens, while citizens have no access to the processes that decide which information they receive, nor to the full range of promises made and sentiments aired to other groups. This makes it difficult to make well-informed voting decisions before elections, and to hold politicians to account after elections. The burden falls upon the citizen to choose between risking exposure to cutting-edge propaganda techniques if they use social media, and missing out on key loci for democratic participation if they avoid such platforms.
One trusts that Richard Allan and Nick Clegg, both former Lib Dem MPs for Sheffield Hallam, both now working for Facebook, will contribute to the STOA workshop on 7th November on the subject or at least observe it.

Friday, 19 October 2018

What should we make of Michael Caine?

Michael Caine is to be admired as someone who worked his way up from south London poverty to being a star name. He has honed his technique such that it looks effortless, that he is just being himself, yet he can act out of character if pressed to do so. Nor is he precious about it. He has passed on his expertise in master-classes. On The Man Who Would Be King, he ensured that he did not receive more screen time than his friend Sean Connery. In an interview in the latest Radio Times, he recalls that he felt it was terribly unfair that a talented actress might not get a part because she wouldn't do something sexual with the producer, but that when he was in Hollywood he was a nobody and could do nothing about it. He admits to still learning about the troubles that people of colour still have in the industry.

In personal life, he has used his money to look after his mother and other members of his family. After a young life as jack-the-lad, he married just once and is still with wife Shakira after 45 years, in a business where bed-hopping seems to be the norm.

He clearly appreciates that acting is a cooperative undertaking. Yet he seems to be anti-trades union and is so virulently against nations working closely together that he proclaimed on the John Humphrys programme on Radio 4, as reported by the Evening Standard:

"I don't listen to all these pundits. I'm a Brexiteer myself. Certainly.

“People say ‘Oh, you’ll be poor, you’ll be this, you’ll be that’. I say I’d rather be a poor master of my fate than having someone I don’t know making me rich by running it.”

Now I have heard those sentiments expressed locally, but by people who genuinely are not rich. It ill becomes someone who does not disguise his wealth to seek to condemn others to a dramatic fall in their incomes. One also notes that his latest release is part-produced by Studio Canal, a recipient of EU funds. As to mastery of ones fate, we still have it, but in much less than half of our public affairs, we have to share it with others - and we correspondingly have some influence on them.

I am not going to stop watching Michael Caine films* if they come up on TV, just as I will not stop watching films featuring Vanessa Redgrave in spite of her starry-eyed support of an impossible socialist dream. I just wish that their personal political views were not given undue significance simply because of their star status.

* However, I would not go out of my way to watch Swarm or Water.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Plastic packaging v. food waste

Clean Slate magazine is more than a mouthpiece for the Centre for Alternative Technology. It is also practical.

Sometimes that goes against what might appear to be green received wisdom. In this category falls Judith Thornton's article in the latest issue in defence of food packaging. She regards food waste as a greater evil than single-use plastic. She makes a good case but, whether you agree with her or not, she provides a useful guide to managing various food items and their different requirements. She is not a mere theoretician; she is a CAT graduate and used to manage the water and sewage systems there.

There is more here and the follow-up here.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Food inflation after Brexit

I have just seen Three Blokes in the Pub episode 15 and realised the effect a hard Brexit will have on pensioners (and anyone else who has an income uplift calculated on the basis of the CPI this autumn). Food costs, which are a major component of the spending of lower-income households, will go through the roof in spring 2019. Unless the border between the UK and the 27 is frictionless, the increased cost of imports because of increased insurance costs, expensive paperwork and delays at ports, coupled with the inevitable further fall in the value of sterling, will make 2008 look like a minor correction.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

More railway bits and pieces

Yesterday, I had the chance to check the reported experience of previous travellers on GWR's new electro-diesel trains. Rhodri Clark of the Western Mail summed it up:
When the diesel engines are thundering away beneath the floor, there are constant vibrations inside, even at station stops. On the move, there’s often a medium-pitch whine. Sometimes there’s a fit of juddering, as if different engines are trying to go at different speeds. For regular passengers on the London Paddington line, this might feel a retrograde step after the smoothness and quietness of InterCity 125 coaches, introduced 41 years ago.
I would be interested to know if passengers on the service with pantograph up between London and Didcot experience the smoother ride that generally comes with electric running.

I would add that I found the all-grey plastic surroundings depressing, especially as I was in one of the end-carriage seats which has no window. On the other hand, the lighting was excellent and the electronic reservation indicators worked well.

All in all, though, Chris Grayling is stretching it when he calls the new trains a great advance.

There is a plea for relaxation of a 1920 law which is inhibiting the involvement of young people, especially young women, on heritage railways. Chris Austin of Railfuture draws attention to a report by an All-Party Parliamentary Group issued in July. He quotes the group chairman, Nicky Morgan MP as saying: "Members of our group found some of the evidence from young people involved to be inspirational and the work being done by the railways to be a powerful force supporting social cohesion and a great example of vocational development and training".

Chris states that the number of young women volunteers is small, even though the opportunities offered in terms of encouraging young women engineers are entirely in line with government policy. He claims that a major stumbling block is the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act of 1920 has inhibited the engagement of youngsters in railway work. There is more at the Heritage Railways Association website.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Transport for Wales: don't expect immediate miracles, but there are some good signs

Infamously, the first train under John Major's privatisation was a bus in Wales. There were echoes of that yesterday on Transport For Wales first day. Many travellers, including those venturing to Aberystwyth for the Welsh Liberal Democrats' AGM, were faced with journeys by replacement bus - including one journey where the bus failed to turn up. However, TfW can hardly be blamed for Storm Callum.

Nor can TfW be expected to replace instantly the stock (including the bogey-less wonders like the set pictured above which picked me up from Port Talbot today) inherited from Arriva Trains Wales. TfW has already ordered replacement trains but it will be next year before we see the end of the oldest of the legacy train sets.

What was evident from my two trips today was the efficiency and helpfulness of the on-board staff. That augurs well for the other promises made by spokespeople for the new franchise.