Friday, 30 July 2010

Go on, Govey, you know you want to

In an earlier life, Michael Gove was a TV journalist with attitude. There are a few clips on YouTube of Channel 4's "A Stab in the Dark", where he took the rostrum in turns with David Baddiel and Tracey Macleod. In this clip from 1993 (N.B. while John Major's Conservatives were in office), Gove interviews an armed robber (retired). Gove appears 6'36" in.

For an explanation of my title, listen to The Now Show tonight.

As to his education policies, let us just say that we in Wales should watch his experiments in England with interest. On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats' contribution to the coalition, the "pupil premium", looks promising, given the commitment to provide addtional funds for it.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Eighty-eight years ago

It was widely tweeted that Nick Clegg was the first Liberal to take Prime Minister's questions since 1922, when he stepped into the shoes of David Cameron, absent in foreign parts. This mis-statement persisted in spite of older heads pointing out that Prime Minister's Questions had been established in the 1960s by Harold Macmillan and that Nick was a Liberal Democrat rather than a Liberal. (Moreover, if I understood a talk by Lord Hooson correctly, Lloyd George described himself in the parliamentary handbooks of his time as a Welsh Nationalist, not a Liberal.) Clegg was therefore the first ever Liberal Democrat to take Prime Minister's Questions.

Out of interest, I looked up the Times archive for that week eighty-eight years ago. There was not much business in the Commons, which was about to rise for the summer. The business was significant, though: a debate on how to clean up the honours system.

The prime minister himself was entertaining to dinner the Prince of Wales, who had returned in March from a four-month progress through India (there are always coincidences if you look for them). There were no signs in the Prince's speech of his later infatuation with Nazism and its racism. He proclaimed himself an "optimist" about the future of the Indian Empire. The Times sticks to reporting the occasion with no extraneous material. Today's newspapers would surely add a sidebar referring to Gandhi's campaign for a boycott of the royal visit.

Climate Change Act could encourage off-shoring

One unforeseen consequence of the Climate Change Act 2008 is that companies may seek to meet its requirements simply by moving their power-hungry plants from the UK to emerging nations. Under the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme, or CRCEES, (formerly the Carbon Reduction Commitment or CRC), organisations have to audit their carbon use, so that there is a baseline measurement in 2011. Thereafter they will be expected to reduce their carbon demand. If you have a large data-centre in the UK, it is tempting to shut it down after 2011 and relocate it in an area outside the ambit of CRCEES.

Details on

Monday, 26 July 2010

End of "Called to Order"

The last in the Radio Wales series was broadcast last Friday evening and repeated first thing Saturday. It is available on "Listen Again"  for a few days more, but one would hope for a more permanent record of what has been one of the best topical political discussion programmes anywhere, not just in Wales. It allowed Welsh politicians - AMs, MPs and MEPs - the freedom to express themselves unspun, in a (usually) convivial atmosphere, knowing that the programme's moderator would not take unfair advantage of a deviation from the party line. That tone was set by the impeccably independent Patrick Hannan who initiated the programme with its producer Mark Palmer nine years ago. Adrian Masters took over on Hannan's premature and still-lamented death last October and, to my mind, maintained the spirit of the programme while being distinctively himself.

As in previous years, when the politicians took their holidays and "Called to Order" its summer break, there is a human interest story filling the slot. (This coming Friday it is about the racing driver Tom Pryce.) Will there be a permanent replacement when the parliaments return in the autumn? Perhaps we'll have "The ll Files" back at a more convenient time. Rather that than a predictable party knockabout, of which there are too many examples on radio and TV already.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Prom gimmicks

Surely these "Dr Who" Proms, which sadly seem to have become an annual fixture, do less to promote an appreciation of Western orchestral music than to give hardly-needed extra publicity to a BBC money-spinner? I'm sorry to carp about a celebration of BBC-Wales' most successful product ever, and one which gives a London outing to the National Orchestra of Wales, but tonight's programme seems more suited to "Friday Night is Music Night".

The bulk is devoted to Dr Who cues by Murray Gold, no doubt a good writer of incidental music. But how much of the music rises above the serviceable? The Dr Who theme which everyone remembers is credited to Ron Grainer (not mentioned in the Radio Times listing) and was realised by Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (likewise not mentioned).

Two self-standing short pieces are included: John Adams "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" and Walton's "Overture: Portsmouth Point". The rest consists of "bleeding chunks": Holst's "Mars" (seemingly all we are to get of the "Planets" suite this year), "O Fortuna!" from Orff's "Carmina Burana" and "Ride of the Valkyries". The fact that the Nazis' two favourite composers provide the climax of the Prom is surely an accident, but may encourage class-based criticism of the Proms.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Museum of Computing

The museum will be celebrating its first anniversary at its Swindon town centre premises on the evening of Monday 9th August, 18:30-20:30, supported by the Wiltshire branch of the British Computer Society.

The museum is a not for profit organisation run entirely by volunteers. It does not receive any central government or local authority funding. Curator Simon Webb is therefore always on the lookout for support from business.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Balmoral sailing from Briton Ferry in August

At 9 a..m. on 28th August, the current bearer of the historically-rich name "Balmoral" will depart the Quays in Briton Ferry as part of the celebration of the Great Western Railway’s landmark 175th anniversary and the work of the great Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Tickets are available for the 12-hour cruise. Details on the Neath Port Talbot CBC web site.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Sport refereeing and technology

World Tennis long ago embraced technology to resolve contentious decisions, as has rugby union, but cricket is only half-heartedly advancing towards and then retreating from technological assistance. Football has stood out until now. I was opposed to relying on TV evidence in umpiring decisions in the early days, but only because the technology was relatively crude then. Now that high-definition is available in stump cameras and computer processing is faster and more sophisticated, there is no reason not to go forward with it. That threshold was crossed much earlier in football, with its larger and slower-moving ball. It is hard to see why there has been so much resistance by FIFA.

Amit Varna, in his India Uncut blog, gives a clue:
"In one respect, football referees and cricket umpires are like governments. I often rant on India Uncut about how governments are supposed to serve us, but somehow contrive to rule us. Similarly, referees and umpires are there only to implement the laws of the game and keep it going smoothly. They are servants of the game. You’d think otherwise to see the hubris some of them display. Power intoxicates us, so much so that we might sometimes forget why we were granted that power.

"Those referees and umpires who speak out against the use of technological aids do themselves a disservice. Technology is no more a threat to them than an oven or microwave is to a chef, or a laptop is to a writer like me, who hasn’t used a pen in years. It won’t make them redundant; instead, it will help them do their job better."

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Section 44 to go

In the light of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 - which allowed police to stop and search anyone without having to show "reasonable suspicion" - is illegal, Home Secretary Theresa May announced its demise in the House of Commons this afternoon. She confirmed that the coalition government will not appeal against the judgment and that police operations under the Section will be suspended. New guidelines will be issued to Chief Constables shortly pending a comprehensive review of anti-terrorism legislation.

The fact that the official opposition spokesman described civil rights as a LibDem "obsession" and urged the Home Secretary to appeal the EHCR decision shows that nothing has changed in Labour. Individual back-benchers like Keith Vaz and Barry Gardiner may have broken ranks and stood up for individual freedoms, but otherwise this was another proof that coalition talks between Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown would have been fruitless. Civil rights are enshrined in Liberal Democrat philosophy to a far greater extent than tax rates.

By the way, if Labour want to defeat the VAT increase scheduled for next January, they would do better, rather than attack LibDem members of the government, to remind Conservative back-benchers that a 20% rate brings us into line with the rest of the EU.

Later - there is another example of principled action by the coalition government:

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

"Jugaad" is catching on

Last year, I posted about a creative initiative in India, a process for which there is a Hindi term, "jugaad". Now it seems that Tesco are beneficiaries of jugaad through their Bangalore operation.

Public and private IT projects

The view that all IT work carried out by the public sector is bad and everything in the private sector, being driven by the market, approaches perfection, has been increasing its grip in Westminster. This "two legs good, four legs bad" idea was evangelised by Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine, and not disowned by the Blair-Brown administrations which followed. It has been given a fillip by the return of the Conservatives as the largest party in parliament and by a strand in Liberal thinking. Mark Littlewood, former Head of Media for the Liberal Democrat party, and director of the libertarian Liberal Vision group, has advocated shutting down or privatising most of government administration. Although he is no longer a member of the party, he still has followers within it.

The survey published by recently should act as a corrective. Both sectors have their large failures, but as one respondent says, it's "about scale and visibility plus the emotion generated by the perceived use and abuse of public monies in failed public sector projects." He added: "Both sectors have skeletons in cupboards they'd rather not be taken to task on."

Certainly Sainsbury's troubles a few years ago with its logistics IT system became public knowledge only because of the impact it had on the supermarket giant's profits, and the consequential report to shareholders. I think the element of commercial hazard should be also taken into account.No company wants to admit that its IT systems are insecure or inefficient. There are stories of IT managers who have messed up installations but have persuaded their employers to give them good references for the price of keeping quiet. Then there are those failures which affect the public directly, like the TK-Maxx payment card security failure.

One should also be aware of the positive side of government IT. There are many systems chugging away reliably which do not make the headlines. Moreover, if it had not been for government spotting the potential for computers for bulk data processing, ahead of the commercial sector, IT development would not have advanced so quickly. The US Census Bureau (after giving a boost to IT's predecessor, punched-card tabulation) applied the original Univac to its processing in 1951. Thereafter, a steady flow of government contracts helped propel IBM to a powerful position. Over here, the General Post Office (as it then was) was an early adopter, and in the 1960s Customs & Excise developed a cargo processing system in conjuction with ICL which pioneered several techniques of real-time processing.

The scope for initiative in the public sector may be less now, but it should not be squashed entirely, as the economic liberals would have us do. There is a grave danger of demotivating civil servants, leading to sloppy work and even corruption.

Monday, 5 July 2010

To the egress

Today is the 200th anniversary of Phineas T Barnum, showman extraordinary. He is credited with the maxim: "There is a sucker born every minute", though this seems to have been a later adaptation of what he actually said: "The people like to be humbugged".

 My favourite Barnum story (though, again, there is no definite evidence for its truth) concerns his American Museum in New York which, at times, was too popular. In order to keep the customers moving (and thus make room for new ones), he posted the sign "This way to the egress" which led the unlearned to the exit.

Sadly, the museum dedicated to him has been damaged by a recent tornado. Events there celebrating the bicentenary have had to be cancelled.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Welsh Assembly Government could have the power to eradicate badger in Wales

The Badger Order moved by the Welsh Assembly Government has more scope than the pilot area of Pembrokeshire which has been in the news, as this excerpt from Peter Black's blog makes clear: "the Welsh Assembly Government has passed an Order which applies to the whole of Wales and is unlimited in time whereas the consultation and decision to cull, and evidence provided in support of them, was based on an intensive action pilot area (IAPA) of approx 300 square kilometres. With such an Order in place there will be no requirement to justify or consult on any further decisions taken to kill badgers, whether in a target area or across Wales as a whole. [...] If this is set as a precedent in law, it could lead to the extinction of badgers in the UK.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first send to Sheffield

The "Yesterday" TV channel is currently repeating "A Very British Coup". The first episode, shown last night, was a striking reminder of what a great adapter Alan Plater was, in addition to his other skills as a writer of original material. Where he was clearly on the same wavelength as the original author (in this case, former Labour MP Chris Mullin, happily still with us), the resulting production was greater than the sum of its parts.

One has to check back with the book to see which of the great one-liners are Plater's and which Mullin's. It turns out that most of those put into the mouth of Harry Perkins, the third-generation steel-worker who becomes the first leader of a UK socialist government since 1950, are Plater's, but they are seamlessly in character. Plater was clearly inspired by Mullin's creation, but he also gave the supporting cast of senior civil servants the occasional wry comment. With Perkins' constituency in mind, the urbane spook Sir Peregrine (I think it was) adapts the classical proverb, "those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad" to " ... they first send to Sheffield".

The coming to power of a member for a Sheffield constituency is not the only parallel with the present day. Mullin, writing in 1980/81, a year or two into Thatcherism, predicted the later election of a Tory/Social Democrat unity administration. (Mullin has Perkins commenting: "Serves us bloody right. We offer the electorate a choice between two Tory parties and they choose the real one".)  He also predicted the collapse and sale abroad of the majority of the British car industry - though he had Rover, rather than Rolls-Royce, going to Volkswagen.

Mullin didn't get it all right. He accelerated things, so that the events described above occur later in the decade in which he was writing. It is the Unity government which is swept away in Perkins' landslide Labour win. Perkins' economic plans are rescued from stringent IMF conditions by a loan from the Algerian, Iraqi (the Ba'athists still in charge, of course) and Libyan governments. (Plater replaces this with a consortium of banks in non-aligned countries, led by a Russian bank.) Today, if we had to go it alone, we would probably apply to the Chinese. Also, the US administration at the time of our economic crisis is the most liberal one we are ever likely to see, rather than the crypto-fascist caricature of the book.

The solution to our over-indebtedness is clearly not another loan, but an overdue unwinding of the policy of bribing the UK electorate with borrowed money. The measures taken by the coalition government are not as fair as if Liberal Democrats had formed a government alone, but the direction of travel is right and more sustainable than Mullin and Plater's idealistic vision.

All that said, Mullin's analysis of attitudes and motivations in Westminster (if not Washington) still rings true."A Very British Coup" is great entertainment, too.