Friday, 21 March 2014

Holidays: The staggering question

I was speaking with some teachers this week and one mentioned that her holidays did not coincide with other members of the family. This reminded me of the recent debate on this subject by MPs and their suggestion that school holidays should be staggered. At first glance staggering holidays is a good thing. Think of the wakes weeks (if you are old enough). Towns did not take the same weeks as their neighbours for many reasons. Think of the implications on the transport system as well as the holidays that are available.

However the staggering of holidays would not help couples who work in different schools. It may be alright in the summer holidays but I don't think they will be happy if they have two weeks off and don't see each other. I don't think that any teacher would be happy if their holiday did not coincide with those of their children.

The major concern for MPs was the cost of taking a holiday during school vacations. You can't blame the travel companies for increasing the prices. It is their job to maximise profits and if there is a greater demand then prices go up - that's capitalism. I am glad that MPs dismissed the idea of suspending airport passenger duty. If this happened then we would be saying "please take your holidays abroad and fly there". This is not a good use of the earth's resources especially if holidaymakers spend their time lying in the sun. Firstly the sun is (generally) not good for you, and secondly we may have to wait but the sun does shine in England.

The conversation turned to whether parents may take children out of school in order to buy a cheaper holiday and I was surprised to hear the argument put forward by teachers that children are able to learn more by going on holiday and learning from the experience. This may be true of some parents but not of others, and equality of opportunity is an important principle for all children. My immediate response related to the effort that teachers had gone to in preparing their lessons as well as taking the lesson. The children would miss this lesson and any subsequent lesson that built on this learning experience.

There is an underlying suggestion that holidays (that are slightly more expensive that the family can afford) are more important than school attendance. We have to question the importance of foreign holidays, the widespread use of air travel and most importantly the value we place on our schools. It may be that the teachers that I spoke with are humble people who have high regard for the pedagogical abilities of  parents. There is no doubt that education has an important role within the family but there is a more important factor in how we value education and taking children out of school lowers that value. Fundamentally we have to see what is important about holidays and it is not the ability to take children out of school, to travel across the world or to have a better holiday than our neighbour. If we hold higher values on such things as relationships, shared experience and learning then there would be no thought of taking children out of school.

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Beer and bingo for the patronised

One definition of the word 'patronising' from the Collins dictionary is 'having a superior manner, condescending'. You may prefer a definition that tells you about an apparent kindness which betrays a feeling of superiority but however you define the word you need to know something about the feelings of others if you are going to call them patronising.

Consider the wording of the latest Conservative advert: "Bingo! Cutting the bingo tax & beer duty to help hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy."

Not only do we save a whole penny on a pint of beer, we get a pat on the head for being hardworking too! I think they imagined that we'd feel good about that. I suppose their thinking was that the sort of people who drink beer and play bingo wouldn't notice if they were being patronised.

I find this puzzling because there must be some Tories who do such things. Let's presume it is just those Tories who make decisions - about policy, about adverts - who don't drink beer and play bingo. Then it becomes easier to understand. There's still one other puzzle though - the wording of the ad does not appear to include themselves among the hard working. Can that be right? I doubt it - even the ones who've never done a day's work in their lives because they have servants to do everything for them will still claim to be hardworking, I'm sure.

I would think that Tories don't usually drink beer - why have beer when you can have champagne? - but they still need to have the occasional pint as a prop for photo opportunities in bistro pubs on the campaign trail. Even if you only take a sip of the disgusting brew it still has to be paid for.  And if you save a penny on each pint, those pennies soon mount up.

If you feel that the general opinion of Tory policy makers is that drinking wine is superior to drinking beer, or playing croquet (or whatever pastime they prefer) is superior to playing bingo then they are being condescending. It is a badly written advert simply because it confirms what we all know. It is patronising.

I suspect that the Tories took what was presumably initially a good idea and messed it up, getting it completely the wrong way round. After all, while the advert was pure Tory, the actual policy behind it had Lib Dem input.

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Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Skillful Bankers

I was in a queue in the Halifax this morning and I overheard a conversation in which a couple of customers were told that their transaction would take three working days. They shouldn't count today at all (that would be unthinkable was the non-verbal communication) and don't count weekends. I think they were suitably admonished for not knowing a simple axiom of banking. It should have been self-evident that banks will take your money, do nothing with it till next week and then spring into action and move it to where you want it.

The reason that I was in the Halifax was because I paid some of my mortgage off on the 7th February. I received a letter last week which told me that I had left no instructions as to which part of my mortgage I wanted it to be paid, so they had applied the payment equally to each part. I didn't know that my mortgage was in parts so I went to my local Halifax this morning and they guessed it was something to do with my previous mortgage. I still have no idea if I would have been better off applying this payment to a specific part or parts of my mortgage.

I also asked when this payment would show up as a reduction in my monthly payment. They couldn't answer this but gave me a phone number and directed me to a phone within the branch. I had waited five minutes for my first question to a real person and the message on the phone was that I would wait another five minutes - still, this is what I had to do if I wanted an answer. The answer was that they hadn't had time to apply the reduction to March's bill so I could expect the reduction in April.

How difficult is it to recalculate a mortgage? I am nearly two years into a ten year mortgage. If I had taken a smaller mortgage by the amount that I paid back a few weeks ago then I can work this out in my head. It is probably the case that Halifax mortgages are much more complex but I would still expect a computer to be able to work out this amount in a push of a button and not take two months.

In the Stock Exchange, High Frequency Trading probably accounts for something like 50% of all traded volume. "At the turn of the 21st century, HFT trades had an execution time of several seconds, whereas by 2010 this had decreased to milli- and even microseconds". I'm not saying that such speeds are necessary, but surely the fact that they are possible means there's no technical reason why any transaction anywhere should ever take more than a few seconds.

I think the lesson from this morning is that bankers deserve their bonus because they can make their customers feel foolish, take their money off them and then do nothing with it for a few days or weeks - and they get away with it. That takes real skill.

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It's a battlefield out there

I have just seen the BBC's political battlefield for 2015. This isn't news but it does go a long way in explaining our political apathy. Take a look at the map of the seats in which there is a majority of 10% or less and this is where the country will decide the fate of the next Government.

Now take a look at all the constituencies that are not coloured in on the map, and this is where you will get an MP of the same colour that you have always had. No wonder members of the public will tell reporters that they aren't bothered about voting.

While it is normally true that, as the BBC article says, "Even during election landslides 70% of seats do not change hands", and this situation will not be properly addressed until we have electoral reform, still we should not see this as the whole picture. The BBC's "battlefield" analogy made me think of how often there are unexpected results in actual war, with the underdog emerging triumphant against overwhelming odds, sometimes when outnumbered ten-to-one or more. A quick Google confirmed this impression. For instance 10 Amazing Military Victories Against The Odds lists some of the less well known examples. Maybe something to think about when the time comes to vote.

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Thursday, 20 February 2014

Surveillance State

I want to visit Barcelona to take a photo of Orwell Square. George Orwell is famous for fighting in the Spanish Civil War and for writing books like 1984 and if you want to know how the surveillance state plays its part in a dystopian society then look no further than this novel. The irony is that the signs for his square in Barcelona are next to surveillance cameras - and that's the photo I want. Obviously not everyone has taken George's message on board. Cameras may play a part in protecting individual properties but they definitely intrude.

Do cameras lower the crime rate? If you were a criminal and wanted to steal something then you may see a burglar alarm and decide to move to the next house. Alternatively you may decide that there is something worth stealing from the house with the alarm so disable it and then go about taking what you want. There are many motivating factors for criminal activity like greed, envy and poverty but I don't think fear of getting caught is a significant factor. Yes, there are opportunistic thieves, and there is less opportunity when security is greater, but less theft depends on those motivating factors.

So should I be pleased if a group of local businesses create a police / community CCTV system? Well it is good for them but no, because overall crime won't decrease. A local initiative will do nothing to help the causes of theft. Secondly, I don't want all my moves to be recorded. Thirdly, why should some people get better support from the police. Fourthly, who is paying for this? If it is the group of businesses that is paying then they will have higher expectations from our public service. This is wrong. Decisions about how we are policed should be made by the police. If general taxation is paying for the implementation of this initiative then this is wrong too. Why should we pay to help a small group of businesses get a better police service over another small group? Technology is only as good as the people in charge. It may be used for good purposes but it can be for bad purposes too. Whatever the case, we are definitely moving along the road to Orwell's dystopian society.

If we want to live in a society in which every house and every business has shutters and looks like Fort Knox. if we want to have surveillance cameras on every street (why should some houses be excluded from this 'improvement'), if we want to live in a 1984 society then more cameras will help. However I would prefer to work on the causes of crime as this would help to a much greater extent than adding more cameras.

Interestingly I once dealt with a theft from a hospital which had 17 cameras surrounding it. I found the appropriate recordings and handed them to the police. They didn't have the equipment to deal with videos at that station but they sent them on. Needless to say nothing happened and it took three weeks but at least we can be assured that one small hospital keeps 17 x 24 hours of recordings each day.

Someone has to pay for cameras, someone has to deal with those recordings and there are costs involved in their maintenance. The latest technology may help those who receive payments and it may help if thieves move next door. To all my previous reasons to oppose this initiative you can add the cost.

Change the world

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Climate Change: Links to Share

This afternoon I shared a link on my Facebook page, to an open letter to the BBC by Rob Hopkins of Transition Network on the subject of climate change, and more specifically about Lord Lawson's appearance on the Today programme. Because it's a well written letter about an extremely important subject and because it deserves the widest possible circulation, I'm also linking to it here.

I would advise anyone interested in climate change to follow that link. It succinctly demolishes the "false balance" which is too often to be found in discussions of this subject, as well as debunking some of the myths which are too often used to obfuscate it. The comments below the letter also generally make for very interesting and enlightening reading.

I also made some comments on my Facebook page about this link which I'll copy here too, for reference ...

Of all the political priorities, the environment should be top of the list. Even if you think that we should close our doors to migrants, even if you think we should get out of Europe, even if you think that it doesn't matter that Ukip's leader now disowns all of their last manifesto, even if you think women who have had children are "worth less" to their employers (Nigel Farage), even if you think Ukip are able to run the economy by cutting taxes by £90 billion and increasing spending by £30 billion, then please do not vote for them on environmental reasons alone.

P.S. for anyone who glanced at Rob's open letter and concluded tl;dr ("too long; didn't read") (and I hope that applies to nobody here), here's a link to what web-comic XKCD had to say about climate change recently.

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Sunday, 9 February 2014

When to resign?

How often do we hear of a government minister doing something so wrong that they have to resign from their post, only to find that what they have done is not so bad because they can keep their job as an MP at a basic salary of £66,396?

What he has done is either so bad that he shouldn't be an MP or not so bad in which case he shouldn't resign as a minister. 

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P.S. It is now the 30th March and here is another resignation.