Saturday, 31 December 2011

Pete's Mission: A New Year Thought

I was going to write a long, thoughtful, slightly meandering piece for New Year. Around the myths of Janus I would paint a relevant look at today’s issues – and tomorrow’s hopes. But then I thought; “you guys don’t want more dreary forecasting, more ill-informed futurology or another lump of maudlin remembrance of 2011.”

You want to party. To celebrate something – maybe a good year, maybe the end of a bad year, perhaps just the fact of survival. And so you should, properly with food, wine, good company and the joys of music.

Tomorrow we start again on our search – Pete the cat’s search:

"...While still a kitten, all fluff and buzzes, Pete had worked out a simple philosophy. I was in charge of quarters, rations, and weather; he was in charge of everything else.  But he held me especially responsible for weather. Connecticut winters are good only for Christmas cards; regularly that winter Pete would check his own door, refuse to go out it because of that unpleasant white stuff beyond it (he was no fool), then badger me to open a people door.  He had a fixed conviction that at least one of them must lead into summer weather."

Tomorrow we will – again – set out looking for that doorway into summer. Some of us will find it and walk through the grass or curl our toes in the soft sand. Others will not find the right door.

But what makes us human is that we carry on the search. If we stop or worse, call for someone else to look for us or even make a new door, then we become a sheep – and we fail in Pete’s mission.

There is a doorway into summer but, unless you’re a cat, someone else can’t open it for you.

Happy New Year. Have a great 2012 looking for your doorway!


Friday, 30 December 2011

Is London's public transport really so expensive?


London has a fantastic public transport network yet we still get special pleading:

Travelling in London is nearly three and a half times more expensive than Paris and 10 times dearer than in Rome, according to research by the Campaign for Better Transport.  With successive Governments in Britain allowing fares to rise faster than inflation, the gap has also been widening in recent years.  Next week commuter fares, which are capped by the Department for Transport, will increase by an average of six per cent.

Now this information should be treated with some caution – it’s based on one 23 mile journey rather than an assessment of the system itself. For me the central question is whether Londoners, Parisians and Romans can give up the car (i.e. it is no longer essential to practical living). For most people within the urban area of London Paris the car is only needed to visit maiden aunts in Hampshire, it isn’t needed to get to work, visit locally, shop or do those other regular everyday things.

Rome – crammed to the gunnels with crazy traffic – has just 38km of underground and less than 200km of other urban rail system. Paris Metro is a little longer at 86km and the other light rail is limited. The London Underground alone has 402km of track before we’ve taken account of overground services, trams and bus priority systems.

In London a comprehensive annual ticket (Zones 1-9) costs a little over £3,000. But bear in mind that the transport system in London is so comprehensive you don’t need a car (although this gets a little trickier the further you get from London). The AA gives a running cost for the cheapest category of car (valued at below £12,000 new) at 10,000 miles per annum as £4,553 – over £1500 more expensive than using public transport.

The Campaign for Better Transport is arguing that we should use more of the taxes paid by people who don’t use London’s commuter network to reduce the cost of that commuting rather than getting those commuters to pay the full cost of providing the world’s most extensive and comprehensive public transport system. Especially given that this system is significantly cheaper than running a car (that is only a luxury to most Londoners).


Sorry Tim but every day's a feast day in our house!

For lots of trendy foodie types – the locavores and such – Tim Lang is the man. This Professor churns out media friendly material that is seized on by the advocates of “meat free” and vegetarian lives. Now this man wants us only to eat meat on feast days - for the good of our health!  Professor Lang is wrong – massively and monumentally wrong:

Prof Lang, who advises the World Health Organisation, as well as the Department for Environment, on food policy, said eating too much meat can lead to serious health issues such as obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Taking these things in order:

Eating “too much meat” isn’t the cause of obesity. Even the dear old NHS doesn’t list meat as a cause of obesity. In pretty general terms obesity results from ingesting more calories that you can use. And the main source of those calories isn’t meat, it’s processed carbohydrates – bread, pasta, pastry, cake, chocolate bars.

Eating “too much meat” isn’t a major risk factor in heart disease. Here from Scientific American:

Now a spate of new research, including a meta-analysis of nearly two dozen studies, suggests a reason why: investigators may have picked the wrong culprit. Processed carbohydrates, which many Americans eat today in place of fat, may increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease more than fat does.

OK that focuses on how saturated fats aren’t the culprit. But nowhere, not one jot, of evidence exists that shows meat to be a serious risk factor in heart disease.

And neither is meat the main risk factor in Diabetes 2. As Diabetes UK point out the risk factors for the condition include:

  1. A close member of your family has Type 2 diabetes (parent or brother or sister).
  2. You're overweight or if your waist is 31.5 inches or over for women; 35 inches or over for Asian men and 37 inches or over for white and black men.
  3. You have high blood pressure or you've had a heart attack or a stroke.
  4. You're a woman with polycystic ovary syndrome and you are overweight.
  5. You've been told you have impaired glucose tolerance or impaired fasting glycaemia.
  6. If you're a woman and you've had gestational diabetes.
  7. You have severe mental health problems.

Nowhere there does the word “meat” appear.

The problem isn’t just that Professor Lamb is wrong but that his nonsense (and I’ve focused on the idiocy of his health claims – the same could be said of his economic and environmental arguments) is regurgitated by the media without challenge or criticism. The Professor is an “expert” and not to be questioned.

It really is time journalists began to do their job. Like asking people like Professor Lang to provide some real evidence for their claims rather than just giving them a great headline and a thousand uncritical words.

And here every day is a feast day!

Ah, that apathy thing again...


Excitement at the discovery that more English 18 year olds are on Facebook than registered to vote.

Officials expressed concern yesterday after figures revealed that Facebook has 1.08million 18-year-old users in Britain, compared with just over half a million who have reached voting age in the past year and registered on the electoral roll.

Lots of chatter - some of it relevent, some nonsense about making it easier to register (how about via Facebook - now that's a thought) and about "engaging" with young people via social media. No-one asks whether this discovery is either new or much of an issue. After all, if voting becomes something of concern, something people are concerned about, something that will make a difference, then rest assured that people will not only register to vote but will queue up outside the polling station to exercise this democratic liberty.

The problem we have (and remember that half of UK adults didn't vote in the 2010 election) is that loads of people simply don't see the point of voting - it doesn't seem to matter much to them or make the slightest bit of difference to their lives. So they don't bother.

And we (that is the politicians) don't care either - or we'd be hanging around at student digs and taking registration forms to sixth form classrooms.


Thursday, 29 December 2011

Next time local government "leaders" plead poverty mention the £10 billion in reserves they hold....


Overall, English local authorities expect to be holding £10.8 billion in reserves on 31 March 2012. At the same time last year, their forecasts for 31 March 2011 totalled £11 billion.

 I've mentioned this little fact before - in the context of Bradford* and Manchester with the former holding over £180 million in reserves and the latter an incredible amount of £260 million plus.

So when your local council whines about the cuts, lays people off now and makes no use of these reserves they are acting irresponsibly. We do need to "re-base" but the impact can be spread, the reductions and services changes properly planned and the decisions made carefully with due consideration of the needs and expectations of local residents.

*Bradford folk will, I'm sure, be delighted to know that over the past two years the Council's reserves have RISEN by nearly £50 million. 


Wednesday, 28 December 2011

It's the tax, innit?


...and while we're on the "unintended consequences of New Puritanism":

People selling illegal cigarettes are robbing Bradford’s newsagents of desperately-needed trade, according to the National Federation of Retail Newsagents. Stephen Hunter, the Federation’s Bradford secretary says the knock-on effects of people buying their tobacco from elsewhere means they don’t pop into their local shop for other things either. 

So the war on smoking is finding another victim - hundreds of small businesses threatened, thousands of jobs gone and all in the name of "public health". Just imagine how the minimum pricing on booze will work - corner shops closing as moonshine and smuggled spirits are chosen ahead of buying legit stuff in a shop.

You see New Puritans, you can't (really - look at levels of marijuana use) stop people. And, in trying to do that, the collateral damage to the lives of ordinary people is far more damaging than any of your guesses about how banning booze, fags and burgers will make us all happy, malleable citizens.


The Telegraph's New Puritan crusade continues...


In recent times the Daily Telegraph has become the chosen vehicle for adherents to the Church of Public Health to peddle their myths and lies. And now they're upping the game by claiming that the Prime Minister has ordered that minimum pricing or unit-based taxation in included in the forthcoming "alcohol strategy".

The Prime Minister has ordered officials to develop a scheme in England to stop the sale of alcohol at below 40p to 50p a unit in shops and supermarkets. Ministers could copy Scottish proposals, which would ban the sale of alcohol below 45p a unit, or bring in a more sophisticated system of taxes based on the number of alcohol units contained in the drink. 

Apparently Mr Cameron is taken in by lies:

Mr Cameron is thought to have opted for a “big bang” approach to the alcohol problem after noting the success of the ban on smoking in public places. 

In public health terms the smoking ban has been at best a damp squib and at worst has halted the decline in smoking by forcing smokers into private "drinky-smoky" places where they don't face the sniffy opprobrium of non-smokers.

The idea of minimum pricing is peddled to us with claims that the only people who would pay the cost are either chronic alcoholics with bottles of White Lightning or unpleasant wall-perched chavs with cans of lager. The rest of us - sensible drinkers all - will not even notice.

The worst thing about all this is that those street drinkers and hooded youths will do one of three things - change to a different drink, buy illegally smuggled booze or drink moonshine. And they'll still end up in hospital with liver problems.

What is truly offensive about this is that people who need help - care and appropriate medical treatment - are to be taxed rather than treated. And leading the charge is a doctor:

“Most health experts feel that changing pricing is the most effective way of achieving results,”

Those "health experts" are, to use a technical term, talking out of their respective bottoms. The most effective way is to treat the person not the product, to reduce harm not to eliminate the possibility of harm and to recognise that drinking is integral to our culture not a sin to be punished.


Tuesday, 27 December 2011

A Festive New Puritan Scare Story from a Bradford Doctor!


I’ve just about sobered up enough now to be annoyed about this appalling exercise in misrepresentation and misdirection from a Bradford doctor:

He warned against the “pocket money alcohol business” and said he had seen people in their twenties die on his ward from liver disease caused by irresponsible drinking.

He said that youngsters as young as 12 were being seen by medics after drinking too much before their livers were fully formed.

“He” – in this case one Dr Paul Southern - is playing an interesting game. There is no doubt that “youngsters as young as 12” have been “seen by medics” but Dr southern wants us to believe that this is somehow commonplace. And therefore he presents no real information relying instead on our instinctive ‘he’s a doctor and we can trust him’ response to such information.

In 2010 there were 4,609 deaths from liver conditions attributable to alcohol, a figure that has risen slightly during the last ten years (not surprising given the significant increase in alcohol consumption from 1980 to around 2000). Of those deaths just one was of a teenager (15-19 not twelve) and 45 were of people in their 20s. Back in 2006 there were around 4,450 similar deaths – again with none of children aged under 15 but with 49 deaths of people on their 20s.

There is little or no evidence to support Dr Southern’s contention that the problem is getting worse – back in 1999 there were over 3,500 deaths but the numbers for children and people in their 20s remain more-or-less unchanged. Every year there are around 40 or so deaths from alcohol-related liver conditions among those aged under 30 – this isn’t due to this:

Bradford has up to 25,000 highly dependent drinkers and up to 120,000 drinking harmfully, according to Dr Paul Southern, a consultant hepatologist at Bradford’s Royal Infirmary.

The problem – and it’s not a new one – comes from a small number of people seriously abusing alcohol over a considerable period of time. To reduce this problem (and we won’t eliminate it, that’s for sure) the solution is not “taxation” as Dr Southern suggests – we already have very highly taxed drink which results in smuggling, black market distribution and illegal production.

The solution is to treat the individual with a drink problem – to work with them to reduce the harm they’re doing to themselves. Simply making it more expensive for people without a problem to drink is both illiberal and guaranteed to fail.


Saturday, 24 December 2011

Happy Christmas...


Here's hoping for a good one filled with wine, song, great food and company. This after all it what we live for - not for Christmas but for pleasure. So enjoy this festival of pleasure and cast aside the puritans, those who say pleasure must have a purpose. Stare down those who sniff at "consumption" as if it is a bad thing. And smile with me at the whimsical wonders of our world - the laughter of children, the first little glug from a new bottle of wine, the mouth-watering smell of good mature cheddar and the feel of warm wood beside a bright fire.

Many thanks to all of you who've read, commented on and sent around the inane ramblings, irritated outbursts and intemperate rants (plus the odd thoughtful moment) that are my thoughts from Cullingworth.

Happy Christmas!


Fixing markets for failure never works...


The manager of former world cup winning side, West Ham United, Sam Allardyce has this to say about the Football League's incoming "fair finance" rules:

"The rules are going to cause absolute chaos and are going to destroy football as we know it unless we are very careful," he says.

"It's making finance more important. I am not saying that we want to put clubs into jeopardy – the Portsmouth scenario – but this is the entertainment industry, not a financial institution whose only aim is to balance the books."

The point Big Sam makes here is that the current rules aren't making lower league football in England less competitive - he comments in the same article about how the league is more "ferocious and volatile" than when he last managed in the Championship. Whenever the word "fair" crops up alarm bells should ring - indeed these new rules won't stop clubs failing but will make it ever more difficult for smaller clubs to build a successful run. And it won't stop clubs getting into financial trouble either.

But then no-one's listening. Always and everywhere fixing markets to favour failure doesn't work.


Friday, 23 December 2011

Trust me, I'm a politician!

Trust is a tricky old thing – that headline probably brings out the sense of irony in you (although you don’t know for sure whether or not I actually mean “trust me”). Indeed our default position is, as Martin Vander Weyer points out, more often distrust: is no longer offered, in any sphere, as it used to be; distrust is now the default response. It’s easy to argue that business leaders, especially in the City, have brought this on themselves by behaving greedily and uncaringly. But that’s not the whole story, which is also about social change.

At the core of this is a presiding sense that they’re out to rip us off. Politicians, lawyers, doctors, journalists – the entire panoply of professions – are cynical, driven by personal success rather than by any concept of service. And our mistrust extends further – we see train drivers striking on boxing day and see self-interest rather than a collective response to injustice, we tell tales or teachers or council officers seeing the “strike day” as an excuse for a jolly and we’ve got used to anger at huge bonuses in large firms and big public organisation that seem merely to reward failure or incompetence.

The other day, Jack of Kent pondered on why everyone hates lawyers and concludes that it is the majesty of the law that we fear rather than its agent, the lawyer:

It is perhaps not so much that lawyers are hated, but that law itself is feared and mysterious.

That this is the case is unfortunate, and it is an entirely fair criticism that many lawyers do not do more to promote the public understanding of law.

Of course, barriers to lay understanding can suit the interests of lawyers. Lawyers have no general interest in enabling potential clients to work out their own legal problems.

And, so to that extent, lawyers really only have themselves to blame.

But it isn’t quite so simple – what has happened is that we have stopped trusting lawyers because they are lawyers, doctors simply for the fact of their doctoring and politicians by dint of their elected authority. The brands of these professions are corrupted by our awareness of their failings, our recognition that lawyers, doctors, MPs and other ‘professionals’ will close ranks, will protect their privileges, rather than have those failings exposed.

This is a good thing although we still give too great a credence to the self-interest of the Law Society, the BMA or the ‘senior backbencher’. However the growing doubt as to motive means that trust must be earned. It’s perfectly possible to trust a lawyer, a doctor, even a politician but only in so far as we trust the individual behind the badge.

When I urge you to trust me because I’m a politician, I’m asking you to trust the idea of such a person rather than to trust me. Such heuristics damage society by granting to a given organisation, professional body or political party the power to bestow trust.

You should trust Simon Cooke because he has proven himself trustworthy not because he has the stamp of politician.