Wednesday, 29 February 2012

More scaremongering in the Metro...

I read the Metro every morning - I find that it's a good way to pass the time on my commute whilst catching up on the news in a not to heavy way to slowly wake me up.  Today though I was angry, as I read a small article that once again is scaremongering over tuition fees. 

If one in ten medical students have turned to sex work whilst at University then this is a worrying trend that the Universities need to look into to ensure that no student is feeling forced into this position.  However not one single student will be doing this because of their higher tuition fees as, unlike when I studied, (and I've lost count of how many times I've had to say this) they don't pay a single penny in tuition fees until AFTER they have graduated.  Even then it is income contingent - the amount they will pay back depends on their level of earnings.  Given that they are receiving loans and grants from the Government to help with the cost of living (that are considerably higher than the amount received by Scottish students who don't incur fees!)  medical students in particular wont actually begin to contribute to the cost of their cost until a long time after they have graduated as they will effectively first be paying back the money that they received (at a lower rate than I do).  If they ever end up paying back all of this amount it will be because they have become very rich themselves.

One thing I did find really surprising and worrying here was the sheer number of students supposedly turning to sex work - one in ten - 10%!  That's a remarkable statistic... so obviously I have just looked up this research to verify it.  According to the "Birmingham Mail" this study was done at Birmingham University's medical school and the actual findings are that one in ten "have a friend" who has turned to this industry.  Now notice how this totally isn't mutually exclusive.  Whilst at University I knew about 30 people there (before Facebook really took off) so if one person works in the industry and has 30 friends who responded to this survey then they would need to ask 300 people to get this statistic for one person or one in 300 people actually working in the industry (and I wasn't the most popular!).  Obviously this still isn't mutually exclusive with regards those who know a person knowing more people but still, I think it demonstrates how the information itself needs more clarification.  

This reporting is backed up by the Torygraph.

Also take note that the fact it is just how many people are aware of others working in the industry, perhaps those who do no longer feel that it is something they need to hide or that there is less stigma attached - as pointed out perhaps due to The Secret Diary Of A Call Girl.  If it is the case that it is just becoming more known then this would be a good thing as it would mean that the women are operating less in the shadows of the economy/society and could therefore be in a better position to seek help if needed.

February 29th - that can only mean one thing...

In general I like leap years as it means one thing - it's an Olympics year.  As a sports fan it is something that gets me excited.  Not excited enough to buy tickets mind, I'm spending enough going to cricket matches and music festivals in the summer - but I always enjoy it being on TV.

There is something else 'special' about a leap year, on 29 February (today), custom dictates that it is the one day women are "allowed" to pop the question to their significant other.  This annoys me for two reasons:
  • Women should never have to be "allowed" to do something that a man needs no permission to do.  Although I feel that marriage can be a wonderful thing for two people who love each other and want to commit to being together I think this day helps to illustrate just how unequal women still appear with regards the institution of marriage.
  • The other thing is that this week every message board or letters page I've read has had requests from men wanting advice on how to avoid their girlfriend's proposal, with loads of suggestions on how to avoid them for an entire day/put them off.  Surely if they want to get married and you don't then you are in the wrong relationship or this is something you should talk about (it may just be timing) rather than avoiding the issue like a child.  These men make me angry, they should grow some balls and deal with issues in their relationships rather than looking at ways to avoid them - who's to say that their partner would even want to marry them if they act like that?  Seriously guys grow up!

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Don't reduce speed limits to 20mph - get rid of them all together...

I don't know how this has come about, but over the last week or so there have been numerous occasions when  my Twitter feed has contained calls for 20 miles an hour speed limits in certain (sometimes all) residential places.

I see the point, speed kills, it is a fact that two identical accidents, one at 20mph one at 70mph the latter would be more likely to have fatalities.  Therefore surely by reducing the maximum speed a vehicle is legally allowed to go there will be fewer accidents and even lower fatality rates, right?

Well this is where I disagree, in fact I would go as far as to remove all speed limits, everywhere.  Now people might think this is the crazy liberal coming out in me (i.e. people should be allowed to drive as fast as they like) - far from it, this is me wanting to reduce accidents and deaths on roads.  I would also go as far as to remove all road signs that aren't directions or absolutely essential.  

There will always be reckless drivers out there - but these people tend to disregard the law anyway, a couple of digits sign wont make a difference here.  People in general though tend to drive at the speed where they feel comfortable, given the conditions, the volume of traffic, the time of day and the surrounding area.

When speed limits are in force people see them as a target, usually hovering just above (in the margin for error), often accelerating quicker to get up to this target speed when the chance arises.  However without speed limits people drive at what they feel is the most appropriate speed. 

My whole premise is that basically, by removing speed limits and traffic signs you shift the risk.  Currently the risk is with the Government, drivers have the signs and limits and think that as they are Government approved then these must be the correct actions to take.  Remove these and the driver has to fall back on their own judgement - and most people are risk averse.

Okay, you're still probably thinking this is just bull, wishy washy idea that wouldn't ever get put into place anywhere...

Except it has.

First off just think of your own experiences for a moment.  How many times have you seen traffic lights out of action?  In these junctions how many times have you seen an accident?  Also, crucially for congestion, how many times have you been held up at them?  Traffic lights are inefficient as they still hold the user on red even if no-one is using the green, roundabouts work a lot better.

Drachten's famous Shared Space Island
There is a town in The Neatherlands called Drachten, they have somewhere between 40 - 50 thousand people living there and had on average 8 serious road accidents per year, with a fatality once every three years or so.  The main junction in Drachten handles about 22,000 cars on a normal day.  In 2003 they adopted a scheme called "Shared Space", ripped out all of their traffic light systems bar 3 (which will soon also be removed) and almost all road signs.  Obviously chaos ensued... Oh no wait, it didn't... Accidents fell to an average of around 0 as has fatalities (there hasn't been one).  That's not all, this has even reduced congestion, speeded up average journey times and currently has the approval of all of the people living there.

Well this all works well and good in an urban area then (especially in a Dutch town - stereotypically lovely people one would assume), but obviously it wouldn't work on higher speed roads...

Except it does.

Typical Montana sign 1995-99
Montana.  USA.  Congress lifted all federal speed limit controls in the November 28, 1995.  Montana went non-numerical (during the day).  In this time average speeds FELL by around 7mph, and accidents fell by around 30%.  

Unfortunately this was reversed in 1999, mainly due to a court case after a driver successfully overturned a conviction for speeding having been driving at around 85mph.  There is now a maximum limit of 75mph in place.

We've also all heard about the German Autobarns, drivers are meant to use their own common sense with regard speed.  They have a better safety record than ANY American highway, and it is comparable to all other neighbouring European countries.  

Unintended Consequences

I have one final point to make, and this firmly belongs in an unintended consequences section.  You try to do things for the best, but it makes things drastically worse.  This is my most disliked traffic calming measure, as it effects every road user in every circumstance, there is no way for anyone to use their common sense and no way for people to avoid it in an emergency.  I am talking of course about speed bumps.  (Although apparently it applies to all traffic calming measures).

The problem of course is that they effect emergency vehicles too!  On average, apparently they extend response times by 14%.  In fact some studies claim that as many as EIGHTY FIVE lives are lost for every ONE live that is saved by them.

Oh, and before you go classifying me as just some young boy racer who wants to test out the top speed of his car - I haven't driven in nearly 6 years, I am more often than not, a pedestrian.  Anything that brings down needless deaths is a good thing, just make sure it's based on evidence and not a fallacy. 

Thursday, 23 February 2012

A parent's job is to look after their child's best interests...

I have been very much dismayed to see the story of Zach Avery plastered all over the papers this week.  For those who don't know Zach is a five year old who has been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder, born as a boy Zach feels like a girl.

As such I have seen lots of comments, many supportive of letting the child live as they want, as they have been clearly diagnosed.  However lots have been critical, either due to their ignorance/prejudice of the condition in general or of the parenting claiming that it is their responsibility to raise the child in one way so they can make their own choices at later life.

I don't really want to get into either of these arguments, a parents job is to do what is best for their child.  Clearly Zach's parents felt that this was by allowing him to live as a her.  However I fail to see how having this as front page news, or even on any news paper could be in the best interests of a five year old.  I'm not saying he will, but I find it perfectly conceivable that this could be a phase (I would wager that 100% of children diagnosed don't then feel exactly the same once they go through puberty).  Making this "news" will only make it harder for the child once they hit their teens, irrespective of how they feel about themselves and lets face it, if Zach reaches his teens with GID then it will be hard enough as it is.  Shame on the parents for potentially putting their child through this and shame on the mass media for treating it as "news" - especially those who put it on their front page!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

I'm unsure about the 'neet' solution...

As a general rule I am against bribing companies to act as you want them to, everyone responds to incentives, however I don't feel that giving them money to do as you want is always the best way to go about things.  I've only just read The Guardian's report on Nick Clegg's announcement of a £126m scheme to encourage employers to take on more NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training)  16 and 17 year olds.

My fundamental problem with this scheme however, is that it doesn't seem to be creating any additional opportunities, just bribing companies to fill vacancies with a specific type of applicant, therefore not leaving a level playing field for everyone (and the same amount of people are still out of work!).  The minimum wage for 16-17 year olds is already lower than that for 18 - 20 year olds after which time it rises even more - so there is already a financial incentive for companies to take on these people.  Providing even more of such an incentive risks hindering older generations who also need an income (and frankly may need the money more depending on personal circumstances).

Obviously I don't think the Government should just be abandoning these youngsters - far from it, however I'd prefer it if these funds were put into giving these youngsters skills so that they have something to offer employers (or even to set up on their own!)  It is pointless just helping them get a job if it's just for the sake of it, by providing training opportunities they can be targeted in the areas that need it most (the North West I believe has the highest growth in NEETs), making the person more mobile and hopefully not just help them to find one job but give them more chances in future as well.  I know this is a fantasy regarding training and often people end up with skills that aren't in demand, but that's why I think they need to be targeted better (at what is needed) and those with the most will to succeed will benefit the most.

The goal has to be to stop as many teenagers as possible reaching this position in the first place.  Things that will help this are the Pupil Premium that the Liberal Democrats have championed and the Government is putting into action and as I said at the time (Nick announced it in his conference speech) I also feel the idea of a summer school could also be beneficial to help with the transition from Primary to Secondary school to try and ensure that no child is left behind.  We wont see the potential benefit of these policies until the next government is in place, but that doesn't mean that it isn't a good thing!

Should there be morality in pricing?

Last week saw the sad news of Whitney Houston's passing, it is always sad when anyone passes away at such a young age, not just because they are famous.  In the wake of this Sony made, what can best be described as a PR error, their crime was to follow the laws of economics and increased the price of her music to a new optimal level given an increase in demand.

I didn't actually hear about this at the time (to be honest, Whitney isn't exactly my thing so didn't follow any of the coverage) but it did appear as the weekend debate over on the Lib Dem Voice.  I was intrigued by some of the responses that followed.

First the simple economics - quite clearly it is a matter of fact that the optimum price for Sony to charge to maximise their profits (where Marginal Revenue meets Marginal Cost) had risen - there had been a shift in the demand curve to the right meaning that people were willing to pay more to obtain the produce, or were more willing to pay a higher price.  Whitney's career wasn't exactly at a high, so in order to encourage people to buy it (most dedicated fans would already have bought it) Sony had to sell it at a lower price than they'd have liked to optimise their profits.  Now they were faced with the situation of a growth in demand, so they can charge a higher price and make even more profit.  

The problem comes, as far as the fans are concerned, they feel that Sony could have kept their prices the same and sold an even greater amount (Q3) of her music.  In most industries this could be explained by the fact that the point for this lies to the right of the supply curve, i.e. the area where they aren't prepared to go, where it is is not cost effective to supply goods (the marginal cost is greater than the marginal revenue).  In general terms there are always surplus' for parties when the equilibrium is found, however if the Quantity/Price point obtained was at point (Q3,P1) on the above diagram then there would also be a producer deficit. 

So in general terms you would say that they are justified in raising their prices, otherwise they lose out.  The problem for Sony however, where downloads are concerned at least, the marginal cost is pretty low, so much so that you'd expect the supply curve to plateau, they'd reach a price that was equal to their marginal cost (or a fraction above it) and they'd be happy to accept as many downloads as possible as their fixed costs wouldn't change - particularly as most of their items are actually sold through third party websites such as iTunes.

Now I get to the morality of it all.  One poster said that another "know(s) the price of everything and the value of nothing" for pointing out the economic argument, however, surely by Whitney passing her music is now more valuable.  As I said, any true fan would already have owned her music, her death has for some reason made it more desirable to own, nobody is forced to pay the price that Sony wants to charge and as it's a free market they should be able to charge what they like.  I couldn't help but notice, when hunting for the first image I used in this post that the CD was out of stock on most websites.  If pressure hadn't forced prices down then those who would derive more utility and therefore pay a higher price for her music would have had a greater opportunity to buy it rather than those who are considering it a casual purchase - for them to be out of stock it was quite clearly under priced.

As Simon McGrath says:

So assuming there is something in the contract where her estate receives a share of the proceeds then surely the moral thing is not to force a reduction in the price when those she left behind could have gained more from her talent. 

At the end of the day, being priced out of buying her music does not stop anyone listening to it, I'd imagine that a fair amount had been on the radio and anyone who wants to listen digitally but doesn't want to pay the price that the owners of the music want to charge, they can just use Spotify!

Monday, 20 February 2012

Do Labour understand "Fairness"?

Back when they were Mr Brown's Boys
Ed Balls has jumped on the bandwagon that Nick Clegg started in calling for George Osborne to cut taxes.  It is good to see the opposition at least attempting to set out an alternative, however they still seem to think we can borrow our way out of our debt problem.  However one line struck me:

"The shadow chancellor said he favoured a cut in VAT - which is a sales tax rather than a tax on income - because it would be the "fastest and fairest" way of boosting the economy."

Now, I know I argued against the VAT increase when it was first increased (as it is regressive), however that doesn't mean it's not fair, those who pay the most are hurt the most.  

Contrast this with the Lib Dem's priority - increasing the personal allowance.  That means that anyone earning above the new threshold and below the higher earnings limit will benefit, irrespective of how they chose to use it (i.e. use the extra money to pay off personal debt rather than spending it).  In my opinion giving people this choice is fairer (as long as those below the line also see their income keeping up with inflation).  

To me, telling people that the fairest tax to cut is one that makes luxury items more expensive is quite ludicrous.  

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Why I no longer donate to (big) charities...

Firstly, one of my favourite bloggers is James Altucher, so before anyone claim's I'm stealing his posts I'm going to reference him for his two excellent blog posts How to Become a Superhero and 10 Reasons Why I would Never Donate to a Major Charity.

Don't get me wrong, I have been a keen supporter of charity all of my life.  I am a firm believer that everyone should try and help their fellow man, also that a society should be judged on the way they handle the less fortunate amongst them.  A bit of my background:

  • My first taste of any form of work was helping out on a market stall raising money for Multiple Sclerosis.
  • During my time University I volunteered in a charity shop that was raising money for a children's home in Kenya called Kanyawegi and during the holidays I volunteered for Marie Curie Cancer Care.
  • I've raised money for countless others - mainly though when I ran the Bath Half Marathon in 2007 I raised money, again for Marie Curie.
  • I also try not to throw things out that could be used by charity shops - in fact I currently have a bag of clothes waiting to be donated to a local charity shop on Saturday. 
With regards MCCC, at the time cancer charities were quite important to me, as I'm sure most people at some point lose a loved one to this terrible illness, so I really wanted to feel like I was helping in some small way.

But recently I've started to realise just how small and almost meaningless this contribution was to MCCC.  Yes, they need funding, however they do obtain funding from a wide variety of sources, and their costs incurred to obtain donations are considerable.  I still think it is a great charity - however it is not something that I feel like I make a difference.  As James says:

"The American Cancer Association might be a great charity. But what will my dollars do for them? Nothing. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are spending $100 billion on eradicating cancer, AIDS, malaria. Other billions are fighting every major cause out there. The baby boomers are about to leave behind $9 trillion. Hopefully a good chunk of that will go to charity. They can handle all of the major causes. My money will make zero difference.  And I have no way of doing due diligence on the charity so I won’t know how my dollars are being spent."

Next to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and the likes, my donations don't even touch the surface, they are still at the top of the mountain trying to break into the small stream, before it becomes a river and finally trying to become a drop in the ocean.  My contributions to charities like that make no difference at the end of the day - it may be selfish but I'd much rather be a Superhero, make a big difference to just a few people's lives than try and fail to save everyone.  I'm not trying to make anyone feel bad about giving to charity, far from it, it's just my personal preference.

What I'm doing instead

That's why at the start of the year I accepted a position as Treasurer of a small local charity - Bath Child Contact Centre.  This charity sets up a safe, neutral place for children to meet up with relatives whom they otherwise wouldn't have contact with.  Referrals have to be made through a negotiator e.g. The Courts, CAFCASS, Solicitors or Social Services.  This may not sound as fancy as fighting cancer but it really can make a difference to kids' childhoods.

As treasurer I can really see what their money is spent on and how much is needed, unlike major charities, the only employee cost (one employee) is directly employed with regard the end product.  They mainly however rely on volunteers who run the centre on a weekly basis.

Unfortunately due to local council cuts they are expecting a funding shortfall for 2012-13 year as the majority of the funding is far from certain.  That is why I am ending this post with a request - I am running the Bath Half Marathon next month (March 11th) for the first time in 5 years.  I've had to get myself considerably fitter over the past 5 months or so  to stand a chance of making the course and now with under a month to go I'm actually feeling confident.   So anyway, my request is, for those of you who like giving to charity but don't like not knowing where your money ends up or if it makes a difference, please give to one of your local organisations (there will be plenty you've never heard of) where you will really make a difference to people around you that you ordinarily don't notice - or failing that sponsor me and give to mine, be a Superhero (even just £2 would be greatly appreciated!):

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

I agree with Theresa May...

However, in order for me to agree with this is to change the quote to:

"The right place for a CONVICTED terrorist is in a prison cell.  The right place for a CONVICTED foreign terrorist is in a foreign prison cell."

Her quote was relating to the Abu Qatada case.  There seems to be no doubt that he is part of al-Qaeda and he is wanted world wide.  However the UK doesn't do detention without trial, this IS a breach of someone's human rights.  We have not given him a fair trial in the UK so we don't have the right to keep him in a prison cell, I don't care how Unacceptable the Home Secretary would find this, if one can simply lock up your opponents without giving them a fair trial, otherwise we would be in a totalitarian state.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Who is bullying whom?

I wrote a little while ago that "If I lived in Iran I'd possibly think that they needed nukes...", one of the main arguments for this was
"Iran is basically encircled by either the US's allies, countries the US are currently occupying/have a strong military force, or nuclear armed countries."

Yesterday, one of my friends posted the following picture on Facebook, if this is correct then I think it emphasises the point even more.

So now remind me again - which country is the more aggressive toward the other?  If you put someone in a corner, do you not expect them to try and fight back?

Xenophobia - the way to win elections?

I don't like much political advertising, it is usually filled with half truths or sometimes blatant lies.  I dislike America's style even more where so much is just aimed at damaging the opponent's reputation rather than focusing on any issues that matter.

I don't think I'm often shocked when it comes to such political adverts - but I was really amazed and almost enraged when I was linked to Pete Hoekstra's ad where he is running for a place in the Senate - this ad was apparently ran during the Super bowl for maximum exposure.  Here it is for those of you who haven't seen it:

The ad is so clearly racist/xenophobic that even some Republicans have spoken out against it.  This ad is a clear attempt to play onto people's fears of other cultures and the major potential fear that China will over take them as the world's primary super power.  Hoekstra's team have a bizarre explanation:

“You have a Chinese girl speaking English - I want to hit on the education system, essentially. The fact that a Chinese girl is speaking English is a testament to how they can compete with us, when an American boy of the same age speaking Mandarin is absolutely insane, or unthinkable right now. It exhibits another way in which China is competing with us globally.”

Apparently the girl is "100% Chinese", however the ad was filmed in California so to me this is dubious - one would have thought she'd at least had some American education if this was the case, given how difficult a Green Card is to obtain.  Even so, the advert itself doesn't even mention education and surely if you were wanting to improve education in order for American boys to be speaking Mandarin you would be going for some sort of slogan that encouraged education spending, not just running on a platform of spending less.

I really can't believe that he doesn't see that this has at least racist undertones or could be seen as racist and hasn't come out and apologised for that - rather than just claim that 'the liberals' are over reacting.  The problem is however, that attacking Hoekstra over this racism is probably unlikely to effect his popularity as I'd wager that his supporters wont care one bit.

On a side note - I hate how all people on the left are deemed "Liberals" in America - this offends me to be labelled with some people who have absolutely no convictions that meet the definition of Liberalism.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Innocent until proven guilty, but...

Two stories of interest in similar ways in two completely different fields, both accused of crimes, both not yet proven guilty, both stepping down from a position of responsibility (one walked, one pushed).

Chris Huhne

You would have to have no interest in politics not to know that Chris has been having a rough time of it for a while, now it is official that he will be charged with perverting the course of justice for allegedly having his then wife (Vicky Pryce) take penalty points on her driving license that were actually incurred by Chris.  As such Chris has made the decision to stand down from the cabinet. 

I am a firm believer in innocence until someone's guilt has been proven, I hate the media hounding suspects and delving into people's lives to dig up the tiniest bit of dirt to help pin the image of guilt on a person that is a suspect for anything - I have blogged about this in the past, it should be up to a court to determine a persons guilt or innocence, anything the media digs up should be handed to the police if relevant to the case.  Anyway, I digress...  

In the case of Mr Huhne, I think he has made the correct decision to stand down.  He has always claimed his innocence and as such, before a charge was actually brought he was well within his right to stay in his job.  Now however I feel that there is enough of a mark on him that it would be impractical for him to remain in such a high profile position.  He must know whether or not he is guilty, if he is then he should have stood down at the very start rather than dragging it out, damaging his own reputation further.  I worry however that he didn't do so in order to not look like a guilty man or just that he thought it would go away.  

It's a shame that this hasn't given the opportunity for another woman to be placed in the cabinet, I'm sure Ed Davey will do a great job, however I'd have preferred to see Lynne Featherstone get a chance to step up - she is great as equalities minister but I'd give her an even more prominent position.  It is good to see Jo Swinson become one of Nick's closest advisors, but she could also have been more prominent.

John Terry

John Terry on the other hand, rather than jumping, has been pushed from his position as England captain.  Again, despite believing a person should remain presumed innocent until a judgement rules otherwise I think that this is the correct decision.

Given his previous scandals I don't feel that he is in the position to command the respect or authority that the position requires.  If his form is still good then I don't see why he shouldn't be in the squad, however I don't feel that it would be appropriate given the charge levied against him for him to be leading England.  The FA have shown with their punishment of Louis Suarez that they take any race incident seriously and I think that it is good that they have taken a similar stance with John Terry.  

What did dismay me was the fact that this trial isn't until after the Euro 2012 championships, almost as if it was scheduled to fit into John Terry's diary.  As an English fan I'd like this to be out of the way, either he's guilty and should be punished or isn't and should be free to go about his business, last thing I want is for him to be distracted whilst playing for his country this summer.  

We'll find out eventually what the future for both of these men holds, however I think it is best for both of them that they aren't in the limelight as much.