May 2008

Woo Hoo!

The work was carried out at five disused landfill sites in Bristol; Swindon, Wiltshire; Hatfield, Hertfordshire; Ely, Cambridgeshire; and Skelmersdale, in Lancashire.

Poplar, alder, cherry, whitebeam, ash, oaks and Corsican pine trees were planted at the sites and all thrived when provided with enough rainfall.

It was conducted by the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Friends of the Earth.

The results have been passed to the Environment Agency which is to use them to advise local councils on how to transform what are frequently eyesores into more attractive woodland, parks, and even nature reserves.

It is hoped the planting will also boost the Government\’s attempts at counteracting carbon emissions.

Iain Wright, the Planning Minister, said: “Many people find landfill sites an eyesore and the Government is committed to reducing landfill use.

"This new research shows that, with proper safeguards in place, we can reduce the impact of old sites by planting them and environmentally reviving them as attractive woodland or parkland."

Excellent! So we don\’t have to worry about opening new landfill sites then! We fill them up, cover them with earth and plant trees. Superb, problems all solved.

So we can dump those wildly expensive recycling plans as well. My, this is a good result, isn\’t it?

Not Sure I Believe These Figures

There\’s a problem here, at least for me.

Living in East Dorset gives you the best chance of growing into old age, with almost eight in ten residents expected to reach 75.

That problem is encapsulated in a saying from a few decades ago. Retired Indian Army colonels go to Cheltenham to die and when they do their wives move to Eastbourne to die and when they get there forget why they went.

Given that the South West (and East Dorset in particular) is indeed a destination for pensioners how much of this effect is simply survivor bias?

Allow me to sum up the European Union for you.

We\’ll note that the septics and the Brits have developed interesting technologies. Say, social betworking ones like Facebook and Bebo. Then we\’ll decide that these can be useful in our own endeavours. So far, this is actually pretty good, look around the world and see who has invented what that you can use.

Then we\’ll develop our own version at great cost and only in a manner whereby the insiders to the system can use it.

Creating and running the new service will cost more than £4,000 for each Euro-MP over the next 18 months, even though many already belong to free and popular networking sites such as Facebook or Bebo.

Despite the use of taxpayers\’ cash, will not be visible to the public, The Daily Telegraph has learned.

Only parliamentarians and "civil society", Brussels-speak for officially sanctioned NGOs and trade associations, will be able to use the site for comment and debate.

And in doing this we will screw the taxpayers:

After receiving an online demonstration of the website, one Euro-MP\’s office asked MyParl organisers whether there was a cost for the service. "Totally free. Well, not for the taxpayer of course," was the answer.

Please, can we leave yet?


All Hail Tractor Production!

We\’ve all heard the stories about how the Soviet planning targets were reached…..if they said 10,000 tonnes of shoes then you got one large concrete one. Slightly less exaggerated is this true story….at least, the person who told it to me, Richard Layard, insists it was true and as he was working on statistics in the Ministry of Foreign Trade at the time, I\’ll take him at his word.

At the end of the Soviet period the Ministry in charge of tractor production (yes, there really was one) didn\’t know how many tractors were being produced. They knew the tonnage, yes, but they didn\’t know whether the 430,000 tonnes (that\’s just a number sticking in my mind) was made up of 100,000 4.3 tonne ones, 430,000 1 tonne ones or 1,290,000 1/3 of a tonne ones. Targets were set by tonnage and by Lenin that\’s what was going to be met.

Officers are having to put Home Office targets before serving the public and are becoming increasingly alienated from ordinary people as a result.

The public find officers to be "rude" and accuse them of neglecting their duties and failing to respond to reports of crime.

The report, by the think-tank Civitas, said political interference meant incidents that might previously have been regarded as innocuous were now treated as crimes.

Police performance is measured in “sanction detections” which means officers have detected or cleared a case by charging someone, issuing a penalty notice or giving a caution. Many officers are expected to complete a certain number each month.

Arresting or fining a normally law-abiding person for a trivial offence is a good way of achieving the target and pleasing the Home Office.

There\’s a certain similarity there, isn\’t there? Set a target for "sanction detections" and that\’s what you\’ll get, and the incentives for the people meeting the targets is to sanction or detect the things which it is easiest to do. I\’ve said before that I don\’t think Brown and the other New Labourites really understand microeconomics….they simply don\’t get the point that incentives matter and it\’s important to have said incentives aligned with the actual product or output desired.

What\’s so annoying about targetting the police in this manner is that we\’re not actually interested in the number of crimes either sanctioned or detected: we\’re interested in the number prevented by police presence or the actions of the criminal justice system. We actually want the incentive to be for a policeman to go out wandering about for 8 hours, sup tea, chew doughnuts, chat to people, help old ladies across the road and arrest, charge or caution nobody. For no crimes have been committed.

Yes, of course, that too is a fantasy of a world that never was and never will be but that is the situation we want to be in, our goal, and so our incentives need to be aimed at coaxing at least an attempt to reach it out of the police themselves. So we\’ve got the incentives entirely misaligned.

But to the larger point about targets. How did we end up with a group of politicians who looked around the world, searching for models for action, who then alighted upon the very worst system, the Soviet one?

Just as an exercise, they could for example have looked at another strand of domestic Labour thinking….the communitarian one perhaps? Coming from the same roots as the friendly societies, the idea that a community both aided its memebers, joined together to provide insurance to each other, even, (again, it never really quite like this) policed itself. But that would require that the police are run by said community, something anathema to the centralisers we have in power now, isn\’t it?

Doing a Pollard

A reporter fired from the Washington Post leaves a message in the first letter of each paragraph. (via)

James May did something similar years ago.

But this is called doing a (Stephen) Pollard for this magnificent version here. It was immediately after the Daily Express had been bought by Richard Desmond.

Leader column, Daily Express, Saturday January 6 2001

"Farmers are hardly the most popular group in Britain. Up and down the country areas are blighted by intensive farming practices. Couple this with subsidies the like of which no other industry can dream of and you have a recipe for unpopularity.

Knowledge of organic farming has moved on apace. Years ago, organic farmers were regarded as cranks. On most calculations, their methods were regarded as wasteful and inefficient.

Until now. Destroying the received wisdom, Professor Jules Pretty, head of Essex University\’s Centre for Environment and Society, has worked out that, in fact, organic farming is cheaper, costing £1.8 billion a year less than intensive farming.

Environmentalists are still sometimes caricatured as unworldly. Sainsbury\’s, which we praised yesterday for introducing biodegradable packaging, shows that that need not be so. More retailers will, if the Sainsbury\’s scheme is a success, follow.

Organic farmers, however, receive only £20 million of the £3 billion in farm subsidies. Nothing is more stupid – and, as Prof Pretty shows, self-defeating – than this failure to promote organic farming. Despite this short-termism, the future of farming is now clearly organic."



The problem with capitalism, as any fool know, is that it is an insatiable system that relies on satiable institutions and individuals.

Umm, the usual assumption is that while individual individual desires are indeed satiable (it is, much to the surprise of many, entirely possible to eat too much chocolate) the sum of individual desires is not. Even if we had sufficient chocolate, world peace, an end to poverty and a pony each there\’d still be some bastards complaining about not living forever….and if that complaint were fixed then it would be an insufficiency of orgasms, or of really good ones, or the lack of time when one is not being pressured to provide such or damnnit, that kitten is insufficiently cute.

So, if you\’re going to start your analysis of capitalism or any other human societal form of organisation from that completely batshit starting point, well, you\’re going to become something of a cropper with your conclusions, aren\’t you?


Margot calls for more women in the higher reaches of the EU.

Fine, I\’ll back that, on one condition.

That Margot agrees to reject any such post if it is offered to her.

Nothing against a woman or women more generally helping to run our society. I\’ve a great deal against that particular woman having anything to do with it.

Solving Climate Change

News from an old buddy.

In the world’s single-largest investment in solar technology, the oil-rich emirate of Abu Dhabi announced Wednesday it will spend $2 billion to jumpstart a home-grown photovoltaics industry. The cash will fund what is undoubtedly the planet’s best-financed startup, Masdar PV, which will build manufacturing facilities in Germany and Abu Dhabi to produce thin-film solar modules that can be used in rooftop solar systems or solar power plants.

The gamble Masdar PV is taking is that it’s investing billions in an older but proven thin-film technology that may well be left in the dust by more exotic, cheaper and efficient technologies under development by a host of startups.

Masdar PV aims to have a gigawatt of annual production capacity in place by 2014. To get there, Geiger says the company has hired a management team that includes former top executives from First Solar and other thin-film industry veterans.

Looks like Lomborg\’s mistake was to be insufficiently optimistic. Things carry on like this we\’ll all be switching to solar within a decade on purely cost grounds and thus bye bye global warming as a problem.

And it\’s all being done purely for profit.


Kill them, kill them all!

Good advice here:

Firstly you must always implicitly obey orders, without attempting to form any opinion of your own regarding their propriety. Secondly, you must consider every man your enemy who speaks ill of your king; and thirdly you must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil.

(BTW, what is the song that they\’re spoofing? I know it but can\’t place it…..thanks in comments. So, in order to show how much all we Europeans have in common they\’ve decided to sing an American song in English?)


Well, There is an Answer to This Question, Of Course.

Far from showing how swiftly the world is advancing, the Phoenix mission is another dispiriting reminder of how the pace of change in the world is regressing.

It\’s 2008, for Pete\’s sake. Weren\’t we supposed to be taking holidays on Mars by 2008? When we watched Star Trek as children, didn\’t we assume that by the 21st century we\’d be in silver one-piece suits, visiting galaxies, meeting aliens with eyeballs the size of watermelons and nostril foliage like an upturned version of Don King\’s hairdo? In fact, we can barely travel across London without havoc (what happened to those personal jetpacks we were promised?). Japan\’s Bullet Train is almost half a century old and we still haven\’t built anything that matches it for grace and punctuality. Concorde, far from being a first step to being able to fly to Sydney in an hour, has died. Supersonic travel died with it.

Just like Al Gore used to be the next president of the United States, the future used to be the next phase awaiting mankind. That\’s how the future is supposed to work, isn\’t it? But all around us lies spooky evidence that the world may actually be moving in reverse.

If you look at the list of technologies that have indeed advanced rapidly as against that list which has either stagnated or regressed, you\’ll see an interesting point.

Those that have advanced are those (generally, to be sure) where individuals and markets have been left alone to play. Those that have stagnated or regressed are those where governments and bureaucracies have strained mightily to pick winners. And with their usual efficiency, have notably failed to do so.

Whjy, we might even go so far as to start assuming that it\’s not just a correlation, that there might even be some causality here?

Spot On!

A handful of speakers leapt to the board\’s defence. One investor, Ron Johnson, said his Exxon shares had risen 28-fold in value since he bought them in 1979 and had helped to fund his two children through college.

"Some of our distinguished shareholder colleagues seem to have lost sight of why we hired you," he told the board. "That is, to make us money."


Snigger, Oh, Tee Hee

Of course Guido has been going on about this all month but nice to see it hitting the mainstream:

Senior officials in the Labour party, including Gordon Brown, could become personally liable for millions of pounds in debt unless new donors can be found within weeks, the Guardian has learned.

The party has five weeks to find £7.45m to pay off loans to banks and wealthy donors recruited by Lord Levy, Tony Blair\’s former chief fundraiser, or become insolvent. A further £6.2m will have to be repaid by Christmas – making £13.65m in all. The sum amounts to two-thirds of the party\’s annual income from donations.

The figures are a conservative estimate as they do not include interest that will also have to be paid. A Labour source said that although the total debt was listed as £17.8m on the Electoral Commission website, the true level, with interest, was nearer to £24m.

The possibility that party officials and members of its national executive committee could become liable is being taken seriously by union leaders, and has been underlined by the decision of equity fund chairman David Pitt-Watson not to accept the post as Labour\’s general secretary.

Though he was Brown\’s candidate for the post, he declined the offer after receiving independent legal advice that he would be personally liable for repaying the loans and could be bankrupted if Labour\’s finances collapsed.

The advice from City solicitors Slaughter and May said unequivocally that leading party officials and members of the NEC would be " jointly and severally" responsible for the party\’s debt.

Couldn\’t happen to a nicer group of people now, could it?

Of course, this is simply going to increase the pressure for State funding of political parties but there\’s a logical, if robust, response to that.

Why should we have to pay for a bunch of bankrupts?

In Defence of Speculators

Looking at those funds which are speculating in the oil futures, Ambrose E-P has this to say:

It is unclear whether the US Commodity Futures and Trading Commission would resort to such methods if oil keeps rising. The key players these days are pension funds and investors building up positions in long-term futures contracts through commodity index funds, now worth some $250bn.

They are encouraging oil companies to invest in exploration by guaranteeing high prices five or 10 years ahead. Arguably, they are performing a public service.

There\’s no arguably about this point, nor his first one, that price controls in many countries, allied with subsidies for oil consumption, are driving up prices.

It\’s a point that Adam Smith made all those years ago: that speculators do indeed perform a valuable service by pursuing their own enlightened self interest. Sure, they\’re just trying to make a profit, but what is the effect of their doing so?

Think through it this way: there\’s going to be a shortage in the future (or at least, we think there is going to be). So, do we want to carry on with prices (and thus consumption) just as they are until that shortage arrives? Adam was talking about corn, but the logic works just as well for oil here. Do we want to carry on gaily eating lots of bread until we go to the granary and find it empty, with three months still to go to the next harvest? Do we want to carry on gas guzzling at $40 a barrel and then, in a year or two\’s time, find that the petrol stations are empty?

No, clearly not, we\’d rather start to moderate our consumption now, wouldn\’t we? For by doing so we\’ll use less now and that hole in the granary will be smaller, fewer petrol stations will be empty, because we\’ll not use so much in the immediate future, before that paucity of supply finally makes itself apparent in the physical supply.

And of course higher prices are both the signal for us to do this, to economise upon consumption, and also the cosh which forces us to economise on said consumption.

Pretty good system? Eh?

Further, such higher prices encourage farmers, in the case of corn, to plant more for next season, with oil, they encourage more exploration….and we do need to note that exploration isn\’t just a matter of trying to find more pools of oil, it\’s also a matter of technology, or working out how to get more out of the pools we know about. I\’m a little behind on this point but I think it\’s true to say that we currently only get some 25-30% of the extant oil out of each reservoir that we do find. That\’s a number that has doubled in the past few decades and there\’s no particular reasono to think that it can\’t be raised again.

So a very good system, eh?

And it all depends upon those speculators. They move prices around in time for us and a damn good thing they do as well.

Rosie Boycott

Is it actually worth reading more of this?

The Shock Doctrine is a book I\’ve long admired, and what came across on sharing a stage with Naomi Klein for the first time was what a stunning researcher and writer she is: an immensely impressive speaker with an incredible command of facts.

Klein? Command of facts?

Well, a little bit more.

The image that came into my mind was of companies like Halliburton and Honeywell soaring like vultures above our civilisation and looking for that dead body: when they see those disasters it\’s a mealticket for them.

Ain\’t that actually rather marvellous? Private companies maintaining the infrastructure to help and aid those in peril when disaster strikes?

Clean Development Mechanism

I\’ve no doubt at all that this is being abused but I\’m really not sure about this logic:

A separate study published this week by US watchdog group International Rivers argues that nearly three quarters of all registered CDM projects were complete at the time of approval, suggesting that CDM money was not needed to finance them.

"It would seem clear that a project that is already built cannot need extra income in order to be built," said Patrick McCully, director of the thinktank in California. "Judging additionality has turned out to be unknowable and unworkable. It can never be proved definitively that if a developer or factory owner did not get offset income they would not build their project."

Erm, never heard of borrowing?

When running the cash flow simulations and plans for a new plant, you\’ll look at all of the likely future revenues. Of course this planning process would include the values of any carbon offsets you might be able to claim. If you can indeed claim such, this will tip the calculations, on at least some plans, from unviable to viable.

The banks lending to the projects will also evaluate such plans on likely future cash flows. And they will lend against such future projections, including the value of any credits likely to be available.

So the idea that because a plant is already completed it doesn\’t need or deserve credits is nonsense. Because through the miracle of borrowing we\’ve already included their value in the decision about whether to build or not. Which is of course exactly what borrowing itself does: moves cash flows around in time.

As I say, I\’ve no doubt at all that this is a grossly wasteful scheme which costs a fortune and does not very much (look, it\’s run by the UN, \’nuff said) but this specific reason isn\’t proof of it. What it is is proof that International Rivers and the think tank California have no clue whatsoever about how project finance works.