Category Archives: Bit of politics

Conjecture on Mr Weisenthal’s Centre

Any self-professed ‘human rights group’ that criticises a decision to, erm, respect someone’s human rights is not actually a human rights group, so much as an opportunity for a bunch of vindictive tossers to further hone their already highly developed sense of victimhood and entitlement.

Eggscerable reporting, or ‘no, the EU won’t ban eggs by the dozen’

The latest insane euromyth, as faithfully invented by the Daily Mail, is that the EU is planning to ban the sale of eggs by the dozen or half-dozen. As usual, the Littlejohn Rule applies here: if the story sounds like something you “really couldn’t make up” (thanks, Mr Dale), then somebody doubtless has made it up.

The main thrust of the Daily Mail’s story is that under proposed EU legislation, it will be illegal to print “six eggs” on a box of six eggs. Instead, the quantity of eggage will have to be listed solely in kilogrammes. This is simply – and really really obviously – false, and if you believe it then you’re doubtless someone who’s checked whether the word ‘gullible’ is really in the dictionary.

Here’s the actual legislation, proposed by the European Parliament. The quote that the press have misunderstood (or, more likely, lied about) is:

1. The net quantity of a food shall be expressed, using litres, centilitres, millilitres, kilograms or grams, as appropriate:
(a) in units of liquid in the case of liquids within the meaning of Council Directive 85/339/EEC of 27 June 1985 on containers of liquids for human consumption ;
(b) in units of mass in the case of other products.

In other words, all food that is sold in the EU will need to list either its volume (for liquids) or its mass (for solids) in metric units on the pack. Note the absence of anything banning the use of other indicators on the pack, such as “number of eggs”, “mass in pounds”, “number of moles of hydrogen atoms in the packet”, etc. Anyone who wishes to do so can advertise any or all of the above, as long as the metric unit of volume or mass is clearly marked. See: a pint of milk.

So the more outlandish claim, that the legislation would ban the sale of eggs in packs labelled as ‘six’ or ’12’, is obvious, total nonsense.

The only thing substantiating the piece at all is the Mail’s quote from an unnamed source at the UK’s Food Standards Agency, “Retailers would not be allowed to put ‘Six eggs’ on the front of the box.“. Whether the Mail has grossly misquoted the FSA spokesman, or whether the FSA spokesman is an idiot, is not clear. Either way, the quote is wrong.

A more sensible criticism of the proposed rule comes from The Devil’s Knife – that the change would cost food packagers money for very little benefit, wasting everyone’s time and resources:

Well, I would imagine that selling a 500g box of eggs that does not, in fact, contain 500g of produce is illegal under Trading Standards. So now the egg producers are going to have to weigh each and every box, and stamp the exact weight on each box. Not only will they have to buy the stamping equipment (because you can bet your bottom dollar that just writing the weight on is not legal: they even have to stamp each individual egg now, for fuck’s sake) but it is also labour-intensive.

Well, this would be true, except that eggs are already graded by weight – e.g. a ‘large’ egg weighs 63-73g – which requires them to be weighed. And under EU labelling rules, positive errors are allowed on packaging, as are negative errors of 3% (for a package that weighs 300-500g, like six large eggs).

So if the new rules do come in, an egg producer who wished to comply with them at zero cost could just add ‘weight 385g’ to all their boxes of large eggs, and otherwise carry on as before.

Meanwhile, an egg producer who wanted to emphasise the fact that their large eggs were super-large could put the actual weight if they chose, based on the grading by weight that they would have done anyway. Obviously, this would require more complicated software for labelling; whether the producer views it as worthwhile or not depends on whether they reckon it’ll help them make money. Like, erm, most commercial decisions…

Update: John Harrison of Allotment.co.uk has helpfully clarified the (current and not planned to change) rules for small producers in comments:

It’s currently perfectly legal to engage in farm gate sales (or front door sales for backgarden chicken keepers) so long as you do not grade the eggs and provide a use-by date.

This means the box sold at the door of six eggs will be various sizes, which is actually quite useful when cooking. Some things a small egg is perfect for and you can hardly use ‘half a large egg’. The useby date is generally just a matter of adding 30 days to the laid date.

Home producers do not need to stamp the eggs etc. It’s when you supply shops etc that the weight of regulation comes in.

In praise of firing squads

I oppose the death penalty, but if countries are going to impose it, then the firing squad is a pretty decent method. It’s rapid and painless enough not to be sick torture, but it’s also brutal enough to remind everyone concerned that they are, actually, violently and prematurely ending a life.

Which is good, because that’s what the death penalty involves, whether or not you personally support it. You’re either saying “it is right for the state to violently and prematurely end this person’s life for the good of society/justice”, or you are saying “it is not right for the state to violently and prematurely end people’s lives”.

Shooting – as with UK-style hanging by the days of Albert Pierrepont – doesn’t try and cover up the fact that a human being is being violently killed, whilst also not revelling in the person’s suffering (unlike, say, crucifixion or stoning). Lethal injections and gas chambers, by removing the element of violence and disguising the taking of a life as a medical or scientific procedure, are no more humane than shooting or hanging – but far more dishonest and hypocritical.

If firing squads turn your stomach because they involve killing a person, then that’s all to the good. But don’t kid yourself that any of the other methods of execution are any better.

Well, apart from the one administered to Arthur Charles Herbert Runcie MacAdam Jarrett (unbelievably, not available on YouTube), of course.

‘Anti-Europe’ is an accurate term for UKIPpers

There are two possible meanings that the phrase ‘anti-Europe’ can carry.

One is the Fox News interpretation, under which Europe is full of gay, garlic-eating communists, and therefore should be bombed, or at least avoided. The other is the opposition to European political integration, or to the view of Europe as a political rather than solely a geographic entity.

If someone’s from Europe and/or voluntarily in Europe [*] – which includes almost everyone with any interest at all in the debate on European political integration – to describe that person as ‘anti-Europe’ in its first meaning would make no sense at all, unless they were actually an insane self-loather (Melanie Phillips is not a counterexample here).

Hence, people opposed to European political integration who complaining about the use of ‘anti-European’ to describe them are silly. Nobody’s claiming that you hate yourself, football, the Parthenon, black pudding, the English language and motorways. You do, however, hate the concept of Europe as a political entity. And that’s why you’re being described as ‘anti-Europe’.

There is some truth in the complaint, in that there’s a genuine conceptual difference between ‘anti-Europe’ and ‘anti-EU’. While most anti-EU types are also anti-Europe, there are a few people who favour European political integration but also believe that the EU is so hopelessly corrupt and useless that it should be abolished and we should start again. But they’re the only ones to whom that distinction applies, there really aren’t very many of them, and they’re not the people who join UKIP…

[*] a reminder to UKIPpers: the UK is, geographically, in Europe.

When Good Contrarianism Goes Bad

So, I come up with a contrarian view on the BP issue that I don’t 100% hold, but which is a genuine aspect of the story and which has been completely neglected in any of the coverage I’ve seen. I mention it on Twitter, I spend a couple of days thinking about it, and then I write it up for a blog post.

…and then, the same bloody day, the sillier ends of the UK press have the same idea, although with far less research and more pointless nationalistic ranting. Had I known they were going to do that, I wouldn’t have bothered – there’s a difference between contrarianism where you float a viewpoint that nobody’s promoting, and Clarksonism where you float a viewpoint that lots of people are promoting and pretend that you’re being oh so brave and daring for doing so. The latter is no fun at all, and even the perception of the latter is a bit embarrassing.

Anyway.

There are elements of Obama’s public references to BP that can only be explained by Brit-bashing. The underlying problem in the US oil industry is regulatory failure, and if the US oil industry were to operate under the same regulatory framework that the UK oil industry adopted after Piper Alpha, then the disaster wouldn’t have happened. And the best way to deal with safety in general is the aviation industry’s one of heavy, preemptive regulation, with accident inquiries that avoid blame and stick to making recommendations that are enforced, rather than doing nothing until there’s a disaster and then throwing around massive amounts of blame and infinite lawsuits [*].

I’m in two minds about the US administration’s behaviour at the moment, though.

As I mentioned in comments to the other post, I don’t understand their strategy here: the incident is fundamentally George Bush’s fault, in that his government deliberately cut regulation from its already poor start and also granted permits for unprecedentedly deep-sea drilling, which the current government has had no time to fix. Any UK or Australian PM worth their salt would be milking this fact for all it was worth, and saying “unlike our inept, industry-beholden, corrupt predecessor, we’re going to create a proper regulator to ensure this doesn’t happen again”.

But assuming that slating former presidents is off the menu in US political debate, and given that the public are baying for blood, I can see what they’re doing on self-preservation grounds. And if it ends up with BP paying the expected actual cost of $20-30bn for the cleanup, compensation, and fines for any specific violations that led up to the disaster, and not being charged crazy punitive damages, expropriated, kicked out of the country, or similar, then that’s a reasonable outcome.

Whether the fact that the markets seem to think a worse outcome is likely is because there’s a genuine political risk that Obama is going to go Putin-y on foreign investors, or whether it’s because markets are paranoid beasts at the best of times, remains to be seen. I’m not sure it’s a good thing that the US president is using the kind of rhetoric that makes markets believe he might – but I’m not sure he has much of a choice.

In short, let’s see what happens. If the end outcome is a reasonable settlement, coupled with massive increases in regulatory requirements, enforcement and spending in the US oil industry, then bring it on and three cheers for Mr Obama.

[*] relatedly, my attitude towards dead oil rig workers is very similar to my attitude toward dead volunteer soldiers: “that’s sad for you and your loved ones, but it’s also why you were paid so much more than someone with your skill-base could have earned in a job that didn’t have a substantially elevated risk of death”.

On helping Americans to steal your pension

Let’s assume that, like most UK workers, you have a pension fund with a substantial part of its investment in FTSE companies, usually weighted by value.

What should you care more about:

1) the fact that the US government is attempting to steal a sizeable proportion of your money?

2) some fucking cormorants?

Clue: if you picked 2, you’re an idiot.

So could British people perhaps stop ragging on BP, or pretending the Gulf of Mexico spill is some kind of serious environmental disaster that’ll actually harm people (rather than making beaches look untidy for a bit and topping some fish and birds)?

The spill will cost about $20-30bn to clear up, including compensation for those directly affected, which is a sum that BP should have no problem in paying, and which would be the fair price for them to pay.

The fact that BP’s share price is below levels reflecting that cost, and that BP bond yields have increased to junk levels partly reflects market panic – but also partly reflects genuine fears that the US will do something truly vindictive, using its demonisation of BP as an excuse to steal its (i.e. ‘your’) assets beyond the cost of cleaning the spill in some form of punitive damages.

And everyone who brings out the whole ‘ooh, BP is so evil and unsafe’ saw (it is not; it is as evil and unsafe as the rest of the oil industry, whose levels of evilness and unsafety are set by national governments in oily countries. BP’s safety culture in its US operations is no different from ExxonMobil’s, Shell’s or Chevron’s – it was just the unlucky one this time round) is enabling that demonisation campaign.

The oil industry should be reformed. It won’t get reformed, because we’re too dependent on cheap oil, and the occasional disaster is collectively viewed as a fair price to pay for the ability to pay under $3 a gallon for petrol. Especially when the disaster in question doesn’t happen to Americans: how many people are even aware of Shell’s operations in Nigeria?

But the US’s anti-BP crusade has nothing to do with any efforts to reform the industry – it’s an attempt to distract Americans from the fact that the disaster is primarily their own fault (and that nothing will be done about it in the long term because the American people won’t stand for expensive petrol), and to steal some foreign assets into the bargain.

So unless you’re a stars-and-stripes-waving redneck, don’t join the anti-BP campaign just because you think the world would be a nicer place if companies were nicer…

Update: Turbo-LOL.

Jealous petulant snipery and the Labour leadership

There seems to be a fair amount of grumpiness and sarcasm going on around the Labour party leadership election.

Much of this is for sensible reasons (broadly “the only one of the candidates who isn’t a dull clone has no experience of managing anything ever, and David Miliband is a war criminal”).

However, there’s also a fair amount that’s come for the stupidest reason possible: “they all went to Oxbridge, so they aren’t representative”.

If you replace “Oxbridge” with “public school”, and “the Labour party” with “the Tory party”, this is definitely a fair point: you get to public school solely by having relatives who have large quantities of disposable cash, and therefore anyone who has been to public school has had at the very least an upper-middle-class upbringing [*].

For reasons to do both with a lack of state-school applications and variations in actual acceptance rates, Oxbridge still has a private school bias in its admissions. So it’s fair to say that a randomly picked Oxbridge person is probably from a privileged background, and is not particularly likely to be a good person to represent the working class.

But that isn’t what we’re being faced with here.

We know that Diane Abbott’s parents were working-class immigrants, and that she grew up as a black working-class girl in 1950s and 1960s London. We know that Andy Burnham’s parents were working-class Scousers, and that (while he doubtless faced less adversity than Abbott while growing up) he also had a working-class upbringing in 1970s and 1980s Warrington.

In other words, we know that two of the candidates for the Labour leadership are people who come from unequivocally working-class families and areas, and who – despite the fact that Oxbridge admissions tilt towards the middle- and upper-middle-classes – were good enough to beat the bias in the system and get in anyway.

Isn’t the correct response to that fact “it’s fantastic that two of the candidates for the Labour leadership are people who are that academically able and motivated whilst at the same time having a very strong understanding of what growing up without a silver spoon is like – this is exactly what we want from our political leaders”, rather than “meh, Oxbridge wankers, unrepresentative, blah blah”?

Well, unless you’re a jealous petulant inverse snob, that is.

[*] before we get any bleeding heart middle-class sob stories, yes, many parents spend a huge proportion of their disposable incomes on school fees and go without holidays, ponies, etc – but in order to for their disposable income to cover a couple of kids’ school fees they still need to be reliably making a lot more than the median wage, which makes them upper-middle-class.

Tories, speed cameras, and Voluntary Idiot Tax

There are mild signs of upset at the Coalition opting to cut the number of new speed cameras. There shouldn’t be.

For one: speed cameras are, entirely, a voluntary tax on idiots. Most non-urban speed limits are far lower than the safe speed for the average vehicle on the road in question driven by the average driver; that’s a given. But if you know a road has speed cameras on it, and you don’t drive within the speed limit as a result, you either don’t care about not being fined, or are too inept to drive within the parameters laid down by the law. And if you don’t know a road well enough to know whether it has speed cameras, then you don’t know whether it’ll suddenly turn into something where the speed limit is actually the maximum safe speed.

But for two: the people who hate speed cameras and the way that they impede their slightly-faster progress to wherever they’re going (not the ones who actually get caught, but the ones who do know the road, drive slower-than-required, and wish they didn’t have to) have a reasonable utility argument: why should fairly nebulous claims about accident reduction – and all claims about speed reduction leading to accident reduction in non-urban areas without a pedestrian presence are fairly nebulous – take precedence over people’s time? After all, part of the economic case for high-speed rail consists of the time savings involved – surely we should take them into account here as well?

In short: of course the Tory-led government is going to cut speed cameras, because its support base consists of Tories and Clarksons whose primary concern is “getting there quickly”. Meanwhile, since the last government’s support base consisted of urbanites and people who wanted to raise more tax money from society’s moral dregs, of course they were going to support speed cameras.

If the anti-clampdown is focused on motorways and A-roads, then the real-world effect will be negligible, except that the tax burden will be shifted slightly from Mr Toads to bus-using Sparts. If it also includes mixed-use urban single-carriageways, then kids will die. Hopefully, the impact will be the former – in which case, all we can say is “party rewards its supporters at its opponents’ financial expense; world neutral”.

(note: *safety*-neutral. Obviously, shifting the tax burden from Mr Toads to bus-using Sparts will also tend to shift it from rich to poor. File under “well, yeah, check out the blue rosettes”).

‘Newspapers are doomed’ forecast of the day

From a media expert:

The future of national newspapers is in doubt [...]: the purveying of ‘news’ (which is only one of a newspaper’s functions) is in several respects more interesting, more immediate and more dramatic on-screen. The greater part of all newspapers is given over to advertising [...] which keeps them alive, and to features of comment, information and entertainment which might just as well be found in magazines.

If national newspapers succumb [...] it may be a serious, even a tragic loss; but it is probable that local newspapers will continue to lead a healthy, useful and profitable existence for many years to come [...]

The astute reader will have guessed the prediction is from Some Time Ago.

It’s actually from the excellent, late Ruari McLean‘s Thames & Hudson Manual of Typography, published in 1980.

On the local press, he basically wins the prediction – it thrived, more profitably than the national press, right up to the point where localised Internet small ads nicked its main revenue stream. Expecting a 63-year-old print media expert writing in 1980 to predict Craigslist, Match.com, Monster and eBay would be a bit unreasonable.

But it’s interesting that someone so close to the trade (he was lead designer around this time for both the Observer and the Economist) called the outlook for national dailies so wrongly. While 2008 and 2009 weren’t great years for the print press, there’ll be a large selection of printed national papers on offer for many years to come, and the intervening 28 years were all ones that featured a thriving, albeit flawed, national daily print culture.

The rest of the book is also interesting. Obviously, in its own right, because of its excellent examples and advice on how to lay out words (of whatever sort), and descriptions of current and historical printing methods.

But also, because it was published by a near-retirement designer right in the middle of the time when hot metal typesetting was being replaced with computer-based phototypesetting, and before the advent of desktop publishing, it’s a strange mixture of things which are still absolutely relevant and things which are absolutely obsolete (my favourite example of the latter is the advice for every jobbing designer to buy a telex machine to allow instant written communication with clients).

This may be partly why Mr McLean got the national newspaper story so wrong.

In 1980, the newspaper industry was still based on hot metal typesetting, despite it being the most obvious example of a business that would’ve benefited from instant computer-based phototypesetting and offset litho printing, because of the utterly malign influence of the print unions [*]. Magazines, meanwhile, were printed in sensible places using modern technology.

It was only Rupert Murdoch’s willingness to fight a sustained battle to avoid printing his papers using Victorian technology that broke the influence of the print unions. This allowed the other papers to move over to computer-based offset litho, and hence the colour-based, photo-based, rapid-layout format we see them in today.

Without a proprietor who was pretty much an evil bastard willing to lose far more money than he had to gain to prove a point, the UK national newspaper industry would have ended up stuck on black and white Linotype letterpress at an insane cost right up until it died. At which point, Mr McLean’s thesis would’ve been proven.

Update: the Guardian’s Peter Robins comments. Well worth a read.

[*] I suspect this is one of the reasons the press in the UK trends right-wing, despite being made up largely of natural liberal-y media folk. At the time today’s editors were junior reporters, the print unions lived up to absolutely every change-and-efficiency-hating, restrictive-practices-loving, company-bankrupting, general-utter-bastard stereotype of 1970s and early 1980s trade unionism.

Tories stitch up Lib Dems on civil liberties

Sunny at LC reckons he has a copy of the Libservative agreement.

Libertarians, of both left-and right- varieties, have been getting super-excited on Twitter about section 10, which is dedicated to reversing ZaNuLieBore’s Evil Police State, freeing the dissidents from the gulags, etc:

A Freedom or Great Repeal Bill.
The scrapping of ID card scheme, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point Database.
Outlawing the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission.
The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.
Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.
The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.
The restoration of rights to non-violent protest.
The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech.
Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.
Further regulation of CCTV.
Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason.
A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.

What does this mean in real life?

Well, a bit of cash saved. The ID database was never going anywhere (come on, NPFIT is much simpler and failed), and its cancellation is solely bad news for IT consultancies and good news for the Treasury/taxpayer. Something which doesn’t and can’t exist doesn’t threaten civil liberties.

But that’s the only real pledge to do anything substantive (apart from allowing parental opt-out when schools try and use fingerprint authentication for IT access purposes, which is frankly bizarre – if a kid’s laptop is fingerprint-activated rather than password activated, then so bloody what?) – and the only reason the Tories moved towards outright opposition to the ID database in the election run-up is because they’d worked out that it would have been an epic failure. It wouldn’t have happened under Labour either (their manifesto carefully left the possibility of delaying or cancelling the database intact), although more money would likely have been wasted first.

The others are all weasel words that commit to nothing. No data stored “without good reason” means “unless we say so” – the previous government would say “to stop terrorists, pirates and paedophiles” is a good reason for all the retention they mandated. Any agreement that contains such a vague get-out clause is an agreement that means nothing at all.

Similarly, “extension of the scope of the FoIA” is great. But without any concrete details of how it’ll be extended, and with the Tories (who’ve historically opposed FoI far more even than Labour) running the show, it’s hardly likely to mean much.

You can run through the same process for all the others. They can all be implemented in a way that changes precisely nothing from how things are done now, and that’s precisely how they will be implemented.

But the most disturbing thing in section 10 is actually something that it doesn’t say.

The greatest victory for civil liberties over the last 25 years or so – the Human Rights Act – isn’t even mentioned, whereas a Great Repeal Bill is mentioned. Given historic Tory opposition to the HRA, does this make anyone else bloody nervous….?