Sunday, 23 September 2012

Does the party system work?

All politics is based around a party system. Parties make it easier to fund-raise, they make it easier for people to make decisions and they make it easier to know what you are voting for. But do they?

With parties you have to take a whole bunch of policies you cannot chop and change and pick the ones you want. You wouldn't go to a shop and let them tell you that you can only buy the red bag or the blue bag and you have to take what is inside. Parties make selection of your true opinions impossible. Do they need to? Do policies have to be connected? There is a strong argument for spending and taxation policies as these have to be connected, but the devil is in the detail.

Parties also make it easier for lobby groups to interfere with government. If we got to pick and choose policies then the lobbyists would have to lobby all of us. They would have to get access to all of us and this is going to be incredibly difficult. It is much easier to lobby a party. So that is another good thing.

But most of all the world or the country run by a politician is a complex thing. So policies have to change. What you wanted to do might no longer be a possibility because things change. You have to be pragmatic and to know when to ditch ideology. The problem is that with parties the ideology trumps the pragmatism and we end up with failed policies and a triumph of ideology over reason and evidence. Rhetoric wins over reason.

So if we want good government we want politicians who are pragmatic, who are no dominated by ideology, who can talk across party lines and we need journalists who appreciate this without looking for splits. So what if Lib-Dems talk to Labour - we should be encouraging cross-party relations, Churchill did.

RT  Nick Clegg has had "lengthy discussions" with senior Labour figures - including Ed Miliband 

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Death penalty for cop killers

Lord Tebbit suggests that the argument against the death penalty was always very thin. So lets have a little look at evidence and history.

What about Derek Bentley? - another cop killer. Is that a thin argument hanging someone who did not carry out the act and who was pardoned 45 years later.

Then if the death sentence had been around the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four would probably have all been hanged as well. But they were all innocent. Lord Denning had said when interviewed that if the Guildford Four had been hanged "They'd probably have hanged the right men". But the criminal law does not depend on probabilities it depends on beyond reasonable doubt.

So I don't see that there is a thin argument at all. The chance that you might execute someone who is innocent is all the argument we need.

The deaths of two unarmed police officers in Manchester yesterday was shocking and a terrible loss. But the actions of the suspect are unusual. Why hand yourself in straight after committing such a crime instead of continuing to run? It is going to be a complex case.

Monday, 17 September 2012

The simple reason why high frequency trading is dangerous

The stock-market is usually modelled as a Brownian motion or  a random walk as shown by Mandlebrot amongst others. Now Brownian motion is an odd type of motion because the speed at which particles travel depends on the time between you making measurements of where they are.

On a molecular level Brownian motion is caused by lots of collisions of much smaller objects on a larger object. As time increases these average out and so changes of direction cancel as the object is pummelled from all directions. So as I measure the distance travelled over longer times it increases proportional to the square root of the time since I started measurement. If I measure it very frequently then I see rapid changes over short distances but over longer times the rate of change of position is smaller and so the speed decreases.

This square root relationship applies to all the random walks where changes of direction are possible - so share prices go up and down depending on the buffeting of individual transactions. If I look at the movements over a day they will be slower because of averaging than movements over an hour. This is this square root relationship. The problem with high frequency trading is that the time-scales are shrunk to seconds and so the speed of change is much higher than these longer sampling averaged times because of the NOISE at this level. That is the point high frequency trading depends on the noise that gives rapid price changes. There is no sense of investment or any rational relationship to the economy this is pure speculation and their is no investment involved.

Mathematically and politically this is a foolish and reckless process that makes no sense. On average you will gain nothing. Some days you will be well ahead and others well behind because that is how a random process works. If you are consistently ahead then you must have information that tips the random process in your favour like card counting. This can only be done if you have insider information that others do not and is suggestive of insider trading, or at least an uneven playing field. There is no justifiable reason for the high frequency trading that has become a major part of the markets.

The EU wanted to introduce a transaction tax that would have stopped this practice but the UK was opposed as the equity markets are supposedly important for the UK economy (more of the inequity of equities another time). Such a tax would kill these transactions as they would no longer be profitable and end one of the hedge funds little tricks. This would put another nail in their coffin if short selling is also banned. It is time there was some sense in the markets and a transaction tax would be a good step forward.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Food Security and China

There is going to be a serious world food crisis in the next twelve months as several key crops have failed. The US corn harvest has failed and the Russian grain harvest is also in a bad way. This is going to drive up grain commodity prices and grain futures will become a speculators paradise. There was a recent article on how Barclays had made £500 million from speculation in the last crisis.

This will not affect the rich countries as much as the lower income countries where many people will not be able to afford to eat. This will lead to waves of violence and unrest, that have been predicted in a slashdot post today. Europe, the US and Russia must all think seriously about food security but they should look beyond their own borders. They should also be looking towards China. The problem for China is that it is a middle income country with a huge population to feed. So if the prices go too high their is a big chance that unrest will spread to China and this is very serious for international relations. I was discussing with colleagues that I would buy a farm and then have personal food security, but they pointed out how do you protect your food from those who would take it? Look at what happened to the farmers in Zimbabwe for instance. The mob will just come and take it. So food security for China is vital. We don't want to face a mob of 1.34 billion with potential access to military hardware and nuclear weapons fighting for food resources. That would have very serious consequences for all of us.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Pearsonification of University Education

I have written before on my worries about the big publishers taking over university education and this year it has begun as Pearson are accrediting a degree delivered by Royal Holloway. Soon McGraw-Hill and Wiley will follow as this is a multi-billion pound market and they cannot afford to get left behind. This couple with the governments new fees schemes is going to mean that higher education will have changed beyond all recognition within ten years. On our departmental away-day I said that this would be something to watch out for but I did not realise it would happen so quickly.

This week I had a short online survey from an International provider of educational resources and it asked me about Pearson, Longman and Edexcel. They asked what words and phrases I associate with Pearson and I said dangerous and scandal. This is because the head of Edexcel was forced to resign after they were recorded saying that people should do their exams because they are easier and they have a higher pass rate. Anyway this provider was of course Pearson and so my chances of a job working for them are now nil. So I had better ingratiate myself with McGraw-Hill or I might not have a future.

This lowering of standards as has happened at GCSE and A-levels because of exam boards competing for students is one of my concerns. There will be even more pressure at university level where the fees are much higher. A more serious problem is the ultimate consequence for universities. When you can get your Pearson, McGraw-Hill or Wiley degree it is not dependent on any particular institution and so students will go where it is cheapest, or where league tables say teaching is best.

Now the best universities according to the legue tables are the elite "Russel Group". I have worked for two of these universities and their teaching is actually alright but nothing spectacular, and often not very innovative. They are much more focussed on research - especially with the way government is now funding universities with research league tables and assessments. If they could have graduate schools and ditch under-graduates they would.  They also pride themselves on setting their own curriculums and accreditation and this is not going to change. So you are not likely to get a Pearson degree from there.

The universities that focus on teaching are outside this group and so there will be a competition to deliver the corporate accredited degrees between the other universities. This will lead to mergers of universities and to some closing as competition increases. There will be downward pressure on fees that you can charge students and there will be a need to cut costs. This will mean less student contact and a higher student to staff ratio as well as using different low-cost methods of teaching. All of this leads to a poorer experience for students as they become homogenised and their education industrialised. There will be some winners but many losers.

If the Russell Group think they will come out of this unscathed they only need to look at the world of the super-market. In fact looking at the world rich list will aslo make it clear. They will keep to a high quality elite expensive delivery to those who can afford/want to be that bit different. But who makes most money? Wall-Mart, Tesco or Marks and Spencer? They will take the M&S option but the reality is that Tesco and Wall-Mart are where the money is. So universities will become places where they stack students high and sell degrees cheap because that is how to make money.

The Organic Question

Last week there was a meta-analysis of the health benefits of eating organic which was summed up in the press as there is no evidence for any nutritional or health benefit of eating organic. Except if you actually read the paper the conclusion said that it is possible that eating organic leads to less ingestion of pesticides. I then got in to a bit of a Twitter row with Le Canard Noir and Simon Singh about organic so I wanted to write down a few points as to why this is not a simple issue and why Singh is wrong to try and make it a single view issue.

Singh and others are fighting against their perception of quackery amongst the organic movement. They are right that the Soil Association says a lot of stupid things. For example they promote homeopathy for animals as organic - no it is not organic it is stupid. They have also wanted to ban the use of wormers on organic farms which is also stupid and will result in a negative impact on animal welfare. This and the fact that they are bullies over silly chemical regulations when the chemicals decay faster than they say and when they have little scientific evidence. So I agree the organic movement is certified by a group with  a very poor track record. This is the negative side but are there any positives or should we just say it is a crackpot idea?

I have to also say I am son of a farmer who contributed to the further industrialisation of milk production in the breeding of super milkers. My family had a herd of pedigree Friesians but the Friesian is almost an extinct animal as it has been bred with the Holstein to produce more milk (at the cost of quality because of reduced fat content). Towards the end of his life he deeply regretted what had happened in British Dairy farming and the loss of quality. For example to him we produced tasteless rubberised cheese because we had lost the skills of the small dairies and cheese-makers. He felt we went to far in following policies that destroyed taste.

So is there any clear positive evidence for organic?

Well the ecological impacts are one of the reasons we buy organic.

Firstly, why do we want to encourage the more intensive use of pesticides and other chemical interventions? I was shocked by my cousin spraying the grass field where the cows will graze with herbicides. We NEVER did this when I was on the farm and my grandfather was in charge. This is just laziness. Cows will eat most of the weeds so what is the point. You have to worry about Ragwort which will kill them and thistles are annoying but there are ways of limiting the thistles by "topping" which just involves mowing off the tops and this is how we used to do it. This is laziness and the excessive use of anti-biotics is also laziness as it allows you to have lower levels of animal welfare and higher densities increasing production. Personally I would sooner have a happy cow as they are a tastier cow. Banning any use of antibiotics as the soil association want is stupidity because this has a harmful effect on animal welfare where some of the organic policies have improved animal welfare, such as the requirements for space for organic chickens.

The second point is the increase in monocultures. We now sow many fewer varieties of crops and on a larger scale with much more chemical intervention. Now from an evolutionary perspective this is not a good idea. More variety means avoiding the problem of having "all your eggs in one basket". Diversity means it is less likely that some pest/virus can affect the entire crop. In the case of bananas the spread of disease and the lack of diversity threatens global production. Nature does not limit diversity and so it is unwise for us to ignore nature's example.

So that is the ecology point what about the more direct effects such as those mentioned in the conclusion of the study? That is the minimal exposure to pesticides and other chemicals. Perhaps the simplest example is BST a hormone given to cattle to increase milk production. The producers assured the government agencies that it was not present in the milk and so it did not need clinical trials as all drugs must undergo (they cost a fortune). But they were wrong (or lying depending on your view) it does go into the milk. So the EU banned its use and banned import of milk from treated cattle. Then the WTO using the corporate evidence said this was unfair and is now penalising the EU for an "unfair" trade restriction against the US, where it is used. There was a similar problem with growth hormone in beef cattle.

What about pesticides? Well these have not been reported to get through to consumed food in significant amounts. But there is some evidence that they might be. Hive collapse disorder is a problem particularly in the US where bee hives are suddenly emptied. Recently there was evidence that this might be caused by trace amounts of pesticide introduced by the beekeepers when they replaced the combs with sugar filled cells. They had moved to using glucose-fructose syrup from genetically modified maize that had been treated with a herbicide to which bees are particularly sensitive. These trace amounts might be responsible for the collapse disorder. So pesticides can get in to the food chain although in very small amounts and it is not clear that these have any effects on human health. But we cannot say they definitely don't because we have not properly tested them.

There is another negative side to organic and that is the lower yields. As the world population grows and as we face dealing with the effects of climate change can we afford to be organic? Our first duty is to make sure everyone is fed and organic cannot do that as the losses in yield are significant. There are somethings that can be organic without substantial changes in yield - lamb raised on welsh mountains could be an example. The opposition to genetic modification is also unreasonable as we are just accelerating breeding we are not creating Franken-food and the organic movement has fed the hysteria about GM. In fact GM can have environmental benefits by reducing the needs for herbicides as well and producing plants that can live in poorer conditions.

So I understand why Singh and others might feels anti-organic for the ridiculous nutritional claims, or the irrational arguments against GM, but there are other arguments not so easily discounted. I would also like to test to see if they can find a taste difference between a mass produced factory farmed supermarket chicken and an organic chicken. I think that they would and sometimes just because it tastes better is reason enough.