23 July 2016

Brexit - The End of the Story?

It's now a month since the UK's European Union referendum when there was a slim majority of votes in favour of leaving the EU. That has given me a bit of time to take stock of the shocking result. Those of you who know me well are probably thinking, "When will he stop banging on about it?". Well, I don't know if I can answer that question but I hope that given there's been time to think about the issues, the quality of what I have to say will be somewhat higher than the helpless thrashing around, wondering what on earth to do about it, that may have been characteristic of my earlier posts.

1. The majority for leave was very slim.

First, the figures. The headline figures are 51.9% for leave, 48.1% for remain. (http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/find-information-by-subject/elections-and-referendums/past-elections-and-referendums/eu-referendum/electorate-and-count-information). This was on a turnout of 72.2%. In other words, 37.4% of the electorate voted for leave, 34.7% voted for remain and 27.8% did not cast a valid vote. I would be pointless to speculate what the 27.8% would have voted for, but it's true that it could swing the result in either direction - either towards an overwhelming majority for leave, or an overwhelming majority for remain. I do not have the figures for what proportion of people eligible to vote were actually registered, but there have been plenty of concerns expressed over recent changes to voter registration which means certain groups are significantly under-represented (e.g. students). Many people also think that 16/17-year-olds should have been eligible to vote. Given that they will be affected by the outcome for longer than any other voters, I think this is a strong argument. The same argument was made for the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, and they were duly given the vote.

2. The referendum was not set up properly.

Most referenda are set up with some strong safeguards. For example, sentiment towards important issues fluctuates from day to day and from week to week, and if it just happens to creep over the line on the day the referendum takes place, this is hardly going to lead to a fair outcome. I'm not say that's what happened in this case, but the majority was slim enough that it's a possibility. It can also vary depending on the weather - if it rains in an area where there is strong support for one side or the other, then turnout will be lower in that area. Another fact is that this referendum was not legally binding, and only advisory. David Cameron said he would trigger article 50 of the Lisbon treaty straight away in the case of a leave vote. He did not honour this, instead choosing to resign. His successor Theresa May made no such statement.

The more normal way this is handled is for a referendum to be made legally binding, but requiring a super-majority (e.g. 66.6% or 75%) with minimum turnout requirements, or for example 50% of the electorate (as opposed to the 37.4% we saw in this referendum) voting for a course of action. The way I think it should have been done here is for a requirement of say 66% voting to leave meaning it's legally binding, 66% voting to remain meaning that leaving is ruled out for a defined period (say 20 years) and anything in between meaning that there is scope for the issue to be revisited. All of this of course requiring a turning of say 75%. In any case, the question asked was so vague as to be essentially meaningless. It should have been framed as 'we remain in the EU on this set of terms, or we leave on that set of terms.' To give the benefit of the doubt to David Cameron, it could be argued that the terms of remaining were well-defined after his renegotiation, but there was not equivalant on the leave side - and as it turns out, no plans at all as no-one really believed they could win.

2.5 As Ian Hislop said, despite losing we still have the right to continue to make the argument.

This I think is an important point. People have often said that if you continue to make the argument you are a bad loser, or you do not respect democracy, or similar such arguments. I have been accused of both. I will reiterate his point that in a general election the opposition doesn't just go silent for 5 years. They carry on campaigning. that doesn't mean they don't accept the outcome.

3. The people have spoken, but we still don't know what they actually said.

One of the criticisms I made of the leave campaign was the they did not make it at all clear what they were campaigning for, as I outline above. It was clear what they were campaigning against (i.e. remaining in the EU) but so many people were asking whether they were campaigning for a Norway-style deal, a Canadian-style deal, a Swiss-style deal and so forth but none of the leading leave campaigners were able to answer this. In actual fact, I think the same criticism can be made in a lesser way for the remain campaign - i.e. is it just 'business as usual' or are we going to make some definite changes? Perhaps the remain campaign can be partly forgiven, as David Cameron did go through a 'renegotiation' and came back with very little.

4. Theresa May is in a holding pattern.

So we have a new Prime Minister who not even her own party voted for, without any real democratic mandate and whose party only has a slim majority in parliament. She has repeatedly said 'Brexit means Brexit' without giving any indication of what she means by that. I sense that she will not be able to continue to say this for much longer without putting in a few more details, although I do understand her reluctance to do so. I think there are basically two views of where she is at:

(a) From the point of view of those who wish to remain, it may be that she is hoping the sentiment towards leave will diminish once people start to see the reality of what leave might mean. The pound has fallen significantly and there are data emerging that the country is going into recession. It will take time for the full pattern to emerge. Meanwhile, she has tasked the leading Brexit campaigners (minus Michael Gove, for what I presume are personal reasons) with coming up with a plan. This is akin to "here's a load of rope, see if it's enough to hang yourselves with" as the well-known expression says. She will hope to come out of this stronger, having persuaded the population of the error of their ways. After all, pro-EU sentiment has increased in other EU countries now that they've seen what's happening in the UK.

(b) From the point of view of those who wish to leave, she is serious about delivering it and will trigger article 50 once she has ascertained how it will likely look. That gives her time to talk to other EU leaders (she has wasted no time in talking to Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande already). Her statement that she will not trigger article 50 this year is merely a pragmatic one. After all, she has a reputation for pragmatism. Which of these do I think is more likely? The short answer is I hope for the former, fear the latter but really have absolutely no idea right now.

5. Whatever happens, the UK is changed for ever, and it probably isn't for the better.

Britain has become increasingly divided over the last 20 years or so, and I think no-one really realised that. What the referendum has done is to make these divisions apparent. I am in the position of living in a small town that voted Brexit, and working in a medium-sized city that voted to remain. When I travel the 17 miles from one to the other, the difference is at times stark. They might as well be in different countries.

It is my personal view that austerity politics should shoulder a large part of the blame for this divide. The nature of austerity has not hurt the interests of those who feel a sense of security in society, who are mainly comprised of the better off, degree-educated people who probably own their own homes. The people who have suffered are those in insecure work, insecure rented accommodation and who don't have a high level of education to help them get out of this situation. I paint a stereotypical picture but these two groups often have very little to do with each other. This divide closely overlaps with voting patterns, with the former predominantly voting remain and the latter voting leave. I have heard it said that the latter group have felt disenfranchised for 20 years, and it's only now that the remainers are starting to feel a similar level of disenfranchisement having unexpectedly lost the referendum. There may be some truth in this.

We really don't know what will happen over the next few months/years. Given what's happening in the world, I think there's a high probability of everything being overtaken by events elsewhere. I'm looking at you messrs Trump, Erdogan and Putin among others. You have your hands on or close to the levers of power that could determine how this world looks in 10 years' time.

29 December 2011

Review of 2011 - predictions for 2012

It's the year end, and time for me to review my predictions at the start of 2011.

11:11 campaign

How have I fared in my 11:11 campaign, i.e. to reduce my CO2 footprint by 11% in 2011? Given that we have relocated to Peru, there are a huge number of air miles in the equation, which probably means that I have failed to achieve a further reduction of 11% in my CO2 footprint this year. However, on the positive side:

1. We have installed a solar hot water system at the flat here in Arequipa. I am still trying to get the hang of guilt-free showers, but it's so nice to have hot water available that has no marginal energy cost other than to provide the water itself. There are still plans to install solar hot water when we return to England, but it hasn't happened yet. I'm going to claim this as a success.

2. Tertiary glazing - we installed some more robust perspex sheet tertiary glazing in many windows in the house, which is definitely a better solution. Again I'm going to claim this as a success, although there are still a number of windows in the house that could be fitted so the job isn't complete yet.

3. Yes I finished installing the loft insulation. In fact the loft is now mostly boarded as well, with the insulation underneath. Another success.

4. No wood-fired stove installed. But I did suggest it might have to wait until 2012. We'll see if that happens....

5. OK I didn't put in a 5 on the list, but I'm aware that living in Arequipa is fundamentally far less CO2-intensive - houses need no heating, we don't have a car but rely on foot, buses and sometimes taxis to get around.

So the big question is: what can I do for a 12:12 campaign, in other words can I reduce my carbon footprint by 12% in 2012? Given that we will almost certainly relocate back to England it's going to be very hard because there will be lots of air miles and we'll be moving to somewhere where energy usage is harder to avoid. Here's what I currently plan to do for 2012:

1. Solar hot water. This is still on the cards, and will almost certainly happen.

2. More perspex tertiary glazing in the rest of the house.

3. Maybe replace the boiler? It's not massively efficient, but given that the current boiler probably still has a number of years' life left in it and is about 80% efficient, the gain will not be that great.

4. Wood-fired stove - still a possibility but not a certainty. I've started to worry that having a smoke stack will put an oily residue on the photovoltaic panels, need to look into this further before deciding. If instead of the dining room we install it in the living room (which might be better anyway) there would be greater physical separation between the two.

5. Been reading some discussion about the use of dehumidifiers, and whether they can lead to an overall decrease in energy usage. My suspicion is that the direct effect is small, but maybe by reducing the damage caused by condensation which requires repainting (and ultimately probably more work) it can be beneficial in other ways. Having to dry clothing indoors in winter is a significant contributor to the condensation, so reducing this would be a benefit. If I can run it predominantly when there is photovoltaic electricity available then this would be a more tangible energy benefit.

Predictions for 2011.

1. Portugal and Spain will require a bailout. Well, I was right with Portugal but wrong with Spain. 50% success.

2.ISPs will drag their feet in the face of IPv4 address exhaustion. I think I was correct in this, although there are one or two encouraging signs of migration to IPv6.

3.Solar Photovoltaic installers will have a bumper year. I think up until the 12th December, I'm going to claim a success on this one. It seems that everyone was jumping on the bandwagon, and panel prices have dropped significantly. The turmoil in the industry created by the government's appalling handling of tariff reductions is a nasty sting in the tail to this story.

4. The UK government will collapse. Well, this hasn't happened, so I was wrong on this one.

5. I had absolutely no inkling of the political changes that would happen in the middle east, so maybe I should put in a retrospective number 5 and admit that I failed on this one.

Predictions for 2012

Here's my list of predictions for 2012. I feel a lot less certain about what's going to happen in 2012 for a number of reasons - I think there is fundamentally a lot more uncertainty in the world, and also not living in Europe for the latter half of 2011, I'm probably not as tuned in to the politics of the region although it's still where I feel my roots are.

1. I'm going to stick with the prediction that the UK coalition government will collapse and there'll be an election, although I suspect it will be a small Tory majority result.

2. There will be serious unrest in the UK due to government cutbacks, increasing poverty and unemployment and eurozone chaos. This in fact is what will lead to no. 1 happening, as a significant number of LibDem (and a few tory) MPs will blame this partly on government policy and rebel.

3. The Euro will survive, but not all countries currently in it will be a part of it. Most likely is that a block of poorer countries will be forced out of it and either form their own alliances or just go it alone - Portugal, Greece, Italy. There will be a lot of poverty in these countries as a result, with significant migration to richer countries. Italy is perhaps the big worry as it's a large economy, but the cumulative effects of ineffective government and corruption over many decades will come home to roost. Spain will survive as a Euro member.

4. House prices in the UK will continue to drift downwards slowly, but there will be no dramatic price movements.

5. There will be further political changes in the middle east - Syria, Iran and Israel/Palestine will be places to watch. It will probably get very nasty somewhere before it gets better. A bit of a vague prediction I realise, but I suspect there will be all-out war of some sort, most likely civil war in Syria. Feelings are still strong and issues remain unresolved in the region. No doubt the west will interfere and make things worse.

6. Margaret Thatcher will pass away, reigniting discussions about whether she should have a state funeral and who should pay for it. The papers will have a field day.

7. Prince Philip will pass away, which will cause the nation to unite (even fervent anti-royalists who mostly still respect him as a person) and put the dampers on the jubilee year celebrations.

That's it for now. Feels like the coming year has far more negatives than positives will a lot more uncertainty than previous years. By contrast, life here in Peru still feels very positive and with greater stability in the region. I won't hide my desire to stay here longer and put down deeper roots.

05 January 2011

Electric Vehicle Subsidies - A Good Policy?

Ever since the idea of an initial purchase subsidy for electric vehicles was announced, I have been a proponent of the scheme and claimed that it is an important stepping stone to a much better way of getting around. However, the more I read into the more I become concerned that it is unlikely to be a very effective way of achieving one of the main stated aims, which is to reduce CO2 emissions. Let me explain further.

The Economics

In the UK a new scheme has been introduced as of 1st January 2011 which provides a £5000 subsidy for electric vehicles. The current crop of battery-electric vehicles cost upwards of £25000 whereas the petrol or diesel equivalents are less than £15000. This difference is partly due to the battery which is an expensive component, but also due to a number of other technologies which are not as mature as the internal combustion engine. The fact that these cars are only likely to sell in small volumes is another factor in the elevated purchase price. The £5000 subsidy goes some, but not all of the way towards bringing the prices in line. With the raw costs quoted by the manufacturers the sales volumes would be extremely low without the subsidy, so the subsidy is in many ways an important way of encouraging manufacturers to enter this new and exciting market sector. Similar subsidies exist in many other countries and the overall effect is to make this market sector viable which would probably not be true otherwise. This is very similar to the feed-in tariff for microgeneration of electricity - it supports a market sector that would currently otherwise be unviable, but in a way that aims to bring economies of scale and technological maturity such that they will be viable and self-sustaining in the next few years.

The main benefit to the purchaser of an electric car is the much reduced running cost - 2p per mile for electric, as opposed to 14p per mile for petrol (from the AA and quoted by the guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2011/jan/05/petrol-prices-motorist). If the price differential is 12p per mile then a motorist has to travel 41666 miles, all other things being equal, in order to recover the additional purchase cost. An average motorist will do this distance in approximately 4 years, so based on these figures this looks like quite a good deal. However set against this is the fact that the current generation of vehicles are only capable of distances of around 100 miles before needing to be recharged. The risk of running out of fuel has been an issue since the motor car was invented but as most petrol cars can do more than 500 miles between refuelling, the issue is more acute with electric vehicles. This so-called range anxiety means that people who regularly travel long daily distances will not be buying electric cars. I believe it also means that single car families who own one car and just occasionally do longer distances would be unlikely to buy electric vehicles. By far the most likely purchasers are people who commute significant distances by car but whose return journey is within the range of the battery, or families who own two or more cars and would purchase an electric car as their second car.

Fixed Versus Marginal Costs

This is where I start to have my doubts. When people think about how much it costs per mile to travel by car, they usual think only of the fuel costs. This is by far the largest marginal cost of car travel but there are servicing costs, replacement tyres and other costs to consider as well. The main thing they don't consider are the fixed costs - the purchase cost of the car in the first place, insurance, vehicle excise duty, annual MOT and so forth. What electric cars do at present (with or without the subsidy) is to increase the fixed cost, but reduce the marginal cost. Whether this trade-off is a good thing or not depends on how much mileage you do. If you do high mileage then an electric vehicle is likely to make more economic sense, whereas a low mileage user will be worse off. It is the same effect as buying a Diesel-powered car as opposed to a petrol-powered one, but on a much larger scale - you pay more up front but the running costs are lower.

The Environmental Benefits

Up until now I have been very careful to avoid talking about the environment pros and cons of electric versus petrol cars. There is a lot of information (and an even greater amount of dis-information) on the internet about exactly how 'green' electric cars are.

Many of the concerns are about the chemicals in the batteries. I think it's very clear that, whilst it's not a non-issue, the issue is vastly smaller than those caused by internal combustion engines and their fuels. Electric vehicle batteries mainly contain lithium which is not particularly environmentally problematic although it does make them expensive. Some people have expressed concern about a limited global supply of lithium, but there are vast amounts available in sea water - it just happens currently to be cheaper to dig it out of the ground, and once this resource runs out we will be left with a much larger, but currently more expensive supply. We will either have to live with this more expensive supply or possibly someone will come up with a much cheaper means of extracting it from sea water. Either way, it will not run out quickly.

The other main concern, which I share, is about how the electricity is generated. Most journalists take a look at the UK electricity generation mix as a whole and assume that this proportion will apply to the electricity used to charge electric vehicles. However, one of the main benefits of electric vehicles is that they can be charged at night, therefore taking up 'slack' capacity that would otherwise go unused. This makes a huge amount of sense from a grid perspective, and will help to reduce the overall costs. However much of this slack capacity is take up by gas and coal generation which is fairly carbon-intensive. So every kWh added to the nighttime load is likely to be met by burning another 2.5kWh of coal or 2kWh of gas. This means that electric vehicles on the current grid will be effectively powered by our most polluting forms of generation. As the proportion of electricity generated by photovoltaics increases this problem will only get worse as this generation capacity goes offline at night.

My feeling about whether electric vehicles are better or worse than petrol vehicles (from a CO2 perspective) is that they are in fact better by a significant amount, but not as much as many people would have you believe. In fact, I doubt they currently do much better than the latest efficient diesel-powered cars, which are vastly cheaper to purchase. Of course the main promise of electric vehicles is that the grid will gradually increase the proportion generated by renewables, and the most polluting forms will form a diminishing proportion of the mix.

Jevons Paradox Applied to Travel

Let us take a look back at the cost per mile issue. Jevons paradox was originally applied to the use of coal in the early days of the industrial revolution, and made the observation that increasing efficiency in how coal was used didn't lead to an overall decline in how coal was used. Because coal used more efficiently, it this became viable to use it in more situations, and hence the total size of the coal-using industries increased such that the total usage actually increased.

Applying that to car travel, we see that currently one of the biggest disincentives for people to travel by car is the perceived cost per mile. At 14p per mile, a journey of 60 miles (say a return trip from Cambridge to Peterborough) would cost £8.40. Whilst most car owners could easily afford this, they would certainly not want to make this journey all the time unless it was financially beneficial in other ways. However, at 2p per mile this journey would cost a mere £1.20 - an amount far less likely to figure as significant in people's thinking. The outcome of this is that people are far more likely to make journeys of this length if the cost is low. So by increasing the cost efficiency with which people can make a journey, the chances are that they will make far more journeys. In the absence of any other factors coming in to play, it's even conceivable that the total money spent on making journeys could increase, as the main constraint (cost) to making the journey is relaxed. This would be Jevons paradox applied to travel. In reality, however, cost isn't the only constraint present and some of the other constraints are likely to come into play long before this point is reached. The main other constraints in this case are time and traffic congestion. As people travel more and more both of these constraints will become worse as the road network grinds to a horrible, congested gridlock of silent clean electric vehicles.

So from this it seems to me that the main effect of a transition to electric cars is to reduce the cost of motoring but to increase the time it takes to travel and to increase the levels of congestion on the roads, with a potential future reduction in associated CO2 emissions. This doesn't sound quite like the world I would like to live in.

A Better Alternative

Despite my misgivings about the current economics of the electric vehicle subsidy, I do think it could have been applied with some specific changes that would make it far more effective without as much of a downside.

Firstly, if it were only applied to commercial vehicles and not personal vehicles it could have a significant effect on pollution levels in cities, where particulate pollution from diesel engines is a significant problem. Many commercial vehicles only cover a limited daily mileage so the reduced range would not be a problem. With a reduced size of market the subsidy per vehicle could be significantly more than £5000 at the start.

Secondly, it could have been applied far more widely to electric scooters and electrically-assisted bicycles. The subsidy per vehicle would be a lot less and it could help far more people. It would also persuade many people who drive a 5-person car to work at 20% capacity (causing congestion and pollution as a result) to switch to a much cheaper, and ultimately less problematic mode of transport. As many motorcycles have a much smaller range than cars, a switch to electric propulsion is much less problematic.

Thirdly, the subsidy is a flat amount with an upper limit on how many vehicles it can be applied to. A much better approach would be to model it on the microgeneration feed-in tariffs. These start off very generous in order to encourage growth and maturity in the industry, but then decrease at a well-published rate. This has the effect of encouraging people to 'get in early' before the subsidy level reduces, and gives suppliers a strong incentive to reduce their manufacturing costs over time.

Fourthly it could have been made dependent upon the user getting their electricity supply from renewable resources, thus increasing the demand for this electricity. This could have been administered via the renewable suppliers such that the user is contractually obliged to stay renewable for, say, 5 years or else the subsidy becomes repayable. The contract for this would need to change ownership with the car, and would therefore have a significant effect on the resale value of vehicles.

By focussing the funds on the commercial vehicle and electric scooter/electrically assisted bicycle sectors, they are still supporting an emerging market sector which has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions very significantly. In the second case, it would cause a direct reduction in emissions as people switched away from petrol cars. In both cases it would support economies of scale in the manufacture of electric vehicles, and the maturing of various technologies involved. To me, it seems this would have been a much better way of spending my money (via the public purse) in the support of battery-electric vehicles. The third and fourth points would accelerate the rate at which the intended effect of reducing CO2 emissions took place.

In summary, I think the scheme represents a massive missed opportunity. As such, I have come to the conclusion that it is not an effective use of taxpayers' money.

01 January 2011

Review of 2009/2010

As I never got round to reviewing 2009, I'll have to include that year in my review here but will be fairly brief. I made 4 predictions:

1. There will be a second generation of UMPCs, based around ARM processors for extreme low power. Many of them will run GNU/Linux.

This one I think I'll claim as a successful prediction, mainly. There have been a large
number of computers, based around ARM processors, with a highly portable form factor. However these have been mainly smart phones, and more recently devices such as the ipad (OK the prediction was for 2009 and this didn't arrive until 2010). We are yet to see what I would call general-purpose computer platforms emerging around the ARM platform. However I have been using a Sheeva Plug as a file server, which comes fairly close. It doesn't have built-in graphics capability so is only really suitable as a server-type device, but it comes shipped with a port of Ubuntu and I am now running debian on it. I believe there is a BSD port available too.

2. Hybrid cars will take off in the market.

There is considerably more hope that this will be the case now than when I made the prediction, and it is likely that fully-electric cars will become visible in 2011 (although still fairly niche). I think it's probably a failed prediction for 2009 and even 2010, but maybe will be true sometime soon.

3. 2009 will see many more 'household names' going bust because of the recession.

Gosh. A lot has happened, and I can't remember (and can't be bothered to search for) the exact chronology, but a number of household names have gone bust. Woolworths, Magnet, RBS, Northern Rock. I think a number of construction companies too. Mostly a successful prediction, although not quite as bad as I thought.

4. The UK will be forced to abolish the pound and will join the Euro

Having read back to this prediction, I am laughing at myself. The current talk is now of the Euro collapsing, and countries going back to national currencies. The pound seems safe for now, but crises in Greece and Ireland, and possible forthcoming crises in Spain and Portugal have caused journalists to speculate about the Euro's demise. Personally, I am still struggling to see this as being a problem with the Euro per se, as opposed to problems within certain states that are members of the Euro. I cannot see how any country could really pull out of the Euro unilaterally, whether a weaker or a stronger country. The value of the Euro doesn't seem to have been affected yet although that could change.

A quick review of 2010

Towards the end of 2009 I personally signed up to the 10:10 campaign, which aimed to encourage people to reduce their CO2 emissions by 10% in 2010. I decided to take this seriously and see what I could do. It's almost impossible to know how successful I was but there are three main things I did - replacing all the halogen spotlights with LED lights, adding some perspex tertiary glazing and installing photovoltaics on the roof.

The LED lighting should make a significant difference although I've not done an accurate estimate. It's true that although it is possible to find LED lights of adequate quality/brightness, they're still limited to the more expensive end of the market. Don't bother with cheaper ones, they're a waste of time. Also stated equivalent brightness from most suppliers is...well...a lie. New regulations should fix this though as they will need to state lumens, which enables a fair comparison.

The tertiary glazing was a late addition and very hard to judge, but it has reduced condensation (a big problem in this house) quite significantly so I believe it's doing something useful.

I'll fully admit that the photovoltaic installation was a financial decision to take advantage of the feed-in-tariff scheme that started in April, more than an environmental decision. However my electricity consumption measured over a year was 2900kWh, and this should harvest (I prefer that word to the more usual 'generate') about 1900kWh per year. Current trends suggest it may be more than this, although it's hard to tell and will vary in any case from year to year. So it will harvest approximately 65-70% of my usage, which is not too bad at all. The embodied energy should be paid back within 2 years and although the feed-in-tariff lasts for 25 years they should continue to harvest energy for considerably longer, tailing off gradually over time. The most likely thing to go wrong is the inverter. The depressing thing is that the gas usage of the house over the same period was 29000kWh, or 10 times as much (ignoring the fact that thermal electricity power stations are usually 30-50% efficient).

The other main change in 2010 is that I am now working from home. I am really enjoying the flexibility and convenience of this, although occasionally there are distractions from other family members that can be problematic. In many ways I wish I'd made the transition earlier. One side effect is that I will have an increased electricity consumption (especially to heat the office) but this is really just transferred from an external employer to myself, and not new consumption. So I am choosing to ignore this.


I have now decided that I'm going to do my own 11:11 campaign, in the absence of any nationally- or globally-coordinated equivalent - i.e. aim to reduce my CO2 by a further 11% during 2011.

Here is what I think I can do to achieve this. I aim to review at the end of they year what I have actually done.

1. A solar hot water system.
I deliberately left one part of the roof free to enable such a system to be installed. However, investigation of what's required suggests that I will need a new hot water storage tank, as the current one is too small and not suitable. This will add considerably to the expense, and it's not clear yet whether this factor will derail the plan. However I can also upgrade the heating controls as part of this, and I reckon this would also reduce the energy consumption quite considerably. Hard to know but the two together should reduce the gas consumption by 20-25% by my estimation. This alone would probably achieve my 11% overall reduction.

2. More tertiary glazing, plus thicker curtains in more places (primarily the dining room). Currently we have some of the thin film insulation over many windows which is surprisingly effective, but it looks a bit unsightly and also doesn't last more than a year and is fragile. Thick curtains have made a big difference upstairs so if we can reduce heat loss in the dining room and kitchen (which is now the coldest room in the house in the mornings) this should make a big difference.

3. Finish loft insulation. To my shame there is an unopened roll of loft insulation that just needs laying out (less than an hour to do). I should lay this over the remaining parts of the loft with only 5 inches of insulation. I could also do something to raise the boards up and allow more insulation in the central section too.

4. Wood-fired stove in the living room. I'll probably actually save this until 2012, but this could be a really nice feature in the room and allow us to use sustainable wood to provide some of the heating, as well as enabling us to heat just this room to a high temperature during the day. However wood is not cheap to come by in the Cambridge area, so I need to investigate this further.

Predictions for 2011

Here's a stab in the dark at what I think will happen in this year.

1. Portugal and Spain will both require some sort of bailout, similar to what Greece and Ireland have had. This is not rocket science and is what the mainstream press is saying, and I believe them.

2. ISPs will drag their feet in the face of IPv4 address exhaustion, and rather than pushing IPv6 will push existing kludges such as NAT as a way round it. This is somewhat depressing but I see little evidence of them taking the issue seriously.

3. Solar Photovoltaic installers will have a bumper year and do very well as the feed-in-tariff is the same as last year but the scheme is known about by a lot more people - not least because there are many visible installations from this year. Panel prices will continue to drop but the overall cost will stay the same as this year (or even rise) due to high demand.

4. The UK coalition government will collapse, and we'll have a general election. Labour will be returned to power, but not necessarily with a majority. There is plenty of evidence of tensions between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives (no surprises there) and insufficient mechanisms were put in place to deal with them. They should concentrate on doing this things that they broadly agree on, and not push the policies where they differ significantly. That's the only way they could survive a full term as a coalition. The recent student funding changes were very damaging to both parties in my view, although the LibDems have suffered most in the short term. Also, the austerity measures will bite and cause mass protests and the country will go into recession again.

That's it for now.

18 May 2009

Parliamentary Expenses Scandal - The Way Forward

Scandals involving abuse of the parliamentary expenses by MPs have been hitting the news this last week, and frankly I am horrified and disgusted by what are blatant cases of abusing the system for personal gain. In any other organisation, making expense claims like what we have heard about would likely get you sacked, and certainly they would not be paid by any conscientious accounts department. Some MPs have come up with excuses like "But the expenses body was willing to pay it" which to me sounds like "I was able to game the system as they didn't stop me".

The scandal has hit all the political parties to some extent, so the question arises as to how we can move forward from where we are. It's likely that minority parties will do well out of this in the forthcoming european elections, but this doesn't seem like a good enough punishment to those who have abused the system. After all, it is not MEPs but MPs who are at the centre of this scandal. Here is what I propose should happen, as a bare minimum, to enable a line to be drawn under this and the UK government to be able to pick itself up and move forward.

1. Full details of expense claims for all MPs should be published immediately, so the public can make their own informed judgements about their own MP. The Telegraph should not have a monopoly on this information, although it's understandable why they should want to keep that monopoly.

2. A short period of time should be allowed to elapse, so that the public have time to digest this information and the details can be sorted through (I would suggest 2 weeks).

3. A general election should then be called immediately, to allow voters to remove those MPs from office who are deemed to have acted inappropriately.

4. A system should be set up by an independent body on what is and is not allowable as a parliamentary expense. The MPs should not be able to make these decisions themselves as at present, as they very have a very clear conflict of interests. As part of this, all future expense claims should be published for public scrutiny.

5. MPs who have clearly abused the system should be prosecuted for fraud. Whilst any claims that the parliamentary expenses office essentially condoned this abuse by failing to stop it might be taken into account during the ensuing investigation, this excuse does not remove personal responsibility when submitting expense accounts to abide by the rules.

The rest of us, whilst going about our business, have to abide by a set of rules when it comes to expense claims and those from whom we claim our expenses (usually our employers) need to know what we are claiming and that the claims are justified. In the same way MPs are claiming their expenses from us, the taxpayers, so we need to know what they are claiming and that they are justified. There should be no 'one rule for them, another rule for us'.

It seems that some MPs forget (as indeed do some taxpayers) they we are their employers, we have collectively employed them to oversee our interests as a nation. Some people seem to have a view of the 'state' as an organisation that interferes with our lives, makes up arbitrary rules that take away our freedom and generally interferes in a way that is often short-sighted and ultimately counter-productive. Whilst I believe that all of these are accurate assessments of the way things are currently, it is not what we pay them for we should remind ourselves that the members of government are our paid servants, not our rulers. I'm sure many MPs (probably even the majority) are very honourable in the way they go about their business, but we need to take radical action to remove those who are not and make sure that this systemic abuse is stopped.

18 April 2009

Free Culture, The Law and The Corporations - Part II

Well it's now 14 months since I wrote Part I of this entry, so the impatient among you will have to wait no longer. I am prompted the write Part II by the legal judgement in the Pirate Bay case, which was announced earlier today.

For the background to the Pirate Bay case, I suggest the Guardian's FAQ on the issue as a starting point. More details can be found on Wikipedia. In a nutshell, the four founders of the Pirate Bay were charged with "assisting the distribution of illegal content online and the more serious charge of illegal distribution of copyrighted content" (quoted from the linked Guardian page). Fairly quickly the latter charged was dropped - as the Pirate Bay have never hosted any copyrighted content against the copyright holder's wishes, this was alway a silly claim and bound to fail. I shall therefore talk about the first one of these, the claim that they assisted the distribution of illegal content.

Firstly, the Pirate Bay is essentially a search engine for torrent files, much as Google is a search engine for a wide variety of things. If I search for "Ubuntu", I will get a large number of hits, one of which is "Ubuntu 9.04 Desktop Release Candidate (i386)". It allows me to download a torrent file for this, which is in fact an installation CD image which I am interested in. The torrent file doesn't contain the CD image, but essentially tells me how I can find it on the internet. I can perform searches for films I am interested in, or music, or indeed other computer software. If helping me find these torrent files is illegal, then Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and many others are also guilty of the same crimes.

Secondly, Having obtained a torrent file, it is my responsibility to ascertain whether or not I have a right to download the data it points to. This is not actually an easy problem to solve generically, and certainly not one the Pirate Bay is in any position to determine. Maybe the licence says I can only download it if I live in the UK. Or only if I'm black. Or after patting my tummy three times. Every country has its own set of laws, which vary quite widely, and in some cases are different depending on the nature of the data I am contemplating downloading. Very often, illegality is dependent upon the purpose for which I download it, not on the downloading itself. For example if I buy a CD and one of my offspring stands on it and breaks it, is it illegal for me to download a copy and burn it to a blank CD? What if someone claims to be the copyright holder and says on a website that it's OK, can I believe them? (see Nine Inch Nails as an example). If I burn many copies of the Ubuntu installation CD and sell them for £10 each, am I breaking the law? I would not expect the general public to really understand this at any level of detail. After all most people, like me, have no legal training whatsoever and most, unlike me, have no interest in the nitty-gritty details of the law.

Thirdly, is downloading actually illegal, or merely something the copyright holder would rather you not do? In the example of the broken CD the copyright holder would clearly rather you went out and bought a replacement, thus earning more money from you. However, many jurisdictions recognise 'fair use', the same legal concept under which I quote directly from the Guardian earlier in this article. Other jurisdictions do not have this concept, or interpret it in subtly different ways. Some countries have laws that were last updated well before the internet was created, and therefore don't really address the issue. Vested interests will try and claim that other laws apply to the internet by extension, but whose interpretation is correct?

Fourthly, coming back to the case itself the prosecution completely failed to prove that any crime was committed, which the founders of the Pirate Bay were guilty of assisting in. This is explained by the King Kong defence, a term that was created during the trial. It's a bit like convicting someone of murder when there are no witnesses and no body has been found - the person may indeed have committed murder, or the person may simply have vanished. Without strong evidence such a conviction would be unsound.

Fifthly, if I illegally download content over the internet, is my Internet Service Provider (ISP) guilty of aiding and abetting in this crime? Or if I use the telephone to sell illegal drugs, is my telephone provider guilty? Actually in these cases there are strong legal precedents which say that the providers of these services are not guilty. Just because a service can be used for illegal purposes doesn't mean those providing it are guilty. I am not aware of any sound legal basis for believing the Pirate Bay is any different, as they provide a service - which others can use for both legal and illegal purposes.

Clearly there are a whole raft of questions raised by new technologies such as the internet, which haven't yet been adequately addressed in the multitude of legal jurisdictions that exist around the world. Just as it was clear to lawyers when the aeroplane was first invented that flying over someone's land was a form of trespass, it was equally clear that the law was outdated and needed changing, as this situation hadn't been thought about when the laws were drafted. I believe we are in a very similar situation now. Some cases of downloading copyrighted content are indeed illegal in many jurisdictions, no doubt about that. But what we are witnessing is essentially a very long, expensive, global bun-fight between vested interests who have for decades had a very profitable business creating artificial scarcity of their wares and selling them at inflated prices, and a newer generation, armed with newer technology and new ways of doing things, who just aren't interested in the outdated business model and ultimately want the laws changed to suit their needs. If we had let the status quo win these battles in the past we would not have airlines, cars would have to have a man with a flag walking in front of them all the time, factories would not be automated, agriculture would not be able to use modern machinery and we would not be allowed printed books. All of these battles were fought long ago and the vested interests eventually lost, usually not without a similarly long fight. Many jobs were lost in the process, but people reaped the benefits and many different jobs were created in their place. I don't know how this particular round of battles will play out around the world, but one thing I am sure about - it's very early days yet. The Pirate Bay may well ultimately be forced off the internet, but many other organisations will spring up in its place.

27 January 2009

United States of America - All Change

I'm in a state of shock and awe. I had a good feeling about Barack Obama almost from the first time I heard of him (which was about a couple of months before he was elected). Now that he's started to make his mark, I have to say I'm somewhat envious. Why? Because I wish we had someone like him in charge of my country too.

Firstly, he announced the closing of Guantànamo bay. As well as being the right thing to do, it seems to me that Barack Obama really has the interests of the American people at heart. It's a fact that the holding of foreign prisoners, without trial and over long periods of time, is one of the prime reasons the USA as a nation has become hated over the course of the Bush administration in many quarters. Guantànamo bay has come to symbolise this injustice in the eyes of many, and while things are never as simple as they are portrayed to be in the media, this single act will probably do more than any other to bring the USA fully back into the international fold. For sure, there will be complications along the way and it will take time to resolve, but he has shown very clearly by this act what his priorities are. Despite whatever difficulties he faces along the way this single act speaks volumes which will be heard around the world, not only in the 'west' but also around the middle-east and Asia where the reputation of the USA has been severely compromised in recent years.

Secondly, he has announced an intention to make the USA energy independent. I have privately argued for some years that the USA's biggest problem stems from its dependence on foreign nations for energy, primarily oil. It is this which motivates a lot of intervention in the affairs of other nations, as it seeks to defend the sources of oil. It is for this reason that countries like Venezuela have been a thorn in the side of the USA in recent years. However, a successfully implemented set of policies to reduce or even totally remove the dependence of the USA on energy from foreign nations will not only increase its level of autonomy but is likely to have immense benefits for the environment at the same time. Barack Obama is starting to unwind the foolhardy policies of the Bush administration and replace them with something much more forward-thinking. Allowing individual states to set stricter car emissions standards? Good for the environment, good for the motor industry, good for the US economy as a whole. Accelerating the implementation of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency of buildings? Good for the environment, a good way of creating jobs, good for the US economy as a whole.

Now of course, I realise that it is early days, and only time will tell whether he is successful at implementing the things he has outlined in his first few days of office. But this is a very good start at least, and I wish him all the best at achieving the aims he has outlined.

If you had asked me even just 2 months ago whether the USA stood a chance of transforming itself from the environmental pariah of the world into an example for other nations to follow, I would never have believed it. I think I can say with all honesty that this is something I not only hope for but can realistically see coming about over the coming years. It won't happen over night, and probably can't be achieved within 8 years even if Barack Obama stays in power for this long, but he can at least steer the ship on a new course. Let's just hope it comes about. Congratulations to the American people for making the right choice in this election.

26 December 2008

Christmas Review and 2009 predictions

Well, it's been a long time since I blogged, and I have completely failed to deliver part II of my previous entry. Things have gone a bit quiet on that front, so for now I will stick my head in the sand and hope that none of you notice the omission. (Reality is probably that none of you really care, but I'd rather avoid believing that for as long as possible!)

Anyway, I'd like to look back at the technology predictions I made this time last year, to see how well I did, and make some similar predictions for 2009. So without further waffle, here goes.

Last year's predictions

1. LED lighting will become mainstream.
Hmmmm. It's true that further development has happened in the market for LED lighting solutions. You can buy a wider range of products than this time last year, and prices do seem to have been driven down somewhat. There are even some new applications I didn't expect, for example some new models of car now have LED 'daylight running lights', e.g. Audi. Having said that. progress has not been as much as I had predicted or hoped for. In short, LED lamps are still not really competitive with compact fluorescent lamps for general lighting applications. The increase in electricity prices won't really have much effect here as long as LEDs don't exceed the performance of their long-established competitor. The fact is, while CFLs have overcome criticisms about poor colour rendering, whereas LEDs haven't. Even the development of 'warm white' LEDs doesn't convince some people. This will limit them to certain applications where colour rendering isn't important, e.g. outside lighting, fridge lights or interior lighting for cars. I suspect 2009 will bring further improvements and decreases in price, but probably not a revolution in lighting. So I'll give myself 5/10 for this prediction.

2. Flash-based hard drives will become mainstream
Well, I think the rapid expansion of ultra-mobile PCs such as the Asus EEE, the MSI wind and the Acer Aspire One (which I am now the proud owner of one) have really shown this to be a good prediction. OK, I bought an Acer Aspire One with a rotating hard disk as I anticipated wanting a lot of storage, but I think it's fair to say that flash drives are mainstream as one of the options for such devices. I don't see much evidence of them taking hold in the server market, but the UMPC market has been a resounding success and I reckon will spur further developments in 2009. I'll give myself 9/10 for this prediction.

3. Many more computer devices will come with GNU/Linux pre-installed
Well I think this was also a good prediction, largely for the same reason as prediction number 2. It's also clear that Microsoft see this as a real threat, and seem to have been fighting hard to prevent Linux completely taking over this market sector. They have just announced another life extension to Windows XP, as Vista is totally incapable of running on these devices as it's such a resource hog. That to me is a sign that they see and understand the threat. I'll give myself an 8/10 for this one. There have been moves in the desktop sector as well, but perhaps not as much as I would have thought.

4. Internet video will become usable
Bingo! The BBC have just rolled out a beta version of a new iPlayer which is cross-platform and allows for downloads. I have tried this out on my home PC which runs Ubuntu 8.10 and it really does just do what I expect. I did a comparison of the quality and it seemed to be a lot better than the streaming service, even with that set on high quality. It's worth pointing out that there was no high quality streaming service this time last year, so even this is new. Youtube.com have also made a high quality service available, although I haven't actually seen any content using it yet. The only area that is still lacking is video-conferencing, using services such as skype or the instant messaging-based services. This will always be limited by the uplink connections speeds provided by ISPs that are currently available. There are some services available with higher uplink speeds (including interestingly the mobile broadband offerings based on the 3G HSPA technologies) but I don't expect services to take advantage of this until there is significant uptake of connections capable of providing these speeds. I'll give myself 9/10 for this prediction.

5. Many people will become concerned about Google's near monopoly on information retrieval and search.
An interesting comment I heard was that Google have now got a near monopoly on information retrieval and search, yet for some odd reason most people aren't concerned about this. I think there's some truth in this. The fact remains that Google tries very hard to avoid alienating its customers as it knows full well it doesn't want to stir up such worries. When there was an outcry over the original terms of use for it's new Chrome web browser, it backed down and addressed the concerns by publishing updated terms. Outcry successfully stamped out. I suspect it will continue with this approach and do everything to avoid being seen as the new Microsoft. Perhaps I can only give myself 3/10 for this one, as although Google's plans to take over the internet have advanced significantly, my prediction was mainly about people becoming concerned about it.

So what for 2009? Here are my predicitions.

1. There will be a second generation of UMPCs, based around ARM processors for extreme low power. Many of them will run GNU/Linux.
The UMPC concept is a good one and has worked well. There are also many smart phones which offer internet connectivity via HSPA and wifi. The next generation will have the form-factor of the current UMPCs but will be internally more like the smart phone and not at all like a PC. They will be 'always on' like a phone, when you shut the lid it will only turn off the display and go into a low power mode (rather than hibernating where a PC can't really respond to external events). They will have UMTS modems and therefore be like a phone; they will behave like a normal mobile phone by connecting to a Bluetooth headset. Battery life will be upwards of 24 hours (at least if on standby). You will carry it in your handbag/rucksack/coat pocket and the Bluetooth headset will be what you keep on your person at all times instead of a traditional mobile phone. As a result, Bluetooth headsets will gain new features such as a display for caller ID, basic menus and eventually the ability to type instant messages/emails (the latter won't happen in 2009 though).

2. Hybrid cars will take off in the market.
This is based on a number of things - firstly the spike in energy prices in 2008 has raised the issue of cost in people's minds, so they are looking for efficiency improvements. Secondly, Formula 1 motor racing have new rules which include KERS devices - which stands for Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems. Thirdly - motor manufacturers are struggling because of the recession. While the motor industry are just one of a number of industries queueing up to be bailed out by public finances, I don't believe they are a worthy recipient of this - unless, that is, such a bailout is conditional on them investing the funds of such a bailout in technology fit for the 21st century. Smart governments will insist on this. It's unclear whether Barak Obama will do this in the USA, nor whether European and Asian governments will. However there are a number of technologies available which could facilitate this. Batteries have their drawbacks, but other technologies capable of storing much smaller amounts of energy can contribute almost as much to efficiency savings without many of the drawbacks. Expect to see the developments in Formula 1 spilling over into the mass market. Maybe 2009 is a bit premature for this, but the technology would be ideal for roll-out in specific applications such as buses, trains, and even small city cars. Current electric cars such as the G-Wizz have limited appeal and some drawbacks, but the inclusion of a small internal combustion engine overcomes most of these. Whilst it would be good to see the internal combustion engine go the way of the dodo in cars, the alternative technologies need to gain critical mass first and a number of hybrid technologies will enable this.

3. 2009 will see many more 'household names' going bust because of the recession.
OK, this isn't exactly a spectacular prediction given the current economic climate. But I expect we'll be in for a lot of surprises. Who knows, it may even be whole nations - the USA? UK? If confidence in the US dollar falls and all those people around the world who have lent money to the US by buying dollars decide to pull out, there could be a spectacular fall in the dollar. This would have massive ramifications around the world, and could even trigger my fourth prediction:

4. The UK will be forced to abolish the pound and will join the Euro
This is perhaps a bit more far fetched, but not totally inconceivable. It would only take a scandal on a large scale to hit the UK, its companies or its institutions and confidence could fall out of the pound totally. The recent Bernard Madoff scandal has had big effects but the US economy is big enough to be able to cope. A similar scandal in the UK, especially one which exposed weaknesses in the regulatory environment of the UK, could cause the UK economy to spiral downwards, taking the pound with it, and forcing us to adopt the euro. Personally, I reckon we'd be better to pre-empt this by adopting the euro at a time of our choosing on terms more favourable to ourselves, but that's another story.

5. Can't think of a fifth right now, but will update if/when I do.

14 February 2008

Free Culture, The Law and The Corporations - Part I

I have recently downloaded the book "Free Culture" by Lawrence Lessig (you can download it for free here) and am part way through reading it. As those of you reading previous blog entries will know I am a big fan of Free Software, but more recently my interest has spread to other areas of society where the "Free versus non-free" argument is equally applicable. I suppose one of the reasons for this is that whilst those within my circle who are software developers stand a chance of understanding the issues easily, for those who are not it is an extremely academic, niche area. However the same issues crop up time and time again in areas such as books, journalism, film, music, art, TV and so forth. These are areas which a far wider section of society are able to relate to, and even have a vested interest in how the cultural environment develops in the face of changing technology.

As most of you will know there is a 'system' on the internet known as bittorrent (on account of my internet service provider (ISP)'s backward policy, I often refer to it as 'bittrickle', but that's an aside at this point). This is essentially a protocol to enable download of files, in the same way that the HyperText Transfer Protocol, or HTTP is a protocol. Whereas HTTP is designed for web pages and works extremely well with small files (HTML documents primarily, but it can be used with any type of file), bittorrent is much better suited for larger files as it inherently supports suspending and resuming of downloading. It also (and this is the whole point of it) enables people to make a file available to the masses without having to spend a vast amount of money providing download bandwidth, as different users upload portions of the file to each other - hence the term peer-to-peer, or P2P. This is important, as it enables smaller players without huge financial resources to produce content and make it widely available.

Lets just state at this point that despite my ISP's backward policy, I have used this to download software, music and videos and it's a wonderful system. Most of the GNU/Linux distributions I have tried are available as installation CD images, for which bittorrent is an ideal download method. There is a great documentary film called Steal This Film II (there is also a version I) about the issues I am talking about here which is only available via bittorrent - it's a large DVD image so again bittorrent is ideally suited to this. For music, sites such as Jamendo allow musicians to make their music available for free download via bittorrent. I have become familiar with a number of great musicians through this site, most of whom I would otherwise probably not have heard of. I also use the Miro video player to download and play content from video channels. If your idea of online video is limited to youtube, I strongly recommend you try this - you subscribe to channels, it uses bittorrent as one of it's download methods (depending on the channel). Some of the channels are High Definition so the quality can be excellent. Due to the potentially large files it downloads, it does this all in the background whilst letting you get on and watch those you have already downloaded.

So what's the point of all this? Let's just say that there are forces which are trying very hard to make it illegal, or impractical, to use bittorrent. I have already mentioned my ISP which restricts the download rate to a trickle. The main forces behind this though are those who traditionally sell CDs, DVDs and the like. In short, they see the availability of free content as a threat to their business model (which indeed it is). However they won't tell you this is the reason they want to shut it down, because that would be seen as anticompetitive - they will tell you it's all about copyright infringement (also known colloquially as "piracy"). I will reserve my comments on this for my next posting, where I will discuss The Pirate Bay and it's legal struggles against the aforementioned forces, represented largely by the IFPI, or International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

28 December 2007


I've spent the best part of today with a friend walking the streets of my village holding a GPS, then using the trace to add the missing streets on openstreetmap.org. I have to say that although it took a bit of getting used to how to enter the data, it's actually very easy once you get to grips with it. There are more sophisticated ways of adding/editing data available but I was just using the flash-based editor that works within a suitable browser, such as firefox. My own street now appears, and some others are at the time of writing sitting in a render queue and should appear in the next couple of hours. This is just a small step towards keeping high-quality information available for all to download/use as they see fit.

However it's clear that while larger cities are fairly well covered in openstreetmap.org, small villages often have only through-routes on them, so there is a lot of work still to do. I also notice that many roads are shown but which still required labels (such as a name!), even in the cities. It's actually very easy to edit the information so I would encourage people to head on over, create an account and update any omissions/errors in their area. Adding information such as street names requires nothing other than local knowledge, whereas adding roads really requires walking them with a suitable GPS device to get an accurate track. If you're walking down the middle of the road to get an accurate track you might get funny looks from people (especially motorised tin-box occupants), I now wish I had worn my yellow high-visibility jacket and just said that I was 'surveying', rather than try to explain things to people!

Just think - if even only 10% of people add just one street (such as the one they live on), we'd have the whole world covered pretty accurately. I'll try and find the time to seek out places in need of further details and walk/cycle them, it's a good excuse to get out and get some gentle excercise, then share its virtues with the rest of the world!