Monday, 22 December 2008

TV Li(non)sense

I was recently pointed in the direction of this article on Jonathan Miller's Blog. Aside from Dr Miller's usual libertarian but distinctly illiberal claptrap the article raises a few interesting points.

Is TV detection possible? In theory, yes. Practical? Sometimes, it depends. As long as the dwelling in question is a detached house, occupied by one household, receiving its television through a conventional television or set top box and without any complicating environmental factors. A soon as these conditions vary the ability to pick up and locate the source of the RF leakage of any operating receiving equipment, declines rapidly.

Is the current way of enforcing licensing moral? If the picture painted is anything like accurate then the answer must be no. No method of enforcement can be if it seeks only to prosecute those least able to pay and least able to defend themselves, it violates the basic principle of equality before the law.

Is the method of enforcement legal? Despite implications in TV licensing's literature and the appearance and attitude of its Enforcers, they have no legal right of entry or the right to have there questions answered, they are, in fact, sales agents and any attempt to represent themselves as having any more powers than a door-to-door cosmetics salesperson could leave themselves, and their employer open to prosecution.

Is the TV license legal? Mr Miller makes much of the claim that this violates the European Convention of Human Rights, however, as EU Citizens we are guaranteed many rights which are then taxed making them only accessible to those who can afford them. The very same television set used to receive those broadcasts is subject to VAT (sales tax to non-Europeans) and our right of freedom of movement within Europe is curtailed by having to pay for a passport as well as taxes on every method of getting into and out of Britain.

This leads us to the question of how should the BBC be funded. It is my contention that what provides the unique spark for the UK's program makers is that at the heart of the British TV industry there is a commissioner and broadcaster of programs that is substantially independent of commercial and political independence. Indeed the only confrontation that i can think of between the BBC and the government of the day in which the BBC had to climb down was when one of its journalists had shown a level of political bias that caused him to fabricate evidence in order to further his own agenda.

The corporation is now governed by what is called a trust. Not what the rest of us would call a trust, it has no assets from which it draws an income it is reliant on a settlement over which it has no control. It is my opinion that the best way guarantee the future of the BBC is to make this trust a real independent entity that could then mange its funds to provide the BBC with a guaranteed income that would remain free of commercial and independent pressures for the foreseeable future.

I propose that a new BBC Trust fund be set up and that this be funded by a single, fixed grant from central government of some £15 Bn, equivalent to about 2 months government borrowing, this would free both the corporation from having to collect revenue and the state from any future financial obligation whilst remaining within its international obligations. Even conservatively invested this should provide the BBC with enough money to continue making excellent programs in the worst financial years whilst any surplus should be made available to other media outlets who wish to use it for Public Service programming.

If you've got to the end of this post without falling asleep please let me know what you think.

Friday, 25 April 2008

ANZAC Day 2008

Today is ANZAC day, when Australians and New Zealanders, as well as Cook Islanders, Niueans, Samoans and Tongans, remember the soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who participated in the Gallipoli landings of the Dardanelles Campaign during the first World War especially the 4,059 who gave their lives and more than 24,000 who were wounded.

In many ways this day has become more of a symbol of Australian independence than Australia Day itself, it has become a time of year when Australian politicians make statements about becoming a Republic and indulge in varying degrees of pom bashing. What they fail to realise is that most Brits couldn't care less whether Australia becomes a republic or not and view Their inability to ditch the Union Flag after over one hundred years of independence with mild amusement.

In contrast, the people of those nations mark the day with the kind of respect that is hard to find in the UK for any of our National Holidays or days of remembrance and are, generally, a credit to their respective countries.

In Turkey that campaign is known as Çanakkale Savaşları, as the defeat of the initial naval attack was most important; the significance of the campaign is deeply embedded in the national psyche as it is one of the key points in the rise of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Turkey has good cause to remember the 56,000 who died defending their country.

It is a matter of regret that it in the UK and France, who had 21,000 and 10,000 men killed respectively, that their casualties have become seen as minor losses in a minor campaign compared to the vast numbers who lie under the fields of Belgium and France.

It seems appropriate to end with the words of Mustafa Kemal that are inscribed on the memorial at ANZAC Cove.

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives…
you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.
Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…
You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears.
Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.
Having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Robotic Avatar

iRobot, the people who brought you the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner have now brought out the ConnectR Virtual Visiting Robot.

This device allows anyone with a wireless broadband connection in their home to give family and friends a remote robotic presence over the internet. The remote user can drive the robot around, can here and see whats going on thanks to a built in 16x camera and microphone and speak through the 'bot as well.

Currntly a PC is required to remotely control the ConnectR though if if they don't bring out a mobile phone client for it they'll be missing a trick

It's only available on a limited trial in the US at the moment, and that is many times oversubscribed, so the rest of us will have to wait.

"What's the price?" I hear you ask.

A measly $499, no not $4999 but $499, unbelievable. This bargain could turn out to be a huge phenomenon.

An Introduction to Hybrid Cars

I'd been considering writing a piece on the different kinds of electric hybrid vehicles that will be hitting the market in the near future, however this article from MIT's Technology Review explains it better than I ever could plus it comes with a neat interactive flash applet.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Photo of the Week

Robert F Bukaty has produced a series of stunning images for AP of the FIE World Fencing Championship, among the best is this one.
I hope you agree this is a stunning shot.

We Update: new video

Al Gore's climate guardians, the ACP, have launched a new video ad in their WE campaign. It features current house speaker, Nancy Pelosi with former incumbent, Newt Gingrich.

Getting these two together on a sofa is something of a coup for the WE campaign though they manage to give a performance so cheesily wooden it would make any spindoctor cringe with embarassment.

Anyway, without further ado, here it is.

Now hop on over to and register your support.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Opera Mini 4.1 beta

Not content with having what is easily the best mobile browser going, Opera have just released the beta of the latest update.

New features include auto completion of web addresses, find in page (just like hitting ctrl-f in your desktop browser), save pages and added upload functionality, useful if your blog or online photo storage doesn't support ShoZu.

Now I'm not usually an advocate of installing beta software on anything except testbeds however this works wonderfully and is faster as well

Message to Samsung, Nokia, O2, T-mobile etc.: I fail to understand why you mobile phone manufacturers and operators waste time and money on developing your own inferior browsers; just install Opera mini and make all your various stakeholders happy.
Get Opera Mini - Super fast and free

Free Science Teaching Resources

The folks over at the Physics Education Trust at the University of Colorado have some great simulations of real world physical phenomena. They will look great on your IWB.

Warning: some are dangerously addictive to the scientifically inclined.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Peace Through Destruction

Yesterday I wrote on the counterproductivity of Israel's policies of harassing and abusing the average young Yusufs of the occupied territories and within a few hours I read of further foolish acts of repression.

In the latest act of jaw dropping stupidity the Israeli army has decided to bulldoze a tract of all too precious agricultural land in Gaza including yet more Olive trees, a frequent target of the Army's bespoke caterpillars.

This follows hard on the heels of a report on the annual lettuce festival in Artas on the West Bank on how the Wall is acting as an instrument of economic repression by preventing farmers gaining access to markets.

The attacks on olive tree plantations are particularly hard to take; they take a long time reach economic maturity and represent a substantial investment by the grower, in the absence of a legitimate military reason for their removal one can only presume this is a deliberate policy aimed at preventing any economic stability for Gaza's residents.

So another sector of Palestinian society learns another reason to hate Israel and it becomes harder for me, living comfortably in the West, to appeal to my Muslim brothers and sisters to hope not hate.

Public Enemy

I've just been listening to Public Enemy's 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back right the way through for the first time in a few years.

Now rap and hip hop is not normally my thing however this still sounds great 10 years on; more fresh than most of what the current crop of mobo artists are producing.

... don't believe the hype ...

Towards New Urban Futures

Amid all the controversy over the Beijing Olympics this summer, over China's Human Rights record, its actions in Tibet and the terrible air pollution in the host city, it is good to see London 2012 getting some recognition for responsible development.

The city that once had the dubious distinction of having the world's worst air pollution has been steadily cleaning up its act over the last few decades is now using the Olympics to regenerate what is probably its most depressed and most polluted area. The Lower Lea Valley, a vast area of dumpsite canals, graffiti and rubbish strewn, post industrial scrubland, is being transformed in to integrated urban units of low rise family housing, mixed employment and parkland with local renewable power generation and a variety of transport links; there will be new schools, retail outlets, both large and small.

All in all this is a holistic approach to urban regeneration, where people and environment are the twin chambers of the heart of these new communities. Regeneration projects like this can be Britain's new towns for the new millennium.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Where do your Cacti come from?

A plea for biodiversity.

I read that cactus poaching and smuggling is becoming big business in Mexico, largely into the US but it's likely that some turn up in Europe as well.

This kind of wholesale pillaging of a country's biodiversity is not new and happens on many levels from small scale poaching up to organised crime. And it happens to satiate the vanity of gardeners and collectors in the developed world who, because of the whims of horticultural fashion, have switched to the next 'must have' plant; a few years ago it was New Zealand's tree ferns, now it's cacti and only Allah knows what it will be in a few years time.

These practices have devastating impacts on the ecosystems in which they are perpetrated and can have equally disastrous impacts on the places to which they are transported; not only is there the ever growing and apparently endless list list of invasive alien species around the world but there is the problem of local hybridisation, Britain's bluebells are increasingly becoming genetically contaminated with introduced Spanish stock.

So please, unless you want to cripple an increasing number of ecosystems: check the provenance of any plants you buy especially if the species is new to the market, buy from reputable garden centers or growers and please, please, please don't buy plants on holiday abroad.

Breeding Terrorism

Which country is doing the most to foster terrorism in the Middle East?

Not Iran, not Syria but Israel. This story from the BBC is an example of how the world's most beleaguered nation seems determined to take ordinary, unradicalised kids and turn them into next year's suicide bombers or Hamas activists.

For every child this happens to Israel is also ensuring that their friends are also being driven away from their moderate backgrounds into the arms of the more radical groups. Israel must also recognise that pretending that these things do not happen and asking the world to believe them rather than the ICRC and Amnesty International as well as their home grown Human Rights groups, is just not the way the world works.

As for the apologists of Israel's policies saying 'It's none of your business', I say it definitely is. Aside from the moral and legal arguments these policies directly impact on the rest of the world who would otherwise be Israel's friends and defenders; these policies turn the impressionable adolescents in our local mosques into angry young men who are easy prey for radical preachers and those who would like to send them abroad for 'advanced religious training'.

We moderate Muslims and others in the West must apply political pressure on our leaders to stand up against these systematic abuses of Human Rights otherwise the whole world will reap the whirlwind that Israel is sowing.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Radio Birdsong

With the demise of two of its stations, the UK Digital One network has taken to broadcasting 24 hour birdsong (and other countryside noises in the background - cars, light aircraft!?!) on one of its channels.

Being woken up by woodpigeons, rooks, geese, pheasants and assorted twitterers is a much more sane way to start the day than other radio channels or alarms.

Point your browser here to listen online.

I've just obtained the following from my friends over at

Birdsong channel on UK DAB Radio (the sound of the British countryside)
UK DAB Radio Birdsong channel originally recorded for the test transmission of Classic FM prior to its launch in 1992. Has recently been reinstated for a limited period due to the closure of Oneword. Since the beginning of April 2008, the Birdsong channel has been upgraded to stereo and currently broadcasts 24 hours a day. The transmission repeats every 37 minutes.

The transmission is also available online as a flash audio stream at:

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Can 'We' fix it?

Today I read that Al Gore's organisation, the Alliance for Climate Protection, has launched a new campaign called We Can Solve It or We for short.

In the unfortunate manner of anything international launched by politicians from the US of A, it's for America [sic] and the whole world, although they don't seem to be quite sure on the last bit. However, that's enough Yank bashing for today; this seems like a great idea to motivate a groundswell of public opinion to force leading politicians into action on climate change.

The Alliance is building partnerships with existing North American and International membership organisations with an interest in environmental protection, it is recruiting volunteers to evangelise , encouraging people to write to their local papers and elected representatives, to talk to community leaders, sign petititions, take part in local action, 'Ask lenders to consider climate impact when funding new coal plants' (that's a good one) and many other things, all as part of a coordinated three year campaign.

On their home turf they have started an advertising campaign on television, radio and print media, the rest of us will get to see their online advertising as well. they are aiming to get 10 million Americans, 1 in 30 of the whole population, working as volunteers. With that kind of support elected leaders will have to sit up, take notice and act.

So 'Go USA', whether we like it or not the rest of the world is waiting for your leadership, your technological capability and your industrial capacity in our struggle with climate change.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Liberating Education

Who runs our schools?

Here in the UK tinkering by successive governments has left a confused picture. State schools are paid for by Local Education Authorities (LEAs) that are, for the most part, synonymous with County Councils or Unitary Authorities giving these bodies considerable influence over the schools they fund. These councils receive ringfenced funding from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF)* who also directly fund some school activities giving them the right to dictate some of what schools do.

Attempts by Government to wrest control away from LEAs have resulted in unpaid boards of governors, the majority of whom are parent and community representatives, being responsible for the strategic management of the school, in general acting in a similar way to the board of directors of a PLC.

However, here comes the crunch, the day to day management of the school is vested in the headteacher, who, in secondary schools these days, is a full time manager of the school and very unlikely to actually teach any classes. Partially because of the sheer logistics of getting governors in to schools, though largely because that is how headteachers want it, it is the headteachers themselves, together with their senior leadership/management teams that are in control; most secondary school governing bodies are little more than rubber stamps for the headteacher's decisions, it has been my dubious privilege to hear heads boast about how much control they have over their governing bodies.

When headteachers and senior managers make poor decisions who carries the can? Not themselves nor, usually, the governing bodies nor the DCSF. It is the LEA, and, when the decision has a financial cost, consequently the Council Tax payer. I have personally seen a colleague make a well founded claim for discrimination where the school had gone against the LEA's own rules and policies and was amazed that the LEA had to defend the indefensible whilst having no ability to force the school to behave properly or discipline those who were in the wrong. Once my colleague won the LEA had to pay out adding to my, and every other tax payer's, Council Tax bill.

This situation is obviously not a healthy one; we need properly accountable schools that educate our children to high standards in the manner that we prefer and that are accountable to those that ultimately pay for them.

It should be the function of the State, whether at local or national level, to ensure schools are properly funded and that consistently high educational standards are maintained. The question is, how best structure the schools and provide that education?

Each school must be accountable to the consumers of education, that is the pupils and the communities in which they live. This accountability should, for reasons of practicality, be exercised through boards who hold, in trust, the values of the school made up of parents acting for their children children themselves as they become responsible enough to exercise the trust themselves, teachers who have chosen to work in a particular kind of school because of the values it holds and other members of the community that share those values.

It is plain that no one kind of school can satisfy the aspirations of all sectors of society so this plurality of education systems must be recognised and accommodated. There is a place for the technical, vocational school, for schools based on a particular religious faith, be that Catholic, Anglican, Jewish or Islamic, for the Steiner Waldorf school, for schools that address the individual requirements of pupils whose needs cannot be accommodated elsewhere for home schooling or for any legitimate method of education for which their exists a community.

Such a plurality will liberate children from failed monolithic systems and will provide for them to be educated in a manner which will enable success for all rather than just for the privileged.

*formerly known as the Department for Education and Skills, formerly the Department for Education and Employment, formerly the Department of Education and Science, formerly the Ministry of education.

A Middle Class Education (System)

In England (as opposed to the rest of the UK) the education system has always been the property of the middle classes, it is their way of perpetuating their hegemony.

Witness how the post war education reforms that brought in the divide between grammar schools and secondary moderns was hijacked. A system of academically oriented grammar schools and trade oriented secondary moderns was perverted into one of success and failure. Grammar schools quickly became better funded, better equipped and better staffed, did you know that teachers in grammar schools were paid more for teaching smaller classes than their secondary modern colleagues?

Witness how the CSE, intended to give the less academically able pupil something to aim at, was quickly derided until the only grade that was worth having was the the top grade 1.

The introduction of the comprehensive should have ironed out many of the differences in schools, however the middle classes voted with their feet and moved into areas where they could all send their children to the same schools. These schools raised far more money through voluntary donations and fundraising and were also able to secure for themselves, the best public funding.

Recent scandals around so called parental choice and school admissions policy have all been about middle class, middle income parents getting their children into the right schools.

I concede that, even when children from differing backgrounds attend the same schools it is those with parents who see the value in education that do the best. However, the principle determining factor in the ability to support a child's education remains money, and even when these differences are are absent the child whose parents choose to spend money on a foreign exchange trip rather than a games console tend to be those who had better educations themselves.

Finally an interesting point to note and something well worth thinking about; the best performing children in any education system are the children of teachers.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Why Immigration?

Let's face facts; the UK, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is a great place to live.

Who says so? The nearly 600,000 people who come to live and work in the UK every year, the vast majority of whom are legal migrants. If this was such a bad place to live the out-migration figure would be a lot higher than its current 400,000

Initially, of course, the habits of some immigrants may seem unusual to the rest of us and we notice new shops and places of worship as well as signs in other languages. However to claim, as some have recently done, that the makeup of Britain's high streets is being radically altered by current immigration levels is patently untrue.

Slowly the new changes become a part of the tapestry of life and new populations establish businesses that are part of what makes our day to day lives British. What would our high streets look like without Marks & Spencer, our shopping baskets without Patak's or the pages of the FT without the likes of Courtaulds or GlaxoSmithKline?

It is hard to think of anything tangible, other than the weather, that is British that has not been brought in from somewhere else.


The attempts of the film and music industry trade cartels to treat all those who copy works that those bodies perceive as their own as criminals is somewhat laughable, as seen in the recent documentary Fake Trade. It is based upon five dubious premises:

Firstly that those who copy at home or fileshare for no gain are just as criminal as international counterfeiting gangs making millions of dollars. Home copying does not launder money, it does not survive by forcing people into near slavery, its only impacts are on the increased dissemination of materials which would otherwise be restricted by the ability to pay and on the failing market in those forms of intellectual property distribution.

Secondly, that such copying is somehow the same as counterfeiting safety critical items like pharmaceuticals or car tyres or items with both a tangible and intangible value such as designer watches or clothing. A computer copy of film or music track neither safety critical nor does it have a tangible value, it cannot be worn, it does not tell the time, it is entirely ephemeral, it performs no function other than stimulating the emotions or intellect.

Thirdly, that the current system meets the needs of the market. There is an abundance of supply; more people wish to make music and films than the purchasing power of the market can sustain yet consumers do not see the benefits that this would normally entail. The normal reasons for this kind of breakdown are failures in the market infrastructure such as physical transport problems external factors such as general economic failure or the operation of cartels and monopolies that restrict supply to raise prices above the level the market would otherwise reach.

Fourthly, that they have an immutable right to make money the way they always have done. In this way they resemble such economic dinosaurs as are to be found in the tobacco industry; they must either evolve their way out of that economic niche or die.

Finally, and most economically erroneously that the market exists for the benefit neither of the producer or the customer but that of the intermediary. Such systems have often been promoted throughout history and have always foundered without considerable state intervention to prop up what become moribund monopolies. Eventually the state tires of subsidising the profits of these private cartels and legislates a new regulatory framework.

It is up to those of us who recognise these facts to lobby our representatives to hasten the end of the old order and replace it with something befitting the 21st century rather than one that was suited to the needs of the 18th century.

Clearly we are in a period of transition between the old copyright based business model and what ever will replace it. It is less than three hundred years since the Statute of Anne brought the modern concept of copyright into law. This itself had only been introduced following fifty years of upheaval in which the old system of licensed printing had been brought to its knees by the increasing efficiency of the printing industry.

The RIAA, MPAA et al are in the position of a Town Criers' Guild objecting to literacy and printing because they promote the reading of newspapers. Now Pandora's box has been opened there is no way to cram digital copying and downloading back into it.

It may well be that the consequence of the developing technologies of today will be to change recorded media into a promotional tool for live events. Alternatively, media groups may only be able to sell recorded work if there is sufficient added value, creating a listening or viewing experience that cannot be obtained by the mere playback of a digital file.

Political Correctness

To get things rolling I'm White, British (and proud), Muslim and middle aged. I'm also disabled, but why? Being disabled is not something the particular health condition does, rather it is something that society does because of the health condition and its up to society to moderate those effects, not me.

Political correctness should be seen in the same light; when society causes a problem by its use of language or behaviour then its up to that society to redress the balance by modifying that use of language or behaviour.

I believe problems with political correctness arise in three principle ways.

Firstly, when assumptions are made that offence has been caused when it hasn't; this can usually be attributed to over zealous officials or hyper sensitive liberals. I, myself was guilty of this when, many moons ago as a young political researcher I was asked to draft what I called a 'Charter for Elder Citizens' to be discussed by a group of older people. I agonized over what term to replace pensioners with as that was considered pejorative. When the document came back I noticed the main change they had made straight away, the title, 'Pensioner's Charter'. Moral - Ask first.

Secondly, when people don't think their causing offence or that offence is secondary to their right to carry on living as they have always done. Moral - Don't be part of the problem be part of the solution.

Thirdly, when a minority of a group hijack the views of that group for their own ends. This can only happen when society as a whole has allowed itself to ignore the feelings of those within its own midst. Moral - If you think you've listened enough, listen again.

The next time you're thinking should I say that, make sure you've examined you own motivations before you speak and when somebody else is getting on their high horse ask yourself, do they have the right to decide what other people should think do or say. I know what my answer would be every time.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

On the NHS

To those who insist on rubbishing the NHS despite the facts, I give the following quotes from the politicians for whom we vote,made within days of each other this January:

Gordon Brown"...with its unique offer of healthcare free for all at the point of need, it has liberated all of us from the fears of unaffordable treatment and untreated illness. But as we begin to celebrate the achievements of the NHS over the last 60 years, it is also right that - as new technologies emerge, as expectations rise, and as healthcare needs change - we look ahead and continue to reform and renew the NHS for the future.

David Cameron"I want us to create a culture of shared responsibility, in which each and every one of us understands that a publicly-funded health service, freely available to all, means a collective commitment to public health, sincerely made by all. We are proud of the NHS and we're optimistic about its future.

Nick Clegg "The battle for extra investment has largely been won, but the service we are getting is simply not good enough. ... The question is not 'how much', but 'how we spend the money' so that everyone gets the healthcare they need."

The only leader of a nationally represented party that directly criticised the current performance of the NHS is the only one that stands no chance of forming the next government. If there was a viable alternative way of providing cost effective quality healthcare in the UK don't you think that at least one serious party would be advocating it?