Category Archives: Current affairs

Red boxes and digital government

Budget 2012I’m looking at the digitisation of government quite a lot at the moment for work and red an amusing piece a colleague flagged to us and was amused (but not surprised) to read:

“Nick Herbert, Tory minister for policing and justice until last summer, claimed that he had been better supported in Opposition; indeed, he said, the “sheer clunkiness” of the Whitehall system was revealing. Officials sent him proposals by email, but then printed them off to put in his ministerial red boxes. These should have followed him by car, so he could work on them overnight, but “there weren’t any cars”. He decided to use his iPad – but was told this was banned “because the Chinese might be listening in”. He found it hard to believe that China was terribly interested in our policing policy.”

I’d looked into buying a friend a red box for his birthday and in the course of Googling it I found this post from 2007:

The astonishing figure of £50,000 has been spent by the government on ministerial red boxes in the last few years, as has been revealed by answers to questions asked by Lib Dem MP John Hemming.
Some red boxes cost up to £750, although others costs less than half this.

The Government Digital Service has its work cut out for it – surely even an iPad with extra encryption / management software wouldn’t cost that much money! I don’t know how much has moved on in the last 7 years but if they had rolled out iPads I’m sure we’d have heard about it, and there’d be more ministerial red boxes on eBay!

That Greenpeace / VW campaign (con’t)

Green Peace The Dark Side Volkswagen - Buzzmania

I continue to be a bit perplexed when it comes to the anti-VW campaign Greenpeace is mounting (latest here), for a number of reasons.

Greenpeace is upset because…

  1. VW advertises its eco-line, Bluemotion, heavily but…
  2. Only sells about 6% of their cars under this badge…
  3. And charges an ‘unfair’ premium for them
  4. VW is lobbying against EU regulation to enforce CO2 emissions caps

Now… my view is this this is poorly thought through on counts 1-3. Here’s why.

  1. Most people think of eco-cars as under performing, slow, unexciting, and generally less fun than their full-powered alternatives. If you don’t think this is true, have a read of some of the comments on Greenpeace’s own blog! People believe them to be "unsafe" because they believe them to be underpowered. This is not true, I can say with the voice of experience, as our 107g/km Bluemotion Golf is zippy in the extreme despite its 1.6l TDI engine, but it’s not VW’s fault that people don’t know / believe that. That’s now how they advertise their cars, oddly enough.
  2. Because people believe them to be slow and underpowered, they don’t want to buy them. If you’re spending £20kish on a new car, are you going to pick the fun one or the not-so-fun-one, even if it is marginally cheaper to run? I know which one I’d pick, but I would never buy a new car as I have a good understanding of the economics of depreciation. So the heavy advertising of Bluemotion must be helping change people’s minds, or at a least addressing the fundamental issue that people don’t think they want this sort of car, on the whole. Good on them for investing in a market only 6% of their customers currently want.
  3. When I looked into it (when buying our second hand Golf) to get a sense of prices, the premium on a new Bluemotion car that was otherwise pretty much like-for-like identical to the standard car was about £800. On a £22,000 car. Which amounts to about 4%. When I did the maths, for any decent mileage you drove, that premium was paid for within three years (between road tax discounts and improved mileage), and sooner if you live in an area where you get parking or congestion charge discount for driving a low-emissions vehicle, or drove more. So I’d hardly call that an ‘unfair’ premium. It’s true, second hand they command a much heftier premium, but again, that’s a supply/demand issue; most people aren’t buying the car new so there’s lower stock of them second hand. And therefore trying to buy one second hand is more expensive (for those of us that recognise the value of the low-emissions cars). Again, not VW’s fault.
  4. I’m in two minds about the lobbying issue. Whilst I do think that heavier regulation can shift consumer demand, it has implications for the free market model and consumer choice. I tend to think prohibitive National taxation is a more effective tool than EU legislation in this sort of context. After all, in the current economic environment, it would be very, very hard indeed for the automotive lobby to successfully push back a policy which upped tax disc costs by 30% for (new) cars with emissions over 200g/km or 20% for cars over 150g/km (or something like that). Or even more dramatic charges; it reminds me of the episode of Yes Prime Minister where the tobacco and anti-tobacco lobby were both trying to get Jim Hacker to support their cause; the anti-tobacco lobby were suggesting raising taxes on cigarettes to the point where a pack of 20 cost as much as a bottle of whiskey… could be an effective policy for deterring all but the most hardcore of smokers, and the same holds true for people’s choice in a new car!

Finally, for an organisation that’s campaigned against cloud computing, advocating the use of social media for protest as they are here basically adds to the burden of the data centres hosting their George-Lucas-ripping-off content, so they’re actually hurting the environment by their own logic (that’s another poor argument, but I’ll leave it for now)…

Cambridge ‘best Uni in the world’

Trinity Hall - CambridgeHuzzah for my alma mater in the global round-up, in which Cambridge pips Harvard to the post for the second year running.

Love the Guardian’s take on it: looks at the list, compares the fee-going universities with those that traditionally don’t and drives a political point home.

Whilst I’m massively in favour of free education I think the practical transition of Universities from loss-making organisations to profitable ones will need to see a significant change in culture, or the recruitment of a whole range of entrepreneurial souls to help them do it.

The vast majority of academics and university staff that I’ve met have absolutely no interest in turning their organisation into a profit-centre – their concerns are academia, education, and the pursuit of knowledge (and some internal political wrangling). Beyond applying for grants, most academics (outside business schools, natch) seem to have virtually none of the inclination or capabilities needed to turn their institutions into functioning businesses.

You’ll have experienced it, if you think back to your University days. Ham-fisted experiments with events, renting out student rooms, etc – to make better use of the facilities. Some limited sponsorship efforts. I’m sure places like Cambridge have proper business development departments, although I suspect most of their efforts are focussed on alumni appeals programmes (those horrible, disingenuous phone calls from your old college asking how you are doing before they ask you for some cash).

A friend of ours is working on helping Universities with their events strategies in particular, but there’s a lot more to it than that and we can only hope that Universities make the investment they need to in the right kinds of people to reverse the decay of Britain’s further education system.

Of course, if you charge to rename the colleges at the world’s number one university, that’s good for a few quid.

Rail price rises have me steaming

LNER on SouthernPrior to becoming an out-of-London-commuter, rail ticket rises never bothered me. An "8%" rise amounted to 10p or so on a tube ticket and whilst the incremental creep on that has made it feel more expensive over the years, in practical terms it never seemed material.

An 8% rise on my current railcard costs, however, needs to be budgeted for next year and affects my family finances. The 8% on my ticket cost works out to over £250 a year (or, in layman’s terms, half the price of a new iPhone).

Now, if this was a fine, upstanding service I might sympathize a little with the rise. After all, the rail companies are complaining that privatization has ‘bled’ money out of the national railway infrastructure, and trains are generally thought of as better for the planet than cars and planes and the like. But – isn’t privatization meant to increase profitability and customer service? Clearly not for poorly managed companies. And I think you all know what I feel about Southwest Trains and Southern’s overall record; friendly on-board staff do not make up for general incompetence and mediocrity elsewhere in the organization.

But – <sigh> – there are few alternatives. If only commuters could afford to strike against the railways, that way would justice lie.

Now is the summer of our discontent…

Croydon Reeves Corner, London RiotsMy family around the world are looking on the riots in London with concern for us and disbelief that this could be happening. Riots are not something you associate with one of the most developed nations of the world. But times are tough, and the few catalysts have been sufficient to create an atmosphere of volatility and fear. And in this atmosphere, all it takes is a few opportunists to ‘justify’ the behaviour we’ve seen.

It’s happened to all of us, although generally in less dramatic contexts. The line at the airport that forms around a person who’s standing at the new passport control desk – that is unmanned and will continue to be. The perfectly nice boys who end up inexplicably picking on the kid who’s a little bit different at school. Group permission is granted by one or two triumphant acts of wanton illegality, in this case, and suddenly its ‘socially acceptable’. Of course it’s not, but groups sometimes behave in ways that individual people do not.

They should get Derren Brown on the case. His experience of manipulating large groups with psychological trickery is probably what’s needed to diffuse this (as well as the police, and maybe the army if things keep escalating).

In the meantime, I’ll duck and cover when I change trains at Clapham Junction…

Citizens of the world

UN FlagsMy cousin Sumisha, studying in Australia, writes a fascinating piece on dual citizenship for her student union paper – dual citizenship is illegal in Malaysia, Iran and 58 other countries, apparently. As someone that holds a different passport to his wife and daughter this is an issue close to my heart, and, apart from the pride in seeing my cousin write such an insightful and interesting article, there are some really interesting questions raised in this piece.

Questions like – what would your perception of your Nationality be if you had dual citizenship? Which would you give up if you were forced to? Should dual citizenship be legal everywhere? These are asked and answered by Sumisha’s interviewees. In both cases, if forced to choose, they would choose their adoptive countries (less repressive and more wealthy regimes) over their birth nations, although their sense of personal identity seems to lie with the countries they grew up in.

For me, my links to Malaysia may never completely fade, but they are not ones I’m particularly proud of, as you’ll know if you’ve read my relatively recent posts on Sarawak, on the obedience club, on Bersih and beyond. My "national" identity stems more from my family than the Nation of my birth and I hold more ‘loyalty’ to the country I live in now than Malaysia (although National loyalty is rarely a thing that is tested beyond choosing which team to support at football friendlies). And indeed, many of the good things in Malaysia remain the legacy of British colonization.

Although perhaps the judicial and governmental systems they left us were too mature for our leaders, who seem to prefer autocracy and corruption.

Anyway, go read my cousin’s article. Sumisha, mate, good one. This is the best shrimp on the barbie yet. Too easy.

As an afterthought, I give you this music video – almost from down under too:

Awesome maths geekery

Pi pieI loved this story. Google bid random mathematical numbers for the Nortel patents, including Pi billion dollars. Fantastic. Trying to imagine Dr Evil demanding that in a blackmail demand, and I can’t quite do it – so it must be true that Google isn’t evil…

At the auction for Nortel Networks’ wireless patents this week, Google’s bids were mystifying, such as $1,902,160,540 and $2,614,972,128.

Math whizzes might recognize these numbers as Brun’s constant and Meissel-Mertens constant, but it puzzled many of the people involved in the auction, according to three people with direct knowledge of the situation on Friday.

Bersih 2011–fighting for electoral reform in Malaysia

bersihMalaysia has been a bit late to the anti-government protests shaking the Islamic world. Understandably so; protests in Malaysia are always clamped down on hard (technically it is illegal to form any kind of public meeting without a permit, which is never granted for political gatherings, so protesting is tricky), Malaysians are by nature conservative when it comes to public statements that in any way resemble opposition to the government (the incessant and pervasive fear of IRS investigations or planted ammunition hangs over everyone’s heads, especially following what happened to Anwar Ibrahim) but things are finally coming to a bit of a head.

Electoral reform in Malaysia is an urgent issue. Over the decades that the the ruling party, UMNO, has been in power it has introduced any number of ludicrous amendments to the constitution that, in essence, make it impossible to vote it out of office. Disproportionate shares of the vote are required to pass any kind of reform, and there are persistent and likely rumours of electoral fraud with each and every election that takes place.

Reform is needed. A Euronews clipping notes that the Prime Minister’s opinion polls are showing a stronger approval rating now than when he came to power; it doesn’t note that when he came to power it was under a cloud of rumour and speculation about a murder he had allegedly had a hand in. If you can’t improve on that, especially in an environment where corruption (to an extent) is endemic, well then…

So the rallies for electoral reform, opposing corruption and encouraging transparency, are flying high now under the banner of ‘Bersih‘ (Clean) and 50,000 Malaysians went out in protest this weekend. It was a non-violent protest for the most part, but the Malaysian police cracked down with disproportional force in an effort to “make an example” and discourage further action. Tear gas was fired into the crowds, from the footage it looks like riot police got a bit carried away, and dozens over a thousand arrests were made. The government reaction to the protest compounds its guilt and demonstrates its immaturity on the world stage.

My extended family supported the protests ideologically and in practice. I was proud to read updates of relatives that attended the protests and that were active in supporting those arrested – essentially – illegally. I was worried that they would take this risk but it appears that the relatively high pain threshold of the Malaysian public has been reached. Enough is enough, a fair say is needed.

Democracy will hopefully arrive and perhaps I’ll once again be proud to call Malaysia my home country. I’m certainly proud of my family and the Malaysians that took a stand. It seems to be having some immediate effect; the international press are calling attention and drawing criticism of the Malaysian gov’t and UMNO Youth is planning talks with Bersih. Here’s to the power of the democratic process….!


Does @UKVolkswagen deserve the Greenpeace Death-Star treatment?


Scot points me at this very, very polished anti-VW campaign, a car maker whose eco-credentials we’ve been evaluating for a little while whist looking for a replacement for the ageing Skoda (aka Horse).

The essence of the Greenpeace upset is that:

  • VW is lobbying against lower carbon caps for its cars
  • VW doesn’t sell many eco-cars (6% of sales, apparently)
  • VW sells its eco-cars at a premium

Now, my initial reaction is what it was designed to be – shocking, we can’t get one of those. But the more I think about it, the more unreasonable that position seems to be.

VW has been selling its Bluemotion cars for a few years. Its brands pretty much all (with the exception of the high end sports car brands it owns) have Bluemotion variants. It markets those cars and their eco-credentials heavily. Despite the Greenpeace criticism on cost, the Golf we’ve been looking at costs less than £800 more than its non-Bluemotion equivalent (around a 4% premium). The question has to be asked; why are only 6% of the cars VW sells in these product lines?

Clearly, Greenpeace would like the answer to that question to cast responsibility on VW. But I think its our fault- the driving, car-buying public. Eco-efficient, no matter how well spun, sounds boring. If you were going to spend an extra £800 on a car, would you go for metallic paint and body coloured bumpers, or would you go for the eco-efficient version? Not enough of us would choose the latter. Similarly, if you were looking at a second hand car and had the option of different (second-hand) variants with better performance for a lower price – inevitable whilst the technology is new – how many people can afford to pay the extra there? This isn’t VW’s fault, this is a consequence of capitalism – whilst supply is low, costs will be at a premium. You remember what Emily has to say about market forces.

Regulation may need to play a part in addressing these issues, but I’m not sure the regulation is necessarily being applied in the right place. Forcing the manufacturers to lower carbon emissions caps before there is market demand will hurt the manufacturers. Forcing consumers to pay a premium to drive polluting cars – even more than the current tax band system does, perhaps – would be a more sensible approach, to my mind. It tackles the root of the problem – consumers that are largely indifferent to pollution – rather than penalising the organisations that actually are investing in R&D and manufacturing to reduce the CO2 output of their products.

Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that VW is blameless here, or that I have the insight or understanding of its lobbying activities and commercial business beyond the amazingly superficial. However, I can’t help but feel that Greenpeace has perhaps oversimplified here – picking on a more sympathetic target for its audience than its audience itself.