Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Against Ken at Londonist

Your humble Devil has a short article up at the Londonist, about why Ken Livingstone was—and would be—a shit Mayor. Over the course of a little less than 700 words, I tried to cover all of the lying, corruption, waste and incompetence demonstrated by this vicious little shit.

Alas, the article had to be cut slightly; believe me, I could have written double the mount and still not have covered everything—even in the most cursory manner.

I shall, I think, expand that small start here at The Kitchen over the next couple of weeks: much as I dislike the man—and, believe me, I do—even I was shocked at his mendacity, venality and inability.

For balance, yesterday Londonist published a similar article about why Boris was a twat.

And you can find some of my views on him and, specifically, the booze ban on London transport here and here...

UPDATE: I believe that my reply to some of the commenters over at Londonist makes a number of simple but salient points about libertarianism (since that is what said commenters picked up on).
I admit that both I and BorisWatch could have simply pointed out that they are both politicians and are, obviously, both liars. However, I thought that I would attempt to provide some articles backing up the assertion.

@jaypeedee: "What's your problem with Unions?" Quite simply, the support given to them by government. They should not be able to distort the democratic process through massive amounts of funding (and the same applies to corporates) but, most importantly, it should not be illegal to sack striking workers.

@Chenobble: "Libertarians hate democracy..." No, we just don't worship democracy. The main point is that democracy is not the point of it all—freedom is. Democracy has been, so far, the best way of ensuring freedom for the longest time (until the next bloody revolution), but it is not an end in itself.

"They call it the 'tyranny of the majority'..." Because it is. The majority get to elect politicians—who, by the very nature of democratic re-election processes, will pander to that larger group of people—and so happily oppress the minority to do so. If you don't believe me, simply look at how politicians are oppressing the rich through vastly higher tax rates (clue: there are very few rich people, and lots of less rich people).

"Libertarians also hate anything that gets in the way of free market enterprise [...] unions are seen as an impediment to the free market because they stop business fully exploiting their employees." No. Unions—when not backed by government laws—are an entirely legitimate way for workers to rebalance power. It is the intervention of government—on both sides (corporate and union)—which makes them both enemies of the free market.

@David Levy: "There can be no question but that Ken supports cheaper fares..." He may well support cheaper fares: my point (delivered with evidence) was that he has—despite his "support" or his marketing—failed, consistently, to deliver them.

"... interesting you don't compare his fare increases with those under Johnson." My brief was to write about why Ken is deeply unsuitable, not why Boris is; this article has been shortened from it's original 700+ words as it is (and I could easily have written double the amount and still not touched on all of the corruption under Ken's rule).

In any case, why do you think that fares are going up 7%? Because the Tube drivers have demanded pay increases of not far less than that, plus energy is becoming massively expensive.

The first happens because the unions wish it so, and Ken is a supporter of those same unions; all other things being equal, he cannot support the interests of both the unions and the people of London.

The second is happening because of successive governments' policies on energy consumption, i.e. to tax it heavily (for a variety of reasons).



Being on foreign turf, so to speak, I decided to keep my tone—especially on the last two points—relatively neutral: after all, I do not expect Londonist people to be political anoraks...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Over regulation kills business

As long-term readers might know, your humble Devil gambles a bit.

Every month, a standing order conveys a few tens of pounds to an escrow account with my stockbroker; every few months, when I have built up enough cash to make it worthwhile to buy, I fire up my Instant Messenger client, ask my stockbroker to get me prices on a couple of stocks and then instruct him what to buy.

In the weeks before I do this, I will have done some research—I find City Unslicker to be useful, as well as The Motley Fool—and tracked a few stocks that I'm interested in.

Quite often these stocks will simply be companies that I have read about or stumbled across and which happen to fit my general interests. In building my portfolio, I tend to stick to areas that I know quite a lot about—technology and energy.

And, because I don't have that much spare cash, I tend to look at "penny shares" that might provide a good capital return: after all, if I buy a stock at 4p and it gains a penny, I have made 25%. As such, most of my stocks are on the AIM, rather than the LSE's main market.

As I said, I gamble.

And I do it largely for fun. Although with the added bonus that this particular brand of fun has delivered roughly 40% growth over 18 months.

Well, it's better than sticking it in the bank, eh?

But what I am not really prepared to do is to give my stockbroker the most intimate details of my life, earnings and medical history (this last might be problematic in any case, since I haven't seen a doctor since 1999, am not registered anywhere, and have no idea where my medical history might reside—somewhere in Edinburgh, I'd imagine).

"Surely one doesn't need to!" you cry. Well, I haven't had to yet, but as my stockbroker writes today, it's coming down the line.
The FSA, which does not understand Private Client stockbroking, and therefore does not like this is at serious risk of harming clients by hammering the brokers with often inappropriate demands for record-keeping, and fact-finding. The ultimate effect is to deny decent advice to people without serious amounts of money to invest. If it ain't worth my while spending 3 hours or more finding out your inside-leg measurement and medical history (the former is flippant, the latter is not), I will not be able to advise you about the best way to save for your retirement. You're on your own, or at the mercy of cowboys. Maybe you've inherited a pot of money and you'd like to stick it somewhere for a few years, before buying a house. Maybe you've downsized and would like to supplement your pension with a bit of income from the capital. Few brokers will touch you if it's less than £100k.

As Jackart points out, all of this regulation is killing businesses and, most importantly, reducing choice and service for the customers.
Inappropriate over-regulation is killing the old school advisory business, just as it killed old-school relationship banking where long-term relationships have long provided decent advice to people for a reasonable cost. The only people to benefit are the big banks who have access to more captive customers for their fee-larded "products" sold according to a process, and the regulation sausage factory of the FSA.

I am going to get little sympathy. Though I am just a guy earning a crust by helping clients decide which stocks to invest in to achieve their aims, in the popular imagination I may as well be a "banker". But this nonsense is going on in every industry, not just finance. I am not saying all new regulation is wrong. Much of the new regime is merely formalising what a decent broker should be doing anyway. But to imagine this is without cost is naive. And the cost is borne by customers, who lose choice and privacy as well as paying higher fees. Regulation ultimately benefits government, which gains power over people, and big business, which can absorb the cost, pass it on, and put the insurgent or innovative smaller player out of business.

Ultimately the cost is borne by the nation who have to employ a caste of nose-poker-inners in every industry to check "compliance" with regulations. The only businesses who can influence the regulations are the big, powerful, politically connected ones, and you can bet they're gaming the process to their benefit, and against the interests of the entrepreneur, sole-trader and independent small firm. This crony-capitalist cartel is the real beneficiary of over-regulation. The compliance department, or indeed the PAYE administrator, or the H&S officer may be nominally employed in the private sector, but they're every bit as parasitic as the mandarins of Whitehall, as they are not serving the person who's forced to be paying them.

Worse, innovation may well be beneficial to customers, but the compliance risk means much innovation is not allowed or otherwise stifled because regulators who by their nature are conservative and risk-averse don't like that which they don't understand. Ultimately as we're at the technological frontier, without innovation, we've no growth. And what does the UK desperately need now?


And in the meantime, I will continue gambling: I might lose it all—it's a risk that I take. But, ultimately, if I do then I won't blame my stockbroker, or the bankers, or anyone else. I shall blame myself.

But the reason that I do it is because I get to choose what stocks I invest in, I get to see if my hunch was correct. I don't want some big fund choosing where my money goes (even if I had enough to interest them)—where would be the fun in that?

Ultimately, the fun and the pleasure that I gain from my little bit of gambling is because I get to choose my own path. If I lose the lot, well, I'll get back up and carry on. But every little thing that I do here, every little gamble that I have, is my gamble. It is fun because I get to choose.

And this is true, not only in stocks and shares, but in the whole of life: you might get it wrong, but at least it was your choice. And if it didn't work, well, you can choose something else.

A life in which your decisions are made for you is no life at all—and it probably won't work because you cannot be invested in decisions that you haven't made.

So, make your own choices. Or at least have a little gamble—go on, you might enjoy it!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Workfare, Tesco and Hysteria

Please note: I am not the Devil.

We should be boycotting Tesco, apparently. Not because their stores are cold, sterile shit holes full of employees who seem to be pushing for the accolade of the worst possible customer service ever. Not because they are surprisingly expensive given their rhetoric about cheap prices. No, we should boycott them for taking part in a government scheme:
Tesco has come under increasing pressure from customers to stop participating in government unemployment schemes which allow the company to take on jobseekers to stack and clean shelves for up to eight weeks without paying them.

After a link to a job centre advert was posted on Twitter on Wednesday evening, appearing to show that the supermarket giant was hiring for a permanent role as a night shift worker paying only jobseeker's allowance, customers began bombarding the supermarket chain with complaints on Twitter and on the company's Facebook site and threatening to withdraw their custom.
So what's the problem here? Must be the fact that the scheme is for eight weeks, whereas this job was is permanent. Which leads us to this acknowledgement from Tesco:
Tesco said an IT error was behind the posting.
Fine, so that's sorted then. We can all move on, right? Wrong. The problem, it seems, is the programme itself:
The campaign group Boycott Workfare has said it is organising a protest for 3 March to target firms involved in what it has described as modern-day slave labour.
Oh, here we go. First of all, if you have a problem with Workfare, then the single best thing to do would be to try to get the government to change that programme rather than attacking those companies who take part in a scheme that is, well, perfectly legal. This is the whole tax avoidance thing all over again. Want companies to stop avoiding tax? Get HMRC to be less shit at what they do rather than attempting to attack those companies whose behaviour is perfectly legal.

The second point is that those who do oppose workfare should calm the fuck down when it comes to their hyperbole. Slavery involves being owned entirely by another human being and being paid nothing for what you do. So this workfare programmae is not slavery. These people are being paid to do what they do - they are being paid the JSA to do work for those companies involved in workfare. Sure, the rate might not be particularly good. In fact, it is actually pretty piss poor, since a back of the envelope calculation reveals that the rate paid is less that £2 an hour. Furthermore, these people have a choice - they can either do the work (which, from my understanding of a scheme whose terms seem to vary depending on which article I read, they have to have shown some sort of an interest in) or lose their JSA. Sure, the choice might not be particularly edifying, but it remains a choice. Slaves are not paid; slaves have no choice whatsoever. To call this arrangement slavery is pretty ignorant; in fact, it borders on the offensive.

Behind all this lurks, I suspect, a certain level of snobbery about the jobs that tend to be offered as part of workfare. A lot of people don't want to work in retail. And I can understand why - the work is often tedious, pointless and a lot less inspiring that most people's dream job. But not everyone can work in their dream job. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the vast majority of people don't work in their dream job. They compromise. And a lot of people start from the bottom and work their way up. This is not an inspiring message, I know. But it is a realistic one. Particularly given the current economic circumstances and the fact that the government can no longer afford to keep so many people on long-term benefits.

But I digress. By all means boycott Tesco, and by all means oppose workfare (or whatever it's called). But for God's sake please try to be reaslitic and not hysterical as you do so.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

You can only sell 'green' if the public buys it

[NB: I am not the Devil]

With France v Ireland postponed last night, I was in the unfortunate position of having to watch all sorts of guff when Mrs P gleefully commandeered the remote, as followers on Twitter may have noticed.

I mercifully escaped by suggesting a visit to the local Thai restaurant - described by occasional blogger, Al Jahom, as my being "played like a $2 accordion". The git.

Anyhow, it wasn't before seeing this Ecover advert, which came as something of a surprise.

Distinctly lacking seemed to be the eco-message. Isn't that the whole point of the product? 'Feel good' cleaning is something of a euphemistic way of selling something which had previously placed itself firmly at the forefront of the environmental gold rush, isn't it?

Nothing like their previous efforts, for example.

Now, that really was in your face. Surely with the problem now even more incredibly urgent - as we are constantly reminded by environmentalists - there would be far more emphasis on their green credentials, rather than less?

But then - environmentally-grounded or not - a business is a business and will play to the potential buying audience. I suspected that their angle betrayed an understanding that concern over green issues may be waning, especially since Mrs P couldn't remember any previous campaigns by the brand as this turns out to be their first major media push. A re-positioning perhaps?

It appears so.
Clare Allman, Ecover marketing manager, said: “This campaign marks a real step-change in Ecover’s marketing. We are enormously proud of our heritage as the first and genuine ecological cleaning range and needed to convey the ethos of our brand in a powerful way which went beyond the trite ‘green’ claims that we too often see associated with mainstream cleaning brands."
So it was skirted round very carefully instead?
“We wanted to develop a 360° integrated approach which would reach our broader target audience through a variety of channels with tailored messaging that was a world away from the idea of cleaning as a dull, boring, essential task but positioned it instead as something fun and hugely satisfying.”
A roundabout way of saying that they'd rather you didn't solely link them with environmentalism, it seems to me. And it looks like I was right.
There are two reasons why a company like Ecover, Belgian purveyor of green cleaning products, will have suffered in recent years: the economic crisis has forced households to tighten their budgets and switch to cheaper brands and the momentum behind environmental issues has eased after United Nations talks in 2009 failed to secure a global treaty to fight climate change.


With solid financial backing, Ecover was well positioned for the incredible rise of the green movement during the latter part of the last decade. "The consumer had environment on the agenda. You couldn't step outside without hearing about climate change. Green became mainstream," says [Effi Vandevoorde, international communications manager].


According to Vandevoorde, the company has ridden out the crisis because while a typical customer, the woman of the household, has lost her interest in the global climate change issue, she still cares about the health and safety of her immediate environment.
Superb business sense, most definitely, and I sincerely wish them well. They are obviously working out that the public are increasingly seeing through the enviro-scaremongery, as evidence by the British Social Attitudes report just a month before Ecover unveiled their new campaign.
• Since 2000 the number of people prepared to pay higher prices to safeguard the environment has fallen, from 43 to 26 per cent. So too has the proportion willing to pay much higher taxes to protect the environment, from 31 to 22 per cent.

• Support has fallen among all income groups. Just over a third (36 per cent) of those in the highest earning households (in 2010 defined as those with household income of over £44,000) would be willing to pay higher prices to protect the environment, down from 52 per cent in 2000.

The report also finds that people are more sceptical about the credibility of scientific research on global warming:

• Under half the population (43 per cent) currently considers rising temperatures caused by climate change to be very dangerous for the environment, down from 50 per cent in 2000.

• The least likely to see climate change as dangerous were older people (28 per cent), those with no qualifications (28 per cent) and those on the lowest incomes (37 per cent).

• Over a third (37 per cent) think many claims about environmental threats are exaggerated, up from 24 per cent in 2000.
And, do you know, I don't reckon this is a coincidence. Just good, free market-based business. There's no point flogging your product on ideological marketing, when the ideology is becoming fractured and distrusted with every new day.

So. That's a business - one which is instantly linked with green issues, no less - reacting quickly to the downturn in public trust in the environmental movement.

The global supertankers of entrenched public-funded government will take a lot longer to put the brakes on, one suspects. Huhne, or no Huhne.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Three strikes

I enjoy reading JuliaM but, since she appears to be the unofficial record-keeper of the underclass, it is sometimes rather depressing. One of the most irritating things is the number of people who come before the court who have tens and tens of convictions for burglary, violence, etc.

Your humble Devil is now of the opinion that we should adopt something similar to the USA's "three strikes" rule. It would go a little like this:
  1. Three convictions for any unexpended crime automatically means prison.

  2. Three custodial convictions—suspended or otherwise—means life imprisonment. By which I mean that you will be eligible for parole after 25 years, but released on licence for the rest of your life: another conviction puts you straight back in the cells.

Any objections?

UPDATE: In the comments, Richard quite rightly points out that...
The problem is that you can get a suspended sentence for relatively minor offences.

Your immediate response to this might well be "so what?" And this would, I think, be quite reasonable. After all, the mugger might think that punching someone in the street and stealing their phone is a pretty minor thing really, but the victim doesn't.

But you might also think, as Richard does, that the whole thing is rather disproportionate.

First, it needs to be pointed out that those who are convicted of a crime need to go through quite a few safeguards: first they must actually be caught (odds against, there), then they must be actually convicted. And this must happen three times. One of the fuckers referred to in JuliaM's story had 145 convictions—that is not bad luck, that is a criminal lifestyle.

And every one of those 145 convictions represents a little more misery introduced to someone else's life; and, on the balance of probability, every one of those 145 convictions masks a myriad others for which he was not caught or convicted.

Second, whilst one might get a suspended sentence for relatively minor offences, I found out (about a year ago) that offending whilst on a suspended sentence does not mean that you go to prison. Yes, really.

When I was done for drink-driving, I was in the court for the case before me. The gentleman concerned was under two orders—a Community Payback and Supervision—and a suspended sentence. Plus he had been convicted two weeks before of theft, and had a sentence pending. And what actually happened?

All sentences were quashed and rolled up into one Supervision Order.

Despite all of the above, the gentleman who had been convicted of three thefts in the space of two months (including one whilst under a suspended sentence) got a lesser punishment than myself (who, whilst drunk, damaged nothing and killed no one).

I don't dispute my sentence—it was within the guidelines—but I do question his.

Third, the whole point of incredibly harsh sentences is to give you the opportunity not to commit crime. Because, here's the rub: I don't want more criminals to be caught. Nor do I want harsher sentences.

No, much as for Peel's police, the aim is "the absence of crime and disorder", not the more effective capturing and punishment of those who do it.

Unfortunately, the chances of being caught—let alone convicted—are pretty low: as such, you need to make the punishments extremely high in order to ensure that people think twice before they commit the crime in the first place.

"OK," says the potential criminal. "The chances of my being caught burgling this property is pretty low. On the other hand, if I am caught, I am going to be severely fucked. In the showers. By a huge man called Bubba."

Finally, I am willing to concede that there are a massive number of intrusive, unnecessary and unpleasant laws around: how many new offences did NuLabour create every year—thousands, wasn't it?

So, I shall make a compromise: the Three Strikes proposal above will apply, initially, only to those criminals who initiate force or fraud against someone's life, liberty or property. In other words, if you are caught with drugs, it won't apply: if you beat someone to a pulp or burgle their house, it will.

Does that seem fairer?

Huhne resigns (and gets charged)

So, Chris Huhne is to be charged with perverting the course of justice, and has now resigned as Minister for Energy and Climate Change: Guido has the exchange of letters.

Your humble Devil would just like to say, for the record...

Aaaaaaaaaahahahahahahaha! Aaaaaahahahaha! Aha! Ha ha! Ha.

*pause for breath*

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Aahahahahaha! etc.

UPDATE: whilst Guido and Neo-Guido might have more cause for celebration than many, inspired by their celebration the wife and I shall, nevertheless, be buying a bottle of bubbly and toasting Huhne's resignation tonight. Your humble Devil will post a picture later...

Should any readers wish to send similar piccies, to be posted here out of pure spite, please feel free to post them in the comments or fire 'em over by email...

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Quote of the Day...

... comes from Nat Torkington, via Daring Fireball.
Tech Giant IPOs are like Royal Weddings: the people act nice but you know it's a seething roiling pit of hate, greed, money, and desperation that goes on a bit too long so by the end you just want to put an angry chili-covered porcupine in everyone's anus and set them all on fire. But perhaps I'm jaded.


No problem, she's a helicopter

[NB: I am not the Devil]

There seems to have been quite some consternation about this image in our more excitable press ...

... but since the BBC saw fit to weigh in too, it's worthy of comment.

The main problem, as most seem to see it in this risk-terrified society we seem doomed to eternally suffer, is that somehow the kid was in danger.
After receiving attention from the picture posted online of Ffion without a helmet, Ms Pritchard was quick to stress she never did anything she believed would put Ffion at risk.

"The route I was climbing with Ffion [at Three Cliffs], there was no risk of any rock fall. I knew 100% it was safe," she told BBC News.

"The person below me was very competent, I had a mountain climbing instructor there too and I'm pretty confident of my own competence.

"I was top-roping [which prevents a climber falling down the cliff surface], which is very safe."

Now, firstly, it has to be said that this is Ms Pritchard's kid so any judgement from anyone else is - how shall I put this - none of their fucking business. However, since personal or family business is now apparently the business of every arrogant self-righteous moralist with a broadband connection, I'll jump in on the woman's side on the safety debate.

It looks scary for anyone who doesn't like that sort of thing, but if you don't like that sort of thing you don't climb. As such, you're hardly qualified to talk with any confidence about the perils of climbing.

The explanation offered certainly stacks up, mind, and is backed by people who do climb, like the Climbing Association (or whatever it's called) spokesman who seemed rather bemused at the hysterical attention when questioned on Radio 5 yesterday.

So there's nothing to see here then.

But, then again, there's nothing much to see for the kid either, as you can judge from the picture on the left.

What is bothersome about this whole story is why, oh why, is the woman so determined that her two year old must accompany her in every minute of her waking life?

It would appear to be another outing for the mindset of the modern 'professional' parent who feels that there is this big competition to outwardly show their parental love more than the next guy or gal.

In America, the term is usually expressed as 'helicopter', whereby the parent hovers incessantly, unable to leave their offspring alone for any length of time without supervision or 'bonding'.
A fan of babywearing, also known more prosaically as using a sling to carry a child, Ms Pritchard explained: "It was very much having Ffion and being a full-time mum that I started getting outdoors with her. I was keen to explore the surrounding area as I didn't know it."

Err, forgive me for stating the obvious, but rather than an hour or two of studying the back of Mum's head, wouldn't the time-honoured practice of leaving her in the capable hands of a babysitter or other family member be more horizon-broadening in learning to interact with differing human personalities? I'm pretty damn sure a two year old girl would much prefer hammering the head off a Barbie doll than smelling her Mum's sweat on the side of a mountain, too.

You see, this smacks more about the Mum wanting to be seen as perfect, outwardly displaying her credentials, while simultaneously doing what she wants to do - at all times with her kid by her side - rather than some exercise in childhood awareness.

Each to their own, and it's up to Ms Pritchard how she occupies her kid, but - crikey - can't we ditch this idea that kids are the be all and end all of life once one has pumped one or two of them out*?

We have a society infected by kids brought up to believe they are the centre of the universe, and whose parents are so wedded to them that any hardship life throws at the little sprog is deemed somehow unfair, a mindset which is readily taken up by youngsters with a beef on society once they realise that life is actually bloody difficult. As has always been the case, and always will be.

I might be wrong, of course, but something tells me that young Ffion will be one of those poor kids who are doomed to a future where the parent is scared of allowing them to use the bus on their own till they're old enough to shag, and they wouldn't wish to do so anyway as they know little about the outside world than what they have seen under the protective eye (or back of the neck) of their Mum.

And that affects us all to some extent. If only because anyone brave enough to release the reins and allow early self-determination for their kids is often derided as a shit parent simply for doing so.

What's more, once society feels able to make such judgements due to the proliferation of perfect parenting templates, you have a situation where people who climb rocks with their kid tied to their back invite ill-informed condemnation on safety reasons from complete strangers.

Funny, that.

* I say this as someone who has pumped a couple out myself, by the way

NHS Fail Wail

I think that we can all agree that the UK's response to coronavirus has been somewhat lacking. In fact, many people asserted that our de...