When elf n’ safety Jobsworth’s kill

I’m all for the benefits of Elf n’ Safety but the problem often is Jobsworth‘s, more interested in protecting their career or engaging in work avoidance strategies. By for example, sticking rigidly to the letter of the law even well past the point where they’ve perverted its original intend while ignoring the most basic common sense. E.g. when once I was in a climbing club some jobsworth in the Student’s Union refused two climbers access to ropes and other equipment on grounds of “Health and Safety”. Consequently they went out and did the route they’d planned without any safety equipment (and without telling me where they were going either!) :no:.

Hence I often refer to such individuals by the acronym SAPS, as in Save Ass Policy Schemes.

And tragically we have a fatal example of SAPS doing the rounds in Ireland. Emma Sloan, who suffered from a nut allergy was at a pre-christmas dinner when she accidentally ate something which contained nuts. She went into shock and began having trouble breathing.

Unfortunately, she didn’t have her critical life-saving medication handy so her parents dragged her to a pharmacy (Hamilton Long chemists on O’Connell street, if you want to avoid the place in future) to get medication, where upon Mr Jobsworth in the chemists refused to sell the medication without a prescription even with the poor teenager literally convulsing on the street outside. Unfortunately she died minutes later.

Indeed the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland has now stepped in and pointed out that the law allows for exceptions to be made to selling without a prescription in situations that are clearly an emergency (i.e. someone is rolling around on the ground with breathing problems). After all this is why you need a degree to stand behind a chemists counter rather than the five minutes training to do the same job in a corner shop.

While I hate to judge before all the facts are in, but if these allegations are true then the store staff responsible should be charged with manslaughter if not murder. Indeed maybe making an example of them this would send a message out to other Jobsworth’s of the consequences of their actions.

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Pre-Christmas stories of the week

A range of pre-Christmas stories that caught my eye.

America’s Indian takeaway – How to loose friends and alienate people
There is a diplomatic row brewing between India and the US after the Americans arrested and allegedly strip searched (and cavity searched 88|) a senior Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, last week. Naturally this set off a storm of protests in India, with the Indian government responding by removing anti-terrorism barriers from outside the US Embassy and talking about imposing diplomatic sanctions against the US consulate.

The Americans have defended their actions by pointing out that the Indian official in question is suspected of visa fraud, specifically to bring a maid into the country and pay her well below the US minimum wage. However, by arresting her they have violated the principle of diplomatic immunity, a convention that extends back to the time of Rameses the Great.

While I’m not going to defend this woman over her alleged crimes (she sounds like a bit of a primadonna personally), the fact is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things. The art of diplomacy could be best described as “getting you’re own way without starting a war or offending 1 billion people”. Clearly the US needs lessons in this.

They could have for example, leaked the details of this case to the Indian press (such a story would not play out well with the rural poor who make up a large part of the ruling INC’s support base), applied diplomatic pressure and likely the Indians would have quietly withdrawn her from the country and likely ensured her next posting would be to North Korea! :>>

However, typical Americans, act unilaterally without thinking things thro first and find yourself knee deep in it…like Iraq (twice!), NSA spying, Wikileaks, etc.:no:

Racist Tweet of the Year
A PR officer for the Internet firm IAC made had a rather un-PR friendly moment this week when she tweeted (or should that be twit’ed :crazy:)

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Her account has since been deleted and her employer (which includes a dating site for African-Americans) is apparently seeking to speak to her about her career. Still I’m quite sure she’ll get a job with UKIP or the BNP!

Irish Economy
I’m in Ireland for Christmas and there is talk about the fact we are supposedly out of the ECB’s bailout process. So is everyone spending like there’s no tomorrow?…ah!….No!

Many Irish are sceptical of the government’s unbridled optimism with talk of growth rates of 3% per year and unemployment back to pre-crisis figures by the end of the decade. In part this scepticism is found in the fact that the directors of Anglo ain’t in jail, as well as the leaks coming out of NAMA, our bad bank whose job it was to nail property developers and spiv’s who caused the crisis to the wall, has instead been colluding with some of them :no:

But also in part this scepticism is due to the fact that those in Ireland who live in the real world can still see the signs of the recession all around them. As I discussed in a prior post, one of the consequences of the recession was to catch many, including many retiree’s and hard working people in a poverty trap which they cannot easily escape. In short they bailed out Wall street and forgot about Main street.

Also it should be remembered that the issue with Ireland wasn’t so much the tens of billions worth of banking debt or public (government) debt, but the nearly 1 trillion euro’s worth of private debts that the Irish have run up as part of their mortgages, credit card loans, etc. It is this mountain of debt (about 200,000 euro’s for every man, women & child in the country) that is still a long way from being paid off that’s the problem, and I’d still say the chances of it all being paid off are probably 50/50.

Cheap Fruit
Another Irish story is a price war going on between supermarkets over the price of fruit and veg. While this has had the advantage of Irish getting low cost vegetables (which means some have discovered you can eat other things than potatoes and meat! :)) ) for all its not necessarily all good news.

Smaller stores, organic food shops, etc. have seen a huge drop in sales. Farmers are also alleging pressure being applied to lower their prices by the major retailers. And there are questions if such below cost selling is actually legal.

As I recall discussing awhile ago, one has to realise that when it comes to the major supermarkets there’s a price to be paid for low price. After all anyone for horse meat?

Fake Booze
Of course some smaller corner stores are hardly helping themselves. There’s an epidemic in the UK of the selling of “fake” Alcohol, often made using dubious practices (e.g. containing methanol which is poisonous), often imported without payment of duty and often labelled as a recognised brand.

While this “fake” booze is sold through various channels, often small corner shops tend to be the major route through which it is fenced. Given how many smaller shops are struggling (see previous story) this is hardly surprising, however the problem is that this sends the message not to buy booze in smaller corner shops. But quite a number of such retailers will often tell you that sales of alcohol is what keeps their head above water. So this trend threatens to put the legitimate retailers out of business.

My solution? Catch the guys behind it and make them drink all of their own booze :oops:, that’ll learn em!

Are you being served?
And speaking of booze, there’s a bit of controversy about muslim staff at M&S refusing to sell booze to people on grounds of there “belief’s”.

All due respect, but if you feel that strongly about your believes, don’t get a job which conflicts with them. That’s like me getting a job as an airline pilot and then claiming my belief in pre-Ptolemy physics means I don’t believe in a round earth nor that a big metal tuby thing can fly.

Islam doesn’t out-rightly ban alcohol, just strongly discourages it. Some choose not to drink at all, much as some Christians don’t drink either. But in many Muslim countries, particularly those with large non-Muslim populations alcohol is legal and in all likelihood if you’re buying booze in these countries it will be a Muslim serving you. Can you imagine what would happen to somebody in Turkey or the UAE who took a job in a shop which sold alcohol and then refused to serve customers? He’d be sacked on the spot!

Equality means equal treatment, but as I’ve mentioned in prior posts, that’s a double edged sword as it means you have to respect other people’s belief’s in kind.

Axed
And speaking of cheap skates, the latest round of Tory cuts involves cutting back on fire stations throughout london, including the very teams that went to the rescue of those trapped in the Apollo a couple of nights back when the roof collapsed.

So next time you go to a london show, a concrete umbrella might be the must have accessory.

Secret Ingredient
I’m not normally one for celeb stories, but one can’t ignore the Nigella Lawson story. I always wondered why she always looked so cheery in those programmes on TV as well as why her recipes didn’t quite work out the way people wanted. Clearly they were missing a key ingredient! Needless to say one best be suspicious of any use of lines of white powder in future programmes she does ;D.

Jokes aside, I highlight this story as it shows this duality that exists, where it is accepted that many celeb’s, bankers, footballers, politicians and journalists regularly do drugs without the slightest interference from the cops. Yet any of us pleb’s try it and they get several years in prison.

Consider indeed the tragic story of a billionaire couple who openly turned their Belgravia mansion into a drug den. Yet not once did they get pinched by the police, even thought one of them (Eva Rausing) ultimately ended up dead, likely of a overdose. If its okay for a celeb to use drugs, then clearly that has to apply to everybody. If the intend it to ban them on safety grounds, then this has to be applied to everyone. And everyone means everyone!

Stories of the week

End to the Irish bailout
According to the Irish government, Ireland has now exited its bailout agreement with the EU and all is well again…well, sort of!

This came as extremely distressing news to the UK press, who promptly went looking around Dublin for a tram to film (back during the crisis they had a nasty habit of showing images of tramps on Dublin streets, as they tried to hype up the crisis, ignoring the many tramps on London streets).

In part Ireland’s exit is helped by the fact that it turned out that the level of funding needed for the bailout wasn’t as large as initially thought. Unemployment is down, the economy is growing, but that doesn’t mean everything is hunky dory. No, as with everywhere else in the world, there’s still many issues to deal with, for example there are still many ghost estates and zombie businesses and a hidden poverty trap that effects thousands of hard working individuals, some of whom will struggle to fund their retirement, as I mentioned in a prior post.

In short, we can see light at the end of the tunnel…we’re just not sure if it’s the exit or an oncoming train!

A sign of the times in South Africa
Mandela’s memorial service in Jo-burg turned out to be something of an embarrassing farce for the ANC. Firstly, it ran on for hours (so long that Obama & Cameron amused themselves by taking “selfies” at a funeral).

Then there was the issue of a supposed interpreter who deaf people pointed out was a fraud. Initially it was thought he might be some sort of practical joker, but its since turned out that he has been used at ANC events before (and people complained, just this time his antics where broadcast to a worldwide audience). While he has attempted to claim a bad case of stage fright, it probable a more reasonable explanation is the sort of petty cronyism that plagues South Africa these days. Where those who are “juiced in” with the god-olde-boys” get juicy government contracts (such as for doing sign language interpreting…even thought they haven’t a clue!).

In other news, Archbishop Desmond Tutu is apparently not invited to Mandela’s funeral. He has been a critic of ANC corruption. While the ANC has since claimed to have “lost” his invite, it does to say the least stink. Oh, and the burgling of his home while he was at Mandela’s memorial sounds a little too much of a coincidence.

Game of Thrones
North Korea is probably best looked on as a imperial state that uses the language of communism to stay in power, as opposed to an actual communist state. This was illustrated with the removal and execution of Chang Song-thaek, Kim Jung-un’s uncle.

Its almost like an episode of Game of Thrones. We have the ex-king who was into partying and drinking, only for him to die and be replaced by a sadistic little twerp who is then manipulated by one force or another, with a Hamlet like body count resulting…of course the difference is its being played out in a country with modern weapons, including nukes! So to say this raises the stakes somewhat is to put it mildly.

Santa’s on the Run
The cops in Dundee are looking for Santa, who was seen crashing a car into a house, before running off, possibly as a result of being “tired and emotional”.

This sounds a little too close to this video from the web. Its not clear at present as to whether any Reindeer were involved (or harmed) nor whether the police shall be judged to have been “naughty” if they manage to catch him.

The 12 scams of Christmas
…On the first day of Christmas my true love said to me, download this app…and then I had to pay someone in bitcoins to remove ransomware from my PC.

There’s a lot of scams on the internet these days, and given that Christmas is often when the more inept users venture out, its usually this time of year that they get caught out, so watch it out there!

Tabloid Laziness
An insight into how tabloids undertake research was revealed this week. The Sun published a list of whom they considered to be the laziest MP’s. However it turns out they did this by simply downloading and looking at the voting record of MP’s. As one of them, Lucy Powell of Labour, who rated high on this list, such sloppy journalism fails to account for certain factors…such as her being pregnant and on maternity leave at the time!

So next time you hear some tabloid story, remember that they aren’t exactly known for undertaking rigours fact checking. As I’ve mentioned before, much of the myths, such as benefits being a large proportion of taxes (jobseekers accounts for less than 1% of UK taxes) or that half the country is immigrants (actually its closer to 11%) aren’t true and can easily be debunked by doing a little bit of research. Then again reading and basic arithmetic doesn’t seem to be trait of tabloid journalists!

Education woes
The Tories flagship education policies seem to becoming undone. One of the country’s first “free schools” was forced to shut, the costs of the free school programme are spiralling ever upwards, evidence suggests that UK school standards are falling relative to the rest of the world, and Tory cuts have hit the less well off pupils and schools the worst.

Meanwhile in third level, Turnitin, a key anti-cheating software uni’s use to catch plagiarism stopped working, causing all sorts of problems for us. There have been strikes over pay and the students appear to be revolting (okay that was a pun, but there’s been several protests in London recently about tuition fees).

Oh and here’s some amusing answers to some exam questions.

Censoring belief’s at LSE

Over at LSE there has been controversy for the censoring of the LSESU (Atheist, Secularist , Humanist) society, apparently due to two of its members wearing a set of “Jesus and Mo” tee-shirts during the Fresher’s fair.

This resulted in security guards and university officials threatened the students with expulsion if they didn’t cover up their shirts. They did this because they claimed they had received complaints over them. Oddly enough however, when the BBC’s Today programme inquired about it the LSE then seemed to be reluctant to say how many it had received or even confirm that there had been any complaints.

Given that we are talking about the university that gave Gaddafi’s son a PhD for a highly plagiarised (and highly paid for) piece of work, one has to worry if the real reason for this action was more about protecting the sensitivities of wealthy Arab donors, rather than student concerns.

However in many respects it represents a very worrying trend for universities. Traditionally universities have adopted a fairly secular approach to these issues. One which pretty much said that the one right nobody has on campus is the right not to be offended.

Indeed to give one example, when I was an undergrad I was a member of a Sci-fi & wargamming society (Sci-fi, Computer Strategy games, Warhammer, AD & D, comic’s, Manga, etc.). Anyway during the Freshers fair some genius in the SU decided to position our stand directly opposite the Christian Society…who had a particular Baptist streak in this uni! :no: So there were our guys wearing Black Sabbath and Judge Dredd tee-shirts, a Manga video going in the back ground and posters of wizards, etc. up directly facing a bunch of stony faced Baptists |-|…

…Oddly enough about a year later we heard rumours that the Christian society had been infiltrating spies into our society as they’d seemingly convinced themselves (by reading one too many Chick pamphlets :crazy:) that we were engaged in some sort of satanic stuff >:-[ (this is the problem with bible literalists, when they hear you’re playing a game where characters have spells, they assume you’re literally trying to learn how to cast spells, the idea that it’s just a game doesn’t compute!).

Either way, in both cases the attitude of the authorities was largely to not get involved and basically “boys will be boys” sort of stuff. I assume there might have been a quiet word had with the committee of each society to maybe tone things down a tad, but certainly nobody came along with security and forced anyone to take down posters, or break up meetings, etc. That would have just been un-academic.

However it would seem that the LSE is taking a very different approach. And the people who should be most worried about this, ironically enough is anyone who is religious. As it suggests the direction that UK universities are now heading is form of secularism that effectively bars any form of religious expression that might offend others. This is what’s played out in universities in countries like Turkey or France or in public schools in America where no form or religious expression is allowed…period! That means no burka’s, no head scarf’s or turbans, no crucifix’s, no prayer rooms, no time off for religious holidays and if you want to run a Atheists or Christian society, do it off campus.

So it is for the sake of protecting religious expression that this action by LSE most be challenged, as much as it is about standing up for freedom of speech.

Bitcoin bubble

I wrote an article sometime ago about the virtual currency Bitcoins, so it would be useful to do an update. For bitcoin has recently been accused of exhibiting classic bubble like behaviour.

Having first seen its value fall, but its image cleaned up somewhat by governments cracking down on the use of Bitcoin by various criminals, notably on the website “silk road”, the value of Bitcoin has gone up rather a alot in recent months. However it took a tumble after the Chinese government more or less banned transactions in it, as they fear its been used for tax dodging and money laundering.

But getting back to this question, is it a bubble? Is comparing bitcoin to tulip mania (as Forbes magazine suggests) being fair? Well one could argue that a bubble is where people are buying a commodity not out of general need, but in the majority of cases, purely because they believe the price will rise in future.

At the start of tulip mania for example, people bought and paid a lot for tulips because tulips were considered a valuable commodity. But beyond a certain tipping point the majority of people had little to no interest in actually growing tulips, they were a means to an end.

Similarly in the lead up to the financial crisis while yes people need homes, many houses were being bought (often by people building up massive property portfolios secured purely on the back of previous house purchases) purely as part of speculation on the property price rising.

Obviously enough the danger is, as demonstrated by the sub-prime crisis (or the dot-com bubble), sooner or later supply and demand factors change or the market simply runs out of investors and the bubble bursts.

Now one can argue that there is a genuine need for people to buy bitcoins, as it might well be able to defy the convention (virtually all the other attempts at creating a virtual currency have failed) and become a viable alternative to government controlled currencies. However, one still has to question if the rapid rate of growth is justified.

While I’m not the biggest of internet shoppers I have to say I’ve never come across a website or a business in the real world that supports payments in bitcoin (I’m sure they exist, just not that many of them). Thus the actual transactions in bitcoins are, I would argue, probably fairly small, which would certainly imply a bubble and probably a market correction at some point in the future.

And there’s also exclusivity, something the currency lacks, as many competitors to Bitcoin have sprung up. The implication of this being, that it will likely prove difficult for any virtual currency to hold value long term and Bitcoin might not be the one (if any) that proves successful.

Of course the irony here is that what the libertarians most behind bitcoin have perhaps succeeded in proving exactly why we want a currency backed up by governments. Libertarians argue that the problem with government backed currency is the temptation for the state to meddle is all too great. And one need only look to QE in the US and UK for prove of this as the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England try printing money as a solution to they’re problems (when instead they should be raising taxes or cutting back on the luxuries…like nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers!).

However, if there’s anything worse it has to be a currency backed up by nothing. Put yourself in the shoes of a business, would you seriously want to handle all payments (e.g. too you’re staff, suppliers, etc.) and store your profits in a currency that fluctuates this wildly in value? One of the whole reasons corporations prefer the dollar, pound or euro is that despite it all, they tend to be stable currencies that don’t fluctuate significantly in value. Indeed, ironically enough the only way that bitcoin works is by pricing it relative to dollars or euros! In short its equivalent to proposing the Zimbabwe dollar as an alternative to the US dollar!

Yet More Random Thoughts

Not had time to blog much over the last week but some stories that caught my eye…

The Mandela media frenzy
The former South African leader of course died this week (I’m assuming anyone not living on Mars heard the news). However, what I found strange was how the news media when into its sort of usual 24 hr wall-to-wall coverage which involved repeatedly asking a journalists in Seweto the same questions over and over again. This despite the fact that the very same day there was a massive storm bearing down on the UK and Scrooge Mac-Bullingdon was issuing his autumn statement, to name a few other stories. However all of these events, including mass evacuations of parts of Holland and the South coast of the UK were pushed aside as a result of the Mandela story.

While not denying that this was a newsworthy event, indeed I’d always been impressed with how modestly Mandela had lived and conducted himself, but clearly him dying has been on the cards for sometime and the media have been preparing for it and they weren’t going to let any pesky storm get in the way of such coverage. After all, nobody remembers the story of the journalist who reported from a flood barrier during a storm (unless it failed! Or they got the forecast wrong…like Michael Fish!), but a journalist could build his career on the story of reporting on Nelson Mandela’s death. All very morbid I’m afraid.

Of course the reflections on Mandela’s life inevitably produced a few awkward moments for the Tories, seeing as their hero, Thatcher once described Mandela as a terrorist and refused to support sanctions against South Africa.

Storm warning
Indeed the story of this storm surge was of particular interest to many. Since the catastrophic floods of 1953, many billions has been spent on studying the problem and building flood defences. While there have been floods since then, this was the biggest ever test of these defences.

There has been for several decades considerable debate about whether we could defend the coastline against such storm surges and what was the best way of doing it. A simple wall for example, doesn’t stop the sea, it just deflects the water somewhere else, which gets flooded even worse than otherwise. This is why recently efforts have been moving towards defence in depth. In some cases this has meant breaching barriers to allow flooding of wetlands, which then act as a sponge to absorb the water in a flood.

All in all, while there was inevitably some flooding and fatalities as a result of this storm, the flood defences more or less worked as specified, the impact of the storm was nowhere near that of 1953, despite higher water levels.

What this shows to me is the benefits of listening to the science and acting accordingly. Which is what we should be doing as regards climate change, listen to the 97% of climate scientists who think we have a problem, and we should thus take appropriate measures to do something about it.

Renewable energy cuts
And of course, this is what my main beef was with the slimy wee git in Number 11. The government is now contemplating cutting the subsidies to renewables for what will be at least the 3rd time since coming to office. One would be forgiven for thinking that they have something against all this renewables…or “green crap” as the PM described it. An irony indeed that he promised the “greenest government ever”.

Indeed the major problem here isn’t so much the cut in subsidy (the costs of renewables have been falling rather a lot recently, indeed I think the renewable industry recognises the need to go beyond subsidies eventually) but the chilling effect as such regular and repeated cutting of subsidies with little or no warning to the energy industry is sending a very clear message to the renewables industry that they are not welcome in the UK and they should give all those low carbon jobs to somebody else.

While they did offer a fig leaf to offshore wind energy, this seems to me more an element of bait and switch. The fact is that large chucks of the UK’s energy grid is ageing and need replacement. For example, all but 1 of the UK’s nuclear plants will be shutdown by 2026, the same time as Hinkley Point C is expected to go into operation (and recall nuclear plants have a habit of coming in late and over budget). Even if we were to see all the nuclear capacity planned built by the 2030’s (earliest possible) we’re looking at barely enough new reactors to replace half the capacity due to shutdown between now and then.

Similarly, many of the UK’s coal fired plants are due to shut down soon also and building new ones would present the problems of climate change (coal being the dirtiest of all fuels), costs (coal isn’t so cheap anymore once you factor in all the post and pre-combustion treatment you have to do to mean air pollution standards) and security of supply (the UK is now a large net importer of coal).

Basically the only energy source options that can match future demand and have any chance of being built quickly enough to prevent the risk of major power shortages are renewables, which are growing at fairly healthy rates worldwide (29 GW’s solar PV added in 2012 alone and 45 GW’s of wind energy in one year), energy efficiency (i.e. use less energy and thus cut consumption to match supply) and natural gas. However these subsidy cuts risk undermining the low carbon options, more or less forcing the UK into a route towards natural gas.

But where is the gas going to come from? Shale gas, as I’ve discussed before, is seriously overhyped. It is improbable it can supply the gas we need long term, meaning the UK will be committing itself to being a major net importer of gas into the future. And recall that it is largely rises in wholesale gas prices (as well as shameless profiteering by the energy companies) that is behind recent rises in energy bills.

While indeed energy prices have traditionally been higher in countries like Germany, Denmark, Portugal and France (which have adopted more low-carbon friendly tactics), in these states now, energy prices are stabilising if not falling at the same time that they are soaring in the UK.
And all I can say is, you ain’t seen nothing yet! If the government goes ahead with its plans the result is likely to be a certain element of “lock in” whereby we’ll be committed to gas and stuck with that decision for decades, which will inevitably mean much higher bills in future.

We’re Sorry
Indeed, I had a letter this week from the boss of Npower saying sorry for the company being a total bunch of mental cases over the last few months. As with most Npower customers, I had more than a few issues including them getting my bills badly wrong, owning me a refund, then sending me a letter from a debt collector (after getting the incorrect bill only a few days earlier!) then realising the mistake and giving the proper bill and crediting my account.

But is he forgoing his bonus this year? Are Npower going to delay the usual rise in prices? Well obviously not! There’s being sorry and actually being sorry. I’ll let you consider which is the case for Npower.

Christmas is comin!
Christmas is comin and the beer belly is getting fat! I wandered around the city centre to see the spectacle of Christmas shopping (I do my serious shopping online or early in the morning when nobody else is around) and already the novelty factor has worn off. What I don’t understand is how people will go into town and join horrendously long queues, when if you go to the quieter parts (e.g. down the back streets, farmers market or local book store) you can avoid all complications. Granted you save a bit of money, but when you consider the costs of getting into town, the time wasted queuing, is it worth it?

I mean I was passing a Nando’s (not that I’m a fan of the place, never been in one, probably never will be) and a number of jewelers in town the other day and there these massive queues to get in. Now think about it, there’s more than one Nando’s in the world, if you took a ten minute public transport ride you’d be at another one with no queue…or indeed do what I did go to the local café round the corner. I mean do people have a lobotomy before going out on the Christmas shop?

Santa Sacked by the Tories
Another story that made the news was that Birmingham city council, in an effort to match Tory imposed spending limits have taken the step of sacking Santa claus. It reminds me of this Thatcher era song from spitting image “Santa Claus is on the dole”.

Of course, as this web page discusses the scientific analysis of the theory of Santa doesn’t bode well anyway.

Christmas beer’s
Indeed speaking of elves, one think I have been shopping for is Christmas beers. Many craft breweries bring out special Christmas beers, with names like Red Nosey, Santa’s Paw (Brewdog), Twelve days (Hook Norton), Cheerless (Red willow) and one of my more favourite Ridgeway’s “Bad elf” series…which goes from bad elf, very bad elf, seriously bad elf, criminally bad elf and insanely bad elf (11.5%…one or two of these would not be in keeping with “elf n safety”!). Personally I find them a bit hit and miss, Seriously bad, Insanely bad and another related beer “winter warmer” are good but the rest ain’t great. Although this goes for a lot of the Christmas beers, but still it helps take the edge off the whole Christmas rush.

Energy and Green Tariffs

This is a reprint of an article from my Energy blog:

I had a go at Ed Miliband and labour’s proposed policies on energy a few weeks back. While I understand the populist frustration regarding energy bills I would question whether a freeze on energy prices will have the desired result or will just lead to more of what we’ve seen over the last few years, i.e. dithering by the utilities a failure to invest in major new infrastructure projects, potentially leading to blackouts due to a shortage of generating capacity in the future.

However it would seem that the Tories have succeeded in coming up with something even worse. Worried about how they’d look in a general election again someone promising to freeze energy prices, they’ve been trying to find a way to cut energy bills by getting rid of the green tariffs that are crucial to the reform of the UK’s energy sector.

The power companies claim that it is these green tariffs that are why bills are so high. This seems odd given that Green tariffs represent just 8% of an average bill according to Ofgem and they cannot possibly account for price rises in the order of 40-175% in 5 years.

And as I’ve discussed before the bulk of recent bill increases are due to rises in wholesale energy costs (and the energy firms being very rapid to pass on increases to customer but being very slow to reduce bills when the wholesale price falls)… as well as outright price gouging by the big six energy firms. And as I’ve also discussed before, the vast bulk of energy subsidies go towards subsidising fossil fuel consumption, not renewables.

Hence why many energy advisers have condemned these proposals, as they recognise that any reduction in bills it produces are tiny compared to the long term costs it will impose on the economy.

For example one of the measure the Tories have been most keen to attack is a levy that provides funds to improve the insulation and air tightness of the UK’s leaky drafty homes. As I mentioned in a prior post heating and cooling buildings in the UK represents 36-42% of the UK’s energy consumption (depending on how you do you’re sums) when road transport represents 25% and electricity production (some of which is then used to heat and cool homes) represents 20%. Thus, making the UK’s buildings, on average, say twice as energy efficient, would produce an equivalent cut in energy consumption as taking all of the UK’s coal and at least half of the gas fired stations offline or taking ¾’s of the UK’s cars off the roads.

In short, reducing the heat loss of buildings is the lowest of low hanging fruit we should be going after. The cost benefits of doing this (remembering that a good deal of the housing that such schemes apply to are social housing or retirees with a winter heating allowance where the state is often the one paying the gas bill) show it is easily worth every penny. This explains opposition to this policy from councils, who don’t want grannies freezing to death in leaking poorly insulated homes.

In short, one can accuse the Tories of a cynical ploy to try and get their allies in the Energy Industries off the hook. However the long term damage that this will do has to be considered. Just a few weeks ago plans for a large offshore wind energy project in the UK were shelved. Now while officially the backers of this project mumbled various excuses about soil conditions on the seabed, my suspicion is it was more the fact that this cancellation was more down to the dithering evident on both sides of Parliament.

Indeed the Tories have been trying to reclassify what constitutes “fuel poverty”. As its becoming somewhat embarrassing for them, and the utilities, to have so many in the UK calculated as suffering fuel poverty. This is the fudgiest of politic fudges.

And incidentally its worth reflecting on the long term impact of the renewables installation programme in Germany. While it did result in some steep rises in energy costs in the early days of this policy, recently bills have been stabilising or even falling, despite increases in wholesale gas prices as the large level of renewable energy production has served to stabilise energy prices.

Similarly, while I’m not a fan of France’s energy policy, notably as regards nuclear, credit has to be given where it is due, they have also succeeded in stabilising their energy costs long term, with this policy, although I would wonder if they’ve factored in the full life cycle costs to the tax payer of nuclear waste disposal and decommissioning (as I discuss here).

And this also incidentally, is why I would question this idea of moving such tariffs (as the Tories propose) into general taxation. The danger is that this lumps an ever larger bill onto the back of the tax payer, when it should be the utilities who pay, as after all they are the ones who profit from the UK’s energy production so it’s only fair they pay the costs, not least because it now gives them no financial incentive to change policy nor build any new major infrastructure.

And Cameron’s cynical dismissal of Green tarrif’s as “green crap” hardly fills one with confidence on how well the Tories will manage such funds if its dependant on funding from government.

Time for a reality check
What we all need to realise is that there is a real reason why you’re energy bills are so high. Its because the system of privatisation set up by the Thatcher government was one designed by yuppies for yuppies. It turned the UK energy market into a casino where traders could buy and sell energy. It also led to the consolidation of the UK’s energy supply into a handful of large firms. And as I’ve pointed out before for capitalism to work, there has to be competition, else it can end up less efficient and more costly than the public sector.

However the Thatcher era energy policy had no mechanism to ensure that utilities would actually build the infrastructure needed to keep the lights on. Indeed the only thing in that policy that forced the utilities to invest in new infrastructure the NFFO is the very thing the Tories are now scrapping.

A lack of a credible UK energy policy since then has led to many short term decisions which have had long term consequences. And this has ultimately led to the UK being hugely dependant on gas, much of which is now imported and the price of those imports is extremely volatile and can only go one way (that being up!).

In short only a radical change to this energy policy, which means actually more green tariffs, or perhaps better yet a carbon tax, or nationalisation of much of the energy sector is what’s needed to get things back on track. And anyone delighted with the £50 “saved” wait a few months or a year for those “savings” to be wiped out while the utilities report yet more bumper profits and large bonuses to bosses.

Amazon dotcon

Usual work related issues, keeping from blogging much recently, but again I’m back…for now!

Panorama had an expose out last week, of life as a “picker” at Amazon’s UK distribution centres. Needless to say, its not the most pleasant place to work. Workers are forced to walk and push a heavy cart tens of km’s a shift, required to retrieve multiple items a minute (the undercover reporter was told off for only collecting 110 items an hour, that’s one every 32 seconds!). All for more or less minimum wage!

And this is not by any means a one off, many other reports from other Amazon distribution centres around the world report similar conditions, with accusations of harsh working conditions, that risk mental health of workers and intrusive security screenings (how this Panorama reporter got his camera in I do not know!).

Sick days
One of the things I found most disturbing as Amazon’s attitude towards sick pay. They operate a disciplinary system that considers a day off sick as 1 point’s worth of misconduct, and 3 gets you sacked. So a bad dose of the flu could get you sacked.

I have noticed this attitude creeping in to many firms where the assumption is that if you call in sick you’re somehow skiving off, when in fact you’re doing the company a favour by not bringing you’re germs into work and infecting other members of staff (costing the company more time in lost productivity). There is thus I would argue a need to confront such attitudes, but at least other firms don’t sack people for being ill.

To me this runs contrary to the way a company should act, i.e. if someone’s ill tell him to keep his germs at home. One wonders what will happen to Amazon in a flu pandemic (I suspect they could find their entire distribution system paralysed and probably face lawsuits from the families of workers who died as a result of catching the disease at work).

No Tax
Of course least we forget one of those things Amazon excels at isn’t just exploiting workers but dodging tax. The company is famous for its Scrooge like behaviour when it comes too paying its taxes. Which makes it odd how the UK government seems to be bending over backwards to get companies like it to set up in the UK.

As the Panorama programme mentioned, councils have spent millions building infrastructure to support Amazon distribution centres, which as the programme shows are effectively operating sweat shops within the UK while dodging tax and undercutting local shops and booksellers who do pay tax and are now going out of business.

I would argue that part of the problem here is that there is this attitude that somehow internet dot.com companies are more ethically inclined that traditional businesses. The reality is no they are not. Google’s “don’t be evil” motto is only accurate if you delete the first word and similarly Amazon’s working conditions resemble those mentioned in the infamous 1900’s Upton Sinclair book “the Jungle”.