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9 July 2008

I have been listening to the first part of a two part BBC World Service series, Policing the Poppy Fields. It mentioned in passing that Helmand province in Afghanistan produces half of the world’s opium. The number of specialist anti-drug police there? 32. And most disturbing – Afghan production has greatly exceeded global demand for some years. As a result even if the country stopped producing opium entirely there are stockpiles (somewhere) of around 3000 tonnes of the stuff…

19 June 2008

This article on “5 reasons to love $4 gas” (hey, try living with our $8.70ish petrol!) reminded me that I have for a while been meaning to post indignantly that the press needs to stop whining about things.

First and most obviously, the best way to combat global warming is for gas/petrol prices to stay high – high enough that the environmental impact of using the stuff is roughly proportional to its price.

Second, there is a lot of manufactured concern about house price falls here in the UK but the only people who benefit from super-inflated house prices are retirees who sell up or speculators, while the rest of the country has had to set aside a steadily increasing portion of their incomes to afford to get on or stay on the property ladder. If we weren’t spending so much on our homes we could afford more genuinely productive or stimulating spending.

Third, people are expressing concern that the credit crunch, petrol “crisis” and other factors might lead to (gasp) an economic slowdown – that is, that the economy will not grow as fast as it has for the last decade or so. Does nobody remember recessions? Those are what’s worth worrying about – when the economy actually shrinks (and by the by maybe a little shrinking in the economy would be good for the environment anyway). We’ve had more than a decade of steady growth and (for most) rising incomes. UK inflation between 3% and 4%?

On the left, there is concern that inequality and (relative) poverty have not budged much since Labour came to power, but that’s only a reflection of the speed with which the rich have gotten richer (a global trend). Labour could have done more, true, but according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies:

Taking the period 1996–97 to 2006–07 as a whole, incomes have grown fastest
at the very top of the income distribution, as they did in the period of Conservative
government that preceded it. However, income growth as a whole has been more
equal under Labour than under the Conservatives, with income growth around
the 15th percentile of the distribution stronger than growth in the bulk of the
distribution higher up (though still slower than income growth at the very top of
the distribution).

As for income redistribution, over the period of the Labour government:

the income distribution became more equal between around the 20th and 90th percentiles, but it has grown more unequal at the very top and the very bottom.

And might I just add to this Panglossian picture that there have not been any terrorist “spectaculars” in Europe or North America in the last three years (knock wood!), and that Western casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan and Iraqi civilian casualties have been steadily declining (though Afghan civilian casualties may be rising).

27 April 2008
Filed under:Current Affairs (World) at2:37 pm

Richard Conniff at the NY Times suggests that what we pay to governments could be better described as the ‘dues’ we pay to live in a civilized society. “‘tax’ comes from the Latin for “appraise” with punitive overtones of “censure” or “fault,” as if wage-earners have done something wrong by their labors. ‘Dues,’ in contrast, is rooted in social obligation and duty.” I hope this one catches on…

11 February 2008

Thanks to a BBC programme, Costing the Earth, I just heard about Desertec, a proposal to provide 10-25% of Europe’s electricity via solar power panels in the deserts of North Africa. What I thought was particularly impressive is the claim that the solar panels could provide a three-fold benefit for these African nations. They’d sell the power, of course, but they would also get desalinated water (because this is needed to run the power plants) and they could grow crops in the shade of the giant mirrors! I always thought that the problem with remote electricity generation like this would be the losses in transmission over long distances but the people behind this concept claim that by using High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) these losses would only amount to 10-15% of the power generated.

I have no idea whether this would be feasible, technically, politically or economically, (one critic says it would cost 0.15-0.20 euros per KWh – about double what we pay for power currently) but it sure sounds appealing on the face of it.

3 April 2007

Epicenter started as a look at those who found themselves contaminated by the radioactivity from early nuclear tests but as this trailer demonstrates his curiosity and journalistic zeal soon encouraged him to broaden his investigation and, from the looks of things, turn up all kinds of interesting stuff about the history of nuclear weapons development. Danny has sent me a DVD so once I get it I’ll tell you more…

21 December 2006

A while ago I read in The Economist (registration required to read) that,

Transport is the only sector of the economy in which carbon emissions have risen since 1990. It is also the only one in which they are expected to be above that year’s level in 2020″

but “petrol is now 7p per litre cheaper in real terms than it was in 1999” (thanks to the government’s capitulation to petrol protesters). Seems to me there’s an obvious step the government could take. It turns out “Lowering the motorway speed limit to 60 mph, for example, would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by around 18%.”

(In a reversal of the usual practice I am stepping up my posting frequency over the Xmas holidays by posting old posts I drafted but forgot to post!)

27 November 2006

The exemplary chaps at MySociety.org, a group of mostly volunteer developers producing e-democracy-related web apps has managed to get the prime minister to support (or at least host) an online petition system (see BBC news coverage). Among the petitions launched so far is one which asks him not to replace the Trident nuclear weapons system. I encourage you to sign it – though note that these petitions are for UK residents only.

I oppose the replacement of Trident both on economic grounds and in the interests of encouraging others to abandon their own nuclear arsenals. Nation states who would use nukes against us would surely be deterred by the US and the international consequences of their use, while terrorists are not deterred by nuclear weapons and couldn’t in any case be targetted by them.

It seems to me that this decision comes at a crucial point in history where by deciding to turn away from nuclear weapons we could help turn the rest of the world in a new direction (and save billions that could be used to tackle important issues like climate change).

If you have some more time after signing that petition, please also sign this petition asking for a free vote and a full debate in parliament or visit The Big Trident Debate which has its own similar petition and discussion spaces.

26 August 2006

I just finished writing this post on the LSE group weblog which looks at the low number of Wikipedians editing non-English language articles and the dangers this presents to the credibility of Wikipedia (such as it is). I also tied it in with the recent announcement that the OLPC consortium would be bundling selected Wikipedia articles with its $100 laptops. Take a look at it and see what you think. Have a look at some of the other recent articles there too for that matter – most of them are also written by me (I will start adding bylines from now on).

17 August 2006

(Well, my computer is). A little while ago I heard about Malariacontrol.net, part of the Africa@home project. You download an application (the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing – Boinc – available on PC, Mac and  Linux) and instead of donating spare processing power to the quixotic search for extraterrestrial life you can use your computer (when it is turned on but not doing anything else) to help scientists better understand how malaria spreads. Or at least you could until recently – at the moment they have all the computers they need for that project. But keep revisiting Africa@Home as they plan to publicise more projects soon. Meanwhile there are several other projects that use Boinc.

15 August 2006

This is the last Google Ad I ever expected to see – and it doesn’t seem to have been sent to me because of any particular email as I didn’t have any emails open at the time I read (or does Google Mail present ads based as well on some kind of aggregate of all of your mail?)

mi5 (2).jpg
Alas the only languages other than English of which I have a useful knowledge are French and a smattering of Latin so I may not be much use to them. Then again, perhaps if you believe Yes Minister the French are our real enemies all along?

It’sa pity – I was a big James Bond fan when I was a kid…

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