Friday, 28 May 2010

Living Outside The Paywall

One refugee from The Times paywall is BabyBarista, a fictional account of a junior barrister practising at the English Bar. Author Tim Kevan explained:
"I have today withdrawn the BabyBarista Blog from The Times in reaction to their plans to hide it away behind a paywall along with their other content. Now don’t get me wrong. I have absolutely no problem with the decision to start charging. They can do what they like. But I didn’t start this blog for it to be the exclusive preserve of a limited few subscribers. I wrote it to entertain whosoever wishes to read it. Hence my decision to resign which I made with regret. I remain extremely grateful to The Times for hosting the blog for the last three years and wish them luck with their experiment."
The walled garden of proprietary content is doomed. I won’t link to anything inside a ‘paywall’, not because I'm against publishers making money but because the paywall may interfere with the reader's journey, and the publisher is unlikely to ever link back as part of a meaningful dialogue with those outside its bubble. I will only link to paid-for content when the payment process is seamless and there's a decent chance the publisher may link back. That's how the new media world works. Google and Facebook - about whom the newspapers complain most - succeed by facilitating how we use and generate content, not by bricking themselves in.

Image from EducatedNation

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Social Media Icing On Old Media Cake

The social media do appear to be saving old media. For now.

According to the Pew Research Centre's New Media Index, 99% of stories linked to in blogs during the year to January 15, 2010 came from "legacy outlets such as newspapers and broadcast networks. And... the BBC, CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post accounted for fully 80% of all links."

Of course, while you may be reading a blog that links to an 'old media' story, that doesn't necessarily mean you've bothered to read that story. And every minute you spend reading the blog is time you don't spend engaging directly with 'old media'. Yet the social media are a source of both links and evidence of what resonates with readers.

So the old media may still be baking the cake, but the social media are supplying the icing. And who likes cake without icing? [That's enough analogy now. Ed.]

The reason this dynamic may not last is that the old media seem to be ignoring the stories that resonate most amongst the social media. Pew found that "the social media tend to home in on stories that get much less attention in the mainstream press. And there is little evidence, at least [in the year to 15 January 2010] of the traditional press then picking up on those stories in response."

In fact, you might conclude from Pew's table above that the mainstream press ignored the scale of reader demand for news on politics, foreign events, science, technology, the environment, pop culture, 'oddball', gay issues, consumer news and education. And it's worth noting that news related to "gardening, sports or other hobbies" was not tracked.

It would be interesting to see whether this imbalance is rectified in the coming year. But if it is not, I wonder whether old media will find itself permanently losing readership in these areas?

If so, no more cake!

Image from Petit Pois

Monday, 24 May 2010

4891: Orwell Had It Backwards

Thanks to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, and the film adaptation, most of us over 20 have grown up with the threat of an omniscient, totalitarian Big Brother looming over us.

While this is a tragic reality for the residents of a few countries, for most it is not.

Yet many of us are obsessed with our own privacy, imagining it as a defence to control by organised crime lords, governments, a "New World Order" or Facebook. Others relish the illusory voyeurism in the melodramatic Big Brother television series, and the phoney 'privacy battles' conducted between celebrities and the tabloid media by agents and public relations advisors for commercial gain.

But it is actually the overwhelming dislosure of information about ourselves that defies control by any single institution (as does the inherent unpredictability of human behaviour). The Chinese government, in particular, seems to understand this. Sharing our preferences, desires, fears and concerns (if not our birth dates and passwords) via social, retail, political and other facilitators enables us to gain greater personal control of our own lives. That process results in services adapted to our own actual or desired behaviour rather than a service provider's bottom line or a political party's dogmatic manifesto. There are literally millions of examples of this dynamic at work. But consider how:
Of course, George Orwell was writing a cautionary tale rather than necessarily predicting the future, so we at least have him to thank for a vivid image of how society must not be allowed to develop. In the meantime, we should go on sharing information about ourselves, even if only as a last defence to totalitarian control.

Image from Online Social Networking

Friday, 21 May 2010

Steampunk Mobile

The arrival of mass personal digital communications in previously remote areas might teach us a lot about enabling people everywhere to gain greater control of their lives - particularly as those scenarios have remained free of the top-down institutional constraints imposed by many of our retail brands to solve their own problems rather than ours.

You don't need to be literate or numerate in the true sense to communicate in the mobile world. Even the more literate amongst us need help in deciphering symbols used by young people when text messaging. So, while mobile phone-based literacy and learning programmes are important in themselves, it is more important to understand how mobile phones enable people of low literacy everywhere to seize control of their lives.

For example, a great Babbage post on how mobile numbers are identities for many in India provides a critical insight into how people left behind by government and other institutions actually use the latest technology - as do M-Pesa and the technology hubs used by Africa's 'cheetah generation'. And EduTech cites a valuable insight that emerged from a study by Matt Kam for MILLEE using gaming apps to enable Indian children to acquire literacy:
"The use of educational games on the mobile phones facilitated new ties between participants across gender, caste and village boundaries, and the new social relationships that developed transferred to real world, non-gaming settings."
In other words, certain online games may improve social mobility.

Meanwhile, Adaptive Path has studied the mobile phone usability and design needs of people in rural India. Those people cited the following features and functionality as the most important to them:
- Calling
- Texting (using voice to text or with assistance)
- Music
- Camera*
- Microphone
- Speaker
- Airtime
- Battery Level
*While most research participants did not have mobile phones with cameras, this was cited as a desired feature.

Saving contact information was the single most challenging task for non-literate users to perform.
To remove the complexity of entering and saving data, Adaptive Design borrowed from industrial tracking processes to suggest enabling users to photograph a QR Code or 'MobilGlyph' that contains the unique data required. Of course, the process of producing accurate and reliable MobilGlyphs would also need to be efficiently administered.

Adaptive Design's approach to the challenge of handset design is even more intriguing. They found "there is a strong culture of reselling, re-purposing, cobbling, and repair throughout India and this is especially true in rural villages". So Adaptive Design turned to Steampunk which, they point out, "...reflects the design and craftsmanship of the Victorian era...
"Similar to the exposed inner workings of a motorcycle, works of art created to reflect the Steampunk genre possess a look of craftsmanship and cobbling. It’s an aesthetic that invites the touch of the human hand and it encourages engagement and fosters curiosity and play.

[This of course echoes with the 'architecture of participation' at the heart of Web 2.0 trend.]

Taking cues from Steampunk’s “hack-able” aesthetic, we made the phone look like an object that can be opened and tinkered with by exaggerating seams and making the mechanisms to open the device obvious... vibrant sound is an important part of Indian culture and ... We chose to emphasize these elements by giving them a larger portion of the phone’s physical real estate .... Gauges are commonly used to convey quantitative information on cars and motorcycles in rural India. We echoed these familiar interface elements to communicate battery level and airtime minutes. Finally, we drastically reduced the feature set of the phone, allowing us to assign each function a single button. We borrowed “stop” and “start” buttons from stereos and placed them on the side of the device. Taking cues from a radio dial, our Steampunk phone contains a scroll wheel — creating a strong and intuitive relationship between the physical interface element, the gesture, and the UI inside the screen."
It seems to me that this design makes the device simple and usable without dumbing it down. As Adaptive Design point out:
"Empathic design is not about forcing conventions and models on users that feel foreign, it’s about empowering users with technology that feels appropriate and familiar. Designers and user experience professionals have a responsibility to avoid viewing illiteracy as a deficiency, but as an important design consideration for a large portion of the world."
This is consistent with the need for investment rather than donations in developing regions, "characterized by mutual dignity and respect", as Kiva puts it.

By taking that approach, we stand to learn how to meet similar challenges on our own doorsteps.

Images from Adaptive Path

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Lessons In Waste: Where Do Your Taxes Go?

Too late, we've learned that senior civil servants turned state's evidence on their New Labour masters, marking an audit trail with "letters of direction" for the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. According to Bloomberg:
"On 13 occasions between the start of 2009 and April 2010, civil servants asked ministers for a “letter of direction,” according to figures originally released by the Treasury in April. In the previous four years, only four such letters were requested, according to the Treasury."
The Public Accounts Committee's reports make grim reading for anyone interested in low cost government, tracing waste and ineptitude from early in the New Labour regime. For example, on 8 April it had this to say about an HM Customs & Excise private finance contract:
In 2001 the Inland Revenue and HM Customs & Excise, now HM Revenue & Customs (the Department), signed a 20-year contract with Mapeley STEPS Contractor Limited, one of several companies in the Mapeley Group, transferring ownership and management of 60% of its estate. At contract signature the Department expected to pay £3.3 billion (2009 prices) over the 20 years of the contract. To date it has paid 20% (£312 million) more than expected, and now expects to pay £3.87 billion over the 20 years. Moreover, signing a contract which involved tax avoidance through an offshore company has been highly damaging to the Department's reputation.
The sale of the public stake in British Energy was also revealed as ham-fisted, as has been the handling of the £1.85bn in overpaid benefits.

The sickening list goes on and on and on. And of course even more waste is featured regularly in Private Eye.

It's a crying shame to be pouring extra taxes into such a leaky bucket as the UK public sector. So, all the more reason to engage with Where Does My Money Go?

Image from the Open Knowledge Foundation

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Does Investment Beat Donations In Sub-Sahara Africa?

While we're on the lookout for new markets, reports on why Asia has taken a knock due to recent problems in the Eurozone reveal that China will also be competing strongly elsewhere in order to reduce its reliance on Europe. MF Global research director Nicholas Smith suggests:
"China is significantly more exposed to Europe than the US, and is also Japan’s biggest trade partner... when the euro plunged, one of the hardest-hit stock markets was China (“because China now sells around a quarter more to Europe than to the US, and is highly sensitive to a slowdown in exports”). [So, for Asia, a week Euro means]:
  • Europe will buy less from Japanese companies.
  • European companies, particularly German ones, will be made incomparably stronger and more competitive by the weak currency.
  • Europe will buy less from China, which will damage Chinese growth and hence depress the prices of commodities, which “anyway tend to follow a similar dynamic to the euro exchange rate”.
One area of Chinese activity in the spotlight recently is sub-Saharan Africa. It's a sign of China's special focus on the region that 2006 was China's "Year of Africa". The web site devoted to Sino-African relations lists extensive contacts between the regions, and China recently announced its biggest deal in South Africa (to build a cement plant) since investing $5.5bn in Standard Bank in 2007.

Western government hand-wringing about the ugly track record of some African nations seems to hide a reluctance to engage effectively in the region generally, and perhaps a desire to undermine the success of more adroit competitors. The blurb for Patrick Bond's book "Looting Africa: The Economics of Exploitation" suggests why:
"Despite the rhetoric, the people of Sub-Saharan Africa are become poorer. From Tony Blair's Africa Commission, the G7 finance ministers' debt relief, the Live 8 concerts, the Make Poverty History campaign and the G8 Gleneagles promises, to the United Nations 2005 summit and the Hong Kong WTO meeting, Africa's gains have been mainly limited to public relations. The central problems remain exploitative debt and financial relationships with the North, phantom aid, unfair trade, distorted investment and the continent's brain/skills drain. Moreover, capitalism in most African countries has witnessed the emergence of excessively powerful ruling elites with incomes derived from financial-parasitical accumulation. Without overstressing the "mistakes" of such elites, this book contextualises Africa's wealth outflow within a stagnant but volatile world economy."
Other commentary on the significant development aid donors Germany, the UK and France is also less than flattering (though it's worth pointing out that France Telecom is a major investor in one of Africa's undersea cable projects, while Alcatel-Lucent is the lead contractor on another). The US approach to the sub-Sahara region has also needed realignment:
"With the collapse of the Soviet Union leaving both an economic and power vacuum, Bill Clinton began a program of engagement with Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic powers like Nigeria and in encouraging passage the Congress of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act which reduced trade barriers between the U.S. several African countries... George W. Bush followed on Clinton’s achievements... and is widely regarded as the U.S. President who did most for the advancement of the African people by bringing American money to bear on myriad social and health problems... [including] the goal of eliminating malaria and offering AIDS treatment to many who need it with the backing of $20 billion in U.S. aid grants."
Against this background, it's worth carefully considering the criticism that:
"Chinese companies are the second-most likely (after India) to use payola abroad, according to Transparency International's Bribe Payers Index. Similarly, a World Bank survey of 68 countries last year found that the sub-Sahara leads in the "percentage of firms expected to give gifts" to secure government contracts (43%). That meeting of the minds has made for hyperefficient deal making in Africa."
What does this really mean? Are 'bribe payers' to blame for ineffective donor programmes? Is the Bribe Payers Index really "improving the lives of millions" as is claimed? The criticisms of these league tables suggest they are not helpful in teaching us anything about the presence or effect of real corruption.

In fact, Deborah Brautigam, author of "Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa" suggests the reality of Chinese investment in sub-Sahara Africa is rather more effective for the local people than Western aid programmes:
"As a donor, China’s way has several advantages... The focus on turnkey infrastructure projects is far simpler and doesn’t overstretch the weak capacity of many African governments faced with multiple meetings, quarterly reports, workshops, and so on. Their experts don’t cost much. In addition, their emphasis on local ownership is genuine, even if it leads to projects like a new government office building, a sports stadium, or a conference center. They understand something very fundamental about state-building — something that Pierre L’Enfant understood in 1791 when he teamed up with George Washington in newly independent America: new states need to build buildings and dignity, not simply strive to end poverty.

The Chinese avoid local embezzlement and corruption by very rarely transferring any cash to African governments. There is almost no budget support, no adjustment or policy loans. Aid is disbursed directly to Chinese companies who do the projects. The resource-backed infrastructure loans work the same way. Of course those companies themselves might give kickbacks, as we’ve seen in Namibia..."
But that is not to say such alleged activity goes unchallenged, as reports of the Namibian case reveal. Nor does Brautigam gloss over China's role in the Sudan, which has attracted intense criticism. However, she points out:
"First, China’s role in Sudan has changed over the past several years. They were crucial in getting Khartoum to accept a joint UN/African Union peacekeeping force (one, by the way, authorized by the UN, but not funded as generously as originally pledged). They allowed al-Bashir’s case to be sent to the International Criminal Court for prosecution for war crimes (as Security Council members, they could have vetoed this). And as noted both by President Bush’s special envoy, Andrew Natsios, and President Obama’s special envoy, Scott Gration, Beijing is now working together with the US government and other major powers in developing joint strategies to bring the Sudanese government and the rebels to the negotiating table. As China-watcher Erica Downs put it, the West and China are now coordinating their “good cop” and “bad cop” roles in trying to end the crisis.

Second, there is no doubt that Beijing could have moved much sooner, and much more effectively, to become part of the solution. But they never held all the keys to solving the Darfur tragedy. In making a tactical decision to focus on China as the lynch pin to solving Darfur’s crisis, and using the 2008 Olympics as the pressure point, activists let the other major powers off the hook. To end the violence, Darfur needs a peace agreement, and that requires all the parties to participate in negotiations. The West has not yet been able to get all the major rebel groups to show up to start talking."
So, it's clear that Africa rewards investment in education and infrastructure, even if it comes in the form of work done by foreign companies directly rather than planeloads of cash. And it's also clear there is no substitute for effective international co-ordination to call recalcitrant regimes to account over human rights. That can't be achieved by a single nation - even a 'superpower', as we've seen elsewhere.

Yet I wonder whether a bottom-up approach to investment in sub-Sahara Africa might also be far more effective than top-down donations? Apart from the provision of basic infrastructure and health services, supporting the rise of the Cheetah Generation and facilitators like M-Pesa and the technology hubs may do more to enable individuals to seize control of their own economic destiny than merely benevolent giving. Kiva, the microfinance provider, is a great example of this bottom-up approach:
"Kiva promotes:

•Dignity: Kiva encourages partnership relationships as opposed to benefactor relationships. Partnership relationships are characterized by mutual dignity and respect.

•Accountability: Loans encourage more accountability than donations where repayment is not expected.

•Transparency: The Kiva website is an open platform where communication can flow freely around the world.

As of November 2009, Kiva has facilitated over $100 million in loans."

Image from Run For Africa

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

New Labour Died Penniless

Well the news was characteristically left in a drawer for someone else to find, but it's official: New Labour died penniless.

I'm amazed any of them had the temerity to turn up in the Commons today. It's little wonder they won't find a leader until September.

The Cheetah Generation: Will Facilitators Grow Faster In Africa?

Recent problems in the Eurozone, coupled with the shock announcement of the UK's worsening trade deficit have heightened the need to find new markets. So perhaps it's a great time to recognise the step-change in technology adoption amongst sub-Saharan Africa's "cheetah generation".

Africa represents a vast array of people and socio-economics, as Hans Rosling brilliantly illustrated at TED, including a communications divide. As at 2006, "Egypt had 11 times the fixed line penetration of Nigeria. While sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa), had an average teledensity of one percent, North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia) had a comparable average of eleven percent. Almost three quarters of the continent’s fixed lines were found in just 6 of the continent’s 55 countries."

Enter: the mobile phone:

"By the end of 2011, the entire continent of Africa will be connected to no fewer than nine undersea broadband cable initiatives. Africa will have access to over 17 terabytes of designed broadband capacity. If mainframes and punchcards served as the innovation catapult for Silicon Valley’s cheetah generation, then connectivity is poised to be Africa’s innovation catalyst. Since mobiles first went mainstream in Africa at the turn of the century, mobile penetration has exploded to approximately 450 million subscribers...

Africa’s growing list of technology hubs are the cheetah generation’s digital proving grounds Appfrica Labs opened its doors in Uganda in 2008. Since then, three additional tech hubs have opened around the continent. Limbe Labs Ventures Cameroon and Banta Labs in Senegal launched in 2009. Nairobi now has its very own centre of excellence in the iHub innovation center...

Keep a very close eye on Africa’s young population, that 450 million number growing up with a mobile phone in their back pocket."
Vodafone has clearly been doing just that, backing M-Pesa, the successful person-to-person payment system. The explosive growth of that business also suggests that Africans may be more willing to rapidly embrace disruptive finance models than Westerners. No doubt this is partly because they've been more poorly served by banking and telecommunications to date (though 'mobile banking' has also grown rapidly in South Africa). But is it also because African communities share a greater sense of personal trust than in the West?

At any rate, it seems the trend toward the growth of facilitators at the expense of institutions is set to grow fast in sub-Sahara Africa, at least on mobile networks.

Image from Run For Africa

Friday, 14 May 2010

In Praise Of The Greasy Spoon

When I need to escape the 'always on' culture to focus on a piece of drafting, I print the document, leave my laptop and mobile and head for somewhere with seating that serves good coffee.

The start-up world, in particular, would struggle without using Starbucks and other coffee chains as offices and meeting rooms. Apart from the fact that coffee fuels innovation, those chains benefit from offering plenty of space and enabling meeting participants to easily pinpoint the most mutually convenient outlet via a single website.

Which is why their coffee ain't cheap - for little more than a price of a 'grande cappuccino', my local Greasy Spoon will add two fried eggs, bacon, mushrooms, tomato, two slices of toast and friendship - at least by social media standards.

So while the coffee chains do offer a valuable service, we also owe it to ourselves to ensure the survival of Greasy Spoons by pinpointing them for others, and escaping to them instead of the coffee chains, whenever we can.

For the record, while based at Axiom I frequent Bon Appetit. I also thoroughly recommend Harris's (pictured), a long-time haunt while at Zopa. A discussion of this kind 3 years ago sparked about a dozen recommendations. A good list for London can also be found at Classic Cafes, and Caffs is attempting a national database of greasy spoons.

Hit Girl Kicks Agent Romanoff's Ass

I've recently been to see Kick-Ass and Iron Man 2. I enjoyed both, but Kick-Ass is the better movie. And it's the violent frolics of these two characters which makes the difference.

Ironically, these frolics seem 'wrong' in each movie (indeed, Hit Girl blows the lid off so many cans of worms you could write a book about it) yet might have fit better if they'd been swapped between characters. After all, an 11 year old girl should not have the combat skills to dispose of a highly trained secret agent.

Both movies are about super heroes. The 'lead' in both is a male role with some superhuman physical quality, 'supported' by a strong and aggressive female with no such aid. So far, so predictable - the 'wow' factor better be in the action and weird science. But in Kick-Ass the 'wow' comes when lead role is subverted - because he's an incompetent dreamer, regardless of his super-human ability - by the real (deeply flawed, psychotically aggressive and extremely violent but thankfully well-meaning) super hero: Hit Girl.

Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughan says Hollywood wouldn't fund Kick-Ass. So he got it funded in the UK, which gave him greater creative freedom.

The result may be that Iron Man 2 is 'everything a super hero movie should be'. But Kick-Ass gives us Hit Girl. And gives the super hero genre an almighty kick in the arse.

Cue the ongoing resurgence of the British film industry?

Thursday, 13 May 2010

And Now, Back to the Digital Economy Act

Now that we actually have a government again, and a Coalition Agreement that plans some sensible constraints on the Nanny State, it's time to clean up the mess that is the Digital Economy Act. Here's an extract from what my MP, Andrew Slaughter, wrote to me on 26 April:
"... critics of the bill are to hold a meeting at the House of Commons in the first week of the new parliament to discuss how we can all help to make changes to the Digital Economy Act which takes intelligent account of what many people out there, have been saying about the flaws inherent in a well-intentioned bill. I intend to be at that meeting, arguing the case for the many dozens of people who have contacted me about the bill, and respectfully ask that you cast your vote to enable me to be there, speaking up for you."

I'm not sure which case the 'many dozens of people' were asking him to argue, but I look forward to news of that meeting.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Wall Game Yields Coalition Agreement

At last we have a new government and a Coalition Agreement, and a new cabinet. Are they listening? So far, so good. Here's a summary from the BBC:
  • There will be a "significant acceleration" of efforts to reduce the budget deficit - including £6bn of spending reductions this year. An emergency Budget will take place within 50 days
  • Plans for five-year, fixed-term parliaments, meaning the next election would not take place until May 2015.
  • Proposals for a "wholly or mainly elected" House of Lords on the basis of proportional representation will be brought forward
  • The Lib Dems have agreed to drop plans for a "mansion tax" on properties costing more than £2m, while the Conservatives have agreed to shelve their plans to raise the inheritance tax threshold
  • Instead there will be a "substantial increase" in the personal tax allowance from April 2011, with further steps to raise it to £10,000 as a "longer term objective".
  • The Lib Dem policy of taxing planes, rather than passengers, has been adopted and there is a commitment to a new tax or levy on banks as well as a pledge of "robus action to tackle unacceptable bonuses in the financial services sector".
  • The new administration will scrap part of Labour's planned rise in National Insurance
  • A pledge to have a referendum on any further transfer of powers to the EU and a commitment from the Lib Dems not to adopt the euro for the lifetime of the next Parliament
  • The Lib Dems have agreed to Tory proposals for a cap on non-EU migration
  • The Conservatives will recognise marriage in the tax system, but Lib Dems will abstain in Commons vote
  • The Lib Dems will drop opposition to a replacement for Britain's Trident nuclear missiles but the programme will be scrutinised for value for money
  • There will be a referendum on moving to the Alternative Vote system and
  • Enhanced "pupil premium" for deprived children as Lib Dems demanded"
And from the fine print:

1. Child Trust Funds and tax credits will be reduced for higher earners.

2. Committment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on foreign aid.

3. Demonstrating a committment to low cost government, there will be a review of long term affordability of public sector pensions (protecting accrued rights - which will make public sector pensions even less affordable in the long term...).

4. Non-business capital gains to be taxed "at rates similar or close to those applied to income."

5. Banking levy and action on unacceptable bonuses.

6. Plans to "foster diversity, promote mutuals and create a more competitive banking industry," including a year long review of separating retail and investment banking.

7. A possible loan guarantee scheme for SMEs.

8. Bank of England to control prudential regulation (is this really the end of the FSA?)

9. Allowing 10% of an MP's constituents to force a by-election where that MP is found to have engaged in "serious wrongdoing".

10. A statutory register of lobbyists and the removal of 'big money' from politics

11. "Radical" devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and 'community groups'.

12. A retirement age (yeah, right - we'll never retire) of 66 from 2016 for men and 2020 for women.

13. An end to the requirement to purchase a pension annuity at 75.

14. The end of multiple 'welfare to work' programmes in favour of one.

15. New providers can enter the state school system in response to parental demand.

16. A 'referendum lock' on transfer of further powers to the EC.

17. The end of: national ID cards, national ID register, biometric passports and the Contact Point Database.

18. Extending the scope of Freedom of Information Act to increase transparency.

19. A review of libel laws 'to protect freedom of speech'.

20. Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorist legislation.

21. Further regulation of CCTV - does this mean curbs on the use of images?

23. A smart grid and smart meters.

24. Feed-in tariffs for electricity.

25. A 'huge increase in energy from waste through anaerobic digestion' - which sounds very painful indeed.

26. A green (greed?) investment bank.

27. Any new coal-fired power stations will need carbon capture and storage (CCS) to meet emissions performance standard.

28. A high speed rail network.

29. No third runway at Heathrow, and no extra runways for Gatwick or Stansted.

30. A recharging network for electric/hybrid vehicles.

31. A commission will consider the West Lothian question (the paradox that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own assemblies, while England does not).

Monday, 10 May 2010

EU: Papering Over The Cracks

The EuroZerozone is in all kinds of trouble now, having staked its whole economy on the ability of the Greeks, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Irish to reduce unemployment, public spending and public borrowing under IMF-style conditions.

More ominous still, the US Federal Reserve has had to step in and co-ordinate global central bank co-operation to "prevent the spread of strains to other markets and financial centers." It added that "Central banks will continue to work together closely as needed to address pressures in funding markets."

But as we've seen from the subsequent unabashed self-indulgence amongst bailed-out banks and bankers: the pressure is off once you know that no one will let you fail.

Stay long on riot shields ;-)

Image: The Rival Bill Posters

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Zerozone? Short Banks, Long Riot Shields

After last month's gory detail on the UK's financial vulnerability, another barrage of charts from Zero Hedge illustrates why the fasten seat belt sign remains switched on.

The charts show the vast quantity of government debt issued by Portugal, Ireland (and/or Italy), Greece and Spain (now called the "GIPS", to be politically correct) due to be repaid ("mature") simultaneously.

"So what?" you may ask, if you've been distracted by the UK elections.

The charts also reveal high unemployment, budget deficits and public borrowing. So these countries will struggle to pay investors to extend the due dates ("maturities") on existing loans - “amend and extend” in callous market jargon. Investors will cut their losses and/or refuse to lend at less than credit card rates. Bail-out bodies, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will only help if the country concerned can implement 'austerity measures' to cut its deficit and get its economy under control.

The results of suddenly imposing such measures on citizens who hadn't realised how bad things were - or why - can be seen on Greek streets:

Not great for tourism, one of Greece's only growth areas.

In fact, Zero Hedge is tipping "the inevitable disintegration of the eurozone and the upcoming eventual debt payment moratorium." Which means there's a lot more mayhem to come for the European financial system. And even the EuroZerozone" countries with the deepest pockets - like Germany and France - could need to rein-in substantially.

So, if the UK is to reverse its trade deficit, it must find new export markets pretty fast. Here's how Economics Weekly thought 2010 would play out on the export front as at 1 March (i.e. before the Greek bail-out):

Given the speed of deterioration in the Greek scenario during April, the demand from EU countries may well be over-stated. And the debt maturity charts suggest 2011 could be worse.

A good time to go long Chinese riot shields?

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Moral Panic #101: Deficit Leaves No Time For Electoral Reform

Having limped in first over the electoral finishing line, and needing support to govern, the Tories have been understandably meek in setting an agenda for this Parliament. And after decades of dodging the issue, they are truly appalled at the thought of electoral reform as the price for Liberal Democrat support.

But commit to it they must: it's a travesty that 23% of the national vote could produce only 9% of the MPs. And it is small consolation to the people who comprise that 23% (not to mention the 29% who voted Labour and the 11.9% dismissed as voting 'other') - that 'their' 57 MPs hold the 'balance of power'.

The general election would have been more engaging and vastly more inclusive if the 63.9% of voters who did not receive their first choice could have nominated the candidate they'd have preferred to win instead. That's what Proportional Representation is all about.

Despite moral panic designed to dodge the issue yet again, electoral reform will not 'distract' anyone from cutting the £163bn public deficit. All are agreed that economic reform will be business as usual for this government. In fact, as a result, it should be 'less busy than usual'. So there'll be plenty of time to work out the move to one style or other of Proportional Representation.

Commitment to electoral reform might even lead the unlucky 63.9% to work much more willingly with the lucky 36.1% to cut the budget deficit.

Image from VoterPower

Friday, 7 May 2010

We Have MPs Where We Want Them

In many ways the UK general election has not gone the way anyone wanted.

Sure, we have a hung Parliament, 149 MPs from the last scandal-ridden pit did not stand, Jacqui Smith lost her seat, and the BNP didn't get any at all.

Yet the politicians and their party machines have not been able to control the result. And, while voter turn-out increased slightly, voters were angry at being turned away as polls closed and already a campaign has begun to "take back Parliament" by reforming an electoral system that nullifies vast numbers of votes.

So one thing seems assured: this Parliament is in for a bumpy ride.

And this is a great outcome. We have MPs exactly where we want them. They are not in control. They have little alternative but to listen and respond to our issues bottom-up.

Independent forums like Power 2010, 38 Degrees, and TheyWorkForYou, are genuine attempts to gather and share everyone's views without regard for 'party lines'. The politicians would do well to engage with them instead of relying on their own party 'research' to validate policies they want to impose from the top down.

But we too need to participate by sharing our concerns: we'll only get the government we deserve.

Image from The Original Hog Roast Company

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Social Media Explained Simply?

The internet is the spaghetti, social network services the sauce.

Image from FeedYourself

Big Media: Do You Really Facilitate What People Want To Do?

Both the Guardian and Facebook initiatives seek to capitalise on people's desire to socialise (to summarise many subsidiary activities) by offering the opportunity to socialise on their respective advertising platforms. But we are still seeing a stark difference between an institution seeking to solve its own problem, top-down, and that of a facilitator focused on solving people's problems, bottom-up.

The links in the content on the Guardian's site are almost entirely to Guardian content, rather than to source material or the digital presences of people/organisations named. So, while the Guardian is moving towards a more collaborative model, it patently wants to 'own' that collaboration - promoting Guardian content, centring on the Guardian's favoured topics and on the Guardian's advertising platform. So if you wish to socialise on the Guardian platform you must surrender your 'voice' and identity to the Guardian.

By contrast, Facebook Open Graph facilitates the various activities that comprise 'socialising' without dictating location, content and whether it involves creating links away from Facebook, or even to Facebook.

It seems obvious to me which approach will ultimately attract more people and advertisers. The question is whether the Guardian has the institutional skill and courage required to reinvent itself as a genuine facilitator before everyone moves to a more facilitative platform.

Image from Logic+Emotion.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Inverting The Insitutional Narrative Part 2: Telling It Bottom-Up

In Part 1, I suggested that to properly understand our motives at the ballot box the election narrative needs to be told from the bottom-up, not top-down.

How is that going?

False outrage in the headlines of certain newspapers is merely a top-down attempt by those institutions to influence how people vote (I won't dignify that rubbish with any links). And while pieces from Dispatches and Charlie Brooker genuinely expose the party leaders as institutional machines, they do nothing to reveal what individual people actually care about.

Ironically, Gordon Brown and the TV media came close to revealing what individuals think when he was caught expressing his annoyance off camera when a Rochdale resident expressed her own views instead of letting him list his government's achievements.

So what do people actually care about? And how does that resonate with candidates?

The team at TheyWorkForYou have bothered to find that out. By doing a quick survey yourself you'll find out the most common issues in your constituency and where your candidates stand - at least those candidates who've bothered to respond (1156, when I did it). Tellingly, the Guardian's report on this initiative focused on the Tories' refusal to complete the survey rather than people's issues, which were dismissively and condescendingly referred to as "everything from CCTV cameras to gay parenting."

Sadly, VoterPower have also done the analysis to explain just how little most people's votes actually count in the UK electoral system:
"The average UK voter only has the power of 0.253 votes. This is because most of us live in safe seats, where the outcome is pretty much certain regardless of how we vote... [for example] 57.60% of those who voted in Hammersmith in 2005 did not vote for the winning candidate. These votes count for nothing in the First Past the Post system."
There's clearly much work to be done before we'll see Politics 2.0!

Photo: 'expectant crowd' via BBC.
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