Away and thoughts

I am away for a few days now and will update when I can.

Next week, I will be attending a blog meeting at the Adam Smith Institute and hope to attend some of the Dana Institute meetings as well. There is one on enhancement that screams out for attendance.

Otherwise, down and dirty politics is becoming a fevered process of counting the mistakes of New Labour. The biggest question is will Boris be renamed "Bunce Boots", if he fails to capture the mayoralty? Apart from Westminster froth, New Scientist (only an excerpt) had two good articles last week on the complexity of modern civilisation. Wrapped in a package of doom, the lesson is that network centric civilisations require new structures to aid the free flow of information. Brown's centralising resuscitation of the British state has rendered the birth pains of this new society more difficult than they needed to be in the short term. Culturally, they may have proved more beneficial over time as the population learns that state provision and socialised benefits are worse than their private sector equivalents.

The same lesson will apply to our good friends in Brussels.

Recent Posts

Hybrid dies on press release

The news that animal-hybrid embryos were created at Newcastle University met with condemnation with pro-life campaigners. Their language is apposite: designed to acquire the attention of the media using methods that they condemn scientists for. Yet, when you look at the soundbite, the death of the embroys is noted as significant. If life begins at conception, then death is significant. The death of the embryos becomes a mark of moral condemnation.

This is lamentable headline grabbing not proper scientific behaviour. It does Newcastle University no credit whatsoever. The most significant line in the report is that the animal-human embryos didn't survive.'

A reading of the Telegraph article notes that the news was announced at a British Council meeting in Israel and was then released to the media, confirming the result of an experiment. Whilst the spokesman for Newcastle University and other scientists quoted take a cautious view of the research, with a reliance upon peer review, opposition to the experiments accuse Newcastle of 'science by press release'.

Dr David King of the pressure group Human Genetics Alert, says: "For anyone who understands basic biology, it is no surprise that these embryos died at such an early stage. Cloning is inefficient precisely because it is so unnatural, and by mixing species it becomes even more unnatural and unlikely to succeed.

"The public has been grossly misled by the hype that this is vital medical research. Even if stem cells were ever to be produced, like cloned animals, they would have so many errors of their metabolism that they would produce completely misleading data. This research is a complete waste of taxpayers' money. "

"The timing of the announcement of this non-result, just as Parliament is about to debate legislation on hybrid embryos is typical of the Newcastle lab's tendency to manipulate the media and politicians. The BBC has been duped into making this a news story, which will then be used to persuade politicians that animal-human hybrids are promising science. This is 'science-by-press-release' which breaks all the scientific community's ethical guidelines."

For secular groups, the basis of the attack focuses upon the science and ethics. The research programme is condemned for its lack of utility, anticipating a woeful result (although the support of two universities undermines the credibility of this accusation). The publicity atached to the announcement is judged by a self-appointed spokesman against the ethics of the scientific community - a professional betrayal. Finally, in a political calculus, the research is criticised for wasting taxpayers' money.

Criticism of the reaserach from a pro-life basis speaks a language that few people in Britain will engage with. Even in soundbites, their concerns are simply unread. The secularists take a cannier approach, using popular concerns on tax, and debating the research and ethics of science to provide themselves with a base for professional credibility. They act as spokesmen, but they also attempt to co-opt the general population, with their invocation of "basic biology". This appeal to amateurism is designed to implicitly point at a divide between an aloof scientific academia and a scientifically literate populace. As a division, it fails due to the lack of a popular base.

Opposition to this research is incoherent and unnecessary; its ideological and religious roots cloaked in self-serving rhetoric to appeal beyond the base; an appeal that clearly fails.

Don't cry wolf for me, argentina

This commodity supercycle has led to an increase in the prices of wheat and rice. Governments have predictably undertaken a perverse policy of raising prices on the exports of crops to ensure their own supply (and take advantage of higher prices for revenue), removing incentives for farmers to cultivate more land or increase their productivity. Argentinian farmers on the pampas are now milchcows for Kirchner.

The reinforcing inflation of higher prices and bad policy leads inexorably to unrest amongst the poor. Was this not the overriding concerns of all elites in a subsistence economy? Now that age-old conundrum has returned?

Sir John [Sir John Holmes, the undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and the UN's emergency relief co-ordinator] said: "The security implications should also not be underestimated as food riots are already being reported across the globe.

"Current food price trends are likely to increase sharply both the incidence and depth of food insecurity."

As well as the riots in Egypt, rising food costs have been blamed for violent unrest in Haiti, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Mauritania, Mozambique and Senegal. Protests have also occurred in Uzbekistan, Yemen, Bolivia and Indonesia.

China, India, Pakistan, Cambodia and Vietnam have curbed rice exports to ensure there is enough for their own people.

The phenomenon has even acquired its own term, 'food insecurity', though I prefer older and simpler terms: famine and starvation. Since the United Nations has stated the obvious, there is the unspoken assumption of "somthing must be done". When one looks at the speech, the outstretched hand appears:

But I fear we are also going to need more global resources to tackle these challenges, to find innovative ways of raising these vitally-needed additional funds, and to make sure that these extra resources are spread evenly across the sectors. Allocations must not be devoted exclusively to the most visible aspect of this new demand i.e. meeting immediate food needs, but also to health, emergency education, etc. So the UN, NGOs and donors – both public and private - must continue to work together to increase the level of resources coming from both new and broader sources of funding, not least from the private sector, and to set appropriate priorities. We also need to continue to work on the diversity of funding mechanisms, in addition to core contributions to agencies and NGOs

Holmes was talking at a conference in Dubai and, despite the denial of scaremongering, painted a picture of crisis (including the usual bogeyman, climate change) to demand more resources co-ordinated and spent by the UN, presumably.

UN spots crisis and pleads cash is not such a good headline, though more truthful.

Number Magic Statistical Engineering and Politics

One of my first political memories is the quote about "Lies, damned lies, and statistics". Today, we see a classic example of "statistical engineering" in the Halifax house price index.

For those not aware of it, prices dropped by 2.5% in March 2008 against the previous month. They also announce that prices are 1.1% up on a year earlier. Gordon Brown has announced measures to re-inflate the bubble neutralise the problem.

But the magic is in the way Halifax calculate the year-on-year number. You see, their index is now at 620.0, as against 628.2 a year earlier (see here for the report). But in 2002, Halifax changed their approach:

From December onwards the 'annual change'

numbers are the quarterly year-on-year figures.

These figures provide a better picture of underlying

trends compared to a monthly year-on-year number

as it smoothes out any short-term fluctuations.

What this means is that the Halifax index doesn't go negative unless prices are down for a 3 month period. It's almost like they have an interest in confidence in the housing market!

So, today, the Halifax index should have gone negative year-on-year. That would have been 3 weeks before the Mayoral election. Fortunately, those nasty "boom and bust" stories aren't going to be as bad as they might during the election campaign.

Do one million march to vote?

There is a report in the Telegraph that the electorate for local elections has increased by one million in two years. The strongest cause of this increase does appear to be immigration, since this has led to an increase in the population of the United Kingdom. Yet, the official narrative prevails:

Turnout in elections has declined in recent years. Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, was elected on a turnout of 36 per cent in the 2004 London mayoral elections. Turnout was only 34 per cent at last year's local elections.

Last night, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: "There are all sorts of reasons why people join the electoral register and it is just not correct to say that the pattern of migration is the sole, or even most significant, reason."

There would be a need to examine, in detail, why there has been a surge in electoral registration. Immigration, as a drive in overall population growth, would reflect demographic change in electoral registration. If the Ministry of Justice is correct, then this is a social change, not a demographic curve.

That presents far greater dangers. Why would a huge number of voters register to vote? Has the simplicity of the system and the lack of controls provided a huge incentive to electoral fraud? If so, is this a symbol that the floodgates have broken.

When, we see an increase in electoral registration, the easiest explanation is population growth through immigration. That this plays a factor is not in doubt, and the Ministry of Justice fools no commentator with its glib responses. Yet, the increase can mask other changes such as fraud, where agencies spot a gap and flood through it. (Note how flooding is an economic, not a social metaphor).

My suspicion is that there is more fraud and less immigration than the Telegraph article would suggest. At this rate of increase, the numbers are sufficient to sway elections, Mugabe style, another factor that political betting cannot challenge.