Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Driverless vehicles make railways (and our fast cars) obsolete

Every time such things as the "Northern Powerhouse" are mentioned the punditry, politicians and media immediately start agitating for billions to be invested in railways. This is despite the fact that railways account for only 3% of journeys in the UK while over 80% of journeys take place on roads. I've always suspected this is something of a 'boys' toys' response - we were brought up with train sets, Thomas the Tank Engine and Ivor. We like railways.

Consider this then:

"By combining ride sharing with car sharing—particularly in a city such as New York—MIT research has shown that it would be possible to take every passenger to his or her destination at the time they need to be there, with 80 percent fewer cars."


"An OECD study modelling the use of self-driving cars in Lisbon found that shared “taxibots” could reduce the number of cars needed by 80-90%. Similarly, research by Dan Fagnant of the University of Utah, drawing on traffic data for Austin, Texas, found that an autonomous taxi with dynamic ride-sharing could replace ten private vehicles. This is consistent with the finding that one extra car in a car-sharing service typically takes 9-13 cars off the road. Self-driving vehicles could, in short, reduce urban vehicle numbers by as much as 90%."

No new trains, no trams, no trolley buses, no bus lanes - just the realisation that automated cars ('driverless' as we call them) represent the real future of mass transportation. Not only will this, combined with emissionless or very low emission engines, reduce the negative environmental impact of road transport but we'll also see a dramatic drop in road casualties.

The reality is that investment on rail transport is not going to achieve payback ahead of the driverless car revolution - those billions now promised in new rolling stock, new stations and new lines are not needed. Cities need to be investing in the infrastructure required for driverless cars and to start planning for a city that doesn't need large parts of its land set aside to parking cars. This could mean more urban green space, the release of urban centre land for new housing and increased capacity on existing highways.

A world where we don't drive other than in controlled environments like race tracks seems strange in a culture seemingly dominated by the car but this is the likeliest result of driverless vehicles. For most of us the car (however much we drool over Ferrari and Aston Martin) is a practical and prosaic thing used to get us about the place. A very expensive practical and prosaic thing too. A world with vastly fewer road accidents, where we have no need to own a large lump of metal and plastic that sits doing nothing most of the time, and where the air is cleaner and the city greener - this is the world we should prepare for now.


Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Sorry but smoking doesn't harm Gedling Council's reputation

Gedling Borough Council (it's in Nottinghamshire and Labour-controlled, since you ask) is proposing the further demonisation and stigmatising of its employees - the ones that smoke that is:

"Whilst at work, and so far as is reasonably practicable, employees who smoke in accordance with this policy should do so with their Gedling Borough Council uniform covered as not doing so may create a negative impression of the council when viewed by the public."

Since when did smoking give a negative impression of the Council? Since officious HR managers and self-righteous councillors started treating smokers like pariahs. Ever since the smoking ban in 2007 (and long before that in many councils) smokers have clustered round the doors, on windswept pavements and corners. I'm guessing this looks untidy to those officious managers and is accompanied by moans from other employees about smoking breaks (like those other workers don't use up Council time talking about their holidays, making tea or playing solitaire on the phone).

What this policy is about is the isolation of smokers - it is but a short step away from a man with a bell parading in front of them crying "unclean, unclean". No health purpose is served and it isn't about the Council's image - it's simply nannying fussbucketry, rules for the sake of rules. A much better approach would be to provide a shelter for staff that smoke perhaps with somewhere to sit away from the doorways where smokers currently clump. But that would be thoughtful and considerate - why would the Council want to treat smokers that way, they're smelly scum aren't they?

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Authenticity and the British curry house - the case for immigrant chefs


I am, as you all know, not particularly bothered by migration. If I wish to be free to travel where ever, I guess I should allow that same freedom for others. So what follows isn't about the immigration but rather an attempt to get under the existential angst of the British curry house. It seems they might be dying out:

It's often been said that Tikka Masala is the British national dish.

But it might not be for much longer, as figures show two curry houses are closing in Britain each week due to a shortage of chefs.

This crisis is due in part to the retirement of the original wave of immigrants in the 1970s who set up curry houses.

The problem is that the children of South Asian immigrants - perhaps especially the children of those running the takeaways and curry restaurants - really have little interest in working very long hours serving cheap curries to often ungrateful (indeed regularly drunk) customers. They've watched as the older generation worked itself into an early grave, putting up with racism, ignorance and aggression so as to make a half decent living.

The same story went for the traditional (if that's the right word) Chinese takeaway - every town had one but the sons and daughters of the Hong Kong immigrants were just as uninterested in working a 60 hours week of late nights as the sons and daughters of Bangladeshi or Pakistani curry house proprietors. The way in which the business - along with a new generation of Chinese food sellers - has been sustained has been through immigration.

And this is precisely how the Bangladesh Caterers Association frame the problem - they can't recruit people to train here in the UK so need to go to Bangladesh to find the chefs needed to keep the restaurants and takeaways going. All this is happening in a fast food and restaurant market that is changing rapidly - not just with the success of new franchise chains like Nandos but with a new bunch of immigrants from the middle east, from Poland, from Africa and from Southern Europe. Where curry and Chinese had the world to themselves they now compete with Kurds running cafes, polish takeaways and Moroccan/Spanish fusion. Add in Vietnamese, Korean and Greek and there's a real pressure on those existing takeaways and curry houses.

Regardless of the immigration question (and I'd let the chefs in), it strikes me that relying on a stream of new chefs from the other side of the world isn't the most sustainable business model - the Bangladesh Caterers Association might be right about the difficulties in recruiting and training curry chefs here in the UK but this could say more about the job and the conditions than it does about the supply of potential chefs. Indeed, while I'm sure that the mainstream catering business has a good number of immigrant chefs, it's still the case that plenty of British-born people enter into the cheffing business. A business model based on selling cheap takeaway food will struggle where there's upward pressure on wages.

The truth is that, given the proliferation of other takeaways and cheap restaurants (not to mention the street food explosion), there perhaps needs to be a shakeout in the curry house business. The best probably have little to worry about but if a third of the UK's 12,000 or so curry houses closed would it really be a cultural disaster? I can't speak for anywhere other than Bradford but my observation is that, while the 'curry after a night on the lash' market is still there it's far less important than a more regular market including an important market for family dining. And this changes the sort of restaurants - we're less keen on tatty flock wallpaper and cheap photos of the Taj Mahal preferring places that meet the clean, sharp and smart image of other restaurants. But one thing we still demand is authenticity.

Staffing has always been a dilemma for restaurants offering culturally-specific cuisine. It's not that only a Bangladeshi can cook a biryani but that the customer is looking for authenticity - eating a curry cooked by a Polish woman and served by a Latvian waiter feels wrong even if the food is great. And this means that, if we want our rogan josh served by a slightly surly young Asian and our pasta carbonara from a tight-trousered Italian holding an outsized pepper pot, we have a allow people to come to Britain to meet this need (given we know that there aren't enough British-born Asians or Italians to satisfy our demand for authenticity).


Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Why has diabetes increased? The answer may be economics rather than lifestyle


Over the last couple of days we've seen reports that the numbers of diagnoses for diabetes in the UK has risen by 60% over the last decade.

The number of people living with diabetes has soared by nearly 60% in the past decade, Diabetes UK warns.

The charity said more than 3.3 million people have some form of the condition, up from 2.1 million in 2005.

There's no disputing the accuracy of these figures or indeed the impact of the increase on the NHS (although claims it will 'bankrupt' the service are stretching the point a little). And we obviously need to know what it is that's causing the increase so as to try and prevent or mitigate those causes.

The most common 'cause' fingered in the reports is "lifestyle":

Martin McShane, national medical director for long term conditions at NHS England, said: “These figures are a stark warning and reveal the increasing cost of diabetes to the NHS. Evidence is piling up that added sugar and excess calories are causing avoidable increases in obesity and diabetes.

“We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, it’s time to get serious about lifestyle change. Prevention is better than treatment for individual health as well as the health of the NHS.”

And let's be clear here about lifestyle. There's a well established link between morbid obesity and type-2 diabetes (which makes up 90% of the increase):

The relationship between obesity and diabetes is of such interdependence that the term 'diabesity' has been coined. The passage from obesity to diabetes is made by a progressive defect in insulin secretion coupled with a progressive rise in insulin resistance. Both insulin resistance and defective insulin secretion appear very prematurely in obese patients, and both worsen similarly towards diabetes.

So if there has been a significant increase in obesity, we would expect a comparable increase in type-2 diabetes. The problem is that this dramatic increase in diabetes has come during a period when the UK's rates of obesity were pretty stable (perhaps rising slightly):

If obesity is the main cause of new diabetes cases, this graph suggests that the increase should have been significantly less than 60%. So we have to look for another cause - perhaps it's something specific in the diet - sugar is the usual culprit here (mostly because diabetes is all about blood sugars and stuff like that so it stands to reason, doesn't it). Listening to a radio report on the story, I heard the interviewer ask something like "but it's not every kind of sugar is it, there are good sugars like the ones in fruit" - receiving a response all about 'five-a-day' rather than an accurate answer explaining how there's a link between fructose and type-2 diabetes (fructose being the dominant sugar in fruit).

It's worth therefore looking at whether sugar makes up more or less of our calories than it did a decade age - if there has been a substantial increase in sugar as an element in our diet and especially fructose then we might be able to point at that as a reason for the huge increase:

So here are some facts about the consumption of "non-milk extrinsic sugars" (this is all the added sugar as well as honey) in the UK. The figures come from the National Nutrition and Diet Survey (NNDS) conducted by the Government to provide a nationally representative snapshot of the nutritional intake and status of the UK population.

In 2000/01 NMES consumption in daily grammes was:

Male: 79
Female: 51

In 2008-20011 the average is:

Male: 70
Female: 50.1

So our sugar consumption has fallen. And this includes ALL forms of added sugar - the scary hidden stuff in processed food and the spoonful of lovely honey you stir into your hot toddy. Other than for women over 65 every category of consumption has fallen - with the biggest fall being among children.

We still eat a lot of sugar but there's no indication that it can be blamed directly for the increase in diabetes and especially type-2 diabetes. Despite all the shouting about diet and obesity, all the damnation of 'lifestyle', we're not really any closer to understanding why the last decade has seen such a big increase in diabetes. There is, however, one other thing that changed in 2004:

The new GP contract has been quoted as the most radical change to health care since the advent of the NHS in 1948. A major component of the contract is the Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF). This offers a scoring system for achievement of health-care targets which is linked to financial rewards.

Put more simply - from 2004 family doctors were given a direct financial incentive to diagnose conditions that were within health-care targets and this included diabetes. Prior to 2004 few GPs ran routine diabetes tests - afterwards, with a direct financial incentive, loads more cases were identified. Don't get me wrong here, I'm not suggesting the incentive was a bad thing (it did mean lots more people got their diabetes treated who didn't before) but that it was perhaps the main reason why we saw a steady increase in diagnoses for diabetes.

Finally there's the matter of demographics - or to put it another way, how we're living longer:

You can see (perhaps) the impact of the rapid increase in obesity during the 1990s but look at the prevelance in the over-65s. Combine an incentive for GPs with an ageing population more likely to be visiting those GPs and we can see the source of our 60% rise. And this means that, rather than shouting about lifestyle, we should be celebrating just how well we've done in identifying diabetics - the task is to get that diabetes managed so as to avoid the expensive clinical interventions that are the big drivers of cost.

But then shouting about fat people and blaming sugar is much easier isn't it!


Monday, 17 August 2015

Nannying fussbucketry of the day - cutting your nose off to spite your face


Rory Stewart is a government minister in the environment department. Presented with the opportunity to take some cash off tobacco companies to help clean up litter, he plays the nannying fussbucket card:

In January, Kris Hopkins, then a local government minister, said he wanted tobacco companies to "make a contribution to put right the wrongs as a consequence of their product". The companies offered to fund measures to help clean the country's streets last month, but the offer was rejected by Rory Stewart, a junior environment minister. In a letter to the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association, Mr Stewart said that a tie-up risked undermining councils’ work in promoting public health. Mr Stewart said it was "for local authorities to decide whether they wish to work with the tobacco industry", but added that councils should take their own legal advice before accepting the support. He said: "Since April 1 2013, local authorities have had responsibility for improving the health of their local populations and for public health services. The Government's view is that where a local authority enters into a partnership with a tobacco company, this fundamentally undermines the authority's statutory duty to promote public health." 

How stupid is this?


Sunday, 16 August 2015

Some of us have known for years that the far left is extremely unpleasant

"If you don't vote for Corbyn, you're a TORY SCUM""

I've paid more attention to the Labour leadership contest than perhaps I should. Not because it's unimportant but because (given I've no vote in the matter) it isn't something I can influence. Still it's a fascinating episode in our political history - we're watching one of the UK's dominant parties split into two factions that are, to be mild, aren't getting on together very well.

As an outsider I can only observe that the moderate wing of the Labour Party is experiencing what those of us who really are Tories have experienced for decades - a seemingly unstoppable tirade of, often childish and seldom intelligent, abuse. Those chants of "Tory scum, here we come" still echo and we smile as we watch uncompromising left-wingers applying the term 'Tory' to anyone who is slightly to the right of Dennis Skinner - I'm sure that none of us ever expected people like Harriet Harman, Gordon Brown and Neil Kinnock to attract that epithet.

At the moment the focus is on the fact that these abusive left-wingers are 'Corbyn supporters' making their relentless offence on Labour's mainstream part of that campaign, a sort of pressure on MPs, councillors and others seen as representatives of the Party. The message is consistent - you're not properly committed to 'change' or 'progressive politics' unless you publicly come out in support of Jeremy Corbyn. And this cavalcade of baseless personal attack is accompanied by those very same supporters posting Corbyn's repeated claim that he "doesn't do abuse". Truth is that Corbyn doesn't have to do personal attacks, character assassination and trolling of Labour members who don't support him because he has an army of unpleasant folk who will do that work for him.

And these extremists don't just stop at abuse they extend this to a direct threat:

She revealed that one Labour councillor, who she declined to name, had been threatened with deselection for supporting her. “You cannot have people being threatened because they have different views or support different candidates. That is unacceptable,” she said.

When someone as dependably left-of-centre as Karl Turner gets this treatment you know that the Party has a problem. And it's a problem that won't go away once the leadership question is settled - too much insult, vitriol and threat has been thrown about (overwhelmingly by the hard left supporters of Corbyn) for the wounds to heal easily. Are those Corbyn supporters currently directing abuse at a councillor who has come out in support of another leadership candidate going to turn out in the rain to deliver his leaflets, knock on doors and make the case for someone they think is a Tory?

The sad fact in all this is that, as a real Tory for forty years, I understand entirely how the left behaves - the lunatic fringe is violent, vulgar, aggressive, judgemental and bigoted and the rest of the left smile benignly at all this as they secretly punch the air at this sort of quote:

No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.

Those same Labour supporters who downloaded 'The Witch is Dead" when Margaret Thatcher died are now getting upset because some more-left-wing-than-thou comrades as spewing the same insulted in their direction. The left indulges its aggressive, violent bigots but now the campaign is inside the Labour Party those same people who used to polish their anti-Tory credentials by quoting Nye Bevan or Clement Attlee find themselves attacked as 'Tories'. As I wrote a while back:

You see Nye Bevan was wrong. Comprehensively wrong about almost everything. But this did not matter as this man could wallow in ignorance and bigotry, could opt for the insult above the evidence and could paint his opponents as evil. And his Party loved him for it. Loved him for his insults, for his uncompromising hatred of not just the Conservative Party but of Conservatives.

Men like Bevan set the tone for the manner in which Socialists debate - not just the 'lower then vermin' gibe but the genesis for "Tory scum, here we come". All this ferocious insult mixed in with hyperbolic predictions of gloom and despondency - or what the layman might term "outright lies".

The aggression, the insults, the damning caricatures - all these things cover up the fact that the far left's agenda is an agenda of despair and, as we know from Russia, from Cuba, from Venezuela, from any number of African countries, a recipe for poverty, economic chaos and oppression. The far left sanctifies racist murderers like Che Guevara, idolises terrorist apologists like Sinn Fein, and defines its position on the basis of hating Conservatives. And proposes state confiscation of private property accompanied by the economics of the madhouse - price controls, protectionism, high taxes on investment and the effective hounding out of anyone brave enough to try and create new value or new wealth.

Those Labour moderates with their head in their hands dreading the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn leadership need to remember that it is their indulging of the nasty, bigoted far left that made it possible. Whether its laughing at Dennis Skinner's snippy little comments or hosting Cuba solidarity events, the moderate left failed to remove the nasty cancer of extreme socialism. Now those moderates see the far left for what it is - extremely unpleasant. As a Tory, I've known this for forty years. Welcome to the club.


Friday, 14 August 2015

Vexatious vexillology

The Snail. Its coat of arms shows the contrada’s colors – red, yellow and turquoise, with a snail on a white shield. Underneath, there’s a tile motif in red and yellow. It’s allied with the Porcupine, the Panther and the Forest, while its enemy is the Tortoise – their rivalry is probably the most ancient and deep rooted! 

Flags are a source of great debate dispute and disagreement. We proudly wave them, bury dead soldiers draped in them, and engage in complicated occult examination of what they symbolise. For some people another's flag is a source of offence - the "Butcher's Apron", a bloodied rag or a statement of oppression. People burn them, states pass laws preventing this and supreme courts spend hours discussing whether this is allowed or whether flag-burning is an act of free expression. In Northern Ireland a whole industry grew up around the matter of flags (and associated parades).

Flags embody a history, they are not merely a decorative banner available for successful athletes to drape round their shoulders as they do their lap of honour. And the colours or style of the flag isn't the issue but rather the importance of the banner to the place and the moment. It's true that flags grew up as a feudal statement, they were waved by kings, dukes and barons to signal their presence (and self-importance):

It is generally accepted that the banner and the pennon were both derived from the gonfanon, the war cloth, which was originally a flag fixed laterally to the staff. The gonfanon was in origin a lance flag, but already in the Bayeaux Tapestry some are larger and more ornate than others. It was natural for size to be indicative of the rank of the bearer. Hence in the 13th Century, after the development of that system of personal devices which we term armoury or heraldry, the larger flag, the banner, was the privilege of the barons and greater knights while other knights carried pennons, The significant point about the banner and the pennon is that they were personal flags: they identified not a military unit, but the baron or the knight as an individuals.

Some of these associations still remain - not just the pomp of heraldry or the cherishing of coats of arms but in the way footballers kiss the badge on their shirt to demonstrate their allegiance to the team (and in the importance of those symbols of the team - badges, banners, songs and slogans - to the fans).

So just as the flag was a means of identifying friends and allies, it was equally a way to see the enemy - armies weren't uniformed so the flags, colours and pennons were the essential identifier. As feudalism matured and the modern state began to emerge, the flags were adopted by those cities as symbols of their independent identity. With the birth of revolutionary governments - born as secular states from violent uprising - the importance of the flag became more pronounced. Citizens of the United State salute the flag - not as an act of worship but as a celebration of liberty. But this sanctification of the flag makes it an easy target for those who wish to oppose the USA.

In recent times we've seen various eruptions of anger, offence and self-righteous bleating around different flags - most notably the persistence of the flag (or one of the flags to be precise) of the Confederate States. But the acme of vexatious vexillology remains Northern Ireland birthplace of the 1954 Flags and Emblems Display Act and where the agreement dragged by John Major and Tony Blair from the bigots in Sinn Fein and the DUP included a reference to those flags and symbols. The Agreement recognised the:

“...sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need in particular in creating new institutions to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division”

So the debate about flags became a core debate in Ulster politics featuring such things as the Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000 and statements like this:

“While it is legitimate for organizations and individuals to seek to celebrate cultural or sporting events in the public space, this needs to be time limited. If left on public display after a reasonable time, they cease to be an expression of celebration and can become a threatening attempt to mark territory”

All this reminds us that - however attached we are to that flag we love - these things are divisive. Sometimes this is deliberate and planned such as the recent 'online petition' from Scottish Nationalists over the union flag appearing on driving licences but often it is genuine. In my city of Bradford we have a flags policy that came about because of disputes about requests to fly flags to mark some event, anniversary or other occasion. Even then, there's the possibility of dispute as we discovered during the recent Israeli operations in Gaza - the Council flew the Palestinian flag (in the square not from City Hall) but refused a request to fly the Israeli flag. And across the year we have a cycle of flags flown - from the Pakistan flag on that nation's independence day through to the Welsh dragon on St David's Day.

All this takes us to the latest flag-related matter - or rather an absence of flag matter:

Olympic long jump champion Greg Rutherford says not having a union jack on Great Britain's World Championships kit is a "terrible choice".

The Briton, 28, tweeted a picture of his vest for the championships in Beijing, showing a British Athletics logo instead of the union jack flag.

Scot Eilish McColgan replied by saying "it looks like you're representing British Athletics instead of GB".

Rutherford agreed with the steeplechase star and said the change was "stupid".

Coming at a time of rampant Scottish nationalism (despite the majority of Scots voting to stay in the union) some will see the exclusion of the Union Flag as an act of cowardice while other will see the corporate nature of international professional sport as being at fault. Indeed the response from British athletics shows this (and that they miss the point entirely):

‘We discussed it with a number of people and athletes who thought it was a good idea. Remember England football have the three lions, England rugby the red rose, everyone has a distinctive logo except us. It’s not about rejecting the Union Jack — that’s why it’s still on the shorts and socks. And of course red, white and blue are still on the kit too.’

Referencing England rugby and England football is, to be kind, not exactly helpful to the debate! The point the athletes are making is that the flag symbolises what they are competing for at the world championships - when they set out as athletes their daydream will have been to run, throw or jump for their country.

It won't come as a surprise however that others have leapt into this discussion, taking issue with Greg Rutherford over the kit (and the flag):

Look at it, if you can bear to. With its cluttered burst of both right-angled and diagonal radiating lines, the British flag is heavy and overbearing, forceful and strident. On a battlefield it would make sense. Sure, this virulent standard served to rally regiments at the Battle of Waterloo. But today? At sporting events? It looks crap. Instead of suggesting unity, its sharp-angled divisions imply fragmentation. In fact, the relentless dynamism of its design evokes the shock and shatter of a cannon ball smashing into a French ship at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Discussing the aesthetics of the Union Flag is a fine matter (and yes there are some better looking flags) but that completely misses the point - our association and attraction to that flag isn't about its looks but about what it means to us. It is the symbol of our place, our nation. It is the banner under which millions of our ancestors fought and it is a representation of what we stand for as a nation and of our history. It is true that some are vexed by its presence but that remains, in part at least, the purpose of the flag - it symbolises a successful, free and united nation. And some people - whether quasi-republicans like the author of that last quote or chip-balancing Scots separatists - simply don't like this fact.

The quote at the top is from a tourist guide to Siena and is one of that city's contrade. What is reflects is that the use of symbols to mark a place is ancient and not a bad thing. The bad thing is when people want to take down those symbols because they've decided they are offended by them. For a long time - thankfully no longer - England's Cross of St George was banished as a racist symbol only to be seen waved by the violent and extreme. While there are still people who don't understand how we've recovered England's flag (and we've sport to thank for that), it is welcome that we can now fly it with pride and enthusiasm.

When flags and symbols are pushed aside - or worse still banned or abandoned - we succumb to those who see the flag as a problem or worse see the contest of symbols as a matter of little victories against the enemy. Those athletes heading to Beijing will be representing the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - it's welcome that they are proud of this fact and that they want to display the symbol of that pride, the Union Flag.