28 November 2007

Idle or idol?

The story rumbles on of an English teacher arrested for allowing her class to name a teddy Muhammed in the Sudan. At the moment opinion seems divided about whether they will throw the book at her, or something a bit heavier.

Clearly the Sudanese Police must have a bit of spare time on their hands - no doubt they've cleared up that genocide problem they were having in Dafur. Leaves them free to concentrate on the really serious matters.

Last post for ID cards?

The silver lining from the cloud that is the loss of personal data by HM Revenue and Customs is the unexpected doubts it has cast over the future of ID cards. It exposes the "honeypot" flaw: in designing a database big enough to hold all the necessary records, its very size makes it too high-risk if something goes wrong.

Ministers have been quick to try to turn something very negative into a positive. The curiously culpable argument goes that if we all had biometric ID cards, then the loss of our data by, say, a recklessly cavalier approach to handling other people's information by the government wouldn't matter.

However, I think it throws up another contradiction that I have yet to hear an answer to - the more useful an ID card supposedly becomes, the higher the risk of data theft. If you create an enormous database which will simultaneously protect the UK from terrorism, benefits fraud, illegal immigration, credit card fraud and overdue library books, think of all the number of people who will need to, potentially, access such a database. Multiply that by the number of different government departments employing "junior staff" and the chance of a breach moves from being likely to inevitable.

20 November 2007

All for nought

John Maynard Keynes once said that if you owe the bank £100, you are in trouble, but if you owe the bank £1,000,000, then the bank is in trouble. And if that bank owes the government £24,000,000,000 I suppose we're all in trouble. But it does at least allow us to enjoy the irony of watching some of the biggest defenders of free market capitalism suddenly discovering the joys of government protection. But that's quite an expensive joke to enjoy.

Given the rather cocky and aggressive investment strategy that landed Northern Rock in this position, I suppose we should expect a little chutzpah after the fall. Even with a government bail-out only someone with as big a brass neck as the chief shareholder in Northern Rock, an organisation called RAB Capital, could be quite as phlegmatic about where blame should lie. RAB's Chief Executive, Philip Richards, this week announced: "We believe that's been caused by the way the Bank of England handled the interbank market after the crisis broke in the summer."

The "that" in that last sentence is credit lines. And the genius business model that couldn't fail, based upon not actually lending your own money, but money that you borrow from someone else and call your own money. Given that all the other major banks have also sustained losses caused by the sudden tightening of credit, it seems everyone was borrowing from everyone else, under the economic principle of hubris: the greater fool theory. Presumably, therefore, to keep Mr Richards happy, the Bank of England should have "handled the situation" by lending everyone £24bn to keep the merry-go-round going.

I've been trying to work out what the difference is between "a short-term funding problem" and a pyramid scheme. Probably the difference between owing the bank £100 and £24,000,000,000.

12 November 2007

All or nothing

Walking down the Obsesity Aisle in my local Tesco, beyond the mega bumper multi-packs of reconstituted fried vegetable matter and salt, I was looking to see if they still also sold single serving sized packets of crisps. For those days when you can't quite manage 24 bags of Wotsits for lunch.

The section for single portions was marked with a sign that read: "Individual Crisps". Which seemed to be taking things to the other extreme - even I'd expect to buy more than one.

11 November 2007

Car Meccanic

In a not-at-all cynical piece of marketing by the Proton motor company, plans were announced today for an Islamic car. Sadly for the faithful, the car is still only being talked about, but "special features" could include "a compass pointing to Mecca and a dedicated space to keep a copy of the Koran and a headscarf", according to the rather desperate-sounding press release.

Or, to put it another way, Sat Nav and a glove compartment. And with such imaginative development ideas, it would seem to be set to be a design classic. But it does raise some interesting questions. For a start, who will endorse its Islamic status? And, once granted, does this mean all other cars are infidels?

I can see the attraction from a manufacturer's point-of-view to corner such a market, but they'd need to be able to cater for the wide variety of prospective customers. The economy model would presumably be the Proton Taleban, with no stereo and a stopped clock. Further up the scale, there'd need to be Suni, Shiite and Sufi models as well, to ensure no-one is left out.

Presumably with the Palestinian model you'd get a free Roadmap.

The right man for the job

Jonathan Aitken has been invited to advise the Conservative Party on prison reform (story here). Presumably Jeffrey Archer's invitation got lost in the post.

Whatever next? David Mellor on incentives for married couples? Norman Lamont on fiscal policy? Neil Hamilton on financial probity and standards in public life?

But it all makes sense when you realise who was behind the idea: Iain Duncan Smith, on behalf of Centre for Social Justice. I suppose if Iain Duncan Smith can run a think-tank, then Aitken can provide a moral compass for criminal justice.

03 November 2007

Seat or stool?

News reaches Hofflimits of unusual candidate requirements for standing for public office in India. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, the Rural Development Minister, said all rural council members should only be eligible for election if they have a toilet at home (story here). In an attempt to outlaw the more common rural practice of public defecation, Mr Singh is insisting that elected officials should set an example, to reduce the still high incidence of diarrhoea in the countryside.

It's rather touching to see there are places in the world that believe a politician's example will bring about change in public behaviour. By contrast, I note my local council is looking at innovative ways to stop voters from urinating in the streets - though I don't think this is necessarily in reaction to the fact that our politicians do have indoor plumbing. According to the official website, it is "part of the Council's over-arching toilet strategy". This confirms what many have already suspected - Colchester Borough Council really does take the piss.

Intelligent design?

The former head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove said when the government made its case in Parliament for the invasion of Iraq, too much emphasis was put on intelligence.

If the last four years is what happens when you have too much intelligence, I'd hate to see what happens when you have too little.