Sunday, 29 March 2009

Moving blog to Wordpress

I have decided to move this blog to Wordpress from Blogger in order to obtain more stable access.  Several people have informed me that Blogger crashes when they try to load it.  I have taken the opportunity to give a more descriptive title to the blog.  It will be known as "Justice, Media and  Economics" to capture the core theme of my contributions.  I have transferred over all the posts in this blog so that continuity will be maintained.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Victim's Law

The News of the World, a Sunday tabloid, campaigned to allow parents to find out where paedophiles live, the so-called Sarah’s Law. Sarah Payne was a girl who was murdered by a previously convicted paedophile. The campaign has been partially successful and pilots are underway around the country. The police feared vigilantism. This has not happened because the scope of the scheme has been restricted to enquiring about specific individuals who have contact with one’s children. It is not an open list of paedophiles. The police carry out a risk assessment before deciding to respond.

There is a balance between public protection and the right to privacy. The risk of a child being snatched is greater in the vicinity of paedophiles. Even if the risk is low, many parents would like to know if there is a specific risk. Meanwhile society wants to rehabilitate the low-risk convicted paedophiles so they can rebuild their lives and put their past behind them. In these circumstances, the right to privacy gives way to the need for public protection. The right to privacy is surrendered upon conviction.

The mother behind the campaign, Sarah Payne, has been recognised for her extraordinary achievement in bringing about greater openness in hereunto private information. She has received an honour from the Queen. She has also recently become our first Victim’s Champion and will speak up for victims who are now at the centre of the criminal justice system. This new role raises a fundamental constitutional issue.

Emphasising victimhood marks a further departure away from justice for defendants. Currently, Victim Impact Statements are read out at the end of a trial prior to sentencing which capture the sorrowful nature of the offence. It is for the judge to decide on sentencing bearing in mind all aspects of the case. Under our legal system the sentencing is based primarily upon culpability, not on consequence. This is why death by driving cases cause so much anguish. A single moment’s inattention is not punished with life imprisonment. An eloquent impact statement should not lead to a more severe penalty than one where the family does not prepare a statement.

There is a further concern if the Victim’s Champion is also a progenitor of an eponymous law. To what extent is the Victim’s Champion pursuing a personal agenda? If the country is to introduce such a role, it should be defined in an objective way. What is meant by a victim? Who can speak for victims? What do victims need? How can the court experience be improved? What happens if the defendant is found Not Guilty? A Home Office Minister should answer these questions properly and after a due political process. Fundamental questions should not be left to a celebrated victim with a strong media presence.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Street View

Street View is an application from Google which displays a drive-through photographic view of each road. The level of detail captured by the photographic record is comparable to that a passer by might notice. I have used it to explore the streets of my childhood. One wall where we used to play in the street looked so tall to me as a small child - but now it has unaccountably shrunk. The entrance to my primary school looks tiny. I looked to see if the crane flies and spiders webs were still there - phew, I couldn’t see them.

Street View opens up the possibility of a visual history of our lives. Quite often I pass by a demolished site and strive to remember what was there before. With one-in-seven retail sites being closed at any point, it is hard to keep up. Old houses are redeveloped. The visual landscape remains in memories and some old photographs but one cannot find a visual history. I want to rewind to the places that used to exist. Peoples’ lives were shaped by stores like Woolworths and local grocers and bakers and butchers. Mums carrying heavy bags would stop by the Lyons Corner House for a pot of tea and some cake. Dad would pop into the King’s Head for a quick pint and a smoke. These social historical landmarks have disappeared within one lifetime.

The initial British reaction to Street View is typically circumspect. Firstly, there is the Privacy argument that our homes should not appear on the internet for all to see. This is not very convincing from the country with a higher density of CCTV cameras than any place else on earth. There is no law against taking pictures from a public space (unless for criminal purposes). Residents of private roads would have a better claim to privacy. Secondly, there is the argument that burglars would find it easier to case a joint and select their getaway route using their (stolen) laptop. It is difficult to believe that this will lead to much additional crime. If only some our criminals were to adopt such a systematic approach to the rest of their lives, then they may not need to break into houses. The fact is that all new technologies enable criminal activities but these also bring new modes of fighting crime. Mobile phones are used by gangs to communicate - but phone records can be used to show the connections between the suspects and the events. Leaving a trace of a search on a particular address which was burgled could be incriminating.

Those who object to having their property viewable on the internet can request it be removed. Yet this is likely to attract more attention. Why would someone want their property to be blanked out? Perhaps they have something valuable to protect. No doubt there will be a service showing all the places that Google redacted. The fatal flaw with being a white moth in an industrial landscape is that all the predators notice you. Surely it is far better to blend into the anonymity of familiarity. Sensitive commercial or government buildings are often characterised by nondescript architecture without any signage. There is no need to depart from this stratagem.

There are plenty of groups for whom the new visual convenience will be of great benefit. Tourists will explore from afar and know what to expect. Disabled people will anticipate access issues. House hunters save legwork and petrol. Car parkers want to know where looks safe. Parents can see where their children live.

Perhaps in exchange for being allowed global domination, Google should have a Global Service Obligation to archive all systemic public knowledge. Regarding Street View, let’s define some obligtions: where vehicles obscure views, send the photocar again; update each photo regularly; create time-views going back to the earliest records. We want nothing less than the map of the world for modern times.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Victim of the criminal justice system

The government is placing victims and witnesses at the “centre” of the criminal justice system. The Law Reform, Victims and Witnesses Act will enable anonymity of victims and witnesses in court. Appearing in court is scary enough for most people. Those who are intimidated or vulnerable would be spared having to testify in person against the object of their fears. If more people are prepared to stand up in court, there will be more convictions. This is part of the government agenda to bring more offences to justice, reflecting public sentiment.

The inherent contradiction in this approach is that we also need to ensure that the defendant has a fair trial. It is essential that the defendant should know what he or she is accused of and who the witnesses are. A witness who is granted anonymity presents two types of problem. Firstly, the fact that special measures have been taken will indicate to the jurors that the defendant is regarded as intimidating. Secondly, the possibility of challenging the evidence is restricted. Of course, we can get more convictions if we are prepared to compromise on fairness, but is this what society really wants?

Sean Hodgson has just been released after 27 years in jail for a murder that he did not commit. He was not eligible for parole since it is conditional upon an admission of guilt. He refused to admit guilt on the not unreasonable grounds that he did not commit the crime. Even though he suffered from mental health problems, he maintained his integrity and dignity.

These “miscarriages of justice” always command considerable media interest reflecting the genuine public concern that the criminal justice system should be reliably accurate in identifying perpetrators. The fact that Hodgson had originally confessed to the crime, and provided details to the police which were not generally known, demonstrates why the original conviction was beyond reasonable doubt. The conviction has now been deemed unsafe following a review of the DNA evidence. This evidence could have been reviewed over the years, but never was. It took a determined new defence solicitor, instructed following an advert in the prison newspaper, to track it down. What this shows is the vital role of the defence. The rest of the criminal justice system has little incentive to uncover exculpatory material unless prompted.

The Oxford Dictionary of Modern English defines a victim as a person injured or killed as a result of an event or circumstance. Judging by his fragile state of health as he emerged down the steps of the Court of Appeal, the released man is a victim. He will be entitled to financial compensation although nothing can make up for his loss of freedom and health. The question we have to confront is whether we want to have more Sean Hodgsons in the future – people who will be convicted on the testimony of anonymous witnesses. The criminal justice system should accurately separate out the guilty from the innocent. Stacking the odds against some defendants is going to increase the number of wrongful convictions.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

The Incest Monster

How a defendant accused of serious crimes is treated at court reflects the basic moral principles of a society. There are two important aspects of the trial of Josef Fritzl in Austria – its transparency and its fairness. Both of these principles are tested to the limit.

The reporters in the Fritzl trial can only stay for part of the proceedings. The court provides edited extracts from the case at the end of each day. As a result, the public cannot find out exactly what happened in that dark dungeon, except as disclosed by the court. There appear to be two reasons for restricting the journalistic reporting from the court. Firstly, his grandchildren have to be protected from public intrusion. Secondly, the court did not want the trial to turn into an exercise in voyeurism. Whilst these concerns are understandable, there are other solutions which do less damage to justice. The children involved have already been given new identities. It is not the trial alone which brought them publicity. The fear about voyeurism is misplaced – the issues raised by the case are of wider public concern both nationally and internationally. The press reporting is not so much salacious as horrified.

The story of incestuous family incarceration is so shocking that any civilised society needs to ensure that it cannot happen again. The trial is of only one man, but the public will be concerned about the role that the authorities may have played. The perception is that Austrian society still has too many institutions that cannot be questioned. What were social services doing? Surely it was implausible that so many babies could appear from a daughter who has run away? Maybe the authorities do have something to hide. The best way of counteracting this perception is to bring all the facts into the open. Furthermore, the public needs to understand how a determined and devious character like this can develop. It is essential to get the full story from the protagonists – the defendant and the victim (“victim” rather than “alleged victim” because Fritzl has pleaded guilty to most counts). There is no substitute for their own words.

Fritzl is termed the “Incest Monster” by the Austrian press. Whether this description prejudices the outcome is unlikely since the judge will have seen the material beforehand in a less emotional setting. It is perhaps easier for a professional judge to deal with this media claims than it is for lay members of a jury. Meanwhile, throughout this process, the defence attorney has complained that he has been vilified for representing Fritzl and threats have been made to his life. His public appeal to treat Fritzl as a man and not as a monster has fallen on deaf ears. Fritzl is a man who acted as a conventional father for his upstairs family whilst treating his dungeon family despicably. He has not tried to evade conviction by claiming mental illness. The hardest thing to accept is that Fritzl is a man not a monster, albeit a man of moral contradictions.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Age of Stupid

The independent documentary film, the Age of Stupid, is about climate change and how our developed societies allowed the planet to be ruined in a period of collective stupidity. It follows a number of individuals in different parts of the world - USA, England, France, Nigeria and India - and shows their responses in intimate profiles. A narrator from the future reflects upon clear warning signs and contrasts these with the plausible deniability of the consequences of unbridled carbon fuel burning.

The film’s director, Franny Armstrong, has developed a reputation for her radical approach to political subject matter including the story of McLibel, the longest trial in British history which started when the fast food chain sued some leafletters. Her latest film does not disappoint in this respect. It raises awareness of a wide range of environmental issues and placing these in a personal context, the film is a powerful refresher on what is at stake.

Where the film fails to convince is in finding remedies. There is a presumption that a sustainable future will be low-carbon, with non-nuclear renewables making up the majority of power generation. We are shown beautiful vistas of the Alps as well as the rolling Cornish countryside. This is presumably before these areas are covered in windfarms and solar panels.

The reality is that too many countries want to bring their populations out of poverty before being prepared to compromise on economic growth. Furthermore, the richest country of all, and the most wasteful of energy, the USA, is never going to accept a reduction in living standards so that India and China can catch up. Carbon rationing will only become a political reality when people can see the effects directly for themselves. The problem is that by the time this point is reached, it is too late to save the world from runaway warming. The conventional economic mechanisms simply do not work to reverse the climate detriment.

Using up the earth’s resources is foolish given the rapid rise in the global population and the growth in consumption per head. This goes to demonstrate that mankind does have a collective suicide urge - which happens to be the subject of Armstrong’s university thesis when she studied zoology at UCL. Are we all to die like the doomed Easter Islanders?

I remain optimistic that a tradable personal carbon allowance can serve as the basis for a solution. Each person would receive say 1000 energy units a month (kilojewels?). They can use these all up on buying energy for themselves or they can sell them to someone else who places more value on them. Ultimately carbon is rationed but those who place more value per unit can trade with those who place less value to their mutual benefit. Maybe people are not so stupid after all.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Unblock open justice

Proceedings in family courts are not open to the public. Most people would agree that any children involved should be protected from unwarranted publicity. Yet there is a problem if the decisions made by judges never reach the public domain. Judges need to be accountable for their decisions, particularly as the lives of children and their parents or carers may be changed forever. The public needs to have confidence in the way the family courts operate. A major breakthrough was announced recently when the Justice Minister, Jack Straw, confirmed that the media will be allowed to attend and report on family proceedings. This mirrors what happens already in the youth courts which deal with criminal offences. There remains considerable judicial discretion regarding the implementation of this arrangement which gives rise to uncertainty by those affected.

The new approach allows the courts to explain and publicise their decisions, but the reporting must be in such a way that the children involved are not identified. There is some doubt as to whether this new formulation is actually an improvement. With one breath the Minister said that more information would be available from the courts. With the next breath, he said that the landmark Court of Appeal case Clayton v Clayton was to be overridden by new legislation. This is important for it goes to the heart of what we mean by open justice.

The Clayton case enabled parents to make the proceedings public after the case is over. This is not a tricky situation where one side is using the press to influence the decision maker. The publicity makes no difference to the outcome of the case. What it can do, however, is draw attention, possibly adversely, to the judicial process and the judges themselves. This is clearly over-protective. If the judges are confident that they have made the right decision they should not have to fear public scrutiny.

It is rather unusual for a Court of Appeal judgement to be reversed by new legislation. The argument given is that the “welfare jurisdiction” of the court continues after the case is concluded. This is a dubious basis upon which to impose restrictions on freedom of speech. The vast majority of concluded cases never return to court, so the claim of ownership is excessive. It is not as if the children are wards of court. They are the responsibility of their parents or carers, not of the courts.

There is a prohibition on releasing any information which may identify a child subject to proceedings. This is quite a severe restriction if it is to be interpreted strictly. Nowadays it is possible to track down the names and details of most people and their children. The internet is a rich source of information: social networking, person search, company, school, genealogy, local news etc. Hardly anybody is anonymous anymore, least of all communication-hooked teenagers. Add to that the ability to contact “friends” and neighbours and names will be revealed.

There is another way of protecting identity without damaging transparency. Rather than trying to limit the information pipe at source, unblock it and let it flow. The media would actually only be interested in the celebrities or the rare “human interest” story. Complaints and grievances from disgruntled court users hardly ever get aired in the media. If the media go too far beyond the public interest, then they will have to face actions for breach of privacy.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Presumption of Guilt

Our criminal justice system achieves a very high conviction rate. Magistrates courts deal with around 1.75 million defendants a year. Only 10% of these are contested. The prosecutors have got better at weeding out the cases for which they are unlikely to secure a conviction. The overall conviction rate is so high (c.99%) that the Ministry of Justice does not publish it in the court statistics. In the Crown Courts, where the more serious cases are heard, over two-thirds of defendants plead guilty. However, of those that plead not guilty, 61% are acquitted.

Those who want to be tougher on crime can point to the increasing number of convictions. The police would say that they have no interest in taking an innocent person to court. They act on the presumption of guilt. Those who favour the importance of human rights can point to the high acquittal rate. They are activated by the presumption of innocence. The presumption of guilt is compatible with the presumption of innocence because they are held by different institutions: prosecutors and courts respectively. The presumption of innocence is a legal device whereby the burden of proof is placed on the prosecution.

The DNA database is said to undermine our civil liberties. However, it is not apparent that it strengthens the presumption of guilt. There will be more convictions since more perpetrators of crime may be detected. There will also be more acquittals since DNA is capable of absolving the accused as well as providing compelling evidence for the prosecution.

More pressingly, the presumption of innocence can be eroded prior to the trial if the evidence is gathered unfairly, thus undermining the requirement for a fair trial. Investigators can take short cuts or break the rules. The rules of evidence are notoriously complex in common law countries like the UK and USA. Defendants should only be left to represent themselves in the most straightforward and minor of cases. Where liberty or livelihood is as stake, then a professional defence is essential. For those who are unable to pay for their defence, which is most people before the courts, adequately funded legal aid is essential.

The problem is that those who set the budget for legal aid are influenced by those who see the criminal justice system as a kind of conveyor belt driven by performance targets. It may only be when we get too many miscarriages of justice that there will be any political change of heart.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Packets of justice

Legal costs used to be based upon hours but this does not provide an incentive for lawyers to be time-efficient. Costs escalated. Managing legal costs involved squeezing down the scale of the work or the hourly rate of pay. Hence, purchasers of legal services shifted to alternative remuneration models with contracts for fixed or formula-based fees.

One of the enabling factors for this shift has been the availability of legal cost databases. Using statistical techniques, thousands of individual legal transactions can be summarised into a formula. Packets of work are identified: a law case is assigned standard amount of time. If the volume of cases is large enough then a “swings and roundabouts” argument can be made. Losses on one case can be made up by gains on another case. This is an economy of scale and leading to the demise of smaller legal practices.

Packetisation is suitable for transactional activities such as conveyancing. However, when it extends into the criminal justice system there is disquiet. As crime, and expenditure on crime has risen, publicly funded lawyers have to work within tighter case budgets. The UK already spends more per capita on criminal defence than any other country in the world and there is no political appetite to increase expenditure. The scope of criminal legal aid has been progressively reduced. Soon those facing jury trials will be subject to a means test.

Quality inevitably suffers when the time spent per case is limited. Less time is spent with the client. Elaborate case preparation is precluded. Clients may feel pressured to accept a solution that they do not really want. The delivery of justice is changing to be more affordable. The question is whether this changes the nature of justice – a question to which I will return.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Behind the irony curtain

Why would someone say the opposite of what they mean? The usual explanation is that irony creates an incongruity setting up mockery or humour. It seems a dangerous stratagem if it evinces puzzlement or incredulity in their listener. It can backfire embarrassingly. Yet it prevalent in all cultures to a greater or lesser degree.

The benefits associated with using verbal irony must be significant if they are to outweigh the social risks. Suppose there were a country whose history was characterised by colonial subjugation and famine. The people were powerless but had to find hope. They used the power of the word to achieve three things: transcendence, solidarity and humour.

Irony stresses the absurdity in the contradiction between substance and form. Whatever fate or man would throw at the benighted peasants, they could maintain their dignity. They embraced the world as it might be, not as it was. Their language was of transcendence not of supplication. Furthermore, they wanted to show solidarity with their fellow souls. Given that the overt expression of defiance could be detrimental, it was necessary to have a different way of interpreting language. The simplest code was to reverse the usual meaning . A shared awareness of this doublespeak provides an element of control over the situation and numerous opportunities for humour.

Verbal irony has developed to a refined level amongst the Irish who are famous for their wit and repartee. Irish authors from Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne to Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde have been masters of irony. Their irony is not just a literary device – it is an essential element to communication in their contemporary culture.

American culture has a more circumscribed role for irony given the need to find a common language for the waves of immigrants speaking different tongues. If verbal irony was ever widespread, it was doused by the dynamics of economic growth and social progress. Yet it is visible in creative media such as The Simpsons which comments brilliantly on the modern world whilst appearing to be a childrens’ cartoon. Where there is social or political stasis, irony will bloom. Why are three Russian policemen travelling in a car? One to read, one to write, and one to monitor the two intellectuals.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Mathematical operators

The reports on school mathematics drop bleakly one on top of the other. Each arrives at the same recommendation: a child needs a teacher to sit down with them and explain it in understandable terms; in other words, individualised learning. The drawback is the cost. Mathematics teachers are in demand elsewhere. The downsizing of the maths-savvy financial sector may have led to a temporary improvement in recruitment but a radical solution is required.

Many parents opt for private tuition, particularly for examination preparation. This is mainly provided by private tutors, often working within a franchise. Tuition centres, which, by aggregating students, could provide a more efficient service, are comparatively few. This is the direct result of government education policy which is biased against private education. Although about 7% of British children attend “private” schools, these are not actually private schools – they are charitable foundations. A private school seeks to make a profit which is frowned upon.

The financial obstacles to private educational providers are considerable. They have to charge parents VAT. They incur corporation tax as well as income tax. They do not qualify for relief on the local tax. By contrast, a charitable school avoids these fiscal burdens. Furthermore, a private tutor does not charge VAT, may not declare the income to the tax collector, and works without premises. Thus the UK has a fragmented private tuition sector. The outcome is confused and expensive access to individualised mathematics support.

The government has high expectations of the nation’s schools. Yet, it does not have the wherewithal to fund them to the extent required. It needs to encourage more investment in the education sector. There are numerous projects involving some sort of public-private partnership, but these have not transformed educational attainment. Dismantling the barriers to private schooling would unlock a swathe of private capital which would enhance the education sector.

There is a fear that private schooling may widen social divisions. However, society is not riven by mathematics nor, indeed, by differential knowledge of any particular subject. Improving the subject knowledge of children brings obvious personal and social benefits. We need to give children every opportunity to learn in the best way for themselves.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Invisible policing

The ancients were not allowed to meet face-to-face with their ruler. They would stoop low to show obeisance. Bowing can be quite a sophisticated art when conducted properly. A vestige of this is to be found in the etiquette when encountering the Queen. The practice is being revived in an unexpected manner. Media types tell us that it is now illegal to take photographs of police constables. As the police symbolise State authority, it seems we can no longer look at photographs of our rulers.

The relevant statute is the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 which makes it an offence to elicit information about a constable which is likely to be useful to a terrorist. Since taking a photograph may be construed as eliciting information, then photographers could find themselves arrested.

Any citizen wary of oppressive government will wonder if this is another example of the State over-reacting to the “terrorist threat”. However, looking more closely at the law, a different story emerges. The latest Act amends an earlier one – the Terrorism Act 2000 – which had already prohibited photography useful for terrorism. The amendment makes it clear that the prohibition includes taking photos of police constables. The logic of the prohibition is as follows:

2000 Act: Do not take photos useful for terrorism.
2008 Act: Do not take photos useful for terrorism including photos of constables.

The scope of the 2008 Act was already included in the 2000 Act. It was already illegal to take photographs of constables if useful for terrorism. Yet the 2008 Act has generated much ire. People seem to ignore the logic of inclusion. Cognitive psychologist have a name for this – the Inclusion Fallacy.

There are two explanations for the Inclusion Fallacy in the political context: the trigger effect and the short-term memory effect. The first is based on the notion that an underlying grievance needs a trigger to bring it to public attention. Photo-journalists will naturally be keen to ensure that their freedom does not get usurped by the law-makers. They need the trigger to raise it up the political agenda and perhaps deter the government from pursuing even more restrictive policies. The short-term memory effect ignores the past. What counts is the here and now, the latest change. Given that the amendment specifies police constables then, under this view, the government must be tightening up on photographing constables.

Should we be worried? The latest amendment has arguably reduced the likelihood that a photographer would get arrested in normal circumstances. The courts will know that there is an emphasis on protecting members of the security forces and police constables who may be the target of terrorist activity. Crucially, police will need to be reasonable in enforcing the prohibition on photography. Nobody wants tourists outside Buckingham Palace to be arrested. Ironically, it is not prohibited to take a photograph of our Monarch when she fulfilling her public duties.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Taking liberties with tradition

There are five pubs closing every day in England. This trend has been increasing over the last few years. The pubs are giving way to more modern pastimes such as coffee houses and fast food joints. Beer sales are at their lowest since the 1930s. Supermarkets offer discounted prices on alcohol enabling domestic alcoholism and youth binge drinking. It is rare to plan a night’s entertainment as an evening in the pub. The public house has served as one of the most distinguishable aspects of culture in the British Isles. The uniqueness of the pub experience, its cosy friendliness, is what visitors to these shores remember. Yet, as usual, the tradition is fading fast.

Some pubs remain resolutely traditional. No recorded music, no Big Screen TV, no one-armed bandits. Many of these still have a loyal following. Yet vast numbers of this kind were disposed of during the property price boom. It was more profitable for landlords to sell the pub to develop some “luxury” or even “affordable” housing. The adverse impact on the community was not of their concern. Other pubs have become, in effect, restaurants. These “gastro-pubs” offer a sophisticated menu with the choice of fine wines. They are a few steps up from the traditional pub experience.

Another way forward is for pubs to adapt so that they retain a traditional feel whilst providing some of the experiences demanded by their younger clientele. Tradition requires some combination of a mixture of regular customers, traditional real ales, seats by the bar, a real fire, a snug, friendly bar staff, a pub landlord who had a career before, crisps and nuts and perhaps a sandwich as the only food available (because people would have a drink before eating at home). The next step up requires reasonably priced basic pub food such as fish and chips, a Sunday Roast and to be fully modern, a vegetarian option.

I was at a pub last night in Camden Town, the The Liberties Bar, which provides the next level of diversions. It has sophisticated recorded music- from jazz and reggae to rock and electronic chill- downstairs, but an acoustic set playing upstairs. The upstairs room also hosts comedy evenings and other events. It is an intimate atmosphere with lego sets and crayons and paper on the table to permit creativity.

The bar downstairs is in the centre with comfortable settees around solid wood tables. The lighting is as for a theatre with tiny hanging spotlights changing the mood periodically. The pool table attracts a group of young musicians and their entourage laughing and flirting as they played. A birthday party arrived comprising blue-painted smurfs with accompanying head gear. It was all very cool, very fashionable, very London. It is part of a trend. Pubs have a future.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Faces and places

Australians gave harrowing accounts of how they had survived the recent forest fires which had burned down their homes. They would have to rebuild their lives from scratch. In the emergency, their priorities were clear – to save family, neighbours, pets and animals. What struck me was that several spoke of their regret that they couldn’t save their photographs. Whereas a house could be rebuilt, and animals bred, photographs are irreplaceable. Photographs refresh cherished memories. Without the photographs, many memories would be lost. The memories of loved ones would be dimmed or lost forever.

Photos from the last century are generally on prints. I acquired my first digital camera in 2000. Not only did this make it easier to archive photos on digital storage, it also meant that I took many more photos. Rather than a photograph only being taken on special occasions it meant that all occasions became special. My parents used the famous Kodak Brownie to take pictures on film. We looked forward to when the developed prints would be returned from the chemist in a week or so. Each photo was pored over and discussed. It was the viewing as much as the taking which was special. The sentimental value built up.

Now I have thousands of digital and scanned photos and I struggle to keep them in order. I am therefore pleased with latest version of the Mac photo album software called iPhoto. It lets me classify photos by face in the easiest way imaginable: it suggests names for faces. After a few trials of yes and no, it gets the idea of who’s who and the tagging proceeds smoothly. The photos can also be linked to places. I can revisit a photo itinerary of my life. I enter geographical data manually but even this will be avoided with a GPS camera.

I would not want to lose my photos. I still get worried about whether I have a secure backup. No doubt remote sites like Flickr are of some help. Nor would I want to lose the albums I have created, the photo-histories, the itineraries and the presentations. They are irreplaceable.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

A call out of the red

When the phone rings at home on a weekday I am suspicious. The only calls at that time are from people or robots selling me something. But this call was different. First of all, it wasn’t a withheld number. Secondly, it was a mature woman’s voice with a lilting Welsh accent. She sounded genuine. She was trying to get in contact with a neighbour of mine. She had written to her friend but the letter had been returned. Could I pop round with a message for the new occupier asking to pass on a message to call Wendy. As the house was only a few doors from me I didn’t think that would be an imposition. But I was curious to know how Wendy had obtained my phone number. She explained that she was on the internet and typed in the local postcode and found my phone number.

It would be really handy if such a lookup facility existed for the general public – but as far as I am aware it doesn’t – even is not that accommodating. I asked for the name of the website. Wendy told me it was called ASP. Since .asp is a webpage suffix it is possible that Wendy had got a bit mixed up. So this little old lady from Caerphilly had the nous to find out my home phone number but couldn’t remember the name of the website. I supposed that was possible but the incongruity was growing. I pressed further – could she not simply write again to the occupier. She could, but it would be quicker if I did it. Yes, quicker for her, but not for me. I felt I was being drawn unwittingly into somebody else’s world.

I didn’t want to pry, but what was the urgency, what was the letter about? It was marked private and confidential, you see. Finally, Wendy said that she did not know what was in the letter. She only dealt with returned mail. She worked for a company, she was in the post room. What sort of company is that? Well, it’s a “multi-service provider” she said. Suddenly I realised what was happening. The person at the other end of the phone portrayed herself as looking for a long lost friend and had randomly found my name on the internet which she barely understood. But then she used gobbledegook like “multi-service provider”. The game was up. I politely said that I was not able to assist and so the call ended.

There is a useful lookup site Who calls me which I checked to see who was calling me. It turns out they are a debt collection company. Its modus operandi includes calling neighbours. Previous visitors to the lookup site had conveniently posted the contact details of the organisation. I called up and registered a complaint. Of course, they don’t have a complaints register but I let it be known to the two people I spoke to that I felt their organisation was acting in an unethical way. I was told that their only obligation was to their clients. As a general member of the public I would have to make any complaint to the Financial Ombudsman. So fluent was the response that it is clear that they have this type of complaint fairly often.

I am aggrieved that my home phone number was accessed by a private company in the ruthless pursuit of a debtor. I was misled by the company as to the nature of its operation. The last time I had an unsolicited text message informing me I had won a dream holiday I reported it to the regulator. That company was fined.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Ticking the right boxes?

Suppose you had to get some work done on your bathroom. You meet with the potential plumbers, discuss the job and get quotes. You have all the information you need, you just have to decide. Let’s say that you want to be able to explain the decision to someone else so you want to make it objective. You devise a neat table setting out the important criteria and then score the plumbers. You might have cost, track record, customer service and so on. Give them marks out of 10. You might place greater weight on cost. Whichever gets the highest overall score should get the job, right? Wrong.

The weakness of the scoring matrix approach is found in the weightings given to the criteria. These should depict the relative importance of the criteria. Unfortunately they rarely do so because they are set too early. Objectivity requires that we should not know in advance what the scores are going to be. For example, one could end up with quotations from the plumbers within a relatively narrow price range. Let’s say that the price difference is miniscule. It is a mistake to give more weight to the price than to the track record of the plumber. The risk associated with poor workmanship would outweigh the cost savings. Weightings should come after scoring. It is only then that we are in a position to judge the relative importance of the criteria – given the range under consideration.

Using a “scientific” method makes a favourable impression. It is one of the most widely used methods of decision making. It is prevalent in business and the public sector, in recruitment and supplier selection. Some organisations make it mandatory. Unfortunately, it is grossly misunderstood. As a result, faulty decisions are commonplace. The next time you wonder how an unsuitable somebody managed to get a position in your organisation do not be surprised to learn that they ticked all the right boxes. It is just that some boxes should have been more important than others.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Chess is dead, long live chess

Chess played over the board is dying in Britain. Whether it be in league games, weekend tournaments or junior competitions, there is a dearth of young players whilst there are plenty of older men playing each other. The prognosis is not good for the future of chess. It still seems popular at primary school, but by the time the children reach secondary school the enthusiasm wanes. No doubt there are plenty of other distractions, not least electronic or internet based games.
One loss is that chess is good for developing children's minds and developing confidence. They get to concentrate for several minutes at a time and to think logically. I used to teach chess to children and I found something quite extraordinary: it wasn't necessary to explain the rules to them - they all just picked it up. They would watch each other and correct each other. Hence the famous story about Capablanca who learned by watching his father at the age of four and pointed out an illegal move. I have always thought of chess as more of a language. Some people become very fluent at it.
Another loss is that chess is perfectly international. You can go anywhere in the world and find someone to play chess with. It brings people together. In the epic Fischer-Spassky World Championship in Reykjavik in 1972, during the height of the Cold War, chess was the common language of the United States of America and the Soviet Union. I suppose in the future, the game of choice will be something like Warcraft.
There are many Victorian parlour games that have disappeared. Even the board games I played as a child - Ludo, Snakes and Ladders, Monopoly, Risk, Stratego, Othello, Go - are rarely played. I get the impression that word games such as Scrabble and Boggle remain reasonably popular. Meanwhile the rise of Crosswords and Sudoku in the press gives adults, especially commuters, another avenue for intellectual challenge.
Chess will never completely disappear because of the supreme beauty of the game and the fanaticism of its adherents. It has recently become very popular in India (its birthplace) due to the success of Anand, and China is also promoting the game so at least the developing world will keep it going. It is a cheap game to play and doesn't require any batteries, unless for an electronic clock.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Opening the Economist

The TV is staring at me blankly from the corner. I have no need to be entranced by some entertainment. I've heard the same news three times. I look forward to pulling apart the plastic wrapper around the Economist and finding an intelligent article. There was one last week about evolution which I found really interesting. It raised the possibility that the outcome of evolution is narrowly constrained even if governed by random processes. Thus two quite different animals can end up looking similar over time because they inhabit identical ecological niches. Dogs and dingos. Deer and kangaroos. This is hardly a new idea, but appears to be emerging as respectable in the scientific world which otherwise is wary of anything redolent of intelligent design.

Effortless mediocrity

I like television - I like its effortless mediocrity. The internet presents more of a challenge. Laying down a memory on Facebook is helpful, but insubstantial. It's easy to post a comment or status update - but the context should be provided as well - they seem so cryptic otherwise. On the other hand, a book or novel is hard work - at least I suppose it is. The blog is the middle way. Its easy to write, but there is no expectation of any depth.

About Me

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Kingston-upon-Thames, United Kingdom
I am a barrister and work to assist people accused of serious crimes. I've had a varied career. I wrote a thesis on nuclear waste disposal; worked as corporate planner for an energy multinational; priced crude oil for Saudi Arabia; advised Denmark on gas; launched an oil trading software company in the USA; established the UK’s first electricity trading operation; advised Norway on hydro-electricity; managed the media team at PwC; analysed equities for JP Morgan; advised the European Commission on broadcasting policy; wrote a book on television in Europe; founded a strategy boutique in digital media; chaired a father’s group, speakers club and chess club; edited a community magazine and wrote a thesis on the media in China. I studied philosophy, politics and economics at Balliol College, Oxford. Subsequently I studied operational research (Lancaster), psychology (London) and law (Kingston). My ambition is to find a way to make childrens’ learning of mathematics enjoyable.