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Friday, 26 August 2011


I looked at this story this morning and knew it was significant - police officers are hardly ever jailed for anything, including manslaughter. Twelve months for letting-off a burglar is ... significant. But I couldn't quite put it together this morning. It came to me on the way home this evening.

They're scared.

When officers start shooting their men to encourage obedience, you know they're in desperate trouble. When rank and file police officers see their endemically corrupt seniors get away with gross peculation of public funds, taking lavish bungs from dodgy enterprises, rewarding themselves with bonuses that equal a constable's annual salary, consorting openly with known criminals and stumbling from one silver-braided circle jerk to another, what do you imagine happens to their commitment to risk themselves to protect the public? Senior officers are aware that they've alienated themselves from ordinary plods. So they're seeking to secure by fear the obedience they can't achieve by leadership. 

Likewise the draconian prison sentences that have crammed the jails with those guilty of the pettiest and most minor of thefts. It's fear. They're afraid. This isn't a regime secure in power and flexing its muscles; it's St Petersburg in 1917, it's Paris in 1789. In those places, the troops signaled the change by deserting; today, police officers are going off sick as though there's an epidemic about. I'll bet when the next Met sickness figures are out at least 20% of officers are now just sitting at home. Waiting.

So police bosses will use threats, bullying, intimidation and the making of examples to try to maintain discipline, but the more they try, the more they detach themselves from the rank and file plods who see their seniors' avarice and sense of entitlement for what it is. 

Thursday, 25 August 2011

COLREGS post - Timothy Spall

Apols non-nautical types, but I'm chuckling this morning as yachtmaster instructors across the country are no doubt rushing to use last night's episode of 'Timothy Spall: Back at Sea' to illustrate Rule 15. About 23 minutes in.
"Oh! Look at that! I wonder if we'll be able to cross in front of it in time ...."

"It's getting really close now. Maybe I should chicken out and go astern of it?"

The PFI numpties and the £1,500 light bulb

The slow process of the Guardianistas shedding their New Labour delusions is wondrous to observe. Now they're just waking up to the fact that PFI as operated under Labour was little more than paying the mortgage on the credit card, just a ploy by the criminally incompetent Brown to keep debt off the nation's balance sheet. It's a bit like a wife who has long lauded her husband's uxoriousness suddenly discovering he'd been keeping a mistress all the while. They're cross. But whilst they're rightly angry with Brown's deceptions, they're still not angry about the ineptitude in the public sector that still fails to understand how contractors value and cost risk - as evidenced by the number of times the £1,500 'light bulb' comes up in the comments.

This is about lamps. Or, as the papers endearingly call them, light bulbs. If you consult a Staff Nurse about her wish-list for ward maintenance she might say  " ... and I want light bulbs changed quickly, not wait for three weeks until they get around to it". Fine. So the PFI contract administrator writes a clause in the new contract that requires lamps to be replaced within 3 hours of the report call. They then include some heavy financial penalties if the PFI contractor fails to perform. Then, when the tenders come in, they're astonished to find that the cheapest tender is £1,500 a lamp. They don't understand it. They think it's simply the contractor ripping-off the NHS. Here's why it isn't;

1. If the contract doesn't specify the type of lamp, the fitting, the mounting height, the location and the constraints, I've no way of knowing whether I'm pricing for replacing a bayonet lamp in a table light (one man with a toolbox), a high-bay discharge fitting thirty feet up the wall of the A&E ambulance entrance (three men, a hydraulic platform, safety barriers) or a sterile sealed unit in an operating theatre (one man but a long time and with specialist equipment to contain dust and re-sterilise).

2. If I've got to replace it within three hours, this will require me to stock spares of every single variety of lamp used in the hospital, and there could be more than a hundred. Thus I need to cost for secure storage space and the costs of stock control and administration as well as the cost of tying up the firm's capital in stock

3. The contract doesn't limit the three hours to normal working hours and weekdays, so I have to price to recover the cost of keeping an electrician on site 24/7 and calling-in standby men and equipment if required. I do this by estimating the number of lamps in the hospital, the mean time to failure, and the estimated annual number of relampings. The annual estimated labour cost will be divided by the estimated annual number of re-lampings to give me a 'safe' cost to recover per relamping

4. I estimate that the above will allow me to fulfil the contract condition some 85% of the time. For the other 15% I will be charged a 'penalty' charge. Of course, I will calculate this and include the annual cost of it in the rate - recovering it by charging it back to the hospital over the completed jobs. 

5. On top of all this I'll add a reasonable 10% for overheads and profit. After all, that's why I'm here.

Once I've completed my little spreadsheet on the above, don't be at all surprised if the cost comes to £1,500 a lamp. What astonishes me is that NHS contract administrators still don't understand how we price and evaluate cost and risk - will they ever?

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Scotland on the road to a national police force

Scotland's inexorable drift towards a national police force continues, and stands as a grim warning to England of the way things could go here if ACPO gets its way. 

Rory Mair, Chairman of the Scottish local government convention, warned "a national force would be accountable to a single Government-appointed board. Instead of there being 1200 individuals elected locally who can have a say in the service, we’re talking about an appointed board of 20 or so souls appointed by the minister who will do that job on behalf of the whole of Scotland."

The transformation of Scotland's police from a force constituted on Peelean principles, locally based, locally governed and locally accountable, into the paramilitary wing of the Scottish State is about to happen. Be very afraid. 

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

WRAP's distortions feed bad policy

WRAP is one of the quangos I really looked forward to seeing abolished; it's founded on outright mendacity, scare tactics, creating problems where no real problems exist and ruthless self-publicity. Sadly, the muppets in Cameron's government seem deaf to the nonsense this bunch of nannying Statists are spouting. Take their latest food waste campaign. They claim that:
  • Households waste £57 a month each of food
  • Restaurants produce 600,000 tonnes a year of food waste
These claims seemed so outrageous that R4's 'Farming Today' investigated them. A BBC / Comres poll found that households estimated 'wasting' only some £10 of food a month, and of the restaurant waste, 30% is 'plate waste', i.e. what customers leave uneaten, 65% is preparation waste and only 5% is throwing-away out of date or degraded foodstuff. Thus contrary to WRAP's message, restaurant businesses are in fact closely controlling the waste-source that they should be.

Some of the spurious calculations behind WRAP's mendacity are easy; some require some knowledge of catering business planning. First, take potatoes. WRAP classifies the entire raw potato, including soil traces, eyes, black bits and the skin as 'food'. The act of peeling, washing and cleaning spuds in preparation for cooking may turn 1kg of raw potatoes into 750g. WRAP calculate this as 25% waste at £0.70/kg. However, unless you keep chickens, it's hard to see what you can do with potato peel and eyes.

Next, take a rib of beef of 5kg at £8.00/kg. This will shrink during cooking by about 25%. The inedible bone will also make up some 15% of the cooked weight. The joint will therefore yield something like 3.2kg of edible meat; no doubt WRAP would count this as 36% wasted, or £14.40 in waste. Of course you can plop the bone into the stockpot, but at the end of the day you're still going to have to throw it out.

This distortion of fact is important as WRAP claim their campaign can reduce waste to landfill and make people better-off; both are spurious and dangerous claims. For a start, waste to landfill is a government / EU created problem, not one of available capacity. Secondly, the assumption that not only benefit claimants but pensioners and those on low incomes can offset rising food prices by wasting less is utterly irresponsible.

Of course there is no need to slavishly follow 'best by' dates, but WRAP's claims and campaign goes far beyond this - they need to justify CE Liz Goodwin's salary of £194,000 and the quango's cost to taxpayers of some £79m a year. Oh, and their food waste campaign can surely have nothing to do with WRAP's commercial sales of £2.2m a year (their sole non-tax income) of home food-waste composting bins, can it?

Monday, 22 August 2011

The return of an old friend

Well, if I've strayed into TV today I might as well compound the felony by adding a little literary criticism. Abe Books have kindly reunited me with a copy of John Lodwick's 'Bid the Soldiers Shoot' - I lent my last copy out sometime in the 1980s. I first read it in my late teens, then throughout my twenties. I've skimmed through pages today as familiar to me still as though I'd read them yesterday. It's Lodwick's autobiography, and if you've the taste for Telegraph obits of men who did extraordinary things in the war, you'll love it. I also realise I've been wrongly ascribing a couple of things for a decade or more; Lazlo Lazlo, born in Baden Baden in 1919 was not a John le Carre creation but one of Lodwick's fellow Legionaires in 1940. And the Heer General Order about sugar rations to balloonists issued as the Reich crumbled came not from Alan Moorehead but in a sheaf of paper given to this by-now SOE officer as bum-wipe when captured and whilst imprisoned by the Germans in Greece. The book is woven with a mixture of dry humour and pathos, and Lodwick's insights are frequently both startling and relevant today. I'll be coming back to one or two. But just to give you a flavour of the particular sangfroid and style of the thing, let me quote the following:
There was a girl in this prison. We first noticed her as she entered it. Dressed in black, she was sweeping the garden path.She could not have been more than twenty, and in fact was eighteen, as I learnt next day when, during the siesta hour, she came and pressed a bruised mouth and her black eye against the four-inch square in the door of my cell. She spoke French quite well.
'I am not what you think'
'We don't think anything'
'They killed my boy, and then they brought me here'
'All right, All right, and now they've brought us here too.'
Poor creature! The most suspicious of fools could have seen that she was speaking almost half the truth. The facts as I learned them later from the Feldwebel were not essentially different. He was, himself, essentially a virtuous man, a veteran of the First World War, who had passed the last year of it as a prisoner in England, and he was very ashamed of himself. Indeed, sometimes at night when the girl had cuckolded him with one of his subordinates, he would come into my cell, sit down on the bed and tell me about it:
'She worked in a big cafe. There was nothing wrong with her then, but there was something very wrong with her young man. Not us, but the Gestapo came to know about this, so they told her that he would be safe if she agreed to report on other people who sometimes used that cafe. Have some Raki?
'No, Chef, allow me to offer you some of my own' and I would pull the water bottle from beneath the bed. He made no comment.
'She reported on several men with the result that quite a number of them who were supplying Andartes in the mountains were arrested. So, of course, was her own young man. That is why she is here. She would not live half an hour outside these walls.'
'Can't you take her with you?' I asked him.
'What? Through Macedonia, through Serbia, Slovenia, to Austria in a cattle truck with hundreds of soldiers?' He looked at me and seldom have I seen a man so mortally struck by remorse. 'She will have to take her chance' he said.
'In that case' I answered , 'it would be better for you to give her the chance, painlessly, behind the ear, now. With the Greeks, it won't be so brief. Anyway, why can't you get her out before you?'
To that last question he made no answer, nor was any answer required. He was a family man, with six children, well considered, eminently respectable. He could not therefore ask a favour of that nature of his superiors. What, after all, did the certain death of one impressed whore matter when compared with those of the thousands who must die by bomb, by aerial rocket power, by machine gun, by partisan attack on the long and twisting road back to the Fatherland?
We received the answer to that question almost nightly, for the Feldwebel, having proved unable to substantiate his claim to a monopoly, was cast aside by the now reckless girl, and on more than one evening, when the lamp glowed a dim blue in the corridor, I saw her running past my cell in her underclothes, hotly pursued by one or other of the German private soldiers.
I hope she was killed pleasantly. That she was in fact killed is almost certain because her captors departed with us eventually, closing the garden gate carefully for her protection. She stood in the cabbage patch, and watched us leave.

BBC's prime turkey

You know a BBC TV show is in trouble when they start running plugs for it on R4. So it has been with the biggest broadcasting turkey for many years - the dreadful 'The Hour'. Yes, I watched almost an entire episode and that's 35 minutes I'll never get back. This isn't a TV review blog, but there's a more general point here. 

The Indie gets the scriptwriter to admit that 'some lines haven't worked' but it's far worse than that. Neither the writer, the director or the cast seem to have any notion at all of what the 1950s were like. It's not just spoken language that's rubbish, it's body language, deference, social behaviour and crap casting. It's not even as if there isn't evidence about of how people inter-related in the '50s; there's a wealth of British films that portray exactly how women sat, how they stood, how they held themselves during social intercourse. It's uniquely the sheer arrogance and culture of waste at the BBC that could dismiss all this and have a 1950s female character do the equivalent of putting her feet up on the train seats and tuning her Walkman.  

I have to put it down to historical ignorance on the part of writer, director and actors rather than wilful stupidity. But how can they have so comprehensively lost any notion of what Britain was like just 50 or 60 years ago? Women didn't fling themselves about because replacement knicker elastic was still scarce. There weren't any deodorants or dry cleaners. Unmarried journalists lived in lodgings, not apartments. The pill hadn't been invented and condoms were washable and reusable. Men had just survived fighting a war and buried sights and memories of unimaginable horror beneath a veneer of formal and correct behaviour. It was cold. Wine was unobtainable and Lard and Spam formed a major part of the diet. Dental care and hygiene were primitive. People sat in front of a one bar electric fire or 'Aladdin' paraffin heater in their overcoats in the evening and read while they listened to the wireless. They wrote letters. If they needed to make a phone call they had to walk down the street and join the queue at the phone box. All of this is missing from a production that's essentially set in the 1990s but played in period costume. 

The general point is that we have spawned a generation that simply has no idea whatsover of what living in a time of real austerity is like. By God, they've got a shock coming. 

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Riot predicting formula?

Just catching up with recent Building Design articles I came across this intriguing comment to an architecture-heartsearch piece on the recent riots;
without wishing to appear trite or contrary might I point to research by Baron and Ransberger, conducted into 102 riots in the United States of America in the four years between 1967 and 1971, that concluded the frequency of violence and ambient temperature are curvilinearly related, evidence strongly suggested that the conditional probability of a riot increases monotonically with temperature. Whilst not attempting to devalue the argument for proper care in the design of modern cities, which is, of course, fundamentally important in the nurturing of human society, I might draw attention to the dissipation of violent activity with the arrival of rain. I had experience ( as a press photographer ) of the Toxteth, Moss Side and Brixton unrest of the early '80's without exception conditions were perfect to be out late in the evening. This is not to downplay the terrible difficulties and constraints we face as a society, but is offered only as a rational, scientific, context in which to consider human behaviour. Sometimes conditions are just right for fighting. I also had the misfortune to be in Cairo for the fall of Mubarak this January, my experience of that unrest and the difficulties we endured in Hackney are quite different. Timothy Soar. Architectural Photographer. Hackney Wick. London.
Given locational evidence that riots also tend to happen in areas with an Index of Multiple Deprivation above a certain level, and in areas lacking a coherent local identity - a strong sense of 'place'  and 'belonging' - can this lead us to a Probability formula in the form of 
P(R) = (t) +(p) + (d) +(pl)
Where R is Riot, t is temperature, p is precipitation, d is deprivation and pl is a sense of place?

And for 10 marks, which of the four factors is the easiest to alter? 

Hugh Orde's fantasy uniform

The Mail gives full coverage of Hugh Orde's fantasy uniform - with 'made up plastic badge' - one which he has no right in law to wear, and which should earn him a disciplinary from the Police Service of Northern Ireland for breach of their uniform regulations. Below on the right is how Orde has been appearing in public in the run-up to submitting his job application to the Met. On the left is how he should be dressed.

ACPO's weasel response to the Mail - "The president of ACPO wears the uniform of a Chief Constable because they hold that rank in law" - does not accurately reflect the requirements of s.96 of the Police Reform Act 2002:-
If a person who holds the office of constable becomes the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, he shall, while he is the president of that Association—
(a) Continue to hold the office of constable; and
(b) hold that office with the rank of Chief Constable (my underlining)
In other words, Orde remains a constable in the PSNI with the rank of Chief Constable and is subject to that force's uniform regulations. 

It may seem a minor point, but consider that if the man can't resist this fantasy dressing-up when just a candidate for Met Commissioner, what Ruritanian uniform embellishments will he be unable to resist if appointed? London could be the laughing-stock of the world with a Commissioner dressed like Idi Amin ...