mtbc: maze E (black-cyan)
Yesterday on the radio I heard Louise Richardson, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, defending her handsome salary, making the point that competition for vice-chancellors occurs in a global marketplace and she would be paid rather more in the US. This morning, somewhat in response, we had Jo Johnson MP, the Minister for Universities and Science, defending funding arrangements for universities. Now I receive an broadcast e-mail from the Vice-Chancellor here, the University of Dundee, expressing pleasure at our being shortlisted as University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards which I would guess helps to validate his salary.

I was lucky to be born early enough that my own university education in England was paid for rather more by grant than by student loans and what loan I did have had a low interest rate. Now England has moved to a system that is dominated by loans at a higher interest rate. Especially, as a student I had the sense that the taxpayer, not me, was paying for my education and that probably affected my attitude to it.

One concern I have is the idea of having to pay competitive market rates for university staff. It may be a mistake to consider money as the principal attractor to positions in English public universities. )

Another concern I have is the change in mindset that comes from students feeling that they are paying for their own education. Pleasing the student customers is not the same as requiring worthwhile academic success of them. )
mtbc: maze N (blue-white)
Housing is very expensive in the UK; we still rent because incurring debt many times my annual income alarms me. Perhaps inequality keeps many from becoming homeowners. )

Some parts of the country cannot easily support many more people: anybody trying to commute into London other than by air can testify to that. If more houses need be built elsewhere then I am inclined to support the creation of more cities with mixed-use neighborhoods. )

In contrast to the design of Milton Keynes I would like Britain to depend less on cars, in part for environmental and safety reasons. Sufficiently dense cities make it entirely workable to depend on foot, bicycle or public transport for most journeys and on car clubs and rental agencies for obtaining an appropriate car for one's occasional true need. Government can help to make this viable: for example, in regulating car insurance. )

Many other social changes are needed to enable less car travel. For instance, in not always having to visit doctors, colleges and workplaces in person. )

Trying to reduce travel and increase telepresence raises the specter of globalization: competing in a worldwide labor market. I suspect that there is some inevitability here that is best faced. Nonetheless, with the general liberalization of international trade, such agreements remind me that I favor significantly shortening the duration of intellectual property protections. )

I think that these seven recent entries on my political views have now covered a good range of policy areas. It may have been useful for me to articulate these opinions publicly, at least to throw more light on my other entries on politics, but I do not claim that these views are all sincerely held and well-justified. I am used to differing with friends and sometimes being wrong.
mtbc: maze N (blue-white)
Considering that I am fairly progressive in some respects, I am perhaps unusually conservative when it comes to the Palace of Westminster. People often observe that a government may enjoy a significant majority with but a minority of the popular vote but that may not be so bad. )

I do consider it a significant problem that many people may consider that their vote counts for less. Some elections may not seem worth voting in. )

I am against encouraging absentee voting. People who actually turn up to vote are more likely to have also bothered to find out something about the candidates and parties. When people vote in person the secrecy of their ballots is more greatly assured and the incidence of voter fraud very low. Encouraging in-person voting does require making it easy. )

I wonder about reform of the House of Lords. I like the idea of it retaining some power to counterbalance immoderate populism from the House of Commons. From that point of view, inasmuch as the House of Lords is unrepresentative then I like the idea of its members tending to be educated and conservative: they tend to detect and retard extreme legislation while still supporting progress like the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. I also like that they have much freedom to vote according to conscience. )

I am open to that the House of Lords may do its job at least as well through being selected very differently. For example, from aggregating the votes for members of the House of Commons we know how the nationwide popular vote stands and I wonder if it may be best to somehow select new members of the House of Lords so as to more proportionally balance the legislature in accordance with that vote.
mtbc: maze N (blue-white)
I have mentioned being doubtful about independence referendums; this entry probably merely summarizes previous ones. The Scottish National Party's portrait of an independent thriving Scotland in which little changes in terms of the relationship with the rest of the UK sounded most unlikely. There may be some more plausible story whereby Scotland leaves the UK, adopts its own currency that falls enough to make remote services like call centers by skilled English-speaking staff a useful kind of export, but with an aging population and finite oil the SNP's story seemed to me like a short-sighted pipedream and I feel that Scotland has enough in common with the rest of the UK that breaking away would be an overreaction.

The UK's breaking from the European Union I am less clear on. I like the idea of the EU and I often appreciate regulations that it imposes upon the UK: I think those laws, for example on food quality or how corporations may use our personal data, are a good idea and I greatly doubt that a wholly independent UK would have acted similarly. More personally, it is sad to see EU citizens feeling unwelcome and leaving the UK as I think we benefit both economically and culturally from their being with us.

However, I do agree that there is a democratic deficit wherein cloth-eared EU governance overestimates its own competence: at least those who lead the decision-making are more arrogant than they are correct. Brexit may harm the UK but perhaps it can help push the EU to improve. )

Even excepting the UK, national or regional politics too greatly affect EU governance. I hope that at least the core of the EU can find its way toward something more like the US where there is more central willingness to redistribute funds among the states by need, becoming more cohesive while still offering diversity. )
mtbc: maze N (blue-white)
Controversial though it is, I am in favor of Trident, the UK's submarine-based nuclear deterrent. Perhaps I am colored by my years of working for the US Department of Defense because I am in favor of military spending in general, though perhaps of a more Iranian-style self-sufficient form. I do not trust alliances to last and I expect climate change and other coming stresses to make it a bad idea to reduce military capability. )

I consider disarmament a fantasy: nobody will be giving up their nuclear weapons. ) This is one reason why I favor space exploration: it may be imprudent for our species to rely on advanced civilization being sustainable on Earth.

Trident is expensive and in general I am in favor of self-sufficiency not only for strategic reasons but to help retain money and expertise within the national economy. As with the American focus on dual-use technologies, perhaps benefits to related industries can make self-sufficiency affordable. ) Further, I fear that austerity in UK military spending may unconscionably underresource the armed forces given that so much is and may need to be asked of them.

I have little idea how well these supposed indirect benefits would appreciably assist the domestic economy. I would hope that they go quite some way because I am largely against selling weapons systems to other countries. )

In terms of dual-use technologies, while renewable energy is to be encouraged, certainly more than the present Conservative government has, my guess is that the UK needs nuclear power for decades yet. That is another reason to develop domestic capability in nuclear engineering. I thus object to the Hinkley Point C project in which foreign businesses play key roles in the domestic construction of a nuclear power plant of a rather old design.
mtbc: maze N (blue-white)
I have my doubts about the typical status of corporations. Glossing over the difference between civil and criminal offenses, it unnerves me to protect people from being fully punished for their bad acts. Sure, perhaps most employees and owners ought not be jointly liable. However, often some of them should. )

People also come together via marriage to form another kind of entity which again can receive various favorable tax benefits, which often has some legal notion of community property within it, joint liability for debt, etc., though to various degrees and with varying flexibility depending on the jurisdiction. My inclination is to regard the spiritual and emotional dimensions of marriage as being outside the law: let the churches or others have whatever unofficial ceremonies they like for whomever they like, even call it marriage, leaving the less-loaded civil partnership term for the legal state wherein by mutual agreement people become next of kin, somewhat able to act on each other's behalf and jointly face the consequences, be considered together for means testing, etc.

I do not see any particular reason to limit this legal change of status, what I am calling civil partnership, by sex or even group size. Worrying cases may be few. )

Of course, how things now seem to have settled is that same-sex marriage is becoming another kind of marriage but among only two people, which at least makes many happy; those wanting recognized polygamy must yet wait. )

Speculating wildly: If I am thinking that the corporate veil ought not to have such great power and that the legal side of marriage could be generalized then I wonder if I can workably stretch corporations and marriage enough to become technically the same in law. For example, with the above visa issue, in some circumstances corporations can apply for visas for employees given evidence of adequate support and similar; workers on H-1B visas are permitted even intent to immigrate.
mtbc: maze N (blue-white)
I generally buy the modern variety of Keynesian economics that allows for stimulus spending when wages are stagnant and many prime-age workers are unemployed or underemployed. A poor economy causes real present suffering and inflicts long-term damage: better to incur the debt now and have tax revenues rise sooner for paying it off. Conversely, when the economy is doing well, the national debt must be aggressively paid down.

Generous welfare benefits fit well for stimulus spending: those who receive them tend to spend the money to help keep others in jobs. While the goverment can incur long-term debt cheaply, economic downturns are also an excellent time for infrastructure investment, anything that is of lasting benefit such as education, transportation and communications. In the service of keeping the economy moving, I am fine with a few percentage points of inflation, focusing specifically on the non-commodity items: if oil is more expensive but wages are not rising then I doubt we are about to turn into the Weimar Republic.

More speculatively, I am all for trying to keep things simple. For instance, I wonder if it would be practical to tax investment and employment income the same and, rather than means-testing benefits and fussing about percentage increases, simply give everybody a sufficient universal basic income as the Finns have been trying, especially if government also guarantees the provision of affordable basic food and shelter for those who ask. If neither the food nor shelter are generously lovely then I suspect that both the US and the UK are wealthy enough to meet citizens' basic needs, the real problems being challenges like mental health provision that require well-qualified staff. These thoughts feel to me like I am moving too far into foolish amateurism, like when I play an unusual chess opening and in the coming moves my opponent then illustrates that my opening is unusual because it is a bad idea.
mtbc: maze N (blue-white)
Following the elections in recent times I thought it a good time to summarize my own politics. I do not pretend that everything is thought-through and defensible; I freely admit that what follows includes much instinctive leaning. I thus do not suggest that others should think as I. Expressing my opinions here explicitly leaves them usefully open to constructive disagreement (or helping you decide not to read after all).

On the topic of disagreement, there is so much of it that many of us must be very wrong for at least some of the time. Especially, when referencing kinds of people in political judgments I think it important to engage with them: it is far better to mix with people than to make confident assertions about those one does not even know. Exposure to sincerely held contrary views also helps to hone one's critical thinking skills.

Encouraging engagement with others has policy implications. I do not want different communities to live and go to school separately. )

Integration neatly segues to immigration. Whether via a points-based system or otherwise I generally think the immigration of skilled workers to be good both financially and culturally. )

On the other hand, while I favor permissive immigration rules, my welcome quickly wanes when those rules are violated. When people break the rules then they ought not express surprise at the consequences. )

As for people being able to follow their own culture and religion, I largely do not care what they do in private or within view of others but not everybody thinks as they: ) finding one's place in society involves compromise on both sides.

I recognize that there is some tension between my respect of citizenship and immigration boundaries and my generally welcoming foreign people and cultures. This is likely to come up again when I summarize my thoughts on other topics and may reveal inconsistent thinking. However, the above is already quite enough for one journal entry.
mtbc: maze N (blue-white)
Following on from my recent journal entry about increased divisions between Republicans and Democrats I continued investigating and stumbled upon discussion of Edward Luce's The Retreat of Western Liberalism. One of many things I enjoyed about living in the US is well-stocked libraries but since returning to Britain I am back to being surprised if the local library does stock a book rather than if it does not. I certainly do not have the money to be buying them myself: the book I read on the airplane back from Ontario was a creased, yellowed paperback that I had picked up in a charity shop. (An annoying thing about book clubs is that they typically choose recent books available only as new hardbacks rather than used paperbacks.) I have four library systems within reach: our local one in Perth and Kinross, the Dundee city one with branches within an easy walk of work, then the Angus one to the north-east and the Kingdom of Fife's south of the Firth of Tay: none of them appear to offer Luce's book.

Now I hear of Jon Snow (not of Westeros, but available on YouTube nonetheless), in delivering yesterday's James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture in Edinburgh, speaking of an increasingly fractured Britain and a terrible divide as one can easily be disconnected from the lives of others; he also spoke of fake news stories (i.e. lies) posing a vast threat to democracy. I do not think that here in Britain we yet have such a deep division among mainstream sources of news but it is nonetheless interesting to compare these local themes with my thoughts on American politics and there may be lessons to be learned.
mtbc: maze N (blue-white)
Even beyond the current administration there appear to be various objective indications that over recent decades the American populace has become increasingly divided politically, especially in terms of negative opinions of the other party, and Congress has similarly become very partisan. There are plausible theories about what happened and why: increasingly gerrymandered districts increasing the significance of primaries, distortions due to large campaign donations, the segmentation of news media markets, etc. It is frustrating living outside the US for a while and not now seeing much first-hand; my decade in Ohio was much more illuminating.

I wonder about the future: how stable the current strong divide is, how it improves or worsens. I do not see how it improves while people favor their echo chambers' demonization over constructive outreach; I cannot help but be thus reminded of Ozymandias' plan in Watchmen. I also do not see that it can get much worse although history does offer various examples of unpleasant social shifts that are both severe and surprising. Demography may favor the liberal progressives in the medium term but it is not as if conservatism has a monopoly on the narrow-minded.

It is not clear to me what will happen over coming years nor how. It may all be in the hands of a few, such as the Supreme Court, or perhaps the small acts of enough appalled individuals can still change the flow of the tides though I wonder how difficult it is to know which actions cause more good than harm. I have no more intuition on that last point beyond a vague, even trite, inclination toward substantively engaging with others, about concrete issues rather than abstract principles, while being slow to think ill of them.
mtbc: maze N (blue-white)
In recent times nationalism seems to have been synonymous with an authoritarian xenophobia but I was looking at flags and wondering if there is also a good side. In wandering central Michigan I see the American flag flown from everywhere from baseball fields to highway-side truck scales. I had previously observed that in the US I more strongly feel a pervasive sense of where I am. One example might be that, rather than having A roads and B roads and whatnot, there are US routes and state routes (named for each state: Ohio, Michigan, whatever), with the location thus being part of the name. It occurred to me that the flags might also relate to that strong sense of locality, whether as cause or effect, and that they may foster a positive sense of community in which those flags remind people that in some sense these sites are all communal assets. The baseball field and whatnot certainly seemed to be in good repair.
mtbc: maze N (blue-white)
I have been curious about the debate over the post-Brexit land border between the UK and Ireland. If Ireland is in the EU and the UK is controlling immigration from the EU and is outside the single market then I do not see how one can avoid having border controls. I am reminded of the Scottish independence campaign where the SNP included among their implausible claims that they could define a separate immigration policy for Scotland yet retain an open border with England.

I guess I can see that Northern Ireland could allow less reliable immigration control than mainland Britain; there could be another series of checks for entering the rest of the UK. Perhaps there could even be some special way to distinguish goods for customs so that containers can transit from Ireland through the UK to mainland Europe without having left the EU in any strong sense.

Still, for any meaningful Brexit how travel and commerce between Ireland and the UK could avoid being impeded I find it hard to imagine, however anxious Ireland might be for routine intercourse to remain unchanged. I wonder what realistic solution the EU would accept.
mtbc: maze N (blue-white)
From my distant view as an outsider it seems that nationalist, authoritarian forces appear to hold sway in Poland. There are enough emigrants from Poland in Britain and perhaps elsewhere that I wondered if Polish domestic politics somewhat disproportionately reflects the kind of Pole who does not tend to emigrate. I would guess that our British Poles may still vote but perhaps it is more inconvenient for them to do so from afar; indeed, perhaps some feel less morally inclined to if they have become distant from their country of origin. Especially in the case of British citizens it is rather more awkward to register as an overseas voter than as a domestic one. If a few percent of Poles live outside their native country then such a difference may well have some significant effect on Polish politics, though perhaps not enough to have much changed the outcome of their latest parliamentary election.
mtbc: maze N (blue-white)
I like to choose what I share with others. When I do share, I typically share openly. )

I do however instinctively value my ability to act privately: I have liked being able to do so. )

From a computer security point of view, I expect even a government-held database that contains much significant information, to leak like a colander. )

The targeted advertising folks have been making great strides in privacy-breaking technology. People who think that incognito browser windows stop Google knowing what pornography they like are deluding themselves. The ultrasonic signals embedded in commercial advertising were a surprise even to me.

I have a good knowledge of how computers work and I routinely adopt some security measures but even I cannot easily secure my data with confidence. )

Further, if I want to act in the real world then what I do leaves so many small traces: financial, shipping and logistics, etc. Even without the subsequent work from the well-funded targeted advertising community, I know from my own previous work in the defense industry that bulk assembly of those disparate observations into coherent narrative is plausible, at least enough that its value would outweigh its fallibility.

It is not that I have anything to hide so much as even innocent people are easily made to look bad. )

With the combined forces of private profit in characterizing consumers and the public political need to be seen to be countering terrorism, personal privacy may become a thing of the past. )

We have motive on multiple fronts to penetrate individual privacy, ongoing progress in technological means of doing so, increasing acceptance of sharing one's data, and a social and intellectual climate that got Donald Trump elected President against even my pessimistic expectations. What could possibly go wrong?

I do not need to act covertly but I always drew comfort from knowing that I probably could if necessary and that my business was mostly nobody else's. Further, I do not want to enable what I see as organizations' immoral beliefs about my own privacy. Now I wonder if I will find myself wistfully looking back to a time when I did not have to carefully consider the possible optics of my every move.
mtbc: maze D (yellow-black)
On the way into work this morning I again waited at a traffic signal that protects a pit in one lane of a two-lane road. There is usually no activity around this hole in the road and whatever work is being done there by Scottish Water appears to be taking them many days.

I wonder what it costs utility companies to block roads. I imagine that the city council charge them more, the longer the work takes, but how much? I am reminded of living in Massachusetts. There, the police union seems to have wangled some neat deal to get officers paid plenty for watching traffic around road construction. Whatever I think of that, I wonder if the ongoing expense is a sufficiently non-trivial fraction of the project cost to help hurry the work along.
mtbc: maze L (green-white)
I am noticing how attractive I find the idea of subscribing to some coherent ideology. That I have not done so may be much more due to an inability to accept such a belief system rather than my reluctance to. The idea of being persuaded of some unambiguous meaning in life, some goal that tells me what to do and what is worth it to get there, especially if somebody else has already done the hard thinking for me and provided like-minded comrades, is very appealing. In this year's elections I had to again research parties and manifestoes and candidates not because I am proudly independent but just because I have a hard time buying others' thinking, certainly as a complex package. I already knew that I am persistently doubtful about everything from theism to capitalism but I do not think that I had properly noticed how much I would have liked more certainty about fundamental beliefs.

A nice thing about having children is that I find I can draw some confidence in action from that I want to serve their interests. That feeling may be an irrational product of natural selection but at least it is guidance that I actually feel able to buy into.
mtbc: maze D (yellow-black)
Many American states have the notion of secondary traffic offenses: the police may not pull one over for committing them but if stopped for some primary reason, like speeding, then secondary charges may follow. It depends on the state but secondary offenses are acts such as using a cellphone or not wearing a seatbelt.

I find the concept bizarre. I don't know if the theory is that being pulled over constitutes some kind of seizure under the Fourth Amendment or if the legislature really did not want to pass, say, a seatbelt law so making it difficult to enforce was the only way to get enough votes at all, or what. I am curious to know what the thinking really is and the degree to which it makes sense. I am not aware of an analog in English or Scottish road traffic law.
mtbc: maze H (magenta-black)
In The West Wing (1999) the senior White House staffers chronically work very long hours. How does this make sense? Is it good for their cognition to be ongoingly compromised? Can there not be enough staff to take on the workload? Perhaps the problem is that they would not be able to leave notes for each other or that they do not have enough room to put all the people or something. It does seem as if there has to be a more effective way for them to work. Maybe we are supposed to believe that they are so superlatively good at their jobs that even half-asleep they outperform some next-best people who might instead be on duty to catch some acute situation.
mtbc: maze C (black-yellow)
In the School of Life Sciences where I work we produce systems like the Image Data Resource which is full of strange pretty pictures acquired from expensive microscopes and used to justify scientific conclusions. There is also some initial proof-of-principle code for reproducing analyses via the IDR Jupyter Hub. OMERO.figure is also rather neat: turn the raw image files acquired from the microscope into figures ready for Adobe Illustrator to put into your paper; information in the figures like timepoints, scalebars, etc. is derived from the metadata encoded by the microscope as it acquired the images.

Modern academic life is highly competitive and journals are far more keen to publish interesting new discoveries, however lucky, so there is great career pressure report the right kinds of findings. Further, many of them turn out to be difficult to impossible to reproduce. Even despite this, my impression is that the kind of research misconduct I have in mind is, at its core, well-intentioned: the results may be a little doctored, or an unusually significant subsample, or whatever, but the researcher does generally believe the hypothesis that they are trying to prove, they are just exaggerating the evidence for it.

I figure that our work stuff might be useful if it helps to encourage a culture of sharing all the raw data and the procedures by which it was analyzed. But, I wonder if this papers over a more fundamental problem: that the people generating the hypotheses are also those testing them. I am amused to be thinking of this as a conflict of interest.

I can see why it happens. The people who have the idea are probably the more enthusiastic about testing it. Maybe not many labs are used to working with those cell lines or protocols or whatever at all so it is not like any lab could just pick up the work. And, even if we had a system where the people who generate hypotheses are separate from those who test them, one can see that there is still scope for mutual back-scratching and the like. One can imagine the specifics of the experimental design would be something of a negotiation between the hypothesizer and the tester.

So, I am not saying that even this pipedream idea of having researchers' hypotheses tested by third parties is a good one even if it were workable. But, I do wonder if there is some related but realistic way in which scientific research could be restructured to make it more trustworthy.
mtbc: maze I (white-red)
An aspect of European Union membership that I greatly value is their focus on personal data privacy. This has similarly attracted me to the UK's Liberal Democrat party but rather less so: given how very little they bother to mention it in campaigning I would guess that they may not care as much.

I have been struck by how poor the BBC's choice is to soon make login compulsory for viewing content online. I have already mentioned how I would be fine with providing my television license number and how I do not want them to attempt to personalize their content for me. The compulsory login indeed relates to personalization: they want age, gender, postcode. In practice this is not yet a great burden to me because nothing in the process prevents me from simply lying for every login; I am a fan of services like BugMeNot. While the BBC do retain these personal details, their corresponding log of viewing history is indexed via some anonymized viewer identity code.

One facet of this that disappoints me is the BBC's naïveté. Their news archives now carry many years of history of very sensitive databases leaking from various organizations whose data security would have been expected to be good. If there are databases of everybody's details and television viewing habits being held by a well-known organization whose funding is often under political challenge then it will very plausibly leak regardless of prior public assurances made by ill-informed representatives. This risk is not so clearly worth the benefit that it ought to be imposed on all.

I am also intrigued by a contrast in attitudes between the US and the UK regarding how governments and corporations should handle personal privacy. Generally businesses are far more restricted in the UK than the US with regard to collecting, using and sharing our data, though perhaps only because of the EU. However, in the US the government is trusted far less: for example, it would be entirely normal for an American local library to not record my borrowing history but locally I am not even permitted to opt out of such.


mtbc: photograph of me (Default)
Mark T. B. Carroll

September 2017

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