December 2006

22 December 2006
The NHS Supercomputer

Wat Tyler looks at the NHS Supercomputer:

We’ve blogged the disastrous NHS supercomputer so often, it hurts (start here). And by now we all know the grisly numbers- £6bn originally declared, now officially £12bn (except for Health Minister Lord Warner who blurted out £20 bn), and anything up to £50bn actually predicted by industry insiders.

Sounds like yet another NHS horror story.  If we’re lucky it’ll just be cancelled.  If we’re very, very lucky.

20 December 2006
Brian Micklethwait and Leon Leow produce an excellent podcast

I have just finished listening to Brian Micklethwait’s podcast with Leon Leow.  A bit late in the day, admittedly - it was recorded about a month ago - but none the worse for that.  Actually, it’s rather better than that.  It’s really very good.  The centre of their discussion is Leow’s research into what makes countries rich and what makes them poor.  Make that statistical research.  What is interesting is that Leow sticks to the statistics even when it leads to conclusions he would normally disagree with.

The big one is tax.  Tax rates have no effect on prosperity. Bad news for me.  But that’s OK.  It only removes one of the props of my argument.  But, still, interesting.

The other big surprise (sort of) is education.  Now, while I am against state education I am by no means against education as such.  But it turns out that it either (I can’t quite remember what he said) doesn’t matter or actually makes you poorer.

A nice surprise was that race makes no difference.

The biggest factor in prosperity is the rule of law.  Get that right and you should be OK.  That was no surprise to me at all but it’s always nice to hear.

One of the amusing parts of the discussion was the way Leow managed to keep his temper in the face of Brian’s frequent enthusiastic interruptions.  London libertarians are used to the idea that Brian’s Brain runs considerably faster than his mouth (which itself runs quite fast enough) but it can be quite disconcerting at first.  So congratulations to Leon.

Update Oh crap, I’ve spent Louw wrong the whole way through.

Is the Tim Worstall who blogs here the same as the Tim Worstall who blogs here? I think we should be told.

How to make cocaine

If nothing else it goes a long way to explaining the price of oil.  (Hat-tip - I jest not - The Magistrate)

13 December 2006
Pinochet again

One of the good things about someone dying is that you get to hear all sides of the debate.  I can’t say this has changed my view of the guy but it has clarified it:

  • He was right to launch the coup
  • He was right to champion free market policies
  • He was wrong to torture and kill unarmed opponents

The trick is to avoid falling into the trap of backing everything he did just because you agree with some of what he did.

Having said that - and this is mostly an intellectual exercise - is it possible to justify the torture and murder? Well, put as starkly as that, obviously not.  But is it possible that this was a package deal: that Pinochet could not have launched the coup in the first place had he not had the support of some pretty unsavoury characters ie, people who got a kick out of torture and murder?

12 December 2006
Although it is not all about the problems of the NHS, Brit Meds (a sort of Britblog roundup for the medical profession) makes for depressing reading nevertheless. I think it makes a pretty good addition to my list of NHS horror stories because it gives such a good snapshot.

Why do people want to believe conspiracy theories?

Saturday I read about the theory that Litvinenko was killed by his own side.  Sunday I watch a BBC documentary on the Diana conspiracy.  Monday, I hear that a man has been denied entry to Iran for Holocaust denial denial.

Why do people believe this stuff?  More to the point, why do they want to?  Is it because they want to be initiated into some sort of secret society - those who know the truth - and thus feel special?  Is it because they distrust their governments?  This worries me because they simultaneously believe their governments to be all-powerful.

Is it just sheer boredom with being rich? a desire to smash up the system that underpins prosperity so that something more “interesting” can come along.

Is it because people have read too many Agatha Christie novels and got used to the idea that the answer is not the easy and obvious one right in front of your face?

I probably shouldn’t let it bother me - it’s just that I have an uneasy feeling about it.

11 December 2006
Of course the Russians did it

“Alex Deane - formerly Chief of Staff to David Cameron…” is a not a good introduction to any article but his rant at dinner party tittle-tattle on the Litvinenko affair rewards persistence:

Then there’s the fatuous - “we can’t be sure the Russians did it”. You think someone else, with no motive but framing the Russians, got some dedicated agents, got hold of this stuff and then, rather than taking up the career in world class chemistry that beckoned to them, smuggled it into the UK to kill someone who was… erm… one of the best attackers of the regime they must clearly hate if they wanted to do down Russia..?

Indeed.  Not that that’s the end of the affair:


Worst of all the responses so far, there’s the pseudo-diplomat doing real politique at the dinner table - “Ah, but the Russians have all the oil - we can’t mess with them”.

To which I suppose the response should be: “We have all the money - they can’t mess with us.”

Read the whole thing, as they say.

08 December 2006
You are Pinochet
Pinochet (seated).  Definitely not a PR man’s dream.

What with the death of Milton Friedman and his own health problems, Augusto Pinochet has got the odd name check in the last couple of weeks.

[Just as an aside - why is it that the media persist in getting the guy’s name wrong?  It is Pee-no-chet, not Pin-no-shay.]

Anyway, what name checks he’s got have tended to be rather negative.  But should they be?  Put yourself in his shoes in mid-1973.  This, as I understand it, is the situation: 

  • the president is a communist.
  • the economy is falling apart.
  • your predecessor has been fired.
  • there are stories of clandestine arms shipments from Cuba.
  • Congress has declared Allende’s rule as unconstitutional.

In other words, it looks awfully like the end of not just democracy but of freedom itself.  Under those circumstances don’t you have to act?  Sure, the outcome may be far from a libertarian paradise but it’s going to be a damn sight better than the alternative.

Update 11/12/06 He’s dead now.  Paul Marks has similar opinions to my own - just better informed ones.

06 December 2006
How to avoid rows

We (libertarians) have all been there.  Someone you know says something stupid, you pick them up and before you know it you’re in a shouting match.  Now, you could just keep your counsel but that lets the argument go by default.  And as Brian Micklethwait pointed out if you want to win the argument, first you have to have it.  So, how do you stick to your guns without losing all your friends?

Here are a couple of approaches I try to take. Ask:

1.  “What makes you think that?”
2.  “What would change your mind?”

Question 1 is a goody because if repeated often enough it quickly exposes the weaknesses in your opponent’s argument without exposing the weaknesses in your own (not, of course, that there are any).  Unfortunately, you don’t usually get that far - people have annoying habit of changing the subject but you can at least point this out to them.

Question 2 determines if they can change their mind.  Because if they say “Nothing” you know it’s a faith and you can have some fun pointing that out to them.  However, it is not without it’s dangers.  You do have to apply it to yourself from time to time which can be an uncomfortable discipline.

Of course, in all these arguments you have to bear in mind that political beliefs are strongly held and rarely changed.  And that people rarely change their minds unless they want to have them changed.  All you can really ever do is plant some seeds of doubt.

Smoke and mirrors

I was watching BBC Breakfast, I know, big mistake.  There was an item on healthy school dinners or, at least, what the government thinks represents healthy school dinners.  Now, I switched on too late to see the start but the gist was that here was a school that had contracted out its catering (golly would you believe that I proposed the very own thing to my own school some 2x years ago - precocious or what?) The outcome (according to the pupils interviewed) was much better choice and quality, the implication being that here was a scheme that could be rolled out to the rest of the country.

Hmm.  The assumptions were that:

  • safety/being healthy is the only thing - they aren’t
  • the government knows what is healthy
  • the pupils were being entirely straight and honest.
  • the government could roll this out to other schools around the country

I think I disagree with them all.


So, lying, dissembling 16-year olds?
You’ve kind of answered your own question.  Plus the desire to get on the telly (best to say what the nice TV people want to hear).  Plus the desire not to piss off the head teacher in exam year.  Plus, the sort of feeling that most us labour under: “I know I ought to eat lettuce but I want to eat Mars Bars.”  - the difference between what we say and what we do.

And rolling it out?
The more I watched the more I was reminded of those Potemkin villages where everything was wonderful which Eastern Bloc countries kept going to show off to anyone who questioned the wonders of communism. What are the chances that this school had been given all sorts of carrots and sticks unavailable to others to make the switch?  High, I should think.

01 December 2006
Polonium-210 found on Olympic chiefs' jet.

Police have 8 million suspects.

Procedure for dealing with Australians over the course of the next couple of months

Australian: What about the cricket then?
Human: Huh?

A: You know, the cricket.
H: Which one?

A: The one in Australia.
H: Why on earth should I be concerned about the well-being of a single, solitary Antipodean insect?

A: No, the game, mate.
H: What game?  And I am not your mate.

A: The game of cricket.
H: I have no idea what you are talking about.

A: It’s in all the papers.
H: No, it isn’t. [Hands over newspaper]

A: [Scratching head] I don’t get it… You’re right…  It’s not here.
H: [Relieved at successful national conspiracy to eradicate all knowledge of bat and ball games] Now, where’s my pint.