Month: November 2007


Health and Safety


It is becoming normal to bash the “Health and Safety” for wrecking one thing after another. The latest example is the Tate Modern work “Shibboleth 2007”, which apparently is causing chaos and destruction by means of being a hole in the floor.

But it is only natural that we are more risk-averse than our predecessors: we can afford higher levels of security, so why shouldn’t we have them? Health is a good thing, and safety is a good thing, so what’s wrong with a “health and safety” culture.

Nothing, fundamentally. It becomes problematic is when it gets unrealistic. It gets unrealistic by becoming too formal, too rules-based.

In any organisation, there are two problems. One is that the people working in the organisation do not entirely share the organisation’s purposes and priorities, and they can direct the resources of the organisation to their own purposes instead. The other is that rules and procedures cannot cover every contingency; the right decision can only be made by the right person having power to make it.

These two problems can each only be solved at the expense of making the other worse. I’ve written about the issues before: Deskilling and Overskilling, Microsoft Bugs, School Uniforms and thought crimes, In each case I am complaining about replacing intelligent decision-making with inadequate procedures, however, I would be the last to deny that an absence of any rules governing job performance would cause problems of its own.

We have to balance rules against discretion, but we tend to have too many rules and too little discretion. What drives this is accountability. In a particular case, we might get better outcomes by allowing more discretion, but if something does go wrong, which it can either way, it is more convincing to say “I followed the procedures, but they turned out to be bad” than to say “I made what seemed to me the best decision, but it turned out to be wrong”.

The dilemma will always be with us, but I think we could get a more effective balance simply by insisting, when it comes to blame, that obviously stupid procedures are no excuse for anything. If you’re trying to write down a procedure, and it clearly is not going to succesfully deal with a large number of cases, give up and say the operative in question must make the best determination they can. We will get more agency problems, more corruption, but less blind stupidity, and I think in balance we will be slightly better off.

Two digressions:

Boris Johnson took some stick for his Telegraph article blaming rule-based health & safety culture for the shooting of Charles de Menezes, but I found it quite persuasive, although slightly speculative. The rule “don’t let unarmed surveillance officers arrest a possibly-armed terrorist suspect” was not a stupid one, but avoiding that “listed” risk at one point in time led to being forced to take much bigger risks later, involving probably just as much risk to the officers, as well as the unnecessary death of an innocent man.

It is not just risk where a rule-based system leads to irrational choice between small “listed” costs and larger “unlisted” costs. Part of the process of reducing waste in the civil service (and in private businesses, for that matter) is to set different budgets for different activities. That appears to have led, in one case, to deciding not to provide a specific R&C data dump for the NAO, (which would have resulted in a charge to the budget from EDS), but instead to copy an existing dump, which contained far more information than the NAO asked for. The cost incurred as a result was rather more than a few grand for a couple of days’ work by a contract programmer.

Those digressions aside, I don’t really have answers, except to tweak the balance in the case of health and safety by declaring that a stupid procedure is no excuse for a stupid action.

Credit and Confidence

29th November 2007

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One can get the impression that things that happen in the economy – like the recent credit difficulties – are the outcome of some strange arbitrary game played by bankers. It is worth pausing to explain the story, not in terms of ABCP issued by SIVs holding MBSs but in terms of real people and real stuff.

Credit is letting someone else use your stuff for a while. Lets say we have two farmers who each have one field, neither of which can be efficiently divided. In the long run the fields produce more if left fallow from time to time, but neither farmer can afford to do without his only field this year.

They make an agreement. Farmer B will leave his field fallow this year, and Farmer A will give him some of his output, to make it possible. Next year, they will switch; Farmer B will provide A with part of the output of his newly nitrogenated field, and A will rest.

A is giving B credit. A is running two risks: one is that he will later discover that he needs, or can make better use of, the product he’s given B. The other is that B might not stick to the agreement – he might get sick, or have his crop eaten by locusts, or run away with blacksmith’s daughter.

Nonetheless, if A is confident that he will get back his stuff, he will make plans based on that assumption. He may even make agreements with other parties that involve him giving some of that stuff to them after he gets it from B.

If something then happens that makes it even doubtful that B will be able to give A his stuff, there will be some immediate effects. A may have to change plans he has made, and abandon projects he has already started. He might not be able to make the deals with C that he was hoping to make, because C doubts whether he will have the stuff he is owed by B. If he has already promised stuff to D, then D will have to start revising his own plans in the same way. Thus a fall in confidence in credit can ripple through a wide network, and have large effects, even before any debts have actually defaulted.

I have deliberately left out of this explanation money and banks. In the real world they play a major role in making credit deals easier, but the fundamental situation rests on people and on stuff.

That Teddy Bear

29th November 2007

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Two claims I have heard:

1. “She ought to have known”. Really? I mean, maybe she stepped over a well-known line that anyone out there ought to have known, but I’m not going to take the Sudanese authorities’ word for it. There might be something quite different going on.

2. “If you go to live among barbarians, you run the risk of being treated barbarically”. Normally, I would tend to agree with that, but I’m not convinced we treat teachers any better in this country. Not that we flog them, but if you combine the ever-present risk of being drummed out of your career for some political incorrectness at least as obscure as the proper naming of soft toys, with the physical risk of being killed, maimed or driven clinically insane by violent pupils that you’re not allowed to defend yourself from, the overall risks may be lower in Sudan, despite the occasional flogging or lynching. It makes more sense to turn it around, and say that, just as there are various hazards associated with being a deep-sea fisherman or a coal miner, anyone choosing a career of teaching has to be aware of the occupational hazard of being unjustly had up for corrupting the morals of the young, whatever country you work in.

Ingredients of Modernity

28th November 2007

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Looking at modern Western society, and comparing with the past, there are about five things we have which clearly distinguish us from past societies.

We have:

  1. Prosperity
  2. Individual Freedom
  3. Democracy
  4. Political Stability
  5. Secularism

Following Mencius Moldbug, I have been wondering, particularly, what the relationship Democracy has to Freedom and Prosperity. Is it synergistic with them, as normally assumed, or parasitic on them, as MM claims?

I’ve thrown the last two into the mix in case they are important. Much of Europe has been politically unstable within the last 70 years or so, but possibly that is long enough. The fifth ingredient is really the weakened influence of religion, or at least of Christianity; I’m not sure that secularism is exactly the right word for what I mean.

I’m prepared to accept without discussion the dependence of prosperity on freedom. The freedom to do business freely means the freedom to associate, to communicate, to hold private property, and so on – those freedoms can only be taken away at the cost of stifling economic development. This podcast went into detail, but the basic idea is simple enough.

I think it is at least equally obvious that prosperity depends on political stability. Revolutions are just so damned destructive.

So how does Democracy fit in? The pro-democracy argument is that democracy is the buffer that allows freedom and political stability to coexist; that a non-democratic state will generally be forced to curtail freedom in order to preserve stability.

Anti-democrats can argue that democracy is frequently corrosive of political stability, freedom, or both. But that argument is not sufficient. It may be that democracy does not guarantee either freedom or stability, and yet it may nevertheless be the case that the conjunction of freedom and stability depends on democracy.

Are there historical non-democratic states that were both free and stable? Some past European monarchies might be claimed to fit. For that matter, Victorian Britain was not democratic in the modern sense, due to property qualifications. Were these free enough to count? If attempting to change the government is an essential freedom, then no non-democracy can be considered free, but even without begging the question that way, it is still debatable.

And perhaps it is not freedom that is incompatible with stable non-democracy, but freedom plus prosperity. If the poor are poor enough, they have no power which needs to be recognised by the system. Once a modern economy gets going, they have sufficient resources to demand a share in power.

That actually sounds very plausible to me. But perhaps there is some alternative to democracy that can square the circle between a proletariat unconstrained by either poverty or lack of personal freedom, and a government that excludes them from power.

The best answer that MM has come with is the machine gun.

Perhaps the great tragedy of democracy is that mob power became identified with political power at exactly the last point in history at which mobs were militarily relevant. In the age of the machine gun, the military is at all time sovereign whether it likes it or not. As long as it acts in a unified and disciplined way, it can do whatever it wants. As the experience of China shows, it’s by no means always a mistake to fire into a mob. If the sovereigns of the Concert of Europe had realized that technology was on their side, the murderous degringolade of the 20th century might never have happened.

It might be the kool-aid, but somehow I’m just not able to find that convincing. Surely it can’t be that simple? I suppose the standard objection is that at some point the army will refuse to fire.

I haven’t changed my mind since July: While I accept many of the criticisms of the anti-democrats, and the proposition that democratic states preserve freedom only by restraining democracy, the costs of defending a rationally-run state seem prohibitive.

In other words, I don’t really like democracy; I think it’s basically a trick, but it’s a necessary trick. Giving the mob enough power to pacify it is less damaging than forcing it to accept not having power.

This conclusion is significant for developing countries. I think they need individual freedom, they need political stability, they need prosperity, and, in the long run, they will need democracy in order to make the new forces created by prosperity and freedom balance. Starting with democracy is the wrong way round, as without freedom and prosperity it will be only nominal.


In Brief


To put the case in my previous piece more briefly:

The good news is that the Treasury has lost 25 million personal data records. The bad news is they still have a copy.


The Data Leak

22nd November 2007

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I haven’t got round to making a big deal of the loss of Child Benefit data. Like the Samizdatists, I see it as a hopeful development in terms of public recognition of what large-scale government data collection actually means. I’m not disturbed by it for two reasons: first, because I’m not surprised. I have years of professional experience developing and supporting systems using large amounts of data, and I know how difficult it is to keep stuff confidential. I also have a generally low opinion of the competence of government. It’s more surprising that this got out than that it happened.

The other reason I’m not disturbed is that in general I’m more worried by what the government will deliberately do with the data than by what it will accidentally do with it. The copies of the data still in government hands may be used to decide, for instance, who can and cannot be allowed to learn basic science. Nothing so unpleasant is likely to develop from the copies that have gone astray.

And, to justify that point, I don’t believe in identity theft. It is not that I don’t believe that fraudsters use the names of other people in their frauds, but that I don’t believe that the person whose name is used is the victim of that crime. The actual victim is the party that the fraudster transacts with, and I do not accept the position often taken by the real victims, that their losses are in fact to be borne by an uninvolved third party.

If, for example, a credit card issuer believes that I owe them money, they should have to prove to a very high degree of certainty that they I actually borrowed it from them. That they have at some point in the past received a piece of paper in the post with my name on should not be enough for them to even go to court on, let alone stand any chance of winning. Some kind of human witness to my being their customer should be the minimum to even start.

If this makes life too difficult for financial services providers that do without local branches, so be it. There are considerable savings made by such remote operation, which are shared with customers, but there is no justification for imposing the resulting costs and risks of fraud on uninvolved third parties. Either they find some way of reconciling their cheap business model with reasonable standards of proof, or we can all go back to visiting our local bank branch for a credit card or personal loan.

Back to the government, I do think the incompetence shown here is significant, like the case a few years ago of the non-deported released prisoners (which resulted in the whole “home office not fit for purpose” furore), because it gives me the impression that attention is not being paid to government simply doing its various jobs properly.

To expand: government departments are answerable to ministers, and through them to parliament, but both sets of politicians are obsessed with changing policy and passing laws. The actual day-to-day implementation of existing policy only ever gets any attention when it spectacularly fails. The few spectacular failures (which are not successfully covered up) are necessarily the tip of a very large iceberg of general incompetence, which will not change for as long as it does not get attention. For the electorate to give it attention is barely possible, because of the difficulty, common to all organisations, of practically measuring performance.

I have no solution to this problem. My familiar answer is “government should do less”, which I stand by, but it’s not really a solution, because it is a change of policy in its own right. All I can say is that it’s up to those who oppose my policy to explain how their policies can be carried through competently by a government.


Control Order saves the day

22nd November 2007

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In a recent piece I attacked the “attempt to ban from the internet information easily found in chemistry and history textbooks”.

The UK government has taken on board this inconsistency, and is now attempting to ban a “terrorist suspect” (who has not been charged with any crime) from taking AS-level science courses. (Nature)

So that’s alright then.

OK, so it’s true that 50,000 people a year are studying AS-level chemistry, but this move by the government gives me confidence that no bad person will ever find out the super-secret techniques.






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