Thursday, 12 February 2015

'Racist UKIP'

I had a conversation with a friend just before the local elections.  She was angry about the rise of UKIP and dismissed the party as racist and bigoted.  I told her some of things I'd written in a previous post, describing circumstances that may have led to rising support for Nigel Farage and his colleagues.  She was genuinely surprised and told me she didn't know.

My friend comes from a distant continent.  She married an Englishman and now works in a white collar job.  She lives with her family in a quiet suburb.  She is aware of the multi cultural composition of London and works with some migrants as clients in her job.

Unfortunately what she and most media pundits, including Radio 4 and BBC tv comedians, do not know is how life is for people in other regions of the UK.  Some areas of the country are powerhouses of the modern economy, others face high unemployment and economic downturn.

Now the BBC has broadcast a radio programme about asylum seekers.  Unless  you download the podcast, it won't be available for very long.

Here's the blurb:

'Around 28 thousand people are claiming asylum in the UK. They're accommodated in some of the nation's most deprived areas while their cases are considered. Now, with numbers on the rise, some communities saytthey're struggling to cope. 

Allan Urry reports from the Northwest of England where, in some areas, there's concern about growing pressures on health services and schools. In Liverpool the City's Mayor, Joe Anderson, talks of an asylum "apartheid" and says other towns and cities need to take a fairer share. In Rochdale in Greater Manchester, there are more asylum seekers than the whole of the south east of England. The local MP Simon Danczuk says he's worried the pressures could undermine the good community relations that have always existed in the town.

Recent stories of asylum seekers living in fancy hotels have led to outraged newspaper headlines but are they a symptom of bigger failings in the UK's system for housing those who come here seeking refuge?'ey'

Why did the government reduce the number of organisations dealing with asylum seekers to 3 private providers (G4S, Serco and Clearel, only one of which had experience in the field)?

Could it be that donations to party funds and sophisticated lobbying may have helped?  G4S made a modest £50K donation in 2012, compared with Serco's £300,000.  Conflict of interest amongst politicians may be a factor, given that 2 Conservative and 2 Labour peers have shares in Serco, for example.  Some politicians obtain consultancies and directorships (after Westminster) with companies that have benefitted from government contracts.

Why would the government dump most asylum seekers in North West of England and Rochdale on the outskirts of Manchester rather than dispersing them more widely round the country (so the South East of England, excluding London, had 441 asylum seekers compared with 6298 in the North West)?

One of the official reasons is that housing in these areas is cheaper, making it easier to accommodate people.  There are some cheaper areas in other parts of England, including the South East, but housing is a highly contentious issue.  Successive governments have allowed the UK economy to rest on inflated house prices, putting them out of the reach of youngsters and ordinary people.

North West England and Rochdale are traditional Labour voting territory and unlikely to change, unless they swing to UKIP.  South East England is a traditional Conservative voting area.  2015 is the year of a general election and polling suggests there will be no overall winner.
Why did the government remove local government from involvement in this process, having little say in who is moved into their areas?

Local government in these areas, with long experience in dealing with migrants.  If government removes their power, they have little recourse.  These 3 private companies have a bad reputation in outsourced services.  Only local councils could call them to account, IF they were still involved.

What effect does this have on local people?

Local residents have less time to see their doctor, public housing is no longer available to them as asylum seekers (once allowed leave to remain) take priority, schools are full.

Some of my readers have assumed I'm a UKIP supporter, which I'm not.

However they have opened a discussion that most people (especially politicians cosily cosseted in the Westminster bubble and valuable houses in London, who hold down a well paid job and have expectations of lucrative contracts after their Parliamentary career) wish to avoid.

Gordon Brown tried to stifle the debate in Rochdale, when he refused to address the concerns of an elderly woma in 2010, giving her an election address and later referring to her as a 'bigoted woman'.

Gordon Brown remained an MP, though rarely appeared in the House of Commons (except to claim his allowances).  He and his wife ran a charity, which amassed large sums of money from his speaking tours, but strangely never seemed to disburse them to any charitable work.  He claimed £10,000 per week in expenses, but have less than £1million to charity.  He told this elderly widow that no one should claim benefits for more than 6 months, but get out to work.  Effectively Gordon Brown was a benefit claimant from the taxpayer, given how little he did as an MP in his last years.  Brown has resigned as an MP.

ng to cope. Allan Urry reports from the Northwest of England where, in some areas, there's concern about growing pressures on health services and schools. In Liverpool the City's Mayor, Joe Anderson, talks of an asylum "apartheid" and says other towns and cities need to take a fairer share. In Rochdale in Greater Manchester, there are more asylum seekers than the whole of the south east of England. The local MP Simon Danczuk says he's worried the pressures could undermine the good community relations that have always existed in the town.
Recent stories of asylum seekers living in fancy hotels have led to outraged newspaper headlines but are they a symptom of bigger failings in the UK's system for housing those who come here seeking refuge?

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

'Fats Kill!': What's the Evidence?

Government guidelines have urged us to reduce fat in the diet.  We are specifically urged to give up saturated fats and eat seed oils.

Now mainstream media are backing down.

What a pity that the article includes a picture of fish and chips.  These days it is highly likely that both will be cooked in some sort of cheap seed oil rather than lard or beef dripping of yesteryear.  Sadly the picture doesn't indicate that there are far more carbohydrates in this dish (batter and chips) than fat, which are likely to increase weight.  The article mentions this, but the casual reader won't notice.

A more appropriate illustration might be this:

Steak, herb butter and salad.

Don't believe me.  Listen to Chris Masterjohn, a lipidologist, who knows a thing or two about different types of fat.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Scholarship and the BBC

This is the picture of Winston Silcott that appeared in the media, when he was accused of murdering PC Keith Blakelock during the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985.

Wolf Hall, a tv dramatisation of a novel about Thomas Cromwell by Hilary Mantel, is currently being shown on the BBC.  Building on the viewing public's love of history, particularly in relation to Henry V111 and his court, the BBC is also screening a range of documentaries giving a view of arts and culture at the time.

Waldemar Januszczak attacks the current revision of history in the way Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More are portrayed.  This is how he does it.

He focusses on the Shrine of our Lady of Caversham in Berkshire.  Januszczak went to a Catholic school nearby, as the son of Polish Catholic refugees.

He tells the story of how this ancient shrine was visited by Katherine of Aragon.  She prayed to Our Lady to prevent the divorce and Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn.  He alleges that Henry V111 was so enraged he ordered Cromwell to strip the shrine and have the statue transported to London.  Nice dramatic story.

Sadly for Januszczak, it leaves out some vital details and distorts time.  Henry was already married to Anne Boleyn and looking for a way to divorce her, so that he could marry Jane Seymour.  The shrine was stripped on 14 September 1538 as part of the reformation, to wipe out idolatry.  Far from singling out the Shrine of Our Lady, the King and his Secretary aimed to clean up the church.  This was 2 years before the fall of Cromwell.

Januszczak spends a lot of time discussing the character of 2 statesmen:  The Chancellor, Thomas More and the Secretary, Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas More was portrayed in Robert Bolt's 1954 play 'A Man for All Seasons' as a man of principle, who would not agree to the divorce from Catherine of Aragon.  In the play More is loved by the people and envied by Thomas Cromwell.

Hilary Mantel's novels revise this view and portray Thomas Cromwell as a quick witted man, who has risen from humble beginnings and made himself useful to the nobility and king.  She presents him as someone who prefers to persuade people rather than torture them, contrasting this with Thomas More, who pursues a fanatical anti-protestant ('heretic') line and relies much on torture, burning and hanging.  Mantel based her novels on exhaustive reading and research over 20 years.

How does Januszczak rebut this?

He contrasts the portraits of the 2 men painted by Hans Holbein the younger.  He tells us that More is obviously honest and sincere, by the look in his eye.  Thomas Cromwell has small piggy eyes and looks shifty, says he.  What proof does he offer that this is true?  "Hans Holbein must be right BECAUSE HE WAS THERE."

Later, in discussing other portraits, Januszczak discussed Holbein's study of Anne of Cleves, which was shown to the king as his first view of the prospective bride.  

We are told that Henry V111 was repulsed by Anne of Cleves, claiming she looked nothing like Holbein's portrait.  Januszczak would have us believe that this picture must be right, because Holbein was there.

What has this got to do with Winston Silcott?

Silcott was released from prison and received compensation because there was no proof he'd killed PC Keith Blakelock.  Silcott commented on how the police skewed media coverage by releasing a photo to the media which seemed to show Winston has a deranged man.  This is how he looks today.

I find it hard to believe that we can credibly draw major conclusions based on how someone looks, rather than viewing hard evidence.  If we did, people like Stephen Hawking might be shunned for being a bad 'un.

Handsome is as handsome does.

The BBC seems to be saving money on research and producing nice looking, but vapid documentaries.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Passive House and the waterbed effect

What is Passive House?

This is a building standard for new and refurbished buildings.  They are airtight and watertight, free of draughts and damp.  Passive House buildings require up to 90% less energy to heat and light than conventional ones.

This results in buildings that are healthier for those living and working in them.  They are comfortable, with constant, even temperatures.  Air is fresh and warm.  There is no damp or mould and humidity levels are low. They cost much less to run.

The second passive house home I visited had been renovated by a young couple.  They regretted installing central heating, as they'd only had the system running for 2 hours in the previous 18 months.  Effectively the home could be heated by a couple of electric towel rails.  Their tenants were delighted to avoid problems with dry skin and rollercoaster variations in temperature of standard heating systems.  The mechanical ventilation and heat recovery system kept the air fresh and warm by heating incoming fresh air and removing cooking and bathroom moist air.

How is it done?

The key to reaching passive house standards is to put time and effort into the plans.  The essential tool used in the process is the PHPP package.  This is based on an Excel spreadsheet.

Data from the design of the new build or retrofit is entered into the PHPP spreadsheet.  These calculations enable designers to estimate whether the build will meet the standards (for Passive House or EnerPHit for older buildings being refurbished:

Energy performance targets and air changes per hour:

Criteria                                                                                          Passive House       EnerPHit                            

Specific Heating Demand                                                             ≤ 15 kWh/m2. yr          ≤ 25 kWh/m².yr

Specific Cooling Demand                                                             ≤ 15 kWh/m2. yr         ≤ 120 kWh/m².yr 
                                                                                     * PE ≤ 120 kWh/m².yr + ((SHD - 15 kWh/ m².yr) x1.2)
Specific Heating Load                                                                  ≤ 10 W/m2

Specific Primary Energy Demand                                                ≤ 120 kWh/m2. Yr

Air Changes Per Hour                                                                  ≤ 0.6 @ n50

Limiting Value                                                                              n50  ≤0.6-1                  n50  ≤1.0-1

Calculations include the Form Factor, derived from the external surface area and the Treated Floor Area.  The size and shape of the building affect the energy demand of the building and the amount of insulation required.  Data is included from the U values (thermal efficiency) of all construction material including windows.  Thermal bridges, the junctions and links between parts of the building, are potential areas for the greatest loss of heat.  These must be reduced or eliminated as far as possible and data is added to the spreadsheet to demonstrate this.

Airtightness is key to effective thermal insultation and airtightness tests are usually carried out several times during the build to ensure that detailed finish is done to a high standard.  Simple mistakes, such as poorly applied insulation tape, may negatively affect airtightness.  Summer temperatures are included in the spreadsheet and methods to prevent overheating, such as shading.  Data for mechanical ventilation and heat recovery is included.  Primary energy appliances are also calculated for heating, ventilation, hot water and cooking.  The orientation of the building and its geographical location are also included in the calculations.  Solar gain may reduce winter energy use, but may require additional shading to prevent summer overheating.  Windier, colder areas at higher altitude may face bigger challenges than buildings located in sheltered, mild valleys.

What has PHPP software got to do with a waterbed?

The spreadsheet provides a framework for the designer to use, against which everything is measured. Rather than guessing and producing a more or less well insulated house, PHPP channels the work into a disciplined approach, which achieves a specific result.

On paper, building designs look straightforward.  In practice, building takes place in messy, complex situations.  Typically people create problems or require certain amendments to the plan.  A house may lie in a conservation area, which prohibits use of modern, highly efficient, single expanse, triple glazed window units.  The local authority may insist that the facade matches its neighbours, increasing the heat loss from one part of the building envelope significantly.  PHPP helps the designer increase insulation in other parts of the building to compensate for heat loss at the front.

The customer may insist on a particular design element that includes a thermal bridge, which may be difficult to reduce or eliminate.

The client may refuse to spend as much money as the designer suggests on insulation, focussing instead on state of the art facilities in bathroom and kitchen.

The builder may not be able to source material of the required U value for a part of the build, which may mean that PHPP has to be recalculated to make up lost ground elsewhere, if the project is to be complete on time and to budget.

Push down the energy gains in one area, then lift up insulation/reduce the energy loss in others.  PHPP enables a dynamic design process with constant iterations throughout the project.

Why bother?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and, as the above link indicates, politicians may rush into new schemes that look as if they will solve all of our housing and energy problems at a stroke.  I see new and renovated buildings that are completed without using a rigorous and dynamic standard: medical centres with noisy reception areas because of 100% hard surfaces, where confidential information is heard by all; public buildings which are too hot in Summer and too cold in Winter; heating vents on outside walls that pump valuable heat into the street.

PHPP and the passive house standard enables designers to achieve a level of energy efficiency and comfort in buildings that will have a long life and fewer problems than those of conventional design.  Whether they meet the standard or not, the discipline helps ensure a quality finish and customer satisfaction.  Bob Prewett's 80% house, above, didn't meet the standard, but achieved a comfortable and energy efficient level, which fitted well with the rest of the street.

PHPP is not an easy or straightforward tool to use.  A new book is designed to assist the designer in getting to grips with the process.  PHPP is cost effective and can be used when standards change or a designer decides to include heat recovery from water and other Passive House Plus elements.

I wouldn't employ an architect or designer who DIDN'T use PHPP, even if their work didn't fully hit the target.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Westminster Paedophile Mystery

Geoffrey Dickens MP made allegations about a paedophile ring that included people in power.  He compiled a dossier of evidence and handed it to the then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, during a 30 minute meeting in 1984.  It then disappeared.

Leon Brittan, who died last week, was alleged to have suppressed the evidence and to have been involved in abuse of minors.  The satirical magazine, Private Eye, broke the story and continued to make allegations for many years.  One recent article described Brittan's rage at the allegations, plus his adamant contention that they were all false.

Public figures have appeared in the media since Lord Brittan's death to defend his reputation and dismiss the late Geoffrey Dickens as a publicity seeker.

The same media outlets have also published interviews with senior politicians, justifying the choice of ex-disc jockey, Jimmy Saville, to manage a secure mental hospital.  Saville is alleged to have taken advantage of his position and sexually abused a number of inmates.

I have worked with survivors of sexual abuse.  I've never met one person who wanted to take their abuser to court.  Many have never told their parents or family.  It's rare for a survivor to wish to test the judicial system and go through the gruelling court process.  Frances Andrade was forced to go to court and testify against her abuser, because a colleague broke her trust and spoke to the police.

I don't have any concrete evidence to support or contradict allegations by Geoffrey Dickens and against Leon Brittan.

Two questions puzzle me:

1)  Why didn't Geoffrey Dickens keep a copy of his dossier?

2)  Why didn't Leon Brittan sue Private Eye?

Lloyds Bank Quaker Founders turning in their graves

Quakers and workers' groups are not much discussed in the UK these days.  They formed our banks, chocolate industry and established fixed priced, fair trading.  They based their dealings on ethics and integrity.  That was back in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Lloyds bank was one of these.

The bank suffered during the financial crisis and was bailed out by the government.  They were ordered to reduce the number of branches and split from TSB, which they'd acquired earlier.  Lloyds swapped bonds for ECNs or Enhanced Capital Notes:

'What are ECNs and CoCos?

ECNs stands for Enhanced Capital Notes. They are, somewhat confusingly also referred to as CoCos or Contingent Convertibles. ECNs are a new form of fixed income security which have arisen out of the need for banks to increase their capital ratios as a result of the banking crisis. The first UK issuer of ECN's has been Lloyds Banking Group plc. This was under an Exchange Offer announced on 3 November to exchange its existing Tier 1 and Upper Tier 2 securities into new ECN's.
The key feature of the Lloyds ECN's is that while they carry mandatory coupon rights they may also be mandatorily converted into ordinary shares if the Core Tier 1 capital ratio of the bank falls below the 5% level (known as the trigger).'

In December 2014 Lloyds Bank announced that they intended to redeem these ECNs for below face value, in order to raise money.  This affected elderly savers and investors, who did not understand what had happened, nor that Lloyds had the power to do this.  Here is one example of the effects of the move.

I have discussed the work of Mark Taber in previous posts about the Co-op Bank.  He has worked on behalf of bond and preference share holders of various banks, ensuring that they were fairly treated.  Mark worked on this voluntarily (although he accepts donations).

When Mark Taber takes up the fight, you know the situation is serious and that financial institutions have behaved badly.

In this case, it appears that government regulatory authorities did not include ECNs in financial instruments that were monitored, leaving customers unprotected.

Lloyds Bank made excuses and implied that investors were remiss when they didn't read about the move, rather than admitting that they kept quiet about the poor deal for ECN holders.

One serious allegation is that Lloyds Bank misdescribed the ECNs and their terms and conditions when they were first offered.  Lloyds also fudged the initial description and definition of ECNs with a simple omission and switch of terms.  Lloyds Bank are challenged on the legality of their action.

BBC's Money Box featured the news in this programme (13.30 minutes in).

Antonio Horta Osorio, Lloyds Bank CEO, has already had time off from the job through stress.  He and his team seem to be ignoring the real distress caused to investors in buying back ECNs at less than half the price.

I believe that the Quaker founders would not approve of this sleight of hand.

Experience from the Co-operative Bank's attempt to trash its core values was that all customers rejected it, not just the affected bondholders.  I still maintain that the only way is ethics.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Opening umbrellas causes rain

Occasionally I work with a client who has had a major health crisis such as a heart attack.  They admit to poor diet, zero exercise, high intake of alcohol and heavy smoking.  They are terrified of dying and seem unable (unwilling) to make any changes.  This is someone who is praying for a magic bullet to cure their health problems

Fear won't help them and may trigger further health problems with raised cortisol levels and disrupted sleep.

I introduce them to research findings and the work of specialist doctors and surgeons, who recommend specific incremental changes to improve heart health.  Each idea is dismissed or discounted as unworkable.  

A common argument is counter-evidence from a someone specialising in research that concludes red meat is most likely to cause heart attacks.  (= man/woman in white coat tells The Truth).

What the client fails to notice is that this researcher is an epidemiologist.  That means they don't actually conduct randomised, controlled, double blind studies that demonstrate cause-effect relationships.  They take population studies and compare the numbers of those who do and don't eat red meat with figures for heart disease.  

If I take population studies for those who open umbrellas and the incidence of rainfall in particular areas, I might wish to claim that opening umbrellas causes rain.  My readers would conclude that I'd lost my marbles or basic common sense.  They may NOT challenge big claims by researchers which fail to offer concrete proof.

Robb Wolf and Chris Kresser discuss this particular assertion that red meat causes heat disease.  Chris unpicks the research and demonstrates that early studies failed to distinguish between processed and unprocessed meats, nor did they consider the rest of the subjects' diet and lifestyles.  Later studies that did include these aspects were unable to conclude that red meat causes heart disease.

There is NO evidence that unprocessed red meat causes heart disease or any other disorder.  

If we eat too much protein, we may gain weight, because excess protein is converted to sugar.  We may also have problems with fat on red meat, if it comes from animals fed on grains rather than put out to grass.  That is NOT an argument to avoid fat, but to be wary about what the animal you eat was eating during its life.

I may not be able to help this particular client to change, particularly if it becomes clear that they are unable and unwilling to make any effort to improve their own health.  I regret that some researchers and journalists are so willing to spread misinformation and bad science.