Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Pension Legacy of Arthur

As a trustee of the Sun Pension scheme, it is "highly encouraged" by the Pensions Regulator that I undertake the web based training available at The Trustee Tookit. I have done worse. Robert Maxwell managed to contribute a significant amount to the way Pension Schemes are administered today, though I doubt by intention. There are some other colorful characters who also helped shape the way pensions are run and the underlying regulation.

One item of history which may have escaped those of us who were 15 at the start of the miners strike in 1984 may have also missed Arthur Scargil and the land mark judgement on the purpose of pension fund trustees. Arthur wanted the pension fund to avoid investing in alternatives to coal such as oil and the court judged that such a policy was against the best interests of the beneficiaries of the scheme, irrespective of the effect on the industry the pension scheme supported.

I never really though of Arthur as a long term saver, but his pension should keep him warm through the Yorkshire winter. Maybe more lessons can be learned from Arthur than I originally thought.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

10 questions if you canvas on my door step

With an election a short time away, these are the 10 question that I will press for an answer to if a prospective candidate picthes up on my doorstep. The remote nature of where I live means we won't see any. The short time they want to spend delivering their message, giving you a leaflet and being assured that you will vote from them, means they won't want to answer any questions with articulate answers, the vote to effort ratio is too high.

So here goes

  • What is your parties position on the reform of UK libel laws with reference to the case of Simon Singh and similar?
  • What specific plans do you have to improve the quality, speed and reach of Broadband in rural areas?
  • What is your policy on reform of local government pension provision?
  • What are your proposals to remove to road blocks for cycle routes connecting rural areas (example Bow Street, Penryncoch with Aberysytwyth) with the local small town?
  • What are your proposals for sentencing guidelines for those convicted of selling Class A drugs?
  • Which are the 1st 3 quango's (of possible many) that you propose get the axe?
  • What are the 3 most urgent actions to deal with the impending engery crisis slated to manifest itself around 2014?
  • What is your position on sterilsation of parents who have had 2 or more children taken into care because they are unable to look after them?
  • What plans do you have to make becoming a charity trustee a realistic option for younger people, rather than the preserve of the retired and those with charity career or political aspirations?
  • What has been your specific contribution to the running of a charity?

There are of course many more detailed questions that one may like to ask. I can't see getting direct answers, but rather examples of hurried listening and concern. This is why a blog for a MP or prospective MP is such a good thing. It lets them set out their views, abit limited by their perception of what might upset sections of the electorate or open them up to attack from their peers.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Westminster Skeptics Libal Law meeting in a pub

The summary of the evening is that the current UK libal law is very scary indeed. The law itself is very broken with the UK out of step with the rest of the world and the inbalance in the law is preventing evidence based science from both influencing policy and moving forward.

I was in London for a course this week, so last nights event was of obvious interest. It is not a collection of people who meet in a pub who are skeptical about the existence of Westminister, but a group of people who met in a pub in Westminister who are skeptical about a range of claims, support libal law reform and freedom to practive evidence based science and journalism.

A top class range of speakers, some of which were battle hardned or in the middle of libal cases. Each case and the experiences seemed ever more rediculious that these people were being sued.
The case of the cardic surgon, Dr Peter Wilmshurst was prehaps the most worrying.

The speakers had nearly all been sued for discussing issues which as far as I can tell were very much in the public interest. Indeed, the subject matter under dispute is of such significance with an example of the scale that in the case of Ben Goldacre case where 100's of thousands of people died because of a lack of anti viral drugs in south Africa (go read his book or have a look at his bad science blog for specifics). Each case was scary in its own right for different reasons, but with the cost of defending even a successful case would cost 100k plus, even if you get your costs back. The threat of libal from a company with deep pockets is enough to make an individual withdraw their comment. Indeed, the strategy seems to be to attack the individual. Forget about Gordon in No. 10, the UK libal laws empower real bullying of the individual by those with deep pockets.

I am disappointed to report I was very impressed by the segment from Evan Harris MP. Funny, intelligent, informed, suggested solutions and an approach for getting by in from Labour and Conservatives by convincing both side the other is making it part of their manifesto. This man needs cloning a couple of times to replace a couple of the current encumbants in the big building with a clock on one side.

I really do wish Simon Singh well today at the high court. The outcome is important and the need for urgent reform of this part of the law is critical. The current libal law leads to preventable deaths, that was my big take away from last night.

Sense About Science site is well worth a read if, like me, this is a new area to you and gives material for a very good line of questioning for your M.P. or prospectives.

The worst part is that even writing a blog which is mainly a medium to get your own thoughts in a line needs some care, this is real censurship.

I don't want to live is a world where evidence based science is blocked by threats from companies and individuals with the deepest pockets which ultimatly puts lives in danger.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Can technology play a part in a Welsh economic future?

I have been hacking my way between just outside Aberystwyth and either a Sun office near Camberly or customer sites for over 12 years. Before that I did the same for the Cray bit of SGI for 6 months. The need for travel has become less and less as the years moved on. Work from home has made it possible long term, but I have still got the odd call from my director along the lines of "can you find yourself in Johanesburg tomorrow morning please". Aberystwyth to Heathrow is more of a challenge than the 12 hours on a 747. I typically have to travel somewhere in the UK 3 weeks out of 4 and outside the UK once or twice a quarter. I still spend less time traveling to work in a month than your average London Commuter and my typical commute goes via the kettle.

I pay may various taxes from Ceredigion, am a full part of the community(by my definition at least), raising a family which includes the 1st boy born in our valley for over 40 years. So I would suggest that I contribute my share to the economic well being of Ceredigion, without the need for the grant funding which has been the case with so many posts created with a fanfare of grant funding. In the wider economy, currently technology as a service is a cost to Ceredigion(or even Wales) rather than a net source of tax pounds. Can that change?

Imagine Google had it HQ in Swansea. It would change the whole landscape of the economy of Wales. Other companies would spring up around it, not limited to technology, but marketing, services, accounting, law, recruitment to mention but a few. The idea for the technology behind Google came from 2 PhD students at Stanford, but that could have happened anywhere. The environment of Silicon Valley is what made Google really happen.

Wales does have both technology companies and companies that are major users of technology, but they are relatively few and far between. Most of the Welsh site visits I have made have been to the various Universities. In 12 years I have visited two non-academic customers in Wales, compare that to cumulative months spent in Scotland. I have worked on large computers which multi-nationals run their business on which are cited in a Data Centre located in Wales(usually Cardiff or Newport), but I was working with the intellectual power which is located in L0ndon. Often the main human resource a data centre requires is a security guard. You may see why I don't believe Wales currently has a vibrant technology sector, but some successful small pockets and some struggling pockets. There are web site designers in Welshpool high street, financial software developers in Festiniog, Games developers in Aberystwyth and many more I would never have come across. I don't expect the production company which did Torchwood and Dr Who was a technology free enterprise. All employing people and generating (hopefully) tax revenue, but they are not a major part of the Welsh economy.

Wales has world class tertiary education in the technology area. In my disciple of Computer Science, all the departments have a strong research record, with Aberystwyth in the top 20 departments in the UK for research. . All the 5 major universities have departments (Aberystwyth, Cardiff, Swansea, Bangor and Glamorgan) which produce high quality graduates who have gone out and made their mark in industry over the last 20 years and continue to do so. Few make their mark in Wales.

Wales has been good at acquiring grant funding. An example is the the Visualization centre at Aberystwyth for which Sun Microsystems was one of 2 companies to provided initial match funding (the other was SGI which I worked for prior to Sun). It may be too early to tell, but I have seen little tangible evidence of it providing a catalyst for SME development to match the level of funding to set the facility up. There was an expectation that companies would come to mid-Wales to use the service. In reality, the communications links are too poor. An an industrialist, if you want an academic partner, then a similar facility exists at Warwick which is 3 hours closer to any location that the target companies cited would be located. Cardiff, Swansea, Glamorgan and Bangor has similar problems, but less severe.

Over 10 years ago I suggested holding a Sun technical event in Cardiff rather than Bristol. I might as well suggested it should have been held on the moon to the marketing people who held the budget and did the administration. At least 50% of those attending would have come from Welsh Universities, but the concept of crossing the bridge from the west was one they could not entertain. I believe this mindset still holds in the rest of the UK and is maybe stronger today.

If you think that Broadband in Wales is good enough to encourage business, then have a look at the heatmap of the UK and think again. Lets just look at Wales.

Much of the large white area is the domain of mostly trees and sheep, so it is of less concern. What is concerning is that even in towns, less than 4MB is normal and less than 1Mb is still common. The future development of a technology based economy will be skewed to a small area around Cardiff. Young people view fast Internet access they same way they view air. It is a bare necessity. A second of line between our village and the exchange has an OpenReach van almost permantly parked somewhere along its 200m length. It is know to be old and problematic and OpenReach engineers have requested its replacement many times. Because it is capital spend rather than spend on repair, the replacement continues to be put on hold. Small sums, big difference, prehaps you to 512k improvement the engineers suggest.

So what can be done?

  1. Form a Welsh technology Venture Capital fund. Technology ventures are risky. Some will grow, some will fail and some with be bought up and moved. Investors need a reward for this level of risk. This has to be a private sector fund, the public bodies in Wales are incapable of doing this without excessive bureaucracy and missing the real opportunities. They won't understand the nature of the technology business. The challenge for the Assembly Government would be to get a investment house interested and make it worthwhile for private and institutional investors to take the risk beyond the 30% tax relief VC funds currently are entitled to. Why does the San Francisco Bay area have so many successful technology firms? A primary reason is the availability of Venture Capital. The sunshine does also help.
  2. Can I get to London before 9am to do a full days work? Staying overnight in London is all very well, but it is a pain if you have a family and I miss story time often enough as it is. Hotels add a major overhead. A viable rail network which can get you to London by 9am. This is true in Cardiff or Swansea and north Wales (Wrexham and Shropshire service for example). For mid-Wales, even places such as Welshpool which are close to the boarder, it is requires a drive to Shrewsbury 1st. For Aberystwyth the 1st train gets into London after 10pm which is not much use when a company is paying day rates for you.
  3. 512k is not enough. Reliable, reasonably fast broadband with a small lag behind the rest of the UK in terms of improvement is vital to building a technology tax base. Slower is OK, at the moment my ADSL is running at around 1/8th of the average of my peers who live in or near cities. You don't encourage home workers paying serious tax revenue with snails pace broadband. An SME needs much higher bandwidth. This should also be a core feature of a green agenda. We hear lots of noise from the political types, but the speed gap between Wales(rural in particular) and the rest of the UK continues to widen. Technology is there, it is just the money and will to upgrade parts of the infrastructure.
  4. MBA in Technology Leadership as a part time course for those with experience in the technology industry. Most remote would be with some weekend/evening sessions. There are areas which are essential to building a business such as marketing, sales, investor relations, accounting, governance, employment law, etc, etc which the ideas people won't have a background in. You may have learned some my osmosis(I have learned quite a lot about the technology sales process by watching it for example), but you won't understand the scope and the underlying principles.
  5. Require all restaurants and cafe's which could be connected to broadband, to provide free at point of use WIFI(fair enough tying this to using the establishments services). None of this t-mobile or BT Openzone rip off rubbish.
  6. Early access to advice saves money. I was very impressed with the concept and effectiveness of the Citizens Advice Bureau in my 3 months as a trustee and 2 months as the Acting Chair of a Branch. A charity that delivers advice free at the point of contact. I have meet a number of "old boys" who are very wise and experienced in business who have recently retired. They know about governance, bookkeeping, etc and their insight could be applied equally to self employed tradesmen as small IT industry start-ups. Lots of scope for this to go wrong and to be abused, but the C.A.B. put in place a set of rules of engagement which works very well, so the same overall model. However, you don't want a Victor Meldrew cross Harry Endfield taking 1/2 your day and telling you that "you don't want to do it like that" when they don't have a clue what they are talking about. Just don't ask me to be a Trustee. My experience of public sector (or quango type organizations) is that they are very poor value for money and tend to have a political agenda behind them at some level.
  7. A work bid auction site. It is probably against some EU directive, but having a auction web site where Welsh Companies who want work done can put up items of work to be bid for. Companies and individuals from Wales can make non binding bids for the work then the 2 sides are brought together to discuss scope, risk management, etc, etc and draw up a contract(which might be a simple as a Purchase Order for a number of days time). The site providing the web services could also provided the legal services to help both sides with the contracts. If the seller does not get on with the potential contractor, then can move on to the next. A tight Ebay model won't work as contract IT work is far more complex, but this would provide introductions between those who want work done and will pay for it and those who can do work and want to be paid for it within a structured framework. Maybe the Welsh Venture Capital fund would put some money in as this should at least be self supporting and capable of making money if the EU did not get in the way.
  8. Welsh Institute of Risk. One of the major problems I have found wondering through the IT industry and its customers over the last 13 years is a failure to "think risk". This goes much wider. For we see many examples of ineffective use of public funds because arses are being covered rather than risk and reward being assessed and managed. I sat in a meeting for a failing project at a large University in an other part of the UK and mentioned the need to understand the risks this project was exposed to going forward. The meeting chair said that was "just project management". That was 6 months ago and I have just been asked to attend another similar meeting, wonder why. Risk is about far more than project management, it is interdisciplinary by nature and requires domain experts and also process expertise. You don't hear about successful risk management, you only hear about the failures. This will be a growing area and is an area where a cross department and possibly cross institution grouping would give Wales an advantage bringing research capable departments in the areas of Law, business, engineers and many others. A part time MSc in Holistic Risk Management?
  9. WAG to fund additional technology PhD's at Welsh Universities. If you want a vibrant TECH. sector, then part of that the intellectual component will come from research via PhD's. While the 2 Google founders never finished theirs, a PhD is training for research and is a pivotal component in generating seeds that can grow into S.M.E.'s or larger
  10. Any further bright ideas, add a comment, I promise the rest of the world will know better and ignore them.
Why won't Wales have a vibrant technology sector any time soon? Beyond the obvious drag of history, I offer 2 primary reasons going forward:
  1. A lack of political understanding of the technology business and its potential
  2. A lack of political will to give up control and facilitate others to make the difference
A Welsh Google is improbable, but I am bullish about what progress could be made in terms of making Wales a part of the global tech community and building a serious tech sector contributing serious net revenue which can be recycled for social gain.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Summer is on its way!

We live in the shadow of a hill, so get no direct sun for 2 1/2 months of the year.

Sun made it into the garden for the 1st time I have noticed this year, so summer is on its way!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ceredigion Labour candidate

My grandfather was a tool maker in the ship yard in Belfast. He voted Labour all his life so my father told me. I only meet him once (late 1970's) and they lived in a very run down part of Belfast.

My father was a BBC transmitter engineer. He could remember as a child in Belfast going to school without shoes "when times were hard" and granddad was out of work. He voted Labour for most of his life. For the last election of his life, he voted Green.

The Labour party have done many things during their time in government as a party of managerialists to offend me. Putting up a candidate of 20 years old and still a student as the Westminister candidate for Ceredigion must be one of

  • An admission that they should not waste resources in this seat
  • A joke and they will announce a serious candidate later in the campaign.
  • An attempt to insult a region that has not voted Labour in the past
I am sure Richard Boudier is a great chap, full of ideas and ideals, will be mature for his age and impressive compared to his peers. Westminister does need new blood, some integrity and ideas. But is also needs experience, some humility and leadership. It a new map of the world if that is going to come from a 20 year old and I will be happy to redraw mine if it can be proved, rather than just speculated, that a 20 year old can be an effective MP.

No disrespect for Richard himself, it will be a great experience for him, probably life changing, but it is still an insult to the area by the Labour party to put up a candidate of this age who has no experience of the world of work, be that business, public or the voluntary sector. Still, people like George have managed to do OK in politics without ever having a real job (journalist != real job). Is Richard going to be in a position to hold him to account? Only fair to also ask if Luke, Mark or Penri will be able to hold Chancellor George to account when he flies in the face of economic analysis.

Maybe we should have an Ceredigion Economics test which all the candidates should answer and the answers published in the Cambrian News. If you have further suggests for appropriate questions, please add a comment. The more left field the better!

  1. What is a CDO and why are they considered potentially Weapons of Mass Destruction. Extra points for discussing the impact of the CDO on someone living in Llandewi Brefi.
  2. Beyond stopping your neighbors seeing what you get up to in the garden, when might a hedge be appropriate?
  3. What does the gilt yield curve suggest for future inflation?
  4. What is the difference between a Defined Benefit and Defined Contribution pension? Extra points for setting out the implications of each on the UK budget deficit over the next 20 years. Extra, extra points for suggesting policy change in the area of local government which involves DC pensions.
  5. What is leverage, when does it good and when is it dangerous? Extra points for buzz words and what they mean.
  6. What was the 1st use of futures and options? Extra points for creative application of put and call options to sheep farming
  7. What is the current old age pension. What is the current minimum wage?
  8. Where does inflation come from? What does the Monetary Policy Committee do for a job? Extra points for setting out the link between inflation and the cost of going on holiday to Spain
  9. What is an IFA and what reforms do you think are required to this profession (is it ballocks a profession)?
  10. If you don't know the answer to any of the above questions and are able to admit it, where would you go to find out? This question carries 90% of the marks for the test.
Ummm, not economics really. 7 I would get wrong, but have an rough idea, but then I am not a aspiring Westminister candidate. Anyone want to write a social policy, housing, food, health or defense set of questions as a pointless academic exercise which no candidates would dare engage in because it is too concrete.

In paragraph 2 I note that my father had times when he had no shoes to go to school in (would have been the late 1940, early 50's). This for him was his picture of poverty and explained his pathological reaction to my walking around the house when I was a child with no shoes on. Funny how talking as an adult to him in his later years gave this insight.

Back to the original point. No mater what Richard's age, character or experience, he campaigns in the shadow of the legacy of Tony and Gordon, even my Grandfather could not have voted for him.