Monday 30 June 2008

Saturday 28 June 2008

Henley - late and disjointed

I thought Henley was a score draw. We didn't do as well as we hoped, but we did a lot better than the Tories hoped we would do. Part of the discourse seems to be that we should, whatever the political circumstances, be taking seats off the Tories. I think there are two main issues about this. The first is that many of us still see the Tories as more like our natural enemies than Labour; the assumption is that we have less common ground with the Tories than with Labour. I think that that just makes us complicit with the “middle ground” discourse where Tories are right, Labour are left, and we have a thin sliver of middle ground off which we get squeezed when one of the other parties does well. We shouldn't acquiesce in this discourse because it is crap. Complete unvarnished smelly crap. It suits Labour and the Tories, and it suits the media because a) they can present an easy image that will sell newspapers, without anybody having to think too hard and b) it's a lot easier to hold positions if you have somebody that you're against, and generally speaking there is only room in people's minds for one enemy at a time. Therefore bipolar politics appeals to those who are supposed to interpret our politics to us, as well as to both Tories and Labour.

The second issue is that the Tory vote is no longer soft, far from it. We could only count on the kind of swings we have become familiar with when the Tories were seen as both nasty and incompetent. That combination is unusual and is unlikely to return. David Cameron has done a very good and very disciplined sales job in convincing the electorate at large that the Tories are no longer nasty, and has avoided the issue of competence by having no policies. The fact that the Tories are still in large measure nasty means nothing – it's the perception that counts. And the policy issue may come back to bite him at election time. But that should be neither our chief strategy nor our chief hope. We are better placed than we have been in the past to tell our own story rather than relying on footnotes to other narratives. I like the current nostrum that we are the challengers to the Tories in the south and to Labour in the north, but that still positions us in terms of other parties. We know that we have more voters who are genuine LibDems and will stick with us because they like us, as other parties' fortunes ebb and flow. Maybe we should be working better at what some of us call the narrative. The “liberal” party in contrast to two authoritarian parties. We localise, they both centralise. And so on.

In terms of by-election tactics I'll admit to being an agnostic. Chris Rennard's account, with figures that we were not privy to when we started the debate, says that we are still taking votes off the Tories – just not enough in the case of Henley. Maybe Glasgow East gives us a chance to see how well we can take votes off Labour. I can see the rationale for the things we do, and they have served us well in an environment where political inertia and the local and national media are often against us. That will continue to be so. Henley is a case in point. We had an excellent story about Howell and the hospital campaign and (I'm not sure but I believe) it was simply ignored by the local BBC station, whereas they made a big thing of Cameron's vapid threat to sue us. I guess that raises the question of whether we worked effectively enough on the media – I don't know. But we will continue to have to fight that for a long time; the media are wedded to that two party left right concept of politics.

One thing we can still do is tell the truth. This often comes under the heading of negative campaigning, but I think there is a place in politics for saying things about your opponents that nobody else would say. If we hadn't made a fuss about Howell's links with developers, and about his lies over the local hospital campaign, nobody else would have mentioned them. We should, I think, continue to point out to the electorate that the Tories have not changed all that much despite Cameron's attempts to keep the lid on their hard right trough swilling tendencies. After all, they do continue to give us plenty of ammunition.

Friday 27 June 2008

Anyone who thinks ID cards are no problem...

... should read Nich Starling's account of what can happen when the government get hold of your data.

Tuesday 24 June 2008

Zimbabwe - what's John Simpson on?

Mugabe's remarkable comeback is the headline of a piece which leads me to believe that John Simpson must have forgotten his medication. His theme is that Mugabe was nearly dead and buried a few weeks ago but has "remarkably" returned to life. He has apparently achieved "an extraordinary turnaround". THere's nothing either remarkable or extraordinary about the situation at all. The only calculation in the minds of Mugabe and his henchmen is how much violence they could get away with, and whether they could afford to pay all the thugs. They concluded rightly that a gradually escalating scale of violence, together with police harassment and judicial intimidation would work nicely without upsetting other Africans too much. If anything is remarkable, it is the lengths to which other African leaders will still go, even today, to say that he's not too bad really.

Simpson then royally plonks his other foot in it when he criticises Tsangirai for choosing the Dutch embassy to take refuge in. It would have been better politically, Simpson says, for him to choose an African embassy. No doubt it would have, but that sort of calculation may not occur to you when you're fleeing soldiers, no doubt in fear for your life, and it's damn difficult to get a taxi in Harare at that time of night...

What's extraordinary is Britain's impotence - a real lesson to those who still think we stride the world's stage like a colossus, and the dithering of the rest of Africa while Zimbabwe falls into complete collapse. I have great respect for John Simpson as a reporter. I can only hope that he will rise again from the standard he has fallen to with this piece.

Saturday 14 June 2008


For S104, I have been researching tarsiers, for a collaborative exercise we have to complete. They live in and around Borneo, are primates, closely related to us. I am supposed to describe their distinguishing characteristics, which, on an immediate impression, is that they are furry and cuddly, with gorgeous eyes. But I'm supposed to be more scientific than that. They are distinguished from other mammals by having elongated tarsal bones, rather than metatarsals. Less risk of David Beckham injuries then.

This little fellow is typical. Though I must say he looks to me as if he's just spotted the arse on the guy in the post below.

Source: Flickr
Copyright © 2005 Kristoffer Dominic Amora

Viruses, web2.0, weight loss and a big behind

I've spent a portion of last week and this battling a virus downloaded onto a work machine by one of my colleagues who thought it was a good idea to have Limewire. Can't get rid of it, have to wipe the machine, not allowed to do it till they've taken off the stuff they want. It doesn't seem to have entered anyone's head that there's nothing they can do with it without risking infecting whatever machine they put it on. It's not going near any of mine.

A while ago my doctor told me I really had to lose weight now. So I've been dieting, a bit, and exercising, a bit. And I've lost a kilo or two. I've just started using Twitter, and decided it would be good to tweet my weight loss and exercise gain. I thought my doctor might follow me on Twitter and then I wouldn't have to take up surgery time. I showed it to her this week, and she wasn't a bit interested. I still have to go to the surgery. If anybody else would like to follow my endeavours and cheer me on my way down, I'm robparsons. That, by the way, is real proof that Twitter is still very new technology - my name hasn't already been nicked by one of the other robparsonses. There are a lot of us about.

So I went to the bank, and joined the queue for the cashier. As I came to a halt the very large man in front of me was just baring his buttock cheek to show his scar to the two very good looking women on his left. I took my phone out and pretended to get a shot. One of the women then started lowering her trousers to show off her scar. I could say I made my excuses and left. But I didn't. She was the mother of the other woman, it turned out, and the scar was where she'd had her kidney taken out to give it to her daughter. The daughter looked to be a really good health. Rather wish I had taken photos now.

It's been that kind of week.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, the Tories can't punctuate

Leaving aside the issue of the Conservative candidate for Henley working as a lobbyist for developers while claiming to protect the green belt, (hat tip to Alex and LibDem Voice) and leaving aside the smoke screen that the Tory party is trying to put around the issue (apparently it's dirty tricks to tell the truth about their candidate), they do seem to be unable to get their apostrophes in the right place.

Check out the wording on the back of the Tories' "Protect the green belt (with our developer lobbyist chum)" leaflet, helpfully reproduced here by the Guardian. "We, the undersigned.... reject the Liberal Democrat's proposals..." As any fule kno, that apostrophe, as it refers to a plural, should be after the "s". Back to school for the Conservative Henley campaign's proofreading department.

Update: and my deepest apologies to Pink Dog for not noticing the breaking news in canine form, hat tip, hat tip, hat tip.

Tuesday 10 June 2008

Carers Can't Afford To Be Ill

This week, 9th - 15th June, is Carers Week, and the title of this post is its motto. Find out more at

They've produced a carer's job description which gives food for thought:

Likely to be appointed at short notice, probably overnight, and will be required to fulfil some or all of the following criteria:
1. Have the ability and stamina to work continual long hours
2. Be available to work up to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
3. Carry out tasks that in other environments would require at least two people
4. Be able to cope with high levels of stress
5. Receive little or no income for carrying out the role
6. Have a vastly diminished social life
7. Work in isolation with little recognition from the outside world
8. Communicate effectively with a wide range of professionals, including social workers, doctors and other health care professionals

The S104 tomato soup experiment

S104 has an experiment asking us to measure the amount of fungus in the air using a sealed container of tomato soup.

This is not for the faint hearted.

The sheep can read, and are disappointed.

I had an irregular container. I measured its volume by filling it with water and pouring it into a measuring jug. I did the same with the tomato soup can and subtracted the one from the other to find the volume of air. Out of curiosity I weighed the full measuring jug (capacity 500ml). It weighed 490 grams, so either the scales are out, or the jug is out or we have strange water in Ringmer. I decided it was close enough for the purposes of this experiment.

Two days. I've never seen such patient wool carriers.

Four days. Signs of life at last.

Seven days - the full Monty. Ruffles threatens to throw Ollie in.

I have an awful lot of fungus. 3.2*104 fungal particles m-3 to 2 s.f. I suspect the container wasn't as clean as it should have been.

Wednesday 4 June 2008

Now this is a very good idea.

Ther returning officer for Henley has just started a blog, with the aim of helping people "get a better understanding of how things work from start to finish".

I wonder if they'll set up a twitter as well?

Hat tip: Jonathan Calder.


Inspired - very inspired - by John Dixon on LibDemVoice, I want to put a word in for political correctness. I agree with some of the critical things that have been said about it in the Libdemvoice comments - in fact I find myself agreeing with Darrell, James and Asquith all at once. But I don't agree with the conclusion that we should bypass it entirely.

First of all, some of the definitions that have been used feel unduly exclusive to me. Although much of its short life has been unhappy, I prefer to remember that it was born out of a desire to bring about a social climate in which everybody was respected regardless of race, colour, creed, sexual orientation, etc, etc, etc. As far as I am concerned that is still a worthy aim, and I do not myself associate the idea of political correctness with the idea of state intervention or thought policing. That has come about because of a violent and successful campaign by the right wing to use it as a tool with which to beat the left (and a few, a few, lefties who've been too eager to give them cause), not bothering about the fact that many people who are not left wing quite like the idea of respecting other people. You rarely hear the term "political correctness" nowadays except in the phrase "political correctness gone made", or more usually, and ironically, given that those who say it usually regard themselves as the guardians of our language as well as of their rights, "plicrecnessgummad".

Just lately I have once or twice been in a situation of hearing acquaintances who are not notably right wing use the phrase. It has become such a stock that people use it without thinking. I have contested their version of the social reality of the situation. I've said, "I don't think that's fair on political correctness" (in the course of which I pronounce it properly). I point out that political correctness is about respecting people, and in this country discrimination and exclusion of minorities of all sorts is still a far bigger problem than the difficulty some people have with the idea of choosing their words carefully. That appeared to make them think which is a very good thing.

Now, OK, there are idiots on the left who have given the right an excuse to give political correctness a bad name. There are also idiots on the right who, for instance, still maintain that Luton Borough Council tried to ban Christmas despite all the evidence to the contrary, and that Birmingham tried to rename Christmas as Winterval, despite the eloquent rebuttal of a Birmingham press officer: "We get this every year... We tell them it's bollocks, but it doesn't seem to make much difference."

Joining in with the right and denigrating political correctness just because there have been a few loonies on the left misses the point. There is work to be done to prevent people with power from discriminating against people without power.

I would like to call it respect, because to my mind this country has a big problem with respect. It's one of the things I blame Thatcherism for – I don't blame Thatcherism for everything, but I do believe it went much too far in the deliberate destruction of social cohesion. Thatcherism did away with the last vestiges of the deferential society – a very good thing – and then went a lot further and threw respect out of the window as well. I would like to work for a return of respect. The trouble is even that simple, honest term is tainted, firstly, and weakly, by Blair's respect agenda – remember that (a good idea but so feeble in its execution)? Secondly and poisonously by its hijacking by the weasel George Galloway. Maybe it would be easier to start talking about respect rather than talking about political correctness – I don't know. What I do know is that when I say to my friends "I want to stand up for poltiical correctness, and here's why", they actually start listening, and that can be no bad thing. I assume it's because the idea is so novel given the constant outpouring of diatribe by the plicrecnessgummad tendency.

So at the moment, purely on an empirical basis, I stand up for political correctness because it works. I am sure that it will continue to be an uphill struggle though, but sometimes you have to dig in and damn well struggle. Things won't change until those of us who believe in respecting individuals start standing up for that belief and are as persistent as those who would denigrate it.

Tuesday 3 June 2008

Wood free?

My eye was caught by this report on LibDem Voice about the first leaflet put out by the Conservatives in Henley. Interesting how "outraged of Crewe" has turned into "local of Henley". It linked to a piece in ThameNews about the (very local) Green candidate, Mark Stevenson.

At the bottom of that piece Mark is quoted as saying, "But we have to be charitable about this", Mark continued, "it could just be a stupid mistake made in a hurry. After all 'intouch' also declared itself to be printed on woodfree pulp sourced from sustainable forests. Just how sustainable are woodfree forests? I wonder."

Well, I wondered what "woodfree paper" is, so I googled it. And I discovered that it's made from, er, wood.

Wikipedia explains.

And Siemens illustrates with a very clear, and, I must say, beautifully constructed interactive diagram. Siemens are also honest about the energy use involved in the production.

So it's a case of vote blue, get unsubstantiated claims about not using wood. But, before anybody else says it, I shudder to think how many LibDem leaflets might say the same thing.

You can get actual woodfree paper. Elephant dung is of course the latest thing, though questions arise as to economies of scale. I do wonder about the economics of rearing large herds of elephants in order to employ vast armies of, probably, non-Europeans to go poop-scooping behind them as they crash their way through what's left of the world's savannah. ( is "down for restructuring" at the moment. I thought that only happened to government departments.)

You can get paper that's not made from wood, but is instead made from other carbon forms, such as cereals or bananas. As far as I can see, that doesn't really make any difference, unless trees take a lot more CO2 out of the atmosphere than cereals (must check that - but if I remember rightly trees respire, cereals don't or something like that). It's still giving a large chunk of the planet over to a massive and polluting form of capitalist production. But can you beat a leaflet for getting the message over at election time?

Monday 2 June 2008

HTM on Openlearn

Health Partners International and the Open University have recently been collaborating on the production of a sample unit of a course on healthcare technology management for developing countries. The course is based on a series on six manuals that HPI (in its former incarnation of Ziken International) produced with DFID funding. The manuals are now freely available in electronic form. They are however rather big, each around 300 pages, and there are six of them. I was concerned about the usability of such a document and came up with the idea of basing a course around them, so that potential users could get familiar with the whole thing and decide how much of it they want to use.

The unit was finished in May and is available at the Openlearn Labspace site:

We took it to the Institution of Engineering and Technology conference on Appropriate Healthcare Technology for Developing Countries (see the post below) and gave it a run out. I introduced it, giving some of the history of the manuals project, Giselle Ferreira introduced the Openlearn platform and Pieter de Ruijter introduced the course itself. There was some lively discussion afterwards and there seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm for the idea. But the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. We'll get some user stats from the OU later this month and then we'll sit down and see if there is a case for finding funding for the whole thing. I will shortly be advertising it on Infratech and asking for constructive criticism. I feel enormously pleased with it despite having done nothing on it myself – all I did was bring the right people together. So now I wait with bated breath to see what engineers and civil servants all over the world think of it.

Appropriate Healthcare Technology

I recently attended the Institution of Engineering and Technology conference on Appropriate Healthcare Technology for Developing Countries. You might think it's not the sexiest thing to do but a) it's at Savoy Place with a gorgeous view over the Thames, b) healthcare technology in developing countries means the differencve between life and death for a lot of people c) they showcase the most alluring bits of kit and d) you get to meet a lot of really interesting people from all over the world. It happens every two years. I first went in 2006 and was bowled over by items such as the open source solar powred wireless router for setting up intranets in the jungle, and the $300 foetal heart monitor that works off mains, battery, solar power or wind up.

This conference was much like the 2006 one in having two strands. The first and brighter strand is the introduction and discussion of new pieces of kit or new uses for known technology. Stars of this occasion were
- the Shakerscope - a light source which is powered by shaking it up and down, and then has ophthalmoscope, otoscope and laryngoscope fittings.
- the U-Flow meter – primarily because of cost. The standard machine costs about £4000, compared with the U-Flow's, wait for it, £7. I now know a lot more about urology than I did before.
- the touchscreen medical record system devised by Baobab in Malawi.

The second strand, for which there were more presentations, and which was keenly debated, was a number of presentations on management issues. The first presentation, given by GTZ's Joseph Riha, was typical – an account of the four year process, still not completed, of getting the idea of having an HTM policy accepted in Cameroon. This was typical of the presentations which followed, and of informal conversations, in which the talk was of equally long lead times, lack of coherence or cohesion in approaches at different elvels in the organisation, if not in the same level, and general difficulty and intransigence of the situation. This mirrors the feeling at the last AHT conference I went to in 2006. Two years has not moved us very far. One of the key factors is that GTZ were big funders of HCT and decided a while ago to pull out of the field. The outlook for funding was quite bleak two years ago, but this year there are some indications that other people are beginning to step into the hole left by GTZ. There is, however, a clear picture of unjoined up thinking going on among health ministries and districts all over the developing world.

There were further examples of badly specified equipment, badly maintained equipment, lack of ground preparation, careless handling, machinery useless due to lack of spare parts, etc – we don't seem to have moved forward there at all. The figure normally quoted (and used by Mladen Poluta in this conference) is 50% of hospital equipment lying idle for one reason or another. There was a debate at the conference as to how true that figure is with some maintaining that there is evidence that it is only 30% - it's still a lot of millions.

Peter Heimann noted the lack of research tools to meassure impact, and even the lack in our knowledge of whether the difficulties are policy driven or capacity driven.

Mladen Poluta - - (you need to scroll to the bottom) started from the definition currently adopted referring to "the drugs, devices, and medical and surgical procedures used in healthcare, and the organisational and supportive systems within which such care is provided.". And its goal is "…optimising the acquisition and utilisation of healthcare technologies to achieve maximum beneficial impact on health outcomes" (quoting Rakich et al). And issues in the field are that HTM is or has:

highly politicised
many role-players
low skills base in DCs
environmental constraints

He advocates a formal framework for management policy, much as project management as such has a formal framework. He suggests AIM-HIT, as developed at Cape University over some years,

Assessment – Innovation – Management
Healthcare Infradstructure and Technologies

I think this has the particular virtue of focussing on infrastrcuture as well as on technology, but it also seems to leave a lot uncovered. Earlier in his presentation, Mladen talked about the need to see HTM in project management terms. Much of the other stuff he talked about was different ways of saying the same thing – in other words the need to manage properly:

a) Match delivery to capacity
• Prioritisation
• Asset management
• HR– building and retaining capacity
• Information

b) determining efficacy and effectiveness (bearing in mind the much greater difference in the developing world between efficacy and effectivenss)

c) providing quality, coverage and doing it at the right cost.

All these are things which good managers do, which raises in my mind the question of whether the capacity exists in many places to do this properly. This is clearly a key issue because of the proportion of budget that is sunk in HCT already, and the impact that HCT could have on health and survival rates.

There's a lot more in his presentation which can be found via: but the key thing is this issue about management - if we don't get it right we will continue to lose millions of pounds and millions of people unnecessarily.