Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Must everything be computerized?

I heartily agree with James Delingpole below.  Computers are being used in ways that make it HARDER to do things.  I no longer drive to places where I encounter computerized parking meters.  I just go where there is free car parking.  And I am no novice.  I have been working with computers since 1967 -- JR

When I was growing up, one of my favourite TV programmes was Tomorrow’s World — a show about the marvellous new high-tech gadgets destined to make our futures so much easier and more fun.

If there was ever a specific episode dedicated to the joys of the cashless society, I’m sure it would have got me every bit as excited as the ones about the pocket calculator, the personal stereo and that wondrous replacement for vinyl records (so robust, according to the Tomorrow’s World presenter, that you could even spread jam on it without making it unplayable) called a compact disc.

What, after all, could there possibly be not to like about a world where all your payments were processed electronically?

No more shrapnel weighing down your pockets. No more dirty coinage, which thousands of grubby fingers had touched before you. No more of those tatty banknotes which always seemed to fly out of your pockets whenever you pulled out your hankie.

Instead, all transactions would be conducted cleanly, swiftly and invisibly via things called ‘Credits’ — or perhaps ‘Creds’ for short — just like the ones Judge Dredd used in my favourite comic 2000AD.

Well, now that future is very nearly upon us — but I’m not at all convinced that it works.

The rot started a few years ago when it suddenly became impossible to use coins in our last surviving telephone boxes.

Next, London bus chiefs decided we could no longer pay for our journey in cash (‘legal tender’ as it used to be known). Passengers now can use only prepaid tickets or Oyster travelcards, contactless payment cards or concessionary tickets. This can make life very difficult for visitors to the city or vulnerable people who might be stranded late at night without the necessary pre-paid cards for transport.

Now, Brighton and Hove council has joined the war on real money by phasing out all its coin-operated parking ticket machines. Inevitably, other councils will soon follow.

Yes, I know we’re supposed to get excited about this new cashless world, but I’m not sure many of us are. In fact, for most of us, I suspect, the downsides far outweigh the benefits.

For me, the moment when the scales fell from my eyes came a while back in London, when I first tried using one of those cashless parking systems like the one they’re now trying to inflict on Brighton and Hove.

Simply finding a free space in the centre of the traffic-clogged capital is tricky enough. So you can imagine my frustration when, having at last eased my car into a precious spot, I then discovered I was unable to stay there.

Instead of a traditional coin-operated meter, the parking space simply gave me a phone number to call so that I could register my vehicle and then begin the laborious process of paying.

The experience was incredibly tedious, fiddly and time-consuming — rendered even more awkward by the fact that instead of typing in the details on my phone, I had to speak them into it.

The experience of using the parking system was incredibly tedious, fiddly and time-consuming    +3
The experience of using the parking system was incredibly tedious, fiddly and time-consuming

But the voice-recognition software at the other end of the line seemed incapable of understanding my English. (Maybe it was designed for Americans?)

So, the result was that I found myself standing by my car, unable to move (for fear of pouncing traffic wardens), increasingly late for my appointment, repeatedly, desperately enunciating my car number to an unsympathetic, utterly useless computer.

At least in the old days, when you had a real human being at the other end of the phone, you could eventually make yourself understood. But with a machine, there’s no room for negotiation, discussion or any kind of human sympathy.

If the software is flawed or the system is down, that’s you completely stuffed: yes, you may be more than eager to pay no matter how much for the right to stay in the space you’ve found — but when computer says ‘no’ you’re doomed.

And if it’s difficult enough for me, I’m pretty techno-illiterate but do at least know how to use an iPhone, imagine how much worse it is for the older generation, some of whom don’t have a mobile phone.

If they’re anything like my 80-something father-in-law, it will mean quite simply that they can no longer use a London (or a Brighton and Hove) parking space.

Which is most unfair for someone who has been used to driving freely in and out of London all his life. Now, thanks to the benefits of a technology which was supposed to make life easier, he has had his freedom arbitrarily snatched from him.

Another big worry with these new cashless parking tickets — again, especially for the elderly — is that you can never be 100 per cent sure whether or not you’re safely registered, or if you’re going to be ticketed or overcharged.

What, for example, if you accidentally typed in the wrong code number for your parking space and end up with a fine because your car wasn’t where the warden had been told the payment was made for?

What if — as happened to someone earlier this year — you mistakenly type in the location code of their parking bay as the number of hours of your stay and, instead of paying £15.30, you end up being billed for £5,340?

You might have guessed — but the council where this happened was . . . Brighton and Hove! Yes, you can probably get your money back in the end, as this driver did. But who in their right mind wants to go through the rigmarole of trying to negotiate a local council’s labyrinthine appeal system?

The whole point of these systems is that they seem to be designed to make the appeals process as unappealing as possible. That way, they get to keep more drivers’ money, which is, of course, what all of this is really about.

In what Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has called ‘daylight robbery’, many councils make millions from parking fees. Top of the list is the London borough of Westminster which now receives more from parking fees than council tax. (In 2013-14, it made £51.03 million.)

Even Green-controlled Brighton council isn’t doing badly out of the cars it professes to loathe: together with Hove, its revenues from motorists amounted to £18.09 million last year. All of this, of course, is merely a foretaste of the misery we can expect to experience as the cashless economy becomes more fully embedded in our culture.

You can see why the authorities are so keen to impose it on us: it cuts staffing costs and increases profits. It makes it easier to glean information on us via our credit card details and phone records. It vastly reduces the opportunities for tax evasion as it puts an end to the cash-in-hand black economy.

What’s much less obvious, though, is what exactly is in it for us. Do we really want to live in a world where, instead of a granny slipping a crisp £10 note into her granddaughter’s birthday card, she has to obtain a book token or iTunes gift card?

Must we say goodbye to the era when you could negotiate down the price of a second-hand car by offering a bundle of notes?

Surely, there must remain at least a few areas of life where our every purchase isn’t scrutinised by the taxman and snooped on by the authorities: what we paid, say, for a few old plates and some collectible postcards down at the car boot sale?

And it’s not — whatever Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls might say — that we’re all trying to use cash-in-hand to cheat Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs out of its rightful share of the economy.

Rather it’s that we’ve grown up using cash (starting from when we got our first pocket money) and we find it comfortingly familiar, convenient and somehow much more meaningful and real than its electronic equivalents.

Spend £1,000 on credit and it feels almost imaginary (which is probably why so many of us are so deeply in debt). Spend £1,000 in cash and there’s an inbuilt reality check: to lay out that much hard-earned cash you must want what you’re buying really badly.

One other thing cash does — and it’s why I think we’re going to miss it so much — is that it binds us to other human beings. Whether in the form of coins or banknotes, it’s something we can exchange with one another as a physical symbol of our transactions.

We use it in the same way all our ancestors have done, since time immemorial. And now the dictators of the State want to snatch it away from us. Is it any wonder we’re so resistant?


Sound fiscal management beats infrastructure

MARTIN HUTCHINSON is being very iconoclastic

The Indian budget on February 28 slackened the much needed effort to move that country’s fisc towards balance in order to spend more on infrastructure. It was accordingly much praised by the Keynesian media worldwide. While the Lord knows infrastructure is much needed in impoverished India, and its cost there is presumably not as bloated as in the West, this choice still betrays a misguided sense of priorities. Budget deficits suck resources from the private sector to the public sector and leave the private sector impoverished and feeble. A drastic cutback of the public sector, especially in its regulatory aspects, would do much more for the Indian economy than even the most attractive “stimulus” infrastructure spending. A fortiori, that is true for rich economies such as Japan and the United States where infrastructure is already adequate.

Public choice theory quickly shows us why large infrastructure projects may be highly economically damaging. Politicians don’t have to pay for them, yet get the glory of opening them and in some cases getting major projects named after them. Generations untold, for example, have a better opinion of the economically disastrous President Herbert Hoover by contemplating the sublime Hoover Dam (which by losing re-election in 1932 Hoover himself was unable to open). Built at a time when infrastructure projects were still moderately efficiently constructed, it has provided massive amounts of electricity to the western United States for 80 years. It thus epitomizes the case for infrastructure spending, although it should strictly be named the Coolidge Dam, construction having been authorized by Hoover’s modest and effective predecessor in 1928.

The British High Speed Rail 2 project is a classic example of the bloated infrastructure genre. Its economic benefits are modest at best, cutting around 30 minutes off the journey time from London to Manchester, yet its cost is estimated at an astronomical 43 billion pounds ($65 billion), even at the doubtless over-optimistic figures of its sponsoring government department. It will doubtless project great glory on the next prime minister but three at its opening in 2027 (it’s not clear why David Cameron favors it, since he’s most unlikely to attend the opening, except as a second-tier geriatric guest in the background.)

To see why this is a bad idea, consider the original railway line from London to Manchester, which took the form of three separate projects, the London to Birmingham Railway, the Grand Junction Railway and the original 1830 Liverpool to Manchester Railway. Both the later projects were approved by Parliament in 1833, and construction was begun on both later that year. The London to Birmingham was opened in September, 1838, while the Grand Junction had opened a year earlier in July 1837. The three lines merged in 1846, and the combine, including numerous branch lines and the Crewe construction facilities, a total of 535 miles of track, was capitalized a few years later, according to an 1853 “Shareholders’ Key” at 31 million pounds, being 21 million of equity and 10 million of debt – a sum equivalent to about $5 billion today (and at that time the largest capitalization of any company in Britain.)

Note the difference in planning and construction efficiency from today. In spite of the far less efficient construction methods used, the London/Manchester railway complex was built in less than 5 years for a cost of less than $5 billion equivalent – the “Shareholders’ Key” gives a cost for the three original lines of 12.4 million pounds, equivalent to about $1.9 billion today. A functionally equivalent railway today is expected to take 12 years to build – beyond the 6 years’ planning already taken – and to cost about 30 times as much, in real terms.

This is not solely because today’s railway is built through built-up areas – the areas concerned were already heavily populated in 1830. It’s partly due to the lower intrinsic efficiency of public sector projects against private sector enterprises, but above all it’s the result of the insane costs of bureaucracy and regulation that are added to large infrastructure projects in today’s world.

You can do the same calculation in respect of the proposed tunnel under the Hudson River recently killed by New Jersey governor Chris Christie versus the functionally identical Holland Tunnel opened in 1927, and come to the inexorable conclusion: In today’s world, at least in wealthy “developed” countries, large public sector projects cost at least ten times what they should cost, or (in real terms) would have cost a century ago.

The economic implication is thus clear: if infrastructure costs ten times as much as it should, because of regulatory, environmental and bureaucratic cost inflation, then the world should stop building infrastructure altogether unless its need is so painfully obvious that it can be built and funded by the private sector.

Such a moratorium on new infrastructure projects is a perfectly economically viable strategy for a reformist government. If an Interstate (say) becomes so overcrowded that traffic jams abound, then a private sector toll road will be highly profitable, without the government intervening at all. That toll road will be subject to regulatory and environmental nonsense, but it will at least avoid the political process and absurdities such as the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act requiring “prevailing wages” to be paid on federally funded or assisted public works contracts, which in practice imposes union featherbedding on such contracts.

As the infrastructure deteriorated, public demand would build up for infrastructure spending, which a wise government would resist, while undertaking studies identifying all the cost bloating factors that have caused infrastructure costs to soar, and introducing legislation eliminating as many as possible of those costs. Eventually the cost of infrastructure would be reduced to no more than twice its inflation-adjusted 1900 level, at which point public works could recommence.

Overpriced infrastructure is especially pernicious because of its effect on budgets. Politicians can convince themselves, if nobody else, that infrastructure boondoggles are really “investments” and therefore should not count in budget calculations. The result is that public debt soars uncontrollably, while the overpriced infrastructure makes losses (however it is priced, and especially if its use is not priced at all) and hence does nothing whatever to offset the cost of the debt raised to fund it. Eventually, the result is bankruptcy, either of the polity concerned or even (in the case of Greece, whose infrastructure boondoggles were mostly funded by the EU) of the larger entity funding the waste.

Japan is the cause celebre for infrastructure waste. Ever since the boom ended in 1990, the Japanese government has tried to stimulate the economy by endless Keynesian programs of “stimulus” infrastructure spending. By 2000, Japanese infrastructure spending had reached 6.5% of GDP, twice the level of France, the next most profligate country. Junichiro Koizumi brought it down, and went some way to solving Japan’s fiscal problem, but his successors, including notably Shinzo Abe since 2012, have reverted to infrastructure spending stimulus. For example Japan’s transport infrastructure spending alone in 2008-10 averaged 30% higher than the OECD average as a percentage of GDP, 38% higher than the OECD average, 50% higher than the United States (even in those years of the Obama stimulus) 70% higher than Germany and 25% higher than even France. Since Japan is a geographically compact country that has in the last two decades hopelessly over-“invested” in infrastructure, its current overspending is especially egregious.

In India, with its abundance of low-cost labor, it is of course possible that public sector infrastructure suffers less from the sort of cost bloat that blights Western programs, but knowing what we do about Indian levels of corruption it has to be said that such a claim is barely credible. We do know that in 2012 the country spent 4.7% of GDP on infrastructure, less than China but more than almost all rich countries. We also know that the Indian public sector deficit, including the central government and the states, peaked at close to 10% of GDP in 2013, and is probably running at 6% of GDP in 2015-16 (the Federal deficit is forecast at 3.9% of GDP.)

India’s two greatest economic needs are to scythe back the “permit raj” that has made investment in that country such a problematic process and to reduce the public sector’s drain on the country’s resources, which will cause trouble in the next global credit crunch, due soon. Infrastructure spending, such as the 100,000 km of new roads proposed in last week’s budget, should not be expanded until these objectives have been met. It is simply not a priority.

The wealthy world’s budgets are all in some difficulty, disguised by nearly a decade of pathological interest rate conditions, with fatuous “stimulus” programs in many countries never having been properly reversed. Given the excessive cost of infrastructure in rich countries, and the need to control public spending, it would be sensible to allow a few bridges to fall down, while forcing the vested interests surrounding infrastructure provision to disgorge their ill-gotten gains and return its costs towards nineteenth century levels.

Public infrastructure provision has failed. It needs to be eliminated, and provision made for the private sector to step in, at much lower cost, where there is a need.


Tony Abbott: Australians 'sick of being lectured to' by United Nations, after report finds anti-torture breach

United Nations special rapporteurs are regular producers of anti-Western rubbish

Australians are "sick of being lectured to by the United Nations", Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said after a report found Australia's treatment of asylum seekers breaches an international anti-torture convention.

Mr Abbott's criticism of the UN follows his attack last month of Australian Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs, in which he called the report she commissioned on children in detention a "political stitch-up".

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has rejected a report from the UN that says Australia has breached its obligations on the anti-torture convention.

The United Nations report, by the UN's special rapporteur on torture, finds Australia is violating the rights of asylum seekers on multiple fronts under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez found the detention of children, escalating violence in offshore processing centres, and the detention and proposed deportation of two groups of Sri Lankan and Tamil asylum seekers were in breach of Australia's international obligations.

The report, which will be tabled at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, has been rejected outright by the government.

In extraordinary comments on Monday afternoon, Mr Abbott attacked the UN and said its representatives would "have a lot more credibility if they were to give some credit to the Australian government" for stopping boat arrivals.

"I really think Australians are sick of being lectured to by the United Nations, particularly, particularly given that we have stopped the boats, and by stopping the boats, we have ended the deaths at sea," Mr Abbott said.

"The most humanitarian, the most decent, the most compassionate thing you can do is stop these boats because hundreds, we think about 1200 in fact, drowned at sea during the flourishing of the people smuggling trade under the former government."

Mr Abbott said the best thing the government could do to "uphold the universal decencies of mankind" was to stop boat arrivals. "And that's exactly what we've done," he said.

"I think the UN's representatives would have a lot more credibility if they were to give some credit to the Australian government for what we've been able to achieve in this area."

Last month, the government made a series of personal attacks on Professor Triggs, the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission – Australia's human rights watchdog.

Mr Abbott branded a commission report on children in detention that revealed alarmingly high rates of sexual and physical abuse a "transparent stitch-up" and Attorney-General George Brandis said he had asked Professor Triggs to resign.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said on Monday the government "rejects the views of the special rapporteur that the treatment of illegal maritime arrivals in detention breaches international conventions".

"Australia is meeting all its international obligations and with other regional nations provides a range of services to people who have attempted to enter Australia illegally," Mr Dutton said.

Mr Mendez says in his report that the Abbott government had failed to adequately address concerns raised under the convention about four specific incidents.

Among the concerns raised was that escalating violence on Manus Island, and the "intimidation and ill-treatment of two asylum seekers" who gave statements about last year's violent clash at the centre was in breach of the convention.

The report also finds that recent changes to the Maritime Powers Act to give the government the power to detain asylum seekers at sea and return them violated the convention.

Mr Abbott said on Monday that the needs of all asylum seekers on Manus Island "for food, for clothing, for shelter, for safety are being more than met".

"The conditions on Manus Island are reasonable under all the circumstances. All of the basic needs of the people on Manus Island are being met and, as I said, I think the UN would be much better served by giving credit to the Australian government for what has been achieved in terms of stopping the boats," Mr Abbott said.

As a result of the government's failure to "sufficiently" answer questions, Mr Mendez concludes in his report that "the government fails to fully and expeditiously cooperate" with the Human Rights Council's mandate.

He said Australia was not complying with its international legal obligations to promptly investigate and prosecute acts of torture or cruel or degrading treatment.

Labor said on Monday the Prime Minister was "absurd" for attacking a globally respected organisation for not giving more credit to his government.

"Instead of launching a cheap attack on the report's author – Tony Abbott should be providing an assurance that all the processing facilities Australia funds are run in a safe, humane and proper manner," Labor's immigration spokesman Richard Marles said.

"A critical part of that is ensuring Australian-funded facilities process people's refugee claims without delay."

Human Rights Law Centre director of legal advocacy Daniel Webb said the report made it clear Australia's policies and actions were in breach of international law.

"The government always assures the Australian people that it complies with its international human rights obligations. But here we have the United Nations once again, in very clear terms , telling the government that Australia's asylum seeker policies are in breach of international law," Mr Webb said.

"Australia signed up to the Convention Against Torture 30 years ago. We did so because as a nation we agreed with the important minimum standards of treatment it guaranteed. Yet here we are 30 years on, knowingly breaching those standards and causing serious damage to our reputation."

Human rights lawyer Greg Barns says he is working with Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie on seeking that the International Criminal Court launch an investigation into crimes against humanity by members of the Abbott government in relation to the treatment of asylum seekers.


'Britain's white jihadi' a teen from Australia

A westerner pictured alongside Islamic State group fighters and dubbed by media as "Britain's white jihadi" is in fact a teenager from Australia who converted to Islam, a report said Monday.

A picture of the meek-looking youth, holding a rifle and sitting in between two jihadists with a black IS flag in the background, emerged on Twitter in late December.

At the time the militant group, which has run rampant through swathes of Iraq and Syria, hailed his recruitment as "a major coup" with the British media dubbing him "Britain's white jihadi".

Doubts about the authenticity of the picture subsequently emerged after a blogger claimed he had fabricated the image to hoax the British press.

But Australia's Fairfax Media said the photograph had now been positively identified by friends of the teenager and members of two mosques in Melbourne.

It identified him as a former high-achieving 18-year-old student called Jake, declining to reveal his full name at the request of a family member.

He was described as a maths whiz who attended the Craigieburn Secondary College in Melbourne but dropped out in the middle of last year after converting to Islam and buying a one-way ticket to Istanbul en route to Iraq and Syria.

His identification came after Australia stopped two teenage brothers at Sydney airport believed to be heading to the Middle East to fight, amid growing concern in Western countries over young people joining jihadist groups.

That case followed three British schoolgirls leaving their London homes to join IS in Syria in February.

"He used to come here when we had a big lecture," Abu Zaid, a committee member of the Hume Islamic Youth Centre in Coolaroo, told Fairfax Media of Jake.

"He was a very quiet guy, he stuck to himself. We weren't close to him. I didn't see any of the people (getting) close to him."

The newspaper said the youth now goes by the Islamic names Abdur Raheem or Abu Abdullah.

It said that two months after his disappearance, he contacted his family to tell them he was in Iraq training for a "martyrdom mission" with a suicide vest.

He later called again to say he was "too scared to do it and he prefers being a soldier" and was planning to travel to Syria.

Around 140 Australians have travelled to fight with IS and other terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, with another 150 supporting them at home, the government has said.

Former immigration minister Scott Morrison said the case showed indoctrination was happening in unexpected places.

"It's very hard to make assumptions on who's going to fall prey to the death cult," he said of IS, adding that the government needed "every available tool to stop people joining the fight overseas".



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the  incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of  other countries.  The only real difference, however, is how much power they have.  In America, their power is limited by democracy.  To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already  very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges.  They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did:  None.  So look to the colleges to see  what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way.  It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH,   EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS and  DISSECTING LEFTISM.   My Home Pages are here or   here or   here.  Email me (John Ray) here


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