Archive for the ‘thursday posts’ Category

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Blog Action Day 2008 – Poverty

2008 October 15

Although today’s Wednesday, this is Thursday’s post. (Is it Thursday yet anywhere in the world?) That’s because today is Blog Action Day 2008. This year’s common blogging subject is poverty. For those of you who don’t know about Blog Action Day, you can learn more here: http://site.blogactionday.org/

The link also offers 88 suggestions from bloggers on how to do something right now about poverty. I’ve added the list on the “continue reading” link at the end of my own post.

What is poverty? Let’s define poverty as the lack of wealth. So let’s define wealth. Wealth is assets minus liabilities. Assets are things like cash, cash deposits, money investments, property, land, and so on that can be used to pay off liabilities. Liabilities are debts, money owed; and obligation to pay which may have to be paid by assets. This is the money cycle. Poverty is often taken as relative as well as absolute. So the money cycle can be an upward or a downward spiral. If it’s downward for you, you get poorer. If it’s upward for me, I get richer.

One man’s wealth means another man’s poverty. Does it have to be this way? Well, were that it were that simple. In fact the distribution of wealth has been said to follow something called a Pareto distribution. The picture below, from the Wikipedia, shows the shape of this kind of distribution.

Wikipedia.

Image showing Pareto distributions. Source: Wikipedia.

If you remember your high school graphs, the X-axis goes left to right. The Y-axis goes bottom to top. Imagine decreasing wealth going left to right on the X-axis. Now imagine a decreasing number of people going top to bottom on the Y-axis. Then what you see is that few people have most of the wealth. And most people have least of the wealth – more people live in poverty than in wealth.

So a few men’s wealth means many men’s poverty. (Including women and children in “men”, here.) But is “poverty” just about money and assets?

To finish off, here’s a thought. If a few men’s wealth means many men’s poverty (and women and children), which is the more true for you:-

a) The many poor are undeserving, or
b) Those of the few more wealthy that think the poor are undeserving are themselves undeserving, or
c) Neither, or
d) I don’t care?

Which are you: one of the few more wealthy or the many more poor?

“…All life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars.”
Martin Luther King.

“Wealth elements have poverty elements.”
Thich Nhat Hanh.

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Hero Killed in Norwich – The Need for Change

2008 October 2

UK readers may have heard on the news this week about a killing in Norwich. Norwich is my county town and is usually sleepy, when it comes to murders anyway. The murder was of a millionaire banker, Frank McGarahan, who intervened in a dispute. Reported on the BBC News website, his brother, Tony, said:

“He would not and could not stand by and watch a defenceless young lad and his girlfriend, who were in a taxi queue after enjoying being out together, being mindlessly attacked by a large group of grown men.”

He said his brother “did what was natural to him to try and help someone because they needed help.” And he said of the murder:

“We will never understand how or why anyone could murder such a decent, caring and loving man.”

Mr McGarahan leaves behind a wife and children.

According to BBC News, the man and woman attacked were a 35 year old homeless Lithuanian man and his girlfriend of 45 from Norfolk. A bouncer who also intervened in the fight had his jaw fractured. Mr McGarahan’s brother and cousin are also reported to have tried to help the couple.

The local newspaper’s website, EDP 24, reported that three local men in their 20s had been arrested about the murder. Norfolk Police are still keen to hear from anyone who witnessed the events. Norfolk Police can be contacted on 0845 456 4567.

The area where the attack took place is just two minutes walk from Norwich’s central police station. It is a few seconds from City Hall. And incidentally from the place where the comedy post recently featured here on the Norwich Elephants was filmed. Residents and regular visitors to Norwich will be familiar with the Guildhall, Tesco Metro store and taxi rank where the incident happened.

We do not yet know fully what happened. But it highlights the growing feature of modern Britain of anger and ignorance of the rights and feelings of others. This was recently highlighted in a short series, Losing It, on the BBC. I must admit to missing the first part, which is repeated on BBC1 at 00:25 next Thursday, the ninth. The second part is screened on BBC1 at 23:20 on Monday, the sixth.

It is trendy now to blame bankers for our economic troubles. But in considering how I may have reacted, I think Mr McGarahan was a hero. It shames me, and I suspect the other six out of ten Britons who admit this, that I probably would not have intervened. In getting involved, in trying to break up a dispute, he showed courage.

We can all do something, however, by learning mindfulness. By cultivating attention to the here and now and to the feelings of others, we can each of us change our world. Even if it is only a small change we make. Small changes add up. Simple things like:

  • Recognising a homeless person is a human being with feelings who may well be in his or her circumstances unwillingly,
  • Considering the feelings of another even during a confrontation and even if our own feelings are hurt,
  • Recognising our own feelings before we lose control of them,
  • And being considerate to others in general. How often do we hear of stabbings, beatings and so on that began with minor events?

Paying attention to the moment, to our surroundings, to the situations of those around us helps prevent needless suffering great and small. We can prevent accidents by being attentive when driving, cycling or walking. We may not all have it within us to show the kind of courage of Mr McGarahan. But we can at least have the courage to buck the trend of anger, selfishness and inattentiveness. The wings of a butterfly can affect the course of a tornado. Even a small change, good or bad, may have greater consequences down the road.

In today’s economic climate, we may well find ourselves in need of the kind of help we would not have thought possible a year ago.

Metta.

Suggested Reading*

Nhat Hanh, Thich. (1990). Breathe! You are Alive: On the Full Awareness of Breathing. Rider.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. (1990). Our Appointment with Life: Discourse on Living Happily in the Present Moment. Parallax Press.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. (2006). Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. Parallax Press.

*Please note that these are Buddhist books. I invite you even if you are not a Buddhist to read them at least once. You can then judge for yourself if they are useful in your life, and whether practising mindfulness can improve the lives of us all. You do not have to study or adopt Buddhism to practise mindfulness or meditation.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Zen master living in France. You can learn more about his lineage here: http://www.interbeing.org.uk/teachers/thay.html

Sources for News Story

http://new.edp24.co.uk/content/news/story.aspx?brand=EDPOnline&category=News&tBrand=edponline&tCategory=news&itemid=NOED30%20Sep%202008%2013%3A59%3A40%3A903
http://new.edp24.co.uk/content/news/story.aspx?brand=EDPOnline&category=News&tBrand=edponline&tCategory=news&itemid=NOED30%20Sep%202008%2017%3A05%3A06%3A130
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/7644616.stm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_effect

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Axing of the UK’s Energy Consumer Watchdog

2008 September 25

The BBC this week reported that the consumer watchdog Energywatch will be scrapped at the end of this month. Energywatch is an independent body that monitors the gas and electricity industries. In a move criticised my MPs as a “spectacularly bad idea”, Energywatch will be absorbed by a new multi-purpose agency, Consumer Focus.

MPs on the Commons Business and Enterprise Committee said consumer protection was being risked. The new body will replace the National Consumer Council and Postwatch as well as Energywatch.

The chief executive of Energywatch, Alan Asher, said: “There will be some support for consumers under threat of disconnection, and some other vulnerable customers, but I fear that it’s going to be a rather limited service and most of us will be left to fend for ourselves.” Labour committee member Michael Clapham said: “We require somebody in that market who is robust and is going to take aggressive action to make sure the interests of consumers are looked after. By removing Energywatch, we are not going to have that.” Energywatch has helped five million customers recoup £35M since being set up in November 2000.

The government said Energywatch lacked powers and was inefficient. Consumer affairs minister Gareth Thomas said: “What we are bringing in is not only a body which will continue to represent consumers, we are also forcing companies to handle complaints better. People shouldn’t have to go to a complaints handling body.”

But the Child Poverty Action Group is worried about the timing. And that the new body will be focussed on setting itself up while families struggle to pay bills.

Already reported in Thursday Series, energy companies talk of passing on the £910M for help to consumers – to consumers. And they are receiving covert subsidies from government. And they are charging consumers around £38 a year each for generating stations they have yet to build.

Meanwhile, Times Online reported on the 14th that these same energy companies are still tricking customers out of money.

Times Online reported a number of tactics that energy companies use to boost profits from customers:

  • Energywatch warned in the week 7th-14th September of customers who have underpaid for long periods due to estimated bills. In some cases, these have been charged for up to two years. When an actual reading is sent, they can be overcharged by up to £100. Why? Because when calculating the back-readings, the companies have used today’s – higher – prices and not those at the time. Energy companies deny the practice is widespread.
  • Energy companies have changed from announcing price rises a week or more in advance to just hours. This prevents customers switching before being charged higher rates.
  • In an anti-competitive move, companies have started charging exit penalties for switching suppliers. British Gas and Scottish Power charge up to £100 and £50 respectively.
  • In defiance of European Union rules, lawyers say customers not paying by direct debit are being over-charged £699M. EU rules say the supplier charges must reflect the cost to the supplier. Individually this is only £20. But suppliers are charging up to £69 more according to Ofgem.
  • And energy companies are also lowering the reductions for paying by direct debit. British Gas raised bills by 35% for quarterly paying customers and 42% for direct debit paying ones.

Sources

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7626620.stm
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/money/article4747151.ece

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UK: Lights Out in Five Years

2008 September 18

In last week’s Thursday Post, we looked at the UK government scheme to help households with rising fuel prices. We saw that a deal was struck with privately-owned energy companies. And we saw that straight away those companies hinted they would pass on the costs to households.

We also saw that the UK government said they allowed the companies to keep huge windfalls to finance future power generation. And we also saw that a National Housing Federation report warned the companies were instead passing the windfall on to shareholders.

This week, how energy companies are:

  • Charging consumers £1Bn a year in bills for wind farms that aren’t being built fast enough,
  • Yet we will have blackouts as early as five years from now, because
  • The companies cannot build nuclear plants fast enough to meet the government programme, and yet
  • Despite saying publicly the nuclear industry must fund the building, taxpayers’ money is being offered.

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Gordon Brown Deal on Fuel for Poor: Companies May Charge Customers

2008 September 11

Today, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown, announced plans to help households with rising fuel costs. Criticised for not imposing a windfall tax on fuel companies, the government instead agreed a £910m package with them. Already the companies are hinting they may pass the cost onto consumers.

Mr Brown urged the energy companies not to pass the costs onto customers. But David Porter, Chief Executive of the Association of Electricity Producers that represents the six largest hinted the energy companies may pass the cost of £1Bn measures onto customers, saying they may not be able to avoid it.

The outline of the plan is this:

  • Encouragement of bill payers to save money by paying by direct debit,
  • Half price insulation for all households regardless of income,
  • Free cavity wall and loft insulation for pensioners and poor households,
  • A freeze on price rises for those on benefits with social tariffs,
  • An extra £16.50 per week for pensioners, the unemployed with children under five, and the disabled if there is a severe winter,
  • A partial reversal to the cut of the Warm Front programme giving free central heating to the poorest pensioners,
  • House to house calls in deprived areas to offer help.

The Prime Minister said “Our objective is nothing less than a sea-change in energy efficiency and consumption, at the same time as helping the most vulnerable households this winter.”

“This is the right approach, giving priority to permanent – not just one-off – changes, with the offer of lasting benefits and fairness for all families, cutting bills permanently every year,”

That the energy companies may pass the cost onto customers is unfortunate given:

  • The 19% increase in dividend payouts to shareholders last year,
  • Meaning a £1.64Bn payout to shareholders in dividends,
  • Research by the Local Government Association found that the big six were “not necessarily” keeping profits to invest in future technology,
  • Business Secretary John Hutton denied the government was being soft, saying they had to be allowed to make a profit to guarantee future investment,
  • Prices have already been raised to consumers:-
  • NPower: Gas up 17.2%, electricity up 12.7% on 4 January,
    NPower: Gas up 26%, electricity up 14% on 29 August,
    EDF Energy: Gas up 12.9%, electricity up 7.9% on 15 January,
    EDF Energy: Gas up 22%, electricity up 17% on 5 July,
    British Gas: Gas up 15%, electricity up 15% on 18 January,
    British Gas: Gas up 26%, electricity up 16% on 30 July,
    Scottish Power: Gas up 15%, electricity up 14% on 1 February,
    Scottish Power: Gas up 34%, electricity up 9% on 29 August,
    E.On: Gas up 15%, electricity up 9.7% on 7 February,
    E.On: Gas up 26%, electricity up 16% on 21 August,
    Scottish & Southern: Gas up 15.8%, electricity up 14.2% on 19 March,
    Scottish & Southern: Gas up 29.2%, electricity up 19.2% on 21 August,
  • A National Housing Federation report suggests almost one in four people will be in fuel poverty by next year. Fuel poverty is defined as spending more than ten percent of income on energy bills.

Mark Owen-Lloyd, head of power trading for E.On UK, said at an Ofgen seminar yesterday that a bitter winter with already high energy prices “will make more money for us.” E.On was quick to apologise for the remarks.

Comments

The government’s proposals have been received poorly by unions and many campaigning on pricing and fuel poverty.

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It’s the end of the World as we know it(?)

2008 September 4

BBC4 tonight hosts two programmes about the new device soon to be switched on at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. The particle accelerator, called the Large Hadron Collider or LHC, will investigate the frontier of particle physics. The LHC will collide particles are the highest energies yet: More than 7 TeV. This will allow scientists to probe conditions just one billionth of a second after the Big Bang.

The first programme screens at 8pm BST (GMT +1 hour). The first programme, called Lost Horizons: The Big Bang, charts the story of the theory of the Big Bang. The second programme, called The Big Bang Machine, looks at the LHC itself. Readers who cannot view BBC4, or who miss the programmes, may be able to watch them on the BBC i-Player service.

The LHC has proven a controversial project. First thought of in the early 1980s, it was approved in December 1994. Work began on its construction in April 1998. First tests were run on 8-11 August this year.

The LHC will work, like other colliders, by crashing particles against one another. Beams travel in opposing direction, and the results analysed. The first beam circulation test is due on the 10th (next Wednesday). And the first high-energy collisions due on 21 October.

Among the array of strange new particles physicists hope to observe are Higgs bosons. These are predicted in the “standard model” but have not yet been observed. Other searches are planned, including for extra dimensions, magnetic monopoles, strangelets and micro black holes. It is these last three that have produced some controversy.

The LHC Controversy

Concerns have been raised as to the safety of the LHC. These surround suppositions that it may produce dangerous phenomena including:

  • strangelets,
  • micro black holes,
  • vacuum bubbles,
  • magnetic monopoles.

The LHC Safety Study Group of independent scientists concluded in a 2003 report that there is “no basis for any conceivable threat“. They reaffirmed this in a 2008 update to the report. Two subsequent papers also confirmed their findings. However, one researcher caused a stir on 10 August, concluding: “At the present stage of knowledge there is a definite risk from mBHs production at colliders”. On 21 March an injunction was filed to stop the LHC’s start-up. The US government called for its summary dismissal after the 2008 report. On 26 August a suit was filed against CERN in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. This alleged that the LHC poses grave risks for the safety of the 27 members of the European Union and its citizens. The request was summarily rejected on the 29th. Though the case that it violates the right to life is still pending.

So what is the controversy? (Here comes the science bit, so pay attention!)

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Who Can we Trust to Keep our Data Safe?

2008 August 28

A cursory search of the BBC website shows how much data loss is in the media at the moment. I found seven stories about data that was lost this year alone. The culprits ranged from government departments losing data affecting four million people in the period January to April, to a Royal Bank of Scotland hard disk with bank account details of millions of credit card applications turning up on e-Bay. Yet these are not the only examples of how poorly it seems government and private business is treating our private data. And this treatment potentially puts our identities at risk. We have so far been lucky, as far as we know, that criminals have not stolen identities through such negligence.

It beggars belief how sensitive data like account details, signatures, phone numbers and family details – enough to open fraudulent accounts – can be stored unencrypted. Yet time and again we hear how data like this turns up in places like trains and online auctions.

Now there’s a new low in data security. When I applied for Incapacity Benefit, I had to undergo a medical. The government contracts out this to a private company, ATOS Healthcare. Out of the blue they phoned me one Saturday afternoon. I later discovered that it was to arrange this medical. But they started out, without introduction, asking me to confirm my postcode and date of birth. Assuming it was a phishing call (to try to get personal data in order to steal my identity), I asked for proof of who they were. I even rang the police, who said I’d done the right thing (but couldn’t do anything even if it was a phishing call). Eventually, they sent me a written form.

Thinking this was a one off, I forgot about it. Then I bought an item in America, on the Internet, by credit card. This is something I do rarely, and my credit card company flagged it. Their security team then phoned my mobile, again out of the blue. This time I got an automated system claiming to be the card company. It too began asking for sensitive security data. This time I phoned the number I had for them and sorted it out that way.

It seems to me that cold calling, starting out asking for sensitive data, is dangerous. Imagine I rummage through your bin and find a letter from FictionCard. You’re careful. You shred any sensitive data. This letter had nothing more than your name, address and phone number and saying how proud they were to offer such a great customer a lower rate. I now know you’re a Fictioncard customer. I have your basic details, and a number to call you on.

“Hello, is that Mr. Smith? Hello, it’s Fred here from FictionCard. We’ve had an unusual transaction on your credit card and want to check out that it’s a genuine purchase. Can I start by confirming your postcode and date of birth please…?” Which of course I don’t offer you. After all, I’m genuinely from FictionCard so you know I know this already. Right?

Crazy. Would your granny think before giving out this information?

Here are the items I found in a five minute search (United Kingdom):-

Health board lost patients’ data: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/south_of_scotland/7584048.stm
When financial data goes missing (RBS):  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7576572.stm
Firm ‘broke rules’ over data loss: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7575989.stm
Extent of data losses is revealed: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7570611.stm
Discs loss ‘entirely avoidable’: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7472814.stm
Tougher data laws needed, say MPs: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7168588.stm
‘Lax standards’ on data security: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7295467.stm