Sunday, 13 September 2020

Should we have more or fewer billionaires?

This is the second post* in what might be an occasional series in which I ask a question in the manner of an amateur psychometric test intended to give insight into people's preferences and prejudices. Note your answer, read the blog and then check whether you would still give the same answer. Like a psychometric test there is no "right" answer but the answers can still be revealing.

Today's question is: would the country be better if we had more or fewer billionaires? As it's in psychometric style you're allowed to pick from 5 answers: a lot more, some more, the same, fewer or a lot fewer. There is of course, no "right" answer but think of your response and then read on.

This particular question was prompted by reading about one famous billionaire, James Dyson, the UK's richest person according to this year's Sunday Times Rich List** and a young Brit who seems destined to follow a similar path.

Dyson has already gone from hero to zero. He commercialised bagless vacuum cleaners using cyclones -a well known concept to process engineers for decades but usually quite large devices. Indeed, Mrs H and I always found the early models far too heavy and cumbersome.Whereas the latest battery powered versions are just fantastic, a design triumph. (Yes, I do know how to use it....).  Further success followed with the air blade hand dryer which became so familiar when we used to travel and call at motorway services, if you can remember that far back. And he knows how to turn a profit: £1.1bn on £4.4bn of sales in 2018 is quite a margin for electrical appliances. The zero part started for some with his support for Brexit and he became a pantomime villain when he announced in 2019 that his company HQ would move to Singapore. Dyson says the move was not to optimise tax: the company expects to pay more tax as a group not less. And it has increased head count in the UK since the announcement - they have 5,000 people working on product development in Europe and North America. Dyson says that, as he sees the major future growth coming in Asia "if you are designing things for people in Asia you should be in Asia. You've got to live it and breathe it and think like Asians. It would be arrogant to think we can imagine products for that market sitting here in Wiltshire".

Like most entrepreneurs Dyson has had failures as well as successes. For example, there was a contra-rotating washing machine which had two drums rotating in opposite directions which didn't succeed. And more recently he set out to develop the world's best electric powered car but pulled the plug on the project after spending (I nearly said blowing but we'll come back to that) half a billion quid on the project. But if you presume that the project failed technically, you would be wrong.

The reason was purely commercial. Dyson designed a stylish 7 seater SUV with a windscreen raked more steeply than on a Ferrari. Huge though, weighing 2.6 tons even though the body is aluminium. Huge enough to accommodate a battery pack that would carry it over 600 miles on a single charge and with plenty of innovative features. The prototype looked superb. But Dyson decided he could not bring the car to market as it would have had to be priced above £150k. Whether or not that is good value the simple fact is it is a lot higher than the electric models sold by BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Jaguar  Land Rover who all subsidise costs through sales of traditional petrol and diesel cars. So Dyson reluctantly pulled out after investing £500M of his own money. Yes that's a lot but Tesla has burned through $19 billion of investors' cash without making a profit yet. And the work Dyson has done on optimising battery electronics and other aspects may yet be of value.

What about Dyson's personal circumstances? He is domiciled in the UK. He paid £103 million in personal tax in 2018, the fourth highest according to the Sunday Times Tax List (yes, they have one of those as well). That's enough to cover the employment costs of about 2,500 NHS nurses for a year. So Dyson's company makes a lot of profit, but they invest a lot and his company and he personally pay loads of tax. He owns loads of land - more than the Queen - but that means he pays to maintain it. Overall Dyson would seem an example of a billionaire who is a major asset to the country.

What about this next guy?

His name is Fred Turner and he's not a billionaire - yet, anyway, but I wouldn't bet against it happening. The 25 year old Yorkshireman is on his third or fourth business idea already. He first came to prominence aged 15 when he began building a polymerase chain reaction genetic testing machine in his parent's cellar. It subsequently won him the UK Young Engineer of the year award.  A farmer contacted Turner and persuaded him to test his cows to gather data for breeding, feeding and health management of his herd. Turner set up a company to provide genomics data to farmers which he ran while studying at Oxford. Then, aged 19, he dropped out of Oxford and moved to California where he was accepted into the well known Y Combinator start up accelerator which invests in launching businesses. But the farming idea didn't work - there weren't enough farmers interested in using the technology. So Turner pivoted to an idea based on helping doctors to prescribe the right drugs to patients with sexually transmitted diseases taking account of antibiotic resistance. That also failed to take off: Turner wound it up and launched a company called Curative, the target being testing for sepsis, a big market as 1.7 million people are affected each year in the USA. And then the Covid-19 pandemic appeared.

Turner reckoned the normal supply chain for testing could flex by perhaps 20% when an increase of 10 to 100 times was needed. Turner saw no point in designing a new test which would have to compete with other companies for scarce supplies. So Curative designed a do-it-yourself test which didn't rely on nasal swabs, for which there would be competition for supplies and which also doesn't require supervision by a health professional wearing PPE. You cough three times, swab the inside of your mouth, drop the sample into a tube and seal it in a bag. The test soon received emergency authorisation by the US FDA. It has proven to be as accurate as the more invasive approach, which I suspect is more reliable provided the swab is taken properly - a significant proviso. I know which sample I would rather provide. 

Turner's test was being used within days on government officials, fire and police officers in southern California. By May his  company was making over 100,000 tests a day and won contracts with the US Air Force, the city of Chicago and the state of Delaware. By the end of July it had won a $42 million contract to supply a quarter of a million tests to the US Department of Defense. As of 9 September Curative claimed to be carrying out 10% of all the USA's coronavirus tests.

In the early stages the test was offered to the UK's Department of Health and Social Care. I expect you can guess what happened. Turner was told "random offers" weren't being accepted and to go through the official process. Curative supplied all its information, including its US authorisation and its capacity, only to receive an email saying "we're not interested. We are no longer accepting testing proposals". And that was the last they heard.

People like Dyson and Turner have an insatiable will to achieve. They have ideas and the vision and drive to turn them into reality. When one idea doesn't work they react quickly and pivot to another, many times if necessary. They go where they can get their ideas implemented. 

Now what was your response to the question posed at the top - would the country be better if we had more or fewer billionaires? Note I said "better" not "better off". I'm not asking whether billionaires pay enough tax, their residential status or anything else, just whether you think it would be better if we had more or fewer of them in the UK.

For me it's a no brainer. I'd rather have a lot more billionaires, especially ones like Dyson who create wealth and employment and pay their taxes. I accept the country might be less equal, but Soviet-style equality of misery (apart from the apparatchiks of course) has never appealed to me. And we need to do more to keep people like Fred Turner in the UK, so there will be more like Dyson in the future. Otherwise we'll all be poorer.

* The first punk psychometric was Should we carry coals from Newcastle? (Northumberland actually) on 7 July.  The question posed was: should we allow any more coal mines to be built in the UK?  Like many my knee jerk reaction would be to strongly disagree but, after reading the facts, I flipped to srongly agree. Meanwhile the government still sits on the relevant planning application which I have predicted they will "bottle".
** Rich List 2020 was in the Sunday Times magazine 17 May 2020.
*** Turner's story was told in Oxford dropout's winning test for Covid-19, Sunday Times 17 May

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Moth beaten?

Democracy Man suggested my last post, identifying some moths I'd found around the house with, it turned out, predictable names, implied I was getting a bit moth eaten. Actually that was the point - this whole identifying moths thing started last year when Mrs H asked if any of the moths we were finding around the house were the type that eat your clothes. So I checked. So far, they're not. These are the ones you don't want to find: firstly the case-bearing clothes moth, tinea pellionella:

and secondly the common clothes moth, tineola bisselliella:

Both are small, with a wingspan of 9-16mm and they are among the moth varieties that don't feed. All the damage is done by the caterpillars and the only purpose of the adult moths is to breed. The common clothes moth prefers scuttling to flying. Though generally associated with houses both types of moth can and do live in the "wild", sometimes being found in birds' or wasps' nests.

My first conclusion was that the attractive "butterfly-shaped" moths are a decoration rather than a problem: the ones you don't want are small and narrow, tucking their wings in at rest. The specimen I found that I was most suspicious of looked quite similar:

However I assuaged my nerves by identifying this small brown moth I found in the house as - surprise, surprise - a Brown House moth. Although superficially quite similar to the buggers above, it's quite a bit bigger, with wingspan 15 to 26mm. The caterpillars can live for up to two years (!) and they feed on detritus that accumulates behind skirting boards and other similar places. Charming - and all the skirtings only went on 3 years ago!

There have been some rather more attractive specimens, many still with predictable names. This one is called the Red Underwing:

Which might not seem appropriate until it flies:

As you can see you can't snap these guys very clearly in flight. For this reason I have identified many moths only after they have pegged it and they are decorating the floor. I let this one fly out, but this is what they look like if you can pin them down:

I know it's orange rather than red, but remember the word "orange" to describe colour only dates from the 16th century. There are also light and dark crimson underwing species.

I also found a common swift (though it wasn't very swift by the time I found it):

Mrs H found a Common Plume, which tucks it's wings away to look like a glider:

She got quite excited as she initially thought it was a stick insect. And, outside the house in the garden (though admittedly on the door of my car) I found a Garden Carpet:

Identifying moths with certainty isn't always easy. The size of some adult species can vary greatly and, while the patterns are a good guide they can vary subtly, while colours can vary a lot too. So I have been beaten by several species, including this handsome specimen, which had paler hind wings but flew too quickly to be photographed:

However, we haven't seen a moth in Wales as bright as those we saw while walking along the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire, like the Five Spot Burnet, often found on such chalk downlands. Guess how many spots it has on each wing?

We were, of course, convinced it was a butterfly until we got back home and checked our wildlife guides. These days I would refer first to my new favourite webpage, the page titled "identify a moth". The site also answers that old question - what's the difference between a butterfly and a moth? No, nothing to do with colour, hairiness or time of day. Indeed their expert says:

"Unfortunately, there isn’t a straightforward answer – at least not one that most people find acceptable."

noting some subtle differences before going on to say:

"The real answer to the question and the answer that people find so troubling is that there isn’t really much of a difference at all. The fact that in English at least, society has different words and, indeed, very different attitudes to them is largely a cultural concept rather than a scientific one. All moths and butterflies belong to the group Lepidoptera, which is one of the great, mega-diverse insect Orders on the planet, comprising some 165,000 species worldwide of which only c.18,000 are butterflies. A similar situation exists in Britain where we have only about 60 butterfly species but over 2,500 recorded moths. So, clearly if we want to apply a common, English name to the Order Lepidoptera ‘moths’ is much more appropriate than ‘butterflies’."

I accept my current preoccupation is very sad. But maybe sadder still the new football season started today, which may change my focus for a while. Though it may not improve my humour.....

* The photos of the moths I didn't snap, including the clothes moths, are from

Saturday, 22 August 2020

More unsurprising names

 I've written occasionally about how the common - and sometimes proper - names for flora and fauna sometimes fairly obviously stem from their appearance. For example, sticky weed and cotton grass. We always get quite a few moths in the house summer and autumn months and recently these have included this beauty, which looks just like mother of pearl, along with its photo in Collins Complete British Wildlife:

Turns out it is, of course, known as the mother of pearl moth. It's cmmon and widespread throughout much of Britain and Ireland and is found in meadows, wasteground and overgrown hedgerows (tick for all of those nearby).

Then I found this one, which has an unusual marking like a letter "y" on each wing:

Of course, it's called the silver Y and is Britain's most common immigrant moth. I'm not sure where it migrated from but there are plenty of other immigrants around here in north Wales, including ourselves. As Collins notes, each forewing has a conspicuous unbroken metallic silver y marking (it looked more gold to me, so I checked it wasn't another species called the scarce silver Y, but it's definitely not that).

I also found this one on the floor in our dining room:

This absolutely beautiful species is called the striped twin spot carpet moth. The description is "light to dark grey with many faint cross lines, a slightly darker central cross band, with small dark central spots always present" (tick to all those). This medium sized moth prefers moorland with exposed rocks (yep, got those) but can also be found on sand dunes and open woodland (also tick). It is reasonably widespread in north and west Wales, even if I hadn't noticed one before. My only problem is that, although a lot of British moths have "carpet" in their name, it wasn't actually on the carpet.

The latter two weren't in the Collins book that I had considered a bible - after all it's got "complete" in the title. But then we've had it a while and there has been a lot of immigration. So I found a super website which has a page "identify a moth":

Isn't retirement wonderful?

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

An A grade mess

The government decided to stop digging an even bigger hole by backtracking on A level results rather than carrying on and applying the now infamous algorithm to GCSEs and making the hole deeper. Nevertheless, this remains a fiasco that will probably generate more headlines yet, with universities now presumably swamped with successful candidates and wondering how to accommodate the extra students while still heeding social distancing. Though no doubt those same universities are relieved to have the maximum possible home grown candidates to replace some of the revenue lost by the decline in more lucrative overseas students. Predictably some universities are saying they will need more money to take the extra students, as their budgets will still be out of balance without fewer Chinese students in particular. Nine UK universities were reliant on Chinese students for more than 20% of their tuition income, led by Glasgow (31%) and Liverpool (29%). Watch out for another self righteous storm of entitlement if Rishi doesn't cough up the cash and some students find they have to spend a gap year not seeing the world.

The remarkable grade inflation (38% more A and A* grades than 2019) means this year's cohort will forever have an asterisk by it, a bit like a super-charged athlete in a dope ridden Olympics, but as A levels are pretty much used solely for university entrance decisions that need not matter too much.

Boris Johnson described the process as "robust" and "dependable" only a few days before it was ditched. I can only assume he hadn't been briefed in any detail about what the outcome would look like. Once that was revealed I imagine he was nearly as unhappy with it as any hard done by student since the way the algorithm gave preference to schools with small class sizes and historically good results worked directly counter to his concept of "levelling up".

In the run up to the U-turn I read a bit of background to the story. This was partly to counter my knee-jerk prejudice that, once the teachers assessments were shown to be preposterously and unrealistically generous, there was probably no good answer to the problem.  But also because this felt to me like a train wreck occurring in slow motion from the time the exams were cancelled.

So I Googled "how much grade inflation in teacher assessments" to check the stat I believe I read that 40% of teacher assessed grades were adjusted downward through application of the Ofqual algorithm. And I found a remarkable plum: a blog post by someone called Dennis Sherwood from way back in May on the Higher Education Policy Institute's website. HEPI tasked Sherwood with tracking the state of this year's public exams. There was much controversy about the failure of Ofqual to publish full details of its algorithm but it did announce the 'key principles' to be used in ensuring GCSE and A level grades were "as fair as they can be". Those principles were:

  • schools submit their central estimates for each candidate and rank order of candidates for each exam
  • Ofqual apply a standardisation model comparing these estimates with the school's track record (over the last 3 years for A levels)
  • Ofqual adjust the grades to fit the model without changing the ranking order
  • Overall the national grade distributions would be broadly in line with previous years

As is clear from the title of his blog post, "Two and a half cheers for Ofqual's standardisation model...",(note 1) Sherwood was fairly complimentary about the basis for the algorithm. Indeed he said "To me this all makes good sense. The rules are simple. There are no behind-the scenes statistics and the process can be replicated at every school. So teachers can have confidence that their centre assessment grades, submitted in compliance with their historical averages, will have a high likelihood of being confirmed rather than over-ruled." Note the italics are my emphasis. And the rest of Sherwood's blog post title was " long as schools comply".

So the first obvious problem is what if schools don't comply? If teachers did not moderate their grades in accordance with previous distributions, which was standard practice when I was a lad, and lots of them give lots of their students the benefit of the doubt on grade boundaries, then there will be a lot of grade inflation. As Sherwood pointed out "Ofqual's key objective is to prevent grade inflation". So then the model will produce lots of changes and a high likelihood that many teacher assessments would be reduced rather than confirmed.

But the point that grabbed my attention came next, when Sherwood explained why he only gave two and a half cheers. He gave a detailed example for 6 imaginary schools, showing their grade performance over the previous three years. He assigned 60 pupils at each school grades from A to F, each school having an average of 10 candidates in each grade with a range of plus or minus two. If each school again has 60 candidates they would each school be expected to submit 10 A* grades. But what if schools feel they've had a good year with a strong cohort? Maybe 12 A*s would be pushing it but surely 11 ought to be ok. If they all put in 11 A*s there are 66 instead of the expected 66 and Ofqual's algorithm will throw a wobbly (Sherwood uses the phrase "the board must intervene"). If asked, every school will have a reason why they are a special case, which Sherwood felt would be difficult to judge fairly. If any of these reasons are accepted another school must reduce its number of A* grades to 9, which Sherwood felt "just won't happen". So he concluded "it's in everyone's interests to submit the average, 10". Now I don't have any evidence to support me on this but many schools presumably did not do this, they just pushed the boat out. So Ofqual would then inevitably moderate each of these imaginary schools down to 10 A*s by using the rank order of the school's candidates, downgrading the candidates ranking lower than 10th on the school's list.

However, that's not all. Sherwood said there was one "nasty problem". He even gave the person an imaginary name: Isaac: 

"But what about poor Isaac at school G? He is particularly gifted at Physics, and his school recommends him for an A*, even though the school has never achieved above grade B for years. The submission on behalf of Isaac will easily be identified as an outlier and so is quite likely to be disallowed. Isaac, however, will not be consulted; nor will his teacher. So Isaac will be awarded grade B, consistent with his place at the top of the rank order. He will be a victim, and his school too, for this year’s process traps all schools as prisoners of their pasts."

Wow! So the whole issue of high performing candidates at traditionally poor performing schools was staring everyone in the face 3 months ago! Interestingly, Sherwood didn't seem to think this was a great problem:

"But before we weep too much on Isaac’s behalf, let us remember that Isaac is just one of the huge number of people disadvantaged (to say the very least) by this most pernicious virus, and although this is a pity, many people have suffered far more gravely, and without recourse to the autumn exam at which Isaac can prove his A*++."

Hmm. Sherwood might be an education expert but he hasn't got any political antennae whatsoever. We've had more than a decade now of sound and fury about the dominance of private school candidates and low representation of ethnic minorities at Oxbridge and a whole area of activity has built up around inclusivity and diversity in university admissions. I recall a great hoo-ha about a female state school pupil called Laura Spence from North Tyneside who had straight A*s at GCSE, was predicted to get top grades in her 4 A levels and was the only one of 100 pupils in her school year to apply for Oxbridge. Laura was rejected by Magadalen College Oxford on the grounds that there were 22 candidates, all with similar qualifications, for 5 positions and she had not interviewed as well as others.  This was in the year 2000, Tony Blair ("education, education, education") was PM and it became known as the Laura Spence affair (Note 2).

Yes of course Isaac could miss a year, take his exam and prove his worth but this point as much as any other created the problem for the government. Yes there were strange examples of whacking great downgrades from C to U (fail) because the algorithm demanded that if a school was due to get a fail in a subject then its weakest candidate damned well had to fail. But the problem is that, once the results are published the Isaac's aren't imaginary, they are real teenagers with names and the media will find them within hours. This was the emerging story, running 180 degrees counter to the  "levelling up" agenda, that probably created the most discomfort for the government. Gavin Williamson's inability to ask enough questions to see it coming means that he must be a dead man walking. Johnson  presumably feels it better not to make a change before the schools go back in case they don't and to let him carry the can for any problems with that as well.  

Remember, Sherwood said all this 3 months ago, on 18 May. By 23 July he was warning of looming problems. In another HEPI blog (Note 3) he warned that hindsight shouldn't be cited as an excuse when something goes wrong if it was clear it was going wrong: it's better to use foresight. He noted the Education Select Committee had criticicised Ofqual for not publishing its algorithm and had expressed concern about how fairness was to be ensured for schools lacking three years of data or with small, variable cohorts. Ofqual did publish a slide pack from a symposium which contained some "good news" (small cohorts recognised as needing special treatment), some "bad news" (appeals process still very narrow and technical) and some "sad but unsurprising news" (the vast majority of schools had given optimistic GCSE and A level grade which would have meant an unprecedented rise in results).

Sherwood asked an obvious question - why were teacher assessed grades required at all if it was the intention to moderate them to previous profiles? He proposed two alternative strategies which could have been adopted. The first was for each school to be told exactly how to comply with the "no grade inflation" policy. The exam boards know the historical pattern for every school and subject and how many candidates were entered for 2020. They calculate how many grades are allowed in each subject at each school and send a form for them to fill in the names.They might also allow schools to exceed a grade allocation where there is robust evidence, depending on how much wiggle room for modest grade inflation Ofqual would allow. The second was to trust the teachers to behave with integrity by supplying a spreadsheet set up to calculate grades based on history and dealing with averaging, rounding and year on year variability but enabling them to make adjustments for exceptional individuals. Neighbouring schools would act as external examiners in vetting the judgements and bodies such as the Sixth Form College Association and unions could have been involved in reviewing to suppress "gaming".

I'm not sure either of these options would have worked out a lot better. The first option would still have produced some Isaac type stories ("why did my school suddenly give me a B when I'd been working at A?"). The second option might have stood a chance. However the point is that people saw these problems coming; the government didn't.

I don't know what the thought process was at schools, but it wouldn't stretch the imagination much to think that many thought that all the other schools would be doing the best for their pupils so they should do the same and give every last one of them the benefit of the doubt. And I wouldn't put it past their leaders to have figured out that gaming the system to extreme would break it. Which I'm sure they would regard as a win.

All that said, I'm not without some sympathy for the teachers doing the assessments. I heard one teacher on the radio plaintively saying that he knew some of his students would make a mess of the exam, he just couldn't predict which ones. I guess this is where the rough justice of the ranked list does it's job, perhaps to 80% effectiveness. 

Which is probably better than the accuracy obtained in any normal year. It's worth remembering that exams are a poor way of evaluating candidates. This is partly because of marking errors and valid marking judgements: research has shown two markers can mark a paper differently. Ofqual say

'it is possible for two examiners to give different but appropriate marks for the same answer'.

And there is always the arbitrariness of grade boundaries, to the extent that Ofqual also say

'more than one grade could well be a legitimate reflection of a student's performance'.

It is estimated that 40% of exam grades are incorrect. So there are always injustices, with an estimated (by Ofqual presumably!) 750,000 annual victims of incorrect grades annually in England. Nevertheless exams are the best method yet designed for assessment and are likely to remain so.

Personally would have been aghast at the prospect of teacher assessments for my school exam grades, particularly at GCSE. As a somewhat shy and quiet student (at least until a switch flicked and I became well and truly gobby) I often didn't contribute much in class particularly in subjects I was less fond of. Some teachers might have thought I wasn't interested. But as a swot who often understood things better second time round with a decent short term memory and fairly large appetite for revision my exam results generally eclipsed my report assessments. Mocks usually went well but I think some teachers would have thought that a fluke, whereas I tended to do better when it was for real.

Indeed I was horrified to discover what my headmaster actually thought of me over 50 years ago now when a university interviewer breached protocol and told me what his report said. The report was based on yes, teacher assessments and also a cosy chat in his study. One peer who, having heard what sort of stuff the head found commendable, waxed lyrical about films such as Dr Zhivago (said peer went on to the dizzy academic heights of a PE college). I said what I thought (quelle surprise....)  "The candidate appears only to be interested in football and what he calls 'progressive' rock" the lecturer read out. After a pause and possibly seeing my expression he smiled and said "you'll fit in just fine here".

Years later my older son was a victim of an erroneous assessment by a science teacher which affected his science option at GCSE until Mrs H and I intervened. His physics teacher could not explain why the lad had not been allowed to tackle the more challenging version and corrected the error, though only after a term had elapsed and test results meant we just had to ask a simple "can you explain why" question. The teacher whose assessment had been used, known to us as Mr Woodlouse (note 4), was also the assistant head and our older son had always felt "he just doesn't like me". Don't worry son, it was obviously genetic.

I guess my point here is that the extent of grade inflation indicating a tendency to gross over-marking by teachers with a smaller number of cases where they have allowed bias to make their assessments too low demonstrates that teacher assessments will always be flawed. Some might say so are exams, though I would argue less so, as they are less susceptible to personal bias in either direction.

So one conclusion is that no system is perfect, there are always some wrong grade assessments and always will be. Does it matter? At an individual level it can, though most people dust themselves off and get on with the next opportunity. Unless a good candidate with a very specific and realistic goal is thwarted it generally won't turn out to matter that much, people with talent will succeed.

In the end the real casualties here are firstly, faith in our politicians and our "system" but secondly the "gold" standard of A levels will be tarnished, perhaps irreparably. The really bad outcome from all this will come in the future when the precedent of using teacher assessments effectively unmoderated is used to press for more teacher driven results, as I'm sure it will be, leaving us with no basis for believing anyone's grades. It smacks of prizes for all, a philosophy I have always disliked: one that has been proven to be harmful as it builds a kind of self esteem which expects success to come easily and is so fragile that it collapses when faced with challenging assignments. 

Indeed when 38% of A level results are A or A* and a preposterous 79% of university degrees are first or upper second we've pretty well got there already. Matthew Syed argued in his Sunday Times column this weekend that we owed it to our young people to allow them to fail, rather than expect them to pass everything. I would go further and say it is helpful for them to learn what they are really good at rather than maybe just competent. If the bright ones get A* for everything how do they know which subjects are the ones in which they might go on to be one of the very best?

In a normal year of course this wouldn't matter a jot. I spoke to a recently retired university admissions tutor who told me he had routinely ignored teacher assessments of candidates and had relied entirely on GSCE results and the university's own interaction with candidates. In other words teacher assessments haven't been worth the paper they are written on for some time, if ever.

Even so I don't begrudge the individual students their opportunities, even if I still think far too many go to university these days. It looked like the impact of covid on overseas students might burst that particular bubble by bankrupting some unis. Not yet, it seems.

I've often been heard to say that, when I have voted Conservative it has been because, on balance the party has a broader and more appropriate "gene pool" for government and a better track record of sound administration. Johnson's government has so far proved not to have the intellectual or stamina bandwidth to cope with the enormous pressures it has faced. I have a lot of sympathy for Matt Hancock who I would argue has, on the whole, done a good job - and probably a better one than 95% of the MPs currently in parliament would have done. He has been let down by his officials and quangos (and yes, by "our" NHS at times, particularly its hubristic leader Sir Simon Stevens). But Hancock has failed to ask key questions at the right time. For example, back in February he might have asked:

"all this PPE - is it still there? Is it still in date? What if we need a lot more for covid than flu? Or different stuff? What if it's needed in places other than hospitals? How do we distribute it to where it's needed?"

Similarly Gavin Williamson, in saying he didn't know until last weekend what the A level results were going to look like, has presumably also been let down by his officials, who surely had a responsibility to warn that there would be lots of Isaacs and the government would look an ass. But if he wasn't being told he should have been asking that question weeks if not months ago.

Dennis Sherwood knew what was going to happen. Officials in the Dept for Education presumably also did. But Gavin Williamson waited for the train to hit the buffers before finding out. An F for homework and a U for foresight then, leading to a f*** u*.

Johnson needs to get his most competent people in the critical jobs before his government begins to look accident prone, John Major style, before it has really got started. Major's government went on to be competent and effective, but the damage was done: the electorate was set on change less than half way through its term. Johnson isn't there yet but he's heading firmly in that direction at the moment. 

Note 1. Dennis Sherwood, a scientist by background, was amongst other things an Executive Director of Goldman Sachs  and MD of SRI Consulting (SRI once being known as the Stanford Research Institute, Stanford being ranked in the top five in the world in "major education publications". His blog post is at

Note 2. See, for example, Wikipedia. Laura was awarded a $65,000 scholarship by Harvard.

Note 3

Note 4. It's not difficult to guess Mr Woodlouse's real name. Unlike my old grammar school head Mr Williams, he's probably still living. No, I'm not worried about a libel case. My son went on to study physics at Uni which Mr W's original decision, based on him supposedly not being able enough, would have precluded. Teacher assessments can prove to be under as well as over estimates. The majority of them do a good job without bias but I expect most of us have seen it or felt it at some time. Centrally set exam papers don't have it in for individual students.

Monday, 3 August 2020

Jupiter and Saturn

If you get the chance take a look at Jupiter and Saturn, quite but not very low in the southern sky from 11pm onwards at the moment. When I looked at 1130pm on 31 July, mainly because there was an amazingly bright full moon, I was amazed to see two large "stars" visible quite close to the moon, with all other stellar objects in a very large arc completely bleached out. Obviously planets, but which ones? Jupiter and Saturn, the National Schools Observatory website* revealed. This is what I saw:

As you can see, Mars should also have been visible except it was behind a hill.

This sight reminded me of one of my favourite Pink Floyd tracks, the early era Astronomy Domine:

Lime and limpid green, a second scene
A fight between the blue you once knew
Floating down, the sound resounds
Around the icy waters underground
Jupiter and Saturn,Oberon, Miranda and Titania
Neptune, Titan, stars can frighten.....

The madcap Syd Barrett would laugh at you from beyond the grave if you asked what on earth that lyric means. When Roy Harper got to know David Gilmour in the late 60s he was fascinated by what Pink Floyd's songs were about, the sparse poetic imagery presumably hinting at unrevealed meanings. He was disappointed to be told they weren't really about anything at all, but then they were initially much more about soundscape and Harper concluded Floyd's music was an "aural accompaniment to a lifestyle". Not that there's anything wrong with that and the lyric does complement the music beautifully.

Early Pink Floyd were sometimes dubbed "space rock" though Wikipedia quotes two books to the effect that Astronomy Domine is the band's only overt space rock song, though there was an abstract instrumental called Insterstellar Overdrive. In an interview Roger Waters described the track as the "sum total" of Syd Barrett's writing about space, "yet there's this whole f***ing mystique about how he was the father of it all". Well, one song can be very influential Roger. After all, you then wrote Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun. So what's that stuff about Astronomy Domine being the band's only space rock track? Though what is Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun actually about? After all, the two verses of just four lines each bear little apparent relationship to the one line chorus/title. Well, it's been reported that Waters borrowed the lyrics from an English translation of a book of Tang dynasty Chinese poetry. The atmosphere of the song is provided by Rick Wright's atmospheric keyboards and Nick Mason playing drums with timpani mallets, but the studio recording is notable for containing some minor bits of guitar work by both Gilmour and Barrett making it the only Pink Floyd song featuring all five band members.

After Barrett left the band Waters started writing songs that did have clear meanings, though many of them were influenced by Barrett and the band's feelings for him as he struggled with mental health issues.

But back to Astronomy Domine:

Blinding signs flap
Flicker, flicker, flicker, blam, pow, pow

Stairway scare Dan Dare who's there?

Jupiter and Saturn, obviously. Take a look while they're so clear (the moon will be at a different phase and position of course, but click on the link below and it will show you what you should see tonight).

Oh and why not listen to a live version of the track while doing so. If you don't have Ummagumma to hand (if not, why not?) then there's always youtube, several versions but this live for TV in an empty San Francisco Fillmore Stadium is interesting:

*You can find a good view of the four quadrants of the night sky for tonight at different times on the National Schools Observatory site,

Friday, 24 July 2020

Mrs H gets political

My other half has joined the trend for international sanctions and trade embargoes. She announced (well, said to me over breakfast) that, with regret, she is implementing a boycott of Antigua and Barbuda.

What has this delightful small Caribbean country, one of our favourite locations in the world, done to merit sanctions being taken against it? Well, I had just told her that Antigua was one of 53 countries that voted for the pro-Chinese resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council debate on Beijing's new national security law for Hong Kong. 27 countries backed the UK resolution criticising the new law. 

I checked the list of countries published by Axios* because I was wondering whether the Chinese investment we saw on our first visit to Antigua in 2010 had bought influence. It has. The Chinese funded the Sir Vivian Richards cricket ground which was built for the 2007 World Cup. It replaced the historic Antigua Recreation Ground as the main cricket venue on the island. It was at the ARG where Brian Lara implausibly set the world record individual test score twice, with 375 in 1994 and 400 in 2004, both against England. It was also at the ARG that Sir Viv set a world record for the fewest deliveries to reach test century - 56 - in 1986. Yes, also against England. When the head groundsman saw us wandering round the outfield he gave us a guided tour, in return for a modest contribution to sponsoring his under 15s team's visit to England. Here I am pretending to be an umpire:

The new, modern stadium doesn't have the quirky feel of the ARG with its very varied separate stands but I suppose that is progress.

Yes, that is a football goal on the outfield. Cricket was still being played at the ARG in 2010, I'm not sure about now.

Antigua and Barbuda is a Commonwealth country but money talks against historical ties. On our visit in 2010 a guide pointed out the new Chinese-funded hospital, prominent on a hill above the capital Saint John's. And, tying ourselves in knots because of what counts as international aid, we failed to help them out after the devastating hurricane Irma in 2017 while China provided a US$16 million aid package, followed by a further $11 million in 2019 for affordable housing. I wrote at the time how daft it was that any hurricane aid we gave to our friends in the Caribbean didn't meet the aid criteria as those countries weren't officially poor enough** (they bloody well are now and we should help them anyway was the tone of my comment). The rules on what "counts" as international aid are set by the OECD's Development Assistance Committee. Countries with an average income per head of more than £9,400 do not qualify, even if their economy dips below that figure. Antigua and Barbuda is one of several countries which fell below that income level having previously exceeded it. To be fair we went ahead and gave £200M in hurricane relief assistance after Irma and Penny Mordaunt got the rules tweaked for the future after this particular aid nonsense.

Meanwhile we still give aid to China, whose economy is five times larger than ours. £71.6 million in 2018, a 29% increase on 2017. "The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we hang them" said Lenin. Ha, says Xi Jinping, they'll give me aid money to pay the bill. Somebody please get a grip of this, it is utterly crazy.

All the countries backing the UK resolution are regarded as "free", while the countries supporting the pro-China Cuban motion were those categorised as "not free" or "partly free" by Freedom House. Apart that is from three Caribbean countries: Dominica and Suriname as well as Antigua/Barbuda. All three and at least 40 of the other China backers have signed on to China's Belt and Road infrastructure project. Many of the African signatories are currently trying to renegotiate debt payments to China in the wake of the covid pandemic.

When we were in Antigua in 2010 Mrs H asked me why China was bunging the West Indian islands cash for cricket grounds and hospitals. I guessed it was influence - Antigua's vote at the UN counts as much as any other country's - rather than tweaking the US tail by having influence close to the American's back yard. After all, they don't need anyone other than Cuba to do that. Roll on ten years and Axios's Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian noted that "Beijing has effectively leveraged the UN Human Rights Council to endorse the very activities it was created to oppose."

As for Mrs H this new set of sanctions broadens those she already has in place against China. This is nothing to do with Hong Kong or China's arsey response to the Huawei decision: she has been boycotting Chinese restaurants and takeaways from before lockdown started in protest against the country's role in spreading coronavirus around the world.  I have to agree this step is logical: many British of folk Chinese origin travel back to China (or at least Hong Kong) and we don't know what they get up to with bats while they are there. So of course, in solidarity (or because I don't dare do otherwise), the only sweet and sour we are having these days is home made. Is that cultural appropriation, I wonder? And how will China respond to this latest British slight?

Anyway, back to watching the cricket: Mrs H hasn't (yet) barred Antiguans from appearing on our TV, though only spinner Rahkeem Cornwall in the 3rd test side is from the island, Alzarri Joseph being the other Antiguan. 

* Countries that criticized or defended China's security law for Hong Kong at the UN. Axios, 3 July


Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Should we carry coals from Newcastle? (Northumberland actually)

This is the first in what might be an occasional series in which I ask a question in the manner of a psychometric test. Note your answer, read the blog and then check whether you would still give the same answer. Like a psychometric test there is no "right" answer but the answers can still be revealing.

Today's question is: should we allow any more coal mines to be built in the UK? You can choose between strongly disagree, disagree, no opinion, agree, strongly agree.

The government now faces a tricky planning decision. No, not the Desmond London docklands housing project which Jenrick got into difficulties over, but a proposed open cast coal mine in Northumberland. The Highthorn project was approved by the local council, having been backed by both Labour and Conservative elected officials, in 2015. Their decision was backed by the national planning inspector, who concluded that the benefits of the scheme would clearly outweigh the likely adverse impacts. Sajid Javid, then Housing  and Communities Secretary, rejected the report and blocked the development. The company behind the scheme, Banks Mining, went to the High Court where the judge quashed Javid's ruling, declaring that his reasons, based on greenhouse gas emissions, were 'significantly inadequate' and that the Secretary of State had provided  neither evidence for his conclusion or by what reasoning he had arrived at it. Javid did not comply with the judgement before being moved. His successor, James Brokenshire, also prevaricated. It is now on the desk of Robert Jenrick, who was in a great hurry to approve the notorious scheme in London's docklands. But on this matter Jenrick, whose officials promised an answer by April, has so far avoided taking a decision, blaming covid when that has not changed any of the evidence.

What covid has done, however, is accentuate the jobs issue, the prime minister having committed to 'build, build, build'. Banks Mining, part of a diverse energy group which also operates 14 wind farms, was established in 1976. It has operated 115 surface mines in the north of England and employs 250 people. But not for much longer if this scheme does not proceed as next month they are due to close their (and England's) last one.

Burning coal is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and all sorts of other pollutants. The area where arguably the UK has made most progress on emissions is weaning itself off coal-fired power stations. So surely this decision is a "no brainer" as they say as coal mines are a bad thing? Well no, it isn't.

If we are going to "build, build, build" we will need steel, cement and bricks, the production of all of which currently requires coal. Soon there will be no coal-fired power stations left in the UK, a position I have looked forward to since the 1980s. But we still need five to six million tonnes of coal a year for the UK’s steel, cement and other industrial use. The high quality raw steel made in the UK cannot be made without coal and coke used in blast furnaces. In time that might change but not in the immediate future. Other UK coal customers include breweries, heritage railways, paper mills, sugar manufacturers, large commercial greenhouses and smokeless briquette manufacturers. Last year 86% of our coal came from overseas, over a third of it from Russia with some coming from Australia and the USA. Deciding not to extract coal ourselves, probably to higher environmental standards than in other countries does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions: transportation increases it.

But what about the UK's net zero carbon target? I defer to Dieter Helm, Oxford University's Professor of Energy Policy, just as I generally used to when we were both much younger and I worked in the same subject area in the 1980s:

"The story of the past 20 years is that ..... we have been de-industrialising and we've been swapping home production for imports, so even though it looks to the contrary [our policies] have been increasing global warming... There are no plans in the net zero carbon target which address that."

We can pretend to polish our green halo and outsource the coal production to other countries, reducing employment here, increasing global emissions and making ourselves more dependent on the rogue state that is Russia. Or we can apply logic and face down the bolshie Extinction Rebellion minority. The newly elected Tory MPs in the impoverished north east apparently describe this battle as "broke versus woke".

If Jenrick were to say "Yes" to the plans there will be a lot of noise because, in the modern world, social media has given the vociferous minority a platform to project their views while the silent majority remains as silent as ever. But carrying coals to Newcastle is an old saying for doing something pointless and it shouldn't be beyond the spin experts to explain just how pointless it is to bring coal in to the country instead of digging it up in Northumberland. Unless, of course, you think we shouldn't make - or buy from other countries - steel, cement and bricks at all and want to go straight back to a pre-industrial revolution way of life with equivalent living standards.

OK, back to the question: has your view changed?

My own answer, before I read the background would have been to disagree with any more coal mines being built here, but now I would strongly support it for our own domestic needs.

Politically this is difficult because of the "optics" from the green perspective, against which there is the red wall and jobs factors. The fact that Jenrick is already tarnished may give Johnson a kind of "free hit" if he leaves his beleaguered colleague to take the flak. However I fear the government will not "follow the science" (or at least the compelling logic) on this one but bottle it somehow.

Some data comes from 'Care about the planet? Rethink coal in the UK' at the Banks Mining website, which covers how the mining is done responsibly" and what happens to the site afterwards.

Some of this material came from Dominic Lawson's column What has 'builder' Boris got against the miners of Northumberland? in the Daily Mail on 6 July 2020.