Friday, 27 February 2015

Friday Fungus: Duet for slime mould and piano

Slime mould is pretty weird stuff. But I never saw its musical genius coming:

A duet for slime mould and piano will be premiered at an arts festival this weekend, giving new meaning to the term "culture".

Festival director and musician Eduardo Miranda has put the decomposition into composition: his new work uses cultures of the fungus Physarum polycephalum.

This mould is the core component of an interactive biocomputer, which receives sound signals and sends back responses.

The result is a musical duet between the fungus and Prof Miranda, on piano.

"The composition, Biocomputer Music, evolves as an interaction between me as a human playing the piano, and the Physarum machine," Prof Miranda told the BBC's Inside Science programme. 

I'm sure we'll find out what the slime sounds like in due course.


Urban agriculture - the latest green indulgence

Jane Jacobs argued in The Economy of Cities that agriculture was a consequence of urbanism not, as is commonly held, the reverse. Jacobs' argument was that settled communities developed in places where there was plenty of food and people in those cities began cultivating gardens and experimenting with growing rather than gathering food.

The problem is that, so far as archaeological investigation allows, this is not the case:

In The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs conjectured that the world's first cities preceded the origins of agriculture, a proposition that was most recently revived by Peter Taylor in the pages of this journal. Jacobs' idea was out of line with extant archaeological findings when first advanced decades ago, and it remains firmly contradicted by a much fuller corpus of data today. After a review of how and why Jacobs formulated her ‘cities first’ model, we review current archaeological knowledge from the Near East, China and Mesoamerica to document the temporal precedence of agriculture before urbanism in each of these regions. Contrary to the opinions of Jacobs and Taylor, archaeological data are in fact sufficiently robust to reconstruct patterns of diet, settlement and social organization in the past, and to assign dates to the relevant sites. 

This isn't to say that urban living isn't an important driver of invention and innovation but rather to observe that, however appealing, the idea that the countryside is sclerotic and trapped in an unchanging stasis wholly misrepresents agriculture and agricultural innovation. This doesn't stop urban designers, wrapped in green ideas, wanting to recreate that mythical urban agriculture. In one respect this represents the dream of having and eating the urban cake - we want the things that a large city offers in terms of variety, culture and opportunity as well as the bucolic charms of the countryside.

A team led by Perkins+Will and the LA River Corp just released the results of its Urban Agriculture Study for the area, which borders the LA River and gritty neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Cypress Park, Lincoln Heights, and Glassell Park. Funded by State Proposition 84, the study zeroes in on agriculture projects that can both attract green developers and serve local needs. Pilot projects are set to start this spring, and some related infrastructure has already begun. Other members of the team include community outreach partner GDML, urban agriculture expert Jesse Dubois, and financing consultants PFAL.

The proposals are financed through a bond intended for "safe drinking water, water quality and supply, flood control, waterway and natural resource protection, water pollution and contamination control, state and local park improvements, public access to natural resources, and water conservation efforts", and represent the usual smoke and mirrors associated with multi-agency urban environmentalism. At the heart of the project's rationale is the idea that the current model of agriculture less than environmentally optimal especially given the geographical distance between production and consumption.

However, the carbon footprint of food is overwhelmingly in its production rather than in its distribution - and this is why, in environmental terms, urban agriculture is a bad idea. This LA scheme illustrates the problem with its proposed production model:

Because the neighborhood has few greenfields, and could potentially have ground and air contamination, the plan suggests largely “controlled agriculture,” with internally regulated techniques like hydroponics, aquaponics, and greenhouses.

So rather than grow the food in a more-or-less natural environment, we opt instead for the use of high-cost, high-carbon 'controlled agriculture', for a world of high specification, architect-designed greenhouses rather than dull old fields with crops growing in them.

The proposers of the scheme also recognise that urban agriculture - other than for particular high margin markets - makes little or no economic sense either. They don't quite put it this way but that's what they're saying:

The study also suggests developing alternative financing methods, and in order to begin implementation, the team is now talking to non-profit partners like EnrichLA, which builds gardens in green spaces in local schools; Goodwill, which has a large training center in the area; Homeboy Industries, which runs a training and education program for at-risk youth; and arts group Metabolic Studio. The team is also meeting with local schools, food processing centers (like LA Prep), and government entities such as the Housing Authority of Los Angeles.

Nowhere in this is there any of that old-fashioned financing and this is because those old sort of investors (the ones without big charitable trust funds or taxpayers' cash in their piggy banks) look at urban agriculture and conclude that it simply isn't viable. We're getting a lot of very expensive infrastructure intended to grow food that right now is available cheaply and readily in the local supermarket having been grown in fields elsewhere in the world. More to the point those investors will look at the land being taken for this inefficient and expensive agriculture and ask questions like "wouldn't it be better to build houses with gardens?"

Indeed it's this question of land values - made worse in California by their very limiting planning system - that makes that urban agriculture uneconomic. Here's Pierre Desrochers describing the end of Parisian urban agriculture:

Urban agriculture in Paris and elsewhere quickly faded away at the turn of the twentieth century. The development of new technologies such as the railroad, refrigeration and improved fertilizers made it possible to grow food much more cheaply where nature provided more sunshine, heat, water and better soils. The movers and shakers in more profitable industries that benefitted from an urban location were willing and able to pay more for land while urban agricultural workers moved in ever-increasing numbers into more lucrative manufacturing operations. These realities haven’t changed. Urban farming simply does not create enough return on investment from scarce capital relative to other activities in cities.

Urban agriculture - whether grand schemes such as this one in California or local schemes such as Incredible Edible in Todmorden - is an indulgence rather than some form of environmental salvation let alone a viable economic proposition. And don't get me wrong here, if communities want to invest in these things - to collectivise the vegetable patch so to speak - that's great. Surrounding ourselves with living and growing things helps make the urban environment more pleasing - indeed there's nothing new about urban greenery:

According to accounts, the gardens were built to cheer up Nebuchadnezzar's homesick wife, Amyitis. Amyitis, daughter of the king of the Medes, was married to Nebuchadnezzar to create an alliance between the two nations. The land she came from, though, was green, rugged and mountainous, and she found the flat, sun-baked terrain of Mesopotamia depressing. The king decided to relieve her depression by recreating her homeland through the building of an artificial mountain with rooftop gardens. 

The world is improved by parks, gardens and we get joy from planting and growing but the prosaic industry of growing, producing and distributing the food needed to feed the world's billions isn't about that joy or pleasure but rather about hard economics facts. And one of those hard economic facts is that cities aren't the place for growing our food.


Thursday, 26 February 2015

Corruption in government. How bad can it get?


This is Chicago, Illinois:

Thirty-three Chicago aldermen and former aldermen have been convicted and gone to jail since 1973. Two others died before they could be tried. Since 1928 there have been only fifty aldermen serving in the council at any one time. Fewer than two hundred men and women have served in the Chicago city council since the 1970’s, so the federal crime rate in the council chamber is higher than in the most dangerous ghetto in the city.

This is the city that spawned Barak Obama:

Just look at who President Obama hired as top staff members. Daley fundraiser Rahm Emanuel served as Chief of Staff. Mayor Daley’s brother William followed him as Chief of Staff.  Another powerful figure is Mayor Daley’s deputy Chief of Staff, Valerie Jarret. The head of the less than successful Chicago Public School system, Arne Duncan, got promoted Secretary of Education. Chicago machine donor and housing fraudster Penny Pritzker got appointed to Secretary of Commerce. 

I make no comparisons in the UK. I can't think of a place as comprehensively corrupt. I fear though that the decline in mass membership political parties and the 'one-party' nature of some places means that a mafia or brotherhood could capture one of our great cities or counties.


Wednesday, 25 February 2015

What is an MP's job? Thoughts on second jobs, interests and representation


Today has featured one of those opportunistic occasions that Labour love, the chance to rant and rail at their favourite targets. Their idea - ill-thought through and selective - isn't to ban MPs having a second job or a second income but to  prevent MPs having a particular sort of second job or second income. Ed Miliband even sent me an email!


It's time to stop MPs taking second jobs once and for all. Your MP should be working solely in the interests of you and your community. 
Except that Labour doesn't mean a second job but specifically "directorships and consultancies". There are a thousand other ways to get extra money - George Galloway gets paid for delightful ranting shows on foreign-owned radio and TV channels, William Hague and Tristram Hunt write history books, and MPs like Hilary Benn or Margaret Hodge can sit comfortably on their huge piles of family cash so don't need to do those outside jobs.

So what exactly is wrong with being a company director or providing your expertise to others in exchange for money? When Labour sorts apply some intelligence and thought to the idea they make the case in this manner:

Consultancies and directorships are wholly different. A business only takes a MP on in arrangements of this sort if the relationship "adds value" to the company. In other words, gives them a commercial advantage. Hence from the outset the arrangement is potentially corrupt and corrupting, placing the MP in a conflict of interest between their private arrangements and public duties.

Now the same could be argued for media appearances, book deals and much else besides but the suspicion is that the MP will put his commercial interest before that of his constituents. And a blanket ban of directorships and consultancy means that an MP couldn't remain a director of a family business or provide, say, advertising and marketing advice to old clients. I do get the point here where it applies specifically to MPs being appointed after they have become MPs - and the simple solution is to apply the same rules to MPs as they apply to local councillors.

Under your council’s code of conduct you must act in conformity with the Seven Principles of Public Life. One of these is the principle of integrity – that ‘Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.’
In this context 'resolve' means either end the interest or withdraw from any participation (speaking, voting or otherwise trying to influence) in the issue where the interest is raised. Failing to comply with this is a criminal offence.

Underlying all this though is a different argument - the idea that MPs with second jobs can't be doing the main job (one earning sixty-seven grand a year). And this rather raises the question of what we have MPs to do? What exactly is an MP's job?

Let's start here with what that MP's job isn't. It's not about writing letters to the Council about planning applications or grass cutting on the village rec. It's not about touring round the constituency visiting factories, opening fetes and attending 100th birthday parties in old people's homes. It's not about that vast volume of "case work", having a fully staffed constituency office with the MP's name plastered all over its front or getting at least three photos in every week's issue of the local paper. An MP's job is not about "working in the constituency" in any way, shape or form.

We elect MPs to represent us because we don't have the time and parliament doesn't have the space for us all to go down and decide on important matters of law and governance. This means that the MPs job is first and foremost to go down to parliament and vote, speak, argue and agitate on our behalf. It's reasonable for the MP to spend some time in the constituency so as to understand what worries and interests his constituents. But that's so the MP in informed when he or she stands up in the house and speaks, when he or she shambles through the lobby to vote or when they decide what committees, panels or groups to get involved with.

I don't think that any of this precludes that MP - any MP - having another job, an outside income. I think that activity should be transparent and, when the matter before the house, the committee or the panel relates directly to that MP's private pecuniary interests they should be barred from involvement. And that stricture should apply to the pecuniary interests of wives or husbands, children and other close family. Frankly this is a more open, honest and straightforward apprach than the selective banning of certain sorts of outside income.


You'd have thought a prospective MP would have through about this before applying?


"I am the mother of two children and, despite my best efforts to make arrangements to bring them to Bradford for the next 70 days, particularly as one of them is doing her GCSEs, this would have caused massive disruption at a critical time.

"I would not be able to do justice to the members of Bradford West CLP [constituency Labour Party] and the people of Bradford."

If this is the reason for withdrawing then that's fine. But - if moving up to Bradford was so disruptive to her family - why did Amina Ali apply for the job in the first place?


Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Is the mix in new housing development wrong?


OK I don't know and these figures are from the USA where the world is different. Except I don't think that it is:

Of course, we’re not so resistant to reality that we still believe traditional family life in America implies a single-working spouse and a couple of rug rats. But not many of us grasp how little that resembles the current American household — or the current American homebuyers. 

The presentation goes on to point out that these traditional - and even non-traditional - families are a minority of house purchaser (and by implication a minority of housing demand). Indeed just shy of 60% of all US households consist of just one or two people. And I suspect the same is true for the UK.

Yet we're still building a mix of housing that is overwhelmingly focused towards families - to that traditional mom, dad and two-point-four kids. In the USA nearly two-thirds of the housing market consists of family housing (over there this is the 'single family detached house'). By comparison, 55% of UK owner-occupied housing stock is either detached or semi-detached.

In the UK, the ONS estimates that two-thirds of new households formed will not have dependent children (i.e. they will be either single adults or couples without children) yet, when we look at housing completions by housing type, 60% of new build are houses nearly all of which are three or more bedroom 'family' homes.

There does seem to be something of an imbalance in the system. Partly this is because assessed need and actual demand for homes differ - you may only 'need' a one-bed flat but you'll buy a three-bed semi because it gives you things (a garden, a spare room, space for an office/games room, a garage and so forth) that the pokey little flat won't provide. But there's also a continuing presumption in the minds of planners that housing demand - driven as it is by new household formation - is about families rather than other sorts of people.

At the moment we are, for example, spending a great deal of money (both individually and via the paying of taxes) to adapt homes for people who are ageing. On top of this we are spending comparable amounts of money shuttling between the homes of these ageing people providing support and related social care services. This is because the current provision of housing - whether sale or for rent - for older people does not meet the expectations of those older people merely the 'needs' as identified by planners. As a result older people choose not to move into the current provision - there's no spare room, no garden, no office come games room, no garage.

We need to think much harder about how we match what we know about needs (and especially predictable future needs) with public expectations about what a home should contain. This needs a reconsideration of housing in local centres - indeed in city and town centres - and about whether the needs of older people can be met in a better way than at present. In concluding, I'll give you one observation - a real one that came from a real person who said she wasn't selling her (unsuitable) house and moving to a brand new specialist housing complex for the simple reason that it was not only in town but also in the middle of a council estate.


Why do we pay so much attention to bishops?


No, dear reader, I'm not launching into an anti-religion rant merely trying to apply some context. And the reason for this started, as things do, at a Shipley Area Committee meeting. We we discussing proposals to institute further parking controls and a residents only parking scheme in the roads behind the Old Main Street in Bingley. The local residents had - we were told - been plagued by problems with people parking on their streets both in the general cause of business in the town centre and more specifically as a result of a popular car boot sale at the former Auction Market a few hundred yards in the direction of Keighley.

There were a number of objections to the scheme from members of the congregation at Bingley Parish Church (around which some of the parking changes were to be instituted). I'm not here to explain why we made the decision that we did but rather to build on the report, from the church that the congregation on a typical Sunday is just 84 people. Fewer than 100 people in a parish with perhaps as many as 10,000 residents actually attended the church in anything like a committed way.

This brings me to the recent letter from Church of England bishops:

The Church of England has published a 52-page letter outlining its hopes for political parties to discern “a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be” before the general election in May. In it, leading English bishops address themes such as the church’s duty to join the political debate in an increasingly consumerist society, welfare reform and Britain’s role in the world.

Again my intention here isn't to discuss whether or not I like the contents of the letter (for the record, it is very much a curate's egg - which means, of course, that the bad stuff ruins the whole letter but I'm too polite to point this out in case the bishops get upset). Rather I want to ask why so much national media attention is given to the interesting but really rather predictable ramblings of some bishops.

Church attendance has been declining in the UK for decades and is now significantly below one million:

The Church's figure for 'usual Sunday attendance', the method used since the 1930s to measure congregations, found CofE churches had 795,800 worshippers on Sundays in 2012. The numbers were 9,000 down on the previous year.

This has been the steady pattern - a gradual decline in attendance year on year. A small enough decline for the Church of England's number-crunchers to pretend that the picture is more or less stable. It's also true that the decline in the Church of England's flock has been less marked than for non-conformist churches and for the Roman Catholic church.

Anyhow the bishops' letter was addressed to those 700,000 or so folk who loyally attend the established church's services on a Sunday. But it was also given a degree of attention far beyond this as the national media, politicians and commentators all saw it as something more important than just some guidance to churchgoers on the minefield of politics. Here's Labour MP and official policy-wonk-in-chief, John Cruddas:

It is a profound, complex letter, as brutal as it is tender, as Catholic as it is reformed, as conservative as it is radical. It draws upon ideas of virtue and vocation in the economy that are out of fashion, but necessary for our country as we defend ourselves from a repetition of the vices that led to the financial crash and its subsequent debt and deficit. It invites us to move away from grievance, disenchantment and blame, and towards the pursuit of the common good.

It's always fascinating how worldly politicians slip so easily into the self-important pomposity of pastoral literature - Cruddas sounds here like the Bishop in Trollope's The Warden, I even zoomed to the bottom of his piece to discover whether he finished with the opening lines of Ecclesiastes. Sadly he didn't. In truth, for all the grumbles about leftie bishops, the letter is deeply conservative - something that shouldn't surprise us given the Church of England's over-riding imperative of maintaining its established status.

It is this established status that leads to the bishops opinions getting the attention rather than the numbers of people who worship every Sunday. My question is why we continue to pay such attention to bishops simply because we give their church a formal role in our civic life. To be fair, nearly all of those 700,000 or so churchgoers won't read anything beyond the headlines of the letter (it is 52 pages long for heaven's sake) and the rest of the population won't read it either.

The problem is that we credit bishops with a special insight into the choices facing society, choices around the economy, around how we live together and around the idea of liberty. And those bishops present an answer filtered through the prism of Christian theology rather than via economics, sociology or, indeed, the application of common sense. If you are convinced of Christianity's central message this is a perfectly fine approach but this simply isn't the case for over half the population:

Less than half of the British people believe in a God and from 2009 the annual British Social Attitudes results has revealed that over 50% of us say we're not religious and a 2014 YouGov poll saw 77% of the British public say they're not very, or not at all, religious. Comprehensive professional research in 2006 by Tearfund found that two thirds (66% - 32.2 million people) in the UK have no connection with any religion or church.

We see here a case of a declining - deeply traditionalist - minority having an influence beyond its numbers. The leaders of just 700,000 folk presuming to speak for the whole nation and, worse, being granted that privilege because nobody is pointing out that the Archbishop has no clothes.

This isn't to deny the bishops the right to publish letters about the world but to argue that it is time to end the privilege afforded to those bishops on the basis of history rather than their relevance to modern Britain.