$1,000 for you with no conditions

Rory Stewart’s comments on recent episodes of The Rest Is Politics have stuck in my head. He’s been working with a charity called GiveDirectly. Instead of providing aid to the poor in the form of food, bicycles, houses, toilets or micro-loans, they give each household in a community USD 1,000 in cash for them to spend on whatever they want. In Stewart’s words:

“…the truth is, time and time again, and there have been 230 studies of this, giving people cash is probably the most effective single intervention that you can do for a very poor family, because the truth is in almost every case they know how to spend the money much better than a foreigner does and there’s an element of dignity here.”

GiveDirectly have a very detailed frequently asked questions page. The cash is a one-time transfer, with no conditions, and they explain the reasoning and evidence.

I’ve been putting money into a Kiva account every month for a while, using the funds to make micro-loans to people all over the world. Reading this on the GiveDirectly FAQ has made me think twice:

Why not make micro-loans?

The evidence on the impact of cash transfers is far stronger than that for micro-loans, whose impacts have generally been below expectations. We think that micro-loans are likely beneficial for the poor, but given the evidence, see no reason to incur the added costs of administering them.

We suspect that the disappointing track record of micro-loans may have to do with their structure. These loans often bear high interest rates, reflecting the high costs of administering and monitoring them, which in turn limit their benefit to borrowers. They also tend to have short-term structures and require borrowers to begin making repayments shortly after borrowing. These features make micro-loans less useful for financing the kinds of long-term investments (e.g. education or durable goods) that recipients often make with grants.

GiveDirectly say that they deliver USD 0.89 to recipients for every dollar they receive. My understanding is that this is possible because transferring money directly minimises their overheads in administering the programme. I’m going to redirect my Kiva transfers here for now.

Thinking about proxies

Recent conversations at work have got me thinking about the proxy metrics that we use, and how much nuance and detail they hide.


Last week, we had a look at a tool that presented a ‘cybersecurity dashboard’ for our organisation. It is a powerful tool, with lots of capabilities for investigating and remediating security issues across our IT infrastructure estate. But what struck me was a big number presented front-and-centre on the first page. It looked a bit like this1:

It was simply a percentage. I’ve been pondering it since, wondering if it us useful or not.

80.4%. Is this good? If that’s my organisation’s score, can I sleep well at night? When I was at university, an average score of 70% in your exams and coursework meant that you were awarded with a first-class degree. So that number has always stayed with me and has felt intrinsically ‘good’. 80.4% is substantially higher than this. But what about that other 19.6%? Can we relax, or do we need to keep pushing to 100%? Can you ever truly be 100% secure if you’re running any kind of IT system?

Perhaps it is meant as a useful jumping off point for investigation. Or it is meant to be used over time, i.e. last week we were 78.9% and now we’re 80.4%, so things are going in the right direction. Maybe both. I’m not sure.

It’s a common idea that executives don’t want the detail. They simply want to see a big green light that says that things are ok. If there’s no green, they want to know that things are being dealt with in order to bring the amber or red thing back to green again. In the example above, although the ‘speed gauge’ is blue, it is still an attempt to aggregate all of the cybersecurity data across an organisation into a simple number. To me, it feels dangerous to boil it down to a single proxy metric.

I likened the single score to a song being reduced to its average frequency. Music can make us laugh, sing or cry. It can make our pulses race and our hearts throb. But the beauty and nuance is completely lost if you take the average of all of the sound and boil it down to one long continuous tone. (Someone has actually done this so you can hear examples for yourself.2)


Food writer, journalist and activist Jack Monroe wrote an incredibly insightful thread on the latest inflation figures. The news headlines were screaming that the inflation number is 5.4% — a 30-year high. However, this hides the nuance of what exactly has been increasing in price and what has remained static. As usual, the poorest in society bear a disproportionate brunt of the increase. For people that depend on the cheapest goods, inflation is much higher, as the cost of those goods have been increasing at a much higher rate. Her original thread is well worth a read:

It was wonderful to see this thread get so much attention. Today Monroe announced that the Office of National Statistics will be making changes:

Financial data

I’ve been working in Financial Services for over 20 years. During the financial crisis of 2007–2008 I was employed by one of the banks that suffered terrible losses. In the lengthy report that was published to shareholders, it was notable that there was a dependency on a number of metrics such as Value at Risk which were in effect ’green’ even when the global financial system started to unravel. The actual problem was the sheer amount of toxic financial products that were on the balance sheet; as soon as the assumption of how much they were worth was revised, it triggered eye-watering losses.

From the report:

UBS’s Market Risk framework relies upon VaR and Stress Loss to set and monitor market risks at a portfolio level. [p19]

In the context of the CDO structuring business and Negative Basis and AMPS trades, IB MRC [Market Risk Control] relied primarily upon VaR and Stress limits and monitoring to provide risk control for the CDO desk. As noted above, there were no Operational limits on the CDO Warehouse and throughout 2006 and 2007, there were no notional limits on the retention of unhedged Super Senior positions and AMPS Super Senior positions, or the CDO Warehouse… [p20]

In other words, the amount of ‘good quality’ collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) that could be held on the balance sheet wasn’t subject to a cap. These were the instruments that were later found to be ‘toxic’.

MRC VaR methodologies relied on the AAA rating of the Super Senior positions. The AAA rating determined the relevant product-type time series to be used in calculating VaR. In turn, the product-type time series determined the volatility sensitivities to be applied to Super Senior positions. Until Q3 2007, the 5-year time series had demonstrated very low levels of volatility sensitivities. As a consequence, even unhedged Super Senior positions contributed little to VaR utilisation. [p20]

This means that the model, which produced a ‘green’ status for Value at Risk, was based on the historical data which said that ‘everything is fine’. No consideration seemed to have been taken on the sheer amount of CDOs that were being held. As the financial crisis unfolded and it became clear that the assets were no longer worth 100%, the revaluations resulted in nearly USD 50bn in losses.

Proxies should be a jumping off point

Proxies are attractive as they often boil down complex things into simple metrics that we think we can interpret and understand. Wherever I see or use them I need to think about what assumptions they are built on and to check that they are not being substituted for the important details.

  1. Taken from the Microsoft Windows Defender ATP Fall Creators Update 
  2. Lots of people on forums seem baffled as to why anyone would want to do that. I love that someone has done it. 

Are you still not going out?

Friends and family think I’m at best over-cautious, or at worst ridiculous. They don’t say it to me directly, but I sense it.

Most people I know seem to have returned to some kind of normality. Getting together indoors, going to pubs and restaurants, eating out, sharing trips in cars. These things crept back in gradually. People are fed up with keeping away from others and so badly want it all to be over. We stopped hearing about the people catching it, going to hospital with it, dying from it. It feels like the risks abated, and behaviour changed day by day.

Because I am not joining in, and continue to avoid any unnecessary face-to-face contact, I’m now very much an outlier. “Are you still not going out, Andrew?” “Life has to go on.”

I question my attitude all the time. I get drawn in. Perhaps I am being over-cautious, and need to get back to being social again. I’m certainly missing human contact and having any kind of a social life. But then I read a horror story about the long-term problems that some COVID survivors are trying to cope with, and it just reinforces my desire to keep away from everyone. It’s as if there is one version of events out there in the real world, and then people I know are gaslighting me.

COVID-19 has not been with us for very long, and every day there seems to be new stories about possible impacts on the human body, or new developments such as being able to catch the virus more than once. Even if the long-term impacts are mild, I am happy to make sacrifices to avoid them. From the New York Times:

“In meetings, “I can’t find words,” said Mr. Reagan, who has now taken a leave. “I feel like I sound like an idiot.””

I remember one December where I had to run a workshop after a big night out of festive drinking. My hangover manifested itself in that I was unable to string sentences together properly. Something had altered in my brain, albeit temporarily, and it was torture. As I spoke, it was as though I had a separate inner dialogue that was asking me “Where is this sentence going?”, and I didn’t know. The thought of being stuck like that permanently fills me with dread.

The film Awakenings (1990) with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams has always fascinated me. Based on a book by neurologist Oliver Sacks, it depicts people who had become victims of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic of the 1920s. From Wikipedia:

The disease attacks the brain, leaving some victims in a statue-like condition, speechless and motionless. Between 1915 and 1926, an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica spread around the world. Nearly five million people were affected, a third of whom died in the acute stages. Many of those who survived never returned to their pre-morbid vigour.

The book and/or the film draws a link between the influenza pandemic of 1918 and the subsequent encephalitis lethargica pandemic that followed. My understanding is that there is no irrefutable evidence that the first pandemic caused the second one, but this continues to be the subject of scientific debate.

Curious, I searched the web for “encephalitis lethargica” and “COVID” and found that (of course) I am not the only one to be thinking about this. Some examples:

US National Library of Medicine: From encephalitis lethargica to COVID-19: Is there another epidemic ahead?

The above characteristics can be indicative of the ability of coronaviruses to produce persistent neurological lesions. Acute COVID-19-related encephalitis, along with the potentially long-term worrying consequences of the disease, underscore the need for clinicians to pay attention to the suspected cases of encephalitis in this regard.

The Lancet:  COVID-19: can we learn from encephalitis lethargica?

We should take advantage of both historical and novel evidence. The prevalence of anosmia, combined with the neuroinvasive properties of coronaviruses, might support neuroinvasion by SARS-CoV-2. Whether the infection might trigger neurodegeneration, starting in the olfactory bulb, in predisposed patients is unknown. We should not underestimate the potential long-term neurological sequelae of this novel coronavirus.

NHS University College London Hospitals: Increase in delirium, rare brain inflammation and stroke linked to COVID-19

“We should be vigilant and look out for these complications in people who have had COVID-19. Whether we will see an epidemic on a large scale of brain damage linked to the pandemic – perhaps similar to the encephalitis lethargica outbreak in the 1920s and 1930s after the 1918 influenza pandemic – remains to be seen.”

The Conversation: How coronavirus affects the brain

Encephalitis and sleeping sickness had been linked to previous influenza outbreaks between the 1580s to 1890s. But the 20th-century epidemic of encephalitis lethargica started in 1915, before the influenza pandemic, and continued into the 1930s, so a direct link between the two has remained difficult to prove.

In those who died, postmortems revealed a pattern of inflammation in the seat of the brain (known as the brainstem). Some patients who had damage to areas of the brain involved in movement were locked in their bodies, unable to move for decades (post-encephalitic Parkinsonism), and were only “awakened” by treatment with L-Dopa (a chemical that naturally occurs in the body) by Oliver Sacks in the 1960s. It is too early to tell if we will see a similar outbreak associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, though early reports of encephalitis in COVID-19 have shown features similar to those in encephalitis lethargica.

The aftermath of this global event has many lessons for us now in the time of COVID-19. One, of course, is that we may see widespread brain damage following this viral pandemic.

I’m not sure when I’ll be at the stage where I feel comfortable visiting friends at their houses, sharing car journeys, or meeting up in pubs or restaurants. I doubt that there is a rigorous logical set of conditions that would need to be specifically met before I start doing those things again. I’ll know it when I feel it. Perhaps this stuff is just different for everyone based on their perception of risk versus their need to socialise to maintain a quality of life and good mental health. Perhaps part of it is that I am lucky to have a job that I can do from home so my need to venture out is minimal. Perhaps my interest in politics over the past few years has made me much more deeply distrustful of our government and their response to the pandemic than many other people. Eight months in, the novelty of being at home all the time has worn off, but I’m still ok to keep hunkering down for now.

Difficult decisions

For the past two days we’ve had major debates in our house about whether our children should be in school. I’m now working from home, and am certainly not planning on being out of the house much. Our soon-to-be 13-year-old made some very reasoned arguments this morning about why he shouldn’t go. I tend to agree with him. As he gets older I’m less sure of myself in terms of how much control we should have over his life. I’d never let him stay home from school on a regular day, but what’s happening in the world right now is so irregular that I’m not sure the old rules apply.

From The Guardian: How do coronavirus containment measures vary across Europe? — 16 March 2020

From The Guardian: How do coronavirus containment measures vary across Europe? — 16 March 2020

Despite the almost all of the rest of Europe deciding to keep their children at home, the UK has decided not to. I am deeply distrustful of the government, but I can see the reasoning as to why they would be kept open:
– Parents who are unable to work from home may need to ask elderly relatives to look after the children
– We have vulnerable children across the country who rely on free school meals to keep them nourished
– Schools aren’t really set up for teaching via remote means.
For our family, we are fortunate enough where only the last point impacts us.

It’s still not a slam-dunk. My wife works as a teaching assistant in a primary school and she is providing a valuable service to society by continuing to go, for all the reasons above. (She is amazing.) I’m a Vice-Chair of Governors at another primary school; we have to rely on advice from government, Public Health England and others on what to do, and my role is to support the school in this. We also have a friend who works as a Paediatric Matron at a local NHS hospital, and she is still sending her children to school — if she felt that the risk was significant, she would keep them at home.

It’s a tricky one with no easy answers, and I am sure that there are so many people going through similar dilemmas right now.

A new government

Dorian Lynskey and Ros Taylor nail it on the latest Remainiacs podcast when they talk about the new UK government being “The worst possible cabinet of fanatics, crooks and incompetents.”

“There is no-one with any decency who would serve under Boris Johnson.”

“Prepare for the absolute worst.”

Chris Grey: A dangerous political void

Chris Grey’s Brexit blog has always been well-written and thought-provoking throughout the process. We’re so stuck at the moment and his latest post has now got me worried.

Unless something radical changes – and it may, precisely because of the desperate plight we are now in – then it seems highly likely that Britain will leave the EU with no deal. That will mean that in ten weeks’ time we will face severe economic and social dislocation, with the probability of food and medicine shortages, troops on the street, disruptions to travel and much else.

It would be an outcome desired by only a tiny minority of grossly irresponsible ideologues in parliament and amongst the public. The division, crisis and extremism it would unleash make that feared were there to be another referendum, or even a revocation of Article 50 without a vote, seem like a walk in the park.

Energy use, externalities and climate change

I’ve been thinking about the WB40 podcast discussion on energy use and the difficulty of changing behaviour, as well as the recent news about avoiding climate change. I am sure there is something in the fact that energy is so cheap relative to income that isn’t helping right now. I distinctly remember my dad in the 1980s and early 1990s battling with us over the thermostat and being concerned about the cost of all of our utility bills. We’re all a bit older now, but when I go to my parents house these days — the same house I grew up in — it’s always cosy. I can’t say that I’ve ever not put the heating on due to how much it will cost me. A privileged position perhaps, but I am sure I’m not the only one.

In our school Economics lessons we learned about externalities, defined as ”the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit.” They are a form of market failure. As the externalities to our energy consumption are so incredibly massive, wouldn’t it make sense for governments to tax fossil fuel energy consumption to accelerate the switch to renewables?

I’ve been with Bulb, a UK renewable energy provider, for a little while now. Whilst their service is great, I don’t see a great deal of difference in cost from other suppliers. If taxes were ramped up over time to give people the time to switch (and for the country to build capacity), and if taxes were progressive in nature to that bigger users had to bear proportionally more, wouldn’t that make it a no-brainer for people to both switch and use less? Costs of goods and services would go up, but the truth is that those costs are already there — we are just all paying for them together in the form of what’s coming.

I’m sure there are a million reasons why things are a lot more complicated than this. But if we can completely stop the production and use of products containing chlorofluorocarbons worldwide, surely something like this isn’t beyond our reach?

Unfair budget

The BBC have a great story about this week’s budget where they show a graph of how much extra money you will have in your pocket based on what salary you earn. I can’t reproduce the graph here for copyright reasons so you’ll have to take a look at their page to see it.

There has been lots of discussion about how the tax system has been made simpler by the abolition of the 10% starting rate of income tax, which is fine, but when this is coupled with the other changes to taxation and National Insurance the net effect is that you are better off as long as you don’t earn under £17,000 a year.

The graph is pretty straightforward to create so I am sure that the Chancellor would have known what the net impact would have been on people of different incomes. If this is the case, I just don’t understand why he has done this – why would we tax low income people relatively more to pay for things that we theoretically all benefit from whereas we actually give more money to the richer in society? How is this fair? It’s even worse than the graph shows if you think how much the £131 loss is to someone £10,000 compared to the £198 gain to someone earning £43,000 – a 1.31% fall in income versus a 0.46% gain. I simply do not think this can be right – we shouldn’t be getting the poorest in society to pay more for benefits of government spending that we all share.

To top it all off, the chancellor dropped corporation tax for large companies from 30% to 28% and raised it for small businesses. It seems to me that, as I previously mentioned here, Noreena Hertz was right in her book The Silent Takeover that the role of the politician has been reduced to making the country a place to attract multinational corporations. Labour seem to be more and more in favour of following trickle-down economics – something that I just don’t buy in to.

A new Apple Crumble

I’ve now moved over from my old web host to a blog hosted on the WordPress.com site.  I’d been thinking about making a change for a while after reading Rob Newman’s web page about moving to an eco-friendly web hosting company.  I had a bit of a browse around but I couldn’t really see anything that was aimed at someone who wanted webspace primarily for blogging – ie quite cheap and with some kind of guarantee that Movable Type would work.  I had problems a while back with my current host when I upgraded Movable Type in that certain Perl modules that I needed weren’t available – it took a few emails to convince them that any good web host would accomodate installing the module I required.

Having thought about it even more, I realised that I’ve not had that much time to blog recently and I started to question the value I was getting.  I’ve written around 250 posts since April 2004 so at £105 for a year’s posting it has cost me over £1 a post!  It’s not that I can’t afford it, but with a baby on the way I’ve started to think a lot more about the fact that what I’m spending is longer really my own money any more.  Expectant put it very well in his post back in November and it reflects exactly how I’m feeling.  A free blog seems like the answer to me.

My first thought was to head to TypePad, which is a hosted version of Movable Type – the blog software I am familiar with – but it turns out that you have to pay quite a bit for that as well so I wasn’t saving that much cash.  A little more delving revealed WordPress.com – a free host – and it has been surprisingly easy to migrate over to this site.  Yes, it’s a little more limited in that I don’t have complete control over the site (or the code…or what types of files I can post…) and yes it’s ugly (for now at least until I can grab some of Mat‘s time to help me with the CSS that is), but it is free, has good features built in and seems to have a very enthusiastic and honest company behind it. Ultimately it should just leave me to worry about writing entries and not all of the other gumpf that goes with running a website which will be no bad thing as my free time gets limited when the baby arrives.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time this week fixing images, links, documents etc and moving the videos over to YouTube (which hopefully doesn’t impact the integrity of the original posts).  If you find a problem, please leave a comment or email me about it!  Thanks.

Backside firework prank backfires

Sometimes you can’t quite believe what you’re reading. Who on earth would be stupid enough to attempt something like this? Admittedly I saw a bloke once do this at Reading Festival, but I am sure that they were not the standard demonstration-type fireworks that he used…perhaps they were specifically made for that purpose.

Having a quick search on YouTube reveals that this is a more common pastime than you would first think. Has everybody gone completely nuts?

Speeding idiots

Speed camera aheadI’m always completely baffled when I hear of motoring groups being ‘outraged’ at the amount of money that is generated by speed cameras, such as in this article that appeared in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago. In my mind it’s pretty simple – if you’re going too fast, you’re breaking the law. How can it be any simpler than that? How can you even think about protesting a fine unless you know you weren’t speeding? Yes, we all speed a little – we’ve all gone a bit faster than we should do as we haven’t perhaps checked the speedo in a while, but wasn’t this covered when we were having driving lessons? I thought that the skill of driving involved being aware of what’s ahead of you, what’s behind you (yes, can you believe it – you have to look behind you for a bit!), who is indicating that they are intending to make a turn, what the conditions are and what speed you’re doing.

The paragraph that really made me mad was this:

‘Paul Smith, the founder of anti-speed camera group Safe Speed, said the haul was the latest example of “innocent” drivers being targeted. “I’m so angry to hear about this camera raking in so much money for the government, when scientific evidence shows us that fixed cameras like this one can increase accidents by up to 55%”.’

Scientific evidence, indeed. I had a look at the Safe Speed website and found it to be something of a joke. I mean, come on – “Road safety is complex, subtle and sensitive like a precision built clock” whereas “A speed camera is a blunt and heavy instrument, like a hammer”. In what way? They don’t really say. The strapline is fantastic – “You can’t measure safe driving in miles per hour.” Well, I have to disagree there and so do the research statistics – according to the Government THINK! Road Safety website. for the time period 2000 to 2004, excessive speed was a contributory factor in about 13 per cent of all injury collisions, 19 per cent of serious injury collisions and 29 per cent of fatal collisions.

George Monbiot gives an excellent opinion of this group on his blog – ‘Paul Smith and Safe Speed – the Self-Exposure of a Crank‘ which pretty much sums it all up for me.

The wrong guy on BBC News 24

Just in case you missed it, here’s the clip of the BBC News 24 presenter interviewing somebody who she thinks is an industry pundit but had turned up for a job interview. The expression on his face when he gets asked the first question is just brilliant.

‘Insect bite’ was cancer

Heard from my Mum today that one of my cousins had appeared in The Sun newspaper a couple of days ago. Unfortunately it wasn’t a happy story – my cousin had been to the doctors about a painful lump and they told her it was an insect bite before it finally turned out to be cancer. Hope she gets well soon.

Some serious munchies

I was sorry to read in the Guardian today that Golden Wonder, the crisp company behind such delights as Wheat Crunchies and Nik-Naks, has gone into administration. A sorry day for crisp lovers everywhere.

However, I don’t think I’m quite as sorry as some…the bottom of the article had the most eye-popping statistic – “Britons now eat over 10bn bags annually, the equivalent of 100 packs for each person every year and more than consumed in the rest of Europe put together.” Well, I don’t really eat that many, so some greedy monster must be eating almost 200 a year. That’s a lot of crisps!

90 days with no trial?

I know this is old news but I thought that this post was great – it shows just how the popular media can turn things on their head and distort what is really there. I personally think that editors at The Sun enjoy trying to shock the public and giving themselves a feeling that they can control the outcome of major events – remember the election that Labour should have won 13 years ago?

90 days is far too long to lock somebody up without any evidence of wrongdoing. I completely abhor George Bush and the rest of his cronies for what they have done in Guantanamo Bay and I’m convinced that Tony Blair is exactly the same. He really has got to go.

Tom Cruise all wet in London

For those of you who haven’t seen what happened to Tom Cruise on Monday, you can take a look at the video at Tampa Bay’s 10.

I know it’s great to see stars brought down to earth but I thought he was remarkably cool under the circumstances. It could have been anything coming out of that microphone but he calmly towelled himself off, took hold of the guy and kept himself from blowing his top.

Apparently it’s for a new show on Channel Four which sounds like a more in-your-face version of Dennis Pennis – quite literally it seems here.