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Targets for throwing people into penury

This is horrific. People are having their benefits stopped arbitrarily to meet targets. Jobcentre worker: "it's all about stopping people's money. I got put on a performance improvement plan because I don't sanction enough people. I was told I need to get x amount of sanctions by March, about 2 a week."

Check out the performance improvement plan doc at 3'40: written down targets for staff of 8.6 referrals a month (to remove to entire of people's benefits for up to 8 weeks I think).

Fun food facts for veggies

Here's some fun facts to consider for any veggie (like myself) being smug about horsemeat. (1) Vege sausages and burgers are expensive. (2) Cheapo meat sausages and burgers are not. (3) The gap between the two is potentially a space for squeezing in cheapo meat products that could make dodgy veggie products highly profitable. (4) Large sections of the food industry do not give a shit what they put in their products.

So... has anyone tested them, I wonder?

If we're going to be this stupid, let's do it intelligently

Another P3 comment related to this link about recent permafrost stories (arstechnica; New Scientist).
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Update: MT corrects me. "I was pleased that the Ars and New Scientist articles did not flog the tundra-carbon-feedback-bomb panic, which does not have much support among scientists. I am a bit chastened that you still read it in there. // We are being quite stupid indeed. But this particular aspect is a concern that is widespread in the public but not among scientists. It’s not quite as baseless as the “Gulf Stream shutdown” one was a few years back. But both concerns were extremely overdrawn and basically inaccurate."
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This really drives home a sinking realisation. While pretty much all our political and research structures continue to develop around a 2 degree target, the reality is turning out to be very different. As a researcher, I see the various UK funding councils fitting into that ‘how do we fix the climate problem’ way of thinking. This is leaving us with no systematic research agenda to address what are looking to be fairly likely outcomes, including a global permafrost hand-grenade thrown into the climate system.

Our research institutions have foresight enough to see the change in currents ahead but they’re ignoring the massive waterfall and the drop beyond.

That’s a huge generalisation, I’m sure there are many working on these kind of what-ifs. My point is, those what-ifs need a much more strategic, broad attack. We are managing to push ourselves towards territory that, really, not that many people bothered to consider in depth because no-one thought we’d be this stupid. We are this stupid. So we have mainly only vague statements like “may threaten the very fabric of civilisation” etc.

For anyone who thinks our civilisation has some value worth fighting for, we’re going to have to do a lot better than that. If we are going to be this stupid, can we at least do it intelligently?

Reassembling meat products

Fascinating breakdown of how cheap burgers are broken down and reassembled by Felicity Lawrence. They are "allowed to contain fat, collagen and connective tissue in the same proportion as they naturally occur in the cut being used" - but the actual source of those additives can and does come from anywhere: "a reconstruction of deconstructed parts, bought around the world from wherever is cheapest. Exchange rate fluctuations might affect where you want to buy your components from week to week."

Future crufts

My prediction for 100/200 year's time: google/facebook search will combine with already patented genetic matching techniques (example); AI will take over, with each ruling its own fiefdom based on some existing corporate entity; each will steer different social/genetic matching systems to breed us like crufts animals. At least one of those AIs will just have fun trying to make REALLY weird-shaped people. (We do the same with dogs, after all.)

Put DDT on your GM cereal

Another P3 comment and an unformed braindump. This is confusing stuff and I'm a long way from spotting a path through it.
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There's some digging to be done into the recent resurgence of DDT + GM related stories. I got myself tangled in the GM stuff (defending the tech in the face of what I and others considered a badly misinformed protest) but pull that thread and a whole lot of baggage comes with it. e.g. old Monbiot stories about marxists-turned neoliberals starting science lobby groups (also active during the recent Rothamsted protests) or the GM Watch stuff. Climate scientist Simon Lewis was wondering on twitter: "perhaps it's important to ask of scientific experiments: is this the science of the 1%. Or the 99%", suggesting that any attempt to separate science from the issue of control or money was not possible. (Ironically plenty of climate deniers would completely agree.)

Everything you need to know about the Tories

Via Andy Evans: "Think this says everything you need to know about the Tory party in one handy nugget":

Upon trying to access the internet at the ICC [during the Tory party conference], we were informed that while Conservative party members could surf for free, other attendees would have to pay. One bemused ICC staffer quietly informed us that the conference venue offers universal free web access for the other 51 weeks of the year but was ordered to restrict it especially for the Tory summit." (Research Professional, 17.10.12)

So they demanded an otherwise free resource be denied to others so they could attempt to squeeze some rent from it? Yup, Andy's right, that's an absolutely perfect example of the real meaning of privatisation in Toryland.

(with the caveat that of course it may be too perfect a parable to actually be true but, hell, I'm just gonna go ahead and propagate it anyway...)

"The NHS is now a logo, nothing more." Discuss.

Head of NHS Brand-Offer to the Public: £77,079 - £97,478.

"The post-holder will lead on the development and implementation of a brand strategy for the NHS as a publicly-funded, free at the point of delivery service and on the development and delivery of the NHS Commissioning Board brand and offer to the public. This includes the development of a strategy to encompass corporate, staff and consumer brand offers and associated visualisations and leading on all related brand communications and campaign activity. The post-holder is responsible for ensuring that the NHS brand values are at the heart of the work of the NHS Commissioning Board and the new clinical commissioning system."

I don't even know what kind of person would go for this job. Is it marketing? Is it management? What?

At any rate: congratulations to the ConDems for taking New Labour's bizarre butchery of public and private to new levels of absurdity. Both public and private should play vital roles in the economy. What we've created instead looks suspiciously like all the worst bits of both worlds.

So is the NHS now nothing more than a logo?

3D printing and fab tech: what are the economic forces?

Dr Manhattan didn't need a 3D printer

A company is shipping files for 3D printers rather than replacement parts. Shipping costs are apparently 'prohibitively high'. A chap from 3D print design site Shapeways says:

If they were to make all replacement parts and add-ons downloadable and 3-D printable, they might not need to even manufacture the parts themselves; they can simply release the file and the synthesizer owners can 3-D print at home, or with a 3-D printing service like Shapeways. In this way they do not need to mass-produce, hold inventory or distribute their products; they only need to design and release.

I saw this just after a conversation about whether it's possible to plan for reducing transport costs by changing where production takes place. (This actually happens in some sectors - I'll come back to that in another post.) Here's another example of much the same enthusiasm.

Just assume for a moment 3D printers and fully equipped fablabs (let's call it fab tech for short) were capable of making more or less anything. (There's a nice little fictional account here.) The design process happens entirely in software and can be torrented like any other file (with all of the IP implications that would have). This isn't a realistic picture: material input into something like an iphone is very specific, and you'd have difficulty printing a nuclear bomb without enriched uranium (though it appears guns are less of a problem). As with any industrial revolution, fab tech would be more likely to change the commodity landscape, not product-for-product replace our current one.

Even if that world of a perfect split between software design and hardware printing were possible, what does it look like? It's a beguiling question, and I can imagine two opposing forces: an increase in Jacobs-like innovation dynamics and a rather more mundane 'weight of stuff' and production cost problem. As a first guess, I think the latter is probably by far the most important, but it'll be fun to think through more.

GRIT: 'geospatial restructuring of industrial trade'

Our new grant. Intro write-up also up at the Talisman blog. There's a link in there to this interactive viz of the UK's trade flows - a starting point for working on how best to make the spatial economy visible.
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Alison Heppenstall, Gordon Mitchell, Malcolm Sawyer (LUBS) and I have been awarded an 18 month grant by the ESRC through their secondary data analysis initiative. Titled 'Geospatial Restructuring of Industrial Trade' (GRIT), the motivation for the grant came from a deceptively simple question: what happens to the spatial economy when the costs of moving goods and people change?

That's a good old fashioned location theory question, but 21st century challenges are breathing new life into it. During the next few decades an energy revolution must take place if we're to stand any chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change. What price must carbon be to keep within a given global temperature? How long will any switch to new infrastructure take? (Kramer and Haigh 2009; Jefferson 2008) In fact, will peak oil get us before climate change does? (Wilkinson 2008; Bridge 2010) In a time when we're discovering costs may go up as well as down, do we have a good handle on the spatial impact this may have? Can we use new data sources and techniques to answer that, in a way relevant to people and organisations being asked to rapidly adapt?

GRIT will focus on two jobs. First, creating a higher-resolution picture of the current spatial structure of the UK economy. Second, thinking about how possible fuel costs changes could affect it. We'll examine the web of connections between businesses in the UK, looking to identify what sectors and locations may be put under particular pressure if costs change. There is a direct connection with climate change policy: the most carbon-intensive industries (also very water intensive) are also those with the lowest value density, and so most vulnerable to spatial cost changes.

Most economics still works in what Isard called a "wonderland of no dimension" (Isard 1956, 26) where distance plays no role except as another basic input, in principle substitutable for any other. Some economic geographers believe that because energy and fuel are such a small part of total production costs, "it is better to assume that moving goods is essentially costless than to assume [it] is an important component of the production process" (Glaeser and Kohlhase 2004, 199). At the other extreme, social movements like the transition network privilege the cost of distance above all else. They make the intuitive assumption that if the cost of moving goods goes up, they can't be moved as far – so localisation is the only possible outcome. They are making a virtue of what they see as economic necessity imposed by climate change and peak oil. At the extreme, some even argue that "to avoid famine and food conflicts‚ we need to plan to re-localise our food economy".

Reality lies somewhere between those two extremes of ignoring spatial costs altogether or assuming a future of radical relocalisation. GRIT is taking a two-pronged approach to finding out: producing a data-driven model and talking to businesses and others interested in the problem. Our two main data sources both use the 'standard industrial classification' code system, breaking the UK into 110 sectors. First, the national Supply and Use tables contain an input-output matrix of money flows between all of those sectors. (I've created a visualisation of this matrix as a network: click sectors to view the top 5% of its trade links and follow them. Warning: more pretty than useful, but gives a sense of the scale of flows between sectors.) It contains no spatial information, however – we plan to get this from our second source, the 'Business Structure Database' (BSD). As well as location information for individual businesses, each is SIC-coded and also provides fields for turnover and staff number. It also has information on firms' structure: "such as a factory, shop, branch, etc". (There's a PDF presentation here outlining how we're linking them, though I'll write more about that in a later post.)

By linking these two (and adding a dollop of spatial economic theory) we have a chance to create a quite fine-grained picture of the UK's spatial economy. From that base, questions of cost change and restructuring can then be asked. The 'dollop of theory' is obviously central to that; we've tested a synthetic version that produces plausible outputs (see that presentation for more info) but 'plausible' doesn't equal 'genuinely useful or accurate'. I'll save those problems for another post also. This sub-regional picture of the UK economy is a central output from the project in its own right and it is hoped it can be used in other ways – for instance, for thinking about how industrial water demand may change over time.

Even before that, two big challenges come with those datasets. First, BSD data is highly sensitive. It is managed by the Secure Data Service (SDS) and can only be accessed under strict conditions (PDF). Work has to take place on their remote server, and anything produced needs to get through their disclosure vetting before they’ll release it, to make sure no firm’s privacy is threatened. These conditions include things like: "SDS data and unauthorised outputs must not be printed or be seen on the user’s computer screen by unauthorised individuals." So, no-one without authorisation is actually allowed to look at the screen being worked on. Crikey. The main challenge from the BSD, however, is getting any of the geographical information we want through their vetting procedure. The process of working this out is going to be interesting. To their credit, the SDS have so far been very patient and helpful. While genuinely keen to help researchers, they also have to keep to draconian conditions – it can't be an easy tension to manage.

The second challenge is really getting under the skin of the input-output data. On the surface, it appears to very neatly describe trade networks within the UK, but its money flows can't all be translated simply to spatial flows. For a start, as the visualisation clearly shows, the largest UK sector, 'financial services', gets the UK's biggest single money flow from 'imputed rent' – which doesn't actually exist as exchanged goods or services. This comes down to the purpose of the Supply and Use table – a way to measure GDP. Imputed rent is a derived quantity used to account for the value to GDP of owned property. That's only one small example, but it illustrates a point: care is needed when trying to repurpose a dataset to something it wasn't intended for – in this case, to help investigate the structure of the UK's spatial economy. It is hoped that less problems exist for more physical sectors, but that can't be assumed.

The second 'prong' is to talk to businesses and other interested parties to find out how they deal with changing costs and to see if the work of the project makes sense from their point of view. We plan to hold two seminars to dig into the affect of changing spatial costs on businesses. Anecdotal evidence suggests suppliers have been citing fuel costs as a reason for price increases for a while now.

A whole range of other groups are keenly interested in spatial economics, though it might not always be labelled thus. An example already mentioned, the 'transition movement' is taking action at the local level. It has, in recent years, developed strong links with academic researchers. A vibrant knowledge exchange has developed between locally acting groups and researchers, with the aim of making sure that "transition and research form a symbiotic relationship" (Brangwyn 2012). It isn't just about spatial economics: it's imbued with a sense that people can play a part in shaping their own economic destiny. It's hoped that GRIT will be of interest here also.

So that's GRIT in a nutshell. There are clear gaps in the project's current remit. Trade doesn't stop at the UK's borders and any change in costs will have international effects (an issue I've been pestering Anne Owen from Leeds School of Environment about). Many of the costs most essential to business decisions are either hard to quantify or to do with people, not goods. (Think about how much it costs a hairdresser to get a person’s head under the scissors from some distance away, e.g. in the rent they pay; this hints at the reason data appears to show the service sector may be the most vulnerable to fuel cost changes.)

Aside from the technical aspects of the project, there are two other things to write about I'll save for later: the nature of distance costs and the place of modelling in research and society. And on that last point, just a bit of brainfood to finish on from Stan Openshaw (1978). In theory, GRIT wants to tread both of these lines, but that's something far easier said than done. (Hat-tip Andy Turner for lending me the book.)

Without any formal guidance many planners who use models have developed a view of modelling which is the most convenient to their purpose. When judged against academic standards, the results are often misleading, sometimes fraudulent, and occasionally criminal. However, many academic models and perspectives of modelling when assessed against planning realities are often irrelevant. Many of these problems result from widespread, fundamental misunderstandings as to how models are used and should be used in planning. (Openshaw 1978 p.14)

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Refs:

Brangwyn, Ben. 2012. “Researching Transition: Making Sure It Benefits Transitioners.” Transition Network. http://www.transitionnetwork.org/news/2012-03-29/researching-transition-....

Bridge, Gavin. 2010. “Geographies of peak oil: The other carbon problem.” Geoforum 41 (4) (July): 523–530. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2010.06.002
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Glaeser, EL, and JE Kohlhase. 2004. “Cities, Regions and the Decline of Transport Costs.” Papers in Regional Science 83 (1) (January): 197–228. doi:10.1007/s10110-003-0183-x.

Isard, Walter. 1956. Location and Space-economy: General Theory Relating to Industrial Location, Market Areas, Land Use, Trade and Urban Structure. MIT Press.

Jefferson, M. 2008. “Accelerating the Transition to Sustainable Energy Systems.” Energy Policy 36 (11): 4116–4125.

Kramer, Gert Jan, and Martin Haigh. 2009. “No Quick Switch to Low-carbon Energy.” Nature 462 (7273) (December 3): 568–569. doi:10.1038/462568a.

Openshaw, Stan. 1978. Using Models in Planning: A Practical Guide.

Webber, Michael J. 1984. Explanation, Prediction and Planning. Research in Planning and Design. London: Pion.

Wilkinson, P. 2008. “Peak Oil: Threat, Opportunity or Phantom?” Public Health 122 (7) (July): 664–666; discussion 669–670. doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2008.04.007.

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