Monday, March 19, 2018

Numerical proof that Newsnight altered Corbyn's image

There has been outrage because of a backdrop of Corbyn put up by Newsnight a couple of days ago. Owen Jones rightly pitched in with an eloquent speech on Newsnight condemning their anti-Labour bias in altering the image to make Corbyn look like a Russian stooge.

The excellent @JohnClarke1980 tweeted thus:

A Twitterspat followed, with outrage met by Putin-like denial, led, unfortunately by the normally reasonable Evan Davis who claimed that the hat was not photoshopped. @BBCNewsPR are making the same claim.

I got unpleasant flack on Twitter from a trio of right-wingers one of whom claimed that the change was a Keystone effect, which happens when a projection is done at an angle to the screen. This would have narrowed Corbyn's face. The contemptuous tone of their arguments persuaded me to take things further.

A Newsnight editor explained that "our excellent and hardworking graphics department had merely changed the colour tones".

So, as it was coming down to perceptions, I decided to do some measurements. 

I downloaded John Clarke's image, put it in MS Paint, and set some reference points (see figure at head of this post) in order to measure the width of face (a), height of face (b), height of hat (c) and width of hat (d)  in both versions.

I counted the dimensions in pixels, and then derived ratios of height to width. The ratio is necessary, because the images are different sizes.

Apologies that I did not include error estimates. Life is short, and in the 51 years since I was taught how to do error bars, I have forgotten how to set about it. If you want to repeat my measurements and calculations, you are welcome to go ahead.

Note that I used the mouth as reference point for (b, bb) the height of face, as it is a more definite point than the beard. I have nothing against beards btw.

Note also that in (c), height of hat, I made a conservative choice of reference point in the original, because Newsnight used the shadow of the original cap on Corbyn's forehead to help create the Russian fur hat.


Ratio of height of face to width of face (H/W):
     Original version       0.448
     Newsnight version   0.461

The difference is 13, or a 2.9% increase in the Height/Width ratio.

This shows that the width of the Newsnight version has effectively been lessened. The face has been compressed sideways, (width is less, so the ratio is greater). which is consistent with the keystone effect, if this was in fact in play. This in itself will contribute to making the height of the hat seem greater in relation to the face.  

But is this enough to explain the change?

Let us look at the dimensions of the hat itself.

Ratio of height of hat to width of hat (H/W)
     Original version     0.423
    Newsnight version  0.488

The difference is 65, which means that there has been a 13.32% increase in the width/height ratio compared to the original. Although the width will have become less, like the width of the face, the height of the hat has definitely been increased.

This proves that the apparent transformation of the hat appearance is not down to the colour tone changes, nor to any Keystone effect, but that the hat has been deliberately stretched vertically to convert it from a cap to a more Russian looking fur hat. 

The irony is that Corbyn has been critical of Putin and his machinations, while the Conservative Party is awash with £3 millions of Russian money, and is resisting Labour's attempts to tighten controls on Russian money.

In coming out to deny what had been done, the Newsnight editor and team not only altered an image to make Corbyn look like a Russian stooge, but also put out a false account of why the image looked different.

The response will come back from Newsnight defenders and their political supporters , "Why in the world are you spending hours measuring cap pixels and ratios when there has been an attempted murder by Putin and a subsequent serious international dispute?"

And the answer is, precisely because this is the kind of media distortion that the likes of Putin will carry out against his opponents, using State controlled media to alter perceptions of political reality. Democracy only works properly if there is a healthy, balanced media, critical of Government and opposition in equal measure.

What Newsnight has done is a serious departure from BBC even-handedness, and the person who took the decision to roll out that image of Corbyn must answer for his or her actions.

Click here to place your complaint:

If you find that this application of measurement to a point of political controversy useful, please join in campaigning for use of Interruption Rates in evaluating bias in political interviews.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Is Putin reponsible for Salisbury?

Bing images

Is Putin responsible for the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury?

Probably, but we do not yet have incontrovertible evidence.

The best evidence would be forensic analysis of impurities in the Novichok used in the attack, which would provide a signature of its origin. This has not been forthcoming, either because Porton Down does not have enough material to get an answer, or for some other reason.

All we know is that Russia invented the damn stuff, and holds an amount of it. But so too do a number of other countries, including us. Craig Murray is looking in detail at this aspect of things.

The next line of evidence is that Putin has form. At least nine of his political opponents have died mysteriously, Litvinenko, Khordovski and Berezovski being the best known, with other less familiar names, and another nine journalists beginning with Politsovkaya. This is a strong pattern, made stronger by the threat that Putin made about his opponents "eating poison" recently.

Then there is the smug, sarcastic, "Prove it!" tone of Russian denials when asked about Salisbury. Innocence would call out a more anxious denial, a roll out of how it could not have been them.

Putin has another flaw, namely his support for Assad and his merciless war in Syria.

So the evidence is pretty circumstantial. If the Government has stronger evidence, they should take Putin to the World Court, the UN's International Court of Justice, and present the evidence. This would take time, but in the time, we could amass more evidence, and the wait, and the court process, would all the time weigh against Putin's character and credibility in the eyes of the world. Legal action can be in addition to any other measures that the Government might want to use. If we believe in the rule of law, we should take this matter to a court of law.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Frack Free North Somerset Submission to Select Committee on Local Government etc

Written Submission to the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government Inquiry
into Planning for Fracking from
Frack Free North Somerset

Submitted by Dr Richard Lawson on behalf of Frack-Free North Somerset

  1. Executive Summary
    1. We are satisfied with the guidance available to us and see no need for an update, apart from a drawing-together of sources into one place
    2. We are strongly supportive of the competence of local democratic institutions to consider this matter, and emphatically reject the idea that a corporate advisor should be embedded in the Local Authority to influence their decision-making
    3. We believe that local environmental conditions, particularly the proximity of the Mendip Hills with their complex and extensive cave systems, and the wetlands of the Somerset Levels, mean that the matter must definitely be left in the hands of the local authority.
    4. Since the impacts of fracking on environmental health (human and animal) would be borne by local people, the matter must be decided by local people.
    5. Our recommendation is that Government should invest in energy conservation, energy storage and biogas as a response to climate change and the coming shortfall in gas supplies
  1. Introduction
    1. Dr Richard Lawson MB BS, MRCPsych is Chair of FFNS, a retired General Practitioner of medicine. Contact 01934 853606
    2. Frack Free North Somerset is a civil society organisation which exists in order to support individuals and groups in the North Somerset areas to protect our local environment from unconventional onshore gas and oil development for reason of public health & safety, economic and environmental risk.
  2. Is there the need to update and improve the guidance available?
    1. The guidance available to us on the Local Plan of our local authority, North Somerset Council, is adequate.
    2. It has been carefully considered over time and arrived at through normal democratic processes.
  3. Is there the need for a comprehensive document incorporating existing and updated guidance?
    1. There is a case for central Government guidance to be brought together in one place, in the name of organisational efficiency.
    2. We would be concerned if any substantive changes were to be made in the process of creating the single document.
    3. In particular, the notion that an “advisor” representing the interests of the fracking industry should be placed in the local authority is absolutely unacceptable.

  1. Should applications for fracking be dealt with as national infrastructure under the 2008 Planning Act?
    1. Our reply is, emphatically, no. Aside from its impact on global climate, the main impact of fracking is on local people, the local economy and the local environment.
      Therefore natural justice demands that local authorities should be the first to consider and decide on any application to drill in our community.
    2. Of particular importance in our county is our proximity to the Mendip Hills, an area of fissured limestone with an extensive interconnected cave network which is an important source of drinking water for our area. This network is by no means exhaustively mapped, and upwellings of fresh water are known to occur miles out in the Severn Estuary, which may well be originating in the Mendips. There is therefore a high probability that fracking fluids injected into shale beds will find their way into the Mendip cave network.
    3. This will result in serious pollution of the network as a whole, affecting not just drinking water but also the health of recreational and scientific cavers, and also the purity of the water of Wells and Bath, which are of great importance to local tourism. For these reasons, any attempt to override or bypass local planning considerations is absolutely unacceptable.
    4. The same considerations apply to the ecologically important wetlands of the Somerset Levels. Even though fracking takes place at a great depth below the surface, the high pressures needed for fracking inevitably mean that gas, water and fracking chemicals will migrate to the surface and contaminate the wetlands, with adverse consequences on the environment of the wetlands and its bird population.

  2. Recommendations
    1. We are mindful of the worsening gap between gas demand and gas supplies in the UK. We are convinced that in view of the reality of anthropogenic climate change, rather than allowing large corporations to exploit a few years of fresh supplies of gas from geological strata where it has been safely stored for millions of years, Government should invest extensively in the following:
      1. Energy conservation
      2. Renewable energy
      3. Energy storage in all its diverse forms - which complements the variability of 5.1.2
      4. Biogas technologies.
    2. We note that the above response to the coming problem of gas supplies will have the following advantages:
      1. They are environmentally benign
      2. They create large numbers of jobs, particularly 5.1.1
      3. They are small scale, dispersed and can be provided by SMEs, who are more likely to pay tax than large fracking corporations
      4. Unlike fracking, they are sustainable. Biogas will deliver gas for the indefinite future, rather than for one or two decades.
    3. We recommend that large fracking corporations should not be encouraged to mine fossil gas as they are likely to export any gas that they produce (20% of our gas production before the last few years was exported) if market conditions are such that they will make more profit by exporting their product.
    4. We note that the promise that fracking will create lower prices for the British consumer is unlikely to be met.
    5. We note that water supply bills are likely to rise in gommunities affectd by fracking.
    6. In the same way, Government should be mindful that at least one of the large corporations holding fracking licenses is a manufacturer of plastic, and will therefore not contribute to the gas grid, but rather will contribute to the global problem of pollution by micro (and macro) plastics.


Saturday, March 10, 2018

How can we solve the Housing Crisis?

I sent this tweet on March 5th while listening to the Today Programme:

How will Labour build houses?" Asks John Humphrys on #r4today
"Allow Councils to borrow" says John Healey MP (Lab)
"More borrowing" intones John Humphry doubtfully

That's how we get houses John. 
It's called a "mortgage".

This is my most successful tweet ever, with 751 retweets, and seen in total by 101,693 people so far, producing 69 replies, the great majority positive, emphasising the  cost-effectiveness of building council housing because it produces rent for councils.

In my book Bills of Health I showed that building housing is 10 (ten) times more effective in financial terms alone  than putting people in temporary accommodation - the human benefits come as a bonus.

Homelessness has surged in public consciousness due to the cold weather and the actions of Windsor Council in trying to cleanse their streets of homeless people for the wedding of Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle.

The British Government is failing long and hard over housing.

The sole reason for Government to exist is to provide security to its citizens. Security means meeting the basics of life - food, water, energy, housing, healthcare and waste disposal, and protecting us from violence.

If people do not have enough food, they riot. If people do not have enough housing, they just get angry, get depressed and get ill. Successive Governments, Labour and Conservative, have failed, and are still failing, to fulfill their basic duty. Access to housing is a human need, and a country that denies its citizens their basic human needs does not deserve to be called "civilised".

It is not just the effect of inadequate housing on the nation's health and morale; homelessness makes no financial sense either, as we shall see.

The British Government has got to provide housing , and provide it fast.

So how do we do it?

Let's start with the homelessness problem, which is manifest as rough sleeping, in the bags and beggars on our streets, but also is hidden in overcrowding and sofa-surfing - all of which have serious health implications.

There is an amazingly effective answer to homelessness. It is to provide accommodation for the homeless. This is called Housing First, and has been implemented in the USA, with good results.

Housing for the homeless can be innovative and inexpensive.

We can re-purpose unused properties of many different kinds - empty houses,  offices, even warehouses and shipping containers.

The title "Housing First" correctly implies that there is more to the problem of homelessness  than simply providing shelter. Any development that brings a number of homeless people together will need support workers to help with social, health and psychiatric problems. There will need to be community self-regulation to overcome inevitable relationship problems. All these needs can be met, and overall, providing adequate and decent housing has got to be good for society as a whole, a prudent use of money, and a good investment.

In addressing the problem of homelessness, we give ourselves a model for addressing the housing problem generally. There are more empty properties in the UK than there are homeless families. There is sometimes a good geographical match between all of the available properties and the people in need. The problem lies in opening up the properties.

Squatting used to be the direct action response to the empty property until the Conservative Government foolishly made it an offence under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. This Act needs to be amended to allow squatting again, and if Government is unwilling to do this, they should at least make it easier for local authorities to use Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMO).

Houses are left empty for a variety of reasons, ranging from being condemned as unfit on environmental health reasons, to situations where a divorced couple are unable to agree what to do with the house.

Any empty property has a depressing effect on the locality, but if it is in a terrace, it has a physically destructive effect, as the empty property succumbs to damp and rot, which begins to spread to its neighbours.

The effect of the EDMO is that the local authority takes over the care of the building, without affecting the property claims of the owner - whoever that may be, and sometimes that is impossible to establish. It doesn't matter who the owner is - it is being neglected, and it will be brought back into use. If the owner wants to take over the use again, they will have to foot the bill for the improvement works.

Predictably, the right wing Press opposed the EDMO, with the Express screaming hysterically that The State was going to seize 250,000 homes and the Sunday Times wailing that Britain had turned into a Communist State. As a result of this opposition EDMOs have only been severely under-used, at a rate of about 10 a year, because it is a complex and expensive process for local authorities to carry out. The rules for an EDMO need to be streamlined, and the right wing press needs to be told to grow up.

Self-build is the next step. Many people are capable of building their own homes using low impact materials like wood, rammed earth and straw, and these should be encouraged and facilitated instead of being seen as examples of weirdness. Co-housing should also be facilitated in whichever ways may be possible.

We need to free up unused living space, but the Bedroom Tax was a clumsy and cruel way of trying to do this. Rather than the coercive approach adopted by the Conservatives, we need to look at ways of making downsizing more easy and attractive, by assisting people in their decision, assisting them in their house move, and offering lower housing costs for single people who move voluntarily into smaller accommodation.

Finally, having looked at all the low cost and innovative options, we can start looking, very briefly,  at house building in the conventional sense.

There are big issues about the inclination of corporations to buy up and hold possible building land a process called land banking. The longer they hold it, as demand for housing grows, the more the value of their asset grows. Land Value Tax would help to put an end to this selfish behaviour.

Brownfield sites are preferable to greenfield from an environmental point of view, but less attractive from a commercial point of view. This is a good reason for Local Government to get back into the business of building council housing.

So finally, we arrive at the major solution to the lack of housing: Local Government builds enough houses for all its citizens (and also guests), and takes a rent.

Council housing was sold off in the 1980s for ideological reasons. The Conservative view is that it is wrong for Government to involve itself in the business of building houses and renting them out cheaply. So they sold them off to the sitting tenants, which in itself is not objectionable, since there are advantages to owning your home as opposed to renting. What was objectionable was that Councils were not allowed to use the money for council housing  sales to build new houses. Instead, the Conservative mantra was that "The Market Will Provide". History proves that the market did not provide.

The graph shows a falling trend in house-building since 1965, with an 8-year increase after the 1980 Housing Act, another increase under the Blair Government, followed by a sharp decrease caused by the Banks Crash of 2008-9. Despite the recent increase, we now see the lowest rate of house building in peace time since the 1920s.

Even worse, about one third of the houses sold have been sold on again to landlords, which was not quite the original idea. Or then again, maybe it was...

So we need a new burst of Council house building. It needs to be well-designed, with high energy efficiency, and well maintained but with maximum freedom for tenants to choose their own colour scheme.

How will this be paid for?

This brings us back to the interchange between the Johns Humphrys and Healy at the beginning of this post. To  Humphrys, paid £600,000 a year, the idea of borrowing to purchase a house is totally alien. If he needs another house, he can pay cash. To a Conservative megaphone like him, Government borrowing is by definition totally wrong - even though borrowing is how money is created. To Humphrys, Government should not have any money, except obviously for things like Trident, spy cops and prisons, and even then, he would be in favour of private prisons.

In the real world, Councils can borrow. My own Local Authority, North Somerset District Council, has just closed a deal to borrow £30 million to buy a Retail Park on which they hope to make a fat profit to feed back in the Council's finances, assuming the market holds steady. So a Council is in fact allowed to borrow to invest.

In the same way, Councils should be allowed to borrow to invest in the well-being of the people they exist in order to serve. In providing Council housing that meets the needs of all the population (not just the richest decile) they are helping the morale of everyone. They are reducing the burden on the NHS, since 6% of the NHS clinical budget is swallowed up in trying to treat conditions caused by inadequate housing. They gain an income from housing rent, and they have less expenditure on temporary accommodation (putting the homeless in hotels and rented rooms), which is ten times more expensive than building a house that may last 100 years or more.

Councils must be allowed to borrow at low interest rates. Rates have been historically low since 2008 (although they are now set to rise).

Local Government could borrow from Central Government. It is irrational that Government should have to borrow at high rates from commercial banks, given that those banks only exist because of the £100 billions of money given to them in an unplanned situation by Government. Just as Government produced that money by Quantitative Easing in order to keep the banks alive, so also they can produce money by Quantitative Easing to keep people and communities alive and healthy. QE, like borrowing, is acceptable so long as it is carried out as a wise investment, on the expectation that it will generate more money in the future.

More information on the way money is created is available here, and on the Positive Money website.

So, in short, it is the duty of Government to make sure that all people have basic security. Housing is one of those securities. Government has been failing in its duty, and must rectify its provision of housing. There are many low cost ways of providing accommodation for rough sleepers. The provision of a new wave of Council housing depends on councils being allowed to borrow at low rates of interest, and one way of providing this money is by Quantitative Easing.