Scottish Independance: look to the Isle of Man

Scottish Saltire at Independence EventThe ongoing Scottish Independence issue has been a thorn in the UK’s side since the 13th century featuring such historical figures as Robert The Bruce, William Wallace and now, the perhaps less enigmatic, Alec Salmond. This week is going to see the decision to end all decisions (apparently), a referendum on independence by the Scottish people.

The closeness in the vote has been widely reported and serves to ramp up the tension and poll-fatigue in equal measure. Just get on with it, will you?

Key questions remain unanswered, despite the pontifications by both sides. How will the welfare state be managed? How will Scotland’s currency be handled? Will costs increase for Scots post-independence? What is Salmond really after?

Voters, who are being led by a media often accused of being partisan (including the BBC), have been asked to decide based on contradictory and incomplete statements, with few reference points to understand how independence could work.

Look to the Isle of Man

The Isle of Man enjoys an independence in all but name that provides it autonomy in most respects. We’re a quasi-independent state, apart from our reliance on defence services provided by the UK. Whilst the UK Government has the ultimate control of Manx legislation, it rarely exercises this right. The last time this was exercised was in the 60s for the banning of pirate radio stations such as Radio Caroline.

Scotland has a population of 5.6 million, the Isle of Man has just 80,000. Yet we have our own welfare state, National Insurance scheme and health service. These are all compatible with the UK systems, and collaboration is common where residents move to or from the island or require more advanced healthcare than is available on island. If we can finance our own welfare state, with apparently low taxation, why can’t Scotland?

We have our own parliament (one of the oldest continuous parliaments in the world), with powers extending widely and deeply allowing the island to truly govern itself. We can set our own fiscal, social, education and infrastructure policies. A recent consultation for the island has seen the island moving towards the International GCSE, instead of Michael Gove’s revised exam standards. Scotland can already set its own educational agenda, though aspects of its social and fiscal policies remain Westminster-authored. The education model in Scotland is certainly intriguing, considering the higher-education funding for Scottish students.

Stores have threatened higher costs for businesses which will be offloaded onto consumers. With or without currency union, a separate fiscal policy will undoubtedly add layers of complexity which may introduce additional costs. Residents of the Isle of Man can already attest to the higher expenses involved with living in a separate state, yet inevitably bound to the UK consumer market. Delivery costs are higher, food takes longer to get here and companies may need to domicile themselves as franchises within the island. In Scotland’s favour is the lack of the Irish Sea adding 12 hours to a delivery schedule.

The currency question, despite threats from Mark Carney about the possibility of achieving currency union or parity, is arguably possible based on a similar model by the Isle of Man. Guido Fawkes outlines the possibilities of parity-Pound based on the Manx model, who manage parity despite a continued lack of oil reserves. Salmond himself has also recognised the Manx Pound, though unfortunately refers to the island as a “tax haven” betraying his statemanship.

Then Scotland has its oil. How much they have, and whether it is actually theirs, England’s or Shetland’s remains to be seen. One thing is clear, the Isle of Man doesn’t have any yet we manage to fund ourselves (though apparently we’re going to have a look).

Perhaps the Isle of Man is closer to what Salmond may actually want, Devo-Max. We’re able to benefit from a close working relationship with the UK but remain autonomous, enjoying the best of both worlds.

Perhaps the better option would be to elect Groundskeeper Willy:

My Bitcoin experience

Pixelated BitcoinYou’ll have heard of Bitcoin and the possibly cryptically named cryptocurrencies that are generating some interest in financial circles, well, everywhere but the big banks.

Bitcoin and similar schema represents an alternative to “fiat” currencies such as Pound Sterling, Euro, etc. You purchase Bitcoins on an exchange with either a web site or a smartphone, you find somewhere (or somebody) that accepts Bitcoin, they flash you wish a QR code and voila, you’ve debited enough cash to purchase a smoothie.

It sounds simple, but even as an IT professional, I have to admit to struggling to understand it and the paradigm. How can a so-called “virtual currency” be trusted? What about the end user, the consumer who wants to pay for their shopping? Flashing QR codes and requiring a smartphone is perhaps too much for some (including me).

To help convince me, I was treated to lunch at Java Lounge in Douglas, one of a growing number of cryptocurrency-accepting outlets on the island. My host asked to pay by Bitcoin and was given a receipt containing a QR code which was scanned by his iPhone-app and the amount of the bill debited from his “account”. Pretty slick.

Rewind a couple of days

Which is sweet, if you’re an iPhone or Android user. As a Windows Phone user, I’m left with an abortion of an app  which on first execution leaves the user with the screen:

"Addresses"

What am I supposed to do with that? Swipe right and I get to “log in”:

wp_ss_20140904_0002

… with a GUID! Which I have to type on a smartphone keyboard!

Perhaps I should now mention that the Blockchain site I registered on briefly displayed a GUID which I struggled to later find to be able to enter in these fields. Which failed to log me in anyway.

Ok, maybe I was being dense.

Back to today

As a test, I have a small amount in my “account”. Well, it’s not an account yet, it’s just a QR code.

WP_20140904_20_32_38_Pro

This was generated using the POS terminal, but is just as easily achieved using an “app”.

I now have to realise this as cash. So I go to the suggested website at Coinkite and “Sign up” to convert the voucher code on the receipt into currency in an account so I can spend it. Except, the web site “Sign up” form doesn’t work except if you use Chrome.

So far, we have a clunky replacement for a widely understood paradigm, complicated sequences of alphanumeric characters which form a check when transferring funds, a requirement to have an expensive smartphone for an optimal experience – as long as it isn’t Windows Phone and web sites which are poorly written and opinionated such that I can only use their preferred browser not my own.

All in all, a failure.

Not so fast

There is a distinct feeling of libertarianism around cryptocurrencies. As was explained to me, the blockchains are self-validating and carry greater strength than the bricks-and-mortar banks. We are going to be able to really stick it to the man, the man who has been bailed out yet continues to transgress in selling scams, rate fixing and the like. It’s certainly an honourable endeavour.

But I struggle to see how we can pitch this to the regular guy on the street. For me, QR codes, restrictions based on what smartphone you own, complexities of understanding the procedure (which QR code do I scan) and the trust people need that their money is safe creates barriers to entry. Acknowledging the evils of the banks and the iron-like grip companies like Visa have over our payment methods, it’s a well known paradigm that has lasted since the old mechanical clunk-clunk credit card “machines” that created an imprint of your card on some tracing paper. Since then we’ve had magnetic stripes, Chip and PIN, card security codes and now Near Field Communication payments – all using the same paradigm (now Apple are finally on board with this, cryptocurrencies might have an even bigger hill to climb). Hand over your card and swipe it, insert it or wave it wherever you see the “Visa” sign – which is, ahem, everywhere. Banks also have established account numbers, sort codes, IBANs, etc. I can remember these because they’re simple. 8 numeric digits is much easier than 34 mixed-case alpha-numeric characters representing my “address” (I understand one doesn’t “remember” this code, just like one doesn’t remember serial numbers on a bank note. My point is it’s displayed within apps therefore takes a slice of our attention).

Bitcoin et al. has many advantages. It is cheaper to use, it transfers the control of your money to you (or apparently, your smartphone) and it is “liberating”. But you can you really pay your mortgage using it? I look forward to seeing someone attempt to pay their mortgage (which is somewhat akin to risk) using a cryptocurrency at a bricks-and-mortar bank that it competes with. I can perhaps buy a smoothie, or a pint at some selected (though increasing) outlets. Maybe it could ultimately replace cash, considering people tend to carry small amounts of cryptocurrency around on their smartphone. Seems a similar approach to risk as carrying wads of cash. They just need to make the transaction simpler.

As I said today, we need to see the payment paradigm simplified. Requiring certain apps on certain smartphones and web sites on certain web browsers is not good enough. I was shown a debit-card style card that one can use much like a Chip-and-PIN card so the paradigm is getting closer – but I can’t use my Visa card in the Bitcoin terminal or vice-versa. Even American Express uses the same terminal as Visa!

In conclusion, I do like the idea – but it’s way too complicated.

Google I/O Extended – Isle of Man

Google I/O Extended - Isle of ManGoogle broadcast their Google I/O Extended conference from the US, as an adjunct to their much larger Google I/O conference.

Owen Cutajar of FutureTech hosted a live screening of the various announcements, guidance and tech gossip at The Forum, Mt Havelock, Douglas. Attracting a sizeable audience, possibly attracted by the free pizza sponsored by MICTA, there was plenty of opportunity to watch, absorb, chat and munch on pizza and sweets.

The night was captured on the Isle of Man’s Google I/O page.

The Forum is an ideal facility for meeting and learning with like-minded individuals. A number of events are held there, including training courses and seminars by the Isle of Man branch of the British Computer Society and the new and successful, Code Club.

Lots of topics were discussed, covering wearable technology such as Google Glass and watches, home automation using the recently-acquired Google/Nest, Cryptocurrencies and Android.

Although not a Google fan myself, I found the event particularly useful to fill in gaps of my knowledge of another side of the tech industry which I have views upon, though from an outsider’s perspective. Whilst I’m not going to run out and kit my house out with Nest or buy an Android phone, the opportunity to talk through the technologies with other audience members provided fresh insight. It would be nice to see the same applied to the other key players and conferences in the technology landscape, such as those by Microsoft, Apple and Facebook.

 

Russia

Considering the events not only of the last few days in Ukraine, but stretching back some 20 years, Europe is a hotbed of activity for politics, civil unrest and conflict. With Russia on its doorstep, the dynamics within Europe are getting ever tenser, complicated by Russia’s gas advantage. I thought I’d explore some maps of Europe to try and understand these dynamics further.

NATO members

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was set up during the Cold War between the West and the USSR. Although its role has somewhat changed since the break up of the Soviet Union, it remains a reminder of that difficult period. As such Russia sees an increasing number of its neighbours joining NATO which can only increase its discomfort.

NATO Members

Source: NATO

EU members

Although Britain is currently deep within an in/out debate with regards the EU, other countries are fighting to get in. In particular, former Soviet countries are keen to embrace Western ways and identify membership of the EU as a major achievement and line in the sand from former times. More of Russia’s western neighbours are snubbing Eastern ways and favour integration with the former enemy.

EU Members

Source: EU

Gas dependencies

Russia has a very strong position within the European gas market, accounting for around 30% of total gas dependence. Although alternative sources are constantly being explored, 30% can materially affect prices.

Russian Gas Dependence

These statistics are from 2004 and are therefore fairly old. However, their significance remains.

Countries with dependence on Russian gas that are ex-Soviet countries: Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania Moldova, Latvia, Georgia, Estonia.

European countries with dependence on Russian gas greater than or equal to 0.5% of total domestic consumption: Germany, Italy, Turkey, France, Austria, Poland, Netherlands, Greece, Belgium.

European countries with dependence on Russian gas less than 0.5% of total domestic consumption: Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, United Kingdom

Source

Conflict within the last 20 years

From Serbia to Syria, Europe and the Middle-East is at best a basket-case of tension. Civil unrest, aggressive neighbours and religious conflict pepper the landscape. Just searching for “unrest” yields hundreds of results which suggests Europeans are a “bolshy” lot (etymology unintended). But countries in such close proximity, in the middle of the geographic cold war, are bound to see conflict.

Conflicts in last 20 years

States experiencing civil unrest: Azerbaijan (2013), Belarus (2010)Bulgaria (2013), Czech Republic (2011)Denmark (2008), England (2011)Estonia (2007)Greece (2011-ongoing), Hungary (2006), Italy (2010)Latvia (2009),  Lithuania (2009)Moldova (2012)Romania (2012), Slovakia (2004), Slovenia (2012)Sweden (2013)Turkey (2013), Ukraine (2013-ongoing)

States experiencing conflict (on its own soil): Albania (1997), Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia (1992-1995)Georgia (2008), Libya (2011)Montenegro (1999), Northern Ireland (1968-1998)

“We’ve heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the internet, we know this is not true” Wilensky, Emeritus Professor, University College Berkley

Placebos: why are we not using them as a first-step treatment?

Drugs in containersThe BBC’s Horizon programme is always a fascinating insight into science and the recent programme about the power of placebos was no exception. A placebo is a treatment or drug that attempts to address symptoms of conditions or improve performance, but with no active ingredients or processes. The key is to convince the taker of the placebo that the placebo is a genuine drug or procedure.

The programme had a number of powerful demonstrations of the power of placebos. Cyclists were able to improve their performance, the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease were significantly reduced and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome were also reduced.

This reminded me of a weakness in the medical establishment, that of research-based medicine. You’d think doctors were scientists who prescribe based on scientific results. You’d be wrong. The medical establishment is alleged to shun scientific analysis and misrepresents medical research data. Ben Goldacre argues even an optimistic proportion of medical treatment would add up to only 50%-80% of treatments being evidence-based according to speciality. Hopefully your treatment will be one of them.

This is why I was pleasantly surprised by the example of a doctor that changed a surgical procedure he had practiced for 15 years for a placebo procedure. The randomised selection of patients experienced a ‘fake’ procedure, including a script-based performance by surgeons. There was no statistically significant difference in the pain relief experienced by patients. Another doctor prescribed a placebo as an alternative to a drug course for Parkinson’s disease with similarly positive results. Test patients were able to experience life as someone without the condition. Placebos rely on the body’s own pain relief mechanism, favouring natural over intervention.

If placebos are so effective, why aren’t doctors prescribing them? Doctors are over prescribing drugs. Anti-biotics are at a critical point due to over prescribing by doctors. Conditions such as depression and autism are treated with cocktails designed to interact with our brains at a chemical – and unnatural – level.

In my opinion, patients should perhaps be prescribed a placebo in the first instance for certain conditions. I don’t want to question the legitimacy of psychological illnesses such as depression, but I am a strong believer in self-help as a first step to treating anxiety, depression and other such illnesses. Meditation has been proven as an effective treatment for anxiety and depression; an effective treatment that is free. Counselling and hypnosis are also valid and effective treatments. (How a doctor can prescribe anti-depressants without counselling is beyond me.) In the absence of GPs prescribing “self-help” such as meditation, perhaps placebos could be used. A placebo could be prescribed as a first stage drug for patients. Studies have shown positive results for depression, so I believe this could be a positive first step for patients unwilling to “self-help”. Perhaps they could experience the same benefits but not subject themselves (and those around them) to the effects of aggressive anti-depressives.

Of course, wider access to placebos will intrinsically reduce their effectiveness as people start to “grow wise” to the practice, reducing the effect of the placebo. Again, the Horizon episode suprised me even here. Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome were prescribed placebos and were told so. They were told although the drug was a placebo, perhaps her own body would help her condition. Yet again, placebos were identified as being effective in reducing symptoms whilst the drug was taken.

Perhaps one reason why the medical establishment are not looking to natural methods or placebos as an opportunity to help patients rely on their own healing capabilities is due to the influence of pharmaceuticals. Your GP is the interface between you and a catalogue of expensive drugs, paid for by a state body which can achieve economies of scale for bulk purchase, satisfying the pharmas’ desire for profit. Your busy GP has to get through their patients for the day whilst personally addressing each and every patient’s concerns. It is easy to appreciate how drugs can be turned to as a “quick fix” for patients, helped by marketing departments of the pharmaceuticals who – whilst they cannot offer much more than a mousemat to help them sell their drugs – exert real influence on doctors’ routes of treatment.

To the War-room!

I’m currently studying for an MSc in Project Management. This is making my head pop at times so I’ll blog the bits that don’t make it into my academic submissions from time to time.

Man in front of a wall of writingIt strikes me that in the various projects I’ve worked on, I’ve found myself struggling to move between projects at a moment’s notice, flipping my consciousness in the process. In my head, I am mentally trying to compartmentalise my project work to ensure I don’t get confused as a result of any “leakage”. Meanwhile, my desk gets messier.

What if we could reflect this set of mental compartments in the real world, in the office? By separating project activities from each other in the office, it might just make it easier to flip between projects. Robert Wysocki mentions the “War Room”, which is a room dedicated to the project. This room will probably just be a meeting room “commandeered” by the project team for their collaboration and requires little more than usual office stationery and equipment during the course of the project.

The War Room should contain:

  • A whiteboard
  • A computer and projector
  • Ample water
  • Flipchart
  • Plenty of wallspace and blu-tac

The room is the “meeting point” for the project team both as part of formal meeting times and collaboration times, perhaps as a way to get away from the usual team and concentrate on the job in hand without distractions. The act of removing yourself from your usual position in the office will be an immediate benefit to reducing distractions and when you’re headed to the project War Room, it’s clear to your colleagues what you are working on.

It might be messy, with scrawling across the whiteboards, papers hanging from the wall, textbooks left open and memos littering the desks. It is however a workspace, dedicated to a particular purpose. When individuals enter that room, they join the project either as a collaborative member, a manager or an observer. It’s a physical boundary between the hum-drum taking-care-of-business work and transformative, collaborative work.

Of course, not every office is able to facilitate such luxuries. It might be due to physical constraints (not enough rooms/space) or political (“why should they get their own room?”). Unfortunately, the argument against productivity and office design has long since been lost and we’re doomed to cubicles spread across noisy, windowless offices so making the case for a dedicated collaborative space is going to be difficult.

Then again, if the business can’t give you a dedicated project collaboration space, what value do they really have on the project?