A plan for school absence

So it's regarded as an extremely serious matter for a child to miss school for even one unauthorized day, but it's perfectly fine to ban them from school for four days for eating Mini Cheddars?

Riley Pearson, from Colnbrook, near Slough, was excluded from Colnbrook C of E Primary School after teachers discovered the snack and called in his parents.
After a meeting with headmaster Jeremy Meek, they were sent a letter telling them Riley would be excluded from Wednesday until Monday because he had been 'continuously breaking school rules'.
"Consistency: we've heard of it."

An avenue for parents suggests itself: book your holiday, wait until a couple of days before and then get your child to take a few packets of Monster Munch to school. Profit!


Supply and demand - it's a bitch

Pity Mr. Cookson who wants to take his kids to Center Parcs during the school holiday and is paying 40% extra for the privilege:

Posting a screengrab of the online booking form showing the price leaping from £699 to £999 in consecutive weeks, he wrote: 'For exactly the same villa the week before the school holiday, it's £300 cheaper!
'Do you get anything extra? NO. Same villa, end of.'
He is of course, completely right at the same time as being completely wrong. Center Parcs has been running for about 20 years and has great data on how demand fluctuates over the year. They've built the optimum number of villas to serve customers year-round; the marginal cost of an occupied villa for a week probably isn't huge, but the construction cost and maintenance probably is, and they have constrained space. They want to get the place as full as possible, and will hence increase the daily occupancy cost to a point where 99.9% or so of villas are occupied. The one or two families who will pay £969 but not £999 will be the unlucky ones.

Center Parcs put a good spin on this:

'We reduce our prices significantly during off-peak periods to reflect the lower demand at these times,' a spokesman said.
I like that: they reduced their prices off-peak, rather than increasing the prices during peak. The spokesman clearly is earning his pay.

Mr. Cookson is of course complaining to precisely the wrong people. If he wants to fix the problem, he shouldn't be talking to Center Parcs - there's no way in hell that they're going to sacrifice £300 times five holiday weeks times a few hundred villas times five sites just to get a small amount of good publicity. There are two ways to reduce the cost; the most feasible approach is to make different schools stagger the vacation weeks. Do this on a per-district basis so you don't have the problem of different vacations for kids in the same family of different ages, and randomise the choice for each district, and you've halved the effect of the holiday surge. Now you're still going to pay a premium for Center Parcs during the two weeks, but it should reduce demand and hence price - maybe £840 instead of £999 for the week. ABTA reports that Germany uses this approach, which is eminently sensible.

The more effective approach is to remove this stupid restriction in state schools that children cannot take holidays during term at all. Give each child in primary education a couple of weeks per year to take off with no penalty, and a week per year in secondary education, then price a couple of additional weeks by a sane amount - say, £15 per day per child.

Of course, this will cause all the businesses catering to families to lose money since they can no longer charge a hefty premium for those vacation weeks; demand might increase a little for the average non-vacation week, but I suspect they'll still lose overall.

Let's contrast this with a post on the subject by the Guardian's education editor Richard Adams:

Is it really that big a problem?
Yes. According to Bradford metropolitan council, between September 2012 and Easter 2013 more than 41,000 days of education were lost owing to parents in the city taking their children out of school for holidays during term time.
How many pupils in Bradford? The population of the city is about 520,000. If we assume (very conservatively) that about 10% of the population is between 5 and 16, that's 52,000 students. So that's less than 1 day of education per student per year - I assume that after Easter the marginal cost compared to waiting for the summer holidays means that not many more days are taken. That statistic is stupid - they are clearly not putting it in context because it is so small.
Does a week make that much difference?
A child who takes a week's extra holiday each year at school will have missed at least 70 days – or the equivalent of more than three months of teaching – by the end of their time at school.
Wow, 70 days. That's quite the statistic. 5 days per year implies 14 years, so they are including students from age 4 through to the end of A-levels. Schools have to be open for at least 190 days (38 weeks) per year so that's 2660 days over 14 years. A child taking a week's extra holiday per year is missing less than 3% of the school week.

If schools really thought that 1 week of school made such a marginal difference, they'd be paying for supply teachers to cover the 2-3 inset days per year which affect all pupils. At 2 inset days per year, 104,000 days of education are lost to parents in Bradford as a result of inset days.

Any long-term solutions?
Parents could accept that their child's classroom education is far more important than a week in Europe, no matter how many museums they visit. That's especially true for young children: the evidence is unanimous that early-years education is vital for future attainment.
Really? I can believe that having a year of education for a 5 year old, compared to having no education, has some benefit - still, many countries don't start formal education for children until a year later than Britain does. But missing a week of sounding out words, painting and listening to stories compared to travel, hearing and learning words in a foreign language, trying new foods, seeing different sights and meeting new friends doesn't seem to be to be the slam-dunk that Richard Adams suggests.


Moobs for Windows

I loved this. From Orange County, CA Craigslist:

Busy and techy plastic surgery office in Newport Beach is looking for an IT person to service the office per need basis. The doctor specializes in gynecomastia surgery in addition to performing traditional cosmetic procedures. If this is something you are interested in having done, this would be a great way to trade service for service.
[Note that Craigslist expires ads, so this link won't work forever.]

If you're wondering "Huh?", you either need to know the definition of gynecomastia or you've never encountered an IT geek.

I'm now expecting a wave of part-time IT Craiglist ads with optometrists, dieticians, sartorialists, hairdressers and fitness instructors offering to trade professional services for improved IT.

The world is getting better, not worse

That's the conclusion of billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. In his annual Gates Foundation letter he explains (and justifies) why three myths about world poverty are untrue - and why they block progress for the poor:

Now I consider Windows Vista a crime against humanity, but can't fault Mr. and Mrs. Gates for their commitment to making the world a better place with their own money. Bear in mind that Bill Gates doesn't seem to have any vested interest in these matters - he's richer than Croesus, he doesn't seem to care about political power, he doesn't have people to pay off; if he makes these claims, it's most likely to be because he believes them. And he's not dumb or politically naive by any stretch of the imagination. Bill Gates - and it pains me to say this after trying to use Word 6.0 - has more authority in this area than pretty much any government, business or NGO.

Just to give an example of his claims:

Income per person has in fact risen in sub-Saharan Africa over that time, and quite a bit in a few countries. After plummeting during the debt crisis of the 1980s, it has climbed by two thirds since 1998, to nearly $2,200 from just over $1,300. Today, more and more countries are turning toward strong sustained development, and more will follow. Seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies of the past half-decade are in Africa.
Africa has also made big strides in health and education. Since 1960, the life span for women in sub-Saharan Africa has gone up from 41 to 57 years, despite the HIV epidemic. Without HIV it would be 61 years. The percentage of children in school has gone from the low 40s to over 75 percent since 1970. Fewer people are hungry, and more people have good nutrition. If getting enough to eat, going to school, and living longer are measures of a good life, then life is definitely getting better there.
Sure, capitalism has its faults. But the implications of these figures are pretty hard to dispute. You can claim that if we had centrally-planned ethical socialism in the Western world, life in Africa would be better, but given the above data the onus is on you to show that your claims are true. Life in Africa is getting much better; if you're going to change the world, how will you prove that your changes won't reverse this progress?


Racism by association

I appreciate that if someone wants to get paid for a "all Tories are racist" article then the first instinct is to head to The Guardian, but it would be nice if the editors imposed at least some kind of quality bar. I refer, of course to Lola Okolosie's piss-poor piece in today's edition: "Yes, you can have a Chinese girlfriend and still be racist":

[Tory candidate] Edward de Mesquita complains that he has had to fend off recurring accusations that his party produces "racist" polices. His strategy? To remind constituents that "Conservatives are not racist." The proof? Well, erm, "so many of the Conservatives have foreign wives after all".
Okolosie's text drips with scorn as she recounts this conversation, but my sympathies are actually with Mr. de Mesquita. After all, how can you prove a negative: that you are not racist? There are undoubtedly racist (by any reasonably narrow definition, say "openly prejudiced against people with an African or West Indian background) Tories, as there are racist Liberals, Labourites, Quakers, preachers and atheists. If I were to claim, for example, that BME English teachers are racist - undoubtedly, some of them are - and ask Ms. Okolosie to show that BME English teachers are not racist, how could she do so? It's not her fault that I'm asking a stupid question.

She helpfully lists six reasons why you can have a wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend/best friend from a BME background and still hold racist views or prejudices, including that you might:

[...] subscribe to the exotification of BME women which casts south-east Asian women as docile, demure and able to "treat a man well" [...]
An interesting prejudice she has there. It's an observable fact that in the UK and USA many of the younger generation of white male engineers have Chinese, Japanese, Filipino or South Korean girlfriends, fiancées and wives. It's equally observable that few white women have CJFK boyfriends or husbands - I've known precisely one female white engineer with a Chinese-ancestry husband. (The Indian male and female engineers seem to be pretty equally cosmopolitan in their choice of partners, by contrast). Having met a number of such couples, the CJFK ladies are significantly more vocal and have more drive than the white men. Perhaps they value the personality and earning potential of the man more than white women do?

Incidentally, Chinese parents seem to have a lot more problems with their daughter marrying outside their race than white parents do - and white fiances seem to be a lot more acceptable than other non-Chinese races. One Indian-Chinese couple I know ended up with the Chinese girl's father boycotting the wedding because her husband-to-be had such dark skin. Filipino fathers tend to look askance at black boys trying to partner with their daughters. I've even known a Filipino girl's father who applauded his daughter marrying a white guy because he thought Filipino boys were no good...

Okolosie also suggests that you may:

[...] believe in the idea of a model minority that is enterprising, while the majority within the BME community need to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" and get with the programme of what life is like in the UK.
Well, you could look at the financial profile of the various ethnic groups in the UK and discover that Indian families tend to be disproportionally wealthier than black and Pakistani families, with their median wealth pretty close to white families and more than double that of Pakistani families. Either the UK has a weirdly specific racial prejudice that affects Pakistanis but not Indians, or there's some explanation besides simple white racism for black and Pakistani poverty. You can also look at low income in Birmingham and discover that Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black ethnic groups are over-represented in poverty vs population, while white, Indian and Chinese groups are under-represented.

This is not saying that poverty is the fault of black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi families (I suspect that the sharply different economic profile of immigrants has a lot to do with it), but it does at least partially support the assertion that Ms. Okolosie scorns so much. But she's an English teacher, and they are famously scornful of such white patriarchical concepts as "data". (See what I did there?)

Let's assume, getting back to Ms. Okolosie's original point, that the Tories have policies which are objectively bad for the black community - since black ethnicity and poverty are somewhat correlated, policies which negatively affect the poor will likely negatively affect the black community. We might say that such policies are "racist" since they negatively affect an ethnic group. Except that Tory policies tend to support businesses - and hence benefit Indian and Chinese families who tend to work in or own small or medium sized businesses. If we assume that Labour policies benefit the poor but penalise businesses, aren't they racist as well? Indeed, unless you have no policies at all, it's likely that one or more of your policies penalise an ethnic group. So every politician is racist! Even (heaven forfend) Diane Abbott.

Okolosie's label of "racist politician" is hence information-free. Effectively every politician is racist, by her definition.

Anti-discrimination laws may do a lot but they haven't quite yet made us a post-racial society.
As long as self-aggrandising divisive special pleaders like Okolosie (and Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Diane Abbott) are held up as arbiters of correct behaviour, you bet we're not post-racial.


Action on Sugar - the revenge of CASH

I've been vaguely following the UK War On Sugar, but not paying much attention. However, Simon Clark at Taking Liberties spotted that Action on Sugar have more than a passing connection to our Marcela Trust funded friends at CASH:

The [actiononsugar.org] link takes you to the website for Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) so when Action on Sugar say "staff share other research projects" I imagine that's what they mean.
And indeed, here's the relevant "whois actionsugar.org" information:
Created On:02-Oct-2013 15:03:20 UTC
Last Updated On:02-Dec-2013 03:45:39 UTC
Expiration Date:02-Oct-2015 15:03:20 UTC
Sponsoring Registrar:eNom, Inc. (R39-LROR)
Registrant ID:8259a6739c6b982d
Registrant Name:Katharine Jenner
Registrant Organization:Consensus Action on Salt and Health
Registrant Street1:Wolfson Institute; Charterhouse square; Queen Mary Universit
Registrant Street2:London
Registrant Street3:
Registrant City:Queen Mary University of London
Registrant State/Province:London
Registrant Postal Code:ec1m 6bq
Registrant Country:GB
Registrant Phone:+44.2078826018
Registrant Phone Ext.:
Registrant FAX:
Registrant FAX Ext.:
Registrant Email:cash@qmul.ac.uk

Back in 2012 I probed into CASH which turned up the Marcela Trust as a funding source. What's happened in the past year?

CASH's 2012-2013 report drops hints that their interests are broadening out from salt to include sugar (sugar-sweetened beverages in particular) and saturated fats. Their registered charity number is 1098818 which let me find their end of 2013 accounts:

  • CASH doesn't seem to be very popular in terms of public donations, and their finances aren't looking that good: total income for the year was £141,335 (2012: £261,590) and expenditure was £140,490 (2012: £169,750)
  • OMC Investments Ltd (proxy for the Marcela Trust) gave them £200K in 2012, but only £100K in 2013. Perhaps they didn't like the publicity that they got last year... Note that they're still 70% of CASH's funding.
  • The rest of their income is made up of donations (4k), interest (17K), fund generating activities (17K) and "other" (2K). Their interest is basically 2% on £880K of funds.
  • The British Heart foundation gave them 30K in 2012 but nothing in 2013.
  • CASH shifted 300K of cash into long-term investments during the year.
Looks like CASH can run for a few years on their reserves, but without continuing OMC (Marcela Trust) investments, they're screwed.

actiononsugar.org domain registrant and nutritionist Katharine Jenner is quite the campaigner:

Katharine is a Registered Public Health Nutritionist and the Campaign Director of the award winning salt reduction charity CASH (Consensus Action on Salt and Health) and its international arm WASH (World Action on Salt and Health) [...] Katharine worked as a media strategist for several years and as such is very interested in developing innovative approaches to communicating public health.
Specifically, banning salt, sugar, and who knows what else...

I wondered how CASH got their 880K in funds so I dug back a few years.

One is left with the inescapable conclusion that CASH (and hence actiononsugar.org) is principally a lobbying arm of the Marcela Trust, funded through OMC Investments. Don't put sugar in the tea you offer Dawn Pamela Rose from the Marcela Trust, she'll tell you that she's sweet enough.


Regular vs frequent

The recent explosion in parents being fined for their children failing to attend school has been a bugbear of mine for a while. I can see that taking a 15 year old out of school for two weeks during their final few months of study before GCSEs is not a great idea, and schools who care about exam results should put a certain amount of pressure on parents to keep their kids in school as much as possible.

Then we have this: trying to fine parents £720 for their children failing to attend school:

Before they went away, the couple were warned they each risked a £60 fine for taking their six-year-old son, Keane, and their daughters Sian, 13, and Rhiannan, 15, on the break.
Keane is six years old. Precisely what negative impact occurs from him missing six days of school? Missing out on how to spell "squirrel"? Any scheme that imposes exactly the same financial penalty for six year olds and fifteen year olds missing a school day is clearly blissfully unrelated to the impact of the behaviour in question, and is primarily intended as either a political or revenue-raising scheme. Don't try to sell this as "educational".

I went off to read the legislation quoted: section 444 of the Education Act 1996:

(1)If a child of compulsory school age who is a registered pupil at a school fails to attend regularly [my italics] at the school, his parent is guilty of an offence.
Ah, "regularly". I assume that the well-paid lawyer drafting this text meant "five days per week during school terms". Except, regularly can mean many different things:
1. Customary, usual, or normal: "the train's regular schedule."
2. Orderly, even, or symmetrical: regular teeth.
3. In conformity with a fixed procedure, principle, or discipline.
4. Well-ordered; methodical: regular habits.
5. Occurring at fixed intervals; periodic: regular payments.
6. a. Occurring with normal or healthy frequency. b. Having bowel movements or menstrual periods with normal or healthy frequency.
7. Not varying; constant.
If a child attends school every Monday, that's "regular" according to definitions 2, 3, 4, 5. Only definition 1 even arguably applies to a week out school term as opposed to a once-a-week attendance. I don't know who drew up this law, but we should find out and take back their payment. Perhaps we could give the money to this family...

A sensible policy that aimed to satisfy the tradeoff between the marginal benefits of education and the unarguable benefits of vacation and family together-time would allocate an allowance of X days to each pupil (X maybe rising in inverse proportion to the child's age) that they could take off school with parental permission; only unauthorised absence above this limit would attract fines, and such fines would decrease in earlier stages of schooling. Since the law does not behave this way, one is led to the inevitable conclusion that it does not attempt to benefit the child; rather, it is a mechanism of control for the school and education authority.

(If I were a parent of a child at state primary school, I'd be tempted to send my child to school only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday); when the inevitable letter from school arrived, I'd point out the law in question and the definition of "regular". I wonder what would happen?)


Licensing for control of a profession

I must admit to mixed emotions when reading about Labour's plans to introduce professional licensing for teachers:

Teachers would have to show they are meeting the high standards and would be required to undergo training to update their skills.
Under Hunt's plans, teachers would have their lessons assessed by other teachers in a system overseen by a new Royal College of Teaching.
Conceptually, this might be a good idea. The million dollar question, of course, is: a) who actually assesses the teachers and how they picked and b) what happens when (not it) a large number of existing teachers fail to meet the standards?

This strikes me as a classic example of a good idea in principle which will nevertheless be holed beneath the waterline by the jagged rocks of practicality. What we actually want from this project is to prevent poor teachers entering the profession, improve slacking teachers who are no longer doing a good job teaching - and there's no shortage of these - while not significantly disrupting or interfering with teachers who are doing a good job. Make no mistake, this kind of assessment scheme has a cost beyond the headline figure of paying for assessors and their organisation. The additional cost includes time taken from a teacher's regular teaching schedule to be assessed, reduced productivity in the run-up to assessment as they try to prepare for it, plus the impact of mis-rating good teachers and requiring their retraining.

Assuming that you aim to assess a teacher every 2 years, given 120 school days on which a given assessor can run assessments, you'll need at least an hour of seeing a teacher teach, and maybe another hour if you have any doubts, plus at least that time again writing up the results. Figure that each assessor can reasonably assess two teachers per day, that's 240 teachers per year. But you may need to have a couple of assessors (from different regions) to get a reasonable diversity of observation and opinion. So figure 120 teachers assessed per assessor per year, and so for every 240 teachers you need at least one assessor. Given 480K teachers in England that's 2000 assessors. Where are you going to get them from? How are you going to judge whether they are actually any good at assessing teachers?

Let's assume that you can make these assessments in some way and flag the teachers who are objectively not good enough at teaching. (In fact, in most schools you could do a straw poll of the teachers and they would quickly flag the poor teachers to you - but there's no way they'd do this in practice). How do you fix them? You can do all the retraining you like, but you have to have some way of follow-up to see if they've stuck with the improvements or have just lapsed back into their old ways. And if they do lapse back, what do you do? Can you fire them? I bet the unions would have a fit if you tried.

So what do the unions think?

Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, told the Times:  "We would need to see the details of the Labour party's proposals, but the NUT is heartened to see that Labour recognises the value of investing in teachers' skills, knowledge and confidence in a fast-changing world. If these proposals are a continuation of the Michael Gove's years of top-down judgmental prescription of how teachers teach, that would be very negative."
"Talk is cheap: show me the money". I find it interesting that neither the NUT nor ATL reps decided to touch on what would happen if a teacher failed to meet the standards even after retraining....

Honestly, if you want to fix the problem of bad teachers, you have to make it easier for the schools to send them for retraining or eventually fire them. This is not a problem you can fix centrally. Of course, this runs the risk of the less honourable headteachers or governors firing the teachers they don't like rather than the ones which aren't any good, and the children are still stuck with the bad teachers.


Backing up - a cautionary tale

Users of Seagate's Dashboard 2.0 backup tool for Windows recently discovered, to their discomfiture, that it doesn't back up the files that one would have naively expected:

Note that Seagate Dashboard does not back up certain files, including:
  • The contents of the Windows directory
  • The contents of the Program Files directory
  • System files
  • Hidden files
  • Files on detachable USB drives
Thhe fourth kind of exclusion (hidden files) turns out to be rather important because a number of Windows applications mark their user data files or folders as hidden, e.g. Outlook mail data files and a number of games. Therefore if your hard drive crashes or you suffer a similar data-destroying incident, you'll come to a painful realization that the data you had assumed saved is not actually on the device you thought.

Actually, the public furore to the contrary, this shouldn't be a problem for anyone who cares about their data. If you care enough about your data to make backups, you should be periodically restoring and verifying your backups. Doing so in this case would have made it abundantly clear that Seagate Dashboard isn't saving what you require.

If you don't verify your backups, you're not actually backing up; you're simply spending money, time, resources and effort on filling data storage devices with crap.


The progress from first world problems

One of my favourite thinkers, Virginia Postrel, has a great take on how this Christmas's UPS next-day-delivery failure is actually a vital step in world progress:

Counting your blessings is always a good idea, but calling the Christmas delivery breakdown a "first world problem" points to what's wrong with that criticism. We want first world reliability, and if the public just shrugged when things went wrong we wouldn't get it.
The instinctive reaction when UPS delivers your friend's purchases 1-3 days late is to snark about "first world problems", but Postrel point out that actually this kind of demand is what drives most if not all of modern progress. In software, for example, many of the key leaps forward have been due to someone dissatisfied with the obstructions that current technology put in their way. Larry Wall was dissatisfied with shell scripting and ended up inventing the programming language Perl which glues together too many websites to count; Donald Knuth put together the TeX typesetting language because he was dissatisfied with the mathematic typesetting available to him writing The Art of Computer Programming ; Linus Torvalds created Linux because the existing Unix operating systems weren't sufficiently accessible for tinkering.

We should therefore complain when life falls short of our expectations, no matter how wonderful our current situation would be to someone from 20 years in the past or a thousand miles in the distance:

Complaining about small annoyances can be demoralizing and obnoxious, but demanding complacency is worse. The trick is to simultaneously remember how much life has improved while acknowledging how it could be better. In the new year, then, may all your worries be first world problems.
By the time Christmas 2014 rolls around, UPS will have a lower-latency method of tracking its order load versus maximum capacity, and be able to either buy up additional delivery capacity from other mail firms or start to signal to retailers that it will not be able to deliver goods next-day. This way customers will have a better delivery experience, and technological progress will have been achieved.