28 October 2015

After 23 years, competition in the energy market is still not working

Energy deregulation started in the UK in 1992 under Margaret Thatcher. There have been many changes and adjustments since then to try and get the market working properly. But it is not.

The scale of the problem is shown by the news headlines below taken from Utility Week and all from the same day, 28 October 15. All of them indicate problems in the markets which are meant to give us cheap and plentiful energy but which are failing on both counts.

Continual failure after all this time should suggest to somebody that fragmenting the energy industry and trying to introduce competition when there was none before is a bad idea and is never going to work.

Market rigging concerns surface as winter supply crunch looms

UK generators could exploit a regulatory loophole to inflate market prices this winter as National Grid seeks to secure power supply, industry sources have warned.

Cut prices or risk proving the CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) right, warns Nolan

Ofgem chief executive Dermot Nolan has hit out at energy suppliers over their failure to pass on historic lows in the price of gas at the same time that the sector is undergoing an extensive competition probe.

Suppliers must publicise collective switches Ofgem says

Suppliers must include collective switch tariffs in the Cheapest Tariff Message (CTM) required on customer bills, Ofgem has ruled.

Electricity market design is stifling innovation, regulators warned

Electricity market design is “stifling” the deployment of innovative technologies and business models Pöyry has warned European electricity regulators.

RIIO must evolve, urges former National Grid exec

RIIO (Revenue = Incentives + Innovation + Outputs) must be allowed to evolve in response to the transformation of the energy system says Energy Systems Catapult chair, Nick Winser.

25 October 2015

Karnak by Warren Ellis is sweetly dark and moody

I do not want to say that Warren Ellis is on a roll at the moment and that implies that the current form is unusual whereas he has become my favourite write of comic books by being consistently brilliant. However, his current crop of titles is right up there with anything that he has done.

Trees, which I wrote about earlier this year, is drawing towards the end of its second story arc and is still mightily impressive, not least because I do not have the slightest idea where it is going.

Injection, also published by Image Comics, also has a science fiction edge to it but here magic and folklore are the main ingredients. It is all terribly English (that's a compliment) and could have come from the pages of 2000AD. Obviously other people love it too and it is also coming back for a second series.

And now I have Karnak to enjoy too.

Karnak is/was a decidedly minor character in the Marvel Universe. He is one of the Inhumans who have generally only been a support act to people like the Fantastic Four and Karnak has generally been a support act to characters like Black Bolt and Medusa, even the Inhuman's dog Lockjaw has had bigger storylines.

Warren Ellis has taken Karnak away from the other Inhumans but left him in the main Marvel Universe, as the appearance by SHIELD's Agent Coulson quickly showed. He has also been elevated from a simple breaker of things seemingly unbreakable to a philosopher.

Karnak lives and studies in the Tower of Wisdom. It looks like this.

That opening page of the story, drawn by Gerardo Zaffino, sets the tone for the comic. It is dark, moody and mysterious, in much the same way that Ellis' run on Moon Knight was. The moods may be similar but the stories are very different, not least because the Moon Knight run was six single stories and Karnak #1 ends with "to be continued". It also ends with Karnak killing two people (violently) and disarming another all at the same time. He is still very good at breaking things.

In the middle we start to peer into a few mysteries about Karnak's mission and his philosophy which sees smiling as an insult and stones as more important than people. This is still an action comic, as the ending shows, but there is much more to it than that, as you would expect from Ellis.

Karnak is a mighty fine comic from a mighty fine writer.

24 October 2015

Counterfeit back at the Fox and Duck

There are a few bands that I never miss at the Fox and Duck (e.g. Thin White Duke), some bands that I make a point of seeing if I can  (e.g. No Lip), some bands that I quite like to see provided there is nothing else on (e.g. Cry Wolf), and just a few bands that I avoid. In practice this means that bands in the first group go into my calendar coloured orange, bands in the second group go in coloured grey and the others do not go in my calendar at all.

Counterfeit are in the making a point of seeing group and so I made a point of seeing them this Saturday after going to the theatre in Richmond.

I got to the pub around 10:45 just as Counterfeit had started the second half of their set. They started with Neil Young's Rocking in the Free World which they did a good job of, so I was very happy.

I had to break from the music briefly to have my photo taken with Lynsey, Dave and Sue, but you'll have to find me on Facebook to see that photo. Pete had the nouse to turn up a few minutes later once the photographs were done.

I like Counterfeit but this was not their best night. Their singer lost her voice and the band had to take a break to let her recover. The band was never known for their vocals and this hiccup just emphasised this weakness. The selection of songs was also a little strange. It was good to hear classics like Rocking in the Free World and also to hear unusual songs like Video Killed the Radio Star but, for me, there were too many weak songs that I did not know.

That was a shame. Because when they did proper rock songs they did them properly and it was easy to forgive and forget the weaker ones. Songs like Pinball Wizard and Whole Lotta Love went down well with me and the other rock fans in the pub. Counterfeit are built around lead guitarist Julia Kurzeja (she's in the top left of the picture in bare feet and trousers that look as though they had been fought over my armies of squirrels) and they sounded best when she was in full flight with the rhythm section making great noises behind her.

Counterfeit started the evening in my "make a point of seeing" group and they are still there, and rightly so. I spoke to Julia briefly after the gig (I always like to say "thank you" personally) and she said that they hoped to play the Fox and Duck four times next year. I hope they do too.

The Odyssey: Missing, Presumed Dead at Richmond Theatre was magical theatre

I can no longer remember why I thought that going to see The Odyssey: Missing, Presumed Dead was a good idea but it proved to be an excellent decision.

There were a few problems along the way though.

I originally booked to see it on the Tuesday evening and I was in The Railway beforehand having some beer and nachos when I casually checked my email only to find that I had just been sent one informing me that that evening's performance had been cancelled for technical reasons. I went to the theatre anyway and was able to swap my ticket for one on Saturday, the only evening that I had free to see it.

I had originally booked the front row of the Upper Circle, Row A  Seat 13 £24.00, and this got moved only slightly. Then on the evening I found that the Upper Circle had been closed due to low sales (this had happened to me at the Old Vic a couple of times) and I was moved down to the Dress Circle and Row D seat 16. This took just a little while to find as Richmond Theatre breaks the unwritten rule and number their seats from the right. It was still very central and was, I discovered, almost exactly below Row A in the Upper Circle so I was no further back. The view was excellent.

The poster tells you that The Odyssey has a modern setting but it was more intelligent than that. The play opened with an announcement from Athena who wore a smart white business outfit and an ancient Greek helmet.

The context for the odyssey was a cabinet minister getting caught in a bar brawl after an England football match against Turkey in Istanbul. This was complicated by the approaching general election at home with the minister's party struggling in the polls and needing to avoid any scandal.

The minister escapes his immediate pursuers by jumping in the river and so his odyssey home began. Soon he and his crew were facing the familiar trials, including a wonderful Cyclops and a sexy Cerci. For this part of the story they wore ancient clothes which took us into the original odyssey but they also kept their modern characters so we were also still in the current world.

In that current world the Prime Minister tried to contain the situation with the help of his daughter Anthea while the minister's wife Penelope and son Marcus had to content with their loss and with the paparazzi who camped outside their home.

What all that meant was that we had elements of the original Odyssey (some of them quite large), some modern elements of the original story and some very modern additions that extrapolated the political elements. It was excellent story-telling.

A lot of that story was poetic which is it should be as it was based on a poem and was written by a poet, Simon Armitage. As with Shakespeare, the poetic lilt and expert use of language made the dialogue sharp in content and easy to listen to.

The set was a little more than a set of wooden steps with a sheet of metal with a round hole in at the back. On to this were brought desks, sails and chairs as required but the props were refreshingly few and the simplicity of the set was another of the play's successes. As were the lighting and music (e.g. the song of the sirens). It was a masterclass in stage craft and everything about the production was neat, unfussy and added to the rich experience.

The final nice touch was the acting. The only actor I had heard of was Simon Dutton, who played the Prime Minister, whom I knew because he played The Saint in the late 80s, but big names were not required for a play with no star roles.

The Odyssey: Missing, Presumed Dead delighted me in two ways; it was a textbook example of how to construct a play and it was also highly entertaining. It was magical theatre.

14 October 2015

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (October 2015)

I went to September's BCSA "Get to Know You" Social but forgot to take any photos so did not do a write up of it. I did not make that mistake in October.

I had been ill for a few days and this was the first time that I had left the house since Sunday so I took things cautiously. This started by working from home, rather than at the Leatherhead office where I had booked a desk, and continued with me doing almost all the travelling by public transport rather than taking the opportunity to get some steps logged.

I got to the Czechoslovak Bar and Restaurant in West Hampstead a few minutes before the nominal 7pm start time and there were already a couple of people there. One of them, Richard, got the evening off to a good start by buying me my first Pilsner Urquell.

Later on the familiar Pilsner Urquell was followed by the familiar Smazeny Syr and the equally familiar photo of the same. It is getting harder to find different ways to take the same photo but luckily Instagram keeps introducing new ways of playing around with photos to produce different effects.

Another familiar thing was the mix of people who had been there a few times before and those who had not. I found myself sitting next to, and so spending a lot of time talking to, Adriana a cabin manager for easyJet who was returning after an absence of a couple of years. We talked about Prague Airport then and now, life on the road and other such trivialities that people in pubs talk about.

There were other people, other conversations and other beers, including the usual end-of-evening Zlaty Bazant. It was exactly what these socials are meant to be like and exactly why I keep going to them.

The bar closed at 10:30 but we were reluctant to stop talking and I did not get to the Overground station until 11:15. I was a little worried that the station display said that my next train was in 32 minutes but my phone said that it was in 4 and my phone was proved to be right and I got home soon after midnight, slightly tired and very happy.

10 October 2015

RWC2015: Wales v Australia at Twickenham

I was bought a tickets for Wales v Australia in the Rugby World Cup 2015 by my elder son Howard. He bought himself one too. Feeling generous myself I returned the favour and bought us both new Wales shirts for the game.

Just a few days before the game my sister, Mandy, announced that she had managed to get a couple of tickets too and was going with her son Joseph. They came up for the day and stayed with us overnight.

Originally when we got the tickets we thought that the final game against Australia would be one that we would have to win to get out of the group but with England losing twice both sides were through and so the match was something of a celebration too. The result still mattered as the winners would be facing Scotland next rather than South Africa.

My sister got here at lunchtime and we went to the Bistro on Ham Parade for some serious stocking up on food before the beer onslaught.

The beer started at the White Cross on the riverside at Richmond, one of my favourite pubs. It was already packed and while there were plenty of yellow shirts as well as red ones it was the Welsh who won the singing contest and I joined in a little with Bread of Heaven, Delilah and Sloop John B (!?!). Next stop was the Eel Pie near to the river in Twickenham and finally The Albany next to the railway at Twickenham. This had the advantage of a large car park and we all stood out there to drink.

Howard and I were in Block L21 Row 37 Seats 61/62, and this is the excellent view that we had. The price seems to have been £175 which is as much as I have ever paid for anything, including Glyndebourne.

The weather was fine and stayed dry despite the threatening clouds at times. The beer was a limited choice so I had a Heineken followed by a Murphy's. The game was pretty good too, apart from the result.

The final score was 15 - 6 to Australia but Wales should have had a try in the second half when they were camped on the Australia line for a long period, and they missed a fairly straightforward penalty too. It would not have needed much of a change of fortune to conjure a 15 - 16 win. Let's hope we get some of that luck against South Africa.

Disappointed but not distraught we headed home via the Tide End at Teddington where we had some more beers and something to eat. The veggie burger was quite nice if not that original.

We got home around 10pm, about nine hours after we left, and I quickly decided that staying in was a better bet than trying another pub, even though I knew that people would be down the Fox and Duck.

It was a busy and atmospheric day, and a good opportunity to spend some time with some of the family in gentle preparation for our holiday together later this year. It was just a shame about the result.

Joining the Kingston Conversation

Kingston Conversation was a series of meetings held with the public by the Leader of the Council, Cllr. Kevin Davis, and as somebody who is active politically and locally it was very much the sort of event for me.

The logistics were not ideal, i.e. I had a ticket for the Wales v Australia game at Twickenham that afternoon, but the 10am start and convenient location (Tudor Drive Library Hall) meant that I could get there.

The event started with a flood of old memories as the only other times that I had been to that hall was to take and collect toddlers from the playgroup there. They are now in their twenties.

While billed as a conversation the format was more Q&A, which I guess it was always going to be with about sixty people there. Kevin Davis started the session of with a short introduction on the changes facing Kingston, most of which had been said several times in several places so was not new and then he and a small panel of other councillors fielded our questions.

As usual I took notes of what was asked, what was said and what I thought at the time and I have restructured and added to those while writing this up. So none of this is attributable and all mistakes are mine.

Communicating with the public

Kevin Davis (KD) wants to improve communication with residents and while this series of meetings was welcome it could only reach a very small percentage of the public.

The recent whole-borough survey had had a good response by the standard of most surveys, around 8% I think, but was still a low number and the nature of surveys is that they can get simple answers to simple questions (such as, what shampoo do you use?) but are not very good at dealing with more complex matters (such as, how should Kingston grow?).

With the decline of local newspapers and Councils being forbidden to produce their own it is hard for them to engage with the public and that leads to bad decisions being made and reasonable decisions being explained badly.

Growth in Kingston

Kingston Council (RBK) seems to be saying two stories about growth simultaneously, one that it is being forced on us by the London Plan and two that is something that RBK is campaigning hard for.

Nobody has told us why Kingston has been identified in the London Plan for significant growth despite its physical constraints (Royal Parks and the river) and weak transport infrastructure. I suspect that RBK councillors had a large part to play in this but they are keeping quiet about it now.

Growth is a positive word and that helps to mask the negative aspects such as lost space, changed charters and even busier trains, buses and roads. It is difficult to see what the benefits of this growth will be to the existing residents of Kingston.

The large number of new homes that we keep being told about is only a target and there will be no sanctions if it is not met.

Major changes are being considered to accommodate this growth, such as moving the bus and railway stations and remodelling some of the main roads.

Growth does not necessarily mean more tall buildings and we may even lose some of the ugly ones that we already have. There was some debate on whether there should be a planning document specific to tall buildings. KD was against the idea because it could encourage developers to build to the limits, e.g. if we say a maximum of nine storeys in the town centre then everything will be exactly nine storeys. I would hope that we could develop a plan with some flexibility that would cope with this.

The good news?

Almost all of the questions raised issues around the negative aspect of growth, e.g. over-crowded trains and a lack of school places, and while that is understandable it did beg the big question, what is in it for us?

One person asked just that and the answer was Crossrail 2, regeneration of the council housing stock and transformation (!) of sports and leisure. So there was some good news for some people but none of those benefits were particularly attractive to me; I want some small theatres and for RBK to make more of our heritage assets.

There were some fine words from RBK on heritage but the evidence is against them. We have recently lost the Penny School and the TOPO scheme would smother the Post Office and Telephone Exchange.

Transforming Kingston Council

Kevin Davis said that the budgets cuts on the way would have a dramatic impact on RBK and it would be no longer possible to just implement across the board marginal cuts, the Council would have to think about stopping doing somethings altogether, e.g. the discretionary services like Libraries.

RBK is also looking for more revenue generation ideas but, for some reason, did not seem that keen on collecting more traffic penalties even though these are justifies penalties, i.e. somebody has done something wrong, and the alternatives, like paying more for council services, are more like general taxation.

One of the cost-cutting measures going through is the closure of all of the council's care homes as the private sector is cheaper. That worried me on two grounds; care not cost should be the driving factor and RBK needs to ask why the private sector is cheaper. If, as I suspect, they are cheaper because they pay their staff less then that is a problem for Kingston as we want care workers who are paid enough to be able to live here.

The final part of the meeting took me right back to working at Lambeth Council ten years ago with RBK extolling the virtues of shared services and promising to break down silos. Not only are these old ideas, they are bad ideas. Shared services only work when there are economies of scale and very few council services have this, e.g. one teacher is needed for every class of 30 infants, and silos cannot, and should not, be broken as that is where skills and domain knowledge grow.

RBK are promising transformation but they sounded very naive and gave me no confidence that they had the slightest idea of what transformation looks like or how to achieve it.

6 October 2015

Young Men by BalletBoyz at Sadler's Wells

I knew exactly what to expect from Young Men by BalletBoyz at Sadler's Wells because I had seen it before. I wanted to see it again because it was fantastic the first time. It was fantastic the second time too.

On my previous trip there we had all gone to the Banana Tree first but this time I fancied something a little posher and went for The Gate. This also had the advantage of being a vegetarian restaurant so there was much more choice and I did not have ask what the strange sounding foreign foods were.

The 6:30 booking was necessary as the place was soon packed. I was a little optimistic in going for a starter as well as a main course but the food was so tempting that I had to try two things. I almost thought about panicking at one stage but the food did arrive just in time and by paying the bill while still eating I was able to leave the restaurant at 7:20, which was plenty of time to get to Sadler's Wells for the 7:30 start.

As before, I went for the front row of the Second Circle where seat A18 was a bargain £22. It's worth repeating that the advantage of being high for shows like this is that you can see the full depth of the stage and can see the patterns that the dancers make as they move across it. I cannot imagine watching a ballet like this from the Stalls and only getting a front-on view.

I had a good idea of what to expect having seen the performance before but my memory was more of the shape than of the detail as there was just too much going on across the whole stage all of the time to remember many of the specifics. So even though this was a second viewing it felt much like a first.

My memories were of BalletBoyz's staple ingredients like intricate interactions as the dancers flowed around, over and under each other at a breathtaking pace, the dancers acting in small groups that kept changing size and the dominance of movement on the ground above movement in the air. To that I could add the specific details of the arm and upper body movements.

I only remembered the mood of the music too and it was good to hear that again too.

Young Men was intensely visual with many striking images. The ones that haunt the most afterwards are the men running and then falling when shot, and the men running towards the front of the stage then sliding. It was a vigorous performance but not an overly physical one, there was all the trademark BalletBoyz delicate movement too.

Young Men was a great ballet that I enjoyed as least as much on the second viewing as the first and I am hoping for a third one day.