Wednesday, July 06, 2016

May be, May be not

Should I stay or should I go?

Much is being made on social media of the hard line positions taken by Conservative candidates for party leadership (and therefore the next Prime Minister). This is particularly true of Theresa May.

But how seriously should we take these statements?

On a simple matter of numbers, there are millions of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU. Getting them all to "go home" would be both morally wrong and impractical. It would hugely damage the economies of Europe, including the UK.  Theresa May is well aware of this.

So why is May saying such things?

The reason is simple: she's the most pro-Europe of the candidates for PM: she campaigned for Remain.  Like the Labour Party, the Conservative Party membership is considerably more Eurosceptic than its MPs.  Once the Conservative MPs have reduced the number of candidates to two (which will happen tomorrow), party membership make the final choice.  So, with an eye to them, May is trying to position herself as more Eurosceptic than she actually is.

In reality, what can we expect? Broadly the alternatives are somewhere between 
  • fully free movement of people around the EU and UK (e.g. The Norway Model)
  • to "fairly free", where (for example) people who have jobs, are in academia or are self-supporting will be free to come and go, but others are not.

So if you're a Polish plumber or banker, or a Brit who has retired to Spain, or a European academic doing research in the UK, don't let some campaign rhetoric disturb you.

It's not going to happen.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Chicken Little or Little Red Hen?



Playing Chicken

In the fable of Chicken Little, the animal is hit on the head by a falling acorn.  Being a naive pessimist, he runs around shouting "The sky is falling!"  In different poultry-based story, Little Red Hen, despite the unwillingness of her neighbours to help, works hard and betters herself. I've been reminded of both fables by reactions in the last ten days to the Brexit referendum.

Some of the brightest and best UK voters supported Remain.  However, they lost and seem unable to comprehend that in a democracy the idiot's vote counts equally with the genius's.  Which is odd, given that these are genuinely some of the brightest and best.

(There is a suggestion going around that many Leavers did not understand what they were voting for.  I expect the same is true of many Remainiacs and will cover this in another post.)

What Now?

For a start, the UK stock market hasn't gone into melt-down.  Indeed, its first full week after the referendum was the best week in months years.  Partly this is driven by the drop in value of the pound against the dollar but in addition many are realising that things aren't really that bad.

Indeed, they could get better, not just for the UK but for the EU.

Already there is a list of countries saying they want to have a trade deal with a post-Brexit UK, including Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, South Korea and the USA.  This list can only get longer.  Many of these countries do not yet have trade deals with the EU and are frustrated by this; in a number of cases, deals have been bogged down for years. The complexity of having to negotiate with 28 (now 27) countries dramatically slows things down.

Meanwhile, the dismal, doleful, disconsolate Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU's top trade official, claims that EU trade negotiations with the UK cannot even begin until after Brexit.  It seems unlikely that EU businesses would allow this position to be maintained but if it were then a Brexit Britain would find itself with several trade agreements in place with fast-growing world economies and none with the slow-growing EU.

While George Osborne somewhat bizarrely seems to think that no matter who the next Prime Minister is, he will remain Chancellor, his proposal of a 15% business tax rate will make the UK more attractive to businesses.

So let's imagine for a moment a UK two or three years in the future with trade agreements in place with countries like Canada and Australia (and a host of smaller nations) and more agreements imminent with India, China and the USA.  Trade with the EU would continue to a huge extent, both for reasons of momentum and geographic proximity.  There will be vibrancy in the economy.  By 2020, the UK will be an optimistic place to be.

And how is this good for the EU?  Well, of course, it might not be should the nay-sayers like Maelstrom hold sway.  Most likely, however, there would be a halo effect in at least two areas:

  • The UK's agility in signing new trade deals would spur on the EU: petty reasons for holding up deals would no longer stand up.  A virtuous circle of trade would develop.
  • Being next door to one of the most thriving economies in the developed world could only be good for Europe.

... and Finally ...

There's determined despair about many wrinkles that need to be ironed out.  There shouldn't be.

  • UK citizens living in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK will clearly be allowed to stay, regardless of any Brexit position on immigration.  There is no credible alternative.
  • Academically, the UK will continue to be one of the leading lights in the world.  Money that used to go from the UK to the EU and thence to academia will now go directly from the UK to academia.  Research partnerships will continue.  Whatever the decision on immigration, academics will always be welcome in the UK.
  • There is gathering momentum on both sides of the channel to ensure that trade will thrive post-Brexit.  One example is here: there are many more.  Business people are realists: they may have largely campaigned for Remain, but will be working furiously to ensure trade continues after Leave.
For better or worse, the Brexit decision has been made.  You can wallow in gloom or build a prosperous future.  Are you a wallower or a builder?

Are you Chicken Little, who claimed the sky was falling, or Little Red Hen, the determined producer of goods?

Friday, June 24, 2016

Yes, we can

I voted to remain with a heavy heart.  My sons were keen on Remain and, given another EU referendum was unlikely to happen for decades if ever, I voted the way they wanted.

What this Means

 I think everyone was surprised by the EU referendum result.  I think too many are misinterpreting it.

The official result was

  • 52% Leave
  • 48% Remain
and most comment I have read interprets this as a vote against Europe.  We should remember that it isn't: it's a vote against the EU.  I am sure that overwhelmingly the people of the UK will continue
  • to take holidays in Europe
  • eat European food
  • buy European goods, such as cars
UK people like Europe: by a small margin, they dislike the EU.  Indeed, had there been a third option on the ballot paper, I reckon we'd have seen the following
  • 52% Leave
  • 48% Remain
  • 80% like European things
The vote is not a rejection of Europe; it's (by a small margin) a rejection of the EU project.

What Went Wrong?

In short, the Remain campaign was inept.
  • It offered threats, instead of hope.  I found it staggering to see how, week after week, the Remain campaign delivered messages in a negative form.
  • Foreign leaders got involved. No matter what side they choose, when a foreign leader tells you what to do, chances are you'll be inclined to do the opposite.  President Obama is, I think, much liked in the UK: him telling us we'd be put on the naughty step if we voted out was almost unbelievably crass. 
  • Jeremy Corbyn led a conspicuously lacklustre campaign for Labour.  At heart he's a leaver and only changed his position under pressure from Labour MPs.
  • The EU was intransigent.  The UK has been a thorn in their side for ages and doubtless the EU is fed up with the UK.  I think they doubted they would lose this referendum.  In the end, Cameron's reform package was so watered-down that few people can actually remember what was in it and consequently it had no credibility.

What next?

David Cameron is standing down.  His timing has doubtless been carefully chosen to optimise the chances of someone like Theresa May winning and to minimise the chance that Euro MP (and lead Euro-sceptic) Daniel Hannan can win a seat in a bye-election.

Eurocrats will be waking in a bit of shock, like the rest of us.  There will doubtless be a bit of a scramble to see if they can neutralise the result, before they realise they can't.  So they will be scrambling for other options. In my opinion, the best for the EU will be the "Norwegian Option" (UK membership of the European Free Trade Area, still paying the EU some money).  Some leading EU and European leaders ruled that out before the referendum: will they reluctantly rule that back in or will fears of exits by other countries (currently most likely Denmark and the Netherlands) mean that they feel they can't afford to?

Stock markets, driven by fear, are down. Much of this should recover in the months ahead.  Inflation in the UK will pop up, but it's probably been too low for too long.  People will start to see that 95% of trade will continue as before: some will be lost in some areas and some gained in others.

Yes We Can

Eight years ago, Barack Obama's campaign slogan was "Yes we can".  This is particularly apt in the case of the UK: we have a strong, vibrant and dynamic economy.  We should be able to find a mutually beneficial settlement with the EU.  We need to look at the fast-growing economies and build bridges with them.  Workers' rights will barely change: indeed it's the current Tory Government, not a Labour one, that brought in the living wage. The next week or so will be a rough ride; the next six months, less so; by 2020 the economy will be humming along, maybe smaller maybe larger than it would have been.

There's no cause for alarm or glee over the result.  Can we survive and prosper after the referendum?   Yes, we can!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

I am not fed up

There is just one jam ... ... and it's Hartley's No-Bits Apricot.  Yet it is becoming harder and harder to find. Virtually impossible in North East Hampshire.
And when it comes to chocolate, Cadbury's Bourneville 200g dark chocolate is pretty good value for money.  Except that they just reduced it in size to 180g bars.  And I can't find it in my local Tescos (or indeed Tesco.com), my local Waitrose or the nearest Aldi.
It's the End of the World As We Know It.
I am concerned that not enough people give this topic the mature thought it deserves.
I like smooth, no bits jam.  I appreciate that there are those among you who prefer jam to include the chewy bits that would normally be thrown away.  In my view you should eat more bran, but if you really want contaminated jam then that's fine with me. And your dentist, I expect.
However, what I am looking for is an equal opportunity jam world.  I want supermarkets to stack their shelves with both "smooth jam" and "jam with detritus".  As it is, we are being railroaded into a "jam with detritus" world, where the big manufacturers bulk up their sales and profits by including stuff that ethical manufacturers would bin.  Then, if you want to buy DJ (detritus jam) - presumably to go with your Tesco value sugar drinks and multipack crisps - so be it.  It is not for me to judge your appalling dietary habits. But leave me free to buy smooth jam.  Specifically smooth apricot jam.
Having disposed of DJ, let's move to chocolate.
I fully appreciate that more sophisticated palates than mine will insist on Green and Blacks chocolate or some similar concoction normally favoured by Old Etonian Toryboys.  That's fine.  I will admit that upon occasion I have partaken of smidgen of their Butterscotch or Mint Crisp and I am perfectly cognisant of the fact that they bring unique and toothsome pleasure to the palate.  However, when I am thirsty I typically drink water, not single malt Scotch.  Now I could look down my nose at water drinkers and inveigle them into drinking Ardbeg Uigeadail, but, when it comes to quenching thirst, truth in advertising compels me to admit that water does a better job.
So it is with chocolate.  Four squares of a Cadburys Bourneville bar meet my recommended daily nutritional requirement for chocolate (which as we all know is a basic foodstuff).  Upon special occasions, such as Saturday Night, I may upgrade myself to Hotel Chocolat or truffles or Godiva to go with my 1970 vintage port (which is drinking quite well, thank you for asking) but when I am editing photographs or video then a cube of Cadburys is all I need to power me through.
So I continued in my quest to find some locally.  Eventually, on a somewhat scruffy shelf at Morrisons in Reading, I espied 13 bars.  I bought them all.  In three months' time when they are a collectors' item, I will eBay them.  I may be prepared to swap a bar for a Nikon 70-200mm VRII lens, but only if it is in mint condition.  Mmm.  Mint! Yummy.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Do you really care about the environment?


I regularly see posts on social media about climate change and the environment and what people need to do to avoid catastrophe for the world.  It made me wonder: how much are people actually doing rather than saying?  I came up with a few questions:

  • Do you drive an electric car?  These are now made by major manufacturers such as BMW, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Toyota and VW.  If you do drive an electric car, do you typically charge it using eco-friendly sources of power, such as solar?
  • If you don't drive an electric car, do you at least drive a very fuel efficient one - one that actually delivers 60 mpg (4.7 litres/100km) or better?
  • By default, do you walk or cycle whenever possible rather than driving?
  • Do you have solar panels on the roof of your house?
  • Is your home well-insulated against heat and cold?
  • Do you take long-distance flights to holidays in foreign countries?
  • Are you a vegetarian?  If not, are you significantly cutting back on consumption of meat?
  • Do you only or mostly buy locally-produced food and clothes?
  • Have you substantially increased the amount of recycling you do in recent years?  Do you recycle the majority of household waste, by weight and by volume?
Don't get me wrong.  While I feel a little smug about my answers to some of these questions I also find myself making excuses about the answers to others.

However, it does seem that there are many people, like Leonardo di Caprio, who are happy to lecture others about their carbon footprint while living a pretty un-environmentally-friendly lifestyle themselves.

So, how do you match up?

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

How Bulls and Cows changed my life

In the 1970s, the Mathematics department at Rhodes University had some very talented staff.  Among these were Mike Lawrie, who later became acknowledged as the Father of the Internet in South Africa, and Doctor Pat Terry, who later became Professor, head of department and Dean of Science.  Both had an intense interest in computing and at some stage around about 1976 they decided to test the security of the University's  computer system by inviting computer science students to hack the system.

There were some simple rules and the simplest was that the only system you were allowed to hack was called MOO.  MOO was an early computer game that Pat and Mike had written in which you had to guess a four digit number.  As you typed in each guess, the system replied by telling you

  • how many digits were both correct and in the right position (a "Bull", signified by a B)
  • how many digits were correct but in the wrong position (a "Cow", signified by a C)
So you might type in a guess and get a response like this

    1234  BCC

In other words, your guess of "1234" had one digit correct and in the right place and two digits correct but in the wrong place.  By making further guesses you could logically deduce the number after a while.  In theory it should take about 5 guesses to get the right answer on average; in practice anyone whose average score was close to 6 was a good player.

The MOO system kept a log of each player's average score and each Friday Dr Terry pinned the league results to the board.

So, where does the hacking come in?

Well, for example, if you were smart enough, you could start a game and immediately make a copy of the computer's memory.  Once you finished the game and knew the answer you could check where that answer appeared in computer memory and in future games you could simply check that location to get the answer.  There were several other hacks that students came up with and, as each one was discovered, Dr Terry and Mike Lawrie found ways to stop them and, in so doing, learned a good deal about hacking.

I felt chagrined that I had not managed to hack in and, over the weeks that followed, this rankled.

Until, one day ...

... it seemed to me that instead of trying to break down the front door of MOO by a direct attack I might instead walk around the back and try an indirect approach.  I thought it might be possible to find the source code for the program.  Indeed, once I thought of the idea it only took a few minutes to get the source, but quite a bit longer to work out what it did:  building security into it had made  it very complicated.

Still within about an hour I had it sorted out and had set the league so I would appear at the top, way ahead of anyone else.

The league list went up the next day and there was a lot of speculation as to what I'd done.  I keep quiet and I heard later that Dr Terry and Mike Lawrie had spent most of the weekend trying to work out what I'd done. I was not popular with their wives.  I was also annoyed I hadn't done a better job of covering my tracks.

However ... I'm pretty sure that incident led them to ask me to write the computer dating system for the Arts and Sciences ball, part of the Arts and Sciences week the University held every year.

And that, in turn, came up at my job interview at IBM South Africa a couple of years later.  Since I had, at best, an undistinguished academic record I can think of no other reason that I would have been offered a job, particularly on their key account.

And that, in turn, led me to meet my delightful wife, Colleen.

So, kids, don't let your parents tell you that you are wasting time playing computer games.  A computer game found me my career and my wife.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

On its last feet? NHS myths and reality

There's a lot about the NHS in the news recently, particularly given the BMA-organised strikes.  But what's the truth of the matter?  Where are the facts?  Both the government and the BMA have given us a poor grasp of the NHS reality so I sat down for a few hours and did some digging.  Here's what I found.

NHS starved of funding?

A constant claim is that the NHS is starved of funding.  Is it?  I trawled through 30 years of government funding and here's what I found.  I compared the growth of spending, adjusted for inflation, on a per person basis for the NHS, education and defence.  Here's the chart of the numbers.

Conclusion: Health spending today vs 1986 is over 2.75 times as much per person in real terms.  This compared with 1.8 times as much for Education and a reduction of over 20% for defence.  By any reasonable measure, the NHS is not starved of funding.

BMA taken over by the left wing?

There have been statements that the BMA (the British Medical Association or the medical trade union) is run by the left wing.  I've seen this both claimed and denied.  What are the facts?

  • Mark Porter, chairman of the BMA, describes his politics as left wing.
  • Dr Kailash Chand, deputy chairman of the BMA, made it on to the shortlist as a Labour parliamentary candidate.
  • Dr Jacky Davis, a member of the BMA council, has appeared at Marxist events and on a panel alongside Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell
  • Tom Dolphin, a member of the BMA council, is a member of the Labour Party.
None of the board are declared members of any other major UK political parties as far as I can tell (but please correct me if I am wrong).  Incidentally, it's clear that the BMA constantly cries wolf over funding: try Googling "BMA 2007 NHS crisis" and substitute different years: it appears that no matter what year, the BMA believes that the NHS has a funding crisis and no matter what government is in power.

Conclusion: It looks rather like the BMA leadership tends to be left-wing.  It seems statistically unlikely that this political stance is shared by its membership.

Is the government approach reasonable?

One of the key reasons the government has put forward for the changes is that the death rate is higher at weekends.  (Incidentally this appears to be the case in other countries, too.)  The statistics are complicated but in essence there appears to be about a 10% - 15% higher mortality rate at weekends leading to 11,000 excess deaths a year: a large absolute number, but small in percentage terms.

Surely 11,000 people a year are worth saving?

I suspect a problem with the government's approach has been unduly prescriptive in how to reduce these deaths.  It's also done poor job of explaining this to the general public: it can (and has) been argued that to reduce weekend death rate to the level of weekdays, you need the same level of service.

Conclusion: The government has identified a real problem but its approach to fixing this has been inept.

Do junior doctors work unreasonable hours?

The hours that doctors work in their final year or two of training has always been legendary (in a bad way), not just in the UK.

However, the essence of the unreasonable hours claim appears to be about work after qualifying.  There are cases where hours have been excessive: up to 90 hours a week have been reported.  However, part of the proposed settlement is that doctors' maximum allowed hours will be limited to 72 hours from the 91 allowed currently.  (In my view, even 72 hours is too high.)

Conclusion: Yes, some doctors do work excessive hours.  But the proposed settlement would reduce this.

Overall

The government and the BMA actually agree on most points.  It's a pity that they are letting relatively minor disagreements escalate.


Sunday, December 20, 2015

On his blindness

On Friday morning when I woke up, I was blind.

Not entirely blind - I still had peripheral vision.  The problem was that right at the centre of my vision - the place you are looking in other words - I had no sight at all.  So, when I got up and stood on the bathroom scales, what should have looked something like this


looked instead like this.


At first, I thought this was A Good Thing: I must have lost a useful amount of weight.  Then it struck me that I wasn't seeing a smaller number there, but no number at all.  Except, if I looked away a bit, I could tell there was actually a number there.  It was only when I looked at it that it disappeared and just turned uniform grey.

I then realised that I couldn't see whatever I looked at directly.  I must say that I was impressed by the ability of my brain to guess as what should fill the blind spot; it seemed to work out from the colours immediately surrounding the blind spot what it should tell me I was seeing, which is how I had managed to get to the bathroom scales in the first place without realising my eyesight was deficient.

I mentioned this to the Dearly Beloved (aka She Who Must Be Obeyed).  I probably shouldn't have sprung it on her because she went a bit pale.

"What are you going to do?  How can you do photography, or play badminton or bridge?  Or drive?"

I hadn't thought of that.

When she opened, we called our local optician.  She asked me about the symptoms and then said "You probably have a migraine."

That was the good and bad news.  The headache struck shortly after, with the violence of a tropical storm.

I spent the rest of the day in a darkened bedroom, groaning softly to myself.  The following morning my head was better and so was my eyesight.

Lucky me.  I can still take photographs and bridge and will be back to badminton and driving in the not too distant future.  See, life's not so bad.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

In praise of free enterprise and science

A good and extremely intelligent friend of mine posted this picture on FaceBook yesterday. The essence of my response was "Nonsense!" but I think this subject deserves a longer riposte than is feasible on FB, so here we go.

  1. Pharma does create cures

    Despite the catchy graphic, pharma does create cures and other effective treatments.  From abdominal pain to Yellow Fever, there are pharmaceutical products that can alleviate the symptoms or cure the problem.
  2. The anti-profit meme

    It's increasingly popular to follow the meme that any organisation that makes a profit is, by definition, "bad".  Typical proponents of this include Russell Brand, Owen Jones and Charlotte Church (all of whom interestingly enough are well-off or even rich and whose wealth has come about through selling things at a profit in the free market).  Free enterprise largely drives our well-being.  As Adam Smith wrote "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." Just as the baker recognises that people want bread and strives to make better bread so that customers will buy from him rather than another baker, so pharma companies do the same.  If you still believe that the profit motive is wrong for the pharma industry, perhaps you could point out significant pharmaceutical developments coming from Russia, China, Cuba or Venezuela.  I suspect the list would be very short indeed. 
     
  3. Pharmaceutical scandals

    Does this mean the pharmaceutical industry is perfect?  No, of course not.  Organisations are run by human beings and human beings get things wrong from time to time, both by accident and deliberately.  The logical fallacy lies in taking exceptional behaviour and arguing  that this is typical: for example "Vioxx (at high dosage over a long period of time) caused heart disease; therefore Merck is evil; this is what pharma companies do; therefore pharma is evil."  But such behaviour is both unusual and also rooted out.  Pharmaceutical scandals are the exception, not the rule.
  4. (Mis-)Understanding Science and Medicine

    The same friend who posted the picture above also wrote "Fundamentally people need to be better informed," and he is absolutely right.  I've argued this for some considerable time.  As children we should be taught what makes for a logical argument and to be aware of common logical errors and also to have a more sceptical approach to science.  Newspapers (the Guardian is mostly an exception) often report science matters poorly.  This is a huge topic and is brilliantly written up in Ben Goldacre's easy to read book Bad Science.  Or you could watch his TED Talk.
  5. Big Pharma is uniquely bad

    No, it's not.  Mistakes (or wrongdoings) occur in every industry and pretty much every company of any size.  Big companies have the opportunity to make bigger mistakes.  Just ask Volkswagen.  Swissair.  Tyco.  Enron.  Lehman Brothers.  Just Google "corporate scandals".
  6. Anti-Science

    Finally, in the last few decades there has been an increasing move to assume that since science doesn't know everything, non-scientific viewpoints are equally valid.  That's nonsense, but there's someone which says this far who says this far better than I can: Dara O Brian, so have a listen in to that and I will stop.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Wither Heathrow ...

In days of yore - or possibly a little more recently - Heathrow was the busiest international airport in the world. Today Dubai is, and other European airports are catching Heathrow quickly, with Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Istanbul all growing faster.  Heathrow is near capacity and airport capacity has an impact on the economy.

For this reason, governments have been looking into expanding Heathrow for decades.  However, since flying in and out of Heathrow involves aircraft flying over London and surrounding towns, craven governments have been carefully not making up their minds for just as long.  (Officially they gave the job to the Airport Commission).

Here are the pros and cons, in simple language of the various options.
  1. Expand Heathrow.  Adding a runway and associated infrastructure.
  2. Expand Gatwick.  Adding a runway and associated infrastructure.
  3. Build a totally new airport in the Thames Estuary ("Boris Island")
London's morning wake up call
Though attractive in many ways,  Boris Island is probably not feasible right now so the alternatives are Gatwick or Heathrow.  If Heathrow gets the nod, Gatwick will survive probably continuing as a centre for cheap and charter flights.  If Gatwick wins, the long-term viability of Heathrow will be threatened.

So here, ladies, gentlemen, Knights of the Realm and commoners, are the reasons why the answer is Gatwick.
  • Death

    Flying remains the safest form of mass transport.  Still it is not risk-free and the most dangerous parts of a flight are take-off and landing.  Indeed, in 2008 BA Flight 38 crash landed just short of the runway at Heathrow.  Miraculously there were no fatalities; had it crashed a few seconds earlier there would have been deaths on the plane and on the ground. Sooner or later it is likely that an aircraft flying into or out of London will crash.  If it is flying into Heathrow the death toll will at least be in the hundreds with many or most of these being on the ground; if flying into Gatwick, which is largely surrounded by open countryside, the toll will be much lower.  In short, Heathrow is likely to kill more people than Gatwick.
  • Noise

    Aircraft flying around Heathrow cause noise disturbance to hundreds of thousands of people.  In the case of Heathrow adding a third runway, it's estimated that up to a million people in London would suffer from noise pollution, and that's almost certainly an underestimate. In the case of Gatwick less than a tenth of that number of people would be affected.  We're talking about people whose sleep is affected every day; schools where teaching suffers because of the noise; and the health impacts (hypertension, heart attacks and dementia among others). Some of these are covered in a recent CAA report.  In short, Heathrow is likely to kill and maim more people than Gatwick.
  • Air Pollution

    Even without Heathrow, London would be a busy city with slow-moving and polluting vehicles.  Heathrow makes this much worse.  In addition, it is on the western edge of London and with prevailing winds being from west to east its pollution spreads across the city.  In comparison, around Gatwick there are far fewer people to be affected.
So, where do we go from here?  There really is just one viable solution that's affordable, viable, safe and future proof: Gatwick.  Or what I think of as "Gatwick+".  It goes like this:
  1. Build a second runway at Gatwick.  This can be done quickly and much cheaper than Heathrow (probably about half the time and half the cost).  Build a lot of infrastructure around it: much M23 and M25 expansion.  More Gatwick Express services (rail connection to London).  More and faster Gatwick to Reading rail services to connect to the Thames Valley technical centres.
  2. Build a third runway at Gatwick.  Move almost all passenger traffic to Gatwick (some might go to Birmingham or other London airports).  Heathrow becomes a purely freight airport.
  3. Build a fourth runway at Gatwick.  Shut down Heathrow.  Bring sanity and cleaner air back to the lives of millions of Londoners.  Re-develop Heathrow as desperately-needed housing and parkland for the capital.  Much of the infrastructure (transport, utilities) needed for housing is there already.
Gatwick is the logical choice
If this strategy was adopted, the new Gatwick could probably be delivered by 2030.  The owners of Heathrow would need compensation: part of this could be giving them the right to buy into the new Gatwick; part would be the money raised by selling the land for development; part would probably need to be paid by government.  

The infrastructure needed should be delivered up front: a fast Gatwick to Reading rail link with just one or two stops taking forty minutes, for example.  Six lanes on the M23 and M25.  Get the redevelopment misery over in two years while the second runway is being built rather than ongoing bit by bit development over a decade or two.

Heathrow (while more convenient to me in Hampshire) is the worst of all solutions.  If we are smart and want to take a strategic decision we need to do away with Heathrow on a planned basis.  It's done a great job over more than fifty years but it's time to let it wither and develop a better solution.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Take more refugees and do it now

To anyone who doesn't carefully avert their eyes, the scenes from eastern Europe are harrowing.  It's not just fit young men trying to get into Europe: it's also families with young children and babies, surely only making this terrible journey because of terrifying conditions at home.

Do we really leave them to suffer and, in some cases, die?

People who have the determination, perseverance and pluck to undergo such dreadful hardships are a huge loss to their homelands.  They could, if only temporarily, prove great assets to us if we gave them the chance.

But ... but.
Refugees

But we have a shortage of houses already.  Where do they live?  But we have a struggling economy.  Can we support them?  But what if they include terrorists?  And many more buts.

Well, we do have quite a bit of accommodation in the UK.  It's not in the south, but these people aren't going to be commuting to work any time soon.  Place them where the accommodation is.

Not only that but as the government slims down, military bases (for example) are being closed.  House some refugees there: even (on a temporary basis) makeshift accommodation in a hanger or warehouse is better than being in a field in the rain.

And yes, we do have a tough economy so how can we afford them?  Well, let's take a billion pounds from the foreign aid budget and use it in the UK to build basic accommodation - even as basic as dormitories - where we need places to house these people.  Accept them on the basis that they will agree to learn to speak English and employ some more teachers to teach them; short term contracts for retired teachers, if necessary.  Many young graduates struggle to find work in the UK: offer one year contracts to young graduates to help refugees learn to live in a UK society with UK norms whether this is teaching, social work, counselling and therapy, language skills, UK history and simple things about just how the UK works because even in day-to-day terms it is far different from the middle east.  Another billion pounds going into the UK economy will help expand it, to everyone's advantage.

Give refugees a chance to contribute to the economy so they can help build it.  Offer them free flights home when conditions in their homeland permit.  Offer them the chance to work to become UK citizens if they wish.

But what of the evil people who try to get in among the mass of refugees?

Like the poor, the evil will always be with us.  There will be very few, however, among refugees.    Children aren't terrorists.  Desperate parents aren't terrorists nor likely to undermine a society which helps them escape their wretched plight.  For those few, those very few, who bite the hand that feeds them, we need quick justice: deport any convicted of serious crimes.  These will be very few however.  Imagine you had to flee your home and country with just what you could carry: would you attack a country that gave you refuge?

It's the British way to act carefully and this generally works well.  In this case we need act briskly; a contemplative approach will see many die during the winter.  20,000 refugees over five years is too little, too late: 100,000 over the next year is more like it.  We cannot take every refugee but our current approach is pitiful.  Here's how pitiful:

UK proposal: 20,000 over 5 years.
France: 24,000 over 2 years
Lebanon: 1.2 million refugees today
Germany: (proposed) 500,000 annually

Whether from the point of view of common humanity or self-interest, we should take a lot more refugees a lot sooner.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Crystal Clear

I have always wanted to go in a submarine so I did.

It was parked in Basca harbour, looking like one of the Royal Navy's nuclear subs except smaller and redder and with fewer nukes. I hope. It cost 90 krone per person for a ride, which seemed to me to be a major investment in a bit of transient joy, but what do I know? So in the blink of an eye we were 180 krone poorer but boarding this marvellous vessel.

One of its attractions was that it had glass windows below the surface.  At first all one could see was the blue sea bed. It had sand and the odd bit of detritus but otherwise was curiously uninteresting. So at least initially I would have traded the view for a few torpedoes. However after we had been underway for a few minutes and before we submerged to fifty fathoms deep (*) we found ourselves surrounded by schools of small silvery, golden and black fish. By one of those weird coincidences that make life interesting the man at the tiller had just thrown some fish food in the water. We therefore returned from our mission not having sunk anything nor having destroyed enemy cities but at least having seen some lovely fish in the bay.

After such an adventure I was exhausted. I was planning which bar we could inhabit while we discussed the excitement of our maritime quest.  Colleen suggested going for a walk and, while I was not expecting a pub crawl it did seem to be sensible to sample the delights of the various hostelries along the waterfront.  I could not understand why Colleen had packed two bottles of water in her backpack.  I must have lost concentration for twenty minutes and didn't come to my senses until we were 100 feet up a mountain, about to enter a forest.  The purveyors of food and drink were disappearing into the distance as we trod on pine needles.

We were inclined to visit the church of St Ivan but it was locked. So we continued on our adventure across field and mountain. The ground underfoot was curious; a combination of sand and pebbles which appeared utterly barren but which nonetheless supported a good amount of forestry, until the tree line was reached half way up the mountain and there was no further growth of any sort.

Some time thereafter - the memory is a blur - we returned to civilisation and after a scrub up we did, in fact, promenade along the waterfront. I saw two children lying down on the pier with their heads just over the edge. The great thing about being years old is that I no longer get embarrassed so I decided to emulate the younger generation. I didn't need to. As soon as I looked over edge of the pier it was obvious the water was astonishingly clear.

After our astonishment subsided, we walked on, taking in the free sunset provided. God had been busy with his pastel paints and it would have been rude not to appreciate the result. The submarine sat silently at its mooring. It had seen hundreds of sunsets and was no longer impressed.

(*) sadly, now I think about it, we never did submerge. Odd, that.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

No eyes

We landed in Krk. Vowels are rationed in Croatia. A hangover from The War.  Which war, I forget.

It's Rijeka airport, but it could easily be Bulawayo airport: dry, dusty and almost arid with an unblinking blue sky and a handful of small aircraft on the airport apron, ready to leap off into the sky and enjoy the romance of flight. The drone and cameras stayed at home.

So here we are, at Rijeka airport, walking across the concrete apron and I am simultaneously thinking that I want my delightful Nikon D800 camera with its superb 24-70 lens while remembering Ryanair taking all carry on bags away from their passengers because the flight was full and trying to avoid admitting to myself that the cameras and lenses and drone would probably have not survived the flight or the baggage handlers.

Damn.

Still, I have my iPhone and it has a rather good camera.

There's a ridiculously small conveyor belt for the luggage and yet it just about manages the plane's luggage. The rental car park is just a bit of scrubby open land. We set off for the south of the island and the bright sun and parched landscape take me back forty or more years to my childhood in Southern Africa and so I feel nostalgia for a place I have never visited before. An hour's drive brings us to the the bay of Baska (there really should be a little arc above the "s", like a devil's horns, but my keyboard won't cooperate).

We check in to our hotel and walk the promenade along the mile-long beach, passing couples whose children have grown up and generation-younger couples with toddlers, skipping along with stiff legs. I try skipping along with stiff legs but it's not as much fun or as easy as it was in the 1950s. It's mid-September and the families with school age children have gone home; the resorts are quieter and the weather is still warm.

Our dinner is inexpensive, delicious and served promptly while we sit looking over the peaceful bay.

I like Croatia and hope the rest of the week will be as good.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The scoop on Hadrian's Wall


  • Building started in 122AD, on the orders of Emperor Hadrian who, having visited Britain, decided he needed a way of keeping out the Scots (or Picts or whatever they may have been called at that time).
  • The bus service that travels the length of the wall is numbered AD122.
  • The walk along the wall is 84 miles long.
  • It feels longer.
  • Especially when it has hailed on you for four hours.
  • The wall was built by Roman soldiers, who clearly had to be multi skilled.
  • It had a big ditch dug on the front (north) side of it to deter invaders.
  • It had a big ditch dug on the rear (south) side of it. This ditch was there to make it harder for soldiers to run away.
  • One of these ditches was called the vallum.
  • To get an idea of the amount of effort involved in digging the vallum, think of how much effort it would take to dig an Olympic swimming pool by hand. Then multiply that by 10,000.
  • Given it was built almost 1900 years ago, it is astonishing how much remains.
  • The walk starts at Bowness on Solway and ends at Wallsend. (Yes, really).
  • However, remaining sections of visible wall actually start near Heddon-on-the-wall and finish before Walton. So if you just want to “walk the wall” you can do it in three days, not six.
  • The highest point of the wall is about 370 metres (say 1,100 ft) above sea level.
  • The high point of walking Hadrian's Wall, if you have any sense, will be a evening's stay at Oakwood Park Hotel, which is one of the top two or three places I have stayed in during my life.
  • You will probably meet more North Americans walking the wall than people from all other nations combined.
  • It feels good to be done!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

All hail breaks loose

If you are from Southern Africa, English rain is pretty wimpy. It more or less comes down but often seems to think "It's too much trouble" and gives up half way. South African rain is more macho; the point of rain is to make you wet and it will make damn sure you are soaked within a couple of seconds  if you have the temerity to step outside in a storm.

Until recently - very recently - I thought the same was true of English hail; ice the size of pinheads would drift down aimlessly like a 15 year old contemplating his future.

Today changed all this. We set off from Chollerford towards Steel Rigg, two hamlets you have never heard of before. En route were a couple of Roman forts and a good section of Hadrian's Wall. I would like to entrance you with a magical description of what they were like but about midday it started hailing.  These were, indeed, not much more than pinhead sized bits of hail but they got bigger in size and more frequent in volume while lightning and thunder split the sky for four hours.

A school trip was seen sprinting for the bus. Birds were beaten from the skies. The path underfoot became treacherous with ice. And the blasted hail just went on and on. Every now and then the sun would break though, just to tease us, before another squall of hail would saunter along and do its stuff.  I only survived due to my Tilley Hat; I do not know how the others managed. I began to get delusional, believing I was on Scott's doomed trip to the Antarctic.

The final mile of the hike was along an ice-covered road. Some of the hail was melting and the effect of the ice-melt and the accumulated hailstones looked rather like those films you see of ice-bergs calving in summer.

Bizarrely, in the distance a two hundred foot gout of flame suddenly appeared. Where from? Who knew? Two RAF Chinooks flew around it. After a couple of minutes, as quickly as it appeared the flame was put out. Surreal? Nothing could surprise me any more.

We survived. The sun has come out.  I have just asked the owner what time supper is and he replied by giving me a menu and asking if I could find out what the six of us in the group would like to east.  Have I moved to a parallel universe?  Am I a waiter-hiker?

Tomorrow, surely, must be saner.