Saturday, September 03, 2016

No need for speed

"0-320mph in under four seconds", said our taxi driver.

He was about six feet tall, with a walrus moustache and beard but the sides of his face were clean shaven and he had a strong Yorkshire accent. The minibus he had picked us up in didn't look that fast, but he wasn't talking about how quickly it would go. He was telling me about his interest in drag-racing.

"Uses four and a half gallons of fuel in that time", he said.

He had a glint in his eye, as if he was visualising himself strapped in to a dragster, which was not entirely comforting as we were driving along a sinuous road, winding its way through the gorgeous Yorkshire Dales. The designers of the bus had not really designed it for speed, but that didn't stop him from cutting through the esses of the bends sending fountains of spray flying up from the road as the rain came down. Now, while I felt a little nervous, I must admit he drove skilfully and we were never in any danger. But I could see his day job frustrated him.

"Going there next week", he said. "Just put a mattress in the back of the bus for the week."

 The beautiful green hills drifted by, as did the lovely rivers and streams, tumbling over grey rocks, the waters like a dark Yorkshire ale. Having woken in the wee early hours of the morning, I drifted off, leaving the burden of conversation to my fellow travellers in the rows behind. I had forgotten Fiona passed into the clutches of Morpheus almost as soon as the car had set off and her husband, John, is naturally quiet. Colleen elected not to shout from the back row.

I felt the car twist around a roundabout and opened my eyes. "Nearly there" said our would-be dragster. Indeed, within a few minutes we entered the postcard pretty town of Ilkley and soon were at our hotel, situated just a few yards from the start of the Dales Way.

Tomorrow we start six days of hiking through some of the prettiest countryside in the land.  We'll be going a lot slower than a dragster. And that will be just fine.

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, 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.


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