Jun 19 2016

The EU Referendum

The 2016 EU referendum is likely to be the most significant event in my adult lifetime, so it seems like a good idea to write something to remind me of how it all happened. I don’t expect many people to read this and I don’t expect anyone to change their mind as to whether we should Remain in the EU or Leave.

Really the EU referendum is all about the internal politics of the Tory party. Since the early 1990s there has been a fanatical eurosceptic rump, they took their party into the wilderness once and they’ve lined themselves up to do it all over again.

To cut to the chase, I’ve always been Remain.

My reasons for Remain are three fold:

Perhaps the most significant is economic, I’ve worked in a large company (Unilever), a small company (ScraperWiki) and I’m now at a medium sized company (GB Group). The first two of these are explicitly Remain. The third has expressed no corporate opinion but internally most of my co-workers appear to support Remain. The reason for this is that the EU is primarily a free trade area. This means that for all three companies we can make products and services which can be sold easily across the EU because they need only comply with one set of standard rules and they cannot face penalties with respect to local suppliers. Furthermore, in the EU we can bring in talent from where-ever it is needed – all three of these companies employed people from across the EU. Employing people within the EU is easy, from outside the EU it is a frustrating nightmare. And that’s not to mention my experiences as an academic where a large fraction of my colleagues and students have been from the EU and beyond.

More directly ScraperWiki benefitted enormously from EU research support from the Horizon 2020 programme, which simply wasn’t forthcoming from UK sources which seem to go to London and an “in crowd” first.

We are being asked to give this up for some fantasy trade deals and the cutting of “red-tape” which would appear to be mostly our employment rights.

The second theme is immigration and free movement. I’ve become used to wafting through Europe since the seventies with scarcely a glance at my passport on internal borders. It’s great. I know the pain of travelling for travellers from outside the EU, from China and from the former Yugoslavia, for whom every foreign trip was an uncertain and inconvenient with trips to London for visas. I don’t want my son growing up with that.

Immigration (and its bedfellow, xenophobia) has been the dirty secret of the Leave campaign. In times of economic stress it’ is easy to point to the foreigner and blame them for your troubles. But it’s a lie. Immigrants are the people who got on their bikes and looked for work, they’re predominately young. If these people are causing stress in the services in our country then it is our services that are the problem. If I build a factory, and a thousand UK workers turn up to work there then whose fault is it if the local schools and hospitals struggle with capacity? Nigel Farage’s latest Leave poster echoes directly the Nazi propaganda of the 1930s in citing a country at breaking point overwhelmed by the feckless foreigner. The UK is a strong, wealthy country which has benefitted from the gift of immigration for centuries.

And more personally, for me, when you abuse immigrants for your political ends you are abusing my friends and colleagues stretching back over a lifetime. Rashmi, Anja, Yann, Eugene, Ruedigger, Cecilia, Wen, Lian, Jyl, …

Finally there is democracy and influence. The most entertaining contributions to the debate for me have been members of the (unelected) House of Lords, complaining about the democratic legitimacy of the EU. In the UK we have an electoral system at local and parliamentary levels which is deeply deficit in representing the wishes of the people. We have a House of Lords which when it isn’t appointed is hereditary and a hereditary head of state. The EU, on the other hand, has a parliament of directly elected MEPs (I believe universally using proportional representation), a council of ministers appointed by the elected governments of the EU and a president appointed by those elected governments. Nobody is there by birthright, nobody is there because of their payments to party coffers.

In the EU we can speak for ourselves on the UN security council and other forums but we can also influence the voice of a bloc of 500 million people. And we have a strong voice in the EU when we chose to use it.

So that’s why I’m going to vote Remain.

The campaign has been pretty unedifying. The Leave campaign knows it can get away with essentially lying through its teeth. The “£350 million per week” going to Brussels is a case in point, this has been frequently debunked – the true figure is closer to £129million. But that isn’t really the point. Both of these figures amount to approximately 1% of the government so they’re pretty much insignificant. The important thing is their lie of a “big number” will likely be the only thing 75% of the voters will remember. They know this, and it is why they have never deviated from repeating the lie. The money the Leave camp has “saved” has been spent on spent again on subjects dear to our hearts such as the NHS, for which the Leave campaigners have little track record of support. There will be no comeback for them. The ASA washes it’s hands of accuracy in political advertising.

I have to say if I were a rational Leaver, I’d be looking around myself wondering how the hell I’d fallen in with my fellow Leave supports. It comes to something when Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are your most palatable fellow travellers. A crowd which includes Britain First (the neo-Nazi group), Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen (French National Front), probably Vladimir Putin (but the Russians are a bit too smart to come out) and Nigel Farage.

On the Remain side its difficult to find a foreign government which doesn’t support us remaining in the EU, its difficult to find an organisation that does not support Remain.

I think Leave will win on Thursday but it is by no means certain. As a Liberal Democrat and pragmatic supporter of AV I’m used to crushing electoral disappointment. A vote to Leave in my mind would be a defeat far more visceral than these, it will deeply effect the remainder of my working life, retirement and the life of my young son.

Erratum: I actually meant to write that I thought Remain would win! See how easy it is for a slip of the pen to mess these things up…

Jun 03 2016

Book review: Maphead by Ken Jennings

mapheadMaphead by Ken Jennings is a trip around various groups of people obsessed with maps and things geographic: collectors, makers of fantasy maps, geocachers, paper rally-ers,confluence hunters and so forth. It all makes me feel right at home!

The book starts with Jennings’ own obsession with maps. He pins his obsession to a move, at an early age, to South Korea with his family. His obsession is a plain, common or garden one with much poring over atlases and maps. He also likes toponymics, the naming of places. There are the somewhat obscene, such as Dildo, Newfoundland – my personal favourite of these is “Bresty Haw” (54.326750, –3.008447). There are also the commercial, such as Truth or Consequences in New Mexico. On a more serious note the US renamed a whole pile of places,to mildly less offensive variants such as “Dead Negro Draw”.

An early chapter discusses David Helgren’s 1983 quiz of his University of Miami students which found them to be pretty abysmal at finding even large places, such as Chicago on the map. There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth at this, bemoaning the state of education and in particular the lack of a firm grounding in geography. I was growing up in the early eighties and by that time the rote learning of places was somewhat passé, a private vice that some odd children engaged in. Geography became more the study of systems and ideas. Do we need to learn the capital of Mongolia by rote these days? Probably not, but there is a certain pleasure in knowing all of the US states or the capital cities of all the countries of the world.

The US has a National Geographic Bee where students from across the country compete to be the Queen Bee (or winner). The level of the competition seems pretty high to me. I was bemused to find the scoring scheme for the author’s own quiz at the very end of the book featuring grades of “Terrain Wreck” and “The Atlas Shrugs”.

Collectors of maps have their own chapter, I have ambivalent feelings about this. In some ways it’s just conspicuous consumption but, perhaps with all collecting of this type, is often linked with genuine expertise. Occasionally I have considered buying a complete set Ordnance Survey maps.

The highway obsessives are a group of which I was unaware. It turns out that there are people who photograph the signs on every junction of the US highway system. This has evolved into the Massacre Rally – armchair, map-based rallying! Here the players follower written questions to guide them across the country. Reading the web page I’m just a little bit tempted. The rally is based on the iconic Rand McNally road atlases which I was surprised to learn drove road signage in the US, its surveyors painted their own signage onto telegraph poles in the absence of any official markings.

Geocaching and confluence hunting get chapters of their own related to the travel clubs whose members aim to visit as many countries as possible. Geocaching came in to being when the selective availability on GPS was lifted in 2000, increasing the precision of position finding to domestic users by an order of magnitude, thereby allowing geocachers to share the coordinates of small, hidden caches with the reasonable expectation that they can be found using a GPS handset. Confluence hunters are related in that they visit locations with integer values of latitude and longitude.

The technology of maps has moved on significantly in my life time, GPS has shrunk to the size that it now fits into my watch. I can navigate to any place on earth in Google Maps, and see an overhead view, and for many locations I can also see a view from the street.This leads to interesting new games such as GeoGuessr – guess where you are from a Google Street View.

As an aside we also discover the origin of the idea of the 1:1 scale map, in Lewis Carroll’s novel Syvlie and Bruno which also introduces the idea of paintballing.

The book seems to miss my own personal obsession: filling maps with data. I spent many happy hours finding the triangulation points for Delambre and Mechain’s survey of the meridian through Paris to set the length of the metre. Or my maps of the 2010 General Election results. One of my current great pains is that the LIDAR maps the Environment Agency has released of England and Wales is the gaps in coverage. The absence of Scotland and Northern Ireland from the LIDAR coverage is an abomination in my eyes. 

Maphead is a short read, not particularly challenging and a comforting reminder that there are other people like you (for certain values of you).

May 26 2016

Book review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

labgirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren is an unusual book. It’s an autobiography which mixes in a fair amount of plant science. It is beautiful to read. It is strong on what being a scientist means. The closest comparison I can think of are Richard Feymann’s “Surely you are joking, Mr Feynmann” memoirs which are rather more anecdotal.

Lab Girl is chronological, starting from Jahren’s early memories of visiting the lab in her father’s school after hours but then fast forwarding to her academic career setting up laboratories in Georgia, Baltimore and finally Hawaii. It isn’t encyclopaedic in providing a detailed record of Jahren’s personal and scientific life.

A thread through the whole book is Bill, her trusty research assistant. Bill starts as a keen undergraduate who Jahren takes on when she gets her first academic position. I think in some ways Bill is something of a product of the US academic system, with support staff often funded on short term grants. In the UK such people tend to be employed on a permanent basis by the institution. My Bill was Tom when I was a PhD student, Pete and Roger when I was an assistant director of research. As a lecturer I didn’t have a Bill, and maybe that was my problem.

Several themes intertwine through the book. There is the day to day activity of a lab: labelling things, repetitive sample preparation, measuring things, fighting with equipment to get it to measure things. Wrangling undergraduates and postgraduates. There are trips out into the field. For Jahren, as a biologist, the field is very literally the field (or Irish bog, Canadian tundra etc). There is attending academic conferences. Mixed with this there is the continual struggle for tenure and funding for your research and the fight for resources with grants that don’t go quite far enough.

It’s fair to say Jahren put in an awful lot more hours than I did as a young academic but then I didn’t turn into an successful, older academic. Make of that what you will. It’s difficult to measure your success as an academic, grant applications are so hit and miss that winning them is only a measure of your luck and skill at writing grant applications, papers are relatively sparse and rarely provide much feedback. Sometimes putting in hours seems the only way of measuring your worth.

A second strand is plant biology, mingling basic background and the cutting edge research that Jahren does. I absorbed this in ambient fashion, I now think a little more like a tree. I didn’t realise that willow deliberately drop  whole branches so as to propagate themselves. This explains the success of our willow dome construction which was made by unceremoniously plonking willow sticks into the ground and weaving them together. They then gamely got on and grew. Soil is a recurring theme in the book, the teaching of the taxonomy of soil to undergraduates in particular. I had glimpses of this rich topic whilst doing a Kaggle challenge on tree cover. Finally, there is mass spectroscopy and isotope analysis.   

And finally there is the personal, Jahren’s mental health, her struggles with pregnancy, marriage and a growing son. Some of this is painful and personal reading but its good to hear someone saying what we perhaps find unsayable. Lab Girl says relatively little about the difficulties she particularly faced as a woman, although Jahren has written about it elsewhere.

I observed a while back when reviewing In Defence of History that whilst historians seemed interested in literary style in technical writing, scientists rarely did. Lab Girl is an exception, which makes it well worth a read.

At the end of the book, Jahren asks us all to plant a tree. I pleased to say we’ve achieved this, although perhaps not quite the right sort of trees for American sensibilities, used to larger gardens. In the front garden we have a crab apple tree which, in the right sort of year, flowers on my birthday. There are several apple trees spread through the front garden. In both front and back gardens we have acers and now, at the bottom of the garden we have an amelanchier. I have longed for a Cedar of Lebanon in my front garden but fear I will never own a house large enough for this to be practicable.

May 18 2016

Book review: Mauve by Simon Garfield

mauveMauve: How one man invented a color that changed the world by Simon Garfield is a biography of William Perkin. Who first synthesised the aniline dye, mauve, in 1856 at the age of 18.

Synthetic dyes were to form the catalyst for the modern chemical industry, an area close to my heart since I worked at Unilever on fluorescent and “shader” dyes for the colouring of laundry and teeth. For my undergraduate degree and PhD I was close to organic synthesis labs but didn’t participant with any any enthusiasm (everything gets mixed up and you can poison, burn or explode yourself!).

The book starts with a trip by William Perkin to the United States in 1906, and a series of events to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his discovery. It’s very reminiscent of similar celebrations on a visit of Lord Kelvin at around the same time. By the later years of his life he was lauded in his field, if not so much beyond it.

Chemistry as a subject was relatively unformed in the middle years of the 19th century. Lavoisier, Davy, Dalton and others had laid the foundations of the modern subject in the early years of the century but it looked nothing like it does today. Chemical formulae were understood but their structural meaning was still a mystery and certainly not liable to routine elucidation. There were chemical industries of sorts, such as the manufacture of gunpowder, the preparation of dyes and tanning. Coal gas was made from coal, producing a variety of by-products including coal tar.

Perkin was studying at the Royal College of Chemistry as an assistant to August Hofmann who was focused on the idea of synthesising quinine from coal tar. He had been encouraged in his scientific studies by Faraday, and Hoffmann had personally intervened with his father for him to study at the Royal College, who had a career in architecture in mind for him.

There is a superficial similarity in the chemical compositions of aniline, a component of coal tar, and quinine. At the time it seemed plausible to synthesis the one from the other. Quinine was highly valued as an antimalarial drug whose supply was very limited. In the end quinine was not to be synthesised until 1944 by Robert Woodward. The synthesis of useful analogues of natural compounds continues to be one of the driving forces in synthetic chemistry.

In 1856, whilst trying to make quinine, Perkin synthesised an attractive colour (mauve) that dyed silk. Such a discovery was not entirely novel or unknown, the colouring properties of coal tar derivatives had been observed before. However, Perkin saw commercial potential and approached a Scottish dye manufacturer, Robert Pullar for advice. At the time dyes such as madder, indigo and cochineal were derived from animal or vegetable matter and were expensive and unpredictable. The natural growth process meant you were never quite sure of the quality of product you were making, or using.

Colouring something is only half the story with dyes, it is also important that the dye sticks to the target and stays there after washing or exposure to light. The techniques and materials for achieving this depends on whether the target is cotton, silk, wool, paper or whatever. With a new class of dyes, new techniques were required. So alongside the colouring material Perkin also provided technical services to help his customers use the dyes he made.

The business was boosted when mauve became a fashionable colour, worn by Queen Victoria. Perkin grew his factory in Greenford, and ultimately sold it when he was 35 for around £100,000 (which appears to be something around £75million in current value). After this he seems to have focused on further research rather than any other commercial venture. His motivation for selling up seemed to be that German companies had become dominant in the production of dye. It was felt that they had better access to trained technical personnel, and their companies were more willing to spend money on research (a complaint still heard today). Then, as now, it was argued that the British were good at inventing but not exploiting.

From dyes the synthetic chemical industries expanded into new areas. In the first instance dyes were useful in themselves in preferentially staining different microscopic structures. It was then discovered that some of them had biological activity, such as methylene blue. And from the aniline dyes were synthesised the antibiotic sulfa drugs and then other, uncoloured medicines.

The synthetic adventure was to continue with synthetic polymers which, in common with mauve, started as an unpromising black sludge at the bottom of a reaction vessel.

The chemical industry in Britain was resuscitated by World War I. Britain found itself dependent on German companies for dyes for military uniforms and precursors to explosives at the onset of war. The strategy, repeated across many industries, was for government to take direct control with the resulting organisations continuing after the war. For the chemical industry this lead to formation of ICI, Imperial Chemical Industries. The manufacture of bulk chemicals has largely moved to China now and ICI broke up and was sold between the early nineties and 2010.

Mauve is an enjoyable read but lacks depth.

May 10 2016

Book review: Coalition by David Laws

Coalition: The Inside Story of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government by David Laws does exactly what it says on the tin. It is the story of the Coalition running from 2010-15 from the point of view of someone at the heart of the action on the Liberal Democrat side. David Laws was a member of the negotiating team which took the party into the Coalition and a regular attendee at meetings of the Quad (where differences between the Coalition parties were thrashed out). Later he was a secretary of state in Education.

Laws finishes the book by answering three questions which I list below and are a useful way of organising this review.

Did the coalition work as a form of government?

The Coalition lasted the full parliamentary term, contrary to what many people expected. Both parties in the Coalition implemented significant chunks of their manifesto, and there didn’t seem to be many great dramas over votes unexpectedly lost. The members of the coalition seemed to get on OK, there was a dispute resolution system involving the Quad (Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, David Cameron and George Osborne) and, in extremis, David Cameron and David Clegg alone. Laws appears a rather amiable chap and seemed to get along with many of his Coalition opposite numbers, particularly Oliver Letwin, Ken Clarke, George Osborne, even Michael Gove (whom he also found infuriating).

Laws writes quite a lot about his experiences in the Department for Education, and it becomes increasingly clear to me that the stories you see about chaos in government are typically an “inside job”. In this case Gove and his advisor Dominic Cummings briefing against the free school meals Laws championed. You can see Cummings hand in the briefings against Cameron now they are on opposite sides of the EU referendum debate. It follows from similar internecine struggles during the Blair and Brown years, and you can see it now in Corbyn’s Labour party. It is not absent in the Liberal Democrats, Laws highlights that part of the pain of tuition fees for the party was in the deep division within the party. Regardless of what had been achieved, half the party would remain unconvinced and if the party doesn’t believe then what hope persuading the public? Vince Cable’s frequent, contrary, interventions on the economy had a similar effect. And the polling done by his friend, Matthew Oakshott to undermine Nick Clegg. 

The accusation that senior Tories act very directly and explicitly in their own self-interest and that of their major donors is all the more damning coming from someone who clearly has a lot of time for them. Areas like the response to the Leveson enquiry are muted because of Tory Party enthusiasm for keeping papers on side. The proposed Mansion Tax is quashed to keep Tory party donors onside, it being raised by both Labour and Liberal Democrats is welcomed though. The Tories, particularly George Osborne, were repeatedly looking to cut the welfare bill (except for pensioners) largely because they didn’t see claimants as “their people”.

The “English Votes for English Laws” announcements made on the day of the Scottish referendum victory very much put a dampener on the result, and was done by Cameron for short-term gain.

After the 2015 election we can see that Liberal Democrats had a substantial restraining influence on the Tories in power, the distributional impact of changes for the budget is much more heavily skewed against lower income groups than it was under the Coalition (see here for the 2010-15 figures and here for the 2015-19). Legislation like the parliamentary boundary changes and the “Snooper’s Charter” are now going ahead, previously blocked by Liberal Democrats.  

What were it’s achievements?

The Liberal Democrat achievements in government have been summarised in Mark Pack’s rather fine infographic or the eponymous What the Hell Have the LibDems Done? website.

In summary:

  • Increased personal tax allowance to £10600 from £6475 in 2010;
  • Pupil premium / free school meals;
  • Pensions triple lock;
  • Overseas aid target;
  • Early years education entitlement;
  • Shared parental leave;
  • Pensions and benefit uprating in line with high inflation;
  • Equal marriage;
  • Mental health access standards;

The introduction of equal marriage was a surprise bonus, not in anyone’s manifesto but pushed through by Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone with the support of Theresa May despite continually opposition from backbench Tories and surprisingly, initial opposition from Labour and Stonewall.

Constitutional reform was the area where Liberal Democrats fell down, not getting either electoral reform or reform of the House of Lords. Neither of these are areas where the public shows any interest, and nor do they have the support of either Labour of Tory parties so perhaps failure was inevitable. In contrast to the EU referendum and the Scottish referendum there appears to be no call for a second referendum on AV.

What could Liberal Democrats have done better?

It was widely touted in the Liberal Democrats that coalition would be electorally damaging, given the experience of other smaller liberal parties in coalition in Europe and elsewhere. I think we gradually took this to heart as we lost councillors, then MEPs and finally all but eight of our MPs but none of us were really prepared for the final blow. Now following the first local and Scottish parliament elections after the end of the Coalition we are starting to win back seats and grow support.

Much of our loss in votes came pretty much immediately that we formed a coalition with the Tories, so one thing we could have done is not formed a coalition. I don’t support this idea, David Laws doesn’t support this idea, and he cites a whole load of other Liberal Democrats who don’t support this idea. The last 5 years have been the best time to be a Liberal Democrat at least since I joined the party in about 1990, our policies actually got implemented in government – which is the whole point of being a political party!

Inevitably attention will turn to the tuition fees vote, Laws’ first prescription for this is not to have made the promise to scrap tuition fees in the 2010 election. His second prescription, to have vetoed the idea is probably right in retrospect but didn’t happen because we were still trying to work out how to make coalition work and weren’t confident of our actions. As it stands the current tuition fee policy works, in the sense that enrolment in universities and enrolment from lower income groups continues to rise. It is a graduate tax in all but name with the advantage that you don’t avoid it by emigrating and it can be collected from EU students.

The NHS Bill is another idea which Liberal Democrats should have vetoed, largely in my view because it was unhelpful at a time when the NHS was supposed to be making large efficiency savings. It would also have helped the Tories in not damaging their fragile reputation over the NHS. Lansley was sacked as Secretary of State for Health for contaminating the brand of the Tories over the NHS, to be replaced by Jeremy Hunt(!).

From a more technical point of view Laws toys with the idea of going for more senior Secretary of State positions in the government rather than the more junior ministerial positions that were taken, Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg both held quite senior positions but they were someone else’s deputies. Our strength in Cabinet was propertional to our share of seats rather than our share of votes. Other Liberal Democrats such as Vince Cable held top positions but in less important departments.  

The style of the book is crisp, it rattles through around 50 short chapters. The quoted dialogue sounds incredibly wooden, I recommend not buying any fiction Laws’ might write! If you’re interested in politics then I thoroughly recommend this book, if nothing else it gives a clear insight into how coalition government can work in the UK. For Liberal Democrats it is an essential record of what we achieved in government. Whilst there may be more detached, historical reports in the future there is unlikely to be one better from the core of the action.

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