Kick them out

Voting for the Tories again, yeah?

Before you go and cast your vote for the donkey in the blue rosette, just like always, please think about what you’re voting for.

Why are they called the Conservatives? What are they conserving? At the moment, it’s not economic stability, or the value of Sterling, or the environment, or a functioning NHS, or civil liberties.

As Prime Minister, you’ll get Theresa May, a dangerous authoritarian whose ability to play a human is so unconvincing that she has to be kept out of the public eye, and who now appears only in pre-recorded hostage-style videos. She promises to ban encryption and take away human rights in the name of security. She had six years as Home Secretary and one as PM, but is always promising that just one more hit to civil liberties will be the charm. It’s not terrorists that hate our freedoms, it’s Theresa May.

With a convert’s zeal, she has committed to the most disruptive and costly Brexit possible, estranging the UK from Europe and driving it towards Trump’s dangerous and unpredictable regime.

She made it hard for non-EU spouses to join their families, unless they’re rich. Now, she proposes to make it harder for any foreign spouse, unless they’re even richer. If you vote Tory, don’t fall in love with a foreigner.

Jeremy (enunciate it very carefully) Hunt will continue to damage the NHS. Is he just incompetent, or is he actively evil and wants to run it into the ground so he can sell the parts to his mates? You decide. Either way, if you vote for another five years of Tory misrule, you’d better plan on not getting sick.

The preternaturally ignorant David Davis will continue to learn the basics of how the European Union works on the job, and will continue to be inadequate to the task placed before him.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson will continue to play the clown, offending allies at a time when the UK needs them, and batting away questions with casual racism and Latin quotes. Quidquid Latine dictum sit altum videtur.

So what’s the alternative? Vote tactically to deprive the Conservatives of their majority.

Reckon Corbyn would destroy the economy? Have you seen what the Conservatives have achieved in the past year? Even JP Morgan think the pound’s prospects would be better off under a centre-left coalition.

Any increase in taxation and borrowing is inconsequential when compared against the economic damage of Brexit. Labour has a competent team in Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry, who wouldn’t be tied by May’s rash statements. The Conservatives have already alienated Europeans (most recently, with Theresa May’s bizarre claims that the EU is interfering in the general election). It’s hard to believe that Davis, Fox and Johnson would do a competent job based on what they’ve done so far. Brexit is a bad idea, but the Tory kamikaze Brexit is the worst idea of all. If you vote for the Tories to negotiate Brexit, don’t forget to stock up on food in March 2019. In fact, stock up now, before the falling pound drives up inflation further.

Theresa May and her coterie of headbanging Brexiteers are a menace to you and your family. Kick them out.


Yesterday morning, I passed a group of boys of maybe eight years old playing football in a park in Berlin. When I was their age, that spot was in the death strip on the East German side of the Berlin Wall.

The Wall was built to prevent free movement—outward rather than inward—but today it manifests chiefly as different green men on the pedestrian crossings on each side.

Later in the day, I took the train to the airport. I didn’t have €3.30 in coins, and the ticket machine didn’t appear to accept notes, so I paid for my fare from a Euro account using my Belgian bank card. From the airport, I travelled back to London on an Irish passport.

Or, to put it another way, I paid for a ticket to an airport in an EU city with a bank card from an EU Euro account, then used an EU passport to fly within the EU. This is a completely normal thing, and yet now, after the Brexit vote, I can’t help but notice it.

To me, the reduction of borders, the free movement of people and goods, and the fact that you can use services, documentation and qualifications from one EU country in any other is a wonderful thing, and the UK now looks so dismally insular by comparison.

I miss the days when we were tearing down walls.

Japanese siblings, English genders

One of the great things about learning other languages is that you also learn about the concepts that underlie linguistic representation.

In Japanese, there isn’t a commonly-used word that means just brother. In conversation it’s always older brother (兄) or younger brother (弟).

(Pedantically speaking, there is a word consisting of the characters for both, 兄弟, but that also encompasses the meaning of siblings — yes, this probably is the patriarchy in evidence — so it’s unusual to refer to male siblings exclusively.)

Japanese speakers with limited English, in my experience, try to clarify the ambiguity as early as possible in the conversation. They might have concepts of sibling, younger brother, older brother, younger sister, and older sister, but not so much of just a brother or a sister. Those with better English can defer the distinction until necessary.

I think that being able to conceptualise something that does not have a direct equivalent in one’s own language is a step towards and prerequisite for becoming fluent in another language.

In English, items are it and people are conventionally he or she, and, although they has good historical provenance as a non-gender-specific third-person singular pronoun, it has historically been used to refer to an unknown third person, rather than a known one. But grammatically there’s nothing stranger about singular they than there is about singular you as opposed to thou:

Again, the corrupt and unsound form of speaking in the plural number to a single person (you to one instead of thou;) contrary to the pure, plain, and single language of truth (thou to one, and you to more than one,) which had always been used by God to men, and men to God, as well as one to another, from the oldest record of time, …

Today, I was talking to friend A about (non-mutual) friend B. Following B’s expressed preference, where I used a pronoun at all, I used they exclusively.

Despite this, A assumed a gender for B and used that exclusively. I didn’t make a point of it, I didn’t correct A, and I don’t know to what extent A’s assumption was based on A’s or my gender, but I found it interesting that A felt that a gender was necessary and could be assumed. More than that, I found it interesting that A couldn’t carry the ambiguity but had to attempt to resolve it unilaterally.

The idea of male or female runs pretty deep, but it’s not the only way to think about people. It might feel uncomfortable, but really it’s just a tiny fraction of the difficulty of learning a foreign language, a feat accomplished by billions.

If you can learn to order dos cervezas, por favor, you can probably learn to conceptualise a person without immediate reference to gender. It’s worth giving it a try, but you probably will have to try. Even so, English is much easier than, say, Hebrew.

Incidentally, the Japanese language has very little gender marking, and you can talk about someone for a long time without revealing their gender. But, of course, language is only one facet of gender in society.


Let’s never do this again. ― Nat, shortly before planning to do it again.

Six years ago, I rode the Dunwich Dynamo, 180 km through the night by bicycle from London to the Suffolk coast at Dunwich. On Saturday, I did it again.

Last time, it was easier than I expected. This time, it was harder than I remembered! It wasn’t really difficult, though, apart from a few steep hills. If you think Suffolk is flat, your sampling resolution is too low. Perhaps if my bike had more than one speed it would be easier.

The weather was great: dry, but cloudy. I would have liked to have seen more stars whilst riding through the isolated roads of rural Suffolk, but the clouds probably helped to keep it reasonably warm.

I prepared better than last time, which might, paradoxically, have made it harder. Instead of a bag on my back, I had a pannier full of supplies, which made going uphill harder. Or made it feel harder: I don’t know which. I ate heartily in the days beforehand, and slept late and napped half the day before the departure.

I knew from last time that I wanted some kind of GPS wayfinding assistance: there are some surprising turns, and the ride is often spread out enough that there’s no one to follow. I bought a cheap top-tube bag with phone pocket from Decathlon, poked a couple of holes in so that I could feed a cable from my 12 Ah USB battery to my phone, and plotted the course into Google Maps with the intention of using that.

However, just before departure, someone told me about an Android application called BikeGPX that was rather better suited to the task. “But where do you get the route from?” I asked. It turns out it’s developed by someone in London, and one of the app’s example routes is the Dunwich Dynamo. It’s simple but effective: it lays the route over Google Maps tiles, shows elevation and distance, and highlights sharp turns coming up. The only problems I had were the normal issues with GPS accuracy in built-up areas.

Despite using the screen and GPS constantly for twelve hours, I only used about a quarter of the 12 Ah in my USB battery. I could probably use a smaller one and save some of the 300 g it weighs.

For clothing, I wore cycling shorts under normal shorts, a long-sleeved merino base layer, and a standard-issue promotional startup hoodie. I moderated my temperature by pushing my sleeves up or down and zipping the hoodie higher or lower. It worked well, kept me warm enough, and I didn’t overheat.

What I consumed during the ride:

  • Most of a Soreen malt loaf
  • About three quarters of a pack of Jelly Babies
  • Half a pack of dextrose tablets
  • Four caffeine tablets
  • A bit under two litres of sports drink (I brought powder and mixed it with water)
  • A sausage in a bun and a cup of tea, 30-odd km from the end in Framlingham

I felt pretty good for most of the ride, but I did begin to feel a bit desolate about three quarters of the way through. I was glad to have some friends around.

Some things had changed since last time: several pubs on the route were open all night, selling food and supplying tapwater. That was good, because the official feeding stop at Sudbury Fire Station had only bottled water and sold the last one to someone three places in front of me.

I don’t know the numbers, but it felt like there were many more people on the ride than six years ago. With all the people, the pubs and the other stalls along the route, it felt a bit like a kind of linear party at times.

At the beach, I first queued for my place on a coach back, then changed into my swimming trunks and took a swim in the sea. It was cold, and it was wonderful.

What was less wonderful was the coach ride back. It took 6½ hours, which doesn’t compare well with a journey that took twelve by bicycle, and that’s with a couple of hours taking rest breaks. The traffic was bad, but the route we took through London on residential and shopping streets in Dagenham, Barking, Goodmayes, and Barking (again) before eventually getting back onto the A12 (that we’d left a few miles and several hours earlier) didn’t seem to help. The coach seats were too uncomfortable to sleep in, and the whole experience felt more like an international flight than anything else.

I got back and slept from 6 pm until 7 pm, getting up for an hour at 11 pm. I feel mostly back to normal, but I won’t be riding a bicycle for a few days.

I don’t know if I’ll do it again. Maybe. I don’t know if I enjoyed doing it, but I enjoy having done it. If there’s a next time, though, it will be on a bike with gears.

A question with no answer

The good news is, I no longer have that sick feeling in my stomach. Now I’m just depressed.

In the same way that Tony Blair can’t go out for a nice meal in a restaurant without someone shouting “war criminal” at him, I hope that David Cameron suffers a similar fate. It’ll probably be “pig fucker” because “you messed up the economy, race relations, peace in Northern Ireland, the integrity of the Union, and the life chances of young people in a failed attempt to silence a minority of fruitbats in your parliamentary party” doesn’t trip off the tongue so easily, but whatever. Either way, the man deserves opprobrium at every opportunity for being probably the worst Prime Minister since 1782 for having presided over a combination of embittering austerity, tawdry triangulation, and a spectacularly miscalculated referendum.

Luckily for me, I have dual nationality, so a slim margin of voters can’t take away my right to live and work anywhere in the EEA, a right which is looking increasingly useful. I’m entitled to an Irish passport because I was born in Northern Ireland, but one of my motivations for getting my first one, back in 2004, was disgust at British involvement in Iraq. (We’ll hear more about that in a few days.) I didn’t want to be associated with that when I travelled the world, and when my British passport expired in 2009 I didn’t bother renewing it. To be honest, it didn’t make much practical difference: one EU passport is as good as another within Europe, and both passports are almost equally useful elsewhere.

I only got around to getting a new British passport in 2014, as my Irish one was expiring, and I thought I might as well use the same photo for both. By then, I had been living in London for a while, and I was beginning to feel positive about the UK again.

But then last week happened.

I’m used to elections going the other way to what I want. You could even say that I have a special insight into British politics, in that whatever I hope for, the opposite happens. I used this insight to place a bet on Leave at 5/1, and won £1000. It’s paid for a few rounds of drinks so far, but it hasn’t made me feel any better, especially since the impact on the Pound has cost me a lot more.

But in the same way that the best way to get decent public transport is to move to a city with decent public transport (these things taking decades to plan and build even when there’s will to do it), I can’t help thinking: maybe the best way to get a decent polity is to move to one. And if the UK consistently votes the opposite of what I believe, maybe I should just make my own Brexit and get the hell out. London is fine. Scotland is fine. But both are attached to England, a place that is increasingly foreign to me.

The worst thing about the referendum is that it’s not even a result. In a country with a more rigorous constitution, there would be conditions attached to a referendum. It might require a qualified majority or unanimity amongst its constituent parts to effect constitutional change. This was an advisory referendum that everyone who didn’t bother to check thought had some binding power. If it had been binding, there might be grounds for appeal, but you can’t even do that, because it’s just advisory. This is just a mess, because the government, in its hubris, didn’t consider the possibility that it might actually lose.

Whilst we knew what “remain” meant, leave was the magic mirror that reflected every desire. It’s not a mandate for EEA membership (with attendant freedom of movement). It’s not a mandate for breaking everything off and starting again with no agreements and no free movement. It’s not clear how a non-EU settlement should balance free trade of goods, free trade of services, and free trade of people. It’s not a mandate for anything more than unspecified change. No-one expected it to happen, and no-one planned for it. But, because it was a referendum, no-one is responsible: the Leave campaign has dissipated like mist in the morning, and all we have left are their lies and impossible promises.

I don’t really see any solution to this. No one can get what they want out of this result. Article 50 hasn’t been invoked because it’s the start of much worse: two years of negotiations with a fixed deadline, followed by many more years of negotiations to recreate trade agreements that already existed. There’s no option to just get this over with quickly. As far as I can see, there are three options:

1. Defer Article 50 indefinitely. This is what we have now. Things will recover a little over time. Investment will suffer from the uncertainty. It will be difficult to attract skilled labour from Europe.
2. Invoke Article 50. There will be more shock to the Pound. After a decade or two, the UK will have re-established enough trade agreements to be somewhere close to where it was last week. The effect on Scotland and Northern Ireland is unpredictable.
3. Resile from the referendum result. This would be good for the economy, but some of the quarter of the population that voted to leave will be unhappy. (I’m not convinced that there will be riots, however.)

Both 1 and 2 seem like good reasons to leave this country and go and work somewhere with a less risky currency and economy. I don’t want to waste the productive years of my life because of an ill-considered project that I don’t believe in. 3 would still leave the uncomfortable fact that this just doesn’t feel like a country I want to live in.

As I said, I don’t really see any solution to this. But I curse you, David Cameron, for getting us here. May your name live in infamy.

Don’t leave

I’m really depressed about this referendum. I’ve been feeling sick in my stomach for weeks, and as the opinion polls show more and more support for Leave, I feel worse and worse.

Like a mid-term by-election, it doesn’t matter what you say it’s for: people will use it to express their dissatisfactions. And no one seems to know anything about the European Union.

You might say — some do — that that in itself invalidates the EU. I’m not sure how many people could name their local councillors, MP, or even more than a handful of members of the cabinet. I pay a lot more attention that most — I’ve worked in government for a couple of years — and I couldn’t name all of those.

However, at least in a normal election the extremes of viewpoint are filtered through the moderating effect of representatives. They’re not as representative as I’d like, but it’s still better than the alternative. When Parliament abolished capital punishment, it opposed the views of a strict majority of the electorate. If we were to hold a referendum today on “should paedophiles be hanged?” we might get a majority in favour, but I think we’d probably get a more nuanced take in Parliament.

The debate, such as it is, has proceeded from unsupported claims about the amount of money being paid to the EU, via various unsupportable promises about what would happen on exit, to the firm ground of immigrants, immigrants, immigrants, immigrants. And there is a thing that we cannot and do not have a reasoned public debate about.

“You can’t talk about immigration.” Whatever the opposite of a truism is — a falsism? — it’s that. The shoddier end of the press (the Express and the Mail, especially) has been banging on about the evils of immigration daily for years. Politicians chasing expediency have chased the dialogue ever further in one direction, until the Overton window on the topic is so far over that it resembles the 1930s in places. People believe that all their problems, whether it’s unemployment, social housing, house prices, or whatever, is the fault of the immigrants. Even older immigrants seem to believe it! It’s just common sense, isn’t it?

Now I could list reasons why immigration is not the enemy. I could cite the lump of labour fallacy, or government policies to sell off social housing to buy voter loyalty, or the fact that the housing supply has increased proportionally with population for decades, or the fact that immigrants pay more in tax than they take out. But none of this matters, and it’s beside the point. Bashing immigrants to sell papers or to keep a few voters from going over to a more extreme minority party is a tawdry and unworthy activity, and we have to live with the consequences regardless of what happens on 23 June.

If no one understands what they’re voting on, then the process is wide open to those who play on the prejudices of the electorate. Repeat a lie often enough and it sticks. Wind up enough fear of the Other and let go.

I’m sick and depressed because of the increasingly hateful and nationalistic discourse that I see. Even if it succeeds, it can’t provide the answers that the people seduced by it were seeking. All it can do is to increase the sum of human misery.

One of the consequences of a Leave vote will be to reinforce this awful nationalism. As has been pointed out, voting Leave doesn’t mean you’re a xenophobe or a racist, but xenophobes and racists are all voting Leave, and they’ll feel emboldened, and that won’t be pretty.

I’m also sick and depressed because, personally, I’d just about got to the point where I felt that I could settle down here. Maybe not in London — I can’t afford to buy anywhere I’d want to live, and this country’s laws make security impossible as a tenant — but perhaps somewhere in England. But now the Brexiters want to tear everything up in what seems like a petulant act of nihilism.

And for what? Sovereignty? Don’t make me laugh. Parliament can annul the treaties that bind us to the EU at any time. The Prime Minister can invoke Article 50. The very fact that we’re having this referendum demonstrates that the UK is sovereign. The reason that we’re talking about Article 50 rather than just annulling the treaties is because sovereignty is of itself not very useful without co-operation with other nations. And if we really cared about democracy, we might do better than an electoral system that returns a majority government on 36.8% of the votes. We might not have a monarch, or Royal Prerogative. We probably wouldn’t have an upper chamber made of a mix of appointees, nobles, and bishops.

If we leave, we’ll lose freedom of movement. That’s not just the right to go on holiday without a visa, as some people think. It means that you can go and live in any of these countries, and take a job on your own terms, and without the loss of control that comes with your visa being tied to your employer. It happens in both directions, too. Without the ready availability of skilled labour, places like London and Berlin would have a much harder time staffing technology companies. I mention that because it’s a field I know about, but it’s true of other industries. Whilst it might benefit me by letting me put my day rate up even higher, there are limits to what can actually provide a return, and it seems more likely that companies just won’t start.

If we leave, we’ll lose free trade with the EU. Or maybe not. The Brexiters claim that we’ll just sign free trade agreements and carry on as before. Opinions vary on how easy that will be, but when the best that you can offer is the same thing, it’s not a great bet. Free trade versus maybe free trade.

In the event of Leave, regardless of how successful Britain is at renegotiating access to everything it’s just thrown away, there will be a guaranteed period of uncertainty while we find out. And unless you’re one of those financial parasites that can turn a profit on every kind of misery, uncertainty means bad things for the economy and jobs.

The bigger problems of the world don’t stop at national borders, and we can’t shut ourselves off from them. We’ll always be exposed to the same air, and sea, and biosphere, and economy. It’s a bit easier to keep people off an island, but a bit of water does nothing for the crises that drive them here.

In a sense, I’m all right. Because of the same accident of birth that divides the world into Britons and Immigrants, I have dual nationality. I have an Irish passport, and Ireland is in the EU, and there’s little appetite to leave, even if the UK does so. As long as the EU survives, I’ll still have freedom of movement.

I don’t want to live in a racist country that just shot itself in the foot. Fair or not, that’s what it’s going to feel like on Friday if the vote is to leave the EU.

Supermarket shopping vs sanity

The nearest supermarket to me is a massive Tesco. The second nearest is a Lidl. I’ve taken to walking the extra five minutes to Lidl lately. Partly, it’s because the quality is often better. Partly, because it’s cheaper. Mostly, though, because it’s much less stressful.

Actually, to say Lidl is cheaper is not strictly true: at any time half the products in Tesco are on some kind of discount or multi-buy deal. Being offered a discount if you buy 72 rolls of toilet paper is just a kick in the teeth for anyone visiting on foot, though.

If you dutifully use your Clubcard each time you shop at Tesco then—in exchange for helping them build up a profile of exactly who you are—they’ll occasionally send you a booklet of coupons that, if you buy the right things at the right time and present the right coupon at the till, might save you some money. (Note, however, that the self-service till will give up and cry for help if you try to use more than two coupons in a transaction.)

The whole experience feels designed to obfuscate the true cost of anything. It might be possible to shop at Tesco more cheaply if you’re willing and able to buy and store large quantities and keep track of dozens of coupons on every visit.

I’m not, so Lidl is cheaper. And I’m pretty sure it’s cheaper anyway. But it’s also better because it’s smaller. They don’t stock everything, but they do stock about 95% of the things I buy on a regular basis. More importantly, I can find the things I’m looking for.

In Tesco, I spend ages wandering what seems like a kilometre of aisles, ablating my sanity as I strain at the edge of my brain’s pattern-matching abilities trying to locate the item I want within the bizarre ontology of the store.

In my mind, I’d expect items to be sorted according to what they are. I’d expect to find honey and maple syrup and golden syrup close together, for example. In Tesco, however, they’re sorted according to some person’s concept of how you’re supposed to use them, so honey and beef sandwich paste share a shelf (things that you spread on bread) and maple syrup is over at the other end of the shop next to brown sauce (things that you pour onto breakfast). Spices are found in about six different locations, divided according to the ethnic origin of the dishes in which they’re used. Nuts can be found among the vegetables, next to the flour, in the woo-woo ‘whole foods’ section, or with the crisps.

I come out stressed, and often empty-handed, having failed to find what I came for. And that’s why I try to avoid going into Tesco in the first place. I will never understand a mind that thinks that honey and meat paste should be classified together.

Why it’s hard to make eye contact with drivers

Transport for London are running a campaign urging cyclists to make eye contact with drivers. It’s a great idea in principle. Unfortunately, it’s not possible in practice.

Whilst I was getting my hair cut this afternoon, a TfL advert came up on the local radio station they were playing. The voiceover urged cyclists to make eye contact with drivers to ensure that they’d been seen. That’s certainly something I try to do, but it’s very difficult, and I think it’s become more difficult over the past few years.

All modern cars have tinted windscreens. I don’t think they were always so widespread, but even commercial vans have them now. There’s a legal limit on how dark the tint can be: in the UK, they must allow 75% of the light through. However, if the cabin is ambiently lit, then the driver’s face when seen from outside can at best be only 56% (75% in times 75% out) as bright as everything else.

In addition to this, the windscreen is not perpendicular to the line of sight between the driver and the person outside: in fact, the rake of the windscreen means that it is generally reflecting the (bright) sky when viewed from outside.

Between reflections and the relative darkness of the cabin, you usually can’t see much of the driver from outside in daylight. You can’t make eye contact with a person you can’t see.

That doesn’t help much, I know. But if you’re driving, be aware that people outside—cyclists and pedestrians—might very well not be able to see you, no matter how much looking, nodding, or gesticulating you do.

The scandal of the £360,000 carpets

In today’s Daily Telegraph, we learn that Members of Parliament are to get new carpets in their offices.

Portcullis House, where many MPs have their offices, is to have new carpets fitted at a cost of £360,000 to the taxpayer

That sounds scandalous and extravagant, doesn’t it? But let’s do the sums.

First, how much carpet are we talking about? Norman Baker MP asked a pertinent question in the House of Commons 2004:

… how many extra buildings and what additional square feet of office space has been acquired by the parliamentary estate in each year since 1975.

In the answer (given in metric units rather than square feet) we learn that Portcullis House, acquired in 2000, has a net internal area of 20,694 m².

Dividing £360,000 by 20,694 gives us a figure of about £17 per square metre of fitted carpet.

What does carpet cost? Office carpet seems to go for around £11 to £15 per square metre from the prices I can find online.

So £17 for carpet plus underlay plus removal and fitting seems reasonable.

Second, is it a frivolous expense? Portcullis House opened in 2001, and the carpets have not been replaced since [ibid. Telegraph]:

The carpet in Portcullis House was fitted 15 years ago, and now needs to be replaced.

So the story here is that 15-year-old carpet in an office building is being replaced at a very reasonable cost of £17 per square metre.

Be outraged about something that matters.

Skimmer, deuxième partie

Previously on Skimmer: on Sunday, your protagonist discovered a suspicious-looking whirring bezel stuck on the hacked-up front of an RBS cash machine and reported it to the operators. On Monday, he observed the same cash machine, now out of order, but continuing to sport the peculiar modification. And now, the continuation …

This evening (Tuesday), I returned to reconnoitre the ATM in question. It’s now back in service, with the funny bezel still in place.

I imagine two possibilities:

1. There is a skimmer, but RBS couldn’t spot it.
2. RBS actually fitted a replacement bezel to their cashpoint by hacking it up with a Stanley knife.

So which is it? Which kind of incompetence?

If banks can’t spot skimmers, then we’re all screwed. On the other hand, if their machines look like they’ve been nobbled even when they haven’t, how is anyone ever supposed to spot a dodgy one? There’s no good answer to this conundrum.

Because a number of people have asked: it’s the ATM on the right in front of Tesco Surrey Quays.