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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book review: “At Home: A short history of Private Life” by Bill Bryson

book_at_home_ppbkI’ve been on holiday for a week, this has meant a lot of reading! Next up is “At Home: A Short History of Private Life” by Bill Bryson. A thick book arranged thematically around the rooms in Bryson’s house, a rectory in Norfolk. The links between the various rooms and the topics discussed are sometimes tenuous, such as the one between the cellar and the Erie Canal.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Lead mining in the Yorkshire Dales

Bunting level: building, level entrance and hush

On a recent trip to the Yorkshire Dales we came across the remnants of lead mining; as with many things in the field these are blank discoveries with no indication of what they mean at the site. A very long time ago I did an OA level in geology, and I seem to have inherited an interest in industrial archaeology, so I resolved to find out more...

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2, Nurse Cherry's Cottage**I’ve moved my blog to, you can find this post here**

In a change from usual service we went to the Yorkshire Dales rather than the Lake District for our summer holiday, this is the land of my father - whose family lived, and still live for the most part around the southern edge of the Dales. We stayed in a cottage in Reeth (2, Nurse Cherry's Cottages), recently built but in the old style. The advantage of this are that it's spacious and the plumbing was not added as an afterthought. I think the cottage was advertised as sleeping up to four people, with two bathrooms and a downstairs toilet it would take 6 pretty comfortably. We are only two, so had plenty of room. We arrived in a downpour but for the rest of the week the weather was pretty good. Reeth is a small village which was once a centre for mining and farming but now is a centre for tourism - lying in the Yorkshire Dales and on the coast to coast path. It's dominated by a large central green, although there are older buildings many are quite modern but built in the same style as the older, using the local stone.

Day 1

A pleasant walk up Arkengarthdale to Langthwaite, and back along Fremington Edge Top. The walk outwards is through pasture and many narrow styles in stone walls with little gates to prevent sheep escaping. Shortly before Langthwaite there is a footbridge across the river which takes you to a short walk through woodland before climbing up through old lead mine workings up onto Fremington Edge Top. We took the route which avoided the hamlet of Booze, considering that it was so small that it was unlikely to have a good quality sign to picture ourselves besides. Nearby is Blea Barf, and at the top of the valley on the road over into Hawse is Lovely Seat, one can't help thinking that when the Ordnance Survey visited the locals had some fun.

The walk along Fremington Edge Top is dead straight along the side of the wall. I wonder whether these walls date to the time of the old iron fence posts in the Lake District - perhaps relating to some Enclosures Act. The wall runs along the edge of wild moorland to the north and after a pleasant, if not a little windswept walk you drop back down towards Reeth.


Day 2

A route from The Green Book starting at Gunnerside, heading to Muker then up Upper Swaledale towards Keld and then back towards Muker via the Pennine Way and so along the river back to Gunnerside. Highpoints were the waterfalls at the foot of Swinner Gill and Kisdon Force. Photographers will know there is a knack to photographing waterfalls such that the water appears milky rather than frozen in time by a short exposure. The problem is this requires long exposures (about 1/2 second) and this is a bit tricky to do without a tripod - a handy rock or handrail must suffice instead. Crackpot Hall was also interesting, the term Hall is rather grandiose but the views down Swaledale were spectacular. Much birdlife to be seen including a greater spotted woodpecker, dipper, spotted flycatcher, grey wagtail, plover - no photos of these since that requires patience, speedy reactions and so forth. Lapwings all over the place.

Kisdon Force

Day 3

A more restful day today: we headed down to Harrogate and the RHS Harlow Carr garden. This is horticulture, so I'll leave the details to The Inelegant Gardener. It's a fairly lengthy drive down to Harrogate from Reeth - a little under an hour and a half. My abiding memory will be of coffee and Fat Rascal in Betty's Tea Rooms, attached to the gardens but not providing a route in or out. After a morning at Harlow Carr we headed back home via Richmond: a rather smart little town on a steep hillside with a huge castle (and more waterfalls). The Market Square would be spectacular if it weren't for a flotsam of cars which spoil any photo. Sharon and I both seem to suffer from a list which prevents the photography of buildings without post-processing. A balanced diet today of Fat Rascal, sausage roll and icecream, available from the icecream shop in Reeth a mere 100 yards from our door (via shortcut).

Richmond Castle

Day 4

Back to walking, this time one of my own devising. Starting from Gunnerside we headed up Gunnerside Beck until we reached the lead workings at Melbecks Moor. There a several sets of ruined buildings and mine tailings as you head up the valley. After climbing up through the surface workings we got onto the moor top where were visible grouse, grouse grit stations (where they can pick up grit for their gizzards) and grouse butts from where they can be shot at. You have to get pretty close to grouse before they break cover. Finally, we dropped down into the valley where we got a little lost (and quite badly nettled) trying to find the path through Rowleth Wood. Once on the path through the wood, which is narrow and overgrown, we were further nettled and as I write now a couple of hours later my legs are still tingling from the knees down.

After our walk we visited the Swaledale Museum, which although small was highly informative on the local mining industry - a subject I shall return to in another blog post.

Stonebreaker, with Sharon in background

Day 5

Over to Wensleydale for our walk today (from the Green Book), from Bainbridge up to Semer Water (a rare natural lake in the Dales) and then onwards and back via the Roman Road. The Roman Road was very straight, and as usual somewhat disappointing - it requires a great deal of imagination to call up the requisite Roman soldiers. The weather was rather better than yesterday which was overcast and prone to the odd shower; today it is a little cool out of the sun.

Wensleydale from the Roman Road

Day 6

Final day, today we went back to Wensleydale for a walk from the Green Book starting at Aysgarth Falls and taking in Bolton Castle. The Falls are a bit of a disappointment, the approved viewing locations are a little distant from the falls and are rather confined. Richmond falls offer something similar, with slightly peaty-brown water cascading over flat slabs, but with much better access. Bolton Castle, on the other hand is rather impressive, visible on the valley side for many miles it is a solid, square chunk of masonry. It was built for Richard de Scrope in 1379, and is quite substantially intact.

Bolton Castle

The Yorkshire Dales are quite different from the Lake District: the peaks are less peaky, the valleys wider and more gentle, although the moors can be bleak when the wind blows and the clouds come down. There are also a lot of picturesque waterfalls, not in the style of the Lake District which tend to be frenzied plummets down ravines but cascades over broad rocky shelves. Villages like Hawes and Reeth can get quite busy as the day goes by but out walking we scarcely saw a soul. The stone walls are all pierced with small stone stiles, which have been the distinguishing feature of this holiday.

Stone Stile

More photos here.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Book review: “In defence of History” by R.J. Evans

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evansI've been interested in the history of science for some time, as a result of hanging around with historians on twitter I have been led to historiography - the study of history and its methods. This has brought me to "In Defence of History" by Richard J. Evans. It provides an opportunity to compare the ways of the historian with those of my area of science.
In his introduction Evans makes clear the book is a response to postmodernist criticism of historical practice. I was also amused to note that he cites a source as saying that historians were resistant to philosophising about their subject and criticism of their methods. As a scientist it sometimes feels as if other academic disciplines, such as philosophy and history, are on a crusade to "help" science with their criticism - this has never felt at all supportive or helpful. What this book makes clear is that one shouldn't lump all such outsiders into one hostile blob!
It becomes clear through the book that postmodernism is not really a single thing. The core is the idea that all things are text, and that an external, objective world is less relevant - this idea originated with linguists and philosophers who were relatively unconcerned with the external world. As a somewhat hostile outsider Evans probably does not provide the best introduction to postmodernism, although he does acknowledge that ideas from postmodernism have been useful in the study of history and historical study.
As a by-product of this defence Evans gives a clear survey of what history is and what it claims to do.
The book begins with a history of history: raising first pre-modern styles of history, such as the chronicle and the morality tale of Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". Leopold von Ranke is cited as the father of the modern method, that's to say the inspection of contemporary documents in the historical record using them to identify causes for historical events and "facts". Here the distinction is made between the primary sources and secondary sources. For Ranke the key subject of history was politics, a view that held sway for many year but more recently has been receding. The key to the historical method therefore is hunting down original documentation and reading it with a mind to its original purpose and the context of other documents of that period with a care not to be caught out by changes in language and unspoken purposes.
Evans also identifies the crisis in history following the First World War, a stark reminder to historians that predicting the future was tricky although Evans does not sign up to the idea that history is at all about predicting the future. There's an interesting parallel here between Toynbee's "A study of history" which tried explicitly to make laws of history for predicting the future and Asimov’s Foundation series of novels, which are based on precisely this idea. Predicting future events sets a high barrier for successful prediction, some fields of science face similar challenges such as in seismology - we can say an awful lot about earthquakes but exactly where and when are not amongst the things we can say. For these fields it's typical to talk about the probabilities of events and the statistics of large numbers of events.
One thing that struck me was the statement that history was a scientific, imaginative and literary exercise, the first two are things that a scientist would sign up to for their own field immediately, but literary? For sciences such as the one I trained in, physics, students are scarcely asked to string words together. Exam questions are largely a case of putting a sequence of calculations together. My own writing is a reflection of this lack of training.
At one point Evans spends time trying to motivate the idea that history is a science, this seems to me an empty discussion - once you've decided whether or not history is a science what are you going to do? Put on a labcoat?
Since Ranke's time history has diversified immensely with the increasing focus on non-political history such as social history and an appreciation of a wider range of themes , I find this liberating since my interest in history is primarily in "people like me", therefore social and scientific, rather than political.
In contrast to any scientific research I know the political beliefs, defined broadly to include race, gender and sexuality, have a strong bearing on historical research with fields driven to support currently political agendas and the political leanings of the researcher a subject of comment. The same goes for nationality with many European historians focused very much on their own nations and with a distorted view of their importance. It's very difficult to find parallels in scientific research, to stretch a point you can perhaps look at genetic and brain imaging studies of homosexuality. There is a degree to which there exist national styles of scientific research which have varied with place and time but this research driven by the political agendas of the researcher feels alien to a scientist.
When doing battle with the postmodernists the work of a scientist is easier than that of a historian, since ultimately the usefulness of science is measured by tangible outputs, by impact. If postmodernism increases tangible outputs then it is welcomed into the fold, if it doesn't (and I don't believe it does) then it isn't. Science is tied down by reality which is always there for a return visit, with new methods, in case of dispute. History on the other hand is always flowing past, with no chance of return.
An interesting note on style is the forthright criticism of other historians through the book, and also in the afterword where he addresses his critics in detail and at length. This type of writing is rarely seen in science, that's not to say the thoughts do not exist just that such discussions are left to the bar, or other informal locations.
I found this book immensely thought provoking because it describes the inner workings of history from the point of view of a practioner, making a striking contrast with my own workings as a scientist.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Two Cultures

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It feels that there are two cultures growing up in the world of work, that of the public and the private sectors. If you believe reports in the news, public sector workers have gold-plated pensions and vast salaries for which they do very little, and the private sector is filled with the venial moneygrabbers who can provide no service to the public, and are actively intent on harming them.

I worked in the almost-public university sector, and now in the private sector – albeit in a very large company. The similarities are quite striking: both are subjected to continual change as the result of the appointment of a new ruling clique, and often operate in Byzantine bureaucratic systems.

These days, in the private sector, my tenure is clearly not secure and never has been, despite continuing success the number of people employed in my company has decreased by over a half since 2000. I receive a bonus, or variable-pay, it is variable and it is not pensionable. 

Last week many public sector workers were on strike over their pensions.

Comparisons with private sector pensions miss the point: in the public sector 90% of full-time workers have a pension, in the private sector only 43% of the full-time workforce have a pension [source]. The glib answer to this is that we should attempt to improve the pensions of all workers. However, we should understand why pensions are not a given in the private sector.  

Consider the nature of the organisations involved: the UK government has been around for hundreds of years, and we can anticipate it will do so similarly for hundreds of years. It also has a good credit record, if we are owed money by the government there is a good chance that we’ll get because at any time the government has a sizeable tax base on which it can call. As employees of the government we can expect substantial job security. A pension plan based on 1/80ths of income accrued per year actually seems a plausible bet: you can still expect to serve a substantial fraction of that with one public employer. It’s not the same in the private sector.

For most companies 40 years is an unimaginable period of time, as it is for their employees. In 40 years many successful companies will have lived out their lives, only a few such as the one I belong to, last longer. In the recent past private pension funds have collapsed leaving their members with nothing. As a university lecturer I could quite reasonably look forward to being employed as a university lecturer for the rest of my working life. As an industrial research scientist my time horizon is about 5 years, and actually it is entirely plausible that we will all be called to a meeting tomorrow to discover that the site I work on is to be closed.

That’s the deal for big organisations, public and private but there is a third group: Have you tried to get a plumber, or similar skilled, self-employed worker recently? If you have you’ll have found that they’re remarkably available at the moment, that’s because they have no work and when they have no work they don’t get paid. The same is true for many small businesses and self-employed people. It’s not like my job, or any job in the public sector where there may be a pay freeze for for a few years. For these people recession and a drop in the GDP doesn’t just mean a pay freeze, it means a substantial drop in income – that’s what a drop in GDP is, it really means that a whole load of people are getting noticeably less than they did the previous year. The recent recession in the UK led to a drop in GDP of around 5%. The effects on me, in a big company, and those in the public sector are relatively small, so the impact on this other group are larger than the headline.

Meanwhile the company I work for is attempting changes to our pension scheme: a few years ago the final salary scheme was closed to new entrants, this year they have proposed to close the scheme for current members. The company’s stated policy is to go towards a defined contributions scheme, although that hasn’t happened yet. For people like me this means an expected loss in the value of their pension of around 20%. So, despite some misgivings as to the use to which they put their political fund (of which I will attempt to opt-out), I have joined the union.

Power to the people!

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Computational Photography


** I have moved my blog to, you can find this post here**

Lytro, Inc, a technology spin-off company founded by Ren Ng, have been in the news recently with their announcement of a re-focusable camera: take one “image”, and change where the focal plane lies after the fact. This is illustrated in the images above, generated from a single shot from the prototype camera. As you move from left to right across this sequence you can see the focus shifting from the front left of image to back right.I saw this work a few years ago at the mighty SIGGRAPH conference, it comes out of a relatively new field of “computational photography”.

All photography is computational to a degree. In the past the computation was done using lenses and chemicals, different chemical mixes and processing times led to different colour effects in the final image. Nowadays we can do things digitally, or in new combinations of physical and digital.

These days your digital camera will already be doing significant computation on any image. The CCD sensor in a camera is fundamentally a photon-counting device – it doesn’t know anything about colour. Colour is obtained by putting a Bayer mask over the sensor, a cunning array of red, green and blue filters. It requires computation to unravel the effect of this filter array to make a colour image. Your camera will also make a white balance correction to take account of lighting colour. Finally, the manufacturer may apply image sharpening and colour enhancement, since colour is a remarkably complex thing there are a range of choices about how to present measured colours. These days compact cameras often come with face recognition, a further level of computation.

The Lytro system works by placing a microlens array in the optical train, the prototype device (described here) used a 296x296 array of lenses focusing onto a 16 million pixel medium format CCD chip, just short 40mmx40mm in size. The array of microlenses means means that for each pixel on the sensor you can work out the direction in which it was travelling, rather than just where it landed. For this reason this type of photography is sometimes called 4D or light-field photography. The 4 dimensions are the 2 dimensions locating where on the sensor the photon lands, and the direction in which it travels, described by another two dimensions. Once you have this truckload of data you can start doing neat tricks, such as changing the aperture and focal position of the displayed image, you can even shift the image viewpoint.

As well as refocusing there are also potentially benefits in being able to take images before accurate autofocus is achieved and then using computation to recover a focused image.

The work leading to Lytro was done by Ren Ng in Marc Levoy’s group at Stanford, home of the Stanford Multi-Camera Array: dispense with all that fiddly microlens stuff: just strap together 100 separate digital video cameras! This area can also result in terrible things being done to innocent cameras, for example in this work on deblurring images by fluttering the shutter, half a camera has been hacked off! Those involved have recognized this propensity and created the FrankenCamera.

Another example of computational photography is in high dynamic range imaging, normal digital images are acquired in a limited dynamic range: the ratio of the brightest thing they can show to the darkest thing they can show in a single image. The way around this is to take multiple images with different exposures and then combine together. This seems to lead, rather often, to some rather “over cooked” shots. However, this is a function of taste, fundamentally there is nothing wrong with this technique. The reason that such processing occurs is that although we can capture very high dynamic range images, displaying them is tricky so we have to look for techniques to squish the range down for viewing. There’s more on high dynamic range imaging here on the Cambridge in Colour website, which I recommend for good descriptions of all manner of things relating to photography.

I’m not sure whether the Lytro camera will be a commercial success. Users of mass market cameras are not typically using the type of depth-of-field effect shown at the top of the post (and repeated ad nauseum on the Lytro website). However, the system does offer other benefits, and it may be that ultimately it ends up in cameras without us really being aware of it. It’s possible Lytro will never make a camera, but instead license the technology to the big players like Canon, Panasonic or Nikon. As it stands we are part way through the journey from research demo to product.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Universities and knowledge

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The Higher Education White Paper is published today, in common with all other commentators in this area I have not read it either. One thing which seems to have attracted comment is the idea that there should be a market in higher education. The academics don’t seem to approve.

But knowledge doesn’t belong to universities. Universities provide qualifications, accreditation, and they provide personalised teaching.

For many students, such as myself 20 years ago, a university education was a given: it was the middle class way of easing myself out of the parental home and the gateway to the career I have now – first as an academic and now as an industrial research scientist. It was available to a relatively small fraction of the population. Things have changed now, increasingly university is seen as the gateway to most careers. Students do not go to university for the love of knowledge, they go because they must to get the careers they want. Pragmatically many careers do not require three years of post-18 education but we are manoeuvring ourselves in to a position where we say they must.

Students will no doubt see themselves in a market – even before this white paper they were being asked to commit significant future income in paying for three years of education, they are foregoing three years of paying work for the promise of a better future. If I were a student I’d be a bit peeved that the university sector were not at least showing willing in making that burden lighter.

Universities don’t give us knowledge – that’s down to us as individuals to hunt out, universities give us the tools to do that and the bit of paper that says we can do that.

Book review: Map of a Nation

**I’ve moved my blog to , this post can be found here**

ordnance"Map of a Nation" by Rachel Hewitt is the story of the Ordnance Survey from its conception following the Jacobite Uprising in Scotland in 1745 to the completion of the First Series maps in 1870. As such it interlinks heavily with previous posts I have made concerning the French meridian survey, Maskelyne's measurements of the weight of the earth at Schiehallion, Joseph Banks at the Royal Society, William Smith's geological map of Britain and Gerard Mercator.

The core of the Ordnance Survey's work was the Triangulation Survey, the construction of a set of triangles across the landscape made by observing the angles between landmarks (or triangulation points) ultimately converted to distances. This process had been invented in the 16th century, however it had been slow to catch on since it was slow and required specialist equipment and knowledge. Chromatic abberration in telescopes was also a factor - if your target is surrounded with multi-colour shadows - which one do you pick to measure? The triangles are large, up to tens of miles along a side, so within these triangles the Interior Survey was made which details the actual features on the ground - tied down by the overarching Triangulation Survey.

A second component of this survey is the baseline measurement - a precise measurement of the length of one side of one triangle made, to put it crudely, by placing rulers end to end over a straight between the terminal triangulation points.

The Triangulation Survey is in contrast to "route" or "transverse" surveys which measure distances along roads by means of a surveyor's wheel, note significant points along the roadside. There is scope for errors in location to propagate. Some idea of the problem can be gained from this 1734 map showing an overlay of six "pre-triangulation" maps of Scotland, the coastline is all over the place – with discrepancies of 20 miles or so in places.

The motivation for the Ordnance Survey mapping is complex. Its origins were with David Watson in the poorly mapped Scotland of the early part of the 18th century, and the Board of Ordnance – a branch of the military concerned with logistics. There was also a degree of competition with the French, who had completed their triangulation survey for the Carte de Cassini and were in the process of conducting the meridian survey to define the metre. The survey of England and Wales was completed after the Irish Triangulation and after the Great Trigonometric Survey of India - both the result of more pressing military and administrative needs. As the survey developed in England more and more uses were found for it. Indeed late in the process the Poor Law Commission were demanding maps of even higher resolution than those the Ordnance Survey initially proved, in order to provide better sanitation in cities.

The Survey captured popular imagination, the measurements of the baseline at Hounslow Heath were a popular attraction. This quantitative surveying was also in the spirit of the Enlightenment. There was significant involvement of the Royal Society via its president, Joseph Banks, and reports on progress were regularly published through the Society. Over the years after the foundation of the Ordnance Survey in 1791 accurate surveying for canals and railways was to become very important. In the period before the founding of the Ordnance Survey surveying was a skill, related to mathematics, which a gentleman was supposed to possess and perhaps apply to establishing the contents of his estate.

Borda's repeating circle, used in the French meridian survey to measure angles, found its counterpart in Jesse Ramsden's "Great Theodolite", a delicate instrument 3 feet across and weighing 200lbs. The interaction with the French through the surveying of Britain is intriguing. Prior to the French Revolution a joint triangulation survey had been conducted to establish exactly the distance between the Paris and Greenwich meridians, with the two instruments pitted against each other. There was only a 7 foot discrepancy in the 26 miles the two teams measured by triangulation between Dover and Calais. In 1817, less than two years after the Battle of Waterloo a Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Biot, was in the Shetlands with an English survey team extending the meridian measurements in the United Kingdom.

The accuracy achieved in the survey was impressive, only one baseline measurement is absolutely required to convert the angular distances in the triangulation survey into distances but typically other baselines are measured as a check. The primary baseline for the Triangulation Survey was measured at Hounslow Heath, a second baseline measured at Romney Marsh showed a discrepancy of only 4.5 inches in 28532.92 feet, a further baseline measured at Lough Foyle, in Northern Ireland found a discrepancy of less than 5 inches in 41,640.8873 feet.

The leaders of the Ordnance Survey were somewhat prone to distraction by the terrain they surveyed across, William Roy, for example, wrote on the Roman antiquities of Scotland. Whilst Thomas Colby started on a rather large survey of the life and history of Ireland. Alongside these real distractions were the more practical problems of the naming of places: toponymy, particularly difficult in Wales and Ireland where the surveyors did not share the language of the natives.

Overall a fine book containing a blend of the characters involved in the process, the context of the time, the technical details and an obvious passion for maps.


In writing this blog post I came across some interesting resources:

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Weekly Rage

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Every week I listen to the Sunday programme on Radio 4, largely through inertia. Most weeks it manages to wind me up. I was a bit worried that I may be repeating myself here, so regular is the rage that I thought I must have written about it before. It turns out I have, but on a different topic.

The specific cause of my ire this week is the Church of England, the Equalities act and the inadmissibility of gay bishops. Forced by the Equality Act 2010 the Church has sought legal advice on how it should treat its gay clergy, it turns out they think that they may be obliged to accept gay bishops but that they can demand that they are celibate. You can read the BBC report here.

Why should this concern me, as a British atheist? Several reasons:

  • the Church of England is an established church, it takes (unelected) part in our legislation through the Lords Spiritual, it has a special position in teaching our children;
  • the Church of England claims moral authority, it specifically claims that it’s views on morality are superior to mine because they are faith-based. See the Bishop of Oxford’s comments this week on the Today programme;
  • I am ethnically Christian and English, so their position reflects badly on me;
  • the church’s position puts us all on shaky ground when we argue against inequality in other communities.

The Church could take a principled position that any group should be able to follow it’s faith: that the BNP should be allowed to exclude non-Caucasians from their number, for example. It could take the principled position that it should be subject to the same laws as the rest of us, without exemptions. It choses to do neither of these things, it choses instead to lobby for exemptions from the law and work out the minimum they can get away with in complying with that watered-down law.

What is the Church trying to tell us through this position? That the gays are OK, but not for them and not for positions of power?

Can you imagine a company, such as the one that I work for, demanding of it’s employee’s that they not only reveal their sexual orientation but also their sexual activity and if they confessed to the wrong sort of sexual activity they should be denied promotion?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

“Ridiculously long vacations”?

Lord Adonis, former education minister, is reported here as saying universities should:

…just abandoning these ridiculously long vacations … That only really makes sense as far as I can see if you want to travel the world or you need to get a job…

This is to misunderstand what happens during the long university vacation – the teaching staff, who are also research staff are getting on with doing research or, more painfully, trying to get funding for research. His point is not entirely without merit: universities have a distinctly schizophrenic attitude to teaching. If, as I have, you have applied for a number of lectureship positions you will learn that the time in interview dedicated to discussing your teaching experience, aspirations and ideas is approaching zero. Status in a university department depends largely on your research achievements, not your teaching achievements. This means there is scope in the market for universities that make teaching their priority, rather than research.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Book Review: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information



**I’m now blogging at, please adjust your links – this post can be found here**

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” by Edward R. Tufte is a classic in the field of data graphics which I’ve been meaning to read for a while, largely because the useful presentation of data in graphic form is a core requirement for a scientist who works with experimental data. This is both for ones own edification, helping to explore data, and also to communicate with an audience.

There’s been something of a resurgence in quantitative data graphics recently with the Gapminder project led by Hans Gosling, and the work of David McCandless and Nathan Yau at FlowingData.


The book itself is quite short but beautifully produced. It starts with a little history on the “data graphic”, by “data graphic” Tufte specifically means a drawing that is intended to transmit data about quantitative information in contrast to a diagram which might be used to illustrate a method or facilitate a calculation. On this definition data graphics developed surprisingly late, during the 18th century. Tufte cites in particular work by William Playfair, who was an engineer and political economist who is credited with the invention of line chart, bar chart and pie chart which he used to illustrate economic data. There appears to have been a fitful appearance of what might have been a data graphic in the 10th century but to be honest it more has the air of a schematic diagram.

Also referenced are the data maps of Charles Joseph Minard, the example below shows the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in it’s 1812 Russian campaign. The tan line shows the army’s advance on Moscow, it’s width proportional to the number of men remaining. The black line shows their retreat from Moscow. Along the bottom is a graph showing the temperature of the cold Russian winter at dates along their return.

800px-MinardInterestingly adding data to maps happened before the advent of the more conventional x-y plot, for example in Edmund Halley’s map of 1686 showing trade winds and monsoons.

Next up is “graphic integrity”: how graphics can be deceptive, this effect is measured using a Lie Factor: the size of the effect shown in graphic divided by the size of the effect in data. Particularly heroic diagrams achieve Lie Factors as large as 59.4. Tufte attributes much of this not to malice but to the division of labour in a news office where graphic designers rather than the owners and explainers of the data are responsible for the design of graphics and tend to go for the aesthetically pleasing designs rather than quantitatively accurate design.


Tufte then introduces his core rules, based around the idea of data-ink – that proportion of the ink on a page which is concerned directly with showing quantitative data:

  • Above all else show the data
  • Maximize the data-ink ratio
  • Erase non-data-ink
  • Erase redundant date-ink
  • Revise and edit.

A result of this is that some of the elements of graph which you might consider essential, such as the plot axes, are cast aside and replaced by alternatives. For example the dash-dot plot where instead of solid axes dashes are used which show a 1-D projection of the data:


Or the range-frame plot where the axes are truncated at the limits of the data, actually to be fully Tufte the axes labels would be made at the ends of the data range, not to some rounded figure:


Both of these are examples are from Adam Hupp’s etframe library for Python. Another route to making Tufte-approved data graphics is by using the Protovis library which was designed very specifically with Tufte’s ideas in mind.

Tufte describes non-data-ink as “chartjunk”, several things attract his ire – in particular the moiré effect achieved by patterns of closely spaced lines used for filling areas, neither is he fond of gridlines except of the lightest sort. He doesn’t hold with colour or patterning in graphics, preferring shades of grey throughout. His argument against colour is that there is no “natural” sequence of colours which link to quantitative values.

What’s striking is that the styles recommended by Tufte are difficult to achieve with standard Office software, and even for the more advanced graphing software I use the results he seeks are not the out-of-the-box defaults and take a fair bit of arcane fiddling to reach.  Not only this, some of his advice contradicts the instructions of learned journals on the production of graphics.

Two further introductions I liked were Chernoff faces which use the human ability to discriminate faces to load a graph with meaning, and sparklines - tiny inline graphics showing how a variable varies in time without any of the usual graphing accoutrements: - in this case one I borrowed from Joe Gregorio’s BitWorking.

In the end Tufte has given me some interesting ideas on how to present data, in practice I fear his style is a little too austere for my taste.There’s a quote attributed to Blaise Pascal:

I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.

I suspect the same is true of data graphics.


Mrs SomeBeans has been referring to Tufte as Tufty, who UK readers of a certain age will remember well.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Choosing to die

Terry Pratchett was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and has made a programme, Choosing to die, about his enquiries into assisted suicide. It's pretty difficult viewing: Pratchett visits the widow of a Belgian writer who, like him, had Alzheimer's disease and had chosen to end his life. He visits a former taxidriver in a hospice with motor neuron disease, who had chosen not to die. The bulk of the programme is spent with two men who went to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, where they were helped to die. Andrew, only a couple of years older than me, with multiple sclerosis and Peter, born in 1939, with motor neuron disease. The death of Peter is shown in full. It's not this that is my abiding memory though, that will be of the courage and dignity of the wife and mother of these two dying men. Neither woman wants their loved one to go.

The striking thing for me was how both men appeared to be heading off to Switzerland before their time, for fear of not being able to go when they felt they had to. The current legislation seems to be wilfully sadistic, obliging early death for those that chose whilst holding out the threat of prosecution to the family.

The Swiss are allowed to be helped to die at home, whilst foreigners go to die in a small blue apartment in an industrial estate. Incongruously the shallow steps to the front door are protected by black and yellow safety tape: because if you're going to die you don't want to fall over and crack your head open. This seems a great pity since in the background you could see the snow clad Swiss Alps, a glorious place to die.

A number of members of my close family have died over the last ten years. I don't think we're an unusual family, we've discussed assisted dying, often in the aftermath of a death. My paternal grandparents both died in their nineties in retirement homes, very much reduced from their previous vigorous selves, moving gradually to death. My maternal grandparents both died at home, quite suddenly. My stepfather died at home in a hospital bed, cared for by my mum with the support of nurses. He'd known he was going to die since cancer stopped him eating a couple of months earlier. Mum is the bravest person I know.

The consensus in the family appears to be for assisted dying but I think we all know privately that as the law stands now it will not happen. We will be left to face what lingering or sudden deaths nature serves up to us, in the knowledge that modern medicine has got so much better at keeping us alive but not necessarily living.

This is one of the few places where my atheism collides with the established church: any time the right to die is discussed it appears to be a Christian or one of the Lords Spiritual who is called upon to make the case against: often citing the idea that my life is a gift from God, and that I have no right to dispose of it. Clearly for an atheist this is an argument discarded in a moment.

I may die in an accident tomorrow. I may hang on to the absolute end waiting to see what is over the the next ridge. Or maybe, when I am old and have had enough, I'll want to go at a time and place of my choosing.

How I choose to die is none of your business - I won't presume to choose for you.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

How do I setup my own website?

A post in the style of random notes today: I’ve been making a new website for The Inelegant Gardener – there’s a teaser here, I’ve done this before for the Chester Liberal Democrats. I thought it might be handy to provide a compact description of the process as a reminder to me and a warning to others…

The steps are as follows:

  1. Getting a domain name
  2. Finding a web host
  3. Making your website
  4. Going live

1. Getting a domain name

The domain name is the www bit. You can put your domain name registration with your web host but conventional wisdom is that it’s better to separate the two. I chose based on a twitter recommendation. Once you’ve chosen your domain name, you get access to a simple control panel which can be used to redirect your domain name to another site (such as this one), set up e-mail redirection and so forth. Mine gives me access to DNS Settings but I left these alone. When the time comes you’ll need to set the names servers to those provided by your web host.

2. Finding a web host

A web host is where your website will live. In the end I settled with EvoHosting for a few of reasons: they have live status updates for their servers, they have a twitter account and mentions of evohosting on twitter do not reveal any frustrated users, a search for the term “evohosting is crap” reveals no worrying hits in Google! They’re also reassuring slightly more expensive than the cheapest hosting solutions which seem to suffer from the “X is crap” syndrome. I selected a scheme that allows me to host several sites.

3. Making your website

You can make a website using Wordpress – the blogging software. Building a website is a question of managing content – and for a small site Wordpress does this nicely and is free. You don’t have to be blogging to use it – you can just make a set of static pages. I understand that for bigger sites Joomla is good. Wordpress is a combination of a PHP application talking to a SQL database. I found a passing familiarity with SQL databases quite handy, not so much to write queries but just to know the basics of accounts and tables.

Wordpress handles the mechanics of your website, what goes where, posting and making pages whilst the “theme” determines appearance. I’ve used the Atahualpa theme for my two websites so far – it’s pretty flexible, although if you want to put anything top-right in the logo area I’d find a good reason not to - I’ve spent days trying to do it to my satisfaction! For debugging your own website and snooping into others the developer tools available on all major browsers are very handy. I use Google Chrome, for which the Window Resizer and MeasureIt extensions are useful. Window Resizer allows you to test your site at different screen sizes, and MeasureIt measures the size in pixels of screen elements.

I’ve found Paint .NET useful for wrangling images, it’s either the old Windows Paint program on steroids or a very limited Photoshop.

For my efforts I have created the website locally, on my own PC, before transferring it to web hosting. I’m not sure if this is standard practice but it seemed a better idea than potentially thrashing around in public as you learnt to build your website. To do this I installed xampplite, this gives my PC web serving capabilities and provides everything needed to run Wordpress –except Wordpress which you need to download separately.

Wordpress can be extended by plugins, and I’ve found I can achieve most the functionality I’ve wanted by searching out the appropriate plugin. Here are a few I’m using:

  1. Contact Form 7 – to create forms
  2. Drop cap shortcode – to easily add drop caps (big letters) to posts and pages.
  3. Dynamic Widgets – to put different widgets on different pages
  4. NextGEN Gallery – more advanced photo gallery software
  5. Simple Page Ordering – allows you to shuffle the order pages appear in your static menus, which is a bit tricky in basic Wordpress
  6. WP-dtree – a dynamic tree structure for showing the blog archive, as found in Blogger.
  7. WP Maintenance Mode – for hiding your site whilst you’re fiddling with it!
  8. Wordpress Mobile Pack – a switcher for making your blog more readable if someone arrives using a mobile browser

Since Wordpress is a very heavily used platform there’s a lot of help around, you identify Wordpress sites by looking in the site footer, or viewing the page source (Wordpress sites tend to have references to files starting “wp-“)

4. Going live

I must admit I find the process of moving a site from my own machine to a web server the most complicated bit of the process – you can see the instructions on the Wordpress site here. The basic idea is to change the base URL for your website to the target address then copy the pages (zipped them all up before upload) and the database (using phpmyadmin import/export) of the Wordpress installation to the web host. If you want to keep your local copy running then you need to take a copy before changing the base URL and load it back up once you’ve done moving. Things that caught me out this time: I had to use MySQL to create a database into which to import the database, and it wasn’t enough to create a user, I also needed to attach it to the appropriate account, and I had to save the settings on the permalinks for pages to show up. Finally, I also had some typed links in my website, which needed manually adjusting (although you can do this automatically in MySQL).

I wish I knew a bit more CSS, my current technique for fine tuning appearance involves a lot of rather ignorant typing, a bit more knowledge of good graphic design wouldn’t go amiss either!

This is the way I did it – I’d be interested in any suggestions for improvements.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The New College of the Humanities

AC Grayling is fronting the formation of a new private institution, The New College of the Humanities (NCH) providing degree level education, based in London and charging £18k per year. The degrees will be awarded by the University of London, under an existing scheme, the University of London International Programmes, the NCH simply being a new supplier.

The New College of Humanities is heading for the prestige market with its headline fees of £18k per year, a list of celebrity professors, a Bloomsbury location and a staff to student ratio of 1:10. It's clear from the supporting material that the celebrity professors will not be providing all of the teaching. The novelty here is that the NCH will be a private institution. The University of Buckingham has been plugging away quietly for the last 30 years or so as the UK's only private university, it is now getting increasing company. Buckingham has achieved very good student approval ratings, and has been innovative in the way it delivers degrees, managing to offer degree courses at around £18k, so it's going for a different unique selling point.

Returning to the NCH: as usual for stories involving universities in the UK, a comparison to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge must be made by commentators in the press (here and here, for example). These should be ignored as fatuous and ill-conceived - there's much more to universities in the UK than Oxford and Cambridge.

I've been rather bemused by the reaction to NCH on twitter by the people I follow, they generally have the character of "How dare a private university be created". This is bizarre to me, the thesis that some big names should endow an institution with prestige is wobbly, however opposing the idea that people should be free to decide how to spend their money on how they attain their degree seems to me rather illiberal. To cover some of the points thrown around:
  1. It's not a research university. Much is made of the research / teaching link, in my experience Russell Group universities recruit lecturers on the basis of research potential (or achievement) rather than any teaching ability or teaching qualification. Having done both I can't help thinking that if I'd spent more time learning and doing teaching I'd be better at teaching. 
  2. It'll be like Jamie's University, a reference to Jamie's School where celebrities were sent to teach some of our more difficult pupils with hilarious consequences. In a way we already operate this system when we recruit our top-flight researchers to teach.
  3. The professoriate are not ethnically or gender diverse. Well neither are our current institutions!
  4. It teaches to the University of London syllabus, which is unsurprising since that who's awarding the degree! 
  5. It's narrowly parasitic, in the sense that it is taking advantage of the University of London's "public" facilities for free. This is contradicted by statements by both the University of London and the NCH, it will pay for facilities it uses.
  6. It's broadly parasitic. This seems to be based on the idea that people trained with public money should only serve public institutions. Not sure where this puts people trained abroad, coming to the UK, or even worse those trained here and emigrating or myself - trained by public funds and working in a private company. It does sound like indentured slavery to me. I don't buy the idea that the UK is short of people capable of teaching at degree level.
  7. They professoriate are doing it for money. Take a look at professorial salaries in the current institutions - £80k a year is not at all bad, they're already doing it for money. 
  8. It only teaches humanities, no science. My experience is that outside the Oxbridge college system the intermingling of disciplines in universities is poor, particularly across the great divide.
  9. A GP in the neighbourhood offers complementary medicine.
  10. It's straightforward evil because private money is involved. 
There is still a "to do" list for NCH:
  • they need to finalise their relationship with University of London;
  • they need to fill a large part of the teaching roster; 
  • they need to demonstrate the £18k per year price point will attract sufficient students to be economically viable;
I also see it having little wider significance to the teaching of humanities in the UK.

I must admit I quite like the idea of teaching degree level science to students at a 1:10 staff to student ratio without having to worry about all that grant application stuff - when do we get the New College of Science?

In summary, the NCH is a novel proposition based on a premise whose value is to be established - it's ultimately about how other people wish to spend their money and, in the absence of any obvious harm to others, they should be left to get on with it. We should be welcoming new ideas in providing degree level education: like this initiative, the Open University and the University of Buckingham, not trying to put them down at birth.

Some background on Cambridge Colleges, teaching and tuition fees by me.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

House of Lords Reform

At the 2010 General Election nearly 90% of us voted for parties enthusiastic for an elected House of Lords. The Conservatives said in their manifesto:

"We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords"

The Liberal Democrats said in their manifesto:

"Replace the House of Lords with a fully-elected second chamber with considerably fewer members than the current House."

And Labour said in their manifesto:

"We will ensure that the hereditary principle is removed from the House of Lords. Further democratic reform to create a fully elected Second Chamber will then be achieved in stages."

This is also reflected in the Coalition Agreement:

"We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation."

The reasons for this unanimity is several-fold:

  1. There is a current pressing problem of overcrowding of the House of Lords. This arises because although there is a mechanism for appointing Lords there is no mechanism for retiring them, as a consequence Britain has one of the largest legislatures in the world relative to the population. The convention in recent years has been to add members such that the composition of the house reflects the proportion of votes for each party at the most recent general election - with no exit route this is unsustainable.
  2. The British scheme of appointing a second chamber is almost unique in western nations, with only Canada following suit, it’s wholly appointed nature raises serious questions of democratic legitimacy. Attempts to make the composition match recent elections are a recognition of this lack of legitimacy but are an inadequate solution to the problem.
  3. The appointed nature of the House of Lords leads to transparency issues. It serves in part as an honours system for services rendered to political parties as well as a working revision chamber. Although the current composition contains 23% crossbenchers it is still very substantially a political chamber.
  4. The current average attendance in the House of Lords is around 388, nearly 20% of members only attend once or twice a year.

The Labour government made a start on House of Lords reform by removing the voting rights of all but 92 of the hereditary peers with an intention of moving to a House of Lords with a larger elected component. These subsequent changes ran into the sands of complex parliamentary procedures and an obstinate upper House.

The proposals put forward by Nick Clegg, backed by David Cameron, are for a second chamber containing 300 members elected using a proportional system based on large constituencies. The proposal is to elect one third of the house at each general election with members elected for 15 years but no possibility of re-election. The draft bill includes provision for 20% of the house to be appointed but there is a consultation with the option that the house be 100% elected.

These proposals are evolutionary: the legislative powers of the House of Lords remaining as now; an elected house is only attained after 15 years and the membership will only be 25% smaller than the current active membership.

I look forward to the parties at Westminster fulfilling their commitments to an elected second house!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The House of Lords by numbers

Reform is in the air for the House of Lords, to be fair reform has been in the air for large parts of the last hundred years. Currently reform comes in the form of a proposal put forward by Nick Clegg and backed by David Cameron – you can see the details here. It comes in the context of all three main Westminster parties supporting a largely elected House of Lords in their 2010 General Election manifestos.

The purpose of this post is not to go through the proposals in detail but simply to provide some charts on appointments to the House of Lords over the years. The current composition of the House is shown in the pie-chart below:


The membership of the House of Lords currently numbers 789, I have excluded the handful of members from UKIP, DUP, UUP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru since they are too few to show up in such a chart.

The website provides a handy list of peers in an easily readable format, this list includes data such as when they were appointed, what party they belong to, what name they have chosen and when they left and whether they used to be an MP. We can plot the number of appointments each year:HoLTotalByYear

I’ve highlighted election years in red, as you can see election years are popular for the appointment of new members, and it would seem many of those appointed in such years are former MPs, as shown in the graph below:


But to which parties do these appointees belong? This question is answered below:


I hope this provides a useful backdrop to subsequent discussions on reform.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

More news from the shed…


In the month of May I seem to find myself playing with maps and numbers.

To the uninvolved this may appear to be rather similar to my earlier “That’s nice dear”, however the technology involved here is quite different.

This post is about extracting the results from the local elections held on 5th May from the Cheshire West and Chester website and displaying them as a map. I could have manually transcribed the results from the website, this would probably be quicker, but where’s the fun in that?

The starting point for this exercise was noticing that the results pages have a little icon at the bottom saying “OpenElectionData”. This was part of an exercise to make local election results more easily machine-readable in order to build a database of results from across the country, somewhat surprisingly there is no public central record of local council election results. The technology used to provide machine access to the results is known as RDF (standing for Resource Description Framework), this is a way of providing “meaning” to web pages for machines to understand - this is related to the talk of the semantic web. The good folks at Southampton University have provided a browser which allows you to inspect the RDF contents of a webpage. I used this to get a human sight of the data I was trying to read.

RDF content ultimately amounts to triplets of information: “subject”,”predicate”,”object”. In the case of an election then one triplet has a subject of “specific ward identifier” the predicate is “a list of candidates” and the object is “candidate 1;candidate 2; candidate 3…”. Further triplets specify the whether a candidate was elected, how many votes they received and the party to which they belong.

I’ve taken to programming in Python recently, in particular using the Python(x,y) distribution which packages together an IDE with some libraries useful to scientists. This is the sort of thing I’d usually do with Matlab, but that costs (a lot) and I no longer have access to it at home.

There is a Python library for reading RDF data, called RDFlib, unfortunately most of the documentation is for version 2.4 and the working version which I downloaded is 3.0. Searching for documentation for the newer version normally leads to other sites where people are asking where the documentation is for version 3.0!

The base maps come from the Ordnance Survey, specifically the Boundary Line dataset which contains administrative boundary data for the UK in ESRI Shapefile format. This format is widely used for geographical information work, I found the PyShp library from to be well-documented and straightforward way to read the format. The site also has some nice usage examples. I did look for a library to display the resulting maps but after a brief search I adapted the simple methods here for drawing maps using matlibplot.

The Ordnance Survey Open Data site is a treasure trove for programming cartophiles, along with maps of the UK of various types there’s a gazetteer of interesting places, topographic information and location data for UK postcode.

The map at the top of the page uses the traditional colour-coding of red for Labour and blue for Conservative, some wards elect multiple candidates and in those where the elected councillors are not all from the same party purple is used to show a Labour/Conservative combination and orange a Labour/Liberal Democrat combination.

In contrast to my earlier post on programming, the key elements here are the use of pre-existing libraries and data formats to achieve an end result. The RDF component of the exercise took quite a while, whilst the mapping part was the work of a couple of hours. This largely comes down to the quality of the documentation available. Python turns out to be a compact language to do this sort of work, it’s all done in 150 or so lines of code.

It would have been nice to have pointed my program to a single webpage and for it to find all the ward data from there, including the ward names, but I couldn’t work out how to do this – the program visits each ward in turn and I had to type in the ward names. The OpenElectionData site seemed to be a bit wobbly too, so I encoded party information into my program rather the pulling it from their site. Better fitting of the ward labels into the wards would have been nice too (although this is a hard problem). Obviously there’s a wide range of analysis that can be carried out on the underlying electoral data.


The python code to do this analysis is here. You will need to install the rdflib and PyShp libraries and download the OS Boundary Line data. I used the Python(x,y) distribution but I think it’s just the matlibplot library which is required. The program extracts the results from the website and writes them to a CSV file, the program makes a map from them. You will need to adjust file paths to suit your installation.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

“Progressive Alliance”

I keep hearing about the “Progressive Alliance”, and it never fails to irritate me. In the UK “progressive” is taken to mean “Everyone except the Tories and UKIP1”. Progressivism is defined (in wikipedia) as:

...a political attitude favouring or advocating changes or reform through governmental action. Progressivism is often viewed in opposition to conservative or reactionary ideologies.

This seems to me a definition sufficiently broad as to be largely useless, Tories could claim the progressive mantle through any legislation they care to enact and liberals could lose it through their opposition to authoritarian measures such as the ID card scheme, and for economic liberalisation.

The problem I’m having here is that Labour only start getting interested in “progressive alliances” when they’ve lost an election, whilst in power they ignore other progressive parties. Labour will only form a “progressive alliance” if they are electorally forced to do so, and otherwise seek Liberal Democrat annihilation.

Since the General Election there’s been a great deal of effort spent by Labour in trying to split the party into Good Liberal Democrats (Social Democrats, who they wish to absorb) and Bad Liberal Democrats (Orange Bookers, who they think the Tories should absorb). The “progressive alliance” is part of this - we should not be playing to this narrative. The truth is that Labour and Tory only get into government when they’ve convinced the electorate that they are close enough to the Liberal Democrat centre ground so as not to be scary.

Ed Miliband can frequently be found “reaching out” to Liberal Democrats but this reaching out is solely about recruitment to the Labour Party and the planned extinction of the Liberal Democrats. I’m a pluralist, as such I value the existence of other political parties – but I see little sign of this respect for the existence of others in the Labour Party.

In opposition their key strategy has been to attack the Liberal Democrats and their policies, rather than the Tories, who they claim lead the Coalition. Labour consistently opposed the passing of the AV referendum bill. Indeed they spent more energy opposing the AV referendum bill than any other government measure2. Their campaign for the Yes vote was fatally flawed in that it was largely seen as a platform to attack Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats: every outing of “Labour Yes” involved a ritual statement of how venial the Liberal Democrats were and, if Ed Miliband was involved, a discussion as to why he would not share a platform with Nick Clegg. It looks like Labour are summing themselves up to oppose Lords’ reform as well – both this, and the AV campaign, are “progressive” goals.

There are a number of Liberal Democrats who are keen on the “progressive alliance”, and since I’m an open-minded sort of chap I’m assuming they’re not deranged, but can you tell me – why are you engaged in this? I don’t rule out discussions between our parties but those engaged in such discussion need to be clear what the benefit to us is, because at the moment all we’re getting is another forum in which Labour can abuse us and attempt to divide us3.


  1. Technically I should probably put the BNP in here but they’re not a serious political party.
  2. At this point Labour normally complain that the bill also contained “gerrymandering” measures regarding the work of the Boundary Commission. However, the current system gives them a 90 seat advantage for parity of votes with the Tories, so it’s substantially “gerrymandered” in Labours favour already. The chances are that boundary fiddling will do little to address this and really the only solution to such problems is to go for some form of proportional representation, neither of the two main parties has the honesty to recognise this.
  3. None of this is to say that the Tories are not trying to destroy us as well!

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Post-election Reflection 2011

A year into the Coalition and in the aftermath of some rather poor electoral results for the Liberal Democrats I thought I should write down some thoughts from the perspective of a Liberal Democrat of 20 years.

On May 5th the LibDems lost nearly 700 local councillors from an original population of 1751 and 9 of 19 councils, 12 of 17 seats were lost in the Scottish parliament and there was an emphatic "No to AV" in the referendum. At a personal level, I was involved in the campaign for the Cheshire West and Cheshire council, where ultimately we polled 12% of the votes and got 1.3% of the seats. This is a reduction from 4 seats to 1, although in a reconfigured council.

Why did this happen?

The LibDems were in a relatively good position based on the last occasion these council seats were contested, having steadily picked up seats from Labour through the years of Labour government 1997-2010, in particular from 2001 onwards. Our previous standing reflected a popular vote of around 23%, currently our opinion poll standings are around 15%.

In this sense it should not be seen as "electorate punishing LibDems for coalition" rather "former Labour supporters returning to Labour now it's out of power", similarly talk of LibDems being human shields for the Tories is not a particularly useful analysis. Tories and LibDems have different electorates, the Tory electorate is clearly happy with the Coalition, the LibDem electorate less so. Looking at the overall results with the Tories on 38% of the vote, Labour on 37% and LibDems 17%, we're actually above the top end of our current opinion poll ratings with a share of the vote between our 1997 and 2001 general election result.

Also popular in the news is the idea that Nick Clegg must go as leader of the Liberal Democrats, if you rummage around amongst several hundred rather bruised (ex-)local councillors you are bound to find a few who'll agree with this but it is idiocy for several reasons:

  • Nick Clegg got strong party backing for going into the Coalition from MPs, the federal executive and a special conference. We all stand with Nick, the idea that he has led the party off at the head of an Orange Book clique is a fantasy built by Labour, familiar with this type of internal schism.
  • Our drop in the opinion polls was pretty much inevitable as soon as the Coalition agreement was signed, regardless of anything any leader could have done: we dropped 2 points from the 23% showing at the election almost immediately, and then by mid-late summer were down to 18% even before the tuition fees issue had really hit.
  • A new leader at this point would continue to take the blame for simply being in coalition and leave us in no better position at the next general election.

The no to AV result was a disappointment, not because of the rejection of AV itself but because it likely rules out electoral reform for years to come. I thought Nick Clegg struck the best note on this, close to the end of the campaign when he said this was just a small change. I found Ed Miliband's refusal to share a platform with Nick Clegg in support of the Yes campaign deeply unhelpful, listening to him try to justify this having just explained to John Humphries how AV forced politicians to reach out to other parties was entertaining; as was his jaw-dropping hypocrisy in justifying Labour's failure to implement AV in 13 years of government as being because they'd won a 170 seat majority under first-past-the-post - remember this when he bleats about the "progressive majority".

I note that over on ConHome the Tories are trying to claim that Labour made them make Nick Clegg the target for the No campaign. This seems to me a rather spineless statement - they funded the No to AV campaign, they could have called the shots. They should realise how massively they have pissed off a large chunk of pro-Coalition LibDems, and that there will be consequences for this. Going forward we should be looking at each item we have on the Coalition Agreement and asking ourselves: can we trust the Tories to support implementation of this? If the answer is "no" then we should be looking to bargain with something in the coalition agreement that they hold dear and not let it pass until our target has been achieved.

Obviously another election brings another crude pass at Liberal Democrat ministers by Ed Miliband, like a creepy uncle at a wedding party. This is entirely for his own supporters and has nothing to do with the Liberal Democrats, as Ed has said before - he seeks our extinction. We should all bear this in mind when he talks about "progressive alliances".

I don't see the point in believing that we can now go to the Tories for concessions because we have lost some elections, it seems needy and unnecessary to me. Similarly I don't see much mileage in fiddling around with the infantile "getting into bed with" and "marriage" metaphors. Vince Cable and Chris Huhne have prototyped the "cooperating but sulkily" look and, to be frank, it is unedifying.

Liberal Democrats have succeeded in getting policy implemented over the past year in Coalition: in getting the income tax threshold raised, in linking pensions to earnings, in providing some protection to the poorest students through the Pupil Premium, in reducing the 28 days detention without charge to 14 days, in reducing dramatically, (if not entirely eliminating) child detention for failed immigration claimants. There is some interesting analysis by the University of Essex on how much of the Liberal Democrat manifesto got into the Coalition agreement. If you want to see a more detailed comparison here is a document on the Guardian Datablog which analyses, in detail the Coalition agreement. Or there is a document produced by the Party here.

Now is a bloody awful time to be in government, there is no money to spend on cherished schemes, rather an absolute need to cut pretty much the largest deficit in the world, left behind by a Labour government desperately trying to spend it's way to salvation but we're getting on and doing it. It's worth remembering that at this point Labour would have been making 7/8ths of the cuts currently being made by the Coalition (under the Darling plan) - difficult to believe given their current statements.

Despite all of this, it is still the best time it has ever been to be a Liberal Democrat since I joined the party in 1991.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Lavoisier: Chemist, Biologist, Economist


Recently I read Vivian Grey’s biography of Lavoisier. Although a fine book, it left me wanting more Lavoisier, so I turned to Jean-Pierre Poirier’s more substantial biography: “Lavoisier: Chemist, Biologist, Economist”. Related is my blog post on the French Académie des Sciences, of which Lavoisier was a long term member, and senior, member.

This is a much longer, denser book than that of Grey, with commonality of subject it’s unsurprising that the areas covered are similar. However, Poirier spends relatively more time discussing Lavoisier’s activities as a senior civil servant and as an economist.

The striking thing is the collection of roles that Lavoisier had: senior member of Ferme Générale (commissioned Paris wall), director of the Académie, director of the Gunpowder and Saltpeter Administration, owner and manager of his own (agricultural) farms. It’s difficult to imagine a modern equivalent, the governor of the Bank of England running a research lab? Or perhaps an MP with a minor ministerial post, running a business and a research lab? In practical terms he did experimental work for a few hours each morning and evening (6-9am, 7-10pm) and on Saturdays - having a number of assistants working with him. 

Lavoisier was wealthy, inheriting $1.8million* from relatives as an 11 year old he joined the Ferme Générale with an initial downpayment of about $3million. However, this provided an income of something like $2.4-4.8 million a year. On a trip to Strasbourg as a 24 year old, he spent $20,000 on books – which you have to respect. As the collector of taxes levied on the majority but not the nobility or clergy, the Ferme Générale was one of the institutions in the firing line when the Revolution came. Wealthy financiers, such as Lavoisier, bought stakes in these private companies, provided exclusive rights by the King, and made enormous rates of return (15-20%), at the same time serving the Kings needs rather poorly.

As for his activities in chemistry, Poirier provides a a good background to the developments going on at the time. Beyond what I have read before, it’s clear that Lavoisier does not make any of the first discoveries of for example, oxygen, carbon dioxide or nitrogen, nor of the understanding that combustion results in weight gain. But what he does do is build a coherent theory that brings all of these things together and overthrows the phlogiston theory of combustion. With Guyton de Morveau he develops a new, systematic, way of naming chemicals which is still used today and, as a side effect, embeds his ideas about combustion. It’s from this work that the first list of elements is produced. Furthermore, Lavoisier sees the applications of the idea of oxidation in explaining “chemical combustion” as entirely appropriate for understanding “biological combustion” or respiration. In a sense he sets the scheme for biochemistry which does not come to life for nearly 100 years, for want of better experimental methodology.

It’s interesting that gases are arguably the most difficult materials to work with yet it is their study, in particular understanding the components of air, which leads to an understanding of elements, and the “new chemistry”. Perhaps this is because gases are their own abstraction, there is nothing to see only things to measure.

The book also gives a useful insight into the French Revolution for someone who would not read the history for its own sake. The heart of the Revolution was a taxation system that exempted the nobility and the clergy from paying anything, and a large state debt from supporting the American War of Independence. Spending appears to have been decided by the nobility, or even just the King, with little regard as to how the money was raised. At one point Paris considered an aqueduct to bring in fresh water to all its citizens, but then decided that rebuilding the opera house was more important! The Revolution was a rather more drawn out than I appreciated with Lavoisier at the heart of the ongoing transformation at the time of his execution during the Terror, only to be lauded once again a couple of years later as Robbespierre fell from power and was executed in his turn.

On economics: Lavoisier was one of the directors of the French Discount Bank, during the Revolution he was involved in plans for a constitutional monarchy and amongst the ideas he brought forward was for what would essentially be an “Office for National Statistics”. The aim being to collect data on production and so forth across the economy in support of economic policy. This fits in with the mineral survey work he carried at the very beginning of his career and also on his work in “experimental farming”. Economic policy at the time alternating between protectionism (no wheat exports) and free-markets (wheat exports allowed), with many arguing that agriculture was the only economically productive activity.

It’s tempting to see Lavoisier’s scientific and economic programmes being linked via the idea of accounting: in chemistry the counting of amounts of material into and out of a reaction and in economics counting the cash into and out of the economy. 

Definitely a book I would recommend! It’s remarkable just how busy Lavoisier was in a range of areas, and the book also provides a handy insight into the French Revolution for those more interested in science. I wondering whether Benjamin Franklin should be my next target.


*These are equivalences to 1996 dollars, provided in the book, they should be treated with caution.