iTunes 11 for Mac running at 100% CPU when just playing music

Just in case this saves anyone else a few minutes of boring googling: the solution was to log out of the iTunes store and log back in again.

Details:

iTunes on Mountain Lion was being very unresponsive and beachballing, despite not apparently doing anything except playing music, and Activity Monitor said it was using 100% of one of the CPUs.

The CPU activity would drop right down when I stopped the music and jump up again when I restarted it. After searching around on the Apple support forums, I saw the suggestion to log out of my iTunes Store account; it seemed unlikely to work, since I didn’t have the store open… but it did. And I was able to log in again without the problem returning (yet! *crosses fingers*). Hope this helps someone.

Apple Maps update

I was pretty scathing about Apples new maps for a variety of reasons: business listings which were mispelled, years out of date or hundreds of metres from where they should be, building outlines that aren’t properly aligned with the street layout, and a whole lot of stuff which is just missing: not just shops but schools, post offices, churches, park names, art galleries.

But the thing I thought was completely unforgiveable was all the missing train and tube stations, including major London stations like Wimbledon and Tottenham Court Road. And there really were a lot of gaps; for example, of the four stations with Wimbledon in the name — Wimbledon, South Wimbledon, Wimbledon Park and Wimbledon Chase — three were absent.

Having complained about it, it seems only fair to report that the stations are reappearing! In fact I think all the ones I’ve checked are now back on the map. There are two things about that I find reassuring: that the maps are improving at all, but also, the fact that the stations seem to have been fixed before a lot of the other problems suggests that someone at Apple has the right priorities.

I think it’s quite interesting, incidentally, the way we’ve been spoiled by Google, to the point where I expect the map on my phone not just to have streets and train stations, but bars and restaurants and cinemas and so on. After all, I managed for most of my life with paper maps that marked none of that stuff — not least because they just didn’t have space for them, unlike zoomable electronic maps. It’s a mark of the scale Apple’s cock-up that they didn’t just fail in comparison to Google: their maps are often inferior to an old fashioned A-Z. Those maps wouldn’t have your local hairdresser, but they did usually have useful landmarks like schools, churches, hospitals, nature reserves and so on.

But the main thing is: Apple’s maps are still pretty feeble in this part of the world, but at least there are signs of improvement. Who knows, in a year they might be as useful as an A-Z, and in two years they might be as useful as Google.

Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre’s previous book, Bad Science, was effectively an adaptation of his Guardian columns of the same name, and although it wasn’t a straightforward compilation, it had something of the same character: a bit of a grab-bag of subjects, held together by the broad theme of bad science and bad science journalism, with a emphasis on trying to entertain as well as inform.

This is a more focussed book. And a drier one, which you may or may not think is a good thing, depending on your tolerance for the occasionally clunky attempts at wackiness and humour that characterise a lot of popular science writing.

Personally I thought Bad Pharma did a good job of taking a potentially tough subject and presenting it in a clear, engaging way. It’s not, btw, a tough subject because it is full of difficult science or complicated statistics, but because it’s a book about institutional and bureaucratic failings within the healthcare industry. Institutional structures, bureaucracy, regulation, professional standards: this is not the sexiest subject matter. But Goldacre did a good job of convincing me that it was important enough that I should keep reading, and making it readable enough that I was able to do so.

The book follows all aspects of the life of a drug — the way it is developed, tested, licensed, marketed, prescribed — and talks through all the ways that biases get into the system and distort medical practice. There is plenty of evidence that these distortions make healthcare worse and more expensive; the only question is how badly. But the same processes that distort the science make it impossible to accurately judge the damage.

The pharmaceutical companies are the major villains of the piece, unsurprisingly; they are the ones doing badly designed trials, hiding the results of trials with flattering outcomes, paying academics to put their names to ghostwritten articles, and spending twice as much on marketing as they do on R&D. But as Goldacre points out, they are only able to get away with it because of repeated failures by everyone else involved: regulators, governments, journals, professional bodies, patient groups, and so on. All of whom have been at the very least complacent, and often suffer from deep conflicts of interest, since the drug companies seem to be the only people in the whole system who actually have a lot of money to throw around. So they spend a lot of money advertising in the medical journals, they donate money to patient groups, they sponsor conferences and training for doctors.

It’s a worrying book, which deserves to be widely read.

» Doctor Themed Cupcakes is © Clever Cupcakes and used under a CC attribution licence.

Apple’s new maps: yes, they really are terrible.

I really use the maps on my phone a lot. I’ve found it to be the most surprisingly transformative aspect of having a smartphone: never feeling lost.

So I was slightly worried about Apple replacing Google’s maps in the new version of iOS, but I assumed they knew what they were doing. That it might not be perfect, but it would probably be good enough. So I updated the system.

Obviously the first thing you look at is your own street. And it was a bit disconcerting. The first thing I noticed was a ‘restaurant’ which was actually a food shop and has been out of business for perhaps seven years. There is also an antique shop which no longer exists, and a food shop marked as a petrol station. A car repair place is 250m from where it should be. Completely missing are two restaurants, a café/delicatessen, a clothes shop, a gift shop, a car repair place, a barbers and a post office. And the local primary school.

To be fair, there also four businesses listed correctly.

Now, I don’t actually need every little clothes shop marked on the map, and the data being a year or two out of date is not such a big deal, but still, that’s an awful lot of wrong in a small area. As a comparison, Google has all the businesses marked, up to date and in the right places.

And it’s not a fluke. For example, the ‘food shop marked as a petrol station’: that’s true all over London and seemingly the rest of the UK as well. Almost everything marked with a little petrol pump icon is actually a food shop — although I have also found oil companies, a wholesale kerosene supplier, and a nuclear fuels company. And it’s not just the icons which are wrong; a search for ‘petrol station’ or ‘gas station’ dutifully returns a list of local food shops:

If you’re wondering what real petrol stations are marked as, I checked a few nearby ones; one was marked as a mechanic, two were missing completely.

Irritating but not fatal is the fact that the outlines of buildings in Central London don’t align properly with the roads:

And my favourite find so far is something called the National History Museum in South Kensington.

However, I don’t use maps on the phone as a business directory, primarily. It would be helpful if things like petrol stations, post offices and ATMs were correctly marked, and it’s a step backward that they aren’t; but what really matters is whether I can use the maps for basic navigation. But there’s a bigger problem than a few missing businesses. I checked a few places I regularly visit. If you don’t know the area, it may not be obvious what’s wrong with this picture (apart from yet another corner shop marked as a petrol station):

The clue is ‘Station Road’. Yup, that map is centred on Wimbledon station. There should be a National Rail station, a London Underground station and a tram station marked there — not that Apple’s maps give you any way to distinguish between train stations and tube stations.

Richmond rail and underground stations are also missing. So is Bookham station in Surrey. So is Lambeth North underground. And Notting Hill Gate. And West Dulwich.

I should emphasise: I haven’t done an exhaustive search of London’s transport network, I just checked a few places I happen to use fairly regularly. And without trying very hard I’ve found six missing stations.

A map having a bit less detail, or missing a few restaurants: that’s mildly annoying. Not being able to find petrol stations and post offices: genuinely inconvenient.  But a map with a significant percentage of train stations missing is severely broken. Broken enough that you can no longer rely on it for anything important.

I suppose I should just be grateful that the roads themselves seem to be mainly in the right places — but I suspect we mainly have Ordnance Survey to thank for that, after they released so much data under Creative Commons-type licensing.

Opening Ceremony thoughts

I’ve worried openly about the chances of London putting on a good Opening Ceremony, so I guess I should post a reaction: it’s a thumbs up (phew!).

I thought the whole opening movement from bucolic hobbitshire through the Industrial Revolution to the forging of the Olympic Rings was superb: genuine spectacle and theatre. I loved the pouring of the iron sequence: you can imagine so many opening ceremonies where the commentator intones ‘and this represents the pouring of the iron from the furnace’ while dancers in orange jumpsuits run along in a line, but Danny Boyle managed to come up with a theatrical effect that genuinely looked like molten metal, without any need for interpretation.

The other stand out moment was the lighting of the flame, which was a really striking image.

In between there were inevitably a few lulls, but probably less than most of these events. There were some bits that were maybe a bit too parochial, but I guess if they play well at home and help whip up enthusiasm for the Games, that’s no bad thing.

I liked the fact that it felt quite personal and quirky: the content clearly hadn’t been handed down from on high by a government with a point to prove. And I liked that it was sometimes quite dark, as these things go: so the opening section was on one level a celebration of the Industrial Revolution, but it was harsh, grimy, smoky, and the image of the British countryside being torn apart was intentionally brutal. And when it came to celebrate children’s literature, it wasn’t Winnie the Pooh and Mrs Tiggywinkle, it was Voldemort and the Child Catcher. There can’t be many times that night terrors have featured in an opening ceremony.

Some moments of real theatre, some humour, some touching moments, very few boring or cringeworthy bits: wahey, let the Games begin.

» The photo (of the rehearsal, as it happens, not the actual ceremony), is © Hannah Webb and used under a CC by-nd licence.

The Olympics is a delightful oasis of non-corporate sport

I’m not being sarcastic; well, not entirely.

We’ve had months of angry coverage about the heavy-handed brand management put in place to appease the corporate sponsors of the Olympics: how ATMs at Olympic venues will only accept Visa, and McDonalds have an exclusive right to sell chips in the Olympic Park, and the torch relay is accompanied by a rolling advertisement for Coca-Cola, and you may be turned away from the events if you arrive wearing a T-shirt with a rival corporate logo.

So it’s worth pointing out that one reason they are so heavy-handed about asserting their branding rights is that there is no advertising in the venues themselves. When the sport finally starts, the athletes will not be competing in front of a backdrop of hundreds of corporate logos: just a lot of pink and blue London 2012 branding.

Which is a stark contrast to, say, Premier League football, where the players wear shirts with the team sponsor’s logo printed much bigger than the club badge, and the entire pitch is ringed by an enormous continuous pulsating distracting animated advertising billboard. Or Test cricket, which has advertisements spray-painted on the outfield, and all along the boundary rope, and the boundary boards, and the stumps, and the players’ bats, and the back of the umpires’ shirts, and the scoreboards, and where a 150-year-old cricket ground pisses on its own history by calling itself the Kia Oval.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that, if they were allowed to plaster the Olympic stadium with their own logos, so they knew they would be seen by the hundreds of millions of people watching on TV, the sponsors would relax their iron grip over every other aspect of Olympic branding. I’m sure they would like to have their cake and eat it. And it doesn’t justify the heavy-handed, joyless way their branding rights have been enforced.

But at least we should take a little pleasure in the fact that the winner’s podium is not going to have a Coke logo on it. The medal ribbons are not going to be Samsung-branded. There is not going to be a gigantic Procter & Gamble logo spray painted on the grass where the javelins land. Because if the Olympics was a normal modern sporting event, all that stuff would be true.

» ‘Olympic Torch Relay Day 64 Green Lanes 010‘ is © David Holt and used under a CC by-sa licence. The post-match interview is from an Indian Premier League cricket match. ‘Post match interview with AB De Villiers‘ is © Royal Challengers Bangalore and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Drugs Without The Hot Air by David Nutt

David Nutt became somewhat famous in the UK when he was chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs [ACMD], the statutory body which is responsible for advising the government on drug policy, and specifically on the appropriate legal classification of different drugs.

He was criticised and eventually fired for being rather too vocal about the fact that the government consistently ignored the advice of the ACMD and allowed political considerations to trump politics, and for pointing out some inconvenient truths about relative harms; that alcohol and tobacco are both more dangerous than many illegal drugs, and that horse-riding is considerably more dangerous than taking ecstasy.

This became a bit of a cause celèbre in the geekosphere. Because we all know that  politicians will ignore the evidence if it’s politically inconvenient, but it’s rarely quite so blatant as firing someone for saying what the evidence is.

This book covers various aspects of drug use: how drugs work, how harmful they are, what addiction is, what treatments are available and so on. It covers alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs as well as the illegal ones.

It’s interesting to read because it simultaneously seems radical and rather obvious. Radical because if all the evidence in the book was taken seriously it would involve a top-to-bottom rewriting of UK drug laws; and obvious because actually not much of this stuff should come as a surprise.

For example, however much politicians may splutter about the comparison, can anyone who lives in this country seriously doubt that alcohol causes far more social harm than ecstasy or cannabis? Or that, purely pragmatically, treating addiction as a medical problem is likely to be more successful than treating it as a moral failing? And even if you think cannabis should be illegal, surely it makes intuitive sense that it is counterproductive to imprison users: both because being in prison is in itself more damaging to the individual’s future prospects than the actual drug use, and because it is very expensive to lock people up.

It’s interesting though, and very readable. It helps that, although the book takes a ‘liberal’ stance compared to the current law, it’s not derived from a naive libertarianism. Nutt is not arguing for loosening the drug laws on the basis of increased personal liberty; he wants the law to be better at managing harms and risks. So he supports the ban on smoking in public places and would tighten some of the rules on alcohol sales. And although treating addiction to heroin and cocaine as a primarily medical problem could be seen as ‘soft on drugs’, he’s arguing for it on the basis that it is the best way to minimise harm.

A few random interesting points from the book: he points out that coca leaves, cocaine and crack are all pharmacologically the same substance, and that the method of delivery makes a huge difference not just to the experience but also the addictiveness. I was startled to learn that about 500 people a year die of heroin overdoses after coming out of prison because, having stopped or reduced their use while inside, they have lost the tolerance they used to have.

And I was struck by his suggestion that the duty on alcoholic drinks should be proportional to actual alcohol content, rather than by category with one rate for beer and one for wine and so on. That would be a direct incentive for drinkers to switch to weaker drinks and for manufacturers to reverse the trend of beers and wines getting stronger. Which seems sensible. There a general argument for making alcohol more expensive anyway, but it seems like a good start to make Special Brew considerably more expensive than lagers with less than half the alcohol.

» The Pink Elephants on Parade LSD blotter is from the Blotter Art website. The bottle of Papine is from Wellcome Images and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Barclays: why no criminal prosecutions?

After the credit crunch, it was very natural to think that surely someone somewhere ought to be punished for what happened.

But I was open to the argument that what had happened was a combination of incompetence, greed, systemic failure and macro-economic forces, rather than actual fraud — or at least that fraud was a small part of the story. And so it was not a matter for the criminal law.

And then this Barclays case comes along. And we have what, as far as I understand it, is a straightforward case of people conspiring to lie about important financial information in order to manipulate the market… and still no one is apparently facing criminal prosecution.

It’s not just that it would be satisfying to see a few City wide boys up before a judge. It’s that it makes you wonder how much other potential criminality has been left uninvestigated or unprosecuted for some reason. Because it’s easier to let sleeping dogs lie? Because fraud cases are expensive to investigate and prosecute? Because the authorities are still so worried about the fragility of the financial system that they’re scared of rocking the boat? Because of the same combination of cosiness and intimidation that stopped the police from investigating phone hacking properly?

The whole thing stinks.

The weird existence of tax havens

Tax avoidance/evasion is in the news again, and once again I find my mind drifting back to that book Treasure Islands, which I read a year ago and stuck with me since. Because a lot of these issues of tax policy are inevitably messy and complicated, both ethically and as a matter of pragmatic policy; but there is one particular point I keep returning to.

Which is this: when you think about it, it’s a bit weird that tax havens are allowed to exist. Because all those ‘companies’ which are just a pigeonhole in a lawyer’s office in the Cayman Islands? The only reason they exist is for the explicit purpose of escaping the laws and regulations of another country.

That’s not intended to be a rhetorical flourish; it is, as far as I can tell, a simple statement of fact.

If a company does its business in the UK but has part of its corporate structure registered in the Cayman Islands*: they are trying to avoid laws passed by a legitimate democratic government. To get pompous for a moment, they are rejecting the democratically expressed will of the British people.

They might be doing it to avoid tax, they might be looking for lax financial regulation, they might be trying to disguise corporate fraud or launder the proceeds of organised crime. All you know for certain is that they intend  to avoid the law.

So why do we put up with this crap? The Caymans, the British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos, Jersey, Bermuda, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Luxembourg: it’s not a list of great global powers that we need to tread carefully around because of their terrifying military and economic influence.

The EU and the US could simply† refuse to recognise the legal validity of companies and trusts registered in these countries. No doubt clever accountants and lawyers would still find ways to avoid paying tax, and to launder money, including of course the most direct way of avoiding tax: lobbying politicians to change the tax code in your favour. But I don’t see why we should make it any easier for them than necessary.

* or a trust in the Turks and Caicos, or Guernsey, or whatever it might be.

† Well, OK, it might not actually be ‘simple’. But I’m sure we could come up with something.

Olympic opening ceremony: first impressions

From the beginning I’ve said that, although I was excited about London getting the Olympics, one particular worry was that the opening ceremony would be cheesy, amateurish or otherwise rubbish. We ought to be able to do it — there are plenty of people in the UK with expertise in putting on a show, whether it’s a West End musical, a pop concert or a Harry Potter film — but recent examples like Euro 96 or the Commonwealth Games have not been encouraging.

Well, the first details have been released. The ceremony is going to open with a recreation of the British countryside, with real grass, real trees, real farm animals, tractors, cricket being played, a recreation of Glastonbury Tor, and two ‘mosh pits’, one to represent Glastonbury Festival and one for the last night of the Proms.

So what do I think? I guess I’m cautiously positive. It’s an idea which, if it’s done well, could be impressive and memorable without trying to compete with Beijing for sheer megaspectacle. It could be a bit twee, but it could also be fun.

But that cautious enthusiasm is subject to the assumption that what they’ve told us so far is not the full story. I’m all in favour of warm beer, sheepdogs and cricket, but it would be very weird, in the 21st century, to present the UK as a rural idyll. There has to be some kind of indication that we are an urban, multicultural, modern nation. The games are being held in east London, not the Cotswolds: we don’t want a Midsomer Murders opening ceremony, whitewashed for the sake of cosy nostalgia.

But I think the organisers know that. So let’s trust that they have a few surprises up their sleeve.

Please stop harshing my Olympic buzz.

The day after London won the right to host the Olympics was the day of the 7/7 bombings, and I always felt we were cheated of a chance to enjoy the moment.

The news of the attacks rightly took precedence over pictures of Jacques Rogge opening an envelope. The violent deaths of ordinary Londoners, the grief, trauma and fear as well as the politics: those were more important.

But still, it was an immediate cold shower on what could have been a moment of optimism, joy and excitement. No one was in the mood to celebrate.

And ever since, I’ve been trying to hold on to the anticipation and enthusiasm that I felt when we first won the bid. It hasn’t always been easy.

There’s the logo which, despite all my best attempts, I have not come to love. There was the chaos of the ticketing. The hectoring posters telling people to stay at home during the Games to reduce pressure on the transport network. The aggressive brand management that’s too humourless to let local bakers make iced buns decorated with the Olympic rings. The Ministry of Defence turning up unannounced to mount anti-aircraft defences on peoples’ houses. The ludicrous corporate tie-ins: ‘official cereal snack bar supplier of London 2012’. The fact that the Olympic park is going to contain perhaps the most depressing-sounding building imaginable: the world’s largest McDonalds.

Above all, perhaps, there’s the sheer cost of the thing. Because the financial crash, the subsequent government cuts and the continuing crappy economy make it harder than ever to be glib about the idea of spending billions of pounds on a fortnight’s sport.

The thing is, though, that even though all those criticisms are fair — in fact, especially because those criticisms are fair — I just find myself wanting to say ‘Look, we’re committed to it now, it’s going to happen, please can you stop spoiling it for me. Please can you just let me enjoy it.’ And I’ve nearly unfollowed a couple of people on Twitter because whenever I’m scrolling through and I see their stern, hard-headed comments about the Olympics, it makes me die a little inside. Pathetic, I know.

Bread and circuses. Those Romans knew what they were doing.

» The picture of detritus in Trafalgar Square, from the celebration of London winning the bid on 6th July 2005, is © Ben Sutherland and used under a CC attribution licence.

The Thames path, Crayford Marshes to Charlton

Crayford Marshes is a patch of grazing marsh on the south bank of the Thames east of London — Dartford, roughly. I heard about it as a birding spot, and a few weeks ago I went to check it out.

But it’s quite a small site and quite a long way away, so I decided to combine it with walking a section of the Thames Path. When I was walking the Thames path a few years ago I walked east to west, starting at the Thames Barrier at Charlton and eventually getting as far as Teddington; this time I added a section to the beginning of that walk.

Crayford Marshes itself was nice enough: it’s basically a fragment of the landscape which would once have been typical of the whole area, and which, thanks to some strict environmental protections, is still found all along much of the north Kent coast. It’s not actually a natural landscape — it’s managed for livestock and there’s a whole system of drainage ditches and embankments to keep the sea out — but it certainly feels wilder than most of the space around London, and it’s important for wildlife.

Crayford Marshes is less impressive than some of the larger areas of marshland out in Kent, but has the advantage, for birders who like to keep lists, of being in London: i.e. anything you see there can be added to your London list. It’s within the modern boundaries of Greater London, as well as the more generous London Recording Area as defined by the London Natural History Society, which is within 20 miles of St Paul’s cathedral — a somewhat arbitrary area which thankfully includes several of my favourite birding spots which would not be included in a more sensible definition of London.

I didn’t get any very spectacular birds, but I did see my first swallow and whitethroat of the year, and lots of linnets, and green sandpiper, and the lapwings were calling, which is my favourite noise in the world. And I saw little egret, which is sort of my first for London.*

Just in the middle of the marshes there’s some light industry — a scrap metal yard and some yards that looked more like distribution centres than actual manufacturing. I was just taking pictures of rusty metal textures and a man from the Environment Agency come over to say “I’m not being funny, but you want to be careful taking pictures here” and explained that the owners of the scrap metal place had been quite aggressive and accused them of taking pictures when they hadn’t even been doing it, and that they seemed to be “a bit funny about photography”.

And of course, it’s not difficult to imagine why scrap metal dealers might not want people taking pictures of their premises; particularly people from government agencies. Perhaps I’m being unfair; perhaps they were paranoid nutters rather than criminals. Either way, I took the advice and was discreet with the camera for a bit.

Once you leave the marshes and go past Erith Yacht Club, it’s a mixture of industrial stuff and housing pretty much the whole way. Among the identifiable things are the familiar piles of gravel and sand waiting, presumably, to be turned into concrete somewhere; a big sewage treatment plant, and a site generating electricity from waste incineration.

The most striking thing, for me, was that when I walked west from Charlton originally, I was walking past a similar mix of housing and industry, and I had a sense of being out on the fringes of London. This walk reminded me that I was nowhere near the edge of London that time; there is miles and miles more of that stuff stretching out along the river.

The sewage treatment plant at Crossness is on the site of one of the Victorian pumping engines installed as part of Joseph Bazalgette’s great scheme to build sewers for London. There was one pumping station on each side of the river, and Crossness was responsible for pumping all the sewage of south London into the Thames. Apparently they didn’t actually treat the sewage in those days, they just timed the release into the river to coincide with the tide going out and let the tide sweep it out to sea. Which sounds pretty horrifying by modern standards, but was a huge step up from not having a citywide sewer system at all.

It’s fitting that the Thames Path goes past the old pumping station, because in central London, a lot of the route is directly above Bazalgette’s main sewer, which runs along under the Embankment.

Also at Crossness there is a little nature reserve that gets a few decent birds, but much of it is closed to non-members. I had a quick look but didn’t see much.

Most of the way, though, what you’re walking past is miles of big, modern, self-contained housing developments. These are generally pretty ugly, which is not really a surprise if you’ve spent any time in English suburbia. There is very little evidence, looking around Britain, of the building trade putting any emphasis on beauty when building mass-market residential property. And they are probably right about the commercial logic; compared to location, facilities and price, the physical beauty of the exterior of the property must come a long way down most buyers’ priorities. But the cumulative effect is pretty deadening.

There are a couple of bits of variety: the old Woolwich Arsenal has been converted into a rather more upmarket area of housing and offices, and at Woolwich itself, you at least go near a real town centre. It’s a pretty dismal town centre, but at least there’s some sign of the variety of human life, instead of the endless ranks of apartment blocks.

Incidentally, although the Thames Path represents an admirable modern effort to create a shared public space, it doesn’t aways feel very welcoming and communitarian. You spend a lot of your time walking along next to coils of razor wire, or outside eight foot concrete walls topped with downward-pointing spikes. It seems appropriate when you’re passing commercial properties, but it does feel hostile when you’re going past residential estates — although I appreciate that families don’t want their stuff nicked either.

The Thames Path was sent on a temporary detour at the end, so I didn’t actually get to walk along the river to the Thames Barrier where I started the first time. Which was a pity.

Anyway, you can see more photos from my day on Flickr, and pictures from the rest of the route as well. The other blog posts about the Thames Path are here.

* ‘sort of’ because, from memory, it’s my first in Greater London but not my first in the London Recording Area.

Voting system geekery: London mayoral edition

I’ve just been along to vote in the elections for mayor of London.

It’s a kind of alternative vote system; you can pick a first and second choice (but not a third and so on), and after the first round of counting, if no candidate has 50% of the votes, they eliminate all but the top two candidates and reassign votes according to people’s second preferences.

I think that’s clearly an improvement on a straight first-past-the-post system [FPTP], but I can’t see that it makes sense to fix it at only two rounds of counting — rather than, to take the simplest alternative, eliminating the candidates with the least votes one at a time, reassigning the votes, and doing it as many times as you need to.

Electing a mayor is a somewhat different situation to a general election; some of the problems that general election reform would attempt to fix simply don’t apply.

So for example, there’s the question of proportionality: the number of MPs each party has in the  Commons is often wildly different to the percentage of votes they won nationwide. But there’s only one mayor, so that’s irrelevant to a mayoral election.

Also, since the whole of London is one big constituency, everyone’s votes count exactly the same; there are no safe seats where the voters can have little influence, or marginal constituencies that attract wildly disproportionate attention from politicians.

So some of the specific issues don’t apply. But the overall problem with FPTP is that it deals very badly with anything other than a two party system, and tends to entrench a two party system by default.

Having an alternative voting system solves part of the problem. It reduces the potential of spoiler candidates; what could be called the Ross Perot problem, of a minority candidate having a disproportionate impact because they attract just enough votes to swing the election. And it removes some of the bias against minor parties and new parties, since if you know you have a second choice, you can at least vote for a minor party without feeling that your vote is wasted. If you feel that the Green manifesto actually represents your opinions most accurately, but you’d rather have Labour than Conservative, you can vote Green without feeling that you are mainly helping the Conservatives.

However, cutting straight to two parties for the second round of voting still helps entrench the two party system. You can feel free to vote for a minor party for your first choice, but the tactical element just comes back in for the second choice, since there’s a strong incentive to try and guess which two parties are going to make the cut and vote for one of them, so that your vote counts for something. If ‘everyone says’ that Labour and Conservative are the two favourites, and your preference is, say:

Green > Lib Dem > Labour > Conservative > UKIP > BNP

then there’s a strong incentive to vote 1) Green 2) Labour.

That doesn’t seem ideal, but I don’t actually think it’s a major problem as long as there are two clear front runners. Being pragmatic with your second choice isn’t an outrageous compromise. But if the votes are reasonably closely split between three or more main candidates, then the whole thing breaks down again. Let’s say the minor parties have 10% of the vote between them, and Tory, Lib Dem and Labour are running in the polls at about 30% each: well, a tiny swing between any two of those will decide who gets through to the second round of voting, so we’re back to a tactical voting situation again.

Our hypothetical voter now has a strong incentive to vote 1) Lib Dem 2) Labour, and now they are compromising on their first choice.

And if there were four strong candidates, then the outcome would become even more random and the cut off of the top two for the second round of voting would be even more arbitrary.

It’s one of those things which is annoying because it’s so unnecessary. Why go straight down to two candidates? Why not have as many rounds of counting as it takes?

Half a cheer for Formula One

I’ll say one thing for Bernie Ecclestone: he may be a greedy, ruthless, vindictive, amoral little shit and a panderer to tyrants; but as far as I know, he’s never come out with any self-serving pablum about how Formula One brings the world together in peace and harmony, and thus promotes understanding and brotherhood amongst all mankind.

Unlike FIFA and the IOC.

Which doesn’t make him any less of a foul-smelling turd, but at least he isn’t a hypocrite about it.

Christian values: what are they?

Genuine question.

A little background: there has been a little storm in a teacup today over a particularly silly article in the Telegraph outing Richard Dawkins as having ancestors who were slave owners in Jamaica. If you’re really interested, you can read Dawkins’s comments about it here.

But what what got my attention was something from a different blog post on the subject:

when abolition of slavery in the colonies was finally put to Parliament in 1833, the bench of Bishops in the House of Lords voted against the bill.

Which struck me as a good fact to bear in mind next time someone argues that Britain is a Christian country built on Christian values.

That in turn had me wondering how the Lords Spiritual voted on other important social issues over the centuries: Catholic emancipation, women’s suffrage, a free press, workers’ rights and so on. Because while it would obviously be unfair to use the upper echelons of the Church of England as a proxy for all Christianity, it would at least be a record of the ‘Christian values’ of the central Christian institution in British public life.

I’m not [just] trying to play Gotcha, I’m genuinely curious. History being what it is, I imagine they’d come out well on some issues and badly on others. But Google has failed me. Annoyingly. I’ll have another go later, but in the meantime, if anyone happens to know a source for detailed voting breakdowns from the House of Lords prior to 1997, let me know.

Ooh, apparently I’m being militant again

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle in the UK over the past few days, since a court ruled that it was unlawful for Bideford town council to have prayers as a minuted part of its council meetings. The Daily Mail had a big front page headline CHRISTIANITY UNDER ATTACK; for once the Times managed to outdo the Mail for melodramatic language with Christianity on the rack as judge bans public prayer. Eric Pickles, the Communities minister, came out strongly against the decision, insisting that the UK is ‘a Christian country’, something I’ve complained about before. George Carey, the Ex-Archbishop of Canterbury came out with this wonderfully understated reaction for the Daily Mail:

These legal rulings may also mean Army chaplains could no longer serve, and that the Coronation Oath, in which the King or Queen pledges to maintain the laws of God and the lessons contained in the Gospels, would need to be abolished. This is a truly terrifying prospect.

Truly terrifying.

All of which seems ludicrously out of proportion when you actually look at the legal judgement, which had nothing to do with the separation of church and state: no such principle exists in British law. Moreover, the judge specifically ruled against the idea that this was a human rights issue, saying that just because non-Christian councillors were inconvenienced or made uncomfortable by the prayers, that did not amount to unlawful religious discrimination.

In fact, the ruling was based on a technical question: whether by holding the prayers, the council was going beyond the powers specifically allowed to them by the 1972 Local Government Act. Not only is this a narrow legal point with little relevance for the wider debate about the place of religion in public life; it’s not even relevant any more, because the 1972 Local Government Act has just been superseded by the new Localism Act which grants wider powers to councils. So prayers before council meetings are almost certainly legal again, although the point has yet to be tested in court.

And more importantly, all the other ways in which religion is entwined into our political system are still firmly in place. The Queen is still both head of state and head of the church; we still have 26 bishops sitting in the upper house of our legislature; bishops are appointed by the Prime Minister; Parliament officially opens every day with prayers lead by the Speaker; schools are supposed to hold daily acts of collective worships which are “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”.

So why do these occasional conflicts provoke such a hysterical reaction from the religious? Why do those of us who argue that religion and politics are best kept separate get described as ‘militant’ and compared to totalitarian governments?

Well, a clue lies in new survey results released by the Richard Dawkins Foundation (1, 2). Yeah, I know, Richard Dawkins is not an unbiassed source; but the survey was performed by a respectable polling organisation and the questions look fair. The survey was intended to investigate religious attitudes among people who identified themselves as Christian in the 2011 census.

Some of the details are interesting but ultimately irrelevant, like the fact that only 35% could pick the first book of the New Testament out of Matthew, Genesis, Acts and Psalms; I mean, it’s the kind of thing you would expect a practising Christian to know, but it’s not a test of the sincerity or depth of someone’s belief.

And it’s not a surprise that many people tick the Christian box on the Census despite not going to church, or praying, or reading the Bible, or believing that Jesus was the son of God, or that he was resurrected, or even believing in God at all. The survey results are messy and contradictory, but it seems like about half of Census Christians are what you might call conventional Christians, people who go to church occasionally and believe some of the central tenets of the faith.

But the really startling result is the proportion of people identifying as Christian at all. For the 2001 Census, that figure was 72%; the new survey suggests the figure may have dropped to 54% in 2011. If that number holds up when the official census data is released, it represents a remarkable cultural shift in ten years.

I’ve complained before about people who say that the UK is a Christian country. I’ve argued on historical/philosophical grounds, that there’s nothing particularly Christian about our most important values — democracy, the rule of law, free speech, tolerance, humour — and I’ve argued on political grounds, that to call this a Christian country is exclusionary, because it suggests that those of us who are not Christians are therefore less British.

But if only 54% of the population identify as Christian in even the loosest sense, then it’s barely even statistically true that the UK is a Christian country.

And that, I think, is the reason for all the hyperbolic stuff about ‘militant secularism’. It’s not that they believe that Richard Dawkins or the National Secular Society have profound political influence, that all it’s going to take is one strongly worded opinion piece in the Guardian for the whole edifice to come tumbling down.

No, the fear is that this is already a secular country, and that it’s only a matter of time before the politics catches up with reality. The fear is that Dawkins is pushing on an open door.

Ecclesiastical overreach & gay marriage

John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, has been arguing against gay marriage. Which, in itself, hardly seems worth commenting about. But what gets my goat is that he supports civil partnerships but opposes gay marriage because, you know, sacred institution between a man and a woman blah blah yawn.

This actually annoys me more than if he just came out and spoke straightforwardly and unapologetically against all forms of homosexual relationship. Because after all, preaching about morality is what religions do, and the idea that homosexuality is a sin has been standard doctrine in nearly all branches of Christianity for most of history. It’s an old-fashioned, socially poisonous doctrine, admittedly; but expounding old-fashioned ideas seems to me to be firmly within the job description of an archbishop.

But when he claims that the state’s definition of marriage should be his definition… well, then he can just fuck off. Marriage is one of the central defining structures our society is built around; the Church of England cannot be allowed to claim ownership of it. Marriage predates Christianity, and is entered into by people of all religions and of no religion. The whole reason that people choose not to get married in church is that they don’t want the church in their marriage.

Syncing non-Amazon books between Kindle and iPhone

One of the nice things about the Kindle is that it syncs with the Kindle app on iOS, so that you can read a few pages on your phone when you don’t have the Kindle with you.

But I thought that it only worked with books bought from Amazon and not those, for example, downloaded from Project Gutenburg. Which was annoying.

However, I have discovered that there is a way of making it work. Perhaps this is common knowledge, but I only found it by accident so I thought I’d share it.

The trick, such as it is, is to email the file to your Send-to-Kindle email address, which is the address used to add personal documents to the Kindle. It’s in the form name_xxx@kindle.com and you can find it in the Kindle settings.

Once it appears on the Kindle, it will also be available as an archived item in the Kindle app, and it should sync across devices in the normal way.

The syncing doesn’t work if you add the files to the iOS Kindle app via iTunes, or download them direct to the Kindle from the web, for example via the Project Gutenberg Magic Catalog, or if you put them onto the Kindle via USB.

Londoners by Craig Taylor

To give it its full, ludicrously long title: Londoners: The Days and Nights of London as Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Long for It, Have Left It and Everything Inbetween.

This makes a good pair with Daily Life in Victorian London. It’s a compilation of interviews with Londoners of all sorts. Some of them are the obvious London clichés — black cab driver, yeoman warder, hedge fund manager , refugee — and some are more exotic: beekeeper, dominatrix, Wiccan priestess. And most are are just, well, ordinary: teacher, street cleaner, personal trainer, estate agent, student.

But of course the key to books like this is that ‘ordinary’ people often turn to be unexpectedly interesting when you scratch the surface. Either because they have led unexpectedly interesting lives, or because they are charming or funny or insightful in telling their own stories. And those who don’t have great back-stories and who aren’t great storytellers: even they are always good for a couple of paragraphs to help build up the mosaic.

There’s obviously no shortage of material in a place the size of London, so a book like this is entirely dependent on the skill of the person who conducts the interviews and then edits and curates them. Craig Taylor has done a cracking job and it’s well worth reading.

» the Big Issue seller’s licence is from the Museum of London collection.

My Prime Minister went to Europe and all I got was this lousy veto

So, David Cameron went off to Europe, with the continent in desperate need of an agreement that might stave off financial catastrophe. And it was always going to be difficult to come to a deal which was acceptable to all the various countries, which was why the wrangling has been going on for months. But this was, everyone agreed, a moment of crisis, when domestic political concerns had to be weighed against the appalling consequences should the worst happen.

As it turned out, Cameron wasn’t able to sign a deal. His conscience simply wouldn’t let him. And what was his line in the sand? What was the principle that he was willing to alienate the whole of Europe over, and risk economic catastrophe for? It was (drumroll please)… he didn’t want to upset the bankers.

You know, when the whole financial system initially went tits-up, I wasn’t particularly inclined to be angry at the banks. Sure, where there is actual evidence of fraud and deception it’s a different matter. But mostly it doesn’t seem to have been illegality, it was just greed, recklessness and incompetence. And it’s hard to apportion blame when the whole world goes mad together. After all, banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, central bankers, rating agencies, governments and regulators all failed in one way or another.

But when the global economy went off the rails, that was the opportunity for everyone involved to pause, take stock, and think about what they’d done. All the stupid things the banks did to get us into this mess — that didn’t make me angry. Their miserable failure to take any responsibility for what they’ve done, the lack of contrition, the lack of gratitude for the fact that mountains of taxpayers’ money has been shovelled at them to save them from the consequences of their own incompetence — that is teeth-grindingly infuriating.

And these are the people the Prime Minister is bending over backwards to protect. Fucking marvellous.

» The picture is of David Cameron with David Cameron’s eyes.

» Incidentally, I’m not at all convinced that the European treaty is going to do anything to save the Euro anyway, with or without the UK, as it seems to be designed to solve the wrong problem. But I’ve demoted that point to a footnote because it only would have complicated a perfectly good rant.

Goodbye to all that

I’m sorry to say it, but I’m glad to see the back of the poppy season. The omnipresence of poppies on television, the competitive patriotism of the tabloids and the increasingly reflexive tendency to refer to all servicemen as ‘heroes’ has made me a bit twitchy over the past few years, but it was really brought into focus by the ludicrous storm in a teacup over FIFA’s refusal to let England team wear shirts with poppies on them. Perhaps most creepy was hearing that both the sports minister and David Cameron had described the poppy as ‘a symbol of national pride’, which I found genuinely unnerving.

Unnerving because when you come from the same culture as someone, you assume that there are some basic cultural touchstones whose meaning is well-established and uncontroversial. I thought everyone brought up in this country agreed that the poppy was a symbol of remembrance for those killed and injured in war; David Cameron saying it is a symbol of national pride is as unexpected as if he said that on a traffic light, red means go.

The whole thing would make me even more uneasy if I thought there was any chance that all this very public symbolism had much chance of turning into anything more sinister. Because if Britain had a history of military coups, I would be wondering if we were heading for the point where we wake up one morning to find a tank parked on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street and a TV bulletin with a man in uniform announcing that, for the sake of national stability, the army had reluctantly found it necessary to install themselves in a transitional government which would of course be strictly temporary.

But we are not that country, and I don’t think that all the slightly shrill rhetoric about sticking up for our boys is really militaristic in origin. It’s that ‘our boys’ have done an awful lot of fighting over the past few years, in wars which no one is very enthusiastic about any more. Thankfully they’re out of Iraq, which started to seem stupid, ill-conceived and counterproductive almost immediately, but Afghanistan just keeps grinding on for year after year and it becomes harder and harder to see what the point is. And on top of that, although it’s something the the tabloids are unlikely to say out loud, there’s the sense that the British forces haven’t actually enhanced their reputation; that they went in with a lot of big talk about their professionalism and expertise in counterinsurgency, and ended up having to be bailed out by the Americans.

So there’s a deep well of anxiety associated with the subject of our armed forces. And if it was a conscript army currently fighting in Afghanistan, that anxiety would probably be expressed directly as anti-war protests. Instead it gets manifested as an insistence that all our fighting men are ‘heroes’ by definition, and as ever more elaborate public displays of support.

However, even if the whole business is, in the end, mostly harmless, it still makes me twitchy. Hopefully now Remembrance Sunday has passed for another year, the press will at least turn down the intensity a couple of notches — although the Mail and the Mirror both have front page headlines about ‘our heroes’ today, so perhaps I’m being too optimistic.

» The photo, Fading Beauty, is © David Maitland and was Specially Commended in the ‘In Praise of Plants and Fungi’ category in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition 2011.

Needling camels

I think it’s fascinating the way that, quite accidentally, the Church of England has been drawn into a debate about the state of capitalism. Because the protestors were not targeting the church; it was a pure accident of geography that a protest aimed at the Stock Exchange should end up camped around St Paul’s.

But that was how it turned out, and the church has been forced to take a position, and lots of commentators have been cheerfully picking out their favourite bible verses about camels going through the eye of a needle, and money-changers in the temple, and arguing about whether or not it makes any sense to call Jesus a socialist. And a lot of people who would not normally have any interest in the opinions of the Dean of St Paul’s or the Bishop of London are suddenly watching them very carefully and asking serious questions about the kind of relationship the church should have to wealth and power: always awkward ground for an established church which has the Queen as its head and an archbishop chosen by the Prime Minister.

And unexpectedly, the support for the protest by at least some of the staff of the Cathedral has given the protesters extra credibility. Because, after all, the protestors who turn up to these things are easy to mock, and their specific political aims, insofar as they have been articulated at all, are often a bit dubious; but the ham-fisted and divided way that the church handled the situation helped frame the debate as a moral question about inequalities of wealth and power.

But the next confrontation could be even more interesting. Now that the church has had a change of heart, the legal challenge to the protests comes from that strange entity called the City of London Corporation. At its most mundane level the Corporation is the local government for the ancient City of London, the ‘Square Mile’. But it is also a very weird historical anomaly. The Corporation has been around for a very long time — the oldest recorded charter, in 1067, confirmed rights and privileges that already existed — and over the centuries it has carved out a semi-detached relationship to the rest of the country; mainly because a succession of kings and governments were willing to make concessions in return for the financial support of the City.

And so, in the middle of what is nominally a modern democracy, we have a borough where corporations still have the vote, and the votes of actual human individuals are vastly outnumbered by the votes cast by businesses. That anachronism wouldn’t be particularly sinister if the Corporation confined itself to organising street-sweepers and mending the roads. But it is also a very wealthy organisation explicitly committed to lobbying for the interests of business, and particularly for the financial industry. It even has its own representative inside Parliament, the ‘City Remembrancer‘.

In other words, it is the perfect symbol for the influence of money over politics. Over many centuries, time and again, from autocratic kings to democratic governments, everyone has flinched in the face of the City’s power. The anomalous existence of the City of London is the result of a thousand years of regulatory capture.

That makes them an excellent focus for protests. If the protestors do manage to turn the spotlight on the Corporation, it could be interesting to watch.

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