O'Really?

December 22, 2016

2016: Annus mirabilis, annus horribilis or annus stupidus?

27751194385_4890747f8eThe year 2016 will go down as an interesting one, but was it magnificent, horrible or stupid? Or perhaps all three

Annus mirabilis? 🇬🇧

For some people, 2016 was a good year, an annus mirabilis. If you voted for Trump or are brexiteer who voted to leave the European Union, 2016 was a good year.

If you are a climate change denier, you probably enjoyed 2016 too. If you are a member of a far right or populist political party, you are sitting pretty. Marine Le Pen looks happy, as do Vladimir Putin and Nigel Farage.

Annus horribilis? 🇪🇺

If none of the above applies to you then 2016 was a horrible year, an annus horribilis. Liberal metropolitan elite? Welcome to the post-truth politics (previously known by the catchy name “lies”). Who needs experts anymore?

Annus stupidus? 🇺🇸

Whatever camp you are in, it is hard not to agree with Dan Jones analysis that 2016 was an annus stupidus [1] – a silly season that was twelve whole months long. Where else would seeing a cartoon of Boris Johnson getting “diplomatic” with Donald Trump been unremarkable – (see picture top right)? Here’s hoping for some sanity to return in 2017. Have a happy and sane holiday, and a prosperous new year.

References

  1. Jones, Dan (2016) Trumpageddon is awful but America has seen far worse, London Evening Standard, November 11th.

July 1, 2016

Dear Europeans, do you know who your MEP is and what they do?

banksy-does-brexitAlong with 16 million other people on the 23rd June 2016 I voted to remain in the European Union (EU). I believe the benefits of EU membership exceed the costs. Free trade and free movement have been beneficial to me personally, many of those around me, as well as the wider UK economy [1]. I even married an EU migrant too, so I love Europe in more ways that one. Life outside the EU is very difficult to imagine, professionally, financially, culturally and personally.

So when I woke up to Brexit EuroDoom last Friday, to find I was in a minority outnumbered by 17 million leavers who disagreed, I felt sick. After a gloomy week of miserable soul searching, I realised I didn’t have the foggiest notion who my Member of European Parliament (MEP) was or how they got elected. Although not a student of (or expert in) politics or economics, I don’t believe I am apathetic or unaware. I follow the news, vote in general elections and write letters to my MP. I try to understand what is going on in politics and bend my head around the dismal science of economics. But until this week, I had little or no idea how the European Parliament (EP), let alone the European Commission (EC) or lots of other acronyms starting with E, actually work in practice.

Now if you are also a participant in the failing (?) European project, do YOU know who your MEP is? Any idea what they actually do? The chances are you don’t because Euroignorance is widespread [2]. Fortunately, Professor Google can help us. In Manchester, the MEPs for the North West Region of the UK comprising Cumbria, Lancashire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Cheshire are:

Unfortunately, I’d only heard of two of those MEPs beforehand, and neither of them because of their activity during the EU referendum. Nuttall I’d heard of because the comedian Stewart Lee performed a brilliant satirical piece mocking Nuttall’s views on immigration [3]. Woolfe I’d heard of because his campaign leaflet came through my letterbox during the 2015 general election. How did they get elected as MEPs because I can’t remember seeing their names on a ballot paper?

MEPs are elected using the D’Hondt method [4], a form of proportional representation (PR) used in the European elections in 2014 and elsewhere. As of 2016, the three largest UK parties in the European Parliament are: UKIP (24 MEPs), Labour (20 MEPs) and The Conservatives (19 MEPs). Isn’t it remarkable that so many of these MEPS were neither seen or heard during the almost entirely fact-free® debate [1] preceding the UK EU referendum?

So what is the nature of an MEPs power? Back in 1998, a politician by the name of Tony Benn proposed five democratic questions to understand the powerful:

“If one meets a powerful person–Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler–one can ask five questions:

  1. what power do you have?
  2. where did you get it?
  3. in whose interests do you exercise it?
  4. to whom are you accountable?
  5. how can we get rid of you?”

According to Benn, anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system. [5] Personally, I’d like to get rid of UKIP from the European parliament. How can I do this? While I can’t vote for individuals, I can vote for political parties. However, turnout in european elections is often embarrassingly low, in the UK a pathetic 35.6% showed up in 2014. Which means two thirds of UK voters were unaware or didn’t care who their MEP was, including me. My bad. You could call this democratic deficit, not one where people can’t vote but one where people are unaware or don’t bother.

Right now, it is really hard to see how any good can come of what is unfolding in Great Britain and Europe. Brexit leaves the sector I work in, and many others, facing huge uncertainty [6,7,8]. Let’s hope one thing will happen, a reformed EU where those in power are more engaged and accountable to the people they claim to represent. Personally, I am not in a position to judge if the European Union has a democratic deficit or not [9,10]. Neither can I judge if the European Union is as anti-democratic as some eurosceptics have suggested [11, 12,13]. But I do know something has gone badly wrong with the EU if many europeans have no idea of who their parliamentary representatives are and how they can exercise their democratic rights to get rid of them using the ballot box.

If you are staying in the European Union you have a duty to find out who your MEP is and ask them the five democratic questions above. You better do it quickly before risking a Frexit, Czechout, Swexit, Departugal, Grexit, Bygium, Italeave or bidding Austria La Vista.

References

  1. Zanny Minton Beddoes (2016) The Brexit Briefs: The 17 things you need to know before Britain’s #EUref—in one handy guide, The Economist
  2. Oana Lungescu (2001) EU Poll reveals huge ignorance, BBC News
  3. Stewart Lee (2014) Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, Series 2: England
  4. Jeremy Vine (2009) D’Hondt Explainer, BBC News
  5. Anon (1998)  House of Commons Debates, Hansard, parliament.uk
  6. Anon (2016) Brexit vote sparks huge uncertainty for UK universities, Times Higher Education
  7. Alison Abbott, Daniel Cressey, Richard Van Noorden (2016) UK scientists in limbo after Brexit shock: Researchers organize to lobby for science as country prepares for life outside the EU Nature, Vol. 534, No. 7609., pp. 597-598, DOI:10.1038/534597a
  8. Anon (2016) Brexit vote highlights lack of leaving plan: Scientists — just like everybody else — have little idea what will happen now that the United Kingdom has voted to exit the European Union. Nature, Vol. 534, No. 7609., pp. 589-589, DOI:10.1038/534589a
  9. Andrew Moravcsik (2008) The Myth of Europe’s “Democratic Deficit” Intereconomics, Volume 43, Issue 6, pp 316–340 DOI:10.1007/s10272-008-0266-7
  10. Michael Dougan (2016) The UK’s position following vote to leave the EU, University of Liverpool, School of Law and Social Justice
  11. Tony Benn (2013) Tony Benn speaks at the Oxford Union on Euroscepticism, The Oxford Union.
  12. Martin Durkin (2016) Brexit: The Movie (warning: contains Nigel Farage and dubious opinions europhiles will find offensive, factual content is highly questionable in places)
  13. Tony Benn (1975) Letter from Tony Benn to his constituents about the UK European referendum of 1975, The Spectator, Coffee House

* Disclaimer, like I’ve already said, my grasp of politics and economics is pretty basic. I have made every reasonable effort to get the facts right but correct any mistakes I might have made below. These are personal views, which do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

July 27, 2012

Olympic Science: The Long Jump to Conclusions

Snohomish Long Jumper by Philo Nordlund

Long jumper for Snohomish. Creative Commons licensed picture by by Philo Nordlund on Flickr

If Science were an Olympic sport, which events would scientists excel at?

During the Beijing Olympics in 2008, I wondered what Olympic activities scientists would be good at, with a list of events. This satirical post was kindly re-published [1] by the learned American Physical Society (thanks guys!) in their newsletter, though some of the proposed events look a little dated now.

Doesn’t time fly? Here we are four years later and London 2012 is already upon us. The Boris Johnson Olympic Stadium is finally complete. Oscar winner Danny Boyle has the eagerly anticipated opening ceremony all planned out. Sculptor Anish Kapoor’s spectacular Orbit Olympic observation tower looks out over the Olympic Park. Teams of athletes from all over the world have gathered in the capital to see how years of training will pay off.

Meanwhile Team Science [2] also play their part in supporting the Olympics, through sports science, drug testing and other services. Some are sparring for their bouts of impact factor boxing but may need a soothing ego massage afterwards to recover from the particularly painful peer-reviewed punches. Others are limbering up for the long jump to conclusions an event at which some scientists (and many policitians) are strong medal contenders. There are lots of other events proposed for the future too, some of them quite controversial [3,4,5], they might need genetically enhanced security guards, with superhuman abilities (sponsored by G4S)?

Readers of this blog will probably have much better ideas than the rather ropey suggestions I cobbled together. If that’s you, please post them below in the comments section or tweet them with the hashtag #OlympicScience.

Scientists and athletes have much in common, many are naturally obsessed [6] with their eyes firmly fixed on the prize and will often bend the rules to win Gold [7]. So wherever you are, whichever prizes you admire, enjoy the superb sporting spectacle that is the London 2012 Summer Olympics.

References

  1. Yours Truly (2008). If Science Were an Olympic Sport Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science, American Physical Society (APS) Physics
  2. Daniel Cressey & Ewen Callaway (2012). Science at the Olympics: Team Science, Nature, 487 (7407) 292. DOI: 10.1038/487290a
  3. Helen Thompson (2012). Performance enhancement: Superhuman athletes, Nature, 487 (7407) 289. DOI: 10.1038/487287a
  4. Timothy Noakes & Michael Spedding (2012). Olympics: Run for your life, Nature, 487 (7407) 296. DOI: 10.1038/487295a
  5. Juan Enriquez & Steve Gullans (2012). Olympics: Genetically enhanced Olympics are coming, Nature, 487 (7407) 297. DOI: 10.1038/487297a
  6. Mariano Loza-Coll (2012). Piled too high, Nature, 486 (7403) 431. DOI: 10.1038/nj7403-431a
  7. Michael Brooks (2011). Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science ISBN:1846684056

Update: The real games started on a scientific and technical note with help from Tim Berners-Lee

#OlympicScience didn’t really take off, but #Nerdlympics (Olympics for Nerds) did much better – a selection below. 

April 25, 2012

Bicycle sharing with a twist: Brompton Dock launches at UK railway stations

Brompton, Brompton, Straight Outta Brompton. New Brompton dock launches in in Manchester.

Bicycle sharing is becoming increasingly popular in cities around the world. London has Boris Bikes, Paris has VĂ©lo LibertĂ©: VĂ©lib’ and New York should soon have thousands of new Bixi-bikes this summer. There are scores of public cycle hire schemes in other cities. With the health benefits of cycling well documented [1] and with the potential reduction of traffic congestion which blight many of our cities, it’s not difficult to see why sharing schemes are gaining popularity.

An interesting new cycle sharing scheme launched in the UK last month, Brompton Dock, which hires out Brompton folding bicycles from railway stations around the UK. By the end of 2012 there will be 17 of these docks around the country. The twist (or fold) with Brompton Dock is that these bikes neatly fold away into secure lockers and also under your office desk or in a cupboard at home. Here are some quick thoughts from a trial spin earlier this month:

Brompton Dock Pros Brompton Dock Cons
They are beautifully designed and built bicycles, folding is very simple and ingenious (once you’ve worked it out). The bikes have high quality components (hub dynamo), shimano gears etc Quality comes at a price and Brompton bikes aren’t cheap. Although hiring is cheap (see below), you’re liable to a ~ÂŁ700 replacement charge if it gets stolen. Ouch!
You can take this bike anywhere (train, office, cupboard, boot of your car etc). Handy if you live in a flat with no outdoor cycle storage. No lock provided to secure the bike. You can just fold it away but this isn’t handy if you’re just popping into the shop. It’s probably not a great idea to lock it up for long because these expensive bikes will be a target for theft.
Bromptons have a pretty sturdy construction, which is just as well because hire bikes have to take a fair amount of abuse. Bromptons are quite heavy, weighing around 12 kilos. You’ll notice the weight when you try to carry the bike with one hand onto a train. On the road, they’re not as zippy as a lighter machine and the small wheels give a different handling to larger wheeled bikes.
Brompton dock is a nation-wide scheme which allows you to hire from one city and drop off in a completely different one, something you can’t do with Boris Bikes. Most cities have only one or just a small handful of these docks so city-wide hop-on, hop-off is more limited than other cycle sharing schemes
No luggage carrying equipment comes as standard, there is no pannier rack to put things on.
Secure lockers mean that vandalism will be less of an issue than with other schemes. The lockers have a very nifty keyless system where you send a text message and receive a unique code to release a bike (once you’ve registered)
Comes with a pump, neatly tucked away on the frame. A minor point, but I found the pump can fall off easily and be tricky to get back on.
A great way of “try-before-you-buy” a Brompton of your own. Prices look reasonable to me and there are a wide range of pricing options starting from just one week hire and membership for a mere ten quid. You might be reluctant to return it to the dock, and may even want to buy one of your own!

Personally I think Brompton Dock is a great idea and it will be interesting to see how successful it is. If Brompton Dock, and  other bicycle sharing schemes, get more people out of cars and onto bicycles and trains then it can only be a good thing. Try for yourself, you can hire one from a UK station near you in 2012.

(Disclaimer, I’m not being paid by Brompton Dock or Brompton Bicycles to write this review, but they did give me a free T-shirt for being their first (!) customer).

References

  1. Kremers, S., de Bruijn, G., Visscher, T., Deeg, D., Thomése, G., Visser, M., van Mechelen, W., & Brug, J. (2012). Associations between Safety from Crime, Cycling, and Obesity in a Dutch Elderly Population: Results from the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2012, 1-6 DOI: 10.1155/2012/127857

April 2, 2012

Open Data Manchester: Twenty Four Hour Data People

Sean Ryder at the Hacienda by Tangerine Dream on flickr

Sean Ryder, the original twenty-four hour Manchester party person of the Happy Mondays, spins the discs at the Wickerman festival in 2008. Creative commons licensed image via Tangerine Dream on flickr.com

According to Francis Maude, Open Data is the raw material for “next industrial revolution”. Now you should obviously take everything politicians say with a large pinch of salt (especially Maude) but despite the political hyperbole, when it comes to data he is onto something.

According to wikipedia, which is considerably more reliable than politicians, Open Data is:

“the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.”

Open Data is slowly having an impact in the world of science [1] and also in wider society. Initiatives like data.gov in the U.S. and data.gov.uk in England, also known as e-government or government 2.0, have put huge amounts of data in the public domain and there is plenty more data in the pipeline. All of this data makes novel applications possible, like cycling injury maps showing accident black spots, and many others just like it.

To discuss the current status of Open Data in Greater Manchester there were two events last week:

  1. The Open Data Manchester meetup “24 hour data people” [2] at the the Manchester Digital Laboratory (“madlab”), which recently made BBC headlines with the DIY bio project
  2. The Discover Open Data event at the Cornerhouse cinema
Here is a brief and incomplete summary of what went on at these events:

(more…)

August 22, 2008

If Science was an Olympic Sport…

Olympic Rings by JL08A fictional scene from the future: The Olympic games, London 2012. A new candidate sport is on trial, joining skateboarding, rugby and golf at their debut Olympic games. It is challenging discipline called Science, a sport more ancient than Olympia itself. The crowd awaits eagerly in the all new Boris Johnson Olympic stadium. It has taken more than 2000 years just to convince the International Olympic Committee that Science is worthy of being an Olympic sport. The big day has finally arrived but the judges are still arguing about how to award the medals to scientists. Despite all the metrics involved, it’s all very very subjective. The games go ahead anyway, and there are lots of exciting new events: (more…)

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