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Entries in UK (55)


The Beards

Just saw The Beards, live in London. A night full of facial hair appreciation.


St Pancras


Finding a suitable vehicle for protest

This is an interesting article about the recent win of the anti-EU party UKIP in England. UKIP voters are described as being part of the anti-politics movement:

They want to protest about the economy, about immigration, about the effects of globalisation, about the detachment of ordinary communities from frontline politics.

They can and should be able to do that. The responsibility lies in their choice of vehicle for that protest. 

This is a wonderful articulation of my feelings about not only UKIP but also parties such as N-VA and Front National. These parties do tap into a deep feeling of digust at the traditional parties, blaming the major parties for not addressing major issues. To at least some degree that digust has a legitimate basis (although in a democracy the fault ultimately lies in the voters). It is not an unreasonable stance to want vote against all the traditional parties of power. It is not unreasonable to feel angry about injustices. It is not unreasonable to protest vote. But UKIP is not a suitable vehicle for a reasonable protest. N-VA is not a suitable vehicle for a reasonable protest. Front National is not a suitable vehicle for a reasonable protest. When you vote for these parties you are not just registering a protest, you are not just voting for the anti-politics aspect of those parties, you are also endorsing their xenophobic roots. 

A protest vote is fine, even to be encouraged, but the vehicle of your protest still needs to be worthy of your vote.


Ingress obsessed

For those who don't play, Ingress is an addictive game where you visit statues and monuments and log the entry into your phone, building up small fields of links for one of the two teams (blue and green). There are a lot of active players, and anything you build up can get torn down in hours or even minutes. While admitting to being moderately obsessed myself, others take this to extreme. Recently the green team in Belgium sent out squads to the different theme parks across Belgium and using an elaborate strategy they managed to create a field of links covering all of Brussels (and half of Flanders) just before the theme parks closed for the year. Of course the blue team couldn't let this this stand, and within hours they had broken into the park just to take down this virtual field. The whole operation took dozens of people many hours of planning and a full day for the execution, and the result only lasted about half an hour:

So just imagine how much creative energy and person-hours went into creating this:

Really, it is amazing what people chose to do with their time, and just how obsessed people can become about their hobbies. But I guess that is what life is for? Spending it on past-times that give you happiness.


The Scottish question?


An eye on London


The departure of the Mayflower

Our holiday cruise departed from Southhampton, a dock which has seen the departure of both the Titanic and the Mayflower. Looking at how dismal Mayflower Park is, perhaps one can understand why the Pilgrams left for America in a much-overestimated colonisation event. (Although, the Pilgrams were such stuffy puritans that they probably complained England wasn't dismal enough for their tastes).

To be fair, Southhampton was actually surprisingly nice, with a vibrant shopping district, very nice parks (apart from dreary Mayflower Park) and a core of historic buildings. For the shear novelty of it, we spent a day in the American-style shopping mall, the highlight of which was building a bear with Hayden. He decided to build a scary shark wearing a purple sparkly dress and large boots, who he calls "Princess Shark". 



European election results - there was no "European earthquake"

Last weekend the EU had its election - the second largest democratic election in the world (after that of India). The results tend to be rather difficult to interpret, especially as the reporting focuses on the most sensational outcomes. So let's start by looking at the broad trends:

Conservative & economic liberal parties: These parties, on the centre-right of European politics, were the biggest losers of the EU election, dropping down from 414 seats to 338 seats. This is a nasty swing, moving from ~55% of parliament to ~45% of parliament, but overall they still constitute the largest political grouping, and will continue to have the largest say in the new EU parliament.

Socialist & green progressive parties: These parties, on the centre-left of European politics, were the unsung winners of the EU elections. They rose from 285 seats to 316 seats, an increase from 37% to 42% of parliament. This more than eliminates the losses they were inflicted at the last EU election (which were considered a disaster at the time). Of course, not losing as badly is not the same as winning, but there was a clear gain, and the progressives will likely be more influential in the new parliament, especially if the centre-right wants to distance itself from the far right.

Far-right crazies: These were the talk of the election, and if the media was to be believed Europe was going to experience a far-right tide (in relative terms, of course, most of these nutters would feel at home in the Republican party in America). The far-right did indeed steal votes from the centre-right, and increased from 67 seats to 97 seats (from 9% to 13% of parliament). But to put the EU results in a bit of perspective, the entire far-right surge in seats was due to only two parties - UKIP in the UK (up 12 seats) and the Front National in France (up 21 seats), and both of these were due to the losses on the right. Despite the large gains, expect the far-right to be ignored in the next parliament - their politicans don't have the skill to work behind the scenes and they don't have any incentive to actually get anything done. These parties only survive in opposition, so they will continue to act like it.

Ignoring the hype, what is the actual outcome of the EU election?


  • There is no "European earthquake". The left-right balance more or less reverted from the shift to the right in the last election. The vote turnout more or less stayed the same. There is an ongoing process of the major parties losing votes to smaller parties, but this is fractioning the existing ideological make-up, rather than representing a profound shift within Europe. The composition of the parliament that will actually work together is fairly similar to the last parliament, and even the one before that.
  • The centre-right is reaping what it sowed. For the past decade, the centre-right in certain European countries (UK, France, Italy) has played up populist racist messages in order to beat the centre-left. This was a successful short-term strategy, but it is now backfiring, as the hatred stirred up in voters has boiled over to the point where the far-right is now cannibalising off the centre-right (similar to the Tea Party in the US). In volatile Italy and Portugal, this exploded in the last EU election and has reverted to normal in this one. Hopefully we see the same in France, and the Front National becomes a one election wonder. The opposite of Italy is the situation in Poland and Hungary, which slid to the radical right last election and have stayed there. Unfortunately, I doubt we will see any centre-right wing parties learn from this lesson, and if anything I expect them to lean even more to the far-right.
  • Someone needs to make the case for Europe in the UK. In the UK, the last ten years have seen UKIP rise from nothing to being the largest British party in the EU parliament. Notably, the British only vote for UKIP in EU elections, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is a good thing, because the British public clearly understand that UKIP are a bunch of incompetent crazies, good as a protest vote but not the type of people you'd put in charge of anything that mattered. Which brings us to the bad - the UK treats the EU elections as an appropriate venue for a meaningless protest vote. "Why" is an interesting question. I think part of this might be that the "European party" in the UK (the Lib Dems) is led by the least popular British politican, who is synonomous with selling out his party. More long-term, I think it is because being in opposition is easy, so governments like to pretend that the EU is the opposition and blame the EU for things that the government voted for. Someone more competent than Clegg needs to make the (very strong) case for Europe in the UK.
  • Czechs and Slovaks just don't care. In both countries, the turnout was below 20%. Overall the turnout in Europe rose slightly (43%), but in several Eastern European countries turnout was shockingly poor. If these countries want to have any say about the Europe they are part of, they should look into their electoral systems and consider making substantial changes. 



Pseudoscience is criminal - James McCormick deserves jail

Today James McCormick was found guilty of massive fraud, after pocketing £50m profit from selling dowsing sticks. The "harmless" activity of dowsing is not just carrying around a Y-shaped stick looking for water; like many other ancient superstitions it has been incorporated into New Age nonsense and is used to look for everything from untapped oil reserves to lost golf-balls. 

I hope you are thinking "what nonsense"; I expect you followed it up with "but who does it hurt?". The problem is that believing in any pseudoscientific nonsense is a faith-based enterprise, removing evidence and reason from the decision-making process. If someone sells "lost golf ball dowsers" and sells them to the gullible at $20 each, it doesn't do much direct harm. But when society embraces this garbage it can do a lot of harm indeed.

Moving on to James McCormick, he bought up large shipments of the $20 "lost golf ball dowsers", replaced the stickers and then sold them to the Iraqi government at $40,000 each as explosive detectors. The claims were so over the top (it is powered by the user's static electricity, it can detect explosives from the air or even 1km underground, you can reprogram it by putting it in a jar with any other substance to absorb the vapours), that it is obvious to any rational person that the thing was a shame. McCormick even said in an interview that "the theory behind dowsing and the theory behind how we actually detect explosives is very similar". 

Unfortunately, we aren't all rational people, and anyone who believes in dowsing for water is hardly in a position to rationally reject the concept of dowsing for explosives. The Iraqi government was so taken with these devices that they replaced physical inspections with dowsing - and people died as a consequence. When confronted with the scam the Iraqi General Directorate for Combating Explosives replied: "Whether it's magic or scientific, what I care about is detecting bombs". And that is exactly the problem. It does matter whether it is magic or science, because science works but magic/dowsing/crystals/prayer/etc do not. Before you laugh too hard at Iraq, more than 20 different countries have bought into this scam, including Belgian police using them for detecting drugs.

James McCormick deserves jail. The greater point, however, is that a society which embraces "harmless" faith-based rubbish is more susceptible to harmful faith-based rubbish. Belief in crystal healing doesn't hurt directly, but it can lead to use of alternative medicines that can kill. Praying to get better from a cold leads to praying to get better from HIV - and hence less diligent use of actual HIV meds. Believing in a God looking out for you makes you more susceptible to lottery scams and the like. And the worst, of course, is when the gullible fools taken in are in positions of power, so we all feel the consequences of their faith-based decision making.



Canterbury canals

The gate to Canterbury cathedral

Why not try the best sandwich in Sandwich, as judged by the Earl of Sandwich?

The white cliffs of Dover

Egg hunting in Whitstable