Wednesday 4 January 2023

This doesn't add up

 So Rishi is looking at plans to make all students study maths all the way up to 18.  As a STEM graduate, you might think I'd be in favour of this, but I have to disappoint you.  I'm not.  

A first problem that I have with this is that it's not even a proper announcement. It's only that he is "looking at" plans of this type.  That's not a policy.  It's not even a promise.  It's just an indication of what is currently wafting around the PM's mind as a possibility.  It's still perfectly possible for him to say that he looked at the plans, and didn't like them, so watched as they slid smoothly into the waste-paper basket.  It's obvious what he's up to - floating the idea to see how well it goes down before deciding whether to drop them without trace or move forward with them.  There are a variety of words (printable and otherwise) to describe that, but "leadership" isn't one of them.

There are also obvious problems with implementation, as it will direct a substantial part of our limited maths teaching resources on students who don't want to study it and have spent the previous 11 years demonstrating their inability to learn much of it. 

However, I think the main problem that I have with the suggestion is that it demonstrates a mode of thinking that is itself deeply problematic.  If I might be permitted a brief diversion, I recall an Economist article from long, long ago which argued against the proposition that hosting the Olympics was a good idea for a city - the perceived wisdom was that hosting the games meant lots of useful infrastructure would be built, and that would remain for the city to benefit from long after the games were finished.  Ah, argued the Economist, but if that infrastructure is useful and justified, then there will be a case for spending the necessary money regardless of whether the Olympics are in town or not - so if it is needed, build it anyway and in a form dictated by the needs of the city rather than in a form that suits the short-term needs of the games.  Then you have your lovely venue (or whatever) without having to cough up all the other Olympic-related overhead.  

I think there's something similar going on here.  If maths teaching up to 18 is useful but is not being provided by schools, why not?  One would have thought that if this was such a good idea, then a good school, staffed by skilled and conscientious teachers, would provide that useful teaching somewhere in the curiculum, entirely of their own volition?  It is valid to ask why that isn't happening - why it seemingly requires an instruction from the Prime Minister himself to make it so?

Perhaps they're not doing this because they don't think it's a good idea.  If so, then there would appear to be a difference of opinion between (on the one hand) Rishi, brandishing his experience as a former waiter, PPE graduate, and investment banker, and (on the other hand) experienced and conscientious educators.  I think I know who I'll side with on that one.

Perhaps they're not doing it because, although it's a good idea, there are better uses of the limited time available to the staff and students.  Again, I think I know who to side with.

Maybe they're not doing it because the staff are neither skilled nor conscientious.  If so, I think we may have more important issues to deal with that the exact date at which maths becomes optional.

Maybe (and I think this is probably the one), it isn't happening at the moment because the Department of Education lays down curricula for the schools (via the National Curriculum) which leave the schools with very little room for manoeuvre - and no incentive to be creative.  Maybe HMG is already meddling so much in school timetables that teachers simply don't have the freedom or flexibility to identify the students who might benefit from an initiative such as this and construct a course of lessons for them.  

Of course, that would mean that the plans Rishi is "looking at" are the governmental equivalent of swallowing a spider to eat the fly.  It has meddled and intervened so thoroughly that further meddling is needed in order to counteract the malign effects of previous meddles.  In fact, I think we're beyond the spider here, we're looking hungrily at the cow, and the horse behind it. 

No-one in government ever seems to ask "would it actually be better if we just STFU and went home?".  Not even in a nominally "Conservative" government.  And that, really, is what has irritated me enough about the announcement to actually sit down and write this. 

Thursday 18 November 2021

Is it time to close the Internet?

Obviously not, it has huge benefits.  I'm not even sure we could.  The title is deliberately written in order to invoke Betteridge's Law (which states that any headline written in the form of a question can be reliably answered "no").  It's also an odd suggestion to make in a blog post published on... oh...  

But... (and I do hope you knew that word was coming) it's still valid and possible to think about why we might want to close it, even if we know closing it would be overkill and we can't think of a better solution.  Which is pretty well where I am at the moment. Hence this blogpost.

I was born in the early 1970s.  Yes, I had an orange tank top. No, there are no surviving photos, mysteriously.  That meant the Web surfaced while I was at university.  It was still a curiosity at that stage - I remember seeing an early Netscape install on an lab Mac just before I graduated, but that was as far as it had reached.  My first Pipex Dial account was in 1997, in my late 20s, opened because my wife was on a business trip and we had the bright idea of using that "email" thing to keep in touch despite the time zone differences.  I remember buying that PC - I suggested it and she asked what would be the point of having a PC at home.  I didn't have a terribly secure answer, but thought we would probably find some use for it.

Anyway, the point of that is that I was already grown up, educated and at work before being introduced to the delights of the Internet.  And boy, they were great.  Discussion forums where you could talk endlessly about the subjects of interest to you?  I spent a long time there.  I started on Honest John's car forum, from that I found Sniff Petrol, and from that discovered, all of which seem to still exist in some form or another.  The opportunity to talk about a genuinely interesting* subject with others who have an equal interest was great, especially for a socially inept introvert like (say) me.  Of course, from time to time there was the odd idiot or teenager making a self-evidently moronic argument based on a complete lack of knowledge, insight or thought, but they were all self-evident, we would all realise (apart from the moron/teenager concerned), and we had a good laugh at what was in fact the 21st century incarnation of the village idiot.  

Then along came Blogger et al, and the chance to write what I thought and let the world come and talk about it (apparently, I wrote a moderately successful blog back in the days when blogs could be moderately successful).  Twitter came along and made it much more convenient to blog, so long as your point was short enough to express without any nuance. Facebook meant that you could actually keep in touch with people you knew in real life, if you were feeling brave enough.  And if you knew anyone in real life, of course. 

This gave me a very positive view of the Internet and social media.  From my perspective, it was all good.  OK, there were some morons who debated like teenagers, but they were an amusing side-show and once they had got bored (or their Mum told them it was bedtime) the intelligent debate could start.  

I've come to realise (slowly...) that while this may have been true 20 years ago, in the intervening 20 years an entire generation has grown up who thinks that this is actually the way to debate.  After all, they spent their teens, their twenties and now their thirties on Reddit, Pistonheads & Twitter, and that is all they have seen.  It turns out that the simple step of making an argument in person, face to face, and watching the other person burst out laughing at your blatant fallacy was an essential step in developing a sense of how to make a point properly and convincingly.  So "angry teenager" is now the principal form of debate - riddled with straw man attacks, whataboutery and undistributed middles.  

And the Internet, in its wonderful way, presents all of this idiocy in full, in detail, for everyone to read.  Whereas in 2001, the Internet was a wonderful thing because it allowed anyone to express their view without filtering out those without connections, funding, or status, it is now a terrible thing because it allows anyone to express their view without filtering out those with the actual ability to think those views through and express them coherently.  Which means that politicians and pressure groups see all this, and pander to it.  After all, why not... their votes count just as much as those of the thoughtful. 

 All of that is before we even touch the subject of the titillatory possibilities offered by the Internet and the subsequent decline in the treatment of women online.  I sense an entire separate blogpost could be written on that subject.

I don't know where we go from here, I admit.  I have no idea how we solve this.

They say that nothing is ever really new (which is a very upsetting thing to say to a patent attorney), but the Pythons did seem to get there a bit ahead of me.  Just over 45 years ahead of me.  Ah well.  

*interesting to me, ymmv.

A Hamiltonian Solution

 It seems that the time has come once again to discuss the role of an MP and whether/how/how much they should be paid.  

It's a subject that seems to keep popping up; the entire week seems to have been spent thinking about little else, ironically due to concern that a second job might distract an MP from the real issues at play in the country.  The fact that this has displaced any discussion of the fact that on Sunday someone tried to blow up a Remembrance Day service seems to have been wholly lost on those obsessed with scoring political points out of it. 

Simon Cooke has set out why MPs should have second jobs, and I can't put that argument better so won't.  My interest in the issue in piqued by the details of the process that Kier Starmer is calling for.  What he wants is an official to be put in post with the power to look into MPs' affairs, decide whether something is too distracting, or unnecessary, or unsuitable, and discipline the MP accordingly.  I really could not disagree more strongly.  

First, it's a classic Labour solution to an issue - identify a problem, propose a bureaucracy, allocate a budget, and then sit back and wait for the inevitable argument that the budget is too small and the headcount is inadequate because here are a host of other non-problems that it should deal with as well.  But that's not the real problem here.  

More seriously, our MP is our representative in Parliament.  Their job is to consider and pass laws, to provide oversight of Government, and to call it to account.  In the battle between the People and the System, they are there to argue on behalf of the People.  They are there to watch over the System, ensure that it operates fairly, and to reform it if not.  

Labour's solution would place MPs under the scrutiny of officialdom, subject to its punishments.  An unelected official would tell an MP whether or not they were being a Good Boy or a Good Girl and would give them a sweetie salary if they were.  This is infantilising of our MPs, and it is a fundamental reversal of the proper order.  The MPs are there to do that to officialdom, not the other way round.  

But what would keep MPs from being Naughty?  Simple; we would.  What we need is clarity and transparency - the Register of Members' Interests combined with responsible reporting of what MPs are doing and a robust recall process that is under the control of constituents.  Then, we can decide whether we want that MP to continue in post.  If the MP does neglect their work, or decides to represent someone or something else instead, they get the sack.  

Does it work in an (essentially) two-party state?  Can that possibly work?

Yes, it can.

It can indeed. 

Friday 25 May 2018

Clarity (possibly)

The following are some notes tapped out while on the way home from a business trip to the US.  They are as typed on the flight.  The original title was "Clarity", I haven't reviewed them so that may or may not be appropriate, hence the qualifier above...

It’s 4am at home.  Where I set off from, it’s 8pm.  So far as I’m concerned, I’ve no idea what time it is.  The Virgin Upper cabin is darkened, all the blinds are shut and the lights are down.  There is a purple light off to one corner, mood lighting for the bar.  My complimentary headphones are channelling Daft Punk to my ears – Aerodynamic.

I lifted the blind slightly and twisted round on my seat to peek outside.  Greenland was below us, and the sun is either just setting or just rising.  I genuinely have no idea.  I’ll look again later, that should tell me which it was.  If I think about it, I can probably work it out as we’re heading East towards the rising sun, but my head is hurting and I don’t want to.

I push the blind back down and settle into the seat again.  The purple light creates a pattern on the inside wall of the cabin where it ripples in and out between the windows that no-one can look out of without pulling a muscle.  The no-smoking signs are points of light on the roof, creating a regular pattern ruined by the chap to my right with his light on.  His face is lit up white – like me, he’s tapping away on a laptop. 

The cabin crew keep asking me if I want a drink, and there was a nice single malt on the menu.  But I don’t need the warm glow of the Scots coast, I have my own inner glow.  I’m going home.

Harder, Better, Faster Stronger.    
Ever. After. Work Is Over.


My work is international – one of the most international professions that there is.  We deal with many more countries than most professions, probably by an order of magnitude or so.  My bank manager admitted to me that I’m the client who regularly sets off all his compliance alarms thanks to the amount of money I send out and the sheer range of countries that I send it to.  We deal with the highest common factor - all the countries that figure on the plans of any of our clients.  And from time to time, that means going to say hello, shake hands, secure those relationships.

(They’ve turned the purple light off.  Now I just have the no smoking signs – I’m guessing they can never ever go off.  The bar looks as if it has shut, maybe that’s why they kept asking me.  Suddenly I fancy that single malt…)

My hobby is all about movement.  I’ve loved driving cars since my 17th birthday, when an instructor turned up at 10am in a white Mk2 Escort to take me for my first ever lesson – a total surprise.  An hour later I was gliding along the A452 at 40mph and loving it.  I started ordering nice cars the first chance I had, and my present to myself on getting into a paid-up partnership was a 325hp, 177mph, open-top, manual-gearbox example of the finest German engineering.  That took me into track days – I soon realised that its abilities were way beyond mine, and that if I tried to learn to use them on the road then the choice was between hospital and prison.  From there I started racing – not in my precious 911, but in a more (shall we say) disposable repairable car.  And repair it I have, several times.

And yet in that moment of inner warmth, I sense what is most important.  Home.

I’m going home now.

Sunday 8 April 2018


I was at a black tie dinner last night. 

My DJ fitted - with room to spare.  It wasn't even snug, it was positively roomy.

I've never had that experience before...

Sunday 4 March 2018


It was the accumulation of lots of little hints that told me I had to try this 5:2 thing and lose some weight.  And it's the little things that are telling me that something fundamental is changing as a result.

OK, the fact that the number on the scales is dropping steadily week by week is fairly significant, but (racing aside) that wasn't the prime reason - my long-term health was.  And so the stuff like not being puffed out all the time, having to run for a flight and it being easier than I expected, noticing that my calves have some definition again, they all mean more than does an abstract number. 

But there's definitely something changing at a deeper level.  We went out for a Sunday lunch as a family today - to Prezzo.  Now, I like Italian food.  Spaghetti with meatballs jumped out at me from the menu.  And today is a non-fast day, so I can have what I want.  So I did.

I really liked it.  But I couldn't finish it.  That's the first time I can recall that happening in, oh, about 47 years...

Monday 19 February 2018

Progress update...

Well, I'm now 16 weeks into this.  I've gone off boiled eggs for breakfast and now have a small scattering of granola, plus an apple for lunch and a much-reduced portion of whatever everyone else is having for dinner. 

It was useful to calorie count at the start, but after a few weeks that became both tedious and unnecessary - having got a rough idea of the portion size needed, I can now serve out a "fasting" portion accurately enough. That means I'm not limited to things out of a packet which has a nutritional statement on the side, which is both useful and healthier. 

That's not the big news though.  The headlines are:

 - I'm 8kg down on where I started.  This includes Christmas, when I jumped about 2-3kg! In terms of my long-term aim, that's about 1/3 of the way.  I've been waiting for the easy wins to fizzle out and for progress to slow down, but that hasn't happened (yet) and it's a fairly steady 1/2kg per week, plus or minus. 

 - I'm wearing trousers that are a size smaller than I'm used to.  The ones I'm wearing today were an accidental purchase a few years ago that had to be put at the back of the wardrobe as they were so uncomfortable that they were unwearable.  I've now had to order a selection of new trousers, as my old size is itself uncomfortable due to all the material gathering up under the belt. 

 - Talking of my belt, I may have to add a new hole.  At the right end, too. 

 - This morning I had to catch a flight and was running late.  Running was actually easy; I'd forgotten that could be the case.

 - It's so easy to stick to that I've moved to 4:3 instead of 5:2, i.e. fasting Monday, Wednesday and Friday.   That still leaves me with the weekend free, and it means that if my fast day doesn't fit around my work diary then I'm still at 5:2 even if I miss one.  This is closer to the alternate-day fasting that Dr Mosley also described but with a weekend and a steady weekly routine instead. 

This really works.  I'm properly chuffed.