What the Fox KnowsMarch 2, 2016
Of all my failings, the one that consciously niggles at me the most is my lack of advanced skills with statistics. This is because as somebody who likes the occasional bet, an author of several Betfair bots and a huge fan of horse racingMy fan of racing began as a child with the Grand National, but has since escalated to the point I take time off work for Cheltenham Festival , I feel my life would be enhanced greatly by a better ability to deal with statistics more complex than that taught to me at school.
As an incompetent sofa statistics geek, I am a considerable fan of Nate Silver and the excellent FiveThirtyEight.com site. In 2014, Nate wrote a post entitled What the Fox Knows in which he explains the position he and his site take towards their work:
Our logo depicts a fox as an allusion to a phrase originally attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” We take a pluralistic approach and we hope to contribute to your understanding of the news in a variety of ways.
This inspired my own little fox logo up there in the top left - the quote from Archilochus speaks to me about my World view and what I aspire to be as a human.
When I started writing here again a year ago I really wasn’t sure what I’d put here, and frequently I find myself struggling to find a topic. Truth be told, over the last year I’ve done most of my writing on Reddit, HackerNews and to my shame, even Facebook. In so doing, I’ve been thinking about what I know, what I care about, and it’s started to settle.
I am now working on projects and studies that combine several of my obsessions.
Coding is not just my job. It has taught me to think, it is my form of meditation, and it allows me to express myself in interesting ways.
Statistics and probability have been a long standing interest of mine. I want to get better at understanding both subjects, and the way I do that is by getting better at explaining them.
Betting occupies a chunk of my downtime, more than most. I have the evidence to show I make more than I lose, consistently, over many years. When I talk about betting people assume I am interested in gambling on anything going, or trying to beat a casino’s house edge. I’m not - I am a value bettor who looks to betting small amounts in order to sharpen my analysis skills or for fun, and everything I do is underpinned by ‘value’ and Kelly criterion staking. I hate casinos. I hate greyhounds. I hate evening racing. I know accumulators are harmful. I would campaign to have FBOTs removed from every bookmaker’s office in the country. I desperately want to condense everything I know about this topic into something that can help others.
Political analysis and economic/demographic/political data has been a frequent topic of discussion for me. That needs to be here, but I am no longer interested in simply producing political rhetoric, as I once was.
The rise of AI and Deep Learning fascinates me, especially as we combine these technologies with data from the “Internet of Things” and the ideas of a world-wide robot become almost plausible. How can anybody not be interested in that right now, here in 2016?
I also think a huge topic of interest for me in coming years will revolved around automation of work and the political and economic impacts of work becoming optional - universal basic income is an idea whose time is coming.
Other than ensuring what I write here is touching one or more of the above, I am not going to be very selective about what I drop here. I plan to improve my maths education, I plan to scour forums and grab notes and pull them all here. This site and it’s underlying git repository is going to be a sort of sprawling scrapbook of things I want to pull together, and I will share it in an attempt to focus my efforts and maybe something will be of interest to others.
Can Manchester City win the Premiership?March 2, 2016
If I had asked the question when I first started supporting MCFC, I would have been laughed at. In recent years, the season has always started with a cautious “Yes, but it’s a funny old game”. Right now though, I’m more calculating when thinking about it.
Here’s the top half of the table as it stands this afternoon before the Liverpool game:
Team GP W D L GF GA GD PTS Leicester City 28 16 9 3 51 31 20 57 Tottenham 27 15 9 3 49 21 28 54 Arsenal 27 15 6 6 43 26 17 51 Man City 26 14 5 7 48 28 20 47 Man United 27 12 8 7 36 26 10 44 West Ham 27 11 10 6 41 31 10 43 Southampton 28 11 7 10 35 28 7 40 Chelsea 28 10 9 9 42 38 4 39 Stoke City 27 11 6 10 29 33 -4 39 Everton 27 9 11 7 49 36 13 38
As it stands right now, most people would argue the competition is likely to be limited to the top half dozen clubs. That said, nobody is seriously considering West Ham as contenders (they are 960.0 on Betfair right now, so if you disagree, get a tenner on it). The only clubs given more than a 1% chance of winning by the betting exchange markets are in fact, the top 4.
When I look at this table, I immediately want to start thinking about these statistics in terms of what each team “earned” per game, how likely it is they will continue to earn those things at that rate given squad make-up, and to look at what their run-in looks like and if that might be tougher than what they have faced previously.
When we look at the per-game numbers, we get this:
Team GP GF GA GD PTS Leicester City 28 1.82 1.11 0.71 2.03 Tottenham 27 1.82 0.78 1.04 2.00 Arsenal 27 1.59 0.96 0.63 1.89 Man City 26 1.85 1.08 0.77 1.81 Man United 27 1.33 0.96 0.37 1.63 West Ham 27 1.52 1.15 0.37 1.59 Southampton 28 1.25 1.00 0.25 1.43 Chelsea 28 1.50 1.36 0.14 1.39 Stoke City 27 1.07 1.22 -0.15 1.44 Everton 27 1.81 1.33 0.48 1.41
Straight away there are a couple of stand-out numbers for me. Firstly, I know that historically goal difference tends to be a good predictor of where the league will settle in the long run - if you are consistently building up big goal differences, over time the points slot behind you and you overcome the “unlucky” losses.
On that basis, Tottenham is fully outperforming everybody else, including Leicester by a 47% higher goal difference, and should be feared.
The other number that struck me, was Manchester City’s GF column: they’ve been consistently scoring more than any other team in the league, but that hasn’t translated to points because of the number of losses. How can you be scoring more goals per game than anybody else, but be down in 4th?
Putting aside the two games in hand, a poor run of results in the middle of the season this year for City can be explained by the lack of Vincent Kompany who has been injured since the 8th November, and is only now back in the squad.
I can tell you as a fan watching that this has had a massive impact, and we’re all pleased to see he’s back playing again looking after that defensive back line and keeping the team shape in check.
Before he was injured we conceded on average just 0.75 goals per game in the Premiership. With him missing, that rose to 1.36 goals per game. How does that translate into points? With him, City won an average of 2.17 points per game. Without him, City have managed only 1.5 points per game.
Now let’s look at the run-in.
If Leicester continue as they have done so far and nothing changes, they will likely pick up around 20 points netting them 77 points 11 This would be the lowest winning total number of points in the Premiership since Manchester United won the title with 75 points in the 1996/97 season. That would - if everybody else continues unchanged at the same averages - be enough to get them the title. Tottenham are on target for 76 points, and Arsenal will be doing well to get to 70 points.
City have 12 games left, and if they simply return to their form with Kompany they can expect to get around 26 points, bringing them up to 73 points: that’s just third place, on this model.
However, I think as well as Kompany’s return, City have a relatively easy run-in.
They are the only club in the top 4 who have won a title in the last decade 22 Arsenal last won in 2003/04 and came second in 2004/05 - the best performance of any of the other clubs in the top running and they know how to hold their heads under pressure33 The fans, however do not. This video makes me cry every time.. That has to count for something.
Also, the only team in the top 4 that City have to play on their run-in is Arsenal. In fact, 8 of their remaining 12 games are with teams in the bottom half of the table.
It’s true that Leicester have a similar run-in with 8 of their 10 fixtures being with clubs in the lower half of the table and none of them against a top four club. They are also free of distraction - there is no Champions League to consider for the Foxes. Can they hold their heads though? Tottenham looks more troubled - they have a Europa run to think about, with 6 of their 11 remaining matches being with clubs in the top half of the league.
I think on balance, Leicester have to be favourites to win the League still. I don’t think Tottenham can do it and expect their points/game to come down over their final 11 games. Nothing has shown me Arsenal or Manchester United can improve their form enough to get up there.
Manchester City right now are game on for second or third, but perhaps no better.
There is a way they can win it though.
I’m assuming above that they will pick up 26 points with Kompany back, which boils down to 8 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses. They would be just 4 points behind Leicester, so if they can convert one of the losses to a win, and the other to a draw, they would be level-pegging, at which point goal difference would win out.
If City don’t lose and don’t settle for draws, they can win. Get more than 2.5 points per game on average on the run-in, and the title is theirs.
At odds of 6.0 on Betfair to win it, it looks to me like City might be a value bet and I’d expect that price to come down a lot if they win at Liverpool this evening.
Andrew Marr & Jeremy CorbynJanuary 19, 2016
I voted for Jeremy Corbyn as leader, I support him, and I watch his interviews with interest. Normally within minutes of him opening his mouth, social media descends into chaos, and that’s fun. This Sunday on Andrew Marr, what is now becoming the norm happened once more: Corbyn says thing, people outraged at thing that would be accepted as normal if said by anybody else, core message lost in arguing over whether that was what he actually said.
It’s like watching a parent try and have a sensible conversation with their toddler who just wants to pick their nose and scream “Bogies!” all the while.
All quite depressing.
On this occasion, as normal to my ears, he did well, but the critical response from the haters (who gonna hate, amiright?) was adamant: this was yet another gaff-fest.
I’m not so sure.
The reasons the actual interview and media response were so out of synch, is perhaps because enemies can pick and choose their soundbites, and JC’s media training is still lacking.
The transcript is worth a read. Sections of it might surprise you if you only read the reports of it and didn’t hear the interview itself.
As I went through the social media chatter, the discussion threads on Reddit and looked through newspaper editorials following this interview, it seemed obvious to me that if JC had simply said things differently, they could never have extrapolated what they did and used it the way they did.
The message became garbled, and we have come out of this as a party defending perfectly normal rational positions against people pointing at their heads and screaming “Cuckoo!” at us.
I thought I’d go through the speech and show what I mean.
To be clear, I am not qualified to give the Official Leader of the Opposition advice on how to handle the media. I’m not sure I’m qualified to tell him what to have for breakfast.
I have done a little speech writing before, but not at a level where national press might scrutinise it, and my main exposure to understanding how political media management works is limited to reading Alastair Campbell’s diaries (which Private Eye have shown have undergone heavy “revision”), and watching copious amounts of behind-the-scenes political dramas and comedies such as West Wing, Yes [Prime] Minister and The Thick Of It.
In short: I accept I know nothing about this.
All the more embarrassing then I think I could have done a better job of staying on message, to be frank. But with that caveat, let’s take some excerpts:
AM: [You have proposed that] companies which didn’t pay the living wage shouldn’t be able to pay dividends. Now I simply don’t understand this policy because I thought you, as a party leadership, were committed to bringing in the living wage at £10 an hour. That’s what John McDonnell told the Labour Party Conference.
JC: Yes, we are committed to bring that in. The living wage that George Osborne is proposing is less than the living wage. The living wage now would be over £8.60 an hour in the UK, higher in London.
AM: So you’ll bring in a proper living wage?
JC: We’ll bring in a proper living wage. But in the interim -
AM: So this will start hitting companies –
JC: in the interim we’re saying to companies that if you’re able to pay out dividends – these are listed companies – then you should first of all check your wage bill. You should check how many people you’re employing either directly or through contractual arrangements who are being paid less than the Living Wage. Because the Wages Inspectorate shows that yes we have laws on wages but there’s an awful lot of evasion going on and I think we need to crack down on that evasion.
AM: But you can’t ban companies from paying dividends until you’re in power and once you’re in power you’ll be introducing a living wage which will be a legal obligation so I just don’t see the point of this policy, if I may say so.
JC: Well it might take some time to bring that in but we’ll do it as quickly as we can.
AM: So it’s a short term interim policy?
JC: Of course, of course.
This still doesn’t make sense, and he’s missing a wider context. If a Labour government would bring in a higher living wage which would take time to introduce, what would be the point or introducing additional legislation to make sure companies do it that would take about as long? Legislation is legislation, why an additional layer?
I think it is going to take some time to figure out, but the catch is probably in the phrase “people you’re employing either directly or through contractual arrangements”, specifically the contract workers.
This wording implies there is room for policy around dealing with companies who have zero-hour contract workers and other groups which have total earnings below a living minimum, but current legislation does not help.
And in fact, you can imagine by extension he was just on the cusp of talking about the entire supply chain, maybe, perhaps, including to overseas workers. Maybe.
There is no evidence this was in his mind, but something rather bold could emerge: profitable companies could be forced to pay overseas workers a better wage before profits are distributed as dividends. That better wage would have to be somewhat lower than the UK living wage in order to not destroy our import supply chain in one swoop, but anything over £0.50/hour would be better than the status quo.
Alas, that bold a policy might be too much for where he is right now given the hatred with each word he utters is met, but it’s worth watching, there is a sliver of a trial balloon in there.
He went further when it comes to reducing inequality within the UK workforce:
AM: Let’s move onto another thing you were talking about in the same speech. The differentials between people at the top of companies and people at the bottom of companies, and you said that they should be brought down so, proposals have been around for a long time, what are they about now in Britain and how far down do you think the ratio should be?
JC: Well the average pay of a chief executive of a FTSE company is looking at sort of four to five million pounds a year. The average pay of the workers in all those companies is far less. The High Pay Centre, that studies these things, indicates just how much executive pay has gone up and how much relatively the pay of the rest of the people in all those corporations has gone down as proportion. We have the greatest level, except the USA, of income inequality in Britain. Is that something to be proud of? No.
AM: So the ratio I think is about 87 to 1 at the moment.
JC: It’s a bit more than that actually.
AM; The question is where do you think it should be, that kind of ratio?
JC: Well, I don’t have a absolute figure in mind. […]
This was a mistake. If in an answer you don’t mention a number, especially when asked for a number, people who don’t like you will invent a number that horrifies them to fill that gap in.
Middle-England middle-managers and senior executives of small firms will for example start to sweat as they imagine a 3 to 1 ratio, or a 5 to 1 ratio. Suddenly somebody on £45k/year is worrying that their boss is going to be dropping to £50k/year and pushing their salary down in turn. It’s silly, unintentional and avoidable.
In 1998, the actual ratio was 47 to 1. It had risen from 44 to 1 in 1980. There would be no harm in picking a number in that range, because that is a number that can be defended by pointing to historic economic performance and showing it did no harm and we were all happy with it. What’s more, many companies are actually already close to that number.
By picking a ratio of say, 45 to 1, JC could have made the further point that if a company wishes to pay its top member of staff £1m a year they are free to do so, providing that the lowest paid member of staff is paid £22,200. This is not a big ask for most companies able to pay a CEO £1m a year.
A policy like this explained in these terms communicates well because people on less than £22,200 a year working for a board who are earning on average £3m/year can relate to it immediately.
JC: […] I think it should be a lot less than [87 to 1]. I think we should study this thing. I think we should take more evidence on it and I think we should consult on it. The whole process of the policy making that I’m encouraging the Labour Party to undertake is obviously participation of party members and affiliates and supporters, but also the wider public. A lot of people have got a lot of ideas about things, let’s bring those in. And so we promote the debate about the kind of society we want to live in. I mean go outside here, the levels of inequality in Britain are so obvious. People sleeping on the streets while people are driving past in very expensive cars. It’s not right.
Making the party more democratic is an area that JC can do well in, but he needs to take more visible action on it, and quickly.
He should be finding a way of expressing his ideas that makes it clear it doesn’t matter what he personally thinks if the membership disagrees with him, the party wins the debate, he loses, we’re done, let’s get on with it. It might actually encourage more members to engage in that debate if they disagree with him.
Marr then moved onto industrial action, an area that probably only came up due to junior doctor strike action being discussed in the news a great deal recently.
AM: [quoting John McDonnell] ‘The view now is straight forward and I tell you this. If there is industrial action taking place then we should automatically now – automatically - come alongside our brothers and sisters in the trade unions and support them.’
JC: Well it’s John saying his instinctive position which is instinctively like a lot of people that…
AM: Is that your’s too…
This is a trap. When an interviewer jumps halfway through the sentence like that, step back, the answer is probably to reframe the question and gather one’s thoughts. Carefully. If you don’t do that, you’re likely to say something stumbling and ambiguous and easily forgotten. Such as:
JC: …we should be supporting those people that are trying to defend their position or in some cases improve their position. But that’s why we’re supporting the junior doctors in their wholly reasonable campaign at the present time. It’s why we’re supporting the nurses in trying to protect their bursaries, so we all get a better health service in the future. The two things go together.
JC forgot to add something to the effect of “I am not sure automatic support of every strike without knowing the details is sensible, but the ones we are seeing right now seem like they are actions being taken in desperation as a response to a Government who is indifferent to their views that this policy is going to be harmful to the patients”.
This is in essence what he actually thinks, but doesn’t say, but this wording diffuses the “automatic” time bomb in McDonnell’s words (there might be a strike Labour doesn’t like one day, especially if in Government, and this quote will haunt that front bench for weeks), and also gives the Government another kick whilst they are floundering over junior doctor contracts.
And they are floundering on this issue, and JC is failing to capitalise it to its full extent. But all the floundering in the World won’t make up for mistakes like:
AM: The question is all strikes. Has there ever been a strike you didn’t support?
JC: I’m sure there has been.
AM: But you can’t remember now. […]
This is awful. This was the point where I thought he’d written the next day’s front page. He actually escaped lightly in some respects on this.
A better answer could have been “All employees should have a right to withdraw their labour at their choosing, because otherwise their employment would be better characterised as being called slavery. I look at all strikes on merit, and where I see an injustice that those seeking industrial action are trying to redress, and strike action is proportionate to the injustice, I can’t see why anybody would oppose that strike. You have to wonder what employers are doing that is causing their employees to feel they have no other choice”.
Many working class Tories would agree with that. Honestly, they would.
The key is to take the question away from Marr - name a strike you didn’t support (which either you can’t or don’t want to do) - and choose to answer a question you did want to answer which is to challenge why strikes are even considered a necessary thing in 2016 anyway.
Here is another car crash from later on in the same interview:
AM: [I want to ask you about] sympathy action and whether you would remove that legislation.
JC: Sympathy action is legal in most other countries and I think it should also be legal here. But remember this –
AM: (Over) So you would repeal those Tory laws?
JC: - nobody willingly – yes of course – nobody willingly goes on strike, they go on strike as an ultimate weapon. The number of strikes is actually very small. It’s an ultimate weapon that is used. Anyone who goes on strike is making an enormous sacrifice. They don’t get paid, they suffer a great deal as a result of it. So let’s look at the causes of people being upset rather than the symptoms.
AM: So you’d allow sympathy action.
You can see where he is going with this, he’s trying to make it clear that no General Strike is on the cards, but he didn’t make it explicit.
He wants to point out that strikes are insane and should not be necessary in any sane economy, but because the messaging is back to front, he is being dragged into discussing repealing legislation on industrial action.
One of the reasons strikes are so rare and trade union membership numbers are on the decline is because employment law is now so good, that most people don’t feel or see the need to engage with trade unionism.
He should celebrate that, and then push for us to go further: push the point that we shouldn’t need to find more ways to strike, but make employment law even stronger so that no employee ever felt the need to consider it.
The way his answer is phrased means that the only thing people can take away is the notion of unchecked sympathy action being rife under a Corbyn Premiership. This scares people. I get what he meant, but I can’t fathom what he actually said as making sense to many in the electorate. Most of them aren’t picking over his words like I am. And how you are, now I’m making you. Fun isn’t it? Let’s continue…
AM: What about things like flying pickets?
JC: Well, flying pickets are a term that was first used in 1972, I think, or thereabouts, […]
Nobody cares when it was used. Knowing the year does not dampen the suspicion held by many that JC is a 1970s Trade Union geek yearning for the long lost days of comradeship whilst being beaten up by a police officer.
That might be who JC was. It can’t be who he is or will be if he is going to become Prime Minister.
JC: […] and it was merely people moving around and showing support during a very difficult industrial dispute. I think we have to look at the question not of what trade unions are forced to do ultimately but the causes of the problems in the first place.
This last sentence should have been at the front, not at the end of all his answers.
He could also strengthen his intention. One possible rewrite would be “Flying pickets are from a bygone era, and I believe Trade Unions are more interested in solving the causes of the problems they are dealing with in the first place, rather than resurrecting something from the 1970s. I know we in Government certainly would be more interested in addressing those problems than changing every single law relating to outdated trade union practice that nobody has an appetite for any more.”
It’s the same point. But phrased the way JC said it sounds like he is ambivalent to flying pickets, but this phrasing kills off in people’s heads the idea that the 1970s are here again and underlines the point working conditions should be protected and improved where they are found lacking.
Next we get to the nuclear part of the debate.
AM: And you’ve said that some of the money that’s going into the trident programme now you would want to divert into new green technologies and so forth to soak up the employment –
JC: (cough) We’re consulting on Trident at the moment. Emily Thornberry has drawn up a very interesting document to consider this and that is out for consultation as of Friday. We’re discussing that. But the point I’ve made, always made, is that I recognise that if there’s to be a change in the Trident programme – and I personally would want there to be a change in it – then the first priority has to be to protect those jobs, redirect investment into those yards and factories and companies that would be making material and systems to go with Trident so that their jobs are protected and there’s further investment in them. That’s the first priority.
This is great. He should have just repeated this over, and over and over again. He didn’t though, he got dragged into murkier waters.
AM: You gave an interview to the Independent on Sunday today in which you said a very interesting thing, you said that actually Trident or not Trident wasn’t necessarily a binary decision, an either/or decision. What did you mean by that?
JC: Well, we don’t know what proposal the government is going to make when the issue comes up to parliament, whenever it comes up. That’s not in my hands. There may well be a discussion on considering it further, because the government is in arguments about the cost of the whole programme. Many in the military are very worried about the focus of so much expenditure on nuclear weapons when they actually are looking at more conventional issues and a more conventional role for the armed forces. And of course issues of insecurity around the world.
This is also good. In fact, he could have gone further: he could have switched it around, quoted military officials who were on public record, and asked the question “Is the Conservative party actually pro-Trident? I think if you asked their members you might find they are just as interested in discussing the pros and cons as we are, and they aren’t even having the discussion. They aren’t considering other options, and I suspect when it comes to a vote, they might have a more awkward debate within the party than our sensible one within Labour is right now”.
He could have said that, and it might be true, and even if it wasn’t it would cause awkward questions for the PM who knows some of his back-benchers are questioning Trident. But more importantly, it pushes back on something he instinctively believes: that many in the country don’t think Trident is a natural given, that there may be other options, and they should be discussed before we spend the money without debate.
Then, he got dragged further:
AM: But if we have these four huge submarines packed with nuclear weapons circling the globe and a prime minister who has said, ‘I will never, ever use them,’ then it’s not really a deterrent anyway, it’s a nonsense.
JC: They don’t actually have nuclear warheads on them.
AM: Sure. So we can have Trident submarines without nuclear warheads, could we?
JC: If we use a nuclear weapon, anybody uses a nuclear weapon, it is catastrophic for the whole globe. Everybody knows it’s catastrophic. I don’t believe David Cameron would use it either.
Is it that crazy to suggest subs without warheads going around unable to fire straight away? No, not really.
In 2000, it became public domain knowledge that in order to reduce running costs and make the submarines more suitable for a role the Royal Navy actually needed, the time to fire had been extended to three days.
JC missed the chance to push this idea a little, pointing out this is kind of what the Navy want to do already. This might be perhaps because he was trial ballooning and preferring to wait for the report on Friday. I suspect though it was just a mistake.
The point stands though: if we already don’t have an instant-strike deterrent, and the Royal Navy are already trying to lower Trident running costs in order to better allocate budget to the resources they do need, why do we need a new Trident?
Instead we ended up in this trap of not quite making the position clear, and his view being described as one he might not hold, but will now stick.
Then the conversation moved to the Falklands. If you’ve read the papers or online debates about this section of the interview, you might be surprised by what JC actually said, and how it differs from what you’ve been told he said:
AM: Another political solution being discussed at the moment, we’ve got a new President of Argentina who has said he wants to have negotiations about sovereignty and so forth over the Falklands or Malvinas and so forth. Now, you have said in the past that you think such negotiations should take place and there should be a role for the islanders. My question is should the islanders have a veto over any talks?
JC: I think there has to be a discussion about how you can bring about some reasonable accommodation with Argentina. It seems to me ridiculous that in the 21st century we’d be getting into some enormous conflict with Argentina about the islands just off it. Yes, of course the islanders have an enormous say in this, let’s bring about some sensible dialogue. It happened before, I’m sure it can happen again.
AM: An enormous say but not a veto perhaps?
JC: Veto? They’ve got the right to stay where they are, they’ve got a right to decide on their own future, and that will be part of it. Let’s have that discussion and let’s not set agendas in advance.
AM: What did you think about the original war? You weren’t, I think, in parliament at the time when the task force was sent.
JC: I thought that the original war was a problem for both countries, in the sense that Galtieri was a deeply unpopular dictator in Argentina. I thought that President Terry of Peru was trying to make enormous progress by bringing about a UN resolution to it. And then we had the disaster of the sinking of the Belgrano and the whole situation got worse as a result of that. Surely in the 21st century we can do better than go to war on these things.
AM: Two bald men fighting over a comb, I think they said at the time.
JC: Well, I wouldn’t dream of talking about bald men. It would be impolite.
AM: Certainly in front of me. For now, thank you very much indeed.
He never questioned sovereignty. He didn’t say the islands should be Argentinian, that residents should leave, that the war was “wrong”.
All he said was that we can do better than war and military posturing when it comes to dealing with threats from Argentina.
And who could possibly argue with that? Most complaints seem to stem from the fact he didn’t use the key phrase in this: “self-determination”. It’s the code word to all involved that he supports the status quo, and it’s all people are listening for. They are not interested in nuance or fact, just hyperbole and buzzwords.
If I were JC - and most days these days I’m glad I’m not - I might have phrased this a little stronger: “We will support the Islanders’ rights to self-determination, but at the same time I am hoping that Argentina is going to be able to talk to us and the International community about this in a different way. We should be looking to help the Falklands and Argentina develop economic bonds and perhaps over time, friendship.”
It’s not aggressive, it fits his narrative, it’s fair, it’s an open hand, all without ignoring the war, it’s losses or it’s outcome.
In other parts of the interview relating to Syria I think he was stronger. He was ridiculed once for suggesting that back channels to the IRA should be government policy. Turns out, such back channels existed and were used. So now, when he suggests that ISIS need to be talked to as well as fought, it’s not quite so incredible. He needs to tread carefully though, they’re just waiting for one misspoken phrase in that context.
I am hopeful for where Labour is right now, despite the awful polling. I have resorted to picking over phrases in interviews rather than discussing policy because I don’t have much to say to the policy: it’s mostly fine right now. Where we’re struggling is getting that policy across into people’s minds over the chasm of a hostile press.
He might not be able to make friends in the press, but he can certainly make their job harder by not lobbing them soft hits, and by strengthening his language, he might even get points across in a way that people hear.
The Tyranny of YouthOctober 22, 2015
I’ve been thinking about youth and seniority within the tech industry a lot recently. I visited my Father and my Stepmother recently and pulled out from a cupboard was a photo album of their first Christmas in California, a Christmas I shared. I was surprised to find in it, this photo of me as a 13 year old:
Sat by a roaring fire in California (the bay area gets nippy at times if you’ve never been), I appear to be sat there engrossed in a book that frankly was already verging on being out of date. I loved it.
On my return from my most recent trip earlise this week, purely by coincidence a parcel had arrived which contained a copy of my first ever book on coding, which I had started reading just 20 months before the above picture was taken. Here is a sample:
For a long time I have thought about how an 11-13 year old today would not be able to do this. We have initiatives like Raspberry Pi and many learning resources for Python, but it’s a different World. It bothers me, but I’ve yet to figure out what to do constructively about it.
And then as with all occasions when I start to dawdle into reminiscing about my own past, my thoughts wander to my own age. This happened when I was 20 and thought I was not doing enough compared to some peers, but has wrankled more in the last 18 months.
In today’s programming industry terms I am old. At 37, in startup years, I should be off doing management and should be feeling guilty I have not retired into venture capitalism with a few million in share options under me. Done that, been there (except for the millions), sort of enjoyed it, but am now much happier writing code full-time.
Old developers are hated in this industry. Firstly, we typically cost more because we know more, and secondly we seem to be considered “less productive” or “more unyielding” to other people’s ideas.
As I started to think about it more, I realised that our industry is broken in that it only seems to value people between the ages of 18 and 27. Outside of that group, it’s assumed you are either too young to understand or too old to be productive.
And then I looked back at that photo and another one from this trip with my Father:
By my reckoning Dad is in his mid-40s in this photo. Discretion will prevent me from revealing his precise age.
I think he had been programming professionally for less than 10 years at this point - he had started at about the age I am now, after a couple of decades in the RAF and as an accountant. The technology he specialised in feels similar in its description to Ruby on Rails today, except it could build enterprise application on mini-computers that ran multi-billion dollar companies.
Back in the 1990s then it seemed that age was not an issue, just an ability to do the job.
Yet somehow, in the rise of the dot.com bubble and the years that have followed, this dialogue has arisen that older developers can offer less than their younger counterparts.
This is nonsense, and our industry needs to take stock.
Linus Torvalds and Theo de Raadt are in their 40s. Richard Stallman and Yukihiro Matsumoto (“Matz”) are both in their 50s. Larry Wall is in his 60s. Donald Knuth is in his late 70s. Fred Brooks is in his 80s. I challenge you to find me a better programmer in their 20s than any of them.
They’re good at what they do because of their age. Their experience has led them to see many ways of doing things and seeing the few that are worth persuing. I recognise this now, I feel it in myself. Since returning full-time to coding I feel like the most useful thing I will do for the next 30 years is write code, and help younger developers see their way through to a better way of doing things.
So why is there an implicit assumption in the job market that more mature developers are less productive? I think it’s for a few reasons.
Single people - it is said - work longer, which is mistaken as improved productivity. Despite study after study showing that long-term an 80-hour week is no more productive than a 40-hour week (due to burn out), we still value people who are in the office for 12+ hours a day, 6 days a week. Particularly startups.
Then there is the fact that the youngsters themselves believe it. I went back and looked at the tech my Dad was using in the 1990s and realised we have been trying to reimplement it in Ruby for the last decade, but not as cleanly. We have ignored the lessons learned from 1960 through to about 1995 and decided that was “old” and “not where the industry is”.
Yet, recently, people have started to talk about the Gang Of Four book. They’ve been looking at how the old COBOL systems managed to stay up. Lisp and its younger siblings are trendy again. We have much to learn from an older generation who the web startup merry-go-round decided could offer little.
We are reinventing things we don’t need to. Most Ruby developers have read Sandi Metz’s work on Ruby, but seem to ignore the fact she learned most of it whilst writing Smalltalk. Go and look at Smalltalk. For the love of God, please, read up on DDD (recent) and marry it up with a fortnight of playing with Smalltalk and then come back to Ruby: you’ll be a better developer by the end of it.
The industry media also favours the young. Gates was young. Jobs was young. Page and Brin were young. Dorsey, Williams, Stone and Glass were young. Zuck was young. The next one will be young, right? They make dramatic headshot cover stories of Time and Fortune magazines.
But it’s a myth.
Most of the value programming provides to the global economy is created by older minds and away from the hot startups. The billion dollar unicorns the tech industry covets are an abomination to the normal flow of business. Don’t believe me? Twitter has a market cap of $19.5bn right now. If somebody bought 100% of the stock at the value today, it would barely make the top 10 of M&A deals this year. We’re small fry.
I need to ruminate on this some more, I don’t have answers yet, I just thought I’d share where I’d got to. On Monday I go back to work and perhaps given it is the most open-looking company I’ve ever encountered when it comes to breaking down barriers I can discuss this with colleagues and get a sense of where to head next.
A Summer Evening Whilst TiredAugust 31, 2015
I wrote this post when tired around 3 weeks before I published it here. I had been up since 4:45 in the morning and wrote the bulk of this post on my second 2-hour train journey of the day, back to London from Norwich where I had spent the day.
It doesn’t matter why I was on the train. The purpose of my trip to Norwich is irrelevant. I just wanted to write down some thoughts and share them. This is a writing exercise, not something good. You might see something good. Enjoy that.
When tired, I find everything takes on a romantic quality. Just now as I looked out of the window of my train I saw hay bales in fields, glowing in the August evening punctuated by a small football club where a group of young men played at pretending they weren’t getting old.
The only time I would refer to hay bales as glowing, or a field being punctuated by anything is when I am drunk, tired, or romantic. I sometimes wonder what the difference between the three is, but I know on this occasion I am neither drunk or in the company of the woman I love.
When I started the day, fresh and eager, I was in the back of a car driving through London. The route we took was included iconoic sights, but to me they prompted thoughts about modern England in some ways.
Along Knightsbridge I saw young men in garishly loud jackets stumbling out of casinos. I do not believe they were drunk, or tired, or were being particularly romantic, but they looked like they were in shock, their eyes as empty as their wallets.
I remembered when I used to think it was glamourous to stay out all night gambling. Now I spend some of my spare time writing automated scripts - bots - to gamble for me through the night, and prefer to sleep.
We passed by Buckingham Palace just a few minutes after 5:30am, and through the grey dimness unique to very early dawns, I was able to see the Union flag atop the flag pole. No lights were on. She was asleep inside somewhere.
I thought to myself why would she stay there as much as she does, even more so when Parliament is not in session? Surely she can take the easy option and insist that every time she is needed to sign her assent on an Act of Parliament that has been passed by the Houses, she can demand they bring it to her somewhere nicer. Like Ipswich. That seems like a nicer place to be. Or the Norfolk farm house my train just passed.
Driving down the mall I noticed that framed in the windscreen was a picture book view of Parliament. The Clock Tower - the monument most of the World mistakenly calls Big Ben - had its clock faces glowing, perched over London’s green trees and sat in perfect architectural and memetic glory. It was a timeless and romantic view of London that tourists are excited by, but Londoners try not to be, lest they show they care about what it is they live in.
Up along the Embankment and through the City we continued. Everywhere was eerily quiet. Men sat behind desks staring at computer screens in huge expansive reception areas near the Bank of England. Their bored faces illuminated by a web browser, they sat with nothing to do but wait for the morning commuters to arrive. By this point it was nearly 6am, and I mistakenly thought bankers got paid well because they were in early.
As we creeped up to Liverpool Street I realised I had just travelled through one version of what many people would describe when talking about England: a bustling London tinged with pagenatry and idolatry, a lust for money and service workers tolerating them.
I prefer the evening version.
This evening I am racing through the countryside on a train back to London and every time I look out of the window I ache with love for what I see. It might be the early start, but the pale gold fields, basking in the setting Sun with borders of Oaks and Elms, all of it seeming to call out to me.
Across the aisle is the perfect picture of a Norfolk gentleman: yellow tweed jacket, grey cardigan, knitted tie, light green trousers, glasses, a face aged like a good piece of furniture handed down the generations topped with a Panama hat that has seen many more Summers than I have.
Opposite him sits his wife in similarly tweedy Norfolk wear, next to another lady who by all appearances could well be her twin sister. They are nervous and jump every time a train passes in the opposite direction, but jovial. They are an old family in all senses.
As our train lurches down leafy trenches dug out by our ancestors, and out in to wide open expanses that feel like rolling plains, I wonder about the differences between those people opposite and myself. We are both sat in First Class and therefore have chosen a comfortable life in our own minor way.
They are reading the Telegraph, I’m tapping away on a laptop. I look out of the window and fall in love with my country, and they no doubt look at me and feel despair. They perhaps think I’m working or doing something only young people do, what with my contraption.
One unusual sight out of the window is the occasional small housing estate, stuck in the middle of nowhere, an A-road being the only links to civilisation. Why do they exist? Who lives there? Will one of them one day grow to be a major town? Or a city? Who names these places?
We just passed a freight yard. Shipping containers are perhaps one of the most interesting things ever invented. That discussion is for another day. The fact shipping containers are everywhere should not surprise me, but does.
And back into the country we go. The remarkable thing about farmland is that we just accept it. It is spoiled land, agricutlure is the most primitive form of mass production mankind has created. A Farm is a factory with its machinery exposed for all to see as they pass by. We stare out at it and see nothing but beauty.
I just looked out as our train passed part of the estuary of the Stour. Boats sat lop-sided in the marshes and sands were almost singing to me about a better way to spend the evening than being in London. They looked stranded, wrecked, a chaotic mess of material, but at the same time beautiful. There is rarely a time I am near water where I am not relaxed.
On the way to the station I remarked to my taxi driver - a man who had lived in Norwich all his life - that with a childhood spent in the Peak District and my adult life spent in the largest cities in the land, it was hard sometimes for me to decide if I was a country boy or a townie. He laughed.
I am pretty sure people look at me and see the townie, but deep down I yearn to be the country boy. The reality is, I love them both for different reasons, and seaside towns where by definition half the landscape is left to nature seem to regularly be a good compromise.
I think because of that, I finally understand why gentlemen of a certain class in centuries gone by would spend some of the year in the city, and some of the year out in the country. Just the thought of that lifestyle makes me envious.
We just stopped in Colchester which the signs at the station insist is “More than Britain’s oldest recorded town”, although that claim is in itself something worth celebrating. I would bet Colchester did not start out as a small estate of houses on the edge of an A-road. It had a purpose, and its people were proud. They may well still be.
If there is a theme to my train of thought (no pun intended), it’s that seeing things for what they are and how they are perceived can be a deeply spiritual moment. There are few things that move me more than certain iconic vistas, but the iconic to me is not what is seen or known from media, but that tells a story.
And so it is that I find myself inspired to sit here, writing this nonsense, waiting for thoughts to melt into something more structured and iconic by themselves.
I joined the Labour party. Corbyn needs to winJuly 25, 2015
This morning I awoke with a slightly sore head and a subtle taste of kebab in my mouth after a well deserved Friday night out. As normal I tried to replay the events of the evening to identify if I owed anybody an apology, and then it came back to me.
In my email inbox, an email lurked from Harriet Harman welcoming me to the Labour Party. Ah yes, that’s right. I joined the Labour Party. Whilst drunk.
I had considered doing this after the general election, whilst sober. I had decided to hold off for a while as I did not want to have a knee-jerk reaction (I used to be a member of the Liberal Democrats), and I feared the leadership election would result in nothing more than a campaign of Tories dressed in red and with accents like my own from the North trying to show how centralist they were. Liz Kendall immediatley disappointed me.
Last night as I watched Newsnight - I record it so most days I watch the previous night’s edition in the morning before work - with a drunken haze, I got angry. For the last week there has been a dialogue about what Labour should be that I find utterly alien.
The New Labour guard tells it like this: Labour could not win in the 1980s and 1990s because they were too leftist. By moving to the centre, people did not feel their homes were going to be taken away from them and the aspirational and wealthy did not feel threatened. By “lurching to the Left”, they argue, this work will be undone and the party will be unelectable.
This analysis is, to be frank, utter bollocks.
Blair won because the country needed some charisma after a decade of old grey haired men being bitter towards each other in the Tory party. If Kinnock had still been leader in 1997, I suspect he could have actually taken it - he nearly did in 1992, and it by 1997 John Major and his “bastards” had been under the skin of everybody for too long.
I was a young man in 1997, but I recall very clearly that most people did not completely understand the change that had happened in the Labour party but knew that it was probably going to be OK and the trade unions were not going to run rampany under a New Labour government. It was not Clause 4, it was not the manifesto. It was just time for a change.
Centrist politics has never been popular in the UK. If it were, the Liberal Democrats would hold a majority.
At the last election, the Tories by being extremely right-wing were able to find a majority. Right-wing batshit-crazy UKIP picked up 3 million votes. The Greens - whose economic policy is so far to the left it would prompt Karl Marx to suggest they calm down and have a think - quadrupled their vote. In Scotland, Labour got thoroughly whipped by the SNP who are to the left of Labour.
Harriet Harman led Labour into a vote for austerity last week, and it became clear that the right/centrists of the party do not dispute a word of the Tory manifesto other than by querying the finer points of just how much they should fuck over the poor.
They agree with the neoliberal myth that short-term deficit reduction is the answer to all our problems and the only debate is on how much and which services need to be cut. Rather than saying “stop, there might be another way”, the only defence against Osborne’s suggestions at 40% cuts across services like policing and the Justice service was that this is what the country had voted for, and it could just work.
How is that an effective opposition? How does the defeat the cynical view that all politicians are the same so why bother to vote? How is that a principled stand against a party that is planning to wreak havoc whilst only holding 34% of the vote at the last election?
Labour needs to move to the left. Hard, fast and authentically it needs to develop and communicate some core values around equality. Not in a terrifying way, but they need to be anti-austerity, argue that the invisible hand in the market is randomly waving and there are some key areas it should have less effect on.
If Labour do not do this, Scotland is lost to the SNP for generations. If Labour try and pretend to be Tory-lite they will lose votes to the Tories on the right and to the Greens and even Lib Dems on the left.
If however a leader is elected who is prepared to stand up for some basic principles, there is a chance that they could not only win, but they make the United Kingdom a better place. I think if a leader could take a Japanese view of industry, a Scandinavian view on taxation and the wealthy, and a contemporary British view on culture and immigration, that leader can win a majority in 2020.
I believe that leader to be Jeremy Corbyn.
His policies range from the popular - nationalising the railways - to the moderately progressive in the shape of taking an anti-austerity stance. This is not a vote loser. The SNP and Greens have shown that a leftist agenda and strong stance can win votes in a UK general election. All Labour need to do is communicate it convincingly. Elsewhere in Europe left-wing governments have shown wide popular support.
I am therefore proud to call myself a Labour member and will be voting for Corbyn as leader with Watson as deputy. If they win, I expect to find myself out on doorsteps helping argue his case in 2020, if not before.
In the event of either Liz Kendall or Yvette Cooper winning I will cancel my membership: the party will be out of power for a generation and deservedly so, because it serves no purpose other than to justify and support a weak Tory majority and the neoliberal ideas that are hurting so many people in the UK.
If Andy Burnham should grab it, I’ll sit back and wait. I am not sure he has his direction sorted out yet. He thinks he does, but he is still holding onto that belief that centrism is the way to go, a path that serves nobody, including himself.
I bought an ArduinoJune 9, 2015
This weekend I surprised myself and bought an Arduino starter kit. I already own a Raspberry Pi but was interested in playing around with a more microcontroller-type setup rather than a small PC with some GPIO pins.
My reasons were a little hurried, but it basically stemmed from a few things that came together in a perfect storm.
Firstly, I’ve had a very vague sense of electronics because it never really interested me. Spending hours building a circuit that can only ever do one thing did not appeal to me when younger as much as writing software did.
Software is fluid, electronics is not. Electronics I can drive with a cheap microcontroller - a programmable microcontroller - does interest me. It means I can trivially get and input data to control simple circuits. That does interest me.
Secondly, whilst I’m not interested in the hype around the “Internet of Things”, the idea of being able to play around with network connected hardware fascinates me. I’m particularly interested in sensing of environmental traffic, but we’ll see where it goes.
I also have a young niece coming back to the UK from abroad for the first time in many years and I thought it might be nice to sit down and play with this kit a bit. Something tactile might keep interest piqued.
Finally, it looks like a lot of fun. A rainy weekend spent tinkering with a project is something I’m looking forward to.
Revising My CraftMay 17, 2015
I am revising what I do for a living, in both senses of the verb “revise”.
For the last 5 years I have held the job title of “Chief Technology Officer” - “CTO” for short - at two startups. My roles were hands-on and involved CTOs who aren’t hands-on get very sniffy and insist that hands-on CTOs are ‘not proper CTOs’ many tasks including, but not limited to:
- Stakeholder interviews
- Information architecture
- Systems design
- Writing software
- Hiring staff
- Managing staff
- Systems administration
- User Interface design
- Product Ownership
- On-call problem resolution
- Project management
- Board/Invester liaison
In larger companies CTOs don’t have time to write code and look after systems administration needing to be spreadsheet and presentation deck jockeys.
In very early startups you absolutely have to get stuck into designing and developing the technology - you may be one of only 2-3 coders in the whole firm.
I gained 25kgs in weight in this time In the sort of size companies I worked at, I didn’t have time to code, but I still had to.
Recently I decided to change things up. I had originally planned to go back to consulting, and to perhaps leave London and to get more balance in life. I handed in my three months notice and started talking to a possible client or two. Something didn’t feel right, so I started to look at other jobs that played to my strengths as a developer.
Scott Adams says you should optimise for energy. I think subconsiously that is what made me go down this route. I expect to have far more energy six months from now I surprised myself by both getting and accepting a job offer from a medium-sized e-commerce company as a Senior Ruby Engineer. It’s several rungs down in terms of job title, and a relatively large drop in income, but that doesn’t bother me. The thing that appealed to me about it, I think, was that in this new role I get to focus again.
As I considered the offer, I also considered their feedback from the interview via the recruiter. “He’s had split focus for a while, so his technical skills have suffered a little”, is a phrase I initially resisted, but deep down I knew they were right. Their follow-up - “He could be very good within a few months with some focus” - made me wonder.
I completely agree with Jacob Kaplan-Moss’ evaluation of the myths around programming talent, and on evaluation I would say that today, right now, I’m probably in the upper 50% but not in the top 10%. I feel like with some work I could get there though.
I research algorithms and if there is no existing library that implements them well, I’ll write up my own. Then I’ll think about how what I’m doing integrates with the bigger picture. I know the fact that I’m standing back and thinking about consequences and the ability to change cheaply puts me over the “average” line stacked up to most other developers. But am I taking my time to do things well, am I really honing my code in the right ways? No, I can do better.
Why would I want to put the work in to get up the standard distribution of talent? Writing code makes me happy. Not solving esoteric problems that are only of academic interest, but shipping real code after speaking to real people. Knowing that the company I am working for has benefitted, that the customer has benefitted, that’s what makes me feel good. The days I ship code do not feel like work and I go home “happy tired”. The days I have to move away from architecting and implementing software always feel like work and I go home “drained tired”.
My best days as CTO were those where I basically became a senior developer: scoping, prioritising and designing features and then working to deliver them. It’s where I added the most value.
As this dawned on me, I thought that perhaps I should never have become a CTO - I should have looked for a Senior Developer/Engineer role originally. What’s done is done. I now have experience that help me empathise with senior managers, and that can’t be a bad thing. For now though, I want to become the best developer I can become.
As such, I’ve started to dive through books. My initial reading list looks like this:
My goal is to balance some bigger picture ideas with some technical works of Ruby, the technology I use. I have read all of these books before, but feel I did not give them time to digest because I didn’t have the time to reflect.
I don’t expect any of the topics covered to be completely new to me, but I am interested to see if I can bring the ideas together with a focus that helps make me a better developer.
I’ll be writing up notes/reviews here, perhaps quite detailed. Nothing makes you internalise knowledge better than teaching/relating it to others.
@p7r is my preferred route If you think there are others I should add to the list, the links at the foot of the page should help.
The UK left are not whiningMay 13, 2015
Apparently, the Left are bad losers and we should all shut up11 “Stop your whingeing: why the Left are such bad losers” - Bryony Gordon, Daily Telegraph, 12 May 2015. I have no doubt that the Tory victors are going to reuse this argument every time we point out why one of their policies is cruel. The Left lost, the Right won, so shut up. Aside from this not being how democracies work, they are also talking nonsense.
I am not “whining”: I’m furious.
I have no problem with people listening to the arguments and making an informed choice and voting as their conscience tells them. I don’t think that is what just happened.
The Sun, Times, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Express all have owners who are unapologetic about their right-leaning bias and editorial influence I believe that they’ve just gobbled up the lies of a few media barons who run the papers they read, or they have acted out of class hatred. They have moved the country to a course of action that might result in actual deaths for the poor whilst the rich prosper.
On the balance of the manifestos it only makes purely logical sense for most people to vote Tory if they are living in a house worth more than £2 million and/or they are earning more than £100k/year and they don’t care too much about those people in our society who aren’t in the same bracket as themselves. If there are 11 million people in that situation, fine, the country has made the logical choice. I don’t believe there are.
My ‘ilk’ if you’re wondering is white, middle-class, executive/professional & male Unlike many of those voters, based on my income bracket, gender, skin colour, sexuality and other personal circumstances, I should be a Tory. The party that will look after me and my ilk, have won.
I am not a Tory because I have moved my gaze up from my navel and what I see makes me angry.
Foodbank growth in the UK 2009-2013 From “Austerity, sanctions, and the rise of food banks in the UK”, BMJ 2015;350:h1775
I’m not angry because the Tories won and Labour lost. I’m angry because 99% of the population have lost. I’m angry because a few self-interested elites have decided to use the population in order to further their own agenda instead of society’s.
Do I vent on social media? Sure. Do I want people who voted Conservative to feel ashamed? Absolutely.
And I’m not going to apologise for that until they prove me wrong and show me that the Tories are the party with society’s interests at heart.
Hello WorldMay 11, 2015
Beginnings are so full of possibility.
Often, I’m not quite sure where I’m headed but have a vague sense of direction. These are my favourite kinds of journeys: you see the name of a place you like, or perhaps think “Zoos are fun, I’ll go and find one” and before you know it you’re in a strange town looking at a meerkat.
This is not my first blog. Oh, far from it. It might be the first one I’ve started without having a point, but still…
As the about page makes clear, it’s going to be a bit of a hodge-podge/stream-of-consciousness/brain-dump thing but should be fun. Let’s see.