I’ve always liked Totnes

I’ve always liked Totnes. Especially the Tudor Butterwalk, the Babbage room in the museum and walking by the river. I confess however that I’d not noticed the castle until the last time I visited on 2nd January this year – much to the amusement of my wife. My excuse was that as I drive I’d never seen it from the road, and if you’re in the town centre the buildings shield it from view.

So here’s a view of the River Dart, taken on my last visit, by way of welcoming their MP Dr. Sarah Wollaston to the Liberal Democrats.

The River Dart at Totnes
The River Dart at Totnes

Random musings from Bracknell

I’ve been a regular visitor to Bracknell for twenty years. It’s the town in Berkshire whose 1960s centre was so unloved that it was recently demolished so that it could be rebuilt in 21st century … splendour. The town’s fascinating subway murals celebrate buildings and employers that are no more.

3M Building - Bracknell Subway Mural
A mural in a Bracknell subway celebrating the 3M building, now demolished.

The drive between Derby and Bracknell gives me plenty of time to chew things over, not necessarily Bracknell related. These were some of the random thoughts that occurred to me during last week’s driving.

Will Dr Phillip Lee, Conservative MP for Bracknell, join the Liberal Democrats?

I don’t think that he will. But I can see him resigning the whip to sit as an independent MP of one flavour or another. However, my political predictions are usually rubbish, so nothing would surprise me. I’d be certainly be happy if he did join the party though. His pro-business credentials would certainly sit better with us than in the current anti-business Tory party.

What’s the point of the A308(M)?

At 0.6 miles in length, this is the country’s shortest signed motorway. The queue to get off it is sometimes 0.6 miles long too. The A308(M) wasn’t always like this, as Pathetic Motorways explains.

Why do supersized versions of small cars look so ugly?

There are some great small car designs. The original Fiat 500 is beautiful. The current Fiat 500 although larger, still looks cute, especially in yellow. A Pikachu of a car. But the Fiat 500X? My goodness it’s ugly. Lovely to be driven around in certainly, but that’s because you can’t see the outside at the same time. As ugly as a Raichu – the ‘evolved’ version of a Pikachu.

What would the 15 year old me make of the 55 year old me?

I think he’d be happy that I managed to turn my hobby of tinkering with electronics into a 30+ year career in the software industry. After all, writing software and getting paid for doing it is fun. Helping to explain the benefits of software to others, while still being paid, is even more fun.

Which songs make me smile unexpectedly?

This one did. It brought back some pleasant memories of Easter 1980, before the grind of sitting O Levels began.

A blat to Rutland Water

It was perfect weather for getting out in the Caterham today. Rather than head up into the peaks as usual, I decided instead to meander towards Rutland Water. The drive along the A6006 and A606 isn’t as demanding as many (provided that you stay alert for motorcyclists and tractors) but the destination is worthwhile. First stop was the Harbour Cafe at Whitwell for coffee and a cake.

Rutland Belle at Whitwell, Rutland Water
The Rutland Belle docked outside the Harbour Cafe at Whitwell.
Whitwell - Catamaran
A catamaran in the Whitwell boat park. Many (like this one) seem to have been forgotten, but I assume someone is paying for them to be stored there?
Exit sign
A six-inch high exit sign, not pointing towards any obvious exit.
Gnu in the car park at Whitwell
Small but perfectly formed.

Having decided that the two and a half mile path to Normanton was a little too far to tackle I headed off there in the Gnu. Lots of people seemed to be enjoying barbecues and there was no shortage of ice cream and other refreshments available.

Rutland Water
A view over Rutland Water towards Oakham (Well, almost. It’s somewhere to the left of the image I believe).
Duck
Obligatory duck.
Normanton Church
Normanton Church. Closed today, but available for hire.
Normanton Church
Normanton Church against the clouds.

I called it a day, as any more cake or ice cream would have jeopardised Gnu’s aerodynamics, and headed home via Melton Mowbray. The roads around Rutland Water seem remarkably well kept, certainly when compared with the roads back to Derby through Leicestershire and (especially) Nottinghamshire. They’re a pleasure to drive on. Perhaps Lord Bonkers has been keeping the inmates at the home for well-behaved orphans gainfully employed?

War in the blood

Every so often the BBC produces something that is worth the year’s licence fee alone. War in the blood, first broadcast last Sunday, is one such programme. It’s a truly remarkable 100 minutes of television.

I’d originally decided not to watch it. Somehow, it all felt a bit too close to home. The CAR T-cell therapy covered by the programme shares some similarities with the stem cell transplant I went through last year. Blood cell harvesting, long hospital stays and (ouch) bone marrow biopsies. The emotions you go through as treatment is explained to you and your carer. The periods of relative wellness, followed by total reliance on medical staff. It’s all horribly familiar. But encouraged by friends on one of the MCL forums I belong to, I decided that I needed to see it for myself.

Blood centrifuge
The blood centrifuge I was hooked up to a year ago. You see these being used in the documentary harvesting the blood cells needed for CAR T-cell therapy.

The personal stories of Graham Threader and Mahmoud Kayiizi are at the centre of the documentary. Both had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) which had stopped responding to conventional chemotherapy. The phase 1 CAR T-cell trials they signed up to were their best chance – their last chance – of a long lasting remission. Phase 1 trials are inevitably risky undertakings, as they’re the first time new treatments are tried in people. But as Graham observed, “someone has to go first”.

The science behind CAR T is explained in a straightforward manner using ping-pong balls by Dr Martin Pule. He’s in charge of programming the blood cells used so that they attack the cancer and kill it. His early passion for tinkering with electronics eventually led him into this career. There’s a point in the programme where he talks about the data from the trials being all important. In the midst of the patients’ personal stories this made me gasp, but of course, he’s right. You have to remain objective to make the right design decisions for the patients. You think with the head, not the heart.

Dr Claire Roddie leads the teams administering the trials. The documentary gives a fascinating insight into what motivated her to become a haematologist, and she shares in the patients’ joys and sadnesses. You see the wider NHS at its best as well.

War in the blood is available on the BBC iPlayer for another month. It’s compelling viewing, with a bittersweet conclusion. I’m glad that I watched it. The future of all blood cancer treatment may well be CAR T-cell shaped soon. I’m grateful to the pioneers – the patients and medical professionals – for their selfless commitment.

I’ve voted for Ed – here’s why

Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve voted for Ed Davey to be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats. At the start of the contest, even though undecided, my expectation was that I’d probably vote for Jo Swinson.

After all, Jo has the slightly higher profile of the two candidates. (Though not by much, if a recent YouGov poll is accurate). Regardless of who becomes leader their profile will rise. However, breaking through the noise of our opponents will always remain a challenge.

I scored the Nottingham hustings as a draw, but that felt like a surprise to me. Even Ed’s dreadful “Back in the game!” line, seemingly borrowed from Alan Partridge, wasn’t quite enough to put me off.

After Nottingham, I found myself warming more to Ed. The more I listened to both candidates, the more I believed that Ed had a better plan for building on our recent successes, especially post-Brexit (or post-article 50 revocation).

I also believe that Liberal Democrats are the best people to deliver Liberal Democrat policies. As Jonathan Calder puts it, we sometimes haven’t been tribal enough. Ed seemed clearer on this point than Jo. He still obviously wants to work co-operatively with others to end the Brexit madness and achieve our environmental aims. I think he’s smart enough to persuade the party to follow him into alliances where it makes sense, while remaining distinctive as Liberal Democrats.

It was the mini-hustings at the ALDC Kickstart weekend that finally swung my vote. I know the 250 people present were not representative of the way most people think about politics. We’re probably not even representative of the majority of party members.

But we were a group with a specific interest in local government and grassroots campaigning. Ed had recognised this. Right from his opening remarks, he successfully tailored the way he presented his message to the audience. Jo was much less good at doing the same thing. If I closed my eyes when Jo was talking, I felt I was back at the Nottingham hustings again. I never had that impression when Ed was speaking.

This difference in approach felt important to me, especially when there really isn’t that much to choose between two excellent candidates. To succeed in our ambitions at the next general election, different groups of people are going to have to understand our propositions in ways that make sense – to them.

As I said about the last leadership contest, it’s often not about what you say, but the way in which you say it.

Last Saturday, in the hot and sticky conference room at Yarnfield Park, Ed demonstrated to me that he understood this point best.

Telegraph poles at Yarnfield Park
As my photographs of the Yarnfield Park hustings were all equally blurry and rubbish, here’s a picture of part of the telegraph pole collection at the conference centre instead (The centre used to belong to the GPO and BT). I was relieved that the ALDC Kickstart training didn’t involve climbing these for an hour before breakfast …

Raspberry Pi 4B review

I’m now the proud owner of a  Raspberry Pi 4B. Naturally, I wanted to see how it performed using the Whetstone double precision benchmark. In FORTRAN, obviously. Over ten runs it averaged a single core performance of 1,259,871 KIPS. This is 2.4x faster than its predecessor, the 3B+, and 8.3x faster than the original model B, released in 2012.

Raspberry Pi Performance, 2012 - 2019
Whetstone double precision benchmark performance of Raspberry Pi models released between 2012 and 2019. (Single core, with no compiler optimisation flags set).

I’ve not yet decided what to do permanently with the latest addition to my collection. The others are used as a weather station, security cameras and for general tinkering. The graphics performance of the Pi 4B isn’t quite good enough to wean me off my Windows 10 PC for general office work and image editing. It’s not too far off being acceptable however. At £76.50 for the 4GB version (with a case, 3A power supply and Micro HDMI lead) it’s definitely better value.

The Pi 4B does get warm in use. vcgencmd reports a cpu temperature of 60 to 65 degrees Celsius when not under load. By way of contrast, my 3B+ idles at 50 degrees and the Pi Zero at 35 degrees. A heatsink or fan would seem like a good investment.

A Raspberry Pi 4B

I’m currently playing with the gfortran OpenMP compiler directives. I’ve already figured out the first two gotchas. The first is that gfortran wants the source file extension to be .f90 rather than .f (otherwise it ignores the OpenMP parallelisation directives in the code). The second is that the GNU implementation of FORTRAN 90 breaks backwards compatibility for traditional FORTRAN comments. Both were simple enough to fix once I’d worked out what was happening.

The compiler optimisation flags (-O1, -O2, and -O3) make a significant difference to performance. For benchmarking purposes I’ve not used them, but for any compute-intensive work they’re worth experimenting with. However, I still have nightmares about compiler optimisation settings breaking my code in the 1980s, hence my caution. Old habits die hard. The remaining challenge is figuring out which loops to parallelise. I have lots of not so lovely segmentation faults happening at the moment. Oh well.

The Raspberry Pi is one of the few things that make me feel proud to be British at the moment. Jo Swinson in her pitch to become the leader of the Liberal Democrats stresses the importance of the UK investing in technological leadership. She’s right, but we’ll need hundreds of similar successes. This is difficult enough to see happening while we’re still in the EU, let alone if we end up outside.

On reflection perhaps unicornism is dying in the Tory party

Reflecting on yesterday evening’s post, perhaps the more interesting story is that around 30% of Tory members are prepared to stop Brexit if they thought it would damage the country. It’s only one data point, but I wonder which way the trend is heading? Maybe Brexit unicornism is starting to die in the Tory party.

Brexit unicorns. Every bit as likely as an electric Caterham 7. But less real.
The Tories may be prepared to sacrifice their Brexit unicorns after all.

Although all the remaining candidates still say that Brexit is a given, that block of 30% must be giving them pause for thought. And, perhaps, a potential way out after all for a smart Tory PM.