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.

If I can’t have a unicorn, no one can

Meanwhile, over in another political leadership contest, their unicorn-loving electorate are happy to destroy the UK and our economy. I don’t remember seeing that on the side of a bus in June 2016.

The simple conclusion is that the membership of the self-styled Conservative and Unionist Party is:

  • No longer unionist
  • No longer cares about wasting your money
  • Happy to die on the altar of Brexit

… but prefers to inflict such chaos on the country themselves, rather than let Jeremy Corbyn do it for them. What patriots they are.

Fortunately, Jo Swinson has found a rational order to do these things in for whoever their future leader is Boris Johnson. (Spoiler – only one of them needs to happen).

Ed vs Jo at the East Midlands hustings – a score draw

Last night I braved the stormy weather to attend the Liberal Democrats leadership hustings in Nottingham. I started the evening without a strong preference for either candidate and came away in the same frame of mind. It’s an unoriginal thought in Lib Dem circles, but I believe that either candidate will lead the party well. Even so, Ed and Jo impressed me during the event. So my judgement is that the evening was a high scoring draw, even if (to mix sporting metaphors) many of the questions asked were gentle lobs.

Ed vs Jo hustings leaflets

The hustings was more upbeat than the one in 2015 I’d attended. This was undoubtedly due to the much higher attendance and recent electoral successes. It seems like we’re no longer fighting for mere survival, but trying to figure out how to grow sustainably. The presence of Steve Bray also added some welcome colour to an otherwise nondescript university venue.

Ed’s strongest when he highlights the importance of simple, repeated messaging as a way of reaching the electorate. He argues that we need to keep forming policies based on evidence and our principles, even if they seem unpopular. Ed cites the examples of the “Stop Brexit” messaging of recent months and party history, including our opposition to the Iraq war and arguing in the 90s/00s for a penny on income tax to support education.

He’s rightly proud of his green credentials, making the excellent point that environmental policies need to be sold on their benefits rather than a “hair shirt” approach. I’d love to see the party develop the “your house as a power station” concept more, regardless of who wins this contest.

Ed’s most passionate while making his final statement, noting we really could be choosing a future prime minister. He doesn’t tell us to go back to our constituencies and prepare for government, but he’s not far off. “Stop Brexit, heal the country. Let’s win”.

Jo is at her best when she states that rebuilding trust with the electorate and communicating are the same. She says that authenticity is important and making emotional connections with policy is essential. Winning is not solely about having rational policies and catchy slogans. Actions are important too. She says that others (including MPs, hopefully!) are definitely looking at how we treat new people joining the party, like Chuka Umunna.

Jo puts the biggest smile of the evening on my face when she talks about the importance of lifelong learning (without actually using the phrase). She sees reskilling as being one way of ensuring de-industrialised areas aren’t left behind economically, as happened in the past. I get the impression that the future of work and spreading opportunity outside London and the South East is something she’s put considerable thought into. I’d love to see more detail on this in due course. She’s passionate when condemning the lack of attention given to this topic by the current government.

Her closing message is that she will be a leader who can cut through by working across generations, across the country and across party lines.

Ed and Jo in thouhtful mood as questions are taken from the audience
Jo and Ed in thoughtful mood as questions are taken from the audience.

There were no questions asked about electoral reform, and neither candidate introduced it into their answers. This was slightly disappointing, as I suspect electoral fairness will soon become a hotter topic than ever before. If we cede Liberal and Social Democratic leadership in this area the public will not forgive us. Fair votes are essential to a properly functioning democratic society.

As I said at the start, I remain undecided as to how I’m going to vote. I’ve signed up for the online hustings tomorrow evening, so maybe that will help me to decide. It feels like a really important decision and it’s one that I don’t intend to duck.

Elvis Costello OBE

I confess to having missed the news that Elvis Costello had been awarded an OBE a few days ago. Things that were unthinkable a few years ago seem to have become commonplace these days. The award was given for ‘services to music’. He reacted to it by saying  “… it confirms my long held suspicion nobody really listens to the words in songs or the outcome might have been somewhat different.” It would certainly seem that the marketeers at Ford have never listened to (or understood) “Pump it Up”, for example. I doubt that Theresa May has “Tramp the Dirt Down” on her playlist, otherwise I’m sure there would be outraged puffs of blue smoke coming from number 10.

The first time I saw Elvis Costello perform live was a few weeks after the release of “Trust”. I still have the ticket stub from his 1981 performance at Derby Assembly rooms. My “Tour to Trust” programme and badge are probably stashed away somewhere in the house as well. “Trust” was an album that didn’t do well commercially, at least not compared with the four earlier ones. The first single, “Clubland”, reached number 60. The follow-up, “From a Whisper to a Scream” (sung with Glenn Tilbrook), sank without trace. But it’s an album that has some great moments. “New Lace Sleeves” is brilliant, with a performance wrung out of a seemingly exhausted sounding singer and band, perfectly matching the song’s mood.

Elvis Costello Ticket 23-03-1981
My ticket from 23rd March 1981. The elviscostello.info site doesn’t have the set list from the performance, but it probably wasn’t too dissimilar from that used in Atlanta a couple of months earlier.

Anyway, congratulations to Elvis Costello are due for being awarded this honour – and for making his mother proud by accepting it.

In praise of Vueling

A few days before Jane was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, we’d booked a holiday in Barcelona. It’s somewhere neither of us has been. It was meant to be a sign that things were getting back to normal after my stem cell transplant last year …

Treatment obviously means that this trip has been postponed. Fortunately, we’d only booked the flights and hotel. The hotel was easy enough to cancel as we’d opted for a flexible booking (at the Catalonia Magdalenes, if you’re interested). The flights – non-refundable – looked as if they were going to be more tricky. We both have holiday insurance, but through different companies.

The flights were booked with Vueling, so I called their customer service desk to ask for a cancellation invoice. The call was answered promptly and I was offered the invoice, rescheduled flights or a full refund. The customer service advisor I spoke to was empathetic and helpful and I gratefully accepted the refund. All Vueling required was an emailed “fit note” and proof of our kinship. My credit card was refunded within 48 hours of these being provided.

Good customer service does exist, even on low-cost carriers, and Vueling now has two more customers for life.

Barcelona travel guides

I also needed to cancel arrangements for a weekend touring in Wales with the Seven at the same time. One of the hotels (a small, privately-run affair near the base of the Cader Idris) I’d booked was non-refundable. I emailed them to explain and hoped that the notice I’d given would enable them to sell the room to someone else. It’s tough being a small business owner and I thought this might be rather more useful to them than simply being a no-show. I said I understood that my booking didn’t allow refunds and that I didn’t expect one. Sadly, I never received even an acknowledgement of my cancellation from the hotel.

Is it too early to write off Change UK?

It has been a humbling couple of weeks for Change UK. No seats won in the Euro elections after allegedly boasting that they were going to replace the Liberal Democrats. With Westminster polls now showing them at 1%, it may be tempting to write them off. That’s probably premature, but they have a huge mountain to climb to establish relevance.

However, with Conservative and Liberal Democrat leadership elections underway and the Nigel Farage party hogging the headlines, there’s a chance for Change UK to use this time out of the media spotlight to regroup. They may wish to borrow a copy of SDP – The first five years to help them. The first five years was published in 1986 and is optimistic in tone, predating the agonies of the 1988 merger with the Liberals. Reading it again, there would seem to be a couple of things Change UK can fix – and one they can’t.

SDP - The First Five Years

One thing Change UK can’t fix (at least, not quickly) is putting together a broad-based policy platform that their current MPs can agree to. Probably the best article in The first five years book is by Bill Rodgers. In it, he traces the roots of the SDP back to Gaitskell’s loss in the October 1959 general election. Right from the outset the SDP had a clear political philosophy underpinning the party and the policies it developed. It was fairly obvious what kind of party the SDP was going to be from day one.

Outside of opposing Brexit, it’s difficult to understand what Change UK is trying to achieve. But as Nigel Farage demonstrates, being politically opaque doesn’t seem to matter too much at the moment. Provided, that is, you can motivate a reasonable portion of the electorate to vote for you. Unfortunately for Change UK, the Liberal Democrats (and The Green Party) have been far better at motivating voters in recent weeks.

More positively, the first thing Change UK could learn from the launch of the SDP is to actively court other political parties. From The first five years: “After the launch of the new party the overriding political imperative … was to come to some sort of accord with the Liberals”. The SDP was formally launched as a political party on March 26th 1981. By June 16th a joint statement of principles had been agreed with the Liberals. A Fresh Start for Britain addressed topics including proportional representation, incomes policy, the EEC and multilateral disarmament. In October, Bill Pitt became the first parliamentary candidate to win a seat on a Liberal/SDP Alliance ticket.

Should the Liberal Democrats be open to forming some kind of electoral pact with Change UK? Before the Euro elections I would have said definitely yes. Now – I’m not so sure. I’d currently support an arrangement not to stand candidates against their MPs in a general election, but nothing beyond that. Unlike the SDP, Change UK has been too slow to court and too aggressive towards its potential friends. That could change of course and I hope that it will do. But some serious bridge-building and fence-mending is required on all sides. However, some of their MPs and supporters are clearly Liberals and/or Social Democrats. I’d welcome them in a heartbeat to our party.

The importance of being capable of fighting local elections is a second lesson Change UK should learn from the SDP. At the local elections in 1982 the SDP fielded 2,300 candidates. While only around a hundred of these were elected, their average vote share was 27%. It helped to establish the SDP outside of the Westminster bubble. Adopting Liberal savvy in running local campaigns brought success for the Alliance, and enabled the SDP to attract and retain members during the seven years it existed. If Change UK is to establish itself outside of Westminster, then I’d expect to see it fighting many council by-elections sooner rather than later.

One other joy of re-reading The first five years are the stories included from party activists. This story comes from a certain Christopher Huhne, then the SDP’s PPC for Oxford West and Abingdon.

What are the SDP's policies poster - GE 1983