Get Over It: a response to John Rentoul Chief Political Commentator at The Independent and Stephen Kinnock MP

Brexiters who tell remainers to "get over it" are people who think losing the referendum is like losing at football or having your favourite celebrity voted out of a reality TV programme. Brexit is an economic catastrophe in waiting (how big a catastrophe depends on some decisions within our control and many without our control, but there will be a great deal more red tape and a relative, if not an absolute, reduction in real UK living standards). More significantly – at least to those directly impacted like my own family – Brexit represents an assault on the rights and freedoms and lives of millions of people in the UK and the rest of Europe.

True democracy has checks and balances. It is not a system whereby a majority of those who vote can impose any whim – no matter how damaging – on the rest of the population. I rather doubt that that Messrs Rentoul and Kinnock would be quite so sanguine over a majority vote to (say) permanently banish all MPs and journalists from anywhere south of Watford Gap – unless they applied for special papers.

If the vote had gone other way: 52% remain 48% leave, I should have been relieved but still deeply dismayed that 48% despised other Europeans to an extent that they were prepared to reduce their own living standards in order to prevent those foreigners coming here. (Let us not kid ourselves, cries of “we want back control and sovereignty” were just a more politically correct version of “send them back!”.) Moreover, Farage and his ilk would have never “got over it” (as he made perfectly clear before the vote) if it had gone the other way and he – and his fellow travellers in the Conservative party – would have carried on stirring up hate and division and fighting to leave.

There are approximately three million EU citizens here in the UK and approximately two million British citizens living and working in the EU – with families and loved ones – who are absolutely terrified as to what the future holds. We will use any legal and democratic means to thwart the plans of the Brexiters. If (and you may scoff but it has happened often enough before in history) they begin rounding up families (who came here legally) and interning them and forcibly deporting them, I personally would support civil disobedience to protect the deportees. In fact, I should argue that civil disobedience was a moral duty.

We are never going to “get over this”. We are going to keep fighting for our values of internationalism and tolerance - and for whatever rights we can salvage from the mess of Brexit – as long as we draw breath.


The bitter taste of Apple

I'm old enough to remember entirely command-prompt computing on DOS and UNIX systems. Then along came the XEROX/PARC work on GUIs. I remember seeing "GEM" running on an old BBC and could instantly see the enormous potential.

When our lab got its first Macintosh 128K, I was blown away. As things worked out, I next got a new job in an entirely UNIX workstation environment. Powerful machines (at the time) but the SUN GUI was primitive compared with what the Mac had to offer & we had shelves of manuals 5m long whereas the Mac offered an intuitive interface that required no manuals.

We then moved to PCs running Windows 95 (or "Mac 89" as people joked).

Thereafter, PCs (usually at least) got better and better and easier to use with each new O/S and I always naively assumed the same was happening at Apple. Certainly the Apple hardware got better and better.

Then last Christmas my wife needed a new phone and laptop and decided to go for a 4s and a MacBook Air. I assumed – as a computer programmer with nearly 30 years’ experience and fond memories of how easy to use Apple Macs used to be – I’d find it child’s play to help her. How wrong I was. I quickly discovered that Apple had apparently spent the past 27 years making their interfaces as counter-intuitive as possible and hiding as much basic functionality away from the user as possible.

Whereas, in the old days, a UNIX or DOS user required all sorts of arcane knowledge to perform basic computing functions, it is now the Mac user who has to learn all the secret tricks.

It begins when you full-size your first window and the resize, minimize, and close buttons disappear from the screen (one of many situations where the user is led into a cul-de-sac from which there is no obvious escape or way back). You try to scroll, and again you need to know a secret trick. You try in vain to accept predictive text suggestion on the phone until, once again, you are let in on the secret – using the space key (why didn’t I think of that?). Right clicking, deleting forwards – things which are entirely obvious on the PC – require esoteric actions on the Mac which have to be discovered and learned.

I could go on and on …. but let me jump to the very worst aspect of the Mac …..

The DOS and UNIX operating systems were built on the idea of a file tree. A highly intuitive metaphor for what actually goes on on a computer disc – which isn’t really organized at all like a tree. Because the idea of a file/folder tree is so intuitive, it was (conceptually at least) easy to navigate files and folders - even in the days when all we had was a command prompt.

Then we got GUIs with icons for different computers and their drives and for the flies and folders on those drives and with drag and drop so you could see exactly where your stuff was and where you were putting it or moving it to.

Why oh why oh why did Apple abandon a paradigm so intuitive and easy to use in favour of vague notions like “libraries” and “synching” and “sharing” and “streaming” and try to “flatten” trees into lists, and different locations into textual descriptions of actions? Most of the time, the user has not the foggiest idea of where his/her stuff is, or where it is going, or which copy of his/her stuff is having a particular action performed on it.

Trying to set up and use iCloud or iTunes is a nightmare. I need to know exactly what file (versions) are in which place and what’s going to happen on my various devices or on the central repository when I click “OK” in a dialogue box. It is impossible to find out except by trial and error, and an error might result in the loss of all my data.

The worst application, by a million miles, on the Apple desktop is “Finder”. OK this works as a search tool – something that has never worked well on the PC (though many 3rd party tools did and do) – but is utterly utterly hopeless for browsing and reorganizing your files. How on earth did Apple's GUI designers take something as intuitive as a UNIX file-tree and come up with something as opaque as Finder? It defies belief.

Please can Apple go back to the days when they tried to make life as easy as possible for the end-user rather than as difficult as possible?


Lost in France

Driving almost anywhere in the UK has become a nightmare, but driving along the D roads of France is a pleasure I have always treasured - and one that is still available even today.

France has a wonderful system of roads – all numbered in a highly logical way – and wonderful (again, highly logical) Michelin maps to help you navigate your way around.

Unfortunately, there is a catch. In fact there are several catches. If you drive through the back roads of France, you will frequently get lost (and often hopelessly so.).

As a Francophile (and general nerd) I have spent many years thinking deeply about why this is the case. Here are the results of my internal deliberations:

The arrows of outrageous foredoom

Wittgenstein once wrote:

How does it come about that this arrow points? Doesn't it seem to carry in it something besides itself? — "No, not the dead line on paper; only the psychical thing, the meaning, can do that." — That is both true and false. The arrow points only in the application that a living being makes of it.[1]

And here, he is making the point (as part of his discursive theses on language and rule-following –which need to detain us here) that there is nothing intrinsic to an arrow that forces us to react to it in any particular way. After all, what would you say to the person who looked at the arrow and then walked left? You could, perhaps, say “no, that means go that way” pointing to the right with your finger. But your eccentric observer might then reveal that he or she interprets pointing gestures by walking from the tip of the pointing finger towards the elbow of the pointer. In the end, Wittgenstein argues, we are left with the facts of “what we do” when presented with pointers and arrows.

Though (or perhaps because) the French were never great fans of analytical philosophy, they seem to have taken it upon themselves to reify Wittgenstein’s remarks on a grand scale.

Let me explain:

If you walk footpaths in the UK, you encounter signs like this:


These work perfectly well for walkers. I approach the sign from Malham and I only need to turn my head slightly, as I walk by, to see that I must continue in the same direction for ½ a mile in order to reach Malham Cove. The sign points in the direction I have to go.

Signs like this are useless for driving however. If we were concentrating (as we ought) on the road ahead we should miss them. Instead we have, by and large, adopted the convention that road signs should function like a map held vertically in front of our eyes:


The two arrows on the right of the sign do not mean “ascend vertically”. They mean “drive forwards at ninety degrees to the direction I am pointing in” ie North (And who, of course, would wish to go in the other direction?).

The French, though this is now slowly changing (see for example the cartoon at the start of this post), never really took to this convention as they established their highways infrastructure. Instead, the French adopted the convention that a sign pointing at forty-five, or even ninety, degrees to the direction of travel should be used to indicate “straight on”:


Which is clear enough in a situation like this. Unfortunately, the French also retained the convention that a sign may actually indicate the direction of travel.

The end result is that you reach a junction littered with signs - some of which are pointing in the direction you actually need to drive in order to reach the destination indicated on the sign and many of which are pointing at some almost arbitrary angular displacement to that direction.

At complex junctions, with many roads radiating out from the junction at many angles, towering helixes (that would put Crick and Watson to shame) of road signs are constructed with each sign actually pointing along the road prior to the one intended:

I have only shown the main signs (for clarity). The sign post will also have dozens of signs pointing to lesser destinations such as the local l’Hotel de Ville and La Marie. Some of these lesser signs will actually point in the direction of l’Hotel de Ville and La Marie or whatever it is. Others will, like the main destination signs, follow the convention of pointing at forty-five degrees to the intended direction. It all comes down to the whim to the person who erected the sign post, and how many glasses of vin ordinaire he or she had for lunch beforehand I suppose.

The chances of a non-native selecting the correct road in this situation are exactly zero.

Having selected the road-pointed-down at this junction rather than the road-intended, your problems have only just begun. The French have set far deeper traps for the unwary navigator ………

The French have never quite grasped the function of road numbers

Let me set the scene ……

You have just driven through the moderately sized town of Le Chatméchant and made the fatal mistake of driving in the direction that one of the road signs was pointing. You now find yourself heading along a beautiful country road but in the general direction of the Alps rather than the Mediterranean. You pull over and check the map. Rather than turning around and heading back to Le Chatméchant - where you will almost certainly be led astray again - you realize that you can simply carry on, take the next fork right on the D996 towards the little town of Uncheval. Continue through Uncheval on the D996 and you will soon re-join the N666 (the road you should have taken out of Le Chatméchant) and be back on your way heading south.

You drive on and soon reach a fork in the road. There is no mention of D996 or of Uncheval. Instead there is a sign (pointing at some arbitrary angle but apparently indicating the road forking to the right) which mentions the name of a place you are quite unable to locate on your Michelin map (without consulting the index). Nonetheless, you conclude this must be the correct turning and you bear right.

You are soon reassured. Every hundred metres, as you drive along, there are little concrete signs informing you that you are still on the D996.


Since there are no turn-offs or junctions, this seems a trifle redundant, but I suppose it helps those with poor short term memory.

You then arrive in the centre of Uncheval. There is a lovely town square, a Hotel de Ville, and a Marie and a dozen roads radiating out from the central square.

Which one to take?

All mention of the D996 has now ceased. You are presented with lots of signs (all of them pointing at entirely mysterious angles) which list all sorts of places you might love to visit if you had time but bear no relation to any of the places which (you have noted from the map) lie along your intended route.

Now you have two choices:

  1. You try each of the radial roads in turn until you exit Uncheval and encounter a concrete waypost bearing the rubric “D996” … or not.
  2. You pull over in front of the Patisserie (nipping in to buy a surfeit of Tarte aux mirabelles) and once more consult the map.

Craning your neck and then getting out of the car to get the view from the other side of the peuplier tree you draw up a list of each of the dozen or so indicated place names. You look each one up in the atlas index and then try to locate them on the map. Eventually, you suppose, you will find a place name that lies on the D996 and be able to choose the correct road out of Uncheval.

But the French have one more trick up their sleeves ..... well not really a "new trick", more a further illustration of the fact that identifying roads (rather than destinations) is essential to navigation:

The Mornington Crescent problem

Imagine, if you will, that you are travelling from Belsize Park (perhaps after a bit of “loving on the floor”) and wish to get to Mornington Crescent.

Imagine further that you are entirely unfamiliar with the topology of the London Tube system and that, once you get down to the platforms, no information whatsoever is provided. All you get is trains arriving and leaving declaring their final destinations as “Edgeware”, “Mill Hill East”, “High Barnet”, and Morden.

(Actually, this is more or less the situation you always find yourself in when trying to use the Paris Metro; but I am using this as an analogy for navigating roads using only direction signs.)

The destinations of the trains are not going to help you find your way to Mornington Crescent.

Now imagine you are provided with a map. You realize that you must catch one of the trains going to Morden rather than one of the others. But which train going to Morden?

Let us now imagine that the illuminated signs on the fronts of the trains and on the platforms announce not just the final destinations, but some of the intermediate destinations. Thus:

Via Camden Town, Euston, Kennington, and Balham.

That is still not going to help you get on the right train.

What is required (and what Transport for London – in their wisdom – provide) is some way of distinguishing between the two lines (the line that goes through Charing Cross and the line that goes through Bank). And that is, in fact, how TfL do it. The train signs announce “Morden via Charing Cross” or “Morden via Bank” (or more often “Kennington via ~” ….. but let us stick to the point).

I have often thought it would be clearer from a navigation standpoint if the Northern Line were split into two lines (as it once was: City and South London Railway and the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway) but I do not suppose they will take any notice of my views here. At least TfL do provide a way of distinguishing the different routes and you can (if you look on the map and find out where Bank and Charing Cross are) figure out which train to get on to reach Mornington Crescent.

In the analogous situation on a French country road, you have a much chance of reaching your intended destination without getting lost as you have of arriving at Mornington Crescent by driving down the D996.

In short, responsibility for signposting in France should be taken entirely out of the hands of the French and handed over to us. They could take over our cooking and cheese production (except, of course, for Wensleydale).

Still, there are few finer places on the planet to get completely lost than the back roads of France.

[1] Philosophical Investigations, trans Anscombe. p454
[2] https://www.contours.co.uk/inspiration/challenging_or_iconic.php
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatfield_and_the_North
[4] http://www.cotedazurcollection.co.uk/touring-holidays-south-of-france.htm
[5] http://www.123rf.com/stock-photo/road_milestone.html


Making sense of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016

Now I'm not a lawyer and you should take any legal conclusions I reach below with a pinch of salt. But I am good at modelling (or at least I make a living from it) and I thought I'd have a go at trying to represent the drug-law framework as a Venn diagram so that we can all understand it better:

So ..... from the top:


There are lots of different substances in the world. Some, like (say) plutonium, are rather dangerous and should probably be illegal on account of their dangerousness. Some are more benign - like say water (though even water will kill you if you immerse yourself in to for too long or even if you drink a few litres too quickly) - and quite useful so should probably be legal. I have an open mind on some things .... like "pop-tarts" and copies of the Daily Mail.

Psychoactive substances

A "Psychoactive substance" is "capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it" and "a substance produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state". [ref]

Hmmm. I suppose that makes sense so far .... though it covers a rather broad range of substances - many of which have yet to be discovered. And it, in effect, makes all those substance (apart from those in a new list of "Legal psychoactive substances" that come along with the new bill) illegal .... but also (logically) legal by virtue of not being in the set of "Illegal psychoactive substances". Some of these substances - legal or illegal (or perhaps in a quantum superposition of legal and illegal) - may or may not be very bad for people, but I've never been quite sure why we ought to punish people for doing themselves harm (and in addition to that harm) by imbibing such substances. By the way, I suspect that breathing in the fumes from dry-wipe pens could be especially bad for your liver and brains if you overdid it and it's probably best to stick to the water-based ones - though they are not as good as the old smelly ones for writing on (or cleaning off) white boards.

Anyway, onward and downwards ....

Legal psychoactive substances

... listed by the new Act

I suppose the first thing to point out is that washing down codeine tablets with whisky will probably kill you - as will whisky on its own if you drink too much of it all at once ... or even over an extended period if you overdo it. If you buy your codeine over the counter from the local pharmacy it will come with paracetamol and you will die particularly horribly if you take too much.

But all that aside ...."Legal psychoactive substances" are already (from a logical point of view) legal by virtue of not being in the "Illegal psychoactive substances" set. So I suppose putting them in a "legal" set makes them super-double-plus legal ... or something.

Illegal psychoactive substances

... listed by the old Misuse of Drugs Act

If you take heroin you will get terrible constipation. It is also nearly as addictive as nicotine - one of the legal (and also not illegal) highs. Also, because it is illegal, any heroin you buy will probably come mixed with all sorts of things that are really bad for you - especially if you inject them.

As with dry-wipe pens and tobacco and lots of other things, it's probably, on balance, not a good idea to take heroin .... but should it be illegal?

The logical problem here is, again, that "Illegal psychoactive substances" are already illegal by virtue of not being in the set of "Legal psychoactive substances". So I suppose, again, putting them in an "illegal" set makes them super-double-plus illegal... or something.

In short, I have the impression that whoever dreamed up this legal framework must have been completely off his (or her) face.


A letter to my MP re Nicky Morgan's heroic attempts to prevent integration

Letter to my MP @NazShahBfd re @NickyMorgan01's latest bizarre moves sent using writetothem.com - please feel free to use as a template for a letter to your MP.

Dear Naseem Shah

You were recently reported in the Guardian as saying that the poor standard of English among many women in our constituency was a “huge barrier to integration”.

I agree.

David Cameron (whatever you think of his proposed solutions - and I don't think very much of them) has expressed similar views - suggesting that the Government too is in favour of better integration of our communities and that the Government also thinks that the failure of integration helps promote extremism.

In view of this it seems all the more bizarre that more and more school children are being segregated along religious lines in *state funded* "faith schools" and "schools with a religious ethos" (which are apparently not considered "faith schools"). Far from promoting integration, such schools promote division and discrimination (both against the children themselves and in the recruitment of staff) that would be illegal in any other walk of life.

Even worse, many (most?) such schools do not even fully stick to the limited laws and rules which are in place to try and mitigate the divisive effects of faith based admission criteria.

Against this already dismal background, I was particularly dismayed to learn that Nicky Morgan is going to further "protect" faith schools from campaigners against religious discrimination - who, as a minimum, want faith schools to be compelled to abide by the existing rules.

I realize you are a member of the Opposition not the Government, but you are (I understand) in a position to ask questions of the Government and expect an answer.

Please could you ask Nicky Morgan why integration of adults with different religious backgrounds is regarded as a good thing whereas the integration of children with different religious backgrounds is regarded as a bad thing?

Yours sincerely

Michael A Ward (Dr)