Think tanks and financial transparency

Last week’s Question Time introduced one of the panelists, Kate Andrews from the “Institute of Economic Affairs“. What an organisation name! It sounds so official. So governmental. So trustworthy

…yeah not so much.

The name sounded familiar to me from some recent reading on dodgy think tank funding transparency. It prompted me to look up their rankings on

I’ve improved this image from one found on the transparify blog. You can read much more about how and why transparify have ranked the think tanks on the website. Transparify have zoomed in on the issue of funding transparency because it’s important. If we are to have these “think tank” organisations dedicating themselves to swaying public opinion one way or another, then isn’t it important to know who is paying them to do it?

Well maybe it depends how influential they are. It occurs to me that “think tanks” exist as part of a fuzzily defined spectrum. An individual can set up a wordpress site and start pumping out blogs and social media posts pushing their political viewpoint. That’s a wonderfully easy thing to do, and I’m glad. But then if you name this website “Institute of X” and pretend to be an organisation not an individual, then you’re well on the way to being a “think tank”. If some wealthy backer wants to pay you to hire a team, and work on pumping the messages full time, then that is a think tank. It’s a natural progression to this situation where it feels like there’s a cost-effective way for wealthy individuals or organisations to buy influence over our politics.

But it’s OK. The key remaining barrier is whether we all grant them acceptance and influence (and whether mainstream media do e.g. by inviting them to be panelist on BBC Question Time!). We should be rejecting organisations who fail to disclose exactly what they are, who they are, and who they are funded by. If we don’t know who is paying the salary of Kate Andrews from the “Institute of Economic Affairs”, isn’t it rather sinister that she has been able to gain such a platform?

If you saw the show then you may remain unconvinced, after all Kate Andrews was talking a lot of sense on there right? She’s intelligent, charismatic, and persuasive. I was finding myself agreeing with her even as I was surfing around the transparify website! I was waiting for her to drop a right-wing free-market help-the-rich-get-richer bombshell. She talked on a lot of topics without touching on this, and when it came it was so subtly slipped in at the end of a debate on climate change, that it passed without any cross-examination.

Maybe that’s just good politics. Don’t try to ram your message down people’s throats. Say things that people agree with, and slip your message in. But I suspect that kind of obfuscation game is a think tank speciality. A while ago I followed a tweet to, and it’s bothered me ever since, because again I found myself agreeing with so much of it. I enjoyed these optimistic pro-science articles, but look out! Slipped in there you’ll find various dubious messages: “inequality doesn’t matter”, “deforestation isn’t happening”, “fossil fuels are the best energy source”, “be happy with your menial existence and help us get richer”. OK I made that last one up, but the others are all messages in articles on that site, all cunningly tucked between other more enjoyable (and more correct) writing. is one of many sub-brands of content pumped out by the  American right wing think tank with wealthy backers: Cato Institute.

But I guess that’s just dodgy politics as usual, and I’m criticising Cato Institute based on my own political views. I’m quite happy to do so, but to be fair, they do OK on financial transparency. Middling score from transparify.

What transparify do so well is to focus on just that one aspect of think tanks, financial transparency, in a non-partisan very objectively measured manner. It’s possible to do so, and while it won’t solve all the problems with dodgy think tank politics, it is a great starting point for penetrating the sinister goings on behind these organisations. It should be a clear “untrustworthy” red flag if organisations regardless of political flavour, are failing to disclose details of who is backing them financially.

Which dodgy characters will the BBC be inviting onto Question Time tonight I wonder?

Government snooping and breaking encryption. Hurrah!

Bletchley Park Bombe MachineI was just looking at some old photos from this time last year. A year ago the weather was a lot better and I finally made it to Bletchley Park.

It filled me with chest-thumping patriotic pride to think of these code-breakers puzzling over intercepted nazi messages, and inventing brilliant machines to break the code. A good old bit of government snooping and breaking encryption. hurrah!

It was a curious coincidence to return home on the same day, and see on the evening news, the home secretary Amber Rudd declaring that it was “completely unacceptable” that the government could not read messages protected by end-to-end encryption. There had been a small terrorism incident in which a few people were killed by a nutter with a gun at Westmister. Hardly deserving of the ‘T’ word. Apparently he had sent a WhatsApp message. So naturally this was being used as an excuse to enlarge government snooping powers. A good old bit of government snooping and breaking encryption. hurrah!

The enigma code was a different matter though. British code-breakers versus the nazi war machine.

It’s a well known story, but I learned a few things at Bletchley park, particularly while putting my stupid questions to a member of staff. I asked about what came before enigma. Radio signals had been extensively encrypted by various communication networks of the German military for years before the outbreak of war, and Poland had been extensively snooping, mapping out all these networks (a complex challenge in itself), and breaking various levels of encryption in a cat ‘n’ mouse game. They were able to pass on all of this information to the Brits. We were only carrying on with the game.

But with enigma machines the nazis thought they had an unbreakable code. To crack it, Alan Turing built the Bombe. This is often described as a forebear of modern computers.  The star attraction at Bletchley Park is a working (moving!) replica. It moves with spectacular spinning and clunking noises. Watching the way it moves, it’s obvious that the spinning drums are performing a kind of brute force attack, trying every combination to break the encryption. But the replica is not complete, and actually seeing behind the drums where they are still missing, is very revealing. Metal brushes on the back of the rotating drums, brush over these metal contact pads. Behind the scenes they’re wired up so that an electrical current flows and the machine suddenly stops when it hits upon the correct combination.

Bletchley Park Bombe Machine

I was amazed and delighted by the simplicity of that idea. The whole giant contraption is just a great big electrical circuit, with some mechanical movement thrown in. We can see and understand the machine at a very low level, in a way which is much harder with modern computers. In computer science studies we learn about all the lovely layers between applications like this web browser, right down to…  well ultimately an electrical circuit. However I actually deliberately chose a computer science degree course which didn’t involve hardware, because I found that low level stuff uninteresting. I have a vague understanding, but maybe I should try building tetris with nand gates some time!

Although there’s a beautiful electromechanical simplicity to the Bombe, the less low level aspects (the details of the cryptography problem it’s actually trying to solve) are harder to understand. There’s a good numberphile video explaining some of it.

To come up with these solutions in 1940, Turing was surely a genius. He clearly knows the necessary hashtags. We rewarded him with chemical castration as a punishment for being gay, which drove him to suicide. Hurrah Great Britain!

Free iOS games

Here’s some iOS games I’ve found enjoyable. These are all FREE.

angry-birdsObviously Angry Birds is a good place to start if you’ve not played any games on your phone. A blockbuster success for a reason. Quite addictive, and broad appeal (meaning they’ll draw you in, even if you’re not the kind of person that enjoys games). There’s also more of the same with several variations on the theme: Angry birds seasons. Angry birds star wars. Angry birds rio. etc etc.

I guess Candy Crush is similar. That one’s so mainstream my wife plays it. Personally I’ve deliberately denied myself that time-waster. In general I’m trying to avoid the super-mainstream blockbuster apps, but…

dotsDots is the stylish minimalist version of candy crush. Same idea. Swiping to match up lines and clear things tumbling down from above. But yes, less cutesy more minimalist graphics.

line-upLineup Puzzle. Make lines from different shapes, very similar to tetris, but without the blocks tumbling down from above (is this all sounding abstract enough for you)

amazing-thiefAmazing Thief. Another super-dinky little game. In fact this “Ketchapp” developer seems to specialise in insanely simple little free games. I’ve tried a lot of them, but this one was my favourite. I don’t quite know why I played this one until I managed I score of 22. Maybe because the single tap control is good for playing while crammed on a crowded tube train.

little-craneThe Little Crane That Could. Ever wanted to pull those levers to control an articulated crane? This 3D crane simulation is remarkably entertaining. I think it’s the realistic physics simulation that makes it. The free version only gives 5 missions. Even I have been tempted to pay for more.

airplaneAirplane! So speaking of physics I tried a few flight sim free apps. This one didn’t have particularly good physics, but it kept me entertained for quite a while for some reason. Maybe the choice of planes and the challenge of enabling new ones.

f18-carrier-landingF18 Carrier Landing. This one has better physics and more interesting controls. Weirdly they went to the trouble of developing this nice flight-sim engine and then made the game mission extremely limited. You just land on an aircraft carrier. That’s it. It’s like they forgot to make the rest of the game. But randomised weather conditions and start locations kept me entertained.

I can’t say I’ve done a systematic review of lots of free apps by genre. This is just some apps I’ve stumbled across and which turned out to be pretty entertaining (sometimes against my first impressions).

Playing silly little games on my phone is a guilty pleasure of mine. I’ve generally only ever installed free games, because… well, long story short, I’m a cheapskate. But they are very hit & miss. They can be a bit rubbish or not working at all for whatever reason. Increasingly they can have such unbearable advertising bombardments, in-app purchase nags, or sign-up demands, that I don’t really get as far as figuring out if the game is any good. Sorting the wheat from the chaff is a problem. Hence I thought this list might be useful for others.

I’d like to list some free and open source examples, but it seems open source isn’t a big thing for iOS developers. There’s very few working games on the appstore (as opposed to game engines / ideas) where you can also find the source code. I thought I’d installed Lumio off the appstore (quite a nice little game) but can’t find it on there any more.

I’m actually getting around to writing this finally now that I’m ditching my iPhone (and all these games) and swapping to a new android phone! I imagine I may be able to write a similar list but just for free open source games on android.

Vote remain

This sums up the EU referendum pretty well for me:

“If you vote leave it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re xenophobic,
but if you’re xenophobic you’ll vote leave”

I read this sentence somewhere else, but with the word “racist” instead of “xenophobic”. I think “racist” feels too strong, but I do think there’s unfortunately quite a high proportion of the UK population who are mildly xenophobic. They don’t like foreigners that much. And that is pretty much all this EU referendum vote will come down to.

There are of course lots of other important issues being debated.

Take trade for example. I see the remain camp saying that a brexit would be totally disastrous for trade, and then the leave camp saying that it’d be fine, we’ll easily strike up trade agreements. I find myself thinking the truth is probably somewhere in between. There’ll be a lot of admin and hassle (better have a good reason for it) but in the end we’d get trade agreements in place and we’d be trading with Europe as we always have.

And there’s lots of similar tit-for-tat debates where the campaigns have been quite polarised, with scare-mongering and lies from both sides.

So I started out thinking, let’s leave aside these smaller short-term issues and think about the big picture: The EU represents unification. Working together closely with our european neighbours. To me that’s very compelling, especially in a world where increasingly Russia and China are calling the shots. Let’s be unified. Let’s be a European super-power. But the leave campaign says, in an increasingly turbulent world we need more control over our own affairs to be able to better cope with whatever the world throws at us, acting in our own interests. I can see that point. I can see why others might be persuaded by that. Personally on these broad big picture viewpoints, I’m more for unification.

So I was always taking a remain view, but I recently realised I was watching/reading too many debates and losing sight of the real driving force of this referendum. This makes me feel very strongly in the remain camp with the realisation that, if the country does vote to leave, it’ll be for a terrible reason. I’m convinced the majority of people voting to leave are not even thinking about the issues. The only reason the EU referendum has ever even been a thing, is because a lot of people in this country are mildly xenophobic.

For some people this is because they take in too much tabloid nonsense (particularly on the massively over-inflated non-issue of immigration), some people have fooled themselves that it’s the right way to be “patriotic”, for others it’s just a failure to reign in their innate distrust of foreign people. Fear/distrust of people who are not like us, is something which exists in all of us. A perfectly natural feature of our monkey brains. We’re more likely to learn to take our xenophobia and set it aside if we work with foreign people, or we do a lot of foreign travel, or we live in a part of the country which is more cosmopolitan. But I worry that many people when they head to the ballot box will be listening to this nasty little voice, this mild xenophobia, in the back of their mind, and they’ll vote leave for no other reason.

I don’t know if this is a good way to persuade people. We saw as UKIP were taking votes in the general election, that nobody likes being told that they’re racist. Maybe telling someone they’re mildly xenophobic is not much better. But what this does mean, is that a general background level of xenophobia is swaying the vote towards brexit. What a terrible reason to take a decision like this. It means all right-thinking people, even if they find themselves on the fence on the EU issues, must make themselves count as an antidote to this.

vote remain


Birthing affirmations

I designed some “birthing affirmations” as printable posters. There’s lots of birthing affirmation images on the internet …but here’s some more:
















These images are all my own work I and release them to the pubic domain (CC0 if you like)

Birthing affirmations?

We’re having a baby soon, in case you didn’t gather that. So we have these messages pinned up around our living room. The idea of these birthing affirmations comes from the “hypnobirthing” classes we went to. A friend recommended hynobirthing. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew my wife was nervous about the pain of childbirth, and could do with all the help she can get.

Affirmations were one things we learned about. It’s a pretty simple idea really. Use positive language. Tell yourself positive things over and over again, and stick up eye catching messages around the house to continuously remind you.

Even though you conciously know that the messages might not necessarily be true, they can work their way into your subconcious, through repetition. It also works during labour, giving you something positive to look at and focus on (hopefully!)

Affirmations are also part of the “hypnosis” bit of hypnobirthing. A voice on a recorded hypnobirthing track can plant these positive affirmation messages in your subconscious, but this works best while in a state of deep relaxation, close to sleep. …or so the theory goes.

Grandma trying lemmings

I thought I’d share a memory of my Grandma who died about four years ago.


Although grandma was always old and lady-like as any grandma should be, she did like trying things. I sat next to her in a restaurant one time with these over-the-top thick-rimmed sunglasses. She wanted to try them.

But my favourite, most vivid memory of this was one time in my mid-teens. The grandparents were visiting for a week or so. Long enough to be bored of having them around, so I was back to my usual entertainment choices. I was hiding upstairs in my attic bedroom playing computer games. I was playing “lemmings”. Continue reading “Grandma trying lemmings”

Old sofa. Anyone want it?

Does anyone (who is able to collect it from London N19) want our crappy old sofa?

Update: Due to the power of freecycle, the sofa is no longer available! Someone came round and collected it off me.

old sofa in bits

The good news: Free sofa!

The bad news:

  • We dismantled it. But all the bits are there. It can probably be put back together, and this way it will easily be transported
  • It’s a not a good sofa. It’s a very low-end cheap IKEA sofa.
  • It’s old. The cushions aren’t horribly stained, but they’re not exactly white anymore either.

Continue reading “Old sofa. Anyone want it?”

Society of Cartographers Plymouth

A couple of weeks ago I was in Plymouth for the Society of Cartographers Annual Conference. Lots of interesting talks and a fun and friendly atmosphere, particularly during the evening entertainment: pub quiz, boat trip and rum cocktails. [update: forgot to say my photos from the conference are here]

I came across a strange new breed of people who knew all about making maps using only adobe illustrator. That’s a side of “cartography” which rarely surfaces at the geo events I’ve been to before (and I’ve been to quite a few now), but this seems like a rather interesting artistic end of a map-making spectrum. I didn’t come across anyone who had tried out OpenStreetMaps options for exporting to Illustrator. This probably needs to be made easier, but I suspect Maperative might be a kick ass tool in this arena. I don’t have illustrator myself, so I’d be interested to know how well it works.

I gave a talk on a blend of topics to do with transport and open data and some of my experience of mobile geo development. I talked through some stuff I’ve been working on at The UK Travel Options iPhone app, and the more recent mobile website. Then I gave a few more nice bits of bus route related technology (and cartography) coming out of OpenStreetMap.

The slides and notes (approximately what I said in the talk) are included with the presentation on slideshare, or OpenOffice download, or PowerPoint download …or here it all is in good old pictures & text:

Slide 0

I’ve got four different things I want to talk about.

I want to talk about Open Data, and specifically Open Transport Data. And I want to talk about the work I’ve been doing at, and finally my hobby and passion OpenStreetMap.

Lots to cover, but fortunately they’re all wonderfully interrelated, so it’s really just one big topic.

Continue reading “Society of Cartographers Plymouth”

32nd Birthday

A few years ago I had thought (with some sadness) that I didn’t really know how to get completely drunk any more. I could tolerate quite a lot of beer, and I formed a very grown up and very boring habit of slowing down when I felt myself getting drunk (or full of bubbles). Lately I have an even more boring habit of drinking less often. But on the plus side this has turned me into a total lightweight, so happily on my 32nd birthday party I was able to get utterly sozzled again, just like the old days.

32nd birthday

Thanks to everyone who came along to my birthday BBQ last weekend.