Sunday, 11 June 2017

Nine months in London

I’ve been living in London for around nine months now. During that time, I have been to some wonderful places, met some awesome individuals, experienced things you simply can’t anywhere else in the world, and learnt some important lessons. So, what follows is a brief rambling on my time in the big smoke.
The view from the Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street

Portobello Road
London is amazing. From the dozens of weekly markets to the scores of museums and galleries, I never seem to run out of things to do. They say that the best way to explore a city is by foot - and that is very true. On a weeknight you can usually find me getting lost in the Hackney Marshes, along the Regent's Canal, down in Canary Wharf, in the narrow and windy streets of the City of London, or in any other direction from Mile End. Walking provides a fuller understanding of London. I have discovered that I can walk to Kings Cross station in just under a hour, Westminster in just over an hour, and going north along the River Lea is probably the best place to go if you want to see scenery which mildly resembles the countryside. That being said, it has also been useful living next to a well-connected tube station.

It turns out, I like laughing. London is a great place for live comedy - and entertainment in general. They have loads of comedy clubs which I frequent - as well as work at. The Comedy Store in Soho is by far the best and if you’re ever in London, I’d highly recommend any of their nights because they’re all top notch.

Most TV shows with a live studio audience are filmed in London. They make a fun night out and they’re free! I’ve been to the recordings of Alan Carr, Have I Got News For You, and No Such Thing As The News.

London also has one of the most iconic theatre scenes in the world. Admittedly, I have not seen a single West End play or musical since moving to London however I have seen a couple of fringe performances (‘Andrew Hunter Murray: Round One’ was fantastic).

Since moving to London, there has been a couple of terrorist attacks. The second of which at London bridge, only a few days ago, I was reasonably close to. A friend and I were walking under the Millennium bridge when a group of police cars whirred past and a Guardian news alert popped up on our phones informing us on an “incident” on London bridge which we could see in front of us. Unalarmed by this, still unsure what was actually going on, we caught the tube at the next station.
Trafalgar Square

So, do I feel safe in London? Yeah, I do actually. Terrorism is a threat but it’s not something that’s going to make me reconsider going out. In terms of general safety, I feel safer in London than I do in Darlington. Even in the early hours of the morning, London’s streets are bustling with night owls so I never feel on edge when walking alone. Up north, the streets can be eerily quiet.

Student Stuff
In terms of student lifestyle, I think London has a club or two - don’t know for sure (not going to lie, I have not been to any). I have however been to flat parties which didn’t live up to expectations either. This might be down to the fact that student accommodation in London tends to be the size of a large cardboard box. So, it can get rather cramped at times. More likely down to the company though.

I’ve met some amazing people in London from many backgrounds. I’ve never been short of fascinating folk and intriguing thinkers with enviable drive. That being said, there are lots of painfully dull and pitifully stupid students as well.
Looking East: Mile End

Things I've learnt about myself:

I'm not going to lie, I know myself pretty well. University has not caused me to have any eye-opening epiphany moments which have posed as a catalyst to a spiral of self-discovery. Instead, here are two things that people have pointed out to me.
  1. People think I’m older than I am.
    I’ve met a couple of people who genuinely assumed that I was in my mid-30s. Even people at the University never guess I’m a first year (unless they’re in my class, of course). I like to this this is down to my mature attitude, professionalism, and bank of dad jokes I have stored in by head. However, it’s more likely down to the slowly greying hair, the ever-darkening bags under my eyes, and the bloated beer belly I saddle around proudly. (FYI I drank and rated over 40 different beers in 2016 - and I only turned 18 last April. Time well spent.)

  2. Darlington has its own accent - or is it just me?
    People are just as bad at trying to guess my hometown as they are my age. I don’t ask people to try and guess where I’m from, most just take it upon themselves to ask me if I’m from Yorkshire, “above Newcastle”, or - as one person guessed - Scotland. This has led me to believe that Darlington has its own unique sound. 

Read more >>> Six weeks in London

Friday, 9 June 2017

Kensington: the last undeclared seat

The parliamentary constituency of Kensington in west London will be the 650th of 650 seats to be declared in the 2017 general election. The reason for the delay is that there have reportedly already been two recounts. These continued until almost 7am this morning when vote counters were finally told to go home and get some rest.

A recount in a close seat, that's nothing unusual right? No. However, Kensington isn't usually a close seat. In fact, after the 2015 general election, the Conservatives had a 20% lead over the Labour candidate in terms of vote share. Moreover, since the constituency was created in 1974, it has been a safe Conservative seat as it homes some of the richest people in Great Britain with house prices climbing into the tens of millions. If the reason for the delay is confirmed to be because of a close race between the Conservative and Labour candidate, this will be one of the biggest stories of the election.

General Election 2017: Vote share compared to seats

General Election 2017: How close were the pollsters to being correct?

The graph below shows the actual vote share (thus far) compared to what the final opinion polls from various companies predicted earlier this week. The Survation poll was closest to being correct.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Google announces Android O and Android Go

Today, at the Google I/O developer conference, two new versions of Android were announced: Android O and Android Go.

'Smart Text Selection'
on Android O
Android O, like many Android releases in recent years, appears to be a small update which does not radically overhaul the user interface - or even do anything too noticeable. The highlights of the update will include: picture-in-picture capabilities, notification dots on app icons showing when there are notifications (like what Apple has been doing since the first version of iOS), and a new long touch feature which will display more options (presumably Android’s equivalent to Apple’s Force Touch).

Android O brings autofill from Google Chrome to apps so your passwords are remembered. Also, Google introduced 'Smart Text Selection’ for copy and pasting. It uses ‘machine learning’ to guess how many words users want to copy. This is to avoid “fiddling around with text selection handles.”

As you would expect with any software update, Android O will have increased security, a longer battery life, and offer better statistics for develops so they get more of an insight into crashes and bugs.

Google also announced Android Go; a version of Android with affordability as a top priority. It is for smartphones with less than 1GB of RAM and it will be shipping from 2018.

Android Go has a simpler OS, smaller apps which use less memory, and Data Saver automatically turned on. App developers are being encouraged to create smaller apps which will be promoted on the Play store for these phones. YouTube is paving the way as they have made a ‘lite’ app which is basic but allows users to download videos for offline playing or play videos with reduced quality.

Google has obviously seen a gap in the low-end market and Android Go is their way of bridging that gap. It might make Android a more appealing option to first time buyers in less economically developed countries. As for Android O, the updates may be small but they make for a better all-round user interface.

Google Lens: Android’s New Smart Camera

Today, at the I/O developer event, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced Google Lens, a new camera app for Android.

Pichai began the event by acknowledging the gradual shift in how users interact with technology. Moving from mice and multi-touch to voice and VR. Google Lens fits into the latter of those categories.

The Google Lens app uses a smartphone’s camera to identify plants, buildings, and other kinds of objects before showing users what they can do with that information. For example, by holding the camera in front of a router, Google Lens will scan the Wi-Fi username and password then automatically connect the phone to the network. Also, the camera can extract information from movie/theatre posters to add events to Google Calendar accordingly.

The Google Lens app is a natural progression from Android N’s Google Assistant which analysed the information from any app to show users more information and functions relating to it. Instead of the screen, Google Lens takes the information from the world around you. It doesn’t just rely on the camera though. It pulls information from location services, the gyroscope, and other useful sensors to show augmented information.

Google’s VP of Engineering, Scott Huffman, demonstrated how Lens could be used to translate foreign words in real-time augmented reality however this is a feature that Google Translate and other similar apps have had for years now.

In the future, Google says Lens will be able to remove objects from a photograph - even large ones. In their demonstration, Huffman removed the chain fencing from a picture of a girl playing baseball. It is unclear whether this was a real example or simply a mock-up though.

Google Lens also works for pictures that you have already taken. By browsing your Google Photos albums, Google will be able to identify buildings, cars, and paintings to offer context. Google is also making it possible to extract website addresses and phone numbers from screenshots. OCR technology is nothing new but convenient I suppose.

The Photos app will also encourage you to share pictures with the people in them. Using facial recognition, Photos will scan faces and prompt users to share them with those people with a click of a button. Others can then add their photos to the album. Facebook currently runs a similar service however it is unlikely that Facebook Moments has anything close to the 500 million active monthly users like what Google is boasting.

The second new major feature in Google Photos is shared libraries. Users can now automatically share pictures of a certain person or from a certain date with someone they are close to. For example, if you want all the pictures you take of your children to be automatically shared with your wife, Google Photos can now do that. It can even share your whole library.

Shared libraries is a feature that is all shits and giggles until you get too close to your secretary at work. She invites you out for ‘work drinks’ which you assume is platonic but she has other intentions. Before you know it, you’re staggering out of a bar, half a bottle of wine still in your hand, and hailing a taxi to go back to her place for a night you’ll never forget. She suggests you take a playful selfie in the back of the cab, you put your arm around her and strike a pose kissing her on the cheek. Then BAM! It’s automatically shared with your wife who has spent all evening looking after your two young children - one of which is really struggling in school, you arsehole. What I’m getting at is that shared libraries can only end badly.

Google has thought about this though and are now offering a printed photo album service. It is called Google Photo Books and it will select your best photos to get printed in a physical album. A perfect present for your partner who you’re desperately trying to win back.

By in large, the updates to Google Photos and Google Lens seem to only build on what other services already offer and the innovation is small. Regardless, it is helpful that Google is pulling all this technology together and it is reassuring that Google continues to update these services. Google Lens will be available on smartphones running Android O however to me Lens would be suited better for an augmented reality headset more than anything else – a product line that Google has not touched since Google Glass in 2011 (which is now dead).

Saturday, 22 April 2017

General Election 2017: Predicted winners and losers

Theresa May has called a general election for 8 June 2017. Here is who I predict will be the biggest winners and losers coming out of that.

Labour leader: Jeremy Corbyn
Lots of Labour MPs are say they are not standing for re-election, Jeremy Corbyn still struggles to control the Parliamentary Labour Party, and the party, in general, has been looking unelectable for the past few years now. This disarray adds up to electoral failure. The Fabian Society says the best-case scenario is a loss of 40 seats however that number could be much higher and MPs are considering possibilities from 20-100 losses.

The Liberal Democrats only have nine MPs so they don’t have much to lose. Whether they will win back the trust of young people after they raised tuition fees last time they were in government is something that I am curious about. They are currently selling themselves as the soft Brexit party; they have said that they want Britain to remain in the single market so it is likely that the Lib Dems will hoover up votes from many die-hard remainers.

The figurehead of UKIP Nigel Farage resigned as leader, their only MP Douglas Carswell said that he is standing down and would be voting Conservative, and their current leader Paul Nuttall failed to win the Stoke by-election earlier this year. UKIP’s main purpose was to get Britain out of the European Union and now that’s happening, UKIP’s place in British politics is uncertain. They received 12.6% of the popular vote in the 2015 general election and I think they would be very lucky to get anywhere near that amount of support this June.

Some generous estimates say that the Conservatives might win another 150 seats this June. More sensible predictions consider seats that they’re likely to lose to the Lib Dems and say their gains to be closer to 80 seats. Editor of The Spectator Fraser Nelson says that the election will have been worth it for Theresa May if the Conservatives win at least a further 50 seats. Regardless of how big their majority is going to be, one thing is almost for certain: they are going to win. In the popular vote, they are currently polling at twice that of the Labour party and Theresa May is making stability a key theme of her campaign - something which the Conservatives claim to be good at.

In 2015, the Scottish National Party won all but three seats in Scotland so they have a lot at stake. For the past two years, the SNP have presented themselves as a stronger, Scottish alternative to the Labour party. Nicola Sturgeon is a commendable leader and MPs such as Mhairi Black have offered the media emotive sound bites in the House of Commons. However, the EU referendum might have changed attitudes in Scotland and there have been reports of bullying and intimidation from the power-obsessed SNP. Whether the Scottish Conservatives manage to snatch any seats from the SNP will be something to look out for.

Friday, 21 April 2017

A left wing “progressive alliance” would be a waste of time – especially for Labour

Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas: frenemies?
After Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election earlier this week, the Green Party invited leaders of Labour and the Liberal Democrats to discuss the possibility of a “progressive alliance”.

The Green Party co-leaders Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley said the aim would be stopping “the Tories wrecking our country.”

Hoping for cooperation in some seats, the Greens see this as the only way of stopping another Conservative majority in the House of Commons. Exactly what the Greens have in mind is unclear.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon also called for an alliance to be made in order to keep the Tories out of power.

Regardless, a few hours later, Jeremy Corbyn ruled out any kind of agreement between the parties. This enraged many Labour supporters and even more people who simply don’t want to see the Conservatives return to power. However, Corbyn made the right decision. The pact would not have benefited the Labour party in any meaningful way nor would it have prevented another Conservative government.

The last time an electoral agreement (like what the Greens might have been proposing) was struck was the Gladstone-MacDonald pact in 1906. The Liberals and Labour worked together to ensure they were not splitting the anti-Conservative vote. They did this by only letting one of their candidates run in some seats. For anything like this to be successful in 2017, there would need to be more than one strong left-wing party. The Greens and Liberal Democrats currently only have 10 seats between them and are not even the second party in most Labour constituencies. UKIP are the party taking most votes from Labour – especially in the north of England.

If it did happen, the pact would undoubtedly weaken Labour. Even though the Lib Dems and Greens collectively got over 3.5 million votes in 2015, they did not manage to concentrate their support. Meanwhile, Labour received just over 9 million votes, won 232 seats, and has since grown into the largest party in Europe with regards to membership. The Labour party also has a superior internal structure and a more sophisticated organisation meaning any alliance formed would be far more beneficial to the Greens, SNP, and/or Liberal Democrats.

The possibility of a Labour coalition would work in favour of the Tory’s narrative. If you watched any PMQs before the 2015 general election you will remember David Cameron repeatedly taunting the Labour party; saying that they’d only ever get into power on “Alex Salmond’s coat-tails.”

If Labour made any kind of deal with the SNP specifically, it is likely one of the terms would be to guarantee a second Scottish independence referendum. As the New Statesman pointed out earlier this week, the SNP care primarily about independence. Moreover, if Scotland did leave the United Kingdom, Labour would stand no chance of being elected ever again.

Finally, and most importantly, a “progressive alliance” simply would not work. The maths does not add up. If you look at current polling data, the Conservatives are estimated to win a majority of approximately 100 seats so any sort of opposition alliance is a waste of time anyway. Unlike the EU referendum, the 2016 US election, and the current French elections where the polls were/are extremely close, the 2017 general election is a done deal. No sound minded person is predicting anything other than a Conservative majority so I think we should spend our time focusing on something worthwhile for the next 50 days. A new series of Doctor Who has just started. Wanna talk about that?

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Thoughts on the snap election announcement

Theresa May made a speech on Tuesday morning announcing a general election for 8 June 2017. Mrs May claimed the reason for calling the snap election is to "guarantee certainty and stability" and allow the government to have a stronger negotiating position with regards to leaving the European Union. Here are my thoughts on the announcement and what it means:

  • Many praised Theresa May for risking a general election however I think it's a stretch to call this a risk. It is anything but that. The Conservatives are polling at twice the numbers of Labour, economic growth is good, and the Conservatives are predicted to win a majority that could be as high as 150 seats.
  • Earlier this year, the government needed to make a U-turn on their policy to raise National Insurance on the self-employed. It would have been a reversal of a 2015 manifesto pledge therefore some Conservatives were threatening to vote against it. A larger Conservative majority in the House of Commons would ensure controversial legislation like this would get passed. The election also allows Theresa May to put forward a manifesto that is truly hers and not be bound to what David Cameron promised in 2015.
  • I think it is a little dodgy holding another general election whilst up to 20 sitting Conservative MPs are under investigation for violations of electoral law. 16 police forces are looking into whether some MPs overspent during the 2015 general election. If found guilty, MPs involved could be imprisoned for one year and barred from Parliament for three. It makes me feel uneasy that those MPs are allowed to run campaigns again whilst there is evidence of their recent monetary mismanagement that they have not yet been penalised for.
  • This election will probably devastate the Labour party when they lose however it will give them a chance to replace Corbyn with a stronger leader who can unite the party, better hold the government to account, and convey a clear message to the public. If the party wants to survive, it can't make the same mistake of electing a leader as un-pragmatic as Corbyn when there is inevitably another leadership election in the summer or else the party may never recover.
  • With some Labour MPs saying that they won't be seeking re-election in June and many more still refusing to unite behind Corbyn, it will be interesting to see the role that the Labour leader will play in the campaign. Many are already speculating that Labour will be trying to avoid a Corbyn-centric campaign.
  • It will also be interesting to see how far policy pledges alone can take a party. Labour appears to be publicising their manifesto as well as they can without the support of the mainstream media. However, concerns over Corbyn's leadership and the disarray of the Parliamentary Labour Party mean that many are calling the party "unelectable" so it is likely that many of those who vote Labour are voting because of manifesto planks alone.
  • Since the announcement of a snap election, Labour has kicked up a fuss about Theresa May going back on her word as she had previously said that she was not going to hold an early general election. Labour are doing a good job at highlighting May’s untrustworthiness but they need to be careful not to go too far or else the public will see them as dwelling on this point rather than focusing on something they can actually do something about. Also, if they moan about the election too much, it further instills the notion that Labour does not have any electoral confidence in themselves.

With around 50 days to go until election day, I look forward to seeing how Labour tries to portray themselves (it is still ambiguous where they stand on Brexit), I hope the Conservatives campaign spending is monitored closely, and I am fascinated to see how voters respond to third parties - especially the Lib Dems and UKIP.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Camping proves good for your health

Scientists have recently proved that camping can help you get a better night’s sleep.

It is common knowledge that using phones and tablets or watching TV straight before you go to bed can stop you from sleeping well as it reduces the amount of melatonin which is produced (the hormone which makes you feel sleepy).

Researchers have proved that disconnecting from devices completely for a few days can fix that though. Five volunteers were sent camping in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and had their melatonin levels monitors regularly throughout the trip. The results showed that melatonin levels rose 2.5 hours sooner than usual meaning that the campers felt tired earlier and slept better. This occurred when the experiment was conducted in both summer and winter.

Not only does camping naturally reset your body clock, it also offers more obvious health benefits such as fresh air and exercise.