Friday, 11 August 2017

Pickering Hike (Summer Camp 2017)

A condensed version of this report was originally published in issue 15 of 8th Mag.

After the arrival of the Hewinses on late Tuesday morning, the Rover quartet left camp for their day of hiking. The circular hike, planned by Liam, was supposed to be approximately 12 miles in distance and take up most of the day.

The Rover squad began in high spirits as they walked westerly towards Newbridge, through the quarry, along the road, and onto a footpath which led straight up to Cawthorn Roman Camp. Unfortunately, they mistook a worn track at the side of a field of wheat as the public footpath. The one they wanted was actually running parallel to them, just through a line of trees. The Rovers came up with a cunning plan of climbing over a fence and cutting through the trees to get themselves back on course - however it was far easier said than done.

Harry battered through nettles, thorns, and deer to lead the bunch through what turned out to be a small wood rather than a thin line of trees. With only minor grazes and stings, they were soon back on the right route.

On arrival at Cawthorn Roman Camp, Liam consulted the map and found a viewpoint where he suggested they have lunch. Finding this viewpoint proved difficult though. The paths at the Roman Camp were not traced on maps so Liam told the group to just bear right whenever they came to a crossroads. Those of you who are good at angles will know, if you take four right turnings, you end up exactly where you started. So, about 20 minutes after leaving the car park at the Roman Camp, the Rovers had accidentally returned to the car park at the Roman Camp, even more hungry the second time around.

It was at this point where the other Rovers insisted on checking a map and having lunch next to the actual Roman Camp remains (a two-minute walk from the car park).

For lunch, they devoured a whole apple pie and a can of squirty cream, amongst other things.

Newton upon Derwent would be their next stop however it was a long and boring three-mile walk along roads to get there. Liam walked slightly ahead so he was out of earshot of the death threats the other Rovers were mumbling at him by this point.

Exhausted a sweaty, the Rovers arrived one by one in Newton upon Derwent. All they wanted now was to enjoy a cool and refreshing Diet Coke in a local Public House. Sadly, the only establishment in the village did not open on a Tuesday so they instead sat outside and caught their breath there.

A gentleman in Newton approached the Rovers and struck up conversation with them about their route. Liam explained to the bloke that they were heading for Levisham. The geezer correctly guessed that the Rovers would be tempted to head straight down the valley; he warned against this as the path would be extremely steep, dangerously slippery, take them through a field of angry bulls, and there was no guarantee that they would be able to directly cross the beck at the bottom. The wise old man instead advised them to retrace their steps back up to the north end of Newton upon Derwent and follow the winding road that would eventually take them to the train line crossing at the bottom of the valley. He showed them on the map that it meant adding another half a mile onto their route but the descent down the valley would be far safer.

Once the Dumbledore of Derwent walked away, the Rovers said bollocks to him and set off down the steep but direct path. A decision they would come to regret...

The pathway was almost vertical in some parts causing James and Ben, especially, to skid and slide. At the bottom, Harry did manage to find a beck crossing he thought would be appropriate however it required balancing on a dubious looking branch. Liam went first. He placed one foot on the branch and kept the other foot firmly on the field, slowly putting pressure on the branch to see how much it could take. He spent five minutes in this dance with the branch before deciding to just risk it.

SNAP! The branch, unsurprisingly, was dead and Liam's leg went groin-deep into the water. The bed of the river was not even what stopped him from going in deeper, it was that his other leg snagged on the tree. That's what he gets for listening to Harry.

In hysterics at Liam’s wetness, the Rovers plodded along the side of the bull field towards the actual crossing, looking to see if there was anywhere else they could cut across to reduce their route. After going through swampy areas where the mud was coming over the sides of their boots, they eventually found a stronger tree to climb along and over the beck. Only problem here was, the other side of the beck was somebody's back garden; so, they hotfooted it towards the railway crossing.

The assent from Levisham station to the village of Levisham was far nicer than the descent from Newton upon Derwent. Although steep, the footpath was in good condition, and the views became increasingly breath-taking the more they climbed.

Once in Levisham, they stopped at The Horseshoe Inn for a Diet Coke or three. It was at this point where the Rovers were seriously considering ending their hike. They inquired with the bartender about local buses and numbers for taxi services. But eventually, they reluctantly decided that they might as well finish the route on foot. Liam promised them it would be a flat walk back to camp (spoiler alert: it wasn't). At exactly 17:25 they headed south out of Levisham and along the river back towards camp.

The last leg of the hike was familiar to Ben and Harry as it was along the same pathways they had trekked for their Senior overnight hike some five years prior.

In the end, the Rovers ended up walking 15.3 miles. And despite all the walking, they still had the energy to cram a large cod and chips into their gobs for tea. All in all, despite their feet looking like that Nazi whose face melted off in Raiders of the Lost Ark by the time they got back to camp, Ben declared it a "bloody good day and one of the best walks I’ve been on for a while."

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.

Victory for public health campaigners as plain packaging nears full implementation

In 2016, the government passed plain cigarette packaging legislation. The new law stated that packaging for cigarettes must have a standardised size, shape, and shade of green. The boxes must also carry health warnings which cover at least 65% of the surface area.

This was fantastic news for anti-tobacco industry lobbyists and public health campaigners. In the North East of England, it is predicted that the average smoker starts at the age of 15. At that age, being cool is often considered to be important and smoking can be perceived as the chic thing to do because of the glamorisation of smoking through fancy packaging. Plain packaging aims to prevent this.

Unsurprisingly, cigarette manufacturers were less pleased about the new laws. Last May, they accused the health minister of introducing these new regulations unlawfully. However, the high court and the court of appeal have since ruled against these claims.

A loophole was exploited in the plain packaging law though. Companies were allowed to sell cigarettes which don’t have the new packaging as long as they were produced before 20 May 2016. This caused cigarette manufacturers to ramp up production so they had a large amount stock to sell off before the law was implemented.

Another tactic that the cigarette manufacture Imperial employed involved applying stickers to the standardised packs to make them look more appealing. They argued that this technically was not part of the manufacturing process however a legal expert disagreed.

Ultimately, this is win for public health campaigners. Despite creative efforts from the cigarette companies and spending large sums of money on legal hours in attempt to stop the legislation, plain packaging is now almost universal everywhere. All non-standardised cigarette packaging produced before 20 May 2016 must be sold off by 20 May 2017 meaning that fancy cigarette packaging will gradually become increasingly rare as the dark green boxes finish phasing in.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The AHCA: is it just 'Obamacare-lite'?

For months, President Trump has been saying that his number one priority with regards to health policy is to “repeal and replace” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Immediately, questions were raised about what it would be replaced with and how many people might become insured as a result. Last night, the Republicans unveiled the American Health Care Act (AHCA) – the healthcare bill which will replace the PPACA and which may become ‘Trumpcare’.

What immediately strikes me about the bill is how like Obamacare it is. Children can remain on their parent’s plan until the age of 26 still and insurers cannot discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions by jacking up prices. The stark similarities have caused many Republicans to condemn the AHCA as ‘Obamacare 2.0’ or ‘Obamcare-lite’.

Even some of the changes are minor. Under Obamacare, people without health insurance were penalised in the form of a tax. Under the AHCA, although there is no tax for people who go without cover, if they decide to re-enrol after being uninsured for more than 63 days, insurers can add a surplus charge of 30% for the first year of being covered again regardless of their health. The effect of this resemble that of Obamacare: US citizens are better off owning health insurance and keeping it.

Under Obamacare, insurers could only charge old people 3x more than they would charge young people however under the AHCA, insurers can charge old people 5x more than young people. Many predict that this will make health insurance slightly cheaper for young people but slightly more expensive for old people.

Many are pleased that Medicaid (the health care program that assists people on low-income) will continue to expand until 2020. After that, it will ‘freeze’ and be re-evaluated.

However, basic insurance plans will not be required to cover paediatric and maternity care from 2020 onwards.

The changes to tax credits are where things get slightly more complicated and the effects become more unclear. Under Obamacare, any individual with an annual income less than approximately $24,120 would be able to get a midlevel insurance plan for no more than 6.4% of their income. People earning more than that figure would not be entitled to any tax credits.

Under the AHCA, any individual earning less than $75,000 will be entitled to tax credits. The amount depends vastly on age though and varies from $2000 for those under the age of 30 to $4000 for those over the age of 60.

Accurate statistics regarding who will benefit and who will not are still emerging. As are the Congressional Budget Office’s figures showing how much the AHCA will cost the US government.

All of this might not matter anyway, the bill is currently facing intense scrutiny from Senators and congressmen both sides of the aisle and Trump is yet to endorse it. The future of the AHCA/Trumpcare may still look very different to the bill released yesterday.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Twitter attempts to curb online harassment

Over the last few years, Twitter has subject to excessive scrutiny over its inability to deal with online trolls and failing to make people feel safe on their platform. However, with a new safety policy that they announced this week, Twitter might be finally about to deal with online harassment.

Before this week, if users saw something they thought was unacceptable on Twitter, they could report it. However, there was no guarantee that anything would be done to resolve the issue. Twitter now says that the report tool has been strengthened. Plus, they have announced three new ways of dealing with online abuse.

Firstly, for serial harassers, Twitter is working on solutions to permanently suspend them from creating new accounts. The focus of this will be to prevent the creation of accounts that are created primarily for abusive content.

Secondly, Twitter is working its algorithm into tweet replies so harassment is filtered out. This will also bring to the top higher-quality tweets.

Finally, Twitter is currently developing a ‘safe search’ which will filter out potentially sensitive content and Tweets from accounts that you don’t want to see. 

According to Vice-President of Engineering Ed Ho, these modifications to Twitter aim to "give people more control over what they see on Twitter”. The changes will be rolled out to users over the next few months. 

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Grand Tour: Ambitious But Rubbish

Clarkson, Hammond, and May
It has been one week since the final episode of The Grand Tour was released on Amazon Prime Video and since then I’ve had time to consolidate my thoughts on the show.

First, a bit of context. Jeremy Clarkson punched a producer and the BBC had to end his contract. It wasn’t long until Richard Hammond, James May, and Andy Wilman then decided to leave the BBC too and form their own production company with Clarkson. A few months later, Amazon snapped them up to create a car show for their streaming service.

In interviews before the release of the show, Clarkson, Hammond, May, and Wilman attempted to spin a positive view on what they have been making. James May said in an interview with Christian O’Connell, “It’s a relief because it has forced a rethink and it has refreshed us which is something we probably should have done - but which we wouldn’t have done had we stayed where we were because there’d be no incentive to.”

Their new show, The Grand Tour, launched in November and immediately it was far better than Chris Evan’s refreshed Top Gear but far worse than the Top Gear that was relaunched in 2002 by Clarkson and Wilman. Here is what is wrong with The Grand Tour:

Too Scripted
With speculation that Amazon have provided Clarkson, Hammond, and May with a budget far larger than the BBC ever did, they have (presumably) been able to employ new/more writers. Problem is: Clarkson, Hammond, and May are not actors. Jeremy’s opening monologue in each show, supplemented with canned laughter which doesn’t even attempt to appear remotely authentic, is not funny. And, the pseudo-banter exchanged in ‘Conversation Street’ is just awkward. Remember this?

Entertainment First; Factual Second
At least at the BBC they pretended to be a factual show. They justified their crazy trips across India and their races across London and St. Petersburg as pieces mildly resembling public information films. They justified their homemade electric cars, hovercrafts, and emergency service vehicles as possible alternatives to solve the problems of the current ones. Furthermore, they concluded many episodes with ‘Top Gear Top Tips’. Long story short: everything had a point to it. However, on The Grand Tour, hardly anything seems to have a point to it. For example, in episode 2, the boys imitate special forces soldiers for no apparent reason. The cars in the scene feel like they were only added as an afterthought.

Admittedly, shiny red Ferraris do look good, and The Grand Tour will do joys for Amazon’s 4K TV sales figures, however most of the show is three wrinkling, middle-aged men mooching about. Therefore, extremely high picture quality and HDR is certainly necessary. Maybe I’m just bitter I don’t have a 4K TV.

The American
I get he is a Stig replacement but I just don’t get him. Does anyone find him funny?

Midnight Release
The Grand Tour is released on Amazon Prime every Friday at midnight. Online streaming already means that the notion of collective viewing is dead but releasing it at midnight eliminates the hype people have the next day. “OH MY GOD, did you see who/what Jeremy Clarkson insulted last night” is a phrase of the past. I would much rather The Grand Tour be released at 8pm so more people can watch it on release and talk about it straight away – this would probably increase the show’s ratings too. Apart from students, who is up at midnight?

Overall, The Grand Tour is, at best, mediocre light entertainment. I completely agree with a rather scathing Guardian review which singled James May out as the most valuable player but quipped "The Reassembler … is a trillion times better than The Grand Tour."

In other news, the BBC (remember them) released a trailer this week for the new Chris-Evans-less Top Gear. It actually looks half-decent.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

7 interesting maps of London

A new way of looking at London...

Second Languages
This map shows the most spoken second language in each of London's 32 boroughs. (via Randomly London, 2014)

This map shows what percentage of the population are under the age of 18 in different areas of London. (via Under The Raedar, 2013)

House Prices

This heat map shows the average property price around London. (via Find A Hood, 2013)

Alternative London

After the great fire of London devastated the city in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren designed this plan to rebuild the city.


This map shows London's nationalities.


This map shows how much of the London underground is actually underground. Fun fact: the majority of it isn't.

This map shows the most common surnames in  areas of London.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

My Six Favourite Podcasts

A person, probably a woman, talking and smiling into
a generic microphone. Little does she know that she is
the cover image for a post on my blog
I don’t listen to much music but I spend a lot of time on public transport and walking around in London. What a predicament! So, instead of listening to traffic or attempting to make conversation with strangers on the tube, I opt to listen to some of the many podcasts that I’m subscribed to. Here are my six favourites. 

(Note: From my choices, I think it will become quite clear what my interests are)

Commons People
This is The Huffington Post’s weekly politics podcast. It is light-hearted, fun, and the presenters are humorous but knowledgeable. Every episode, after discussion of the top news stories, there is a quiz about a topic that has been relevant in the past week. My favourites quizzes from previous episodes are: ‘Grammar or Bog-standard’, where the journalists needed to try and guess whether said politicians attended grammar, state, or private schools. And the ‘Morgan or Less Than’ quiz, where the journalists (with the help of Heidi Allen MP) needed to guess whether said politicians had attended more or less fringe events than Nicky Morgan at the Conservative Party conference… (Now I write this, I realise just how nerdy it sounds)

Page 94: The Private Eye Podcast
This witty podcast hosted by QI elf and Private Eye writer Andrew Hunter Murray is my favourite podcast. Each episode features discussions on politics, investigative journalism, or Private Eye culture to produce a truly fascinating listen. Highlights, for me, include the special episode commemorating Ian Hislop’s 30 years as editor, the episode about the Panama Papers, and the episode on revolving doors in politics. Wry humour and perspicacious politics journalism are a winning combination.

The Weeds
The Weeds is a podcast hosted by journalists Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff, and Matthew Yglesias. In each episode, they dive deep into US policy and politics. The episodes are very thorough and are great if you're interested in more niche US political news.

Coffee House Shots
One of The Spectator’s many podcasts is this short, irregularly occurring one called ‘Coffee House Shots’. Compared to the rest, this is a relatively short podcast yet it manages to summarise and offer analysis on important political events that have happened lately. In recent episodes, Isabel Hardman and co have discussed the UK Supreme Court’s Brexit ruling, Theresa May’s ‘shared society’ speech, and the battle for press freedom. 

Chips with everything
Chips with everything is a technology podcast from The Guardian. It includes the kind of high quality content you would expect from The Guardian. Notable discussions from recent episodes include an interview with the former deputy social media director for the Hillary Clinton campaign and a feature on how the Y2K bug came about. I’d recommend this podcast for anyone who has even a vague interest in technology or technology culture as they cover a wide range of topics. 

Sound Show
Sound Show is a podcast birthed from Joshua Topolsky’s new culture news website ‘The Outline’. This podcast, hosted by sound director John Lagomarsino, is a joy to listen to. Enthralling content and unbeatable sound quality go hand in hand to make this podcast a pleasure for my ears. Just take a listen for yourself:

All podcasts mentioned, plus thousands more, can be found on the Apple Podcasts app and other popular podcast services.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

The US media need to improve their Trump coverage

If you’ve dragged yourself out of bed at any point over the last few weeks, you will have heard about the ‘leaked' Russian dossier stating crude things that President Trump allegedly did in Moscow some years ago. Although many news sites admit that it had been on their radar for a while now, they had decided not to publish it because the provenance wasn’t even slightly credible. Enter BuzzFeed. 

BuzzFeed published the dossier and sparked a media frenzy as mainstream news organisations (such as the BBC and CNN) started to report the story too - admittedly, in a more delicate kind of way. In a press conference following the reports, President Trump slammed CNN as “fake news” and wouldn’t take their question whilst he condemned BuzzFeed as a “failing pile of garbage”.

CNN has a network that reaches millions of people every day meaning when they lay a blow in to President Trump, it has impact. However, if CNN continue to run with stories with little evidence to support it, the impact of their scrutiny will start to diminish. I use CNN as an example but this is the same for any news organisation which decided to report on the Russian dossier.

As for BuzzFeed, they've always been a lost cause in my eyes. I commend them for being a large part of the investigation that exposed the malpractice at Kids Company and for having such a large network. However, their habit of publishing sketchy stories and then saying “it’s up to the reader to decide whether it is true or not” undermines their status as a news organisation and makes the whole news industry untrustworthy.

Another reason, news organisations in general should clamp down on their coverage of Trump controversies is because none of them stick. He is a snake sliding effortlessly though a field of scandals. Analysis of newspaper headlines after the election showed that Clinton’s consistent criticism was for her deleted emails yet there were dozens of Trump scandals. Muslim-ban-gate, Mexicans-are-rapists-gate, sexual-assault-allegations-gate, women-who-have-abortions-should-be-punished-gate, and grab-them-by-the-pussy-gate - to name a few. 

Chart via Media Matters
The more scrutiny the better, right? Wrong. Unlike Clinton’s deleted emails, most of Trump’s scandals could only be explored superficially because it was only a matter of days before the next one came along. This meant that the significance of Clinton’s deleted email was blown way out of proportion because the coverage spanned many months.

If liberal news organisations are trying to turn Trump voters off Trump, they need to realise that controversies don’t repel his supporters. In fact, they make him appear politically incorrect thus anti-establishment (like what many Americans desire). Instead, news organisations should really start scrutinising his policy decisions. The first steps have already been made to repeal Obamacare which could cause 18 million people to lose health insurance. This is an issue which needs far more attention than what it is getting. By covering this extensively, the liberal media might win over some Trump voters but, more importantly, they would be doing an effective job of holding the President to account.

Credit where credit is due though, Vox is getting a name for itself producing in-depth policy analysis. Just before the Obama administration ended they held an hour-long interview on Obamacare and its future. Plus, they have recently also published pieces on possible Supreme Court nominations, Trump killing the TPP free trade deal, and Trump’s plan to cut Medicade. These are all matters of serious substance which need scrutinising and exploring in order for voters to understand what Trump’s administration is achieving. Sadly, at the moment, not many news organisations are rising to that challenge and instead opt to publish the platitude entertaining scandal stories.

To conclude, although it acts as excellent click-bait, the media should try and report less on the next alleged Trump scandal and, instead, home in on the many executive orders he has been signing this week and what they will mean for the American people. As for BuzzFeed, they should go back to publishing quizzes about which character from Friends I would be – and nothing else.

Sources: Washington Post,  Media Matters