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Californian taxis, gun ownership and democracy

A couple of days ago, Wendy and I took a taxi from our hotel in San Diego to the airport, very kindly paid for by our hotel. The taxi driver was a chatty fellow and struck up the traditional “going to the airport” conversation beloved of taxi driver across the world.

Wendy mentioned that she was from Northern Ireland, which led to all the usual questions: Is that part of the UK? Is all of Ireland in the UK? Don’t the Northern Irish fight with the UK? Is Northern Ireland part of Brexit?


But then: What do people in the UK make of Trump?

Now, I thought we were on safe territory here. We were in California. Even I, as an uninformed Brit, knew California to be a true blue Democratic state. No Republican presidential candidate has won California this century.

Nevertheless, I played it safe with a politely non-committal response, suggesting that while Trump wasn’t personally very popular in the UK, Brits respected the outcome of the election, and the country is so interested in his impact that he’s rarely out of the British newspapers.

The taxi driver’s equal non-committal, “he’s surely shaking things up,” didn’t give any immediate indication of the transgression I’d made.


It was harder to remain neutral on his follow-up: “So what have you thought about guns while you’ve been here?”

Wendy’s eyes widened slightly as I admitted that I’d been slightly uncomfortable to see so many people with guns, from policemen on the streets to the border control officer who’d stamped our passport. This, I explained, was very different to the situation in the UK.

“But police are armed in the UK, right?”

I explained that a small number of officers carry weapons, and that there are armed rapid response units, but that the average police officer on the street carries nothing more threatening than a truncheon.


I’m afraid, dear reader, that this provoked a rant from our driver.

Firstly: “So that’s why you have so many terrorist attacks!”

Secondly, he asked whether I have heard of the campaigns in the UK for wider gun ownership. When I admitted ignorance, he blamed “the liberals that control your media”.

Thirdly, returning to California, he described his incredulity at the fact that he, both in his capacity as a private citizen and as a professional taxi driver, was not permitted to carry a concealed weapon. He told us how he was once, some years ago, robbed when getting out of his taxi. This would not, he suggested, have happened had he been carrying a concealed weapon.

Fourthly, he told us how Trump wants to allow anyone to carry a concealed weapon, and that this made him a great President. Our driver wasn’t sure that unrestricted concealed carrying of weapons would be allowed any time soon in California, because that state had “crazy laws” and a “corrupt Democratic governor”. He claimed that the Governor “hates guns and doesn’t want anyone to have them”.

Fifthly, he asks if we in the UK had ever heard of Crooked Hillary? “They call her that for a reason,” and one of the reasons is that she wanted to take away all the guns. Which would only lead to endless terrorist shootings like in the UK. He didn’t say that she should be locked up, but he might as well have done.

When I could get a word in edgeways, I pointed out that we had had no recent terrorist shootings in the UK. The driver said I was lying, that there was that arena attack in Manchester when all the kids were shot. I had no chance to point out that guns weren’t involved.

Sixthly, our driver told us that the many school shootings “around the world” were only being effectively tackled in the US, where upstanding citizens with guns shoot dead the shooters.

At this point, we pulled up outside Terminal 2 of Lindbergh Field and Wendy and I barrelled out of the taxi while thanking the driver excessively in a very British manner.

As he drove away, Wendy and I looked at one another and breathed. I think we were both in a sort of mild shock. The conversation made us reflect on how one can’t really have a sensible political conversation with someone whose factual frame of reference is so divorced from reality.

It made me reflect on the threat of “fake news” – a problem long before social media came along, but perhaps amplified by it. Continual exposure to counterfactual stories shifts one’s frame of reference, and make seemingly illogical conclusions entirely rational.

It made me reflect on how much more difficult political life must be these days: how can a politician ever thrive if their views are misrepresented even by their supporters and to their supporters? A politician cannot deliver on a promise they have never made, and cannot defend themselves against false accusations when every correction is percieved as a “cover-up”.

This conversation was something of an epiphany for me, helping me to see how broken this part of our society has become. In decades past, we lived in a world where the means of publication were (to all intents and purposes) controlled, and we could (by and large) distinguish fact from fiction. Today, anyone can publish anything, and few people have the will or means to verify any of it. We’ve moved from a world of limited reliable information to a world where every scrap of information is at our fingertips, but we can’t tell which morsels are fact and which are fiction. And yet, in a democracy, we rely on the population making that distinction accurately in order to make the right decisions for society.

I have no solutions to offer for any of this. In his book, Ryan Holiday suggests that subscription-based news is the answer, as it places value on truth over page views. The BBC likes to present itself as part of the answer. Tech companies sometimes suggest that the algorithmic triangulation of stories can play a role. People with minds more radical than mine might suggest that this is the time to find some other form of democracy than directly voting for a legislative representative.

I’ve no idea who is right. But in the course of one taxi journey, I’ve been convinced more than ever that an answer is urgently needed.


The taxi image at the top of this post is by Ad Meskens. It gives the slightly misleading impression that Wendy and I were travelling in a yellow cab, when in fact we were in more of van. The gun hoslter image in the middle of the post is by Takeshi Mano. Both images are used here under their Creative Commons licences.

This 2,448th post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , .

Crossing the US-Mexico border

Yesterday, while Wendy was busy presenting at an international conference, I crossed the border from California to Tijuana to go exploring.

From San Diego, this was very straightforward. The Blue Line on the San Diego Trolley took me directly to San Ysidro, the district on the US side of the US-Mexico border. The Trolley stop is maybe 200 metres from the border crossing point, and there are helpful signs to put the way. There are also lots of slightly threatening signs from the US Government about covert monitoring.

There are, in fact, two pedestrian border crossings: one near the Trolley station, and one a short walk away by the Border Outlet Shopping Centre. I took the former (better sign-posted) option, walking up what felt a lot like a back alley behind a coach station to the border crossing point.

On entering through the slightly threatening no-return gates, I entered a border crossing, reminiscent of a typical airport border point. There was a very long queue for people with Mexican passports, but nobody in the queue for people who, like me, had foreign passports. This phased me a bit: I knew from my prior research that I needed to fill in an immigration card, but could see neither a card nor anywhere to fill it in. In the end, I just approached one of the border agents’ desks, where a friendly officer told me not to worry, it was quiet, and I may as well fill it out at her desk, which I did while she checked my passport.

We made small talk about this being my first time in Mexico (she was amazed), her previous experiences of visiting London and the sights of San Diego I’d seen so far. Before long, she’d stamped my paperwork and sent me on my way. After this point, customs x-ray searched any large luggage, but as I had none I was straight back outside and in a new country.

From here, it’s typically a 20-minute walk to the touristy area around Avenida Revolución, but I went a bit wrong, crossing over a highway on the footpath of a road bridge rather than the more direct pedestrian bridge, so it took me about half an hour. This walk is not through a particularly attractive area. I was pestered frequently by disabled and often elderly beggars, street sellers, and taxis pulling up alongside me to offer me lifts. Looking down on the vehicular border crossing, I could see stall upon stall with sellers plying their trade to people waiting in the long, seemingly stationary queue for the US border.

I walked through expanses of largely deserted civic architecture with broken fountains and such surrounded by closed up shop units. It was a bit eerie. I’m not sure whether this is attributable to me visiting on a Sunday or to the significant downturn in the Mexican economy in the decades since Tijuana was a real draw for tourists.

Here and there along the way, there were small stores and restaurants whose seemingly desperate owners practically begged me to come in and look at their wares, often offering free alcohol as an enticement. I’m afraid I declined.

My own idiocy in taking the wrong bridge notwithstanding, it was actually quite easy to navigate to Avenida Revolución thanks to the visible-from-everywhere Tijuana arch, which stands right in the centre. Rather disappointingly, the sign in the middle seems to have changed from the famous ‘Bienvenidos a Tijuana’ on a Mexican flag background to something “modern” sponsored by Samsung.

The area around Avenida Revolución was lively in every sense, with performers drawing large crowds, street vendors enthusiastically shouting about their products, and bars and restaurants making keen efforts to attract the passing traffic. The famed decorations around Santiago Argüello lent a party atmosphere to the whole area.

And yet, I found it hard to forget the scenes of deprivation and desperation I’d walked through to get to this point, not least as I knew I was going to have to walk back the same way before too long. This left me feeling a little melancholic. Nevertheless, I had a good wander around, aimlessly soaking in the atmosphere rather than rushing into any of the frequently advertised tourist attractions.

I got far less lost on the way back thanks to very frequent signage to the US border. I crossed back over at the other of the two border crossings I mentioned.

There could hardly have been a more marked difference between the manner of the crossing in the two directions. As soon as one stepped through the gates to the US border crossing complex, frequent stern signs forbade the use of mobile phones and cameras. Crossing back into the USA involved a walk through a labyrinthine concrete corridor ending with an almost whimsical spiral concrete ramp to even reach the border crossing point. I had to queue for a little over an hour to meet the US border agent, who questioned my intentions in crossing the border in some detail. He also seemed a little confused by the fact that my passport was for both the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, which hardly inspired confidence, but he did eventually let me through.

The fact that the US-Mexico border is the first controlled land border I’ve ever crossed probably says more about the remarkably peaceful times in which I’ve lived that it does about me personally. At the time I crossed the Denmark-Sweden border it was technically manned, but this just involved someone passing through my train cursorily glancing at passports. Some pundits currently predict something similar will be in existence between Northern Ireland and the Republic by the time this is published: I think that’s nonsense, but that’s perhaps a post for another time.

At the moment, I’m part-way through Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists. In this book, which argues for a borderless world, the US-Mexico border is cited specifically as one which inflicts economic harm on people on both sides. I found the apparent difference in living standards quite shocking: it seems mildly crazy that people living in two developed countries and so physically close to one another can have such different life experiences and prospects.

There has been much written over the last few months about the level of poverty in California, despite its reputation as a liberal state. Wendy and I have both been quite surprised to see the seemingly high number of homeless people in San Diego. Crossing the border, I felt as though there was a far greater degree of profound poverty in Tijuana, but perhaps California’s poverty is just better hidden than Tijuana’s. Appearances can, after all, be deceiving.

I’m glad I took the time to visit Tijuana while I’m over here in California. The experience wasn’t at all what I had expected: rather than a tacky pastiche Mexico “mini theme park” which I had thought would exist on the other side, the reality has left me more pensive and reflective than I would have expected. And that’s no bad thing.


Fairly obviously, all of the photos in this post are my own.

This 2,446th post was filed under: News and Comment, Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , , .

The BBC ruins the UK’s chances at Eurovision

Tonight, it’s the grand final of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest. As long-time readers will know, I really enjoy watching Eurovision – I even live blogged the UK selection programme once. There are a few reasons I really enjoy it.

Firstly, of course, the music. If I had to choose a favourite radio station, it would undoubtedly be Monocle 24. There’s quite an overlap in the Venn diagram of international music Monocle 24 would play and the sort of music that does well at Eurovision. In fact, most years, they’ve already had quite a bit of air-play of the big-hitting songs by the time the contest comes around.

Secondly, there is something so joyful about seeing so many different countries and cultures come together for a single peaceful purpose. In that regard, Eurovison is a little like the Olympics – only moreso, because the countries are peacefully scoring one another. More of this in the world would be a good thing.

Thirdly, there are bits of it which are undeniably batshit crazy. I’m not that entertained by the stuff which is out-and-out mad, but the unexpected crossovers been madness and talent which occur from time to time are quite something: take this year’s entry from Israel, which is crazy, brilliant and catchy all at the same time.

It’s this third point which makes me feel a little glum about the UK’s entries, which are typically standard, uninspiring pop fare (look at this year’s entry from SuRie). We seem to have an astounding capacity for moaning about the poor scores the UK entry receives even when the middle-of-the-road pop numbers rarely perform well even in the UK chart, despite the considerable Eurovision following. It would be really nice to have a UK entry that was quirky, whether that’s through outright craziness or just having great execution of something which is very ‘on trend’: look at this year’s entry from Sweden.

But I think the BBC lacks the boldness and creativity to find or inspire that sort of song. Whenever the BBC tries to do ‘zany’ in its programming, it tends to come off as ‘crazy by committee’ and spectacularly flops. This is even more so the case since the budget cuts at BBC Three, which was their outlet for experimental material. The best they seem able to come up with these days is crap like Don’t Scare the Hare or 101 Ways to Leave a Gameshow, which is a shame given the BBC’s lustrous history of the surreal.

The UK public vote rarely tallies with the most popular songs across Europe, even in an approximate way, so a publicly voted selection show (which the BBC has returned to using in the past couple of years) doesn’t seem like a logical way to go. Similarly, the UK jury seems permanently out of touch with the views of the rest of Europe, so professional selection doesn’t seem ideal either. I think the BBC needs to divest itself from song selection, and outsource it to people who have a chance of selecting something half decent.

The question is… who can provide that? I’d put it in the hands of the curators of the Monocle 24 playlist. They know a good song when they hear is – and have a definition of “good song” that at least approximates that of viewers across Europe.

Of course, I suspect such a system could never work in practice: I’m sure Monocle wouldn’t want to sully their upmarket brand, and the BBC wouldn’t want to lose control. But I think it’s an interesting idea!


The logo at the top is the official one for this year’s contest, taken from the press pack.

This 2,443rd post was filed under: Media, News and Comment, Posts delayed by 12 months, , , , , .

When public health measures pass me by

In this morning’s Monocle Minute, there was a fascinating bit about a public health measure in Pakistan which had completely passed me by:

Pakistan’s Punjab province has taken an intriguing step to discourage its citizens from chugging too many cans, demanding that brands such as Red Bull and Monster remove the word “energy” from their packaging and replace it with “stimulant”. The move comes from the scientific advisory panel of the Punjab Food Authority (PFA), who ruled that the word was misleading. The PFA decided that the drinks do not provide people with nutritional energy per se, rather that the caffeine, taurine and guarana merely stimulate drinkers.

I think there is much to be done around the regulation of food packaging, as it often seems pretty misleading. But most of what I’d thought about previously was around claims about the “healthiness” of foods and claims about calorific content. In fact, I’ve had previous publications ranting about both the food industry and the public health response on the latter point, but don’t have any clear answers of my own to offer. I’d never really thought about the connotations of “energy” drinks as a name, so I think the story above is a really interesting development and I’ll be intrigued to see whether it spreads more widely.


Sometimes, even those of us in public health miss public health developments in our own country. I only recently because aware of the fact that liquid laundry detergent capsules are now packaged in opaque containers not because of changing consumer preferences but because of very sensible European legislation, designed to reduce their attractiveness to children.

That’s a public health legislative win by anyone’s yardstick… and while most had realised the packaging had changed, no-one in my office was even aware that the legislation existed. It’s amazing how much public health measures can pass by even those of us working in the field – we perhaps don’t do enough to celebrate public health achievements that aren’t badged like that.


A year or so ago, my friend James O’Malley wrote a great article revealing that Fuller’s pubs had gone sugar-free on soft drinks – years before the Soft Drink Levy came into force. This was a voluntary public health measure by a private business. Wouldn’t it have been great if, say, Public Health England or the Faculty of Public Health had seized on this as an example of responsible action and praised the chain – rather than simply ignoring it? Just a thought.


The photo at the top is a cropped version of this photo posted to Flickr by Mike Mozart. I’ve edited and re-used it above under its Creative Commons licence.

This 2,442nd post was filed under: Health, News and Comment, Posts delayed by 12 months, , , .

The credulity of most Apple coverage

Over my cornflakes this morning, I read Ben Hoyle’s interview with Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, in The Times Magazine.


This was one of those interviews which is sort of interesting but doesn’t really say much. Though I was quite taken with this description of Apple’s canteen where the cutlery is hidden from view in an illuminating example of form over function:

You can’t tell what the chefs are cooking because there are no menus on display (the options are on your phone if you’re an employee). You don’t seem to be able to pay cash for anything and there are no sauce sachets or eating utensils to be seen unless you know where to look (they’re with the other unsightly essentials like bottled drinks and napkins, sunk out of sight in smooth, curved central islands reminiscent of giant iPods).


What really struck me about this interview was the weird cognitive dissonance in the tenth paragraph. In this paragraph, Hoyle points out that:

Apple’s App Store is “curated” to the extent that you (and your children) won’t find hate speech or pornography on there.

That is, Apple – for better or worse – prioritises its values over the freedom of its customers to easily use the platform for activities which meet with disapproval from Apple. I wish this (puritanical?) attitude had been used to challenge in this bit of the same paragraph:

Apple has regarded privacy as “a basic human right” for a long time and “built the company around” that belief. The sprawling, intimate personal data profiles that companies like Facebook and Google compile “shouldn’t exist”, Cook thinks.

Cook claims that Apple is built around privacy. Yet, while Apple is happy preventing access to hate speech on the App Store, it actively promotes the Facebook app despite it asking for user permission to build data profiles which Cook says are antithetical to everything Apple stands for.

This seems a really odd moral position to me: if your company is reputedly built around one “basic human right”, why allow apps which violate that fundamental belief and ban apps which contravene less dearly held standards? The answer seems fairly obvious to me: the Facebook and Google apps are among the most popular, and are core to the iPhone experience. But can you really claim something is a cornerstone value if you ignore it to sell more phones?


I was also a bit riled up by this ludicrous comparison:

On cybersecurity … the company also protects its FaceTime and Messages apps with end-to-end encryption unlike, say, Google’s standard Gmail.

Why compare a closed messaging system, where end-to-end encryption is easy, with an open standard like email? That reads like a line supplied by Apple. It should have been challenged by asking if Apple’s iCloud email service protects messages with end-to-end encryption, which of course it does not.


There are a lot of things that Apple does extraordinarily well. It is evidently one of the corporate success stories of our time and has inspired phenomenol brand loyalty among a huge population of users. But it isn’t perfect.

Much of the media, and Hoyle’s article is no exception, seems far too credulous when it comes to Apple. Coverage of Apple would be much more satisfying if it showed a degree of balance or at least an attempt at challenging some of the more outlandish media lines rather than simply repeating them verbatim.


The picture of Tim Cook at the top of this post was uploaded to Flickr by Fabio Bini, and is used here under its Creative Commons licence.

This 2,438th post was filed under: Media, News and Comment, Posts delayed by 12 months, Technology, , , , .

How much would you pay to keep using Google?

The Economist’s data team has today published a blog post called “How much would you pay to keep using Google?” Unusually for The Economist, the headline isn’t really an accurate representation of the contents, which actually discuss research findings related to the amount people would have to be paid to give up using search engines in general.

But the original question got me thinking. A couple of years ago, I’d have responded with a fairly substantial sum. These days, I’m not so sure. I wonder what that says about the state of the company?

Google used to be the only decent search engine. That is no longer true. A couple of years ago, I decided to see if it was possible to go all-in on Bing. Ironically, this was somewhat inspired by Matt Cutts, formerly of Google, who gives himself 28-day challenges to test assumptions and better himself. Surely, I reasoned, it can’t be as bad as people make out, nor as bad in daily use as an occasional search to try it out makes it seem. I switched my default search engine to Bing in Chrome and on my mobile.

And do you know what? The vast majority of the time, it is perfectly competent. On very rare occasions when I’m struggling to find something I also try searching on Google: I’d say 75% of the time, I also fail to find what I’m looking for there. I’d also say, without any proper data to back up the assertion, that Bing’s results seem less replete with spammy useless links than Google’s. And Bing’s rewards scheme buys me an occasional coffee. I don’t think I’d pay for Google search.

But of course, Google provides more than just search. Would I pay for other components of their offer?

Would I pay for Gmail? There are perfectly decent alternatives to Gmail, and I rarely use my actual Gmail address but forward stuff to it from elsewhere, so redirecting future mail wouldn’t be a problem. Moving the archive would be a pain. I’d probably pay a small fee—a pound a month?—just to avoid the hassle.

One service I would definitely pay for is Google Maps. I use Google Maps every day and have not found anything that can even begin to compete. Back in December, Justin O’Beirne wrote a great essay on Google Maps’s moat—the content and time barrier which keeps it well ahead of competitors. On these terms, I guess Google Maps is probably the most “valuable” bit of Google to me.

Google Drive is great, but OneDrive is pretty great too. Chrome is my current default browser, but I’d happily switch to Firefox. Google Calendar is actually quite irritating (especially since ‘quick add’ was removed) and I use it only because it’s handy. I like my Android phone, but I’d get by on iOS. I’d be sad to lose my Chromebook, but Windows laptops aren’t quite the horror shows they used to be.

I enjoy watching occasional Youtube videos, but I wouldn’t really miss them if I couldn’t watch them any more. I use Google Photos, but I also upload all of my photos to other cloud services, at least in part because I don’t trust Google not to shut down Photos when it turns its attention elsewhere (à la Google Reader or Google Notebook, both of which closed while I was an active user).

More recent Google developments (Home, Assistant, Allo, Duo, Now) have totally passed me by.

Jeff Jarvis used to talk about “livin’ la vida Google” to describe his complete immersion in the Google universe. A couple of years ago, I’d have put myself in a similar category, but no longer. I am only one person, and I’ve no idea how ‘typical’ I am in this context, but I wonder if my change in behaviour represents a wider portentous shift for Google’s fortunes?


The photo at the top was posted on Flickr by Sigurd Magnusson, and is reproduced here under its Creative Commons licence.

This 2,437th post was filed under: News and Comment, Posts delayed by 12 months, Technology, , , , , , .

‘Inappropriate’ A&E attendances

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post for the Fuse Open Science Blog about the system failures which lead to patients ‘inappropriately’ presenting at A&E, and how this is often blamed on patients who are expected to self-triage with a high degree of accuracy. I’ve thought of this today because it popped up in my Facebook ‘memories’.

This has prompted a couple of completely disconnected thoughts.


My first thought is that what I wrote then remains true today, and has become even more relevant with ever-increasing pressure on NHS Trusts. Effective triage of patients to the ‘correct’ NHS services is a nut that remains stubbornly uncracked.

More money has been ploughed into putting GPs in A&E departments, despite mixed evidence on cost and patient throughput. Some companies are experimenting with triage chatbots for the NHS which feels to me like an unlikely solution to the problem of sorting acutely unwell patients. The NHS Choose Well campaign keeps steaming ahead at various levels of the NHS as though doing more of the same will result in a completely different outcome.

Anecdotally, clinical colleagues tell me that last winter was ‘better’ than others in recent years, in as much as A&Es were over-filled with patients who should be there rather than patients who shouldn’t be there. Of course, that means departments are more pressured. Perhaps the fear of long waits and ‘chaos’ puts off ‘inappropriate’ attendees. I’m certain that it puts off some ‘appropriate’ attendees and that this will, at least in a very small way, have contributed to excess winter deaths for 2017/18.


My second—unrelated—thought is that I have absolutely no memory of writing or publishing that Fuse article. I mean, I know I wrote it, but I have no memory of constructing it, or of looking up the stuff about Joseph Hodgson and drawing a parallel between misuse of historical charitable hospitals and the modern NHS.

I’m always bad at remembering things I’ve worked on in the past, but to have such a complete absence of any memory for something I wrote (and clearly put thought into) only 24 months ago is remarkable even for me.

I can only assume I was knackered when I wrote it… which would also explain the slightly crap call-back pun in the last line. I can see what I was trying to do, but reading it now, I think it slightly missed the mark.


The picture at the top is a cropped and edited version of a photo published on Flickr by gwire. I’m using it under its Creative Commons licence.

This 2,433rd post was filed under: Health, News and Comment, Posts delayed by 12 months, , , , , , , .

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