Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Brexit, People's Vote and Indy 2

People's Vote March, Edinburgh

We are still waiting to find out what Brexit might mean. Although, more and more voices from all directions are warning that it is going to be an absolute disaster that will affect everyone in the UK. I went to the People's Vote rally on Saturday in Edinburgh. It was well attended - a thousand people or so. Maybe not as many as I would have hoped for. I enjoyed the speeches even though some of the jokes made me cringe. It was good to feel not alone and hear some other sane voices.

It seems that some people from the Scottish Independence movement have serious issues with the People's Vote movement: Brexit is an English problem; Scotland already voted to remain in the EU; a second EU referendum will divert attention from a second independence referendum; People's Vote is an English movement full of unionists; Brexit will facilitate Scottish independence. I think this is wrong. Yes, Scotland voted against Brexit (62%) as did Northern Ireland (55.8%) while England (53.4%) and Wales (52.5%) voted for Brexit. Yes, there is a massive imbalance in the UK makeup where England ends up outweighing the opinions of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. However, that is also true for London who voted 59.9% to remain with a population larger than Scotland. I do think that the UK needs to be reformed to balance out these regional tensions. I also think that this probably will not happen within the framework of the UK and that Scotland needs to become independent to embrace modern institutions fit for the 21st century (see also my posts on independence from September 2014).

However, independence is an entirely separate matter from Brexit and the People's Vote. Brexit is on a tight schedule and nothing else will be sorted until Brexit is dealt with next March. This schedule is not entirely due to Westminster invoking Article 50. It also depends on the upcoming elections for the EU parliament in May 2019. The position of the UK will need to be sorted by then. I am still not sure how to vote for Brexit happened. However, it is clear that the official leave campaign lied and broke electoral law. I also think the British press has a huge role to play using the EU as a convenient scapegoat for the last few decades.

Leading figures of the leave campaign are members of the current UK government. And yes, Scotland didn't vote for this government (although the Conservatives won 12 seats in Scotland in addition to their 1 seat they held previously). Scotland is part of the UK. And the Westminster Tory government is trying to figure out what Brexit means and what sort of Brexit should happen. And the Labour opposition seems to be keen on Brexit, too. Somehow they think that Brexit will allow the UK to become a socialist utopia. So Brexit is very much a Scottish problem as well because should Brexit happen Scotland will be dragged along if it wants it or not.

Giving the people of the UK another vote to decide which way Brexit should go when they have the options clearly before them is an obvious way to defuse this situation. If the people (and, yes, it will be mostly the English as they are the biggest group) decide that a no-deal Brexit or a blind Brexit is not desirable it will allow the government to withdraw from the brink of the cliff. On the other hand, I would have thought, that it would be a clear indication for an independent Scotland if the people of England decided that any Brexit should go ahead but Scotland decided it was a bad idea (again). If, however, Scotland decided Brexit should go ahead along with the English then, I am afraid, Scotland would sit in the same (sinking) boat as the rest of the UK.

I think another important aspect of the People's Vote and Indy 2 discussion should be that it would be a lot easier for Scotland to become independent if both Scotland and the rest of the UK were in the EU. The EU facilitates exchange of goods, services and people. This works very well as can be seen by the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The border between iScotland and rUK would look very similar and it would pose no problem as long as both parts are part of the EU. If, however, iScotland wanted to be a member of the EU and rUK was thoroughly brexited then the same issue of a hard border would arise as between the Republic of Ireland and a brexited Northern Ireland currently discussed.

So, I think because of timing and practicalities Scotland and the Indy2 movement should support the People's Vote. Brexit must be stopped as it is totally insane. The People's Vote campaign in Scotland shouldn't be too hard as the Scots don't need to be convinced. Relative numbers mean that Scotland won't come to the rescue of England - the English need to sort out the Brexit mess they created themselves. However, it is in Scotland's interest to avoid Brexit. The case for an independent Scotland remains as strong as ever and as the Brexit episode demonstrates should be pursued with some urgency once Brexit is out of the way.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

FLOSSUK Conference

The FLOSSUK conference was held in Edinburgh last week. I attended the two day conference and the hacking the raspberry pi workshop. The conference was excellent. Abstracts of all talks are on the FLOSSUK website. What follows are some notes from the talks I particularly liked.

Reproducible Build

Talk by Chris Lamb, the current Debian Project Leader. Very interesting talk on the need to be able to produce reproducible builds, ie the same source code in the same build environment always produces the same binaries. The reason for wanting to do this is to be able to trust binaries distributed by Linux distributions. At the moment we can look at the source code and make sure that it has no back doors built in. We then compile it and distribute it. When we download and install these binaries we trust the provider that the binaries are good. However, we do not know if their build environment is good or if they have been asked to compile modified sources (with a backdoor). Reproducible builds allow a number of people to build these binaries. If they all agree then chances of a compromised binary are reduced. Obviously, the compiler might be compromised itself. This is very difficult to establish and probably takes a new platform and cross compilation.
Anyway, Debian is now 94% reproducible. Chris introduced a very interesting tool - diffoscope which is a clever diff. It allows to compare binaries in some meaningful way. It would be really cool if this could be made to work with scientific dataformats such as HDF or netCDF.
I think the reproducible builds are also interesting from a scientific software perspective. Debian uses BuildInfoFiles to record the particular environment in which the package was build. This could be used to build scientific programs that require a particular environment.

Small Things for Monitoring

I really enjoyed this talk on IoT stuff. I was interested to hear about the ESP8266 based systems which look ideal for monitoring applications as they come with wifi on board. In particular the wemos D1 systems look cool. I am thinking of getting some of those with temperature and humidity sensors for my flat. Apart from the hardware I was very interested in the MQTT protocol which is a machine to machine IoT communication protocol on top of TCP. It can be used to move measurements around. This might also be interesting for the piccolo platform I am working on. There is also a similar protocol for serial connections called MQTT-SN. MQTT and the ESP8266 systems get combined using the homie project. Now I just need to find some time.

Internet of Things at the Uni of Edinburgh

IS is providing a LoRaWAN network in central Edinburgh that can be used for IoT applications. It is used for the CitySounds project. So if you have some interesting IoT project for central Edinburgh in mind you can use this for communication with your devices. More info on IoT in Edinburgh here: iot.ed.ac.uk/
One interesting thing I learned is that you can switch off the HDMI output of the Pi to save power. Would be good for the piccolo system.

Other Talks

  • Roy Thompson gave an excellent after dinner talk on climate change and how he used one line of R to tackle the relationship between temperature, CO2 and the economy. Somewhat gloomy but with a clear pointer of what could be done.
  • Lorna Campbell's keynote on the Open Knowledge Landscape was also most excellent. Interesting to hear about the various projects, approaches and platforms which was a suitable introduction of the subject to the geeky audience. Lorna then moved on to talking about the gender cap and misrepresentation of minority groups. Finally she talked about the Cost of Freedom and the tribute to Bassel Khartabil a Syrian internet activist who ultimately paid with his life for his involvement in open knowledge.
  • Being a photographer as well I really enjoyed Simon Biles talk on forensic photography

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Strike for USS

Strike for USS

We are now halfway through the 14 day strike over changes to our pension scheme. A further 14 days of strike are on the table depending on the progress of the negotiations between the union, the employers and the pension fund. At the centre of the dispute are different views on what the world will be like in 20 years. The employers UUK and the pension fund USS see a deficit in the future. They anticipate this deficit due to a number of assumptions: above inflation salary rises, steady increase of life expectancy and, most crucially, they prepare for the worst-case scenario of a sectorial collapse which would require the unwinding of the entire scheme. The union UCU contests these assumptions. The details of these assumptions are discussed in great detail elsewhere.

When the union asked us to support industrial action I was very sceptical. My previous experience of UCU strikes over pay was very half-hearted. Some of us went on strike, our pay was docked and our demands were ignored. I assumed this action would be similar. My heart sunk further when I heard that we were asked to strike for 14 days. At home we had big discussions of what to do. Ten years of effective pay cuts due to below-inflation salary rises and austerity and kids that are growing up and getting more expensive has left us in a tight financial situation. A job that used to allow us to live quite comfortably ten years ago now covers the basics but requires us to consider everyday expenses. Major expenses are fairly catastrophic. Yet our household income is well above the median household income. The loss of income due to the strike will hurt. Finally, my crystal ball is particularly dim looking ahead to the time when I might think about retiring in 20 years or so. The way I see it is either our world will be very dismal if we do not sort out the big problems of climate change, automation and rising inequality; or we will have sorted them out and we might well not need pensions as a universal basic income will be available.

In short, I was not convinced by the strike. I was surprised at how strong the support for the strike is. We even managed to picket both our buildings at King's Buildings, the University of Edinburgh Science and Engineering campus which is not known as a hot bed of industrial activism. I am also extremely pleased by the support we are receiving from our students. They are bearing the consequences of the strike by missing lectures and tutorials. My first concern was proven incorrect and although both the financial burden and my view of the future still remain I now fully support the industrial action.

So far, during the strike we have learned a lot about pensions and the assumptions and models that are used to assess their viability. We have also found out about the governance of our universities, their management and the finacialization of higher education. Universities in the UK are strange beasts, sometimes they are seen as public sector organisations and other times as private sector. As a member of staff I see myself as a public sector worker. I hope I contribute to society by helping to educate people to understand both our physical and social environments and by directly contributing to research. Management also sees university as public sector entities when it comes to our remuneration and below inflation pay rises. However, management see universities also as private sector entities when it comes to their remuneration, student fees (which are less of an issue in Scotland although oversee students face huge fees) and our pensions. The rise of zero hour contracts and precarious working conditions also point to a private sector view of the world. It also turns out that university governance and in particular the employer organisation UUK are very opaque.

Having seen the arguments brought forward by both sides, the unity of staff and students and management of many universities breaking rank with the UUK position I wonder how our world works. I am a geophysicist. I have a good understanding of how our physical world works, I have some idea of how our biological environment works but I have no idea of how our society works. I find it deeply irrational. How can the £400k salary of our principal be justified? Why are our pensions attacked using dubious assumptions when there seems to be no need to do so? How can our government, even if they are Tories, push through the hardest of BREXITs? Why are we not dealing with air pollution and the resulting deaths as a matter of urgency? What about climate change and the social implications of automation? Does our society work by the people with influence, money and power trying to get away with as much as possible, shaping our world to their needs and the rest of us forced to struggle against them? This post on narratives gave me a lot to think about.

The world is changing. It must change as continuing as we did in the past is not possible: there cannot be indefinite growth, our resources are limited; climate change is happening; digitalisation and automation is fundamentally changing how we work and most importantly how much human labour is required. This is then a struggle of where these unavoidable changes lead us to. Will the powerful exclusively benefit to the detriment of the majority? Can we come up with an alternative? I think this is exactly what the universities should attempt to do. And we need to start transforming the universities themselves.

Update: The Manifesto for the University of the Future is well worth a read. There is also the Aberdeen Manifesto which strikes a similar vein. This is the sort of thing I have in mind.