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Odds and Ends #1: Labour backs liberating the Postcode Address File (sort of)
Your digest of interesting links, short takes and cool stuff
Hello! This is an experimental preview of Odds and Ends, a round-up of interesting links, observations and other ephemera that I plan to send out to premium subscribers to my Substack when/if I launch a paid tier.
The plan is that when I do go paid, I’ll drop1 a new ‘big’ essay, like this one on Tuesdays, alternating between free and paid. And then on Thursdays, paying subscribers will get something like the below, in addition to the smug satisfaction that they are supporting my writing.
Be an O’Malleyist2: So if you value my work, please subscribe – and pre-pledge a subscription to tell me you like what I do! I only need another [not insurmountable] number of paying subscribers to make the business model work!3
Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary backs liberating the PAF
As regular readers will know, I’ve long been an advocate of liberating the Postcode Address File (PAF). And now my attempts to meme it into existence are starting to pay off. Maybe.
Here’s a screenshot of Jonathan Reynolds, Labour’s shadow BEIS minister liking a tweet I sent, arguing that freeing the PAF can help spur economic growth.
So now I think we can say, with 100% certainty, that this is basically a cast-iron manifesto commitment, right?
In any case, if he actually wants some ideas about how to go about doing it, he should read this really, really excellent post from Owen Boswarva. Unlike me, he actually knows what he is talking about and makes the case for numerous solid policy steps that could be taken by, say, an incoming Labour government, to open up address data.
Good polling news
It’s not exactly revelatory to share the observation that the Conservative Party is probably going to lose the next election, as Labour has been ahead in the polls for a couple of years now.
But this cheering news made me wonder something:
If the polling model above is in any way accurate, if the numbers hold, they could be looking at 461 seats, and the Tories being knocked down to 90 - less than half the number Labour won 2019. It means that further down the curve of possible outcomes, a Canada ‘93 style wipeout may even be on the cards.
Now, obviously these numbers may be off. And events in the next year could change things considerably (a proper recession? Labour screwing up the short campaign?). But given the circumstances… why aren’t the Tories freaking out more? Though it is most likely that the next election will be a loss that will put them in opposition for a term or two, there’s a non-zero chance that it could be an extinction level event.
A little bit of O’Malleyist optimism in the form of the latest new car figures from SMMT. As spotted by Simon Evans on Twitter, battery-powered electric vehicle registration numbers in July were up 88% year on year.
What does this mean? The energy transition is actually happening. I think it is worth dwelling on, because so often we argue about politics like it is an abstract thing, or focus on the problem with things not happening. But when it comes to switching away from the internal-combustion engine, electric cars are now rolling off of the production lines and on to driveways in big numbers.
So we’re now well into the steep bit of the S-curve of innovation adoption. And though pure EVs only have a 16% market share right now, that number is going to keep growing. And fast. (And hopefully soon we’ll be able to dump our knackered old Diesel4 for an EV as the second-hand market matures).
A group of pilots at American flew 70 test flights over six months while using Google’s AI-based predictions, cross-referenced with Breakthrough Energy’s open-source contrail models, to avoid altitudes that are likely to create contrails. After these test flights, we analyzed satellite imagery and found that the pilots were able to reduce contrails by 54%. This is the first proof point that commercial flights can verifiably avoid contrails and thereby reduce their climate impact.
Take this with as many grains of salt as you deem necessary, as this is coming from Google’s corporate blog and not like, actual journalists or scientists, but Google claims that doing some clever analysis with AI can reduce contrails from planes, and thus make a tangible difference to carbon emissions from flights.
Assuming this is broadly true, this is really great news. Flight is probably one of the single hardest thing to decarbonise. And more importantly, it isn’t something that is going to go away, however much we might moralise about it. Not to mention, as I’ve previously written, despite the climate impact I don’t think it should be something we do less of, for teaching-the-world-to-sing humanistic reasons. So anything like this, which reduces the carbon impact even a bit is a good thing.
The world's next Holocaust museum is being built inside one of the planet's most popular video games, Fortnite.
Driving the news: The virtual building, called the Voices of the Forgotten Museum, will let players walk its halls to read plaques describing the genocide against Jews in Nazi Germany and see photos of Jewish resistance fighters and heroic individuals who sheltered Jews.
I’m curious what the reaction will be to this. I suspect one obvious gut-reaction is that it might feel wildly inappropriate inside a cartoony game that is premised on essentially fighting a war. But I think this is a really good idea as a means of reaching The Kidz with something important.
What I also think is interesting is how it suggests the norms and expectations around this sort of interactive content have not yet settled.
Apparently, the experience (which will be separate from the main shooting game) is restricted from, for example, showing photos of dead bodies. And perhaps more strikingly, the choice has been made to present the information as a virtual museum – complete with big glass doors, exhibits and description cards. When there is no computational reason why the player couldn’t instead be immersed in, for example, a virtual recreation of a concentration camp. Perhaps this is a matter of taste? Or a conservative first step into presenting history virtually? Either way, I’m intrigued to see where this sort of thing goes next.
And related to that, the other aspect of it which I find exciting is that the experience isn’t being made by Epic Games, the developers of Fortnite, but by a third party developing using Fortnite’s incredible new developer tools.
This is both interesting as a Fortnite story, as it is evidence of Epic’s attempt to turn Fortnite into a platform, acting more like an app store than a game. But also as a story about developing 3D (dare I say Metaverse) experiences. As tools like Unreal Editor for Fortnite drag game/experience development away from being the preserve of highly skilled coders, and slightly closer towards being more of something a not-particularly-skilled hobbyist can do, like Photoshop.
Instead, the leader of Britain’s main opposition party stayed in the background, leaving Anneliese Dodds, a shadow minister with a low public profile, to announce the shift in a short opinion column in The Guardian. In just over 800 words, she made three big declarations. One was that “sex and gender are different.” Another was that, although Labour continues to believe in the right to change one’s legal gender, safeguards are needed to “protect women and girls from predators who might abuse the system.” Finally, Labour was therefore dropping its commitment to self-ID—the idea that a simple online declaration is enough to change someone’s legal gender for all purposes—and would retain the current requirement of a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria.
I thought this piece from Helen Lewis explaining Labour’s shift on The Trans Stuff was super interesting for a couple of reasons.
First, it explains how Labour has essentially moved its position to be exactly in line with the general public, who are basically “live and let live” pro-trans rights in the zoomed out sense, but closer to the “gender critical” view when it comes to specific policy questions about (eg) women in sport and so on. So it is a good excuse to link once again to my post from earlier this year about the politics of trans stuff, and in particular Labour’s dilemma5.
But secondly, the fact that the pivot came via Anneliese Dodds amused me, as she is the subject of perhaps my favourite ever piece of obvious polling bullshit: The time when 11% of people lied to pollsters and claimed to know “a fair amount” about her. When in reality, she’s so forgettable and is someone who literally no one knows, so she’s the perfect vessel through which to sneak out an incredibly awkward, screeching policy U-turn.
Strange New Worlds is the best (Paramount+)
I know many of you subscribe to my Substack for mildly contrarian opinions, and others subscribe for my whole human-progress-is-good schtick. So I thought I’d speak to both groups in this inaugural edition of Odds and Ends with a mention of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, which concludes its second season today.
If you haven’t seen it, it is time to bite the bullet and subscribe to yet another streaming service to watch it (Paramount+). I’m only a relatively recent Trekkie, only watching TNG for the first time during the pandemic. But this show is my absolute favourite thing at the moment, not least because it is in my favourite genre: It’s a show about competent people doing their jobs well (this is perhaps why I also love The West Wing and one of my favourite films is The Martian).
The makers have done away with all of darkness and intense serialised bullshit of modern TV, and have basically made just a relentlessly delightful, light show full of likeable characters who like each other.
But anyway, I promised you a contrarian take and it is this: For those unaware, the show is actually a prequel to The Original Series (aka TOS - the one with Shatner and Nimoy, etc). And so far the show has, as I understand it, stuck fairly rigidly to the continuity setup 60 years ago. And the expectation is that the show will end by segueing neatly into the world of Kirk, Spock, and 1960s social attitudes.
However. I think the producers should be bold. And once they’re done with SNW, they should roll straight into a remake/reboot of TOS.
Yes, it would be heretical to a certain section of bearded, overweight men on the internet6. But I think there’s a golden opportunity to make it better.
It would be a big opportunity to re-tell some of the classic stories with modern budgets. It’s a chance to respond to modern sensibilities (such as by letting the women do stuff). And they can weave in some original stories that establish threads found in later Trek series, such as introducing the Cardassians and the Bajorans and establishing their tensions7.
They could also riff on modern concerns. Perhaps an episode about a rogue AIs or one where one where a very rich and annoying man buys control of a major Federation communications platform. Or maybe even a story about an intergalactic database of location coordinates that is trapped behind strict licensing fees, with captors that demand prohibitively expensive ransom of Latinum in order to access it?
…I’m going to stop writing about Star Trek now. Next story.
At the moment we’re living through an AI ‘Cambrian Explosion’, as the fundamental tech is being turned into mind-blowing new products and tools that just wouldn’t have been possible even a year ago.
Here’s the most recent example. It’s a tool that can re-light a video shot on a green screen. You just supply a green-screen shot subject, shot with neutral lighting, and then effectively a 360-degree photo of the scene you want the lighting to match… and it will use some magic to change your photo or video’s lighting.
It’s slightly mad to think that it essentially solves in software one of the problems that the multi-million dollar “Volume” was created to solve in film production. And it is surely only a matter of time until it filters down into just being a button inside ordinary apps. So imagine your Zoom calls, but where your lighting better matches your virtual background, or being able to produce much more polished VFX with just your phone.
Finally… the time I was a “retail expert”
And finally, I thought I’d throw this in as it was repeated on Channel 5 last week. But a few years ago I was featured as a talking head in a (pretty low-rent) documentary about Waitrose. Why? Because I’d written a piece that combines two of my obsessions: Open data and class. Basically I’d found something approximating actual statistical proof that Waitrose is the poshest supermarket. For some reason the narrator calls me a “Retail Expert”.
And that’s it for this week! Don’t forget to subscribe to get more of This Sort Of Thing in your inbox. Along with plenty more big takes where I needlessly pick fights with people I like. If you’re looking for something else meaty to read, may I recommend this essay on the politics of Net Zero, which I think has aged extremely well?
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“Drop” is how young, cool people like me say “publish”.
The “ironic joke” to “personal brand” pipeline is dangerous.
I’m torn between talking explicitly about numbers as it makes it clear what I’m trying to achieve, and makes it inherently more engaging as you can figure out how much money I’m making/trying to make. But I’m also British, so I am incredibly squeamish about talking about money in a way that people like my Canadian partner are not. Anyway, if you like my stuff enough to have read this footnote, you’ve got to pre-pledge. That’s the rules.
Why did we get a diesel? Because we were forced by the circumstances of “money” and “needing to urgently buy a car before a lockdown is imposed, so we could actually move out of the flat we’d already given up”. So we went to an incredibly shifty car dealer in Ilford, who placed old parking tickets on his double-yellow parked cars, to avoid getting new tickets. He was sort-of a genius.
This is probably the piece I’ve been the most nervous ever about posting, even though I was just stating what public opinion was. It actually sat in my drafts for over a year before I finally hit publish (which annoyingly meant I had to update much of the data cited).
I can use this mean description as I’m also a big fat internet man of beard (BFIMoB).
I’m sure someone will explain why this doesn’t work for a continuity reasons, but it’d be fun to see the start of the Cardassian occupation of Bajor. Perhaps they could add a little political intrigue by making the existing Bajoran administration some sort of theocratic nightmare society, so the Cardassians are initially greeted by some Bajorans as liberators? (If you read this footnote and are not a Trekkie then you only have yourself to blame.)