Cycling for Shelter with Annie

Years ago I used to go for long cycle rides, and do the occasional marathon or mountain marathon.  I’d think up the routes I wanted to cycle, and generally just do them, without any support, or specific training.  Working in an investment bank, I’d sometimes use them as ways of raising money for good causes, making a nuisance of myself, taking a sponsorship sheet round the trading floor. Actually, I’d have more than one sheet, keeping back one to start with the people I knew to be more generous, so that when I put it in front of others who I felt ought to be generous, they would feel obliged to match their colleagues.

That’s all in the past, and I’ve not done any long rides for more than ten years, when, not very well prepared, I dragged my daughter across Ireland.  We still made it to Mt Brandon, though.

But now she is going to do this year’s Ride London-Surrey 100 for Shelter

Shelter logo

and suggested I should do so too.  So I am, and in her way, I’ll be taking the training much more seriously; at my age now, it probably pays too.  The fundraising will be more 21st century too, with a page for donations, which will be anonymous, and tax deductible.  Here’s the link

Tim Lund’s page

Without a trading floor to pester, I’ll be looking to everyone to help me make my funding target.  I had thought of reusing one of my favourite fund raising ideas from back then – a sweepstake on how long it will take me – but that would make donations non tax-deductible, or just too complicated.  But I’m interested to know how long people think it will take me, at my advanced age of 59.  As of now – March 30th – I think around seven hours.  So here’s a rather simpler form than my first attempt

Your Name (required)

Your Email (required)

So - how long do you think it will take me?

Any other comments?

Just to prevent spam bots, here's a simple quiz - if you're not sure of the answer, there's a clue in the title for the ride!

Gene Gini

Alternatively, how much inequality would there be if all human lives were played out on an economically levelled playing field?

I know it’s never going to happen, not least because economic winners, whether thanks to luck or talent, like to tilt the odds for the next generation by giving their children the benefit of their experience while alive, and their money when they die.  In earlier ages they have also constructed ideological systems requiring access to certain roles – being High Priest of the Temple, Caliph, or allowed to vote in elections – to those with some arbitrary genetic inheritance, or born or living within some administrative region.

But there is a more modern ideology out there in favour of equal opportunities, which has had some success in getting measures implemented in public policy.

Chart of the Week: How two decades of globalization have changed the world

This chart derives from the work of Branko Milanovic – no fan of inequality, or neo-liberal cheer leader – but the implication is that globally inequality has declined thanks to globalisation, and inequality only appears to increase if seen through a nationalist prism.  The big picture, I’d say, is that on balance globalisation has levelled the economic playing field, and the developed world middle classes are now obliged to compete with equally talented people from emerging economies such as India and China.  Meanwhile members of elites, individually benefiting most from globalisation, very often buy assets in safer developed economies, and go to live there for at least some of the time, so boosting inequality as perceived in these countries.

That chart was just for the period up to 2008, so what happens now, post-crash, will be interesting. From a simple Marxist point of view, one would expect the development among the middle classes of the developed world of ideologies opposing globalisation.

Let’s not talk about Ayaan Hirsh Ali

I got on a train yesterday, for a short break from the work of helping my Dad move out of his home of 65 years, with the prospect of at last getting to read some more of Ayaan Hirsh Ali’s “Nomad” on my kindle.  But then the seat next to me was taken by a young woman wearing a headscarf, and reading Edward Said’s “Orientalism”, with tabs on various pages in the way of a someone studying a text. Continue reading Let’s not talk about Ayaan Hirsh Ali

Housing policy as if we really believed in it

The immediate trigger for this post are a series of comments I made today on a blog by the Green Party spokesperson on housing, Tom Chance, which can be found here

Building homes, not false hope, in London

In my comments I refer to “housing policy as if we really believed in it” in the context of hoping one day to make housing affordable again, in areas of high demand among people in their 20s and 30s, such as London.  I can accept other aims for housing policy, in particular the need for an environmentally sustainable housing stock, but affordability concerns me here, and is I think of greatest wider concern as well.

Because policy doesn’t look at prices

I don’t think most housing policy is made as if this aim is really believed in, because, if it was, policy would be framed in terms of making housing affordable, i.e. in terms of price, rather than in terms of how many houses need to be built.  There are occasional exceptions, such as this recent comment from Priced Out calling for zero house price inflation, but given the current level of unaffordability, this is not exactly ambitious.  Instead, the debate is cast in quantitative targets, whether:

It would make far more sense to have core policy expressed as requiring the building of enough new homes, and the infrastructure which goes with them, to cap the proportion of income for median earners at the point of household formation ending up going on housing, either as renters or buyers.  This proportion is currently around 50% in the areas of highest demand, about twice what it was 30 years ago.  Such a policy would be interpreted at the city level, assuming this, as in the case of London, to constitute an effective housing market, and might still mean quantitative directives from City Hall to lower level planning authorities, i.e. boroughs, to say that they are not managing to get enough development done, but it would have the twin advantages of the numbers being set at the city level, so more locally than by Whitehall, and requiring increased supply when prices get out of kilter.

It would be a rejection of current ‘predict and provide’ targets, based on models of rates of household formation and other factors which estimate how much housing people  will want.  It seems clear that this approach has failed over the years, but it is more of a wonder why it would ever have been thought likely to succeed; in the long run, what people want will be reflected in pricing, and a refusal to respond to such price signals amounts to telling people they should live somehow other than they wish to, for no good reason when sufficient good, sustainable homes can be built.  An insidious effect of the current system is that high demand means people squeeze into what housing there is available, and unless policy makers do look at the price signals, they can think, institutionally, that somehow or other people are finding somewhere to live, so it’s not such a problem.

and because looking at prices is too scary

The other reason for thinking housing policy makers don’t really think they will make housing more affordable is that if they did, they would be developing policy for how any housing gets built during a period in which peak unaffordability is unwound.  This will not be a good time, financially, to be a first time buyer, speculative developer or buy-to-let landlord, so if the additional housing we need is going to get built, it will have to be supported by the tax payer.

Given the decades over which the housing crisis has developed, it is hard to call this a bubble, except that bubbles can develop in very viscous liquids, and I think this is one – but we don’t know how viscous it is, or if, like glass, which is in fact a very viscous liquid, it might also be capable of fracture.

All we can say is that if housing affordability is to return, it will happen along a path somewhere on a spectrum between these two scenarios

  • Quickly – with enormous political pain from home owners in negative equity, and destabilisation of the financial systems; or
  • Slowly – with a long period in which private sector housing construction stagnates in anticipation of falling prices, and requiring the increasing supply which will drive down prices to come from the public sector.

All we have at the moment from policy makers are the macroprudential concerns of the Bank of England aimed are avoiding the risks of an adjustment happing quickly.

I will leave it there, because predicting what might happen is so speculative, but it is clear there is a problem, and a £2.3 billion fund to subsidise first time buyers, as announced in the recent spending review, is an aggravation of the problem, not part of the solution.

A Random Choropleth

A few days ago an Intergenerational Foundation colleague showed me an Excel workbook published by the London Datastore with which it was possible to produce maps like this

and wondered if I could extend this to maps beyond the M25.

The answer to such questions is almost always “yes” – what varies is how long it takes, and how neatly it can be done. Click here to download what I have managed, which can produce maps such as this – called choropleths – and which is discussed belowOutput

How this works

This workbook has two sheets, one for the choropleth, the other for data, which need to be named “choropleth” and “data” respectively.  On the choropleth sheet, there has to be a cell with the text “Legend”, and also these with the text “Colour0”, “Colour1” and “Boxes”


which define the colour range for the choropleth.  To change the colours, use the normal Excel fill colour for those cells.

The data sheet has to have a table with one column headed “ShapeNames” and another “Data” – and any number of other columns.


Here the data are just random numbers between 0 and 1 – but this is where the values to be shown in the choropleth are entered.

The emboldened cells in this workbook are ones which the user should not change – although there is no protection attempting to prevent this.

Under the bonnet, it works by the map in the choropleth sheet comprising a collection of Excel shapes – of type “Freeform” – named according to the values in the column headed ShapeName in the data sheet.  Change these names, and the “Run” macro fails.

How this was constructed

The first step was to reverse engineer the workbook published by the London Datastore, to see how its macro to fill a collection of Excel shapes with varying colours worked.

The next step was to obtain a collection of Excel shapes for a different geography. Standard shapefiles, with the extension .shp, can be obtained from many public sources – in this case the UK ONS.   This can be read with the free software QGIS, exported as a .emf file, and then this read into Excel as an image.  The Excel image can then be ungrouped, which turns it into the desired collection of Freeform shapes.  Unfortunately, information linking these shapes to the names of the regions in the shapefile are lost, and a manual process is needed to restore the link.  This manual process can be greatly accelerated by copying and pasting the attributes table for the QGIS map layer into Excel, since the Excel Freeform shapes come in the same order as the region names in the attributes table.  The process cannot be completely automated, because when a region is geographically broken up – which happens with islands – there are multiple shapes for the same region.  In this case – e.g. with Isles of Scilly – it is necessary to pick one, e.g. the largest.  There are also several degenerate shapes, with either height or width zero – which can be eliminated with a macro.

How this could be extended

The main limitations of this are:

  • there are only shapes for one set of regions
  • the Excel shapes have to be obtained from a copy of a workbook, with all the Excel risk of something getting changed when it shouldn’t be
  • The VBA code is contained within the workbook, so would need to be copied to new workbooks

It would be nice to have definitive datasets which define the Excel Freeform shapes available from some web site for download.  If this has not already been done, it could be achieved with some VBA code to read KML files, as exportable from QGIS, and convert their latitudes and longitudes first to Easting and Northings, and then to displacements from the top and left of a document in the construction of a Freeform shape in Excel.  The first – and hardest – part of how to do this is described in a workbook downloadable from the Ordnance Survey here.

If sets of Excel shapes could be constructed on request from authoritative publicly available files, it would be better to move the VBA code here into an add in, which, once installed, would allow the user to construct the shapes which comprise the map in the sheet “Choropleth” and the entries in the column “ShapeNames” in the sheet “Data”.

There are always ways a user interface can be improved, especially if the code is wrapped up in an add in, but there is also always an element of judgement / taste in this, so no observations on that here.

Uncle Jack sings the Marseillaise

I only met Uncle Jack a few times, towards the end of his life, in his family home in Dagenham, but he’d featured in our oral history – how in 1914, to the dismay of his Kier Hardy admiring mother*, he’d joined up along with his brother.  He only just survived the war, having been left for dead, at Loos I think, and when I met him, the form of his head wound was plain under his thinning hair.  Jack’s family socialism also survived, but it would seem with different emphases from his mother’s. Continue reading Uncle Jack sings the Marseillaise