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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Just Finished Reading: Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (FP: 1939)

Apparently bored with hunting big game across the world the unnamed narrator decides he needs something else to occupy his mind, something deadlier than tigers or more cunning than lions – Man. Not just any man, indeed not just anyone but someone important, well-guarded and highly dangerous. A head of state in a totalitarian country, someone worth stalking and, just maybe killing. But by chance the stalk fails and the hunter is captured in the act. At first refusing to believe that he is acting alone on a personal dare his interrogators finally accept the truth. But they can’t put him on trial – no matter how well staged. He must die for his crime but in a way that looks like an unfortunate accident. Thrown from a cliff the hunter survives purely by good luck but within hours becomes the hunted, first across Europe and then back to England itself. Set upon in the London Underground and forced to defend himself he kills one of his assailants and the police become involved. Running from the law as well as determined enemy agents, unwilling to involve his friends and unable to involve the Government he must rely on his own cunning honed to perfection by a lifetime of hunting wild creatures across the globe. But has he met his match in the team sent out to hunt him down in his own backyard?

I’d heard about this book long before its reissue in 2014. It was a wartime classic produced in number and given to soldiers as both entertainment and as a teaching aid in escape and evasion tactics. I could see why. The author delights in finding interesting, imaginative and practical ways to move across the countryside undetected as well as what to do if flushed out of hiding. Whilst not exactly a textbook of field craft it does clearly indicate the mind set required by those being hunted by dedicated enemies in both a urban and rural environment. The initial losing of his ‘tail’ in London was a real page turner especially as I used the Tube system for the 6 years I lived in London so could easily visualise many of the places he mentioned and clearly knew well. The other thing that I found equally interesting was the main characters observations of late 1930’s English (and especially Class) culture. I guess that I’m just a natural born Sociologist or maybe an Anthropologist so I find this kind of thing frankly fascinating. It’s one of the many reasons I like reading some of the older books in my collection. Some of the casual asides which probably meant little at the time, except maybe the addition of some local colour, really stick out with the perspective of decades or even centuries of history between the written word and the modern reader. What passed unremarked in 1939 seems truly odd in 2016. How times (and mores) have changed.

On further investigation I found that this largely forgotten classic author of suspense fiction had written quite a few works including a sequel to Rogue Male where the protagonist returns to Germany to finish his original assignment. So far I haven’t managed to source a copy but I’ll keep looking until I find one. I want to know how he did next time! Recommended.    

Monday, October 17, 2016

Will the waiting never end?

UK inflation rate holds steady at 0.6%

The average cost of everyday household goods and services went up by 0.6% in the year to August. The UK inflation rate, as measured by the Consumer Prices Index (CPI), was unchanged from July. Rising food prices and air fares pushed prices higher, the Office for National Statistics said, partly offset by cheaper prices for hotel rooms. Economists had forecast inflation would rise to 0.7%, predicting the cheaper pound would push prices higher. ONS statistician Mike Prestwood said raw material costs had "risen for the second month running, partly due to the falling value of the pound". But he added there was "little sign of this feeding through to consumer prices yet". The Retail Prices Index (RPI) measure of inflation, which includes mortgage interest payments, dropped to 1.8% in August from 1.9% in July. Separate figures from the ONS suggest inflationary pressures are building for businesses bringing in materials from abroad. Materials and fuels bought by UK manufacturers rose by 7.6% in price. That was the fastest rise since December 2011, and compared with a rise of 4.1% in the year to July.

UK house price inflation falls to 8.3% in July, says ONS.

House price inflation across the UK fell to 8.3% in the year to July, down from 9.7% in June, according to official statistics. The figures - from the Office for National Statistics - are for the first full month after the Brexit vote. They show that he average house price across the UK in July rose to £217,000. The eastern region of England remains the area with the fastest growing prices. The annual rate of inflation there was 13.2%. Prices in London grew at 12.3%, although they fell in parts of Central London, like Hammersmith and Fulham. Earlier this month the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) said that the UK housing market had settled down after the Brexit vote.

Brexit deal needed before 2019 elections - EU's Verhofstadt.

The European Parliament's lead negotiator on Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt, says the EU needs to have an agreement on UK withdrawal before the next European elections in May or June 2019. In a tweet he said: "Brexit should be delivered before 2019, when EU politics enters into new cycle & the @Europarl_EN starts new mandate." He will participate in the talks along with negotiators from the European Commission and the ministerial Council. The talks are likely to start in 2017. UK Prime Minister Theresa May says she will not trigger the Brexit mechanism - the EU's Article 50 - before next year, because detailed preparations are necessary. Mr Verhofstadt, previously prime minister of Belgium, told journalists in Strasbourg that the European Parliament would "have to give consent to the agreement as stated in Article 50 so it's wise the parliament is involved from the start of this process." I want the UK to trigger Article 50 as soon as possible, so we can finalise these negotiations by 2019. I can't imagine we start the next legislative cycle without agreement over UK withdrawal."

Bosses more cautious on jobs after Brexit, survey finds.

Employers in six out of nine sectors are less optimistic about adding jobs in the wake of the Brexit vote, a survey has found. Financial services, construction and utilities reported the biggest falls in confidence, according to the Manpower Employment Outlook Survey. The survey was conducted in the weeks after the referendum was held. Although UK job prospects have held firm, Manpower said that "cracks in the ice are appearing". The survey asked about 2,100 UK employers whether they plan to hire more workers, or cut jobs, in the last three months of this year. Mark Cahill, ManpowerGroup UK managing director, said Britain was entering a new phase of prolonged economic uncertainty following the referendum on EU membership. "Many finance operations in the City of London depend on the EU 'banking passport' and the fall in hiring intentions could reflect pessimism over the future of this agreement," he said. "The future of freedom of movement across the EU is of particular concern. As UK businesses are reliant on European talent to help fill the skills gap, we urge the government to prioritise maintaining the free movement of people across the EU during its negotiations." There had been an 800% rise in applications for finance jobs in Dublin since the Brexit vote, Manpower said.

Juncker proposes EU military headquarters.

The European Union needs a military headquarters to work towards a common military force, the Commission president has told MEPs in Strasbourg. Jean-Claude Juncker said the lack of a "permanent structure" resulted in money being wasted on missions. Part of his annual state of the union address was devoted to the UK's unexpected vote to leave the EU. He insisted that the bloc was not at risk but called for Brexit negotiations to take place as quickly as possible. Modelled on the state of the union address by the US president, the Commission president's annual speech was introduced in 2010 to detail the state of the EU and future legislative plans. The Brexit vote has given added impetus to plans for greater defence co-operation, because the UK has always objected to the potential conflict of interest with Nato. But Mr Juncker said a common military force "should be in complement to Nato". "More defence in Europe doesn't mean less transatlantic solidarity." A European Defence Fund would stimulate military research and development, he said.

Brexit risk to equal pay laws, Women and Equalities Committee told.

Equal pay laws in the UK could be put at risk by the country's exit from the European Union, MPs have heard. Prof Aileen McColgan said although the UK was a "leader" in areas of equality law, developments on equal pay had been "profoundly driven" by Europe. Prof Catherine Barnard said that without minimum EU standards to abide by, the government could in future try to "lower" the bar. The government says Parliament would have to vote to repeal equality laws. The two professors were giving evidence to the Commons Women and Equalities Committee. Asked what Brexit could mean for UK equality laws, Aileen McColgan, human rights professor at Kings College London, said "it would depend on the government of the day". She said on one level "nothing need change" after the UK left the EU, as most directives had been implemented into UK law. "But on another level it means there would be no underpinning or demand for maintenance of the current provisions, so... it is very troubling as the whole thing could be knocked away", she told MPs.

All details above from BBC News website.

[Despite the fact that I think the Brexit vote and the rather inevitable leaving of the EU is probably the worst (and stupidest) thing this country has done to itself in the last 100 years I do find it endlessly fascinating. I know a lot of people don’t of course and those who just want the whole thing to go away so that they can get on with their lives. Well, unfortunately it won’t and can’t. It’s likely to be a continuing topic of conversation (and argument) for at least the next two years and probably long after that. I think we’re going to have first-hand experience of what it feels like to stand on the wrong side of history and I have a feeling that the experience won’t be a pleasant one.]

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Royal Navy's 'robot wars' under way off Scotland and Wales

From The BBC

14 October 2016

What the Royal Navy has described as its first "robot wars" are fully under way off the coasts of Scotland and west Wales. Unmanned Warrior features more than 50 vehicles, sensors and systems on the surface of the sea, underwater and in the air. The exercise is being held at the same time as Joint Warrior, a UK-led Nato exercise held twice a year. Joint Warrior involves thousands of armed forces personnel. Military ranges and sites in Benbecula, Kyle of Lochalsh and off Applecross are being used for Unmanned Warrior.

Various manufacturers of military technology, including BAE Systems, are taking part in the exercise which runs until 20 October. BAE Systems has described Unmanned Warrior as the world's first large-scale demonstration of "innovative maritime robotic systems". The Royal Navy has reported that earlier this week nine autonomous systems were operated at the same time, "responding to each other, flying, swimming and diving together, but at different tasks, looking for different things". The vehicles being used in Unmanned Warrior include BAE Systems' Pacific Class 950 Unmanned Rigid Inflatable Boat. A craft called Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed (Mast) is also being trialled.

Joint Warrior, meanwhile, involves about 5,700 military personnel from armed forces from countries including Norway, Sweden, Germany and the US.

Thirty-one warships and submarines as well almost 70 aircraft, many of them being flown out of RAF Lossiemouth in Moray and Prestwick in Ayrshire, are being used in the training off the Scottish coast.

[We’re not that far away from fully autonomous fighting vehicles. Maybe 20-30 years if I wanted to be conservative, maybe less if we have some kind of breakthrough event. As things progress they’ll be part of elite units with plenty of human back up, sent in on the most dangerous and difficult jobs. As they become more proficient the human support troops will reduce and will eventually be replaced by robots too. Eventually the robotic forces will be deployed, serviced and maintained completely by other robots. Initially they’ll be used to fight human enemies, probably those unable to field robots themselves. But it will become quickly apparent that humans facing machines will generally be on the losing side so, say 50-75 years from now wars (if we can still call them that) will be fought machine vs machine. Will that make war any less likely when human casualties are zero? I doubt it. If stakes are high, as I guess they will be, the investment in robotic warriors will be significant. War could end up being little more than another ‘reality’ show watched largely for entertainment and betted on extensively. Maybe the military could even turn a profit if the odds are favourable enough. Welcome to a very strange future….]