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

Monday, December 11, 2017

Maybe they don't allow reading inside......?

Just Finished Reading: The General Strike by Margaret Morris (FP: 1976)

May 1926. With Government subsidies about to come to an end and a Miner’s strike in the offing something just had to give. Either the Miners would accept a pay cut and, in humiliation, return to work or the Mine owners would capitulate and agree to pay a living wage which would cut into their profits. The idea that investment in new machinery and new work practices would improve efficiency and therefore, eventually, profits was dismissed as a pipedream. The miners would just have to be paid less and work longer hours and be damned grateful they had a job at all. Immovable object meet irresistible force. With nine months to run the subsidy allowed the Tory Government of the day and the leaders of industry (often the same people or close friends) had time to prepare stockpiles and contingency plans. The Unions and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) who held them together distrusted each other and far fewer and far less detailed plans were drawn up when the inevitable conflict between Capital and Labour came to a head. So, when the subsidy lapsed, the miners refused to accept the cuts and the Mine owners locked them out it was up to the TUC to back the Miners in their strike effort. Many is the unions saw their support as a natural defensive response and were eager to come out in sympathy. Some indeed, individuals, factories or towns spontaneously came out in support of the Miners struggle and had to be told to go back. But other unions – the heavy hitters in power generation, railways and heavy industry already had their orders, downed tools and walked out. On Tuesday 4th May almost 2 million workers where idle and more had voted to come out too. In the early days of the General Strike far more energy was expended in restraining the strike from growing than in keeping men (it was mostly men) out. Naturally the Governments contingency plans went into effect. Key points of the economy where secured by the Army and Navy. Thousands of volunteers drove buses, unloaded ships (under armed guard) and provided other hard pressed services.

No one really knew what would happen next. Was this the first stage in a Communist revolution? Some parts of the far-left certainly thought or hoped so. But for the most part it was seen as a political strike in defence of the Working Class rather than any attempt to overthrow a government no matter their attitude to Labour in general. Of course some of the more extreme elements in government, Winston Churchill in particular, wanted tanks on the streets and to some extent he got it – along with Fascist bully boys paid as ‘Special constables’ to cause trouble and break picket lines. But eventually, after a rather shaky start, the unions got their act together and became a more co-ordinated organisation which kept food moving, strikers paid, and everyone kept busy making the Strike as effective as possible and with any violence kept to the absolute minimum. Then, in the second week, a day after the next batch of strikers walked out the TUC called the strike off and ordered everyone back to work. Initially thinking that they had won a great victory a cheer went up. Only on realising that nothing had in fact been achieved did disbelief turn into dismay and anger. Just as things were getting into their stride the TUC had thrown in the towel and had abandoned the Miners to their fate. The Strike had lasted 9 days and the like of it would never be seen again.

This was another of those events in British history where I knew the event had happened but I had little idea of the background or the details. I certainly know a LOT more now thanks to this highly detailed study of the General Strike. A good part of my motivation on seeking this out was my self-labelling as a Socialist. If I’m going to call myself as such and identify as such then I’d damned well understand what it is I’m supposed to believe in and know my way around both Labour and Union history. This book is a significant step in that direction and, not surprisingly, after reading of the suffering of the labouring classes at the time my politics has continued its steady drift to the Left. There’s much more to come from this rich well of Socialist thought and action and I have some reading already set up, not only in the R4 category but also in (straight) Politics, Biography and history. I definitely intend to become a well-educated and well-read Socialist in good Working Class fashion. Recommended for anyone interested in such things as well as those who like to find out more about a very odd, and very short, slice of English political history.     

Saturday, December 09, 2017

...or hi-hacked robot delivery vehicles.

San Francisco to restrict goods delivery robots.

From The BBC

7 December 2017

San Francisco officials have voted to restrict where delivery robots can go in the city, in a blow for the burgeoning industry. Start-ups will have to get permits to use such bots, which will be restricted to less crowded urban areas. Opponents are concerned about the safety of pedestrians, particularly elderly people and children. Walk San Francisco, a group that campaigns for pedestrian safety, wanted a complete ban. A range of companies have begun trialling small robots that can deliver food and other goods. They use sensors and lasers in a similar way to self-driving cars in order to navigate their routes.

Robotics company Marble - which describes its machines as "friendly, neighbourhood robots" - began testing in San Francisco earlier this year. Other companies, such as Starship and Postmates, are also keen to use pavements for robot deliveries. San Francisco supervisor Norman Yee, who originally proposed a ban on such robots, has previously said that the city's streets "are for people, not robots". Despite its proximity to Silicon Valley, San Francisco is falling behind other states such as Virginia and Idaho where there are already laws permitting delivery robots to operate. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce lobbied against an all-out ban of such robots, saying that "could create a massive barrier to future innovation in the industry". In October the legislation was reframed to look at regulation rather than a ban.

[OK, this is the first I’d heard of this although it seems pretty much like a no-brainer with the development of driverless cars forging ahead. I guess that driverless ‘street robots’ (like that pictured above) would be a lot easier to develop and distribute than the road version. Of course they’re also easier to mess with – you can easily imagine kids building obstacles on known robot routes – and they’re going to be very easy to rob or hi-hack {I may have just created a new word there (an updated version of hi-jack but using computers to gain access to autonomous vehicles) so you saw it here first OK!} so I’m not 100% sure of their utility in the real world. Plus you can imagine faux robots made up to look like legit ones delivering drugs or, being the world we unfortunately live in, bombs to locations in the city. With potentially thousands of these things even in a medium sized city how are they going to be controlled, regulated or monitored. It’s, to be honest, a security nightmare – so good luck with that!]

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Good Advice.................. 

Just Finished Reading: Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (FP: 1933)

In the late 1920’s George Orwell, then known by his real name Eric Blair, found himself close to abject poverty after having the majority of his money stolen from his room. Forced to look for any kind of paying work before his rent ran out and he was cast on to the streets of Paris he finally got lucky by gaining a position of a plongeur – the lowest of the low in a hotel hierarchy: a washer of dishes, a chopper of vegetables, someone who does any task that no one else will do, do it quickly, for 15-16 hours a day and for a subsistence wage. Already familiar with a strange host of characters from all over the Continent he found himself surrounded by Russian emigres, Italian thieves, and Romanian Communists. Everyone had a tragic story to tell, a reason for ending up and the bottom of the heap and some of them were even true – at least a little. With almost no disposable income, little prospect (but a lot of hope) for promotion and a deep fatigue caused by the long arduous hours of work followed by little sleep the only release was in cheap wine, loud company, bar fights and, very occasionally, a cheap prostitute. Orwell lasted several months in the position – briefly graduating to working flat out in a new restaurant – before returning to England. He was horrified to learn that other plongeurs do the job for decades just to keep their heads above water.

Aided by a friendly loan and the prospect of an easy job Orwell returned to London only to discover that his new post – looking after an invalid – had been delayed by a month. Once again flat bloke, only this time in London, he needed to adapt swiftly to his new circumstances and he did so by falling in with a series of tramps shuffling between hostels in the South East of England. Again each tramp had his story of how he fell on hard times and each showed, in their own way, a fortitude to continue when practically everything was taken from them. What made the experience that much worse was the way the Authorities made even straightforward things – like getting a bed for the night or some decent food – unnecessarily hard and, more to the point, demeaning. In the years before the Welfare State this was how the State treated the poor – as a burden to be shifted elsewhere rather than being dealt with at source.

Despite being well written I did start to struggle with this slim book (a mere 216 pages in my edition) thinking that it was all very well describing the lives of the poor in both London and Paris but where was the analysis – and then, after just over 100 pages, there it was, a devastating critique of not only the hotel system in France but the use of semi-literate workers to produce shoddy goods at minimum wage (practically starvation wages) in order to keep them ‘occupied and exhausted’ in order to prevent them raising up against their oppressors. Whereas, if the frightened ‘masters’ had spent any time actually talking to them they would have discovered that all most people want is a roof over their head, food in their bellies, a bed to sleep in and something to look forward to in their leisure time. Violent revolution hardly enters a single head – exhausted and poorly educated or not. Clearly, he repeatedly pointed out, the poor and the tramps are not different people from the rich (or simply the employed) they are essentially the same – just with vastly different resources.

I suppose that I shouldn’t have really but I was both surprised and a little disappointed that Orwell didn’t propose some kind of Welfare State to deal with the issue and consequences of widespread unemployment. Of course this is doing him a huge disservice. The Welfare State in its early incarnation was a consequence of decades of experience accumulated in the decades after Orwell’s time in Paris and London. He could hardly look 20 years ahead and pluck such ideas even partially formed out of thin air. This was an interesting read and a welcome reminder of what the poor had to suffer before the late 1940’s. No doubt there are those in the so-called higher echelons of society who would like to bring these days back when the poor where motivated by fear to ‘behave themselves’. With first-hand accounts of what that policy meant to the men and women at the bottom of society such as this still in circulation maybe we won’t have to fight those battles again any time soon. Recommended for all social and political historians.