About Me

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

Monday, March 27, 2017

See what happens when you pee in the pool...!

An optimistic Brexit or something a little more naïve?

Economic watchdog OBR says its forecasts are optimistic.

The head of Britain's economic watchdog has defended its forecasts warning of the cost to Britain of leaving the EU. The Office for Budget Responsibility infuriated pro-Brexit Tories with its prediction that withdrawal would wipe 2.4% off growth over the next five years while adding £60bn to borrowing. Robert Chote said OBR forecasts were "more optimistic" than others. The OBR had to produce forecasts based on stated government policy, he said. He made the comments after Conservative former cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith and backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg said leaving the EU would lead to a more liberal trade regime delivering a boost to the UK economy. Mr Chote said the OBR's job was not to predict what it thought was the most likely outcome for the future, "but what the most likely outcome is conditional upon the current stated policy of the government", he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "Obviously, the outlook for policy as regards Brexit is not as clearly set out," he said. "We don't know what exactly the government is going to be aiming for and what could be delivered in the negotiations on things like the trade regime, migration. We asked them whether they wanted to tell us any more about their policy in all of these areas than is already in the public domain - and they said 'no'. Clearly it would have put us in a very difficult position if they had told us something and said we can't share that with the rest of the world."

Mark Carney plan for Brexit gets cool response from Gove.

Brexit supporters have rejected plans reportedly backed by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney for an extended transition when Britain leaves the EU. He hosted dinners last week with business leaders about keeping single market access for at least two years after Brexit, the Sunday Times claims. But former cabinet minister Michael Gove told the BBC that such a plan could complicate the Brexit process. A Bank spokesman declined to discuss "private meetings and conversations". Business has become increasingly concerned about a so-called "cliff-edge" change in trading relations with Europe after Brexit. Prime Minister Theresa May acknowledged the unease during a speech at the CBI conference on Monday. And in an interview, also in the Sunday Times, she admitted that the complexities of Brexit was something that kept her awake at night. However, she said she wanted to "get on with the deal" of leaving the EU. The governor's belief that there needs to be an adequate transition period is not new, however, and sources at the bank rejected reports that he had been in "secret talks" and "plots" last week. On 15 November, Mr Carney told the Treasury Committee that it would be in the interests of British companies, especially in the financial sector, to have a transitional deal to cover the period between leaving the EU and the finalising of new trade deals.

UK third quarter GDP growth confirmed at 0.5%.

The UK economy grew by 0.5% in the third quarter, official figures have confirmed, helped by export growth and stronger consumer spending. In its second estimate of the health of the economy, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) also says business investment grew by more than expected. That was up 0.9% following the Brexit vote, against the second quarter, although it was down on last year. There will be a third estimate of the figures in December. "Investment by businesses held up well in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, though it's likely most of those investment decisions were taken before polling day," Darren Morgan, an ONS statistician, said. However, it is expected that the effects of the Brexit vote and the fall in sterling will begin to feed through in the coming months. The Office for Budget Responsibility, which provides independent economic forecasts and analysis, said on Wednesday that it expected the economy to grow by 1.4% in 2017, down from the 2.2% it predicted in March. It cut its forecast for growth in 2018 to 1.7%, down from 2.1%. The "near-term strength of the economy after the Brexit vote is unlikely to persist", said Samuel Tombs chief UK economist with Pantheon Macroeconomics. "The outlook for stagnation in real incomes next year, as inflation rockets, points to a sharp slowdown in consumer spending growth ahead," Mr Tombs added.

Brexit: Legal battle over UK's single market membership.

The government is facing a legal battle over whether the UK stays inside the single market after it has left the EU, the BBC has learned. Lawyers say uncertainty over the UK's European Economic Area membership means ministers could be stopped from taking Britain out of the single market. They will argue the UK will not leave the EEA automatically when it leaves the EU and Parliament should decide. But the government said EEA membership ends when the UK leaves the EU. The single market allows the tariff-free movement of goods, services, money and people within the EU. The EEA, set up in the 1990s, extends those benefits to some non-EU members like Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Non-EU members are outside the Common Agricultural Policy and customs union, but get barrier-free trade with the single market in return for paying into some EU budgets and accepting the free movement of workers. If the courts back the legal challenge and give Parliament the final say over EEA membership, then MPs could vote to ensure that Britain stays in the single market until a long-term trading relationship with the EU has been agreed.

Brexit notes photograph played down by government.

The government has distanced itself from a Brexit memo caught on camera in Westminster. The handwritten notes, carried by an aide to Conservative MP Mark Field, included "what's the model? Have your cake and eat it" and "unlikely" in reference to the EU single market. They were photographed after Mr Field and his aide left a meeting with the Brexit department at 9 Downing Street. The government said the notes did not reflect its Brexit position. "These individual notes do not belong to a government official or a special adviser. They do not reflect the government's position in relation to Brexit negotiations," a spokesman said. Captured on long-lens camera by photographer Steve Back, they refer to difficulties the government faces after it begins the formal two-year process of EU withdrawal next year. "Difficult on article 50 implementation - Barnier wants to see what deal looks like first," they note in an apparent reference to the lead EU negotiator Michel Barnier. "Got to be done in parallel - 20 odd negotiations. Keep the two years. Won't provide more detail. We think it's unlikely we'll be offered single market," they also say.

All details above from BBC News website.

[The BIG day is fast approaching – Article 50! Then the 2 Year clock starts ticking in earnest. Oddly though the quickest trade deal ever accomplished by the EU took 4 years and the *average* time is 7 years – with the longest negotiations taking 11 years. I have a feeling that our trade deal with the EU will take somewhat longer than the 2 years we have. In other words we’ll be going HARD and then going home with precisely NOTHING to show for 2 years of uncertainty and upheaval. Well done Brexiteers, you’ve screwed us all!]

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Drug 'reverses' ageing in animal tests.

By James Gallagher for BBC News website

23rd March 2017

A drug that can reverse aspects of ageing has been successfully trialled in animals, say scientists. They have rejuvenated old mice to restore their stamina, coat of fur and even some organ function. The team at Erasmus University Medical Center, in the Netherlands, are planning human trials for what they hope is a treatment for old age. A UK scientist said the findings were "impossible to dismiss", but that unanswered questions remained. The approach works by flushing out retired or "senescent" cells in the body that have stopped dividing. They accumulate naturally with age and have a role in wound healing and stopping tumours. But while they appear to just sit there, senescent cells release chemicals that cause inflammation and have been implicated in ageing. The group of scientists created a drug that selectively killed senescent cells by disrupting the chemical balance within them. "I got very rebellious, people insisted I was crazy for trying and for the first three times they were right," Dr Peter de Keizer told the BBC.

On the fourth attempt he had something that seemed to work. He tested it on mice that were just old (the equivalent of 90 in mouse years), those genetically programmed to age very rapidly and those aged by chemotherapy. The findings, published in the journal Cell, showed liver function was easily restored and the animals doubled the distance they would run in a wheel. Dr de Keizer said: "We weren't planning to look at their hair, but it was too obvious to miss." He also said there were a lot of "grey" results - things that seemed to improve in some mice but not all. The drug was given three times a week and the experiments have been taking place for nearly a year. There are no signs of side-effects but "mice don't talk", Dr de Keizer said. However, it is thought the drug would have little to no effect on normal tissues. When asked if this was a drug for ageing, Dr Keizer told the BBC News website: "I hope so, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating as you say. In terms of mouse work we are pretty much done, we could look at specific age-related diseases eg osteoporosis, but we should now prepare for clinical translation."

Commenting on the results, Dr Dusko Ilic, a stem cell scientist at King's College London, said: "The finding is impossible to dismiss. [But] until more high-quality research is done, it is better to be reserved about these findings. Though, I would not be surprised if manufacturers try to capitalise on this and, in a few years, we could buy this peptide as a supplement over the counter." Prof Ilaria Bellantuono, Professor in Musculoskeletal Ageing, University of Sheffield, called for further tests on "heart, muscle, metabolic, cognitive function" to take place. But added: "The use of this peptide in patients is a long way away. It requires careful consideration about safety, about the appropriate group of patients for whom this peptide can be beneficial in a reasonable period of time so that positive effects can be easily measured at an affordable cost."

[Rather inevitably, as I’m getting older, this sort of thing interests me more and more. I doubt if any ‘wonder drug’ like this will be available in a timescale to extend my life by much but maybe a range of treatments will be around for the next generation or the one after that. What such things will do to our cultures is open to debate but no doubt the rich and shameless will be extending their lifespans long before the rest of us benefit from the technology!]

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Just Finished Reading: The Good German by Joseph Kanon (FP: 2001)

Berlin, 1945. After a 4 year absence embedded Army reporter Jake Geismar (played by George Clooney in the 2006 movie adaptation) is back looking for a last story before returning state side and also looking for Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett) an ex-lover from happier times. But post-war Berlin is a very different city than he remembers. So different in fact that without many of the previous landmarks he gets lost more often than not in areas he used to know his way around blindfolded. With the conference to decide the fate of the future world in full swing Jake stumbles upon a dead GI carrying a large amount of Russian issued money. But the place and circumstances of the death aren’t what interests Jake – it’s the fact than no one wants to know what happened and before Jake can start digging the body is recovered from the Russian sector and flown home to the US. Not one to be told what to investigate Jake starts to use his knowledge of the city and his natural command of the language to ask questions and to become a serious pain in the Army’s ass. The more Jake digs the worse the story gets – from the ever present Black Market, to widespread prostitution, asset stripping on an industrial scale, whitewashing of severely tarnished reputations, recollections of Holocaust survivors and the growing appreciation that some Germans, the ‘Good’ ones, are worth almost any price and any fudging of the past, if they are willing to help defend the US in a future war with the Soviets. Jake has other ideas and is willing to put everything on the line – even his own life – to expose the cynical manoeuvring of politicians and businessmen who want to forget about the past and a crime so big that no one is responsible for it.

I was impressed by this author before I read this book but this really knocked it out of the park for me. Gripping from the outset this is an often harrowing story of what people will do and what they will turn a blind eye to in order to survive in extreme times. Overflowing with great characters, not least of which is Jake himself who is amazing, this delves into what must have been a truly horrible period in German history as the country was pounded into rubble, invaded and occupied and then picked over by the victors. I doubt if anyone could come out of that period smelling of roses and no one smelt anything like that – even the good Germans often mentioned throughout the novel – much to Jakes amazement and disgust: Police investigators who continued to work for the regime even after their Jewish wife was sent to a concentration camp, Jews hiding from the Gestapo who offered to find others to keep themselves or family members out of trouble and scientists, aiming at the stars whilst designing weapons assembled by slave labour. There are no clean hands here, there are victims and the victims of victims all struggling to live with what they have done and what they have witnessed.

This is most definitely not a book for the faint of heart. There’s some violence and the odd bit of swearing and some sex but it’s the underlying themes – especially those around the Holocaust – that really get under your skin and eat their way deep into your consciousness. Some of the stories – most probably true though, I suspect rather toned down, are disturbing enough to be borderline stomach turning. This is not puerile ‘shock’ tactics though, not faux horror to titillate the comfortable. This is the disturbing thought that, in these circumstances we, with all of our fine morality, could have done these things too. The dialogue here is some of the best I’ve read in years, crisp, powerful, realistic and riveting. I learnt so much from this book and had so many more questions at the end of it that I’m just going to have to research this element of European history much more. I’m sure that the reality will be even more fascinating than even this most excellent novel. Most highly recommended.