About Me

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

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Oh, look..... More rain.....
Very few girls took computing A-level.

By Jane Wakefield, Technology reporter for BBC News

17 August 2017

A worrying statistic for the tech industry was revealed in freshly-released A-level data - only 9.8% of those completing a computing course were girls. It comes amid a storm in Silicon Valley over the number of women employed in the tech industry. Experts agree that the world faces a digital skills shortage and that a more even gender balance is crucial. One industry body worried that too few boys were also choosing the subject.

"Today's announcement that nearly 7,600 students in England took A-level computing means it's not going to be party time in the IT world for a long time to come," said Bill Mitchell, director of education at the IT Chartered Institute, BCS. He said that it fell well short of the 40,000 level that "we should be seeing". But he added that the fact so few girls were taking the subject was particularly worrying. "At less than 10%, the numbers of girls taking computing A-level are seriously low. We know that this a problem starting at primary school and it's something that we need to address at all levels throughout education. As a society, we need to make sure that our young women are leaving education with the digital skills they need to secure a worthwhile job, an apprenticeship or go on to further study." The figures, from the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), are not all bad news. They reveal that there has been a 34% rise in the number of female students sitting the computer science exam, up to 816 from 609 in 2016.

Google engineer James Damore caused controversy this month when he penned a memo suggesting that there were fewer women at Google because of biological differences. The search giant sacked him over the remarks, saying they were "offensive". A recent survey of 1,000 university students conducted by audit firm KPMG suggested that only 37% of young women were confident they had the tech skills needed by today's employers. A total of 73% said that they had not considered a graduate job in technology. Aidan Brennan, KPMG's head of digital transformation, said: "The issue here isn't around competency - far from it - but rather how businesses understand the underlying capability of an individual and how to unlock it. I think this research highlights the work that needs to be done to show the next generation that when it comes to a career in tech, gender isn't part of the equation. Competition for jobs is tough and we know that female job seekers can be less likely to apply for a role than their male counterparts if they don't feel they already possess every prerequisite the job demands."

Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE, who founded the charity Stemettes to persuade more girls to pursue careers in Science, Technology Engineering and Maths has her own view about the low number of girls taking A-level computing. "Girls often don't want to be the only one in the class so they tend not to pick the subject when it is an option," she said. "Also, it's often not even an option in a lot of schools so it's an uphill battle but fortunately, a lot of computer science courses take A-level maths students, so there is a very viable route for girls into the course itself and related courses."

[Considering how IT heavy the world is increasingly becoming and how the young seem to swim so easily in those waters you would think that more of them would be interested in pursuing it as a potential career. Plus there’s plenty of money to be made in the High Tech clouds so why the reluctance to get involved? A perception that it’s a difficult subject area? An assumption that tech is getting easier to use every year so why bother to learn anything that will be obsolete by the time they graduate? But it would seem that, at least for the foreseeable future, those with IT skills will live in a sellers market.]

Thursday, August 17, 2017

...and at the back of the property.....

Just Finished Reading: The War of the Flea – A Study of Guerrilla Warfare Theory & Practice by Robert Taber (FP: 1965/1969)

After reading this rich and well-argued little book (a mere 160 pages in my 1970 Paladin edition) I was no longer surprised that the entire first edition printed in the US was purchased by various branches of the military then engaged in a deadly guerrilla war in Vietnam. Not that it helped them win because, as the author himself cogently argued, it was probably already too late in 1965 never mind in 19775 when the war officially ended.

The author, neither a military man nor an academic, was a journalist and, by all accounts a damned good one. From reading this impressive analysis of the weak fighting against the strong (and sometimes seemingly the impossibly strong) I became more and more impressed as to the remarkable diagnostic focus he gave to modern conflicts were apparently weak enemies consistently beat much stronger ones – the classic example (still on-going at the time of publication) being that of Vietnam. But, as everyone should know, what we know as the Vietnam war was in fact the second such conflict in that region and, arguably, simply a continuation of the first complete with the same mistakes. Where the French failed after WW2 the Americans failed in the 1960’s and 1970’s. But although the two Vietnam conflicts garnered a substantial proportion of this book the authors analysis went much broader using examples from Malaya, Cyprus, Algeria, Ireland (from the Easter Rising in 1916 onwards), Greece (after WW2), Cuba and, of course, the Chinese Revolution/Civil War masterminded by Mao – the godfather of countless revolutions afterwards.

It was a lot of ground to cover and the author did so with little wasted effort and, more often than not, with pin-point accuracy not unlike his subjects the guerrilla fighters themselves. Most of the successful case studies followed the same progression through various stages from the founding of the guerrilla group up until final victory years or even decades later. Most rebellions, or wars of National Liberation, worked because the underlying conditions made them practically inevitable. His case studies of guerrilla wars that failed – most notably the Communist insurgency in Greece and the failed uprising in British Malaya – illustrated his points all the more starkly as each failed to follow Mao’s recommendations and sometimes actively worked against them.

This is an area of study of particular interest to me – how the weak can fight and even defeat a much stronger opponent (at least on paper). Fleas, it seems, can debilitate a much bigger and stronger dog one small bite at a time. But when the dog retaliates it strikes at nothing and slowly bleeds into inactivity and finally death. We still see it today – when Superpowers, no matter what they do short of genocide, seem helpless in the face of opponents with little more than the AK-47 they carry. Afghanistan is rightly renowned as being the grave site of empires and imperial ambitions. Alexander the Great couldn’t subdue it, neither could the British Empire, the Soviet Union or the USA. It is an example of the war of the flea – par excellence! Not only has this excellent little book rekindled my interest in this type of warfare it has also altered and sharpened my focus of my approach to the R4 label. In future there will be somewhat less revolution and somewhat more guerrilla activity in the bush. Much more to come.

Speaking of Bond.... James Bond......

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

They did this a lot where my Mum lives (and I lived for 10+ years). Most of the area was new build so they put in the minimum of paved walkways and then left it. About 6-12 months later they came back and paved the bits where people had produced their own paths. What a very bright idea I thought!

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Costs are Becoming Apparent…… (Catching Up…!)

Boris Johnson: UK should reject 'Brexit cash bill'.

Boris Johnson has told the BBC that Britain should reject any EU demands for a £50bn "exit bill" and follow the example of former PM Margaret Thatcher. It has been reported that EU negotiator Michel Barnier has said the UK must continue to pay into the EU until 2020. Mr Johnson said it was "not reasonable" for the UK to "continue to make vast budget payments" once it left the EU. He cited Mrs Thatcher's success at the 1984 Fontainebleau Summit, when she threatened to halt payments to the EU. "I think we have illustrious precedent in this matter, and you will doubtless recall the 1984 Fontainebleau Summit in which Mrs Thatcher said she wanted her money back, and I think that is exactly what we will get," he told BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg in BBC Two's Brexit: Britain's Biggest Deal. "It is not reasonable, I don't think, for the UK having left the EU to continue to make vast budget payments, I think everybody understands that and that's the reality." The UK won the rebate in 1984, after then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher threatened to halt payments to the EU budget. At the time the UK was then the third poorest member of the Community but was on course to become the biggest net contributor to the EU budget.

Government still paying Brexit appeal cost.

The government has not yet finished paying the legal costs of its Supreme Court challenge over Brexit. In January, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court ruling that Parliament had to be consulted before Article 50 could be triggered. Labour MP Gloria de Piero tabled a written question asking when the cost of the appeal would be published. Brexit Minister Robin Walker replied: "The department has not been billed for all costs related to the case." He continued: "Details of the total costs associated with the case, including the costs of the Supreme Court appeal, will be published in due course after they have been settled." The government has rejected Freedom of Information requests for the cost to be revealed, saying it will be made public at a future date.

Brexit: Early financial settlement won't be 'forced on UK'.

The UK has been told it will not have to agree the exact sum of its financial exit settlement in the early stages after Article 50 has been triggered, BBC Newsnight has learned. A message has been passed through informal channels from EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier to top figures in David Davis's department. The UK would first have to agree the broad principles of the payment. The principles for EU citizens in the UK would then have to be agreed. Once these two principles have been agreed - on the financial settlement payment and EU citizens - Mr Barnier is prepared to open up the negotiations to cover all areas and the nature of the UK's future relations with the EU. This would meet the UK demand for the negotiations on the UK's future trade deal with the EU to be discussed in parallel with the Article 50 talks. Prime Minister Theresa May will trigger Article 50 - which have to be concluded within two years - in the final week of March. The exact sum of the divorce settlement would be agreed later in the negotiations. Amid reports that the UK could face a bill of between €34bn (£30bn) to €60bn (£52bn), Mr Barnier is saying the exact sum will be determined on the EU side by the EU's Court of Auditors towards the end of the two year negotiations. The ballpark in Brussels is that the EU has liabilities of around €600bn (£520bn). The UK would be responsible for around 12% of that, producing a rough figure of €60bn (£52bn).

Housebuilder Berkeley shrugs off Brexit vote to hit profit targets.

Housebuilder Berkeley Group has said it expects profits at be at the top end of forecasts this year, as it signalled the housing market in London and the South East had "stabilised". In the seven months since the Brexit referendum result, Berkeley said new home sales had fallen by 16%. But in the last two months reservations were higher than a year earlier. The London-focused developer also said inquiry levels remained "robust" and pricing continued to be "resilient". It said the market had been adversely affected by a number of factors apart from Brexit uncertainty, including changes to stamp duty, the challenges of securing planning permission and the demands to provide affordable housing. As a result, new housing starts have fallen by 30% in the capital. However, the company said: "Berkeley is uniquely placed to maintain its high levels of production in London and the South East and we are onsite in production on 58 sites." It added that there were a further 22 sites in the pipeline.

Schaeuble calls for 'strong' City post Brexit.

Germany's finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has said it is in the EU's interest to have a strong financial centre in London. Speaking ahead of Friday's G20 meeting, Mr Schaeuble said he would want to negotiate a Brexit deal in which the City of London remains a global financial force. He said it was not feasible to move all of the City's operations abroad. To do so would involve a huge upheaval, Mr Schaeuble pointed out. In a keynote address to the IIF Conference in Frankfurt, he said: "I am convinced that for Europe as a whole - and I'm not sure this will be very beloved in Paris - it's in our own interests to have strong financial centre in London." Although he did promote Frankfurt as an alternative EU base for international banks in the wake of Brexit, Mr Schaeuble said he would want to negotiate a deal in which the City of London kept a key role. However, he cautioned, it had not been easy to "brainstorm" with his British counterparts. Mr Schaeuble's comments, made in conversation with UBS chair Axel Weber, come after Mr Weber confirmed that his bank would not wait for the outcome of Brexit negotiations to move up to 1,500 staff from London to an EU base.

All details above from BBC News website.

[Well, the Government are finally starting to get their act together and are beginning to speak with a single voice. I give that maybe 48-72 hours before the infighting and back-biting starts again amongst the usual leaks and ‘sources close to the Prime Minister’ headlines in both the pro and anti-Brexit papers. Apparently we’re now back to ‘Brexit means Brexit’ with none of this weak-assed ‘transitionary period’ nonsense. I honestly don’t know whether to laugh or cry some days….]  

Saturday, August 12, 2017

...and I thought that *my* school was underfunded.....!
US firm reveals gun-toting drone that can fire in mid-air

By Mary-Ann Russon for BBC News

11th August 2017

A US technology firm has developed a drone that is able to aim and fire at enemies while flying in mid-air. The Tikad drone, developed by Duke Robotics, is armed with a machine-gun and a grenade launcher. The gun can be fired only by remote control, and is designed to reduce military casualties by cutting the number of ground troops required. But campaigners warn that in the wrong hands, it will make it easier to kill innocent people. The Tikad drone, available for private sale at an undisclosed price, has won a security innovation award from the US Department of Defense, and there is interest from several military forces around the world, including Israel, reports Defense One. According to the firm's website, two of the three co-founders of Duke Robotics worked for the Israel Defense Forces and the third at Israel Aerospace Industries.

"As a former Special Mission Unit commander, I have been in the battlefield for many years," said CEO Raziel Atuar. "Over the last few years, we have seen how the needs of our troops in our battlefield have changed." However, robotics expert Professor Noel Sharkey expressed concern that gun-toting drones could make it easier to kill innocent people. "Big military drones traditionally have to fly thousands of feet overhead to get to targets, but these smaller drones could easily fly down the street to apply violent force," he told the BBC. "This is my biggest worry since there have been many legal cases of human-rights violations using the large fixed-wing drones, and these could potentially result in many more." For the past decade, Prof Sharkey has been campaigning against killer robots, which are fully autonomous, computer-powered weapons that would be able to track and select targets without human supervision. Together with the Campaign To Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of over 60 international NGOs including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Nobel Women's Initiative, Sharkey has been lobbying the United Nations to ban autonomous weapons. However, the machine-gun on board the Duke Robotics device still has to be controlled remotely by a human operator.

According to Prof Sharkey, some US military officials are concerned that although the US might follow the laws of war, terrorists could easily look at drone innovations and copy the idea to kill innocent people. "We already know that Islamic State is using drones laden with explosives to kill people. What's to stop them from getting their hands on this? Copying has not been possible with big military drones, but once you get the idea that you can strap automatic weapons onto one and operate it remotely, that's very much easier," he said. "This type of weapon is another dangerous step towards the development of fully autonomous weapons that could hunt down targets and kill them without human supervision."

[Just because we’re not moving towards a Terminator-style world fast enough……… Here we have a technology that will give the US and its Allies a distinct combat advantage on the future battlefield – for about a month or possibly two before the enemy of the week start using them too. Either they will capture our drones and send them right back to us or repair downed drones to do likewise, buy them on the open market (or be given them by a technologically advanced ally) or probably build them themselves from plans downloaded from or stolen from the Internet…. And in 10-15 years they’ll be fully autonomous just to make things even more interesting – and just wait until the first one is used in an urban environment hundreds or thousands of miles away from the nearest battlefield. Welcome to the future of law enforcement, terrorism and assassination.....]

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Batter Up...!

Just Finished Reading: Fusiliers – How the British Army lost America but learned how to Fight by Mark Urban (FP: 2007)

I’ll be the first to admit that, prior to reading this excellent book, my knowledge of the American War of Independence was rather scant. I knew it happened, I know the date 1776, I know we lost. I know the name Washington (as in General) and that battles happened at Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill and Yorktown. But that’s about it. Until this book I couldn’t have named a single British commander and I couldn’t have said with certainty who won any of the battles listed – never mind the further battles mentioned in the book that I’d never heard of before. I guess that my American readers in particular might find this rather peculiar. After all this conflict is a large part of the American foundation myth so it stands to reason that, even after all this time, we still feel the hurt of separation. Not so much it seems!

As far as I can remember, apart from the fact it happened, I don’t believe that we ever studied the War of Independence at all in school. That’s over an educational era spanning 11-13 years. Maybe, mostly because we lost, it just wasn’t a hot enough topic to impress the minds of youngsters with. Anyway my ignorance was almost total so, as you might imagine, I learnt quite a lot in just over 300 pages. To give the story coherence the author focused (mainly) on a single regiment – The Royal Welch Fusiliers - and looked at the events from a singular point of view. This was essentially just how bad the British army was at the beginning of the conflict and just how good they were at the end (despite losing the war!). Inevitably much of the early part of the book is dedicated to the faults – endemic and deep seated – with the British military system. The most notorious was the practice of the purchase of commissions – essentially the way to get promoted or to enter into the officer class you simply paid for the post. The more money and higher position in society you had the higher rank was on offer to you. Ability, training or experience had no influence of this. You could be a complete novice with a lot of money and, moments after handing over a wodge of cash become a Colonel in His Majesties army and lead hundreds if not thousands of men into battle. The younger sons of the gentry started, often in their teens, as lieutenants straight from school and were expected to ‘learn on the job’ often with the blood of the men they led into the carnage of the 18th century battlefield. Ordinary soldiers, no matter how good or how experienced, who had neither money nor patronage languished at the bottom end of the rank structure until they died or left. Promotion of any sort – together with any kind of living wage – was a dream that few actually realised. Almost another side to this coin was the indiscipline of the common solider who was not beyond striking his officers, looting and other illegal acts of war and deserting at the earliest opportunity. Such tendencies were not helped by leniency at the highest levels who all too often commuted harsh sentences to much lessor ones or who wrote them off completely. It wasn’t until a succession of defeats or near defeats (with higher than expected casualties to match) forced a rethink.

This, the author strongly contends, was the beginning of the greatness in the British army who, not that long after losing America, went on to resoundedly beat the great Napoleon Bonaparte. Lessons learned on the battlefields in America, as well as lessons rejected from the Prussians with their parade ground precision in Europe, produced a force that could not only take a great deal of damage during an encounter with the enemy but then return the favour in kind and them some thereby shattering the Napoleonic columns that had previously defeated every other army thrown against them.

My knowledge of the Independence struggle of our American Colonies is much better now though admittedly from a very shallow base! As will most successful revolutions this one was too far advanced to successfully oppose long before the first shot was fired. The British took more than 6 years to realise that fact before throwing in the towel and sailing away to future glory on the battlefields of continental Europe. Whether or not without the War the British might have, ultimately, been defeated by the French is an interesting speculation. How the world might have turned out if that was the case is even more interesting to think about! A very interesting look at a pivotal moment in world history from the point of view of, this time, the losing faction.

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Future or a Missed Opportunity?

The World After Brexit. (Still in Catch-Up Mode)

After Brexit: Jean-Claude Juncker sets five paths for EU's future.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has revealed his five future "pathways" for the European Union after Brexit. His white paper looks at various options, from becoming no more than a single market to forging even closer political, social and economic ties. The 27 leaders of EU countries will discuss the plans, without Britain, at a summit in Rome later this month. The meeting will mark the EU's 60th anniversary. Germany's foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, has already responded to dismiss the idea of the EU purely being a single market.

CBI chief warns against 'no deal' Brexit.

Leaving the EU without a trade deal would be "irresponsible", the president of the CBI business group will warn. Paul Drechsler will say he agrees with the PM that a deal can be done but it is "wrong" for others to suggest the only choice is to leave without one. He will say both UK and European firms fear this "worst-case scenario". Pro-Brexit group Change Britain accused the CBI of being "proven wrong time and again on Europe" and said it should be "more optimistic" about the UK. Mr Drechsler's speech in London follows similar warnings from the British Chambers of Commerce and former chancellor George Osborne earlier this week. He will say that business supports the government's plan for an ambitious trade deal and the CBI is working with business groups throughout the EU to work towards a deal in everyone's interests. "But to those whose first and only choice is for Britain to walk away without a deal, I say you're not only wrong but irresponsible," he will say. Mr Drechsler argues that if the UK were to revert to World Trade Organisation trading rules in the absence of an EU deal, British firms would face tariffs on 90% of their exports to the EU without an agreement and more "regulatory hurdles" which would hurt firms across the bloc. He will say that while some businesses are already preparing for such a "worst case scenario", others are unable to do so because the costs are too high.

UK economy 'loses momentum' as services growth slows.

Growth in the UK's service sector eased to a five-month low in February, according to a closely watched survey. The Markit/CIPS purchasing managers' index (PMI) for services fell to 53.3, down from 54.5 in January. However, it remains above the 50 threshold that separates growth from contraction. Markit estimates the economy will grow by 0.4% in the first quarter of 2017. The economy has "lost momentum" after "impressive" growth at the end of 2016, said Chris Williamson of IHS Markit. Services, which include areas such as finance and hospitality, make up more than three-quarters of the UK economy. Markit said the sector had been stung by the steepest rise in costs for more than eight years as a result of the weak pound. This is likely to mean that inflation faced by consumers "has significantly further to rise", said Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit. Latest official figures showed that inflation hit 1.8% in January, but Mr Williamson said the rate was expected to hit 3% over the next year.

Brexit: UK 'not obliged' to pay divorce bill say peers.

The UK could exit the EU without paying anything if there is no post-Brexit deal, a group of peers has claimed. The government would be in a "strong" legal position if the two-year Article 50 talks ended with no deal, the Lords EU Financial Affairs Committee said. But it warned failure to reach any kind of financial terms would undermine PM Theresa May's aim of securing continued favourable access to EU markets. It has been reported the EU may demand a "divorce bill" of up to £52bn. Mrs May has warned the EU against punishing the UK for voting to leave in last year's referendum but several EU leaders have said the UK cannot enjoy better arrangements outside the EU than it currently has. The question of what, if anything, the UK remains financially liable for after Brexit is likely to be one of the flashpoints in negotiations when they begin in earnest. The cross-party committee said talk of billions in pounds in liabilities was "hugely speculative" and there was a case that there may be no upfront cost to leaving. "Although there are competing interpretations, we conclude that if agreement is not reached, all EU law - including provisions concerning ongoing financial contributions and machinery for adjudication - will cease to apply, and the UK would be subject to no enforceable obligation to make any financial contribution at all," it said. "This would be undesirable for the remaining member states, who would have to decide how to plug the hole in the budget created by the UK's exit without any kind of transition. It would also damage the prospects of reaching friendly agreement on other issues. Nonetheless, the ultimate possibility of the UK walking away from negotiations without incurring financial commitments provides an important context."

Brexit: Ending free movement may not cut migration, says Lords report.

Net migration to the UK may not fall as a result of ending EU free movement post-Brexit, a Lords report has said. The EU home affairs sub-committee said that net migration - immigration minus emigration - was consistently higher from outside the EU. An immigration system for when the UK leaves the EU has not yet been outlined by ministers. The government said it was considering "various options" as to how EU migration might work. It has pledged to reduce net migration to below 100,000 by 2020. Prime Minister Theresa May has said she aims to trigger Article 50, to begin the two-year process of leaving the EU, by the end of this month. In the report, the committee said: "Until end June 2016, migration to the UK from outside the EU was consistently higher than EU migration, even though the relevant policy levers are under national control. Restoration of national control over EU migration may or may not, therefore, deliver a reduction in overall net migration." In the most recent official figures, covering the year to the end of September, both immigration and net migration from the EU were higher than that for the rest of the world for the first time. Overall, net migration to the UK dropped to 273,000 in the year to September, down 49,000 from the previous year. The committee said that cutting EU immigration is unlikely to provide a "quick fix" for low wages. Factors such as the National Minimum Wage, National Living Wage and inflation were more significant in driving or impeding real wage growth for low earners, the report said.

All details above from BBC News website.

[Well, the government – so-called – are turning mixed messages into an art form presently. There will be a transitionary period post Brexit to allow things to normalise (oh, no there won’t be!), The free movement of people will continue post-Brexit to allow industry to adapt to the new conditions (actually free movement to stop the second we leave the EU), We’ll be paying a £36 billion divorce bill (over our dead bodies we will) and so on. No wonder everyone, including the EU negotiators, have no idea what’s going on! Which isn’t exactly enhancing our credibility on the Continent or strengthening our negotiating position. The clock is ticking people. Get your asses moving!]

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Extreme weather 'could kill up to 152,000 a year' in Europe by 2100.

From The BBC

Saturday 5th August 2017

Extreme weather could kill up to 152,000 people yearly in Europe by 2100 if nothing is done to curb the effects of climate change, scientists say. The number is 50 times more deaths than reported now, the study in The Lancet Planetary Health journal said. Heat waves would cause 99% of all weather-related deaths, it added, with southern Europe being worst affected. Experts said the findings were worrying but some warned the projections could be overestimated. If nothing is done to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to improve policies to reduce the impact against extreme weather events, the study by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre says:

Deaths caused by extreme weather could rise from 3,000 a year between 1981 and 2010 to 152,000 between 2071 and 2100.

Two in three people in Europe will be affected by disasters by 2100, against a rate of one in 20 at the start of the century.

There will be a substantial rise in deaths from coastal flooding, from six victims a year at the start of the century to 233 a year by the end of it.

The research analysed the effects of the seven most dangerous types of weather-related events - heat waves, cold snaps, wildfires, droughts, river and coastal floods and windstorms - in the 28 EU countries as well as Switzerland, Norway and Iceland. The team looked at disaster records from 1981 to 2010 to estimate population vulnerability, and combined this information with predictions of how climate change might progress and how populations might increase and migrate. They assumed a rate of greenhouse gas emissions that would lead to average global warming of 3C (5.4F) by the end of the century from levels in 1990, a pessimistic forecast well above targets set by the Paris Agreement on tackling climate change.

"Climate change is one of the biggest global threats to human health of the 21st century, and its peril to society will be increasingly connected to weather-driven hazards," said Giovanni Forzieri, one of the authors of the study. Unless global warming is curbed as a matter of urgency and appropriate measures are taken, about 350 million Europeans could be exposed to harmful climate extremes on an annual basis by the end of the century."

On Friday, the United States issued its first written notification to the UN of its intention to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate agreement. US President Donald Trump drew international condemnation in June when he first announced his decision, saying the deal would cost millions of American jobs. The Paris Agreement saw nearly 200 countries agree to keep warming "well below" the level of 2C (3.6F) above pre-industrial times and "endeavour to limit" them even more, to 1.5C.

Experts from South Korea's Seoul National University warned that the study's results "could be overestimated". "People are known to adapt and become less vulnerable than previously to extreme weather conditions because of advances in medical technology, air conditioning, and thermal insulation in houses," they wrote in a comment piece published in the same journal. Paul Wilkinson, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who was not involved in the study, said the findings were "yet another reminder of the exposures to extreme weather and possible human impacts that might occur if emissions of greenhouse gases continue unabated. It adds further weight to the powerful argument for accelerating mitigation actions to protect population health."

[Of course there are an amazing number of people still out there who will refuse to believe any of this, no matter what the argument or the evidence, until after it bites them in the ass – probably more than once. At which point they will scream ‘Why didn’t anyone warn us?’ and blame everyone but themselves for the mess the world ‘suddenly’ finds itself in. I predicted long ago that it will take 2-3 Katrina level climate catastrophes before the world recognises we have a problem. Hopefully at that point there will still be enough time to fix things before it becomes more civilisation threatening rather than simply life (and life-style) threatening.]

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Transition by Iain Banks (FP: 2009)

Imagine, if you will, a reality of multiple Earth’s each in ways both large and small different from our own. Imagine this Multiverse getting bigger and expanding outward every minute of every day presenting Earth’s of infinite variety. Now imagine people gifted with the ability to move between these worlds and inhabit the bodies of people there, to take them over temporarily, to move about, to study and to manipulate. Such people cry out for organisation and purpose, to be directed in their goals not only to make the world a better place but to make all worlds better, to bring out the best possible outcome for the greatest number of Earth’s. Or at least this is what the Concern, also known as L’Expedience, tell its operatives who, being close to the action, cannot see the ‘big picture’. Being only human they speculate on exactly why they do what they do – are the fighting an anti-Concern dedicated to sowing chaos in the Universe? Are they preventing an alien invasion already taking place on worlds none of the Transitioneers come back from? Whatever the reasons the top echelons of the Inner Council are keeping their secrets close to themselves. Until that is their ultimate assassin, the man that never fails, goes off script and kills the wrong person for reasons unknown. Has he been subverted by a rebel faction? Has he simply gone mad with the endless killing or is there something more sinister going on here. It can hardly be a coincidence that, just as decade long plans come to fruition that the weapon being used has turned on its owners. The problem is a knotty one: how do you find an assassin that cannot be found and kill a man who cannot be killed – especially when he seems to have very knowledgeable and powerful friends?

I have to say that I am a huge fan of Iain (M) Banks in both of his incarnations. This is, as you will notice, one of the more strange variety than you’ll find in his books authored with the M in the name. These, mostly based around the society known as the Culture, are pretty standard SF. OK, highly imaginative but still pretty standard. His other books (no M) are, well, a little more ‘out there’. This is most definitely no exception to that rule. Firstly there is the multiple world’s aspect. As the protagonists flit (Transition) between different Earth’s it can be an effort keeping up with exactly where they are – especially as they’re jumping between bodies at the same time. There’s some discussion on the techniques of Transition, the chemical aids and the background to the Concern. Then there’s the cast of characters. Firstly at least one or two are probably insane – at least one is definitely psychotic. There is much talk of drugs (apparently Coke is best) and quite a bit of sex (with appropriate language to match). There’s also a fair amount of reasonably graphic torture which might put a lot of my readers off reading this. One of the main characters is a torturer (mostly for the Government – and then the Concern) and there are, I admit, some interesting ruminations on the efficacy and morality of torture but nothing that you can’t read elsewhere. Although there’s action a plenty there’s still quite a bit of people sitting in rooms (or often in bed) talking about things. Some of this is interesting and moves the story forwards. A significant amount of it does (unfortunately) neither. The ending, I found, was a little abrupt and a little too over contrived. I also thought that too much of the distasteful aspects of the book served no real purpose.

Overall then I was somewhat disappointed with this work. Banks is great (and sorely missed) but he can be overindulgent and can let his (often brilliant) ideas run away with him. He is not afraid of disturbing, disgusting and, sometimes, offending his readership. He I was both disturbed and (a little) disgusted but never offended. His excesses throughout this interesting narrative were (at least in my opinion) unnecessary but forgivable. There is much in this book to admire but you’ll need a pretty strong constitution and a fairly strong stomach to read every word on every page. A strange, interesting and often haunting tale well told – but be warned this is neither a pleasant nor an easy read.  

Monday, July 31, 2017

No Easy Options, No Easy Exit. (Still Catching Up!)

Jean-Claude Juncker: UK faces hefty Brexit bill.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has warned the UK it faces a "very hefty" bill for Brexit. He promised two years of "tough negotiation", when discussions on leaving terms get under way between the government and the European Union. Exit will not come "at a discount or at zero cost", he said in a speech to the Belgian Federal Parliament. Reports suggest the UK could have to pay the EU up to 60 billion euros (£51bn) after Brexit talks start. Mr Juncker's comments came as the House of Lords held a second day of discussion of the government's European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, which, if passed into law, will allow Prime Minister Theresa May to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, allowing formal talks with the EU to start. Discussions are taking place in Brussels on the size of the bill to be presented to Mrs May when she launches the talks. The amount will cover the UK's share of the cost of projects and programmes it signed up to as a member, as well as pensions for EU officials. In his speech, Mr Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg, said: "It will be a tough negotiation which will take two years to agree on the exit terms. And to agree on the future architecture of relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union we will need years. The British people have to know, they know already, that it will not be at a discount or at zero cost. The British must respect commitments they were involved in making. So the bill will be, to put it a bit crudely, very hefty."

Come to France post-Brexit, banks urged.

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron has said he would like UK banks and workers to relocate to his country, following discussions with Theresa May. Speaking in Downing Street, the centrist politician called his own country "a very attractive space". Mr Macron called for a "fair execution" of Brexit. The French government has been wooing London-based financial companies, but the UK government has promised to fight to maintain the City's position. HSBC said last month that it was preparing to move 1,000 jobs to Paris. Speaking after talks with Mrs May, Mr Macron was keen to emphasise his enthusiasm for such developments, telling reporters: "I was very happy to see that some academics and researchers in the UK, because of the Brexit, would consider to come to France precisely to work." Asked if he wanted banks to move to Paris after Brexit, he said: "I want banks, talents, researchers, academics and so on. I think that France and the EU are a very attractive space." Mr Macron, who appeared alone in Downing Street after his meeting, said there was a "series of initiatives" aimed at getting "talented people… working here to come to France". The former economy minister and investment banker added that despite the UK leaving the EU, there should be "further co-operation in terms of defence" between it and France.

Brexit: Heseltine vows to rebel in Lords bill debate.

Senior Tory Lord Heseltine has said he will rebel against the government when peers debate the bill giving Theresa May the authority to trigger Brexit. He said he would support an opposition amendment in the House of Lords demanding MPs get a meaningful vote on the deal reached with the EU. Writing in the Mail on Sunday, he denied this would be a "confrontation". But Home Secretary Amber Rudd told ITV's Peston on Sunday programme: "I hope he will reconsider." Last week peers gave an unopposed second reading to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, following a two-day debate involving more than 180 speakers. MPs have already backed the proposed law, authorising Prime Minister Theresa May to inform the EU of the UK's intention to leave. Opposition peers want to amend the bill at a later date to guarantee the rights of EU citizens in Britain and the role of Parliament in scrutinising the process. As the government does not have a majority in the Lords, it is vulnerable to being outvoted if opposition peers - including Labour's 202 and the 102 Lib Dems - join forces. Lord Heseltine wrote in the Mail on Sunday: "The fightback starts here. My opponents will argue that the people have spoken, the [Brexit] mandate secured and the future cast. My experience stands against this argument." He also wrote: "This is not a confrontation with the government. It is to ensure the Commons can exercise its authority over the defining issue of our time."

Government defeated on Brexit bill.

The government has been defeated after the House of Lords said ministers should guarantee EU nationals' right to stay in the UK after Brexit. The vote, by 358 to 256, is the first Parliamentary defeat for the government's Brexit bill. However, MPs will be able to remove their changes when the bill returns to the House of Commons. Ministers say the issue is a priority but must be part of a deal protecting UK expats overseas. The bill will give Theresa May the authority to trigger Brexit under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begin official negotiations. The amendment backed by the Lords requires the government to introduce proposals within three months of Article 50 to ensure EU citizens in the UK have the same residence rights after Brexit. But it could be overturned when MPs, who have already backed the Brexit bill without amendments, vote on it again. The government is expected to attempt to overturn the defeat when the legislation returns to the Commons. The Department for Exiting the EU said: "We are disappointed the Lords have chosen to amend a bill that the Commons passed without amendment.

Brexit: UK has 'moral responsibility' to Gibraltar, peers say.

The government has a "moral responsibility" to protect the interests of Gibraltar during Brexit negotiations, a Lords committee says. The EU committee said the single market and cross-border travel were vital to the territory's economy, and warned the UK government not to let Spain use trade talks to claim sovereignty. Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly for Remain in June's referendum. The government says it will ensure the territory's priorities are understood. Gibraltar has been a British territory since 1713, but Spain continues to claim sovereignty over the enclave, and the government in Madrid called for joint sovereignty in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. The vote of 95.9% in favour of staying in the EU made Gibraltar by far the strongest pro-Remain area taking part in the referendum. Peers said 40% of its workforce crossed the border from Spain every day, and its economy was "underpinned" by the single market. The committee said it "strongly endorses" the UK government's promise never to enter into sovereignty discussions with Spain against the will of the Gibraltarian people, and called on ministers to engage "positively and pragmatically with Spain, emphasising the mutual importance of the economic relationship between the UK and Spain".

All details above from BBC News website.

[The messages coming out of the Tory cabinet over the past week have been mixed – or confused – to say the least. First we have the idea of a 2 year transition period after we officially leave the EU to allow things to settle down. This included, apparently, the continued free movement of people. Now we’re being told that the free movement ends the day we leave. No compromise. No discussion. Out means out. I do wonder this though: In the next 18 months will the Tories have one voice for more than 2 minutes on the subject? Personally I doubt it.]

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Kasparov: 'Embrace' the AI revolution.

From The BBC

29 July 2017

Humans should embrace the change smart machines offer society, says former chess world champion Garry Kasparov. In a speech at Def Con in Las Vegas he said the rise of artificially intelligent machines would not be a huge threat to humanity. However, he said, there was likely to be huge social change as the "shaky hands" of humans were replaced. Mr Kasparov welcomed the change and said it would be good if the effects could be accelerated.

In a wide-ranging speech that drew on his experiences playing chess against IBM's Deep Blue computer and many other so-called smart machines, he sought to put the current rise of AI into historical context. Only now, he said, were we starting to get true AI by which he meant a "black box" which reached its decisions by itself and whose reasons for making those choices was impossible to unpick. He cited Google's AlphaGo computer as an example of this kind of AI. By contrast, he said, the Deep Blue supercomputer that beat him at chess in 1996 and 1997 was simply a very fast computer that used "brute force" techniques to win. "Deep Blue was as intelligent as an alarm clock," he said "though losing to a $10m (£7.6m) alarm clock did not make me feel any better."

The arrival of more authentically intelligent machines did not spell doom for humanity, he said, because history showed that almost every novel technology or innovation was a force of creative destruction. "The problem is not that machines are replacing human jobs and that they are going after people with college degrees and Twitter accounts," he said. "Technology, before it creates jobs kills them, it's always done that." There were already examples of ways smart machines were helping some people do their jobs better by letting computers handle the bits that humans can struggle with. For instance, he said, expert systems that can diagnose conditions more accurately than people do the best job when paired with nurses that can then act on that diagnosis.

Future generations would look back and be amazed that 21st Century life was so people-centric, he said, especially in fields, such as car driving, where human fallibility put more lives at risk than was necessary. When humans work with smart machines there were huge opportunities for creativity and change for the better, he said. "We all have these fears that machines will replace us and we'll be extinguished but I believe there is plenty of room for creativity. And lots of it. It's up to us humans to do what only humans can do and that's dream and dream big so we can get the most out of these amazing new tools," he concluded.

[Of course Kasparov is right in many ways. Machines are, even today, faster, stronger and more accurate than human beings ever will be. Their introduction into fields across the human spectrum will make things better, more efficient and safer. Many mundane and, frankly, dangerous jobs that people do today, often to the detriment of their long term health, will be done by machines and life will be the better for it. But…. Will we leave it at driverless cars and expert systems making the world into a better place for everyone? Of course we won’t. Those made unemployed (and possibly unemployable) will not enjoy years or decades on government handouts or being reduced to jobs that either machines can’t (presently) do or work that is uneconomic for machines to do. That underclass of people will, more than probably, simply be abandoned on the scrap heap of history. Will we leave it at that? I doubt it. As with most things the technology around robotics and AI will inevitably find its way into the most advanced weapons systems ever devised and they will be dedicated to killing people – in other words those countries who cannot (yet) build or buy fighting machines of their own. As soon as it becomes clear (pretty immediately) that people cannot beat machines in a stand-up fight everyone will rush to build killer AI’s and killer robots. I’m sure that this will work out fine for all concerned and will result in no unscheduled casualties. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?]