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

Monday, May 22, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Stand Firm – Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze by Svend Brinkmann (FP: 2014/2017)

Of all of the comments directed at me over the years one of those that has stuck with me (apart from the iconic ‘Die you Camping Bitch’) is one spoken to me by my now long ago ex-girlfriend: You’ll never get anywhere with an attitude like that. Meaning, of course, that I didn’t have the mind-set of a corporate drone (you can see why we inevitably broke up). I have always, or at least for as long as I can remember, been sceptical over the torrents of bullshit that rain down on us every day from Governments, Corporations, Advertisers, Schools, TV shows, Movies and especially the Internet. Over the years, indeed decades, I have had a great deal of pressure (and a not inconsiderably amount of flak) directed at me to conform, to dress appropriately, to smarten up, get with the programme, stop slouching and for god sakes smile occasionally! It’s all for my own good (of course) and much good will flow from it: happiness, success, recognition, money and (of course) the ultimate reward – sex.

Most people think that I’m a bit crazy even mentioning stuff like this so it’s good (I mean really good) to finally find an author from a different generation (he’s 41) and a different country (he’s Danish) who thinks pretty much like I do. Indeed for a while there as I consumed this slim volume (a mere 129 pages including Appendix) in record time I couldn’t make up my mind if it had been written for me or by ‘me’. That, naturally, was something of a problem. Agreeing with someone practically 100% is, well, boring. Luckily this book was entertaining enough and just ‘off centre’ enough, to say nothing of funny enough, to keep me interested.

Like me the author has become more than a little irritated at the way our culture (Western Democratic Capitalist) tells us how to behave in all circumstances and that failure to do so means that there’s something ‘wrong’ with us that needs to be ‘fixed’. We are told that life, in all its aspects, is speeding up and that it’s up to each of us to ‘keep up’ no matter what. We are told that we need to be mobile, flexible, and adaptable, always open to new ideas, new experiences, and new ways of doing things. We are told that roots are for losers, that relationships are ultimately disposable (especially if they don’t exclusively meet our needs). We are told that history, even our own personal history, cannot be trusted to guide us in the ever shifting present and the ever approaching and even more mutable future. Above all else we are told to smile, to have confidence and a positive attitude. That such a mind-set can get us over any obstacle and around any problem. Of course, the author says, that’s all arrant nonsense as well as being clearly absurd.

But what can we do, one individual against the whole of our culture, our family, our friends, our fellow workers? How can we possibly resist such a torrent, an avalanche of self-improvement advice? This is, naturally, where things got interesting and (as an interesting aside) validated much of what I had realised growing up in the late 20th Century West. We need, in a nutshell, to stand firm. The first step is to stop the every present naval gazing. The answers you seek are definitely not inside you waiting to come out. The answers you seek are out there in the world waiting for you to get up off your butt and find them. You need to focus on the negative – not constantly thinking about the better world just beyond your grasp but of all the things that could go wrong and all the things you could lose at a moment’s notice so that you value what you have much more than what you might have one day – maybe. You need to practice saying ‘No’ to the millions of offers directed at you every day. Saying yes to everything is impossible and frankly absurd. Saying no to somethings enables you to actually know why you’re saying yes to somethings and no to others. Stop emoting so much. You don’t need to allow your emotions to run (or ruin) your life. With a little effort you can keep them in check without being overwhelmed by the toxic backwash. When you control your emotions they are no longer controlling you and you can move into a calmer centre while all around you people go nuts over trivialities. If you have a ‘life coach’ or personal ‘guru’ ditch them. You don’t need someone else making life and death decisions for you based on the latest fad or best-selling self-help guide. Read a novel (I loved this bit of advice) rather than an autobiography – especially those who triumphed over hardship to become a better person on the other side – or yet another self-help guide. Novels give a much more rounded view of individuals in much more realistic environments than the self-edited ‘reality’ of autobiographies will ever give you. Finally dwell on the past (without the naval gazing) to put your life in some sort of perspective with narrative form and flow. See how things have changed over time. See the continuity deeply embedded in your historical and cultural environment. This will ground you in a way that you can easily shrug off the fad of the moment because you know who you are and where you came from. You’ll have roots deep enough and wide enough not to be battered by the many storms in countless teacups that seemingly upset so many so easily.

Some of you will have bells ringing with some of the above (in admittedly modern form). Even without frequent mention of the more famous practitioners I would have not been surprised that the Appendix at the back of the volume was a potted history of Stoicism. Like me the author is a huge fan of the Stoics although, again like me, he is not uncritical of some of their ideas. They have, we both believe and contend, much to teach us about surviving and thriving in a modern (apparently) fast moving world. Their teachings show us that we don’t have to be the leaves blown wherever the winds of our times take us. We can be the trees and quietly, with dignity, stand firm. Highly recommended – especially to those who find themselves struggling to ‘keep up’.

Translated from the Danish by Tam McTurk.  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

"A person will suffer more intensely the more he or she is strong and independent. Given the apparent hopelessness of resistance, there is a powerful and continuous incentive for individuals to become less aware of their own feelings, beliefs and needs. Indeed, the only rational solution for an individual may often be to become dead inside, to become alienated from his or her feelings and desires. And it is exactly this internal deadness which has been declared the great sickness of modern man..."

David Edwards, Free to be Human, 1995

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Group Hug!

New Orleans purges final Confederate statue.

From The BBC

20th May 2017

Masked city workers in New Orleans have removed the last of four monuments to the pro-slavery rebellion defeated in the US Civil War. The 133-year-old statue depicted General Robert E Lee, the top military leader in the Confederacy, crossing his arms as he faced north towards his old enemy. Critics say monuments to the Confederacy are racially offensive, but supporters say they are important symbols of the city's Southern heritage. The three other statues were all removed at night to limit clashes. The workers on the job were wearing bullet-proof vests as well as masks.

In a statement on Thursday, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the condemned statues "were erected decades after the Civil War to celebrate the 'Cult of the Lost Cause', a movement recognised across the South as celebrating and promoting white supremacy." Barricades went up overnight around the park where the 16ft (4.8m) statue was perched atop a 60ft column. The cables for a nearby streetcar were also temporarily taken down to allow construction equipment into the park. Before police cleared the area on Thursday, nearly 200 protesters gathered to voice support and opposition to the monument. Demonstrations were mostly peaceful, local media report. The only flashpoint was when a pro-removal protester snatched a Confederate battle flag. One man was arrested for climbing on to the monument's pedestal and refusing to come down. The monument to Lee was erected on 22 February 1884 - nearly 20 years after the Civil War ended. On the day of the unveiling, a crowd of nearly 15,000 people came to watch, the Daily Picayune newspaper reported the next day. At the exact moment that the statue was unveiled, a 100-gun salute was fired, and "a mighty shout went up from the soldiers of the Confederacy", the Daily Picayune reported.

City officials say the monuments will be moved somewhere such as a museum where they can be "placed in their proper historical context from a dark period of American history". But WWL-TV has found the removed monuments to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and PGT Beauregard in a city-owned scrap yard. Supporters of the monuments say they are a cultural legacy that promotes heritage rather than racism. The decision to remove the statues came in December 2015, six months after a white supremacist shot dead nine black worshippers at a South Carolina church.

[I do have a significant problem with things like this. OK, I can understand what they did after WW2 with the removal of Nazi emblems across Europe and the change of city names in Russia throughout its troubled history but I don’t agree with the attempted erasure and sanitation of the past to satisfy the popular sentiment of the moment. If past events are disagreeable, as many of them are, then rather than removing them from public view we should be using them as examples to learn from. As has been well attested to throughout history (oh, the irony) those who forget, or turn their backs on, their history are DOOMED to repeat it. On this side of the pond we are told that buildings and street names are offensive because they are named after slave owners. If such landmarks are erased and forgotten about there is the real danger that we will collectively forget about slavery too. A nation without a history, the good as well as the bad, will find designing its future much more difficult. Without knowing where we have been and the kind of people we used to be how can we chart a course to where we want to go and who we want to be when we get there? Leave history in place so future generations can at least wonder why we did bad things rather than walk by in (supposedly) blissful ignorance.]

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Seize the Time – The Story of The Black Panter Party and Huey P Newton by Bobby Searle (FP: 1970)

This was a strange and sometimes difficult read. Although I am becoming more familiar with US Urban Politics in the 1960’s and 1970’s some of the names and places are still a little fuzzy which can cause some confusion. More difficult to get used to, though I did eventually get the hang of it, was the use of urban black slang used throughout the book. Indeed, from the very beginning, the book read like an almost unmediated string of consciousness from the authors mind, jumping between topics before focusing back on his original thread to say nothing of seemingly random repetitions, which meant you really needed to concentrate on some sections of the book in order not to lose the thread. On top of this was the shotgun smattering of swear words and, naturally, the dreaded ‘N’ word that people get so touchy about these days.

But, once you got used to all of the above, the narrative (primitive though it felt at times) proved to be surprisingly gripping. Told very much in the first person – though focused throughout on the founder of the Party Huey P Newton – this was a detailed account of the birth of an admittedly revolutionary political party in modern day America. From the ground up to the States attempts to crush the movement we are given privileged access to the Parties philosophy – gleaned from Marx, Mao, Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon (of ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ fame) – its actions on the streets of California ‘shadowing’ police cars and patrolling with guns clearly visible and clearly loaded, its many run-ins with the authorities in the guise of local police, FBI and others, the legal cases against many in the leadership and the almost fanatical reaction from local, State and National government to prevent the power of the Panthers spreading.

The crunch came, from the authority’s point of view, when the Panthers started to organise outside of their black urban base. If it wasn’t bad enough that a political organisation had organically emerging within this disenfranchised group they then began an outreach programme contacting and developing relations with Hispanics, Chinese and (the final nail it seemed) with the white urban poor with whom they had so much in common. Their philosophy saw beyond mere colour and recognised the fact that the urban poor of both races had far more in common and especially far more grievances in common than anything which appeared at first glance to separate them. It is easy to see why the National and State apparatus where eager to put a stop to this sort of thing – most especially because the Panthers were not afraid to publically show that they had the means to violently defend themselves if necessary.

This is definitely an interesting contemporary insight into the revolutionary phenomena in the modern West. It stayed with me for quite a while after finishing it and I can definitely see why it became a classic text in the African-American community. Of course what makes this even more interesting is its relevance to the recent Black Lives Matter phenomena and the continuing violence directed at Black America. Definitely recommended to anyone interested in US Black History and the founding of radical political parties in the modern world.

Monday, May 15, 2017

No one said it’d be easy – Oh, yes they did…..

Access to single market 'not on sale'.

The UK will not be able to buy access to the single market after it leaves the EU, says one of the most senior UK officials to have worked in Brussels. Jonathan Faull, who retired last week, said that access to the single market "is not something that's on sale". He also warned the UK should not assume it can broker a deal with Angela Merkel if she wins re-election as German chancellor. Theresa May plans to trigger the Brexit negotiations by the end of March. But Mr Faull said that Britain has one important card to play in the EU negotiations - co-operation on European defence. The warnings by Mr Faull, who served in the European Commission for 38 years, come as the government scrambles to assemble its Brexit negotiating team in the wake of the resignation of the UK's EU ambassador, Sir Ivan Rogers. He is to be replaced by Sir Tim Barrow, a former UK ambassador to Moscow. In his interview with BBC Newsnight, Mr Faull cast doubt about an idea, which is being promoted by senior Whitehall officials, that the UK could be pay for access to the EU's single market - in the same way that Norway currently does, despite not being a member of the EU. David Davis, the Brexit secretary, confirmed last month that the government was considering the idea. Mr Faull said: "Can you buy access to the single market? It's not something that's on sale in that way. I find that rather extraordinary." The former European Commission official pointed out that Norway is bound by two core rules of the EU - accepting the free movement of people and abiding by the European Court of Justice. Theresa May has indicated that she would like to have some access to the single market. But the prime minister is to confirm in a speech later this month that the UK will have two fundamental red lines in its Brexit negotiations - control of its borders and freedom from the ECJ.

Tory donor threatens to stop funding over Brexit plans.

A major Tory donor has warned that he will stop funding the party if Theresa May's Brexit plans involve the UK coming out of the single market. Sir Andrew Cook, who has donated more than £1.2m to the party, told The Times the country could "sleepwalk to disaster" if it made such a move. The engineering firm chairman said at least one of his factories was almost "entirely dependent" on access to it. Sir Andrew backed the Remain campaign in the EU referendum. He told the newspaper that the "economic arguments of staying in the single market are overwhelming" and it would be a "catastrophe" if the country left. "It is very difficult to make a political donation to a party when, although I support it ideologically, I do not believe that my interests and my ideology are ad idem with the principal Brexiteers," he said. Theresa May has insisted that she wants firms to have the "maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the single market".

Pound falls on May's Brexit comments.

The value of the pound has fallen to a two-month low against major currencies after Prime Minister Theresa May signalled the UK would pursue a so-called "hard Brexit" from the EU. Sterling fell about 1% across the board. The only currency against which it gained ground was the Turkish lira. The Prime Minister told Sky News on Sunday that she wanted the best possible deal for leaving the EU. However, she dismissed the idea that the UK could "keep bits of membership". She added: "We're leaving. We're coming out. We're not going to be a member of the EU any longer." Commentators interpreted this as meaning that Mrs May would not seek to keep the UK in the EU's single market, with radical consequences for the country's economy. By Monday evening, the pound was down 1.05% against the dollar at $1.2155, while against the euro, it was 1.41% lower at €1.1501. "Sterling is on the back foot on Monday after Theresa May's comments were taken as a sign the UK government would prioritise immigration controls over single market access," said Neil Wilson, senior market analyst at ETX Capital. "Domestic populist politics trumps the trade card for now, it seems, and that is weighing on the pound." Mr Wilson predicted "more volatility" in the sterling exchange rate, adding that it could easily "bounce back" as the tone of political discourse shifted. HSBC currency strategist Dominic Bunning agreed: "[Mrs] May saying that it's not about keeping 'bits' of the EU suggests it's not going to be about keeping access to the single market”.

Hammond: No decision yet on single market.

Britain has not made any decision on whether or not to stay in the European single market after Brexit, says the UK Chancellor, Philip Hammond. The chancellor made his comments in an interview with the Irish broadcaster RTE. "We haven't made any decision on which structures would best support our aspirations," he said. "Whether it is being in or out of the customs union, in or out of the single market," he added. His comments came just a day after the Prime Minister, Theresa May, appeared to downplay the importance of the UK retaining any residual membership privileges from the European Union's single economic market. Mr Hammond rejected the idea that the Brexit process had been badly handled so far, pointing out that it had barely started and that the UK government was preparing for a complex negotiation that would start in earnest later this Spring. He did though state that he wanted, in an ideal world, to have a deal with the rest of the EU agreed in just over two years' time. "If necessary we will have to discuss what the interim period should look like between Britain leaving the European Union and delivering those long term arrangements if we can't get them in place by April 2019," he said. "But our first objective will clearly be to try to get everything negotiated and completed by April 2019."

All details above from BBC News website.

[While Europe seems to be getting its act together with the election of a Centrist French President and with Merkel’s party doing well in Germany in the UK itself few politicians seem to want to talk about Brexit despite it being THE issue in the upcoming election in June. Instead both major parties are essentially promising the earth with jam on it – tomorrow (of course) and only after they’ve successfully navigated through the Brexit minefield and brought us all singing and dancing into the uplands of freedom and prosperity. In other words not in our lifetimes…… As usual, having become quite a tradition in my house, I shall be staying up into the early hours of June 9th to watch how these particular dominoes fall. No doubt I shall be disappoint to witness us recommit to economic suicide but I feel that I need to be there to see us do it. As car crashes go this will be an impressive pile-up. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.]

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Lemurs discover Buddhist meditation.......
Thinking About: Labels

It’s been happening a lot lately. Or possibly I’m just noticing it more. People seem to be applying labels to me that I’m not exactly comfortable with – at least not entirely. I suppose it started a few months back when my friends, that’s right my friends, started referring to me as ‘difficult’. I think what they really meant was ‘contrary’ or as I like to see it ‘independently minded’. I think it’s because they are, as a general rule, all Geeks. Several of them work for large IT companies or come from a technical background. They’re all into the latest Tech and, it appears to me, talk about it endlessly. Well, I’m not like that. I understand enough Tech to get by but don’t feel the need to upgrade every time some manufacturer feels the need to fleece us yet again with their latest product which now features smooth edges or comes in a variety of colours or some such. I’m more a functional kind of person. If an ‘old’ piece of Tech does the job I want it to do (my old Nokia phone is a good example) then I won’t change it until it stops working. They only started calling me a ‘Luddite’ however when I said that I wouldn’t give a Smart power meter the time of day because I couldn’t see it as being any advantage to me. Knowing how much power (in other words money) is used to boil a kettle to make a cup of tea isn’t going to influence how many cups of tea I make every day. If I want a cup of tea I’ll boil the kettle to have one and damn the (minimal) cost. When the ‘difficult’ word is used what I actually hear is ‘not manipulated easily by the latest craze’ or ‘not easily swayed by propaganda’.  These attributes are, I believe, good things.

I suppose that I started thinking about this more lately after my boss introduced me to a new starter at work as ‘the team’s resident smartarse’. Yes, this was my boss saying that – although she was smiling at the time. I took it as a compliment however as I translated it as saying ‘and this is the smartest person in the team’ rather than someone who makes smart assed comments to all and sundry. It’s all, I think, in the delivery. I was introduced to another team’s boss recently by someone I had known for years. He introduced me as ‘a character’. Presumably he meant ‘someone who doesn’t play by the rules all the time and has both character and a strong sense of self’. Saying that I was a ‘character’ is just shorthand for saying that I’m an individual rather than a soulless, mindless drone. Yes, I can relate to that. Of course by far my favourite label applied to me lately is that of a ‘rebel’ (well, this is a rebellion so…..). It is kind of what I’ve been going for although I hardly think I’m actually rebelling that much, all things considered. As with my levels of honestly my level of rebellion goes all the way up to 11. Presently it’s just bumping along at about 3-4 on a good day.

Naturally, being a rebel after all, the labels people try to put on me have little influence on who I think I am and what I do with my life on a day-to-day basis. At worse the labels irritate me slightly, at best they amuse and (sometimes) delight – I still chuckle over the ‘bit of a rebel’ comment I received. I do find it instructive though as to how people perceive me. If this (actually quite moderate) level of individuality comes across as actual rebellion I shudder to think about the level of conformity that exists out there. If I was as ‘individual’ as I could be I guess that someone would be calling the emergency services and measuring me for a straight-jacket! It does give me some idea about how far I can still push things though. That gives me some quite delicious ideas I can play with and still keep it within the bounds that I’m happy with. What label others will attach to it – well, I’ll let you know.

"We are forever being told to 'think outside the box'. Fortunately, less excitable creativity researchers have pointed out that it only makes sense to think outside the box if you know that there is a box (and what it's made of). In most cases, it's probably wiser to balance on the edge of the box, only tinkering around the edges and improvising around tried-and-tested themes. The new only makes sense within a horizon of something known. If you know nothing of the past and its traditions, it's impossible to create anything new that is useful."

Svend Brinkmann, Stand Firm, 2014

Thursday, May 11, 2017


Just Finished Reading: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (FP: 1843)

Of course it was a story that I’m completely familiar with from the many movie versions – my favourite being the 1951 version starring the great Alistair Sim. The renowned miser Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by his long dead business partner warning him that he must change his ways. To help him reform he is visited, one long Christmas Eve night, by three spirits: the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Each show him different aspects of his life and show him that there are other things in life than money and account books. There is story here, and especially back story, character development – the whole point of the narrative after all – and even a surprising amount of humour. I remember my friend’s girlfriend at the time telling me that she enjoyed Dickens primarily for his humour and I didn’t believe her – until now. The ghostly aspects of the story where equally surprisingly spooky (if not actually horrific) and a bit strong for what is often seen as a children’s story today. Small children in particular might have nightmares if you read this to them at bedtime! But the driving force of the story, rather unapologetically blatant to be honest, is that of a morality tale. Life is difficult, it says, and most especially for the poor. Without Charity, most especially at Christmas, life become unnecessarily hard for all concerns. Dickens was clearly putting forward the idea that a lack a basic charity cuts both ways.

As A Christmas Carol was only 107 pages in my printed copy two further novellas where added which had a common supernatural/Christmas-New Year theme. They were The Chimes (FP: 1844) and The Haunted Man (FP: 1848). I found The Chimes very confusing to begin with. It revolved around an elderly porter – hired to deliver letters and parcels in London – who dotes on his young and (naturally beautiful) daughter who is about the get married to her labourer boyfriend. After a random meeting with some local dignitaries the couple is persuaded to go their separate ways and tragedy ensues. Years pass and then, out of the blue we discover that the porter has apparently been dead for years and has been watching his daughter decline from his place ‘on the other side’, then it’s all change again and a second scenario is played through. Finally, at the end of the narrative, we discover that the old gent was playing through possibly life choices through his mind and speculating on the outcomes of each. As before The Chimes is essentially a morality tale about the attitudes of the Middle Class to the poor and the encouragement of Mutual Aid in poor communities to mitigate against the worst excesses of ‘the system’.

A much better story was The Haunted Man which centred on a teacher in a dilapidated school who went everywhere as if he was haunted by a malevolent spectre – which was actually not far from the truth. Something dreadful had happened in his past that he could neither deal with nor forget and it was crippling him as a person. Finally on New Year’s Eve the spirit offers him a deal – that if he agrees to it the spirit can make him forget the harm done to him forever. After some hesitation he agrees. Only then does the spirit reveal the catch. That for the rest of his days anyone the teacher touches will also forget everything bad that happened to them in the past. Thinking that he can help mankind to a better place just by touching them he goes out to help relieve their pain. Only gradually does he make the terrible discovery – that without the pain of the loss of love the memory of the love itself begins to fade. Soon all emotion is lost and all that is left are animal passions, hate, fear and avarice. Without the shadow cast by the light all too soon there is no light to relive the shadow. Both good and bad experiences make us what we are and without the bad to learn and grow from the good is much diminished in contrast. Not having read this before (or indeed any Dickens) I thought this was the best of the three stories presented. Overall it was a good introduction to Dickens – of which more later!    

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Monday, May 08, 2017

No Free Lunches…..

Brexit: Warning on migration if Britain stays in EU single market.

EU migration will not fall sharply if the UK stays in the single market, a pressure group has said. If the UK kept market membership after Brexit, net migration from the EU was unlikely to drop below 155,000 a year in the medium term, compared to 189,000 now, Migration Watch said. Market membership and migration control were incompatible, it claimed. The government has not yet set out its negotiating objectives ahead of official Brexit talks. Trade and migration are likely to be key sticking points when talks begin - expected to be in the spring. Prime Minister Theresa May has indicated she wants limits on existing freedom of movement rules as part of the final deal. This, ministers believe, would help the government in its broader objective of reducing net migration - the difference between the number of people settling in the UK and those leaving - to below 100,000 a year. Overall net migration has been consistently higher than 300,000 in the last 18 months, hitting 335,000 in the year to June 2016, according to the latest figures published. During that period, a record number of EU citizens - 284,000 in total - came to live in Britain as net EU migration totalled 189,000.

Brexit and population increase 'to change UK radically' by 2030.

Life in the UK will undergo "radical" change in the 2020s due to Brexit, population changes and jobs being taken by robots, a think tank has predicted. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) said there would be a Brexit "aftershock" and that the UK's exit from the EU would be "the firing gun on a decade of disruption". It identified wide-ranging factors that would "reshape how we live and work". The government has promised to "forge a new role" for the UK in the world. In its report, the IPPR, a centre-left think tank, said Brexit would be one of the major "disruptive forces" in the years ahead, saying the vote had delivered a "profound shock" to the UK's political and economic order which was likely to set the country on a path of permanently lower growth and living standards. It also anticipated a "demographic tipping point" with a population boom and the number of people aged 65 and over predicted to rise by a third by the end of the next decade. The report said this would impose new strains on the state with the funding gap for adult social care expected to hit £13bn by 2030-31. This would lead to an increase in the UK's deficit - the gap between income and spending - it said.

Brexit: Theresa May urged to rule out interim deal.

Theresa May has been urged to rule out a transitional Brexit deal and ensure the UK's full exit from the EU within two years of negotiations beginning. Campaign group Leave Means Leave said a "clean, swift" exit should be among the PM's red lines for upcoming talks. It also said the UK must withdraw from the single market, customs union and common farming and fisheries policies. On Thursday, a former top EU lawyer warned of a "catastrophe" for the UK if no interim trade accord was struck. Jean-Claude Piris, head of the EU Council's legal service from 1988 to 2010, said there was no way the UK could negotiate a new free trade deal with the rest of the EU in the two years set aside for determining the UK's exit - warning it would take at least five years and probably more. He told the Financial Times that the UK must avoid falling into the "WTO gap" - whereby its trading arrangements with the rest of the EU reverted to World Trade Organisation rules with likely tariffs and border checks - and this would require some form of stop-gap agreement. But Leave Means Leave said there could be no interim arrangement that required the UK to remain in the single market or customs union.

UK's ambassador to the EU Sir Ivan Rogers resigns.

The UK's ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, has resigned. Sir Ivan, appointed to the job by David Cameron in 2013, had been expected to play a key role in Brexit talks expected to start within months. The government said Sir Ivan had quit early so a successor could be in place before negotiations start. Last month the BBC revealed he had privately told ministers a UK-EU trade deal might take 10 years to finalise, sparking criticism from some MPs. Ministers have said a deal can be done within two years. Labour said Sir Ivan's departure was "deeply worrying" and Prime Minister Theresa May must be prepared to listen to "difficult truths" about the likely complexity of the Brexit process. The diplomat was due to leave his post in November. Sir Ivan is a veteran civil servant whose previous roles include private secretary to ex-chancellor Ken Clarke, principal private secretary to ex-PM Tony Blair and Mr Cameron's Europe adviser. He was criticised in some quarters for "pessimism" over Brexit after his advice to ministers - which he said reflected what the 27 member states were saying - was reported. Pro-EU figures raised concern about the impact of Sir Ivan's departure, while Brexit campaigners welcomed his decision. Former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who once worked for Sir Ivan in Brussels, described his resignation as a "body blow to the government's Brexit plans". He added: "If the reports are true that he has been hounded out by hostile Brexiteers in government, it counts as a spectacular own goal."

Post-Brexit trade deals 'to create 400,000 jobs'.

Nearly 400,000 jobs could be created as a result of post-EU trade deals with other countries, pro-Brexit campaign group Change Britain has claimed. By leaving the EU's customs union, it said, the UK would be free to negotiate deals with the US, India, China, Japan, Canada, Korea and trading blocs in South America and South East Asia. This, it said, would bring an estimated £23bn export boost and 387,580 jobs. But the figures were dismissed as flawed and misleading by opponents. Pro-EU campaigners said the statistics were based on the assumption of replicating EU deals with other countries that the UK would no longer be part of. The UK would simply not be able to secure deals of a "comparative depth" to those negotiated by the EU after Brexit. Change Britain, which grew out of the Vote Leave campaign group, is pressing for a so-called "hard Brexit", where the UK pulls out of the single market and the customs union when it leaves the EU. It says this will give it flexibility to negotiate the most beneficial trade arrangements with the rest of the world. Its research is based on 2012 calculations by the European Commission about the boost to exports and jobs in the EU as a whole if trade deals were struck with six leading economies and two major trade blocs, South East Asia's Asean and South America's Mercosur.

All details above from BBC News website.

[It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything the effect of the French Presidential election will be on Brexit. One thing we can say – at least there will probably be an EU to leave in 2 years’ time which might not have been the case if the election had gone the other way. So, Good Going France! The other thing rumbling on in the news presently is the growing spat being Team UK and Team EU about negotiating positions and relative positions in the same (or different) galaxies in the reality stakes. The way that Teresa May came out fighting after everything became public hints that most of the German newspaper report was correct. It looks like it’s going to be a long, HARD two years ahead….. I would NOT want to be on that negotiating team, no way.]

Saturday, May 06, 2017

France bans extremely thin models.

From the BBC

6th May 2017

A law in France banning the use of unhealthily thin fashion models has come into effect. Models will need to provide a doctor's certificate attesting to their overall physical health, with special regard to their body mass index (BMI) - a measure of weight in relation to height. The health ministry says the aim is to fight eating disorders and inaccessible ideals of beauty. Digitally altered photos will also have to be labelled from 1 October. Images where a model's appearance has been manipulated will need to be marked photographie retouchée (English: retouched photograph). A previous version of the bill had suggested a minimum BMI for models, prompting protests from modelling agencies in France.

But the final version, backed by MPs 2015, allows doctors to decide whether a model is too thin by taking into account their weight, age, and body shape. Employers breaking the law could face fines of up to 75,000 euros (£63,500; $82,000) and up to six months in jail. "Exposing young people to normative and unrealistic images of bodies leads to a sense of self-depreciation and poor self-esteem that can impact health-related behaviour," said France's Minister of Social Affairs and Health, Marisol Touraine, in a statement on Friday, French media report. France is not the first country to legislate on underweight models - Italy, Spain and Israel have all done so. Anorexia affects between 30,000 to 40,000 people in France, 90% of whom are women.

[Well, I guess that it’s a step (or possibly a cat walk) in the right direction. Fashion models in particular have a huge influence on young women and if living up to the often ridiculous thinness of real models wasn’t bad enough they now have ‘impossible ‘digitally enhanced’ models to compete with. Fashion is, quite honestly, toxic especially where it bends the minds of teens and pre-teens to aspire to a body shape that is at best difficult to obtain (and even more difficult to maintain) and at worse impossibly life threatening. People come in all shapes and sizes. There is no one ideal body shape. Even culturally determined shapes change over time and from place to place. As long as you are healthy and at ease in your own body – whilst not comparing yourself to everyone else around you – who really cares? The Fashion Industry has a LOT to answer for in regard to the steep rise in Anorexia especially amongst young women. At least now, finally, we are starting to see something done about it.]

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Just Finished Reading: The End of Average – How to Succeed in a World that Values Sameness by Todd Rose (FP: 2015)

Odd as it may seems in these ultra-competitive times the idea of being Average was considered an ideal and as something to aim for. The Average Soldier or Average Student was held up as a Platonic Form and any deviation from the Average was viewed as a fault to be corrected. But it wasn’t long (something less than 50 years) that the much more recognisable view of the Average began to hold sway – that the Average was something to rise above with ‘average’ becoming synonymous with ‘mediocre’. It wasn’t long before tests of all kinds came into use that attempted to rank everyone, in every profession or walk of life, exactly where they fell on the below Average/above Average scale. People began being judged on their deviation from the norm, the Average, but in an apparently more positive way. Deviation below the Average required remedial work or punishment, deviation above the Average rated praise, promotion and admiration. It all seems very logical, rational, and scientific even. Unfortunately, according to this interesting and intriguing little book (a mere 191 pages) it’s all nonsense.

The author starts with two examples which blows the Average idea completely out of the water. There’s the example of a competition run by an American newspaper to find the Average American Housewife using 10-15 measurements from thousands of women. Prizes where offered and expectations were high. The paper expected that most women would cluster around the Average and that the winner would only triumph by the smallest of margins. To everyone’s surprise not one of the women who entered turned out to be Average in all dimensions. To have a winner they fudged the results and then blamed American women for being unhealthy and failing to work hard enough to meet the ideal Average figure. The second example was more telling: When the US Airforce transitioned from props to jets they discovered that the number of accidents, and deaths skyrocketed. No one knew why. The planes themselves had an expectedly low failure rate and the pilots themselves where top class. Suspicion fell on the cockpit which was designed for the Average pilot in the 1930’s/40’s. Could the Average pilot build have changed in 20 years? After much research they discovered that the Average pilot’s dimensions had hardly changed at all. Then one researcher looked at the problem from the other end of the telescope – and discovered that out of the tens of thousands of pilots measured not one, not one actually fitted fully into the Average cockpit. By designing a cockpit to be used by everyone the Airforce had ended up with a cockpit designed for no one. Their solution? Cockpits that could easily be adjusted to fit the pilot – not the other way around. Accidents and deaths dropped off rather dramatically thereafter.

Using these two examples as his core but salting the book with many more (mostly though not exclusively American) the author makes a very strong case that the Average anyone – pilot, housewife, student, worker – simply does not exist and that institutions designed from the ground up to cater for, to produce or to satisfy the Average person does far more harm than good. Schools designed to produce higher than Average ability student’s end up rejecting far more supposedly ‘below’ Average students than they need to, businesses hire applicants with the best SAT scores or GPA whilst largely ignoring talent that simply didn’t flourish in the artificial environment that produced them. Overall talent is wasted, people remain unfulfilled and society as a whole suffers because of a wrong-headed 19th century idea about the distribution of talents in any population.

Whilst not exactly a world changing book, as some of the blurb seemed to be implying, this is very much a book that will change your views on the use (and abuse) of the concept of Average in the context of human beings. You might find yourself questioning easily assimilated ideas (almost always certainly to be wrong) about any groups ‘Average’ behaviour, attitudes or abilities. You’ll find yourself questioning people when they make any pronouncement about just about anything being above or below Average. I’m starting to find myself thinking (and maybe soon enough actually questioning) ‘Just how did you arrive at that figure’. One thing that can most definitely be said for this book is that you’ll never look on the Average human activity in the same way. If such a thing is even possible it has made me even more sceptical of so-called scientific pronouncements of what you, as an individual ‘should’ be doing (or not doing) by comparing your actual experience to the ‘Average’ person you’re being measured against – in anything from weight/age, getting married by a certain age, how many sex partners you ‘should’ have had by now and, my personal favourite (of course) how many books you read in an ‘Average’ year. A short book, an easy read but full of interesting ideas. Definitely more than the Average book….. Highly recommended.      

Happy Star Wars Day! May the Fourth be With You - Always.

Monday, May 01, 2017

...but at least I'm not @ Work.

Counting the days to Article 50 (Old News again).

Deloitte apologises for Brexit memo.

A consultancy firm has apologised to the government for the "disruption" caused by a leaked memo that suggested ministers had no plan for Brexit. Deloitte said it regretted the publication, adding it had proposed a plan "to put this matter behind us". The Times reported this included an agreement not to bid for government contracts for six months. Downing Street dismissed the memo when it was published last month, saying it had been unsolicited. The document claimed "well over 500 projects" were being undertaken by Whitehall departments to implement Brexit, creating the need for up to 30,000 extra civil servants, and highlighted "divisions" within government over the strategy. Its publication in The Times generated a backlash from No 10, which said it "wholeheartedly" rejected the comments it contained, and Deloitte played down the memo's significance. Five weeks on, the company has said: "Deloitte regrets the publication of the two-page note, and has apologised for the unintended disruption it caused government. The note was for internal audiences and was not a Deloitte point of view. We have put forward a plan for working with central government to put this matter behind us." Downing Street did not dispute The Times' report that the agreement involved Deloitte not bidding for government contracts for six months, but the company declined to comment on any withdrawal from such bids.

May Christmas message urges unity after Brexit vote.

Theresa May has urged Britain to "unite and move forward" after the Brexit vote in her first Christmas message as PM. In the year that saw the UK vote by 52% to 48% to leave the EU, Mrs May said there was an "historic opportunity" to forge "a bold new role". However, UKIP's Paul Nuttall used his Christmas message to call for faster progress on Brexit in 2017. Labour's Jeremy Corbyn highlighted the plight of the homeless while Lib Dem Tim Farron focused on child refugees. The Green Party urged people to fight for a future based on equality and hope in its Christmas message. The prime minister said there had been much to celebrate in 2016 - with the Queen's 90th birthday and British successes in the Olympics and Paralympics. She added: "As we leave the European Union we must seize an historic opportunity to forge a bold new role for ourselves in the world and to unite our country as we move forward into the future." She pledged to "stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to practise their beliefs in peace and safety" and paid tribute to those who work over Christmas, including health and care workers, emergency services and the armed forces. "Wherever you are this Christmas, I wish you joy and peace in this season of celebration, along with health and happiness in the year ahead," she said.

Pro-Brexit group calls for EU free trade deal.

Campaigners for a "hard" Brexit have asked business groups across Europe to put pressure on their governments for a free trade agreement with Britain. Leave Means Leave has written to the chambers of commerce in all the other 27 EU states, asking them to call for a "sensible agreement regarding the terms of Britain's exit from the EU". The letter warns that trade barriers would have a "detrimental effect". It also calls for uninterrupted trade as well as near-zero tariffs. The letter was written by Leave Means Leave co-chairs Richard Tice and John Longworth, the former British Chambers of Commerce director-general. The group wants to ensure Brexit means the UK is no longer a member of the EU's single market. They said there were "many important elections taking place in EU member states" next year. "Businesses across Europe will want trade with the UK to continue as usual after Brexit and any hint of trade barriers by the European Commission will be rejected," they wrote. "It is vital that these business leaders make representations to their national governments to ensure that the EU is open for business." Mr Longworth told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the UK would prosper outside the EU as it sought free trade agreements with partners around the world. "This word 'access' I find curious - everybody has access to the EU single market; the US and China send billions of stuff to the EU every year," he added. "It doesn't actually matter if we leave the single market and there are tariffs because they are on average 3.5% for manufactured goods, but it's better for everybody if there is a smooth trading relationship."

Brexit: Civil service faces 'bumpy ride' says union leader.

The civil service faces a "bumpy ride" making Brexit happen while dealing with other priorities, the union leader who represents Whitehall staff has warned. Dave Penman, from the FDA union, said more resources were needed or ministers would have to rethink other goals. "Something is going to have to give, and it is not going to be Brexit," he told the Guardian newspaper. The Foreign Office and International Trade department were given extra money in last month's Autumn Statement. The new trade ministry, which is taking over a number of responsibilities from the business department and Foreign Office, is to get an extra £79.4m over the next four years, while the Foreign Office was given extra money to recruit trade policy experts within its diplomatic network. However, other departments face budget cuts at a time when implementing the decision to leave the EU is likely to increase their workload. In the Guardian interview, Mr Penman - general secretary of the First Division Association which has 19,000 members - said the civil service was used to coping in a challenging financial environment but suggested the "unique complexity" of Brexit was likely to put a strain on Whitehall. "The civil service is either going to have to be given more resources to deal with Brexit and its usual work or it will have to change its priorities," he said. "And government doesn't want to admit to either."

All details above from BBC News website.

[So, negotiations are off until after the June election. I guess that makes sense not knowing who’s going to win and what the fallout will be if the Tories don’t win as many seats as they seem to need to overturn the objections clearly coming from inside their own party. I do find it instructive how much the PM is whining on about the need to have more power to enable her to negotiate with the EU from a position of strength – as if having a bigger majority in Parliament with have any influence at all on European leaders! He real message is that she’s not carrying her party or the rest of the Commons with her and wants us, the electorate, to give her a mandate to overrule as many people as she needs to in order to get her agenda through – because as we all know brute power and the destruction of opposition is how Democracy works these days.]