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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Just Finished Reading: The Road by Cormac McCarthy (FP: 2006)

The world, it seems, is dying if it isn’t already dead. The evidence is all around the man and the boy. No birds fly in the grey leaden skies, no leaves remain on the blackened trees, no fish swim in the rivers or lakes, nothing moves or makes a sound except the wind and the crash of falling trees. It’s cold, very cold, and if they don’t keep moving south they could easily freeze to death out on the road. Days pass without the siting of another human being. No fires burn in the distance, no smoke rises in the day and no footprints mark the pristine grey snowfall. All to the good the man thinks for humans, made desperate with hunger, are dangerous creatures who prey on each other in the absence of any other ‘game’. Sometimes a little luck is enough to separate the barely living from the dead. A can of peaches found here, a blanket found there is sometimes just enough to keep body and soul together. But after more than a decade of scavenging there is little left to find and less left to use. But the drive continues, south to warmer climes and the possibility of finding survivors who have managed to maintain their basic humanity at the end of times – for the sake of the boy.

As bleak stories go this was definitely one of the bleakest of the bunch of end of the world stories I’ve been working my way through (2 more to go!). The reader is dropped right into the middle of things with no real explanation of what happened. From the largely burnt environment and the ever present cold I’m guessing some kind of nuclear exchange. Radiation is never mentioned but even after a decade or so (no dates are given) ash is still falling from the atmosphere and there are images of melted roadways and glass that’s obviously been under extreme temperatures in the past. The narrative revolves around the man and the boy (never named) who appear to be father and son (never really confirmed although the boy does call him ‘papa’) struggling to survive and travel down ‘the road’ to a safer place in the south. They do actually meet several others on the way most of whom appear to be cannibals (much rolling of eyes ensued each time – yes, we get the point, times are hard I said to myself through gritted teeth).

But I can see why it won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. It’s very well, even at times beautifully, written. The imagery is very arresting and although the book is unrelentingly bleak it never becomes completely depressing. No matter how bad things are the man in particular has hope for the boy (I did think for a while that the boy was a figment of his imagination designed to keep him going but he turned out to be real). But, I did find the whole thing rather dull – despite it being a fast read and not just because of its quite modest 307 well-spaced pages. Not a lot happened, I felt little tension despite being quite ‘involved’ in the text and I found the ending particularly anti-climactic. It sort of just…. Ended. Maybe I missed the point. Maybe there was a lot of allegory that passed me by. There was probably lots of hidden references to great works that went over my head thus diminishing my ‘pleasure’. It’s hard to tell. It certainly wasn’t the worst book I’ve ever read by a long margin but I would have expected more of a wow factor from such a critically acclaimed book.    

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

It looks like a pattern is emerging…………

EU 'sympathetic' over Scotland.

A Scottish government minister has said he received a "sympathetic hearing" from his European counterparts over Scotland's bid to remain in the EU. Farming Minister Fergus Ewing said he had informal talks with other agriculture ministers in Brussels. He said senior European officials told him that they would like to see Scotland as the EU's 28th member state. The prime minister has said that he wants the best deal for Scotland and the UK. Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson warned against "hijacking" the EU result to force an independence vote

German car makers warn on free movement.

German car makers have said that the UK will have to accept the free movement of EU citizens in return for access to the single market. Matthias Wissmann, from the German Automotive Industry Association, said the UK would have to accept the "bitter pill" of free movement. Restricting access to the UK was a key promise of the Leave campaign. Leave campaigners also argued that, to help car exports, Germany would push for a generous trade deal with the UK. However the Germany car makers appear to be taking a tough line. "We don't like to build new barriers... but any bid to secure full access to the single market would necessarily come with conditions. Everyone who negotiates on the British side will understand that," Mr Wissmann said. "If you want full access to the market, that comes necessarily with the free movement of people. That's the bitter pill the Brexiteers have to accept," he added.

George Osborne says tax rises and spending cuts needed.

Tax rises and spending cuts will be needed to deal with the "shock" to the UK economy caused by leaving the EU, Chancellor George Osborne has said. He said such decisions would be taken by the next prime minister, adding that his pre-referendum warnings "have started to be borne out by events". Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Osborne said he stood by his campaign warnings about the economic impact of a vote to leave the EU, saying life would not be "as economically rosy" outside. "It's very clear that the country is going to be poorer as a result of what's happening to the economy," he said. "We are absolutely going to have to provide fiscal security to people, in other words we are going to have to show the country and the world that the country can live within its means." Asked if that meant tax rises and spending cuts, he said: "Yes, absolutely. But that decision will come under a new prime minister - it's obviously not possible while the Conservative Party is having a leadership contest."

Market pressure eases after Brexit rout.

Pressure has eased on UK financial markets after two days of turmoil in the wake of the Brexit vote, with the FTSE 100 share index closing higher. The index ended up 2.64% at 6,140.39, while the FTSE 250 had gained 3.6%. The FTSE 100 lost 5.6% in the previous two trading sessions, while the more UK-focused FTSE 250 had slumped 13.7%. The pound also showed signs of recovery, rising 0.4% against the dollar to $1.3278 and adding 0.18% against the euro to €1.2018.

Jeremy Hunt suggests second EU referendum.

People should have their say on the terms of the UK's exit deal with the EU, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said. Mr Hunt, who said he was "seriously considering" a bid for the Conservative leadership, said this should be either through a general election or a second referendum. He called for a "sensible compromise" on free movement in exchange for single market access. In an article for the Daily Telegraph, Mr Hunt said the UK should negotiate a "Norway plus" option for the UK with Brussels, which would see "full access to the single market with a sensible compromise on free movement rules". Leave campaigners say the UK will get access to the single market without having to accept free movement of people - but other EU leaders have said this will not be possible.

Weak pound 'could raise supermarket prices'.

Supermarket prices could rise if the pound's fall continues, retail analysts have said. Some 40% of food consumed in the UK is imported meaning "any long term change in exchange rates may threaten the current period of cheaper groceries," according to Kantar Worldpanel. Online supermarket Ocado also said the weaker pound could lead to "inflationary pressure". The pound has fallen about 11% against the dollar since the Brexit vote. Tough competition from discount chains has helped to pushed the price of groceries lower over the past two years.

[Still much turbulence out there but it seems that the markets at least are getting over the first shock. Now reality sets in and some hard thinking and hard choices are no doubt being made. I’m sure that there’s still much to play for – just not for the England ‘football’ team.]

All details above from BBC News website.

Cartoon Time.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

…the uncertainty continues.

Pound slump continues in Asian trading.

The pound has fallen in early trading in Asia on Monday, adding to Friday's record one-day decline. Sterling was trading at $1.3443, down more than 2% from Friday's close. Against the euro it was trading at €1.2165, down 1.3%. On Friday the pound had its biggest one-day fall against the dollar, at one stage sinking as low as $1.3236. Some traders are betting that the pound still has further to slide. Jeremy Cook, chief economist at World First, said: "We are still looking for another 10% fall for the pound against the dollar in the coming months as data confirms the economic slowdown and monetary policy expectations increase."

EU spells out procedure for UK to leave.

The European Union has clarified the way the UK can kickstart formal negotiations to exit the bloc following Thursday's referendum. It says Britain can trigger Article 50, which sets a two-year deadline for a deal, by making a formal declaration either in a letter or a speech. UK PM David Cameron has said he will step down by October to allow his successor to conduct the talks. But EU foreign ministers have urged Britain to start the process soon. Since Thursday's vote there has been intense speculation about when, and how, the UK might begin formal negotiations.

France and Germany 'in agreement' over UK's EU exit.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have said they are in "full agreement" on how to handle the fallout from the UK's decision to leave the European Union. Mr Hollande warned that "separated, we run the risk of divisions, dissension and quarrels". The two will hold talks later in Berlin amid a flurry of diplomatic activity in the wake of so-called "Brexit".

Many companies plan to impose Brexit hiring freeze.

Many companies are likely to impose a hiring freeze following Britain's vote to leave the European Union, according to a leading business group. The Institute of Directors (IoD) surveyed 1,000 of its members and found that a quarter planned to freeze recruitment. The results suggested that almost a third would keep hiring at the same pace, with 5% planning to cut jobs. Almost two-thirds said the vote was negative for their business. "We can't sugar-coat this - many of our members are feeling anxious," said Simon Walker, director-general of the IoD. "A majority of business leaders think the vote for Brexit is bad for them, and as a result plans for investment and hiring are being put on hold or scaled back."

UK loses top credit rating from S&P.

The UK has lost its top AAA credit rating from ratings agency S&P following the country's Brexit vote. S&P said the the referendum result could lead to "a deterioration of the UK's economic performance, including its large financial services sector". Earlier the pound plunged to a 31-year low against the dollar, and UK markets closed lower for a second day. The move comes after chancellor George Osborne said the UK will face the future "from a position of strength". Speaking earlier, in an attempt to restore calm to the markets, the chancellor said the economy would need to "adjust" but was strong enough to cope. S&P had been the only major agency to maintain a AAA rating for the UK. On Friday, Moody's cut the UK's credit rating outlook to negative. A rating downgrade can affect how much it costs governments to borrow money in the international financial markets. In theory, a high credit rating means a lower interest rate (and vice versa). S&P said that the leave result would "weaken the predictability, stability, and effectiveness of policymaking in the UK".

PM condemns 'despicable' post-EU referendum hate crimes.

David Cameron has condemned "despicable" incidents of hate crime reported in the wake of the UK's referendum vote to leave the EU. There had been cases of "verbal abuse hurled" at ethnic minorities, and "despicable graffiti daubed on a Polish community centre", he told the Commons. Such attacks must be stamped out, he said, urging people to remember "these people have come here and made a wonderful contribution to our county".

Gibraltar in talks with Scotland to stay in EU.

Gibraltar is in talks with Scotland about a plan to keep parts of the UK in the EU, BBC Newsnight has learned. Fabian Picardo, the territory's chief minister, told the BBC he was speaking to Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, about various options. One possibility under discussion is for Gibraltar and Scotland, which both voted to remain in the EU, to maintain the UK's membership of the bloc. Ms Sturgeon confirmed to the BBC that talks are under way with Gibraltar. Northern Ireland could also potentially be included in the discussions. "I can imagine a situation where some parts of what is today the member state United Kingdom are stripped out and others remain," Mr Picardo told Newsnight.

[Oh, what a very strange world we are now entering. Some day’s it feels like an endless episode of Lost where unseen scriptwriters are making things up on an hour by hour basis. Who knows where it might end. Needless to say that the Leave camp are waving their hands at this point repeating ‘Scaremongering’ until it all goes away.]

All details above from BBC News website.

Monday, June 27, 2016

…and we haven’t pushed the button yet.

China warns Brexit will 'cast shadow' over global economy.

China finance experts have warned that Britain's decision to leave the European Union will "cast a shadow over the global economy". Finance minister Lou Jiwei said the "repercussions and fallout" will emerge over the next five to 10 years. Huang Yiping, a member of China's central bank monetary policy committee, said the Brexit could mark a "reversal of globalisation". If so, he said, it would be "very bad" for both the world and China.

Brexit fallout 'cast doubts on Heathrow runway expansion'.

Brexit "must cast doubts" on whether Heathrow Airport will get a third runway, the chairman of the anti-expansion group Hacan has said. According to John Stewart, if Boris Johnson follows David Cameron as prime minister his opposition to Heathrow expansion leaves it "up in the air". But Heathrow's boss John Holland-Kaye said its expansion "is the right choice for a stronger Britain". The government was to decide on whether to expand Heathrow or Gatwick in July.

Theresa Villiers says parliament sovereign.

NI Secretary Theresa Villiers has dismissed the Scottish first minister's suggestion that the Scottish Parliament could effectively veto the UK's exit from the European Union. Nichola Sturgeon said she believed Holyrood would have to give legislative consent to remove the UK from the EU. She told the BBC she would "of course" ask MSPs to refuse such consent. However, Ms Villiers told BBC NI's Sunday Politics that the British parliament was sovereign. "In the weeks and months ahead we will be working with both the Scottish government and the Northern Ireland Executive on all these matters," Ms Villiers said. "But ultimately it is parliament's decision whether we repeal the 1972 European Communities Act or whether we don't."

Reassurance sought over EU students.

Universities have pledged to pressure ministers to ensure European staff and students can still work and study in the UK after the vote to leave the EU. Vice-chancellors from the Universities UK umbrella group say the decision to leave will create "significant challenges" for higher education. They are already in talks with EU commissioners, it is understood. The Russell Group of top research universities says it will work with ministers to safeguard research funds. These leading institutions get £500m a year in EU investment.

UK car industry needs 'swift EU deal to curb high tariffs'.

Britain must strike a trade deal with Europe as soon as possible to protect the country's multi-billion pound car industry and avoid high tariffs. David Bailey, professor of industry at Aston University, warned of a "big uncertainty" for the sector following the UK's vote to leave the EU. Without a deal, he fears a return to the days when the industry faced a 10% tariff on exports. The UK exports 77.3% of its car output, 57.5% of which goes to Europe. "What we don't want in two years' time is to go back to [World Trade Organisation] rules which involve 10% tariffs on car exports," he said.

Councils' cash from EU 'should be guaranteed' if withdrawn.

The government should guarantee English councils will still receive the £5.3bn they had been allocated from EU funds, the Local Government Association says. It said councils in England had been expecting to receive regeneration funding from the EU by 2020, before the UK voted to leave the union this week. Councils must also take part in talks to rewrite EU laws, the LGA said.

[I wonder if those who voted to leave are starting to think they made the wrong choice last Thursday. Or are they still pleased that Cameron is going, Corbyn is fighting for his leadership and that chaos is spreading. Is this worth it for the illusion of ‘getting our country back’?]

All details above from BBC News website.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

…and there’s more…. Always more.

HSBC 'to move jobs to Paris if UK leaves single market'.

HSBC would move up to 1,000 staff from London to Paris if the UK left the single market, following Britain's vote to leave the EU, the BBC understands. The staff who would be relocated would be those who already process payments made in euros for HSBC in Canary Wharf. Thursday's referendum result means the UK will need to renegotiate its trade relationship with the European Union - including whether it remains part of the single market.

Rise in enquiries for second passports.

People of Irish descent are getting advice from embassies on applying for a passport in preparation for the UK's withdrawal from the European Union. Google searches for Irish passports surged in the hours after the referendum result was confirmed. The Polish embassy has also had enquiries on how to get a passport. The Irish Embassy in London said it was likely to take two years before British citizens' travel rights across the EU changed. Google Trends reported a spike in searches for terms such as "Irish passport" on Friday.

Sturgeon says pre-referendum UK 'no longer exists'.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said the UK that Scottish voters chose to remain within 2014 no longer exists. Speaking on the Andrew Marr programme on BBC One, she said the Scottish government would take whatever steps are needed to protect Scotland. Her appearance followed a Scottish cabinet meeting on Saturday which agreed to make initial preparations for another independence referendum.

Javid plans 'no panic' business meeting.

Business Secretary Sajid Javid says he will hold a meeting this week with business leaders following the UK's vote to leave the European Union. Mr Javid told the BBC his message to businesses was "there's no need to panic". The UK's economic fundamentals are strong enough to weather any short-term market volatility, he said. He added that the UK should not rush into talks with the EU about its withdrawal from the bloc.

Nicola Sturgeon says MSPs at Holyrood could veto Brexit.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has told the BBC that Holyrood could try to block the UK's exit from the EU. She was speaking following a referendum on Thursday which saw Britain vote by 52% to 48% to leave Europe. However, in Scotland the picture was different with 62% backing Remain and 38% wanting to go. SNP leader Ms Sturgeon said that "of course" she would ask MSPs to refuse to give their "legislative consent".

Only Scots Labour MP Ian Murray quits shadow cabinet.

Labour's only MP in Scotland, Ian Murray, has resigned from his position as shadow Scottish Secretary. Speaking live on the BBC's Sunday Politics Scotland programme, he said he had just written to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Murray said matters had been brought to a head by the result of the EU referendum.

New PM 'should come from Leave camp'.

The new prime minister should only come from the Leave camp, former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith has said. He told the BBC's Andrew Marr show that it would be "very difficult" for a public who voted to leave the EU to have a leader who had opposed this.

Second EU referendum petition investigated for fraud.

The House of Commons petitions committee has said it is investigating allegations of fraud in connection with a petition calling for a second EU referendum. Any signatures found to be fraudulent would be removed, it said. More than 3.1 million people have signed the petition, although PM David Cameron has previously said there will be no second referendum.

[..and so it rolls on. We still haven’t pushed the button or fired the starting gun but the slow falling apart seems to be gathering pace. What exactly is going to happen over the next few weeks – especially when (or if) we begin the disentanglement from the EU – is anyone’s guess. This blogger is guessing that whatever does actually happen that it isn’t going to be good.]

All details above from BBC News website.

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

….and so it continues.

Moody's cut UK's credit outlook to 'negative'.

Moody's said the referendum result would have "negative implications for the country's medium-term growth outlook", and it lowered the UK's long term issuer and debt ratings to "negative" from "stable".

France's Calais seeks border deal changes.

The mayor of Calais wants changes to a deal which allows Britain to carry out immigration checks on the French side of the English Channel, after a UK vote to leave the EU. Natacha Bouchart said Paris must act after Thursday's referendum in which the UK voted to leave the EU. "The British must take the consequences of their choice," she said on Friday.

Meanwhile, Xavier Bertrand, the president of Hauts-de-France region where Calais is located, said: "The English wanted to take back their freedom: they must take back their border." The French authorities had warned before the referendum that a vote for leaving the EU could see a camp with thousands of migrants being moved from Calais to British soil.

EU must not fall into 'depression'.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier says the EU must not fall into "depression and paralysis" after the UK voted to leave the bloc. He made the comments arriving for an urgent meeting of the six EU founder members to discuss the decision.

Scottish cabinet meets to discuss response to Leave vote.

Thursday's referendum saw Scotland, London and Northern Ireland vote in favour of Remain - while England and Wales backed Brexit. Ms Sturgeon said it was "democratically unacceptable" that Scotland faced being taken out of the EU against its will.

Ms Sturgeon said there was now a "significant divergence" between Scotland and the rest of Britain which she "deeply regretted". She said the meeting of the Scottish cabinet on Saturday morning would "discuss our next steps in more detail".

Drivers 'could face rising petrol prices'.

Motoring organisation the AA took a similar view. It said: "Assuming that current market conditions persist over the next 10 to 14 days, the price of petrol at some fuel stations might be expected to rise by 2.25p a litre, or £1.25 a tank."

UK interest rate 'likely to hit zero' following Brexit.

UK interest rates are likely to hit zero in the next six months as the Bank of England moves to shore up the economy after the vote to leave the EU. David Tinsley, UK economist at UBS, said Brexit meant "sharply lower growth, a large drop in the pound, and further easing from the Bank of England".

Million sign petition for new EU referendum.

A petition calling for a second referendum on UK's membership of the EU has gained more than one million signatures following the vote to leave. The petition will be considered by Parliament as it has passed the required 100,000 threshold.

In a separate petition more than 100,000 people have called on London Mayor Sadiq Khan to declare the English capital independent from the UK and apply to join the EU. The page, set up by James O'Malley, states: "London is an international city, and we want to remain at the heart of Europe. Let's face it - the rest of the country disagrees. So rather than passive aggressively vote against each other at every election, let's make the divorce official and move in with our friends on the continent."

UK's EU commissioner Lord Hill to resign.

The UK's European Commissioner Lord Hill is to stand down, saying "what is done cannot be undone" after the UK voted to leave the European Union. In a statement, he said he did not believe it was right for him to carry on with his work as the commissioner in charge of financial services.

Sturgeon pledges to 'protect' Scottish EU interests.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says she will seek "immediate discussions" with Brussels to "protect Scotland's place in the EU" after UK's vote to leave.

City firms may lose 'prized' EU access, says French Bank chief.

London's financial institutions risk losing their prized access to the EU if the UK leaves the single market, said the head of France's central bank. Francois Villeroy de Galhau said London's banks would lose their "financial passport", which allows them to trade freely in the EU. Earlier, the head of the Eurogroup of finance ministers Jeroen Dijsselbloem said banks would move outside the UK.

[It’s all going well then from the Brexit perspective. None of the above is anything to be afraid of apparently as things will calm down once people get used to the idea that yesterday we voted to become a third (or possibly fourth) world country.]

All details above from BBC News website.

In that moment, 130 miles in space, he ceased to be an American citizen and became a citizen of the planet. Every astronaut he knew felt the same. From out there it was so painfully, horribly obvious that mankind, squabbling and falling out like a pack of ignorant loutish children, was in danger of fouling its own nest. They were mindlessly overpopulating the planet, squandering its resources, filling it with deadly pollution. And all the while demanding more, grabbing more, pushing one another out of the way in a stupid, selfish, greedy scramble.

Trevor Hoyle: The Last Gasp (1983)  

Friday, June 24, 2016

Meanwhile on the day after the Referendum….. 

David Cameron to quit after UK votes to leave EU.

Nicola Sturgeon says second Scottish independence vote 'highly likely'.

The pound has fallen to levels not seen since 1985 following the UK's referendum vote to leave the EU.

The FTSE 100 index began the day by falling more than 8%, then regained some ground to stand 2.5% lower.

The more UK-focused FTSE 250 fared even worse, down 8% in early afternoon trading.

Banks were hard hit, with Barclays and RBS falling about 30%, although they later pared losses to below 20%.

The pound's dramatic fall started overnight as the outcome of the referendum became clear. At one stage, it hit $1.3236, a fall of more than 10%.

By early afternoon, it had partially recovered, but was still nearly 8% down on the day.

"This is simply unprecedented, the pound has fallen off a cliff and the FTSE is now following suit," said Dennis de Jong, managing director of UFX.com.

"Britain's EU referendum has been a cloud hanging over the global economy for the past few months and that cloud has got very dark this morning.

"The markets despise uncertainty, yet that is exactly what they're faced with this morning. The shockwaves are likely to reverberate for some time and the warning lights are flashing brighter now than ever."

The FTSE 100's initial slump was its biggest one-day fall since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in October 2008.

Spain calls for joint control of Gibraltar.

Google has said there was a dramatic spike in searches for Irish passport applications as news of the UK's decision to leave the EU broke.

[….and that just day one – and we haven’t even started the process of leaving yet!]

All details above from BBC News website.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Just Finished Reading: Them and Us – Fighting the Class War 1910-1939 by John Newsinger (FP: 2015)

The period covered by this intriguing short book (a mere 175 pages long) is one that I know little about on the domestic front. So it went a long way to addressing that deficiency. However, being the kind of book it was – and the kind of book I expected it to be – it wasn’t long before I began to wonder at the veracity of the authors many, many examples of social and political unrest.

I was aware, for instance, that WW1 was not exactly strike free by a long way but I had no idea, and indeed had trouble accepting, that so many strikes occurred even in the munitions industry. Likewise I am aware of the General Strike of 1926 but was largely unaware at just how desperate a struggle it was, just how much effort the Government put into crushing it (aided by elements in the upper and middle classes who took great delight in ‘showing up’ the workers who they had no great respect for in the first place). I was also aware, partially through my father, that a warship was stationed in the Mersey Harbour with its guns pointing at the city during the police strike of 1919 and how the recently demobbed Army was brought in the supress it. Apparently it was three warships rather than one and the government made sure that the military units where new rather than hardened veterans who they thought were politically unreliable! Finally I was aware, also in 1919, that the Glasgow town hall briefly flew the red flag of revolution but didn’t realise that the British authorities literally had tanks on the streets to prevent a rebellion becoming an actual revolution – which apparently was for a good few years the British establishments greatest fear especially after the events in Russia after 1917.

Part of my natural scepticism over the claims in this book is, I freely admit, because of my ignorance of the period in question. I’m aware of some of it but that might just be the old adage of history being written by the victors. I suspect that there might be something in that. Another reason, apart from the too frequent use of exclamation marks and snide remarks about the establishment, that my scepticism remained intact throughout the book was the assertion that in the 30 years in question Britain came close to revolution on several occasions and only manage to avoid this fate by the narrowest of margins. This may be true but the reasons we failed to follow the example of Russia or even Germany during their brief revolutionary period seemed weak at best. The will of the people was there (apparently) but the potential leaders of the revolution were (apparently) not. Without a Lenin or a Trotsky the working class in Britain simply didn’t have the political firepower to take over and rule in its own name.

They are, however, interesting claims and I’m going to keep digging for a bit to see what kind of substance lies beneath. This isn’t going to be particularly easy as, it seems, this period has hardly warranted much research in recent years. I have a few general histories that cover this period and they might give me some much needed context but I need something a bit more substantial. I have picked up a book on the General Strike, written 50 years after the events, which should prove useful but I’ll need to see what else I can come up with. It’ll be an interesting investigation I’m guessing. Knowing that there appears to be a real dearth of books on this subject and this period in British political history I see this as a valuable contribution to that. It has definitely piqued my interest of the period and you’ll hear more of it in future.

I Have Voted.

I voted in the European Referendum on my way into work this morning - Remain, rather than Leave (as I've mentioned before). The results are due tomorrow and we should have a clear idea of what the percentages are when I blog next. My guess is a 52-48% split with the 52% voting Out. I'm also guessing that the turn out will be high with my estimate at 83%. I mean, even my Mother is voting and she hasn't done that (I think) since the 1970's! I'm hoping to be pleasantly surprised but I'm too cynical about people to hold onto a great deal of hope. But in 24 hours we'll know the truth.  

Monday, June 20, 2016

Just Finished Reading: Achtung Panzer! – The Development of Tank Warfare by Heinz Guderian (FP: 1937)

As one of the architects and founding fathers of Blitzkrieg, as well as one of its finest later practitioners in Poland, France and Russia, the author definitely has the authority to discuss the ins and outs of tank warfare looking back to the last world war and forward to the next. This he does with an attention to details that is sometimes gripping in its intensity.

Coupled with my previous read on the development of the tank in Britain and France this is a great complimentary read. Spending most of the slim volume dissecting the later battles on the Western Front in which tanks took part, the author teases out what went right and wrong for both the attacking and defending sides. Writing at the time when Hitler had been in power for 4 years already the author was not afraid to point out where Germany had failed in the First War and admonished the General Staff at the time for failing to build anti-tank defences in sufficient quantity and failing to regard tanks as an effective weapon. Construed very much as a propaganda piece for the new way of fighting Guderian still managed to show how and when tanks failed in their mission to accomplish a breakthrough leading to the long hoped for breakout whilst still maintaining his advocacy for their use in large numbers and as a force in themselves untied from babysitting the poor bloody infantry.

Although a little dull in places – it was after all rather ‘dated’ taking into account what we know came next as well as being essentially a primer to tank warfare aimed at future tank commanders as well as their superiors in the High Command so contained logistical details that would only be of interest to purists and tank ‘geeks’ – the first 130 pages of a total of 212 where well worth the sometimes plodding nature of the remaining chapters. I was particularly taken by a piece of information almost casually thrown into a discussion of the Third battle of Ypes (known to history as Passchendaele) where he states that, in their opening barrage, the British artillery fired 93,000 TONS of shells at the German positions over a four week period. To put that in perspective, because a figure that large is hard to grapple with, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT. In other words the British hit the German lines with 1.5 Hiroshima bombs each week for four weeks and yet the attack, when it was finally launched, failed spectacularly with 400,000 British casualties. That, in a nutshell, was just how difficult it was to crack the defensive lines of the trench system without tanks – bloody impossible for the weapons available pre-tank. If only I’d know of this juicy bit of information when I was writing my college essay on trench warfare!

Not only is this slim volume an often very interesting read it is probably correctly touted as one of the most significant military books of the 20th century. A must read for anyone interested in either the use of tanks in WW1 or in the thought processes behind the development of the Blitzkrieg technique. Translated from the German by Christopher Duffy.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

'Harmful' robot aims to spark AI debate

By Zoe Kleinman for BBC News

13 June 2016

A robot that can decide whether or not to inflict pain has been built by roboticist and artist Alexander Reben from the University of Berkeley, California. The basic machine is capable of pricking a finger but is programmed not to do so every time it can. Mr Reben has nicknamed it "The First Law" after a set of rules devised by sci-fi author Isaac Asimov. He said he hoped it would further debate about Artificial Intelligence. "The real concern about AI is that it gets out of control," he said. "[The tech giants] are saying it's way out there, but let's think about it now before it's too late. I am proving that [harmful robots] can exist now. We absolutely have to confront it."

Mr Reben's work suggests that perhaps an AI "kill switch", such as the one being developed by scientists from Google's artificial intelligence division, DeepMind, and Oxford University, might be useful sooner rather than later. In an academic paper, the researchers outlined how future intelligent machines could be coded to prevent them from learning to override human input. "It will be interesting to hear what kill switch is proposed," said Mr Reben. "Why would a robot not be able to undo its kill switch if it had got so smart?"

Mr Reben told the BBC his First Law machine, which at its worst can draw blood, was a ‘philosophical experiment’. "The robot makes a decision that I as a creator cannot predict," he said "I don't know who it will or will not hurt. It's intriguing, it's causing pain that's not for a useful purpose - we are moving into an ethics question, robots that are specifically built to do things that are ethically dubious."

The simple machine cost about $200 (£141) to make and took a few days to put together, Mr Reben said. He has no plans to exhibit or market it. Mr Reben has built a number of robots based on the theme of the relationship between technology and humans, including one which offered head massages and film-making "blabdroid" robots, which encouraged people to talk to them. "The robot arm on the head scratcher is the same design as the arm built into the machine that makes you bleed," he said. "It's general purpose - there's a fun, intimate side, but it could decide to do something harmful."

[AI will inevitably be used for harmful purposes – that’s exactly what the military is developing it for. But, as Reben says, it’s all about control. Do we control the machines or do they control themselves. If we install safeguards can they be overwritten, ignored or circumvented. Just how safe are killer robots?]

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Just Finished Reading: The Coming Self-Destruction of the U.S.A by Alan Seymour (FP: 1969)

With the war coming to its final and climactic end the unnamed ‘Editor’ is putting his great history of the conflict together in the hope that someone, somewhere, will publish it for posterity – if there are any survivors that is. The White forces have already used tactical nuclear weapons against several Black cities are having issued their long awaited ultimatum: if the Black forces do not pull back they will drop Hydrogen bombs on the three largest occupied cities. After years of fighting it has finally come to this – make or break. But how did it start all those years previously – slowly, as these things do, and with the emergence of a softly spoken leader who holds in his hands and in his mind the fate, the future of the Black race in America. Binding together the already existing disparate forces he forges them into an instrument that can actually achieve things. He thinks big and he thinks 50 years not just 50 minutes ahead. He gathers the best and brightest around him, he builds up his arsenals, trains his lieutenants and most importantly eliminates his enemies. Before the White powers know what is happening they don’t just have a revolt on their hands but an honest to goodness Revolution. When areas are taken and held and then joined with other areas the country begins to divide on racial grounds. Before the Whites can react they are presented with a de facto Civil War and the forces facing each other are surprisingly well balanced. Now it’s a fight to the finish and a fight to the death.

This was yet another book I picked up ages (probably decades) ago and left on my bookshelf to gather dust. It was, on reading it, one of the strangest, disturbing and distasteful books I’ve ever managed to finish. Taking the subject matter – a racial conflict that become a continent wide Civil War – and the time it was written in, the late 1960’s – I shouldn’t have been that surprised by its contents. There was, as you might expect, a lot of violence, racism, swearing, sex and sexual violence and much else besides. I have a fairly strong stomach for this sort of thing (not that I go out of my way to encounter it) but even so it often approached my limits and probably overstepped them more than once. I found myself reading it looking as if a particularly bad smell was coming off the pages. In many ways that’s exactly what was happening. If it had been much more than it’s meagre 255 pages I might have given up without finishing it. Even though it still took me the best part of a week to slog through it – considering that a previous book at over double the length was devoured in a long weekend! As you might imagine I can hardly recommend this as any kind of entertaining read (even if you can track down a copy) although it’s possible that it might be worthy of study as part of a PhD on 60’s racial or revolutionary literature.      

Monday, June 13, 2016

Thinking About: The EU Referendum

It does seem to be THE topic of conversation at the moment – In or Out of Europe. Over the past 3-4 weeks, as voting date approaches (only 10 more days), I’ve been asking just about everyone I know what they plan to do and, more importantly, why. I’ve actually found myself surprised more than once. Sometimes in a good way when someone goes into a quite detailed economic and rights based justification for their decision to stay in the EU. Other times I’ve listened in varying degrees of dismay as otherwise intelligent people use frankly emotional arguments for leaving. OK I admit I’m biased here. I’m pro-Europe and see myself as a European even before I see myself as British (being half Irish probably helps with the perspective here I think). So it’s not really a huge leap of faith for me to stick an X in the box to remain in the EU.

From a completely unscientific poll my feeling is that it’s going to be a close call next Thursday – VERY close. I’d actually be surprised if the Yes vote was more than a few percentage points different from the No vote. My guts are telling me that it’s probably going to be 52% Out and 48% In. I think the turn out will be high by election standards but still the Out vote – in my opinion – will prevail. Why, you ask? Because I think that people are essentially stupid, can’t see much further than the ends of their noses, think purely of themselves and don’t understand how the world works. Oh, and the dominant debating point? Immigration. The Out voters think that pulling out of the EU will allow us to control our immigration to a greater extent. That might indeed be true (I don’t know because I haven’t really thought about it because I don’t consider it important) but ‘going it alone’ is a pretty drastic way of gaining that kind of ‘control’. Now Europe is by far our largest trading partner so how do I think leaving the EU will affect our trade. Here’s a clue: It won’t be the same and it won’t be better…… Of course we can trade with other countries and we do already. But setting up new trade deals will take time and effort. The increased uncertainty will force businesses to be more cautious (whilst we’re already in borderline recession) which will mean less investment, lay-offs and, probably businesses going to the wall. International companies will relocate to France and Spain to remain inside the EU. Whatever happens it’s unlikely to be good news.

The only compensation I can presently think of is the few seconds of joy I’m going to feel every time the inflation rate or unemployment rate goes up and I can say to some of my fellow workers “told you that would happen” or when a company moves out, or when our taxes go up to pay for things that would have been granted from central European funds. Or when EU employment law is withdrawn allowing employers increased rights to exploit people or when social security legislation is allowed to lapse and previous allowances are cut or removed all together. There will, naturally, be winners and losers in any deal with Europe. If or when we leave the quick, agile or rich will probably still make a tidy sum. Meanwhile the rest of us will get shafted whist being informed that it’s all worth it because we’ve got our sovereignty back. Unfortunately sovereignty doesn’t pay the bills and doesn’t put food on the table. Nationalism might very well have been a good idea at some point in history but that time has long gone. Trying to ‘go it alone’ will be swimming against the tide of political and economic history and if, as I believe we will, we go down that route it will go badly for us. I can only hope that I am pleasantly surprised on the 23rd June and we vote to stay in the EU. I guess that we’ll just need to wait and see.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Like tears in the rain..........
Kepler telescope discovers 100 Earth-sized planets

By Paul Rincon, Science editor BBC News

10th May 2016

Nasa's Kepler telescope has discovered more than 100 Earth-sized planets orbiting alien stars. It has also detected nine small planets within so-called habitable zones, where conditions are favourable for liquid water - and potentially life. The finds are contained within a catalogue of 1,284 new planets detected by Kepler - which more than doubles the previous tally. Nasa said it was the biggest single announcement of new exoplanets. Space agency scientists discussed the new findings in a teleconference on Tuesday.

Statistical analyses of the expanding sample of worlds help astronomers understand how common planets like our own might be. Dr Natalie Batalha, Kepler mission scientist at Nasa's Ames Research Center in California, said calculations suggested there could be more than 10 billion potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way. "About 24% of the stars harbour potentially habitable planets that are smaller than about 1.6 times the size of the Earth. That's a number that we like because it's below that size that we estimate planets are likely to be rocky," said Dr Batalha. "If you ask yourself where is the next habitable planet likely to be, it's within about 11 light-years, which is very close."

Future observatories such as the James Webb Space Telescope could examine starlight filtered through the atmospheres of exoplanets for potential markers of biology. "The ultimate goal of our search is to detect the light from a habitable exoplanet and analyse that light for gases like water vapour, oxygen, methane and carbon dioxide - gases that might indicate the presence of a biological ecosystem," said Paul Hertz, director of astrophysics at Nasa. Of the telescope's finds to date, the planets Kepler-186f and Kepler-452b are arguably the most Earth-like in terms of properties such as their size, the temperature of their host star and the energy received from their star. Dr Batalha said the new finds Kepler 1638b and Kepler-1229b were intriguing targets in the search for habitable planets.

The Nasa Ames researcher said the Kepler mission was part of a "larger strategic goal of finding evidence of life beyond Earth - knowing whether we're alone or not, to know... how life manifests itself in the galaxy and what is the diversity". She added: "Being able to look up to a point of light and being able to say: 'That star has a living world orbiting it.' I think that's very profound and answers questions about why we're here." Dr Timothy Morton, from Princeton University in New Jersey, said the overwhelming majority of exoplanets found by Kepler fell into the super-Earth (1.2-1.9 times bigger than the radius of Earth) and sub-Neptune sized (1.9-3.1 times bigger than Earth's radius). He noted that planets in this size range had no known analogues in our Solar System.

Scientists used a new statistical technique to validate the 1,284 new exoplanets from a pool of 4,302 targets from Kepler's July 2015 catalogue of planet candidates. The technique involves folded in different types of information about the candidates from simulations, giving the astronomers a reliability score for each potential new world. Candidates with a reliability greater than 99% were designated as "validated planets". The team identified a further 1,327 candidates that are more likely than not to be planets, but do not meet the 99% threshold and will require further study. Kepler employs the transit method to detect planets orbiting other stars. This involves measuring the slight dimming of a star's light when an orbiting planet passes between it and the Earth. The same orbital phenomenon was involved when Mercury passed across the face of the Sun on Monday 9 May.

The Kepler telescope, named after the Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler, was launched on 7 March 2009. In May 2013, the second of four reaction wheels - used to control a spacecraft's orientation - failed on Kepler. This robbed the orbiting observatory of its ability to stay pointed at a target without drifting off course. However, engineers came up with an innovative solution: using the pressure of sunlight to stabilise the spacecraft, allowing it to continue its planet hunt. The resulting mission was dubbed K2.

[So, there’s a 10 billion to one chance that we’re the only habited planet in the Galaxy. That’s rather long. I suggest just on that calculation alone we’re not the only one….]