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

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

"People have to talk about something just to keep their voiceboxes in working order so they'll have good voiceboxes in case there's ever anything really meaningful to say".

Kurt Vonnegut.

Cartoon Time.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Name to a Face?

Thinking About: Curiosity (or the Lack Thereof).

After over 50 years of experience it still surprises me, though I suppose that it really shouldn’t. After all I come across it almost every day, wherever I am and whoever I’m with. It’s the blank look that greets me whenever I say that something I’m reading or something I’ve just discovered is interesting and I have to rephrase it to ‘I find this interesting’ because the other person clearly doesn’t. As an aside it rather irritates me to have to preface things with ‘I think’ or I believe’ as if I can speak for anyone else in that regard…..

But I see that blank look a lot, too much actually. It’s sometimes like looking into the face of cattle as they chew the cud. They’re alive, they move around, they do stuff and at the same time seem to be disconnected from the world around them as if it isn’t real or doesn’t matter. OK, not everyone can be interested in everything. I’ve recognised the fact that few (if any) are interested in a wide range of things as I am. Of course there are things that hold no interest to me at all – sport being the primary example. It’s probably the only subject that I’m wilfully ignorant of. Some of my friends are (or I would describe them as) sports fanatics. It’s not just their own team they know everything about but the whole sport going back decades, and not only that particular sport but, sometimes at least, practically all sport from cricket to motor racing, golf to rugby, sailing to gymnastics. Just imagine if they spent that amount of time and effort learning something actually important (LOL). Yes, I know, horses for courses and all that. It just seems to me that this fascination with sports is a distraction something akin to the bread and circuses approach of Roman emperors in their attempts to control the mob. I do find it rather disturbing although it’s clear that I’m in a tiny minority in that belief!

So living in a semi-glass house myself it’s a little difficult to throw around stones. OK, maybe a few… little ones…. I’ve mentioned before a conversation I had with a work colleague who couldn’t understand why I would spend time reading books on a subject (Economics in this instance) that I knew almost nothing about. It’s one of the few times I’ve been reduced to speechlessness. Personally I always think (with the exception of sport naturally) that not knowing about something is a pretty good reason to read up about it. My drive is to know about the world. In that way I won’t be surprised by something nasty coming out of the woodwork that I should have known about. In my mind not knowing something important can most certainly kill you – or at least potentially ruin your day. In my mind ignorance isn’t bliss, its stress inducing and I don’t like it. What I find difficult to understand is how other people live in a world without knowing what I regard as basic stuff – like the history of your own country. OK, it might not get you a better job and it might not come up on Facebook very often but I think that knowing where you came from is pretty important.  The other side of things is when people look at me astonished when I produce an answer to something without Googling it first. How do you know this stuff, they ask rather bemused. Because I read books and remember things, I reply. It’s not that difficult. All you need is a modicum of curiosity about the world and a pinch of effort in finding out. It’s most definitely not rocket science.

But what gets me most of all is not that people don’t know things I thought everyone knows (or at least should know). I’m fully aware that it’s pretty much impossible to know everything. It’s probably impossible to even be aware of everything so I don’t have a huge issue with people being ignorant. I’m more than willing to hold my hand up and plead ignorance on a whole range of topics. No, the thing that really yanks my chain is the number of people I meet who not only don’t know stuff, not only are not interested in knowing stuff, not even those who look at me oddly for knowing stuff or even those who laugh at me for taking time to read (presumably boring) books but those who actively avoid knowing stuff and who denigrate the whole idea of knowledge and the acquisition thereof.

There are people out there, and I’ve actually met some of them, who not only don’t read but are publically proud of the idea that they don’t read. It’s not just that books are (by definition) boring but that the gaining of knowledge is completely unnecessary. You had to pick up books in school or at least pretend to whenever a teacher was in the room but after school what’s the point. No tests, no exams, no reason to read. So we are left with an increasingly ignorant population increasingly proud of their own ignorance and increasingly mistrustful of those who claim to have knowledge on any particular subject. Experts in any field are looked on with suspicion, fear and derision. Is it any wonder that the world seems to be slipping further into chaos year by year? Is it any wonder that people express their powerlessness and their anxiety of a world spinning out of control? Maybe, just maybe, if more people expressed more curiosity of what’s going on around them and tried to actually understand why things happen we might have a better handle on things? Curiosity in unlikely to have killed the cat but a lack of curiosity is likely to kill us all.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Just the Good News from now on…….

EU single market membership 'boosts UK's GDP'.

Maintaining the UK's membership of the EU's single market could add an extra 4% to its economy, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). The think tank weighed up the benefits of staying in the single market compared with membership of the World Trade Organization alone. Paul Johnson, IFS director, said there was a big difference between access and membership of the single market. "We've heard a lot of people saying of course we'll have access if we leave the single market union. Broadly speaking, yes, we will, as every other country in the world does. You can export into the EU wherever you are from, but there are different sorts of barriers to doing so." The IFS report said access to the single market was "virtually meaningless as a concept" because "any country in the World Trade Organization - from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe - had 'access' to the EU as an export destination".

Royal Mint sees surge in demand for gold bars and coins.

It seems the quest for gold is not currently limited to the venues of Rio de Janeiro. The Royal Mint has said that it saw a "surge" in demand for the precious metal following the Bank of England's cut in base rates to 0.25% on 4 August. During that week the Mint saw a 25% increase in transactions on its bullion website. It also experienced a 50% increase in sales of gold bars and coins, compared with the previous week. It is thought investors are turning to gold as cash and bonds offer diminishing returns, exacerbated by lower interest rates. So far this year, the price of gold has risen by 45% in sterling terms, and 25% in dollar terms.

Brexit: Government guarantee for post-EU funds.

EU funding for farmers, scientists and other projects will be replaced by the Treasury after Brexit, Chancellor Philip Hammond has said. In a move which could cost up to £4.5bn a year, the Treasury will guarantee to back EU-funded projects signed before this year's Autumn Statement. Agricultural funding now provided by the EU will also continue until 2020. The UK has not yet triggered the negotiation process for leaving the EU, following the referendum vote in June. Voters backed leaving the EU in the 23 June referendum but Prime Minister Theresa May has indicated the UK government will not trigger Article 50, which would begin a two-year process to leave, during 2016. Mr Hammond said that EU structural and investment fund projects that are signed before the Autumn Statement later this year, and Horizon research funding granted before leaving the EU, will be guaranteed by the Treasury after the UK leaves.

Brexit: Government under pressure over Article 50 delay claim.

Downing Street is coming under pressure to clarify when the UK will formally trigger its departure from the EU. Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will not invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty this year. It was widely thought it would be triggered at the start of next year. But Downing Street declined to confirm this at a briefing for Westminster journalists earlier, amid claims it would not be triggered until after 2017. No 10 said the "full weight of the machinery of government" was behind Brexit. Following the UK's vote to leave the EU, some Leave campaigners have been calling for Article 50 - which starts a two-year Brexit process - to be triggered immediately. Mrs May, who is currently on holiday in Switzerland, has said this will not happen this year, and Brexit Secretary David Davis has predicted the trigger to take place "before or by the start of next year".

Employers 'more cautious' on hiring post Brexit, survey says.

UK employers have become more cautious about hiring new staff following the vote to leave the EU, a report claims. The proportion of employers expecting to increase staff over the next three months dropped from 40% ahead of the vote to 36% after it, according to a survey by HR body the CIPD and Adecco. It said the fall was "significantly sharper" among private sector firms. "There has been a clear deterioration in hiring intentions... as a result of the Brexit vote," the report said. The CIPD said the survey's results suggested post-Brexit economic forecasts of a marked downturn in the labour market next year would be proved right. "While many businesses are treating the immediate post-Brexit period as 'business as usual', and hiring intentions overall still remain positive, there are signs that some organisations, particularly in the private sector, are preparing to batten down the hatches," said CIPD acting chief economist Ian Brinkley.

Fuel prices push up UK inflation rate to 0.6%.

Rising fuel prices helped to push the UK's inflation rate higher last month, according to official figures. The annual inflation rate as measured by the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rose to 0.6% in July from 0.5% in June, the Office for National Statistics said. More expensive alcoholic drinks and hotel rooms also helped to increase the CPI rate, the ONS said. The Retail Prices Index (RPI) measure of inflation rose to 1.9% in July from 1.6% in June. July's RPI inflation rate sets the cap for how much regulated rail fares in England, Scotland and Wales can rise by next year. Separate figures from the ONS suggested that the fall in the value of the pound since the UK's referendum vote to leave the EU had increased the cost of imports for manufacturers. Input prices faced by manufacturers rose 4.3% in the year to July, compared with a fall of 0.5% in the year to June. The most dramatic rises came in the cost of imported food materials, which rose 10.2%, and the price of imported metals, which rose 12.4%.

In addition, the prices of finished goods leaving the factory gate were 0.3% higher than a year earlier, the first annual increase since June 2014. "There is no obvious impact on today's consumer prices figures following the EU referendum result, though the Producer Prices Index (PPI) suggests the fall in the exchange rate is beginning to push up import price faced by manufacturers," said Mike Prestwood, head of prices at the ONS. However, Samuel Tombs, chief UK economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said the fall in sterling was "entirely responsible" for the rise in CPI inflation to the highest rate since November 2014. Against the dollar, the pound is some 13% below its level in the run-up to the referendum and 10% lower against the euro. "Sterling's depreciation ensured that pump prices rose by 0.7% month-to-month even though dollar oil prices declined," he said.

[I suppose that the only consistent result from the Brexit vote so far – apart from the level of acrimony that’s still simmering under the surface – is the fact that the Pound still hasn’t recovered back to its pre-Brexit levels. That, to me, if very indicative of what will happen when Article 50 is enacted early next year. I think the technical term is ‘Free Fall’. If any of my UK readers are planning on a US holiday next year I’d definitely recommend buying your Dollars now.]

All details above from BBC News website.

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Welcome to MY world!

Teenage girls: Mental well-being 'worsening'

By Sean Coughlan BBC News Education correspondent

22 August 2016

The mental well-being of teenage girls in England has worsened in recent years, says research for the Department for Education. Researchers highlighted the growing pressure of social media and the near-constant use of mobile phones. The study compared the experiences and attitudes of 14-year-olds in 2014 with those in 2005 and found an increase in "psychological distress". "Young people felt less control over their own destinies," says the study. The report, tracking the well-being of 30,000 people in 13,000 households, found that young people in 2014 were more "serious" than in 2005.

On the positive side, it saw young people more engaged in school, more likely to want to go to university and less likely to be involved in "risky" activities, such as smoking or getting involved in petty crime. But there was also a negative dimension, with an increase in psychological problems, particularly among girls. There were also more problems for those growing up in single-parent families. Researchers suggested that the sense of seriousness and the need to do well at school could reflect the changing economic climate.

Teenagers in 2005 had grown up in a time of sustained economic growth - while those in 2014 were aware of the tough competition for jobs and the difficulty in affording somewhere to live. The result seems to have been to make young people more "work focused", says the survey. And rather than any stereotype of "binge-drinking, drug-taking and laziness", it suggests that young people are more likely to be characterised by increased levels of anxiety and a sense of being under pressure. The study also linked an increase in psychological problems with changing technology.

The dominance of social media and the widespread access to the internet on mobile phones represents a "major change in the lives of young people", says the study. Teenagers in 2014, unlike those in 2005, faced the almost constant pressure of social media and the use of smartphones with video cameras. This played a part in everything from bullying to missed hours of sleep and to pressure on friendships and relationships. The study found teenagers from better-off families were more likely to suffer from "psychological distress" than those from poorer families. Researchers suggest this might reflect a lower sense of parental pressure. Children of parents with higher qualifications were more likely to have psychological problems than those with lower qualifications. The study suggests that the problems of mental health are so widespread that "broad-spectrum initiatives aimed at all young people" would be valuable. "In terms of the policy implications of these findings, it would appear that there is little in the way of low-hanging fruit - simple, low-cost initiatives are difficult to identify," the study says.

[Well, it would seem that if you have teenage daughters the way to improve their mental health is to get them OFF any form of Social Media. Seems like the safest thing all round.]

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Just Couldn’t Finish Reading: Erewhon by Samuel Butler (FP: 1872)

Like many Utopian tales this starts with the end – or with the hero of the piece recounting his story of finding a lost civilisation in an out of the way place and trying to drum up support to get back there based on nothing more than his word and his ability to make the reader believe he actually did visit the places he claimed to have done.

So far so good. The first few chapters (once you got used to the style and outdated phasing) where interesting enough as the author explained his situation in a fresh colony somewhere – unnamed to as to prevent others beating him back to Erewhon (an anagram of Nowhere). There followed his journey across an increasingly uncharted interior and his eventual stumbling upon what he though was a lost tribe of Israel (I kid you not). Actually the quasi-religious aspects of the book completely baffled me which really didn’t help with its readability.

Then we reached the boring bit as the author related in detail the strange structures of Erewhonian society. The differences from mid-Victorian England must have (I expect) reduced English readers to hysterical chuckling. I guess you really had to be a Victorian to appreciate that aspect of it. Some ideas, once you got over their implied racism and class snobbery, did interest me. The idea of the spirits of unborn children fixating on human couples and basically badgering them to be born was something I’d never come across before and it did make me smile that only the particularly stupid and persistent spirits managed to be born into human form! But the most interesting aspect, running over two chapters was the Erewhonian fear of technology (which managed to get the author into trouble because he carried a pocket watch!) caused by one of their philosophers centuries before predicting the machines would at some point become smart enough to enslave or kill the civilisation that built them.

Unfortunately you really had the wade through page after page of turgid prose to dig up any nuggets of literary gold (actually bronze, maybe silver) and finally after 160 pages I gave up. It’s not something I do very often but I couldn’t really face another few days struggling towards the end of this book. I understand that this is a recognised classic but it just didn’t do it for me. It’s probably because it’s a Utopian novel and I’ve always enjoyed the Dystopia's so much more. Hopefully I’ll have much better luck with forthcoming classics. Understandably not recommended.

Monday, August 22, 2016

SO tempted sometimes..........

They said there would be bumps in the road…….

Bank spells out chance of further rate cut this year.

The Bank of England deputy governor, Ben Broadbent, has told the BBC's Today programme there could be a further interest rate cut this year if needed. His comments highlight the Bank of England's signal on Thursday that rates could go lower if the economy worsens. On Thursday, the Bank cut interest rates from 0.5% to 0.25% - a record low and the first cut since 2009. Asked if there was a real prospect of another cut in rates this year, Mr Broadbent replied: "Absolutely." He told Today the Bank had acted after a series of surveys since the referendum on most aspects of the economy, including employment, the housing market and business confidence, which had turned down markedly. He said that in the past, these had been reliable indicators of subsequent releases of official data.

Renault-Nissan 'reasonably optimistic' over Brexit.

The chief executive of Renault-Nissan has told the BBC he is "reasonably optimistic" that the UK will be an important partner with the European Union, despite its vote to leave. Carlos Ghosn said Nissan is not ready to make decisions on plans for its Sunderland plant, which employs 6,700. Investment there depends on the outcome of UK-EU talks on Brexit, he said. In November, Mr Ghosn warned Nissan would reconsider investment in the UK if Britain voted to leave the EU. "We are reasonably optimistic at the end of the day, common sense will prevail from both sides," Mr Ghosn said. The Nissan boss thinks that the UK will continue to be a "big partner" for the European Union, but he said: "The question is what will happen to customs, trade and circulation of products. That will determine how, and how much we will invest in the UK," he said. Mr Ghosn described Nissan's Sunderland plant as a "European plant based in the UK", as most of its production is exported to Europe. The plant made 500,000 cars last year, making it the biggest car plant in the UK, according to Nissan.

UK house price growth shows signs of slowing, says Halifax.

House prices in the UK fell by 1% in July compared with the previous month but were still 8.4% higher than a year ago, the Halifax has said. The lender said that there were signs that house price growth was slowing. However, it said that it was still too early to determine whether the UK's decision to leave the EU had already had an impact on the housing market. On Thursday, the Bank of England cut interest rates and also suggested that house prices could fall. The Bank reduced its base rate to an historic low of 0.25% from 0.5%, which will take an estimated £22 off the monthly mortgage bill of those with tracker deals.

UK tourism boosted by fall in pound.

Flight bookings to the UK jumped since June, driven by the sharp fall in the pound following the vote to leave the European Union. Overall, there were 4.3% more flights booked to the UK in the 28 days following the vote than last year. Bookings from Hong Kong leapt by 30.1%, while they were up by 9.2% from the US and 5% from Europe. Travel researcher ForwardKeys said Brexit had had an "immediate, positive impact" on tourism to the UK. The organisation, which analyses 14 million reservation transactions a day to monitor future travel patterns, said: "The most favourable exchange rate in decades is probably the major driver for the uptake in bookings to Britain." While the pound has fallen about 13% against the dollar since its peak on 23 June, the day of the referendum, it has also fallen about 10% against the euro. A lower pound cuts the cost of a holiday for foreign visitors to the UK.

UK industrial output grows strongly.

UK industrial output grew at the fastest rate for 17 years in the April-to-June quarter, official figures show. Industrial output grew 2.1% compared with the first quarter of the year, the Office for National Statistics said. Despite the quarterly figures there were signs that growth on a monthly basis was slowing during the three-month period. But the ONS said "very few" respondents had been affected by the uncertainty from the EU referendum vote on 23 June. The production figures reflect the latest official growth figures for the whole economy which show strong GDP growth in April, followed by a sharp easing off in May and June. Meanwhile in a separate report the ONS said the deficit on trade in goods and services was £5.1bn in June, compared with a £4.2bn the month before. The UK exported £12bn worth of goods and services to the European Union in June, an increase of £500m compared with May.

Ministry of Defence 'facing extra £700m costs post Brexit'.

The Ministry of Defence is facing extra costs of up to £700m a year following the UK's Brexit vote, experts warn. The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) says this is due to the fall in sterling where military equipment purchases have been made in US dollars. After the referendum, the pound fell to its lowest level against the dollar in more than 30 years, making imports from the US more expensive. The MoD said real terms spending on defence was rising year on year. Prof Trevor Taylor, from the RUSI think tank, told BBC Radio 4's The World at One that the extra costs could lead to a "budget black hole", presenting a serious problem for the UK's defence stance. Sterling has been steadily falling in value as the referendum result and the Bank of England's efforts to shore up the economy have pushed investors into selling the pound. The former head of the British Navy and Labour peer Lord West described the issue as a "perfect storm" for the MoD.

[Still, of course, very mixed economic results from the Brexit Vote back in June – has it been THAT long already? But, as I keep going on to anyone who will listen to me, we haven’t left yet, we haven’t even started the leaving process yet, so it’s hardly that surprising that nothing too bad has happened yet. Also economies are a bit like oil tankers – it takes them a while to react to anything unless it’s really, really big like a full blown economic crash. Even the events of 2008 took months to start regularly hitting the headlines. We’re still in the period where lots of backroom talks are taking place and much planning is being formulated. You don’t simply switch from one economic reality to another overnight. Things this momentous take time.]

All details above from BBC News website.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Name to a Face?

Glass bridge: China opens world's highest and longest

From BBC News

20 August 2016

The much-heralded "world's highest and longest" glass-bottomed bridge has opened to visitors in central China. It connects two mountain cliffs in what are known as the Avatar mountains (the film was shot here) in Zhangjiajie, Hunan province. Completed in December, the 430m-long bridge cost $3.4m (£2.6m) to build and stands 300m above ground, state news agency Xinhua reported. It has been paved with 99 panes of three-layered transparent glass.

And according to officials, the 6m-wide bridge - designed by Israeli architect Haim Dotan - has already set world records for its architecture and construction. Glass bridges in China have been a popular craze for the daring photo opportunities they provide. Events like mass yoga displays and even weddings have been staged on several such bridges. One couple celebrated their special day by dangling in mid-air from a bridge in Pingjiang, also located in Hunan province.

This was the question on everyone's minds as the city geared up for the bridge's official opening. But officials have staged high-profile events to try and reassure the public of the bridge's safety. Officials sent in sledgehammers and even drove a car, filled with passengers, across the bridge earlier this year.

[That sounds (and looks) pretty cool! Sign me up…. But then again I’ve never been bothered by heights so walking across it wouldn’t bother me in the least. Although I might upset anyone with me by repeatedly jumping up and down on the glass itself to show how safe it was (grin)]

Friday, August 19, 2016

Still a way to go before we (actually) leave………..

House of Lords could delay Brexit, peer claims.

Conservative peer Baroness Wheatcroft has said the Lords could withhold approval of Article 50, the mechanism for leaving the European Union. There is currently some disagreement over whether Article 50 would need to come before Parliament. But former journalist Baroness Wheatcroft said if it did, "the Lords might actually delay things". The government has previously stated that Article 50 could be triggered through use of the royal prerogative. Speaking to The Times, the former editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal Europe and the Sunday Telegraph said that she hoped delays in the Lords of any potential Brexit legislation would lead to a second referendum. A legal challenge on whether the government can trigger Article 50 without the authorisation of Parliament will be heard in the High Court in the autumn.

Construction industry sees loss of momentum, PMI survey says.

Activity in the construction industry fell again in July, confirming "a clear loss of momentum since the second quarter of 2016", a survey has said. The Markit/CIPS purchasing managers' index (PMI) for the sector fell to 45.9 last month, down slightly from June and below 50, which indicates contraction. The latest number suggests output in the construction industry shrank at the fastest pace since June 2009. The Brexit vote was the main factor weighing on activity, the report said. It follows Monday's survey indicating a sharp downturn in factory activity. On Wednesday, the PMI survey for the services industry will be released. The surveys are based on replies to questionnaires sent to purchasing executives and they are seen as one of the earliest indicators of the economy's performance. "Anecdotal evidence suggested that economic uncertainty following the EU referendum was the main factor weighing on business activity in July, especially in the commercial building sector," the report said.

Brexit 'means economy faces 50/50 recession chance'.

The UK has a 50/50 chance of falling into recession within the next 18 months following the Brexit vote, says a leading economic forecaster. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) says the country will go through a "marked economic slowdown" this year and next. It says inflation will also pick up, rising to 3% by the end of next year. "This is the short-term economic consequence of the vote to leave the EU", said Simon Kirby of the NIESR. Overall the institute forecasts that the UK economy will probably grow by 1.7% this year but will expand by just 1% in 2017. This would see the UK avoid a technical recession, typically defined as two consecutive quarters of economic contraction.

Mr Kirby argued that the June referendum vote had led to such financial and political uncertainty that this would bear directly on the spending and investment decisions of both businesses and households. "We expect the UK to experience a marked economic slowdown in the second half of this year and throughout 2017," he said. "There is an evens chance of a 'technical' recession in the next 18 months, while there is an elevated risk of further deterioration in the near term." The pick-up in inflation to 3% will mainly be due to the recent fall in the value of the pound, but that should be ignored by the Bank of England the Institute said. "The Monetary Policy Committee should 'look through' this temporary rise in inflation and ease monetary policy substantially in the coming months," Mr Kirby said. The institute forecasts that the Bank will reduce interest rates to just 0.1% eventually, after cutting them to 0.25% later this week.

Rate cut 'foregone conclusion' as economy slows sharply.

The UK economy is contracting at its fastest rate since the financial crisis, making an interest rate cut "a foregone conclusion", according to financial data company Markit. The Markit/CIPS purchasing managers' index that showed activity in the UK's dominant services sector saw its sharpest fall in seven years. It follows falls in both construction and manufacturing in July. The index fell from 52.3 in June to 47.4 in July, indicating contraction. The figure confirmed an earlier initial estimate of service sector output. Taken together with the manufacturing and construction data, Markit said a cut in interest rates by the Bank of England - expected following Thursday's meeting of the Monetary Policy Committee - was a foregone conclusion. Policymakers are widely expected to reduce rates from the current 0.5% to a new low of 0.25%. Earlier, economic think-tank the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) said the country would go through a "marked economic slowdown" this year and next. But it stopped short of forecasting a recession, saying the chances of the UK economy suffering a downturn in the next 18 months were 50/50. It says inflation will also pick up, rising to 3% by the end of next year.

UK interest rates cut to 0.25%.

UK interest rates have been cut from 0.5% to 0.25% - a record low and the first cut since 2009. The Bank of England has also signalled that rates could go lower if the economy worsens. The Bank announced additional measures to stimulate the UK economy, including a £100bn scheme to force banks to pass on the low interest rate to households and businesses. It will also buy £60bn of UK government bonds and £10bn of corporate bonds. Governor Mark Carney said there was scope to cut the interest rate further. The Bank also announced the biggest cut to its growth forecasts since it started making them in 1993. It has reduced its growth prediction for 2017 from the 2.3% it was expecting in May to 0.8%. Mr Carney that the decision to leave the EU marked a "regime change" in which the UK would "redefine its openness to the movements of goods, services, people and capital".

The £60bn bond-buying programme, which increases quantitative easing to £435bn, was approved by a vote of 6-3, with Kristin Forbes, Ian McCafferty and Martin Weale preferring to wait until more concrete data is available rather than relying on surveys. The extensive series of measures was revealed with the central bank predicting that inflation would rise above its 2% target as a result of the falling value of the pound. A weaker pound makes imported goods more expensive, which boosts inflation. The pound fell by 1% against the dollar following the Bank's announcement. Daniel Mahoney, head of economic research at Centre for Policy Studies, said: "The Bank's further loosening of monetary policy could prove problematic for the UK economy. The falling pound means that inflationary pressures are already building up, and today's decision will exacerbate them." The Bank has warned that there will be "little growth in GDP in the second half of the year", although the forecast for 2016 growth has been left unchanged at 2% as a result of stronger-than-expected growth in the first half.

[Of course it’s really all about the Economy. Everything else is garnish, smoke and mirrors. The idea of ‘taking back control’, although seemingly a powerful one, is nothing of the sort. In future we may indeed have more control over certain things but at what cost? That’s the real question. Really how much pain is it worth, for years if not decades to come, to essentially feel better about ourselves – possibly? I can’t help wondering how we got into this mess in the first place.]

All details above from BBC News website.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Name(s) to Two Faces?

Just Finished Reading: Life on the Edge – The Coming Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden (FP: 2014)

Of course this book had ‘hard to ignore’ written all over it as it amalgamates two of my favourite science subjects – Evolutionary Biology and Quantum Mechanics. I mean, what’s not to like? Plus the fact that I’ve seen the BBC series based on the book so I already had a pretty good idea that it would push my buttons. I was not disappointed.

The authors started off with a deceptively easy question (well, kind of easy!). How do birds, and specifically the European Robin, navigate across large distances with such incredible accuracy? The best theory seems to be that they use some kind of compass in conjunction with the Earth’s magnetic field but no one really knew exactly how and the theory had lots of holes in it. Some birds seemed to have ferrous metal elements in their beaks (but not all) and seemed to be adversely affected by nearby magnetic fields (but not all). It was all very confusing until they started asking the right type of question: Exactly what type of compass are we talking about here? The one everyone is familiar with from Boy Scouts or the more subtle Inclination compass that can’t tell direction so neatly but can tell you if you are approaching or moving away from the Pole. It turned out to be the Inclination type housed (rather oddly) in a pigment in the eye. Birds apparently ‘see’ magnetic fields…. Maybe. As researchers spread their net they found it in chickens too (who don’t migrate), and butterflies, and fish and… well, you get the picture. Once they knew what to look for they found it just about everywhere doing similar jobs in a whole host of creatures. But the really weird thing was how it actually worked. You see the Earth’s magnetic field was long considered to be far too weak to affect biological systems. But not, it would seem, at the sub-atomic (AKA Quantum) level. Here we seemed to have evidence of warm, wet, messy biology apparently operating with the direct assistance of the Quantum world.

Of course once this sort of crazy idea was out in the open others (after the usual initial scepticism) tried to find other examples of Quantum Biology and it wasn’t long before they found it and began to lay the foundations of a whole new branch of science – and incidentally apparently answering (or at the very least offering up answers to) some biological problems that had to date eluded most biologists in the field: Migration, Photosynthesis, Smell, Respiration, How Gene’s work and why Mutations happen, Where Consciousness comes from, How life first emerged from lifelessness and much else besides. Once it was accepted and then shown that Quantum processes could actually take place at biological temperatures and do real-world work with real-world effects the evidence began piling up that the whole gamut of Quantum weirdness – spooky action at a distance, tunnelling, superposition – the kind of things that sends sensible people mad (and often reduces me to giggles) is happening right now in the cells of plants, flies, mice and you. The implications of this is profound, from the production of better drugs, to life extension, biological Quantum computers, artificial life creation and things we haven’t even thought of yet.

As the authors repeatedly point out this is a very young field of science which is producing ground breaking results almost on a weekly basis. Their enthusiasm for the subject is infectious and I think I finally really understand the famous double-slit experiment in all its wonderful strangeness thanks to a chapter that kept me reading well past my bedtime on a school night. If you have any interest in either Evolution or Quantum Mechanics or just want to know how the world really works then you just have to read this book. It does help if you have some knowledge and understanding of the basics but the explanations of exactly what’s going on here are extremely good. I thought I had a handle on things beforehand. I definitely have a much better grip now. Fascinating and mind bending. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Name to a Face?

Just Finished Reading: Sharpe’s Siege by Bernard Cornwell (FP: 1987)

Early 1814. After a long and bloody conflict the Allied Powers are finally beginning to invade France itself. As plans are being drawn up for the next stage in the campaign a rumour emerges that could change the course of the war and save many thousands of lives. The city of Bordeaux it appears is ready to rise against Napoleon. If it does so it could open another front and force the Emperor into submission. Tasked to find out if the rumours are true a Royal Navy officer sees his chance of lasting fame and instant promotion. Only one problem lies in his way – the sparsely defended fort of Teste de Buch. To take it his marines need help from the deservedly famous Green Jackets and their most notorious office Major Richard Sharpe. But there is more going on in the background that this apparently simple amphibious assault on a largely abandoned fortification deep behind enemy lines. Questions quickly become apparent over the reliability of their new French allies as well as the competence of the Naval Captain in charge of the landing force. But everything previously suspected becomes moot when Sharpe and 137 men are left behind, supposed dead or captured, and their only port of refuge is a slighted fort and their only friend an American pirate.

I think this is my 14th Sharpe novel which says quite a lot in itself. As a character he is brilliantly written and lots of fun to ‘watch’ in action. Having struggled up from the ranks (not completely unheard of in the real 19th century) on fighting skill alone he is a thorn in the side of everyone in the series who think that breeding is of more important than talent or skill. Sharpe is far more 20th century than 19th which is why he’s a hero from today’s perspective. The plot follows a predictable Cornwell vibe – Sharpe is lied to and manipulated by forces well above his pay grade. He is sent into harm’s way by men of better breeding but far less ability, equips himself brilliantly, is faced with an impossible situation, beats the odds (not without pain or loss), makes a few more enemies along the way – some of whom end up suitably dead at his hand, and inches himself further up the army ladder. Although somewhat predicable the book was entertainingly predictable, indeed highly so. The thing that made me laugh out loud more than once was the brilliant dialogue. The author either knows the military mind or has spent a fair amount of time in the company of military men. The conversation in this novel not only sparkled but felt very real – irreverent, cynical and often brutally to the point. In particular I loved a conversation between Sharpe and his 2nd in command regarding the inconvenience of dragging around a French fop with them. To which his Captain offered to ‘have an accident’ with his rifle! Sharpe regretfully declined the offer but appreciated the sentiment – as did I! I cannot recommend this series too highly. I’ve enjoyed every one of the books so far and intend to slowly savour the final 5-6 in my collection. Highly recommended for any lover of military fiction or just a cracking good read.  

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Maybe it won’t be so bad……….

UK economic growth sped up ahead of Brexit vote.

The UK economy grew by 0.6% in the three months to the end of June, as economic growth accelerated in the run-up to the vote to leave the EU. Second-quarter gross domestic product grew faster than expected, up from 0.4% growth in the previous quarter, the Office for National Statistics said. Any uncertainty ahead of last month's referendum seemed "limited", ONS said. However, by far the strongest growth was in April, followed by a sharp easing off in May and June. On a yearly basis the economy grew by a healthy 2.2%. The pick-up in economic activity was boosted by the biggest upturn in industrial output since 1999, particularly from car factories and pharmaceutical firms. ONS chief economist Joe Grice said that as well as the industrial gains, there was also "strong growth across the services sector, particularly retailing". "Any uncertainties in the run-up to the referendum seem to have had a limited effect," he said. "Very few respondents to ONS surveys cited such uncertainties as negatively impacting their businesses."

Foxtons estate agency profits tumble amid Brexit vote.

High-profile London estate agency Foxtons has announced a 42% fall in profits, blaming uncertainty around the EU referendum for the fall. It made a pre-tax profit of £10.5m in the first half of the year compared with £18.1m during the same period a year earlier. There had been a "sharp contraction" in the London property market in the second quarter of the year, it said. Foxton's share price fell by 8% in early trading on Friday. Since the result of the Brexit vote was announced, it has fallen by about 30%. London property prices have risen sharply in recent years owing, in part, to its attraction to overseas investors. However, prices had slowed this year, partly owing to a new stamp duty surcharge facing overseas investors. The result of the referendum, in which the UK voted to leave the EU, would affect the market in the capital, according to Foxton's chief executive Nic Budden. "The result of the referendum to leave Europe is likely to lead to a prolonged period of further uncertainty and we do not expect London residential property sales markets to show signs of recovery before the end of the year," he said.

Eurozone GDP growth halves as French economy stalls.

Eurozone economic growth halved in the second quarter, but the 19-nation single currency area moved away from deflation. GDP rose by 0.3% between April and June, in line with expectations but below 0.6% growth in the first quarter. France, the eurozone's second-largest economy, saw no growth after expanding by 0.7% in the first quarter. Eurozone inflation rose to 0.2% in July from 0.1% in June as a result of higher food, alcohol and tobacco prices. Data also revealed that the eurozone jobless rate remained at 10.1% in June. The economic growth figures are the first to be published since Britain voted to leave the European Union (EU). Peter Vanden Houte, chief economist at ING Bank, said: "The good news is that the economy still has some momentum, though there is little acceleration to be expected as long as the Brexit story continues to inject some uncertainty into the external environment." Across the wider EU, GDP slowed from 0.5% in the first quarter to 0.4% in the three months to June.

BA owner IAG's profits hit by weak pound.

British Airways and Iberia owner IAG says currency movements cost it €148m (£124m) in the latest quarter of trading, mainly due to the weak pound. IAG reported underlying operating profits of €555m for the April-to-June period, up from €530m a year ago but slightly below forecasts. The airline group said its business had been affected by a number of factors. These included the impact of terror attacks, strikes and the uncertainty around the UK's EU referendum. "This led to a softer than expected trading environment, especially in June," said IAG chief executive Willie Walsh. The airline group has also scaled back its forecasts for profit growth across 2016. It now expects operating profit to rise by a "low double digit percentage" this year, compared with earlier predictions of a rise of about 40%.

Brexit knocks manufacturers' confidence – report.

Confidence among manufacturers has slumped since the UK's vote to leave the European Union, a report indicates. Manufacturers' average confidence score dropped to 5.24 after the referendum from 6.37 before the vote, the report from EEF, a manufacturing lobby group, and accountancy firm BDO showed. The biggest fall in confidence was in London and the South East. But the region remained the most confident, with a score of 5.7 out of 10. The least confident regions were the East Midlands and and North West, which both had a score of 5.0, the report said. "The Brexit vote has put the manufacturing sector's recovery in jeopardy," said Lee Hopley, chief economist at EEF. "The growth path is now uncertain in all regions." The report said that 25% of companies in the North West had yet to find any business opportunities from Brexit, while 59% were concerned about weaker demand prospects. Manufacturers in Yorkshire and Humber were the most optimistic about opportunities that the UK's exit from the EU may present. A quarter of respondents in the region were positive about lower regulatory burden and increased demand, the report said.

UK factory activity falls 'at fastest pace for three years'.

Activity among UK manufacturers contracted at its fastest pace for three years in July, according to a closely watched survey. The Markit/CIPS manufacturing purchasing managers' index, the first to have full data since the UK's vote to leave the EU, showed a fall to 48.2, the lowest since February 2013. The survey adds to concerns that the vote prompted a sharp fall in activity. A reading above 50 indicates expansion, but below 50 indicates contraction. The decline was sharper than an initial reading of 49.1 indicated late last month. The Markit/CIPS manufacturing index is based on a survey of 600 industrial companies and reflects data on orders, output, employment, suppliers' delivery times and companies' inventories. Rob Dobson, senior economist at Markit, said the survey came "amid increasingly widespread reports that business activity has been adversely affected by the EU referendum". He added: "The downturn was felt across industry, with output scaled back across firms of all sizes and across the consumer, intermediate and investment goods sectors, although exporters did report a boost from the weaker pound."

[Well, the weeks roll on and the news is still (at best) mixed. Chat about Brexit still takes place in hushed tones but, it would seem, most people just want to forget about it and get on with their lives in the new ‘reality’ that we’re imposing on ourselves. I still hear the charge of ‘scaremongering’ whenever bad news is mentioned. Predictions by various experts in the field are dismissed as wild speculation or things we knew about anyway – so nothing to be disturbed about. The smell of fear and confirmation bias is in the air. But it’s interesting to catch sight of indicators that things are nowhere near as healthy or as normal as some people would want us to believe.]

All details above from BBC News website.