About Me

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

Monday, November 28, 2016

Just Finished Reading: The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld (FP: 2010)

New York, 16th September, 1920. As the lunchtime rush begins a massive explosion rips through the hearth of the financial district leaving many dead and countless wounded. At the scene by coincidence are battle weary doctor Stratham Younger and his friend NYPD Captain James Littlemore. Thrown into helping the injured and organising the first responders they give little thought to who planted the bomb and why they targeted innocent people going about their daily routine. Within hours however the FBI declare that they know who committed the atrocity and have issued warrants for the arrest of known Italian anarchists in league with Russian Bolsheviks. Before long the State Department is calling it an act of war and sabres are being rattled in all directions. But to Captain Littlemore the calls for immediate retaliation sound hollow and he senses that there is more to the attack than seems obvious at first glance. Some evidence from the scene makes little sense whilst other evidence seems all too conveniently found in just the right place and at just the right time to fit neatly into a pleasing narrative. If things hadn’t been cloudy enough both men are stumped at the possible involvement of Youngers female companion French radiochemist Collette Rousseau. Was her kidnap and subsequent murder attempt a coincidence or is there a connection between the explosion and the other strange goings-on. Who could possibly benefit from causing so much carnage under a blue September sky and why are their new bullet holes in the Treasury Building imposing walls?

The bomb that went off in New York in 1920 was a real event. A crime that has never been solved to this day. Initially international anarchism was blamed but nothing came of the various investigations carried out at the time or since. Of course this was a perfect place for a fictional account of the events surrounding the event – probably the first recorded car bomb (or in this case truck bomb). Essentially there are two, or possibly three, interweaving stories: the real reason behind the bombing, Collette’s back story in France during and just after WW1 and the use (and abuse) of the power of Radium. Some of it rather stretched credulity to breaking point and I did find some chase scenes very silly indeed. As much as I liked all three main characters I think the author overdid Youngers abilities as an action hero, Collette was a delight (as was her younger ‘mute’ brother) but her main motivation was, I thought, suspect at least and far-fetched at worst. The NYPD Captain probably came out as the strongest character and I liked him a lot. I’d like to read more about him in rather less convoluted storylines. Oh, there was a wonderful piece of misdirection about a third to half way through which left me shocked and distraught and then relieved which I thought was particularly well done. Generally it was a fun read, certainly engaging and well-paced as well as full of interesting historical detail (again particularly in relation to the use of radium which I feel the need to read up on). You will need to suspend disbelief a bit more than usual at times but this is still an entertaining read that will keep you guessing to the end. Recommended.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

These phone apps have got your number.

By Rory Cellan-Jones for BBC News

25 November 2016

The mobile phone numbers of former Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, celebrities and millions of other people are being stored in databases that can be searched by the public. While the numbers cannot be obtained simply by entering a name, data watchdogs are concerned about the way the information has been gathered. These databases have been compiled by phone apps that promise to block spam calls and let people "reverse-look up" calls from numbers they do not recognise. But it appears many of the names and numbers have been gathered without their owners' knowledge. The apps, which include Truecaller, Sync.me and CM Security, ask users to upload their phone's contact lists when they install them. That means they end up with huge databases - one app claims to have two billion numbers while another claims more than a billion.

These can then be searched to connect any number with a name, although you cannot put in a name and get a number. Searches can be conducted on the app provider's website without even installing the software. The issue has been highlighted by Factwire, an investigative journalism organisation that found the numbers of leading Hong Kong lawmakers had been stored in the systems. The BBC has found that many British numbers are also listed - including that of Mr Cameron, Mr Corbyn, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, the Olympic diver Tom Daley and the music producer Pete Waterman. We had those numbers already, as did Hong Kong-based Factwire when it conducted its searches. Many numbers appear to be stored in the databases without the knowledge or consent of their owners. For example, we found the number of the security researcher Rik Ferguson of Trend Micro in the database of Truecaller, which is based in Sweden. He told us he had not installed the app and had not consented to having his number stored.

He described the app as "highly deceptive" and questioned whether it broke data protection regulations. "Data can only be collected for specific, explicitly stated and legitimate purposes, may not be kept for a longer period than is necessary and crucially only with the explicit and informed consent of the data subject," he said. There is also concern about the security of the data. In 2013 Truecaller suffered a data breach, admitting that it had fallen victim to a cyber-attack but insisting that no sensitive information had been exposed. Truecaller told the BBC that it ensured strict protection of user data, which was safely stored in Sweden. The company said it did not share any information with external organisations and in a statement said: "Truecaller is not in violation of the data protection laws in Sweden, nor across the EU as a whole." We asked the Information Commissioner, Britain's data protection regulator, about Truecaller. The ICO told us: "UK data protection law says businesses are required to process data fairly and lawfully. We're asking questions on behalf of UK citizens and are following up with the Swedish authorities."

The security blogger Graham Cluley, whose mobile number is stored by one of the apps, says everyone needs to be more careful about what they share: "If you upload your address book, you're not just putting your own privacy at risk - but the privacy of everybody else in that address book." Most of the apps mention in their terms and conditions that users should have permission from their contacts before sharing their data. One of the apps, CM Security, has now halted its reverse-look up function. All of them say users can opt out if they do not want to have their numbers stored.

[Just one more reason – if I needed any – for not getting a so-called ‘Smart’ phone….]

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Just Finished Reading: The Corrosion of Character – The Personal consequences of Work in the New Capitalism by Richard Sennett (FP: 1998)

I picked up this admittedly rather dated critique of Capitalism on impulse. Partially because we have adopted several American ‘flexible working’ ideologies at my place of work and I thought it would be interesting to compare the myth with the reality. This comparison actually proved more difficult that I’d imagined because the terms used – although often using the same words and phrases – generally meant different things on either side of the pond. Once I got over that hurdle I settled down to read this book as a straight critique of the American system alone.

Two things immediately jumped out at me: firstly that, despite being published in the late 1990’s that this book was seriously dated! How quickly the ‘new way of working’ has become the accepted norm. The second thing was just how mild the criticism was. Case study after case study used showed how the new working practices slowly destroyed elements of what used to be recognised as basic elements of Character (remember that concept!) to the detriment of not only the individuals concerned but their family, friends, the businesses that imposed these working practices and, by extension, the whole of society. Ideas brought in to make businesses (supposedly) more efficient and more reactive to sudden change by demanding a more flexible workforce actually undercut and finally killed the very behaviours that created strong and long lived companies in the first place. When you didn’t know from one month to the next if you would have a job in makes it impossible to plan very far into the future. Is it worth training in a profession (often taking years of study) if you can’t guarantee years of labour in that profession? Should you invest in a house or rent as you fully expect to be moved around in or between companies every few years? Should you get married if you expect your partner to be posted elsewhere either within the company you have in common or if you’re employed in separate businesses? Should you have children knowing that they’ll either have to move with you – having the make and loose friendships – or to be boarded at schools hundreds of miles from their parents who only see them (briefly) in the holidays? What does this all do to relationships between family members, partners, siblings, friends. Can you have the emotional investment necessary to make anything other than short superficial relationships?

Then there’s the corrosive attitudes within the workplace itself. Why bother being loyal to a company that isn’t loyal to you – that only sees you as a resource to be used or disposed of as global economic circumstances dictate. Why be loyal to your work colleagues who are here today/gone tomorrow on the next project or fired as projects come to an end or fail to compete? Why think about anything other than looking good enough to stay hired and earning the big bucks now knowing that times will be lean soon enough. What kind of work environment does that build, what kind of person can live or even appear to thrive in that toxic soup and what does it do to those who can, and cannot, cope with this year after year, decade after decade?

Despite the apparent gentle drip, drip approach of this book the author certainly gets his point across. We, in the capitalist West, are making a rod for our own backs as we push companies and the individuals employed by them more and more flexible. For seemingly the best of reasons (though actually just to maximise profits for the few) we are destroying the character of the work force and the future generations already forced to cope with the consequences of ‘flexibility’. No doubt we are already paying the price in obvious as well as hidden ways. If the drive for ‘efficiency’ persists this corrosion, this collapse of character can only get worse. Recommended for anyone wondering what’s going wrong and why.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Law of Unintended Consequences…… 

Michael Fallon: UK will oppose plans for EU army.

The UK will oppose any attempts to create an EU army because it could "undermine" the role of Nato, Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon has said. Nato "must remain the cornerstone of our defence and the defence of Europe", he said, ahead of informal talks with EU defence ministers in Bratislava. Sir Michael said the UK was not alone in opposing a common EU defence policy. European Parliament President Martin Schulz has said the UK would not have a veto over closer defence co-operation. France and Germany are set to make the case for increased military co-operation at the informal meeting in the Slovakian capital later. Speaking in Bratislava, Sir Michael said the UK "remains committed" to Europe's security despite the vote to leave the EU, and said the bloc needs to "step up to the challenges" of terrorism and migration. But we're going to continue to oppose any idea of an EU army, or an EU army headquarters which would simply undermine Nato. Nato must remain the cornerstone of our defence and the defence of Europe."

Sturgeon links Brexit to austerity in London speech.

Nicola Sturgeon has linked the Brexit vote to the UK government's austerity policies. The Scottish first minister also said remaining a member of the single market after Brexit "will be crucial". And she argued that the UK-wide result of the EU referendum was not a mandate for a hard Brexit. Ms Sturgeon was addressing the annual conference of the Institute of Directors at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Prime Minister Theresa May has predicted that the UK will make a success of Brexit, and that Scotland's status would be enhanced as a result of leaving the EU. But Ms Sturgeon, the SNP leader, told the conference that continued membership of the European single market ‎was the "obvious consensus position" among Leave and Remain voters in the EU referendum.

UK car firms 'want to be in EU single market'.

The success of the UK motor industry could be "jeopardised" if the UK leaves the single market following Brexit, a senior industry figure has said. The chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) told the BBC the sector would be under threat outside the single market. Mike Hawes told BBC business editor Simon Jack that the industry's success came from being in the single market. The European Union is the UK motor industry's biggest export market. Mr Hawes, who has warned on previous occasions that the industry's future growth may be hit, was speaking in Paris where he is attending the city's motor show. He said: "Don't be blinded by the good news that you're seeing not just around our sector but around business in general. We're very concerned that the future state of the automotive industry and the success could be jeopardised if we're not in the single market."

Michael Howard: UK does not need to be in EU single market.

Britain should not remain a member of the single market once it leaves the European Union, former Conservative leader Michael Howard has said. Lord Howard told the BBC the UK should secure "access" to it instead. He also said Brexit negotiations should be concluded "as soon as we can" to avoid prolonged uncertainty about the UK's future relationship with the EU. The government has not said when it will start the formal exit process, other than it will not begin this year. There is also uncertainty over the nature of the UK's relationship with the bloc post-Brexit, especially whether it intends to remain a member of the single market, which offers free movement of goods, finance and people around the EU without any tariffs, quotas or taxes. European leaders have repeatedly stressed that the UK cannot stay in the single market without accepting the free movement of EU citizens.

Liam Fox predicts free EU trade post-Brexit.

The UK's trade with the European Union will be "at least as free" after Brexit as it is now, Liam Fox says. The International Trade Secretary said it was in other countries' interests to avoid tariffs which he said would "harm the people of Europe". He also predicted the UK would be a standard-bearer for global free trade and that Brexit represented a "golden opportunity" to forge new links. Lib Dem EU spokesman Nick Clegg said Mr Fox was "delusional" about Brexit. The UK is unable to negotiate trade deals independently while in the EU so Mr Fox will be negotiating new arrangements with other countries after Brexit, and has already had some talks with countries such as Australia. In a speech in Manchester, he said free trade had "transformed the world for the better" and that the UK had "a golden opportunity to forge a new role for ourselves in the world" in the "post-geography trading world" as a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) - the body which helps sets rules for trade between different countries. He said: "As a newly independent WTO member outside the EU, we will continue to fight for trade liberalisation as well as potentially helping developing markets trade their way out of poverty by giving them preferential access to our markets. I believe the UK is in a prime position to become a world leader in free trade because of the brave and historic decision of the British people to leave the European Union. We are leaving the EU, we are not leaving Europe and we are ready to take our place in an open, liberal and competitive globalised trading environment."

Commissioner: UK 'must avoid data protection Brexit'.

The UK's new information commissioner has called for the country to adopt forthcoming EU data protection laws, despite its plan to leave the Union. "I don't think Brexit should mean Brexit when it comes to standards of data protection," Elizabeth Denham told BBC Radio 4's PM programme. She added she would press WhatsApp over plans to share data with Facebook. The new EU data protection regulations are designed to strengthen the rights individuals have over their data. The idea is to make companies take the issue of data protection far more seriously. The rules make it mandatory for large companies to employ a data protection officer and data breaches must be reported within 72 hours. The legislation will take effect in 2018 and will apply to any company that handles EU citizens' data, even if that company is not based in Europe.

All details above from BBC News website.

[The Supreme Court will be hearing the Government case soon to allow it to stop our Sovereign Parliament a vote on Article 50 because that wouldn’t be ‘The Will of the People’ it’d be ‘The Will of the People’s Representatives’ in a representative democracy – but who am I to split constitutional hairs…. I’m betting that the Government will lose (again) and be forced to have the vote that they are supremely confident they’ll win. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what that brings out of the woodwork. A ‘Brexit’ shambles? Nothing of the sort!!]

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Molecules found on phones reveal lifestyle secrets.

From the BBC

15 November 2016

Molecules found on mobile phones reveal an astonishing amount about the owner's health and lifestyle - including their food preferences and medication. Californian scientists found traces of everything from caffeine and spices to skin creams and anti-depressants on 40 phones they tested. We leave traces of molecules, chemicals and bacteria on everything we touch. Even washing hands thoroughly would not prevent the transfer to everyday objects, the researchers said. Using a technique called mass spectrometry, the University of California San Diego research team tested 500 samples taken from 40 adults' mobile phones and hands. They then compared them to molecules identified in a database and produced a "lifestyle profile" of each phone owner.

Dr Amina Bouslimani, an assistant project scientist on the study, said the results were revealing. "By analysing the molecules they left behind on their phones, we could tell if a person is likely to be female, uses high-end cosmetics, dyes her hair, drinks coffee, prefers beer over wine, likes spicy food, is being treated for depression, wears sunscreen and bug spray - and therefore likely to spend a lot of time outdoors - all kinds of things," she said.

Most of the molecules are thought to be transferred from people's skin, hands and sweat to their phone. Mosquito repellents and sunscreens were found to linger for a particularly long time on people's skin and phones, even when they had not been used for months. Previous research by the same team found that people who had not washed for three days still had lots of traces of hygiene and beauty products on their skin. The study said the testing method could:

identify an object's owner in the absence of fingerprints

check if patients were taking their medication

provide useful information about a person's exposure to pollution

The researchers now want to find out more about the multitude of bacteria that cover our skin - and what they reveal about us. Senior author Prof Pieter Dorrestein said there were at least 1,000 different microbes living on the average person's skin, in hundreds of locations on the body.

[Sounds like something straight out of the movie Gattaca. Maybe those who want to retain at least some privacy in the future need to start wearing surgical gloves at all times!] 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Just Finished Reading: Modern War – A Very Short Introduction by Richard English (FP: 2013)

I was initially rather confused by this little volume (as usual with VSI books it around 120 pages long). I was expecting discussions of technology, global strategy and all the whizzing and explosions we have become accustomed to on our TV screens full of shock, awe and AK-47’s. What I got was something much more sedate and thoughtful.

Modern war is seen, quite rightly, as different from previous forms of this seemingly permanent form of human group behaviour. But how so? That’s the first thing to be addressed here – what makes modern war different from the Ancient or Medieval varieties? It’s got just a case of technological advance despite the fact that HMS Dreadnought of 1905 could have defeated the entire French fleet of 1805 on her own with little effort and even less risk to herself. It is more to do with the idea of total war given birth during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars they gave rise too. Everything after that turbulent time was radically (pun intended) different from how wars where fought, who fought in them and how states geared themselves to fight.

Then, it seemed to me, the book took a sideways step into the causes of wars drawing on modern examples looking at the rise of nationalism (so heavily present in 19th and 20th century conflicts), the nature of the modern state, the growth (and death) of Empires, the role of religion, the role of basic human nature in all levels of conflict and, last but not least, the place of charismatic leadership in wars. This section was handily brought to life by a detailed multi-page examination of the origins of WW1 which I found very interesting.

We then moved on to the lived experience of war, from the point of view of the combatants but also from those inevitably caught in the middle of things. Not only life in the trenches, but also life under the ever present fear of the air raid siren or the car bomb. Talk of boredom between periods of abject terror naturally led onto a discussion of shell-shock or Post Traumatic Stress which exploded onto the scene in WW1 and has been with us ever since.

Moving onto the legacy of war we are not only ‘treated’ to expositions of numbers killed but also to Empires that have collapsed, nations that have risen (or fallen), national boundaries that have changed, technology that has flowered, art and literature that has been produced, organisations that have dissolved or had to be created, philosophies and legal systems brought into being and movements started to bring an end to war itself or just to end the use of a particular weapon.

Lastly we must look to the future. Will it be a future without the subject of war to study and wonder over? Both the author and I are sceptical on that point despite ‘the better angels of our nature’. Will war in the future be different? Undoubtedly – not just because of new technologies and new battlegrounds (such as Cyberspace), but because of the globalisation of conflict, the longevity of war and it’s increasingly amorphous nature taking place at multiple levels, across vast reaches of territory and with pauses between often intense short-lived action. War definitely still needs its academics as much as it needs scientists and soldiers. Interesting and a good introduction to a disturbingly fascinating subject (plus a cracking bibliography!).

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Truth will out (itself).

Sir Alan Duncan: Boris Johnson didn't want Brexit win.

Boris Johnson only campaigned to leave the EU to set himself up as the next Conservative leader, Sir Alan Duncan said the day before June's referendum. Sir Alan said he believed the now foreign secretary, who is his current boss, wanted to lose narrowly and be the "heir apparent" to David Cameron. The foreign minister's comments were made in a BBC Two documentary. Meanwhile Mr Johnson has told the BBC the formal process of leaving the EU would "probably" begin early in 2017. The UK voted by 52% to 48% to end its membership of the bloc, in a referendum on 23 June. But formal negotiations over the withdrawal cannot begin until it triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Mr Johnson, speaking in New York, said: "The government is working towards an Article 50 letter, which as you know will be produced, probably, in the early part of next year."

Lloyd's of London considers setting up EU subsidiary.

Insurance market Lloyd's of London is working on "contingency plans" to ensure it can trade across Europe when the UK leaves the EU. Chief executive Inga Beale told the BBC that Lloyd's may set up a subsidiary or branches in mainland Europe. She estimates that 4% of revenues could be lost after Brexit because Lloyd's would lose its licence - or passporting - rights to operate across the EU. The fallout from Brexit "is a major issue for us to deal with", she said. Lloyd's, one of Britain's oldest institutions, is the world's leading insurance and reinsurance market and houses around 90 syndicates. It focuses on specialist markets, such as marine, energy and political risk, and this year insured the taste buds of a Cadbury's chocolate taster. Continental Europe accounts for about 11% of gross premiums written by the London market. Ms Beale told the BBC that Lloyd's was now "focusing our attention" on maintaining its position in a post-Brexit landscape. It had not yet been decided whether to establish branches in individual EU countries or an EU-wide subsidiary, but the latter option would probably be cheaper, she said. But Ms Beale said Lloyd's had to respond. "It's the lack of certainty for our clients. Business cannot hang around," she said. "Boards are going to insist that they make plans [for life after Brexit]"

NHS should get £5bn 'Brexit bonus' – Lansley.

The NHS should get a "Brexit bonus" of £5bn a year, former Conservative Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has said. Speaking at the NHS Providers annual lecture, Lord Lansley said the public had a right to expect extra funding, which should be in place by 2019-2020. He also called for ministers to commit to spending 7% of GDP on the NHS. In the run-up to June's EU referendum, Leave campaigners said the £350m a week the UK paid into the bloc's budget would be spent on the NHS instead. The figure proved contentious during the campaign, with Remain supporters arguing that figure did not take into account money the UK got back from the EU in grants, subsidies, and the British rebate.

UK 'did not vote for hard Brexit', George Osborne warns.

Britain did not vote for 'hard Brexit' in the EU referendum and will have to compromise in exit talks, former Chancellor George Osborne has warned. He said Leave campaigners were naive for thinking the UK could secure everything it wanted in negotiations. In a speech in Chicago, he also warned against "the dangerous purity of splendid isolation" over co-operation. He campaigned for the Remain side and was criticised for warning of a £30bn "black hole" if the UK voted to leave. Mr Osborne's speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is one of few public interventions he has made, since being sacked as chancellor when Theresa May became prime minister. In it, he described the vote to leave Europe on 23 June as "one of the low points" of his time in government and warned Conservative colleagues now looking to negotiate Brexit that they faced "the most important set of decisions Britain has faced since the Second World War". He is now a backbencher, but urged Prime Minister Theresa May to pursue "the closest possible economic and security relationship with our European partners while no longer being formal members of the EU".

Mortgage approvals at 19-month low, but consumer credit soars.

The number of people taking out mortgages fell to its lowest level for 19 months in August, according to Britain's High Street banks. A total of 36,997 homeowners had their mortgages approved, the British Bankers' Association (BBA) said. That is the lowest figure since January 2015, and a 21% drop on August 2015. The number of people borrowing to buy a house or flat has been falling since April, when there was a rush to buy property ahead of stamp duty changes. "Mortgage borrowing is growing at a slower pace than it has for the last few months reflecting both the slowdown in housing market growth after the April spike and broader trends in the sector," said Rebecca Harding, chief economist at the BBA. The figures do not include lending by UK building societies, which account for about a third of mortgage borrowing. However, UK consumers are continuing to borrow more through loans and overdrafts. The total amount of consumer credit grew by 6.4% in the year to August, the fastest rate of growth for nearly 10 years. "Given the low interest rate environment and high levels of confidence during the summer, the strong credit growth can be interpreted as strong consumer sentiment," said Ms Harding.

Brexit: UK universities consider EU branches.

UK universities could open campuses in Europe to offset the effect of Brexit, some vice-chancellors have suggested. The higher education sector largely supported remaining in the UK and since the vote, has voiced concerns about the financial implications of leaving. Universities fear losing research funding, students and staff in the event of a "hard" Brexit. But some universities are considering expanding into Europe as a way round the problem. The University of Kent has had a centre in Brussels for almost 20 years, for more than 200 postgraduate students from 60 countries, and also runs branches in Paris, Athens and Rome. These sites are recognised by relevant legal and educational authorities in each country and allow the university "to develop and foster connections that enable our students to gain important access to professional networks", said a University of Kent spokesman. Other universities could follow suit as Brexit negotiations gather pace.

All details above from BBC News website.

[It’s a little quiet on the Brexit Front ATM as the world struggles to digest the political earthquake in the US. No doubt things will get fractious again as the Supreme Court appeal gets underway despite the fact that only a handful of MP’s have come out publically that they’ll oppose Article 50. I wonder what the Government are so scared of that they’re denying themselves an apparent overwhelming victory. Odd, isn’t it?]

Sunday, November 13, 2016

“We are living in a very singular moment in history. It is a moment of crisis in the literal sense of that word. In every branch of our spiritual and material civilization we seem to have arrived at a critical turning point. This spirit shows itself not only in the actual state of public affairs, but also in the general attitude towards fundamental values in personal and social life… Now the iconoclast has invaded the temple of science. There is scarcely a scientific axiom that is not nowadays denied by somebody. And at the same time almost any nonsensical theory would be almost sure to find believers and disciples somewhere or other.”

Max Planck, 1933.  

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Donald Trump and Conservatives offer no solutions - Corbyn

From The BBC

12th November 2016

US president-elect Donald Trump tapped into "real problems" faced by voters but has failed to offer a remedy, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is to say. Instead of offering solutions to issues such as falling wages and underfunded public services, Mr Trump has only blamed others, Mr Corbyn will say. He will accuse the Tories of being like Mr Trump by offering "slogans, but no solutions for most people in Britain". The Conservatives said Labour was "out of step" with "ordinary people".

In a speech to the Labour South East Regional Conference, Mr Corbyn will describe Mr Trump's shock election victory over Hillary Clinton as a "wake-up call". Mr Corbyn will say millions of people in the US and UK feel "left behind and marginalised" by the current economic system - something Mr Trump had tapped into during the election campaign. "But instead of offering real solutions or the resources to make them work, he offered only someone to blame - everyone, that is, apart from those who are actually responsible for a broken economy and a failed political system," Mr Corbyn will say. "The Tories do the same. They have opened the door to UKIP and fanned the flames of fear."

The Labour leader will say the US and UK electorate both feel left behind by a economic system that makes them work harder while rewarding a small elite. He will tell supporters that the UK will be unable to "take back control" by simply leaving the EU and instead needed to "take on corporate vested interests".

"We have no idea how Donald Trump proposes to 'make America great again', and Theresa May's Tories offer slogans, but no solutions, for most people in Britain," he will say. "We won't tackle the damage done by elite globalisation just by leaving the EU. We won't 'take back control' unless we take on the corporate vested interests that control our energy, our transport and have infiltrated our public services. One thing is for sure: neither billionaire Donald Trump nor the billionaire-backed Tories have any interest in giving people back control or reining in the predatory excesses of a globalised free-for-all."

A Conservative spokesman said: "Jeremy Corbyn presides over a Labour Party that is divided, divisive and utterly out of step with the concerns of ordinary working people. Labour would bankrupt our country like they did last time, erode our armed forces, making us less safe - and they also don't think there should be any limits on immigration at all."

[Corbyn, as usual, talks a lot of sense. Of course there are lots of people, including in his own party, that think he’s a dangerous delusional fool but I think we know what one of them really looks like! I think that the Left on both sides of the pond are going to be gifted a great deal of ammunition over the next 4-5 years which, with luck and skill they’ll be able to use at the next election to put the Right back in their boxes. Here’s hoping!]

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Just Finished Reading: The Trojan War – A Very Short Introduction by Eric H Cline (FP: 2013)

It’s probably one of the greatest stories ever told – a war to retrieve on of the most beautiful women ever to have lived, fought over 10 years with Heroes on each side, laying siege to the greatest city of the age and ending in its utter destruction. These events resonate down the centuries and make up two of the all-time classic pieces of western literature which have given rise to a host of books, movies, poems and much else besides. But did any of it really happen? Did Hector, Paris, Achilles and the rest really exist? Did Troy fall as related in the story, did it even exist in the first place or was the whole thing an elaborate work of fiction? Did Homer even exist? This small volume aims to answer at least some of those questions. The answers will both intrigue and, undoubtedly frustrate you – I know they did me!

The short answer is yes, Troy existed although it was called by many names by the numerous cultures surrounding it (including Ilium where we get Iliad). The more complete answer is that a city had existed on the agreed site of Troy for a great span of time with city built on top of city as each fell (often due to earthquake as well as war) and was rebuilt. Frustratingly none of them quite match up with the apparent timelines of the books. Likewise some of the heroes seemed to have existed but others (Ajax in particular) seem to have been imported into the story from earlier sagas complete with outdated armour and weapons. Did the war exist and what about the infamous Trojan Horse? There is certainly evidence for some kind of military defeat in the ruins of Troy but nothing definitive – again not in the proposed timescales of the books. Unfortunately there’s no direct evidence for the famous equine and the story itself seems to have been added later by other authors.

The tales themselves betray the fact that they were spoken epics long before they were finally written down – there’s even a theory that the Greek written language itself might have been created (modified from an existing written language) to transfer a spoken story to something a little more solid. Tales grow in the telling and anomalies or embellishments creep in over time. Both the Iliad and Odyssey show this happening as existing tales and myths are incorporated or adapted into a new story which show up as anachronistic elements that were presumably accepted for what they were – plot devices and homages to previous tales of honour, glory and tragedy.

Of course none of the finds are without controversy, argument and counter argument, reputations made and destroyed, lies told and academic flame wars fought as fiercely as the Trojan War itself might have been. It’s all grist to the mill and makes a fascinating tale all the more interesting if that’s possible. Recommended for anyone who wondered what all the fuss was about.      

Monday, November 07, 2016

Things are starting to heat up….

Visegrad Group of EU states 'could veto Brexit deal'.

A group of Central European EU members known as the Visegrad Four is ready to veto any Brexit deal that would limit people's right to work in the UK, Slovakian PM Robert Fico says. In an interview with the Reuters news agency, Mr Fico said Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia would be uncompromising in negotiations. His comments come a day after the EU's first major meeting without the UK. Brexit, though not formally discussed, overshadowed the Bratislava summit. At the end of the summit, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker repeated that Britain could not achieve full access to the EU market that it would ideally like, if it closed off free immigration for EU citizens. At the same news conference, Mr Fico underlined that he and other Central European leaders whose citizens make up much of the EU migrant population in Britain would not let those people become "second class citizens".

Banks 'would lose passporting rights with hard Brexit'.

UK-based banks would lose the automatic right to trade in EU states if the UK left the single market, the head of Germany's central bank has said. Jens Weidmann said a "hard Brexit" would strip banks of valuable "passporting rights" that give unfettered access to the bloc. This would force some to relocate from London, he added. Passporting rights are considered by some to be vital to London's position as a financial hub. It allows banks to serve clients across Europe without the need for licences in individual countries. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson has claimed that such rights would be preserved even if Britain left the single market after Brexit - an outcome some Eurosceptics favour. But in interview with the Guardian, Mr Weidmann said that passporting rights were "tied to the single market and would automatically cease to apply if Great Britain is no longer at least part of the European Economic Area".

Nick Clegg says government has 'no clue' over Brexit.

Leaving the EU's single market as part of any Brexit deal would do "untold damage" to the UK economy, Nick Clegg has told the Lib Dem conference. The former deputy prime minister, who is now the party's EU spokesman, said the single market was a UK creation that was vital for jobs and prosperity. The Tories, he said, were "up a Brexit creek without a paddle, a canoe or a map - they have absolutely no clue". The government has insisted it will secure a "positive outcome" on trade. The Lib Dems, who campaigned to stay in the EU, are pushing for a referendum on the terms of a final Brexit deal. However, former Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable said the party "must accept" the referendum result and stop focusing on a second vote.

Brexit has had 'no major effect' on economy so far.

There has been little impact of the Brexit vote on the UK economy so far, says the Office for National Statistics (ONS). "The referendum result appears, so far, not to have had a major effect," its chief economist Joe Grice said. Official figures have not yet reflected the collapse in confidence predicted by some surveys since the referendum. But the ONS warned that we have not yet had official figures for the service sector, which are due next week. The services sector accounts for more than three-quarters of the economy - the index of services for July - and is out on 30 September. The first estimate of how the whole economy fared in the three months after the referendum will be released on 27 October. There were stark warnings during the referendum campaign of the short-term effects of a vote to leave the European Union. And in July, these appeared to be borne out when the results of a closely-watched economic survey indicated a "dramatic deterioration" in activity. IHS Markit's survey suggested both the manufacturing and service sectors had suffered a decline in output and orders. However, subsequent surveys from the same body have indicated that activity in the manufacturing and service sectors has bounced back. The effects of the Brexit vote have not yet appeared in official figures.

Wall Street executives warn Brexit could hurt City.

The heads of two major Wall Street companies have warned that the UK financial services industry could be damaged by Brexit. President of investment bank Morgan Stanley, Colm Kelleher, said the City would "suffer… the issue is how much". Meanwhile, Rob Kapito, head of one of the world's largest investment houses Blackrock, said there was "a lot of concern" in the financial community. He also said voters had not been given enough facts before the EU referendum. "The unintended consequences of Brexit will be significant for everyone across the UK," he said. Mr Kelleher said his bank's immediate concern was over whether to invest further in the UK. This was because the terms of a potential Brexit deal were still unclear. "It is that uncertainty that is causing problems," he told the BBC's Today programme. However, he said a bigger worry was whether banks would retain their "passporting rights" after Britain leaves the bloc. These rights currently allow them to trade across the bloc without the need for individual country licences.

House buying 'steady after Brexit'.

Uncertainty surrounding the Brexit vote failed to hit house buying in the UK, figures suggest, with a slight rise in transactions in August. A total of 109,630 properties were bought in the UK during the month, a very slight rise on a year earlier, HM Revenue and Customs data shows. In these cases the house buying process may have started some time before the referendum took place. Mortgage data has shown some signs of a post-vote slowdown. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) recently said that the UK housing market had "settled down" after the Brexit vote, with sales and prices expected to rise in the coming months. Jeremy Duncombe, director of the Legal and General Mortgage Club, said that the lack of properties being built and on the market was the most significant factor for the market. "Until the supply and demand for UK property is better balanced, we will be left with a housing market that is only within reach for the few and unattainable for many," he said.

All details above from BBC News website.

[Of course the big Brexit news presently is the number of death threats against Gina Miller the American sports reporter accusing her of being a traitor to her country and a whole bunch of other stuff. That cock-up made bigger waves than the threats levelled at the real Gina Miller who helped bring the Constitutional case to the High Court recently but heh, at least it made the news. Meanwhile both Walkers crisps and Birds Eye frozen foods have posted price hikes due to the low value of Sterling on international money markets. Things are getting desperate over here!]