About Me

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

Monday, January 30, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Wild – A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed (FP: 2012)

It all started with bad news, very bad news. The Mother she doted on was dying of cancer and 26 year old Cheryl (played by Reese Witherspoon in the 2014 movie adaptation) didn’t know what to do. Without her mother to ground her, to keep her centred, she had nothing to stop her flying in all directions at once. Within months she was divorcing a husband she loved, sleeping with any man who would buy her a drink in the bars she frequented and taking drugs to make the fear and loneliness go away for a few hours. She was indeed lost. Until, on impulse, almost by accident, she picked up a guide to the Pacific Crest Trail, and made the crazy decision to walk over 1100 miles up the West Coast of America – on her own. For seven months she planned, saved and organised the trip with way points, packages to pick up, and advice from the stores where she bought her equipment. Finally the day arrived to set off on her journey of a life time. In her motel room at the beginning of the trail she packed everything into her backpack and only then discovered that she couldn’t pick it up, she just didn’t have the strength.

With gritted determination she started her trek weighted down by useless items, few navigational skills and, the final indignity, boots a size too small. Cheryl found very quickly that what little preparation she’d put into the trip was nowhere near enough but she couldn’t back out now. She had to go on, no matter what it cost her in lost body fat, hardened skin, strained back muscles and lost toenails. Slowly, over weeks of hard graft, her body became tougher, she learnt skills that she never thought to have needed and met some wonderful people along the way who both lightened her backpack to more a manageable size and, eventually, lightened her soul too.

This was a totally impulsive buy at my local supermarket because it looked ‘different’. It was certainly that! As a biography this was a warts and all account of a young woman adrift in the world with no clear idea of who or what she was. It is also the tale of a woman with an incredible amount of grit and determination who, apparently, amazed everyone she met with her simple ‘can do’ attitude. Just like the Pacific Crest Trail itself this narrative was occasionally hard going – especially at the beginning when describing her mother’s illness and ultimate death – but there was also a fair amount of humour, anxiety, wonder and beauty too. It was essentially an interesting tale rather well told. Not exactly as ‘inspiring’ as the reviewers would have you believe – at least not to me – this is still worth a read especially if you have ever considered doing something as crazy as Cheryl evidently did. Just one (or two) piece(s) of advice: Do your research, do some prep before you go and for god’s sake make sure that you have the right sized boots on!  

Sunday, January 29, 2017

"The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration - and a very effective form of promotion."

Donald Trump: The Art of the Deal, 1987.
Cartoon Time (with a familiar ring to it).

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Don’t Blame me – I told you this would happen………

Typhoo Tea: Cost of a cuppa to go up.

For chief executive Somnath Saha, the economics of tea are simple and brutal. Typhoo Tea produces 125 million tea bags a week at its factory in Moreton, Wirral, which have just one ingredient - tea leaves, and they are imported. Black tea is a global commodity, traded in dollars. Following the fall in sterling since the Brexit vote, costs have soared for this renowned brand as 95% of its sales are in the UK. "This is an absolute disaster for a company the size of ours," says Mr Saha. "The very sharp fall in the pound means the impact is at least a quarter of a million pounds a month for us. This is having a very negative impact on our business and we are really suffering. It's now come to a point where it's not sustainable for us." There are plenty of winners from the fall in the value of sterling. But Typhoo Tea is a graphic illustration of what it's like for a business with one raw imported material. Typhoo has been trading for more than a century. These days, most of its black tea comes from Kenya. It's then blended and packaged on site. The company also packages own-label tea for most of the major supermarkets. In addition, it produces a range of herbal teas and those ingredients are sourced in euros. It's a high-volume, low-margin business. The cost of the ingredient depends on the quality of the leaf. A typical 80kg bag of black tea could be bought for £90 to £100 at the beginning of the year. The company says that same bag now costs £120 to £150 at the weekly international auctions. In other words, it is paying an awful lot more for the same amount of tea.

Morrisons raises Marmite price by 12.5%.

The Grocer magazine reported that the firm is charging £2.64 for a 250g jar. It is the first supermarket to raise the price of Marmite since the recent dispute between Tesco and manufacturer Unilever over the effect of the falling pound on production costs. A Morrisons spokesman said: "Sometimes we have to increase prices as a result of costs rising." Unilever has raised the wholesale price of many household products, including PG Tips tea and Pot Noodles, because falls in the value of sterling have increased the cost of products made outside the UK. The pound has lost nearly a fifth of its value since the UK voted to leave the EU in a referendum in June. It is the world's worst-performing currency on the global money markets this year. This makes imported goods more expensive because they continue to cost the same in dollars or euros, but the price is higher when converted into sterling.

Apple raises computer prices in UK.

On Thursday, the company unveiled new Macbook Pro laptops, with prices similar to the US after currency conversion and addition of UK VAT. But the company also increased the prices of its older computer products, including the three-year-old Mac Pro, by hundreds of pounds. One analyst said consumers should expect further price increases. "Apple has to recalibrate prices after significant currency fluctuations, and since the EU referendum, UK prices are out of sync with the dollar," said Patrick O'Brien, analyst at the Verdict Retail consultancy. "Apple has taken the hit up until now. While price increases won't look good to the consumer, it's difficult to blame Apple. Once you strip out UK sales tax (VAT) and the currency conversion, the new UK prices could still be viewed as fair."

Nissan talks were open and honest, says Downing Street.

There was "no deal, no compensation package, nothing about tariffs", a No 10 spokesman said. The Times reported that ministers had given a "last-minute written promise" to protect Nissan from the consequences of Brexit to keep investment in the UK. Labour has said the government should say what was promised. Business Secretary Greg Clark is to be questioned on the subject by MPs. Nissan announced on Thursday that it would build two new models at its Sunderland plant following talks with the government, securing 7,000 jobs. The Japanese company's commitment to the UK's biggest car factory had been in doubt following the referendum decision to leave the European Union. Downing Street has been asked to confirm the Times report that a written promise was made to protect the company from any consequences of Brexit, such as possible increased trade tariffs. The prime minister's spokesman said there had been "numerous discussions" between Nissan and the government. Pressed on whether a letter had been written to the company, he said there were "all forms of communication between Nissan and the government at various levels" and that it would get the "best deal" for all industry when the UK leaves the EU, which is expected to happen in 2019. But Conservative MP and former business minister Anna Soubry said that "something has been put into this, effectively a sweetening of a deal, to keep Nissan in our country".

Greg Clark stands by refusal to publish Nissan letter.

The business secretary says he will not publish his letter to Nissan because it contains sensitive commercial details. Greg Clark told MPs companies had to be confident their plans would not be shared with their competitors. Nissan has said two new car ranges will be built in Sunderland, saving thousands of jobs, after "support and assurances" from the government about the UK's future outside the EU. Labour attacked the "backroom deals" and demanded the letter's release. The building of the Qashqai and the X-Trail SUV in Sunderland had been in doubt following the Brexit vote. In a Commons statement, Mr Clark repeated that he had assured Nissan the UK would be seeking trade that was "free and unencumbered by impediments" for the motor industry after Brexit. He said the carmaker's announcement was a "massive win" for 7,500 direct workers and the wider supply chain, adding: "It is hard to think of more unambiguously good news." Labour's shadow business secretary Clive Lewis welcomed the investment, but said MPs and the government were being kept in the dark on the deal - and the government's post-Brexit plans - despite Mr Clark revealing "tantalising details" in a BBC interview the previous day. "Are we really to believe that Nissan are risking millions of pounds of investment and the success of its newest models on the basis of the government's intentions alone?" Mr Lewis asked.

All details above from BBC News website.

[As the PM travels the world hoping to drum up future trade deals and Parliament gets ready for the big debate followed by the big vote – causing Labour MP’s to desert theirs posts because of Corbyn’s 3 line whip – it’s all getting very interesting again. By the looks of it we’re heading towards a ‘Hard’ Brexit (which thinking about it was bloody obvious from day one) which will mean greater than expected economic upheaval and a goodly number of jobs going to the Continent – led by the financial institutions. All very predictable and all very, very unnecessary.]

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler (FP: 1962)

It started with a UFO. Watched on the NORAD radar screens it steadily approached US airspace and then, inexplicably, disappeared. Following procedure, just like hundreds of times before, high speed interceptors raced to investigate whilst nuclear armed bombers lifted off from airfields across the country and moved to their fail-safe points. It was a matter of pure routine. Nothing to get anxious about. Just another day at the office. Then, quite suddenly, it wasn’t. One group of six bombers reached their fail-safe point and then, seemingly without any good reason, went beyond that imaginary point in space and continued on, towards their designated target deep inside the Soviet Union. Alarms rang, circuits were tested and tested again. Finally, after minutes of frantic activity a phone was lifted and an Airforce General, deep in the Cheyenne Mountain complex spoke to the US President (played by Henry Fonda in the 1964 movie adaptation). The unthinkable had apparently happened. A fool proof system with safe guard built upon redundancy, a technological marvel had failed and had, by a million to one accident, launched a strike against the Soviets that would in all likelihood result in a massive retaliatory strike against the US and the end of the world. After attempts to stop the planes fail there is only one option left – to help the Russians shoot down their own planes! But what if their training is enough to surmount even this unexpected hurdle? What happens if the bombers, even one of them, gets through to its intended target – Moscow?

This is, hard to imagine I know, yet another book that has been collecting dust on my shelves for years (although not as far back as its print date of 1965). I don’t know when I would’ve read it if it wasn’t for the books into movies set I’m working through right now. After all this time I wasn’t expecting too much from this Cold War thriller so I was doubly surprised at just how gripping the tale was. Told over a compressed period of 10-12 hours between the first radar contact and the final dramatic moments the narrative built its tension inch by inch and turned the screw a little bit more on each page. As the reality began to sink in and the very real possibility of Nuclear War approached each character acted in his own way (there was in effect only a single peripheral female character in the whole book) and struggled, sometimes to breaking point, in their own way. It was, in all senses of the word, a real page turner. I might have seen the movie years ago but I had clearly forgotten much of it so I had no clear idea of what was coming next. Everything seemed so logical, so reasonable and so screwed up that it felt real. It felt real that the world could indeed end because of a blown circuit in a computer buried beneath millions of tons of rock dispassionately dispatching nuclear death to its enemies without a thought to the consequences. This was real, very real, fear and must have terrified people much more aware of the possibility of nuclear holocaust than we are today. Whilst being more than a little dated this still packs quite a punch even after all these years and technological advances. If you want a thick slice of Cold War nuclear paranoia this is definitely the book for you. But be warned, it might give you a few sleepless nights!

Monday, January 23, 2017

I Predict a Problem (or two)

Brexit stance may not be 'crystallised' before Article 50 triggered, says minister.

A Brexit minister has suggested the government's aims in negotiations with the European Union may not be finalised by the time Article 50 is triggered. David Jones told a House of Lords committee the UK's negotiating position may not be "totally crystallised" by next spring. Mr Jones said the government was at an early stage of the process and that thinking was "developing". Theresa May has said Article 50 will be triggered by the end of March 2017. This will put in process formal talks with the EU, which will last for up to two years before Brexit happens. Mr Jones, a minister at the Department for Exiting the European Union, was appearing before the EU Home Affairs sub-committee, which is investigating the security implications of Brexit. He was questioned on what government departments hoped to get out of any eventual agreement with the EU.

Theresa May: We'll still work closely with EU after Brexit.

Theresa May has pledged to continue to "work closely" with the EU after Brexit, as she arrived for her first Brussels summit as prime minister. She said it was important to have a "united European stance" against "Russian aggression" that included "sickening" violence in Syria. European Council President Donald Tusk called the summit a "nest of doves". But French President Francois Hollande warned that if Mrs May pursued a "hard Brexit" negotiations would be hard too. The prime minister was keen to emphasise this when she arrived in Brussels, saying: "I'm here with a clear message. The UK is leaving the EU, but we will continue to play a full role until we leave and we will be a strong and dependable partner after we have left. "It's in the interests of both the UK and the EU that we continue to work closely together, including at this summit." She added: "We must continue that robust and united European stance in the face of Russian aggression." It was "vital" to "put pressure on Russia to stop its appalling atrocities, its sickening atrocities, in Syria", the prime minister said.

David Davis 'in cloud cuckoo land' over EU negotiating stance.

David Davis is in "cloud cuckoo land" if he believes Brexit talks are heavily weighted in favour of the UK, a former Treasury civil servant told the BBC. The Brexit Secretary and other minister should "rein back" "hard and unconstructive" talk, former Treasury civil servant Sir Brian Unwin said. The UK has said it will begin formal talks about exiting the EU by the end of March 2017. But Conservative MP John Redwood said the UK was in a "very strong position". Mr Redwood, who advised Margaret Thatcher on European issues as head of her policy unit, said Sir Brian's comments were a "great pity" as "I'm sure he wishes our country well". Mr Davis told the House of Commons on 10 October: "One of the things that I have discovered in the past few months is that in many areas - not just the City, and not just as regards cars - the balance of negotiating advantage is incredibly heavily stacked our way." Sir Brian, who was a senior civil servant under Labour and Conservative governments - including Margaret Thatcher's, when he helped negotiated the UK's budget rebate - said he felt ministers and civil servants had a "horrific" job ahead. He told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "I saw that Mr Davis the other day was reported to have said that the negotiating odds are unbelievably weighted on our side. Well I think that is utter rubbish, I mean, it really is cloud cuckoo land." He said opinion was "hardening" towards the UK among EU countries: "They do not want the integrity and the future of the European Union to be put at risk by Brexit and in particular they do not want the United Kingdom to emerge with advantages which might encourage other member states to think of leaving." He predicted Theresa May, who is in Brussels for her first EU summit as prime minister, might not get a "terribly cosy" reception from her fellow leaders adding: "I really do think the language which the present government is using needs to be tempered if they are to have a successful negotiation." Sir Brian, who was president of the European Investment Bank, also said he felt it would be "suicidal" were Britain to leave the EIB - which is owned by the 28 EU member states, as its funding had been "enormously important" to UK infrastructure.

Ceta: EU 'not capable' of signing deal says Canadian minister.

A trade deal between the EU and Canada is on the brink of collapse because a Belgian region with a population of just 3.6 million opposes it. An emotional Canadian Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland left the talks in Brussels, saying the EU was "not capable" of signing a trade agreement. Belgium, the only country blocking accord, needed consent from the regional parliament of Wallonia. The wide-ranging deal, seven years in the making, was to be signed next week. Speaking outside the seat of the Walloon government, Ms Freeland told reporters: "It seems evident for me and for Canada that the European Union is not now capable of having an international accord even with a country that has values as European as Canada. "She added: "Canada is disappointed, but I think it is impossible." It was unclear whether the EU would keep negotiating with Wallonia in coming days to solve the impasse.

Theresa May 'optimistic' she can get right Brexit deal for UK.

Theresa May has predicted "difficult moments" ahead in Brexit negotiations but said she is optimistic she can get a deal "that is right for the UK". Speaking at a summit in Brussels, she said she felt it could be achieved, despite the continuing deadlock over a landmark EU-Canada trade deal. Mrs May said she had played an active role in discussions and was not "backwards in coming forwards". It is her first EU summit since she became PM following the Brexit vote. At a news conference before meeting European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for a working lunch, Mrs May said Britain would be "a confident, outward-looking country". She said she aimed to "cement Britain as a close partner of the EU once we have left", with the country able to control its immigration but trade freely with the EU. She said she would seek a "mature co-operative relationship" with the EU.

All details above from BBC News website.

[It seems like the news regarding Brexit is circling overhead like vultures – lots of promises, lots of warnings and a fair few threats which surprised me a bit since we’re the ones actually leaving the party. Play nice after we leave, or as we leave, or there will be trouble….. That definitely sounds like a government very worried about the reactions of the rest of Europe as we negotiate our way to a very personal economic suicide. I’m guessing that the Supreme Court decision [tomorrow I understand] has already been double guessed by the government – they know they’re going to lose – so they’re going to say that they always had a vote in mind! Where it goes after that… Well, watch this space!]

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Squirrel 'threat' to critical infrastructure

From The BBC

17th Jan 2017

The real threat to global critical infrastructure is not enemy states or organisations but squirrels, according to one security expert. Cris Thomas has been tracking power cuts caused by animals since 2013. Squirrels, birds, rats and snakes have been responsible for more than 1,700 power cuts affecting nearly 5 million people, he told a security conference. He explained that by tracking these issues, he was seeking to dispel the hype around cyber-attacks. His Cyber Squirrel 1 project was set up to counteract what he called the "ludicrousness of cyber-war claims by people at high levels in government and industry", he told the audience at the Shmoocon security conference in Washington.

Squirrels topped the list with 879 "attacks", followed by:

birds - 434
snakes - 83
raccoons - 72
rats - 36
martens - 22
frogs – 3

He concludes that the damage done by real cyber-attacks - Stuxnet's destruction of Iranian uranium enrichment centrifuges and disruption to Ukrainian power plants being the most high profile - was tiny compared to the "cyber-threat" posed by animals. Most of the animal "attacks" were on power cables but Mr Thomas also discovered that jellyfish had shut down a Swedish nuclear power plant in 2013, by clogging the pipes that carry cool water to the turbines. He also discovered that there have been eight deaths attributed to animal attacks on infrastructure, including six caused by squirrels downing power lines that then struck people on the ground. Mr Thomas - better known as SpaceRogue - set up Cyber Squirrel 1 as a Twitter feed in March 2013 and initially collected information from Google alerts.

It has since evolved into a much larger project - collecting information from search engines and other web sources. Mr Thomas only collected reports compiled in the English language and admitted that he was probably only capturing "a fraction" of animal-related power cuts worldwide. "The major difference between natural events, be they geological, meteorological or furry, is that cyber-attacks are deliberate orchestrated by humans," said Luis Corrons, technical director of security firm PandaLabs. "While natural disasters are taken into account when critical infrastructure facilities are built, that's not the case with computers. Most critical facilities were never designed to connect to the rest of the world, so the kind of security they implemented was taking care of the physical world surrounding them. The number of potential attackers is growing, the number of potential targets is also going up. So we all need to reinforce our defences to the maximum - and also worry about squirrels."

[Well, it makes a nice change from all of the present hype around the bogyman of the week that the press and governments around the world present us with. Save the Future and start killing cute little animals! No, it really doesn’t have the same ring to it…..]

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Just Finished Reading: A Bridge Too Far by Cornelius Ryan (FP: 1974)

It was the largest aerial assault ever conceived, even bigger than that used as part of the D-Day invasion and was billed to be (and believed to be) capable of shortening the war by as much as a year. It was a bold plan, actually so beyond bold it was actually reckless and ambitious so much so that it reeked of hubris, yet oddly originating with a man known for his caution and meticulous planning – the British hero of the Western Desert - General Bernard Montgomery.

The plan itself was deceptively simple: drop troops and equipment up to 60 miles behind enemy lines in a blanket from the Dutch border to the Rhine with the aim to capture and hold all of the major bridges allowing Allied armour to punch a hole through the thinly held German defences into the heart of industrial Germany itself. Within a matter of days Allied forces could be in the Ruhr holding or destroying Germany’s mighty industries on which her military strength depended. The idea was so dazzling that few opposed it and even fewer raised the obvious concerns, of which there were many:

Could all of the bridges be captured intact and held long enough by lightly armed troops to give the amour time enough to arrive and rescue them?

Could the airborne forces be resupplied to the extent they needed to be?

What would happen if one or more of the bridges was destroyed or severally damaged?

What is German resistance proved more able than reports of the old, sick and inexperienced troop’s suspected to be in the area warranted?

What would happen if anything major went wrong? Anything at all?

Well, the British airborne forces in particular where about to find out, not when anything went wrong but when everything went wrong.

The last bridge in the long string of bridges was the magnificent structure at Arnhem. If that could not be captured or held for at least two days then everything else getting to that point was wasted. But with no near-by drop zones, ineffective communications, lost equipment and the earlier dismissed rumour of armour in the area proving true (to the tune of two SS Panzer divisions resting up from their retreat from France). Unable to report their situation it had to be assumed (hoped) that the bridge had been taken – where only one side was actually in British hands – and the armour was sent hell for leather to reach them. From the very first the assault was plagued with problems. Advancing down a single road the armoured columns were easy prey for well sighted anti-tank guns. Air support was intermittent due to bad weather and a seeming reluctance to engage enemy units as the opportunity arose. Expert knowledge from the Dutch resistance was politely declined by the British commanders (yet used to advantage by the less fussy Americans) so vital intelligence was missed – including opportunities to use the telephone system to overcome problems with the radios. Then, of course, the inevitable happened – they lost a bridge and the tight timetable, so vital and so achievable on paper fell apart. The Arnhem enclave, expected to last for two days, lasted for nine under increasingly heavy fire and mounting casualties before it was overrun with Allied tanks only a mile or so away. The operation – Market Garden – had failed.

Spectacularly filmed in 1977 movie of the same name this was unsurprisingly on an epic scale with a cast of (seemingly) every major star from England, America and German background – although whoever cast Gene Hackman as the Polish Major General Sosabowski should be shot. Much of the detail of the bestselling popular history made it into the movie although the film was considerably toned down from the often harrowing stories related in this honestly gripping tale. I was not surprised in the least that it had spent months on the bestseller list. It is still a great work of military history and should be a standard reference work for any military commander responsible for putting troop’s lives on the line to show what can go wrong especially with the most optimistic of plans. If you have any interest in WW2, ‘simple’ Heroism, military blunders or simply want to read a master study of Murphy’s Law in brutal action then this is definitely the book for you. Highly Recommended.      

Monday, January 16, 2017

I'll get right on it little guy....... [grin]

Just Finished Reading: Mr Holmes by Mitch Cullin (FP: 2005)

Sussex, England 1947. An aging and long retired Sherlock Holmes (played superbly by Sir Ian McKellen in the 2015 movie adaptation) returns to his favourite farmhouse residence and his consuming passion – his thriving apiary containing a fine collection of hives, busy bees and a steady production of fine honey. But Holmes is more than aware that his memory, often the vital component in his famous investigations, is increasingly failing him. He finds seemingly unconnected items in his pockets, others vanish from sight only to reappear minutes, hours or days later and, rather more worryingly he is starting to forget people’s names. Yet his memories of years gone by seem as strong as ever sometimes washing over him is astonishing detail. One case in particular continues to haunt him. Called in to explain the behaviour of Mrs Ann Keller in 1902 he is immediately struck both by her beauty and her tragic ethereal quality. Even after the passage of 45 years Holmes still ruminates on the reason why she had such a profound effect on him after such a brief acquaintance. More recently Holmes is troubled by his behaviour in Japan when, whilst searching for life extending herbs and discussing the properties of Royal Jelly with a fellow bee keeper, he is asked about his companions father who disappeared in London decades before after (apparently) meeting the famous detective. Having no memory of the encounter – either through memory loss or the fact that they never actually met – Holmes find himself torn between revealing the truth of the matter or manufacturing a face-saving lie which goes against all of his finely honed principles. Then there is Roger, the young boy, son of his new housekeeper, eager to hear stories of crimes solved and the mysterious ways of the beehive.

Both a rather odd film – definitely not your run-of-the-mill Sherlock Holmes story – and an equally strange book this turned out to be both a delight to watch (I saw it at the cinema when it came out) and to read. To use the much abused and overused appellation this was simply beautiful in the use of prose and you could have no problem understanding the frustration and the heart-breaking reality of a once towering intellect now unable to remember if he had in fact eaten dinner or where he had left his pipe. Inevitably whenever I visualised Holmes I ‘saw’ Ian McKellen in my mind as he was such a powerful presence on the screen portraying a once great detective in terminal decline. But that is not to say that this is simply a tragic novel of decay and ultimate death. There is much to wonder at and much that is original and surprising. I found it an easy read and kept turning the 253 pages until the very satisfying ending with something of a sigh and a thought that I should dig out more of Mr Cullin’s works if this was anything to go by. Recommended – and not just for Holmes fans.    

A Scottish newspaper's TV listing of President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration has caught people's attention both in the UK and the US.

The Sunday Herald TV critic Damien Love reimagined the ceremony as a return of the classic science fiction series The Twilight Zone.

President Trump: The Inauguration

4pm, BBC One/ STV

"After a long absence, The Twilight Zone returns with one of the most ambitious, expensive and controversial productions in broadcast history. Sci-fi writers have dabbled often with alternative history stories - among the most common is the "What If The Nazis Had Won The Second World War" setting - but this huge interactive virtual reality project, which will unfold on TV, in the press, and on Twitter over the next four years, sets out to build an ongoing alternative present.

The story begins in a nightmarish version of 2017 in which huge sections of the US electorate have somehow been duped into voting to make Donald Trump president. It sounds far-fetched, and it is, but as it goes on it becomes more and more chillingly plausible. Today's feature-length opener concentrates on the gaudy inauguration of President Trump, and the stirrings of protest and despair surrounding the ceremony, while pundits speculate gravely on what lies ahead. It's a flawed piece, but a disturbing glimpse of the horrors we could stumble into, if we're not careful."

[From the BBC]

Saturday, January 14, 2017

When things come out of the Woodwork……

Boris Johnson's previously unpublished 'pro-EU' column revealed.

Boris Johnson said the UK remaining in the EU would be a "boon for the world and for Europe", a previously unpublished newspaper column reveals. He wrote the column in February, along with a pro-Brexit article that was later published in the Telegraph. Mr Johnson subsequently became a leading figure in the campaign to leave the European Union. The Sunday Times has published the pro-Remain column, which it says Mr Johnson wrote to clarify his thoughts. In it he warned that Brexit could lead to an economic shock, Scottish independence and Russian aggression. The foreign secretary had previously admitted to writing the piece but its contents had not been known. The Sunday Times says he first wrote an article arguing the case to leave the EU, then wrote the pro-Remain piece "as a way of clarifying his thoughts", before composing a final article for publication backing Brexit. But in the pro-EU article, revealed in a new book by Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman, All Out War, he supported membership of the free trade zone. "This is a market on our doorstep, ready for further exploitation by British firms," Mr Johnson wrote. "The membership fee seems rather small for all that access. Why are we so determined to turn our back on it?"

Nicola Sturgeon: Scotland may seek separate EU trade deal.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she believes a deal could be reached which would allow Scotland to retain access to the European single market. Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, she said the UK leaving the EU need not entail Scotland being excluded from a separate trade arrangement. "I think that is possible," she said. The first minister said her government was looking at the detail of how that could happen, adding: "We will publish proposals over the next few weeks."

UK economy 'faces prolonged weakness', Item Club report says.

Britain's economy faces a "prolonged period" of weaker growth as consumer spending slows and business curbs investment, according to a report. Although the EY Item Club think tank predicts the economy will grow 1.9% this year, it expects that performance to fizzle out as inflation rises. The economy's stability since June's Brexit vote was "deceptive", EY said. Meanwhile, a senior Bank of England official told the BBC that inflation may surpass its 2% target. The Bank's deputy governor Ben Broadbent told Radio 5 live that sterling's weakness would fuel inflation, but that controlling prices with tighter monetary policy could hit growth and jobs. The dilemma facing policymakers was underlined in the Item Club report. It expects inflation to jump to 2.6% next year before easing back to 1.8% in 2018. That will cause growth in consumer spending to slow from an expected 2.5% this year to 0.5% in 2017 and 0.9% the year after, the report said. Business investment is also forecast to fall due to uncertainty surrounding Britain's future trading relationship with the EU, dropping 1.5% this year and more than 2% in 2017. EY predicts that the impact of weaker consumer spending and falling investment will cause UK GDP growth to drop sharply to 0.8% next year, before expanding to 1.4% in 2018.

MPs' consent 'not needed for Article 50 to trigger Brexit'.

Consent from Parliament is "not required" for Theresa May to go ahead with getting Brexit under way, the High Court has heard. Attorney General Jeremy Wright said it was a "proper and well established" principle that governments use the royal prerogative in such cases. But those bringing the case argue that it is vital MPs and peers get a say. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which starts the Brexit process, is to be triggered by the end of next March. Campaigners say the prime minister lacks the power to do this without the prior authorisation of Parliament. But, arguing the government's case, Mr Wright said Article 50 was available to "to give effect to the will of the people", as expressed in June's referendum, in which a majority of voters backed Brexit. The use of the royal prerogative - powers historically held by the Crown but these days passed on to ministers - was "wholly within the expectation of Parliament", he said. Parliament had also passed an act allowing the referendum to take place, he added.

Commons vote to ratify Brexit deal likely, says No 10.

Downing Street has said it is "very likely" MPs will be able to vote on the final Brexit agreement reached between the UK and the European Union. Number 10 confirmed the comment by a government lawyer in the High Court represented the "government's view". The vote would take place after negotiations have taken place and with Brexit already triggered using Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Campaigners have been calling for a vote before Article 50 is triggered. Open Britain, formerly the Remain campaign, said the government's comments were an "encouraging sign" but renewed calls for a debate and vote earlier in the process, before Article 50 begins two years of formal negotiations. The UK is expected to leave the European Union in 2019. Prime Minister Theresa May opposes a vote before Article 50, saying those calling for one are "trying to subvert" the outcome of June's referendum. The issue is currently the subject of a landmark legal challenge, with the government defending what it says is its right to invoke Article 50 without Parliamentary approval.

UK inflation at 1% as price of clothes and fuel rises.

Rising prices for clothes, hotel rooms and petrol have led to the highest rate of inflation in nearly two years, official figures show. Inflation rose to 1.0% in September, up from 0.6% in August, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said. Clothing saw its biggest price rise since 2010 and fuel, which was falling a year ago, was also more expensive. However, the ONS said there was "no explicit evidence" the weaker pound was the reason for higher prices. September's inflation figure has traditionally been crucial because it decided what rate benefits would increase by in the following year. However, with the government having frozen many benefits and tax credits until 2020, many families will no longer see them keep up with rising prices. Rising prices will "undoubtedly be tough on those with low incomes," said Ben Brettell, senior economist at Hargreaves Lansdown. "It's also not good news for savers who are losing money in real terms," he added. The jump in Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation from 0.6% to 1.0% in September was the biggest month-on-month increase since June 2014. The 1% rate is the highest since November 2014. However, ONS head of inflation Mike Prestwood said it was "low by historic standards".

All details above from BBC News website.

[With the Supreme Court decision due soon we’re still being regaled with mixed messages from the Government despite rather strenuous denials that they are ‘muddled’ in their thinking. We’re told it’ll be a hard Brexit, then a soft one, we’re told that we can cherry pick certain aspects of membership and ditch others, then we’re told its all or nothing, we’re told that we need a phased transition and then we’re told out is out, then we’re told that obligations mean we’ll be paying into the EU years after we actually leave. Messy? You haven’t seen anything yet!]

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Travelling with Che Guevara – The Making of a Revolutionary by Alberto Granado (FP: 1978)

29th December 1951. After much dreaming and even much planning qualified Doctor Alberto Granado and his best friend Ernesto Guevara who was soon to take his final medical exams start the journey of a lifetime. They fully expect it to be a journey spoken about in the years and decades to come as a watershed in their lives, as something which helped to define them both as men and as Latin Americans. They were not to be disappointed. Travelling at least part way on Alberto’s 1949 Norton 500cc motorbike they left their native Argentina to begin circumnavigating the Southern continent. Along the way they would meet with adversity, they would have accidents, run out of money, get in trouble with the authorities, get lost (many times) and need to throw themselves on the mercy of strangers. Luckily for the two young friends they had the luck, the charm and the reputation as doctors to assist them on their way. But throughout their months long odyssey one theme emerged time and time again: the most generous people they met where also the most poor and the most oppressed. Those with little or nothing shared everything they had. Those with the most either begrudged anything they gave or simply gave nothing. Everywhere they went, throughout the whole continent they saw deprivation, oppression, enforced servitude, unnecessary poverty and exploitation both by Latin American against Latin American and, more seriously, of Yankee against indigenous populations. The land they travelled through was often rich but the people working the land and digging in the mines were invariably poor. Time and again they were met with the reality of things and, day after day, they resolved that something must be done to alleviate the plight of the poor. Only one route presented itself to Ernesto – later known throughout the world as ‘Che’ – violent armed revolution.

I’ve known something about and been interested in Che Guevara since at least the 1980’s and maybe as far back as the 1970’s. Who with leftwards learnings wouldn’t have been? But until comparatively recently I knew little about the man himself. So when the 2004 movie ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ came along (based on the book of the same name by Che and this by his best friend) I had to see it. None of my friends were interested so I went to see it myself and sat in the theatre with 4-5 other people on Saturday afternoon entranced by the journey, at turns dramatic, funny and dangerously na├»ve, undertaken so long ago faithfully recreated with the aid of the author who advised the director Walter Salles during the filming. You could really see an already disaffected and politically knowledgeable young would-be Doctor come to the conclusion that his originally chosen career just wouldn’t be enough and wouldn’t help enough people to make a difference. So he chose the revolutionary path, a journey that brought him to world prominence and, probably, an eternal place in the left-wing Pantheon. Both the film and the book (indeed both books) are well worth delving into and they (all three) give some insight into what made Ernesto into the legendary Che Guevara. Much more Che to come.      

Translated from the Spanish by Lucia Alverez de Toledo

Happy Birthday HAL. 25 Years old today!!!