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

Sunday, April 30, 2017

...and so ends Book Month on a 'High' (sorry, couldn't resist). I hope you enjoyed 4 weeks of book related stuff. Next up - for one week only - is Star Wars Week starting (naturally) on May the 4th....

Cartoon Time.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Book sales hit a record as children's fiction gains in popularity.

From The BBC

27 April 2017.

Children's fiction helped drive UK book sales to a record £3.5bn last year, the Publishers Association (PA) has said. The 6% rise came despite the waning popularity of ebooks, which saw sales fall by 3% to £538m last year. Sales of children's books rose 16% to £365m, with the increase due mainly to the purchase of printed works. Readers also flocked to fitness and self-help books, sending non-fiction sales up 9%. Revenues from fiction fell 7%, the PA's annual report said. Including journals, the PA said that the publishing industry - covering books and journals - saw a 7% increase in sales to £4.8bn. Exports rose 6% to £2.6bn, benefiting from a decline in the value of sterling, but also rising in line with domestic growth. Exports of children's books increased 34% to £116m. The export gains reversed three previous years of declines.

In 2015, adult colouring books and the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland helped the swell in physical book sales, while ebook sales fell 1.6%. This time, books on the Danish concept of hygge, which is usually translated into English as "cosiness", assisted factual sales, as well as fitness books by personal trainer Joe Wicks. While ebook sales took a hit, digital distribution helped other media. Journals made a 10% gain last year to £1.2bn, led by a jump in electronic subscriptions. "Last year, one of the most eye-catching figures from our statistics was that physical book sales were increasing while digital book sales dropped," said chief executive Stephen Lotinga. "While many will debate as to whether this trend will continue, we should not ignore the fact that digital sales beyond the domestic ebook market are growing."

[Yea, for physical book sales! Hopefully I was doing (more) than my bit for that percentage increase. I do far prefer the physicality of books to the electronic word dump onto the device of your choice. Those things, whatever you want to call them, aren’t real (or really) books. Well’ I think I may have already accumulated enough real books to last me a lifetime and they’re not going anywhere any time soon. Here’s to books, books and more books!]

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Bosworth – The Birth of the Tudors by Chris Skidmore (FP: 2013)

I’m not sure what it’s like now (though I can guess) but back in my school days in the 70’s every school aged child in England knew the date August 1485. It was the day that England changed direction and, arguably, our greatest age began. On August 22nd of that year a battle took place forever known as Bosworth Field where the young and untried Henry Tudor unexpectedly defeated the battle hardened King Richard III and started the Tudor dynasty. Ever since historians, and quite a few contemporary observers, wondered how exactly Henry managed to pull off this amazing feat of arms. He was young, largely untried in battle, had a much smaller and more poorly armed force and he was facing one of the most successful English generals of the age who had everything to lose so had an overwhelming force to back him up. Yet, in a matter of hours Richard was dead and Henry triumphant. The story of exactly how that came to pass is the meat of this detailed and intriguing book.

It is no real surprise that the creator of Game of Thrones, George R R Martin, based the political background to his series on the Wars of the Roses. If you’ve watched the HBO series or read the books you’ll already have an appreciation of aspects of the deadly decade’s long conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York. Full of intrigue, double (and triple) dealing, betrayal, sudden change of allegiance, unexplained death and downright evil the later named Wars of the Roses had it all – in spades! Both sides of the conflict, which often split families pitting father against son and brother against brother, gave nor received quarter and often took delight in slaughtering their opponents against every previous convention of war. Two particular incidents spring to mind. After one particularly brutal battle (Tewksbury, I think) the leaders of the losing side fell back to a local cathedral and claimed sanctuary in the expectation that they would, according to custom, eventually be taken prisoner and ransomed back to their families. Unfortunately for them the victors had no intention of facing them in battle again, ordered their troops inside the church and dragged them outside to be beheaded in the public square. So much blood had been spilt inside the church that it had to be re-consecrated. On another occasion a leader of one faction was caught fleeing England across the channel to France. Caught by the other faction’s ships he was brought on to the enemy’s flagship and, without much ceremony, executed with a deliberately rusty sword causing the attempt at beheading to take 5-6 swings in total. As I say, brutal and unforgiving.

Richard’s powerbase began crumbling from the day he, literally, took office as King over the much better claims of the two children of King Edward IV forever known as ‘the Princes in the Tower’. The author kind of glosses over this darkest of dark incidents but there is no getting away from the fact that Richard put them in the Tower and they clearly never came out again. Ruthless in his actions to consolidate and hold on to power he turned even his most loyal servants against him finally. So much so that, at Bosworth itself, when everything hinged on the actions of a few men, those men effectively sat on their hands and did nothing to protect their King.

Despite the fact that I am becoming increasingly familiar with the period I still managed to learn a great deal from this book, especially about Henry’s time in France (actually Brittany which was a separate state back then) and much more about the shifting powerbase on both sides of the conflict. Be warned though, there are a lot of people involved in this take and more than a fair number of them have both the same name and the same title. More than once I stopped myself and thought: hold on a second, I thought he was dead, only to realise that it was the *next* Duke of this or Earl of that who was *also* called Edward or Richard. You definitely have to keep your wits about you with this period of history. One final thing which my American readership should find interesting is that, despite the fact that Bosworth took place over 500 years ago passions around the York/Lancaster split still enrage passions today. When the body of Richard III was recently discovered in Leicester to resultant publicity and law cases over the disposition of his remains got very heated at times with both Yorkists and Lancastrians coming out of the woodwork to shout abuse at each other. Of course the Yorkists had it all wrong. The fact is that they lost and should just get over it – being a Lancastrian myself has, of course, nothing to do with it. An excellent romp through some of our bloodiest history and highly recommended.  

Monday, April 24, 2017

It’s the Economy, STUPID.

UK fishing industry 'will need EU market access' post Brexit.

The UK fishing industry will need continued access to EU markets if it is to thrive after Brexit, a House of Lords report has warned. It also warns that Britain may have to allow EU-registered boats to fish in UK waters as part of an overall deal. Fishing regions around the UK voted heavily in favour of leaving the EU during the referendum campaign. The Lords review says these communities are at risk of being marginalised in the wider Brexit negotiations. The EU's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), with its quotas and principle of equal access to commercial fishing grounds for boats from all member states, has often been characterised by the industry as a disaster for Britain. This dislike helped mobilise many in the industry to campaign for a leave vote in the referendum last June. Many in the fishing community argue that Brexit now offers the industry the chance to regain control over UK waters and become a leading fish-exporting nation, like Norway. However, the House of Lords European Union Committee has released a report that looks at the risks and opportunities for the UK industry.

Since UK fishing only produces a half of one percent of GDP and employs just 12,000 fishers, the Lords say that industry might be a low priority for the government but it "must not be marginalised in the wider Brexit negotiations". What complicates the picture is the fact the most commercial fish stocks are in waters that are shared between the UK and other EU coastal states. The vast majority of UK fish are exported, mainly to the EU while a significant proportion of the fish that British consumers eat is imported, often from EU states. "A successful industry," the report says, "therefore needs continued market access." However, that access may come at a price. "Brexit will involve many trade-offs," said Lord Teverson who chairs the Lords EU Energy and Environment sub-committee. "It may very well be that EU member states demand more access to UK waters than some fishers would want in return for our continued rights to sell fish to the European market with zero tariffs."

Joint call for EU citizens to stay in UK.

Businesses and trade unions have called on Theresa May to guarantee immediately the right of EU citizens to stay in the UK after Brexit. The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), which represents companies with a combined workforce of five million people, and the TUC made the call in an open letter to the prime minister. Failure to do so would damage the UK economy, the two bodies said. Downing Street said Mrs May wanted to protect the status of EU nationals. The bluntly-worded letter was jointly signed by TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady and BCC director-general Adam Marshall. "We call upon you to demonstrate leadership by providing EU citizens in the UK with the reassurance we would expect to be shown to UK citizens across the Continent - not by making one conditional upon the other," they wrote. "Now is the time to end insecurity for EU workers and for British businesses alike." There were 2.1 million people from EU member nations working in the UK as of March this year, according to the ONS. That was 224,000 more than the total for the first three months of 2015.

Post-Brexit deals 'not at price of EU free trade ties'

Post-Brexit trade deals should not "come at a price" to existing agreements with other EU nations, ex-chancellor George Osborne says. But he told the BBC's Andrew Marr the UK needed a "hard-headed assessment" of issues such as the EU customs union. On the same programme, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox did not reveal his stance on the customs union, which sets standard tariffs EU-wide. He said he was "a free trader", but the government would reach a view. Staying a member of the customs union would, however, mean "limitations" on the UK's ability to set its own trade tariffs, which would in turn limit the kind of deals it could do with the rest of the world, Mr Fox added. Mr Osborne, who argued for Remain, said it was essential that close relations with countries such as France and Germany were not sacrificed in pursuit of new trade deals with other nations including China. He told the Andrew Marr Show: "Yes it's true the grass may be greener outside of these arrangements and we may be able to conduct new trade deals with the United States, Australia and so on. But that shouldn't come at a price of giving up existing free trade agreements we have with Germany and France. You can't say we are a beacon of free trade in the world and then the main thing you achieve is a huge act of protectionism, the biggest in British history."

UK third quarter GDP growth revised up to 0.6%.

The UK economy grew by 0.6% in the third quarter, according to official figures, faster than previous estimates. Growth for the July-to-September period had originally been estimated at 0.5%. New data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested that the business and financial sector was more active than previously estimated. The ONS also said that growth in the third quarter of the year was helped by "robust consumer demand". However, the ONS trimmed its estimates of growth in the first and second quarter of the year. It now says the economy grew by 0.3% in the first quarter, compared with an earlier figure of 0.4%, and cut its estimate for second-quarter growth to 0.6% from 0.7%. Ruth Gregory, UK economist at Capital Economics, said the figures suggested that June's Brexit vote had had little impact on the economy and that growth in the final quarter of the year would be positive. "The latest set of UK National Accounts leave the economy looking even stronger after the referendum than previously estimated," she said. "GDP growth in Q3 was revised up from 0.5% to 0.6% and the 0.7% growth rate seen in the second quarter was revised down a touch, to 0.6%, suggesting that the economy didn't lose any pace following the referendum."

All details above from BBC News website.

[Now we have the ‘distraction’ of a General Election to get out of the way before the road to Brexit can be navigated with assurance – or so says/hopes Teresa May. That’ll only happen if they substantially increase their majority. Hopefully that won’t happen and it’ll all dissolve into an unholy mess. At least I can hope! The election will, no doubt, be fought very much on the Brexit ticket. I wonder what the electorate will do this time…..]

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Except Book Blogs (naturally).....

Saturn moon 'able to support life'

By Jonathan Amos BBC Science Correspondent

13 April 2017

Saturn's ice-crusted moon Enceladus may now be the single best place to go to look for life beyond Earth. The assessment comes on the heels of new observations at the 500km-wide world made by the Cassini probe. It has flown through and sampled the waters from a subsurface ocean that is being jetted into space. Cassini’s chemistry analysis strongly suggests the Enceladean seafloor has hot fluid vents - places that on Earth are known to teem with life. To be clear: the existence of such hydrothermal systems is not a guarantee that organisms are present on the little moon; its environment may still be sterile. But the new results make a compelling case to return to this world with more sophisticated instrumentation - technologies that can re-sample the ejected water for clear evidence that biology is also at play.

"We're pretty darn sure that the internal ocean of Enceladus is habitable and we need to go back and investigate it further," said Cassini scientist Dr Hunter Waite from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. "If there is no life there, why not? And if there is, all the better. But you certainly want to ask the question because it's almost as equally as interesting if there is no life there, given the conditions," he told BBC News.

The sub-surface ocean on Enceladus is thought to be many kilometres deep, kept liquid by the heat generated from the constant gravitational squeezing the moon receives from the mighty Saturn. Cassini has already established that this voluminous liquid is in contact with the rock bed from the types of salts and silica that have also been detected in the jets. But what scientists really wanted to know is if a particular interactive process seen at Earth was taking place in the distant abyss - something called serpentinisation. At the mid-ocean ridges on our planet, seawater is drawn through, and reacts with, hot upwelling rocks that are rich in iron and magnesium. As the minerals in these rocks incorporate H2O molecules into their crystal structure, they release hydrogen - a byproduct that can be used by some microbes as an energy source to drive their metabolism. It is the definitive signal for molecular hydrogen in the plumes of Enceladus that Cassini has now confirmed. "If you were a micro-organism, hydrogen would be like candy - it's your favourite food," explained Dr Chris McKay, an astrobiologist with the US space agency (Nasa). "It's very good energetically; it can support micro-organisms in grand style. Finding hydrogen is certainly a big plus; icing on the cake for the habitability argument, and a very tasty one at that." The type of microbes described by Dr McKay are called methanogens because they make methane as they react the hydrogen with carbon dioxide.

Nasa, which leads the Cassini mission, was due to make the hydrogen announcement a couple of months after the probe's last fly-through of the moon's jets in October 2015. But the agency held off. One of the concerns was that the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer on the satellite can actually make molecular hydrogen inside itself if water enters the instrument in a particular way. Dr Waite's group has spent a year analysing the data to make sure the hydrogen signal is intrinsic to the jets and not merely some artefact of the INMS's operation. And although serpentinisation is arguably the best explanation for the signal, it is possible to produce the gas also from the heating of very primitive (meteoritic) rock. The Cassini mission is coming to a close. Having spent 12 years circling Saturn, it is now running low on fuel and will be dumped in the atmosphere of the ringed planet in September - to ensure it cannot collide with Enceladus at some future date and contaminate it.

As brilliant as the probe's instruments are, they were never designed to make a direct life detection at the bright white moon. This would need a whole new class of spectrometers. A proposal is being put together to fly them in 2026. Nasa has already green-lit a mission to Europa, an ocean moon of Jupiter. It very likely has serpentinisation going on as well. But its ice shell is very much thicker and it could be that very little of the water escapes to space. The appeal of Enceladus is the ease with which its subsurface can be studied because of the material carried into space by its network of geysers. A probe only needs fly through the emission to make the investigation. "The Cassini mission has really brought Enceladus to the fore in terms of the search for life elsewhere in the Solar System," commented British Cassini scientist Dr Andrew Coates. “The top three now I would say are about equal. There's Mars, which may have had life 3.8 billion years ago when conditions were very different to what they are now. There's Europa, which has a subsurface ocean; and now Enceladus. Those three may have, or had, the right conditions for life." Dr Waite added: “For life, you need liquid water, organics, and the CHNOPS elements (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulphur). OK, we haven't yet measured phosphorus and sulphur at Enceladus. But you also need some kind of metabolic energy source, and the new Cassini results are an important contribution in that regard." A paper describing the work of Dr Waite's group is published in the journal Science.

[From what I’ve read over the past few years Enceladus is THE mostly likely location for life outside Earth. We really need to get back there ASAP and start seriously looking for it. Just imagine if we find life there are it has NO connection to life on Earth. If it can be proved to have evolved independently that would be mind-blowing plus open up the possibility of life on a whole host of worlds previously ignored as unlikely. I think knowing that it worth the price of a small pointless war somewhere, right?]

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Send a Gunboat by Douglas Reeman (FP: 1960)

Hong Kong, China. The Mid/late 1950’s. Naval Commander Justin Rolfe arrives under a cloud of suspicion after crashing his previous command at high speed into the docks at Malta. Barely surviving the resultant court-martial he is assigned to command Her Majesties China Gunboat Wagtail in the final few months before the obsolete craft is decommissioned. But almost as soon as he arrives on board he is surprised to receive an urgent and secret order to provision and sail immediately. Their destination is the small island of Santu which is threatened by invasion by the Communist Chinese. On the island is a small contingent of British businessmen and a doctor with decided Left-Wing leanings. The island is run with military brutality by a Nationalist Chinese General who, when not playing chess or planning acts of piracy against his Communist enemies enjoys nothing more than counting his money. With a crew initially deeply suspicious of their new Captain they must sail into potentially dangerous waters with a vessel designed at the turn of the century potentially facing the crème of the Communist Chinese destroyer force. Even Commander Rolf is unsure how he will react if the shooting starts and people start dying.

I picked this up a little while back when I thought I’d like to read more seafaring tales. Reeman wrote LOTS of books in the 60’s and 70’s and continued writing until 2007 just 10 years before his death. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but the ‘feel’ of the book was something approaching the original Ian Fleming Bond novels complete with heavy drinking protagonists, a bi-polar world made up of Democrats and Communists along with a flavour of dying Empire. The whole thing definitely had a slightly seedy, sleazy 1950’s feel to it which was fun. What I found less fun was the often poor (sometimes bordering on the terrible) dialogue throughout the short 256 page book. Despite this obvious weakness I did find it a quick and easy read containing a bunch of generally stereotypical (if entertaining) characters. What raised it above the bland and barely engaging was the final meeting between Wagtail and an anonymous Chinese destroyer. The running battle over around 20 pages was gripping and seemed to me to be a believably realistic representation of what might be expected of such an encounter. It was definitely the highlight of the book. I’ve already picked up a few more of the authors many, many sea related novels and you’ll be hearing more from him at some point. With luck ‘Gunboat’ might be a poorer example of his work than the rest. I hope so. Reasonable, if dated, thrills in shallow Chinese waters.  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

General election campaigning begins as MPs back June poll.

Well, I doubt that many people saw this one coming – another election so soon, indeed far sooner than expected. The stated reason, and therefore not the actual one, was that opposition parties (and others) are in danger of slowing or stopping the Brexit process and that the PM needs a further mandate from the people to shut them up and get on with her job of breaking us away from Europe. Yet the Conservatives have a majority in Parliament – OK it’s only a small one of 17 seats – so what she really means is that she doesn’t have the confidence to get her measures through over opposition in her own party which would be, at best, rather embarrassing for her in any future negotiations. So, a General Election…. Or as I (and others) are already calling it: Referendum 2.

As I called the last result with a fair degree of accuracy (and still regret not putting a bet on) I’ll see if I can predict the result of June 8ths polling. Here goes:

I think that it’s highly likely (75% plus) that the Conservatives will win. The Labour Party is still in far too much of a mess and will probably quickly descend into in-fighting during the next 6-7 weeks of campaigning. Their prospect of winning is slim especially when they’re so far behind in the polls. The Liberal Democrats, reduced to a mere 9 seats after the last election haven’t a hope of contesting things but, if they’re very lucky, be able to form a Coalition with someone but who would trust them? Now the question is ‘win by how much?’ Teresa May’s attempt to bolster her support is risky. She’s nailed her Brexit colours to the election mast and is essentially saying that if you want Brexit (and presumably Hard Brexit) you vote Tory. This will naturally alienate quite a lot of people – approximately 48% to be exact. Now the 48% are naturally spread across the political spectrum so their effect will be somewhat minimised. I can’t see a Tory Remainer voting Labour but they might vote Lib Dem on this one occasion. I think that the Liberals will pick up quite a few votes that way. The SNP safely in Scotland can only take a single seat from the Conservatives and will probably move Heaven and Earth to make that happen. Labour will likely lose seats but, I’m guessing, not as many as the Tories expect or hope to gain. I doubt if UKIP will gain any seats (or if they do it’ll be a maximum of 1 or 2 and anything they take will probably be from the Tories rather than anyone else. So, circling back to the original question – how well will the Conservatives do? I’m betting not nearly as much as they want or need. I’m guessing that their present majority of 17 will increase to somewhere between 25-50. If it’s at the lower end there will be some serious rumbles in the Party. If it’s more towards the top the PM should be able to ride out the storm much better. Of course the Nightmare Scenario is if the majority actually drops or (unlikely as it seems) the Tories lose. If that happens the Tories will go into a feeding frenzy and start tearing chunks out of each other – or at least we can hope so.

What about Labour? I don’t think they’ll do as badly as some people think. They still have quite a lot of core believers out there and Corbyn is still very popular at the grass roots level. The upcoming election will hurt them but I doubt if they’ll lose more than 30 seats, 40 tops. I doubt if very many of those (10-15 maybe) with go Tory Blue. The Lib Dems have an opportunity here and will probably take it as the only Party to actively oppose Brexit. From their meagre 9 seats, and despite a lot of mistrust and, to be honest, downright disgust at their previous behaviour (including from yours truly) I’m estimating that when the dust is settled they’ll have at least 15 and if they’re lucky maybe 20 MP’s in the new Parliament. I think the SNP might lose a seat or two (possibly) but I think they might be able to make a clean sweep and be the only political party in Scotland. A LOT of pressure is going to be applied to the 3 seats that they don’t have! The General Election south of the border will be about Brexit. North of the border it’ll be about Independence and staying in the EU.

One thing for certain is that the next 6-7 weeks will reopen old wounds that have hardly started to heal after the Referendum and the debates become very heated indeed. This is, of course, when a tired and aggravated politician says or does something that changes the minds of thousands and wins, or more likely loses, the election for someone. I think that this is much more likely to be a Tory gaff than anyone else’s as it’s their election to lose rather than others to win. After all the Tories have Boris on their side to say nothing of Michael Gove. But I think the real uncertainty about the whole thing – and it’s nowhere near a done deal – is the inevitable Brexit Factor. Now the vote was blindingly close last time. In the year since that vote a lot of younger voters have been added to the electoral roll and a fair few older voters have left it. This will change the dynamic as younger voters tend to vote Left and voted much more to Remain than older voters. Then there’s the opportunity for all those who didn’t cast their votes last time in June 2016 to do so in June 2017. That could, if it happens, have a significant impact.  

Over all I think that the Tories will win but not in the way they want or need. I actually don’t think that June 8th will solve anything fundamental and may make things rather worse. The risk of a hung Parliament is a real one with all the consequences of that on the Article 50 process and there is even a small risk that, if things go badly and public opinion shifts that the Government could fall. If a new Government forms under the impression that they have a mandate to stop the Brexit process then things get very, very interesting indeed! But that’ll probably only happen in my dreams. I’m certainly not holding my breath here! Right – now I need to sort out my bets and put a tenner on…..

Cartoon Time.

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Work in Progress?

David Davis on Brexit: UK's plan still being worked on.

The government's plan for Brexit negotiations will not be published until February [2017] at the earliest. Brexit Secretary David Davis told MPs there was a lot of research and policy work to be done before it was ready. Mr Davis said he wanted to be "as open as we can be" without undermining the UK's negotiating position. The minister also said if no agreement was reached with the EU a transitional Brexit deal could be struck "if it is necessary and only if it is necessary". The government has said it will notify the EU of its intention to leave - beginning the two year process of talks on its exit - by the end of March at the latest. In response to pressure from Labour and some Tory MPs, ministers agreed last week to give more detail of their negotiating aims before starting the exit negotiations. Appearing before the Commons Select Brexit committee for the first time, Mr Davis said the "broad outline" of the UK's objectives were known but the detail had to be filled in. Asked by its chair, Labour MP Hilary Benn, when the plan would be released, Mr Davis would not be drawn on a specific date but ruled out it happening in January.

Call for 'unilateral' Brexit guarantee for EU citizens.

The UK has a "moral" duty to guarantee the status of EU nationals living in the country ahead of negotiations over its exit, a group of peers has said. A Lords EU committee has called for an immediate "unilateral undertaking" that EU nationals can continue to live, work and study in the UK after Brexit. It said failure to do this would have a severe impact on migrants' rights. Ministers say they expect this to happen but need equivalent guarantees for UK citizens on the Continent. The question of what will happen to the estimated 2.9 million citizens of other EU countries who have made their home in the UK in recent years is one of the most controversial arising from the UK's vote to leave the EU in June's referendum. The government has said it expects an early resolution of the issue once official talks on the terms of the UK's separation from the EU begin next spring. But it has refrained from giving any guarantees on their future status - saying this is impossible without similar safeguards for the estimated 1.2 million Britons living in Spain, France, Italy and other EU countries. But the Lords EU Justice sub-committee said the UK should not wait to hear from other EU countries and that making a binding commitment now was "morally the right thing to do".

Brexit trade deal could take 10 years, says UK's ambassador.

A post-Brexit UK-EU trade deal might take 10 years to finalise and still fail, the UK's top diplomat in Brussels has privately told the government. The BBC understands Sir Ivan Rogers warned ministers that the European consensus was that a deal might not be done until the early to mid-2020s. He also cautioned that an agreement could be rejected ultimately by other EU members' national parliaments. PM Theresa May said she wanted Brexit to be "smooth and orderly". In October, Sir Ivan, who conducted David Cameron's negotiation over the UK's relationship with the EU, advised ministers that the view of the 27 other countries was that a free trade agreement could take as long as a decade. He said that even once concluded, the deal might not survive the process of ratification, which involves every country having to approve the deal in its own parliament. It is also understood he suggested that the expectation among European leaders was that a free trade deal, rather than continued membership of the single market, was the likely option for the UK after Brexit. Sir Ivan's private advice contrasts with ministers publicly insisting a deal can be done in the two years allowed by the triggering of Article 50 - the formal start of the process of leaving the EU. Downing Street said he was relaying other EU members' views, rather than his own or the British government's. A spokesman said: "It is wrong to suggest this was advice from our ambassador to the EU. Like all ambassadors, part of his role is to report the views of others."

Brexit: Warning firms could leave City over uncertainty.

Financial services firms could quit the City unless a transitional Brexit deal is secured, ministers have been warned. A cross-party group of peers said Britain's financial sector must be offered a Brexit "bridge" to prevent firms moving to rival locations such as New York, Dublin, Frankfurt or Paris. It urged the government to act to stop business tumbling off a "cliff edge". It comes as Prime Minister Theresa May prepares to meet other EU leaders at a summit meeting in Brussels. Mrs May will take part in EU-wide discussions on defence, foreign affairs, migration and the economy as well as holding bilateral meetings with the leaders of Latvia and Lithuania and the president of the European Parliament. However, she will not be present for a dinner on Thursday evening - at which the EU's remaining 27 leaders are expected to discuss their approach to Brexit.

In other Brexit developments:

The Lib Dems say the UK's promise to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice would endanger vital cooperation against crime

The European Parliament could start parallel negotiations with the UK unless it is given more of a say by EU leaders, a leading MEP says

The Foreign Affairs Committee urges ministers to reconsider their reluctance to share their thinking on the risks of no deal being reached

The UK is expected to begin official negotiations on the terms of its exit this Spring following the Leave vote in June's referendum. Businesses are pushing for an interim arrangement to safeguard the interests of companies, investors and customers during the period between the UK's departure and when post-Brexit trading and regulatory arrangements are settled. In the latest of a series of Lords Committee reports on Brexit, its EU financial affairs sub-committee said firms could decide to remove their operations from London because of uncertainty about what kind of agreement would be negotiated for cross-border trade.

All details above from BBC News website.

[According to Teresa May’s Easter address to the huddled masses she detects a ‘sense of people coming together’ over Brexit. That’s certainly news to me. The people I talk to – on both sides of the divide – haven’t, as far as I can tell, changed their opinion in the least. Personally I still think this is the worst (and most stupid) decision this country has made in at least the last century – and believe me we’ve made some pretty stupid decisions in the last 100 years – unless I’m provided with some seriously convincing evidence to the contrary. Watch this space!]

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Mystery of why shoelaces come undone unravelled by science.

From The BBC

12 April 2017

You put on your shoes, tie them as firmly as possible, but soon after the laces come undone. Now scientists think they know what causes one of life's knotty problems. They found the force of a foot striking the ground stretches and then relaxes the knot, while a second force caused by the leg swinging acts on the ends of the laces, like an invisible hand. The researchers say an understanding of shoelaces can be applied to other structures, such as DNA. Using a slow-motion camera and a series of experiments, mechanical engineers at University California Berkeley found "shoelace knot failure" happens in a matter of seconds, triggered by a complex interaction of forces. Lead researcher Christopher Daily-Diamond said: "When you talk about knotted structures, if you can start to understand the shoelace, then you can apply it to other things, like DNA or microstructures, that fail under dynamic forces. This is the first step toward understanding why certain knots are better than others, which no one has really done."

The study began with co-author and graduate student Christine Gregg lacing up a pair of running shoes and jogging on a treadmill while a colleague filmed what happened next. They found that when running, your foot strikes the ground at seven times the force of gravity. Responding to that force, the knot stretches and then relaxes. As the knot loosens, the swinging leg applies an inertial force on the free ends of the laces, leading to rapid unravelling in as little as two strides. Ms Gregg said: "To untie my knots, I pull on the free end of a bow tie and it comes undone. The shoelace knot comes untied due to the same sort of motion. The forces that cause this are not from a person pulling on the free end but from the inertial forces of the leg swinging back and forth while the knot is loosened from the shoe repeatedly striking the ground."

Scientists conducted tests with a variety of different laces. But while some laces might be better than others for tying knots, they all suffered from the same fundamental cause of knot failure, the study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A, found. Ms Gregg added: "The interesting thing about this mechanism is that your laces can be fine for a really long time and it's not until you get one little bit of motion to cause loosening that starts this avalanche effect leading to knot failure."

[Two things immediately spring to mind: First that it’s good to know that scientific research continues to push back the boundaries of our ignorance and second that it’s really nice to know that the fact my shoelaces come loose on an infuriatingly regular basis isn’t just down to be being simply incompetent in tying them. That’s good to know, damned good…..]

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (FP: 1933)

After much haranguing of a much put-upon father a young Vera Brittain is finally allowed to try for a place at Oxford. Seen by many as an indulgent waste of money (after all what good is a University education without a degree to show for it to a woman who will be getting married soon enough) Vera must work hard to overcome both prejudice and a barely adequate education up to that point. Against all expectations she is offered a place at Somerville College, Oxford and starts her new life in the final months of 1914. Weeks after she enrols the country is at war with the Central Powers and her brother, his school friends and the man she is beginning to fall in love with join the Army for a host of reasons. Not wanting to sit out her time in the educational isolation of Oxford Vera volunteers as a nurse in order to ‘do something useful’ for the war effort. Expecting a short sharp war, like many others, she had no idea that she would be spending the next four years dressing wounds, emptying bed pans and watching soldiers from both sides die in front of her.

As the war grinds on and the casualty’s mount Vera volunteers for overseas service now that she has completed her basic training in London. Burdened by the deaths of her friends and especially her lover she managed to recover somewhat during a year in Malta treating the wounded from the Middle Eastern campaigns. Returning to London to look after her ailing mother she returns to nursing and finally is posted to France working in a casualty clearing station not far from the front lines. Thankful that her brother is posted to the quieter Italian Front just as the 1918 massive German assault smashes against the Allied lines in France she is never busier or more exhausted when her mother calls her home again. Torn between duty and family she chooses family and has a black mark put against her military nursing career and will never work abroad again. Whilst at home the much feared telegram arrives: ‘Regret to inform you that…..’ her brother is dead – killed by a sniper in the Italian Alps. Numb from so much personal tragedy she somehow carries on until the Armistice and leaves nursing behind to continue her education – not in English but in History to try to discover how the world could have walked into such a catastrophe and to find a way of stopping it happening again. This, she determines, will be her life’s work from now on.

This is one of the classic biographies of WW1 and has been continually in print since its first publication in 1933. Filmed as a BBC series in 1979 with Cheryl Campbell as Vera and as a movie in 2014 starring Alicia Vikander as the author. Part cathartic exercise, part testimony, part polemic against the culture that produced the war in the first place and then steadfastly refused to learn from their obvious mistakes this is an interesting look at the home front in WW1 and how the fighting (and dying) had effects on the personal lives of those left behind. The constant fear of a ‘push’, the wait for a letter (or the much worse unexpected telegram), the reading of the lengthening casualty lists in the newspapers and the worsening conditions brought on by rationing, the U-Boat blockade and zeppelin raids all made life back home difficult at best. It’s no surprise that after the war Vera worked hard for the much maligned League of Nations to stop future wars from happening – of course somewhat ironically her memoir/biography was published in the same year that Hitler came to power in Germany. Running in parallel was her concerns over the conditions of the poor (yet oddly there’s little in here apart from a few paragraphs regarding unemployment during the Great Depression) and the growing struggle for women’s rights in all areas. As an early Feminist this biography became a rallying cry to all women of her generation and beyond to grasp their place in the sun.

Although I certainly found this interesting enough and I was glad that I had finally read this deservedly classic work I did have more than a little trouble actually liking the author. I most certainly sympathised with her losses and deeply admired her commitment to the nursing profession but there was something about her attitude that grated all the way through the book. I think it was, as she admits herself, the fact that she never really threw off her Victorian upbringing with all that implies. I couldn’t help but find her something of a snob and despite agreeing with much of her thought never really warmed to her. But maybe that says more about me than her. After all it was a very, very different age back then and no doubt she would be deeply shocked at the world today – if she could cope with it for 10 minutes without simply passing out in horror! This is most definitely a valuable document and a must read for anyone interesting in WW1 or the early days of European Feminism.

So ends my double-headed (Fact & Fiction) books into movies series. It’s been a very interesting experience and there will be more fiction into films to come. But now back to normal (and interrupted) programming!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

"And at last I had come to believe that, although men did change slowly, and left the evidence of their progressive modifications in statutes and treaties, no change would come soon enough to save the next generation from the grief and ruin that had engulfed my own so long as the world I knew endured - the world of haves and have-nots; of owners and owned; of rich and poor; of Great Powers and little nations, always at the mercy of the wealthy and strong; of influential persons whose interests were served by war, and who had sufficient authority to compel politicians to precipitate on behalf of a few the wholesale destruction of millions."

Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, 1933
Cartoon Time.