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

Monday, July 31, 2017

No Easy Options, No Easy Exit. (Still Catching Up!)

Jean-Claude Juncker: UK faces hefty Brexit bill.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has warned the UK it faces a "very hefty" bill for Brexit. He promised two years of "tough negotiation", when discussions on leaving terms get under way between the government and the European Union. Exit will not come "at a discount or at zero cost", he said in a speech to the Belgian Federal Parliament. Reports suggest the UK could have to pay the EU up to 60 billion euros (£51bn) after Brexit talks start. Mr Juncker's comments came as the House of Lords held a second day of discussion of the government's European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, which, if passed into law, will allow Prime Minister Theresa May to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, allowing formal talks with the EU to start. Discussions are taking place in Brussels on the size of the bill to be presented to Mrs May when she launches the talks. The amount will cover the UK's share of the cost of projects and programmes it signed up to as a member, as well as pensions for EU officials. In his speech, Mr Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg, said: "It will be a tough negotiation which will take two years to agree on the exit terms. And to agree on the future architecture of relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union we will need years. The British people have to know, they know already, that it will not be at a discount or at zero cost. The British must respect commitments they were involved in making. So the bill will be, to put it a bit crudely, very hefty."

Come to France post-Brexit, banks urged.

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron has said he would like UK banks and workers to relocate to his country, following discussions with Theresa May. Speaking in Downing Street, the centrist politician called his own country "a very attractive space". Mr Macron called for a "fair execution" of Brexit. The French government has been wooing London-based financial companies, but the UK government has promised to fight to maintain the City's position. HSBC said last month that it was preparing to move 1,000 jobs to Paris. Speaking after talks with Mrs May, Mr Macron was keen to emphasise his enthusiasm for such developments, telling reporters: "I was very happy to see that some academics and researchers in the UK, because of the Brexit, would consider to come to France precisely to work." Asked if he wanted banks to move to Paris after Brexit, he said: "I want banks, talents, researchers, academics and so on. I think that France and the EU are a very attractive space." Mr Macron, who appeared alone in Downing Street after his meeting, said there was a "series of initiatives" aimed at getting "talented people… working here to come to France". The former economy minister and investment banker added that despite the UK leaving the EU, there should be "further co-operation in terms of defence" between it and France.

Brexit: Heseltine vows to rebel in Lords bill debate.

Senior Tory Lord Heseltine has said he will rebel against the government when peers debate the bill giving Theresa May the authority to trigger Brexit. He said he would support an opposition amendment in the House of Lords demanding MPs get a meaningful vote on the deal reached with the EU. Writing in the Mail on Sunday, he denied this would be a "confrontation". But Home Secretary Amber Rudd told ITV's Peston on Sunday programme: "I hope he will reconsider." Last week peers gave an unopposed second reading to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, following a two-day debate involving more than 180 speakers. MPs have already backed the proposed law, authorising Prime Minister Theresa May to inform the EU of the UK's intention to leave. Opposition peers want to amend the bill at a later date to guarantee the rights of EU citizens in Britain and the role of Parliament in scrutinising the process. As the government does not have a majority in the Lords, it is vulnerable to being outvoted if opposition peers - including Labour's 202 and the 102 Lib Dems - join forces. Lord Heseltine wrote in the Mail on Sunday: "The fightback starts here. My opponents will argue that the people have spoken, the [Brexit] mandate secured and the future cast. My experience stands against this argument." He also wrote: "This is not a confrontation with the government. It is to ensure the Commons can exercise its authority over the defining issue of our time."

Government defeated on Brexit bill.

The government has been defeated after the House of Lords said ministers should guarantee EU nationals' right to stay in the UK after Brexit. The vote, by 358 to 256, is the first Parliamentary defeat for the government's Brexit bill. However, MPs will be able to remove their changes when the bill returns to the House of Commons. Ministers say the issue is a priority but must be part of a deal protecting UK expats overseas. The bill will give Theresa May the authority to trigger Brexit under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begin official negotiations. The amendment backed by the Lords requires the government to introduce proposals within three months of Article 50 to ensure EU citizens in the UK have the same residence rights after Brexit. But it could be overturned when MPs, who have already backed the Brexit bill without amendments, vote on it again. The government is expected to attempt to overturn the defeat when the legislation returns to the Commons. The Department for Exiting the EU said: "We are disappointed the Lords have chosen to amend a bill that the Commons passed without amendment.

Brexit: UK has 'moral responsibility' to Gibraltar, peers say.

The government has a "moral responsibility" to protect the interests of Gibraltar during Brexit negotiations, a Lords committee says. The EU committee said the single market and cross-border travel were vital to the territory's economy, and warned the UK government not to let Spain use trade talks to claim sovereignty. Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly for Remain in June's referendum. The government says it will ensure the territory's priorities are understood. Gibraltar has been a British territory since 1713, but Spain continues to claim sovereignty over the enclave, and the government in Madrid called for joint sovereignty in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. The vote of 95.9% in favour of staying in the EU made Gibraltar by far the strongest pro-Remain area taking part in the referendum. Peers said 40% of its workforce crossed the border from Spain every day, and its economy was "underpinned" by the single market. The committee said it "strongly endorses" the UK government's promise never to enter into sovereignty discussions with Spain against the will of the Gibraltarian people, and called on ministers to engage "positively and pragmatically with Spain, emphasising the mutual importance of the economic relationship between the UK and Spain".

All details above from BBC News website.

[The messages coming out of the Tory cabinet over the past week have been mixed – or confused – to say the least. First we have the idea of a 2 year transition period after we officially leave the EU to allow things to settle down. This included, apparently, the continued free movement of people. Now we’re being told that the free movement ends the day we leave. No compromise. No discussion. Out means out. I do wonder this though: In the next 18 months will the Tories have one voice for more than 2 minutes on the subject? Personally I doubt it.]

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Kasparov: 'Embrace' the AI revolution.

From The BBC

29 July 2017

Humans should embrace the change smart machines offer society, says former chess world champion Garry Kasparov. In a speech at Def Con in Las Vegas he said the rise of artificially intelligent machines would not be a huge threat to humanity. However, he said, there was likely to be huge social change as the "shaky hands" of humans were replaced. Mr Kasparov welcomed the change and said it would be good if the effects could be accelerated.

In a wide-ranging speech that drew on his experiences playing chess against IBM's Deep Blue computer and many other so-called smart machines, he sought to put the current rise of AI into historical context. Only now, he said, were we starting to get true AI by which he meant a "black box" which reached its decisions by itself and whose reasons for making those choices was impossible to unpick. He cited Google's AlphaGo computer as an example of this kind of AI. By contrast, he said, the Deep Blue supercomputer that beat him at chess in 1996 and 1997 was simply a very fast computer that used "brute force" techniques to win. "Deep Blue was as intelligent as an alarm clock," he said "though losing to a $10m (£7.6m) alarm clock did not make me feel any better."

The arrival of more authentically intelligent machines did not spell doom for humanity, he said, because history showed that almost every novel technology or innovation was a force of creative destruction. "The problem is not that machines are replacing human jobs and that they are going after people with college degrees and Twitter accounts," he said. "Technology, before it creates jobs kills them, it's always done that." There were already examples of ways smart machines were helping some people do their jobs better by letting computers handle the bits that humans can struggle with. For instance, he said, expert systems that can diagnose conditions more accurately than people do the best job when paired with nurses that can then act on that diagnosis.

Future generations would look back and be amazed that 21st Century life was so people-centric, he said, especially in fields, such as car driving, where human fallibility put more lives at risk than was necessary. When humans work with smart machines there were huge opportunities for creativity and change for the better, he said. "We all have these fears that machines will replace us and we'll be extinguished but I believe there is plenty of room for creativity. And lots of it. It's up to us humans to do what only humans can do and that's dream and dream big so we can get the most out of these amazing new tools," he concluded.

[Of course Kasparov is right in many ways. Machines are, even today, faster, stronger and more accurate than human beings ever will be. Their introduction into fields across the human spectrum will make things better, more efficient and safer. Many mundane and, frankly, dangerous jobs that people do today, often to the detriment of their long term health, will be done by machines and life will be the better for it. But…. Will we leave it at driverless cars and expert systems making the world into a better place for everyone? Of course we won’t. Those made unemployed (and possibly unemployable) will not enjoy years or decades on government handouts or being reduced to jobs that either machines can’t (presently) do or work that is uneconomic for machines to do. That underclass of people will, more than probably, simply be abandoned on the scrap heap of history. Will we leave it at that? I doubt it. As with most things the technology around robotics and AI will inevitably find its way into the most advanced weapons systems ever devised and they will be dedicated to killing people – in other words those countries who cannot (yet) build or buy fighting machines of their own. As soon as it becomes clear (pretty immediately) that people cannot beat machines in a stand-up fight everyone will rush to build killer AI’s and killer robots. I’m sure that this will work out fine for all concerned and will result in no unscheduled casualties. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?]

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Her Majesty’s Spymaster – Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage by Stephen Budiansky (FP: 2005)

It was a dangerous age. With the Catholic ‘Bloody’ Mary dead and her Protestant sister Elizabeth now on the throne the realms enemies, both foreign and domestic, only seemed to be growing. Catholic Spain’s enmity was implacable and very public. Everyone knew that England had an enemy here like no other. A regional super-power with a global reach, immense wealth and, inevitably, the ear of the Pope. The relationship with France was more nuanced and more open to politics and negotiation. Or it was until, one fateful morning on St Bartholomew’s Day the Catholics in Paris and, later across France, struck out at the Huguenots and killed them in their hundreds. In the middle of the carnage was the British ambassador – Francis Walsingham – and here he learnt lessons that he would never forget: the dangers of fanatical religion, the duplicity of princes and what was truly at stake with England’s political and religious survival. It was nothing less than a life or death matter for an entire nation. On his long awaited return home to serve his Queen more closely that he became entrusted with more and more aspects of the nation’s security – against assassination attempts, plots, state sponsor terrorism, threats of invasion and war and, most disturbing (and dangerous) of all the unresolved situation with Mary, Queen of Scots. To counter so many enemies across countries and continents Walsingham needed to create something that had never existed before. A secret intelligence organisation comprising of professional spies, paid informants, skilled interrogators, codes and cyphers (and their breakers) and minds that could plan moves to counter moves behind moves shrouded in the fog of clandestine conflict. This was, at least to begin with, a Cold War wrapped in a Religious War wrapped in a War for Survival itself. At the centre of it all, pulling strings, was Walsingham, a man who, on his death, Catholic hierarchies throughout Europe would celebrate.

Of all of the Tudors Elizabeth is definitely my favourite. The Elizabethan Age is so full of intrigue it makes Game of Thrones look positively mild by comparison. There are also a surprising number of parallels with the world we find ourselves in today. There is political unrest based on religion. There are assassinations and attempted plots. There are bombs going off, secret communications, radical propaganda, state sponsored terrorism, arming and financing of insurgents in enemy homelands, the turning of blind eyes to suspiciously well-armed and well financed ‘private citizens’ joining rebel groups, acts of rendition (extraordinary or otherwise) and much else besides. If we read an equivalent Elizabethan newspaper today a great deal would be recognisable to us. The author brilliantly brings this alive with an impressive understanding of the period and the politics and religious tensions that drove it. He handles the double (and sometimes triple) dealing with seeming ease and not only keeps multiple ‘balls in the air’ but explains both where and why each fell. At a mere 215 pages this is a great way to become familiar (or more familiar) with a highly dangerous and equally fascinating period in English history. I shall be turning my attention to Elizabeth and her fellow Tudors again and soon not least because of this gem of a book. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the reality of political intrigue played for very high stakes indeed.    

Monday, July 24, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Love, Life, Goethe – How to be Happy in an Imperfect World by John Armstrong (FP: 2006)

This is rather a strange one – not helped by the sub-title not exactly being 100% honest. On the face of it this looks like a kind of off-beat self-help book possibly using the works of the great 18th Century German author and playwright as examples. In a roundabout way that would be right. But only somewhat. What it actually turned out being was an off-beat biography of the man himself - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832).

Now I’d be the first to admit that all I knew of Goethe prior to reading this rather long but interesting book is that he was German and that he’d written some classic works of literature. I’m not even sure, prior to being immersed in his life, that I could’ve told you which century he lived in. My knowledge of German culture is, as you might imagine, rather sparse. I am now much more familiar with his works, nicely explained throughout, and with the time in which he lived. He was undoubtedly a very lucky man. He was lucky enough to be born into position and reasonable wealth and was being groomed, from an early age, to take up a position of power and prestige in his home city of Frankfurt. Sent away to study Law he developed other ideas and produced a novel which became a runaway best seller and made him the toast of European society and all whilst still in his 20’s. The novel, The Sorrows of Young Werter, made him a cultural superstar who everyone wanted to meet or befriend. One such benefactor was Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (based in the small town of Weimar) who managed to entice Goethe to move to his principalities capital and to stay there for most of his life. Whilst there Goethe produced a number of plays, including a very well received re-imaging of Faust in two parts (the 2nd part only publish after his death and, together, running for over 13 hours of stage time), several travelogues – he loved Italy – some poetry and even some scientific work (apparently getting involved in a huge row with Isaac Newton about the nature of light!) He also managed to become Karl August’s friend, a minister in his government and a companion on his military adventures (including against Napoleon himself). If that wasn’t enough Goethe had an eye for the ladies which was more than reciprocated. A handsome man into late middle-age, famous, connected and not exactly poor he was quite a catch in anyone’s book. All the stranger then when he fell in love with, had children with and finally married a pretty local girl with no education, no money and no position. Whilst not exactly staying faithful to her throughout her life they did stay together until her death late in his life.

So, where does the rather strange sub-title come in? The author, with some style I must admit, makes a good case for Goethe’s philosophical stance using evidence from his literally works, later autobiography and various letters to his many, many contacts throughout Europe. He did say some interesting, if potentially mundane, things. One of the most interesting I thought was his belief that it was simply not possible to know other people anywhere as well as you could, at least potentially, know yourself. He was certainly sure that no one would understand him after he died no matter what material he left behind (and he deliberately left a lot!). Something even more mundane was his belief in home comforts. The home should be your refuge and should be clean, tidy and orderly. With such a place to retreat to almost any trial could be overcome. He was though, above everything else, most concerned that people saw the reality of the world and did not spend their lives disappointed (or worse) that life in general or their lives in particular were not turning out the way they imagined they would. Projecting our wishes onto the real world and expecting some positive outcome was, he thought, simply asking for trouble. Whilst not exactly what I was expecting this was still an interesting (and often fascinating) delve into a world and an author I had previously know very little about. If you’re interested in Goethe, 18th century literature or European culture this is the book for you. Recommended.

[Next up in non-History non-Fiction: Our Dark Future]  

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Robot 'drowns' in fountain mishap.

From BBC News

18 July 2017

A security robot in Washington DC suffered a watery demise after falling into a fountain by an office building. The stricken robot, made by Knightscope, was spotted by passers-by whose photos of the aftermath quickly went viral on social media. For some, the incident seemed to sum up the state of 21st Century technology. "We were promised flying cars, instead we got suicidal robots," wrote one worker from the building on Twitter. "Steps are our best defence against the Robopocalypse," commented Peter Singer - author of Wired for War, a book about military robotics.

It is not the first accident involving Knightscope's patrolling robots, which are equipped with various instruments - including face-recognition systems, high-definition video capture, infrared and ultrasonic sensors. Last year, a 16-month-old toddler was run over by one of the autonomous devices in a Silicon Valley shopping centre. And earlier this year, a Californian man was arrested after attacking a Knightscope robot. The man, who was drunk at the time of the incident, later said he wanted to "test" the machine, according to Knightscope.

[LOVED the Peter Singer quote. At least for now, just like the Daleks, we are safe from killer robots as long as they can’t climb steps (or can’t stop themselves falling down them). Presumably we’d also be safe behind a closed, never mind locked, door or anywhere where the robot has to cross more than a 3 inch gap. Of course all of these obstacles will be navigated in time. But for now at least we’re safe! But you know what? I still feel sorry for the little robotic guy.......]

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Just Finished Reading: The Good Father by Noah Hawley (FP: 2012)

It’s always difficult for a parent when a child goes wrong. It’s more difficult for a father to watch his son drift away and then be caught on camera committing a crime. The guilt felt at such a moment is a palpable thing. Now imagine a father watching in stunned disbelief as his son, thousands of miles away, pulls out a gun and shoots the hope of a nation dead on television. Even before the echo of the gunshot has faded, or so it seems, there is an insistent knock on the door. Forcing himself to at least act normally he opens the door only to be confronted by serious men, dressed in black, carrying guns. “Dr Allen, come with us please?” With these seemingly innocuous words a father who has always considered himself to be a good man and a good father watches his world slowly fall apart. Could his son have really shot the front runner in the Democratic race for President of the United States? Could he have ended the hope of millions with a single bullet? Will his son join the growing line of disconnected lone killers who change the course of world history? Or is he, like so many before him, an innocent youth, manipulated, covertly trained, brain-washed and used as a deniable weapon by war mongers and arms dealers in order to keep their profits high as the war machine rumbles on. How did his bright little boy, who cried when a neighbour’s dog died, end up in a place where he bought guns, trained himself on shooting ranges and avoided security to kill another human being in cold blood? Was he, as his father, ultimately responsible for his son’s destructive act? As the investigation begins and the trail approaches the nightmare for Dr Paul Allen is only just beginning….

Told largely from two viewpoints – both father and son – as their lives move into eventual collision this is a gripping story of loss, regret, guilt and the facing up to the fact that we are not, and never can be, accountable for the actions of others – even our own son’s. The anguish of the father is real. Any parent reading this book will feel Paul’s pain as he tries to figure out where it all went wrong and pulls out all the stops to prove his son’s innocence. Anyone who has gone through their teenage years will identify with Danny as he struggles with issues of identity, resentment at his parents’ divorce and his disillusionment at the world which is much less, in so many ways, than he has been promised or as adults still pretend it is. The characterisation throughout is frankly superb. For the vast majority of the book both Paul’s and Danny’s thoughts are our thoughts and the reader cannot help but feel their pain as both of their world’s appear to be ending in front of them.

Salted throughout the novel are asides, investigations by both main protagonists, of earlier assassinations and spree killings. The details of each had a journalistic reality about them that brought them alive with the reader at the heart of the action. Highly ‘visual’ throughout I could barely put this down and on several occasions found myself reading late into the night and having to drag myself off to bed knowing I had work in the morning. Most definitely one of the highlights of the summer and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the movie version showed up at your local multiplex in the very near future. Highly recommended but I’d make sure that you had a few days of free time to give this novel the attention it deserves.

Monday, July 17, 2017

An Attack on Democracy (Still some catching up to do)….

Attacks on judges undermine law - Supreme Court president.

The president of the UK's Supreme Court has criticised politicians for not doing enough to defend judges following a row over the Brexit legal challenge. Lord Neuberger said politicians did not speak out quickly or clearly enough and some media attacks had been unfair. He said unjustified attacks on the judiciary undermined the rule of law. After the government lost the Article 50 case at the High Court, a Daily Mail headline called the three judges in the case "enemies of the people". Lord Chancellor and justice minister Liz Truss said she was "delighted" that Lord Neuberger was "proactively talking about the role of the judiciary in public." She added: "It is right that everyone understands the importance of its independence and the rule of law in a free society." Lord Neuberger, who retires in September, was speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme a month after the Supreme Court ruled that only Parliament, not ministers, had the power to trigger the UK's exit from the EU because that was where laws were made. In his interview, Lord Neuberger did not single out any newspaper or politician, but said: "We [judges in general] were certainly not well treated. One has to be careful about being critical of the press particularly as a lawyer or judge because our view of life is very different from that of the media. "I think some of what was said was undermining the rule of law." Asked whether politicians had responded quickly enough to defend the judiciary and rule of law, Lord Neuberger said: "They were certainly vocal enough quickly enough after our hearing [in the Supreme Court]. After the [High] Court hearing. I think they could have been quicker and clearer. But we all learn by experience, whether politicians or judges. It's easy to be critical after the event. They were faced with an unexpected situation from which like all sensible people they learned." Lord Neuberger said that undermining the judiciary also undermined the rule of law as judges were "the ultimate guardians" of it. "The rule of law together with democracy is one of the two pillars on which our society is based," he added. "And therefore if, without good reason, the media or anyone else undermines the judiciary that risks undermining our society. The press and the media generally have a positive duty to keep an eye on things. But I think with that power comes the degree of responsibility."

Retail sales fall unexpectedly in January.

Retail sales slipped back unexpectedly in January, following on from December's dip. Official figures, from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), showed retail sales volumes dropped by 0.3% compared with the previous month, well below the 0.9% rise expected. The ONS said the data indicated the first signs of a fall in the underlying trend since December 2013. It said evidence suggested higher fuel and food prices were key factors. Compared with January 2016, sales were up 1.5%, the weakest performance since November 2013. Figures earlier this week from the ONS showed inflation rose to its highest level in two and a half years at a time when wage growth was slowing down. Fuel prices jumped 16.1% in January, the biggest changed since September 2011. Analysts said consumers were becoming wary of spending at a time when employment and earnings growth was slowing and inflation rising. Samuel Tombs at Pantheon Economics said consumers were starting to "crumble" in the face of inflation pressure. Ruth Gregory, from Capital Economics, said: "January's surprise fall in the official measure of retail sales volumes has brought the recent run of resilient economic news to an abrupt end. And the rest of the year is shaping up to be tough on the high street, given the expected squeeze on consumers' real pay growth."

EU citizens 'denied residence documents'.

EU citizens living in the UK say they are being denied a guarantee of permanent residency because they do not have health insurance. A little-known rule requires EU citizens not in work or looking for work to buy comprehensive insurance. One man told the Today programme that his application was rejected, despite living in the UK since the age of 13. Peers are now trying to change the law. The Home Office said securing the status of EU migrants was a priority. Since the referendum in June, many EU citizens have applied for documents guaranteeing the right to live permanently in the UK. But the documents can only be obtained by migrants who have consistently either worked, sought work, or bought the insurance for five years. The Home Office does not remove people for failing to buy insurance, but will not issue them with the guarantee of permanent residence. As EU migrants can use the NHS, many did not realise they needed health insurance. Students and full-time parents are among those affected. They are worried they could be vulnerable after Britain leaves the EU.

Brexit: Mandelson urges Lords not to 'throw in towel'.

Former Labour minister Lord Mandelson has urged peers not to "throw in the towel" when they debate legislation paving the way for Brexit. He said the Lords should amend a bill to protect the rights of EU citizens to ensure a "meaningful" vote on the final deal before Britain leaves the EU. He urged fellow Labour peers to show "strength and clarity" over the issue. Conservative Justice Secretary Liz Truss said Brexit opponents were "fighting yesterday's battles". The House of Lords - in which the government does not have an in-built majority - will start considering proposed legislation to leave the EU on Monday. But the former Labour cabinet minister, EU Trade commissioner and Remain campaigner said the "verbal guarantees" the government were offering EU citizens in the UK were insufficient. Lord Mandelson told the Andrew Marr programme that the Lords should "reinstate" the protections into the bill in the coming weeks. "The government used its majority to bulldoze the legislation through the House of Commons," he said. "I hope it won't be so successful in the House of Lords," he said. "At the end of the day the House of Commons, because it is the elected chamber, will prevail but I hope the House of Lords will not throw in the towel early." But Ms Truss said leaving the EU was the "settled will" of the British people and the House of Lords needed to "get on" with the process.

All details above from BBC News website.

[As the negotiations get down to proper bargaining we’re getting a much better picture of how difficult things are going to be. Before we even think about the all-important Trade negotiations the position of EU Citizens in the UK and Brits in the EU needs to be sorted. Then there’s the hugely controversial ‘divorce bill’ that we’ll need to pay on leaving and, if that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, the process of writing the hundreds of EU Laws into the UK Legal system. At the end of the process I do hope that someone somewhere will tell us how much this is costing us!]

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Workers find live British cannonball in Quebec

From BBC News

15th July 2017

Builders in the old part of the Canadian city of Quebec have unearthed a live cannonball fired by the British during a siege in 1759. They posed for photos with the large, 90kg (200lb) projectile, unaware that it was still potentially explosive. Army bomb disposal experts later collected the device, saying there was still a danger, CBC reports. The British besieged Quebec while fighting the French at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

Quebec City archaeologist Serge Rouleau, who examined the munition before the army and noticed that it still contained a charge, said it was more an incendiary bomb than a cannonball, Le Soleil news site (in French) reports. He had taken it home after the builders' firm, Lafontaine Inc, contacted the municipal authorities. "The ball would break and the powder would ignite, setting fire to the building," Master Warrant Officer Sylvain Trudel, a senior munitions technician, was quoted by CBC as saying.

"With time, humidity got into its interior and reduced its potential for exploding, but there's still a danger," he added. "Old munitions like this are hard to predict. You never know to what point the chemicals inside have degraded." The cannonball is now at a safe site and will either be disarmed or destroyed if necessary, CBC says. It is believed it was fired at Quebec City from Levis, across the St Lawrence River, the broadcaster adds. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham, part of the Seven Years' War, ended in victory for the British, and was a major milestone towards the end of French rule in what is now Canada.

[Wow…. And I thought the regular finding of unexploded bombs (and sea mines) on a regular basis was pretty amazing. But unexploded munitions from 1759??? You have to wonder how long they’ll be finding WW2 stuff or unexploded bombs in Iraq or Vietnam. The mind boggles, it really does!]

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Where do Camels Belong? – The Story and Science of Invasive Species by Ken Thompson (FP: 2014)

The word you need to focus on in this rather unusual title is: Belong. Not live, not evolved, not extinct but belong – because that’s an important question and an even bigger red herring. Because seen from a long enough perspective camels ‘belong’ in North America. Makes total sense, yes? Or maybe not. That’s one of the points this intriguing and challenging book makes. If you say that a species belongs somewhere (and by extension that others do not belong) what, exactly do you mean by that and, more importantly, what are you going to do about it?

So-called invasive species are a problem all over the world, whether its rabbits in Australia, exotic plants in North American waterways or foreign insects in the English countryside. Of course the irony of trying to control such ‘invasions’ is that most of the invaders have been brought in by humans – either deliberately or by accident. From animals brought in as food stocks, to plants brought in because they looked pretty to birds brought in and released because someone wanted to hear every birdsong mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays (I kid you not!) humans have, over the centuries seriously messed with the worlds ecology. As international trade and travel increase it should come as no surprise that creatures who thrive in human environments spread across the globe. At the same time those we regard as pests and inconvenient (or especially tasty) plummet in numbers as soon as humans arrive on the scene.

Much of this, as you might imagine, is based on simple prejudice. Animals and plants we like thrive whilst those we do not like – very much like a plant in the wrong place is labelled a weed – tend not to. The labels of ‘indigenous’ and ‘alien’ help to direct the emotions (and little else) in the fight to ‘maintain ecosystems’ as if such a thing was even possible. Looking back a thousand years or a thousand generations much of the planets fauna and flora would either be unrecognisable or recognisably in the ‘wrong place’. Nature, and the natural environment, does not and never has stood still. Ecosystems are dynamic and response to invasions – natural or otherwise – and adapt over time. Several long term studies have shown that initially highly effective invasions often begin to stumble after their initial incursions become, after many generations, just another element in an increasingly complex ecological system. Taking the long view, rather than snapshots, puts alien invasions increasingly into perspective and takes the heat out of any ill thought out response to discovering aliens living amongst us.

Drawing on examples from across the globe this highly informative, often amusing and challenging book looks at ecologies, species distribution, and the threat of invasion in (at least to me) very new ways. I suppose that I intellectually knew that ecosystems change over time and that new species sometimes extend beyond their normal range for a number of reasons but I never really put it all together in my head before now. I will certainly be reading future newspaper articles and scare stories with a great deal more scepticism in future after finishing this slim volume. It has, like many of my favourite books, made me look at my unfounded assumptions about the subject and forced me to think again. I do love it when that happens. If you have an interest in such things or ever wondered where particular animals came from – never mind actually belong – this is the book for you. But be warned you may never think about either indigenous or invasive species the same way again.      

Monday, July 10, 2017

If You think it’s Bad Now….. (catching Up with the News)

Farm subsidy payment delays raise Brexit doubts, say MPs.

The government's failure to pay EU subsidies on time or help farmers hit hard by delays raises doubts about its ability to cope with Brexit, MPs say. Delays to Common Agricultural Policy payments meant some farmers had to sell livestock to pay bills, they say. Only 38% of England's farmers were paid on the first day possible in 2015 - in other years it had been more than 90%. The government said major progress had since been made and it had met its 2017 target to pay 93% of farmers by March. On 1 January 2015, the Common Agricultural Policy Basic Payment Scheme replaced the previous Single Payment Scheme - bringing with it new requirements. The Rural Payments Agency, which distributes EU funds to farmers, went from an "all time high" - paying out 95% of farmers on day one of the scheme in December 2014 - to paying out just 38% of farmers on 1 December 2015. By the end of March 2016, only 84% of farmers had been paid - meaning some 14,300 farmers had received no payment. Some were still owed more than 1,000 euros (£850) nine months after they could first have been paid. Delays were blamed on changes to the CAP scheme and a problematic IT system. Applications had to be processed on paper, because an online application system was not ready, which "introduced a significant amount of errors... despite farmers submitting appropriate evidence".

Brexit: Labour rebels to receive formal written warning.

Labour frontbenchers who defied Jeremy Corbyn in the Commons Brexit vote will be sent a formal written warning over their behaviour but will not be sacked. Mr Corbyn had imposed a three-line whip on his MPs to vote to back Brexit. But 52 Labour MPs rebelled in Wednesday's vote, including 11 junior shadow ministers, and three whips whose job it is to impose party discipline. Convention dictates that members of the leader's shadow team should resign or be sacked if they defy such an order. Some did resign, including shadow business secretary Clive Lewis, who was replaced by Rebecca Long-Bailey. But, after a meeting between Mr Corbyn and his chief whip Nick Brown, the remaining rebels will receive only a letter insisting that they must "comply with the whip" in the future. When the government brought its Brexit Bill to the Commons, Mr Corbyn said Labour would not seek to obstruct the EU referendum result. To ensure as many of his MPs supported him as possible, he imposed a three-line whip, the strictest instruction to vote with the party.

UK economy to slow down, says European Commission.

The UK economy will slow down sharply over the next couple of years says the European Commission. Its latest forecast says the UK economy will grow by just 1.5% this year and by 1.2% in 2018, compared to 2% last year. The Commission says the slowdown is prompted by uncertainty following last June's Brexit vote in the UK. By contrast, the eurozone of 19 countries is predicted to grow faster than the UK, by 1.6% this year and 1.8% the next. However the latest forecasts by the Commission, for both the UK and the eurozone, represent an improvement on its previous one made last November, which suggested that the UK would grow by just 1% this year. Explaining its view, the Commission said: "Business investment is likely to be adversely affected by persisting uncertainty while private consumption growth is projected to weaken as growth in real disposable income declines." Inflation is also predicted to rise this year in the eurozone, reaching an annual rate of 1.%, up from just 0.2% in 2016. The view of the Commission on the UK was shared recently by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR). Earlier this month it also predicted an economic slowdown in the UK, with the country growing by 1.7% this year and 1.9% in 2018.

Brexit: UK warned against 'special' deals with member states.

The UK should not try to play different EU states off against each other or pursue "special discussions" in key areas, a top EU official has warned. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said the UK may want to be more "obliging" to certain countries to secure future commercial advantages. The EU is keen to maintain a united front and conduct central negotiations. Meanwhile, a leading candidate to be France's next President says he will take a "pretty tough" line on Brexit. Emmanuel Macron, who opinion polls suggest could win May's election, told Channel 4 News the UK should not be punished for voting to leave the EU but the EU's interests had to be paramount into the upcoming negotiations. "We have to preserve the rest of the European Union and not to convey the message that you can decide to leave without any consequence," he said. The final agreement on the UK's exit will need the approval of 20 out of the EU's 27 other member states as well as the support of the European Parliament. However, a future trade deal could need the backing of all EU states. There have been suggestions the UK could potentially exploit divisions within the EU over how hard a bargain they are willing to drive. Several EU leaders have insisted the UK cannot expect a better deal outside the EU than it has now and their priority is to protect the interests of the remaining 27 members. Others have advised against "punishing" the UK.

UK inflation highest since June 2014.

Inflation has reached its highest rate for two-and-a-half years, mainly as a result of the rising price of fuel. Annual inflation as measured by the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) reached 1.8% last month, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said, up from a rate of 1.6% in December. It is the fourth consecutive month that the rate has risen and takes inflation to its highest since June 2014. Fuel prices hit a two-year high in early February, according to the RAC. As well as fuel, the ONS said food prices also contributed to the rise in inflation, as prices were unchanged between December and January, having fallen a year ago. Offsetting these factors, the prices of clothing and footwear fell by more than they did 12 months ago. The increase in the inflation rate takes it closer to the Bank of England's target rate of 2%, which was last seen in December 2013. Inflation is widely expected to pick up this year as a result of the weaker pound, which is making imported goods more expensive. Earlier this month, the Bank of England said it expected the inflation rate would hit 2.7% next year. Separate ONS figures for producer prices showed that input prices - the amount paid for materials and fuel by UK manufacturers - rose at an annual rate of 20.5% in January, the fastest pace since September 2008, and a rapid pick up in pace from the 15.8% figure seen in December. The prices of goods leaving factories were up 3.5%. ONS head of inflation Mike Prestwood said: "The costs of raw materials and goods leaving factories both rose significantly, mainly thanks to higher oil prices and the weakened pound." Chris Williamson, chief business economist at analysts IHS Markit, said: "While the further upturn in price pressures will fuel speculation that interest rates may start to rise later in 2017, the most likely scenario remains one of policy staying on hold over the next two years as the economy navigates through Brexit.

All details above from BBC News website.

[There are some interesting messages – mixed of course – coming out of Parliament this week. We have Vince Cable (probably the next head of the Lib-Dems) saying that he’s starting to think that Brexit isn’t going to happen, Teresa May in full conciliation mode wanting other parties to stop criticising and start collaborating as well as the possibility of a Tory backbench revolt and leadership challenge. These are the stories that won’t go away. Much in-fighting, back-biting and ‘challenges’ ahead I think. What an almighty mess!]