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

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Even adults need a sense of fun....!
Tsunami drives species 'army' across Pacific to US coast.

By Matt McGrath, Environment correspondent for BBC News

29 September 2017

Scientists have detected hundreds of Japanese marine species on US coasts, swept across the Pacific by the deadly 2011 tsunami. Mussels, starfish and dozens of other creatures great and small travelled across the waters, often on pieces of plastic debris. Researchers were surprised that so many survived the long crossing, with new species still washing up in 2017. The study is published in the journal Science. The powerful earthquake that shook north-eastern Japan in March 2011 triggered a huge tsunami that reached almost 39m in height on the Tōhoku coast of Honshu. The towering waves washed hundreds of objects out to sea, ranging in size from tiny pieces of plastic to fishing boats and docks. A year later, scientists began finding tsunami debris with living creatures still attached, washing up on the shores of Hawaii and the western US coast from Alaska down to California. "Many hundreds of thousands of individuals were transported and arrived in North America and the Hawaiian islands - most of those species were never before on our radar as being transported across the ocean on marine debris," lead author Prof James Carlton, from Williams College and Mystic Seaport, told BBC News.

"Much of the debris is still out there and it could be that some of these Japanese species will still arrive. I wouldn't be surprised if a small Japanese fishing boat lost in 2011 was to show up 10 years after the event." The research team has detected 289 different species so far. Mussels were the most common, but there were also crabs, clams, sea anemones and star fish. So common were findings that new species were still being discovered even as the study drew to a close in 2017, six years after the tsunami. The scientists say that many other species have likely made the journey and so far escaped detection. No colonies of invaders have so far been established but the research team believes that this is likely to happen. "When we first saw species from Japan arriving in Oregon, we were shocked. We never thought they could live that long, under such harsh conditions," said co-author John Chapman from Oregon State University. "It would not surprise me if there were species from Japan that are out there living along the Oregon coast. In fact, it would surprise me if there weren't." The key element that has made this possible according to all the scientists involved is the ubiquitous presence of plastic, fibre glass and other products that do not decompose.

"The wood generated by the tsunami lasted a short time compared with the enduring nature of the plastic," said Prof Carlton. "For aeons if a plant or animal was to raft across the oceans, their boat was literally dissolving underneath them. What we have done now is provide these species with rather permanent rafts; we have changed the nature of their boats." Moving much more slowly than ships, the plastic or fibre glass rafts gave the species time to gradually adjust to their new environment, making it easier for them to reproduce and their larvae attach to the debris. The researchers are concerned that with so much plastic in our oceans, and with climate change making cyclones and storms more intense, the threat of invasive marine species has never been greater. The tsunami research shows just how much of an impact this route can have. "There's nothing comparable in the scale of what we've seen before in the history of marine science," said Prof Carlton. "The thousands of kilometres travelled, the sheer diversity of the community combined with how long this has been going on - so this has really reset the stage for the role of marine debris and its potential dispersal of invasive species."

[Truly fascinating, especially after reading my recent book on invasive species. What is particularly interesting, of course, is the impact of plastic debris aiding the distribution of so many species as it provided floating support for so long without decaying mid-Pacific. I wonder what the long term impact of this one event will be and what further impact such debris will have in future tsunamis?]

Thursday, September 28, 2017


Just Finished Reading: The Future of Violence – Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones – Confronting the New Age of Threat by Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum (FP: 2015)

Covering much the same territory as my previous ‘future’ reading (Future Crimes) and from the same point of view (US centric) this was both a much higher quality and higher focus read. The focus here is not street or community level responses to future threats but the response of governments to the future heading our way at a steadily increasing pace. This was much more about governance and attempted to answer the question: In a world where a bored teenager half way around the world can crash a plane or crash a nuclear power station for their laptop how can any government possibly fulfil its prime directive of protecting its citizens from harm?

The good old days have gone. Our enemies, both foreign and domestic, no longer have to be physically located in the state they attack or even physically attack it at all. They can devise a piece of malware software and release it on-line to spread of its own accord. In the near future they could weponise Ebola or Smallpox in a lab set up in their garage to get back at their college girlfriend and start an unstoppable epidemic. In the foreseeable future someone with an axe to grind could remotely pilot a drone over the Superbowl and spray the entire area with Anthrax. How do you stop this happening? The short answer is that you can’t, the longer answer (laid out in this endless fascinating book) is that despite this we are far from helpless. Despite steadily losing power Vis a Vis an educated population growing in power with each technological advance governments can still enact new laws, update old ones, ensure that laws are enforced, adequately fund and train law enforcement agencies and create new agencies where required. Governments can encourage (or force) technology companies to design their products in such a way that they are difficult to turn into weapons in the wrong hands, they can partner with private industries to monitor misuse of the Internet and other enablers to reduce the low level attacks to acceptable levels whilst gaining early warning of anything bigger. Governments can hire expertise in all of the areas it feels vulnerable – software engineers (or even hackers themselves), robotics engineers, bio-technicians, communications experts and, when things get up close and personal, actual mercenaries. Buy-in experts from a whole host of industries will, it seems, be an ever more important part of future government.

Of course, even with the best will in the world, no one country can police the world in order to make it safer for their citizens. For one thing the cost of doing so would be astronomic. For another things countries tend to get rather testy when another country violates its sovereignty no matter the good cause so enabled. This, therefore, is the realm of diplomacy, international and bilateral agreements between nation states. Despite how highly sovereignty is valued in today’s world the nature of future global threats will, the authors believe, lead to more and closer ties between nations. The ever present flies in the ointment are, as we all know, both rogue and failed states. How those are handled by future governments will help to define the nature of future threats. Then there is, always, the option of unilateral action. Any nation feeling threatened may, in the absence of any other reasonable option, decide to go it alone to eliminate the treat no matter where it originates. We’ve already seen this over the last 50 years with rendition and drone strikes. This trend will no doubt continue and expand as more countries feel that the treat warrants the act and who feel that they can surf the wave of international criticism.

In an age where everyone has the equivalent of a nuclear weapon App on their smartphone all, at least according to the two authors, is not lost. There is much that individuals and communities can do to protect themselves, there is much that technology companies can do to limit the damage caused by their products, and there is still much that governments can do domestically and internationally to protect their citizens from harm. The nature of future threats – that of the many versus the many – will change the nature of war, violence and crime. It cannot help but change the nature of society and government. The changes will happen one way or another. The authors see that governments can be part of the solution if they act in good time and with an adequate understanding of the new age of threat. Although almost exclusively focused on American government and jurisprudence this is a book that anyone from any advanced country can get something from. Interesting, well thought out and thought provoking if a little ‘science-fiction’ at times. Recommended for anyone interested or worried about the future. One more book on the Dark Future to come and then onto 3 books on The City.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Reminds me of the early 1970's..... [grin]

A More Positive Tone? (So much catching up still to do)

German Mittelstand wants 'soft Brexit'.

Germany's "Mittelstand" of small and medium-sized firms (SMEs) could lose billions of euros if the UK is shut out of the single market, an industry representative has warned. The boss of the BVMW, which represents more than 270,000 SMEs, told the BBC "a hard Brexit would harm both sides". Mario Ohoven added that negotiations should be "guided by economic sense and not by political ideologues". The remarks diverge from the position taken by other leading German voices. In September last year, the head of the BDI, a powerful German business lobby whose members are larger companies, told the BBC it was "better to have a hard Brexit that works". German politicians have almost unanimously underlined that the UK cannot have unfettered access to the single market unless it allows for the free movement of EU citizens. In her letter to the EU last week, Theresa May said the UK would "not seek membership of the single market" in the upcoming negotiations. But Mr Ohoven emphasised that the close economic ties between the UK and the German Mittelstand - which makes up the bulk of the country's economy - meant a Brexit deal without single market access would be damaging to both countries. "Germany exported goods worth 89bn euros to the UK alone in 2015, almost half of it was exported by 150,000 German SMEs," he said, adding that many more companies traded indirectly with the British market, as well as relying on UK research and development. "In the end, a soft Brexit should be reached. It is important that the UK stays in the single market, or that the UK joins an agreement similar to the the EFTA (European Free Trade Association), similar to Norway or Iceland. The worst result would be if the EU and the UK did not reach an agreement in time," he added.

Theresa May and Donald Tusk 'seek to lower Brexit tensions'.

Theresa May has met European Council President Donald Tusk ahead of the start of Brexit talks and stressed the "positive" tone shown by both sides. After this week's row about Gibraltar, an EU source said they would "seek to lower tensions that may arise". Downing St said the PM "made clear" that "there would be no negotiation on the sovereignty of Gibraltar without the consent of its people". Mrs May formally triggered two years of Brexit talks last week. A Downing Street spokesman said: "The PM reiterated the UK's desire to ensure a deep and special partnership with the European Union following its exit and noted the constructive approach set out by the council in its draft guidelines published last week. Both leaders agreed that the tone of discussions had been positive on both sides, and agreed that they would seek to remain in close touch as the negotiations progressed”. He added that Mrs May had made clear "the UK would seek the best possible deal for Gibraltar as the UK exits the EU". Downing Street said they had also discussed the agenda for the next EU Council meeting as the UK remained a "full and engaged member" of the EU. Mr Tusk has warned the Brexit negotiations could become "confrontational" at times.

UK 'must be ready to vote against EU measures'.

Ministers must continue to scrutinise - and be prepared to vote against - new EU measures while it remains a member of the EU, a committee of MPs has said. EU proposals should be considered by the UK both as an EU member state, and in terms of their Brexit implications, the European Scrutiny Committee said. Policies would affect the UK up to, and in some cases after, Brexit, it said. The government has said it "will continue to negotiate, implement and apply EU legislation" until Brexit. Until then, the committee points out, the UK continues to take its place in negotiations on EU legislation at the European Council and in the Council of Ministers. Brexit Secretary David Davis has pledged to "exercise our influence over what we think is the best interests of the European Union until the moment we leave". But the committee heard from the UK's former ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, who said, in the six months after the EU Referendum, he "saw a diminution of Whitehall attention and effort on day-to-day dossiers". He also suggested that other EU member states may already be preparing for life after Brexit as new legislation goes through: "Others are, frankly, looking at opportunities in the next couple of years to land things in directives and regulation that they know are going to cause us difficulty."

Brexit: Bank urges City to 'plan for all eventualities'.

The Bank of England has written to the UK's biggest financial firms, urging them to plan for "all eventualities" from the UK leaving the European Union. Bank governor Mark Carney said the "vast majority" of City firms already had contingency plans in place. However, he said that some financial firms still needed to prepare in case of a "more extreme" outcome. In a speech, Mr Carney urged the UK and EU to recognise each other's bank rules after Brexit. In the letter, it says some companies may not be ready for the "most adverse potential outcomes". That would happen if a trade deal and interim arrangements were not in place when the UK leaves. Mr Carney said: "Prudent planning means that you have to also plan for a shorter time horizon and a more extreme outcome. That in no way shape or form is saying that that's what our expectation is, and certainly we'll be absolutely clear that is not in the best interest of the EU 27 or the United Kingdom or the global system as a whole." Asked if firms should move now, he said: "No, that's not the most prudent. It's prudent to be in a position to continue operating after the UK leaves." The central bank has indicated it is largely happy with the large foreign banks' planning, but says the standard of contingency planning across the sector is uneven.

House price growth at lowest for four years, says Halifax.

The growth in house prices across the UK showed a significant slowdown in the year to March, according to the country's biggest lender. Prices rose by 3.8%, the lowest rate since May 2013, and down from 5.1% in the year to February, said the Halifax. The inflation rate is now less than a half what it was a year ago. Last week, the Nationwide said that house prices had actually fallen in the last month. The Halifax said prices had been flat since February. The average price of a home in the UK is now £219,755, it said. "The annual rate of house price growth has more than halved over the past 12 months," said Martin Ellis, Halifax's housing economist. "A lengthy period of rapid house price growth has made it increasingly difficult for many to purchase a home, as income growth has failed to keep up, which appears to have curbed housing demand."

All details above from BBC News website.

[It would appear that reality really is starting to bite now. The government’s unrealistic ideas for our Brexit stance are unravelling as we keep insisting that we want to leave but [PLEASE!] can we still have the benefits for a further two years so our economy doesn’t completely crash and burn. Not surprisingly the two opposing factions in the Tory party are falling on each other like wolves and the PM is hanging onto her position like grim death…. It was wasn’t so bloody obvious and bloody ridiculous I’d be laughing about now!]

Saturday, September 23, 2017

...and now I'm pretty sure that I'm picking the wrong women. Just a few more tests to confirm my hypothesis..... 

Police Federation says a third of police back carrying guns

By Danny Shaw for BBC News

22 September 2017

More than a third of police officers in England and Wales believe they should be able to carry guns at all times, a survey of 32,000 officers has found. The Police Federation interviewed a quarter of the workforce, saying 34.1% supported routinely arming officers. In 2006, when the body last conducted firearms research, 23.4% of officers backed routine arming. The National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) is currently reviewing whether UK police need more armed capacity. Of the 32,000 officers who responded to the survey, 8.9% said police should be routinely armed on- or off-duty, and a further 25.2% said police should be armed on-duty only. Currently, the majority of police in the UK are unarmed, with exceptions including officers in Northern Ireland and counter-terrorism police units.

Steve White, Police Federation chairman and a former firearms officer, told the BBC that he "sincerely hopes" police do not need to be routinely armed - but said it could happen in 15 to 20 years' time. He said that demands on police had seen "significant changes" over the past decade, including responding to recent terror attacks. "We'd been hearing from our members that there are increasing concerns about our firearms capabilities," he said. "No-one joins the police service to carry a firearm," Mr White added. "Things have to develop and we have to be able to respond before it becomes too late."

The officers were also asked when weapons should be available to officers, with 16.8% saying firearms should be made "available to all, as and when needed". But the proportion of police officers who thought weapons should only be available to "more officers as and when needed" fell slightly - from 47.3% in 2006 to 42.5% in 2017. More than half of officers completing the survey said they would be prepared to routinely carry a gun (55%), compared with 45% in 2006. The proportion of officers "not satisfied" that armed support would be readily available also went up, from 43% to 56%. Chief Constable Sara Thornton, the head of the NPCC, which is conducting its own review into arming police, said she did not think chief officers supported routine arming. But the NPCC's review, which began in July, is likely to recommend increasing the number of firearms officers, Ms Thornton said.

[Despite events of recent months (and years) it’s still comparatively rare to see an armed officer unless you’re in Central London or at an airport. I probably see one around once a month (maybe) when some motorway police pop into my local supermarket which is fairly near a junction. Although it’s not shocking anymore and doesn’t cause that much of a murmur – especially if you’re a regular there – it’s still notable. It’s funny though how quickly people get used to it. I remember when there was a serious security response in London when I worked there over 15 years ago. They’d brought in mobile road blocks after a series of incidents. So a few vans would show up, armed police – with machine pistols – would pile out and start pulling cars over covered by other police – also armed with machine pistols – in nearby doorways. The first few times it happened it literally stopped everything in the street. After a few weeks people had adapted and didn’t even change pace. It was rather surreal I remember and, at least to me, not in the least anxiety inducing. I can see in the coming decades a slow move towards more armed police. I’d expect to see 50% regularly armed by 2030 or 2035. I’m afraid that it’s the way of things….]

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Embedded by Dan Abnett (FP: 2011)

Jaded journalist Lex Falk knows something is wrong from almost the moment he touches down on Colony Planet Eighty-Six. The Army isn’t even hiding the fact they they’re giving him the run around. Stonewalled and increasingly frustrated Falk is presented with an opportunity to learn what’s really going on in the restricted zone. Only there’s a catch. A Company spy with some questionable motives offers to smuggle him into the war zone where everyone denies actual fighting is taking place – the catch is that he’ll be embedded, literally, in the head of a soldier being sent directly to the front line. It’s never been tried before and, because the balloon has just gone up, there’s no time to test the technology or Falk’s compatibility. Did he still want to go? Of course he does! At first, once he got used to looking through someone else’s eyes, it’s like a dream come true. He’s now the only reporter ‘in country’ and is guaranteed to get his exclusive. As the choppers drop him and his team off to investigate a forward post for enemy activity the unthinkable happens – the team are attacked by heavily armed and well trained soldiers. These are no local rebels with a grudge, these are front line Special Forces troops from The Bloc and they’re not taking prisoners – as Falk finds out to his cost when his soldier host is shot and fatally wounded. Waking up in an open grave surrounded by the dead colonists and members of his own team Falk realises that this is no longer an assignment he can just call in. This is a matter of life and death – the problem is, he’s already dead. So what does he do now?

I was fully expecting this piece of Combat SF to be entertaining but essentially disposable stuff. What a surprise it was then when it turned out to be well written, with great characters, visceral combat set-pieces, fascinating technology and a clear understanding of the military mind. If the author had never been in a combat zone he has definitely spoken at length to people who have. His ‘American’ soldiers just felt real – how they spoke to each other (LOTS of swearing some of it very funny indeed), how they acted and how they coped (or not) with the rigours of intense close action combat that none of them had expected. The character development of Falk from the frightened reporter to the highly useful combat soldier – care of his hosts memories and especially ‘muscle memory’ was very well handled and the author never lost the ever-so important suspension of disbelief. I did find myself whizzing through this at a great pace as I could barely put it down once I dived in each time. A seriously fun read if you’re a hard combat SF fan with plenty of action and excitement to keep you on the edge of your seat – oh, and a pretty good ending too. I definitely need to read more SF soon. Highly recommended.        

Monday, September 18, 2017

Just Finished Reading: The Neptune File – Planet Detectives and the Discovery of Worlds Unseen by Tom Standage (FP: 2000)

The whole civilised world rejoiced in 1781 when, for the first time in centuries, a new planet in the heavens was discovered proving beyond doubt the mankind had truly entered the new Scientific Age. As astronomers all across the globe gazed upon the new planet and began to chart its movement joy gave way to puzzlement. The new world, named Uranus, was not behaving as predicted and, as more observations were made its aberrant behaviour only became worse. Checking back in the historical record sightings of Uranus (unknown at the time) didn’t help at all. In fact the more information astronomers had about the planet the less predictable its path through the Zodiac became. So the mystery remained for over 50 years – a puzzle without a solution indeed, as some saw it, without even a possible solution. But if there’s one thing that unites men across space and time is that they can’t resist a challenge no matter how seemingly intractable.

As with all good science any errors must be eliminated and the underlying theories examined for flaws. The observations of the orbit of Uranus were checked, confirmed and checked again. Errors were indeed discovered and eliminated but still the planet was not behaving as it should. Things became so desperate that the very framework of Celestial Mechanics itself – Newton’s Theory of Gravity – was examined for flaws and, with a great sigh of relief, found to be without error. Even ideas of some sort of substance only evident in the outer Solar system enforcing a drag on the new planet where put forward only to be dismissed when the accumulating facts found it wanting. There was only one theory that could account for the path of Uranus across the night sky. Something beyond its orbit must be influencing it. Another, yet undiscovered, body must be influencing its orbit but how could something like that be caught in even the world’s most powerful telescopes without any idea where to look in the vastness of space. To do that you would have to calculate the position of a planet effectively in reverse starting with the perturbation of another world and working backwards to identify what was causing the disturbance and where it was at any particular time. A task, many considered, simply beyond the capability of the human mind.

But in the first half of the 19th century two mathematicians, completely unknown to each other, put their minds to the problem of finding a planet without ever looking through a telescope. They would use mathematics alone to determine exactly where an invisible body was and then, when they were certain, announce it to the world and expect others to actually look for it themselves. The race was on between an unknown English mathematician John Crouch Adams and the famous French scientist and astronomer Urbain Jean-Joseph Le Verrier. Whoever got there first would become world famous and their name would become immortalised as the first man to find a planet by brain power alone.

This was a complete impulse buy from Amazon some months ago and there was a real danger that it would continue to gather dust far into the future without being read. Looking for something different to pass the time with I picked it up recently and was almost immediately hooked. Today we live in an age where new planets on far away stars are discovered on a weekly basis. So much so that new discoveries are rarely reported beyond the scientific press. After the amazing discovery of Uranus and the reality of an enlarged Solar system it must have come as quite a shock when yet another unknown world was discovered between the lines of pages of equations. Like all mysteries, even mathematical ones, the trick is to recognise the clues and to follow them to their conclusion – no matter the prejudices or preconceptions of the investigators. Theory after theory is put forward to explain the observed facts and each is demolished as the mysterious planet eventually named Neptune serenely smashes through them. This is science in action on a grand scale. Observations are made, theories are tested and found wanting, facts are checked and new theories built until, slowly and carefully, the new planet is tamed and becomes one of the family rather than a wayward son.

Of course that was not the end to things. Once the theory was in place and solidified into a useable technique the search for other planets began in earnest. Every slight ambiguity in the orbit of any planet was seen as a potential case of yet another world to be discovered. But over the years they each turned out to be false hopes. But over a century later similar techniques began to produce results and the first planets orbiting other stars emerged from the darkness of deep space. At least from a planetary perspective we were not alone. Well written and full of interesting characters (although not always the nicest or most professional) this is a must read for anyone interested in the history of planet hunting. Recommended.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Academics uncover 30 words 'lost' from English language

From The BBC

15 September 2017

Snout-fair, dowsabel and percher are among 30 "lost" words which experts believe are still in current use. Researchers have drawn up the list to persuade people that these defunct words can still have a relevance. Snout-fair is a word for handsome, dowsabel means "lady-love", and a percher is a social climber. Dominic Watt, senior linguistics lecturer at the University of York, said he hoped people would re-engage with the language of old. The team spent three months searching through old books and dictionaries to create the list.

Mr Watt wants to bring these words back into modern conversations. "We've identified lost words that are both interesting and thought-provoking, in the hope of helping people re-engage with language of old," he said. "Snout-fair", for example, means "having a fair countenance; fair-faced, comely, handsome", while "sillytonian" refers to "a silly or gullible person, esp one considered as belonging to a notional sect of such people". "Dowsabel" is "applied generically to a sweetheart, 'lady-love'". Margot Leadbetter, the snobby neighbour from 1970s BBC sitcom, The Good Life, could be seen as an arch example of a "percher" - someone "who aspires to a higher rank or status; an ambitious or self-assertive person". The BBC series Trust Me is the story of a "quacksalver" - a person who "dishonestly claims knowledge of, or skill in, medicine; a pedlar of false cures".

The list of 30 "lost words" are grouped into three areas the researchers feel are relevant to modern life: post-truth (deception); appearance, personality and behaviour; and emotions. The final list also includes the words "ear-rent" - described as "the figurative cost to a person of listening to trivial or incessant talk", "slug-a-bed" - meaning "a person who lies in late", and "merry-go-sorry" - a phrase used to describe "a mixture of joy and sorrow".

[I do so love the English language. It’s just so rich and full of wonderfully strange words and, especially, insults. I think that ‘percher’ could catch on. It’s very descriptive of the social climber. I really like the idea of ‘ear-rent’. Again very descriptive and so true when you can’t get away from incessant chatting! As to ‘slug-a-bed’ I’m pretty sure I’ve heard my Mum use that so it’s not a dead turn of phrase – at least not in the North of England….. So, English words – use them or lose them.]

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Just Finished Reading: When Britain Burned the White House – The 1814 Invasion of Washington by Peter Snow (FP: 2013)

My knowledge of the War of 1812 was, until I read this informative and entertaining little (239 page) book, practically non-existent. It is, as far as I know, a largely forgotten and ignored conflict over here. I understand that its profile is much bigger in the US. I suppose that I get some points for knowing that the conflict actually occurred. I did, however, think that it was over and done with during the year of 1812 (hence the name). So I was a little surprised with the books sub-title. I was also rather surprised as to the extent of the Whitehouse fire. I believed, rather erroneously, that a British fire had merely scorched the edifice of the Whitehouse rather than completely destroyed the interior. I also had no idea who actually won this particular spat. It seems that it was, in the end, pretty much a draw although it seems that both sides claimed a victory of sorts. We Brits walked away after ‘teaching the Colonials a lesson’ and the USA fought off a world Imperial Power with effectively a ‘rag-tag army of volunteers’. Naturally things were rather more complicated.

Of course a major problem with the War of 1812 was the timing. Being already embroiled in a fight to the death with Napoleonic France an attack on Canada and a declaration of war by the ex-Colonies was felt very much like a stab in the back. Unfortunately we really didn’t have the resources to apply to the problem until Napoleon capitulated and was sent off the exile. With the needed resources now available a much larger force was sent across the Atlantic to ‘give the Americans a drubbing’. In true British style, of course, we sent too small a force to do very much and ordered them to be very careful not to be beaten and humiliated again as they had been in the War of Independence. But, this was the army that had repeated defeated the best of the French generals in Europe and beyond so wasn’t going to pussyfoot around. Determine to make a mark the set about landing troops and basically causing as much trouble as possible. The question was, of course, where could the Brits get the best propaganda victory for the least outlay in gold or blood? The two most tempting objectives where Baltimore and Washington. Baltimore was an economic target but Washington, still under construction, proved too tempting. The idea of taking the enemy capital was just too much to ignore. After facing and defeating several militia armies Washington was indeed taken and selected political targets burned to the ground – all against the express orders of the British commander located back at the landing point. But with the enemy scattered and the capital in flames he could hardly court-martial the hero of the hour. But was the act enough to force the US back to the negotiation table? Maybe just one more example of British power would do it. On to Baltimore! Time was now against the British and Baltimore was a much tougher nut to crack. Already well defended its defences grew even stronger by the day. The shame of Washington had turned to anger and hundreds of men flocked to defend the city every day. But this merely proved to the British that the burning of Baltimore would be all the sweeter. Of course it was not to be. The defences when they were met proved too formidable and without naval support, held at bay by Fort McHenry and others, the small British army could not advance without taking unacceptable losses. Withdrawal was the only sensible option. Soon after agreements were made and the unnecessary war was over – but not before the abortive attack on New Orleans had failed miserably.  

Until recently my knowledge of early American history has been frankly pitiful. Thanks to be two recent history books I certainly know a lot more – admittedly from a very low base! This book in particular was an easy read despite its general unfamiliarity. The author, who I ‘know’ from his TV appearances often alongside his historian son, has a wonderful voice and can convey sometimes complex events with a breezy exciting prose that can leave you breathless as each chapter ends. If, like me, you were ignorant of this rather unusual conflict you could do a lot worse than by starting to address that ignorance here. Recommended.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Still working it out......

…and so the Long Decline begins (and the catch up continues).

London Stock Exchange-Deutsche Boerse deal blocked by EU.

EU regulators have blocked London Stock Exchange's £21bn merger with German stock exchange Deutsche Boerse. The European Commission said the deal would have created a "de facto monopoly" for certain financial services. The merger would have combined Europe's two largest stock exchange operators. London Stock Exchange Group said it "regrets" the commission's decision, as the deal would have created a "world-leading" financial markets firm. The commission blocked the deal, which had already been thrown into doubt by Brexit, shortly before the UK started the formal process of leaving the European Union. It is the third time that a merger between LSE and its German rival has failed to come to fruition. They announced plans for a "merger of equals" about a year ago, following attempts by Deutsche Boerse to strike a deal with LSE in 2000 and 2004. However, the merger was dogged by questions about where the joint firm would be based and how it would pool liquidity between the exchanges. Those questions intensified after the UK voted to leave the European Union. "Timing is everything," said Neil Wilson, an analyst at ETX Capital. "Brexit effectively killed this deal off nine months ago, so it's fitting that EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager delivered the coup de grace just a couple of hours before the UK triggers Article 50." LSE warned last month that the deal was unlikely to receive EU approval over concerns that it would limit competition.

Insurer Lloyd's of London 'to open Brussels office', say reports.

Lloyd's of London will establish a new European base in Brussels to avoid losing business when the UK leaves the EU, according to press reports. The company has not confirmed the decision, but said it would make a statement on Thursday. The insurer has been weighing up different locations on the continent. Without the move, the company said Brexit could have a significant impact on its continental business which generates 11% of premiums. The insurer was due to ratify the decision on Wednesday, according to The Insurance Insider, which first reported it. Brussels had been chosen over the other shortlisted locations, including Luxembourg, thanks to the presence of EU politicians and regulators, according to the Financial Times. Other financial institutions are also planning to relocate business within Europe. Several investment banks, including Bank of America, Barclays, and Morgan Stanley are considering relocating staff to Dublin. Frankfurt, Madrid and Amsterdam are also likely to benefit. HSBC is expected to move significant numbers of employees to Paris.

Brexit: Trade and security go together, Fallon says.

It is "very important" to link trade and security in the UK's Brexit negotiations with the EU, Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon has said. The talks must cover both issues, as "those two things go together," he told BBC One's Andrew Marr Show. Sir Michael said "we would all be worse off" if no Brexit deal was reached. When it triggered Brexit last week, the UK said co-operation in fighting terrorism would be "weakened" if a deal was not agreed. The government has said the line in its official Brexit letter was a statement of facts, not a threat to the EU ahead of talks beginning. In response, EU leaders said there could be no attempt to "bargain" between trade and security. Sir Michael said: "It's very important to link trade and security because what we are now looking for is a deep and special partnership that covers both economic and security co-operation. He said he was "absolutely" proud of that link, adding: "It's very important that we go on committing to the security of the continent." Asked if failure to secure a deal would make the EU less secure, he said: "We would all be worse off it there wasn't a deal. We are expecting to have a deal." Labour's shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry told the BBC's Pienaar's Politics the government was "clearly" using the UK's military strength as a "bargaining chip".

Brexit: EU wants 'divorce bill' settled first.

A tale of two sentences, drafted in two different capitals, exposes the clear blue water between London and Brussels. In Theresa May's letter triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty she states: "We believe it’s necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU.' But Donald Tusk responded today: "Starting parallel talks on all issues at the same time as suggested by some in the UK will not happen." Bluntly, the divorce bill would have to be settled before talks on trade can begin. What's more, only one party to the break-up, the European Council, would decide if the settlement is good enough. This rebuff was always likely, and the Downing Street response restrained - in effect, reminding us we were simply at the beginning of the negotiating process. So no flames fanned, but it may not be long until Theresa May feels the heat. Ahead of a divided Labour Party in the polls, she may be at the zenith of her political popularity. Because now her own party's apparent unity is set to be tested.

Two-fifths of gaming firms 'could relocate over Brexit'.

Some 40% of British gaming companies say they are considering relocating some or all of their business because of Brexit. Companies cited losing access to talent and funding as major risks when Britain leaves the bloc. A survey by industry group Ukie polled 75 of the more than 2,000 games firms in the UK, most of which worked in development. The government said it hoped to "continue to attract" global talent. A Department for Culture, Media and Sport spokesperson said: "The UK's creative industries are one of our biggest success stories, and we want to make sure the UK remains a world leader in video games production. As the prime minister made clear, we will continue to attract the brightest and best global talent. And we will continue to work with our creative industries to help seize the exciting opportunities that will flow from a new place for Britain in the world." It is currently conducting a review of the creative industries. Ukie said this week it wanted to work with the government to "shape a favourable post-EU landscape for our world-leading games and interactive entertainment businesses". Sales of UK games hit £2.96bn last year - more than from either video or music.

All details above from BBC News website.

[Most of the Brexit news coming out of Westminster and Brussels right now is essentially mudslinging or accusations of mudslinging – usually from the British side. Talk of the EU ‘teaching us a lesson’ and through that teaching the rest of Europe who might be thinking about thinking about leaving just how painful it’s going to be. We are, essentially, a test case of what happens when one country decides to leave. It’s never been done before, it’s not going to be easy (especially when we seem to be dragging our feet in the hope of getting a better deal just to get rid of us) and we have, much to the Europeans exasperation, yet to take the whole thing seriously. I mean, what could possibly go wrong with an attitude like that?]

Saturday, September 09, 2017

What should schools put first? Discipline or creativity?

By Sean Coughlan, Education correspondent for BBC News

30 August 2017

What type of schools do we want? Should it be about creativity and independent thinking? Or should it be about getting the basics right and taking a tough line on discipline?

Of course, these things are not mutually exclusive. Many people would probably want both. But an international study from the Pew Research group in the United States asked people in 19 different countries to say which they would make their priority. If they had to choose, which would they prefer - promoting creativity or attending to the "academic basics"? The research, part of Pew's annual survey of global attitudes, showed big cultural differences towards education - and widening political polarisation. In countries such as Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Canada, there was a clear preference in public opinion for an education system that emphasised creativity and independent thinking.

In Spain, 67% of people wanted schools to prioritise the teaching of creativity, compared with 24% who wanted schools to focus on the academic basics and discipline. But at the other end of the spectrum was the UK, where researchers found that 51% wanted schools to prioritise the basics and discipline, compared with 37% who thought schools should pay more attention to cultivating creativity. In many ways, this no-nonsense view in the UK was closer to the less developed countries included in the survey, such as Kenya and Nigeria, where the expectation was that schools should get on with teaching the basics. Countries such as the United States, Australia and Japan hovered somewhere in the middle, with opinion divided. In China, there was the strongest demand to have all these aspects of education, without choosing between them. As well as wanting to test public opinion on the style of education, the Pew research investigated how much liberal or traditional views of education were proxies for political divisions. The researchers said that in most advanced economies, such as in Western Europe and North America, "educational preferences are an ideological issue".

They found that by far the most politically divided countries were the United States and the UK, with right or left-leaning people having very different ideas about education. In countries such as the Netherlands, Canada and Germany, views on education were more likely to overlap between political liberals and conservatives. A previous survey from Pew, published last month, provided a stark example of the divisions in attitudes in the United States. The research group has been tracking attitudes towards higher education in the US - and up until a few years ago, a clear majority of both Republican and Democrat supporters would have seen universities and colleges as a positive benefit for the country. But Republicans have become increasingly sceptical about higher education - and in 2017, Pew reported that 58% believed "colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country". Among left-leaning Democrat supporters, the trajectory has been in the opposite direction, with 72% now believing that higher education provided a "positive impact" on the US. These are very different world views. There were also contrasting perceptions about the purpose of higher education. Most Republicans saw the value in terms of gaining specific skills, while Democrats were more sympathetic to the idea of "personal growth".

Will such public attitudes filter through to choices over public policy? Another set of international statistics published this week compared education funding and priorities in public spending.

Eurostat data, for European Union members and some other European countries, showed Denmark, Sweden and Iceland were the biggest spenders on education, as a proportion of national wealth. Finland, Belgium, Estonia and Latvia were also high spenders, with the UK mid-ranking and close to the EU average. The figures also show the huge differences in funding - with those at the upper end of the scale receiving more than twice those at the bottom, in terms of a percentage of GDP. This is about choices as well as resources. If Denmark was at the top of the rankings for school budgets, it was at the bottom for spending on "public order and safety", such as policing. Romania, lowest on education spending, was almost at the top for spending on public order. Education systems will continue to be a mirror for wider battles over politics and priorities.

[So, what is education for? Primarily it is, I think, simply to educate – to teach children about the world they are becoming part of as well as providing them with the intellectual and social skills they’ll need to navigate as successfully as possible in that world. In the early years the focus must definitely be on the basics – the foundations and building blocks that later education will expect to be there in order to enable students to learn how to learn. There’s always going to be an element of socialisation involved in education – teaching people how to be good citizens and even good individuals which will sometimes be overt but will exist mostly in the background as a side-effect of the educational process. After the basics have been embedded I think the most important things an education can give you is a love of lifelong learning and the tools to think critically about any subject – even ones you know little about. With those two life skills as part of what makes you who you are there is little that can phase you for long.]