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

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Surge in Britons getting EU nationality

By Martin Rosenbaum - Freedom of information specialist

For BBC News

30th June 2018

There has been a surge in UK citizens acquiring the nationality of another EU country since the Brexit referendum, according to data obtained by the BBC. In 2017 a total of 12,994 UK citizens obtained the nationality of one of the 17 member states from which the BBC has received figures. This compares with 5,025 in 2016 and only 1,800 in 2015. The most frequent new nationality was German, which saw a huge jump from just 594 cases in 2015 up to 7,493 in 2017. One applicant, Paul Petty, from Bath, gained a German passport and is now a dual German/British citizen. "I feel like Europe is pulling apart a bit at the moment," he told the BBC. "I want to remain part of the EU." It took three weeks for Mr Petty to receive his new passport. He was eligible because of his mother's status as a Jewish refugee. He described the process as "really easy", as he still had his mother's passport.

The rise is presumed to be the result of Britons who can meet the criteria seeking to keep their legal rights attached to European Union membership. The 2017 figure is about seven times the 2015 level. The dramatic increase is consistent across many countries. France was the second most popular nationality, jumping from 320 instances in 2015 to 1,518 last year, and then Belgium, where the increase was from 127 to 1,381. The number for Ireland rose from 54 in 2015 to 529 in 2017. However, this does not include new Irish passport applications from the much larger number of people who already had entitlement to Irish citizenship, due for example to being born in Northern Ireland.

Their new nationalities will guarantee the recipients the rights to travel, live and work throughout the EU after Brexit, and they may be able to pass these on to their children. In most cases those involved have also retained their British citizenship and so have become dual nationals. Lucy Hales has been living in Italy for five years, having previously spent 12 years in Spain, and plans to apply for Italian passports. "It is likely that we will move to another European country, because of my husband's job, so having Italian citizenship would give us some certainty," she said. The BBC has obtained this data for 2017 from 17 of the 27 other EU member states. In the other cases it is not yet ready for publication. These 17 include most of the particularly relevant countries, accounting for over three-quarters of all such new citizenships in 2016. Only a limited proportion of British citizens would qualify for citizenship of another EU state. The bureaucratic process of applying can be slow and laborious. The criteria vary from one country to another and are sometimes complex, usually depending on ancestry and family links or residency. In the case of Germany, there is special provision for people whose German ancestors were victims of Nazi persecution. British citizens who fit a nation's requirements will still be able to apply after Brexit, although for some countries there may be complications. For example, Germany allows dual nationality only with EU states. Unless this changes Britons who become German after Brexit has happened could then find they have to renounce their UK citizenship.

[Interesting but not unexpected. Personally I’m entitled to dual-nationality because of my Dad. As he was born in a country that is remaining within the Union I’m tempted to formalise my citizenship which should certainly make European travel easier in future. I’m not expected the need to suddenly relocate to Ireland (never having been there!) but it’s always good having something in your back pocket just in case. I think I’ll make a decision one way or the other before Christmas. Maybe a Irish passport can be my Christmas present to myself……]

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Just Finished Reading: With Wings Like Eagles – The Untold History of the Battle of Britain by Michael Korda (FP: 2009)

The Battle of Britain, fought in the skies over South-East England in the months following the retreat from Dunkirk, is very arguably one of the most important battles in the 20th century. If it had been lost then England would have been open to invasion or at least forced to seek an armistice from a position of weakness. With England out of the war Germany could have turned her full might against Russia and, maybe, knocked her out too. America would then stand-alone against both Germany and Japan unable to easily strike at either. The whole complexion of 20th century history could have been very different indeed.

Britain was not expected to stand up to Hitler, or if she did she was expected to bluster and then surrender or to fight and lose. History tells us otherwise. England stood alone with few friends and no allies. It took on the might of the German air force and, seemingly against all odds and logic not only survived but pushed back – hard. A case can be made that Germany’s failure to subdue the RAF in 1940 cost them the war. The ill-judged attack on Soviet Russia in 1941 simply accelerated the inevitable end.

But how did England mange this unexpected feat of arms. It was part foresight, part planning, part genius and part luck. The foresight was of the unexpected kind. Churchill’s predecessors, both of whom history considers appeasers, were instrumental in moving forward the development of Radar and the design and manufacture of the iconic Hurricane and Spitfire both of which came into service more than 2 years before the Battle of Britain began. The planning and the genius combined was in the form of the head of Fighter Command – Hugh Dowding – who was personally responsible (despite persistent high level opposition and obstruction) for the layout of the air sectors to be defended and the use of underground operations centres that could be used to prosecute the coming battles in ‘real-time’ and more besides. Coupled with a souped-up and streamlined manufacturing system and almost magical repair and recovery processes the number of available aircraft was hardly ever in doubt. The luck came in the darkest hour when it looked, for several days, like the Germans had begun to break the RAF and a pull-back was even contemplated but never put into action. The luck, as the legend goes (I’m not 100% convinced of this and have heard different versions of the story), is that several German bombers accidently bombed London against standing orders and that Churchill resolved to hit them back by bombing Berlin. After much effort (and little actual result) the British did so sending Hitler into a rage and causing him to change the object of attack from the RAF to the destruction of London. This, so the story goes, saved the RAF from destruction forever postponed the invasion and lost Hitler the war. It’s a good story but is, I think, both too romantic and too simplistic. I guess I’ll find out as I read more about this most fascinating period in our history.

This very well written book was essentially in two halves – the background and preparation for the battle (covering RAF policy from the 1920’s and the ill-fated Battle of France) and then the battle itself told from both sides and from both pilot and senior officer/political levels. Most of the details are familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the time. What I wasn’t aware of was the incredible in-fighting and bad blood within the RAF organisation with its almost exclusive focus on the bomber and the erroneous belief that ‘the bomber will always get through’. Fighter Command – despite winning the battle and saving England from invasion (hardly single handed but still…) – was looked down upon, often side-lined and seen as an embarrassment to the rest of the RAF. I found the whole episode quite incredible considering that Dowding’s plan was clearly working where the other alternatives/criticisms clearly did not. I shall have to read more about the personalities behind the events to get myself a much more rounded view of the thing. So get ready for a whole host of books on the subject largely brought on by watching the recent movies ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Darkest Hour’. There is much good to take from this book and I found it to be a breeze of a read. With the RAF 100 years old this year I thought it was time to wheel out a few books on that iconic organisation. Many more to come. Highly recommended. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Last Refuge….

Of the many words I use to describe myself, as well as words other people use about me, patriot wouldn’t be particularly high on the list. That’s not to say I go out of my way to denigrate the country. It’s just that I’m not one of those ‘my country right or wrong’ types. I honestly don’t think that anyone can say – hand on heart – that Britain hasn’t done anything bad, terrible or very stupid in its 1000 year plus history. Even a cursory knowledge of this islands history will show us being short sighted, selfish, manipulative, mercenary, harsh, homicidal and unforgiving. In other words we’re a country made up of flawed human beings much the same as everywhere else.

Naturally I like the place. It’s not that I don’t see the advantages in other countries but there are few other places that I would choose to live – Canada, New Zealand, Italy, I can see myself living there and liking it. But I have nothing in particular pushing me out right now and, to be honest, I’ve never been particularly good (or interested) with foreign languages so Italy is more of a homage to pleasant memories than an actual living destination.

My American readers who’ve visited Blighty will no doubt have noticed or mentioned the lack of public flag flying. If you made it out of London what few flags you did see probably vanished completely after you left the M25 corridor. We’re not that big on flags (except during the World Cup) or flag waving (except at the Last Night of the Proms) and I’ve never been enamoured by the Union Flag (no matter what you hear to the contrary it’s only a Union Jack when it’s hanging from the back of a boat). Oddly, until recently, you were far more likely to see a Union flag on a hotel building rather than a government one. I think the present Conservative government changed that and it’s about the only thing I found myself agreeing with. Government buildings *should* fly the national flag and, where they can, the EU flag too – until next April anyway!).

Our national pride is, except at global sporting events, all rather low key. It was even, again until comparatively recently, all very embarrassing to be seen as particularly patriotic. These days, and with something behind it, we are expected to be somewhat ashamed of our nation’s past with the Empire front and centre in the ‘something to be ashamed of’ category. Despite many good things that Empire did bring that can’t really compete with all the bad stuff we ended up doing. Even our greatest triumphs come in for criticism – including our part in World War Two which is arguably amongst our finest hours. From appeasing Hitler in the first place, to abandoning Poland (and then France), failing to end the war then and insisting on fighting on, failing to stop the Blitz, the disasters in North Africa and elsewhere etc, etc….. Despite the fact that we were the ones who were actually attacked and despite the fact of who we were fighting against there are those who pick apart every decision and minimise every victory. I am not one of those people.

Yes, we made mistakes in the War and we made some bad ones which cost lives, sometimes a lot of lives. But look at what else we did. We stood against the Germans when everyone else they faced – before they stupidly attacked Russia – fell before them. The Battle of Britain, which is arguably one of the most important battles of the 20th century, was the end of the high-water mark for the Axis Powers. After that defeat it was only a matter of time before the whole thing crashed around their ears in dust and blood. That was us, practically alone, who did that. If that’s not something to be proud of I don’t know what is. Imagine the world if we had capitulated or lost? You can say a lot about ifs and buts but it’s certain that it would have been a worse world rather than a better one.

As you might imagine these thoughts have been percolating through my brain because of three things: Over the last few weeks I have watched ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Darkest Hour’ on DVD (after watching both at the cinema when they came out) and I’ve been reading a book about The Battle of Britain. I’ve actually developed quite a craze about the period and have collected a number of books (inevitably) on Churchill taking up the role of PM, the Dunkirk rescue and the people involved both then and during the later battle over the skies of South-East England and London. It is, by far, my area of special interest in British WW2 history.

So, back to patriotism…. I still don’t regard myself as such but still I’m far more proud of our history (and not just the recent stuff) than I’m ashamed of it. I’m never likely to salute the flag or even have any great emotional reaction to it flying from a local library flagstaff. But if you look closely you will see me wiping a tear from my eye during a Churchill speech, or as the spitfire shoots down the final stuka in Christopher Nolan’s film or the tattered remnants of the flag is raised over Rorkes Drift. Maybe watching hundreds of hours of patriotic movies with my dad growing up had the intended effect. Maybe, deep down, I’m a patriot after all…..         

Saturday, June 23, 2018

WHO gaming disorder listing a ‘moral panic’, say experts

By Alex Therrien - Health reporter, BBC News

21 June 2018

The decision to class gaming addiction as a mental health disorder was "premature" and based on a "moral panic", experts have said. The World Health Organization included "gaming disorder" in the latest version of its disease classification manual. But biological psychology lecturer Dr Peter Etchells said the move risked "pathologising" a behaviour that was harmless for most people. The WHO said it had reviewed available evidence before including it. It added that the views reflected a "consensus of experts from different disciplines and geographical regions" and defined addiction as a pattern of persistent gaming behaviour so severe it "takes precedence over other life interests".

Speaking at the Science Media Centre in London, experts said that while the decision was well intentioned, there was a lack of good quality scientific evidence about how to properly diagnose video game addiction. Dr Etchells, who lectures at Bath Spa University, said: "It sets us on a potentially slippery slope. We're essentially pathologising a hobby, so what's next? There are studies on tanning addiction, dance addiction, exercise addiction, but nobody is having a conversation about including them in ICD 11... I don't think policy should be informed by moral panics, which is what it feels like is happening at the moment." Dr Etchells said estimates of those who are addicted range from fewer than 0.5% to nearly 50% of players, which meant there was a danger of failing to identify who actually had a problem and who just enjoyed playing games. "What we're doing then is over-diagnosing, we're sort of pathologising a behaviour that for many people is not harmful in any way."

The experts were also sceptical that screen time overall - which also includes the use of things like smartphones and tablets - was harmful for children and adolescents, as some studies have suggested. Such concerns have prompted the Commons Science and Technology Committee to hold an inquiry into the issue. Dr Etchells and Andy Przybylski, associate professor and director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, said such papers usually only showed weak associations between screen use and health. Prof Przybylski said in such studies usually about 99% of a child's wellbeing could be attributed to factors unrelated to screen time. He said it also might be the case that lots of screen time was linked to other problems going on at home. "New, good studies that add to what we understand about the effects of screen time over time on young people, they're really few and far between," Prof Przybylski added.

Dr Max Davie, officer for health promotion for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said there was evidence of a link between excess screen time and reduced sleep and obesity. But he said the RCPH was unlikely to support the idea of restricting screen use in its upcoming guidance on the issue. The American Academy of Paediatrics proposes a limit of one to two hours per day for young children. Dr Davie said: "We don't think that approach is evidence-based. What we're interested in really is the content and context of screen time." Dr Davie added that for now his advice was for people to keep smartphones and other screens out of theirs and their children's bedrooms at night. Dr Etchells added: "The best evidence that we currently have really suggests some screen time, some video game playing, is better than none at all, particularly for child wellbeing." The WHO said classing gaming addiction as a mental health disorder "will result in the increased attention of health professionals to the risks of development of this disorder and, accordingly, to relevant prevention and treatment measures".

[I did get a ‘here we go again’ feeling about this report. The ‘authorities’ have always had a bad opinion of gaming. It’s either the root of violence – despite report after report that it’s nothing of the sort – destroying childhood, damaging children’s education, making teenagers less social, endangering ‘real’ friendships’, reducing the level of vitamin D in children (therefore increasing the chance of rickets), causing more accidents as people game on their phones…… and on and on…. All with very little real evidence to support any of it. There’s something about gaming – especially online – that causes those in power to periodically panic and demand ‘something to be done’ and ‘who will look after the children’. As usual its nonsense and a distraction from the real shit that’s happening in the world. Anyway, I’ve been typing this for 10 or more minutes now and my level 110 Demon Hunter needs new boots so I’ve got to go. XP doesn’t just happen you know…. Gotta grind those dungeons!]

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Just Finished Reading: The Brain – The Story of You by David Eagleman (FP: 2015)

Being a sucker for such things – especially about my 2nd favourite organ – I couldn’t help picking this up especially after enjoying the BBC TV series based on it. Just like the series itself the book is rather on the light side. Although there is much talk about how the brain works, what happens when parts of it fail and much else besides there’s not a lot of hard science in here. If that kind of thing puts you off reading science books you have no fear with this volume! But that’s certainly not to denigrate it. It may be popular and breezy but it’s not slack or flabby. The author is a practicing neuroscientist and he knows his stuff. What he also knows is how to communicate his detailed knowledge to an educated audience.

So you’ll learn how brains grow from childhood until around 25 years of age and how they prune themselves over that time laying down the complex wiring that becomes you. You’ll also see the plastic brain can rewire itself the navigate around injury, how important memory is, why we mirror the emotions of others (even without consciously doing so), why we become addicted and what we can do about it, the deep seating roots of prejudice and group identification, as well as strange little facts like we’re much more likely to say nice things about people if we have a warm drink in our hands…..

The brain is a fascinating piece of evolutionary design. Giving rise to consciousness for an, as yet, unknown reason yet acting in the main beyond the reach of consciousness this most complex device is presently only just beginning to be understood. A clear indication of our early and faltering steps to understand the brain is our singular failure to create anything close to an intelligent machine. What we do easily, like walking, seeing, picking up objects, or catching them in flight, has proven to be incredibly difficult to recreate with our technology. It is only recently that we fully understood how complex and difficult apparently simple things are. Touching on this at the end of the book the author also muses on the great science-fiction idea of uploading people into computers. Presently, he freely admits, this is way beyond our present technology and is likely to remain so for decades to come. The amount of information held by an adult brain at any one moment is staggering and can only theoretically be stored is, as yet, undreamed of computers. Whether or not this uploaded personality would be ‘you’ is, again he admits, a whole other ballgame. But someday it will be attempted and the results should be illuminating at the very least.

Being a materialist I certainly agree with the author that your brain is you. The physical brains ‘wiring’ directs the electrical impulses that microsecond to microsecond create your mind out of emergent order – like an ants nest but considerably more complex. As each ant performs its task ignorant of the larger hive/nest so each individual cell in the brain does its set task but together – with the billions of others – creates a conscious creature: matter able to regard itself and ponder the meaning of things. Whilst not exactly ground breaking or life changing this is still a good entry port into the wonderful world of the brain and is a good starting point for getting down in the weeds of detail. More human biology to come. Recommended. 

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Classical World

Growing up in a working class household I didn’t really have much exposure to classical music – or at least I didn’t think I did until much later. My dad did have some records of his own but they were essentially pop music from the 50’s and 60’s. My only exposure to the Classics was at school and through TV adverts and movie soundtracks – what is usually disparagingly called ‘Popular Classics’. My school teacher, who seemed to be 80+ to my 11 year old self, tried very hard to get a bunch of ignorant working class kids to appreciate the better things in life. Needless to say we would have none of it and it would have been social suicide to admit to liking anything he played. Adverts and movies dis drip classical music more subtlety into my conscious and sub-conscious mind. Only years later did I realise that I love some pieces of music without knowing anything about them including name or composer. It was only really in my late twenties that I really started hunting down the music I had secretly loved since my teens. One of my earliest ‘discoveries’ was two pieces of music from the original Rollerball movie one of which is quite possibly my favourite piece of classical music ever. The other work is yet another piece of pop classical the experts sneer at: Toccata & Fugue in D minor by JS Bach. But my favourite by far, of which I have at least 10-12 different versions is Adagio in G minor for organ and strings by Albinoni. I absolutely love this piece. It just washes over me and completely envelopes my senses. Discovering what this piece of music actually was inevitable led to other works by Albinoni as well as other Adagio’s which I discovered is an actually style of music I really enjoy.

As I started experimenting I made another discovery. I LOVE piano music. I remember when I worked in London discovering a classical music store quite close to where I worked. One lunchtime I popped in and sought advice from the guy behind the desk. I’m after a piece of music I said, but I have no idea who it’s by or what it’s called. At this point his eyes positively lit up. I said that I remembered if from the movies ‘Seven Year Itch’ and ‘Brief Encounter’. That’s easy he said and went to fetch it for me. It was, of course, Piano Concerto No 2 by Sergei Rachmaninov. This is a VERY close second to my favourite classical piece of all time. Of course this naturally led to an exploration of piano works. With Mozart and Beethoven (works both familiar and unfamiliar) assimilated I moved further into the Baroque style with Handel, Vivaldi and Haydn. Branching out still further into the beautiful sound of the piano I became a firm fan of Satie and Debussy.

Branching out still further in a spirit of experimentation I tried my hand (or ear) at opera. Some of it I liked. Some of it I liked a lot. I even when to see one with my then girlfriend Carol. Despite the whole thing being sung in Italian and often having no idea what was going on it was quite an experience. Helped on by the classic movie ‘Apocalypse Now’ I started to listen to Wagner and, for a while there, a compilation of his work called ‘Twilight of the Gods’ became my favourite CD. It’s just amazing to listen to – the feeling of powerful drama is unforgettable. It must have been amazing hearing it for the first time.

Overall my taste in Classical music is, for want of a better word, unsophisticated. I have a (great) fondness for the popular classics – being popular for a reason! – but I have also dug into particularly composers a bit and have tried out other stuff. As the saying goes – I may not know much about it but I know what I like. As with pop it’s more the sound I go for more than anything else. This may mean that my collection clusters around certain composers and certain historical styles. I have no idea at all why I find some styles or composers deeply satisfying and others simply OK to listen to in the background. I guess it’s just the way my brain is wired (probably completely by chance). In the grand scheme of things that hardly matters. I just know what gets my brain firing and that will do. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Google diversity figures show little change

From The BBC

15 June 2018

A new report from Google has revealed that little has changed despite a commitment to increasing diversity among staff employed by the tech giant. Overall nearly 70% of Google staff were men, as has been the case since 2014. In the US almost 90% were white or Asian, 2.5% were black and 3.6% Latin American. The figures also showed that black and Latin American employees had the highest attrition rate in 2017 - those choosing to leave. "....despite significant effort, and some pockets of success, we need to do more to achieve our desired diversity and inclusion outcomes," wrote Danielle Brown, diversity vice-president, in the report. Ms Brown said the firm would increase transparency and include senior leaders in diversity-related work in order to try to drive progress.
Other figures from the report included:

Just over 25% of leaders were women in 2018, up nearly 5% since 2014.

Of the overall US staff hired in 2017, 31.2% were women, although this dropped to 24.5% for tech new recruits

In the US, just under 67% of leadership positions were held by white staff and 2% by black employees

White and Asian staff make up the vast majority of the workforce in all areas listed: tech, non-tech, leadership and overall

In non-tech roles the gender divide is the closest, with around 48% women and 52% men

Last year a former Google employee, James Damore, was fired after writing an internal memo arguing there were few women in top jobs at the firm because of biological differences between men and women. "We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism," he wrote. While it is the first to release figures for 2018, Google's figures are broadly in line with other big players in the tech sector, which has long struggled to broaden the diversity of its workforce. Microsoft's diversity figures in 2017 revealed a gender divide of 81% men and 19% women in both its leadership and tech divisions. In leadership 66.8% were white and 2.2% black or Afro-American, in tech those figures were 53% and 2.7%. Facebook revealed that 28% of its global senior leadership staff in 2017 were women, and in the US 71% of leaders were white, 3% black.

[Discrimination of any sort – except on the grounds of ability – annoys me intensely. But what is almost as bad, if not worse, is the mistaken policy that a company or institution must mimic the group makeup of its local or national population. There is no reason for this except unthinking ideological reasons. I do believe that any company or institution should cast its employment net as widely as possible however. Only hiring men, for example, automatically eliminates the possibility from drawing on the talents of half of the population. This is plain dumb and self-defeating. But if said company choses to employ women in preference to men – to discriminate in favour of women – they are in fact discriminating against men and that is wrong (and dumb). The idea is to employ the best PERSON for the role – no matter their individual characteristics (which are generally irrelevant employment-wise). Companies should hire and promote on the grounds of ability or talent only. NOTHING else. You do not hold someone back because of their gender, race, or sexual orientation but nor do you hire or promote someone for those reasons. You pick from the largest possible pool of talent at all stages and you promote in the same way.]

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Non-Stop Inertia by Ivor Southwood (FP: 2011)

We live in interesting and difficult times. We live in an age of austerity where our children are likely, for the first time in generations, to be worse off than us. We live in an age of serial career change, constant ‘upskilling’ and mobility. We are expected to happily take on student debt, unpaid internships and unpaid overtime, ever longer commutes, flexible working, zero hours contracts, lack of roots (as a positive) and the ability to treat everything you do as a commodity to be bought and sold on the jobs market. It is the time of the precariat – people who live from one (or usually more) short term job to another bridged by short term private education or ‘retraining’, reluctant unemployment benefit, high interest loans or sleeping on friends floors (or a coach if you’re lucky). It is a time when the precarious worker fears illness or pregnancy and can only dream of an actual holiday. It is the time of non-stop motion to stay exactly where you are – one or two steps away from a life of abject poverty. This is the world the author writes about with feeling and knowledge because he and his partner live there where a missed phone call of a job offer can be the difference between paying the rent and being homeless or even having something to eat tonight.

In a mere 88 pages the author gives the rest of us – the lucky ones – a glimpse into a world few of us can easily imagine, where a 6 week job placement feels permanent and an existential fear is far more so. As someone who has been lucky enough to have been working for 30 consecutive years such a precarious lifestyle feels surreal and, to be honest, nightmarish. As the precariat moves from the margins into the mainstream (by design) it should come as little surprise that the level of stress, suicide, crime and much else besides normally bubbling under the lower economic strata of society has bubbled over into the newspaper headlines. When asked why such things happen the answer ‘it’s the economy stupid’ is always a pretty good first stab at a reason. The ‘system’ for want of a better word seems to have zeroed in on a perfect solution to a restive underclass – keep them hungry, keep them busy, keep them afraid and keep them exhausted as they run from part-time job to part-time job to (just) cover the bills. Such people never revolt because they cannot see more than a few hours into the future, have no time (or energy) to protest or think about protest and are only focused on the next inadequate paycheque. They are the ideal worker, desperate, separate and compliant. They are the Precariat.     

Monday, June 11, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Winston Churchill’s Toyshop – The Inside Story of Military Intelligence (Research) By Stuart Macrae (FP: 1971)

It all started with a seemingly innocent question about magnets. On the eve of a war that everyone knew was coming the author, then editor of a popular science magazine, received a phone call from a military officer who was more than a little reticent about exactly why he needed to know about the power of magnets – particularly small ones. Intrigued to know more and wanting to do something for the building war effort the two founding members met to discuss how science, technology and off the wall design could be used against the greatest threat England had ever faced. Bending every rule, using influence, bluff and on occasion downright falsehoods a world beating oddball weapons design establishment was created out of thin air. Producing what the armed forces needed in double quick time and impressive quantities MI(R) led the way in creating limpet mines, an impressive line of booby traps and fuses, the sticky grenade, the PIAT anti-tank projector, the AVRE spigot tank mortar and much else besides. Hated by other more official labs they seemed to have to fight every battle imaginable with the old bureaucracy to get anything done – despite their obvious skill and resourcefulness (in wartime!) and relied on the good graces of Prime Minister Winston Churchill to protect them from other agencies within the War Department. Finally disbanded (and dismantled) at the end of 1945 MI(R) had by that time produced millions of items that had been used across the globe in the fight against the Axis Powers.

The author certainly had an axe to grind about Other Government Departments (OGD) and he swung this axe throughout this short but generally interesting book. It did get a little irritating at time but you could also see his point. I did find myself skimming over some of the technical descriptions of fuses and booby traps but the technical solutions to the problems placed before the MI(R) were an obvious source of pride for the author and rightly so. It was interesting to see how chaotic it all was as war broke out, invasion starred us in the face and then we began to get the upper hand. It was interesting to see things from the backroom rather than the front line or the cabinet office – that was an interesting perspective. It was also interesting to see the British ‘muddling through’ and using our native whit and ‘can do’ attitude as we would ‘have a go’ at something that had never been done before and we had been told simply couldn’t be done. Definitely a recommended read for weapons enthusiasts and for those interested in a fresh look at Britain’s Second World War experience. Reasonable.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Beach Holiday? Not really...........
Google bans AI for weapon use

From The BBC

8 June 2018

Google has promised not to use AI for weapons, following protests over its partnership with the US military. A decision to provide machine-learning tools to analyse drone footage caused some employees to resign. Google told employees last week it would not renew its contract with the US Department of Defense when it expires next year. It has now said it will not use AI for technology that causes injury to people.

The new guidelines for AI use were outlined in a blog post from chief executive Sundar Pichai. He said the firm would not design AI for:

technologies that cause or are likely to cause overall harm
weapons or other technologies whose principal purpose is to cause or directly facilitate injury to people
technology that gathers or uses information for surveillance violating internationally accepted norms
technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights

He also laid out seven more principles which he said would guide the design of AI systems in future:

AI should be socially beneficial
It should avoid creating or reinforcing bias
Be built and tested for safety
Be accountable
Incorporate privacy design principles
Uphold high standards of scientific excellence
Be made available for use

When Google revealed that it had signed a contract to share its AI technology with the Pentagon, a number of employees resigned and thousands of others signed a protest petition. Project Maven involves using machine learning to distinguish people and objects in drone videos. The Electronic Frontier Foundation welcomed the change of heart, calling it a "big win for ethical AI principles".

[If only Google had the kind of power to stop AI being used in weapons – which, of course, it doesn’t. But still it’s a good move on their part although they may still move forward secretly. AI can, by its very nature, be used for multiple functions of course so a benign AI can still be taught to fight drones or some such. The Google decision won’t stop Judgement Day but it might slow it down a bit. It’s all they, and Sarah Conner, can hope for in the end. After all I’m just too darned old to fight killer robots!]

Thursday, June 07, 2018