About Me

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

Monday, July 30, 2018

Ain’t Nothing but a News Hound (Dog).

I’ve been a news hound at least since my student days back in the 80’s. Back then (in the ‘Age of Only Four TV Channels’) we used to hop from the 6 O’clock, to the 7 to the 9 and then 10 O’clock news. For one thing it was just interesting to see what the different channels reported on, how they reported each story differently and how some stories seemed to be in lock-step no matter who was reporting them. These days I get most of my visual news from the Internet – mostly from the BBC – but only the past few months I have become quite addicted to another news stream: American TV news from YouTube.

Now, I must admit that for a while there I was open mouthed with amazement at how different US and UK news are. I think the most striking aspects are just how noisy America news shows are with lots of people actually shouting each other down as well as how casual some US news anchors are compared to their British counterparts. But after the initial shock I actually started to find it all highly entertaining! What I’m hooked on, quite naturally, is all of the coverage regarding the Trump presidency and the practically hourly ‘Breaking News’ that seems to come out of the Whitehouse. Over the weeks I have even acquired a few favourite shows and ‘follow’ particular newscasters through their YouTube snippets. A certain spice added to this is that I’m increasingly recognising a group of New York Times journalists I watched reporting on Trumps first year in office thanks to the help of a four part documentary shown on the BBC a month or so ago.

I did make the mistake of dipping into Fox ‘News’ briefly but a quick trip to the bathroom got rid of that. Mostly these days I watch clips from CNN and MSNBC. From CNN I watch Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo, Alisyn Camerota, Brian Stelter, Don Lemon, Wolf Blitzer. As to MSNBC I must admit to having the warm and fuzzies about the Morning Joe team who are often hilariously funny in a weird kind of way, plus Lawrence O'Donnell on his evening show, then there’s the energy of Stephanie Ruhle who is SO intense, Ari Melber who looks like he’s having lots of fun on ‘The Beat’ and no doubt lots of people on both channels I’ve missed out. Once I got past the fascinating cultural differences I was HOOKED.

Naturally I seem to have picked up, almost by osmosis, a much better understanding of American politics – and I thought WE were polarised! – as well as an introduction to some very smart cookies who have written BOOKS I can add to my Amazon Wish list: Lawrence O'Donnell, Richard Haass, Michael V. Hayden, Ronan Farrow and Jon Meacham. It’s been quite a ride and quite an education. I will continue to watch as events unfold and, no doubt, I’ll be reading up about American political life over the last 50+ years in my ongoing attempt to understand the world around me. So far at least it’s been a fun experience – for the novelty factor if nothing else.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Police facial recognition system faces legal challenge

By Gaetan Portal for BBC News

25 July 2018

A legal challenge against the use of automatic facial recognition technology by police has been launched by a civil liberties group. Automatic Facial Recognition uses CCTV or surveillance cameras to record and compare facial characteristics with images on police databases. Lawyers for Big Brother Watch argue the use of AFR breaches the rights of individuals under the Human Rights Act. The Metropolitan Police says the technology will help keep London safe. The system is being piloted in London, with three other forces - Humberside, South Wales, and Leicestershire - also trialling the technology.

However, it has proved controversial, with one watchdog describing its use in public places as "very intrusive". Court documents, seen by the BBC, also claim the Home Office has failed in its duty to properly regulate AFR's use. Manufacturers of the systems say they can monitor multiple cameras in real time "matching" thousands of faces a minute with images already held by the police - often mugshots taken of suspects who have been taken into custody. However, Big Brother Watch says the Met's own research, published in May, shows that during trials only two genuine matches were made out of 104 system "alerts". The group also takes issue with the length of time the images gathered by AFR are held.

The Met piloted the system at Notting Hill Carnival in 2016 and 2017, at the Cenotaph on Memorial Sunday, and at Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford last month. Further trials are planned. The force says the technology is "an extremely valuable tool". Meanwhile, in South Wales, police used AFR at least 18 times between May 2017 and March 2018, according to court documents. Cameras in Cardiff city centre and at a demonstration at an "arms fair" were used to gather the images of members of the public. As of April this year AFR generated 2,451 alerts with only 234 proving accurate. Police officers stopped 31 people who had been incorrectly identified and asked them to prove their identity.

Lawyers for Big Brother Watch argue the use of AFR breaches the rights of individuals under the Human Rights Act, including the right to privacy and freedom of expression. Silkie Carlo, director of the civil liberties group, said: "When the police use facial recognition surveillance they subject thousands of people in the area to highly sensitive identity checks without consent. We're hoping the court will intervene, so the lawless use of facial recognition can be stopped. It is crucial our public freedoms are protected," she added. However, it is likely that the Met and other police forces will welcome the opportunity to argue the case for AFR - and begin to put it on a solid legal footing alongside other unique characteristics stored on databases, such as fingerprints and DNA. It comes after the body that advises London Mayor Sadiq Khan on policing and ethics last week called on the Met to be more open about the use of AFR - and to set out where and when it will be used before undertaking any further pilots. Dr Suzanne Shale, who chairs the London Policing Ethics Panel said: "We have made a series of key recommendations, which we think should be addressed before any further trials are carried out. We believe it is important facial recognition technology remains the subject of ethical scrutiny."

[Oh, what a Brave New World we are creating for ourselves! Of course I presume that this multi-million pound piece of technology can be circumvented with the simple wearing of a mask. I wonder how long it will be before wearing masks in public is made illegal.]

Friday, July 27, 2018

Perfect for Tornado Alley.....

Just Finished Reading: The Rights of Man by H G Wells (FP: 1940)

It all started with a letter to the Times of London. On the eve of war with Germany a group of intellectuals and social commentators, including the author of this work, asked themselves a deceptively simple question: What are we fighting this War for? They wanted to know, from the Chamberlin government at the time, exactly what they were going to ask their combatants and non-combatants alike to fight and die for. Was it for a continuation of the status quo? Was it to defend the Empire? Was it simply to live up to our obligations or even more simply an act of self-defence? Or was it something bigger than all of those things. Was it something grander? A vision of the future actually worth fighting and, if necessary, dying for? Were we indeed fighting for a better world to emerge after the conflict? A world where everyone, men and women, of all nationalities, creeds, religions and colours are treated with respect and dignity and where their governments are held to account by the rest of the world for their failings in this regard.

When the first letter resulted in a whole host of responses a second letter was drafted and published in the Times attempted to answer them, but clearly such a slow motion correspondence was inadequate to the task. Hence it was decided that Wells should write this book – published as the war got underway – to explain exactly what kind of world we could look forward to once the dust and settled and the wounds begun to heal. Unsurprisingly the original Penguin Press Special edition sold very well indeed and, as its popularity grew, eventually became one of the foundation documents to the eventual United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. That in itself was quite an achievement for what was essentially a ‘thought experiment’ on the eve of the greatest war in history.

I had no idea that Wells was involved in the famous UN Declaration. I’d never seen it referenced anywhere before and only came across this 2015 reprinted edition by accident whilst cruising Amazon. Although rather dry in tone and full of Well’s typical obsessions with world government it’s an interesting historical document with intriguing comments about the British government prior to Churchill becoming PM (of which much more later) and insights into the political beliefs of the time. A definite recommended read for anyone interested in the history of Rights and the cultural background and fallout from World War Two.   

Monday, July 23, 2018

I'd need a LOT of Bunnies in MY house!
RIAT 2018

A few weeks ago and for the 4th year in a row (for me anyway) a small group of us went to RIAT (Royal International Air Tattoo) 2018 at RAF Farham in Gloustershire. It was an early start for me – especially on a Saturday – and I was picked up no long after I’d normally be getting up on a weekday workday. After picking up a third member of the squad (and changing cars) we made good time and got to the venue nice and early. The queue to get in was pretty substantial but moved at a fair clip and we were through the gate in maybe 10-15 minutes from parking the car. We had a pretty good idea where we were going to set up so the wind/sun screen and chairs appeared in short order and the main business of the day (at least for the other two) was a coffee and bacon roll to start the day off. As we walked to the nearest food area the flying started with an acrobatic display by a pair of small prop planes.

This year the weather was glorious and much, much better than last year were we suffered low cloud and rain. Flying was somewhat curtailed that year but they tried their best. This year though there was hardly a cloud in the sky for most of the day. Having kept an eye on the weather I knew what to expect and planned accordingly. Not only did I have spray-on factor 30 sunblock I had also purchased a shemagh (an Arabic scarf) to protect my neck and ears – and it did the job admirably (though I had no real idea how to wear it which must have given the Jordanians and good laugh if they’d seen me in it. I did pick up a slight tan/burn on my left arm (which is still there 2 weeks later) but overall I got away lightly this year.

But to the important bit – the planes! As it was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the RAF on 1st April 1918 I had hoped for some special events and I wasn’t disappointed (I never read the schedule beforehand as I was to be surprised rather than disappointed at potential cancellations). Early on we had a pair of de Havilland Vampire fighters which entered service with the RAF in 1946. It was amazing to see them fly again so long after they were retired from service. Continuing the theme we had displays of 3 Spitfires, 2 Hurricanes, a Lancaster bomber and a DC-3 transport plane. Later we had three generations from the Dambuster squadron – the Lancaster, Tornado GR3 and the new F-35 Lightning II. It was funny to see the Lancaster clearly at full throttle, the Tornado just about flying slow enough and the F-35 really struggling not to stall out!

Inevitably there was lots of acrobatic stuff from air forces across Europe (including the Red Arrows naturally) but to be honest acrobatics leaves me kind of cold. I still remember though, a few years ago, watching the new turbo-prop A400M GIANT transport plane being thrown around the sky like a mad thing. That must have been a LOT of fun to do! It wasn’t long before they began announcing a ‘special guest’ later in the afternoon that wasn’t on the scheduled programme. We all speculated what (or who) it was when, during the Chinook demo, I spotted a very familiar shape in the distance. I waited for it to circle around before I confirmed my first impression. Then the announcer came on “The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed an all too familiar shape in the distance. May I present to you, all the way from the continental United States…… The Boeing B-2 Stealth Bomber.” So over it flew, accompanied by a pair of McDonnell Douglas F-15’s. I’ll have to say that the B-2 flying almost directly over us was probably the strangest, weirdest and one of the creepiest sights I have ever seen. It’s hard to describe but it felt unreal, surreal, and even ‘wrong’ in that such a thing surely couldn’t really exist. It was clearly flying above us but, to me at least, didn’t seem ‘real’ in some deep down gut-feeling way. It was like something out of a SF B-movie. Just…. Weird! It was most definitely the highlight of the day.

So, overall it was a good day. Great weather. Avoided getting burnt. Saw some great aircraft, both static and flying. Had a large ice-cream which I managed to consume before it melted all over my hand…. And bought some T-shirts. A result! Here’s looking forward to 2019.   

Sunday, July 22, 2018

"The gifted propagandist brings to the boil ideas and passions already simmering in the minds of his hearers. He echoes their innermost feelings. Where opinion is not coerced, people can be made to believe only in what they already 'know.' Propaganda by itself succeeds mainly with the frustrated. Their throbbing fears, hopes and passions crowd at the portals of their senses and get between them and the outside world. They cannot see but what they have already imagined, and it is the music of their own souls they hear in the impassioned words of the propagandist. Indeed, it is easier for the frustrated to detect their own imaginings and hear the echo of their own musings in impassioned double-talk and sonorous refrains than in precise words joined together with faultless logic."

Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, 1951.
Cartoon Time.

The difference between 'affirmation' and 'oath'

From The BBC

20 May 2015

That most time-consuming of the traditional rituals surrounding the UK Parliament, the swearing in of all the MPs, has become an emblem of the changing shape of British society. A ceremony originally designed for exclusion - to keep out religious and political undesirables - has become a display of diversity, writes Stephen Tomkins.

Where 200 years ago all MPs would swear allegiance to the Crown in English, on the Authorised Version of the Bible, today they swear and affirm, in English, Welsh, Gaelic and Cornish, on (or ignoring) an array of scriptures, including the Koran, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Hebrew Bible, and the Christian scriptures in various languages and in Protestant and Catholic editions. One MP on Tuesday asked for the Book of Mormon, and the clerk seemed willing to go and have a root around for one, until it turned out he was joking. MPs are even offered the opportunity to swear on the New Testament alone, an option of which George Osborne availed himself.

It is often assumed that the opportunity to "affirm" rather than swear was created so that atheists didn't have to call upon a deity they didn't believe in. On Tuesday, Twitter buzzed with the revelation that Labour's eight most senior shadow cabinet members were atheists, as they all chose to affirm their allegiance. In fact, Parliament first came up with affirmation as an alternative for especially serious Christians.

A number of Christian groups from the 16th Century onwards refused to swear oaths on the Bible, the best known being the Quakers. Quakers believed in living in such honesty that an oath could add nothing to what they said. As one of their founders George Fox said, when arrested and asked to swear the oath of allegiance: "Our allegiance [does] not lie in oaths but in truth and faithfulness." When handed a Bible to swear on, Fox opened it at the verse that read, "Swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath" - a rather awkward text for the book that people are supposed to swear on. It was in law courts that affirmation was introduced as an alternative to swearing. This was in 1695, many years before it reached Parliament, when it emerged that alleged criminals were going free because Quaker witnesses refused to give evidence against them. Quakers, such as John Archdale in 1699, who were elected to Parliament could not take their seat, until the Quakers and Moravians Act of 1833 allowed them to take a version of the oath that did not mention God. Catholics, meanwhile, had been deliberately debarred from Parliament by the oath, which involved recognising that the monarch rather than the Pope was in charge of the Church. A new oath was written in 1829 to allow Catholics to enter Parliament, but it was 400 words long, requiring them to "solemnly abjure any intention to subvert the present Church establishment".

Jews were excluded by the oath less deliberately, as it included the words ''on the true faith of a Christian", as well as being sworn on the Christian Bible. The Jewish Liberal David Salomons was elected to Parliament in 1851 and took the oath, taking it upon himself to omit the problematic phrase. He was ejected from his seat a few days later, with a £500 fine for voting illegally in Parliament. Jewish MPs were allowed to swear without the phrase by Jews Relief Act 1858. Affirming, as an alternative to swearing, was introduced by the Parliamentary Oaths Act of 1866, but did not at first apply to atheists or agnostics. The law applied to "the people called Quakers" and anyone else who was already allowed to affirm in a court of law, but atheists were not supposed to affirm in court because the affirmation was made "in the Presence of Almighty God". The right to affirm in Parliament was finally extended to atheists in 1888, after Charles Bradlaugh, founder of the National Secular Society, was thrown out of the Commons four times for atheism, and re-elected each time. He had first of all tried to make the affirmation which was intended for Quakers, and then later tried to take the standard oath (perhaps, like the republican Tony Banks in 1997, with his fingers crossed) but MPs who knew about his beliefs refused to let him. Bradlaugh administered the oath to himself and was expelled anyway. Only on his fifth election to Parliament in 1886 was he allowed to swear and take his seat, and it was his Oaths Act which in 1888 extended the right to affirm to atheists and anyone else who objects to swearing.

Today, far from imposing the one true faith in its members, it seems hard to imagine a religious position that Parliament couldn't accommodate. The remaining objections to the oath are political rather than religious. Opponents argue that it overturns the will of the people by preventing democratically elected Sinn Fein members from taking their seats. Other republicans go along with the oath and voice their dissent, as in Tony Benn's version: "As a committed republican, under protest, I take the oath required of me by law." Or Dennis Skinner's inimitable twist: "I solemnly swear that I will bear true and faithful allegiance to the Queen when she pays her income tax".

[…and yet another reason why I so love History……………Fascinating stuff.]

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Just Finished Reading: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (FP: 1926)

Looking for somewhere reasonable to live close enough to his New York business interests Nick Carraway takes up residence in a slightly run down property in West Egg village. He quickly discovers that his neighbour is a mysterious self-made man known to throw lavish parties for celebrities far and wide. Rumoured to have made a fortune at bootlegging the owner of the property – Jay Gatsby – is quickly dismissed by Nick as just a piece of local colour. On the other side of the sound Nick discovers that an old college friend and his young wife (who Nick also knows) have taken up residence and is invited to dinner. Seeing Tom, and especially Daisy, again bring back pleasant memories and all is going well until Gatsby is mentioned by name. Invited over days later by the man himself Nick meets Gatsby for the first time and can’t help but be impressed. Gatsby too seems like he’s looking for a friend and the two men start spending some time together. Quickly it transpires that Gatsby needs Nick to do something for him. Explaining that he knew Daisy before her marriage he asks Nick to arrange an ‘accidental’ meeting so that they can become reacquainted. Despite misgivings Nick agrees and so starts a chain of events that ends in tragedy.

I was honestly in two minds about this book before I even picked it up. It had been on my shelves for a long time and I’d yet to start it. I’ve never seen any of the movies all of the way through and had assumed it was going to be about the lifestyles of the rich and shameless – which it kind of was. Of course it’s a 20th century classic and is taught in schools so it must have something going for it, right? So over 3-4 days I gave it a go. It was, thankfully, easy to read and, again thankfully, short. My copy runs to 188 pages. Those two things were, by and large, the good points. About the most sympathetic character in the book was the narrator, Nick. His function, as such, was to hold the story together. Tom, Daisy’s Husband, was essentially, a racist bully with no redeeming qualities and who was having a frankly ridiculous affair with the wife of a local garage mechanic. Daisy herself was pretty and had a ‘good voice’ but I found her weak, self-centred and not exactly love of my life material. As to Gatsby himself – decorated war hero, promoted to Major, self-made millionaire and literally a self-made man from the ground up, driven, focused, for want of a better word a hero. But, he was also socially isolated, manipulative, obsessed, and as far as I could tell, at least borderline psychotic. I really couldn’t understand his obsession with Daisy. Sure she was cute and all but she’d married someone else – who had money before Gatsby could make his – after she got fed up waiting for Jay to come back to her. She had moved on with her life whilst Gatsby hadn’t moved an inch in his. The secondary characters, Tom’s mistress, Nick’s love interest Jordan, the garage owner, Jay’s Jewish business partner and so on where, with the possible exception of Jordan, cardboard cut out people. I found myself quite quickly uncaring if any of them lived or died (again except Jordan).

The plot, such as it was, meandered all over the place and came across to me as a loose collection of ideas for a story tied together in the hope that something reasonable would appear. As far as I was concerned the appearance was barely perceptible and fleeting. I struggled all the way through with the idea that this was regarded as a great 20th century classic. I just couldn’t agree. At times frustratingly unfocused, racist, anti-Semitic, and just plain dull with dialogue even worse than Star Wars I’m just glad it was so short. I could see what he was attempting to do – tell a tale of ennui and nihilism in the upper echelons of American society but there are much better ways to tell that story than this one.  I doubt very much if I’ll be reading any more of his work.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Versatile Blogger (Nominee)

Sarah over @ All of the Book Blog Names Are Taken has nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Award (Thanks!) and as part of that I’ve been tasked to say 7 things about myself so:

Seven Facts About Me

1 I don’t own a car. I have never owned a car. I have never driven a car (on a public road) and do not have a diving licence. I have never had a driving lesson and have never taken a driving test.

2 Three things happened around the age of 14. My brain ‘woke up’ and I noticed the world around me in super HD vision. I began reading voraciously (having hardly read a thing before that) and became a lifelong gamer. I suspect that all three things are related.

3 When I say to people that I have been a lifelong Atheist I am not exaggerating. I have never had any faith in any Gods or the supernatural. This is not something I decided later in life. It is something as fundamental in my make-up as my gender or my sexuality. It is not something I have acquired. It is something that I simply am.

4 I love debating things. My perfect talking mate would be someone open to new ideas, flexible in their approach and willing to ‘entertain’ ideas without necessarily holding them to be true. Above all else they would need to be able to argue a point without having emotion or personal identity issues associated with the subject at hand. My biggest bugbear is when someone says that they are up for a debate and who very quickly realises that their ideas are most definitely not open to question. It’s probably why one of my heroes is Socrates and why I completely understand why the authorities had him commit suicide to shut him up.

5 I have a reputation for being a rebel as well as for being difficult. Both viewpoints are only partially right. What some view as rebellion is actually only their surface contacts with my natural resistance to social convention. Most conventions I view as essentially harmless or meaningless. I understand why they are there and, generally, simply ignore them. A silly example is that I purposefully wear odd socks. Partially this is for practical reasons – sometimes one sock of a pair wears out first and I see no reason to then throw both of them away. But it’s also my way of saying that I’m not simply going to follow a ‘rule’ just because not doing so makes you look odd. My ‘strangeness’ which, I freely admit, has probably done me some social relationship ‘damage’ is because I refuse to conform to what other people expect of me pretty much no matter the cost. The more I’m pushed the more I resist and, so far, I have yet to reach the end of my resistant nature.

6 I’ve spent most of my adult life alone. This to an extent explains, at least partially, some of the other points listed here. It’s not that I don’t have friends – I do – just not that many. It’s not that people don’t like me – they do – but that I don’t need them as much as most people seem to. It’s strange. I actually don’t understand relationships and people very much probably because I don’t have a great deal of experience to go on. I’m probably on a spectrum of something with an exotic sounding name but I have no idea what that is. I do know that I don’t like being touched without my tacit agreement and people around me seem to have picked up on that. But it does annoy me when someone hugs other people and then just nods in my direction. Hey, I didn’t say that I’m not complicated…..

7 I’m not bothered by spiders, snakes, heights or most of the other standard phobias. I have no problem with clowns, birds, the number 13 or a whole host of the more exotic ones. I do have a healthy respect for water though. Being in a big ship doesn’t bother me in the least but I’m less than happy in water more than waist deep. So you can imagine how I was on a reasonably large boat on the Great Barrier Reef when I was asked to get off my ass and into the water. She was very cute so I said yes. After much cajoling I donned a wetsuit and went snorkelling – never having learnt to swim. After about 10 minutes I started getting used to the idea. After about 30 minutes I started enjoying myself. Then my friend convinced me to join him scuba-diving. I have to say that jumping off that boat in scuba gear was the bravest thing I have EVER done. Unfortunately I was so freaked out after gulping in water shortly afterwards I had to get out of the water and never went back. If I’d gone snorkelling on my own I might just have gotten over my fear of water…. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

University entry 'should be background, not just exams'

By Sean Coughlan, BBC News education and family correspondent

10 July 2018

The university access watchdog says students' backgrounds should be taken into account when awarding places, to improve "equality of opportunity". A-level grades are a "robust measure" only if the applicants' "context" is also considered, Chris Millward says. Many universities give extra help to disadvantaged applicants - but a report warns of a lack of openness about how this operates. All Russell Group universities use some form of "contextual admissions". Top universities have faced accusations of being socially exclusive and recruiting too few applicants from ethnic minorities. But they also face scrutiny for being unfair to individual applicants who might lose out on places to disadvantaged candidates with worse results.

A report from the Fair Education Alliance campaign group says there needs to be much more transparency about how universities use the background of applicants when making offers and awarding places. The campaign group, of more than 100 education and business organisations, says this can include taking into account family income, whether an applicant lives in a deprived area or if they attended a school with poor exam results or where few pupils go on to university. There might be extra consideration given to applications from disadvantaged pupils or they might be offered places on lower grades. But the report says there needs to be much more clarity about these decisions and how different forms of disadvantage are defined. Research for the report, carried out by the University of Exeter, shows the extent of the challenge - with figures showing how few places in 2016 were awarded to applicants from areas with few young people going to university. The University of Cambridge had only 3% of entrants from such "low participation neighbourhoods", the University of Bristol 3.7%, Oxford 4.6% and Exeter 5.3%.

Mr Millward, the Office for Students' director of fair access and participation, said: "We are a long way from equality of opportunity in relation to access to higher education." Universities are in charge of their own admissions, so the fair access director can encourage but not instruct. But Mr Millward said: "An ambitious approach to contextual admissions must be central to our strategy if we are going to make progress on access at the scale and pace necessary to meet the expectations of government, students and the wider public. A-level grades can only be considered to be a robust measure of potential if they are considered alongside the context in which they are achieved," he said. Sarah Stevens, of the Russell Group, said that all of its universities used "contextual data" in some form. "Qualifications and predicted grades are a key indicator of academic ability - but universities take a range of other factors into account to understand the applicant's achievements in context," she said. "This includes the school or college attended, where a student grew up, whether they are a care leaver, or whether they are the first in their family to enter higher education."

[So, ‘contextual’ admissions? Presumably leading to lower ‘standards’ for those considered to be or claiming to be in some way ‘underprivileged’ or ‘under represented’. OK, I get the issue – that pupils from poorer backgrounds have an uphill struggle to get to the top of the tree (to completely mangle my metaphors) but rather than addressing the actual, you know, problem the “Fair Education Alliance” want to ‘fix’ it at the other end. In other words rather doing the hard spadework of improving education at the shallow end of the social spectrum they want universities to wave a magic wand and let people into university because of ‘context’ as if that can in the click of fingers overcome the decades of struggle for people to gain their place in the sun. Not only will such students probably feel that they, deep down, don’t deserve their place but others will resent the fact that a (potentially at least) less able student got a place while they had to wait a year or needed to apply elsewhere. Plus what happens if a ‘contextual student’ drops out for a whole host of reasons. Not only have you not solved the problem you’ve potentially damaged the prospects of those whose (again potential) place was given to someone who failed to complete their degree. What a nightmare!]

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Nice view......

Just Finished Reading: The Myth of the Strong Leader – Political Leadership in the Modern Age by Archie Brown (FP: 2014)

Especially in difficult times we need a strong leader. One who can ‘get the job done’, override the criticism of weaker minds, stare down opposition at home and abroad and make the difficult life (or sometime epoch) changes decisions other weaker leaders simply don’t have the stomach for…. Right? Not so, says the author of this often fascinating book.

Looking at leadership across the globe in the last hundred years or so the author dissects the actions of leaders from democracies, authoritarian states, totalitarian regimes and those somewhere in between. Concentrating on four broad-brush themes – Redefining leadership, Transformational leadership, Revolutionary leadership and Authoritarian leadership – he shows how supposedly strong leaders, those who gathered ever increasing power and prestige to themselves believing that they, and only they, could ‘save the day’ repeatedly did more harm than good (most especially in foreign adventures) and ending up as colossal and sometimes catastrophic failures. The list of those examined is both impressive and honestly staggering:

Franklin D Roosevelt
Lyndon B Johnson
Ronald Reagan
Margaret Thatcher
Alex Salmond
Konrad Adenauer
Willy Brandt
Helmut Kohl
Frenando Henrique Cardoso
FW de Klerk
Charles De Gaulle
Adolfo Suarez
Mikhail Gorbachev
Deng Xiaoping
Nelson Mandela
Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk)
Ho Chi Minh
Pol Pot
Kim Il Sung
Fidel Castro
Mao Zedong
Neville Chamberlin
Anthony Eden
Tony Blair

…and that’s not an exhaustive list – just an exhausting one! The range of the book is very impressive as is the depth of discussion when required. Being that way inclined I did tend to get most from the British and European examples (most especially the Suez Crisis of 1956 and de Gaulle’s France – both of which I’ll be reading more about) but his discussions of the Russian Revolution, the fall of the Soviet Union and the troubled political history of China all kept my attention and those pages turning. Despite only running to just over 360 pages this was a very well argued narrative full of detailed examples and historical lessons. I did more than once wish that the publication date had post-dated rather than pre-dated the Age of Trump to see what the author made of him but I guess that will be covered in future editions. For those interested in the idea of political leadership this is definitely a must read. If, like me, you have developed a passion for political history and political biography (my latest and growing addiction) you’ll love this book. Highly recommended and needed now more than ever.