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

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Keeping hydrated.....

Why are Nike trainers washing up on beaches?

By Hamish Mackay for BBC News

19 June 2019

Over the past year, from Bermuda and the Bahamas to Ireland and Orkney, hundreds of pairs of unworn shoes have washed up on beaches. But how did they get there, and why are scientists so interested in where they are being found? In September 2018, on Flores Island, in the remote Atlantic archipelago of the Azores, Gui Ribeiro began noticing strange items washing ashore. At first they appeared in small numbers and could be dismissed as ordinary artefacts lost by individuals - mere flotsam among the churn of man-made waste that inhabits the world's oceans. Soon, though, it became clear these Azorean arrivals were part of a greater group. Trainers, flip-flops and a selection of other footwear were appearing with a regularity that singled them out from the other tidal deposits. They were the same brands, in the same styles, and, for some of the trainers at least, the same production dates were printed on a label sewn into the tongue of each shoe. Moreover, every item of footwear appeared to have been unworn. In the months that followed, Mr Ribeiro retrieved about 60 Nike trainers, along with a host of other brands. News of the findings began to spread.

Seven months later, and 1,400 miles (2,250km) away in Cornwall, UK, Tracey Williams started noticing a similar trend. "A friend in Ireland asked me if I had found any," says Ms Williams. "I went out the next day and found quite a few. Beach cleaners or beach-combers tend to network, so if a certain item is washing up, we quickly find out about it and we're then on the lookout." As well as the Azores and south-west England, specimens of this scattered footwear flotilla have so far been found on beaches in Bermuda, the Bahamas, France, Ireland, Orkney and the Channel Islands. The source of all these shoes is believed to be a single ship. "Through the research I have done," Mr Ribeiro says, "everything indicates they may have been from some of the 70 to 76 containers that fell overboard from the Maersk Shanghai.” In early spring last year, the Maersk Shanghai - a 324m (1,063ft) vessel capable of carrying more than 10,000 shipping containers - was travelling from Norfolk, Virginia, down the east coast of the US to Charleston, South Carolina. On the evening of 3 March - 17 miles from the Oregon Inlet, off the coast of North Carolina - it was caught in a storm. While battling high winds and rough seas, a stack of its cargo-laden containers toppled overboard.

At the time, the maritime trade press reported that aircraft crews sent to locate the missing containers had found nine of them floating, but that seven had later sunk. It is not possible to say with certainty all the recovered footwear originated from the Maersk Shanghai - the vessel's operator Zodiac Maritime did not respond to BBC questions on the matter. Nike also chose not to comment when contacted. However, two footwear brands, Triangle and Great Wolf Lodge, confirmed the examples of their products that had been retrieved did originate from the ship. And Mr Ribeiro is not the only beach cleaner to be convinced they came from the Maersk Shanghai. Liam McNamara, from County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland, has found "well over 100" shoes - mostly Nike trainers - that in his opinion "most definitely" came from that vessel. "One company has admitted to losing stock from that shipment and another admitted losing stock at sea," he says. "They've been turning up all over the place."

So what impact can events like this have? "Whatever it is - if it is sinking to the bottom or washing up on beaches - it's going to have a detrimental impact to the marine wildlife," says Lauren Eyles, from the Marine Conservation Society. "The shoes will be breaking down to micro-plastics over years, which will have huge impacts on the amazing wildlife we have both in the UK and worldwide." Estimates vary, but it is thought about 10 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans each year. Asked how big a role container spills play in that pollution, Ms Eyles says it is not fully understood. "I don't think there's enough data on it to draw proper conclusions," she explains.

The World Shipping Council estimates that of the 218 million containers transported annually, just over 1,000 go overboard. But one oceanographer, who worked with Nike helping to clear up a spill of its shoes in the early 1990s, believes the real number is likely to be higher. "It's a number the industry likes to dispute," says Dr Curtis Ebbesmeyer. "I think it's in the thousands of containers annually. The question really is: what's in them?" It is at least possible in this case, Dr Ebbesmeyer says, to estimate the size of the spill. "A container can hold about 10,000 sneakers. So if you say 70 containers multiplied by 10,000, that gives you an upper limit [of 700,000 sneakers] that could be out there." Despite the environmental damage, scientists can salvage something from such incidents - a better understanding of our oceans and the currents that drive them. While many of the shoes from the Maersk Shanghai have been washing up on beaches, far more are likely to be doing laps of the North Atlantic Ocean, stuck in a network of powerful currents. When and where the shoes appear, Dr Ebbesmeyer says, can tell us how fast the currents are moving. "If they've gone about halfway around [from North Carolina to the UK] in just over a year, then it takes about three years to go once around the North Atlantic. So that's the typical orbital period of the sneakers, but that hasn't been studied by oceanographers much at all."

Even more enlightening, Dr Ebbesmeyer says, is how the shape of the shoes seems to dictate where they end up. "The left and the right sneakers float with different orientation to the wind," he explains. "So when the wind blows on them they will go to different places. So on some beaches you tend to get the left sneakers and on others you get the right." Despite the criticism of the commercial shipping industry, Dr Ebbesmeyer believes it has started to clean up its act. But he says more could be done. "It takes something like 30, 40, 50 years for the ocean to get rid of this stuff," he says. “I think companies that have spills think we will just forget about it - but it just keeps washing up. So how do we hold companies responsible? Right now there is no accountability." Part of the problem is that shipping companies only have to report lost containers if they could become a hazard for other vessels or if they include substances deemed "harmful to the marine environment", such as corrosive or toxic chemicals. While the Marine Conservation Society says products like trainers harm marine environments, they do not count as "harmful" for the purpose of reporting cargo lost at sea. The International Maritime Organization - the UN's shipping regulator - told the BBC it recognised "more needs to be done to identify and report lost containers" and it had "adopted an action plan to address marine plastic litter from ships".

[Fascinating stuff – especially about right foot and left foot trainers moving in different directions on the currents! Maritime pollution of all kinds, especially plastics, is a terrible thing. The worlds waters have been used as a dumping ground for far too long because it looked like there was little come-back. Well, that time is up I think!]

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Summer days are for reading.....

Just Finished Reading: The Antidote – Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman (FP: 2012)

It’s relentless, really it is. The idea that we need to be positive – all the bloody time. That you can’t even speculate about what might go wrong in case thinking makes it so. Accentuate the positive and eliminate the word ‘impossible’ from your mental processes and everything you wish for will be yours – or at least the latest best-selling self-help book or motivational speaker will tell you. But if you fail at your dreams you have only one person to blame – that’s you, for being too negative, for having doubts, for not believing enough for the Universe to give you what you’ve always known you deserve. Of course, being human in a world of infinite desire means that failure to achieve at least some of your dreams (dream BIG remember!) is inevitable – not everyone can be President after all (although it’s apparently true – indeed proven – that actually anyone can run for President and succeed beyond their own dreams). Which naturally means when belief hits reality you’re going to be disappointed and probably miserable into the bargain. But what can be done? Fortunately two schools of thought are readily available to come to the rescue and, if not always providing clear answers at least provide a practical roadmap to help navigate an often unforgiving world: Stoicism and Buddhism.

The author maintains (and I agree) that we – in the West at least – try far too hard to be happy. Not only do we have an ever increasing pharmacy of drugs to wipe the blues away we are afraid to feel unhappy and positively terrified to tell people about how unhappy we are. Unhappiness equals in many people’s minds simple failure. With the world at our feet there is no excuse not to be up and running. But, the author maintains, it is this relentless and endless pursuit of happiness that is the cause of so much unhappiness and anxiety in the world. One way out of this trap is a Stoic method of imagining the Worse-Case Scenario of any action or project. Ask yourself as you venture out each day – What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Of course most days everything will be fine and you’ll soon realise that things could be much, much worse. Things are actually pretty OK to what they could be. As an added advantage when things DO go wrong you’ve been thinking about them so much that you’ll be mentally (and maybe practically) prepared for almost anything – which still won’t be as bad as they COULD have been!

It’s but a small step from thinking how bad things could be to realising that we cannot control the future and that we shouldn’t even try. Control of anything external to yourself is an illusion anyway. Just try to control the simplest thing in your life and you’ll realise it can’t be done. Once you learn this fact and accept that the only thing you can really control (mostly) is how you react to things that are beyond your control. You can’t control the weather – but you can make sure you check the forecast in the morning and then dress appropriately. Remember – there’s no such thing as bad weather just inappropriate clothing. So it is with many things in life including the artificial goals that we set for ourselves. Of course we spend a great deal of time and effort trying to make ourselves happy but such a thing might we be impossible if the ‘self’ does not really exist in the first place. It’s an idea that’s been around for quite a while – especially in Buddhist teachings - and the author has some very interesting things to say on the subject.

Then, of course, there is failure and the ultimate failure of all: death. Knowing that someday we’ll be dead is nothing to avoid maintains the author. Indeed the conscious denial of death not only cannot be maintained except with increasing levels of narcotic rejection but acceptance of our limited time here makes every moment and every experience that much more precious – not in the way of panic where life experiences are gobbled down like candy but savoured like a rare bottle of fine wine. In so many ways life is defined by its limits – by death. This is really nothing to be greatly afraid of. Dying might well indeed be a short and unpleasant experience but death itself cannot be experienced because you are dead and cannot, therefore, experience anything.

There’s not a huge amount in here that I haven’t come across before but the interesting mix of the Stoic and the Buddhist (both of which interest me intensely – especially the Stoics) gives plenty to think about as a rational and well thought out alternative to all of the daily crap we’re expected to believe, buy into and say thank you for. If you can’t stand the way we are ‘supposed’ to act or feel or respond but want something more than rejection without anything else to move towards then this is definitely the book for you. The blend of Stoicism and Buddhism might not answer all of your problems but it’s a damned good place to start out from. Recommended.(R)

Monday, June 24, 2019

Getting WARM. Time for a snooze.......

Just Finished Reading: The Watcher in the Shadows by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (FP: 1995)

Even tragedy fades – at least the Sauvelle family told themselves. When their beloved father died suddenly their world changed. With debts to be paid their fine clothes and their large house had to be given up to creditors. Without any income their mother had to look for work. For almost a year the family lived from day to day dependent on the charity of others. Until one day their luck changed for the better. Their mother had been offered a job in the country as a housekeeper for the legendary but reclusive toymaker Lazarus Jann. They had to leave their beloved Paris and travel to a small coastal town in Normandy but it was a small price to pay for the hope of getting their lives back on track, and what a place to do it. Their new home Seaview overlooked the wild Normandy coastline whilst behind it was the Cravenmoore estate, home to the enigmatic if charming Jann and his even more mysterious wife. Surrounded by an extensive forest it was the perfect place to recharge the soul and allow the children – young Dorian and his older sister Irene – to fill their young lungs with fresh air. It was perfect….. until Dorian noticed that Lazarus Jann failed to cast a shadow.

I didn’t know this at the time but this was one of the author’s earlier works and was aimed at a child readership – of around 12 to 13. Initially a little irritated by the fact I thought I’d give it a try and thought that worst case at least it would be a quick and easy read. I was wrong. Although I fairly breezed through the 246 pages in around 4 days it was far from an easy read – it was damned scary! I couldn’t help thinking that the author’s experience of early teenage literary courage was far greater than mine. At several points in the book I did think that if I had been reading this in bed at age 12 I would’ve peed my PJs! Parts of the book – no spoilers here but there’s a ‘monster’ involved – are REALLY creepy with an oppressive atmosphere that anyone with half an imagination could run with. Some parts are definitely the stuff of teenage nightmares despite the heroic nature of other parts of the narrative. Heroes abound in this book – not only Dorian who at one point threatens the ‘monster’ with a knife to protect his mother – but Irene and her recent 16 year old boyfriend Ismael as well as the children’s mother Simone who fought for her children using her heart and her head as much as her physical presence.

There’s a lot for a young teen to learn here – and not just about courage in the face of monsters. There’s love and loss, friendship and loneliness. There’s trust and keeping secrets, there’s letting go (of childhood and the past) and embracing wonder. Finally there’s that liminal space between the child and the adult and how you navigate – successfully or not – between the two. I did have a quibble or two – mostly towards the end where the ‘boss fight’ took a little too long and was a little too convoluted but such things pale beside the positive attributes of this book. For a children’s book this was very well, indeed beautifully, written. Reading the prose was like dinning on a perfectly made multi-layered richly decorated cake. All of the characters – even the minor ones – were fully fleshed out and believable. The dialogue from everyone was spot on – no rolling of eyes here. The range of atmosphere throughout flowed as if directed by the conductor of an emotional symphony orchestra. It was, in short, a delight from beginning to (mostly) the end. Being an early work – and being aimed at a younger readership – I am intrigued to read the more accomplished more adult works he has subsequently produced. He’s definitely on my follow up list. Highly recommended but you might have to read this in the daylight or be prepared to sleep with your lights on! 

Translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves

Coming Next: 10 books of Historical Crime.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Dogs' eyes evolve to appeal to humans

By Sean Coughlan for BBC News

18 June 2019

If a dog has eyes that seem to be telling you something or demanding your attention, it could be evolution's way of manipulating your feelings. Researchers have found that dogs have evolved muscles around their eyes, which allow them to make expressions that particularly appeal to humans. A small facial muscle allows dog eyes to mimic an "infant-like" expression which prompts a "nurturing response". The study says such "puppy eyes" helped domesticated dogs to bond with humans. Previous studies have shown how such canine expressions can appeal to humans, but this research from the UK and US shows there has been an anatomical change around dogs' eyes to make it possible.

This allows dogs to create what the researchers call "expressive eyebrows" and to "create the illusion of human-like communication". "When dogs make the movement, it seems to elicit a strong desire in humans to look after them," says the study, co-authored by Dr Juliane Kaminski at the University of Portsmouth. This muscle movement allows dogs' eyes to "appear larger, more infant-like and also resembles a movement humans produce when they are sad". She says that humans would have an "unconscious preference" to protect and breed from dogs with such an appealing trait, giving them an evolutionary advantage and reinforcing this change in subsequent generations. "The evidence is compelling that dogs developed a muscle to raise the inner eyebrow after they were domesticated from wolves," says Dr Kaminski, in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

The findings, from UK and US researchers in anatomy and comparative psychology, show that the facial change has developed over thousands of years of dogs living alongside humans. Previous research has shown that dogs are more likely to use this "puppy eyes" expression when a human is looking at them - suggesting that it is a deliberate behaviour and intended for human consumption. Anatomist and report co-author, Professor Anne Burrows of Duquesne University in the US, says that in evolutionary terms the changes to dogs' facial muscles was "remarkably fast" and could be "directly linked to dogs' enhanced social interaction with humans". The findings, says Professor Bridget Waller of the University of Portsmouth, show "how important faces can be in capturing our attention, and how powerful facial expression can be in social interaction".

[Oh, those sneaky canine bastards! They deliberately evolved ‘puppy eyes’ to make us love them more. How deeply, deeply diabolical. I’ll never trust another dog as long as I live…. Unless they’re REALLY cute puppies!!]

Thursday, June 20, 2019

They see me rollin'.....

Just Finished Reading: Killers of the King – The Men who Dared to Execute Charles I by Charles Spencer (FP: 2014)

They knew the risks. But they had no choice, not really. Despite being beaten on multiple occasions during the bloody Civil Wars the King was adamant – he was appointed by God and only God could remove him. Certainly Parliament had no jurisdiction over him and could not legally put him on trial for his actions in the Wars. But a trial was held and his execution was ordered – for the safety of Parliament and the New Model Army who had so ably resisted him if nothing else. When the axe fell and the head rolled the gasp of horror was heard around Europe – the English had killed their king and had offended God. They were outcasts on the world stage to be left without a single ally. Despite everything and the growing number of enemies both foreign and domestic the Interregnum (honestly one of my favourite words of all time) survived – at least for as long as its Protector Oliver Cromwell lived. But soon after his death calls for a return to monarchy became louder by the day. It was not long before Charles II, the murdered king’s son and heir, returned to England to take up the throne to popular acclaim. Promising only limited retribution – lest he start another uprising – only seven names were put forward for legal consequence. Confident that they would face no more than a loss of position, rank and land they gave themselves up to the king’s mercy. But the new king was far from feeling mercy for the killers of his father. Tried and convicted of High Treason each of the judges who passed sentence on their rightful Lord was publically executed in the most brutal fashion. Then, his thirst for vengeance only beginning the king ordered the drawing up of a list of everyone directly or indirectly involved in the unspeakable crime of regicide. It was time to run, to hide or to plead for mercy.

When the list was finally compiled it came to over forty names – every judge, every lawyer and every man who signed the death warrant was ordered to give themselves up to the authorities or they and their families would face the consequences. Many did so, more to protect their families and their estates more than trusting in the forgiveness of the king. Some hid and eventually gave themselves up. Some ran and were caught fleeing or betrayed by others. Some fled and were hunted down and assassinated by royal assent. Some fled and fought and lived a precarious life never knowing who to trust or when the assassin’s knife would finally find them. Some fled as far as the New World colonies hoping for a new life in a place where they could vanish into the wilderness whilst still looking over their shoulders at every noise and being suspicious of every stranger. Only when Charles II had been replaced in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 could the few remaining regicides finally breathe free air. After so many years in hiding and in fear of their lives it was a small mercy.

Obviously the Civil Wars of the 17th Century loom large in English history and I have a reasonable familiarity with them. The great battles of the Wars and the New Model Army in particular were taught in great detail in school and, I remember, were very much taught from a Parliamentary point of view (despite still being a constitutional monarchy). What I didn’t realise, despite knowing about the Restoration and the subsequent Glorious Revolution, was that Charles II spent a great deal of time, effort and gold hunting down and killing his father’s murderers. It just never really crossed my mind that he’s do that (although it’s pretty obvious that he would once he was in power!). This excellent page turner of a book most certainly filled in a gap in my countries historical knowledge – which I really like. It was also nice to get away from modern times for a while. The Civil Wars are a fascinating time (from the distance of over 350 years) and through up some truly modern political ideas. They also changed the monarchy forever despite Charles’s intentions otherwise. Highly recommended for anyone interested in English history. More to come on this period! (R6)

Monday, June 17, 2019

Just Finished Reading: A Higher Loyalty – Truth, Lies and Leadership by James Comey (FP: 2018)

The present incumbent of the White House, despite his MANY faults has been very good for three things – First: He’s made US politics unmissable on TV, Second: He’s putting a LOT of lawyers kids through College and Third: He’s created a whole publishing industry on his own which is much appreciated by authors and publishing houses across the globe. But in spite of being honestly entranced by the car crash Presidency of Donald Trump (which is much more ‘entertaining’ than our own train wreck politics of Brexit – especially from thousands of miles away) I had decided long ago that I wouldn’t read any books about it – yet. Despite the publication of (most of) the Mueller Report, which I have downloaded but haven’t read yet, there’s still much we don’t know about everything that’s been going on in the last few years so any book about Trump is necessarily going to be incomplete or just wrong – at least in places. I certainly had (and have) no intention or reading any of the existing or future ‘kiss and tell’ narratives that seem to come out on a regular basis. But, as with many things in my life, I do make exceptions. This was one of them.

Now I know of Comey (as a Trump watcher how could I not) but I knew almost nothing about him prior to his firing as Head of the FBI by Trump not long into his tenure at the White House. This book fills in a lot more of that background. This is very much a biography of Comey rather than about Trump per se. Comey goes back to his childhood experiences, his time in College and his decision to follow a career in Law. There’s also some very personal and very emotional insights into his life as a husband and father and of losing a child. It all goes to the character of the man himself, of who he is and why he went down the route he did and the decisions he made. Throughout the book Comey focuses on Leadership – both good and bad – from grocery store owners to Mafia bosses (with whom he interacted regularly during his time in New York as an attorney with SDNY). What was obvious to me though was that, at least for the first half of the narrative, Comey was looking back over his life and looking at both incidents and people through the filter provided by his experiences with Trump. More than once he made parallels between his experiences with the Mob and with Trump’s White House and most especially with his experience of being asked to provide personal loyalty to the President.

The second half of the book was more contemporary and somewhat less personally biographical. Not surprisingly a good chunk of it related to the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and especially the re-opening of the investigation just prior to the 2016 Presidential election. Also, not surprisingly, Comey goes into great detail and makes a great effort to defend himself against accusations of giving the election to Trump. I disagree with this assessment for several reasons. For one it is clear that Clinton sent a significant number highly classified e-mail over a non-secure network. She might have done so in ignorance (which is no real excuse) and may well have done so unintentionally. They may not have resulted in a security breach but still the e-mails were sent. So the question remains who was ultimately responsible and what happened about it. It seems that the answer was no one and nothing. I honestly found this shocking. If that had happened over here, no matter who sent them, heads would roll and the high level Minister would at least be sacked if not jailed. Second, I don’t honestly think the initial investigation nor its subsequent re-opening affected the 2016 election that much. Sure Clinton was expected to win and no one really thought Trump had a chance but in this case (not really a shocker there) the pundits were wrong. I think Trump won for two reasons: the major reason was that people all across the world (and not just in the US) are sick and tired of ‘Business as Usual’. There are groups of significant numbers of people who feel themselves to have been ignored and side-lined (mostly because they have been) by mainstream politicians who took the opportunity to get their own back in the 2016 Presidential election and here in the Brexit Vote. Both events are symptoms of a deeper problem that has yet to be addressed. In the US Trump offered them (admittedly false) hope. Clinton (as perceived) did not. The other ‘elephant’ in the room is, I think (as my perception from someone who only ‘followed’ the election from far away) the Bernie question. The animosity between Clinton and Bernie supporters was real. So when Bernie lost the nomination I’m guessing that at least some of his supporters just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the Democratic candidate so stayed at home. Despite winning the popular vote those stay at homes probably had enough of an impact (in conjunction with the much larger change factor) to ensure a Trump victory. Comey’s investigation of Hillary’s e-mail (I think) probably had a very minor impact blown out of proportion by the understandable size of the Democratic disappointment.

The final section of the book covered Comey’s shortened tenure as FBI Director first under Obama and then Trump. The contrasting styles between the two presidents could not have been starker and Comey brings this very much to the fore. When he was fired in May 2017 Comey was attending (or just about to attend) a recruitment event in LA. Fired with ‘immediate effect’ he first found out his new status as a private citizen when he saw it on a newscast being shown in the LA FBI building. At first he thought it was an elaborate joke. It wasn’t. Normally accompanied by armed guards and driven around in an armoured Suburban he was fully expecting to be dumped out on the street with no clear idea on how to get home to Washington. That, if nothing else, shows the kind of President he was expected to serve with loyalty.

From the perspective of someone lucky enough not to have ‘skin in the game’ this was an interesting a valuable insight not only into the Trump presidency but to US politics in general. I thought it very well written, rational and reasonable. Comey certainly explained his actions and thoughts well enough to understand them and agree with most if not all of them as something that I would have done in his place. After reading this I definitely feel the need for more insight and more analysis of the situation in the US and the wider western world. I’ll be looking to pick that up in the coming months (plans are already ‘a foot’). I shall definitely be picking up more books by ex-FBI and ex-Intelligence chiefs as they come out in paperback. I shall also be waiting to snap up the much needed later assessment (post 2020) of what exactly happened here and how it all fell apart in the end – presumably with a substantial index of who committed what crimes when and how long they expect to spend in prison because of it. Now that’ll be a book worth waiting for! Highly recommended for anyone interested in what’s really happening out there. (R6)

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Cartoon Time.

Fan, much?
Divided, pessimistic, angry: survey reveals bleak mood of pre-Brexit UK

By Nosheen Iqbal for The Observer

Sat 15 Jun 2019

Britain is a more polarised and pessimistic nation than it has been for decades, according to a survey that reveals a country torn apart by social class, geography and Brexit. The survey by BritainThinks reveals an astonishing lack of faith in the political system among the British people, with less than 6% believing their politicians understand them. Some 75% say that UK politics is not fit for purpose. As the Conservative party focuses on who its new leader should be, and the Brexit impasse continues with no solution in sight, 86% think the UK needs a strong leader more than ever – but only 21% think the next prime minister, whoever it may be, will be up to the job. Some 52% believe the country is heading for a Boris Johnson premiership. Pollster Deborah Mattinson said she was shocked by the findings. “I have been listening to people in focus groups since the late 1980s and I cannot recall a time when the national mood was more despairing. ‘Broken’, ‘sad’, ‘worried’, ‘angry’– the negatives tumble out, as does the long list of grievances. I’m hearing anxieties voiced in a way that I haven’t heard since the 1990s: a rundown NHS, job insecurity, teacher shortages.”

BritainThinks polled more than 2,000 people and hosted several focus groups in London and Leicester to gauge the national mood. Almost three-quarters of the British public believe the divisions on Brexit between Leavers and Remainers will deepen and get worse within the next year. Two-thirds feel depressed by rising poverty and homelessness. While people say Brexit has made them more politically engaged – 40% are paying more attention since the 2016 referendum, rising to 50% in those aged between 18 and 24 – the polling suggests the bitter political debate over leaving the EU has shattered public trust in the way the nation is governed. Some 83% feel let down by the political establishment and almost three-quarters (73%) believe the country has become an international laughing stock and that British values are in decline. In focus groups, “worried” and “uncertain” were the most repeated keywords used by respondents to describe how they felt about the future. Job insecurity and a perceived breakdown of local communities concerned both older and younger generations. Some blamed immigration, others pointed to cuts in public funding following a decade of austerity.

The poll found an extraordinary gulf in levels of optimism between the generations: while 52% of those aged over 65 said they felt optimistic about the country’s future, this dropped to just 24% of under-34s. Mattinson said: “Younger people feel a strong sense of injustice. Home ownership seems a pipe dream even for the relatively well off. Secure employment can be elusive for them too, despite being far better qualified than their parents and grandparents.” Those who self-identify as “haves” stand at 52%, while 48% see themselves as “have-not”, but anxiety about crime is widespread. In 2016 the Office for National Statistics revealed that 15% of the public expected to be a victim of crime within the next year. Today that stands at 19%, rising to 29% for those living in London. Conducted between 7 and 9 June and weighted to be representative of all UK adults by age, gender, region and socioeconomic grade, the BritainThinks poll found only 58% believe the UK will still leave the EU. Uncertainty over the country’s future is deep rooted, but green shoots of optimism could be found in an underlying stoicism: two-thirds of those polled felt positive about their homes, relationships and mental health and that “British people will just get on with things regardless of the impact of Brexit”.

Class was a clear dividing line; 72% of those from AB social grades felt positive about their personal lives compared with 57% of those from DE households. Similarly, only 54% of those in social grade DE are optimistic about their physical health, compared with 71% of ABs. “The people we elected think we’re too stupid to understand what’s going on, there’s condescension and no respect for us,” said one Remain voter from Leicester, who now believed that the only way to uphold any sense of national pride would be to leave Europe. “The British took democracy to other countries, but we can’t even abide by it or believe in it ourselves,” he said.

[It’s weird. Ever since the referendum YEARS ago now the political map of the country has essentially morphed from Left-Right to Leave-Remain. Class doesn’t seem to matter anymore, nor does age, gender or ethnicity. The leading question, the most important thing to ask is: Leave or Remain? Or where do you stand on Brexit? Once you know the answer to that question everything else falls into place – even the fact that you’re going to continue the conversation or not. As the article quite rightly points out – this divide will not go away once we leave (or crash out in October as I’m predicting) but will get worse. If things turn out badly (as I believe they will) there will be endless recriminations. Politics will get increasingly messy and increasingly divided. It’s already almost impossible – as the world has seen – to get politicians to agree on anything. Political parties of the Left, the Right and even the Centre are fracturing along Brexit lines and tearing themselves apart. It’s little wonder that the voting public has lost what little faith it had in its elected officials. The predicted arrival of Bris Johnson as PM will help none of this. He will only divide his party and the country more. The next ten years (and beyond?) are going to be turbulent. Time to tighten our seatbelts I think!]

Thursday, June 13, 2019

It'll stop raining..... Any day now.... any day.....

Just Finished Reading: The Outposter by Gordon R Dickson (FP: 1972)

After half of his life away Mark Ten Roos is finally going home. But he is not leaving an overcrowded Earth as one of the compulsory colonists. No, he is returning as an Outposter, one of the few men and women dedicated to protecting the far flung colonies from random attacks by the alien Meda V’Dan – the same aliens that killed his parents over a decade earlier. But Mark is not driven by the altruistic defence of reluctant colonists. Mark is driven by a much stronger if a less pure emotion – revenge. Mark has studied hard and has planned his campaign meticulously anticipating every move by the aliens he hates and the Earth government whose weakness he despises. He has even gone so far as to anticipate his own death and make it part of his larger plan. Only one element eludes him and only one factor is beyond his control – Ulla Showell, the Admiral’s headstrong and prideful daughter.

As a fan of the author’s Dorsai books I thought I might be in for a treat with this slim volume. I was indeed. Whilst not exactly great literature or even great SF it was certainly entertaining enough and much better (and much more mature) than my previous venture into older SF. Although the overall plot was rather bare bones and simplistic the story was told with style, intelligence and a fair knowledge of history, culture and human psychology. Full of relatable characters with fleshed out back stories who usually communicated in believable dialogue it more than once surprised me with its cleverness. Written by someone who had clearly not simply thrown a bare-bones story together in order to make a quick buck I found it an engaging page turner with a pretty satisfactory ending. Overall a pretty good example of 70’s combat SF with a political and cultural twist. (R)

Monday, June 10, 2019

Just Finished Reading: The American Presidency – A Very Short Introduction by Charles O Jones (FP: 2007)

..and so to the third (and final) book in my US Politics book ‘blitz’. This was actually the longest (at 165 pages) and probably the driest, in places, of all three books. Starting with the invention of the position – which almost didn’t happen as some of the original drafters of the Constitution wanted a 12 man committee rather than a single man in charge. Plus the role was almost called ‘Governor’ rather than President… Then moving on to how the President found his feet and settled into his constitutional role. Then onto how Presidents are elected (and other ways they gain office!), how the role has changed over time and expanded as the role of government expanded. The final sections (the largely dry bit) looked in more detail of how the President functions within government and how he fits into the larger governmental landscape.

As I’ve still very much a novice in respect to the US political system (something that these 3 books was a hesitant attempt to begin to rectify) a portion of this book passed without much sound over my head. My knowledge of the intricacies of how US Government (or indeed my own Government) operates revolves mostly around pop culture references in TV shows and movies. I’d need to read a lot more than this to truly get my head around things – but little steps and all that. I have quite a few US culture and politics references coming up so I’ll have a greater appreciation of things in the next few years no doubt.

In larger news I thought the book blitz idea worked really well (at least in theory) so I’ll be doing that again. The next one is likely to be in August with a further one over Christmas. The August event – already in the pipeline with be on ‘Empire’ with 4 books planned over 9 days. Should be a good one. More VSI to come no doubt.

Saturday, June 08, 2019

OK, DECAF from now on for you....
Ultimate limit of human endurance found

By James Gallagher for BBC News

6 June 2019

The ultimate limit of human endurance has been worked out by scientists analysing a 3,000 mile run, the Tour de France and other elite events. They showed the cap was 2.5 times the body's resting metabolic rate, or 4,000 calories a day for an average person. Anything higher than that was not sustainable in the long term. The research, by Duke University, also showed pregnant women were endurance specialists, living at nearly the limit of what the human body can cope with. The study started with the Race Across the USA in which athletes ran 3,080 miles from California to Washington DC in 140 days. Competitors were running six marathons a week for months, and scientists were investigating the effect on their bodies.

Resting metabolic rate - the calories the body burns through when it is relaxing - was recorded before and during the race. And calories burned in the extreme endurance event were recorded. The study, in Science Advances, showed energy use started off high but eventually levelled off at 2.5 times the resting metabolic rate. The study found a pattern between the length of a sporting event and energy expenditure - the longer the event, the harder it is to burn through the calories. So people can go far beyond their base metabolic rate while doing a short bout of exercise, it becomes unsustainable in the long term. The study also shows that while running a marathon may be beyond many, it is nowhere near the limit of human endurance.

Marathon (just the one) runners used 15.6 times their resting metabolic rate

Cyclists during the 23 days of the Tour de France used 4.9 times their resting metabolic rate

A 95-day Antarctic trekker used 3.5 times the resting metabolic rate

"You can do really intense stuff for a couple of days, but if you want to last longer then you have to dial it back," Dr Herman Pontzer, from Duke University, told BBC News. He added: "Every data point, for every event, is all mapped onto this beautifully crisp barrier of human endurance. Nobody we know of has ever pushed through it." During pregnancy, women's energy use peaks at 2.2 times their resting metabolic rate, the study showed.

The researchers argue the 2.5 figure may be down to the human digestive system, rather than anything to do with the heart, lungs or muscles. They found the body cannot digest, absorb and process enough calories and nutrients to sustain a higher level of energy use. The body can use up its own resources burning through fat or muscle mass - which can be recovered afterwards - in shorter events. But in extreme events - at the limits of human exhaustion - the body has to balance its energy use, the researchers argue. Dr Pontzer said the findings could eventually help athletes. "In the Tour de France, knowing where your ceiling is allows you to pace yourself smartly. Secondly, we're talking about endurance over days and weeks and months, so it is most applicable to training regimens and thinking whether they fit with the long-term metabolic limits of the body."

[I am honestly fascinated with the long distance and extreme long distance runners. What they manage to do amazes me! I don’t run much as a rule (maybe for the bus) but loved running as a child and as a teenager – it was probably because of my leg length and lung capacity. I wasn’t fast (actually one of the slowest kids in my year) but I could keep on running long after the sprinters had given up. I also loved what we used to call ‘Cross Country Running’ – off track in the open across normal rolling landscape. That was much fun…. I really must read up on these LONG races……]