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

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Philip Hammond: Deselecting Tory MPs over Brexit 'hypocritical'

From The BBC

31st August 2019

It would be "staggeringly hypocritical" for the government to sack Conservative MPs who rebel over its Brexit plans, former chancellor Philip Hammond says. It comes after the Sun reported No 10 would stop any Tory MP who votes to block a no-deal Brexit from standing for the party in a general election. Government sources haven't denied this. But Mr Hammond said eight current cabinet members had themselves defied the party whip this year by voting against Theresa May's Brexit deal. Mr Hammond tweeted that he wanted to honour the party's 2017 manifesto promise for a "smooth and orderly" exit and a "deep and special partnership" with the EU and "not an undemocratic No Deal". Another senior Conservative MP, who is likely to back moves to prevent a no-deal Brexit next week, said they would be "disappointed" if it appeared that the government was "threatening" colleagues. They added that Downing Street looked like it was "spoiling for a fight".

Government sources told the BBC that Prime Minister Boris Johnson wanted all MPs to "recognise their duty" and "give him their support" to get the UK out of the EU by 31 October 3. A government spokesperson said: "All options for party management are under consideration, but first and foremost the PM hopes MPs will deliver on the referendum result and back him on Parliament."

Mr Hammond's intervention came after his successor, Sajid Javid, backed Mr Johnson's decision to suspend Parliament. Despite insisting during the Tory leadership campaign that he thought proroguing Parliament was a bad idea, Mr Javid has now defended the plan. He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It is quite usual this time of year, Parliament goes into what's called a conference recess and it doesn't usually sit for some time in September and early October. It's right because we are focusing on the people's priorities." Thousands of people took to the streets across the UK to protest the suspension on Saturday. Demonstrations were held in central London, near Downing Street, and in Manchester, Leeds, York and Belfast.

[Aaah… Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister that’s putting the “F” back into Fascist….. I guess that the Conservative Party is no longer ‘a broad Church’ and is now more like a personality cult….. I mean, what could POSSIBLY go wrong?] 

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Puppy Love....

Just Finished Reading: The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (FP: 1970)

I must admit that the strange looks I receive when reading this classic of 2nd Wave Feminism did amuse me greatly. To be honest it’s a small part of why I read it. The main part was, naturally, that this is a cultural classic and I considered that it should be part of my educational quest to understand the modern (and fucked up) age we live in.

Amongst the first things that jumped out at me as I began to slog through this work was just how badly it had dated from its original publication almost 50 years ago. In some sense it was a time capsule or a snapshot of a bygone age. Of course any author is in a sense trapped in their own timeframe but it did seem that the author made little attempt to universalise her message not only for those not inhabiting English towns and villages but for those reading it years or even decades later. Maybe she was going for immediacy and wanted to make the book a ‘happening’ rather than a stale academic text but, at least from my point of view, the author’s regular references to names and events of the day (often mentioned in passing with little or no background or explanation) confused rather than enlightened me. Some of the names and events turned out to be historically noteworthy. Others must have flared into brief prominence and then largely disappeared from the historical record leaving nothing behind but a quizzical look and a half raised eyebrow.

Maybe, after I had the first quarter of the book under my belt, things generally improved or possibly by then I had gotten use to the style and rhythm of things but as I ventured deeper into her ideas I began to enjoy it far more. It’s possible that ‘pop culture references’ featured less often as the author hit her stride and ideas rather than recent news reports came to the forefront. Whatever it was I felt that the second half of the book had more substance than the first. Her deep critique of western culture hit home more than once as she analysed how our society and culture treated women and young girls at that time – and with the advantage of looking back from the early 21st Century to see how much had changed (and how much had not). Her solution for many of these problems must have been very novel and shockingly radical at the time (even in the supposedly progressive age of 1970) – Don’t marry and whatever you do - Don’t have children. I could see why she said this when she outlined the complete lack of childcare facilities available at almost any price. Once children started to arrive – as expected/almost demanded by everyone around you – their mother was trapped and had to essentially give up everything else to care for the children, the husband and the home. All other dreams, hopes and abilities at that point were rendered moot. Things are better today – if not fully resolved. Childcare is still expensive, women over their working lives earn less than men (for a whole host of reasons) and women are still expected (if no longer under so much pressure) to have and bring up children with everything else in second place at best. We are most certainly not in a 2nd Wave heaven at this point and probably no time soon.

Her targets for criticism (and attack) both interested and surprised me a little. The author was clearly no fan of romance, love and the idealisation or relationships, marriage and sex. Women were clearly expected to live up to male fantasies in all of these regards and either have no ideas of their own or, if they did, then to either disregard or supress them in favour of the male versions. Romantic novels and movies in particular where seen simply as methods of propaganda and control (I actually agreed with her here). One of her most intriguing ideas was the thought that women in particular will inevitably find it difficult to be ‘who they are’ because they’ve never had the opportunity to be just that. From the very cradle women in particular (men too though apparently not to such a degree) are moulde3d to be a certain kind of being – essentially what culture (the author clearly meant male culture) demanded they be. Only when women had the opportunity to move beyond this constant conditioning could be truly become women – for the first time in their lives. Personally I’m fascinated with the idea of how the culture we are born into and grow up in changes us away from the ‘real’ or ‘natural’ person. I wonder if it’s even possible to be truly authentically ‘you’ despite the cultural influences that shaped your life. Likewise could you be your ‘true’ self without other people around you to engage in that shaping process. It’s definitely a tough (and therefore very interesting) nut to crack and I enjoyed thinking about it from a new perspective thanks to the author’s mussings.

Although it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting this was still an interesting (and I think valuable) reading experience. Books such as this and the other classics of 2nd Wave Feminism shaped the world we presently inhabit in often profound ways. To understand that world a bit more I think reading works such as this is a must. More to come! (S) 

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Monday, August 26, 2019

Just Finished Reading: The British Empire: A Very Short Introduction by Ashley Jackson (FP: 2013)

It is said, not without reason, that the British acquired their Empire by accident. As Britain grew in power as a maritime nation and explored the world looking for trading opportunities and places to plant colonies it inevitably left an impression wherever its ships made landfall. It was not, of course, alone in this endeavour but seemed to be both particularly good and particularly lucky at it. In numerous wars with its rivals and fortuitous marriages amongst its ruling elites more colonies, territories and sometimes whole countries fell into Britain’s orbit. Equally inevitably previously colonies grew as colonies will and their demands grew with them – for food, natural resources and land. The local inhabitants of the New Lands often traded with these outsiders until it became obvious that they were here to stay and here to rule. After that the choice was clear – co-operate or fight back. Looking back it is unclear who made the better choice between ultimate (at least attempted) assimilation or (almost certainly guaranteed) extermination of their way of life if not their whole tribe or worse. So, over hundreds of years and through the actions, often unknown and unsanctioned from London, of thousands of individuals the Empire grew until it covered a fair proportion of the planet and held hundreds of millions as its subjects. Until, quite suddenly and almost (but not quite) bloodlessly it vanished in an historical blink of the eye.

Covering the main themes of the origins, expansion and ultimate demise of the British Empire this slim volume (as usual around 130 pages) is an excellent introduction to a still controversial institution. After its collapse the prevailing opinion, especially in the more ‘enlightened’ age of the 1960’s and 1970’s, was that Empire and the British Empire in particular was a unarguably bad thing bringing oppression and worse to large areas of the world and was something to both feel guilty about and offer recompense for. Those who offered up any kind of alternative – even those who recognised and acknowledged the Empire’s less than savoury activities especially in Africa, India and most notoriously Tasmania – were considered to be blind to the realities of history and apologists for Imperialism. Others, notably historians, pointed out a more nuanced narrative – of both atrocity and triumph in a rather messy, complex and often contradictory narrative known technically as History. The author struggles with the idea of labelling the Empire either ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ and essentially dismisses the question itself – although he gives it some serious rumination room. Such labels are, in my opinion at least, both simplistic and na├»ve. It’s rather like trying to describe the 20th Century in a single word. Sure, you could probably do it – but would it actually mean anything? I think not. As an introduction to the British Empire I couldn’t fault this book overly much. If you know very little about it but for the name and the fact that it existed at all this is definitely the book for you. More detailed books on the topic to come.

That’s this book blitz finished. The next blitz will be: Cinema.   

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Migration: UK cannot end freedom of movement on Brexit day, experts say

From The BBC

22 August 2019

Migration experts say the UK cannot end freedom of movement from the EU on Brexit day because it has no system to work out who is legally in the country. The Home Office said on 19 August that EU freedom of movement would end immediately in a no-deal Brexit. But Oxford University's Migration Observatory said employers will have no way to tell whether EU nationals have arrived after 31 October. It comes as official figures show EU immigration at its lowest since 2013. Under the existing system, EU nationals do not have to register their presence in the UK so the Home Office does not have records of when they arrived.

Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory, said: "Even if the government knew exactly what it wanted the post-Brexit immigration system to look like, it wouldn't be possible to implement it immediately after a no-deal Brexit. That's because any new restrictions on EU migration can't be enforced unless UK employers know which EU citizens have been here for years and which ones arrived post-Brexit and have to comply with the new immigration regime." The government's only way to assess which EU citizens had a right to be in the UK would be through the settlement scheme, which closes in December 2020, the Migration Observatory team said. The settlement scheme aims to register EU nationals in the country, but there is no obligation for all of them to take part. As of July, only a third of the estimated 3.3 million UK-based EU citizens had applied, leaving more than two million unregistered. The announcement that freedom of movement would end the day after Brexit "added to the growing uncertainty and unease" for businesses, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation said. Tom Hadley, the confederation's policy and campaigns director, said: "It is hard to believe that government continues to leave businesses and EU citizens in the dark, with such little clarity on the biggest questions with just 10 weeks to go." A Home Office spokesman said it would set out details of changes to EU migration after Brexit "shortly" but encouraged EU citizens to apply to the settlement scheme. "Free movement as it currently stands will end on 31 October when we leave the EU," he said. The warning on freedom of movement comes after the Office for National Statistics conceded that its key migration figures were no longer reliable and should now only be regarded as "experimental".

The ONS revealed on Wednesday that it had been underestimating EU arrivals and overestimating those from the rest of the world. It now believes EU net migration - the difference between people arriving and leaving - was 16% higher (29,000) in 2015-16 than previously thought. Net migration from outside the EU was 13% (25,000) lower, because more foreign students left than previously estimated. The ONS has used additional data from the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions in an attempt to make the adjusted figures more reliable. But statisticians have not yet adjusted the figures for EU immigration after 2016. That is partly because EU citizens interviewed for the survey may not be sure if they are staying in Britain for at least 12 months - the cut-off point for inclusion in the data.

The ONS estimates that EU migration is now at its lowest level since 2013, with 200,000 EU citizens arriving in the year up to March 2019 - the original date for Brexit. It says the main reason for the decline is that fewer people are arriving from the EU to work, with the numbers more than halving to 92,000 from their peak in 2016. Ms Sumption at the Migration Observatory said: "The drop in the value of sterling has made working in the UK less lucrative than it once was, and continued uncertainty about the Brexit may also have played a role." More Central and Eastern Europeans are leaving than are arriving - causing a net fall in the numbers from eight countries, including Poland, of 7,000. That confirms a trend that began a year ago.

[What a farce. Until we leave the EU – presumably on 31st October (delightfully Halloween of course!) – any EU citizen didn’t have the register their presence here. Therefore the UK government has absolutely no idea how many EU citizens are here, where they are and how long they’ve been here. So how exactly is that going to be regulated and the rules changed without causing massive issues for all concerned by the end of October? Well, it can’t, it’s IMPOSSIBLE. A total FARCE.]

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Just Finished Reading: The Holy Roman Empire – A Very Short Introduction by Joachim Whaley (FP: 2018)

Even hundreds of years after The Fall it was impossible to ignore the Roman Empire. With Western Europe a patchwork quilt of kingships and tribal areas in a state of almost constant conflict it was hard to ignore anyone who aim at some kind of unification. Many tried and many failed until around 800AD with the triumph of Charlemagne. Holding together an area around present day Eastern France and into Germany he managed to impose peace and return a significant piece of Europe to some kind of settled and civilised status. But such things tended to last as long as their ruler and when Charlemagne died the empire he created divided into three each ruled by a son. Inevitably such a divided kingdom could not last and war broke out. Over the next 1000 years until the Holy Roman Empire dissolved itself in 1806 a significant portion of central Europe – mostly centred on Germany, Austria and northern Italy – remained under the control of the Holy Roman Emperors who were generally elected from a small number of German families and often crowned by the Pope of the time. On rare occasions – for example when multiple Popes (up to three for one short period) fought over who would crown which imperial wannabee or the powerful Electors couldn’t make up their minds or find anyone suitable – the Empire soldiered on without an Emperor at the helm but few seemed to mind or notice. But almost whatever the situation the Holy Roman Empire was a force to be reckoned with – especially when the disparate elements could agree on a common policy, a common leader or a common enemy (like the Turks). Any history of Europe in general or either Germany or Italy in particular cannot ignore the place and role of the Holy Roman Empire as a significant formative influence.

The Holy Roman Empire was something I had come across on multiple occasions whenever I dipped into European history so I know of it but not all that much about it. Although I’m sure that the author tried his best it’s still rather difficult to produce even an overview of 1000 years of history in less than 130 pages. Most of the time I was drowning in names and places (mostly German) that had little resonance with me. It was only after the half way mark that my interest perked up with the Thirty Years War and beyond. Before that I was having serious flashbacks to Game of Thrones except for the dragons and White Walkers. As a basic introduction this was fine if a bit dull in places. I think my future reading on the regions in question will generally be a bit more focused on the last 2-300 years rather on the last 1000. We’ll see where that leads in future. If you’re looking for somewhere to start researching the Holy Roman Empire this isn’t a bad place.   

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Book Snob Tag

I’ve been tagged (OK, everyone who watched the YouTube video was ‘tagged’) by Book Olive to find out if I’m a Book Snob. So here goes….

1) Do you always read the book before the movie?

No. I’m reading fiction only around 20-25% of the time presently so there’s no way really to ensure I’m reading the book before the film. Actually I’m much more likely to read the book after the movie as seeing it on screen makes me want to know more etc.. That was definitely the case with The Martian and even things like Divergent and even The Hunger Games.

2) If you could only choose one format for the rest of your life would it be print, electronic or audio?

That’s EASY. Print, every time. To be honest I don’t really regard electronic books as *books* and I certainly wouldn’t say that listening to an audio book is *reading* it. It could be argued that it’s like having someone read the book to you – OK – but that’s still not reading the book yourself. It’s a whole different experience. I can certainly see advantages of audio books – you can listen in the car on a long drive (I know people who do that) or on headphones during working or just walking around and still do stuff. Likewise the great advantage of electronic books is simple portability. You can carry hundreds of books around with you and have them all at your fingertips. But neither really feels like a real book to me.

3) Would you date or marry a non-reader?

Marry? No. But then again I wouldn’t marry someone who OWNED a bookstore – even my favourite bookstore. Marriage is really not my thing! I have briefly dated non-readers or low-volume readers in the past. Talking about books was never really part of the relationship and, to be honest, only one really lasted long enough for it to have possibly become an issue. I would certainly miss the opportunity to talk about books, share books and share book experiences. How much of a drag it would be on any relationship is unknown. It’d definitely be a problem if she had a problem with my reading which it might if I couldn’t shut up about the novel or whatever I was reading at the time. It would probably become a point of friction if things lasted that long. All things considered it’d be safer to date a reader, non-smoker, vegetarian who doesn’t mind being a gaming widow 2 hours a night most nights…. [lol]

4) If you had to ditch one genre and never read it again what would it be?

I had to think about this for a while and I’d have to say Fantasy or more particularly Urban Fantasy. I’ve read some good book in both genres but generally they’ve been a very poor second to SF and other genres like Crime or historical fiction. I could cheat and say something like Romance (which I almost never read) or religious non-fiction (practically ditto) but that wouldn’t be fair to the spirit of the question.

5) If you could only read one genre for the rest of your life what would it be?

Ask me that question 20+ years ago and it would be a resounding SCIENCE FICTION. Not so today. Although I would probably miss reading SF a great deal I’d miss one genre much more – History. I was only thinking a few days ago that you could spend an entire life (and not just the years I have left) just reading about World War Two. History naturally covers the globe and the entirety of human existence. No matter how fast you read you’d never run out of new things to discover. Really there’s no other sensible choice – although SF comes close I admit!

6) What genre do you think receives the most snobbery from the bookish community?

As I’m not really part of the bookish community (per se) I wasn’t going to comment much – if anything – on this subject. But then I thought about all the flack I’ve heard about Young Adult lit. Now as a genre-type I can see its utility. After all there’s children’s lit and adult lit so why not Young Adult lit, right? But what I do see if denigration of adults who read YA lit extensively or even exclusively. To be honest I can understand that. Generally speaking I’d find it strange if someone wasn’t reading age appropriate books most of the time. Naturally I’ve read some children’s classics in my adult years (mostly because I’d failed to read them as a child) and have also read – and enjoyed – some books classified as YA but I wouldn’t read them exclusively. I’m an adult and need adult stimulation through adult subjects and adult situations. Candyfloss is OK from time to time but you wouldn’t want to live on it.

7) Have you ever been snubbed for reading something or for reading in general?

As I’ve said before, people think it strange that I read so much (as if 60 books a year was a lot), that I read such a varied range of topics or that I read at all. It makes me suspect but I’m not generally snubbed because of it. I’ve got some very funny looks from people when they catch what I’m reading. My favourite strange looks were some years ago when I was reading a book called ‘Shoot the Women First’ on public transport. Lately the two that raised eyebrows were ‘How to Stage a Military Coup’ and most recently ‘The Female Eunuch’.

So, Am I a Book Snob? Pretty much – yes! [lol]     

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Data regulator probes King's Cross facial recognition tech

From The BBC

15 August 2019

The facial-recognition system at King's Cross is to be investigated by the UK's data-protection watchdog. Media exposure of live facial recognition at the site prompted the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) to look into how it was being used. The ICO will inspect the technology in place and how it is operated to ensure it does not break data protection laws. The regulator said it was "deeply concerned" about the growing use of facial-recognition technology.

The Financial Times was the first to report a live face-scanning system was being used across the 67-acre (0.3-sq-km) site around King's Cross station in London. Developer Argent said it used the technology to "ensure public safety" and it was just one of "a number of detection and tracking methods" in place at the site. But the use of cameras and databases to work out who is passing through and using the site has proved controversial. So far, Argent has not said how long it has been using facial-recognition cameras, what is the legal basis for their use, or what systems it has in place to protect the data it collects. In its statement, the ICO said: "Scanning people's faces as they lawfully go about their daily lives, in order to identify them, is a potential threat to privacy that should concern us all." The regulator said it was keen to ensure that King's Cross developer was using the technology in accordance with UK laws governing the use of data.

"Put simply, any organisations wanting to use facial recognition technology must comply with the law - and they must do so in a fair, transparent and accountable way," said the ICO. It must have documented how and why it believed its use of the technology was legal, proportionate and justified, it added. Argent has not yet responded to a request for comment by BBC News. The mayor of London is also quizzing developer Argent about its use of facial-recognition systems. Sadiq Khan wrote to the company and said there was "serious and widespread concern" about the legality of facial recognition.

[Time to invest in a fashionable mask – or one for each occasion – plus some cosy body armour….. It’s a future trend I think. You heard it here first! Oh, and interestingly an out of town shopping centre has just admitted to 'trialing a similar system there too...... Where's George Orwell when you need him?]

The Art of Resistance?

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Kinda cute.... Kinda....
Just Finished Reading: The Roman Empire – A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Kelly (FP: 2006)

If you asked the average person to name an empire chances are they’ve either name the British or the Roman one. The Roman Empire – the focus here was mainly on the Western bit – at its height covered the entire Mediterranean region, up to the Scottish border in the north, France, Spain and a good chunk of Germany, Egypt and points East, Greece and beyond. No wonder its inhabitants thought they controlled ‘the known world’. Certainly nothing like it had been seen in Europe before (or for long afterwards).

Naturally much has been written about the Romans and the author was very conscious of not following down that, largely chronological, route. His approach was a rather different one looking at how the empire began and grew to the extent it did (conquest pretty much), what it meant for both Romans and their enemies to have and to use imperial power, how elites in the occupied territories colluded with the Empire for good reasons – resistance to Rome was shown again and again until the fall to be essentially futile. A revolt against Rome was a suicidal proposition as tribes, peoples and nations found to their cost. He then looked at how the Empire had been treated throughout history by scholars from Roman commentators themselves to the Middle Ages and on to today where arguments still rage about Roman brutality and their civilising mission (purely on Roman terms of course). Naturally the rise of Christianity cannot be ignored as it is inexorably tied to the Roman Empire and its response to a subversive sect in its midst. Then there is the lived experience in the Empire where the author probably most surprised me – I’m no expert on all things Roman but did think I had a pretty good handle on things – as it seems that most of my mental image of Rome comes from (generally historically inaccurate) movies. For one thing – not unlike ‘3rd World’ countries in the all too recent past – infant mortality was extremely high which resulted in the average age of Roman citizens to be 25. What’s more about 60% of Romans at age 17 served in the military and not just for a 2 year tour. Military spending in the Empire was staggering. It really was a fully militarised society with spending being the equivalent of 10 times the present US military expenditure. Now considering the US outspends the next 30 countries combined you can imagine the cost of running the Roman military machine. Another interesting fact the author brought to my attention was the lack of anything like a Civil Service. For an imperial population of 60 million the Empire had around 10,000 bureaucrats to run things. The UK with a similar population has about 500,000 bureaucrats.

Finally (naturally) the author ended with Rome’s representation in movies and print as well its cultural highlights (and low lights) being presented in everything from bubble bath to boxer shorts. Images and echoes of Rome are everywhere from our language, laws, architecture, forms of government, philosophy, religion and much else besides. Rome is all things to all people and still 2,000 years after it fell resounds in western culture probably unlike anything else. This is a fascinating little book full of interesting aspects of the Empire that is either loved or reviled but hardly ever ignored. Definitely recommended for a quick and fun read.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Just Finished Reading: Empire – A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Howe (FP: 2002)

Not unlike the poor, Empires have always been with us. Indeed, as the author points out in this fascinating short book, it could be argued that the history of Empire is the history of humanity. Even before the iconic Roman Empire reached the height of its powers other Empires emerged, expanded and died across the globe from the Middle East, China and South America. Some lasted only as long as their Emperor (and sometimes the rarer Empress) lived. Others lasted generations whilst the self-styled inheritor of Rome – the Holy Roman Empire – lasted 1000 years. Some Empires where comparatively tiny whilst others, such as the British Empire spanned the globe over a landmass where the sun literally never set. Empires had a power base on land and expanded outwards from the edges. Empires also had their power based at sea and produced colonies or protectorates wherever conditions allowed access to the interior from coastal acquisitions. Empires grew organically or by deliberate conquest. It is only in the present lifetime of a single generation that we live in a world without an Empire somewhere. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolving of the British Empire with the loss of Hong Kong we are living in unique times. But, as the news coming out of Hong Kong attests, we are still experiencing the echoes of Empires and will continue to do so for many years (or indeed generations) to come.

Empires shaped the world, moved millions of people across the globe – some voluntary, some not – literally moved mountains, changed environments, changed languages, made species (and civilisations) extinct, instituted global trade, made war, enforced people, enabled slavery, fought to stop slavery, expanded religions, transplanted religions, spread disease, plants and animals across the world both by design and by accident, and much else besides. Empires may be vilified by some and (cautiously) praised by others but they certainly cannot be ignored if any understanding of global history is to be achieved. The history of Empires, taught as dispassionately as possible considering the understandable controversy around so much of its activities, allows us to understand the histories of entire cultures as well as ‘hot button’ topics such as colonialism (in all its aspects), race, development, power, cultural imperialism (and cultural appropriation) and other areas so exercising the world today. This book is an excellent entry point into that whole (rather messy but very interesting) area for discussion and doesn’t shy away from areas hotly debated by the various groups – historians, indigenous peoples, politicians – which we still see almost every days on news sites and papers. The echo of Empire still exists around the world – softly in some places but almost deafening in others. It is difficult to understand the world without any reference to it. Reading this recommended book would be a good first step for anyone unfamiliar with, or simply misinformed about, an idea that shaped the world since before the historical record began.     

3 more books in this Empire 'book blitz' to come.....

Saturday, August 10, 2019

So...... NOT Video Games then.....
UK power cut: National Grid promises to learn lessons from blackout

From The BBC

10th August 2019

National Grid has said it will "learn the lessons" after nearly one million people across England and Wales lost power on Friday. But director of operations Duncan Burt told the BBC that its systems "worked well" after the "incredibly rare event" of two power stations disconnecting. He said he did not believe that a cyber-attack or unpredictable wind power generation was to blame. Regulator Ofgem has demanded an "urgent detailed report" into what went wrong. It said it could take enforcement action, including a fine, after train passengers were stranded, traffic lights failed to work and thousands of homes lost power during the blackout. An energy department spokesperson said National Grid must "urgently review" what happened. National Grid power was restored by 17:40 BST on Friday but some train services continued to be disrupted on Saturday.

The power cut happened at about 17:00 BST on Friday, National Grid said, with blackouts across the midlands, the south east, south west, north west and north east of England, and Wales. National Grid said its systems were not to blame. Industry experts said a gas-fired power station at Little Barford, Bedfordshire, failed at 16:58 followed, two minutes later, by the Hornsea offshore wind farm disconnecting from the grid. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Burt acknowledged the "immense disruption" the blackout had caused. He said the near-simultaneous loss of two generators was more than the grid was routinely prepared for, prompting automatic safety systems to shut off power to some places.

"We think that worked well; we think the safety protection systems across the industry, on generators and on the network, worked well to secure and keep the grid safe, to make sure that we preserved power to the vast proportion of the country," he said. But he said the industry needed to examine whether these safety systems were set up correctly to have "minimal impact" on people's daily lives. RWE, owner of the Little Barford power station, said it shut down temporarily on Friday as a routine response to a technical issue, and called for National Grid and Ofgem to investigate the "wider system issues". And Orsted, the owner of the Hornsea offshore wind farm, said automatic systems on Hornsea One "significantly reduced" power around the same time others failed. A spokesperson added: "We are investigating the cause, working closely with National Grid System Operator, which balances the UK's electricity system."

Police were called to help travellers during the huge disruption on the railways on Friday, with delayed passengers stranded for hours. Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), which operates Thameslink, Southern, Great Northern and Gatwick Express, says it is investigating why the power cut had such a severe effect on its trains. Thameslink trains were particularly badly impacted as GTR had to deploy technicians to manually restart trains north of London. Shadow business and energy secretary Rebecca Long Bailey said the impact of the power cut was "unacceptable" at a time when National Grid reported £1.8bn in profits and increased dividends to shareholders.  King's Cross was one of the worst-hit stations, with all trains suspended for several hours. Passenger Dayna McAlpine told BBC Radio 5 Live her train took nearly 13 hours to reach London King's Cross from Edinburgh - a journey which would normally take less than five hours. "By hour seven things were starting to get pretty tense," she said. "People were threatening to self-evacuate off the train... Food ran out about five hours ago." Others on social media reported having travelled for 12 hours, while some rail passengers were stuck on trains until the early hours of the morning.

[We weren’t directly affected by these rather bizarre events – although one of my gaming buddies said they lost power for about 2 hours before he came on-line. We did have some game connection drops (two in around 20 minutes) but that was probably various companies resetting their systems post-outage. It’s weird though how two systems went off-line practically simultaneously. Either it was a (successful) cyber-attack [possible] or it might have been a systemic cascade failure caused by how their system is set up. I guess we’ll find out when the report comes out. It does show the lack of resilience though. I know it (mostly) only lasted for a few hours but still….. rather worrying!]

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Just Finished Reading: Utopia for Realists and How We Can Get There by Rutger Bregman (FP: 2014)

The Poor, so it is said, are always with us. Throughout the entirety of human history some have been rich, some have been comfortable and many have been poor. It seems that such a state of affairs is inevitable no matter what the economic system is in place (poverty existed LONG before Capitalism so it might be partially responsible for prolonging or enabling it but it certainly didn’t create it). But what if something COULD be done about it. Something that hasn’t been tried before? After all what is the REAL cause of Poverty? Actually, when the think about it the cause is kind of obvious. Poverty is caused by a lack of money. That’s it. So the solution is also kind of obvious. Give poor people money. But not in the way we usually do – through a begrudging slight redistribution of wealth with countless conditions attached, forms to fill in, investigations to be put up with, rules to follow, sanctions to apply and everything that follows in a so-called Welfare State. No, none of that. You just give poor people a regular amount of money to bring them above the poverty line in whatever country they live in – no strings, no forms, no rules, no intrusive monitoring. That is the radical idea the author proposes. Ludicrous I hear you say. How could that possibly work? How can it be afforded? What about people taking the money and spending the rest of their lives with their feet up stoned or drunk or watching daytime TV (which is essentially the same thing)? All good questions but, apparently, only a very small percentage (around 4-6%) actually reduce their working hours. The rest work as much or more. But what about costs? How on earth do you pay for it?

Well, there have been small scale studies across the world from Canada to India to Africa and they all come back with the same results. Raising people out of poverty lowers crime levels, health levels increase, children stay longer in school, drug consumption – both legal and illegal – drops, law courts are used less, welfare agencies see a significant drop in case referrals and so on. When all of this is taken into account a lot of the cost of a basic income actual starts to pay for itself. That’s not just its advocates making things up out of thin air. They have the stats to prove it. It sounds crazy, it might actually BE crazy, but it seems to work. Imagine the fallout…. The END of Poverty….. It’s almost too bizarre to think about. To be honest I did struggle with the idea even with the facts staring me in the face. From the micro studies carried out so far it works. Of course it would take a HUGE leap of faith for any government on the planet to put it into action but imagine 50 years ago proposing the idea of Gay Marriage or 200 years ago proposing Universal Suffrage – including WOMEN. You’d be called mad, delusional, and UTOPIAN. Then, when it actually happens, everyone looks around and wonders what all the fuss was about…..

About half the book looks at the issue of poverty and backs up the idea of basic income. But not just to eliminate the scourge of poverty. The author recognises that, if automation continues on its present track, that true mass unemployment is coming for our children and especially our grandchildren. We can do something about that too – we can slow down the march of the machines (highly unlikely), we can create new jobs that machines can’t do (yet), we can create bullshit jobs just to employ people (and perpetuate the angst so many people feel at the end of a pointless working week) or we can pay people not to work – without pointless rules and penalties. We’re going to have to do something…. And soon. Just as you’re getting used to that idea the author drops another bomb of an idea – open borders. As you can imagine – especially in this age of walls – that’s even more controversial than basic income. But, rather surprisingly he manages to sell it quite well indeed. Did you know, for instance, that there was serious opposition to the very idea of passports before the First World War….? Weird, huh? Something I’m going to have to investigate I think!

I haven’t really done this highly provocative book the justice it deserves. I went into it a confirmed sceptic but now I’m not so sure. It’s definitely made me think about things differently and has most definitely made me challenged some of my assumptions which I discovered are not as ‘obvious’ as I thought. Definitely one for those who aren’t afraid of truly radical ideas whose time might just be around the corner. Highly recommended.   

Translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton.