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

Saturday, November 30, 2019


Antarctica: Metal meteorite quest set to get under way

By Jonathan Amos, BBC Science Correspondent

29 November 2019

A team of British scientists has arrived in the Antarctic to try to find the continent's "missing meteorites". The group, from the University of Manchester, will spend six weeks scouring a remote region for lumps of iron that have fallen from the sky. These pieces of metal represent the shattered remains of small planet-like objects that were destroyed in the early years of the Solar System. Iron meteorites are rare, however, especially in Antarctica. Less than 1% of all the space rocks recovered in searches on the continent are of the metal type, compared with about 5% elsewhere in the world. But the Manchester researchers believe they know the reason for this statistical deficit. Their modelling work suggests the iron meteorites are out there; they've simply buried themselves in the ice in the Antarctic sunshine. "Iron meteorites have a higher thermal conductivity than chondrites, or stony meteorites," explained mathematician Dr Geoff Evatt. "That means they can warm and melt the ice around them more efficiently. So we expect them to be there, hanging just below the surface," he told BBC News.

The scientists arrived this week at the British Antarctic Survey's (BAS) Rothera station to begin preparations. They'll be heading out into the field very shortly, taking with them a specially designed metal-detecting system that will be dragged behind a couple of snowmobiles. Whenever this technology is alerted to an interesting signal, the team will jump off its vehicles and dig down into the ice. Over the 15-20 sq km that will be surveyed, the researchers hope to find four or five iron meteorites. This would enable some great science, said Dr Katie Joy. "By looking at the age, structure and chemistry of iron meteorites, we can understand the timing of the processes that occurred in the early Solar System - and the numbers and diversity of these small planets that were forming. And all of that information can help us understand how we got big planets like Earth, Mars and Venus." The expedition is the culmination of three years' hard graft for the team. After winning the funding to attempt to prove the idea of a buried population of iron meteorites, the scientists then had to design, build and test its detection technology; and identify the most suitable location to deploy it.

The snowmobile-dragged array incorporates a lot of the electronics found in standard mine-detection equipment. It has had to be made more hard-wearing, however, to cope with the bashing it will receive when bouncing across solid ice. Operation in sub-zero temperatures was also factored into the design. Dr Evatt successfully put a prototype through its paces at the BAS Sky Blu fuel depot a year ago. At the same time Dr Joy ventured into the Antarctic's deep interior to inspect favourable meteorite-hunting grounds. The continent is helpful to scientists in that the flow of the ice tends to aggregate fallen space rocks against ridges and mountains. Dr Joy picked up more than 30 surface stony meteorites in her travels, and settled on a place now called the Outer Recovery Ice Fields for the upcoming iron quest. "It would be really exciting if we could find a lunar or Martian meteorite. That would be the cherry on the cake. But hopefully we can find about 80 surface meteorites made up of different asteroid types. And if we can find that many, this implies that beneath the ice surface we may have four or five iron-rich meteorites - if our theory is correct." The Manchester-led project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust with logistic support from BAS.

[Interesting that they’re re-using landmine detection equipment in this way. Plus let’s hope they find a buried crashed UFO while they’re looking. You never can tell….!!!]

Thursday, November 28, 2019



Just Finished Reading: Crypto – Secrecy and Privacy in the New Code War by Steven Levy (FP: 2000)

Everyone knew it was coming. It was inevitable as the sun raising over the Californian scrubland. With computer technology growing faster and more sophisticated each year it was only a matter of time before the electronic behemoths were linked together and started to exchange messages. Before long banks, commercial enterprises and others would want to transfer money, sign contracts and over services to their customers all electronically. Eventually some even believed that computers would become so ubiquitous that members of the public might even own them. When things go that far, decades in the future, it would already be too late to look for solutions. Such were needed now – before the obvious problems became too acute. How to you protect the privacy of electronic communications? How do you prevent fraud or theft during an electronic fund transfer? How do you authenticate a signature sent over the wire in 1’s and 0’s? How do you stop the government reading your electronic mail? The answer to all of these problems seemed deceptively simple – cryptography. The problem though was twofold: First, few outside the government knew very much about encryption and second, the government had very strong views indeed about anyone else just talking about encryption never mind developing and using it.

At the centre of everything was a US organisation that few had even heard of. The inside joke called it No Such Agency – the NSA: National Security Agency – who developed and broke codes. The world’s experts worked there and that was supposed to be the end of the story. But commercialisation was coming, interesting problems never to be solved and, not a small incentive, there was money to be made – lots of money. It started in academia with the invention and reinvention of cryptographic knowhow. The goal was to produce a widespread standard (later known as DES – Data Encryption Standard) that would be used in industry as well as government. It would be strong enough to ensure privacy but not too strong so as to be unbreakable by the NSA. But there was a catch. Encryption was classified as a munition and could not be exported outside the US without a licence – something it would never get if it was too strong. So while DES was fairly strong inside the US any export version was much weaker outside its borders. Within the cracker community growing up across American universities weak encryption was less than useless – it was in every sense a false security. If the government would not allow universities to develop strong encryption maybe tech savvy individuals could do it themselves. The gauntlet had been drop and a number of young practitioners were more than happy to pick it up. So began the NSA’s nightmare scenario – groups of intelligent, knowledgeable and politically aware mathematicians and cryptographers working hard to bring a new reality into existence where privacy reigned supreme and were anonymity was available at the push of a button. It was going to be quite a fight.

This is the fascinating story of how a small group of students and tech guru’s brought encryption out of the dark places and offered it (usually for a price) to the public to use how they wished and how the US government did everything it its power to stop them. Both sides talked in apocalyptic terms about bring the existing system of government to its knees. Unsurprisingly both sides were wrong but in the turmoil a new world order did emerge that we have both adapted to and had to learn to live with. Personal privacy also means criminal privacy. When encryption is hard (or impossible) to crack it’s not just the concerned citizen that resorts to its use but the criminal, the political and the terrorist. The freedom to speak our mind, to correspond in private, to live outside the scrutiny of our governments has a price. Freedom isn’t free (and never has been) but for the time being at least it can be exercised in secret. Highly recommended to anyone interested in privacy issues or the history of information technology. 

Monday, November 25, 2019



Shamelessly copied from Stephen's Blog...

The 1899 Questionnaire

Your favourite virtue?

Open-minded curiosity.

Your favourite qualities in man?

Courage, Compassion, Humour

Your favourite qualities in woman?

Courage, Compassion, Humour

Your favourite occupation?

Research

Your chief characteristic?

Being misunderstood

Your idea of happiness?

Reading a good book

Your idea of misery?

Being forced to do mundane or ‘fun’ things whilst being denied access to a good book I’ve already started

Your favourite colour and flower?

Blue and… erm….. thinks…..

If not yourself, who would you be?

I’ve never actually wanted to be anyone else but myself – although I’d have liked to be a bit better looking.

Where would you like to live?

On a hillside, overlooked a rugged coastline with a forest behind…

Your favourite poets?

Not really my thing but the Romantics definitely had something going for them.

Your favourite painters and composers?

My art appreciation is all over the place from the Pre-Raphaelites to various forms of Modern and Avant Guard. I can appreciate most things even if I won’t hang it on my wall.

Composers….. Mozart, Rachmaninov, Satie, Karl Jenkins, Albinoni, anything Baroque…

Your favourite heroes in real life?

Any of the Great Explorers

Your favourite heroines in real life?

Anyone who found injustice intolerable and fought to eradicate it.

Your favourite heroes in fiction?

Richard Sharpe, Paul Atreides and others no doubt

Your favourite heroines in fiction?

Elizabeth Bennett, Anne Elliott, Emma Woodhouse, Art3mis

Your favourite food and drink?

Italian/Indian, real ale, vodka, Coke and (presently) Apple Lucozade

Your favourite names?

Elizabeth, Anne, Emma, Victoria, Caroline, Christine….. Catherine….

Your pet aversion?

Wilful ignorance coupled with strong opinion

What characters in history do you most dislike?

Anyone who went out of their way to harm others or failed to stand up for what was right through their own selfishness or greed

What is your present state of mind?

Tired (always)

For what fault have you most toleration?

Ignorance

Your favourite motto?

“Cursed is He who leaves the World no Better than When He entered it”

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Almost hibernation time.....
Chaayos cafe: Indian cafe's facial recognition use sparks anger

From The BBC

22nd November 2019

Indians have expressed concern after it emerged that a popular cafe chain - Chaayos - is using facial recognition software to bill customers. Nikhil Pahwa, the editor of media watchdog MediaNama, posted a video on Twitter after he said staff took his picture to bill him without consent. "This is unnecessarily intrusive and there was no opt-out option, which is problematic," Mr Pahwa told the BBC. Chaayos defended its system, saying it was committed to protecting customers. "We are extremely conscious about our customer's data security and privacy," the company said in a statement to the BBC. The chain also said that customers could choose to opt out of using the facial recognition feature and instead use their phone numbers to pay bills. However, Mr Pahwa told the BBC that the facial recognition system was a mandatory requirement for joining its loyalty programme. He added that his picture had been taken despite the fact he was not a part of it. More worryingly, according to Mr Pahwa, Chaayos' terms and conditions - also seen by the BBC - says that customers "should not expect that personal information should always remain private".

The terms also say that by joining the loyalty programme, users authorise it to "disclose information to government authorities or competent authorities or credit bureaus or third persons". However, in its statement, Chaayos said "there is no third party sharing of the data for any purpose. And Chaayos does not use or process this information for any other purpose". Mr Pahwa said his worry was that "customers are not made aware of the implications of giving out this data, so this is not informed consent." Mr Pahwa's tweets about his experience picked up traction on social media, with a number of users coming forward to share their experiences at the chain, while others described similar incidents elsewhere.

India does not have laws governing the collection of biometric data and experts warn that this is not a phenomenon limited to Chaayos alone. "This trend of private companies collecting vast volumes of biometric data with photos linked to user identity, phone numbers and other details is deeply worrying. Hundreds of companies collect and store biometric data, often with no visible checks and balances, and no published privacy policies. In the absence of any privacy law in India, this is extremely worrying," technology expert Prasanto K Roy told the BBC. "For instance DLF, one of north India's top real-estate developers which has built and manages dozens of commercial buildings, demands that a visitor first authenticate herself using a text message (OTP) password, and then on camera-equipped tablets placed at the entrance, gets photographs taken of her face and her government-issued identity card, and sign off on the page. "They thus have a database which has my name, face, driving license, authenticated phone number, and signature. There is no option to opt out if I want to enter one of their buildings, or to delete my information. Such databases tend to leak, be sold for considerable sums of money, and be misused."

[With the case of the CafĂ© the solution is an easy one – don’t shop there. Once they see their customer base erode they might think twice about using such an intrusive ‘payment’ system. As I’ve said before it won’t be long before people start wearing masks – which will increasingly become professionally produced fashion items – and not long after that they’ll be made illegal at least in some countries or some places (I’m looking at you Hong Kong). What a strange world we are creating where the act of resistance becomes much like breathing or putting on pants – a completely natural act.]


Thursday, November 21, 2019



Just Finished Reading: Shambleau by C L Moore (FP: 1953)

This is rather a strange one. This short book (a mere 173 pages – no wonder I could read 100 books a year back when this was a standard length for a SF/Fantasy novel) consisted of 6 short stories, 2 of which were directly linked with the rest having the same main character: Northwest Smith.

The two linked stories Black God’s Kiss and Black God’s Shadow were the best of the bunch and revolved around the main character Jirel, a defeated female warrior, who escapes her own dungeon to make her way to a pretty disturbing version of Hell to retrieve a weapon to dispose of her captor which, after much adventure she does. The second part of the tale revolved around her visiting a slightly different Hell to release the soul of her adversary through guilt. Both tales were very well described – hauntingly so – but neither of them had a strong enough narrative to make them anything more than interesting.

The other four stories starring Northwest Smith – including Shambleau – followed essentially the same narrative path. Smith would arrive in town. For various reasons he would become involved with a beautiful and mysterious woman. The woman would then (for a host of different reasons depending on the story) lead him into danger and would either introduce him to the main baddie or be that baddie herself. Some sort of fight would occur and Smith, given his natural talents, would resolve the issue usually by pulling and firing his laser gun and the appropriate moment. That’s pretty much it – all four times.

As you might expect I was less than impressed by this ‘classic’ of Horror-Fantasy. I really could fault the imagery throughout – the whole book was nicely ‘visual’ – but the plots left a great deal to be desired. Definitely not recommended. (R)

Monday, November 18, 2019

Alice.... The Teen Phase....

Bunny in the Corner Pocket....

Just Finished Reading: The Arab Uprisings – The People Want the Fall of the Regime by Jeremy Bowen (FP: 2012/2013)

He didn’t think he’d make it. At least if experience was anything to go by. He fully expected that the demonstration would be over before the plane from London landed at Cairo airport. But at least he could report on the aftermath and interview those who hadn’t been arrested of hospitalised by the security services. That was the expectation. To his surprise not only had the demonstration lasted for the duration of the flight but it had grown in numbers and the strength of the Egyptian government’s response. The whiff of teargas was in the air as the author approached the central square and the chanting of the crowds mingled with the pop of gas canisters and the more ominous crack of gunfire. What started out as a simple demonstration was evolving into something more, something bigger and something far more dangerous to the ruling regime. The people had, at least for now, lost their fear.

It was something new in the region. Starting in Tunisia the so-called Arab Spring had come to Egypt and would in time remove its hard-line leader from office. Other Arab states looked on with the mixture of fear and bravado. Libya, just next door, poured scorn on Egypt’s response vowing to destroy any such rising inside its borders. Few would even think of opposing Colonel Gadhafi’s regime. But enough saw an opportunity to protest and did so. True to his word the Colonel hit back hard but, it turned out not hard enough to dissuade further revolt and further backlash against it. Further afield countries like Saudi Arabia instituted reforms with others announced. Whilst in Syria, holding itself aloof from the whole process publically announced that such a thing could not happen here – not in a country which such coherence and a love of its leader. The first demonstrations against the rule of President Assad were small and peaceful. They asked for little and were met by armed troops with orders to shoot if provoked. It wasn’t long before shooting began. Soon after the protestors, now categorised as terrorists and foreign agitators, started shooting back. Within months the protests and become an uprising and then, almost inexorably, into a grinding civil war.

On the ground for much of it was the author who has been the BBC Middle East Editor since 2005. With a deep knowledge of the region and access to the highest echelons of power this is a bottom up look at the Arab uprisings across the region since 2011. From the thick of things on the streets of Cairo – complete with streaming eyes and arrests by the security services – to interviews with both Colonel Gadhafi and President Assad as well as representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and high-ranking defectors in Libyan brawl/civil war this was a brilliant account of not only what was happening in the region but a full geo-political analysis of why it was happening and why it was happening now. His numerous face-to-face encounters with street level people either caught in the crossfire or actually engaged in the protesting (and the fighting) put serious meat on the bone and brings the chaos and the hope of those involved to the fore. As gripping as any thriller this goes to the heart of the conflicts and tells it from a first-hand view and with real knowledge as well as passion and an obvious love of the region and its people. I learnt so much from this book and it really built on what I had gleaned from my previous delving into this region and its troubled present (see Fractured Lands – How the Arab World came Apart by Scott Anderson). This is definitely something anyone should read if they want to understand exactly what’s going on in the Middle East/North Africa right now and where things are likely to go. Quite brilliant and there will be more to come from this thoughtful and knowledgeable author. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 16, 2019


Analysis: Large-scale tree planting 'no easy task'

By David Shukman, BBC Science editor

16th November 2019

After claim and counter claim about everything from a ban on fracking to improving flood defences to reducing carbon emissions, there's a flurry about forests. The Conservatives say they'll plant at least 30 million more trees every year, a pledge that is roughly in line with a recommendation from the government's official climate advisers. But that would represent a massive increase compared with earlier targets set by the government and, as the other parties are keen to point out, these have not been met. For their part, the Liberal Democrats have gone much further than the Conservatives by promising to plant 60 million trees a year - that's double the Tory number - arguing that that's needed to help fight climate change. The Labour Party says its plan for trees, when it comes, will be guided by the science.

Experts in forestry say a huge programme of tree planting is needed if the UK is to have any chance of reducing its carbon emissions to effectively zero. They also say that the aim, though difficult, is feasible but will depend on careful planning - "to get the right trees in the right places", as one specialist put it to me. Finding enough land may be one of the toughest challenges. Farmers will want incentives to convert their fields to forests, not just to help with the cost of planting trees but also to compensate them for the long decades before they can earn an income from them. Prime arable fields are unlikely to be selected for this role but areas currently used for livestock may be in line, and that might force the country to make some highly sensitive choices between producing meat and growing forests. It could also mean a profound change to the look of much of the countryside, with the familiar sights of grazing cattle and sheep replaced by woodland.

Officials in Defra are currently working on a new post-Brexit system of subsidies for farmers, the exact details and aims of which may well determine whether these vast tree schemes succeed. Urban areas may offer scope for planting but these will be relatively small and possibly more expensive. Another concern is tree disease. The UK could theoretically grow enough saplings for the new forests but a crash programme of planting would probably mean buying from abroad, just at a time when many species are already suffering from pests that have arrived from other countries. The specialist I spoke to also said the effort had to be properly funded and "joined-up", by which he means coordinating many different government agencies, forestry organisations and farmers - no easy task.

[Trees are good. I like trees. It’s also a really easy and understood way to take carbon out of the atmosphere. So, more trees = more carbon. The idea that it would change the look of the countryside isn’t, at least to me, an issue. For one thing I’m guessing that not that many people actually spend that much time in the country. Another thing is that England used to be mostly trees in the not such distant past. A lot of trees were cut down for the Royal Navy in the age of sail, for pit props in the age of coal and, of course, for housing. All in favour – as long as they do it right.] 

Thursday, November 14, 2019



Just Finished Reading: The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor (FP: 2013)

New York, August 1778. After weeks at sea Edward Savill, a London based clerk of the American department, is glad to see British controlled Manhattan before him. His task is to learn about the political and military situation first hand and to assess cases brought by distressed Loyalists for damages and loss of property caused by the revolutionary war now ragging. On his very first day he is presented with the encapsulation of the situation New York finds itself in – a man has been murdered in the tent city occupied by refugees. The investigation is swift and an informer leads the local soldiers to a young runaway slave in possession of the man’s shoes. Despite a denial the slave is found guilty and hanged. Case closed. But Savill has doubts. Why was the dead man in canvas town to begin with? How is it that the dead man called on Savill’s own New York hosts shortly before his death? Why was the meeting seemingly so trivial that no one can recall it clearly? What happened to the dead man’s wedding ring and why was he carrying a single bone dice in his pocket? Over the next 8 months each of these questions – and especially the seemingly trivial ones – begin to point to a much greater event than the death of a single man. With a later identification pointing towards rebel involvement and rumours of a valuable ‘box of curiosities’ sought by both sides as potentially war winning Savill must try his best to unravel a web of deceit involving his hosts and a secret going back years that everyone denies or lies about. At the centre of it all is Mrs Arabella Wintour, the daughter-in-law of Savill’s host in New York, the wife of a missing soldier and a beautiful woman who begins to fascinate him long before he realises that all roads lead to her past.

This was a very well written, if overly long and at least at times glacially slow novel. Characterisation was generally good although I found the main character a little weak at times. He had his moments but I didn’t think he made much of a hero. Arabella I never really warmed to, she came across as either aloof, spoilt or selfish. Despite her apparent beauty I don’t think I would have enjoyed her company overly much. The New York garrison military man (his name escapes me at the moment) was OK if a little too full of himself. The main antagonist AKA ‘Scarface’ I found to be quite unbelievable despite having a strong motivation for his actions. The only credible people in the book I found were the rebel spies who manipulated Savill through the book almost right to the end. Whilst not exactly a page turner it did hold together enough for me to want to know what was going on – despite barely caring for many of the characters. I did find the events around the story – the early years of the Independence struggle generally only hinted at as background – to be much more interesting that the central story itself which was a shame. I did wish more than once that the author had written about that aspect of the story rather than the one he did focus on. I was ill – only a cold – during part of the reading experience which might be colouring my overall experience but on balance I’d have to say that this was reasonable rather than as good as some of the cover accolades would have you believe.

Monday, November 11, 2019




Winter is Coming…. And so is an Election.

In an attempt (a vain one I believe) to break through the present political impasse on the issue of Brexit the Tory government has decided to call an election – actually been allowed by the opposition parties to call an election – to try to solve the current clusterfuck. So, for the first time in almost a century we’re having a vote just before Christmas on 12th December. Naturally the Conservatives are hoping/expecting to win back their majority (that Teresa May lost them) in order to push through their Brexit ‘deal’. However, there are a few problems with that…. The Tories presently are pretty much universally despised. About the only thing seemingly keeping them in power is the lack of a credible opposition. Although Corbyn has a solid fan base – especially amongst the young – he’s hated and feared in almost equal measure by a significant proportion of the voting population. Generally speaking the other parties are either too small (presently) to have much of a say in things or they’re single issue parties (like the latest iteration of the Brexit party) or they’re primarily nationalistic like the SNP (Scottish Nationalists) or Plaid Cymru (The Party of Wales).

So, how do I think things will go? I don’t think the Tories will do anywhere as well as they think they will. Things have improved a bit since the Brexit party said they won’t stand against them in areas where they already have the seat but will end up splitting the vote in other areas which will help no one. The Tories might end up winning some seats but I think overall they’ll lose more than they win which means their present majority of zero will start to look pretty good.

I don’t think that Labour will do as badly as some believe. They will lose some seats but they’ll gain some too. I have a feeling that, again overall, they’ll gain more than they lose but only really a handful – probably not much more than 10 or so. I think that the Liberal-Democrats will do well, maybe even better than they expect. Their new leader won’t be the next Prime Minister though – no matter what she says publically. Their present total of around 20 will increase to at least 30 and maybe as much as 40. They may be able to use that to be a power broker – although they’ve said that they won’t – but they won’t have enough seats to even think about forming a coalition never mind a government.

I think that both the SNP and Plaid will do well. They both have the fact that they’re not Conservative or Labour going for them so disgruntled voters might feel safe giving them their vote. Of course an increase in the SNP vote will be a big shot in the arm for any future Independence vote coming up. The Brexit party might get an MP but I seriously doubt it. Although quite a few people will probably vote for them – defectors from the Tories mainly – they won’t get enough anywhere to get over the massive hurdle of first past the post.

Once the dust has settled and almost everyone has declared victory I think that the result will be inconclusive at best. The country is still hugely divided on the whole Brexit issue and will use the election to try and make their point. Remainers will have a hard time voting Tory and Brexiteers will find it impossible to vote Lib-Dem. Each party’s core voters will inevitably vote for them no matter what. But there’s far more going on today. Whether a voter wants to Leave or Remain will have a significant impact on how they vote. Remainer Tories will either not vote or hold their nose and vote Lib-Dem. Likewise Labour voters who don’t like the way things are going in their party will either not vote or will vote Lib-Dem. This is why I think the Liberal-Democrats will do well on the night. There will be LOTS of tactical votes cast on the 12th December including mine. I think it’s all going to be very interesting but I’m confident of one thing and one thing only – that no single party will hold a majority of seats in Parliament which means that the present clusterfuck will be both wider and deeper than before. Inevitably all of the parties will go into huddles to see who they can team up with to form a government. My view is that these intense negotiations will come to nothing and in March or May of next year we’ll be forced to have yet another election which might be fought on a straight Leave/Remain choice. It may even be responsible for the end of Right/Left politics in this country. It’s that big a thing. It is possible that I’m dead wrong (my political forecasting so far has been pretty poor) but I’ll be very surprised if any party actually wins on the 12th. I guess we’ll see! 

Saturday, November 09, 2019


Berlin Wall anniversary: Merkel warns democracy is not 'self-evident'

From The BBC

9th November 2019

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned against taking democracy for granted, at a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall. "No wall that keeps people out and restricts freedom is so high... that it cannot be broken down," she added. The wall had separated Soviet-controlled East Berlin and capitalist West Berlin during the Cold War. Its fall in 1989 was seen as a victory for liberal democracy, and led to Germany's reunification a year later. However, Mrs Merkel warned on Saturday that "the values on which Europe is founded - freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law, human rights - they are anything but self-evident and they have to be revitalised and defended time and time again. We stand stripped of any excuses and are required to do our part of freedom and democracy," she added in a ceremony at the Berlin Wall memorial.

There has been a rise in the far-right in many European countries, while the governments of EU countries such as Poland and Hungary have been accused of undermining the rule of law. The Berlin Wall fell during the revolutions of 1989 in central and Eastern Europe, in which several Soviet-imposed communist regimes were toppled following protests and political movements. Speaking on Saturday, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier paid tribute to Germany's neighbours, saying: "Without the courage of the will to freedom of the Poles and Hungarians, the Czechs and Slovaks, the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe and Germany's reunification would not have been possible." However, he added that "liberal democracy is being challenged and questioned", while foreign minister Heiko Maas said: "Power is shifting away from Europe, authoritarian models are on the rise, and the United States is increasingly looking inwards".

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was not at the ceremony, but visited Berlin earlier this week. During a speech on Friday, he warned that "freedom is never guaranteed". He criticised the human rights records of the Russian and Chinese governments, and said: "Today, authoritarianism is once again rising." Saturday was also the anniversary of the Kristallnacht - the night of broken glass - when thousands of Jewish homes, synagogues and businesses were attacked in Nazi Germany and Austria in 1938. About 200 people joined a far-right protest in Bielefeld in northwest Germany in support of a Holocaust denier, while thousands of anti-fascist and left-wing groups held a counter protest, local media reported.

[Democracy is definitely under increased strain today. It may even be under attack in some places and from time to time but I don't think that it's in crisis nor in danger - at least not yet - of ending up as a historical curiosity. Being ever the optimist about such thing [grin] I'd even have to say that the strains are going to - eventually strengthen our institutions. But we all need to remember: Democracy – Use it or Lose it!]