Category Archives: current affairs

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of HARDBACK Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence by James Lovelock #Brainfluffbookreview #Novacenebookreview

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My lovely mother sent this one to me as a gift after hearing Lovelock’s fascinating interview on Radio Four…

James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis and the greatest environmental thinker of our time, has produced an astounding new theory about future of life on Earth. He argues that the anthropocene – the age in which humans acquired planetary-scale technologies – is, after 300 years, coming to an end. A new age – the novacene – has already begun.

And that’s as much of the atrocious blurb that I’m willing to share. This isn’t a long book, but it posits some fascinating views – which are aptly summed up in the most blurting blurb I’ve read in a long time. Unfortunately, I had the bad luck to read it before I was aware I would be gifted the book.

However, I did my best to put the back cover matter out of my head, because as I read the book, I was aware that Lovelock is a one-off. His ideas are genuinely original and while I’m not convinced about all of them – I don’t agree with his stance regarding the existence of aliens, for instance – I did feel that his summary about the crisis surrounding climate change and our treatment of Earth is worth the book alone. To the extent that I am now converted to supporting the nuclear industry as a stopgap before discovering less toxic ways of generating energy, instead of continuing to use fossil fuels in any form.

I found his ideas about the future direction of our species and how hyperintelligence will continue to develop to be fascinating. I hope that governments around the world will listen to his warnings about keeping machine intelligence away from military applications, though I somehow doubt it – these days many major powers seem to led by braindead donkeys…

If I’ve given you the impression that this book is a doom-laden litany of impending disasters, then I need to correct that mistake. At 100 years old, Lovelock is not only still mentally pin-sharp, he is also largely optimistic about humanity’s future, believing that both machine and organic intelligence will need to unite to head off the threat of global warming endangering all life on the planet. Overall, I found this a readable, cogent analysis on the major issues confronting us as a species and Lovelock’s take on how that will probably pan out worth considering. After all, this is the man who explained that our environment worked as a highly complex, interrelated whole, at a time when other experts mocked the idea. We ignore him again at our peril.

Highly recommended.
10/10

Review of Fishbowl by Matthew Glass

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This is a book rather difficult to pigeonhole. It is described by Amazon as contemporary, while one reviewer classified it as a lo-octane thriller, which would appeal to geeks. I think that pretty much nails it, except I think it has a wider appeal than the geeks among us. If you’ve ever seriously wondered where the internet is going to end up, then this book provides some interesting food for thought.

fishbowlGifted Ivy League student Andrei Koss hits upon an idea that promises to revolutionise social networking and move it on by a generation. Enlisting the help of his roommates, Ben Marks and Kevin Embley, he turns their dormitory into an operations base, where flashes of creative brilliance and all-night-coding sessions lead to the creation of Fishbowl. Within eight years they will turn a whim into a multi-billion-dollar empire; their creation will reach into every corner of the planet. But its immense power has many uses and everyone wants a piece of it…

And if that sounds like a certain film about a certain famous social-networking site, you’re right. There are some striking similarities to The Social Network. However, this book then continues and gains momentum just where the film finishes, with some chilling and fascinating conclusions.

Koss is a classic geeky genius, socially awkward and only truly happy when up close and personal with a computer screen, or other people who are equally at home in cyberland. I found it poignantly ironic that the ideal driving him forward to succeed with Fishbowl is his obsession with Deep Connectedness – a concept that will link people to others who truly line up with their own personalities and interests, no matter where they live. However, running a popular social network takes processing power and chunks of time, which isn’t free. So Koss and his two companions find themselves needing serious funding to keep Fishbowl going, which means finding some way to earn money with it. And the A-word is introduced to the Grotto, to the horror of the diehard fans of Fishbowl, who regard themselves as the intellectual heart and soul of the Fishbowl community.

Events impact upon Fishbowl, not least when they manage to attract the attention of Homeland Security and the FBI, but there is an inexorable push for Koss and the company keeping Fishbowl going to continue to extend the commercial side of the business. I found the descriptions of the growth of Fishbowl and the problems encountered along the way utterly engrossing. Glass manages to write knowledgeably about the technical and commercial obstacles littering the path of such a venture and make it interesting and comprehensible to someone whose knowledge of computers and the business world would fit comfortably on the back jacket of a pocket-sized paperback. It’s a nifty trick to pull off.

And he continues to impress with the various twists in the story. I saw some of them coming – after all there are only so many options open to a scenario featuring a social network site set in the present or very near future. But the final twist was an enormous surprise and has ensured that this book left a lasting impression with me. If you are interested in where technology is going, or any kind of science fiction fan, then give this book a go. It’s worth it.
8/10

What They HAVEN’T Told You About Our Public Libraries…

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I wrote this article last year in response to a press release by the Government, informing us that numbers visiting public libraries were in decline.  Given what has been happening since then, I thought it might be worthwhile to repost it – as I believe the argument I’m making is even more relevant now than it was then…

Cash-strapped councils around the country must have thought Christmas had come, when a Government report was published earlier this week. This story broke with headlines such as:
The number of adults visiting libraries in England has fallen steadily over the last five years

The same article later went on to say:
‘The number of weekly library goers in England has gone down by 32% in 5 years. More than 60% of us have not stepped foot inside a library in the last year.’ (BBC News Website, 24th August 2010)

The survey published by the Department of Culture, Media and Sports paints a depressing picture of a steady decline in library use, although it did concede that the figures for children’s attendance had remained constant during the same period. Ed Vaizey, the Culture Minister, has been making concerned noises about the state of the library service since he took over the post, and in response to the Survey asked for people to think “imaginatively about where libraries could be”…

If that isn’t an open invitation for councils to forge ahead with a series of closures, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. After all, the Government’s figures prove that public libraries are an increasing irrelevance, don’t they? Stacked up against other tough decisions hard-pressed councils face, closing down your local library, shunting some of the stock and a few computers into the corner of a local Tesco will be a really soft option. Particularly because by the time they’ve done it, we’ll all be convinced that despite the fact that we miss our local library and its wide range of services, we’re the exception because everyone knows the public library service is a dwindling, broken thing. But before you shrug your shoulders helplessly and mutter about how modern life no longer seems to value the institutions that have defined our country for generations – such as a nationwide network of free lending libraries – take a look at ANOTHER set of statistics I’ve unearthed. This lot come from the LISU, a research and information centre for library and information services.

First of all, apologies for the BIG numbers. We are talking hundreds of millions, here. So if you were under the impression it’s just you and your Uncle Albert who still are quaintly old fashioned enough to regularly use your library, I’m sorry to burst your bubble – there’s more of us than you have been led to believe.

In 2008/09, there were 324,991,354 visits to libraries. Ah, you’re saying—there’s a bunch of libraries in colleges, universities and the odd private collection dotted around the country, she’s added those to the mix, to big up the numbers. Nope. That’s another set of numbers. These are just the visits to public libraries, like the one you currently have in your neighbourhood. So much for an increasing irrelevance… What is undeniable, is that the number of visits have been steadily dropping for the last five years. Hm. About that five year thing… The Government used percentages in their press release about their survey, rather than raw figures, I noticed.

But the numbers fluctuate more than you’d think from that press release. Just take look at the table below:

Table showing numbers of visits to public libraries

2000/01 2001/02 2002/03 2003/04 2004//05 2005/06 2006/07 2007/08 2008/09
*323,916 318,155 323,042 336,951 336,984 342,168 337,316 328,485 324,991

*Please add 000 to each figure, which I’ve rounded to the nearest thousand.

As you can see, although there has been a decline since 2005, there have been times when the numbers of library visits were below last year’s figure, while the highest number of visits were in 2005. Suddenly all those statistics, giving the percentage drop from 2005 to last year, make horrible sense. I believe there is a concerted campaign going on to convince us that our libraries are an outmoded, irrelevant part of our lives and need to be changed – ‘reshaped’ was the word that Mr Vaizey used. Or is it a massive coincidence that the Government survey used that 2005 spike, which just happen to emphasise the percentage decrease in numbers of visits?

The other little nugget of information I uncovered while scrolling through the LISU site, was tucked away under Other Services, – the number of visits to the public library website. I use this constantly to order books not available at my local branch, which cuts down the amount time I spend physically browsing in the library. Surely, I cannot be the only person whose visits to the library have lessened as the online facility has become more reliable? In 2006-07, the library website received approximately 64 million visits and last year that number had increased to around 113 million visits. And the ‘golden’ year of 2005? There are no available figures. So last year, if you add the virtual visits to the physical ones, you get over 437 million visits to our local libraries – an overall increase that makes the concern generated about our ‘failing’ library service look far less plausible.

I’m not going to gloss over the problems – the number of adults who use public libraries is steadily dropping, while the number of children is rising, slowly and steadily, according to LISU figures. Which is another interesting variation from the Government survey, which claims that children’s visitor numbers ‘remain steady’. The other big problem is that the number of books in the public library collection is declining year on year and many libraries around the country have been subjected to reduced opening hours, just when the public have grown to expect a 24 hour service from other facilities.

libraryBut I have a terrible feeling that local councils, desperate to claw back some money on their overstretched budgets, will use the Government survey as an excuse to axe a number of libraries across the country. One estimate is that between 800 and 1000 libraries are at risk – that is approaching a quarter of the country’s libraries.

We all saw what happened to our local Post Offices when we sat back and left it to the Government to sort out. Rustington used to have a modern, well designed Post Office that was heavily used by the community. These days, the town’s Post Office is crammed in the back of a local shop. Queues often stretch out of the door and while shuffling around the aisles, jostled by shoppers, I reflect bitterly that I should have made more of a fuss when the apparently reasonable alternatives were being proposed – which at the time did not include our current grim reality. I’m not making the same mistake, twice.

I believe that if we want to hang onto our public library network, we’ll have to fight for it. The first step is to understand that the Government will look the other way in the name of ‘progress’ when local councils propose slashing the service. These heavily massaged figures are the start of a Government initiative to talk our library service into the ground.

Mr Vaizey more or less admitted it, when he said, “A strong library service, based around the needs of local people, can play a key role in our ambitions to build the Big Society by providing safe and inclusive spaces for people to read, learn and access a range of community services.”  Er. We’ve got ‘safe and inclusive spaces for people to read, learn… blah, blah,’ Unless, of course, he means safe, cheap and inclusive spaces. In which case, in the Big Society we are all learning to dread, you might find yourself dodging supermarket trolleys as you look for the latest good read…

What They HAVEN’T Told You About Our Public Libraries…

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Cash-strapped councils around the country must have thought Christmas had come, when a Government report was published earlier this week. This story broke with headlines such as:
‘The number of adults visiting libraries in England has fallen steadily over the last five years…

The same article later went on to say:
The number of weekly library goers in England has gone down by 32% in 5 years. More than 60% of us have not stepped foot inside a library in the last year.’ (BBC News Website, 24th August 2010)

The survey published by the Department of Culture, Media and Sports paints a depressing picture of a steady decline in library use, although it did concede that the figures for children’s attendance had remained constant during the same period. Ed Vaizey, the Culture Minister, has been making concerned noises about the state of the library service since he took over the post, and in response to the Survey asked for people to think “imaginatively about where libraries could be”…

If that isn’t an open invitation for councils to forge ahead with a series of closures, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. After all, the Government’s figures prove that public libraries are an increasing irrelevance, don’t they? Stacked up against other tough decisions hard-pressed councils face, closing down your local library, shunting some of the stock and a few computers into the corner of a local Tesco will be a really soft option. Particularly because by the time they’ve done it, we’ll all be convinced that despite the fact that we miss our local library and its wide range of services, we’re the exception because everyone knows the public library service is a dwindling, broken thing. But before you shrug your shoulders helplessly and mutter about how modern life no longer seems to value the institutions that have defined our country for generations – such as a nationwide network of free lending libraries – take a look at ANOTHER set of statistics I’ve unearthed. This lot come from the LISU, a research and information centre for library and information services.

First of all, apologies for the BIG numbers. We are talking hundreds of millions, here. So if you were under the impression it’s just you and your Uncle Albert who still are quaintly old fashioned enough to regularly use your library, I’m sorry to burst your bubble – there’s more of us than you have been led to believe.

In 2008/09, there were 324,991,354 visits to libraries. Ah, you’re saying—there’s a bunch of libraries in colleges, universities and the odd private collection dotted around the country, she’s added those to the mix, to big up the numbers. Nope. That’s another set of numbers. These are just the visits to public libraries, like the one you currently have in your neighbourhood. So much for an increasing irrelevance… What is undeniable, is that the number of visits have been steadily dropping for the last five years. Hm. About that five year thing… The Government used percentages in their press release about their survey, rather than raw figures, I noticed.

But the numbers fluctuate more than you’d think from that press release. Just take look at the table below:

Table showing numbers of visits to public libraries

2000/01 2001/02 2002/03 2003/04 2004//05 2005/06 2006/07 2007/08 2008/09
*323,916 318,155 323,042 336,951 336,984 342,168 337,316 328,485 324,991

*Please add 000 to each figure, which I’ve rounded to the nearest thousand.

As you can see, although there has been a decline since 2005, there have been times when the numbers of library visits were below last year’s figure, while the highest number of visits were in 2005. Suddenly all those statistics, giving the percentage drop from 2005 to last year, make horrible sense. I believe there is a concerted campaign going on to convince us that our libraries are an outmoded, irrelevant part of our lives and need to be changed – ‘reshaped’ was the word that Mr Vaizey used. Or is it a massive coincidence that the Government survey used that 2005 spike, which just happen to emphasise the percentage decrease in numbers of visits?

The other little nugget of information I uncovered while scrolling through the LISU site, was tucked away under Other Services, – the number of visits to the public library website. I use this constantly to order books not available at my local branch, which cuts down the amount time I spend physically browsing in the library. Surely, I cannot be the only person whose visits to the library have lessened as the online facility has become more reliable? In 2006-07, the library website received approximately 64 million visits and last year that number had increased to around 113 million visits. And the ‘golden’ year of 2005? There are no available figures. So last year, if you add the virtual visits to the physical ones, you get over 437 million visits to our local libraries – an overall increase that makes the concern generated about our ‘failing’ library service look far less plausible.

libraryI’m not going to gloss over the problems – the number of adults who use public libraries is steadily dropping, while the number of children is rising, slowly and steadily, according to LISU figures. Which is another interesting variation from the Government survey, which claims that children’s visitor numbers ‘remain steady’. The other big problem is that the number of books in the public library collection is declining year on year and many libraries around the country have been subjected to reduced opening hours, just when the public have grown to expect a 24 hour service from other facilities.

But I have a terrible feeling that local councils, desperate to claw back some money on their overstretched budgets, will use the Government survey as an excuse to axe a number of libraries across the country. One estimate is that between 800 and 1000 libraries are at risk – that is approaching a quarter of the country’s libraries.

We all saw what happened to our local Post Offices when we sat back and left it to the Government to sort out. Rustington used to have a modern, well designed Post Office that was heavily used by the community. These days, the town’s Post Office is crammed in the back of a local shop. Queues often stretch out of the door and while shuffling around the aisles, jostled by shoppers, I reflect bitterly that I should have made more of a fuss when the apparently reasonable alternatives were being proposed – which at the time did not include our current grim reality. I’m not making the same mistake, twice.

I believe that if we want to hang onto our public library network, we’ll have to fight for it. The first step is to understand that the Government will look the other way in the name of ‘progress’ when local councils propose slashing the service. These heavily massaged figures are the start of a Government initiative to talk our library service into the ground.

Mr Vaizey more or less admitted it, when he said, “A strong library service, based around the needs of local people, can play a key role in our ambitions to build the Big Society by providing safe and inclusive spaces for people to read, learn and access a range of community services.”  Er. We’ve got ‘safe and inclusive spaces for people to read, learn… blah, blah,’ Unless, of course, he means safe, cheap and inclusive spaces. In which case, in the Big Society we are all learning to dread, you might find yourself dodging supermarket trolleys as you look for the latest good read…

False Alarms…

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The poor souls living in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, had a very nasty shock last night when they turned on their TV. The local station, Imedi, were broadcasting news that Russian tanks had invaded the capital and that the President, Mikheil Saakvili, had been assassinated. Unsurprisingly, this news caused panic – especially when considering that only eighteen months ago, Russia had penetrated Georgian defences and got within 30 miles of Tbilisi. The mobile phone networks were overwhelmed and people rushed onto the streets.

However, it was untrue. The broadcast had shown archive footage and speculated how the opposition might seize power with the President’s death – and although it was introduced as a simulation, that detail slid by many horrified Georgians. So why did Imedi create such a scare story? Apparently, in an attempt to show the ‘real threat’ to the country if such events might unfold, the head of Imedi told Reuters.

So much for political neutrality… We might have our grumbles about supposed favouritism by certain commentators and interviewers – but thank goodness the BBC hasn’t seen fit to run that particular wheeze. Yet…

It’s not the first time that such panics have happened. Perhaps the most famous one is the 1938 CBS Radio play based on H.G. Wells’ book War of the Worlds, that had announcers describing how Martians were marching across New York. Despite sporadic announcements informing the listening audience that it was a play, many believed they were hearing a real invasion – an impression strengthened by the fact that no commercial breaks ran for the duration of the airing. The emergency services were swamped with panicked calls – and in a horrible coincidence in the town of Concrete, Washington, the power supply shorted out just as the ‘Martian landing’ was being played on the radio. Many families fled for the hills, while some apparently fainted with terror…

This incident has been much discussed – and is often used to show just how naïve and pliable the listening public can be. A number of conspiracy theories have sprung up around the whole thing. Some claim that the broadcast was an attempt to cover up UFO activity and defuse any panic. Others claim that it was an experiment into crowd psychology funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

In 1994, the inhabitants of Tiayuan, China were repeatedly warned about a Sibuxiang beast on the loose and heading for the city. ‘It is said that the Sibuxiang is penetrating our area from Yanmenguan Pass and with in days will enter thousands of homes. Everyone close your windows and doors and be on the alert.’

The Sibuxiang is a mythical creature with a lethally poisonous bite. Unsurprisingly, Tiayuan residents barricaded themselves in their homes, while others called the local authorities. However, the announcement was part of an advertisement campaign for a drink. The creator of the ad was fined 5000 yuan (roughly £300) for causing public panic, but felt it was worth it. The ensuing alarm and publicity ensured that Sibuxiang liquor became famous. Again, during the inevitable discussions in the aftermath, the authorities believed that the relative inexperience of many of the Chinese TV audience was the main cause of the misunderstanding.

It would be tempting to believe that this kind of panic caused by such hoaxes or publicity stunts is purely a modern trend. But I’m not so sure. Human nature doesn’t change…

Back in the 1580’s, when England was bracing herself for inevitable invasion by mighty Spain, a series of signal fires were arranged all along the south coast with watchers. At the first sight of Spanish warships, these fires were lit, one after the other, stretching as far as London. I don’t know whether anyone ever falsely or accidentally lit one, which then caused the next one to light up until they were all blazing – to the consternation and panic of everyone who saw them. But I’d be very surprised if it never happened…

Drunk in charge of a golf buggy

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Celebrating after their Six Nations’ win over Scotland, Welsh rugby star Andy Powell and a mate decided that it would be a good idea to take a golf buggy for a spin… They were arrested on the M4 at Junction 33 Services near the team hotel in the small hours of Sunday morning and charged with drunken driving.

While it is the sort prank that probably raised a grin (no one was hurt and the image of a couple of giggling rugby gorillas tootling along the motorway in a golf buggy will probably have the arresting officers dining out on the story for the rest of their lives…) it does raise some interesting issues.

I think we all know, for instance, that you can be ‘done’ for riding a bicycle under the influence – and it is also against the law to ride a quad bike while drunk. However, there are some disturbing loopholes. While mobility scooters are technically regarded as motor vehicles, a recent case against an Oldham woman was dropped despite the fact that she was three times over the legal limit. The law is somewhat blurred – apparently – if the scooter is travelling along a footpath or bridleway. Oh really?? So it’s ok for a drunken scooter-user to collide with motorists safely tucked up in their cars, but unprotected pedestrians have to take their chances. Yes – I know they generally travel quite slowly, but they can move at something of a clip and the ensuing carnage if one ploughed into a pushchair is unthinkable. Besides, if Andy Powell’s golf buggy is regarded as a potential hazard, surely so should a mobility scooter…

The Government is also considering RELAXING the rules, so that anyone in charge of a pleasure craft less than 7 metres long (that’s about 21 feet in old money…), moving at less than 7 knots would be exempt from drink driving rules. Which leaves me scratching my head, somewhat… It all sounds very innocuous, doesn’t it? Except there are areas where swimmers and boats are often quite close together (East Head beach in Chichester Harbour springs to mind). A 15 foot wooden-hulled boat is quite capable of braining a swimmer while moving a lot slower than 7 knots… And I’m sure that on-shore rescue services will be just thrilled to think that any inebriated fool will be able to stagger onto their pleasure craft with impunity.

The other mode of transport that is exempt from any drink restrictions is ski-ing. Because it isn’t powered… Erm. But… surely, a skier needs to get going using their own body movement – like on a bicycle? Or am I missing something? And before anyone rolls their eyes and mutters under their breath about my kill-joy attitude – I would mention that I didn’t necessarily advocate that being drunk-in-charge of a golf buggy was a crime – the Law said it was. And if the Law is right about that, then surely on a crowded ski slope, vulnerable beginners and children have the right to expect that après-ski refreshments mean just that.

Because accidents DO happen on pavements, ski slopes and on water, as well as on the roads. And I think it odd that while a couple of inebriated rugby players are convicted – those in charge of equipment equally capable of inflicting damage on themselves and others are, apparently, immune to such prosecution.

What we want our children to learn

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We all have views on what children should be learning in school these days, don’t we? For instance – it would be great if they all came out of the system being able to read, write and add up. And then, there’s Citizenship that they’re learning… Oh – and how to use computers, though it seems to me that most of them emerge from the womb being able to text and manipulate the trickiest DVD player so they have that totally unsuitable programme on the minute you’re looking the other way…

What about learning about food? At the very least, with the explosion of obesity in our population, it might be a good idea if they are taught about a healthy balanced diet and where our food comes from. How about Primary age children raising a few animals? A school farm, maybe, where the children help to rear the animals, before they are slaughtered for their food… So that our children don’t go away with the idea that meat comes ready-packed in clingfilm, but once upon a time wandered around on four legs…

And this is where is gets messy. As Kent Headteacher, Andrea Charman has found to her cost. Her idea of teaching children exactly what happens to animals came an almighty cropper, when she proposed to the Lydd Primary School Council that Marcus the sheep should be slaughtered and joints of meat should be raffled off to raise money for the school – and the School Council agreed. Some parents, horrified that the cute little lamb their children had helped to feed was about to be butchered organised a protest, bringing a storm of hostile publicity down upon the head of Mrs Charman, who finally succumbed to the pressure and resigned, yesterday. In response, a number of extremely upset parents and children who had supported her, demonstrated outside the school to have her reinstated.

Any way you look at this business, it’s regrettable. A clearly inspirational and competent Headteacher who had pulled Lydd Primary out of special measures and turned it around, has been lost to the school and a number of children have been thoroughly upset – either at the loss of Marcus, the sheep; or their Head. Or both… It’s always easy to be wise after the event. Maybe, it would have been a good idea not to name the lamb that was always destined for the dinner table.   Maybe it would have been advisable to ensure that everyone was aware right from the start that he was never intended to be a pet. Some parents claimed it was a horrible shock when they learned he was for the chop.

But I do worry about the sticky, sentimental attitude towards animals that has slewed this whole issue. Andrea Charman was threatened with violence by Animal Rights protesters and harassed by a Facebook campaign designed to get her sacked – despite the fact that at no time has anyone suggested that Marcus wasn’t given the very best care. Events took an ugly turn when she received death threats and excrement through the post. I wonder how many of the protesting parents are vegetarians – because if they ARE meat eaters, then there is some seriously muddled thinking going on in those households. Those of us who are carnivores should know what it costs to go on eating meat on a daily basis – not just the financial and environmental cost, but the stark fact that our eating habits cost the lives of hundreds and thousands of animals every single day.

During the last war, households all over the country raised pigs, chickens and rabbits for meat in back gardens. Children were expected to look after them as part of their daily chores – and I’m sure there were tears when the day came for them to be killed, but the expectation was they needed to deal with it. Or not eat the meat. It’s different, these days. Mrs Adele Grant claimed that her ten year old daughter needed counselling after Marcus’s death. In our drive to protect our children from traumas and upset, I wonder if we aren’t muffling them inappropriately. The price of meat is an ongoing issue. One that we should keep in mind every time we walk into a supermarket and pick out a mass produced, cheap cut of meat instead of the expensive, more humanely reared product.

And if Adele Grant, who announced herself delighted at Mrs Charman’s resignation, picks up the cheaper cut of meat when she goes shopping, then at the very least, she’s a thorough-going hypocrite.

The two victims in this mess – Mrs Andrea Charman, forced to resign after the  vindictive  campaign against her.  Marcus the sheep – who had a much better life than most of his fellow lambs and – hopefully – caused some of the children to think hard about eating meat and what it entails…

Broken Promises

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They call us the Baby Boomers.  We are the post-war birthrate bulge that were promised the best of the best – and then rebelled.  We plugged in and chilled out – not disconnected, though.  Never that.  We demonstrated.  A lot.  Against nuclear weapons; against the war in Vietnam; for equal rights for women; for a better deal for black Americans.  We wanted the Pill and legal abortion, free love and a fairer society.

We believed everything was possible – and why?  Because we were on our way.  Leaving the planet and going into Space.  Starting with the Moon, our generation confidently expected that we would continue the great human march out to the stars.  Amidst the worldwide celebration over the moon landings in 1969, I recall my grandfather declaring that I would probably live to see the first human land on Mars.  After Obama’s recent announcement scrapping plans to revisit the Moon, I’m not holding my breath – despite Buzz Aldrin’s gritted determination to put a gloss on the President’s decision.

Apart from the sheer oddness of the decision to by-pass the Moon ‘because we visited it 40 years ago’, when we have amassed a whole tranche of fascinating information that could be profitably investigated since then – I do wonder at the notion that we can successfully prepare for a manned mission to Mars, without trying out the equipment in the nearer, less testing conditions of the Moon.

But there is also a far deeper and more important reason why Humanity should continue to strive for the stars.  It is in our DNA to quest further – and if we continue to allow political and financial considerations to keep us tethered to an increasingly overcrowded Earth, the long-term effects won’t be pretty.  Those of us in First World democracies already speak of ‘economic migrants’ as if these folk were committing a crime in trying to reach somewhere better.   When all they’re doing is responding to an age-old instinct that drove our species out of Africa and across the planet millennia ago.

In breaking the promises made back in the days of my youth and shrinking our horizons, we have short-changed our children and their children, whose concerns seem pettier, less ambitious than those of our generation.  Do I sound like a grumpy old woman – you bet.  But, when I think back to bright promise of space travel…   When I think of the expertise built up in both Russia and America, that was dribbled away by timid politicians… I am also broken-hearted that Obama has joined that dreary list.

Quantitative Easing – Kill or Cure for the Economy?

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The Bank of England is in something of a pickle.

After cutting its interest rate for the 6th time in a row, to 0.5% – the lowest rate in its history – it now has nowhere to go.  And why has it been slashing away at the lending rate?  Because the Bank is trying to encourage you and me to rush out and spend.  Again.  We might all be a lot stupider about economics than is healthy, but most of us know when the writing is on the wall.  With a combined personal debt of over £1.3 billion, falling job security and plummeting house prices, those of us with more than two functioning brain cells are staying away from the shops.  Besides… correct me if I’m wrong – but wasn’t the spending frenzy and subsequent overheating of the economy one of the reasons we’re in our current mess?

So, having floored interest rates, the Bank is going to pump £75 billion into the economy in a dinky little move called ‘quantitative easing’.  How does it work?  Well, the Bank of England buys up assets, such as Government and Corporate bonds, using money it has magicked out of thin air.

Don’t you just wish that you were a Bank for a couple of hours?

With all this new money sloshing around the system, the banks are supposedly going to feel more confident about lending us more credit, thereby increasing economic activity.  Apparently.

It is also claimed by some economists that quantitative easing will help the cost of borrowing.  The Bank buying up bonds with their magic money will decrease their availability in the marketplace, thus creating a demand for said bonds.  As many debts are borrowed against these bonds, if they become more valuable, the cost of borrowing should get cheaper and easier.  That’s the theory, anyhow.

Trouble is…  I still am tripping over this business of buying the bonds with made-up money.   It sounds to me, far too much like printing money to fill a fiscal hole.

Why not – if there isn’t enough of the stuff in the system, why can’t we do that?   Because of the risk of hyper-inflation, that’s why.  And if you haven’t just crossed yourself with a fiver and uttered a prayer of deliverance to the God of Sterling at the h-i word – you should’ve.  It’s your worst nightmare.  Those of us who recall inflation running at 25% in the 70’s will bore the rest of you with tales of how in the time it took us to get around Tesco’s, they’d already put up the price of the shopping in our baskets.   And that relatively was mild in world terms – in Zimbabwe the poor devils are coping with inflation rates of 1000%.  They might as well use their currency to fill the potholes in the road – it isn’t fit for anything else.

And if you think I’ve been going a bit OTT about this hyper-inflation thing, you might like to know that I’m in good company.  Any right-minded Government gets goose-bumps at the idea.  To the extent that The Maastricht Treaty forbids any EU member country to print money in order to deal with fiscal shortfalls.

The Bank of England are arranging to buy the bonds with their made-up money through financial institutions, instead of directly from the Government.  Which means they won’t be breaking the rules against printing money.  Because the financial institutions are not Government owned.  Not completely – not yet, anyway…

So… my fears that quantitative easing might be leading us headfirst into the horror of runaway inflation on top of the credit crunch are completely unfounded.   I hope.  Please God…

It’s snow joke…

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As parts of the country are hit by arctic conditions for the fifth day in a row, we are still being treated to rants by politicians about our inability to cope.

Liberal Democrat’s Norman Baker had plenty to say on the subject, “The lack of preparedness is astounding and damaging the economy. I have travelled from Stockholm to the Arctic Circle on a train that arrived 5 minutes early, yet Britain lapses into chaos at the first sign of snow.”

Well, Mr Baker, Stockholm and the Arctic Circle are used to regular, heavy amounts of snow. We aren’t. Weathermen are muttering about this being the whitest winter for 18 years. I’m sure Norman Baker and his colleagues would have plenty to say if we invested in shedloads of grit, salt and a fleet of snowploughs and gritting lorries – to be used once every 2 decades.

For those clamouring for ‘something to be done’ after reports that many county councils are running short of salt, maybe they would like to reflect on some of facts and figures from the northern US, where quantities of the stuff is used to keep roads passable.  It is estimated that it costs $2.5 billion a year across the USA in corrosion damage to bridges, roads and vehicles. Salt is also reported as being responsible for killing roadside trees and plants, in addition to polluting streams and rivers.

It would be better if our transport system and schools could keep going in these conditions – of course it would. But demanding improvements by comparing our winter weather preparations with countries that routinely experience significantly colder conditions is the sort of knee-jerk politics we could do without. buxton-the-snowman