Tag Archives: current affairs

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…

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