Too late for MacColl’s New England?

Depending on your preferred categorisation, as an early member of Generation X, one of Thatcher’s children or an eighties victim, it’s hardly surprising I remember Kirsty MacColl. In a decade that undoubtedly had the best music, I remember her cover of New England being a stand out moment of 1985. It was bittersweet yet somehow full of promise and optimism, at a time both were in short supply.

              Early orbiting space station

As a life long fan of space science (not to mention science fiction), another story I remember from that year was the little reported Russian rescue mission to save Salyut 7.
Having lasted in orbit longer than Skylab (which had fallen to earth dramatically in 1979), the station began to look very dated, particularly compared to the growing successes of the US Space Shuttle. When the Salyut station began failing to respond to ground commands in 1985 threatening to become uncontrolled, a mission to restore control and avoid an uncontrolled re-entry into the atmosphere began.
Of course, the Russians weren’t the only nation to suffer the embarrassment of losing control of their space kit. The United States Skylab station suffered a decaying orbit and crash landed over Nullabor and the eastern goldfields of Western Australia in 1979. Indeed many in Western Australia have material from the remains of Skylab today.

In an act of poetic symmetry, I was reminded of both Skylab and Kirsty MacColl last night with the brief sighting of a ‘shooting star’ (a meteor) burning a short but mesmerising trail in the night sky.

“I saw two shooting stars last night, I wished on them but they were only satellites. It’s rude to wish on space hardware, I wish, I wish, I wish you cared”
[Kirsty MacColl – New England 1985 (Billy Bragg)]

There are countless meteoroids ranging in size from a grain of sand to roughly a meter in diameter with millions of impacts with the earth’s atmosphere daily. Most are materials from asteroids or comets with some being collision impact debris from bodies such as the moon or Mars. As the item approaches the atmosphere as a meteoroid it becomes visible as a meteor and if it makes to the surface could be recovered as a meteorite.

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Tiangong-1 Spacecraft

Of course, there are significantly bigger objects. One such saw China join the United States and Russia have their space hardware return to earth.
The Tiangong-1 space station (Chinese for heavenly place) had been tumbling in a decaying and uncontrolled orbit for some time. It is thought China began losing control of the 85 tonne station in 2016.

At midnight on 2nd April 2018 just to the north-west of Tahiti, the Chinese craft landed in a part of the South Pacific ocean now known as ‘spacecraft cemetery’. There are over 110 crashed satellites, booster rockets and similar components (including the Russian Mia space station) in this preferred crash zone for returning space debris.  Quite how the people of Tahiti and French Polynesia feel about being on the glide path for returning objects of this type is unclear, not that I can find any record of anyone asking them.

Cassini

An artist’s impression of the Cassini spacecraft entering Saturn’s atmosphere.

Technically, there are alternatives to dropping tons of metal back into the oceans. On September 15th 2017, mission control for the Cassini spacecraft made precise adjustments to the satellite’s orbit of Saturn. They declared end of mission at 4.55am (pdt) after committing the craft to a gradual entry into the planet’s atmosphere ensuring it was completely destroyed and nothing would make it to the planet surface.
In that case, the concern was that no material would inadvertently transfer organisms from Earth to Saturn, a process which appears to have been completely successful.
So, if this type of precision disposal is possible, why don’t we take the same approach on earth preventing the potentially harmful and uncontrolled return of debris?

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Early mapping of low level orbit objects

There are many reasons for this ranging from the lack of a legal requirement to do so through to the nature of the atmospheres. However, the most surprising reason is due to the fear of the risk of collision.

When Kirsty MacColl sang of space hardware, there was simply far less of it as this map of known satellites from the time shows. Compare this comparatively peaceful picture of planetary obstructions with a similar mapping of objects in low earth orbit today and you get a very different result. Whilst in Saturn’s orbit you are guaranteed a solitary orbit, that is far from the truth for Earth.

Space junk orbiting - 2008

Mapping of objects in low, high and geostationary orbits  [Source: NASA]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The current NASA mapping of objects in low, high and geostationary orbits around the planet shows a cluttered and confused picture. Much of the material is defunct, faulty or debris from satellite launches. In addition are a myriad of weather, military and communications satellites as well as GPS hardware. Finding a safe space to deploy, orbit and operate is becoming increasingly difficult. Trying to negotiate that to undertake a Cassini-like operation over Earth is thought to be highly improbable.

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The worlds first orbital crash in 2009

It’s already been a case of this orbit isn’t big enough for the both of us.
In 2009 the Iridium 33 (US Commercial) satellite’s orbit coincided with that of Kosmos 2251 (Soviet Space Agency) and resulted in the first recorded crash between two stable satellites. I dread to think of the paperwork involved in that insurance claim.

Whilst it’s true there are bands of orbitting material (low, high and geostationary) this doesn’t help when numbers are being added at the current rate.

Last year (2017) there were just short of 400 launches planned from earth to deploy orbiting material. In 2018 the planned launches already exceed 500 with more than double that planned for 2019. We are rapidly thought to be approaching a tipping point where further orbiting satellites cannot be safely put into orbit. The current model predicts that state being the case in the mid 2030’s.
Thinking of how dependent global communication, global positioning, data transfer, weather forecasting and national security and intelligence have become on satellites, this is a situation many have a vested interest to prevent.
Those are working hard to prevent some of the most catastrophic suggestions, such as that by NASA professor Donald Kessler. He suggests collisions between space debris become increasingly likely as the density of space debris increases in orbit around the earth, and a cascade effect results as each collision in turn creates more debris that can cause further collisions. If that was the case, the planet could lose the ability to deploy or repair existing satellites for most of this century.

So what has this to do with a New England? Well, for me it’s that sense of promise and optimism in a time short of both. Today sees the launch of one more satellite. Coordinated from the University of Surrey this mini cube carries the research and development promise of a way to clean up much of this debris.

This video shows some of the methods that it hopes to pioneer to clear up what we imagine is pristine and vast emptiness but is increasingly just our latest dumping ground.

It’s also encouraging to hear of similar research for autonomous drones to tackle some of the plastic polution in our seas. Unlike Kirsty MacColl, those involved in both projects do want to change the world. To start tidying up something we’ve taken for granted for far too long. I for one wish them great success.

A flag by any other name?

It has been some time since the NAP has surfaced and even longer since it has gone into print. For the uninitiated here follows a brief history of the NAP.

In 2011 I was talking to a friend (Jo Mitchell) on a minor point of detail about a subject now long forgotten. The detail was important to us but we were far from typical. A passing colleague asked if we were the annual meeting of the NPA? – He then explained this referred to the National Pedants Association.  Not wishing to disappoint we explained it was more correctly known as the National Association for Pedantry and so the NPA was born. A small number of life memberships have since been granted, most notably to my husband and Mr Andrew Tovell of Luga Barooga.

 

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The United Kingdom flag

This morning, a friend posted a comment on social media relating to the visit of Prince William to Poland. During a walkabout, the national flag was referred to by William as the ‘Union Jack’.

 

The post which spurred me to call an emergency sitting of the NAP included the lines “Prince William greeting Polish children teaching them that they’re holding the ‘Union Jack’, it’s the Union Flag you idiot. We pay you a fortune, at least learn the basics!”.  Immediately I ran for my copies of fun with flags (Sheldon Cooper 2015) and Flags for Dummies (a minor volume of my own currently in progress).

Before going any further, I should declare our respective interests. Tony is, unfortunately, a declared Republican. In contrast, I sit here in my national flag pyjamas, wearing my Jubilee slippers fashioning a 1:50 scale replica of the late Queen Mother crafted from gin labels. Actually, put that difference aside as I don’t think it’s particularly relevant, but is this really just a flag by any other name?

You may think I’m putting the jack back in Jackanory or attempting to wrap myself in a flag of a particular style, I’m not. However, was William incorrect in calling the national flag the Union Jack? Of course whatever I now write is subject to varying opinions but here is one sourced view of the world that suggests not.

 

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Queen Anne’s heraldic emblem showing the Tudor rose and Scottish thistle growing from the same stem.

As no story today is complete without a nod to Brexit, here’s mine. If you think getting out of an organisation is tough to achieve in two years, read your history. It is nothing, compared to the union of England and Scotland. (Although being a monarchist isn’t necessarily cool and fashionable it does give you some great historical sources from which to draw).

 

When James VI of Scotland acceded to the throne of England in 1603 (James I) the two crowns became united. Job done you might think? Far from it. Over a century later the union of nations was still incomplete only being agreed in 1707 with the Acts of Union (good luck Mssrs Barnier, Juncker, Tusk and Verhofstadt)

It was in this period of instability, where trade, diplomacy and the occasional pillaging still needed to take place, that the first joint flags became evident. The most obvious examples of this were ships passing at sea and needing to know if the vessel ahead was friendly or not.

 

Royal_Navy_Jack_1643

English Naval Jack 1643

The solution was to fly both the flag of England and Scotland on naval vessels. James I gave a Royal decree in 1606 that the ships of the Kingdom of Great Britain “shall bear on their maintops the red cross commonly known as St George’s cross and the white cross commonly called St Andrew’s cross”

 

This is exactly what happened – this example dates from 1643 [Source: National Maritime Museum, National Archives] and shows both national flags of the time side by side. (Note the red cross of St George touching the blue of the Saltire, it’s relevant later).

This was referred to as the Naval Jack – however, so were flags before and after. The term jack referring to any flag flown in a specific part of the rigging for a particular purpose, namely identifying the nationality (akin to modern registration) of a Tudor, Stuart or later vessel.

Jack: “A ship’s flag of smaller size then the ensign, used at sea as a signal, or as a mark of distinction; the small flag which is flown from the jack-staff at the bow of a vessel (formerly at the sprit-sail topmast head) and by which the nationality of a ship is indicated, as in British Jack, Dutch Jack, French Jack” [Source: OED]

However, these jacks were not and could not be flags in their technical heraldic sense. So when flown correctly on a ship it may be a jack, but the instance above could not be a flag. Why? – Well, it comes down to that pesky touching of the red and the blue. In heraldry and on heraldic flags, that’s like french kissing your granny infront of the Queen .. it just can’t happen. No two colours may touch. This led to the white border being added to the cross of St George in later incarnations.

 

Union flag 1606

Union Flag 1606

A solution could have been to adopt the heraldic Union flag of 1606 (note no diagonal red cross). However, that had been ‘knocked together’ rapidly – the equivalent of a couple of pages photoshopping it the evening before the coronation. It was altogether too new and quirky.

 

Apart from that, there was the small matter of a Royal decree which specified something different. Now I don’t know about you but Tudor monarchs weren’t perhaps at the top of the ‘open to suggestion’ listings so why should the new Stuart King be any different? Hardly surprising his decree held sway.

However, with Queen Anne coming to the throne in 1705, the navy was presented with the Union Flag (above) to be flown as the jack (that was on the sprit-sail of vessels). This was what was flow during coronation celebrations. Two years later the Acts of Union were finally passed in both countries.
On 28th July 1707, Queen Ann issued a Royal proclamation that ‘this flag shall be the National flag of Great Britain, for use ashore and afloat’ – So from that point it could be both a flag and a jack.

This led to the belief that it was a flag on land and a jack when flown on vessels. The proclamation referred to ‘this flag’ and that was the Naval Jack becoming the ‘National flag’. Nowhere is Union Jack or Union Flag mentioned. Technically, and deliberately, neither Union Jack or Union flag was adopted by either the Monarch, Parliament or the Navy.

 

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The National Flag of the United Kingdom

 

The navy simply refers to the national flag as ‘The Union’ – the truncation being very deliberate.

Statute, proclamation and naval orders continue to refer to the National Flag.

The Union flag does of course exist but it isn’t this flag. It is the 1606 Union Flag which has no red diagonal cross (representing Ireland) and if you want to start waving that around anytime soon .. good luck in Derry/Londonderry. The Union Jack is similarly wrong although it remains at least colloquially the most common nomenclature for the national flag of the United Kingdom.

So you can certainly say William was wrong – the Union Jack is a convenient fabrication to cover over centuries old fragilities between England, Ireland and Scotland. But, equally so was my esteemed colleague. It is no more the Union Flag than it is the Union Jack … whether flown on land, sea or out of your bedroom window.

Whatever it is, I better make sure all my pictures are in their correct orientation or I’ll be drummed out of the NAP.

Theresa May: Skyfall or Die Another Day?

As UK elections go, the 2017 vote will probably be scrutinised by psephologists more than most. Described as a ‘dead woman walking’ Theresa May is seen by many as a lost cause soon to be replaced. The election itself has been described as cynically opportunistic producing a result that produces a Government with no legitimacy. But is this anything more than froth and bluster whilst the underlying political process does what is should?

It may seem a very long time ago when Theresa May called a snap election although it is barely six weeks. Of course, the whole idea of a snap election ran against the idea of fixed term Parliament’s introduced (with support from members of most parties) by her predecessor, David Cameron.

April May

Stop press: Politician is driven by self-interest?

In that sense, elections other than on fixed 5-year terms should have been a thing of the past.  To vary this would take an exceptional circumstance (for the possibility to be suggested), a vote in Parliament and the agreement of two-thirds of MP’s before any ‘snap’ election could take place.

Like it or not, that’s what happened and MP’s from all parties voted for a snap election on 8th June. Many have complained, (often insincerely in my view) about ‘Tory opportunism’ in calling an election when they thought they could win. They seem surprised any political leader could stoop so low as to put short-term party gain over National interest. The alternative, I presume, would be to call an election when it provides no advantage when you think you can’t win or when it suits your political opponents?

To those complaining about cynical tactics, I would recommend reading Machiavelli’s The Prince as an excellent and timeless introduction to the art of retaining power. Alternatively, Joan River’s cry of ‘Oh grow up!‘ springs to mind.

Do I think those complaining about opportunism have a point? – Yes, but twas ever thus. Do I think it makes sense for politicians to act in that way? – Absolutely, it can do (from their perspective) and has suited all parties dating back to at least the 19th century.  Does it give me grounds for complaint? – Not at all. I may as well complain about the local priest/vicar always rattling on about religion, or a thief’s propensity to steal. – It’s in their nature and to expect something different doesn’t recognise the nature of the beast.

Harold_Wilson_Number_10_official

Harold Wilson (Labour)

Theresa May’s opportunistic (and ultimately losing) bet that her reported lead of 20 percentage points was unassailable, is nothing particularly new.  The Tories have done this before. Many observers cite Margaret Thatcher as taking advantage of her popularity following the Falkland’s conflict to win the general election in 1983.

However, before you rush to label this as typical Tory tactics, consider no lesser a figure that William Gladstone (Liberal). He lost no time in calling an election to take advantage of the increased franchise (and a resulting increase in supporters favouring his party) following the newly passed Reform Act of 1857. So, this behaviour has been going on for over a century and a half.

Similarly,  this month’s election has strong similarities to the snap election of 1966 called by Harold Wilson (Labour). He took advantage of a Tory opposition in disarray with an unproven leader (Edward Heath) perceived at the time as being weak and unelectable. Wilson called an election having seen a possible window to increase his slender working majority (sound familiar at all?). The only difference being that Wilson pulled off the job moving from a majority of 4 to one of 96.

cor-bin

There’s nothing like mature debate…

So, I for one remain unconvinced that this election is any more opportunistic than some of those that have preceeded it. So what of the charge that a government resulting from the election would have no legitimacy?

Of course, terms like democratic legitimacy are bandied about fairly easily, in most cases by one of the more comic like newspapers. Presumably, the legitimacy referred to in those instances is measured by the degree to which it aligns with the political view of the proprietor, editor or reporter. However, there is a widely accepted academic definition.

“Democratic legitimacy is the accepted right to exercise power. Where it has been achieved through a democratic route it is conferred by the people and also through the accepted political framework of the State”

(Source: Legitimacy and Politics – Cambridge University Press)

Using this definition, it seems clear that any viable government resulting from the democratic route of the general election is likely to be accepted by the political frameworks of the State. If that is true, any party or parties able to command the confidence of the House has democratic legitimacy and a mandate.  That doesn’t mean we have to like them, nor does it mean they are necessary ethical, moral or otherwise exemplary parties. However, it does mean the Government formed is not dependent on its political shade or makeup but is legitimate due to the manner of its election and construction.

This definition would support previous coalitions including the Lib-Lab pact of the 1970’s and the Tory-Lib Dem coalition of 2010. Despite his protestations, the one model it wouldn’t support is Jeremy Corbyn’s slightly strange claim last weekend that he could still be Prime Minister. His wish to propose an alternative minority Government and have the House vote on this during the Queens Speech debate falls foul of the accepted political framework of the State. In this case, the incumbent Prime Minister (by Convention) gets first attempt to form a Government that can gain the support of the House.

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Recent satire focuses unfavourably on the para military history of the DUP

The history of British satirical comment has been strong since Hogarth’s sketches of the 1740’s. In recent days, the tone of debate has changed slightly suggesting (in this case) that the Conservatives are not worthy of governing if they rely on the Democratic Unionist Party for confidence and supply.

 

My problem with this position is that the DUP is a lawful and established (if somewhat fundamentalist) political party operating in Northern Ireland.  It is true that the Democratic Unionist Party has a past that has been questionable at times and had links to paramilitary groups. That doesn’t make them unique in the province. Sinn Fein among others have a similar history.
Sinn Fein have been sufficiently rehabilitated to have shared political power with unionist parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly. If that’s acceptable and welcomed (which judging by the assorted peace prize nominations it is) I really don’t see the issue with the DUP in England.

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Recent alterations to wall ends in Ulster

Some observers feel a UK Government containing one of the Northern Ireland parties is bound to fail as it would remove the impartial position taken by the UK Government since the Good Friday agreement was signed. They hold that issues surrounding border controls and tax avoidance across Non-EU boundaries could even rekindle the troubles and destroy the peace process.

 

What I think this misses is the strongly stated and re-stated positions of all parties within the Island of Ireland that a solution must be found to the border question given its particular relevance to the peace process. Interestingly, a position also held by not only the British and Irish Governments but also the EU itself. Nobody is going to place a border before peace.
Also, there is the small matter of the populations of both communities in Northern Ireland being unwilling to see a return to the violence of the troubles. If it did return, it wouldn’t be because of this issue where community cohesion (on this narrow point) is strong.

To this point, there seems nothing in the arguments put forward to suggest Theresa May’s Government is ‘stillborn’. A more recent claim by the Liberal Democrats that the Prime Minister should be ashamed of carrying on seems utterly bizarre. It seems to completely misunderstand the option of a coalition government. That in itself is strange given the Lib Dems were part of the most recent coalition. The same process of trying to form a grouping that can command the support of the house that brought them to power in 2010 is the same process being criticised by them now.

 

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The House of Commons – certainly reflects a two party system.

Some of the comments in the media (social and otherwise) and from politicians gets close to suggesting that the process of building support is somehow ‘grubby’ and unworthy of politics.

 

However, I would support any party in their attempt to form a workable government. It’s not been seen frequently in the UK Parliament but it’s absolutely part of the way the British Parliamentary System evolves, produces a workable government or causes an unworkable government to fail. It’s hard to see how this whole period, however unusual and tense, is anything more than the Parliamentary system doing what it should do.

I may not have bottomless reserves of faith in politicians (of any party) but I have much more faith in a quirky, organically grown, flawed but reliable parliamentary process to produce a result which although we may not agree with it, is workable at least for a while.

For these reasons, I don’t know whether the May Government will survive through a number of years or fall in a matter of weeks. Whatever the outcome, the reason won’t be because of a broken system, I would argue it will be because that system imperfect as it is, constantly tests a Government as being fit for purpose and that will decide the outcome.

I’m reminded of the quote (origin disputed) that ‘we get the Governments we deserve’. Maybe this is a perfect example of just that assertion.

A very British reaction to terrorism

A shorter than usual blog post today. This response to the terrorist incidents in Manchester and London stood out as somehow quintessentially British in its quirkiness and refusal to be worn down.  It also provided a simple way of showing support and carrying on regardless.

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Cake, along with a cup of tea. Often the British initial response to any crisis

Amid the large and charitable responses is a strange, understated and very British idea. Welcome to the second annual Cake-along.
Organised from a small Wiltshire town, this is a very simple but personal statement that normality must prevail.
Normality, in this case, is taking time out for a piece of cake tomorrow Sunday (11th June).

This may, of course, include the near obligatory cup of tea and ideally, be shared with friends. There is no set location, anyone can take part anywhere around the world. People are being encouraged to aim for 4 pm local. However, the choice to take part is more important than strict adherence to a particular time on Sunday.

The only request is that people think about the importance of retaining the usual pattern of life and not losing it as a result of terror or disproportionate responses to their acts. Everyone taking part is asked to record the moment in a picture which should be sent to cakealong02@gmail.com where they will be used to produce an overall record of the day.

A simple idea but a powerful statement. There is already interest from places far further afield than London where I will be on Sunday. It is interesting to think that people will be taking the time to pause for thought on Sunday, triggered by that very British reaction, a cup of tea and a slice of cake. I’ll make sure I’ve something appropriate.

Is DNA splicing – the biggest breakthrough since antibiotics?

For those of us lucky enough to have been in our late teens or early twenties during the 1980’s nothing can have been more shocking or frankly frightening than the UK government’s AIDS awareness campaigns.  Hard hitting (for the time), the adverts featured funereal images including tombstones, lilies and coffins. All had the stark message, AIDS: Don’t die of ignorance

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1980’s Don’t die of ignorance campaign

The messaging within these adverts was equally shocking, making it very clear that this illness was incurable and would lead to death. Little was held back in terms of the danger HIV and AIDS posed to the nation’s health. In short, they were designed to scare the bejeezus out of you and did a very good job of doing just that.

 

For a period of time in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the HIV virus was a terrifying spectre hanging over everyone but focused particularly on gay men, sex workers and intravenous drug users. Many of these groups were seen as bringing the disease on themselves by their lifestyles. Funding for HIV research was challenging, having to overcome a ‘worthiness’ barrier among some donors.

It’s hard to describe to those who didn’t live through that period just how all-pervasive the fear of HIV and AIDS became. The ‘gay plague’ as some called it was in the long tradition of killer conditions dating back to consumption (tuberculosis) and the black death. Given this, it’s equally hard for those who experienced this to imagine a time where HIV was eradicated or made harmless to the body it infected. However, that prospect is no longer pure science fiction but is a strong possibility in the not too distant future.

The HIV Virus

The initial treatment regimes for HIV were little more than palliative, with many being highly toxic to the body. The modern era of treatment with the first protease inhibitors being introduced as recently as 1995. This development led to the introduction of increasingly effective combination therapies as the new millennium dawned. Yet despite these significant and life changing improvements, the virus remains present in the patient albeit at very low levels and in reservoir tissues such as bone marrow.  However, for the majority of HIV patients in 2017, a positive status signifies a condition which is usually entirely manageable with medication. In addition, the life expectancy of an HIV+ person on current treatments is virtually identical to that of an uninfected person (all other things being equal).

HIV Entry

HIV cell entry mechanism

In a simplified summary, the HIV virus infects cells by first binding itself to one of the host’s own immune cells (in the case of humans a CD4 cell). This then allows the virus to attach itself to healthy cells unchallenged by the immune system of the host. Ultimately the virus will enter those cells and reproduce releasing further copies of the virus into the body. They in turn bind to a CD4 cell and the cycle continues. The ‘hijacking’ of the host’s CD4 cell means the body sees the infected cell and the virus as being part of the host and the HIV virus is effectively made invisible to the host’s immune system. This mechanism of stripping and stealing host DNA to mask the virus was initially considered so devious, it was often used as evidence that the virus must be man made. It was asserted, nature wouldn’t design something so ‘evil’.

 

However, researchers in both the fields of medicine and nanotechnologies have long been interested in this type of mechanism. Some felt that as an immune cell could be ‘tricked’ into seeing a virus as part of the host, perhaps it could also be ‘tricked’ into seeing them as a virus again. Some even suggested the virus itself may be ‘tricked’ into receiving some form of targetted treatment – the much vaunted ‘silver bullet‘ medication aimed just at the HIV virus. Now, for the first time, this is more than a pipe dream.

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The dream of targetted gene therapy

Researchers have long hoped to achieve the dream of replacing portions of defective DNA in various types of gene therapy. This would allow treatments to target just target cells without damaging surrounding tissue/structures. It would also hold out the prospect of offering a more general delivery mechanism which could transfer into other areas of medicine. Some years ago, researchers in HIV treatment took the embryonic gene-editing tools of 2012 (byproducts of the Human Genome project) and linked this to the use of enzymes and proteins to ‘target’ specific cells types. This HIV research has now created some remarkable laboratory results.

 

In simple terms. they have developed a technique called CRISPR (pronounced crisper) which splices an enzyme into the DNA of a virus. In turn, this causes the virus to replicate its own RNA. This has the benefit of increasing the visibility of these cells to auto-immune processes without increasing the infective components of the virus. Although these early techniques don’t remove the virus they do take away one of its great strengths – invisibility.

Since 2015 when the possibilities of this approach began to interest the wider research communities there have been many parallel streams of research activity all producing similarly encouraging laboratory trials first in cell studies and more recently in live animal trials.

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Studies have been successful in mice

Researchers at the Louis Katz school of medicine and the University of Pittsburgh conducted experiments in which mice were given HIV-1 cells causing acute HIV infection responses. In humans, this equates to the period in which the HIV virus is most infectious. However, when the CRISPR therapy was used on the infected mice, the rate of cell replication fell dramatically, by between 60 and 95%. This was so successful it was classed as a successful genetic inactivation of the HIV-1 virus in living animals.

 

If this success transfers to other species well (early trials on primates suggest similar success rates), this could mean someone infected with HIV could be treated prior to systemic infection has taken place. Even more amazing is the possibility of a person living with HIV having the virus ‘removed’ from the body post infection.

Then, things became even more interesting when combined with advances from what might be considered an unrelated area of science, criminology.  In the late 1990’s a number of criminal cases were detected thanks to improvements in DNA identification techniques. Those techniques took small amounts of DNA and effectively ‘magnified’ them by a form of cellular replication. When researchers at MIT and Harvard employed this technique alongside CRISPR splicing they found they could ‘zoom in’ on traditionally hard to find viruses. The same RNA replication used in DNA magnification meant viruses and cells could be identified and targetted even when levels in the body are remarkably low.

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Other viruses are now in scope of this therapy

We have now reached the point at which viruses which have previously eluded testing start coming within the scope of this technique. The first two to fall in this space are Dengue virus (responsible for Dengue fever) and the Zika virus which has been causing birth defects most recently in South America.

 

When Zika and similar viruses was seen as in the scope of treatment, researchers into some of the more elusive cancers also began to take a strong interest. At present, the research which originated in HIV is providing new treatment possibilities for a range of infectious diseases and increasingly ways to target historically difficult cancers.

Step2

Cancer cells are the next targets

In the same way that proteins and enzymes have allowed medications to enter cells in a targetted way for HIV and potentially Zika, the same method could apply for other conditions.

 

Research in this space is currently underway for the treatment of advanced breast and cervical cancer in women and advanced prostate cancer in men. This could, at last, be the practical delivery mechanism to target specific cells alone. The magic or silver bullet could indeed have been found.

I wonder how many of those who felt the money spent on HIV was somehow less worthy or deserved would still hold those views. I suspect very few if they had known just how many unrelated illnesses could benefit in the long run. It just goes to prove you never know where research will lead and how it will be applied.

Whilst their loss would still be as terrible, the thought that those who lost their lives to HIV/AIDS may have led to research that may defeat Dengue, Zika and potentially many cancers, would perhaps, be some consolation.

The Disunited Nations

flag_of_the_league_of_nations_1939-1941

I was listening to a radio documentary earlier this week which questioned the current structures of the United Nations. Particularly whether the permanent members of the Security Council were still appropriate and whether their veto should be continued. As a student  of history, these struck me as having some similarities to the claims of  irrelevance raised against the League of Nations formed nearly a century ago in January 1920.

The commentators saw the UN as a huge step forward. An argument was made that the demise of the League was inevitable given the horror of the Great War and the natural renewal that comes with a new century.

That last comment certainly made me think. Was there any evidence of a natural drive for  renewal that comes with a new century? A quick scan of the academic research didn’t reveal much other than some passing comment about the new millennium prompting a reevaluation of the status quo be that personal, political or national nynsidentity.

It is certainly non contentious to suggest that a New Year brings an urge for self-improvement and making a fresh start for many. Could something similar happen for a national psyche?
Interestingly, when I started to look at when major constitutional or structural political  changes were made in the past many do seem to cluster around the first twenty years of a new century.

In the  17th century, between 1600-1620 we saw The Gunpowder Plot, the founding of Jamestown Virginia, the landing of the Mayflower, and the division of Europe with the thirty Years War
Between 1700 and 1720 there were  major political reorganisations with the Act of Union (Scotland), the Act of Settlement in the UK and Europe again split over the Spanish Succession.
Within the same period in the 19th century were the Napoleonic Wars,the abolition of the slave trade (UK), the abolition of slave importation by the US congress, the Act of Union (Ireland),  the move of federal Government in the US to Washington DC and the Louisiana purchase
Finally in the 2oth century the first twenty years of the century were marked by the Boer War, the Boxer rebellion, the Russian revolution, the direct election of the US Senate and the extension of voting rights to women in the US. Plus there was the little matter of the First World War.

2016

This concentration of political and social change at the start of each century may be purely random or the result of optimistic zeal for major reform brought about by the change of century. I will leave that to someone else’s thesis, but it is an intriguing correlation.

It may also account for the growing political dissatisfaction currently being expressed across the political spectrum. Some see it as the demise of dominance of the liberal and political elites (whatever they might be). Others see a growing voice of both the under classes and the ‘silent majorities’ or forgotten voters.Whatever the truth, 2017 looks like being a turbulent time as a perfect storm has the potential to brew over the next 12 months.

Personally, I have never believed in or understood the argument that all is decided by a small liberal elite. It would be difficult where turnout in most liberal democracies are as high as they are. Also, if it were the case then I doubt we would have President Elect Trump, Brexit or many similarly unexpected results.

It’s just as likely that these pollunexpected results reflect an increasingly  politically aware electorate. If that is the case then surely that should be something to be welcomed? It appears many voters no longer rely on the press to call elections in advance, nor do they engage with polling organisations other than on their own terms.
Shy Conservatives, embarrassed Brexitiers, Timid Trumpers, covert Corbineisters and guilty UKIPpers can all be explained by people deciding their vote is their business and not disclosing it to the polling organisations and media. If that is the case, then some of the electorate are becoming more  politically savvy than those organisations.

Most recently, there has been increasing dissatisfaction with the fact that Donald Trump has won the US Presidential election without having won the popular vote in the country. Whilst  votes are still being counted it certainly looks like Hilary Clinton will have polled around 2 million more votes than Donald Trump. However, that’s neither new nor in my view is it he point.

wbushSome American commentators take the view that this  was exactly the system the Founders had in mind. They contend that pure democracies don’t work and the popular vote is secondary to ensuring the support of most States. There already have been four (possibly five) US presidents who gained power whilst losing the popular vote. These being John  Adams (1824), Rutherford Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888) and George W Bush (2000). The questionable result being John F Kennedy in 1960 which is probably too close to call given some electoral idiosyncracies in Alabama at the time which are probably impossible to unpick today.

All electoral systems  have idiosyncracies in their structure which cause oddities in their respective results. To criticise Donald Trump for focusing on the States which gave him the maximum votes in the electoral college is just bizarre. You may as well criticise British politicians (or Australian ones come to that) for focusing most effort on the marginal seats in play rather than working with equal effort on safe seats. – Politicians are merely exploiting the rules of the system under which they get elected.

ballotIt has been argued that recent electoral results have been abhorrent. However, it can also been seen as a massive protest vote against the current political status quo (informed or uninformed as the case may be). If this is the case then regardless of your  political positions all mainstream parties can be seen as having failed their electorates by morphing towards a homogenous middle ground populist position. Against this background only the outspoken, colourful, political outsider (or as my better half would say ‘the batshit insane’) stand out.

Could this explain the sudden popularity of the ‘non-politician’?  Trump has been elected to the most powerful office of State with no previous political experience. Forage in the UK championed a strongly Euro-skeptic position was considered as a political outsider prior to the Brexit vote. Similarly, more extreme politicians such as Marine La Penn in France are becoming more popular whilst local dynastic figures are repeatedly rejected (e.g. Clintons in the US, Sarkozy in France).
Regardless of your position within the political spectrum this makes 2017 one of the most turbulent and potentially dangerous years in recent times.

trumpeuThe BBC’s Andrew Neil recently visited the US to cover the elections and is on record as having spoken at length with Trump’s team. He reports that not only is Trump supportive of the UK decision but is willing to actively pressure Europe not to ‘beat up’ on the UK for leaving the club. Why might he do that?
Neil and others formed the view that he was the first US President in many years to be anti EU. Not necessarily anti European nation States but seeing little value in the overarching political structure of the Union. With the apparent demise of TTIP (the US/EU trade agreement) and Trump’s dislike of multilateral agreements this could mean the least meaningful contact with the EU at a time when it faces the most internal division.

If Trump’s view prevails with bilateral trade agreements out of the question for those remaining in the EU (at this time), then the UK suddenly looks like the only game in town within continental Europe. Whilst this may be better than expected news for those interested in Brexit it may not provide much in the way of comfort to Europe for the coming year.

pollettSome take a more extreme view of this position. One is German economist and macro-economic advisor Dr Thorsten Pollett.(far from a British euroskeptic)
In a recent speech to the Mises Institute in Germany, he warned that a move to an EU skeptical President in the  States has “
deprived the EU of its most powerful intellectual and political advocate”. He said: “The yield gap between the US and the euro is set to widen, making the euro less attractive vis-à-vis the dollar.. Mr Trump’s presidency could actually test the single currency to the breaking point.”

It’s worth considering this is the view of a dedicated EU insider who felt the UK brexit decision followed by a Trump election may be too much for the institution’s financial tolerance. He wrote  “The United Kingdom’s decision in June to do the ‘Brexit’ has already dealt a heavy blow to peoples’ confidence in the EU being an economically and politically desirable institution. The chances of the project stalling are now even greater, and the ties that bind the union together may even unravel.”

Whilst I should declare I was one of those wishing to leave the EU, and don’t regret my vote, I have no wish to see Europe fractured, although ultimately any institutions must be fit for purpose.brokeneuro

Pollett was making his view based on all other things being equal – however, the evidence suggests other things are also loaded against the union in it’s current form.

Italy’s Five Star political movement is taking every opportunity to press for a referendum re the continued use of the Euro within the country. Whilst the EU may be able to continue without the UK, it is doubtful that the Euro would be able to continue without Italy. With unrelated constitutional agreements pending in Italy some have questioned whether the Prime Minister can survive if the popular vote continues the current popular trend. In which case, the referendum may be the price  of continued political support.
Whilst the Euro crisis in Greece is considered over by many, warnings are already coming out of Greece and Germany that a fourth and even fifth bail out of the Greek economy may be necessary and should not be written off as fanciful or scaremongering.

merkelIf you think Brexit was a disaster, just consider the  emerging fault lines at the centre of the European partnership.
The French Prime Minister is now advising Chancellor Merkel that her policies re free movement are ‘unsustainable in the long term‘ and although ‘Germany may have chosen this path, France has not.’

Similarly, the German Chancellor is taking actions that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. It is widely understood that there is friction between Germany and the EU Commission following Mr Junker telling Mrs Merkel to keep her industrialists in check and not to allow them to give the UK an easy time in Brexit negotiations. Regardless of your position re Brexit, can it be healthy for an unelected bureaucrat to be advising an elected head  of Government how her country should conduct themselves?

Ultimately, most politicians will consider their own electoral position first. Perhaps this explains the Chancellor’s recent request of the EU to clarify the exact meaning and constraints of ‘free movement of people’ within the existing Treaties. My suspicion is this has more to do with the possible success of Madam Le Pen in France in the coming Presidential elections.

Combined with these structural pressures and displeasure  is growing following the EU ignoring the outcome of a Dutch referendum re visa restrictions. Similarly, Switzerland is entering extended discussions with the EU after being warned their recent vote to curb cross border working breached EU regulations. Interesting given that Switzerland is not a member of the EU.

fracturingeuropePersonally I remain content with my Btexit vote. Equally, I grow increasingly disappointed at the EU (rather than Europe) being unable to listen to growing disquiet from its members.

In France, Le Pen who now looks a possible winner in the French presidential elections is committed to a French exit referendum. If  Brexit seems a body blow, how would Frexit do anything other than lead to the fracturing of the Union? Similarly, the Northern League in Italy is already calling for the Italian equivalent in that country.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders has made continued EU membership a key part of their next general election campaign championing the need to renegotiate or leave. Recent polls in the Netherlands show an average of 88% in favour of a UK in/out vote.
The right wing Freedom Party is calling for referendum for Austrian exit to take place within the year whilst in Poland former Prime Minister and leading politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski is on record as saying ‘we need a new treaty now’

peter-lundgren-speaks-g2rtapSwedish MEP Peter Lungdren recently stated ‘The unspoken truth is that Denmark and Sweden are already on the brink of leaving. A Nordic trading bloc including the UK looks a viable alternative’.

Already a little reported referendum in 2015 has prevented Denmark from handing over further powers to Brussels. Interestingly, the Commission has already stated this has fallen into the same category of ‘to be ignored’ as the recent Dutch referendum on visa controls. If this disregard for the view of the electorate(s) is the outcome of the current status quo, is there any surprise that people have stopped engaging?

bordersIt may be  worth pointing out that many of these difficulties stem from the desire to protect the four fundamental freedoms  of the EU. These are said to be indivisible. However, if this is the case, perhaps  someone can explain why there are currently internal border controls in operation in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Poland and Sweden.

In what looks like an increasingly fractured Europe with America’s attention focusing elsewhere, the next area under debate looks set to be defense. As recently as last week (BBC This Week) former defense secretary Michael Portillo said most of Europe has been living in cloud cuckoo land over defence since the 1980’s.He held that they fail to recognise the importance of the US Umbrella to European defence, want a Europe free of American forces but also increasingly fail to meet their existing NATO commitments.

President Elect Trump has already pledged to build the Pacific fleet up to 350 ships to bolster the perceived threat of instability in that region. This is at the same time as saying spending on NATO is out of proportion and not his top priority.

defenseI certainly don’t seek to justify the spending levels of the US defense budget, it is clear that the next biggest spend is currently from China. Whilst much of the noise from Trump tower may be bluster, it’s hard to see him having much sympathy with Europe asking for more support when the majority of it’s members don’t meet their current 2% contribution.
Even if a significant element is for public consumption, not even the US could afford to make such an investment whilst maintaining its current expenditure on NATO.

As Andrew Neil pointed out, it will also be hard in the absence of the US for the calls on the UK to be anything other than increased. A difficult message to ask the UK to put their forces on the line to support Europe at the same time it’s bureaucracy want to give us a kicking for leaving the club.

Regardless of your political position this has to be a time for calm heads and rational debate rather than simplistic tribal responses. Whatever your view 2017 looks like bringing much more of the same with some unpalatable consequences whatever the outcome. Perhaps the Chinese have it right after all with their now famous curse … ‘may you live in interesting times.’

 

Are we all separated by a common language?

rsn2016I’m sure I can’t be the only person who has annual landmarks that witness the passing of the year. For me, one has become the six nations rugby championships. As they draw to a close each year, I know that spring has arrived and lighter, longer days will soon be on their way.

This year, as England try to achieve their first Grand Slam since 2003, it is perhaps appropriate (and entirely coincidental) that my first blog for some time should have a rugby connection. However, the inspiration originated far from the rugby field and has more to link it to Ireland or Australia than England, but accepting that, it still brought me back to blogging.

Yesterday, my Australian partner posted an update on social media in which he said how annoyed he was to have lost his Irish rugby jersey, particularly given that it is Saint Patrick’s day and would therefore have been his clothing item of choice.

Little had he (or I) expected this to be so controversial. Enquiries from his mum wondered “What is this jersey business? You turning into an Englishman? … It’s either a rugby jumper or a wind cheater.” A friend, Caroline explained “Posh people call it a jersey. Us lowlies call it a jumper!” This led to a friend of mine correctly assuming that Caroline was northern claiming “Jumpers north of Birmingham, pull-overs south”

Add to this comments made to me saying they were all wrong and it’s a shirt and I started to wonder just how divided we are by words to describe the same fairly innocuous item.

rshirt

New Zealand rugby ‘top’

So what exactly is this item (please note the carefully observed national neutrality). So far we have offerings of Jersey, Jumper, Shirt, Pull-over and wind-cheater. Perhaps more interestingly what drives these differences. Clearly nationality plays a part; I remember once asking someone to pass me my jumper in San Francisco – not a mistake I shall make twice.

To save you getting some very dubious search results, I should point out that in American English a jumper is most commonly a sleeveless dress that’s made to be worn over a blouse or other top. That would make it both different to the ‘woolly pully’ I had been wearing and totally out of place on the rugby field.

So I turned to a friend who has worked as a lexicographer since the 1990’s for some clarity. This comes with the caveat that it’s a British viewpoint and other linguistic branches may lead to different destinations.

windcheaterThat said, wind-cheater is perhaps the easiest to exclude in the UK. Here, a wind-cheater is a comparatively new phrase and is a wind proof jacket with a tight fitting neck, waistband and cuffs. The rubgy ‘top’ has a tight fitting neck, waistband and cuffs but isn’t a jacket (has no closable opening the full length of the front) so that’s one down off the list.

Similarly. pullover (although technically applicable can be excluded being a warm item of clothing usually woollen with long sleeves worn on the upper part of the body. It is pulled on over the head. However, it is typically social/leisure wear and not in a sporting context.

Then, according to the lexicographers, it becomes trickier and linguistics needs to be supported with history and a spattering of inherited misnomers.

wwe.jpg

Rev. William Webb Ellis

So, jumper, jersey, or shirt? Here the history of rugby itself becomes relevant. In 1823, during a game of football at Rugby School in England, legend has it that 16 year old student William Webb Ellis, caught the ball and ran with it rather than following the rules of the times of catching and kicking the ball only leading to the birth of the game.

However, it was too physical in an unregulated form for most being most popular with railway navvies who played it between working. It was 1871 before the first ‘kit’ was defined. You certainly wouldn’t recognise it today. The uniform was vest, normal white shirt with bow tie, trousers and stout walking boots.  Although very different the generic term ‘rugby shirt’ stems from the very birth of the game and persists today.

As sport developed in the early 2oth century the work shirt morphed into what we would now recognise as a cross between a grandad shirt and a vest. This rapidly became too light and cold for the newly formed game.

Whilst the precise origin is unknown, these then changed to knitted long sleeved rugby tops thought to have come from the Channel Islands who spotted a potential market for their declining woollen industry. These became known as rugby ‘jerseys’ named after the style of the knit. – Interestingly, those remaining look more like guernsey’s but putting your guernsey on doesn’t sound quite right does it?  However, all retained the formal collar style in a nod to the original formal shirts – something I’d never quite understood until researching the subject.

snobs

The last piece of the jigsaw to consider when deciding on your preferred choice is snobbery and the class system.

Whilst a jumper certainly fits the definition (a warm often woollen long sleeved item of clothing), the very type of  schools that saw the birth of rugby were some of the places that took a strong dislike to the word. Why? Well there are two schools of thought.

It could be that jumpers first became popular as a term in the 1850’s. Then they were derived from the french word joup which can best be described as an artist or workman’s smock. Alternatively, when these ‘jumpers’ became popular, they did so in the very working class northern mill towns, usually with a close association to the wool trade. Either way, certainly not what 19th century public schoolboys should aspire to be wearing.

So in my most Dr Sheldon Cooper stylee, I have to discount wind-cheater and pull-over on the grounds of definitions. Jersey goes because it’s not a jersey, I might as well call it an Aran and down that road leads madness.Jumper would have been ok if it were woollen so I’ll go with the generic and historically consistent ‘shirt’.

Others are of course welcome to make their own choices. However, dipping my toe into this entomology shows me just how much we remain bound by nationality, class prejudice, regionality and history. So my thanks to Cynthia, Vaughan and Caroline for sparking my interest and to James for help with the lexicography. Isn’t language just fascinating?

Syria: Substantive issue or sideshow?

This week in the UK has seen an understandable focus on the Parliamentary debate concerning the bombing of ISIS/Islamic State/Daesh positions in Syria. The decision to commit UK air power as part of the international coalition followed a ten hour debate in the House of Commons and a free vote.

MPs voted by 397 to 223 in favour of sending Tornado and Typhoon jets to seek out Isis targets in Syria. Less than an hour later, jets were scrambled from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus bombing the Omar oilfield. Additional jets and support aircraft have been arriving during the course of the last 12 hours.

Whatever your view on the outcome of the vote, the process must surely be an improvement on the run up to previous ‘wars’. In those cases (most notably Iraq), forces were committed by the Prime minister using prerogative powers. Having watched large portions of the debate, I was at least encouraged by the quality of some of the debate of both sides of the argument. At least decisions of this magnitude are being taken by the elected commons.

That said, much has been made about the bombing of positions in Syria. I certainly don’t seek to reduce the significance of committing UK air power to another conflict. However, I am increasingly worried that this is just another step in a range of events which has remarkable similarities to the run up to global conflicts.

As significant a step as the bombing of Syria by UK forces is, it may be worth putting the current coalition activities against ISIS in context against other conflicts. It doesn’t diminish the importance of the decision, but it does raise another question. In none of the other conflicts all of which had much heavier air force engagement were any won without significant ground forces being committed.

The decision to send RAF planes to Syria can be seen as an almost inexorable progression towards ground forces being the next logical step. In that sense, this week’s decision is important but merely a precursor to a far greater commitment and escalation.

Important as engaging in a new conflict is, I can’t help but see some wider similarities with a gradual reduction in civil liberties, labelling of minorities and increasingly blunt instruments being applied in the name of security.

Looking at the first world war, there was an increasing reluctance in the UK to be seen as being of German descent. Thousands of families Anglicised their names to be seen as more socially acceptable. Perhaps the most notable being King George V. His proclamation of 1917 changing the House of Hanover and Saxe-Coburg Gotha to the House of Windsor. Worryingly, the first signs of Muslim families Anglicising their names was seen as early as 2002 following the attack on the twin towers.

More recently the same phenomenon has been observed in Europe and Canada. In his recent book Muslims in Australia, author Nahid Kabir notes the same process happening in Australia.

Of course, many other actions were taken against minorities in the run up to World War II. At least we don’t have those extreme measures being carried out – or do we?

At the outbreak of World War II there were around 80,000 potential enemy aliens in Britain who, it was feared, could be spies, or willing to assist Britain’s enemies in the event of an invasion. All Germans and Austrians over the age of 16 were called before special tribunals and were divided into one of three groups:

‘A’ – high security risks, numbering just under 600, who were immediately interned;
‘B’ – ‘doubtful cases’, numbering around 6,500, who were supervised and subject to restrictions;
‘C’ – ‘no security risk’, numbering around 64,000, who were left at liberty. More than 55,000 of category ‘C’ were recognised as refugees from Nazi oppression. The vast majority of these were Jewish.

Donald TrumpAlthough no such steps have been taken in the UK or elsewhere, there is a worrying trend emerging in some quarters. U.S. Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump recently called for a register of all  Muslims resident in the United States to be created.

The next step was the simplistic thinking from some in the first and second world wars that all Germans were a national security threat and should be excluded from Allied countries.

How far away from that thinking is the Twitter comment issued by Donald Trump on 19th November in which he said “Eight Syrians were just caught on the southern border trying to get into the U.S. ISIS maybe? I told you so. WE NEED A BIG & BEAUTIFUL WALL!”

Of course the views of one radical politician don’t indicate a groundswell of opinion. However, the fact that he feels confident enough to voice such thoughts is in itself telling.

Religious FreedomSome of the legislation being considered and passed in the UK and elsewhere has some worrying similarities with legislation of the late 1930’s.

In the run up to World War II the Dutch Government required citizens to register their religion. Similarly, pre war Germany required leading non Christian leaders to register with the State. These laws and requirements were some of the first ‘impositions on personal liberties’ to be swept away in post war reconstruction and during the founding of the embryonic European project.

Given this it is perhaps troubling that the UK Government is consulting on legislative changes requiring religious leaders of all nominations to register with the State. I certainly don’t seek to encourage or defend religious extremists of any creed, but I would be one of the first to defend anyone’s right to the freedom of religious belief (or lack thereof).

East End ShopFinally, a picture of a rally in Madrid reminded me of the actions taken by Russian and Polish immigrants in both World War I and II.

Those families with Germanic sounding names often found their shops and premises subject to attacks and isolation. This became so problematic that many of the families wrote their nationality on their premises to avoid attack and victimisation.

Whilst it appears these tactics were often successful it shows a deeply ingrained air of mistrust and suspicion which can have done nothing to build social cohesion and inclusion.

terrorA recent rally in Madrid showing support for the victims of attacks in Paris showed some worrying parallels. A young Muslim woman held a card in an act she described as silent reassurance. It read ‘Keep calm. I’m Muslim not a terrorist.”

None of these incidents in isolation mark an indication of immediate conflict. However, it does worry me that a number of these together show striking similarities with the descent to major conflicts of the past.

I fear that steps taken this week will ultimately lead to ground forces being committed in the medium term. I have no idea whether it will make the people of the UK or elsewhere any safer. However, I fear this is merely the start of something far more complex.

My hope is that we have learned some of the lessons of past global conflicts and we can recognise that ISIS doesn’t equate to Muslim and not all liberties are worth sacrificing in the name of security.

 

 

Strictly in defence of Jeremy Vine

come dancingAbout ten years ago, the BBC made what could now be described as a brave and inspired move introducing Strictly Come Dancing to the UK.

Replicated across the world, most famously as Dancing with the stars in the US, all were based on Come Dancing which ran on and off in the UK from 1949 to the late 1990’s.

The original was noted for its amateur dancers and their tendency to sew on sequins to any possible item of clothing. The participants were highly skilled and experienced dancers albeit rather plastique at times. By the 1980’s it had a rather stayed, conservative and unexciting reputation which consigned it to a dwindling specialist audience until it was finally scrapped by the BBC in 1998.

After a brief absence from our screens, a re-vamped version Strictly Come Dancing was introduced in 2004 becoming the must-see programme of that and subsequent autumn season viewing.

I should state my position at a fairly early stage; I was a fan of the early series but that interest has gradually waned over

Strictly Come Dancing

      A BBC hit – Strictly Come Dancing

the past few years to such a point that I had not followed or watched the 2015 series. The reasons for this are varied. It feels as though just about every ‘celebrity’ has been put thought the strictly ‘journey’. The inevitable churn of professional dancers means some favoured cast members have left and the focus of the show seems  to have shifted in my view – in a way that made it less attractive.

So what was it that made me catch up with the series (or at least its highlights) this year?  The answer is simple, a twitter message sent to one of the participants, BBC journalist Jeremy Vine,

One of the reasons I became jaded with the series in recent years was the sense that some of the participants were using the series as a means of self-promotion. Clearly as ‘celebrities’ this will always be a consideration, but it appeared to have become the driving factor in some cases. Given that, it was perhaps no surprise to read the message on Mr Vine’s website.

messageOne contributor called Martin posted a message stating ” Def time for Bovine to leave the show. Great for a laugh but not a natural dancer. Sorry m8 but time for you to MOVE ON”

Firstly, I have no issue with Martin or his right to make such a comment – I just strongly disagree with it. In fact, I felt so strongly about it that I reviewed highlights of the series so far to see what could have led to these comments. After all, he isn’t the first contestant to be less naturally talented than his fellow competitors.

What I saw (and I appreciate others may see something different) was a rather normal man enjoying to learn to dance and doing his best to progress in sort of dance competition. It may be true to say that Jeremy Vine isn’t as natural a dancer  as some others in the series this year. However, I have to ask the question – so what ?

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a journalist the response to this call for him to leave the show also came via social media. Then again to quote Phineas T. Barnum “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”

In his response, Mr Vine explains how he doesn’t want to set a bad example to his daughters and reinforces the fact that he’s trying to do his best and improve as the weeks pass. For me setting a good example is certainly valid but ultimately a very personal matter.

Julian Clary in 2013

Julian Clary in 2013

How sad it would be if we could only participate in things where we had natural talent. For me Jeremy Vine is giving of his best – whether that’s as good as others isn’t the point. He certainly isn’t the first to suffer from this phenomena, Julian Clary seemed to me to suffer some of the same in 2013.

In fact, the rise of personality and ‘entertainment value’ over good old fashioned hard work and effort is one of the reasons I stopped following the series in mid 2014.

I may mark both Julian Clary and Jeremy Vine lower than others in terms of technical capability, but very few put in more work rate than either and I thought (perhaps mistakenly) the show was also about learning a new skill. What a great role model both men have been to men of a certain age to take on new challenges and conquer them. More power to your elbow Jeremy.

Without singling out any previous competitors it is clear that Vine is taking things seriously – or more accurately not playing the routine for mere impact or comedic value.  When competitors start to be airlifted in to the start of their routines or using stunts and gimmicks they lose so much in my eyes. Whilst it’s true there must be an entertainment value, for me it shouldn’t overwhelm the dance element. It would have been easy to venture into this space but to his credit Jeremy Vine and his coach have consistently resisted this.

MostPopularUltimately, one of my strongest reservations about the most recent series is the tendency for all things to come down to a popularity contest  among the competitors.

Any one of these perceived negatives might be a reason to stop participating (or not start in the first place) in the series. However, just because you’re not seen as the world’s best at anything doesn’t seem to me to be a good reason to stop.

I doubt I will be restarting the series for the reasons already  stated, but I really hope those taking part don’t believe the hype – after all the audience is just that. Enjoy the skills you’re learning and don’t worry too much about the views of the armchair waltzers.

Are we all going the way of the knocker-uppers?

As someone who has spent some time researching my family history, I remember the surprise when I found a distant relative of mine had been a dog-whipper in the mid 1700’s.

The Dog Whipper

The Dog Whipper

As an avid dog lover this was something of a horrific finding. In fact, after a little research although not wonderful, I found that this late in century there was no longer any whipping involved. In fact, this job was a type of church-warden who’s role was to chase off (or in extremis remove) dogs during church services.

Historically, it had not been uncommon for dogs to accompany their owners to church, often with interesting consequences. The preferred tools of the trade were actually a large pair of wooden tongs often padded with leather pads  or netting with which to remove the errant hounds. The dog whippers had disappeared shortly afterwards as it became socially unacceptable to take dogs into churches.

Searching through census returns of the last hundred years it started to become something of a side interest when I found a particularly interesting occupation.

lamplighter

                Lamplighter

The most likely reason for the disappearance of occupations before the industrial revolution was a change in social convention. However, after the industrial revolution the introduction of technology takes over and makes roles which were once considered indispensable redundant.

One of the more common roles was the lamplighter who wandered the streets of 19th century towns lighting and extinguishing the gas lamps of the time. It was seen as one of the more secure semi-skilled jobs of the time – after all what could replace gas lights. When automated town gas and early electric lighting emerged, this didn’t stop the occupation from disappearing in little over 10 years.

A Victorian Knocker-Upper

A Victorian Knocker-Upper

This then brings us to the deliciously named knocker-uppers who were key to the maintenance of an effective workforce until well into the Victorian era.

Shared houses held several families, clocks and watches cost the equivalent of several weeks wages and those late for work were simply replaced by willing replacements queuing for work at factory offices. Given that, for our Victorian forebears, having a reliable timepiece could provide one of the most lucrative if antisocial jobs of the time.

Charging each household a weekly fee of between a farthing and sixpence, the household could ensure that they would be woken (or knocked) up in time for them to start work. Some contemporary authors indicate that the knocker-upper was often paid second only to the landlord. Without turning up on time the likelihood of the workhouse or penury increased beyond measure. This role continued to be vital until the introduction of factory clocks and systems such as steam whistles indicating the start of the working day. However, the demise of this job is perhaps the most sudden with the role disappearing entirely within a period of three to five years.

Fleet Street Typesetters

Fleet Street Typesetters

Of course, those with skilled occupations have managed to fight off the rise of technology for longer. The dexterity, attention to detail speed and ability to work in reversed text had made the typesetter a skilled occupation from Tudor times until well into the 1980’s.

However, this has changed with the growth of computerised technology, mobile working and the introduction of laser and thermal printing.  These developments have seen the typesetter consigned to the list of historic occupations. It was perhaps the earliest example of technology moving into and replacing skilled workers.

Despite these advances, the rise of technology was typically limited to replacement technologies or the introduction of computer processing making many administrative roles redundant. Until recent years, it was more uncommon to see more complex functions replaced. That may soon change with a new range of robotics making new inroads into areas previously very much the domain of a human workforce.

In this Sept. 2, 2015, photo, a cow voluntarily gets milked by a robot at Lambert Farm in Graniteville, Vt. With trouble finding reliable labor and technology more readable available, some family dairy farms from the Northeast to the Midwest are turning to robots to milk cows to stay competitive. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

Now, robots are making significant inroads into the workplace, again following the same pattern with less skilled work. Farmhands, milkers, stockmen and cattle herders are being replaced across the United States and Europe.

Cattle no longer graze in fields with scheduled milking times but instead attend a robotic milking parlour when they want food. On arrival a robotic milking arm identifies the specific cow, scans the udder to ensure the optimum milking technique for the particular animal. It then applies a milking cup and orders food for the cow to be dispensed.

Meanwhile a second robot monitors the feed ensuring waste is reduced by sweeping feed back towards the cattle and dispensing food only to the bays where cattle are waiting. Whilst farmers report up to 30% increase in yield these advances have been far from universally popular. Concerns over the welfare of grazing animals being permanently ‘housed’ and significant reductions in workforce make this an innovation feared by many. The parlour can replace a team of 5-6 herdsmen with a single ipod or tablet control.

amazonWith increasing amounts of retail transactions completed online we have already seen retail jobs reducing as large warehouses servicing internet orders increasingly take their place.

Even here, human interaction is becoming entirely optional. The new Amazon warehousing systems have replaced significant numbers of fork lift drivers, warehouse workers, packers and dispatchers. Automated pallet, storage and picking robots ensure that goods are picked within seconds of an order having been placed. It even has hidden impacts such as the fact that fewer safety/health and safety officers are required as the warehouse spaces have effectively become human free zones reducing the opportunity for injury significantly.

robot2Now, using similar technology, the robots are starting to breach the semi-skilled and skilled environments. Hospitals are now reducing the number of pharmacists as medicine storage, replenishment, distribution and delivery are run via a fully robotic pharmacy.

Two new build  hospitals in the United Kingdom also have an underground level with robotic porters. Guided beds are integrated with the door and lift controls and the underground level allows access across the entire hospital site.

The question for most of us remains, how liable is my job or occupation to be overtaken by automation. Of course in the past this would have been something a consultant or business analyst may have helped you assess. Now, the groundwork has been done and published on the web. (Another role bites the dust).

In recent years the questions being asked were around what we would do with all the spare time automation would give us. Now, it seems to me that we are more likely to be asking what on earth will people still be employed to do? Other than those selling or servicing robotic workforces, there is also the question of how we will earn money to buy whatever is being mechanically produced, sold and distributed. It’s a shame robots don’t need knocker-uppers !