Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Scotch Mist - Occasional reflections on a referendum. No 4 - The futility of the "cash benefit" debate

The Scottish referendum on independence is now just four months away.  Somewhat overshadowed by the European and local council elections last week, the debate has hotted up with some conflicting claims about the monetary benefits of going it alone, or not.  Some say the Scots will all be worse by off some ludicrous figure - say £2,000 a head; others argue that independence will put an equivalent amount into each sporran.

To reduce the question of independence to a supposed monetary value is stupid. It is an insult to the intelligence of Scots voters, regardless of which way they intend to vote. If a nation truly believes that it is being suppressed or victimised by another and that independence will bring about redemption then the cost (or benefit) is irrelevant. The early settlers of Israel in the 1920s and 30s did not ask how much money they might get if they gave up their relatively settled lives in Europe to live on a kibbutz. I doubt if the Slovakians gave a second thought to breaking up the confederation with the Czechs, nor did the Bosnians and Croats and Slovenes pause to count their potential bank balances when fighting against a perceived dominance by Serbia. They may all be worse off than they would have been had things been difference; they may be doing much better. Who can tell? Who, looking back, could care less?

In any case all such calculations are futile. Economics is a "science" riddled by the need to make untested, and often untestable, assumptions about human behaviour. I should know - I have a degree in the blasted subject from one of the premier universities of this country. Economists may produce wonderfully elegant theories but they rarely produce useful predictions.

There are legitimate subjects for argument - Scotland's place in the European Union, the viability of a sterling currency union, the impact on future investment - but it is pointless to pretend that they can be given monetary values. Far more important is whether the UK can generate a safer and sounder environment for all of its citizens if Scotland remains in than if Scotland leaves. I believe it can, and that to lose the Scottish voice from the UK's privileged seat at the UN and other key institutions such as NATO and the G8 would weaken both parties to the Union. I think British ideas of justice, tolerance and fair play have been of enormous significance in the development of global culture and the Scots have made a massive contribution. And equally that contribution might have counted for little had it not been delivered as a part of the UK.

In the end if the Scots want independence because, well, they just really really want it, then none of the arguments will count for anything. It would just be a shame and a diminution of both parties.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Why UKIP is wrong

UKIP won the highest share of the votes in the European elections this week. Anti-Europe parties did well in other countries.

I am not interested in the interminable debates about how much we pay to "Europe" and how much we get back and how "they" interfere in our laws and so on. I have one overriding concern - I do not wish to die in, nor see my country become embroiled in,  another major European war.

The entire political history of our continent since the fall of the Roman Empire has been about the feuds, the power-struggles and the vicious combats between nation states. British history for the past 500 years has been driven by confrontation with European superpowers - the Hapsburg empire, Spain, France, Russia and Germany. The principal dynamic of European history in the past 250 years has been the fight between France and Germany, expressed in the Seven Years War, the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars, the Franco-Prussian War and of course in the First and Second World Wars. It is possible to trace the origins of this fatal division in the European family to the defeat of the Roman legions in the Teutoberg Forest 2000 years ago, when the border of the empire became fixed on the Rhine.

Since 1945 the creation of institutions binding France and Germany, built on the foundations of a rejection of extreme nationalism and a hatred of war, have changed this immense sweep of historical deadweight.  No observer in, say 1913, could have dreamt that these countries would work together with open frontiers and a degree of federalism. Britain, enemy of France for over 700 years, is entirely free of the fear of invasion from the countries that we used to watch, fearfully.

How ironic that the leader of UKIP is married to a German.  One hundred years ago that would have been enough to see him denounced as a traitor. Today it is a splendid example of how far we have come.

The EU needs a good kicking to cut its bureacracy and fraud, its ponderous decision-making processes and its remoteness from the people. But the ideas behind it and the achievement in reversing centuries of hostility and violence in favour of debate and voting are far too precious to be jeopardised by a knee-jerk dislike of anything non-British. If UKIP ran on a platform of reforming the EU I might be tempted to support it. Its clumsy attempt to bring us back to the era of competing nation-states is appalling, suggesting an ignorance of history and a lack of courage. The attempt to build a peaceful, all-inclusive version of the Roman Empire is a project that must be encouraged. In this anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War, which despite its name was simply another in the long line of intra-European squabbles about borders, influence and status, the memory of how it came about should be all the reminder we need to support European union and reject petty nationalism.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Lines on the passing of J.S.Magruder

So farewell then Jeb Magruder
In your time there was scarce a cruder
Plot to thwart the Democrats, objects of your hate.
With Mitchell, Liddy, Dean you chewed a
Cunning plan not out of place in Buda-
Pest or similar spy-ridden town of late

Your men broke in; in secret glued a
Phone bug but there was a rude a-
Wakening from the defenders of the State.
The coverup failed and you were sued; a
Searchlight shone o’er all your brood.
Your Waterloo was at the Watergate.


[Jeb Stuart Magruder, implicated in the Watergate affair in his role as Deputy Director of the Campaign to Re-elect the President, died 11 May 2014 aged 79: Ed]

Sunday, May 18, 2014

How not to write a short story

A year ago I amused myself [though nobody else: Ed] by writing a piece based on trying to link together a set of small ads published on a single page in the Guardian weekend colour magazine. It’s a beautiful hot day, the roses are out in our garden and our neighbours appear to be gearing up for a noisy outdoor party; none of which has any bearing at all on my rash decision to repeat the exercise. This time you can see the source material for yourself.  Unlike last time, I have not followed the order of the ads but I have referred to each one. All names are fictional and any resemblance to anything is purely intended.
All for Passion
A Ruislip Commuter

Caroline, Lady Renault, had a sheltered upbringing in the country. She was at her happiest mucking out her horse, Hashtag and it was in the stables that her eyes fell on the lean, sensitive features of Arnold Qashqai whilst he was searching for the person who had stolen his ‘u’s. Unlike the tall, cultured young woman Qashqai was from a poor background and was forced to work in the stables instead of pursuing his great love of art. Despite the differences it was love at first sight.
“Oh but Caroline, I can never keep you in the manner, or indeed manor, to which you are accustomed” stuttered young Arnold “For I have no money and no home.”
“Fear not” she replied stoutly “We can manage somehow”.
“I can just about afford a tent” he said. She took his hand in hers “We will have the best tent that money can buy, my love”.
And so they bought the finest bell tent in the land. There was nowhere suitable to pitch it until with the aid of job lot of plastic lawn edging they could proudly place it on a perfect plastic lawn. And as soon as they could afford it they added some oak-framed garden structures. Now Caroline could feel at home. She retrieved all her CDs from home and copied them all to a collection player yet something seemed to be lacking when she listened to them. A hearing test confirmed that all was not right. Meanwhile Arnold, dismissed from the stables for wasting his time trying write books that nobody wanted to read, and having failed to use Facebook correctly to market them, was spending the last of her inheritance on a private investment, the nature of which he did not disclose. Bolstered by his confidence building course he no longer stuttered and soon was ready to attend a business events conference.
With their love of horses it was obvious that they should set up selling racing gifts and as their business grew they applied for ISO9001 certification. Everything seemed to be going their way but Caroline began to mistrust Arnold. Was he seeing another woman? Or another horse? She tried a lie detection test. He told her the truth – he was doing art classes with a view to selling portraits. “Paint me but make it affordable” she cried.
The pictures were a great success. As the money rolled in, they talked about a holiday home in the Balearics. Blessed with two adorable children they wasted no time in packing them off to boarding school, but assuaged their consciences by teaching them dance, whilst they regaled each other with gifts of gold.
After this happy period, sadly Caroline fell off her horse and was reduced to getting around on a mobility scooter. The bottom fell out of the art market. Arnold sold up and gloomily prepared to end it all, having carefully drawn up a will which ensured that the horse got hay for life, Caroline could keep the bell tent and the kids got the unreadable books.
[Film rights are available: Ed]

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Booting it in Denham

No, not another moan about the F.A.'s wretched idea for a new league, nor a technical discussion on what happens when you start up a computer [Great, always find that rather hard going: Ed], but a report occasioned by a visit to the car boot sale in Denham, normally a tranquil village on the Colne Valley just off where the A40 becomes the M40. With the flimsy excuse of needing to get some props for a bit of dramatic art I shall be involved in later this year, Mrs. C and I joined the throng in search of bargains. And what a throng it was, enough to bring the roundabouts and slips roads at Junction 1 on the M40 to a standstill and create a tailback to the next exit. I avoided some of the crush by cunningly diverting through Uxbridge and approaching from the other direction.

The car boot is our equivalent of the street market.  This one is enormous - we walked steadily down each line of stalls looking just to our left then at the end about-faced and went back up the line. We were there nearly three hours and it was only because by then most of the stall-holders were packing up that we managed, just about, to finish it. Amongst the piles of discarded clothing, toys, assorted crockery, cutlery and glassware and the specialist stalls with things like tools, fishing gear or phone accessories were the oddities that make these affairs fascinating.  A wooden truckle bed (far too big for anyone to carry off in a car). Ancient bakelite devices for testing electric current. A stall proudly displaying a metal Rinstead pastilles tin. (A collector's item, apparently, and how many of those have I unthinkingly thrown away when all I wanted was relief from a mouth ulcer?) A van with the sign "Quantity of nails - ask here" (I was keen to ask if he could do, say, sixty thou two and half inchers but though better of it). Just after Mrs. C noted a pogo stick (an implement that never fails to amuse and the only one in the sale) an enthusiastic youngster bought and used it. A stallholder demonstrating that his petrol lawnmower actually worked trimmed a few square feet of meadow around his pitch. And top marks for salesmanship to the man who, seeing us looking at a large box full of bits and pieces of the cheapest jewellery and obviously mistaking us for fellow dealers, asked for 50p a piece or £20 for the lot (offer declined).

The boot sale leads you effortlessly back into your childhood. Racks of gramophone records, including LPs and singles (plus a few 78s on one stall). Books that I read 50 or more years ago. A half-size snooker table, clearly in poor condition and useless but I had one too once (used to put it on the dining room table, to my mother's irritation).

And then the detritus of our ever-evolving consumer society. A computer monitor, not the slim smart screen we all use today but the heavy old CRT with its glass tube. An electric typewriter. Laptop computers as well, loads of them. I wouldn't take one if it was free, knowing as I do how likely it is to be either faulty or virus-ridden (or both), but presumably some people must buy them at boot sales. There were not as many videotape recordings as on our last visit a year ago but there were huge numbers of commercial DVDs, usually at £1 each. It is not easy to make and distribute a DVD for less than that so some organisations must be dumping loads of old stock.

It is amazing just how much tat people can accumulate and how cheerfully they display it to the disdain of the shoppers. But this is not a market in the third world where families may be utterly dependent on the sale of a few oddments. Most sellers lounged by the cars, soaked up the sun, exchanged the odd pleasantry and gave off a generally nonchalant attitude, before packing up with care their plates (set of 6 with 2 missing), cameras (new lens needed), watches (don't work but could be used for spares) and baby clothes (wash with bleach before re-use) which they can then lovingly spread out again, same time, same place, next week.

As for me, well, I did manage to find the pocket watch (full Hunter) and (separately) a chain on which I can twirl it when I take to the stage in the role of an Edwardian gentlemen later this year, so definitely a result.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Wembley Revisited...

...and I don't mean the shiny new stadium. Wembley, the town, was the main shopping centre when I grew up (although as we lived about a mile to the north, in Preston, Harrow was also an option). Wembley was where I had my first job, working in a carpet shop during the summer of 1966 (and though I saw nothing of 'that' match, I did see the Queen sweeping through the near-empty streets in her shiny black car on her way there). It was to Wembley that my mother would go to redeem her books of Green Shield Stamps (stuck in by me). It was at the Trustee Savings Bank in Wembley High Road that I worked for nearly a year after I left school and before going to University; it was at the Abbey National in Wembley High Road that I opened my first savings account; it was at the Midland Bank in the centre of town where I did a further summer job in 1970. The main M & S branch opposite clothed us. My mother worked for years in a jewellers in the Wembley Central square, a sort of piazza where the tube station was situated.And, most fascinating of all for my car-obsessed brother, the romantically-named Midnight Motors occupied premises in the grimy streets at the back of the stadium, open till very late, if not necessarily up to midnight, and what better night out than to buy spanners, stiff metal brushes or spare light bulbs selected from the many open racks under the strip lighting whilst mixing with other blokes in oil-stained clothes clutching their Haynes manuals of do-it-yourself car repairs.

And then we cut the connections. Harrow became the shopping centre of choice. My mother lost her job and found another in Debenhams, also in Harrow. After graduating I worked in the City. Wembley, an easy bus ride away, ceased to be so important once we all had cars.

All a long time ago. Yesterday I took the train down to Wembley Park and walked the length of the High Road to see how it had changed. I knew that the white, middle-class population of what was once a prosperous suburb had been largely replaced by black and Asian immigrants (to be more precise by their children and grandchildren) but had not walked the streets for about 40 years. It was a case of stopping every couple of minutes to think "That used to be..." or "Where has that gone?". The first impression was the huge number of takeaways and cafes, offering a vast range of international cuisines. In my day it was a burger bar or a sandwich from British Home Stores. None of them looked like the sort of place you might wish to book up for a special night out. The next real surprise was not the large branch of Poundland but two similar establishments within fifty yards of it, each claiming to be "99p" stores. The old post office, in a grand building at the junction of the High Street and Park Lane, is now a "Liquor Station". The huge office block on the other side, once used by the council and the Inland Revenue seems to be empty. And the bus stop where I used to wait for the 79 to take me home has vanished and the buses sweep up the road without stopping. Marks, BHS, pretty well all the chains have gone, though most of the banks remain. But what has happened to Wembley Central Square? A huge block of flats is going up the middle of it. The station is under scaffolding and barely visible, not even a London Underground logo to mark it out.

At the western end of the High Road, where I worked at the TSB, the bank and all the shops around it have vanished, replaced by a succession of Indian "Cash and Carry" shops, mainly selling fruit,veg and groceries.  This quaint description was used by some of the first supermarkets back in the 1950s, to distinguish themselves from the traditional shop that would allow customers to have a credit account and would deliver to their homes, and it is odd that it still used at all these days when only pizza joints deliver. Here the Ealing Road runs south to Alperton and the character of the street changes. Along both sides are nothing but Indian jewellers, each displaying identical traditional women's necklaces in gold (and nothing else, no silver, no rings, no brooches or watches, no diamonds, just the rather dull gold) together with a few sari shops and a lot of cafes with Indian cuisine. I saw no customers in any of the jewellers, although there were plenty of people about on the streets. Finally, before I turned round to retrace my steps, there was the Central mosque side by side on the same plot as the Shiva temple.

If Wembley High Road has changed in one direction, the area around the stadium has gone another way. At least the architecture of Wembley Central, despite the new flats slotted in to every available space, is largely unchanged. But I thought I knew the stadium area and I found I knew nothing. Hotels that I don't recall at all occupy much of the frontage. I remember when much of the site held the crumbling, and fenced off, remains of the Empire Exhibition. Those ruins have all gone. An enormous blue-grey office block, the new centre for Brent Council, blocks off the stadium from one direction. The Arena, once an imposing building in its own right, now seems to be tucked away as if they are ashamed of it. The old Wembley Stadium station, not on the Underground but on the Chiltern Line out of Marylebone, has been replaced by a sparkling white modern edifice with a huge bridge and walkway.  And all round by the station there is the College of North-West London and its many halls of residence.  Yes, the stadium is there as well, somewhere, behind all the steel and glass but you only get odd glimpses of it as you walk up the main road around it.

I didn't bother to wander round the streets behind the stadium, which are still used for light industrial and warehouse purposes, to see if Midnight Motors was there. I think I'll save this up for another day. Perhaps.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Giving the FA a kicking

Followers of football know that, in England, the sport is governed by the Football Association but pro and semi-pro clubs play in a variety of leagues. For many years the top clubs, in the Football League, held aloof from the rest. In the 1980s it became possible for clubs from lower down to be promoted into the League (and for the clubs at the bottom of the League to fall into the void of "Non-League Football").  Since then a number of reorganisations have produced a fairly coherent structure going down some 10 levels from the Premier League to local county associations and any club in what is known as the "Pyramid" can aspire to the very top.

The outfit I follow have this season won their league and will play next year in the Conference South (or level 6).  But if new plans unveiled this week by the FA go ahead, then a new league will be created, below the Football League 2 and above the existing 5th tier league, the Conference, thus pushing all the rest down a rung. Most of the teams in this league will be the reserve teams of Premier clubs.  This plan is supposed to be good for English football and to generate more home-grown players. It has met with a storm of protest from the lower levels (who were not, of course, consulted because the FA is overawed by, and in the pocket of, the Premier League  - or to be more precise, by the obscenely rich owners of the top clubs). For clubs such as mine (Wealdstone, if you don't already know), it would simply mean being made less relevant, would reduce crowds and income and, crucially, make it harder to attract decent players. We, like other non-league clubs, have an honourable history of being the jumping-off point for players who have gone on to play at the top of their profession (Stuart Pearce and Vinny Jones being the most famous examples, both of whom I remember watching some 30 years ago).

A campaign to overturn the plans has materialised almost overnight and a petition has been signed by more than 20,000 people within 2 days. The organisers, two non-league fans, are on Twitter as AgainstLeague3 and have a website for gathering more opinions  and I wish them well.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Clouds and Races

Is it really four whole years since I last had a go at Microsoft? [Yes: Ed]. Now that I commute less than before, there is more time to study the morning paper and I spent some time today trying to understand (or perhaps debug is the more appropriate word) a two page colour splash that mostly features a huge photo of a Formula 1 racing team doing wheel changes and other maintenance during a pit stop.

The copy is all about how using Microsoft's cloud storage can be of benefit. This is not in doubt - computer systems have been assisting decision making since the 1940s, all computer systems require data storage and the cloud is just a silly name for storage accessed over the internet instead of being based on equipment in your own premises. As usual, it is the language that provokes thought, not to say a certain derision anchored firmly in a loathing of admen and their ways.

The strapline "The cloud that helps win the race" we can pass over, as having no determinable meaning at all, other than to reiterate my point above that humans use computers to help them do things.  But this is the first part of what follows: "The winning edge can boil down to nanoseconds, and data can be just as important as the driver. ... Lotus F1 Team analyse and share information from over two hundred sensors..."

I pondered just how an edge, winning or otherwise could boil down to anything. You can sharpen an edge and blacksmiths have for thousands of years known how to heat metal and hammer it so as to create one; I have not heard of the boiling technique before. And how does something boil down by a amount of time equal to a few billionths of a second? And what would that mean? Even at the fast speed of an FI car, if it was going at 200mph this amounts to 0.0035 inches in a millionth of a second, about the width of the paint on the bonnet. [Sorry, haven't had time to check this but it looks convincing: Ed]. So let us not worry too much about the nanoseconds.

Remember this ad is not aimed at the owners of other Formula 1 teams (at least, I assume not, since it would seem to be a ludicrously ineffective way of targeting them). It is surely aimed at business users of Microsoft products, for whom the odd nanosecond when opening an email or typing a word into a report does not really matter a great deal. I myself frequently spend several nanoseconds in honing my finely-chosen prose prior to boiling it down a bit just to improve the edge and, believe me, a couple of extra ones makes very little difference to the finished product.

I suppose what they meant to say was that in a time-critical event like a race, the faster you can make decisions the better. But for those of you with a knowledge of IT, the second part of the sentence will make you blink. The driver?  Nothing in the copy so far has referred to a racing team and the text appears above the picture so it is natural to look at it first. This is a Microsoft ad. So it is natural to assume, at first glance, that driver must mean software driver, the bit of code that tells your computer how to manage an attached device such as a printer or a smartphone when you plug it in. Every IT person knows how important it is to have the latest drivers when dealing with hardware problems. But what does that have to do with a racing team mentioned in the next sentence? Surely, when they do those rapid wheel changes, they don't have to watch an hourglass whirling around for a few seconds until the message "Device driver installed" appears? Actually "Device driver" is a pretty good description for the bloke seated behind the wheel, given the degree of computerisation involved these days.

There is a delicious irony in Microsoft promoting a team called Lotus, given the bitter rivalry between the Lotus Software Corporation and Microsoft in the 1980s and early 1990s. For many PC users the first software package they encountered was Lotus 1-2-3, essentially a spreadsheet with some other bits added on. Microsoft's Excel eventually replaced it as the spreadsheet of choice, although I believe 1-2-3 still survives (I much preferred its Apple-based predecessor, Visicalc, and then the genuinely integrated word-processor/spreadsheet/database package, Smart Software, but there will be other times to recall ancient history).

There is a final question as to whether "Lotus F1 Team" is a singular or plural construct, because I think the phrase "Lotus F1 Team analyses and shares" sounds better but let us leave this one aside as there are limits even to my desire for pedantry [Phew. Let's have some coffee: Ed]