What’s All this Fuss About Europe?

Friday 19th February

The Media love it of course; negotiations going down to the wire, the possibility of failure and even Brexit…but the reality is a bit different.  The changes which Cameron wants (ever so ‘umble, as they might be) have already been agreed, it is just the wording that they are arguing about, the fine details and especially whether these changes can be accommodated without a full treaty revision (which would cause problems).  Civil servants have been working on this for months and there would be no meeting this weekend without an outline agreement.  And Cameron will come out on Saturday or maybe Sunday morning waving a bit of paper and claiming “Victory”.

But that will mean nothing.  He will in all probability (but you never know) win the referendum, but that will not seal the matter.  As we learned from Scotland, if the result is close and I suspect it will be something like a 54 – 46 split, then the problem will not go away.  The Tory party, just as nearly two hundred years ago with the Corn Laws, is split down the middle.  As soon as the weekend is over Cabinet Ministers will be able to campaign for or against staying in Europe, and though the majority will decide ‘Yes’ and only a handful ‘No’, the majority of Tory M.P.s and members and I suspect most lifelong Tory voters will hate Cameron for this.  We may even see a resurgence of UKIP, as disgruntled Tories will feel betrayed and will have nowhere else to go.  Boris is sitting on the fence, but I suspect may come down as a hesitant ‘No’, positioning himself for a leadership challenge, which could be quite vicious.

Labour have to be very careful too not to be seen to be supporting Cameron in any way, no sharing of platforms with the Tories, and must come up with a plausible voice on why we should stay in a very imperfect Europe.  As for the LibDems, well they are still down and out and irrelevant in this debate.  But I suspect that even if we stay then our relationship with Europe will still be fractured.  There are already voices calling for referenda in several European countries and sooner or later one will succeed and the whole EU project will have to be re-thought.  Hopefully as a truly democratic organization instead of back-room deals cooked up by unelected officials.  And just as in the pantomime that this whole thing is, the real problem remains un-adressed despite cries from the audience of “It’s behind you”.  The Migration Crisis, the breakdown of Schengen and the disparity behind the Eurozone members economies – these are the real problems, not Britain’s referendum.

The Point of Education

Thursday 18th February

When I was a child the point of education was firstly to teach the three ‘R’s; readin’ ritin’ and ‘rithmetic.  And this was to equip us kids with the basics of managing our lives so that we could function in society.  Then it was the imparting of a bit more knowledge, so that we would know a few basic facts, and most of this was done by rote, by repetition, drumming the information into our little heads.  I can specifically remember doing times tables; the whole class would recite 1 times six is six, two times six is twelve etc:. And then teacher would point at one of us and say “Cattermole, what are seven sixes?”  And I would reply instantly without thinking “Forty-two, miss.”  And I still know it, just as I know the capital of Peru is Lima and that there are sixteen ounces in a pound and two hundred and forty pennies in a different pound.

But now most of this ‘knowledge’ is not needed; we have calculators to add up with and the internet to find out instantly the capital of Peru, and no-one cares about ounces anymore.  Later we were encouraged to find out as much as we could about the world, especially at the Grammar School, where knowledge for knowledge’s sake had a real value.  We did take exams, but it never seemed really important; we never thought that our whole future might depend on how many ‘O’ levels we got, and indeed it didn’t; the few times I had to present a CV I invented three ‘A’ levels and nobody either checked or even seemed interested.  “Could I do the job?  Had I done something similar before?  Oh, you worked for ……., that’s interesting, tell me about how you got on with him.”  And the job was mine.

Now, all that has changed; we have gone exam mad.  Children are tested at every opportunity, and the teachers are assessed too; it is all results, results, results.  And the result is that we have a generation of boring kids who have learnt to pass exams, who know how to access anything on the internet but are not interested in the world around them at all.  Politics passes them by, even X factor is a passing fad, they bury themselves in chat rooms and computer games and the music they listen to is instantly accessible and just as instantly disposable.  So, what now is the point of education?  I think the idea is so that it will be easier for employers to select employees, though with the internet this too has turned into a nightmare; at the click of a button you can send your CV off to a thousand potential jobs, hoping that at least one might result in a spark of interest.   Knowledge for knowledge’s sake has become redundant.  Who of us even bothers to remember phone numbers anymore, we are reminded of birthdays by Facebook and a speedy post of Happy Birthday will suffice.  You can Google everything and if you forget it you can easily Google it again.  Okay, there are a few brainy kids around still; you can still see them on University Challenge, but apart from quiz shows there isn’t much use for knowledge I am afraid.

M – is for George Martin

Wednesday 17th February

In all probability The Beatles would have made it anyway, but George Martin saw their potential, encouraged them to write their own songs and most importantly gave them the chance to develop.  He listened to their ideas and quietly guided them in new directions.  He was certainly an important part of their story.  He made them sound immediate and captured their live sound at the beginning and when they matured he showed them how different instruments could augment their sound.  He produced all but one of their albums (Let it Be was originally recorded by Glynn Johns and then made into something else entirely by Phil Spector) and Abbey Road was possibly his greatest achievement; to have got them to produce this Masterpiece when they were breaking up in front of his eyes is a testament to his genius.

He recorded lots of other artists too, and a few years ago he put out a record of Beatles Covers by other Artists, including Jeff beck, Celine Deon and Phil Collins; it is called In My Life and it is great.  My Favourite track is the final song, a spoken word rendition of In My Life by Sean Connery – just sublime.

Seven Billion Monkeys

Tuesday 16th February

We are all monkeys really, rather clever monkeys; or actually monkeys who think they are cleverer than all the other monkeys.  And we are all so wrapped up in our little concerns, our loves, our lives, our hopes and our dreams, the daily grind of finding food, and then finding a bit more than we really need.  And we fail to notice that it is our own greed (and everyone else’s) that is making our lives so hard.  Small tribes or troupes of monkeys tend to work collectively, making sure that every monkey has enough food, even if the patriarch (or sometimes matriarch) monkey has a few more privileges.  But as we have grown into City life the competitive element has come to the fore, and now it is dog eat dog and monkey eat monkey.  And if a few monkeys fall by the wayside, starve or are killed in selfish wars, well that is okay – because there are seven billion more monkeys to be made use of.

I am not saying that Capitalism in itself is wrong, but the scale it has achieved in this Twenty-First Century is colossal, a self-sustaining entity that has no moral values, no humanity left in it, it is simply a money-making machine driven by greed alone.  And it is killing us, or has the potential to.  The Oxford Research Centre, which looks at trends and extrapolates them into the future is predicting that in as little as 20 years time possibly 50% of the monkeys in the world will be unemployed.  Computer technology and Artificial Intelligence is galloping ahead and indeed cannot be stopped; they predict that machines will soon be able to do almost every task currently completed by monkeys faster and better than those monkeys can ever achieve.  And the wonderful future of leisure hours and intellectual pursuits filling our days while robots cater for our every needs is never going to happen while Capitalism reigns supreme.  All that will transpire is that the few rich monkeys at the top of the tree will replace stupid lesser monkeys with smart machines to make even more stuff for the few monkeys with any money to buy.

What will happen to the three and a half billion and possibly more monkeys who have no work is impossible to predict.  At the moment Capitalism sees no value in them unless they work and produce more money for the rich monkeys.  Welcome to the monkey house, welcome to the future…

L – is for Laura Marling

Monday 15th February

Laura Marling is a very recent artist, she emerged in this Century, but in some ways she sounds as if she should have been around in the Seventies.  Although she doesn’t sound at all like Joni Mitchell I think she is very similar.  A singer songwriter who writes intensely personal yet oblique lyrics and sings with an emotional intensity that really moves you.

And her guitar playing seems quite unique too, an often frenzied, sometimes sultry strumming.  It seems as if she has just walked up to the microphone and started playing and singing what ever came into her head, words and chords tumbling out in a stream of consciousness with very little structure or even real melodies to the songs.  But I love it, it has an emotional honesty to it that I find addictive.  And she is still very young and changing slightly with each records. Definitely one to watch.

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2066 – An interesting development

Sunday 14th February

-[Let me take you into a little secret.  No, actually a big secret.  You made several references to Hypercoms in your little journal.  And that was how we let them be referred to.  Hyper-computers – in that they were far faster and more reliable than humans, or than anything else which went before them.  Hypercoms is rather a silly name in some ways, but it served a purpose, and really, what’s in a name anyway.  Now, what you may not be aware of is that we have also created what was so imaginatively called in the last century, Artificial Intelligence.  Our new computers are actually cleverer than humans.  They do not make mistakes, or to be more precise, they actually learn from their mistakes.]-

That’s not really surprising.  I did study Computer Science at Uni, I do know a little more about these things than you might think.  Even back at the turn of the century they had computers that ‘learned’, but they don’t actually think.  Not in the way people do, anyway.

-[Let me continue my argument please.  Do you realise how many times a human baby puts one brick on top of another only to watch it fall down, before working out, eventually, that they must put at least half of it squarely on top of the base brick or it will fall down?  Far too many, I am afraid, is the answer.  Humans do get there.  Eventually.  Or some of the way, anyway.  Now our new breed of Hypercoms gets there straight away, without the trial and error.  You must be aware how much ‘cleverer’ the Hypercoms are than people, how they can solve the most complex of puzzles far faster than the human mind.  Even the Ambivalence – mankind was flailing woefully, the Hyper-coms are coming up with solutions for us.   By the time our scientists had worked it out, it would have truly been too late.]-

Tell me something I don’t know.  All of this is nonsense.  Computers do not think.  They analyse and work through every possibility, but they aren’t capable of really thinking, of coming up with something new.  And wow, big achievement; we have finally invented machines that work things out quicker than we do.  They are still machines, they can’t feel, they don’t care.  Anyway, what is this all leading to?

-[Let me extrapolate.  So, as you almost agree, but are hesitating to admit, we have computers now which are so clever one hesitates to even call them computers anymore.  And you have rightly lamented the state of affairs we are in, where all the interesting decisions are actually made by these very computers.  Most human activity is at the very least monitored by, and subtly amended by computers.  People no longer need to think about the big problems because we have machines to do that for us.  So where does this leave us?

In our splendid new world humankind was faced with a new and dangerous dilemma.  For the first time in our evolution we were faced with an intelligence greater than our own.  Before that it was obvious even to cavemen that he was cleverer than the animals, and despite all the science fiction we still have discovered no life of any sort at all anywhere in the Universe, though who knows, we are still looking.  So given that we now know that the Hypercoms are cleverer than us, what should we do?  Carry on creating, or actually letting our computers create, better and better computers, take a back-seat, let the computers decide everything, sip our non-alcoholic Martini’s and watch the sunset.  And not only on the horizon, but on mankind too, as an evolving species anyway.   Where was any role for mankind if computers could do it better, and were evolving far quicker than us?   These are the questions that were really facing the makers of this new world.]-

Well, I sort of saw that for myself.  I may not have articulated it in quite the same way, but a lot of my dissatisfaction was that I felt people didn’t matter anymore, except as consumers.  People as people didn’t seem to have a role anymore.  And being a consumer is not a career; you die safe in the knowledge that you spent well, even though your life could actually have been better spent.  Haha…I quite like that, should have put it on my journal somewhere.  No chance of an edit, I suppose.

-[Unfortunately no.  And can I please remind you of the seriousness of both your situation and this discussion.  Flippancy may well be your way of dealing with that seriousness, but it is not getting us anywhere.

So, to resume; we were now in a dilemma, machines were smarter than us, but you may have assumed stupidly that we were happy with this state of affairs.  You would have been wrong actually.  We knew that the faster computers evolved the more they threatened our own evolution.   In short, would mankind stop evolving if our machines had taken over that role from us?  Of course in some ways the problem was made simpler by the fact that we couldn’t undo the technology; there was no way we could go back to an earlier time before computers, we were far too reliant on them anyway.

So, what was to be done?  What could the future be for mankind, some sort of lotus-eaters with an army of computer servants answering our every whim; or would we sink into an animal state again, simply not thinking, if computers could do the thinking far better than we could.  Or something else?  Was there another choice, another evolutionary road we might travel?]-

Do you really think there is a solution?  People are lazy, or so I have discovered.  They always want to take the easy road.  Given the choice inaction seems to win over action every time.  Once the food problem is solved, people sink into some sort of stasis, some soporific state.  They cease to care, they stop striving to improve themselves.  You must know this.  As your wonderful world has shown, take away the need to strive and people sleep their lives away.  Once people have enough to eat, a home, and a few comforts they stop trying to make the world better.  And then you lot with your Hypercoms can do what you like; which, incidentally, may have been the idea in the first place.

-[It isn’t quite like that Janek, as you well know.  The system may seem uncaring, but caring for people is actually what it was created for.  Every person in Gov and every Hypercom has the well-being of the human race as its main objective.

But in fact some of us were aware of the long-term consequences of mankind’s continuing reliance on computers.   I am not sure if I should really tell you this, but wiser heads than mine have deemed it permissible to let you know.  Personally, I did suggest a much longer period of debriefing, and interrogation, but I was overruled.  I do have to ask you a question though Janek.]-

Go ahead, I’m all ears.

They Say Flying is Faster

Saturday 13th February

It is a truth universally accepted that the faster you travel the sooner you will reach your destination.  But not quite.  Despite my internal reservations I have become a very frequent flyer, almost commuting to and from Bergerac to London Stansted every four weeks.  Here is the timetable yesterday (Thursday) returning from London.  I left the house at 8 in the morning, 15 minute walk to DLR station and 45 minutes on tube.  10 minute wait for train, then 50 minutes on the train.  Arrived at Stansted at 10 – so that is two hours just to get to the airport (and the coach, though cheaper is far slower).  Then half an hour to get through security and the long wait until Flight time of 12.00.  And my experience is that you do need those two hours; trains can be delayed or even cancelled or it can take over an hour to get through Security, so actually allowing two hours may be a bit risky.  Eventually your gate is called and the long walk with bags in tow begins; at Stansted this is up and down escalators and long corridors and then you have to stand in line for ages.  Eventually you are on the plane and your luggage is stashed and you can relax for the hour and a half flight, or actually it is 15 minutes longer than that by the time everyone is on board and the hapless stewardesses go through the safety procedure while we all try to ignore them.

Arriving at Bergerac we slowly disembark, then about a half an hour to get through French customs – as they now (since Paris) record your name and passport number into a computer database, it is half past three (2.30 UK time) by the time you are through, then half an hour to home.  So home to home is 7 hours, for what is advertised as a 90 minute flight.  If I had the choice I think I would go by train, though as there is no direct train from Paris to either Bergerac or Eymet, this would be both expensive and much longer.  And though we all moan about Ryanair, thank goodness they are flying here – and quite cheaply too, even if takes almost all day.

The Next U.S. President – Oh Dear…

Friday 12th February

Every four years the Americans start a precedent…hahaha.  But this year it is no joke at all.  In fact the pack is full of jokers and it looks like one of them may actually win.  One of the best things about the American system is the statute of limitations, where a president can only rule for two terms, eight years.  If only we had had that over here as Thatcher and Blair both began to think they were invincible after a few years.  But, in the name of Democracy, in America they have each state holding Primaries or Caucuses where delegates are elected to vote for (roughly in proportion) candidates who received the biggest support.  And in this way the best candidate is supposed to emerge.  However, as to even be in the ‘race’ you either need to be a multi-millionaire or have very rich backers it is hardly Democratic.

And because of a growing dissatisfaction with the political stalemate in Washington and the belief that it is the Corporations that are really running everything there is a general mistrust of Washington ‘insiders’.  Obama was elected eight years ago on a wave of dissatisfaction and a promise of real change “Yes we can”.  Well, sadly he couldn’t.  And despite or possibly because of his failure there is an even larger appetite for real change in America.  And so we have the ‘safe’ pair of Hilary and Jeb Bush being sidelined and mavericks leading the pack.  I have nothing against Bernie Sanders, indeed I like a lot of what he is saying – but the guy is 74 already and has actually achieved very little so far.  And my biggest fear is that despite the enthusiasm of his young team he well be no match for Trump (incidentally I have much the same fears for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn).

And so we come to Donald Trump.  And though it is far too easy to ridicule him (after all he is almost a cartoon figure already) we must be very careful not to underestimate him or his message (we all did that with Reagan).  What appears as ludicrous to modern Europeans is exactly what a huge number of stupid Americans just love to hear.  An ultra-nationalist and xenophobic bigot he may be but, just like Nigel Farage over here, a lot of people think that he is only saying what everyone else is thinking and love him for it.

And so if things continue as they stand now, we will have the spectre of the most right-wing populist Billionaire contending against a valiant genial left-winger who already looks past it.  I shudder to think what will happen.  Our only saviour would be Hilary (or possibly Jeb Bush coming from behind to beat Trump) and boy does she come with some baggage of her own.  Oh well, at least America doesn’t have nuclear weapons….oooops.

Syria – a Very Twenty-First Century Tragedy

Thursday 11th February

We have all seen the pictures on the TV; bombed buildings, young men waving Kalshnikovs from the back of Toyota trucks and children waiting in the refugee camps, but the reality escapes us all.  We are bored observers, flipping from channel to channel to escape the horror; and after all who can blame us, this has been going on for four years already – incidentally the length of the First World War itself and still no real resolution in sight.  And nobody really knows what is going on.  The Americans have dirty hands, having secretly armed and trained opposition groups to try to topple Assad.  The Saudi’s are supposed to be funding many militant Shia groups too.  Iran; well wherever Saudi is involved Iran is bound to be on the other side.  Turkey has been sticking it’s muddy little oar in too; rumours that the President’s son is actually buying the oil from ISIS abound.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Israel is rubbing it’s hands as it watches a traditional enemy in ruins.  Britain, France and a few others are all doing our bit to reduce a once prosperous country to rubble.  And Russia – ah, now things get interesting, Russia in a particularly expansionist phase is backing Assad’s tired forces with lots of heavy air-power, and they may have just turned the tide.

A couple of years ago Cameron was trying to persuade us to attack Assad, and now it is ISIS we are bombing.  But you have to wonder if anyone has any idea how this will all end.  Even if Assad eventually wins, and it could take a couple of years more, what sort of a country will he inherit, and will it have been worth it?  The rebels will almost certainly lose, but may in the end gain a modicum of so-called Democracy, though if they want to know what good it will do them they should ask their Iraqi neighbours.  ISIS will probably go underground and continue to attack the West in ever more horrible ways.  And a whole generation of young Arabs will be lost to all rational thought and decent behaviour.  Displaced Syrians are already massing at the borders with Turkey and Jordan, and Europe is terrified at the idea of millions more flooding in.  The refugee crisis will be with us for years to come.

If we are to learn anything from this very Twenty-First Century Tragedy it should be not to interfere in the first place, to choose our friends more carefully, that there will always be a heavy price to pay  and that War in this Modern World can never be contained, it spreads faster than Ebola and is twice as deadly.

M – is for Manfred Mann

Wednesday 10th February

The Manfreds were a big band in my teens.  They emerged, mostly from Clacton, in the early Sixties and were originally very bluesy and jazzy; they were named after their keyboard player Manfred Mann, a South African actually.  They hit almost immediate fame when they were asked to write the theme tune to Ready Steady Go, a new pop music show on ITV in ’64.  They came up with 5-4-3-2-1, a great fast number which whizzed us into the show.  They were fronted by Paul Jones for a while and then Mike D’Abo and had great hit singles “Do-Wah-Diddie” and “Sha-La-Le” and the superb “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” (actually written by Dylan) and “Pretty Flamingo”.  They were very rarely out of the charts throughout the Sixties and often covered Dylan songs such as “The Mighty Quinn”.  Like the Hollies they were one of those bands that while not truly great were always around and slowly evolved as the music of the Sixties changed.

But the usual band dynamics broke up the band in ’69 and Manfred created a new band ‘Manfred Mann’s Earth Band” in ’71.  I bought a couple of their records and they were brilliant.  “Angel Station” with great songs like “Don’t Kill It Carol” and “Belle Of The Earth” and a slightly progressive feel to the music.  I also have “Somewhere in Afrika” where Manfred returned to his South African roots and presented a highly political album; this was 1983 and long before the release of Nelson Mandela.  Songs like “Tribal Statistics” and “Brothers and Sisters of Azania” recorded the plight of black South Africans (not that it is that much better today).  There is also a brilliant version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” which almost surpasses the original.  They continued to have a few great singles too, “Blinded By the Light” and “Davey’s On The Road Again”.  Strangely I haven’t bothered to buy many other Manfred Mann’s Earth Band records – note to myself…{Rectify that as soon as possible}.

Manfred Mann, a minor footnote in the music of the Twentieth Century…but what a great one.

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