Sunday, 8 December 2013

Don't Feed The Trolls..

For those readers of a certain age – of which I am one – I am not referring to the creatures from fairy tales that lurked under bridges and had issues with goats. On this occasion I mean the vermin which infests the Internet. Having been online the best part of twenty years I have come across them frequently, and the advice I was given when I first started on the Internet all those years ago still holds true, and is the title of this blog. So, what does it mean?

A troll in the Internet sense is not 'a nasty person', or 'somebody who I don't agree with' per se, although elements of both come into the manifestation of a troll. A troll to put it bluntly, is a brainless cretin who has nothing better to do with their time than to upset others, and who derives enjoyment from the outrage and upset their comments and actions engender. So, they spend their time posting inflammatory comments on the Internet, and then sit back revelling in the uproar their effort has caused.


(NOTE: I am not in any way advocating the below nor am I saying I hold either of the following opinions, they are examples only.)

On a Christian based mailing list:

Anyone who believes in God is a moron.

For reasons which should be obvious to all, if this were a genuine post it is a statement intended to enrage the members of the mailing list.

On Twitter:

People who use Twitter need to get a life!

There was an actual example on Twitter the other day which I will not repeat as I then run the risk of upsetting people who may not have seen the original, and that is the exact opposite of the purpose of the blog.  However, I will say it was clear to all that the poster intended to offend as no apology was made for any offence which may have been caused, indeed judging by their Timeline they appeared to revel in the attention. Others commented in the poster's defence saying it was 'obviously' a joke. Had this been true then the poster would have followed up with an apology for their ill-judged humour but they did not, and I therefore reject the 'joke' defence out of hand. This is a classic example of the Troll in action, and regrettably their intended reaction occurred judging by the responses that were posted, and comments made, both on Twitter and Facebook.

This is a clear hallmark of a deliberate troll, an offensive remark made with no attempt to apologise once the offence it has caused becomes obvious.

There is of course a very important point that must be made here. As a rule a Troll's intent is simply to upset and enrage people, it is not to break the law; after all they need their continued liberty to pursue their hobby of upsetting people [I do wish blogs had a sarcasm tag!]. Therefore it must be clearly understood that comments which clearly have illegal content such as those inciting violence or hatred against others are not Trolls in the true sense and are a definite exception to the rule stated in the title above. However I am sure that you dear reader have the ability to tell the difference between the two types and act accordingly.

Thus to the advice. Don't Feed The Trolls. As outlined above, a troll's raison d'etre is to upset and enrage people and to revel in the resultant reactions of their offences. If they do not get any reaction and they are starved of the attention they crave their impact is effectively neutered. While it is true that some may be persistent and try greater and greater means to offend, many will just give up and go away. Of course there is the possibility that some of the more cretinous individuals may cross the line and end up making slanderous or otherwise illegal comments at which point they may be reported to the relevant law enforcement authorities, however I think – at least hope – that these are in the minority.

In a nutshell, if someone posts a comment you find offensive, step away from the keyboard, think to yourself 'Are they doing it just to get attention and/or upset people?' and if they are ignore it. Put simply in four words.

Don't Feed The Trolls.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Where Now For Education?

With the publication of the PISA rankings for education across the world a widespread debate has inevitably ensued. Why is the UK so low? What are we doing wrong? Should we copy [insert miscellaneous country ranked higher than us – there's plenty of choice!]?'

To the latter question I say an emphatic No.  Whilst Korea for example may have higher achieving students than the UK, according to the BBC Breakfast current affairs television programme they also have an alarmingly high suicide rate among the young.  Therefore it can be reasonably assumed that their way is not the right way for everyone.  Apart from which, according to BBC Radio Wales this lunchtime Wales used to be the envy of the world for education and yet now we are the lowest in the UK.  What is required is for us to look back at what we used to do right and correct where we deviated from that path.

Education is a devolved area in the UK with different bodies controlling England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I suggest this is a basic error from which all else grows. My reasoning is simple; I have a friend in Germany where each region has a separate education body as well, and this has resulted in a situation where Saxony is deemed to have harder examinations than others; therefore a high achieving student from Saxony is a more desirable employee than one from another region with perceived lower standards. In the UK this could easily translate into students from one country being preferred over those from another. Only with a cohesive single strategy between all four will this be avoided.

We are also ignoring the basic building blocks of education. I am 43 years old and left mainstream education many years ago. I am also disabled and spent the first seven years up to the age of 12 in Special Education, only at that point entering mainstream education. Previously I have been a somewhat harsh critic of special education, however my experience of the last few years has given me significant pause for thought. At the age of 35 I decided to study for a degree, and given my employment at that time was in the IT sector I chose an IT related discipline and enrolled.

One of the first lectures was in Quantitative Methods and Statistics (QMS) which came as a bit of a shock given that I had not touched a mathematics book for 18 years at that point. More of a surprise was the lecturer's opening gambit of progressing around the room asking students random times table questions. I was in the middle of the thought 'What is she doing?' when it became all too obvious. Many of the students, indeed it seemed the majority, struggled with the answers, and some were incorrect. I remind you at this point that in that room only two of us had at any point been in Special Education, every other student had at that point spent 12 years or more in mainstream education.

The above raises two questions.

a) How could students pass GCSE Mathematics – a core requirement for any degree course not just IT based ones – with such poor mental arithmetic skills?
b) If such basic building blocks are omitted in Mathematics, what else is being ignored in other subjects? Grammar in English? To watch some talent or reality TV shows my answer to that one is an emphatic Yes.

The final point may not seem education based but having given it some thought it could well be at the core of all else, not only education. There has been for many years a culture of not allowing children to fail, or I should say to feel they have failed, be that at sport etc, or academically, and this I believe is a badly flawed concept.

Currently a child goes to school, takes exams and tests and mostly passes due to the lowering of standards to achieve this – whatever anyone says standards have lowered because the pass rate at GCSE and A Level has increased every year for 25 years, and any statistician will tell you no dataset is perfect. If they fail they are consoled and told it doesn't matter 'You'll do better next time..' That child then grows and leaves school, perhaps to go to university, and for the first time is treated like an adult. Adults are not cushioned from failure as they are supposed to know how to deal with it. If you go to an employer having made a mess of a contract tender and cost the company thousands of pounds in lost revenue they won't accept 'I'll do better next time..' they will be more likely to show you the door to find another job.

Consider the difference in contestants on a talent show such as X-Factor. Irrespective of personal opinion on the merits, or lack thereof, of the programme itself, compare how different contestants deal with failure. The older contestants in their late twenties and upwards are upset of course, but the late teens and early twenties are positively distraught, a common wailing refrain being 'My life is over!' between sobs. Of course it isn't but it is likely that this is the first failure that they have had to face in their comparatively short lives because the education system has failed them abysmally in this respect.

If a child fails when they are young they will learn it is not a nice feeling, but that it is a fact of life and will happen to them from time to time and they will learn to deal with it. Should that same child fail academically they will feel the same upset, but rather than be consoled 'it doesn't matter' they will learn that the way to avoid failure is to try harder. It is of course obvious that some will still fail, but the crucial lesson which is often overlooked is simply the satisfaction of knowing you did your best. Fail when you didn't try hard enough or were not pushed to do your best then the path only leads to regret for what might have been. Fail when you know you tried your utmost then the pill is a much less bitter one to swallow.

I strongly believe that a combination of the above factors properly addressed will lead to the UK returning to the higher echelons of the academic world.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Don't Know? Don't Say!

Now, before I go any further let's get one thing straight. I like a good laugh as much as the next person. I also agree with what Dave Gorman once said in a stand-up routine, to the effect that if the disabled – of which I am one – want to be fully integrated into society we have to accept that humour is part of that acceptance, to whit laughing at ourselves and allowing others to laugh with us is part and parcel of that. One of my favourite jokes is about one of my disabilities, Hydrocephalus; unfortunately it relies heavily on sound so doesn't translate into a blog. A stand-up routine I love is from Chris Addison who did an hilarious piece describing pirates as disabled sailors. I've seen it several times and I still laugh every time.
So that's the good part out of the way. Now onto the bad.
Humour based on ignorance is not humour. It's offensive. Tonight I watched a stand-up routine from a comedian who clearly hadn't done his research properly – if at all - and simply plucked a common disability out of the air to compare with an eating disorder. His misfortune – quite apart from the laziness inherent in the lack of research – was to single out my disability. Now, I grant you the routine was from 2011 and in the intervening years he may have had his error pointed out to him, but have the thousands who saw the routine also been informed of his error?
My major disability is Spina Bifida – I minored in Hydrocephalus (See? Humour! :) ) and for those not familiar with the condition, simply put it is a malformation of the spinal cord in the womb which results in varying degrees of paralysis and other side effects depending on where on the cord the malformation occurs. In my case, and that of many others, it results in an inability to walk and thus many of those who have Spina Bifida are wheelchair users.
The condition this ill-informed individual compared Spina Bifida to was wheat intolerance and Coeliac Disease. The latter is an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine. Symptoms include pain and discomfort in the digestive tract, chronic constipation and diarrhoea and many others. Vitamin deficiencies are often noted in people with coeliac disease owing to the reduced ability of the small intestine to properly absorb nutrients from food.
The offending line in question suggested that people with wheat intolerance 'act like they've got Spina Bifida..' Hopefully having read the two descriptions above you will, dear reader, appreciate what an asinine comment this was.
I'm going to be blunt here because the individual concerned is a public figure and has his words and opinions exposed to hundreds, if not in the low thousands, of people at a time, possibly millions on television. The man's an idiot. Firstly for not bothering to research his material properly, but then for exposing the thousands in the auditorium and watching the televised event to his ill-informed humour. The saying 'With great power comes great responsibility' is I feel appropriate here, as his words have the potential to shape what everyone thinks who attends one of his performances, or the millions who will have watched him on television. I hope that knowing they are watching a comedian they won't go away with the belief that he knows what he's talking about, because if they do they will think Spina Bifida is an eating disorder, or conversely they may think Coeliac Disease means you can't walk.
People in the public eye, especially those whose job entails addressing large numbers of the public, have a duty and responsibility to know what they are talking about. Not only comedians, but actors, music artists, politicians, in fact anyone who routinely finds themselves in front of a camera and feels obliged to have an opinion. These people have fans who in some cases hang on their every word and believe what they say – and that they can speak English properly but that's a whole separate blog.
The point of this story is quite simply if, while in the public eye, you're quizzed on a subject you know nothing about have the honesty to say so, and if you don't know about a subject don't make it up!

Monday, 7 October 2013

Ace cafe with quite a nice ancient monument attached..

This is what the BBC Headline said.  Now, I don't go to visitor attractions (VAs) very often, but having been on holiday twice in the past six weeks I have, and this article rubs me up the wrong way.

The initial section of the article is taken up by a food writer, and of course he's going to say the cafe and food provision is important.  No, you don't want food poisoning, but as long as it's of edible, decent quality you don't need a Michelin Star either.  As a food writer he has a vested interest in there being more places to eat.  I can accept that people want to be fed and watered, depending on the size of the VA they may need a meal half way round in order to spend enough time there to see everything, however the food should never take precedence over the VA itself, and if it does you have to ask 'Why did you bother visiting in the first place, just go to a restaurant if you want to eat out..'

The second point is one made by several people quoted in the article who made their feelings known on the Trip Advisor website.  Ancient monuments, living museums - such as that at St Fagan's, the Museum of Welsh Life - and stately homes etc are old and should be viewed in a setting which is in keeping with their natural age.  I would personally find it extremely jarring and unpleasant to visit, for example, a Georgian house to find a modern steel and glass cube next to it as a visitor's centre cum cafe.

There is of course justification for combining the old and new in some instances.  The Cutty Sark visitor centre in Greenwich, London for example. Here they have intelligently used new materials and architectural techniques to build an ultra modern facility to enhance the visitors' experience by illustrating how the Cutty Sark would have looked at sea, and in doing so have created an extra bonus as the method used serves to preserve what remains of the clipper.  In situations such as this it makes perfect sense to utilise facilities in this way.

The argument is made in the article that the visitors' centres and cafes subsidise the entrance fee and fund the upkeep of the VA, however there are other ways of doing this without spoiling the experience for the visitors who actually come for the VA itself, not just because they make a nice cup of coffee.

To illustrate my points I will refer to two VAs I visited recently on holiday:

St David's Cathedral in West Wales.

1500 years old and, quite obviously an ancient building which would jar very badly with a modern structure.  However equally obviously they need funding for maintenance, to pay guides and other staff who work there and the usual costs of running a VA.  There is no mandatory entrance fee but, according to their website, they require an average of £4 per adult to keep financially stable.  So, how do they manage this?

Firstly they recognise that many visitors, even atheists such as myself, admire the incredible architecture and the achievement and skill of constructing such a large building and will want to take photographs.  A £2 fee is charged for a photographer's permit, and given that I shot 63 photographs while I was there, equates to 3.17 pence each, which is ridiculously cheap by any measure.

They also have a shop within the cathedral, but they have made intelligent use of the space available in the cathedral itself, cordoning off one small section of the nave with wooden friezes carved in keeping with the rest of the architecture, which are unobtrusive and do not spoil the overall feel of the place, yet simultaneously provide a defined area where visitors can go to purchase souvenirs and gifts.

Adjacent to the cathedral is the Bishop's Palace, of a similar age, and here I noted an instance of extremely intelligent integration of the old and new.  Self evidently visitors will at some point require a public toilet, and obviously a modern portaloo or something of that ilk would look quite out of place next to a 6th century ruined building.  To solve this they do have toilets built there but, as I noticed, the normal Men/Women/Disabled signs to indicate their presence had been carved in the same type of stone, using the same style, as the rest of the building, such that while they were recognisable as modern symbols for a modern purpose, their appearance was in keeping with their surroundings of 1500 years of age.

Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre.

My second example of good planning is the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre.  This is a much more modern VA than the cathedral obviously, and yet it still needs to retain the authentic feel of the original, a working RAF Bomber Command station of World War II vintage.  You enter via the shop, which in the more modern setting is perfectly acceptable as all the merchandise is in keeping with the whole theme, indeed some is specific to that Centre itself, such as the DVDs telling the story of its creation.

Here they also recognise that visitors will at some point require feeding, inevitable in fact given that they offer full day VIP passes as one of their attractions.  To facilitate this obvious need they utilise the NAAFI, the original service eatery which service personnel would have eaten at during the war.  At the same time this is located right next to the dispersal where the main attraction of the centre, 'Just Jane' one of only two operational Avro Lancaster bombers in the UK can be seen outside, maintaining the atmosphere of an age gone by.

Unlike the cathedral, the LAHC has a unique product, the opportunity for members of the public to have a taxy ride in a Lancaster and experience the sights, sounds and smells that the brave men of 70 years ago experienced on a daily basis - minus flying and being shot at of course!  The VIP days too which incorporate a taxy ride are a unique selling point, and so perhaps they do not have quite the same need to gain funds through the gift shop and NAAFI.  However, I would argue that even if this were the case - and everyone needs funds to keep their operation going - they have ensured that the facilities they provide are sympathetic to the age and purpose of their main focus.

That final point is, in my view, the key to success for all visitors.  If you want to create an extra revenue stream, consider charging a small fee for a photographic permit - depending on the nature of the VA this may not be viable, but I think is worth considering in most cases.  If however you cannot, then by all means create a gift shop and restaurant in order to maintain revenue, but in doing so please keep the look and feel of the new facilities in keeping with that of the VA.  A sympathetic solution to this question will please not only the visitors the BBC article alludes to - those who only go there for the food, but also the visitors such as myself who go there because we want to experience the VA itself.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Finding The Pathfinders - At Journey's End

On Monday the 9th of September, at 09:45am I started a long anticipated journey to Lincolnshire, the genesis of which occurred many months ago.

I have been on Twitter almost 3 years, and during this time have made many close friends, despite not having met many of them in person - that is until recently.  Two such friendships are Sandy Cannings and her partner Chris Hornby.  Sandy's father Percy Cannings is a WWII Bomber Command veteran, having completed 47 sorties, and was the mid-upper gunner of an Avro Lancaster in 100 and 97 Squadrons of the RAF's Bomber Command, part of the Pathfinder Force, plus many training missions - which could be just as hazardous if not more so on occasion.  Some time ago Sandy and her sister Sharon - who runs Ermine Street Project a Community Interest Company specialising in documentaries of community interest - decided to help Percy trace any surviving members of the aircrews he flew with during World War II.  Several of their friends on Twitter and Facebook, myself included, attacked the problem like a Jack Russell terrier with a pork chop and several months later the documentary was finished.  It was then decided to have a premiere showing at the Kinema In The Woods, Woodhall Spa.

I mentioned the many friends I have made on Twitter, and several of them work for the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre in East Kirkby, Lincolnshire. A long time ago I set myself the aim of visiting there at least once.  The premiere of the documentary seemed an ideal opportunity, and so I booked a room at The Village Limits in Woodhall Spa for four days, from the 9th to 12th September.  The screening coincided - what a coincidence! ;) - with Percy's 90th birthday and so there was even more incentive to attend.

(Just had this on the radio.. Jilted John - fellow researchers will understand my collapsing laughing :))

Day 1:

So.. 09:45 I set off from home with my Mum on the 235 mile trip from Barry in South Wales to The Village Limits in Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire.

 After a couple of hours and several motorways we stopped for a(n) (Un)Welcome Break.. in aviation parlance a midair refueling, and in retrospect given the quality of the fuel provided not the best idea. Entering Lincolnshire I began to relax as we neared the end of our journey. Now I don't know, dear reader, if you are familiar with the satirical game show Mock the Week, but the essential point here is that one round 'Scenes We'd Like To See' involves stand-up comedians being given an unlikely topic and having to come up with suggestions. One such topic was 'Things You Won't Hear A SatNav Say'. I was reminded of this upon glancing down at my SatNav to see a blue arrow centred on a totally blank grey square, and the suggestion of Hugh Dennis came to mind, when he stepped up to the microphone, looked confused and said 'Where the f**k are we?' It seems my SatNav was of a similar mind; however it was a dual carriagway (the A46 if you wondered which it seems was completed after the maps in my SatNav) so I stayed on it until my SatNav finally found a road it knew about. The rest of the journey was plain sailing.  Arriving about 16:30 we found our room and settled in.

Day 2:

On Tuesday I decided to fulfil my ambition and visit the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre at East Kirkby;
Having got up at 0700, fed and watered at 0800, we left for the 12 mile drive from Woodhall Spa to East Kirkby, arriving there at just past 09:00  The LAHC is a fascinating place, home of course to Just Jane one of only two operational Lancasters in the UK, and hopefully soon to become only the third airworthy Lancaster in the world.  At present she provides the only opportunity for the public to get up close and personal with a beautiful aircraft whose reliability and ruggedness earned her the devotion of all who flew in her.  Having recently bought myself a new camera I became rather snap happy, as the previous two links will show, but I make no apologies for that as she is a beauty.

As you will see though, Just Jane is not the only attraction at the LAHC; there is a hangar full of Bomber Command related memorabilia, including the wreckage from some crashes; several vintage vehicles including a Green Goddess Auxiliary Fire Service tender, bringing to mind a memory of a story that my grandfather once had time off work in 1943 due to trapping his hand in the door of the fire engine where he volunteered on time off from his work in the coal mines. There is a museum dedicated to the Escapes from Occupied Europe and the brave men and women of the French Resistance who aided the Allied prisoners to escape captivity, this includes a fascinating display on The Great Escape; A replica of an Aircrew Billet is on display too, as is the Briefing Room where you can get a flavour of how they lived day to day and the atmosphere of the briefing room when they all learned the Target For Tonight.

The star of the day though, of course, was Just Jane herself;

We were in the Escape Museum when we suddenly heard a powerful engine roar, the unmistakable sound of four Rolls-Royce Merlins. Quickly vacating the museum we made our way back to the dispersal point where Jane was readying for a taxi run.  It is one thing to read the phrases 'exhaust crackle', 'ear splitting roar' and 'ground shaking', but quite another to experience it.  Closing your eyes you could imagine yourself transported back 70 years to when East Kirkby was an active Bomber Command station, and the sheer thunder of 56 Merlins as a squadron of 14 Lancasters made ready for another sortie.  But as the name suggests, a taxi run does not just involve firing up the engines and sitting still.  For the lucky few who have paid for the privilege it involves being onboard Just Jane as she taxis around the field where once her forebears plied their trade, and back to Dispersal.  The spectacle of her sheer size in motion is something to behold.  Yes there are many modern aircraft which are larger, and more powerful, yet I don't believe there are any which evoke such emotion and pride in those who see and hear it.

After the spine tingling spectacle of the taxi run we resumed looking around the museum, at which point I met Louise Bush who I know from Twitter who works on the management team for the centre and spent a little time chatting with her about it and Just Jane.  After visiting the Wellington Museum, Aircrew Billet, and Briefing Room we returned to the NAAFI canteen and shop where we had a bite to eat and I bought a couple of DVDs of Just Jane's story and that of the LAHC.

Following lunch we then left to visit the home of the other Lancaster operational in the UK, this time at RAF Coningsby, the home of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight;

Thumper herself, also known officially as 'The City of Lincoln'.  Again as the name suggests, the BBMF is not only centred on one aircraft, but on the flight of Avro Lancaster, Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire. In addition to these three types they have a Douglas DC3 Dakota on strength as well.  We arrived at 1310 - I know this as the lady at the till told us the next guided tour was in 20 minutes at 1330 and I can add up in my head ;) - so we had a look around the museum they have of Bomber Command exploits with written personal accounts from veterans of each of the seven positions in a Lancaster.

At 1330 precisely - well it is an active military base ;) - the tour began and the guide took us into the hangar. We then spent a very interesting and informative 90 minutes as he talked to us about the history of the BBMF and each individual aircraft, whose own histories were as varied as the aircraft themselves. Who knew before then why RAF aircraft had the red centre roundels painted out in the Far East Theatre? I certainly didn't!  During the tour we were interrupted by the engine test of one of the Spitfires and we followed the guide out to watch the test. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon with an extremely well informed guide who not only gave useful information but peppered it with humour and wit.

Day 3:

This was the big day.  The premiere showing of Finding The Pathfinders at The Kinema In The Woods, and my highlight of the week. That';s not to disparage in any way the other events which I thoroughly enjoyed, but simply because I knew I would meet not only some great friends I have made over the last couple of years from Twitter, namely Sandy and Chris, Sharon, Julia, Kathryn, Amanda and Robert, Di, Dave, Sean, Chris Keltie, Simon and Stephen and Susan who were kind enough to invite us all back to their lovely Bed & Breakfast Laburnum House. It was also great to meet Kevin Bending, author of 'Achieve Your Aim' about 97 Squadron of Bomber Command, and webmaster of the 97 Squadron Association website who I had not met previously online or in person but was a pleasure to talk to.  Not forgetting for a moment the star of the show, whose 90th birthday we were also celebrating, Percy Cannings, DFM, veteran of 47 operational missions in Bomber Command during World War II, and his lovely wife Bet.

The event started with a talk given by Sean Taylor who is the Safety Officer and Guide for the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, and is thus extremely knowledgeable on the subject.

A Day In The Life Of A Bomber Command Crew

He gave us a detailed, precise, but at the same time humorous depiction of the day of a bomber mission, and the kind of problems and challenges which faced every crew.  He concluded his talk, having described in detail the myriad of ways in which something could go catastrophically wrong, by saying that having done it once, you just had to do it on average another 29 times and you would be allowed a week off. That, as he said, is also in my view, the very definition of bravery, and we owe the lives we have now to the bravery, often unassuming as in the case of Percy Cannings, to the men who did this night after night for six years from 1939 to 1945, 55,573 of whom never returned home, those who returned home damaged in body or spirit, and those who through some miracle survived the war unscathed.

We Will Remember Them.

After Sean's talk was over we trooped into the main theatre for the main event, the screening of the premiere.  For 90 minutes we sat transfixed by the story of Percy's search for any surviving members of the aircrews he flew with or their families. Even those of us who had taken part in the research couldn't fail to be impressed by the work Sharon and her fiance Martin have done to pull together all the disparate themes and threads of the story and research and simultaneously put it into an overall context of what was happening in Bomber Command at the time with the input of Kevin Bending. The narrative of the research was seamlessly weaved into the whole production running the whole gamut of emotions from laughter to tears.

Following the documentary we left the Kinema and gathered outside, for a much anticipated event. After a few minutes a thrumming was detected in the air, building rapidly into the roar I was by now familiar with having heard it only the day before at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre. Looking up through the clearing we saw the beautiful sight of Thumper, pride of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight as she passed overhead, wheeling around to pass over a total of three times.  A sight which cannot fail to fill you with pride in the men who flew them and emotion remembering those who failed to return.

Accepting Stephen and Susan's kind offer of hospitality we dispersed to gather again at Laburnum House where a pleasant afternoon was sent reliving the morning's events, enjoying the company of old friends and making new ones.

Day 4:

Waking early - yes 7am is early for me - we packed and prepared to travel back home.  However for me the trip would not have been complete without a visit to The Petwood Hotel.  This is where, when based at Woodhall Spa, 617 Squadron - the famous Dambusters - had their Officers' Mess.  At 12 years old I did my first History project on Operation Chastise - the Dams Raid - and so of course 31 years later I could not come over 200 miles and not at least visit. Although we were not guests, the staff could not have been more welcoming and helpful, inviting us to take photographs and directing us to the Squadrom Bar which holds much memorabilia of 617 Squadron.  We then left to continue our journey home - I say continue but The Petwood is less than a mile from The Village Limits where we were staying, so begin is just as valid.

Predictably the SatNav performed its little trick of forgetting the A46 existed, but we were wise to that by now and just ignored it, spotting landmarks we remembered from our inward journey. We also avoided the mistake of a meal for our Welcome(?) Break and simply had a coffee each. The biggest irony for me of the whole journey was that having completed 234 of the 235 mile journey we were brought to a standstill a mile from home - the schools were out. Eventually we reached home tired but having had a thoroughly enjoyable few days.

My sincere thanks to everyone who had a part in making it so successful and enjoyable, and hope that we may be able to do something similar again!

Monday, 2 September 2013

Crayons + Columbians = Chaos

I know what you're thinking dear reader; He's finally lost it; but no.. the following tale actually happened at a previous place of work, which shall remain nameless - to protect the gullible as well as the guilty :)

Picture the scene: The admin office of a supplies organisation. Yours truly is entering purchase orders freshly received from our clients.  I notice that Crayola crayons - a staple of our service - were going on back order, and would be for some time.  I draw the attention of the Stores and Admin Officer (SAO) to this and he charges off in the direction of the Purchasing Department to have words with the relevant purchasing officer.  I think nothing more of it and return to entering more orders.

He then returns and life takes a.. well frankly bizarre turn. Readers in the UK will probably be familiar with the Leicestershire accent (I know one of you definitely is.. Kathryn :) ), but for those who are not I will attempt to approximate it in the following:

Door opens and I hear across the office:

(LM = my Line Manager):

SAO: Mari-joo-arna Julian!
Me: Eh?
SAO: *slowly as if speaking to an imbecile* Mari--joo--arna..
Me: *thinks: Yes I understood the word just not what the... you're on about!*
LM: What the hell are you on about?
SAO: I've joost be oop to Purchasing to ask about the crayons [which we already knew].  Apparently we get them from South America [true I believe], and Coloombiun droog barons have been packing our crayons with marijooarna [possibly not as true as the last bit]. Coostoms have seized the shipment and it's waiting for them to clear it [fairly sure that bit was a fib too].

Slightly - alright very - bemused we went back to work, and after a few minutes I went to Purchasing myself to find out what was actually going on.  Turns out the PO concerned had neglected to place any order at all, and when accosted by another member of staff who had an irate client on the phone, he concocted this story on the spot.  When the SAO asked him about the same thing in earshot of the other staff member he just trotted out the same story.

Mind you, it did give rise to the comment from me; Well we'll know which schools have had deliveries from us.. the kids will be smoking the crayons!

Monday, 22 July 2013

Trident: To Renew Or Not

There have been a lot of opinions expressed on the somewhat thorny subject of whether we should retain Trident.  Recently the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has said it would be ‘na├»ve or reckless’ not to have a like-for-like replacement, but this was countered by Danny Alexander accusing him of trying to rubbish the LibDem report which called for a reduction from four to three submarines.

I’ve never served in the armed forces, due to having been born disabled.  However I have had a life long interest in military issues, and my main field of expertise is in IT, and therefore I think in clear logical lines.  This then is my opinion on the issue.

First though I think it’s important to explain why Trident is/was required.  After World War II relations soured between the Soviet Union and other Communist states of the world, and the United States and its allies.  This resulted in a – for the most part – non aggressive stand off.  I say for the most part because there were occasions when the Cold War - as it became known - gained rather more heat; Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, Oman for example and I’m sure there are others I’ve forgotten.

During the same period the fledgling nuclear arms development increased exponentially to a point where the countries involved had enough power at their disposal to destroy each other many times over.  That this did not happen between the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s / early 1990s is due almost exclusively to the concept of MAD.

MAD for those unaware of it stands for Mutually Assured Destruction.  It is on the face of it a very simple concept.  If country A launches a nuclear missile at country B, country B will detect the launch and have enough time to launch its own missiles before those from country A hit.  Thus both countries are assured of being destroyed, hence Mutually Assured Destruction.

Trident as a weapons platform is key to the MAD concept and indeed is the cornerstone of the UK’s MAD policy.  Its only purpose is to launch nuclear missiles at a hostile foreign nation state.

So, that then is the background, admittedly an extremely basic version of it, to why Trident was created and what it does.

This is where all the discussion and argument starts, so the following is my view:

1. Trident is a single purpose system, and its purpose is one which no longer has any use in 21st Century conflicts.  The government clearly do not believe we will ever come into conflict with a nation state ever again or they would not be reducing our army to a level below that of 1813 following the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

2. As above Trident is a single purpose system, and the recent Defence Spending Review was ostensibly aimed at cutting costs in the Armed Forces.  With a finite budget, and reducing one at that, I do find it curious that the government chooses to spend a significant amount of that budget on a weapons system which is designed for a very specific use, and only then if one specific circumstance should arise.  Would it not be better to spend the same money on alternative systems which have multiple uses?

For £6bn you could train 162,162 Paras, 230,769 Guards or 272,727 Infantry.  Between the ranks of Private and Sergeant average pay is £25734.50 pa so for your £6bn you could employ 233,150 soldiers of enlisted rank for a year or 23,315 for 10 years.  Soldiers, and indeed all armed forces personnel, are infinitely flexible within the obvious boundaries of their training.

An aircraft carrier.  The obvious use is to transport aircraft to somewhere where you wish to fight, or have forces on the ground in need of support.  However, what about a simple diplomatic prod?  If you park an aircraft carrier off the coast your opposite number is likely to become more interested in listening to you.  Or a humanitarian disaster?  An aircraft carrier could be a mobile hospital or the base for relief efforts; ships are able to carry far more weight at once - albeit slower - than even the biggest aircraft.

Let’s put it very simply.  If you are offered a choice between a spear, and a sword and shield which would you choose?  If you choose the spear you will be able to kill one enemy who throws a spear at you and you see it thrown in enough time to throw yours and hit them.  However if you choose the sword and shield you will be able to block the spear, close up to and threaten them with the sword.  Also once you’ve thrown the spear you have no weapons or defences, whereas you can pull a sword out of an enemy and attack someone else with it, or defend yourself from their attack.

In a nutshell if you have a finite budget you don’t want to spend it on a weapon with only one use, and that use only under one set of specific circumstances, you ought to look at systems with a variety of purposes – in military parlance a force multiplier.

3.  Over the last few years successive governments have been excusing inroads into what some believe to be our personal privacy - by forcing ISPs to retain more and more information on what we as individuals do online - by using the ever present ‘National Security’, and in fact some reports have said that the battleground of the 21st Century will be online with cyber terrorism and enemies attacking each others’ communications networks etc.  This poses the obvious question, in that context what use is a missile carrying submarine when the threat is from a cyber terrorist?

4.  Actual terrorism.  Again governments explain to us that they want increased numbers of CCTV cameras, biometric passports, compulsory ID cards – although thankfully that has been dropped as in my opinion all it would do is help identify the victims - more stop and search powers for the police.  The reason for this is to combat the ever growing threat of terrorism.

The government consistently tell us that the reason for their ever growing insistence on knowing everything about our activity - online and offline - is to combat terrorism.  Terrorism, they tell us is the biggest threat in the 21st Century.  Not nuclear attack from a nation state.

Terrorists have no nation state.  Terrorists have no nuclear missiles.

Trident can only launch retaliatory missiles against a nation state.  So, again, why do we need it?

Trident’s purpose is to be deployed in one specific set of circumstances.

a) Another nation state has a nuclear arsenal within range of the UK.
b) Diplomatic relations have degraded between the two to a point where armed nuclear conflict is a real possibility.

In my opinion, in modern international politics and diplomatic relations, the United Nations would have stepped in long before condition B were ever met.  It would also involve all nations concerned having forgotten the lessons of Chernobyl – radiation knows no borders, with the clear lesson that if you’re close enough to launch missiles, you’re also close enough for the air currents at some point to bring the radiation back to you.

In my opinion, the answer is obvious.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Political Correctness

This blog has been a long time coming.  For many years I have become increasingly irritated by political correctness in all its forms.  There are two main offenders here, and I will deal with them in turn.

Those who know me personally will be well aware that I am 43 years old, 4'8 tall (or short, depending on your point of view) and I have Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus.

Political Correctness (PC) in my view is what happens when people become afraid of offending anyone and thus create artificial means of avoiding the offence.  However, in many ways the act of invoking PC in many cases actually draws attention to the factor the person is trying to avoid.  Also in a lot of cases it is factually inaccurate.

Take my case for example. In PC I could be described as Vertically Challenged, and Physically Challenged, however I am neither. No doubt some readers will be thinking 'Yes you are' so I will explain.  I define a challenge as something which I can achieve and/or defeat with enough time/effort/money etc. That is a very simple test to apply in this case;

Can I grow taller simply by hard work?  No.

Will I ever walk (unaided) by throwing money and time at the problem?  No.

Both phrases fail the test miserably. Those who know me will probably suspect what is coming up, with my usual forthright manner.

I am neither physically nor vertically challenged.  I am a disabled shortarse. Deal with it. :)

The second factor is in some ways more pervasive and harmful in the long term than simply avoiding upsetting the likes of me.  That is the disturbing habit of the entertainment industry, most notably but not always Hollywood, to change history for PC reasons.  There is a willful blindness to the opportunity that presents itself to educate movie-goers and actually celebrate how far we have advanced as a race by pretending that what we now view as shameful acts of the past never happened.  This does an immense disservice to all those social pioneers who strove to change society for the better, sometimes over decades if not centuries.

A classic example is the upcoming remake of The Dambusters, originally filmed in 1955.  The CO of 617 squadron Guy Gibson owned a black labrador, and named it typically for the era.  However over the intervening 70 years the name he gave his dog has come to be viewed as a derogatory term for a person of African heritage.  This has resulted, quite rightly, in use of the term being frowned upon in modern society.  You'll note I haven't used it here, but that is quite simply because I suspect that Blogger have a list of banned words and no doubt this word is on it so rather than have to dance around a block I prefer not to use it.

In the film remake it appears that Peter Jackson in concert with Stephen Fry have decided to bow to the weight of political correctness and rename Gibson's dog 'Digger'. While this is only one letter away from the historical reality - a D rather than an N - it completely wipes out, in a single stroke, the 70 years of social progress we have made and denies us the opportunity to give ourselves a well-deserved pat on the back for leaving such derogatory terms in our past.  I would plead with both gentlemen not to allow this to happen, but to use your production to educate the public, not to scrub the entire lesson from history.  Celebrate our achievements as a race, don't deny the problem ever existed.

This then is my view of political correctness.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Child Labour: Why?

Over the last year or so there have been a few instances of companies in the UK selling products which have been found to be manufactured using child labour, in such countries as India for example.  The predictable response from the UK has been collective horror at the conditions such children work in and their age.  This blog is not about that, nor is it in any way supportive of such a practice.  What this blog is about is one possible reason that child labour is used in some countries and not in others.

The first thing to define is the concept of societal norms.  In the UK in recent years Prime Ministers have apologised for the role of the UK in the slave trade, and for the treatment of Alan Turing - the celebrated wartime codebreaker - when his homosexuality came to the attention of the police.  Obviously in a modern society both behaviours are abhorrent to us, and rightly so.  However, they were normal for the society of the time, and thus the apologies were for acts which the majority of society accepted at the time.  So, we have the concept whereby one society, separated by time or distance, will deem a behaviour acceptable, whilst another will not.

My grandfather started work in a Welsh coal-mine in 1925.  He was aged 12.  This is the genesis for my theory about the reasons for child labour.

In any country there is a minimum standard of living (SoL), and a cost associated with that standard - Cost of Living (CoL).  Each household income has to match the CoL in order to achieve the minimum SoL for all the household members.  In a household where income falls short of the CoL there are two options:

  • Apply for benefits from the Welfare State.
  • Increase the household income by getting more members into work - assuming those in work cannot get a wage increase.
If however you live in a country which has no Welfare State there is no option.  Assuming also that all adults in the household are in employment, the only course of action to increase the household income is to gain employment for any minors.

This was the case in the South Wales valleys, and many other communities, in the United Kingdom as recently as the early 20th Century.  When the parents were unable to earn enough income for an acceptable SoL the children, such as my grandfather, were pressed into service.  Almost a century later this is the case in countries such as India.

There are two ways in which this situation can improve.

  • National increase in wages, without an accompanying increase in cost of services.
  • Introduction of a Welfare State.
Neither is an easy course.  If a country relies heavily on foreign business and exports and they increase their labour costs, they will have to increase the prices of their products and services; this may have a detrimental effect on business by making them less attractive to purchasers and investors.  This will have the counter-productive effect of losing jobs in the country concerned as employers lose foreign business.  However, if the majority of their business is internal they may be able to achieve their goal.  The major caveat is of course the increase in services and if they increase at the same rate all that happens is the status quo is maintained.

In the latter course the Welfare State must be funded somehow, and that would naturally be via taxation.  However, if the lower earners are taxed there may a situation whereby those who were previously slightly above the CoL threshold are now pushed below it by taxation and now require assistance themselves, and we enter a Catch-22 situation.

Therefore there are pros and cons for both courses of action.  However I hope I have illustrated my belief that while we in the UK sit by and decry child labour in other countries, we are only separated from that reality ourselves by less than a century.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Who To Put On Money?

This is a very simple and short blog regarding who we in the UK celebrate the achievements of by putting them on our paper money.  The Bank of England have announced today that as of 2016 Sir Winston Churchill will replace Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note.  It is of course absolutely right that Churchill should be honoured in this way, and frankly I think it should have happened far sooner.

However, with this change the only woman represented on British currency is gone.  Of the 15 people (including Matthew Boulton and James Watt both on the £50 note) who have been on UK currency only two of them have been women (Florence Nightingale being the other).  This seems rather unfair given the obvious contributions many British women have given to the world at large in the last century alone.  I would suggest that any of the following are worthy of inclusion [1]:

Rosalind Franklin     Scientist, 1920-1958
The unsung hero of DNA, Franklin's X-ray images of the double helix provided the data that Francis Crick and James Watson used to make their hypothesis on its structure. She died of ovarian cancer at 37, just four years before the Nobel prize was claimed by her contemporaries.
Dorothy Hodgkin      Chemist, 1910-1994
A Nobel prize-winning chemist, Hodgkin's research into the molecular structure of insulin has helped save millions of lives. As one of the first people to use X-rays to determine the structure of molecules, she also confirmed the structure of penicillin and vitamin B12 and helped pave the way for DNA research.
Agnes Hunt    Nurse, 1867-1948
Recognised as the first orthopaedic nurse, Hunt pioneered disability care when she opened a convalescent home for children in Shropshire in 1900. She received the Royal Red Cross for her nursing of soldiers during the First World War. Her project developed into what is now The Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital.
Daphne Jackson        Physicist, 1936-1991
Britain's first female physics professor. Had a distinguished career in nuclear, medical and radiation physics at the University of Surrey. Later she worked to promote science careers to women and set up a scheme to help women return to science after childbirth.
Amy Johnson             Aviator, 1903-1941
After becoming the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia in 1930, the pioneering aviator went on to set a slew of long-distance flying records. She died after going off-course in bad weather while transporting RAF aircraft around the country for the Air Transport Auxiliary during the Second World War.
Vera Lynn     Singer, Born 1917
The original "Forces Sweetheart" sent messages to British troops and performed song requests on her radio programme Sincerely Yours during the Second World War, as well as touring overseas to perform for soldiers. Last year, the "We'll Meet Again" singer was the oldest living artist to top the UK album chart.
Emmeline Pankhurst            Suffragette, 1858-1928
The pioneer of women's rights founded the Women's Social and Political Union in 1898 and led the British suffragette movement, which in 1918 won the vote for women over the age of 30. Although the political activist came under fire for her militant tactics, she supported the government during the First World War.
Violette Szabo            SOE Operative, 1921-1945
Code named "Louise", Szabo was a secret agent in the Second World War, leading a French resistance network to sabotage bridges and communication lines ahead of the D-Day landings. She was caught, sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, and executed. Posthumously awarded the George Cross.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Where To Bury A King?

This, as you will no doubt have guessed, is my take on where the body of King Richard III should be buried.  This is from my personal perspective as an amateur historian, from Wales with no preference either to Leicester or Yorkshire, simply using the current facts:

First let us consider Yorkshire's case.  Richard came from the North, having been born in Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire.  He was of the House of York.  However David Lloyd George was born in Manchester, yet due to moving at a very young age to Wales is known as the Welsh Wizard - and there are many other examples, so I have to say this is a less than compelling case.

Leicester's case.  Richard III died in battle near Leicester.  He was buried in Greyfriars with care and great respect to his status, in what we now know to be a place reserved for those of high office.  They intended it to be his last resting place, and it was one of privilege accorded only to respected individuals of high office.  Even after his death, and now under Tudor rule, the locals respected him and did not speak ill of him.  A far more compelling case.

However, there is more.  Leicester County Council allowed the archaeologists to dig in the car-park of one of their major services which undoubtedly caused them some disruption.  They did so on the understanding that if Richard's remains were found they would remain in Leicester.  Any reader who has seen Time Team knows how many trenches they have to dig to find what they are looking for, and in their case it is almost always something the size of a village or at least a substantial building.  Imagine then the chances of finding an object which when alive would have only been about 5'4 x 4' x 2'.  Even given they were digging in the vicinity of the old abbey, Richard's would not have been the only body buried there by any means.  The words 'needle' and 'haystack' do not even begin to do justice to the issue, yet the council made that bargain.

Whether or not it was with altruistic aims is another matter.  Leicester kept faith with the archaeologists throughout.  A cynic - yes me again - might say 'They're only saying that because of the increased tourism that would come to Leicester if it were known worldwide that their cathedral was the last resting place of such a notorious king'.  Whether that is right or not in the case of Leicester, it is easier to believe of others.  Had Yorkshire genuinely believed that Richard should be buried there, surely they would have said as soon as a body was discovered 'If it is proven to be Richard he should be buried here'.  However, they didn't even make a sound until it was proven beyond reasonable doubt that the remains are those of Richard III.  That, a cynic may say, is the act of someone wanting the tourism that Richard's burial would attract without having done anything to support the find in the first place.

As you may already have guessed, my personal feeling is that Richard should remain in Leicester, as the monks who originally buried him intended he should.

[While writing this the news has come in that Richard III is to remain in Leicester, so I think justice has been done to, and for, him.]