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Friday, December 13, 2019

The etiquette of gifting books

As I posted on Facebook a few minutes ago, The country may have lost its collective senses but cheer up, you can still buy my novel here. Of course you may wish to buy it for somebody else, after all, Christmas is less that two weeks away. If so, then it is worth reading this piece in the Guardian, on the etiquette of gifting books.

Elle Hunt tells us about rare book dealer and author Rick Gekoski's two rules on buying books for others:

“The first is, always save a receipt” – the reason being, if a book has jumped into your mind as the perfect present for someone, it has doubtless occurred to someone else. When Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves was published in 2003, Gekoski recalls, “everybody got five copies for Christmas” – then tried to regift them to others who already had several copies themselves.

And the second rule? “Never write an inscription in a book, unless you’ve written it yourself.” (He is bemused by authors who do not like to give their own books, lest they be thought of as self-promoting.)

Gekoski suggests people restrict their sentiment to an enclosed card, in part to encourage people to own fewer things, and to extend the life of the book. “A third of everybody’s gifts end up in somebody else’s house, or in Oxfam. No matter how much you love the person, you’re basically defacing the book.”

It is possible that as a rare book dealer Gekoski has a particular bias on the matter. For those who buy secondhand books, past lives evoked by inherited personal inscriptions may be part of the appeal. And for those who give new books, writing in the inner leaves may be the final flourish that transforms them into presents, like an artist’s signature.

Yes, it is self-involved – but arguably the gift of books says more about the giver than it does the recipient. In a recent New Yorker profile, Jamie Lee Curtis said she buys People Will Talk, a 1985 collection of show business interviews by film archivist John Kobal, “all the time” to give as gifts – most recently, to her Knives Out director Rian Johnson, “as a way to sort of say hi”. (The interviewer, Rachel Syme, admitted that she herself bought 10 copies as a result.) At least part of the satisfaction of giving books lies in at best signalling your own taste, and at worst imposing it. If you are not giving a book you loved so that the recipient can agree with you about its brilliance, you are attempting to demonstrate your mastery of the brief, pinpointing the title that will delight them most, that they don’t already own. But good etiquette is to “choose for the recipient, rather than what you think they should read,” says Dave Kelly of Blackwells.

Just for the record, I am available to put any message you like in my own novel for when you give it as a gift, or just if you bought it for yourself.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The most immediate victims of a Brexit-enabling election

The Guardian reports on the anxiety felt by many European citizens, living and working in the UK at the implications for their future if a majority Tory Government is elected tonight, which takes us out of the EU.

Most EU nationals living in the UK cannot vote. leaving them feeling helpless as the rest of us decide their fate in the ballot box. It is worth reading the article in full, but here is an extract:

Up and down this country, from Bradford to Bristol and Manchester to west London, EU nationals are eyeing an election that they could be forgiven for feeling is, at some level, all about them – and whose outcome will affect them as much as it will everyone else living in Britain, if not more.

Few will have any say in what happens on 12 December: two-thirds of EU nationals living in the UK may have applied for the settled status most will need to stay legally after Brexit, but in the past three years, barely 130,000 have applied for the citizenship that allows them to vote.

Many, after making Britain their lawful home, paying British taxes and raising British families, have been angered and offended by the anti-immigration rhetoric of pro-Brexit politicians - including Boris Johnson’s remark just this week that for too long EU nationals have been “able to treat the UK as though it’s part of their own country.”

And all are now intimately concerned by what happens next: by how, precisely, the decision of the British government to profoundly alter the status of as many as 4 million UK inhabitants will play out in their daily lives, once – as now seems increasingly likely – it is fully enacted.

For plenty, things don’t feel that great already, and Brexit hasn’t even happened yet. “This ‘not belonging’ stuff is quite hard to escape,” said 38-year-old Kuba Jablonowski, who came to the UK in 2006 “for the music, I guess, like everyone else” and now lectures in political geography at Exeter university.

“The other day I was in a DIY store here in Bristol, buying an extractor fan,” he said. “There was one really friendly young assistant, and an older one, looking at me a bit oddly. Four years ago, I would have thought: ‘She’s having a grumpy day.’ Now I’m thinking: ‘She wants me to go home.’”

That was not, Jablonowski stressed, any kind of judgment on the salesperson: “It’s just about how I feel. But the point is, there are millions of people who feel this way. The ordinary spaces of human interaction have become politicised, beyond belief. It’s quite scary, and it’s ripping the country apart.”

These are people who have invested their lives and that of their families in the future of the UK. Surely we owe them the consideration and respect they have always afforded us. What right do we have to cast them out as they fear?

When I vote later today, I will be thinking of these EU nationals and trying to make my voice heard in that polling booth to retain the tolerant, diverse and multi-national society which benefits all of us.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Does Greenland's meltng ice sheet suggest climate change is irreversible?

The Guardian reports that Greenland’s ice sheet is melting much faster than previously thought, threatening hundreds of millions of people with inundation and bringing some of the irreversible impacts of the climate emergency much closer.

They refer to data that suggests ice is being lost from Greenland seven times faster than it was in the 1990s, and the scale and speed of ice loss is much higher than was predicted in the comprehensive studies of global climate science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

As a result it is believed that sea level rises are likely to reach 67cm by 2100, about 7cm more than the IPCC’s main prediction, putting 400 million people at risk of flooding every year, instead of the 360 million predicted by the IPCC, by the end of the century:

Sea level rises also add to the risk of storm surges, when the fiercer storms made more likely by global heating batter coastal regions. These impacts are likely to strike coastal areas all around the world.

“These are not unlikely events or small impacts,” said Andrew Shepherd, professor of earth observation at the University of Leeds, one of the lead authors of the study. “[These impacts] are happening and will be devastating for coastal communities.”

Greenland has lost 3.8tn tonnes of ice since 1992, and the rate of ice loss has risen from 33bn tonnes a year in the 1990s to 254bn tonnes a year in the past decade. Greenland’s ice contributes directly to sea level rises as it melts because it rests on a large land mass, unlike the floating sea ice that makes up much of the rest of the Arctic ice cap.

About half of the ice loss from Greenland was from melting driven by air surface temperatures, which have risen much faster in the Arctic than the global average, and the rest was from the speeding up of the flow of ice into the sea from glaciers, driven by the warming ocean.

Oceans have absorbed most of the excess heat arising from our disruption of the climate to date, and much of the carbon dioxide, but they are reaching the limits of their capacity to do so. Sea level rises are driven not only by melting ice but by the thermal expansion of the seas as they warm.

The paper adds that some experts are concerned that the IPCC's findings do not take into account the potential for “tipping points”, thresholds beyond which climate breakdown accelerates and becomes catastrophic and irreversible:

Louise Sime, a climate scientist at the British Antarctic Survey, said of the new paper: “This finding should be of huge concern for all those who will be affected by sea level rise. If this very high rate of ice loss continues, it is possible that new tipping points may be breached sooner than we previously thought.”

Have we now reached the point when, whatever we do, the devastating impact of climate change is now unstopable?

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

How the media is being manipulated in this General Election

Yesterday was extraordinary for two stories that went viral, and in one case threatened to derail the Tory General Election campaign. How those stories were handled by Conservative Central Office however, illustrates perfectly both the inadequacy of the scrutiny being applied to politicians by journalists, and how those promoting 'fake news' are seeking to manipulate our opinions.

As the Guardian reports, with just days to go until polling day, the Tories suffered one of their worst days of the campaign as Boris Johnson refused on camera to look at a picture of a sick four-year-old boy forced to sleep on a hospital floor and pocketed the phone of the reporter who tried to show it to him.

The paper says that the incident escalated when Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was dispatched to Leeds General Infirmary in an effort to show that the party was taking the case seriously. But Johnson’s team ended up trying to deflect the story on to Labour by wrongly briefing that a Tory aide was “punched” outside the hospital by a left-wing activist.

The claims quickly turned out to be untrue when video footage showed that the adviser was accidentally brushed in the face.

What is remarkable about the way the story about the poorly boy was handled is its treatment on social media. This thread by Dr Marc Owen Jones, who according to his twitter handle is an Assistant Professor of Middle East Studies at Durham University, illustrates how a viral campaign was launched to try and discredit the story:

[Thread]1/ This one is about the fake news claiming that a sick boy on the floor of a hospital in leeds was staged by his mother. We know the story is real, Dr Yvette Oade, chief medical officer at Leeds even apologised

2/ Firstly, the bots and sock puppet accounts are on the case on Twitter. As you can see, an identical tweet claiming the mother staged the photo was circulated on Twitter. It's literally copied and pasted, and the accounts are targeting it at various influencers

3/ Even more alarming is on Facebook. The exact same tweet is mentioned on dozens of fairly dodgy looking FB accounts. What's more, is that some of these posts are pasted into groups where they get liked and commented on, often by people who seem to believe it ... #bbcqt

4/ In one example, Jason Crosby pastes the tweet on the FB group for "Seaham Have Your Say". Seaham have your say is a page with 24k followers serving the North Eastern coastal town of Seaham. His post gets 91 comments and 26 shares.

5/ This one is even more egregious. The fake news post on the group March Cambridgeshire Free Discussion with 37k members has 235 comments and 28 shares. You can see the comments here, https://facebook.com/groups/550171758376588/permalink/2738102966250112/… - many call out the fakeness, others seem to believe it...

6/ It's interesting to note that in addition to targeting national level Facebook groups, a lot of these accounts are targeting influential local Facebook groups such as that of Cambridgeshire and Seaham. We know the role local FB groups are said to play in this election

7/ Meanwhile, back on Twitter, @Telegraph columnist @allisonpearson retweeted the copy and pasted tweet (of course in theory the text could still be genuine - but if so why is is circulated by weird sock puppets). Pearson 'presumes it is genuine'.

8/ It's 3.20 am here and I'm tired but I'll wager @allisonpearson is perhaps the most influential proponent of the faked floor theory. Stay tuned for her expose in the telegraph. I hope she interviewed the senior nursing sister! Night all !

9/ Last one. Interestingly @allisonpearson 'a retweet of what looks like a bot was then retweeted by @Fox_Claire (albeit with more caveats - not that it matters really) . Goes to show how potentially fake accounts and news can spread so insidious

10/ Important Update! Former England Cricketer @KP24 has tweeted to his over 3 million followers the same copy and paste fake news story perpetuating the myth that the boy on the hospital floor photo was staged. Crisis mode!

There is no better example of how our views and opinions are being manipulated through social media.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Is NHS data deal with Amazon the thin end of the wedge?

It is only a few days since the Sunday Times reported that NHS patient data may be exploited by US technology companies under a trade deal with America. They quoted leading trade economist, Alan Winters, who is director of the Trade Policy Observatory at Sussex University, that clauses on data sharing and algorithms US negotiators want inserted into a deal could be used to capture the value in NHS patient records, estimated at £10 billion a year.

It is disturbing therefore to find the UK Government roll over so quickly on this sort of provision by agreeing to a deal with Amazon, which will give them free access to healthcare information collected by the NHS. The material, which excludes patient data, could allow the multinational technology company to make, advertise and sell its own products.

The Guardian reports that the contract will allow the company access to information on symptoms, causes and definitions of conditions, and “all related copyrightable content and data and other materials”.

They add that Amazon, which is worth $863bn and is run by the world’s richest person, Jeff Bezos, can then create “new products, applications, cloud-based services and/or distributed software”, which the NHS would not benefit from financially. It can also share the information with third parties.

Is this the thin end of the wedge with regards to the sort of data that might be made available to US companies under a wider trade deal?

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Leaked documents show Labour's inability to stamp out anti-Semitism in its own ranks

The Sunday Times has a fairly sensational but nevertheless unsurprising story about the inability of Labour to cope with a rising tide of complaints regarding anti-Semitism in its own ranks.

The paper refers to a massive leak of secret documents which reveal the party is still overwhelmed with complaints about anti-Jewish racism that have been left unresolved for months or years. They say most have resulted in lenient punishments or no sanctions, according to the documents, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s election campaign claims of zero tolerance:

In a leaked audio recording from the party’s disciplinary committee in late October, a Labour official complains that more than 130 cases remain outstanding even though the “vast majority” were reported to the party 18 months ago. One unresolved case had been on Labour’s books for more than three years, according to the recording.

Some of the cases in the files are disturbing, with Labour members likening Jewish people to killer viruses, labelling them “bent nose manipulative liars” and calling for the “extermination of every Jew on the planet”.

One Labour member from Nottingham wrote that “Jews represent a viral infection that need to be completely eliminated” and said he wanted the “complete extinction of all Jews”. It took more than 10 months for the party to expel him after his case was first reported in 2018.

Lord Macdonald, a former director of public prosecutions, said the member in question had clearly committed a racial hate crime. Labour refused to say whether it had referred him to police.

Another member was allowed to stay in the party after allegedly confronting a veteran councillor at a Labour meeting and shouting that he “licked the bum of Jews for money”.

The secret files show half of 100 anti-Semitism cases between last summer and this May involved a warning or no action at all. Some members were told to attend “diversity training” although Labour has not set up such a scheme despite promising to do so.

Other members were let off without punishment this year despite posting comments about Holocaust denial and distortion, sharing articles about “a Jewish agenda to obtain the conquest of the gentile world” and saying it was justified to “have a dim view of the Jews”.

As the Times says, The disclosures blow apart claims made during the election campaign by Corbyn that anyone responsible for anti-Semitism was “suspended or expelled” from the party and paint a picture of the party’s disciplinary process in disarray. The paper continues by listing examples of the evidence in the files, showing the severity of some of the anti-Semitism in the Labour party:

A Labour member from Birmingham was subject to a complaint after posting on Facebook that the Red Sea was the “ideal destination” to get rid of the Jews “who are a cancer on us all” before adding, “no need for gas chambers anyway gas is so expensive and we need it in England”. It took eight months for him to be expelled from the party after he was suspended by Labour last year.

Another female member based in East Sussex described Sajid Javid, the chancellor, as a “treacherous choc ice” for making comments that were supportive of Israel. She is said to have resigned from the party before a hearing could take place.

Other Labour members’ posts include claims that: “IRA murderers took their cue from Jews”; Jews were behind the 9/11 attacks; and the family of the former Jewish Labour MP Margaret Hodge were “rancid and “all in it together . . . the family of Israel”.

All very disturbing and not worthy of any politic party, never mind one that seeks to become the government of this country.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

The polluting impact of Christmas jumpers

Research by the environmental charity, Hubbub suggests that Britons’ love of novelty Christmas jumpers is helping to fuel the world’s plastic pollution crisis.

The Guardian reports that Hubbub has shown that because most new sweaters contain plastic, the garment has become one of the worst examples of fast fashion, now recognised as hugely damaging to the environment.

Its analysis of 108 garments on sale this year from 11 high street and online retailers – including Primark, George at Asda and Topshop/Topman – found that 95% of the jumpers were made wholly or partly of plastic materials. Twelve million jumpers are set to be snapped up this year, despite sixty five million already languishing in UK wardrobes:

With so-called Christmas jumper day – an annual publicity push by the charity Save the Children – looming on Friday 13 December, millions of consumers are expected to scour shops for eye-catching festive woollies.

Hubbub’s research found that two out of five Christmas jumpers are only worn once over the festive period, and one in three adults under 35 buys a new Christmas jumper every year.

The plastic fibre acrylic was found in three-quarters of the jumpers tested, with 44% made entirely from acrylic. However, only 29% of consumers realised that most Christmas jumpers contain plastic.

A recent study by Plymouth University found that acrylic was responsible for releasing nearly 730,000 microfibres per wash, five times more than polyester-cotton blend fabric and nearly 1.5 times as many as pure polyester.

Sarah Divall, the project coordinator at Hubbub, said: “We don’t want to stop people dressing up and having a great time at Christmas but there are so many ways to do this without buying new. Fast fashion is a major threat to the natural world and Christmas jumpers are problematic as so many contain plastic. We’d urge people to swap, buy secondhand or rewear, and remember a jumper is for life not just for Christmas.” Its tips for eco-friendly options include customising existing sweaters and hunting for charity shop and vintage bargains.

Personally, I do not own a Christmas jumper, nor do I intend to purchase one. However, I do have a Christmas tie, which I roll out every year.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Tory Ministers backing Islamophobia

The Prime Minister may claim that the Tory Party have zero tolerance for candidates and members who exhibit Islamophobic tendencies, but somebody appears to have failed to pass that message onto his ministers.

As the Guardian reports, at least four ministers have gone on election campaigning trips to endorse Tory candidates facing allegations of Islamophobia since the claims against them came to light:

In constituency visits that appear to contradict Boris Johnson’s repeated claim that the party has a “zero tolerance” stance on the issue, Sajid Javid, Matt Hancock, Andrea Leadsom and Thérèse Coffey have thrown their weight behind the accused candidates – all of whom are fighting in key marginal battlegrounds.

Incidents include one candidate who argued that Muslims have divided loyalties, as well as blaming immigrants for bringing HIV to Britain, and another who retweeted posts from former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson.

Johnson himself has also posed shaking hands with a Conservative candidate accused of sending an anti-Muslim tweet to Nobel Peace prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, 22. It is understood the photograph was taken after the party became aware of the tweet.

Nick Lowles, chief executive of anti-racism charity Hope Not Hate, is absolutely right when he says: “For Conservative Cabinet members to be campaigning openly for candidates who are facing serious accusations of anti-Muslim prejudice is nothing short of hypocrisy after Boris Johnson promised a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to Islamophobia.

“There is no question that many of the individuals concerned should have been suspended and no responsible politician should be helping them into parliament – they should be doing the opposite and stopping them.”

As with Labour over anti-Semitism, it seems that the Tory Party are incapable of resolving this issue and getting their own house in order.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

The big lie: 'Brexit will be done at the end of January'

Those who still believe the lie being spouted by the Prime Minister amongst others that the Tories intend to get 'get Brexit done' by the end of January may well be shocked by this report in the Independent.

They say that EU leaders will spell out their plans for potentially years more Brexit talks on the day after the general election.

No, this is not a hoax, nor is it yet another trick by the EU to keep us in the club. In fact, these talks are an intrinsic part of the process of leaving the EU and have always been necessary, despite what Boris Johnson might tell us. These talks are necessary to deliver a future trade agreement, and they will take longer than the 12 months the Government claim is needed:

In a striking deja vu, the leak shows the leaders are to confirm that Michel Barnier will reprise his role as chief negotiator, that there would be no side deals with individual member states, and that the issue would come to a head at a string of make-or-break EU summits.

A new no-deal cliff edge would also see the UK potentially leave without a trade agreement to replace the EU's single market at the end of 2020 – with possible extensions, as now.

The EU's 27 presidents and prime ministers will meet in Brussels for a summit on election day, when they will formally confirm the plans, which have already been drawn up by diplomats and officials behind the scenes. If previous summits are a guide, the final version is likely to be published either late on December 12 after the close of polls in the UK, or the next day, December 13. Downing Street has already confirmed Mr Johnson will not attend the meeting to focus on the election.

The leaked draft European Council conclusions seen by The Independent, which are marked as classified information level "LIMITE" or restricted, say that "negotiations should be organised in a way that makes the best possible use of the limited time available for negotiation and ratification by the end of the transition".

The transition period is set to end next December but is extendable for years beyond that with the consent of the EU. The Government says it will not extend the transition, but has also said this prior to every extension of Brexit negotiations and always extended them.

They also add: "The European Council welcomes the Commission's decision to reappoint Michel Barnier for the negotiations on the future relationship. The negotiations will continue to take place in a coherent manner and in a spirit of unity and transparency with all Member States. The negotiations will be conducted in continuous coordination and permanent dialogue with the Council and its preparatory bodies.

"The European Council will follow negotiations closely and agree further general political directions as necessary. Between European Council meetings, the General Affairs Council and Coreper, assisted by a dedicated Working Party, will ensure that the negotiations are conducted in line with the overall positions and principles agreed by the European Council as well as the Council's negotiating mandate, and provide further guidance as necessary."

The agony looks like continuing irrespective of who wins the General Election.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

More dirty Tory cyber tricks

The Tories have been caught out again playing fast and loose with their online campaigning. As I noted a few weeks ago, they have already doctored videos of Keir Starmer and Jess Phillips and changed the name of its Conservative campaign headquarters press office Twitter account, which is followed by nearly 76,000 users, to factcheckUK from its usual CCHQPress.

Now they have been accused of buying up a website address in the name of a Labour candidate – to tell voters to “stop Jeremy Corbyn.”

As the Independent reports, the domain name margaretbeckett.com – instead of promoting the former Labour foreign secretary, a candidate in Derby South – reads ‘Don’t Vote Labour’ and attacks her voting record.

A video of her Conservative rival, Ed Barker, carries the banner: “As the Labour candidate hasn’t set up her own website, I thought I’d do one for her.”

It seems that anything does go in this election.

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