Tuesday, 30 December 2014

In the News?

  Every now and then I take the time to analyse the visits that this site receives and to try to form a picture of where the interest is coming from. Broadly speaking that means building up a profile of which posts and articles are the most popular, which inbound links are attracting the most hits and from which sources. All anorak stuff, but useful if the object of the exercise is ultimately to reach a wider audience.

This week I have noted a good amount of traffic coming over from a site called News360. Naturally I knew nothing of News360, so curiosity dictated that I would take a look and see what the site was about.

News360, it appears, is a smart app which analyses a user's behaviour whilst online and from this information takes a view on what that particular user might be most interested to take a look at on the web.

For whatever reason News360 believes this humble blog and sundry of the articles contained herein to be of interest to certain of its own subscribers, and has published a recommendation accordingly to its customers. This is of course most welcome as it leads to more visits, and more interest in the blog.

Whether or not this will catch on I don't know, but even now it certainly demonstrates the importance of writing and posting good quality material. I'm hoping that in its own very modest way this blog is fulfilling this objective already.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Plane Speaking - A Simple Aspiration for 2015

One thing I really enjoyed doing as a teenager, believe it or not, was visiting airports, jotting down aeroplane registration numbers and marking them off in a purpose-bought book.

It might seem a million miles away from radical politics, rock music and getting drunk, but everybody needs a benign release from the challenges of a confrontational existence and for me it was the simple practice of spending a day - whether it was at a remote airfield, a major air show or at the local park under the Heathrow runway with a pair of binoculars - ticking off numbers from my CAM* or my JP*, or my various disjointed and semi-official records of military aircraft resident in the UK.

My plane spotting "career" began in 1976 with a dedicated visit to London Heathrow with a couple of friends. The object of the exercise was quite simply to "spot" as many individual aircraft as was possible, recording their "reggies" (Sp?) and then crossing them off neatly in the relevant book. Once a particular aeroplane had been spotted once it was henceforth rendered superfluous. No second spot was necessary.

HEATHROW

Of course Heathrow had its own aircraft fleets, and so the persistent spotter would in the fullness of time collect the full list of, say, British Airways aircraft, which were virtually all based there. Then there would be those aircraft which were based elsewhere, primarily from foreign airlines, but which would visit Heathrow on a regular basis on their scheduled flights to London. And then thirdly, and most excitingly, there would be those which did not visit as a matter of course but which were making unexpected or (to us) unexpected calls - private or "light" aircraft, unscheduled airlines, flights diverted from other airports, long-haul aircraft from close neighbouring countries sent in place for whatever reason of the usual short-range vehicles, or even the occasional military visitor (the USAF Starlifter and the Hercules from the Royal Saudi Air Force were two which made a number of appearances if I recall correctly). Then of course there were the Soviet airliners of which, although they were scheduled, the State airline Aeroflot had so many of that one never seemed to see the same one twice.

Such was the law of diminishing returns that each visit to Heathrow (or to the local park) tended to bag less new spots than had the previous one. Pretty soon all that was to be had from such expeditions was the occasional unexpected arrival. When that scenario had begun to become the norm visits to every airport and airfield other than Heathrow rapidly became the order of the day.

A day out at Gatwick with my friends was always an enjoyable experience. Not only did it host its own fleets of aircraft (British Caledonian, Dan Air, the equally ill-fated Laker Airways and the BA-owned British Airtours among them) and receive its own regular visitors from usually lower league foreign airlines, but it was also a very short and handy train ride from Redhill aerodrome (alight at Salfords station, not Redhill, and follow a long country lane), which was home not only to Bristow Helicopters but also probably a hundred or so very small privately-owned machines. Ordinarily such airfields were out of bounds to the public, with all manner of diabolical disinducements threatened to those who might be tempted to breach the instructions which shouted out from stark notices atop the barbed wire fence, but being mere youngsters we were always welcomed whenever we arrived cautiously at the hangers beyond and were even permitted to walk around them unsupervised. This in fact was the case at most of not all of such airfields around the South East - Booker, Denham, Elstree and Blackbushe to name but a few.

MILITARY BASES

Less accessible, perhaps understandingly, were the military bases. RAF Northolt was for me not very much further away from home than Heathrow. It was where the Queen's Flight British Aerospace BAe125s were based, and the sight and sound of a Hercules roaring over my head at the perimeter fence at a hundred feet or less was to die for.

But the best days out were always to be had at the air shows. I could never decide whether I preferred the military shows and the plethora of never-to-be-seen-again modern fighters, bombers and air trainers of sundry European and international air forces that they featured, or Farnborough, the king of air shows, which always showcased the latest designs in civil aviation as well as the more eccentric regular turns such as the Lockspeiser LDA-01 Land Development Aircraft and the car-sized Bede BD5, as well as sundry "old faithfuls" including ever-present civilian-registered Harriers, Hawks and sundry World War Two models.

As useful exercises go collecting aircraft numbers must rank alongside sweeping up leaves in a windstorm or standing on the hard shoulder of the M1 counting cars, but it is so strangely therapeutic. I'm not sure I could ever find the time or the patience to return to it as a scientific endeavour, but one thing I am determined to do sometime in 2015 is visit an air show and savour that ambience once more.

*Civil Aircraft Markings published annually by Ian Allen, and JP-World Airline Fleets

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Friday, 12 December 2014

Is Zero Hour Approaching for the Royal Mail?

As an employee of the Royal Mail I would assume that I am under some kind of contractual obligation not to discuss the workings of the company, and I’m cool with that.

Not that I am privy in any way to its inner dealings or the strategies being followed by those whose job it is to set the direction of the business, of course. Indeed many of my colleagues would probably argue that they are usually the last to know anything that is going on, but upon that I couldn’t possibly comment. I am, presumably, entitled to express a view on those things that are in the public domain, and to have an opinion on where the mail service in the UK is likely to be headed over the next few years or so.

UNIVERSAL SERVICE OBLIGATION

The Royal Mail, uniquely, is committed by the terms of its charter to honour what is known as a USO, or Universal Service Obligation. This compels it to undertake deliveries to every address in the United Kingdom six days a week, no matter how remote or difficult to access they may be. In doing this it must operate a common charge to all customers, whether a letter is being sent to one’s next door neighbour or to a hermit living on the top of a Scottish mountain or in a tent in the middle of Dartmoor. That is the deal, from which the service is not permitted to deviate.

It would seem the political establishment has decided, in its wisdom, to introduce the principle of competition into the world of mail delivery. On the surface of it this may not seem unreasonable; competition can be a healthy thing which challenges the complacency that comes with monopoly and offers the customer a choice. Competition can bring out the best in the provider of a service and ensure that it ups its game.

The problem with what is being offered in this particular instance is that that competition will not be operating on a level playing field. Unlike the Royal Mail, potential rivals such as TNT/Whistl are under no obligation to deliver to less profitable destinations, but rather will be able to pick and choose where they deliver, and when, and at what cost to each particular area. Whilst the Royal Mail must use at least some of the profit it generates from the service it provides in the more populated regions to subsidise the losses it will inevitably make in more remote parts of the country, competitors will have the freedom to operate in the more lucrative areas whilst leaving the rest to the Royal Mail. The outcome must inevitably be that the Royal Mail will lose income in the towns and the cities, making it more difficult to provide the necessary subsidies to rural destinations.

EFFICIENCIES

This case has been put, thus far unsuccessfully, by Royal Mail’s management to the government. In rejecting the case, the government is insisting that there remains scope for the Royal Mail to introduce more efficiencies into the service it currently provides.

There is always, of course, room for improvement in any organisation. I am sure there are ways yet to be discovered in which the current service can be redesigned and realigned to provide more bang for its buck. But to achieve the massive changes that will be needed to allow it to compete on anything approaching level terms with the newcomers who are being given every encouragement to enter the field the service will need to be completely transformed on an absolutely fundamental level. Thus far all concerned parties have steered very well clear of any mention at all of this particular elephant in the living room.

The Royal Mail is an industry which has developed organically over a period of almost 500 years, having first appeared in an admittedly primitive form under Henry VIII. Today it employs over 150,000 staff, is unionised and pays its workers a reasonable wage as well as offering holiday and sick pay. Inevitably there are grumbles from the shop floor from time to time about the treatment of employees - some justified, others less so - but anybody who has worked in the “hire 'em, fire 'em” environment much favoured by successive recent governments, as I have, will know just how reassuring it feels to enjoy some kind of protection in the workplace. Under the present conditions it is very likely that competitors will be minimum wage employers, possibly operating zero-hours contracts, and under terms which sidestep the requirement to provide even the most basic of employment protections and benefits. When the Royal Mail is being told it has room for further “efficiencies” which will enable it to compete with all comers, it doesn’t take a genius to work out where the powers that be are looking to take us.

REDEPLOYMENT

My guess is that once competition opens up, possibly as early as next year, the Royal Mail will be forced into a position where it will need to try to compete on similar terms. The unions will not - cannot - accept the redeployment of their current members on vastly inferior terms so it is perhaps inevitable that a large-scale diminution of its current workforce will follow, initially and hopefully solely through the use of voluntary redundancy payments, accompanied coterminously by the redesignation of those who remain, and the simultaneous employment of new staff (possibly sub-contracted) with different job descriptions, different uniforms but essentially a replacement for the traditional postie.

For those who think I am being sensationalist, I have seen this happen before - indeed I have been part of the project. As a Duty Manager at Skycaps at London Heathrow Airport I was paid considerably less than the shop-floor former porters whose jobs the company had replaced, and who had been reassigned to other duties. It happens.

Just how much dedication and loyalty these dispensable, ten-a-penny, untrained (some untrainable), high turnover, completely unmotivated employees will have for the company I will leave to the imagination of the reader. But old King Henry must be turning in his grave.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

A Class War is Raging in Britain, But Only One Side is Taking Punches

By John Wight

Go into any supermarket in the run up to Christmas and you will likely see a shopping trolley by the door designated for donations to your local foodbank. For many of us the idea of walking past it without donating jars, forcing us to wrestle with a conscience that is particularly sensitive to poverty and need at a time of year when excess and greed is encouraged in advertising campaigns which leave no stone unturned when it comes to manipulation and mawkish sentimentalism.

Foodbanks are an abomination, an insult to the very word progress and nothing if not a symptom of a society that is headed over a cliff. They constitute proof that Tory Britain in the winter of 2014 is the last bastion of cruelty and inhumanity, where to be poor is regarded as a badge of personal and moral collapse rather than an inevitable by-product of an economic system which breeds poverty and its attendant social maladies - crime, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, etc. Those unfortunate enough to fall through the increasingly widening cracks in this race to the bottom are not regarded as victims of blind economic forces, but authors of their own despair and as such undeserving of anything excepting punishment.

THE FREE MARKET ISN'T FREE

The free market isn't free. Its cost is measured in human despair and truncated lives. That we have a situation in one of the richest economies in the world where people, including children, do not have enough to eat, is nothing short of a crime. And only those who have had their humanity surgically removed would seek to justify this crime on the basis of cutting a deficit that has risen rather than fallen under the present government.

Not only our basic humanity but also economic stability and efficiency dictates that the overriding purpose of any economy must be to serve the needs of society. Yet we currently operate on the basis that society must serve the needs of the economy. This by definition means an economy set up to serve the needs of the rich and connected, its success bound up with ever larger and more obscene executive salaries, bonuses, shareholder dividends, and rising property and asset prices.

An economic crash caused by the inherent weaknesses of the current economic system should have resulted in it and the philosophical and ideological foundations upon which it rests being completely discredited and discarded as unfit for purpose. Instead, and by dint of a propaganda campaign unleashed by the right, society's guns have been turned on the poor - the low waged, the unemployed, benefit claimants, and migrants. Walk into any Jobcentre and you could be forgiven for thinking that you'd made a mistake and instead walked into a courtroom, where people are routinely punished by those hiding being the the mantra of just doing their job.

Being sanctioned for such grievous infractions as turning up for an interview 5 minutes late is as easy as pressing a button on a keyboard for the one doing the sanctioning, but for the human being sitting on the other side of that desk it triggers a downward spiral of mounting despair, not to mention degradation and humiliation.

FOOD BANKS

The Trussell Trust, the largest provider of food banks across the country, has identified the spike in demand for their services as directly linked to an ever-tougher and brutal benefits regime, as has an All Parliamentary Inquiry Into Hunger across the UK. It leaves little doubt that what the victims of this benefits regime are living through is akin to a mass experiment in human despair.

This is bad enough, but with more and more incidents of suicide directly related to that despair, we have surely reached the point where enough is enough.

The economic logic behind austerity remains as flawed now as when first embarked on. Rather than understand the deficit as a consequence of a global recession decimating demand in the economy, with a sharp fall in tax revenues due to a sharp rise in unemployment, the government is intent on deepening the same cycle by introducing drastic cuts in spending in the forlorn hope that the private sector will invest and create new jobs to replace those lost. The jobs that have been created, trumpeted by the Coalition as proof that austerity is working, are largely low waged, part time, and/or temporary. A crap job is a crap job, no matter how you try and dress it up, with the fact that the majority of people claiming benefits in work a damning indictment of the yawning chasm between the haves and have nots in 2014.

BACK TO THE 1930s

As we approach Christmas we live in a country where 4 million people are at risk of going hungry, half a million children live in families that cannot afford to feed them, and 3.5 million adults can't afford to eat properly. We have been dragged back to the 1930s by a government whose conception of progress is to eradicate the poor rather than poverty and the hungry rather than hunger. If this is not a call to arms then what is?

The Tory response to this mounting despair came recently in the form of a Marie Antoinette-like declaration from Baroness Jenkin that, "Poor people don't know how to cook".

Yes, there is a class war raging in Britain all right. The only problem is that up to now only one side has been taking punches.

Reproduced with acknowledgements to the Huffington Post.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

What if the Machine Stops?

I first became familiar with the Internet back in 1996, thanks to a forward-looking ICG supporter who took the trouble to treat me to an hour-long demonstration of its potential, and Caroline and I purchased our first fit-for-purpose computer (all 1.5 Gb of it) a year later.

Realising the inevitability of it becoming the primary means of mass communication within a matter of years, I was reminded at the time of a short story that I read at school called The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster, written as a nod to H.G. Wells, in which the whole of mankind became dependent upon a solitary machine into which everybody connected and through which all social interaction took place.

Recently I found myself revisiting the book through Wikipedia, which gives the following account of its plot, which I quote at length: "The story describes a world in which most of the human population has lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. Each individual now lives in isolation below ground in a standard 'cell', with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. Travel is permitted but unpopular and rarely necessary. Communication is made via a kind of instant messaging/video conferencing machine called the speaking apparatus, with which people conduct their only activity, the sharing of ideas and what passes for knowledge. The two main characters, Vashti and her son Kuno, live on opposite sides of the world. Vashti is content with her life, which, like most inhabitants of the world, she spends producing and endlessly discussing secondhand 'ideas'.

"Kuno, however, is a sensualist and a rebel. He persuades a reluctant Vashti to endure the journey (and the resultant unwelcome personal interaction) to his cell. There, he tells her of his disenchantment with the sanitised, mechanical world. He confides to her that he has visited the surface of the Earth without permission and that he saw other humans living outside the world of the Machine. However, the Machine recaptured him, and he has been threatened with 'Homelessness', that is, expulsion from the underground environment and presumed death. Vashti, however, dismisses her son's concerns as dangerous madness and returns to her part of the world.

"As time passes, and Vashti continues the routine of her daily life, there are two important developments. First, the life support apparatus required to visit the outer world is abolished. Most welcome this development, as they are skeptical and fearful of first-hand experience and of those who desire it. Secondly, a kind of religion is re-established, in which the Machine is the object of worship. People forget that humans created the Machine, and treat it as a mystical entity whose needs supersede their own. Those who do not accept the deity of the Machine are viewed as 'unmechanical' and threatened with Homelessness. The Mending Apparatus – the system charged with repairing defects that appear in the Machine proper – has also failed by this time, but concerns about this are dismissed in the context of the supposed omnipotence of the Machine itself.

"During this time, Kuno is transferred to a cell near Vashti's. He comes to believe that the Machine is breaking down, and tells her cryptically, "The Machine stops." Vashti continues with her life, but eventually defects begin to appear in the Machine. At first, humans accept the deteriorations as the whim of the Machine, to which they are now wholly subservient. But the situation continues to deteriorate, as the knowledge of how to repair the Machine has been lost. Finally the Machine apocalyptically collapses, bringing 'civilisation' down with it. Kuno comes to Vashti's ruined cell, however, and before they perish they realise that Man and his connection to the natural world are what truly matter, and that it will fall to the surface-dwellers who still exist to rebuild the human race and to prevent the mistake of the Machine from being repeated."


Considering Forster wrote the story in 1909 it would appear to have been remarkably prophetic. We are not required to live under the ground (yet!), but apart from that the similarities with modern life and our dependence upon the World Wide Web are really quite staggering.

Just how would we cope if one day we were all to log into the Internet and nothing happened?

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Ballymore's "Anytown" Design for Brentford Waved Through by LBH's Planning Committee

Despite the meeting having inexplicably drifted on for several hours when Ballymore's bland design for Brentford High Street was discussed, the application was waved through as expected by majority party councillors on the London Borough of Hounslow's Planning Committee acting dutifully upon officers' recommendations. Few if any meaningful concessions were made to the Community Vision which had been painstakingly drawn up by residents and councillors. Typically the assumption was that the officers and planners understood the complexities of the planning process, whilst members of the Brentford community didn't.

Of them, only Councillor Mel Collins (Brentford) had the courage to break ranks, expressing the view that more could be done towards making the application acceptable to local people and proposing deferral pending more work on the design. Sadly he received no backers and was destined to remain the lone abstention amongst the majority party (Labour) councillors.

DISAPPOINTMENT

Some 200 local people in the public gallery made their disappointment known, with comments such as "Shame on you!" being directed at the unrepentant Committee members.

Although this outcome is a setback for the people of Brentford, there is still much to play for. Only approximately 40% of the design was approved outright with the remainder being outline approval, with full approval still to be given. With a concerted effort residents and traders still have a chance to limit the damage.

It is worth noting that very recently a former Hounslow Conservative councillor who had been a party to approving the infamous 2009 Mogden planning application by Thames Water, which resulted in a predictable (to us) increase in odour rather than the claimed reduction, made an unsolicited intervention on a local community Internet forum to scoff about the fact that he and his family had now moved away from the area and therefore no longer had to live with the consequences of his decision. One wonders whether the Labour councillors who so nonchalantly imposed this appalling eyesore on the people of Brentford will in a few years be similarly in a position to taunt their victims from a faraway country retreat.