Thursday, 27 March 2014

Debating Europe

I was interested today to see an item from Sir Richard Branson, stating his belief that the UK needs to stay in Europe. He makes a good economic case for it, and he is not alone. I note that the body that represents the major British companies makes the point that thousands of jobs and a large amount of the UK's income would be in danger if the UK decided to leave the EU. Not unexpectedly, on such a polarised subject, the comments appended to Sir Richard's well thought out argument range from the downright rude and typically 'anti-wealth' sort, full-on anti-EU in any form, through the 'it's-all-a-Nazi-plot-and-we'll-beat-them-again-in-a-fight-for-our-freedom', to the supportive.

We do need to get a more balanced debate going on this. I note most of the extreme anti-EU/anti-anyone-pro-EU comments seem to come from typical 'tabloid' type readers, but I dare say this is a generalisation which may be unfair. There are, of course, some very well informed people on the anti-EU side of the argument, and they are worth reading and engaging. At the other end of the spectrum there are others who feel the debate can't be had at all, and shouldn't be, and the whole does seem to be complicated by our politicians inherent ability to obfuscate, conceal motives and generally not play with a straight bat. Plus, the Whitehall penchant for using every EU Directive to 'gild the lily' and gold plate their badly written and often conflicting 'regulations'.

There are good arguments on both sides of the debate, not least being that the Pound Sterling is a very strong currency at present, and any attempt to bring it into the €uro is likely to cause major problems. There is also the problem of England's, in particular, ancient legal system which is at odds with the systems in use in Europe. The funny part of that is that many in the UK think that the European systems do not have the same 'protections' built into them as is the case with English Common Law - and they are wrong. If anything most European systems are stricter and more demanding on standards of evidence and protection of the innocent. Some even give the victims of any crime a say in court with the victim having counsel alongside the Prosecutor. Where there is a misunderstanding on this in the US and the UK is that there are no Juries, but there is an extremely rigorous review of the evidence for a prosecution at each step of the way - so when someone is finally accused and brought to trial, the evidence is generally pretty strong. Of course there are failures - but show me how the English or the US system is free of error.

Put simply, the UK system allows the courts to determine what the relevant law means in most cases, and builds up a body of 'Case Law' which is used in all future cases involving that legislation. In Europe the law means what it says and the application of it is left to local enforcement, with the court acting in a more refereeing capacity to determine the 'degree of guilt' involved in the breach of it. Thus, while most EU member states take a 'directive' and paste it into their statute books, in the UK a two page Directive can become a hundred page document full of if, but, maybe and 'wriggle' space. As a lawyer friend once remarked, it is the principle of English Law that if it isn't specifically forbidden, it is permissible, and regulations are always read looking for a way to avoid compliance. I suspect this is what frightens many on the 'anti-EU' side of the debate - they don't want to give up being able to evade complying with anything they can.

Recently there has been much debate about the UK taking the same position as Switzerland or Norway and being 'affiliated' to the EU as part of a trading bloc, but not within it. That does overlook a couple of elements, the first being that Switzerland is now having to open up more of its activities to scrutiny, without really having much influence in the affairs of those demanding it. The reason is that they have enjoyed being a Tax Haven, and now the chickens have found a roost. Germany bought a CD quite openly and discovered the extent of tax evasion by people who, frankly, should know better. One has now been convicted and will spend three years in jail, and repay the €28 million he evaded. Even Norway is finding itself having to comply with EU regulations in return for its 'special' status, and I am convinced that they and the Swiss will eventually join up fully.

A part of the argument that, for me, makes much more sense, is that of sheer size as a trading bloc. Britain has lost almost all of its heavy industrial capacity, for reasons I won't enter into here, and is no longer self-sufficient in food or energy production. It is possessed of a welfare system that is more generous and more expensive than anyone else's and its politics and the penchant for boycotts, sanctions and so on among sections of its body politic, have isolated it from many of the markets it enjoyed up to the 1950s. Yes, we are a nuclear power, and we have the four ISBN submarines to prove it, even though, under Mr Blair, and now Mr Cameron, we don't have a full outfit of missiles for all of them and none actually carry a full complement of warheads anyway. Our Fleet has been run down and reduced to the point, almost, of being a coastal defence force, with fewer Type 45 destroyers than we actually need, and most of its ships so specialised they are probably not suited to the types of operation they are now called upon to conduct - such as anti-piracy patrols. Our Army is being further reduced, from 102,000 to 82,000 and the plan is to increase the 'part-time' soldiers of the TA to 30,000 to make up the difference. Then there is the question of the RAF. Some of their aircraft cost almost as much as a small ship, and they've been cut as well.

So how do those who argue that 'Britain will stand alone again against the Fourth Reich' propose to do so? With what? The days we could turn just about anyone into a sailor, soldier or airman, churn out destroyers, frigates and aircraft carriers, tanks, bombs, shells and aircraft in weeks or months are gone. The shipyards, factories and resources are gone, and even in WW2 Britain never actually stood alone - she had all her colonial and Dominion and Empire Forces totalling almost a million men, plus their factories and resources to call on. It really is time to drop that particular pipe dream. Those days are over, we are a small, overcrowded, and probably over governed island, a small and increasingly insignificant fish in a world which sees one of our former 'possessions' now operating a larger and more powerful fleet than our own.

As I see it, Britain needs to think again about our relationship with Europe. We can be a part of it, and yes, it does need to be restructured and reformed, or we can be a small and largely annoyingly irrelevant offshore refuge for tax evaders and destination for tourists. True, we have some oil and gas reserves offshore (and possibly on land) but then there is that welfare bill to pay. If we join Europe properly, and play it to our advantage, we can continue to exert a powerful influence in the world alongside the rest of Europe. Together Europe has a better punch in terms of Defence, in economic clout (why do we think the US finacial markets expend so much effort talking down the €uro?), in terms of political punch and in manufacturing output. But, we need to look very carefully at what does work for everyone in the UK, and what could be made better. Our biggest problem is we think in the short term only, this month, this quarter, this year - we need to break that mould and find a better way to think and plan. We need a vision.

Sir Richard's 'vision' (with many other entrepreneurs and businessmen) is to stay in Europe and to find a way to make a United Europe work for everyone. We can embrace that, or we can turn inward, to a pre-Tudor "Little England". I know which one I prefer.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Science versus Dogma; The Teaching Methods versus Learning Dichotomy

Some days ago, my good friend Josephus, a man some may know, very well versed in the subject of 'teaching' and 'learning', sent me an article from The Spectator. Somewhat provocatively titled "Teacher Trainings War on Science", it discusses the conflict between what is taught in teacher training colleges and courses today, with what scientific studies of how children learn tells us about how best to teach. For at least the last fifty years, teachers have been taught, and curricula arranged, around the concept of 'facilitating learning' and 'encouraging' development by surrounding a child with tasks designed to expose them to information and knowledge which, so the theory goers, they will successfully 'absorb'.

My own experience at school rather inclines me toward the scientific results, which is that the best way to impart the basic knowledge is by 'rote' and 'lecture' or 'I tell; you listen and absorb' sessions. Once the key knowledge is in place, the wider skills of application, understanding, analysis and so on can be developed. Now I have to confess that I am in two minds about some, at least, of this. Again, my own experience suggests that MY learning style (and I stress it is individual) is that I learn best as part of a group. Certainly in my primary school days, a lot of this was learning by 'rote' with the whole class reciting the Multiplication Tables, or following the teacher's pointer as he or she had us read words from a blackboard, or do sums and so on. We learned to recognise certain relationships between numbers and sets of numbers or letters. Unconsciously, we were learning to apply the basic knowledge we'd acquired by 'rote'.

Josephus, in his note accompanying this wrote - 
I'd get boring if I tried this one, a result of being an BEd undergrad in the early 70s, two years of Masters research mid/late nineties into curriculum design and seven years of EdD post-grad research more recently.
The two ideas that have influenced me though are firstly, the words of a fellow student at Birmingham who, like me, focused on working professionals (Nurses) rather than children.  She told us one day that her faculty had just commissioned a series of six, new-build, tiered lecture theatres (I had told our group how the ones at the College were being used less and less as the government had told us that "lectures don't work.") for the first-year nursing undergrads.  Apparently, in the seminar and study group environment of the first of the then "new" nursing graduate courses, all the (mostly young girls) could contribute was a discussion about their mobile phones, so semester one of the course became didactic knowledge transfer in the lecture room, lecture wall to wall week after week; semester two could then have discussion groups developing understanding from the knowledge imparted in those lectures.
The second one is from my favourite educational psychologist, still not popular but more approachable in modern translations (He was a pre-Stalin era Russian.) 
"Practical experience also shows that direct teaching of concepts is impossible and fruitless.  A teacher who tries to do this usually accomplishes nothing but empty verbalism, a parrotlike repetition of words by the child, simulating a knowledge of the corresponding concepts but actually covering up a vacuum."
Vygotsky, L. (1986)  critical analysis of thought and language  MIT Press; Boston, Mass.
The third question I often dwell upon relates to several photographs of "learning environments" that I used for some outline research in 2006,  most people I surveyed who could read, write and count, preferred the image of 1950s children sitting at attention, some with hands on their heads, to the brightly decorated, small group tables of the modern primary school room when asked to think about multiplication tables. 
Now, according to the scientific study, that acquisition of the base knowledge is not being efficiently acquired, and this impacts heavily on the performance of the students as they advance through their education. That would certainly seem to be in accordance with my experience again. Through contracting a rather nasty illness just at the start of my High School years, I missed the vital foundations as my contemporaries started to learn Algebra. I never managed to catch up, and, as anyone who has done Mathematics knows, Algebra is more or less the absolute 'key' to Trigonometry and almost all the rest of Mathematics. Ironically, Geometry I mastered - because I was able to learn a great deal of the underlying principles by 'rote', but Trigonometry remained a mystery as did Algebra. That has had a major influence on my career path, closing the door to my original ambition of 'going to sea', and even in my ultimate career as a firefighter/fire officer, I eventually had to (in my 30s) get lessons in the basic mathematics that had stumped me at school in order to pass the promotion exams, make sense of hydraulic formulae and eventually develop my knowledge in the 'engineering' required for fire safety enforcement.  

The Spectator article has the statement, from the thinking prevalent in Teacher Training - 
Schools and traditional subject boundaries are silos which stifle the natural creativity we all have within us. And this last fact especially: there is no point teaching a body of knowledge, because within a few years it will be outdated and useless. Don’t teach the what, teach the how. ‘Drill and kill’ and ‘chalk and talk’ will lead to passive and unhappy pupils.
This is where it does get rather interesting, since, as I've said above, I have found that the knowledge I did acquire in the 'old' methods of 'Drill and Kill' and 'Chalk and Talk' was what stuck most effectively, and has been absolutley vital in my later learning. Even as an adult, I needed and still need, the stimulus of listening to someone knowledgable to fire up what passes for my intellect and to give me the basic foundation on which I can build some new understanding or knowledge. Perhaps the 'educationists' do need to reconsider their position. The more we learn about how our brains work, and about how we learn, the more it appears the Educational Establishment needs to adjust their ideas. 

Something both Josephus and I have noted increasingly over our years in training and Adult education is that 'skills' and 'base knowledge' we took for granted in our generation, were simply not present in our students. Where we could stand in front of a class and do mental arithmetic on a white board, our students were frantically trying to find calculators and it came down to what we were carrying around in our heads from our days at school. As Josephus said at the tail of his letter - 
Funny how we of a "certain age" can still carry out mental arithmetic in our dotage when rote learning is so terribly ineffective...
As is said in another field - the science would seem to be 'settled' on this. The evidence is there, but I suspect there are a lot of careers now so vested in denouncing 'rote' learning and teaching, it will take an earth shattering event to get a change. And that could be on the horizon, since the 'League Tables' so beloved of Whitehall show that 'immigrant' students are outperforming their UK contemporaries. Whitehall refuses to break these down in a way that would permit anyone to identify the immigrant children's background or origins, but teachers themselves often remark on the fact that certain ethnic groups seem to have a better grasp of things that can be taught by 'rote' very efficiently, than the other children. One or two have made the connection - most of those immigrant children come from countries where 'teaching by rote' is still done, and, having learned the technique - that is how these kids study at home.

The final word from The Spectator
More and more teachers are realising the gap between the theory they are taught and their practical experience. More and more books are being published which explain the insights of cognitive science and the implications they have for classroom teachers. Instead of the warmed-through fads of the past century, I think the next few years will see evidence-based reforms that lead to genuine educational improvements.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Cleansing of the Christians ...

Today the blog Archbishop Cranmer carries an article "Disremembering Syria". What it reveals is simply appalling. If you have the stomach for it, please read it there. There are some appalling graphic images on the post.

Could this happen in the UK or elsewhere in Europe? Perhaps, especially if we continue to kowtow to extremism.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Blinded by the Bias ...

Sometimes one reads an article online which makes one sit back and wonder whether one is living in a parallel universe to the author. Some of the articles and comments on the subject of 'climate change' are a good example, but politics and, at the moment, the events in Ukraine and Crimea are fuel for many such. Today's prize must, I think, go to the Iranian Ministry of (Mis)Information which has announced that the US 'shot down' the missing Malaysian airliner in order to disrupt Iran's relations with China, Malaysia and Korea ...

The one that really caught my attention this week, however, was an article on a blog which asserts that the EU's 'interference' and 'breech of faith' in 'forcing' the Ukrainian government to sign up to full membership of the EU 'forced' Mr Putin to act to 'protect' Russia. The fact that this was written by someone who lives and works in the UK, and is an otherwise intelligent person (as I judge from the erudite articles he posts) I found a little disturbing. Though I know he is very anti-EU, this was stretching things in my mind. It didn't take me a lot of searching the find numerous articles from sources outside the EU (and therefore 'tainted' in the minds of the anti-Europe lobbies) that present a more balanced picture. It goes back a few years, and the Ukrainian 'dream' of joining the EU begins during the Presidency of Mrs Timoshenko, though it could predate her. It was the Ukrainians who, no doubt looking west over their border and seeing how standards of living in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Roumania and the Baltic States has risen far more rapidly than to their East, who wanted to join up and share this improvement.

Not unnaturally, the EU Heads of State (not the Commission), were cautious. Suggestions that they could also join NATO were dismissed, but not, it seems in the more rabid minds of some parts of the British and Russian Press. A 'Trade Agreement' was proposed by Brussels, but the Ukrainian government wanted more and that triggered unease in Russia. Timoshenko was swept from power in what is now said to have been the most massively 'rigged' election in a 'democratic' country and a pro-Russian (He is in fact an ethnic Russian whose family were 'transplanted' during the Stalin years) declared President. The negotiations with the EU promptly stalled and that rubbed salt in the wounds, made far worse when Mrs Timoshenko was dragged into court on what now seem to be very flimsy charges and jailed. Not unnaturally, the ethnic majority of Ukrainians made their feelings known in no uncertain terms, which provoked a Moscow directed response of suppression.

Listening to Ukrainians on our television, and reading their letters in the local press, one gets a different picture to that painted by some UK bloggers whose hatred of the EU seems to blind them to the realities of Moscow's very clear intention of retaining control of Ukraine no matter what. As Josephus pointed out in a previous post here, the Russians wish, for a variety of reasons, to retain a 'buffer' of satellite states between them and the west. There may well be historic reasons for this, but it does ignore the desires and wishes of the majority ethnic populations in all these countries. Stalin's relocation of entire populations are remembered with a great deal of anger, and in some areas that is further fuelling the problems. That is the situation in Crimea (which was never originally part of Ukraine) where the Crimean Tartar population was moved or suppressed and replaced by Russians (the Tartars still form 16% of the population), and it is mirrored in the eastern regions of Ukraine where Russian families were forcibly relocated to displace Ukrainians.

Many reports suggest that the 'citizens militias' that seized control of government buildings in Crimea and set up their own 'autonomous' government were Russian troops out of uniform and acting under orders from Moscow. As evidence it is said they behaved in a disciplines and co-ordinated manner, knew exactly who and what to target and blockaded the Ukrainian troops and ships with a precision that speaks of very careful planning. The Ukrainian Navy is, in fact, trapped in its harbour because a Russian naval vessel has been deliberately sunk across the entrance. The order to do that can only have come from Moscow.

But all of this seems to be ignored by the anti-EU press and bloggers in the UK. To them the 'enemy' is Brussels, the EU commission and everything to do with the EU. I can only wonder what they may be seeing in this that I am not. To me what is very clear is that Mr Putin is determined to expand the 'Russian Federation' back to the borders of the former USSR, to keep the former Soviet Republics firmly in Moscow's control and to restore control of the governments of the former Warsaw Pact countries to politicians 'friendly' to Moscow. He is ruthless enough to stop at nothing as the west should have learned from Chechnya, Georgia and now the Crimea.

One thing I have learned since I moved to live in Europe is that much of what is blamed on the EU in the UK, is in fact arising in Whitehall. It is Whitehall that deliberately (or perhaps incompetently) misinterprets, gold plates, abuses or extends every EU Directive. It is Whitehall that uses every Directive to extend their power and interference - and then blames the EU. Yes, there are some problems with the differences between European Legal systems and the English and Scottish systems, but these are constantly compounded in Whitehall - not in Brussels. It would be nice, just once, to see some balance in this debate, and a little truth in Whitehall, but I fear that will never be possible.

Maybe we need a Mr. Gorbachev. Some 'Glasnost' in the bureaucracies on both sides of the channel would be nice, but perhaps more importantly, some factual and unbiased reporting in the UK media would help as well. I suppose I can dream ...

Thursday, 13 March 2014

One speech you won't see widely reported in the UK ...

The Prime Minister gave a very interesting and strongly pro-Israel speech in the Knesset recently as reported in the Blog "The Elder of Zyon". I'm pretty sure the pro-Palestinian Foreign Office apparatchiks will be seething and I am even more certain it will have the usual anti-Israel rentamobs up in arms on our university campuses. It will probably also cost him votes in all the colonised Islamic constituencies of the UK.

Now it remains to be seen whether Mr Cameron can and will deliver on some of his promises. Of one thing I can be very sure, if Ed Miliband wins the next election, it will be back to the anti-Israel situation of the past. Labour did its best to prevent the establishment of the state of Israel, and is strongly alligned to the boycott, sanctions and disinvestment campaign. In recent years their electorate has shifted more and more to the Islamic population, and much of the legislation of the last Labour government provided the platform for the very stunts Mr Cameron mentions in his reference to attempts at 'citizens arrests' of visiting heads of state and public figures.

I shall watch the way this develops over the next eighteen months, with interest. But, given the history, and given the demographic shifts Britain has and is still experiencing with migration from strongly anti-Israel populations, I have no great hopes of any major advances in the attitudes to Israel or the countries achievements.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Rising Nationalism

I have previously written that I find 'nationalism' worrying, partly because i grew up and spent a large part of my life in a country divided by it, and finally isolated and, some would argue, now destroyed by it. So I watch the arguments made by English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Russian, Ukrainian and other 'nationalists' with some concern. It is my experience that the frontmen of 'nationalist' movements are often xenophobes, small minded men seeking power with a vision focused on a goal which may look desirable, but which is often unsustainable in the longer term.

It seems to permeate every society and it is probably the number one cause of conflict in the world. I know it is fashionable to blame religion, but when one really looks hard at the underlying causes, religion is frequently invoked as a 'cloak' beneath which a rather poisonous agenda is concealed. We are currently seeing something of this sort in the Middle East, in Eastern Ukraine and in the Crimea. Mr Putin is arguing in the Ukraine and the Crimea that "Russian citizens" are being threatened and that Russian Orthodox Churches being attacked by "separatists" and "agitators" and that this gives him the right to "protect" the ethnic Russians. Conveniently he ignores the fact that the Crimean crisis was sparked by Russian speakers overthrowing the interrim government set up in the wake of the overthrow of the Janukowski regime, and that the "concerned Russian citizens", according to many reports, were actually soldiers and sailors from the Russian bases there.

The real cost of the wests "Peace Dividend" now comes to the fore. We have cut back our defence capability to the point that we are now impotent. If Putin did decide to launch a takeover of the Ukraine, the Baltic States and the rest of Europe, we couldn't stop him. At least, we couldn't do so without resorting to nuclear strikes and we all know where that will lead. So, the peace campaigners of the 1960s and 70s could end up getting their wish. We could be 'Red' without even much of an effort from the Kremlin at the present rate of progress. And that leads me back to my starting point - nationalism. Possibly the only thing holding Mr Putin in check at the moment is the fact that within his "Federation" there are a large number of ethnic minorities, and each one cherishes some hope of one day being able to return to the "land of their fathers" from which they or their parents were often forcibly exiled under the Stalinist Regime.

In the west we already confront the problem of internal splits and divisions over ideology, over distribution of wealth and now of narrow nationalist interests promoted, quite often, by politicians who know they can never be big players or wield the kind of power they would like - so they focus on stirring up fear and discontent among their supporters and on attracting others to their cause. Then they can carve out a little fiefdom for themselves and pretend to be more important than they really are. Again and again we can see this on the pages of history, and repeatedly the majority of folk - who were usually quite happy with whatever dispensation existed - suffer the consequences when it all goes sour.

Many times I have asked myself why so many fall for these pipe dreams touted by people who are sometimes fairly obviously not on the same page as the rest of humanity. Partly, I suspect, it is because we like the status quo in terms of our own security, our cultural heritage (which is often a rather romanticised and sanitised version of the truth) and, whether we like to admit it or not, being associated with people from our own culture, skin colour and so on. We have a tendency when feeling insecure, to revert to our 'tribal' roots. So, the man bashing the loudest and most 'patriotic' sounding drum will be attractive to some of us at least. Never mind that his vision my, on closer scrutiny, be toxic, or that it may detrimental to everyone else's interests. It makes for a comfortable feeling at the moment - so we go with it and we don't dig too deeply, and we certainly don't ask questions. Those of us who do, generally find ourselves being reviled, "sent to Coventry", and even being forced out of society altogether.

Much of the anti-EU vitriol one sees regularly in the UK media falls into the category of narrow 'nationalism' and that is born out by the comments one sees whenever anything pro-EU is uttered or published. Perhaps one of the most stupid statements I come across regularly on reading anything about the EU - either for or against it seems - are statements like "it is the Fourth Reich", or "we beat them in 1939-45 and we'll do it again". Both of which make me wonder which planet the commentators live on and how many moons they can see at night. I could cite many, many more equally silly and sometimes downright stupid comments and statements, all of which lead back to a very narrow and nationalistic point of view. What troubles me as we contemplate the upheavals in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, the Ukraine and elsewhere is that these forces appear to be on the rise. In the Middle East the 'nationalism' is being masked by the involvement of Islamist idiots who want to bring about a new Caliphate, but the real underlying problems in Iraq, Syria and Turkey are nationalist/tribal and not religious.

I'm sure our politicians know all of this, but they choose to play along with the "it's all religious" view of the Middle East, even though it is now exposed by Mr Putin's Crimean and Ukrainian ambitions. The really scary aspect is that I believe our western political elites are frightened. They don't know what to do about it. The political systems and the bureaucracies they have created are no longer in touch with the electorates. Their 'governance' is being questioned on all sides by ordinary people, and those people want a return to a simpler, more locally based form of governance. We want to take power away from faceless bureaucrats and representation away from Party Hacks who pass unhindered from universtoty activism, via "Special Adviser" and Civil Service, to Member of Parliament/Congress or whatever. We want an end to the political classes looking after their cronies in commerce and industry and letting everyone else sink or swim. So we turn to small minded nationalism and localism - with all its attendant dangers.

My experience of 'nationalist' politics makes me wary of it, and of those who espouse it. I do not like the power wielded by bureaucrats, and I detest the self-serving politicians who seem to infest every government. I recognise the need to have a strong and representative government in place, and I also recognise the need to manage economies and the welfare of the populace, and therein lays my real dilemma - how best to achieve that without producing either the extreme localist nationalism, or the remote, overweaning 'internationalism' that appear to be the only alternatives at present.

Perhaps it is time we actually sat down and started considering where we are going as we allow small, petty, local politicians to drag us toward greater fragmentation in the west, while elsewhere the opposite is in progress, swallowing the small nationalist minorities one by one.

Answers, please, on a postcard.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Societies in Decline

Students of the wider sweep of history are very acutely aware, I suspect, of the manner in which societies - and their attendent cultural forms and influences - rise and decline. Sometimes they are violently overthrown and even eradicated by a more aggressive neighbour. Egypt versus the Hittites, Hittites versus the Assyrians, Babylon versus Assyria, Persia versus Babylon, Greece (Macedonia) versus Persia, Rome versus Greece, versus the Carthaginians, and so on. Along the way there is often an element of 'ethnic cleansing' - Rome's Punic Wars against Carthage, and their suppression of the Etruscan civilisation, spring immediately to mind - but that is the tip of the iceberg.

In the Far East there is a similar pattern of rise and fall of societies and cultures, each one weakening one society, often by simply killing off all males. There is evidence that this happened in Britain once the Angles and Saxons began a serious settlement invasion. Recent reading I have been doing on the subject of genetics and genetic diseases suggests, for me, a possible explanation as to why we are seeing an increasing number of genetic defects in the world's populations, and why, in some groups, we seem to be seeing a form of 'regression' physically and mentally. I must stress that I am NOT a geneticist. I have NO qualification in that field and I know only what I can access online, in paper journals and books on the subject. So what I think can be dismissed by those with far more knowledge as "speculation" - but I would hope that someone, somewhere, will be kind enough to consider this, and perhaps explain to me why I am wrong - or why I'm right.

Many now accept that western society is in decline. We have lost our competitive edge as the business phrase is, and our taste for military adventures. Our response to threats such as that posed by Iran or Mr Putin's Russia, is to retreat into hand-wringing appeals to their 'better nature' and launch into a flurry of 'diplomatic activity' and horse trading until someone, somewhere, can emerge waving a bit of paper and proclaiming "peace in our time". A century ago, we'd have sent a Fleet and bombarded someone until they saw our point of view. And that is part of the problem I am about to raise. Each of those 'little' wars culled sections of the human gene pool. Until the so-called Great War of 1914 - 1919, the numbers were actually quite limited - assuming one ignores things like the French losing 10,000 of their nobility at Agincourt, or Napoleon's loss of 100,000 men retreating from Moscow. In the Great War, however, all the European nations and their colonies threw the cream of their genetic pool into the trenches and carried out a cull of it on an industrial scale.

Then we repeated the folly barely twenty years later - and this time involved the rest of the world. Add to that, the Russian Bolshevik 'cull' now estimated at more than 30 million, and the Japanese 'cull' of Chinese in Manchuria and elsewhere (estimated at around 10 million), Mao's cull estimated at 100 million, and we have a stage set for a massive restriction in genetic diversity. The impact is probably most notable in the former British Colonies and Dominions since the "European" genetic pools in these countries was quite small, and their losses during the first and second World Wars disproportionately high. However, the Germans and their allies, and the Russians and their's suffered higher losses than everyone else in this conflict, and the French probably, in proportion, most of all. So why have we not seen the collapse of their populations before this?

Part of that answer is, I think, due to the fact that post 1945, their populations have grown, expanded and to some extent been replaced, by inward migration from all over Europe, and lately, from Africa and the Near East. The loss of genetic diversity among the 'native populations' has, to some extent been masked and the effects delayed by it. In Britain, where there has tended to be less 'mobility', I would suggest that the loss of genetic material has had a more visible and insidious effect. There has been a large increase - according to one source an above average increase, in the incidence of Multiple Schlerosis, Thyroid problems, Aspergers Syndrome, Parkinsons Disease and several other genetically caused disabilities. Given that we know it requires a minimum of 2.5 million people to provide the unrelated genetic diverstiy to prevent 'inbreeding' in any population and all the problems that causes (I'd love to know who the genius was that included the ban on marrying brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, cousins, etc., almost 3,000 years ago in the Bible), it does not take a genius to work out that a lot of this is down to 'bad genes'.

So where do they come from? Back we go to the 1914-19 and 1939 - 45 wars. All sides lost millions of young men. Young men at the height of their breeding capability, and at the point where the genetic material they carried was at its best. Then we subjected the survivors to diseases, to radiation, to chemicals and a range of conditions, stresses and diets guaranteed to cause genetic damage - and now we reap the results.

OK, so I'm not an expert. I'm not a biologist, and I'm certainly not a geneticist, but the more I read on this, the more I realise we have a serious problem. That we have compounded it by interfering in the process of 'natural selection' as well, just makes it worse. Who cannot be moved by the grief of parents who have a child whose only hope of survival at birth is a total replacement of all its organs? (There was a case of this a while ago where the NHS was sued to force them to provide it for a desparately ill baby) What does it actually achieve, given that the reason is the child's genetic blueprint is loaded with defects?

Yes, the World Population has exploded and expanded since 1945, largely due to the eradication of a range of diseases we were prone to and which the weakest members of our population gereally succumbed to. Infant mortality has fallen everywhere, more children survive to adulthood and breed, more adults survive beyond 45 years and some even breed into their sixties. All of which adds more genetic defects to the pool if the latest research saying that men over 30 are more likely to pass on defects than under that age. Children who died in their prepuberty often did so because they lacked resistance to certain common ailments, or had some defect in their systems which meant they couldn't cope with it.

For Europe, I would suggest that our gene pool was seriously weakened by the wars of the 20th Century, and though it is now diversifying again, it is simply widening the range of damaged genes we can use. As I said at the outset, I'd love to see what the real geneticists, biologists and experts say about this. So far I see and read a lot of skating round the edges, but, as far as I can see, no one is prepared to take a longer and wider look at it.

Maybe someone should.

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Outer Edge Reviewed

The Blogcritics reviewer, Marty Dodge, has posted a fantastic review of The Outer Edge at Blogcritics. It is always terrific for an author when someone says they liked your book, and that is certainly what he says in this review. He even goes so far as to suggest the whole Series of Harry Heron adventures could be made into a television series. I'd love to see that happen, and not just because I wrote the books, but because I'd love to see the story brought to life in that manner.

I was flattered by this comment in the review -
As with his last few novels, Cox has created quite the page turner that is just ripe for reading in one or two sittings. It is, as are the rest of the series, the perfect airplane novel that you can’t yet get in the airport. I read it in ebook form, and it is just perfect in that format. This is no doubt partly due to the subject at hand.
Please do take some time out to read what he's said about the story. It is now available in e-formats and in print versions.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Our Wonderful Language

The English language has some wonderfully anthropomorphic collective nouns for the various groups of animals. Consider these examples. 
We are all familiar with a:

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Herd of cows,

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Flock of chickens,
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School of fish

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a Gaggle of geese, and
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A Pride of lions.

However, less widely known is:
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A Murder of crows

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An Exaltation of doves

And, presumably because they look so wise:
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A Congress of owls.

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Now consider a group of Baboons. They are the loudest, most dangerous, most obnoxious, most viciously aggressive and least intelligent of all primates.........

And the proper collective noun for a group of baboons is -

Believe it or not ……. A Parliament

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That's right, A PARLIAMENT OF BABOONS! Pretty much explains everything doesn't it?

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Tension in the East

At present the world is focused on the tension between the Russian Federation and the Ukrainian people, and, as ever, there is a long history here, and a lot of deceit, passion and ambition. If one looks back in history, the Ukraine has had some very varied fortunes. It straddles one of the 'High Roads of History' and has seen waves of invaders from time immemorial. It has been 'occupied' by Ghengis Khan's hordes, it was once divided between the Ottoman Empire, Poland and Lithuania. Even the Hungarians have held parts of it at times, and from about 1400 onwards, the Russians have gradually absorbed more and more of it.

The people who identify themselves as Ukrainian have been deported, relocated, supplanted and suppressed, but they remain an ethnic and linguistic group. And they have, over the years held onto that no matter where they are, and, if possible, have drifted back to their land. The Crimea is a complicated problem on all sides, since it was not, except geographically, part of the original Ukraine, and its people were the Tartars, a largely Muslim group. Enter 19th Century politics, and the desire of Britain and France to prevent Russian influence spreading into the Middle East, and now we have the Crimean War in support of the dying Ottoman Empire. The outcome is probably best descriobed a stalemate, since Russia retained possession of the Crimea, the Ottomans lost territory and Britain and France got no more than a halt in Russian expansion. Add to this our support (by Naval bombardment) for the White Russian forces in the Black Sea and Ukraine-Crimea and you begin to see the background to the present difficulty.

Like the Georgians, the Tartars and the Ukrainians weren't too keen on the Bolsheviks who were mainly Russian, and fought for the White Russians, probably hoping to win their freedom from the Russian hegemony. Lenin and then Stalin exacted a ferocious revenge for that. Particularly under Stalin, large numbers of Ukrainians were deported from the eastern areas and replaced by ethnic Russians. The Tartars resisted, got 'cleansed', and then deported, and replaced by ethnic Russians again. Post 1945 western leaders - according to Josephus the Correspondent on this blog - may have been naive when they forcibly returned to Russia the captured Georgians and Ukrainians who had joined the German Nazi SS to fight against Stalin. The 40,000 Georgians were executed almost as soon as they landed, and the Ukrainians (some reports refer to two 'Divisions') simply vanished. No doubt some of the skeletons that turn up from time to time are all that remains of them.

The Ukrainians hoped, when the USSR broke up, to be able to restore their independence - lost since around 1600 - and become a part of the western European family of nations with which they identify themselves. They reckoned without the fact that the ethnic Russians, transplanted into their midst, would have none of it. Russia depends on the Ukraine for its supply of wheat. The Ukraine is not called the 'Bread Basket of Russia' for nothing. The problem for the Ukrainians is that, under the treaties binding them to Russia, it is the Kremlin that sets the price they get for it, and determines who they can sell to. Having all but exhausted the oil and gas reserves in the Ukraine, the Russians are now the suppliers of both commodities to that country - and again, the Kremlin dictates the terms, prices and conditions. Every winter in the last few years, the Kremlin has 'turned off' the supply to the western parts on one pretext or another, usually to prevent the sort of overthrow of their puppet regime we have just seen. And then there is the Russian military presence.

The Crimea is a complication. Until Kruschev placed it under the administrative control of Kiev in 1954 it was never a part of the Ukraine. Now, of course, it is essentially an armed camp, bristling with ethnic Russians and Russian troops. Not surprising, of course, since it is the base for the Black Sea Fleet, and the place where all the Russian Duma members have their holiday homes.

Josephus, in an email to me recently, summed it up like this -
I've been reading the BBC news pages on this topic and find some of the usual half-truths and blinding ignorance on display. 
However, they show maps of the ethnic demographic and the votes in the EU/Russia referendum.  The split is almost exactly linked to the ethnic identity in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.  Basically, those with EU neighbours wish to be closer to the EU and those with Russian neighbours whish to be closer to Mother Russia.  I find this totally understandable.
Putins actions, however are being misrepresented, yes he wishes Ukraine to remain a buffer state between him and NATO, it prevents him having a hostile boundary to "police".  The USSR had its buffer states, but they are now mostly EU, most notably Poland and the former GDR.
Putin has (knowing full well he would not be opposed directly) flooded Crimea with troops.  Bearing in mind that 58% of the population identifies as  ethnically Russian and that the Naval lease on the Sevastopol base runs until 2042 this will have been quite easy, it is also rumoured that officials are handing out Russian passports like sweeties.
BUT!  Crimea is not Ukraine, yes Kruschev handed it to the Ukraine Oblast in 1954 but it is a very separate region.  Ukraine could give Putin Crimea and hardly notice the difference.
The real question is "Can Ukraine consider itself one united country when 70%+ of the Eastern populace voted to stay East and 70%+ of the western to go West?"
Should Ukraine split itself along ethnic and language lines?
Bohemia certainly seems happy as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, such splits have been made within recent memory, the Balkans also provide examples, although not perfect ones.
Josephus has found the following images which explain something of the population split rather well.


The western powers find themselves caught on the horns of a dilemma here. Should Mr Putin get away with 're-incorporating' Ukraine into the Russian Federation as he evidently would like to do, who among the former Soviet satellite states will be next to be targeted? I suspect that this is a question many are asking privately, and many of the former Russian vassal peoples must be worried. We have seen his enforced partition of Georgia, and there has been a similar 'grab' of part of Moldova. Always the excuse is the same  - to 'protect' the interests of ethnic Russians. 

Funny how no one seems to make the link between these and a certain 'leader' in the 1930s and 40s who made similar claims. Nor does there seem to be any acknowledgement of the right of the majority populations to choose who their governors should be. The fact is that the Russians have consistently flouted the Geneva Convention articles which forbid ethnic transplantations and the seizure of territory from sovereign states by military force. If they are permitted to continue in this manner, what is to stop everyone else from doing the same? There has to be a line drawn in the sand somewhere - but I can't see the present collection of western politicians doing it.