Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?

After a hectic week following a holiday, I could have done with a rest this weekend, but we had decided to go on the People’s Vote march, so we headed back in to London yesterday. Fortunately the trains were, for once, running more or less as advertised, and it was a smooth journey to our meeting point off Pall Mall.

Like last year’s march, there was a long wait before we actually moved, and a lot of it was more like shuffling than marching. In the mean time we had a short address from Vince Cable, encouraging us for the metaphorical Long March ahead. PlacardWatch spotted some goodies, such as BREXIT IS NOT MY CUP OF TEA, BLUE FLAGS NOT BLUE PASSPORTS, or DR STRANGEMOGG. With an honorary mention for the obligatory DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING placard we saw later in the day, Best in Show award goes to the woman with the Sergeant Wilson stamp: JUST GET ON WITH BREXIT? DO YOU THINK THAT’S WISE, SIR?.

Despite the slow pace, we arrived at Parliament Square just as the speeches were beginning, and although there were intermittent microphone problems, the speeches themselves were well prepared and delivered. The focus was not to dispute the result of the 2016 referendum, but to call upon the government to allow the people to make an informed choice based on the result of Brexit negotiations. As well as Vince Cable (again), Caroline Lucas, Tony Robinson, Peter Tatchell, David Lammy and Anna Soubry, we heard from road hauliers, doctors, and young people. The dismal leadership of both the government and the so-called opposition was highlighted unequivocally by all speakers on the platform, and at regular intervals throughout the speeches, the crowd broke into spontaneous chants of “Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?”.

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The Greatest Story Ever Told … So Far

Book Review: The Greatest Story Ever Told … So Far, by Lawrence M Krauss
I find myself drawn to popular physics and astronomy books in the work book sale, so this was a natural choice. It’s true that they mostly follow the same path, so there may not always be much of note to distinguish them from others. In its journey, this one explores the notion of science, of experimentation and falsability, and chooses to contrast it with faith-based philosophies, but (despite the commendation from Richard Dawkins on the front cover) it tries not to be too antagonistic while nonetheless strongly conveying its points. Beginning with (and frequently returning to) Plato’s cave and moving quickly through the history of science, to focus mostly on twentieth and twenty-first century physics, in particular the search for a unification of the four fundamental forces. The discussion about W, Z and Higgs bosons is interesting, but although it is free from mathematics I’m unsure whether it is digestible to a lay audience unfamiliar with the concepts behind some of the reasoning. Concluding with discussion on the observation of gravity waves, the book provides a good non-technical assessment of the current state of our knowledge, while acknowledging its incompleteness.

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En Saga

After looking through the guidebooks, we decided we couldn’t fit all three Baltic states into a single holiday, so we opted for a trip to Rīga and Tallin. The logistics were straightforward but not trivial, and we ended up with flights to/from Gatwick instead of our more usual Heathrow.

Fri 8th: We get up at ridiculous-o’clock. Fortunately the roads are running smoothly and the directions to Purple Parking are clear, and we get there by 7am. Check-in/bag-drop with Air Baltic is straightforward, as we can use the business queue (a quirk of having the temerity to pre-purchase hold baggage). Normally I don’t pay much attention to the aircraft itself, but I do notice the Bombardier CS300 seems particularly new and shiny, and the airline magazine informs me it is also significantly more fuel-efficient. However, it does seem unusually warm, unlike most aircraft which seem somewhat over-chilled. The flight is smooth and on-time, and although there are at least two stag parties on board it’s an orderly affair. Transfer by bus into central Rīga works as advertised and it’s a short walk to the hotel. We take a walk around the town, taking in the Alexander Nevsky orthodox cathedral, the Art Nouveau district, parks, squares, and the old Zeppelin hangars which now form the central markets, which are closed by the time we get there.

Sat 9th: Overnight, the power has blipped at least three times, and each time it comes back on, all lights in the room come on, which is irritating to say the least. But after a decent breakfast we’re off to the Art Nouveau museum and the cathedral. In the afternoon we visit the House of the Black Heads – a guildhall whose name derives from St Mauritius, though the house is a complete post-WW2 (and indeed, post-Soviet) reconstruction.

Sun 10th: We take in the Rīga Bourse art museum, and later the Latvian National Museum of Art (which turns out to be free on that day) and the Metzendorff House.

Mon 11th: We have a short morning to fill, so we visit the Synagogue (again, largely reconstructed) and the interior of the central market, before catching our bus to Tallinn. It’s a four-hour trip (with a short pause in Pärnu) and the Latvian A1 isn’t the best of roads – a single carriageway, though it’s so straight it could have been built by the Romans. The transfer between Tallinn International Bus Station and the hotel is the one bit of the trip I hadn’t researched properly, and we muddle around without actually paying for the tram ride, because it seems everything is electronic and online. (Fortunately, we don’t claim back the outstanding balance on the card we buy for the rest of the holiday, so my conscience is clear). We wander around in the late afternoon and early evening in part of the Old Town. It’s obviously picturesque, though I have a sense the tourism element is hammed up and over-done, with medieval-themed restaurants all around the town square.

Tues 12th: It’s raining – the one bad weather day in our holiday – so, having sorted out a public transport card (which it seems must be paid for by card, not cash) we head off to the Kadriorg district and the Kumu art museum. By the afternoon the clouds have cleared and it’s dry to walk across to the Kadriorg palace. We also see Peter the Great’s house and the Russalka memorial.

Wed 13th: We find we are waking up very early, due to the long hours of daylight, and the absence of any climate control in the hotel room, so before museums open we check out the ferry terminal, which is a 10-minute walk from the hotel, before booking ferry tickets for a trip to Helsinki later in the week. Back in the Old Town we take in the Kiek in de Kök Museum and Bastion Tunnels. An afternoon walk around the west side of the Old Town walls seems much quieter than the centre.

Thurs 14th: Out to the Kalamaja district and the Seaplane Museum. The Suur Tõll icebreaker is particularly interesting. Like all museums of this type, it is plagued by small people, but for the most part we avoid them.

Fri 15th: Another early start. We looked at the times and decided the 07:00 ferry to Helsinki was the one to catch. Check-in and boarding is straightforward, and we’ve booked breakfast on board. We get a good view of the archipelago and Suomenlinna fort as we approach Helsinki. Once we’ve disembarked it’s about half an hour walk into the city centre, where we visit the cathedral, the impressive University Library, the Railway Station, and other attractions.

Most of the afternoon is taken up in the Ateneum and National Museum. The return ferry departs at 20:30 and we’ve booked the all-you-can-eat buffet, which turns out also to be all-you-can-drink, but the wine isn’t so good that you want more than a couple of glasses anyway.

Sat 16th: It turns out we misread the opening times of the architecture museum, so our morning is filled by the Estonian History Museum at the Great Guild Hall instead. This proves to be more interesting and less interactive than the guide book had suggested.

We’re very early at Tallinn airport, but it was always going to be a difficult day to fill; it gives us time to stock up on essentials such as canned bear meat, elk salami, and lingonberry jam. The return flight is smooth and we’re home at a reasonable hour.

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Book Review: The Madness of July, by James Naughtie
When I saw this in the work book sale I picked it up out of curiosity. Though the month was wrong, I immediately thought of Brexit, but on reading the blurb it turns out to be set in the 1970s, in a midsummer heat wave. On arrival home, I was disappointed to discover a surprisingly low rating on Goodreads.

Nevertheless, I persisted. I do feel the story has a weak start – the story breaks rapidly, characters are barely introduced, it all feels rather claustrophobic – but I am glad to say I did find it worth persevering. The review “Echoes of John Buchan and John Le Carré” excerpted in the blurb is unhelpful. Though it’s fair to say the story does revolve around spies – and in particular, spying on those other than the traditional adversary – the pace is different. The story in its entirety takes place over a (long) weekend, with a body discovered on Thursday and all the loose ends wrapped up by the following Tuesday. For me, the lasting impression is of an oppressive working culture – both politicians and civil servants seem to be working all hours and it’s difficult to see how they get any chance to sleep. Will Flemyng, the principal character in all this and Foreign Office Minister, is an ex-spy and called upon by the Cabinet Secretary to discover just why a dead American has been discovered in the Houses of Parliament – though for procedural reasons, Special Branch have removed the body so that it will be officially discovered in his hotel. Over the course of the weekend, Flemyng’s relationships – with his wife, with his political colleagues, and with his brothers in the Scottish highlands – are all tested. The espionage tale, though it is the reason for the story, almost plays second fiddle; there was opportunity to explore more the familial relationships in particular. It’s not a bad book, but don’t expect too much from it.

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The Art of War

Book Review: The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, edited by James Clavell
I’m behind again with book reviews. Someone once described a former development manager as “going to bed with [a book by] Scott Adams under one side of the pillow, and Sun Tzu under the other”. I was hoping for something with a bit more philosophy, but really this turns out to be quite literal. It’s a slim volume but still generously expanded with footnotes. On the whole I preferred Confucius.

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Thought Leadership

Book Review: Machine, Platform, Crowd – Harnessing our Digital Future, by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson
This was a random selection from the work book sale; I hoped it might be interesting without having particularly high expectations. In general the phrase “thought leadership” makes me cringe; there’s little I’d like less than being told what to think. However, I did find this a thoughtful and insightful book, offering a management-oriented perspective structured around themes in current and near-future technological innovation.

On the “machine” theme, the authors begin with a history of recent advances in AI and automation, considering what role machines may play in the future, and what that will leave humans to do. This is a bit depressing and challenging, not so much for what it says literally, but more for the sweeping assumption that all of humanity will somehow adjust seamlessly to the continuum of Brave New Worlds. The history of the past fifty years or so suggests to me that innovation frequently leaves a lot of people behind and that at best they struggle to catch up. On the “platform” theme, the authors discuss the distinction between providers of “concrete” products and services, particularly in the “gig economy”, and the enabling platforms that are springing up to surround them – such as private hire and Uber, or fast-food outlets and Deliveroo. There are no prizes for guessing where the smart money ends up in this sphere. Finally, the “crowd” theme shows how what is often referred to as democratisation can take power away from established custodians; though the authors are enthusiasts, even they acknowledge the risks of taking decisions away from qualified experts and of mob rule. This section also provides the opportunity for the authors to discuss the trendy topic of cryptocurrencies, and the potential to take control away from states and banks. Throughout there is a little economic theory, but it avoids any complicated mathematics and is always clearly explained.

Comfortingly and conveniently for managers and business people, however, the authors conclude that companies and corporations are not threatened by any of this, arguing that they perform necessary mediating functions in an imperfect market. Futurology is a dangerous game. In places this is a disquieting read, but overall it’s a worthwhile one.

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New Definitions

Book Review: The Complete Uxbridge English Dictionary, by Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Cryer, Graeme Garden, Jon Naismith and Iain Pattinson
Poor old Colin Sell doesn’t get a look in here. The compilation is alphabetical, so some in-jokes work better than others, depending on whether they play on the beginning or end of the word. Inter alia we have Archery (“lying under oath and at all other times”), Ditto (“the Marx Brother who got fired because he was too samey”), Internet (“where England footballers fail to put the ball”), Norway (“a Geordie expression of surprise”), Shavings (“what Sean Connery keeps in his bank account”), and Wastrel (“a very idle bird of prey”). It’s like a cryptic crossword in reverse. Fans of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue will appreciate this volume; others may not find it so useful.

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