Those Americans who did not vote for Hillary must accept ghastliness of error

One of the reasons the West and democracy itself are in such a dire position in 2017 is that too many people have come to believe they can have it all their own way without owning the consequences of their selfishness. Prime among the people who have engaged in such selfishness are those who had the opportunity to vote for Hillary Clinton in November and did not do so.

Another reason is the tendency to overexaggerate anything, for example by calling anyone slightly right of centre a “Nazi”. The obvious problem is that when the Nazis actually appear, you look like the girl who cried wolf.

In Virginia at the weekend the Nazis actually appeared, an incident which can only be described as “terrorism” took place, and a young innocent woman was killed. Then, the only alternative to Hillary Clinton in November’s Presidential Election President was lily livered in his response, blaming everyone equally. Essentially, what happened is that the President of the United States gave succour to Nazis.

We should be unsurprised. The same man mocked disabled people, was outed as an outrageous sexist (and sex-obsessed) maniac, cranked up xenophobia and engaged in a campaign of mass deceit during the election campaign. It was obvious who he was. That is why anyone who had the opportunity to vote for the only alternative to him in November and failed to do so needs to look at themselves and accept responsibility for the dire state of the nation now. By allowing someone with the current President’s values into the White House, they are responsible for enabling the further promotion of those values. Those values and the inevitable accompanying behaviour are appalling and dangerous.

It is simply not good enough to say your favoured candidate wasn’t on the ticket, or that the Democratic nominee wasn’t great, or whatever other excuse you can muster. The choice was a sexist, xenophobic Nazi-backed disability mocker one one hand, or a civilised human being on the other. It was not a difficult choice, and those who failed to make it bear direct responsibility for the outcome.

“Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will” – Martin Luther King

It is essential, at the very least, that the error is recognised and that it is never again repeated. With the right to participate in democracy comes the responsibility to elect those who will protect it.

Cable’s task is to make case for second referendum unanswerable

As I have noted several times already this month, the issue for both sides in the UK’s Brexit debate is that neither is truly willing to respect the other and deliver an outcome tolerable to the maximum number of people. Leavers continue to insist that leaving means leaving the lot – no Customs Union, no Single Market, pretty much no immigration. Remainers continue to behave as if we will all just wake up one morning and agree to make the whole issue go away – ignoring the profound fact that a majority of the British public would prefer to leave the EU (or, at least, aren’t bothered either way). Given the closeness of the vote and the fundamental political, social, economic and even global implications, it should be obvious to everyone that a Third Way has to be found – one which respects the outcome of the vote and the British public’s basic view of the EU, while not carelessly and needlessly inflicting massive economic and social damage.

This, fundamentally, is the case for a second referendum. I am somewhat uneasy with it – the world is not made up of binary choices and I am instinctively against referendums on that basis. Nevertheless, if Leavers are so confident that they can strike a deal to leave the EU which, upon fair examination, is acceptable to the British public, then they should have no problem consulting them on it at the polls. Likewise Remainers have to accept that any remote prospect of remaining in the EU, or probably even close to it, will require the same.

On 23 June 2016 the British public rejected David Cameron’s terms for remaining in the EU. Conversely, however, on 8 June 2017 they also refused to give Theresa May a blank canvas to leave the EU in any way she saw fit. It is quite clear, therefore, that the specific proposal to leave should be returned to the people (bearing in mind that a declaration to this effect would probably strengthen Britain’s negotiating hand by emphasising the democratic mandate required).

That is the uneasy but probably unarguable case for a second referendum. The new Liberal Democrat Leader has a clear task ahead…

The need to “blame” holds back humanity

I wrote a piece this day last week on the ongoing process of redeveloping the area around the McKee Clock in Bangor.

The very first response to it, on Facebook, was objectively astonishing:

– Bangor was a great seaside resort pre-Troubles [How is this relevant? Most people didn’t even have private transport then!]

– It’s all the fault of the people who allowed Bloomfield and Springhill to be built [Leaving aside that this was decades ago (in fact Springhill was built before I was born!) and even assuming this was a bad thing, who cares? They were built!]

– We should go back through Council minutes to look at who was to blame for the mess at Queen’s Parade (the seafront) [What exactly does this achieve? Even if someone was “to blame” (and it is unclear for what), we are now at such a remove from the decisions that they would in all probability no longer be with us.]

There seems to me to be a remarkable human bias at play here, which is essentially nostalgia. Everything was, apparently, better 50 years ago, so we should essentially turn the clock back and not forward. This is apparent everywhere, of course – its most noteworthy form in Europe is probably the Ostalgie exhibited by many Eastern Germans. This bias has, however, been a constant factor through human history.

However, there is another remarkable and often even more unreal and damaging human instinct at play here: the need to blame.

As another correspondent noted recently, whenever any terrible event happens, we tend to find the reporting of it soon focuses, remarkably quickly from an objective point of view, on determining who was to blame (rather than on what actions should be taken to make things better).

As in the case of Bangor “town centre” (a debatable case anyway), in fact the ascribing of blame often simply does not matter. However, in the end the process of ascribing it takes up so much time and effort, that no time is left over to solve the problem, make progress, or assist those who need assistance.

It is a very human peculiarity. Should we not, however, apply some effort to trying to shift our focus a little – away from blame and towards action, and indeed away from the past and towards the future?

Leftist “fake news” strikes again on public finance

A recent “debate” on BBC Radio Ulster concerning public sector pay was not one of Talkback’s finest.

There were a number of reasons for this, but prime among them was the failure adequately the address the inherent bias that such a programme will inevitably promote; or, put less kindly, to provide real expertise. It was mid July so perhaps it was not for the want of trying, to be fair.

The programme essentially consisted of a trade unionist engaging in outrageous prejudice and plain misinformation. The BBC should simply not allow this.

There were two outstanding examples. First, there was the outright slur that “business owners/the people at the top are money grabbers”. Second there was the outrageous nonsense that the “money is always found for bombing people”.

The first requires an outright apology both from the BBC and from the trade union movement. People who do well in business usually themselves come up by the boot straps; they take astonishing risks; and as a result they create wealth and jobs and generally reinvest in their own community. While it is fair to say they could not do this without public services, it is also fair to say public services could not be funded without them – and they not only ultimately create the wealth to pay for them, but also employment which improves people’s self-esteem, financial well-being and thus is in itself of use to the public (as well as providing goods or services themselves people want to buy and are thus evidently glad of having). To present such people as “money grabbers” betrays an appalling prejudice, demonstrating again that left-wing prejudice is just as bad as any other. Had the victim of the prejudice been one of a number of other groups of people, we would never have heard the end of it.

The second required a bit more expertise, it is true. The notion that the money is always found for bombs is a social media meme, and like most social media memes it is garbage. In fact, the UK has cut its defence capability remarkably and consistently over the past decades, to the extent that it is now unable to engage in any major military operation alone. It is doubtful whether a Falklands or even a Sierra Leone intervention would now be possible. Indeed, outrageously, it is not in dispute that young men and women were sent into armed conflict by the UK this century without adequate equipment. So, in fact it is far from true the money can always be found. Indeed, it is increasingly not found – replaced by a reliance on shared intelligence with the United States or shared operations with France, for example. To emphasise, this is not to discuss the rights and wrongs of such things (that is well beyond the limits of my expertise), merely to emphasise that the slogan presented was pure fake news. The Left, again, is every bit as good at that as the alt-right or anyone else.

The programme also failed to counter adequately other crazy claims (such as an average industrial wage of £35,000) or to address the innate bias, for example, that no one is likely to phone into a show and declare themselves or their sector well paid!

There is a tension in the media between education and entertainment and between knowledgeable analysis and slanted opinion. I am not sure it is a good thing that the latter appears to be winning, even on the public service broadcaster.

Remainers and Leavers must compromise for progress

It was established last year that people who really want to remain in the EU are a minority in the UK. Trying to spin the figures otherwise (“Ah but not everyone turned out”; “Young people wanted to stay in”; “People were fooled”) is a natural part of the grief process, but it does not remove that simple fact. Those who did not turn out clearly were not all that bothered; young people were even more inclined not to turn out than most; and suggesting the people were “fooled” is no way to win friends and influence people. That is to leave aside the many people who voted “Remain” for a quiet life rather than out of any great love for the EU. Blaming the electorate never helps.

Of course, the people were fooled – just not in the way too many Remainers are presenting it. They were fooled in this way: many people who voted Leave did so in the genuine and understandable belief that the government – or, at the very least, the Conservative Party – had a back-up plan for doing just that. Otherwise, why would a referendum with that choice have been put before them?

It is a constant factor of humanity that we believe, amid the chaos of our daily lives, that there is some great power out there directing it all. This is, after all, what underlies all great conspiracy theories. It gives us all comfort that we have a “Government” to keep things under control.

It is, therefore, scarcely believable that such a Government would put a choice of two options before the people with absolutely no plan whatsoever for what should happen in the event of one of those two options being chosen. Most people, regardless of how or if they voted last June, still struggle to believe that.

Yet that is what happened.

There was, and over a third of the way into the process still is, no plan for leaving the EU. As is revealed weekly, the Government has absolutely no idea of the scale of the undertaking, the implications of it, or of how to manage it. And all the time the clock is ticking – any good negotiator knows if you have already shown your cards and you are the only one with a timetable, you are finished.

It is no good Leavers coming out and demanding answers from Remainers. Remainers did not vote for this mess. On the other hand, nor is it any good for Remainers to sit back and let this happen – the consequences of doing that are terrifying. Instead we have to recognise two things: a) the people of the UK would rather not be in the EU; but b) leaving it without a plan is calamitous – and that is exactly what is being pursued.

So, once again, I propose this as a sensible compromise starting point.

Numerical nightmares in foreign languages

This is a brief blog post to ask foreign language speakers and learners a simple question: do they have the same problem with numbers I have?!

The trick to speaking a foreign language fluently is to think in it – something I find comes to occur naturally. You get used to the different structure, the different rhythms, and the different means of naming things quite quickly, particularly if you have the opportunity to immerse yourself (for example by living and/or working where the language is spoken daily).

Yet one thing always seems to jar – a number.

For example, if reading a document, “1985” to me is always “nineteen eighty five” regardless of which language I am reading. Even if not reading aloud, I find myself almost skipping the number, knowing that I have just internally “pronounced” it in another part of my brain – in English, in effect.

This can be potentially troublesome. While I have, in general, little difficulty following the radio news in German (allowing for the odd inevitable misunderstanding around alien people or concepts), the traffic report can become tricky particularly if a three-digit road number is mentioned. Firstly, three-digit road numbers are read out in full in German (as opposed to digit by digit as in English), and then of course the last two digits are effectively inverted – so the A647 would be literally the “A six-hundred seven-and-forty”. My brain seemly seems wired wrongly here, having to take time even while otherwise “thinking in German” to untangle the seven and the four – by which time I may have missed the crucial diversionary exit!

This cannot be a fundamentally linguistic problem because of course no such untangling is necessary with numbers from 13-19 in English itself – “fourteen” is effectively the wrong way around (with the four first, contrary to “twenty-four”, for example) but takes no time to untangle – at least not for a native speaker.

Is it more that the parts of the brain which deal with language and numbers are separate, and only one gets re-wired when operating in a different language from native?

All thoughts welcome!

A Bangor “marina quarter” could thrive

I have had occasion to be in what is referred to as “Bangor town centre” a few times recently and it was in general a pleasant experience. It always struck me, even when I served in its Council, that Bangorians can be a bit hard on their own town. However, I would venture to suggest that is partly because they have a peculiar view of what Bangor is, and indeed what its “town centre” is.

Firstly, Bangor is (by Irish standards) a large town but it is essentially at the end of the line. Unlike places like Lisburn, Banbridge or Ballymena, it cannot hope that people from elsewhere will just pop in for half an hour or so – people have to have a specific reason to visit. This has implications, particularly for what it must offer.

Secondly, after its comparatively rapid expansion during the Troubles (when it was seen as something of a “safe haven”), the geographical and demographic centre of Bangor is in fact Bloomfield. Indeed, Bangor may now be the only town in Western Europe most of whose residents live outside its so-called “ring road” (really a throughpass now)! This too has implications – in line with residential locations, we have business parks, wildlife centres and several major leisure offerings springing up outside the so-called “ring road” and thus away from the so-called “town centre”.

Thirdly, Bangor’s nighttime offering cannot be turned back a generation. The youth of Northern Ireland used to descend on Bangor from all arts and parts again because of the aforementioned “safe haven” perception. The end of the Troubles and the revival particularly of the vastly bigger (and, for most people, nearer) Belfast city centre has changed all that permanently. The past is the past in that regard.

So, what can be done about this? More or less what is being done about it, thankfully.

In fact, I have long believed the area around Bangor High and Main Streets leading from Ward Park through to the Station should be re-designated the “Marina Quarter”. This would be primarily a daytime (but occasionally also specific nighttime) leisure offering, ranging from outdoor facilities (such as Pickie Park) to indoor facilities (more or less as now proposed for Queen’s Parade) with a significant marine element (such as the boat tours now available). This should be accompanied by a deliberate attempt to bring small businesses in the service sector to that location, as it is now decently served by restaurants and coffee shops already and well connected by bus and rail, but much cheaper than Belfast city centre – there is no reason PR or law firms could not be based there, for example. Indeed, the now dilapidated Flagship Centre could perhaps be best reinvigorated not by shops as a retail centre but by service sector start-ups as a business hub. This in turn would bring more people to the area during the day, helping existing hospitality and retail businesses to thrive.

The thinking, in other words, has to go beyond what was there before and also beyond “shops” (twenty years from now most retail offerings will consist of a single Northern Ireland store supported by an internet-based delivery network incorporating new technologies such as 3D printing anyway). In Bangor’s case, provided the designation is right, with determined leadership to follow through roughly on the current course, the future could be very bright.

Can’t tackle “legacy” without tacking IRA

A recent BBC interview with a former IRA “volunteer” was carried recently as an “apology” for the Birmingham bombings. It was, of course, no such thing.

In fact, it was just the latest in an ongoing attempt to cleanse the IRA of having had any role in the death of innocent civilians. Yet the interviewee had chosen a busy evening, shortly after 8pm, on pay day when more people than usual would be out, to plant a bomb. Far from not trying to kill innocent civilians, he was in fact maximising the number he would kill. That is a simple statement of fact.

There were countless other examples of IRA atrocities carried out in this way, to maximise the civilian death toll, both inside and outside Northern Ireland. That is a simple statement of fact.

Therefore, instead of writing this out of history, this obvious point needs to be written clearly into history, and recognised for the callous and unnecessary disregard for human life it was. By the way, the IRA also killed half the people killed in the Troubles, and was responsible as it happens for more deaths of people of Catholic background than any other organisation. That too is a simple statement of fact.

Reconciliation has long been a word which troubles me, but if it is to mean anything it has to mean a learning from history so as to ensure it is not repeated. Trying to rewrite history to make IRA “volunteers” or any other terrorists a group of people who only ever killed civilians in limited numbers by mistake is therefore the precise opposite of reconciliation – as it would not allow the learning from the past which needs to take place.

Therefore, discussions around legacy will get nowhere until we face the basic facts of what terrorism, carried out predominantly by the IRA but also by others, did to human lives – including that it was targeted at civilians, that it was grotesquely pointless, and that all it accomplished was pain and suffering.

Chlorinated chicken shows how prejudiced *both* sides are in Brexit debate

I am going to let you into a secret. I don’t know the first thing about food standards and even less about the use of chlorine in the preparation of chicken.

Here is thing, o Twitter users: in 99% of cases, nor do you…

Yet somehow last week half the people in social media appeared to have become experts. Their knowledge was such that they were able to tell us, beyond doubt, that allowing chlorinated chicken into the UK would constitute a “decline in food standards”. But what was this “expert opinion” based upon, exactly?

In the same way as some on the Leave side exhibit all kinds of prejudice against all things Continental, this looked suspiciously like prejudice against all things American. The assumption is that chlorinated chicken is a big food standard problem (because the EU banned it) and, implicitly, that American standards are generally lower anyway. Are they? Well, I don’t know. How do so many people in social media seem to know?

As it happens, chlorinated chicken was banned in the EU in the late 1990s. Do you not remember the big fuss at the time? Well, actually, nor do I.

It appears, in fact, that subsequent advice to the European Commission has been that chlorinated chicken is not, in fact, a major hazard. Presumably, this is why Americans eat it quite happily. Although of course it is a well known fact that European visitors to the United States avoid chicken there in the knowledge that it is chlorinated. Or maybe not so well known fact. Or maybe that they don’t actually avoid it at all?

Implicit to all of this is the widely held view in Europe that North America is an unregulated free-for-all. I can only conclude that most people who think that have never actually been to North America. My own experience of it, in fact, is that you are constantly being instructed everywhere you go – you cannot even enter a car park with all sorts of instructions about which zone to go to if your ticket is green, your car is blue, or your plate ends in the letter “K”. Regulations and bureaucracy are in fact everywhere.

Because I know nothing about food standards, it is absolutely possible that allowing chlorinated chicken would constitute a decline. However, what was noteworthy was how many people who had clearly never before had any knowledge of the issue were suddenly jumping on the issue like seasoned experts. This, as is a constant theme on this blog, betrayed (in the very precise meaning of the word) a blatant prejudice.

I would still very much like to remain in the EU. But you know one thing which definitely does not help that already uphill task? Blatant prejudice.

What is “adaptive cruise control”?

My piece on driverless cars a month ago drew some attention and some excellent debate, although there was also some confusion about what “adaptive cruise control” actually is, and why it is in fact a fairly crude piece of technology (or, at least, will soon become so, in all likelihood).

Firstly, cruise control itself is not particularly well understood, for the simple reason we do not really think about it. The system works generally by the driver pressing a button or flicking at a particular speed, at which time the vehicle takes over the operation of the accelerator. This means the vehicle will maintain speed for as long as there is no intervention from the driver, nor anything which would require braking. In other words, the driver still has to look out for obstructions (including slower moving traffic), and notably also has to brake or use gearing on downhill sections to avoid speeding up (as the vehicle only controls the accelerator, nothing else). Primarily for safety reasons, this system was never available at below 40km/h or 25mph.

Secondly, the addition of a radar at the front of the vehicle to pick up traffic in front resulted in “adaptive cruise control”, which has been available on family cars for over a decade. However, in its initial phase, this was of limited additional value as the vehicle still controlled only the accelerator. On motorways it meant the vehicle itself could ease off the accelerator in line with the broad traffic flow (slowing gradually from around 100km/h or 60mph to around 80km/h or 50mph, for example), but still could not brake. The system also continued not to operate at all at low speed, thus had no value in queuing traffic and did not become widespread.

Thirdly, the addition of control of the brake pedal to the adaptive system led to the more modern “adaptive cruise control” (which really should be called something else, for clarity – perhaps “full range adaptive”). This means the vehicle takes control of the brake pedal as well as the accelerator, enabling: a) quicker deceleration when a vehicle is detected in front; b) maintenance of speed even on downhill sections; and c) reduction in speed below 40km/h, indeed even to zero. The system can thus be applied either at above 40km/h or whenever a vehicle is detected in front (even when both vehicles are stopped). Also, unlike regular cruise control, to system generally disallows acceleration until the vehicle is straightened up, enabling speed to be maintained through bends in line with preceding traffic, even if the vehicle disappears from the radar view on the bend itself (provided a speed of above 40km/h is maintained).

“Detection of a vehicle” is the key phrase, however. Modern adaptive cruise systems essentially identify objects in front as either “vehicles” or “obstacles”. Only objects moving forward in the same direction, or stopped directly in front when the operating vehicle is stopped, are deemed “vehicles”; anything else is deemed an “obstruction”. In the former case, the radar system will bring the speed into line (even down to or up from zero); however, in the latter case the driver is expected to take action – which is notable, because the latter case (the “obstructions”) even includes stopped vehicles when moving towards them (for example other vehicles stopped at lights).

The reason for this is that if these “obstructions” were defined any other way, you would find vehicles with adaptive cruise braking at in all kinds of odd places – for example when vehicles come the other way on curves or when road signs appear straight ahead as the road itself bends.

The challenge, therefore, is for technology to better define what is an “obstruction” and what is a “vehicle”. Attempts are being made at, for example, slowing the car for bends ahead (using satnav) or even scanning the scene in front to pick up pedestrians liable to walk out in front. However, although advances have been made, of course 100% assurance is needed before such systems can become widespread; and it should be noted that even modern adaptive cruise control causes some confusion with what it can and cannot do.

It is worth re-emphasising that I think we will see marked advances to the extent that even lower end cars a generation from now will contain autonomous features currently only being trialled in luxury concepts. However, a fully autonomous, driverless future? I’m not so convinced about that, for reasons which go beyond technology.