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In, out, in, out and shake it all about!

Lies, more lies and a referendum

In just over two weeks those of us that care will cast our votes in the referendum. The question; ‘should the UK remain a member of the European Union?’. It is billed as the biggest political question for a generation and, depending on who you believe, the consequences could be immense. Then considering the undoubted importance of this generational moment and the potential seismic shifts it could bring about, it is very worrying that even now many of us have no idea what the actual considerations are. Why is this? Because the one group of people who’s job it is to give us the considered arguments is the same group of people who seem more interested in lying, cheating and generally acting like playground morons than actually doing what they are paid and morally obliged to do.

The last few months in politics has, quite frankly, been nothing short of farcical. Barmy Boris and Dodgy Dave seem to be using their relative campaigns as opportunities to score points rather than thinking about their obligation to the general public to actually discuss both sides of the argument evenly. Claims from David Cameron that an ‘out’ vote could lead to a political and financial apocalypse aren’t worthy of air time. They are apocryphal at best and only the tip of the iceberg in terms of a misleading campaign based on half-truths, supposition and sometimes out and out lies. Whilst the ‘out’ campaign have harmed themselves significantly by not producing actual forecasts of their own and instead relied on winding up the working classes with talk of immigrants left right and centre.

It is no wonder that the general public are largely confused or left indifferent to this big question when the politicians behave in such a pathetic manner. They have an obligation to present a level argument, not to mislead the public for their own ends. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like that is going to happen any time soon, so instead lets dispel a few potential myths and then pose the actual question that you need to be aware of on 23rd June. Because, for me at least, the question we’re answering on 23rd of June is not simply should we stay in the EU.

Risks

There are risks with any change. That is the nature of change. But with any risk there is also the possibility that the opposite will occur – the possible benefit. The major disservice that has been done so far in both campaigns is a lack of transparency on the potential positives of a Brexit, of which there are many.

The ‘remain’ campaign have produced, from many sources, claims of financial ruin with numbers to back up these claims. Some have even gone as far as putting actual financial costs for each households loss on paper. But it is important that we understand where these have come from. These are forecasts, yes, but what are they based on? Well the reality is they’re based on supposed scenarios that have then been run through a load of calculations. And all of these scenarios have focussed on the worst possible outcomes in every factor. In short, they are a set of predictions for what could go wrong. But none of them take into account what could (and very likely would) go right.

Don’t kid yourself into thinking that just because you’ve only heard the doom and gloom forecasts that they are the only possibilities.  They are produced by a campaign that wants us to stay in the EU and so will paint a grey picture. And those institutions who have also produced forecasts? They are the establishment and so it is in their interests to produce statistics that support the ‘remain’ campaign. But they are all based on supposition and hypothetical scenarios. It is also worth noting that they all have quite an established history of being wrong!

There are just as many independent business who have contradicted these forecasts. British Airways CEO Willie Walsh has previously stated that BA’s own risk analysis suggested they didn’t think they would lose out at all. And that is just one such large company.

And one last point on the risks. Many investment managers have publically stated that they believe not only would it not be a negative, but it could in fact have a long term positive effect on the UK economy. Now who are you going to take more notice of? A bias government, a bunch of institutions who have a history of inaccurate forecasts or investment professionals who are only in the position they are in because they accurately assess risk in the markets on a daily basis and have consistently got it right more often than not?

The point is it is risky, precisely because the answers aren’t clear. But you don’t gain anything if you don’t take risks, and suggesting that the only outcome is negative is not just misleading; it is naïve and plain wrong.

The numbers

So what do we need to know about the numbers? First that they are all models, not fact. So put it out of your mind that anything they are saying is set in stone and fated. It simply isn’t. Here is the reality of the situation;

  • The EU is the largest economic trading area, but largely because the UK (the fifth largest economy in the world) is a part of it (Germany is the fourth largest economy)
  • The EU have to trade with us as well as us with them, so any trade agreement needs to be mutually beneficial. There is simply not a negotiating power imbalance in the EU’s favour here.
  • There is no existing model for non-EU countries negotiating to be part of the single trade agreement that we can compare to (Norway and Switzerland have done this in the past, but their trade levels are a fraction of ours)
  • Europe relies on trade with the UK. There would be political and civil unrest if there was not a good trade agreement put in place. It is simply misleading to suggest the UK would be affected but Europe would not.
  • The three biggest economies in the world (USA, China and Japan) are not members of the EU and yet have very good trade arrangements and flourish.
  • The most significant future market for growth, and one we need to have the ability to negotiate with, is China.

The ‘remain’ campaign’s major criticism of the ‘leave’ campaign is that they haven’t been able to produce a model for what the future would look like. But how can they? The nature of this is that until negotiations start we won’t know what it looks like. But we can be sure that as the fifth biggest economy in the world we do have a huge amount of sway and our economy is very influential and our skills and products sought after. Supply and demand do win out.

So what do we do if we don’t know what the options are? Well we can be assured that other countries fair rather well and so the UK simply isn’t going to disappear into the abyss and be plunged back into the dark ages. Instead we can look at other countries and what they have got. Take Switzerland, a country that isn’t comparable in the scale of trade but does demonstrate some of the options that an arguable less influential country can achieve;

  • They are not in the EU, but are still in Europe, and have a tailored EU deal
  • They have free trade deals with the EU, China and Japan
  • They adopt 0% of the EU rules
  • Have the highest wages in Europe
  • They are the second richest country in the world by nominal GDP per head
  • They are top of the Global Innovation Index

Put simply, there are options and these options can be rather good!

Human rights and work rights

There seems to be a rather odd line of argument that staying in the EU protects workers rights, that we are tied into the human rights act and that the working time directives and other working guidelines will protect the workers. The odd thing about this line of argument is that they suggest leaving the EU will change this.

Let’s get one thing clear. The EU do not have some sort of copyright or patent on laws to protect civil liberties and the rights of people. Anyone using this line of argument as a reason to stay in the EU really shouldn’t be allowed out of the house. It is patronising. If this was the case then the EU would be some sort of garden of Eden and every other country in the world would be a cesspool of depravity, exploitation and suffering.

The idea that leaving the EU would suddenly mean the UK doesn’t retain these rights is ludicrous. These are laws upheld in the UK and they will continue to be. But leaving the EU means that we have the power to add and amend laws to make sure they are suited to our country and not a catch all for every country in the EU. Making laws that suit countries in the east of Europe and forcing the UK to have them means we end up with laws that are out of context with the UK and simply not suited.

Europe and reform

Many of the ‘remain’ camp will say that staying in Europe means that we are “at the table” in terms of negotiating a reform of Europe. The problem with this is that it assumes Europe wants to and believes it needs to reform, for which there is much scepticism. Whilst David Cameron will suggest he achieved great things with his pre-referendum negotiations, a closer look shows that they really haven’t given us much. It is unlikely Europe will reform because there is simply no driving force to do so at the moment.

On the flip side, we do have veto rights on a number of controversial items. But how do we get things changed in Europe when we need the agreement of so many countries, many of whom have conflicting motivations to us? Many of whom benefit greatly from being in an economy where the UK and Germany contribute so much and their own country contributes so little?

Anyone who has tried to chair a committee and actually achieve anything when that committee have a lot of members all of whom have competing motivations will know exactly what the challenge is here. And it doesn’t often change.

Migration

So to the big one. Migration is a problem in Europe, due to the free movement agreement. And whilst we have more migrants coming to the UK from outside the EU than within, the amount coming from the EU is increasing and without check.

The key thing to remember is that we do get a huge amount of value from skilled people coming to the UK to live. A vast amount of our doctors are not native to the UK, for example. And I don’t think any right minded person would argue that it is a bad thing for people who actively contribute to society to come to this country. But the problem is that the free movement agreement also means many people can come to the UK who don’t contribute and this puts a strain on many areas of an already strained economy.

It seems logical to be able to control who can come and live in the UK. It seems to me that making sure we welcome those who have skills that can improve our country is a good thing. But we are not a charity. We have a responsibility to make our country the best and most opportunity rich place it can be for all our citizens, especially our young graduates keen to make their mark. Having an open door to people who will come and compete with those already here with the same skills, drive or aptitude doesn’t seem to be a logical way to do that.

Let’s cut to the chase

At the end of the day the arguments can be tossed and turned in all sorts of ways. And it is up to each of us to look at the truth and not just listen to the rhetoric. It is safe to say that you cannot trust the politicians on either side of the argument in to give you a balanced view.

But for me it boils down to a slightly different question. For me this referendum is not about whether the UK should stay in the EU or not. No, instead it is about what the EU is clearly aiming to become and whether we want to be a part of that or not.

Europe is increasingly moving towards a single state. It is very obvious that they have been moving that way for a very long time and at some point in the future it is likely this will become much closer than it is now.

I am proud to be British. I do not consider myself European, I consider myself to be British. I think that the UK is a vibrant place to live and work with many of our skills being the envy of the world. Certainly we are world leaders in digital, where I work, and also in media. So for me the question is ‘do I want to be a citizen of the UK, or of Europe?’ And that is what we should all ask ourselves. Not now, but in the future, which country do we want to live in? The country of the UK, or the country of Europe? Because a vote to stay in the EU is very possibly a vote to one day be a part of a country called Europe.

And the winner is…

It is award season again. And I, for one, am delighted to see Leonardo Di Caprio has finally been recognised for his work at the OSCARs, amongst others. Whilst the Revenant is a film that is clearly an hour longer than it should be, the acting in it is outstanding and none are better that Leo. He is an actor who has been well overdue for this level of recognition and yet seems to have been overlooked in favour of other more notable character actors. Maybe it is because his early career, with films like The Beach, Titanic and Romeo & Juliet, got him a reputation for being a bit of a pretty boy and this makes it easy to forget Gangs of New York, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Aviator and Blood Diamond. You certainly wouldn’t class him as a budding Daniel Day-Lewis in terms of being a character actor, but you cannot deny his portrayals of Howard Hughes and Jordan Belfort (to pick two) are right up there as acting performances.

So it is a pity that in a year where the standard of acting in the nominations was so high that the occasion has been marred by the politics of apparent prejudice. Obviously there is no place in the world for prejudice in any way shape or form and it would be unacceptable to exclude nominations for the OSCARs based on skin colour. But what would also be unacceptable would be to take an approach where you are expected to have some sort of ‘quota’ in each category, rather than simply going on the merit of a performance irrelevant of colour or creed.

I will admin that I have not seen all the films for the nominees (and now winners) of this years awards, but knowing what I do about those people and their performances I don’t believe anyone is questioning their right to have been nominated. It is important to ask the question ‘is the reason for there being few black people nominated a sign of prejudice?’. But it is equally important to ask the question ‘are the best performances nominated?’.

There has been a lot of noise about the lack of African-American representation in the shortlists for this year’s OSCARs. But when I cast my mind back over the last year I struggled to think of many stand out performances that should be nominated. Arguably one that was missing was Will Smith in Concussion, although whether that was as good as the other leading actor nominees is obviously a matter of debate. And we shouldn’t forget that Straight Outta Compton was shortlisted and is a film that historically probably would have been overlooked. Bearing in mind the host of the show was Chris Rock, it seems to me that maybe this year’s OSCARs are not an example of prejudice but are victims of some over critical attacks.

And this really gets to the nub of the issue for me. Because the world should not be about prejudice in any sector. Whether that be women getting paid less than men, people getting more opportunities because they have a particular skin colour, or being marginalised because of their belief or their sexual orientation. For me life has always been about proving your worth through your actions and recognising those who therefore deserve to be recognised. There shouldn’t be any question of colour, race, creed, belief, etc. It should be that you are judged on your successes. And in this year’s OSCARs what I see is a collection of very talented actors and actresses who are being recognised for some outstanding work. I think it is a shame that this has to be given the negative spin that it is prejudice, when in all likeliness it was just that this years performances that deserve this level of credit were undertaken by this group of people. Let’s recognise excellence and celebrate it, rather than trying to justify criticism of it based on factors that are entirely irrelevant and also very unfair.

I want my apple to be technically savvy

A lot of people seem to be getting all bent out of shape at the prospect of technology replacing humans, or in some cases the fear that they will not just replace us but repress us. Whilst Stephen Hawking is predicting that AI (artificial intelligence) is the biggest long term threat to humankind, many people are more concerned about the more immediate threat to manual and lower skilled jobs. I find this interesting for a couple of reasons, the first being that the idea technology is only just about to replace humans is rather behind the times, and secondly because some of my recent experiences as a consumer make me scream for something more automated as the human run ones were infuriating.

I recently attended a conference called ‘Agile on the Beach’. It was a very enjoyable couple of days surrounded by peers and colleagues from the world of IT (and other sectors) discussing the approaches, benefits and culture of the agile way of working. One of the keynote speakers, Dave Farley (a pioneer of continuous delivery), discussed his three laws and one of them was rather apt…”People are rubbish”. What he meant by this is not that people are incapable, but that by our nature we make mistakes, we overlook things, we are infallible. It is true. In recent years Moore’s Law has allowed technology and software to progress to a point where the world is a drastically different place to where it was only ten years ago. We have replaced a secretary who opened the post and replied to correspondence with an iPhone and auto-messaging. We have replaced people on a construction line with automated machines. We have replaced health & safety officers with failsafe software. The list goes on and on. And that is somewhat the point. The idea that technology is going to start replacing people is old hat, because it has been going on pretty much since the beginning of time. We aren’t in some position where suddenly this is going to happen, it is just the natural evolution of society and technology. A good example is that a large proportion of us now use self-service checkouts at the supermarket, where we would have previously had a person sat at the checkout swiping our items for us. This has been going on ever since we invested industry. Once upon a time we used to row our ships, but then we invented steam engines. We hauled massive stones with hundreds of stoneage men, until we invented boats and realised we could roll them along on logs. At each step of our technological evolution we have replaced people with technology and in each case the people have moved on to new roles. So I don’t think we are yet at the point where we are all going to become obsolete.

But one of the things that did surprise me not so long ago was the lack of an automated experience at Apple. I recently had to go to the Apple store to have the screen replaced on my iPhone. I booked the appointment online and that experience was completely self-serve and automated. So what was then surprising is arriving at the Apple store, the mecca of trend setting and sleek experiences in technology to find it all rather backward. Having not been to an Apple store before I made my way to the ‘Genius Bar’ and sat on a stool awaiting someone to ‘check me in’. There wasn’t any guidance around to tell me the process so I waited for a staff member to help me. And I waited…and waited…and waited.

During my ten minute wait, for that is what it ended up being, I noticed at least half a dozen members of staff just stood by the shelves of products. This perplexed me as I am still unsure exactly what purpose they served. At one point I did see one of them talk to a customer browsing one of the products but after a short chat that I wasn’t privvy to the staff member resumed her security guard like stance and re-found her bored expression. At the same time no less than four separate members of staff wondered by me, determinedly ignored my attempts to grab their attention and generally seemed determined to prove that whilst they were apparently geniuses they were also rather dim!

Eventually I got the message that I wasn’t going to get any proactive help from the staff at Apple and so sought out someone who finally helped me check in and so my problem was dealt with. But as I then wondered around the shopping mall for an hour, waiting for my phone to be repaired and dwelling on the experience I’d just had I realised how counterintuitive it was. Why on earth does the biggest technology company in the world have an experience that is so uncoordinated and relying on people who are quite clearly letting down the side? Certainly my opinion of Apple employees was diminished to the point where I am almost entirely convinced they don’t really care about the customers at all. And that really isn’t great for a company that prides itself on providing the best user experience. With the technology they have at their disposal surely the experience at an Apple store should go more like this…

I turn up to the store and immediately make my way to one of the iCheck terminals. The bluetooth technology means that the terminal instantly picks up the signal from my iPhone and welcomes me, asking if I’d like to checkin. It guides me through a few quick screens and then tells me that I have been checked in and that they aren’t quite ready for me yet but a message will be sent to my phone at the correct time and that I can browse in the meantime. As I browse around the other products they have on offer I am able to select a complimentary beverage from the iDrink machine. As I’m fiddling with one of the latest gadgets my phone starts to buzz in my pocket. I take it out and a message is telling me to make my way to the Genius bar to a specific stool. As I get there a member of staff is waiting to take the device from me and already knows exactly what the problem is. They inform me that the phone will be ready in an hour and hand me a little device that will alert me when it is ready to collect.

This is just a snippet into how technology could make my experience better. Going to the Apple store was a frustrating experience. It was uncoordinated, awkward and I felt unloved as a customer, but the experience I have just described would make me feel very well looked after indeed. So what is the moral of this blog? Well there are a couple…the first is don’t fear technology is going to replace us because often it actually improves our lives, and history has taught us that it doesn’t replace us, there are just different jobs that we then take. And the second? Well the second moral of this blog is that Apple should employ me to transform their in store experience!

Now the dust has settled…

A couple of weeks have now passed since the general election and most of the moaning and bickering seems to have subsided. But what was the biggest shock of the 2015 election? Was it that the Tories managed, apparently against all odds, to win a majority of the seats in the house of commons? Was it that three of the party leaders subsequently resigned (and one then performed the best comeback since Lazarus…and now might be going again)? Or was it even that the SNP almost entirely swept the board in Scotland? Well no, for me the biggest surprise is that we still operate with such an antiquated voting system. Why on earth are we still voting with pencils and paper?

I must admit that, like a penalty shootout (no one seems to like them either though), there is some added drama and tension in the system we currently have. Having to wait as the results trickle in, constituency by constituency, over the course of the following day is, for some, as exciting as it gets. For others, like me, it is tedium only broken by the satisfaction of watching some rather fatuous and arrogant individuals eat their words in the most publicly embarrassing way. But strip back the excitement and what you are left with is a supremely inefficient exercise that involves far more people than is necessary. The reality is that in the 21st century we are still operating with a process that existed when landowners and Lords were the only ones who could vote and rotten boroughs were still a legitimate way to manipulate the system. It really does beggar belief that we aren’t embracing the digital age and putting in a process that would mean we can know the result of the general election not hours after the votes are cast but minutes.

Of course, whenever you try and have a sensible conversation about this with someone the first objection that is thrown your way is that it wouldn’t be secure or anonymous and therefore easy to manipulate/ Well this is just simply naive. Anyone who works in IT and has any talent would be able to design a system that allows for completely anonymous voting, where the vote casting mechanism is completely uncoupled from any data about a person. And a lot more sensitive data than vote counts are stored online all over the world without any security issues. Quite simply, it wouldn’t be that hard to do.

So let’s think about the question of security for a moment then. Many people object saying that the system would be easy to manipulate but surely no easier than the current system, which if my experience is anything to go by would be incredibly easy to manipulate. My experience this year of wondering down to my local polling station was about as lax as you can get. I didn’t need my polling card and I didn’t have to present any identification. The only thing I had to do was say my name and address, which they then found on the sheet, ticked off and handed my the voting slip. As I am quite familiar with the names and addresses of a few other people in my area, and like everyone else I also have access to the electoral role, it would be beyond the whit of man to have voted many times under the guise of many different people that day. It certainly would have been easy enough to have found out who wasn’t voting and go and cast on their behalf. No CCTV, no actual checks. I could have turned up with a bus load of homeless people, given them all a name and address and said “go and put a tick in the first box”.

The current process is not only slow, arduous and prone to error, it is also fundamentally insecure and easy to manipulate. Surely we are now in a position where we should be using a digital process? Other sectors abandoned pen and paper years ago, in favour of more optimised ways of working. The benefits of going digital on the election are quite clear and the objections to it are not things that couldn’t easily be solved. Only five years to develop the right system…but I suspect we’d need a referendum to decide whether we want to do it!

In the pursuit of mediocrity

For the next 90 something days we have to put up with an ever increasing amount of what politicians would like to think is rhetoric, but which is largely just hot air. That is because the circus is coming to town again, as it does every five years, and all the favourite clowns are on the bill again, with some new ones making their debuts as well.

One thing is certain, this election is going to be quite different to any other we have seen before. Chiefly the reason for this is that more people are taking notice than previously because they genuinely believe there may be an alternative vote to red or blue. The rise to public notoriety of the beer drinkers choice, Nigel to his mates, has opened an interesting new door. He is a moderate version of the outright racist BNP and more importantly his views are resonating with a disaffected and growing population who might previously have relied on Labour. But there is also appeal from Tory defectors who feel the blues have gone soft on immigration. UKIP won’t win the election, but they may well be the balance point in who becomes our Prime Minister in May.

So what choices do we have? Realistically Ed Milliband or David Cameron will be Prime Minister, but how they get the title will be the more important issue. It will either be a hung parliament or, more likely in my opinion, we will get another coalition. And this is where UKIP could make the biggest difference. But the major concern for me is that whichever party gets in, it looks like we are in for five more years with a lack of ambition, a lack of commitment and a continuation in the decline of a once great nation.

Let’s start with Labour, English politics’ answer to Henson’s workshops. Leading them, in the loosest sense of the word, is someone who seems incapable of eating a sandwich and generally doesn’t seem to have any actual points to make. The problem with the Labour party is that they don’t seem to have any answers or any detail. They talk about sweeping changes they will make, but no idea of the actual detail of what they are going to do. They have the map and they are sailing towards Eldorado, but the problem is the map doesn’t have any details on it. The most concerning thing about what they promise is that it is entirely at the expense of the wealthy and the elite. They plan to punish big business, handcuff wealthy individuals and force high performing institutions to focus they time in areas that will distract from the good they are already doing. Take private schools, responsible for a high percentage of the highest academic achievers this country outputs. Labour plan to force these schools to engage with mainstream schools with the aim to help them improve through resource swapping. And if they don’t do it? They will lose their charitable status and relevant tax breaks that brings. This is blackmail which palms of the problems inherent in the current mainstream schooling system rather than actually dealing with them. They plan to do the same with the NHS, a hugely wasteful institution currently, rather than dealing with the actual issues. If the issues aren’t dealt with then a short-term sticking plaster will fall off and the wound will be festering underneath. Labour have got some great ideals, but without actual answers they won’t be able to fix the problems. One thing is certain, they won’t listen to the people, they don’t even intend to ask the question of whether we want to be in Europe, a question that the public deserve to have their say on. More worryingly, their process they will alienate the wealthy and cripple the high performers. Wealth drives economy, that is a fact of economics. They will be like the blind man walking through a field of cow pats.

So what about the Conservatives, led by a toff, protecting the toffs. Their big pledge is an in/out vote on Europe. The irony about Dave is that in very many ways he is very similar to Tony Blair. He likes to talk like he is one of the people, despite the fact we know he isn’t. But he genuinely tries to be one of us and to understand us, even when his butler brings him the milk in the morning he will ask how much it costs for a pint at the shop now!

Unlike the Labour outlook, the Tories are interested in fixing the problems we face without crippling the country in the process. Austerity isn’t something any of us like, but it is better than running to a pay day loan lender when we realise we have completely cocked it up and there are no rich people left to chip in because they’re all moved their bank accounts to Luxemburg. Tighten the purse strings and we’ll get there. The problem with the conservative plan is that it is just that, too conservative. With UKIP offering anything for your vote from a Berlin wall installation at Dover to personal beer delivery every Tuesday (ok, that one isn’t real) and the Labour party pandering to the working classes by telling everyone that if you have money you’re evil, the conservatives need to stand up and show the people they also care about the most talked about issues; namely immigration, the NHS (which they haven’t yet mentioned) and tax avoidance.

I grew up with the ethos instilled in me that doing the best you can is the only outlook to have. My daughters attend a school where the motto is “In the pursuit of excellence”, and they truly mean it. The results are excellent because the environment is setup to encourage that very outlook on life, not just in the pupils but in the families as well. England was once a great nation on the world stage and that was largely founded on the same principles. We had the best armies in the world, the best education in the world, one of the best economies in the world. That is driven from the top down. Unfortunately, looking at the current outlook of the election pledges, England’s new motto is soon to be “In the pursuit of mediocrity”.

Sorry to drone on…

At last week’s tech show in Las Vegas there buzz was all about one thing, drones. It seems that you can now get almost any type; big drones, small drones, pink drones, selfie drones, drones on a stick!

It isn’t just the techys that are getting all hot under the collar either. At Christmas at least three of my friends and my god son (who is only five) got one as well. I even noticed that the BBC used one to get footage from above of the Hoegh Osaka cargo ship that had beached on the sand bank in the Solent last week.

It would seem that these drones are everywhere, or at least they will be soon. And whilst it is incredibly fun to waste ten minutes of your life trying to stop the thing crashing (the batteries only last for ten minutes) it does raise a few concerns.

In the USA there are already some laws in place about the usage of drones. The FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) strictly regulate the commercial use of drones there, but this doesn’t yet extend to privacy. The BBC’s use of a drone for footage demonstrate the potential issues well. Whilst hovering over a stranded ship isn’t a problem, it does become a problem when one is hovering over your house.

Last year a case arose when a woman noticed that a billboard featuring an aerial shot of the housing estate she lived in had been erected. The problem was that she had been sunbathing topless in her garden whilst the shot had been taken and she was therefore featured in the photo. She contacted the company who were advertising with the image and it was duly changed, red faces (and other parts) were avoided and life goes on. But this is where the problems start. Although the image was taken from sufficient enough a height that her face wasn’t visible, nonetheless she should have been able to assume that her back garden was a place of privacy. Instead her privacy was invaded. I’m sure most of us find this story quite funny, but the fact that drones are cheap means that it will make getting photographs of areas that are otherwise off limits is now easier than ever.

You might ask the question “it isn’t really that bad, is it?” But lets put this into perspective for a moment with a couple of scenarios. The world was up in arms a couple of years ago when a French pap managed to photograph a topless Kate Middleton from over a wall. She was in a resort and should have been safe from prying eyes but Pervy Le Pew still got his shot and a magazine still published it. If he’d had a drone then his shot might have been a lot closer and a lot more invasive. But no one really cares about celebrities and Royals do they? They’ve got it coming.

So here is scenario number two. Your children are playing in the paddling pool in your enclosed garden on a hot sunny day and over comes a drone with a camera attached. It catches images of your children which are beamed back to the dark hole that some horrible character resides in and then they add them to the personal collection on their laptop, or worse, the web. Access to this technology opens up whole new ways for pedophiles to access images in a way that we currently have no real way to stop. Personally the idea of someone hovering their little machine outside of my bathroom window whilst I’m taking a wee doesn’t exactly cheer me up.

Which presents another question, what are acceptable actions to take to protect your privacy? Would it be acceptable if one of these little gadgets came hovering over my garden wall to hit it with  baseball bat. And if it was hovering above my house at 50 feet, in ‘my airspace’, could I take a pot shot at it? I am guessing that before the dust had even settled I’d have a claim for damages on my hands. And bearing in mind we live in a country now where a burglar can break his leg whilst breaking into a house and win damages for it, I’d probably have to pay up as well.

Another consideration is that if we all go out and buy one of these things and start flying it around then the sky is going to be blackened by a locust swarm of the things. And if people fly them like they drive cars then the courts are going to be very busy with damage claims. The potential for crashes will be huge, not to mention what happens when Granny Ethel gets one round the face on the way home from the shop. She won’t be able to get any treatment because the A&E has declared a crisis and she won’t get a doctors appointment because no one can cope with a cold any more.

So what to do? I suppose at the moment it doesn’t much matter because by the time you’ve got your drone in the air it has run out of battery. And if you do own one that can last for over ten minutes then it will probably crash before much damage can be done anyway. But soon enough the battery life will be improved and they will be much more stable, and then what? Well here is a novel suggestion, that you have to get a license in order to fly one and that includes both practical and moral sections. If you want to fly a drone then you should be able to prove you aren’t either a moron, deviant or pleb. The punishment for subsequently being caught acting like an arse? Well it’s obvious, you should have your genitals removed!

Christmas in three words…

When I was a young lad, in my more mischievous days, I would attend church with my parents. Christmas was a particularly good time to attend church, not least because the biscuits would be replaced with warm mince pies and the candle light mass, rather than the drab electric lighting, made the building take on a rather more magical feel. One particular Christmas sermon though that still stands out in my mind today was when the vicar preached about “Christmas in three words…”.

That particular year Marks and Spencer had released their Christmas advert. This was in the days before John Lewis had set the precedent for elaborate stories and adverts were simple things that featured products. And after we’d seen hansom couples wearing sweaters and children in scarves and hats, fancy food on a Christmas table in front of a roaring fire…you get the idea…a final voice over said “Christmas in three words? Marks and Spencer”. All in all it was an inoffensive portrayal of a family Christmas and an honest and clever advertising message from a much loved high street store.

Well, not so much for the vicar, who seemed to have a right old holy bee in his bonnet about this. In fact, I think the breaking point for him had been when he was stood in the queue to buy stamps (remember those?) in the post office and heard two old ladies saying to each that Christmas is “all about the children, isn’t it dearie?”. Well that was enough for the vicar’s dog collar to get in a tizz. He informed them that Christmas was in fact not about ‘the children’ and was all about the birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour…who is apparently actually the messiah and not a very naughty boy as I thought…I might be getting mixed up with someone else there?!? Either way the vicar stormed off out of the post office without even buying his festive addition stamps. At least they featured some nativity scenes!

Well, his dog collar was so thoroughly in a twist that our dear old vicar felt the need discuss this issue at length with us on Christmas morning. He informed us that Christmas was not about shopping, or about the children, or even about presents and the sharing of gifts. Christmas in three words, according to our vicar, was about “the holy birth” and this was not up for negotiation.

Some fifteen years on and adverts are no less controversial, stamps are phenomenally more expensive, vicars are almost all women and some are even bishops (heaven knows what will come next!) and my mind still, for some reason, remembers that particular sermon. Now I’m not a religious man, and can’t quote the bible and nor would I want to. It certainly isn’t my bedtime reading book of choice. But as we approach Christmas once again I began to think a bit more on our long retired vicar’s sermon and how, in fact, his three words are rather inaccurate as well.

I can understand why he would get upset. Christmas isn’t just Marks and Spencer’s busiest time of year. The church receives more people at Christmas than any other time of year. In fact the holy order must rather think of it as their copyright. After all, it is the big boss man’s son’s birthday and all. But what if I was to suggest a rather more controversial Christmas in three words…’Stolen from pagans!’

The premise of the vicar’s sermon on that day was basically that Christmas should remain about the religious significance of what Christians would believe is one of the most significant moments in human history. Hence the name. But where did it come from? It is almost entirely certain that the man known as Jesus was not born on Christmas day. Basil Fawlty may or may not have had room in his Inn, and there was no census around that time as far as historians are aware. So if Joseph and Mary had decided to take the donkey express to Bethlehem it was most likely for a summer break. Even the church admit that they have no idea exactly when Jesus was born. The main reason that Christmas is celebrated in December is simple, when Christianity spread throughout Europe in the early centuries the pagan religions celebrated Yuletide. The word ‘Yule’ actually predates Christianity and is Norse in origin. The long-bearded god Odin bears the names jólfaðr (Old Norse ‘Yule father’) and jólnir (Old Norse ‘the Yule one’) – perhaps part of the beginnings of Santa Claus? When Christians marched across Europe, converting pagans, they changed Yuletide to Christmastide. Let’s be honest, it was a better way to do it than cancelling Christmas altogether…that didn’t exactly work for Oliver Cromwell either!

Along the way, some of the pagan traditions will have been absorbed as well. But the most significant thing to remember is that the winter solstice, when the Sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees (when the North Pole is tilted furthest away from the Sun) has actually been celebrated for thousands of years. In ancient human society this was one of the biggest parties of the year. A time to ask the gods for favour in the coming year and to thank them for the harvests past. There is no doubt that this festival, which is still observed today by some, is a big factor in what later became Yuletide and then Christmas.

So what about the other things that we associate with Christmas? The Christmas tree is an interesting one to consider. There are many theories about where they actually originated from but what is certain is that in England Queen Victoria was one of the first people to start decorating a fur tree in the modern sense. They would cover it in ornamental candles, and it was a sign of their prosperity. But long before that the tree is frequently traced to the symbolism of trees in pre-Christian winter rites, in particular through the story of Donar’s Oak (more on that one another time, perhaps). But the use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands was also common in ancient Egypt and in China and by the Hebrews. Tree worship was common among pagans and survived past the conversion to Christianity. Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year, to scare away the devil, and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime, still exist. Our vicar’s claim to Christmas is beginning to look a little shaky!

Mistletoe is another symbol of Christmas. Who doesn’t like to try and get a cheeky kiss at the party…it is the modern losers only way to get a kiss! Well Mistletoe was originally significant to druids in ancient culture, particularly in significant ceremonies like the solstice. And similarly the association of holly with winter celebrations almost certainly pre-dates Christianity. Druids wore holly wreaths on their heads as well. They loved a bit of nature those guys!

Which brings us on to our dear old friend, and what Christmas is all about for everyone under the age of ten (and a few of us a little older!)…Santa Claus. I hear people already getting on their high horse about Coca-Cola but calm down, that is a myth. Coca-Cola no more invented Santa Claus than you or I did. But the modern vision of him is in fact mostly due to the significant influence of the 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. The poem is still a tradition in our house, it is the modern romantic vision of Father Christmas, Pier Noel, Santa Claus, St. Nicholas (how many names does he need?) that we all know and love. But definitely not to do with Coca-Cola. They have the modern monopoly now in Christmas adverts but that is “largely to do with lots of trucks and even more lights! “Holidays are coming, holidays are coming…”

To be fair to our vicar for a moment, the mainstay of the concept of Father Christmas is seated in St. Nicholas, the fourth century Greek Bishop who used to deliver presents to the poor. But the modern symbol bears little resemblance to him and has taken on a life of his own (literally). No matter how you look at it though, the argument that Christmas is a Christian trademark simply doesn’t stack up. So how about this for an alternative Christmas in three words, “evolved from many”?

So what is Christmas then, at the end of the day? It is a time when we all can be united in celebrating our friends, family, our fortunes, and indeed our religion if we are that way inclined. Christmas is not and cannot simply be considered a Christian festival, even if they have bullied their way into monopolizing it. The fact of the matter is that the traditions behind Christmas are just as much pagan, or ancient, as they are about the church. It is an amalgam of cultures, beliefs and traditions from not just a few centuries, but millennia. Like languages, it has evolved. We get all snooty about the use of the English language, arguing that it should remain classical, but how many of us wonder around talking like Shakespeare? And our language is about as varied as any could be. It has been bastardized and changed by centuries of influences; Roman, Viking, Saxon, Celtic, Flemish, the list is long and convoluted. Christmas is the same, it has evolved to mean many things for many people…but I am not aware of any of those things being particularly negative.

For me Christmas is about spending time with family. It is about appreciating what we have and being happy in a world that can so often be miserable. It brings us together and gives us a focus when we are often not able to get together as one at other times of the year. So what would I say now to our pent up vicar who insists Christmas is about the baby Jesus? I would say Christmas in three words, “friends and family”.

To quote a jolly fat man and his antlered friends…”Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”