Thursday, 25 February 2016

'Europe: In or Out: Everything You Need to Know' by David Charter

Now that the date of the Referendum on Britain's membership of the EU has been announced, I wanted to read up on the relevant facts and arguments, to be able to make an informed decision (okay so I'd effectively already made a decision, but wanted it to be informed nonetheless!) and to arm myself for debates/arguments in the next few months. Anyway, after looking at a number of books about the EU referendum, I settled on 'Europe: In or Out' by David Charter who is a renowned journalist, the Berlin correspondent for The Times.

The book is well set out and each chapter covers a different theme / policy area, with key facts, the arguments for leaving and for remaining, as well as a general discussion with examples. There were chapters covering immigration, the EU budget, trade, justice, farming, fishing, defence and foreign aid amongst others. It draws on a number of studies and reports, going into a fair bit of detail. It's not a long book, 300-350 pages, but it is long enough and certainly longer than many of the books about the EU referendum that are springing up.

I thought this was a really good book that covers all the main areas that you'd want it to. What it doesn't do is explain what the EU does or how the various EU institutions work, instead it assumes a certain degree of prior knowledge on the subject. This isn't actually a problem, even if you don't know the ins and outs of the system, you get the gist of how things work. The only area where it becomes a bit of a problem is in the discussion of the "democratic deficit", i.e. the extent to which laws are passed affecting us where we haven't had a say in it. Without a good understanding of the workings of the European Commission, EU Parliament etc it is difficult to judge the argument either way. This is a minor flaw though, and one that is easily rectified if need be with a bit of reading on Wikipedia or similar.

One of the book's main strengths is it's balance, even something close to impartiality. There is plenty in this book for both sides in the referendum argument to be happy with. It is very difficult to work out which side the author favours - some chapters it looks like he's in the Leave camp, others that he's pro-EU. I think though that just shows that some themes and policy areas favour remaining in the EU, others lean more towards us leaving. 

Those readers looking for the book to tell them which way to vote will be left disappointed (though there are plenty of biased books that will do that). Instead it leaves you with a lot to think about and allow you to make a more informed judgement which can only be a good thing. I'm giving this a solid 8/10.

A note about versions

This book was written shortly before the 2015 General Election, after David Cameron had announced he'd hold a referendum if the Conservatives won the general election, before the referendum was formally agreed. It therefore doesn't cover David Cameron's recent EU deal. Having just been on Amazon however, it appears that a new version of the book is to be released in the next couple of weeks, which presumably will cover this. So it could be worth waiting for then to buy the book. I don't think it matters too much however, as Cameron's deal doesn't change the key issues.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Better the Devil You Know?

If you live in the UK, it can hardly have escaped your notice that we're being given a referendum on whether we want to remain in the European Union or leave and go our own way. What's more, what was once to have been 'by the end of 2017' it is now only 4 months away.

Each of us is being asked to make a decision, to give our answer to such a deceptively simple question. Over the coming months, many different aspects will debated. One side will assert one thing, the other side the exact opposite. Who do you believe?

Many of the arguments will hinge on complicated economic and political positions, and it will be a challenge for most voters to decide which side to believe. Lots of differing statistics and competing theories will be explained by campaigners and commentators to try and help people make up their minds. There is however, at least one aspect to the debate that voters can judge on common sense alone.

Both sides in the campaign have already tried to argue that their way is the least risky option. Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers told the BBC that leaving the EU was a safer option than staying in, and political heavyweights Iain Duncan Smith and Boris Johnson have echoed these sentiments. Prime Minister David Cameron has however said that voting to leave the EU would be "a leap in the dark". Who is right?

Fortunately, this particular argument doesn't require a PhD in Economics from Oxford to figure out, it is a judgement call. You can decide for yourselves, but in my opinion this is an easy one. The phrase "better the devil you know" isn't such a well known phrase for nothing. We have a very good idea what will happen (at least in the short to medium term) if we vote to stay in the European Union. We have no concrete idea what will happen if we vote to leave and what impact it will have on the economy and the country. Putting aside the much more complicated question of which is the best course of action, or whether what we think will happen is a good thing, I think common sense will help you find the answer to which is the least risky option.

As to the more complicated questions, I'll try in the coming weeks and months to help you answer these too.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Save our libraries!

I went down to the library earlier in the week in my lunch break and got out a book for the first time in a while (it was 'The Better Angels of Our Nature' by Steven Pinker, £9.49 on Kindle or free from the library!). Libraries are a great resource, which makes it such a shame that Lancashire is planning to shut 40 of it's 74 libraries. I've used libraries ever since I was little, and have fond memories of my library visits. My first library experience was a small library in Thornton Cleveleys back in the days when they didn't have the now ubiquitous credit card style library card. Instead you had six tickets, I think they were orange, which were in effect little rectangular cardboard sleeves. When you wanted to borrow a library book, the librarian took your ticket off you, put the small ticket from inside the book, and filed it away until you returned the book. How quaint and 1980s it sounds now... Later my mother took me to a big new library that had opened in nearby Fleetwood, a huge (or what at the time felt like a huge) modern building full to the top with books. I used to love going there!
My  local... (© Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Most of my childhood memories of libraries though is of Garstang Library. We moved to Garstang when I was 11, and from then on I was allowed to walk to the library on my own. I'd go in an evening after tea, at the weekend, or sometimes on the way home from school. I'd come away with a whole bagful of books, not all of which I'd end up reading, but over the years I must have read hundreds from the library and it really was instrumental in developing my love of reading. Sadly Garstang library is one earmarked for closure, and this isn't a small village, but a thriving town with over 4,000 residents. What's more it is the nearest town for many small villages and rural communities. If it closes, there probably won't be another library for 10 miles in either direction. When I was growing up, except after Christmas and birthdays I generally didn't have the money to buy books and the library was invaluable. Without it I don't think I'd have developed the love of reading that I have today.

Even if some children do have plenty of money to buy books, a) They'll probably spend it on something else, and b) Most small towns don't have a bookshop these days. Amazon may be a great place to buy books, but only if you are already a reader and know what you want. Now I know these days there's the internet, and while that may be a great resource for readers down the line, it isn't going to encourage children to read, and when they do it's going to be short articles (if they don't just stick to watching videos on Youtube), hardly the same.

Libraries have been around for thousands of years in one form or another, with the likes of the great Library of Alexandria, and before that the Library of Ashurbanipal (30,000 clay tablets, a far cry from the works of John Grisham et al). In more recent times, there have been public reference libraries and subscription libraries, but public libraries really started taking off with the Libraries Act in the UK in 1850 which opened the way for free lending libraries to open across the country, and later across the world as other countries followed suit. Governments and local authorities funded a lot, but many were set up with funds from wealthy benefactors. Ever heard of Andrew Carnegie? He was a Scottish born, American steel magnate, who after selling his company dedicated himself to Philanthropy, giving away the majority of his fortune ($78bn in today's money). One of the things he did was fund public libraries around the English speaking world, 3000 of them, including 600 in Britain! There's a good chance that your local library was one of the Carnegie libraries. I wonder what Mr Carnegie would make of all the library closures today?
By J Brew (Flickr: British Museum Reading Room)

The original motivation was that it would encourage people to do something wholesome with their leisure time rather than spending it in the pub drinking. In the 21st century, I think this rationale is as good as it ever was. People may be spending their time in front of the TV, computer or games console rather than just down the local pub, but encouraging reading is as important as ever.

The funny thing is though, libraries aren't just about reading. They're an important part of the community and one of the very few places where people can go for free to pass the time or meet up with friends. If you don't have access to a computer or the internet at home (and believe it or not, lots of people still don't), you can research online at the library for that job application, or write your CV. Want to get away from your desk for a bit in your lunch break? You can either go and buy an expensive Latte and sit in Starbucks, or you could go sit on a comfy chair in your local library for free. It is one of the few places remaining that isn't out to try and take money off you - what a refreshing change!

Libraries are a community hub too, an important place for local events, be they a reading group, a craft club or even a concert. I was vaguely aware a few years ago that my local library (Lancaster), in an effort to get more young people into libraries, was holding concerts for up and coming artists to sing at. I sniffed at it, and thought nobody good would ever come to perform at Lancaster library. I was wrong. Ever heard of Adele? She was one of many great artists to sing at the library. Don't let it be said libraries aren't moving with the times!

So even if you haven't in a while, why don't you check out your local library while you've still got it, you might be pleasantly surprised. Oh and sign the petition to save Lancashire Libraries (this is the UK government petition, there's also local petitions on Lancashire County Council's website regarding individual library closures).

Want some further reading? Have a look at this great article from bestselling author Neil Gaiman about the importance of libraries and encouraging children to read.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

'Human Universe' by Brian Cox

Title: 'Human Universe'
Author: Brian Cox
Genre: Popular Science
No. of pages: 272 pages

This is the latest in a series of popular science books by physicist Brian Cox, based on the tv series of the same name. In previous books/series, he looked at the solar system, the physical universe and the wonders of life. In this book, he looks our place in the universe, whether there other planets like ours and what are the chances of other intelligent life in the universe. It's that classic question - are we alone?

The book starts out looking at some of the history of astronomy, and opinions as to our place in the universe - it covers the likes of Copernicus and Galileo amongst others. It then moves on to look at the Drake Equation - what are the chances of finding other intelligent life in the galaxy (the idea is the universe is too big and too distant, if we find any other life it will be in our galaxy). It then covers the search for Extraterrestial Life (SETI), both original SETI and its modern expanded search. SETI has been going for decades, and the biggest question yet is 'Why haven't we found a signal yet?'. The book considers this question too.

This book isn't just a rehash or script of the tv series, as one reviewer put it the tv series acts as a trailer for the book. The book goes into a lot more detail. Some of it is quite technical, but generally is very readable. There are a few formula, but the author explains these relatively simply. You can fairly easily figure out what this is about if you want, or just skip over it if you are not interested (these are only a tiny part of the book, the odd paragraph here or there).

The first section on the history of astronomy and man's view of our place in the universe is the weakest section in my mind, but that's perhaps because I'm quite familiar with the story. When the book gets into the discussion about the Drake Equation, SETI and the big question it gets, much, much better.

Like other books I've been reading recently, this book also verges on the political at times, in the context of science. I think this adds a lot to the book. The book covers  lot of ground that is in other books (legitimately, it is a summarizing and simplifying of a lot of basic science and cosmology), but Brian Cox adds a nice personal touch, relating his early experiences and inspiration and giving his own perspective on the way the world is going.

I'm giving this a solid 8/10

Sunday, 7 February 2016

'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind'

Title: 'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Genre: Non-fiction history/anthropology/other stuff
No. of pages: 512

"The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups. This glue has made us the masters of creation."

Sapiens is exactly what it says on the cover - a brief history of the human race. The scope is bigger than any other book of it's kind, stretching from pre-history when humans (and not even Homo Sapiens at that point) started to evolve from animals, to the future of the human race. Unlike other history books, it makes barely any mention of historical personages or events, it takes too much of a god's eye view for that. Instead it talks about the development of humans, through a series of revolutions: the cognitive revolution (when humans started to think, imagine and develop), the agricultural revolution, the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution, then finally to the technological revolution. Some of the usual historical topics are covered briefly, like Sumer/Mesopotamia for its pioneering of the agricultural revolution, European colonisation, and the British Empire and the industrial revolution. Throughout it all though it considers such big questions as 'What are we doing?' and 'Where are we going?'.

While telling our story, the author considers what makes us special, how did we advance so far and so fast when others didn't.

"Ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution. Speeding down this fast lane, Homo sapiens soon far outstripped all other human and animal species in its ability to cooperate"

At times the book has some very astute observations to make:

"One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it."

In case you thought the author was talking about 21st century modern culture, you'd be wrong. He was talking about early agricultural settlements. Some things are as relevant today as they were 10,000 years ago.

I love this book. It's a near flawless account of humanity, our accomplishments, our failures, our crazy lack of logic, our gross stupidity. The history of how we evolved and developed is excellent. It doesn't talk about individual countries, great kings or decisive battles because in the end, none of it matters. We are one race and this is our history. 

The last part of the book is quite political, not about individual political parties or movements, that is small fry. No, the author turns his gaze to the dominant ideology of our time: capitalism (well, the free market version of capitalism that is dominant today anyway). He has a lot to say about it, and most of it not good. While he is quite critical at times, if you read it you will see that he talks a lot of sense. 

I am giving this book 10/10. It is the most enlightening books I've read in a long time, and while the author doesn't always paint a rosy picture, I finished it feeling strangely optimistic about the future.