Friday, 20 April 2018

Windrush rumbles on. Brexit Ireland Negotiations at a deadlock. Meetings and Frogs

Dandelions flowering a pristine gold 
The Windrush scandal continues to reverberate with the Prime Minister and colleagues issuing apologies.  Citizens perfectly entitled to be here are being subjected to life changing mis-treatment by an uncaring bureaucracy. Promises have been made to rectify the situation, but the issues are likely to linger.

Attitudes to illegal immigrants came to the fore as a major  public concern and were picked up by politicians on both sides of the house. This allowed the deliberate and very public establishment of a hostile environment on illegal immigration.

The bureaucracy has now built up its own momentum in absorbing the attitudes turned public policy. The burden of proof now lies with the individual. Woe betide the person who accidentally falls into a machinery whose aim is to aggressively combat immigration numbers. Landlords, employers and other government departments have been co-opted under the pain of punishment to make their judgments on whether to provide or refuse their services. As usual, the victims are often those who cannot fight back, or afford to pay for some of the impossible hoops that they are made to jump through.

Brexit has really been in the background, despite the fact that several weeks of negotiations have been going on. The talks on the future of the border between Northern Ireland and Eire appear to have gone nowwhere. The EU still insists that there should be no hard border - to meet the concerns of the Irish and retain the benefits of the Good Friday agreement. The UK has suggested having a unique "customs partnership", something already rejected previously by the EU 27. The EU has asked for new proposals.

President Trump appears to be making significant progress in getting North Korea to make positive moods on the subject of nuclear disarmament, prior to the planned meeting between the two leaders at as an yet unspecified date.

I finally completed the Bulletin and sent it off to the printer yesterday, adding to the three other books also now off our hands, making life easier. We therefore set off in the evening relatively unburdened to help with this months CETC event on business models. What might have seemed a dry subject was quite lively as we had talks on social enterprises, investment and growth strategies and one company sharing it's experiences with it's model based on the internet of thinks and data analysis.

Had an interesting project at the Norris Museum today, creating some possible window displays to attract passers by. Lets wait and see if they meet with the director's approval.

Could not see any frogspawn in the pond anymore, though it could have sunk down. However, I was surprised to see two frog's heads peeking out of the water rather than the one I expected. So far, not much is happening with the frogs eggs in the garage, they still appear to be at the blastula stage, where the cells reproduce but overall the clump retains the same volume, though it becomes hollow as development continues. The water temperature seems to stay in the range 15 to 20 degC and there is a population of phototropic brown algae in the water shown as a brown cloud at the side facing the windows.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Lords Support Customs Union. Frogspawn. Photo Show and Tell and Pokemon Gym.

Milton 's Jane Coston bridge on the first warm day
The Lords dealt the government a blow today in their debate on the UK EU Withdrawal bill. They voted by 348 to 225 in favour of a plan requiring ministers to report on steps to negotiate a continued customs union. This will be one of the points passed back to the House of commons.

Whilst a customs union with the EU would be desirable economically, it would be a political catastrophe if we had one but without any political say in EU decision making. In my opinion, the UK really does wither have to stay in the EU or leave..

Overnight our pond gained a ball of frogspawn and a visible frog, peeking up out of the pond occasionally. Keeping an eye on the spawn duing the day, it was soon apparent that it was being predated as it gradually reduced in size. I took a small proportion of the spawn with pond water and placded it in a plastic fish tank in our garage where it still gets light but is less subject to overheating during strong sunshine.

This evening we went to the Milton Photographical Club 'Show and tell'. Our pictures were randomly mixed with those of the other members and then shown on screen for the audience to comment and appreciate. I came away with the intention to try more landscape photos with a detail in the foreground as well. As we came out of the church hall, we passed another group. Curiosity won and we found out that it was a pokemon group. Apparently the churchyard is a Pokemon gym.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Windrush Scandal Worries EU Citizens. Cervantes and Barbary Slavery

EU citizens are looking on with concern at the current 'Windrush Generation' scandal. People invited in from the former Commonwealth countries to help rebuild Britain in the 1940s and 1950s also brought in their children who then lived all their lives in the UK. Their rights to stay were guaranteed in 1971. An 'update' of the regulations in 2013/2014 quietly dropped the key paragraph providing this guarantee without any one really noticing at the time.

However, with the introduction of a more hostile immigration policy, some of those who thought they were British but had never applied for a passport or other form of digital ID in their lives, suddenly found that they had lost their jobs, rented accommodation and were deemed illegal immigrants. Unless of course they could provide at least four pieces of admissible paperwork for every year that they had lived here.

The issue, reported on by the Guardian and other newspapers, came to a head today with Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, apologising to parliament. This was for the appalling and heartless treatment of individuals approaching retirement age, some of them pillars in their community, who were now at risk of deportation. Indeed some had already been deported. 

The real worry for EU citizens in the UK, currently without settled status, is that the problems with the immigration system, and its treatment of 'Windrush' individuals, possibly presages how they could be mistreated after Brexit. EU Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt echoed their concerns.

Spring continues to warm Milton.

A chance comment by Jane about the reverse slave trade from Europe to Aftica led to a search that revealed a history that I had hitherto been unaware of.

With a decline in the centralised power of the Ottoman empire, piracy grew rapidly with bases in Tunis and on the Barbary coast. Raiding ships were not only a hazard to European ships at sea but also to coastal village communities in Cornwall, Ireland.  Raids even reached Iceland. The raids grew in audacity in the 1600's and continued right into the early 1800's, till US and British naval attacks on Tunis and other Barbary ports made slave piracy impossible. Until then, the main treasure for any pirate was capturing sailors rather than treasure. These could be sold on as galley slaves if they were poor, or could be ransomed if they had connections.

Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote was himself held to ransom by pirates. He had served in the Spanish infantry fighting against the Turks  when he was captured by pirates in 1575 and taken to Algiers. He was kept as a slave for five years before regaining his freedom with a ransom raised by Trinitarian friars from the convent where he would be buried later. He wrote his novel upon his return.

Estimates go as high as 1 to 2 million Christians being enslaved over a period of 200 years. The village of Baltimore in Ireland was completely depopulated and people also moved away from coastal villages on the Mediterranean to avoid the pirates. There was a simple way to escape slavery, convert to Islam. Unfortunately, this meant that it was impossible to return home. The punishment for apostasy could be death.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Syria Bombing Contained? WATA Laugh and Spring Banners.

Woke up this morning with the news that the US, UK and France had conducted a major strike on Syria. 105 missiles rained down on one target in Damascus and two sites outside of Homs. The targets were chosen for being research, production and storage centres for nerve gases. None of them were intercepted by Syrian or Russian defence systems, though apparently the Syrians let off several of their own ballistic missiles after the attack at 4 am local time had occurred.

At this moment in time, it looks as if this limited action has not initiated a counterattack by the Russians as they had planned, saving us from an escalating conflict for the time being.

By 2013, Syria had a large  stockpile of chemical weapons, estimated at 1000 tons. When the country joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria agreed to have it's stockpiles destroyed under the supervision of the  Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The task was believed to have been completed by 2014.

Presumably, the detailed knowledge on the locations of production and storage facilities came from the work done under the OPCW and subsequent military intelligence. At least five facilites were listed openly on Wikipedia.

The general consensus appears to be that whilst the argument behind the strikes by the US, UK and France was to send a a clear signal that the use of chemical weapons would not be sanctioned, this would be unlikely to affect the outcome of the current civil war. More than 99% of the Syrian government's military action, and the resultant misery, has been conducted using conventional weapons, with the support of  Russian and Iranian forces.

Life goes on, despite the efforts of the media to build up the potential danger of the current situation, with the US's President Trump and assorted Russian diplomats willing to goad each other with inflammatory rhetoric. There is the benefit that Brexit and President Trump's irritations are pushed into the background. Yet we are in a surreal position where the danger of the current situation does not really seem to impact, being simply another item interrupting sport and entertainment on TV and Radio.

Yesterday, Friday 13th, was the last grey day and the memorable event was the HBN Out and About visit to WATA (West Anglia Training Association). We arrived at an almost deserted site, it still being the Easter break for the students, and also to the frankly hilarious absence of the person who was going to give us the presentation & tour of the site. Fortunately, the site manager sprang into action and admirably filled the gap, with his decades of experience of the site and it's activities. The two things that stuck in my mind were the large scaffolding training hall, which catered both to students and experienced construction workers, and the stretch of highway used to prepare apprentices for work on the major construction work on the A14.

Today, Spring sunshine and welcome warmth took over. After a trip to Cambridge to pick up my new glasses, I found myself driving our local Liberal Councillor, handicapped by an injured arm, around the village and hammering in election signs at various locations under instruction.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Trump Prepares for Syria Strikes, UK to Follow? A Day Out at the Museums.

Well, apologies for the significant gap in this blog, I was distracted by a rather big tome to read, AERA by Markus Heitz. At over 700 pages of fantastic fiction (in both senses of the word) it seemed just so much more important than the background chatter on Brexit and POTUS across the pond.

Now however, as my eyes turn again to a more worldly look at - the world, it seems that in addition to having a chemical attack on the UK's soil by an agency allegedly linked to the Russian military or even the Kremlin, Trump and Putin are squaring off for a more direct confrontation in Syria. With much of the world supporting the UK in its reaction to the Novichok attack in Salisbury, the sudden use of chemical weapons in Syria, most likely by the Assad regime, could not go unchallenged. The UN had been stymied in its attempts to investigate the matter further by Russia's veto. Russia, the current main military ally, with Iran, with the Assad regime.

With Russia threatening to shoot down any US missiles fired at Syria, President Trump replied:

"Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia,  because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!"

The heightened rhetoric on both sides and the complexity on the ground in a weaponised Syria makes for a risky strike environment, whatever the rights of opposing the use of chemical weapons. This could turn out to be either a mega-bluffing game between two super-powers or the start of a major conflict. And we have little say in what happens. The Prime Minister will be holding a cabinet meeting on the situation, with possibly the UK joining the strikes.

Kuwait Airlines has already cancelled all flights to neighbouring Beirut for the foreseeable future.

At least I had an enjoyable day yesterday in London. I walked past Euston Station and stopped off at the Wellcome Collection to look at three current exhibitions. There was a short walk further to stop of for a quick lunch at the George Farha cafe, then on to the Grant Museum of Zoology. As this opened at 1 pm and I had to be at the Natural History Museum at 2pm for a committee meeting, this was a short 15 minutes to see the interior. The main  magnet for any microscopist due to the myriad of slides on display was an illuminated booth. I took a panorama picture which makes it appear larger than it really is:

The extremely entertaining evening talk to the Quekett Microscopical Society was by the Senior Curator of Hemiptera (flies to you and me), Erica McAlister. Check out her book 'The Secret Life of Flies'.

Monday, 2 April 2018

US markets drop in reaction to Tech Giant Problems and China's Trump-Tarif Retaliation. Hot Cross Buns.

Giant mutated Hot Cross Buns
President Trumps comments on Amazon, the Cambridge Analytica impact on Facebook and todays retaliation by China for the US tariffs on steel and aluminium, they all contributed to a 3% drop in the US stock market. Again, it is the insecurity about how the president will react next that seems to give markets and politics the jitters. From my perspective, the two global economic giants will no doubt continue to jostle each other for power and influence economically. It makes the EU appear a sane third major giant on the economic world stage. I have doubts about the real power that the UK might have in negotiating on its own with, with the one partner we are supposed to deal with being unpredictable in his actions, other than putting America first. 

Domestically, the issue of the new Blue UK passports being produced by French-Dutch firm Gemalto is rippling through the news, with the existing UK contractor, De La Rue, planning to formally launch an appeal in court.

Over Easter, I had two projects of interest, the first being the microscopy of mouth cells and the second being  making Hot Cross Buns. Though these are traditionally eaten on Good Friday, they appear to be available commercially from just after Christmas onwards. Depending on the source on the internet, bread buns with a cross may have already been baked by the ancient Greeks and by pagan Saxons to celebrate the beginning of Spring. They became associated with Christianity by the Tudor period, when their sale was prohibited at times other than burials, Good Friday and Christmas  by the London Clerk of Markets. Wikipedia states that there are superstitions associated with the hot cross bun; take one on a sea journey and you will be protected against shipwreck, for example.

I had a go using a simple Tesco recipe, but substituting some of Jane's excellent three fruit marmalade for orange rind and reducing all ingredient proportions to match those for 200 g flour instead of the full 500 g. This should have been enough for four buns. Room temperature being around 19 degrees Centrigrade, I left the rolls to rise for quite a number of hours to double in size. The cross of flour, sugar and water paste was decoratively added just before the buns entered the oven. During baking the buns fused to form one gigantic mutant bun with only hints of quarters, the crosses almost disappeared into indistinguishable blobs. The crusts were a bit chewy, but otherwise they were OK, with two to be eaten tomorrow.

Watched the first episode of Westworld Series 1 this evening. A slow burn but disturbing enough to want a bit of distraction after watching it and before going to bed.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

POTUS Syria Promise and Amazon Castigation. Stephen Hawking Service. Eggs and Oral Neutrophils.

So far the economic impact of brexit has been relatively unnoticed by us, the average people on the street. We have adjusted to the fall in the value of the pound and some manufacturing firms are talking about a rise in orders. There are still counters to this, with the Guardian reporting that 11% of manufacturers have lost contracts due to Brexit, 58% saying that their prices will be increasing to offset the additional brexit costs. 46% intend to pass the costs on to customers.

President Trump is keeping himself in the news with two controversial pronouncements: He is hinting at a US withdrawal from Syria, in flat contradiction to defence experts who expect such a move to create a vacuum that can only benefit Iran, the Russians and potentially ISIS.  His second blast is at Amazon, with the claim that it it is causing the US postal service to lose $1.50 on average for every parcel it delivers for the internet giant. Yet the Postal Regulatory Commission, overseeing the industry, states the US Postal Service makes a profit from its contract with the company. It is the letter side of the postal service chich is losing money. Most commentators are pointing to the fact that Amazon boss Jeff Bezos is also the owner of the Washington Post, which writes articles unpalatable to the President's world view.

Avoided Cambridge today as the city streets were expected to be filled with people paying their respects to Professor Stephen Hawking on his way to the private funeral service at St Mary's, the university church. His ashes are to be interred next to Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey, the first scientist to be buried there for 80 years. he joins Charles Darwin, Sir Ernest Rutherford and Joseph John Thomson, the latter both atomic physics pioneers. I can't help thinking that it would be fitting if his ashes had a last trip on one of the new pioneering space rockets before ending up in his final resting place as he had always wanted to travel into space. His real immortality will be in the papers and ideas that he contributed to theoretical physics and cosmology.

I successfully completed the third day of chicken sitting for a neighboring friend and spent an afternoon fascinated by what I saw under the microscope. The two are unconnected but the chicken sitting has already been rewarded with eggs. Appropriately, there was a David Attenborough narrated program on eggs on TV tonight. The two differently shaped eggs shown above left me confused about what they might say about the contrasting evolutionary directions the respective chickens who laid themwere going in. Meanwhile, Jane was in an artistic mood, planning her next project.

My intention was to get some decent pictures of mouth epithelial cells using phase contrast on the microscope, hopefully with some bacteria on them. Phase contrast is an optical method that makes transparent biological specimens more contrasty under the microscope. I mounted by cheek scrape in sputum under a coverslip and began to search for cheek cells suitable for photography. I was however distracted by the large number of active neutrophil white blood cells that I hadn't expected. Whilst the epithelial cells that slough off the inner cheek are immobile and probably dead, the neutrophils showed a very active cytoplasm and some movement.

The mouth is obviously an entry point into the body and naturally a host to a wide range of bacteria, most of them beneficial - they keep other disease-causing bacteria at bay. The human body keeps these bacteria under control by sending out neutrophils, the most abundant type of white blood cell to eat the bacteria. I had read somewhere in the distant past that the mouth therefore has one of the highest concentrations of these disease fighting cells in our body. There is still very little known about the relationship of the neutrophils and their importance in the oral cavity. I tried taking two videos and a number of pictures, which now need to be processed.