Monday, 19 February 2018

The Tragedy of no Scientific Advisor for POTUS. UK Cities Visit Barnier. Books and Pollen

Lily Pollen 400x, inverted stack
President Trump experienced a renewed protest on US gun laws outside the White House, by students and parents affected by the most recent Florida shool shooting. Will anything real come of this or will business revert to normal once the issue is overtaken by the next headline.

Another worrying long term issue where there has been inaction - The empty post of Scientific Advisor to the president. The president has not filled the post after 390 plus days of his inauguration and the Office of Science and Technology Policy is running on one third of its original staff. The fact has been repeatedly been raised at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  There is no scientific voice to give the president impartial advice on the the consequences of nuclear action by or on North Korea. 

But I personally think that we shouldn't be surprised. The White House and politics in general are focused on short term issues, debates and actions that can maintain their power, influence and popularity. It is currently an adrenaline pumping roller-coaster along the corridors of power, where reputations can rise or crash in the space of a day. Facts have a low priority compared to emotions and deal-making.

Science is also a playground of power, influence and popularity - but these are all subservient to facts and ideas that match the observations of the world around us. However, science is for the long term and works at a much slower pace than politics. 

In the long run, reality and science catch up with you. The most obvious is when medical issues like illness and disease affect you personally and you hope that someone has already researched and developed a solution for you. Climate change is a slow burner that will come back to haunt us if unaddressed.

If President Trump really intends to stay for the longer term, the post of  Scientific Advisor to the President needs to be filled. It provides practical and impartial advice to scope out the real environmental, medical or technological challenges that can appear anywhere on the horizon. Forewarned is forearmed.

A delegation of 10 council leaders and city mayors of the UK's major cities met today with the chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier, the group contained both brexiteers and remainers. Their objective was to raise the issues and interests of their cities in the Brexit negotiations. The group was willing to talk to both EU and UK Brexit negotiators but so far only the EU had shown interest in meeting them. The invitation to talk is still open for the David Davis and the Department for Exiting the EU.

Major news today. Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in the UK closed - due to a lack of chicken deliveries. Could this be a subversive government plot to push the populace towards healthier eating?

Back to serious work today - one book off to the printer and awaiting a print proof, two books currently going through final edits and a number still waiting in the pipeline. 

I'd had a session taking photograph stacks of lily pollen under the microscope last night. This was in preparation for the talk on macro-photography on Friday. this evening I combined the 400 plus pictures into 6 focus stacks of varying success.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Trump Shooter Tweets. EU Citizen Rights in Transition. Winter Crop. Lighter Wholemeal Bread. Faux Sous-Vide Lamb in Slow-Cooker

A winter cabbage?
President Trump tweeted vociferously today. Among other things, he pointed the finger at the FBI, who missed signals about the Florida school shooter, stating that too much time was given to the Mueller Russia inquiry. He also asked why the Democrats didn't pass gun control legislation and then returned to accusations of Democrat collusion with Russia.

According to an interview on the Andrew Marr Show, the EU's negotiator Guy Verhofstadt said that it was not possible for the UK to restrict the rights of EU citizens coming to the UK whilst the UK had access to all the other benefits of the EU during the transition period. Currently the difference in EU citizen status during transition is a red line for both the EU and the UK, so if there is no movement, it could lead to a hard Brexit. Again, Verhofstadt emphasised that there would be no cherry picking in what the UK would like from the EU and that in particular, the UK financial sector could not be allowed to have a financial advantage.

The neatest description of the UK's situation with Brexit versus trande agreements with other countries was that for example Canada and Japan aimed to CONVERGE on trade and trade conditions, whilst the UK wanted to DIVERGE from the EU.

What does seem to currently be on the cards is that the situation of UK citizens abroad and EU citizens in the UK remains up in the air. This point is relevant with a view to the NHS which is having difficulty retaining and recruiting staff from abroad, whether from within the UK or outside. Non-EU immigration is a particular issue for the NHS as there is an immigration cap whose monthly ceiling has been reached in the past three months. The effect of the cap being reached is to push up the salaries that the Home Office sets as a minimum to qualify for consideration for skilled worker immigration. This makes it even more difficult for the NHS to attract people on cost and salary grounds within its budget.

We took a walk across to Scotsdales Garden Centre in Horningsea and were surprised to see what at first glance looked like a repeat of the bean crop planted in a field the previous year. Looking more closely at the flowers, we realised that it was a different winter crop, with cruciform flowers. We are not sure what it is, the closest we could get was a type of winter cabbage, e.g. Kale. See photo above.

I was also determined to find a solution on the lack of 'bounce' (rising upon baking) of my wholemeal or wholemeal-white flour breads. Googling around, I came across an important article by 'Ask Smithsonian' "What Makes Whole-Grain Bread So Hard to Bake?". It turns out that to bake a lighter wholemeal loaf, you need to use a greater proportion of water, anything from a bakers percentage of 90 to 120% (e.g.90 ml water per 100 g flour to 120 g water per 100 g flour). You also must reduce the kneading as the bran in the wholemeal cuts up the gluten.

I had a go at making a wholemeal loaf with the 90 bakers percentage of water, and with a lower amount of yeast to give a slow rise over the afternoon. The mixture was almost runny, having the consistency of wet cement. It took about 5h to rise in the bread tin and when baked gave more of a rise than usual, though still not spectacular. When cut, the loaf was lighter and moister inside but it also had a larger amount of large cavities as shown in the photo. I will have to have another go sometime, with less kneading.

I also tried another way to cook some lamb steaks. This has always been a bit haphazard as Jane does not like her meat on the rare side, and I didn't want a shriveled cutlet. I'd heard of cooking meat in a sealed plastic bag in a water-bath and googled the method. The term is Sous-vide, where the meat is vacuum sealed in a plastic bag and placed in a water-bath at any temperature between about 56 degC and 75 degC for rare to fully cooked meat for an hour to a number of hours. The meat is then removed and seared briefly before serving.

Lacking a controlled water bath and sealable plastic bags, I improvised and used the slow cooker on max heat, with just a few milliliters depth of water around the lamb cutlets. After 90 minutes, they were definitely cooked, with the meat temperature being above 60 degC. I pan seared them and they tasted delicious and tender. I will have to get some sealable plastic bags for cooking.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Security and Banned Foods Post Brexit. Macro-Photography. Successful Carrot Cake.

Photography trial with Huwei P10

Mixed messages on Brexit plans today. First, Prime Minister Theresa May gave her vision of Security and the way that the UK and EU should cooperate after Brexit at the Security Conference in Munich. Covering highly relevant aspects, from the benefits of the European Arrest Warrant in rapidly apprehending criminals and extraditing them to other countries in the EU to presenting a united front on potential military threats from outside of the EU and dealing with cyber attacks. She used a carrot and stick approach, for example pointing ut that the UK apparently spends 40% of the EU's total on defence, The desire seems to be to negotiating as close a relationship with the EU on security after Brexit as we currently already have in the remaining year within the EU.

The Observer features the revelation that right wing groups are proposing an 'ideal' UK-US trade deal. The interpretation of two linked articles by the 'Initiative for Free Trade' and the 'CATO Institute' is that the regulation of agriculture and food would be less stringent than the EU requirements and allow agreement on US standards "which are widely seen as weaker than those adopted by the EU". This could allow the import of meat from hormone treated cattle and the import of drugs and chemicals currently banned in the UK.

The articles mentioned are:
An “Ideal” US-UK Free Trade Agreement
Shadow Trade Talks

In the US, no decision was reached between the White House, Democrats and Republicans on the fate of children covered by DACA, the 'Dreamers'. The fear is now that unless there is a legal counter, there is the possibility that tens of thousands of children who have lived and grown up in the US will be deported to their supposed  countries of origin. There seems to be a growing outrage among US students that the gun culture in the US is not being addressed. Numerous ironic and sarcastic memes on the inability to tackle gun control were circulating on Facebook.

Spent some time this afternoon taking macro pictures of some of the flowers that Jane received at the wedding. I tried a range of lenses and spacers, as well as comparing smartphone pictures v those taken with an SLR. Also created image stacks. This is all in preparation for a talk to the University of the 3rd Age (U3A) this coming Friday.

During the day's food shop, suddenly had an urge for carrot cake and bought the missing ingredients to suit a recipe quickly found online. Back home I used half the ingredients of the recipe given by 'Woman & Home' for a "Carrot Cake With Orange Cream Cheese Frosting Recipe" and successfully baked a tasty cake, to be iced tomorrow.

Friday, 16 February 2018

US Election Tampering. Merkel and May. Mad Hat Outing

Thirteen individuals and three Russian companies have been charged with interfering in the US presidential elections by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, in a detailed document. They were part of "Project Lakhta", which included the Internet Research Agency, an organisation based in Russia, and which had a budget of over $1 million per month.

Key points identified by media analysis of the document included the following allegations: With the start of the presidential campaign, even before Trump joined in, the individuals and organsiations initially researched hot and divisive topics and possible swing areas. This information was then used to promote misinformation and themed groups on social media. Whilst there was a trend to denigrate the Clinton campaign, the general trend was to foment arguments and disrupt the electoral process. They purchased US server space and set up faux American identities which acted as nuclei to fire up others to amplify the disruptive and divisive effects.

Significantly, the document did not suggest collusion by US individuals with the process.

Prime Minister Theresa May met with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel with no clear new information revealed. Merkel expressed polite curiosity about what the UK's position would be, but it required a deeper internet search to find German reports on the meeting.

The next topic on the speech agenda is on security tomorrow. Leaving the EU could mean the loss of the close cooperation on security and information sharing currently in place. The aim is to have a new system in place in time for Brexit which mirrors the current status as closely as possible.

Cambridgeshire was bathed in sunshine again and the wind had died down too. I donned the Mad Hatter's hat I made for L & S's wedding as part of my speech and set off for the Friday Networking at the A14 and at Huntingdon. Five people started conversations due to the hat, three cars hooted or shouted out comments, a number of passers by smiled whilst the majority took the British approach of pretending nothing unusual was happening. Photojournal of the day here

Spent some time at the Norris Museum trying out macrophotography of one or two items in cabinets. This was in preparation for my talk to the University of the Third Age U3A on macrophotography next week.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

A Sunny Spring Day

Soul searching after US school shooting whilst leaders skirt around the elephant around the room, the US, a country making up 5% (one twentieth) of the worlds population, is also the country that hold nearly half (48%) of civilian owned guns.

EU legislators have removed the penalty clause that had slipped into their position paper for the transition period.

After nearly a week of rain, the sun came out on the last day of my mother & son's stay. The wind had also died down, making it a pleasant last walk along the River Cam before a lunch and then driving to Stansted Airport.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Sad Shooting. Boris's Brexit Vision. Valentine Crumpets

Don't really want to comment on the US today due to the tragedy of a school shooting, with currently 17 dead.

The highlight of Brexit today was supposed to be Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's position talk. It was hoped to shed a light on what the UK's position and aspirations were with Brexit. It was an uplifting speech on the possible glories of a post-brexit future. It did not provide any details of how it hoped to get there, the route to exiting the EU or how the glowing future could actually be achieved within the next decade. You can read his speech here: The speech rapidly slipped down the news agenda.

St Valentine's Day was a wet affair! The day rapidly drowned in rain, whipped across the street outside by the strong winds. We had a brisk walk outside to at least take some fresh air, before rushing back to the warmth and security of home. My mother had bought some muffin/egg poaching/crumpet rings (8 cm diameter, 3 cm tall) and we tried them out for making our own crumpets after the walk. We made 6 crumpets and three mini pikelets, learning that you only had to half fill the rings and that the crumpets cooked best on a medium to low heat. They were so filling when eaten with butter and jam or marmalade, that we skipped our cooked evening meal and had a grated carrot, apple and raisins salad.

Monday, 12 February 2018

White House Plans Diplomacy Cuts - And Why Even Everyday Life Suggests This Is a Bad Idea

President Trump's White House budget suggestions include a dramatic increase in military spending - and a 29% cut in funding for diplomacy, compared to 2017.

This is a truly worrying development as it undervalues the necessity of having people working to ensure that there is an effective understanding of other cultures, partners, enemies and allies. You need these to not only ensure success in your own countries endeavors, but also to avert potential misunderstandings that can lead to catastrophic consequences.

Living in the modern world, where there are fluidly interacting groups from diverse ages, cultures, perceptions of class, occupation and local workplace or region, personal diplomacy is a constant undercurrent in our lives. The difficulty each individual has is in deciding what and when is appropriate in any given location or social environment.

We had a rather heated exchange today within the family as both differences in perception and belief in what were good manners or not varied considerable across three different generations and close but still different cultural backgrounds. The one thing that it revealed is that we are all carrying within us, a set of beliefs on what we think is acceptable and what not. This can be so ingrained into our psyche from our own personal path through life, that we are firmly convinced that we are in part right and the other party definitely in the wrong! I am sure others reading this can relate to situations where Jim said something to Aunty Ethel twenty years ago and they now have to be seated at opposite ends of the room in any family gathering because the relationship has turned positively glacial and remained so over the decades.

Numerous books have been written through the ages and in different cultures, from Ptahhotep in the 3rd millennium BC,  who wrote The Maxims of Ptahhotep, via  Confucious in China, to the Knigge begun in 1922 in Germany and Debrett's in the UK, the latter two still adding to their modern advice in the internet age to their respective demographics of aspirants. They are products of their culture, era and class. All are regarded as essential guides for their particular audiences.

Which comes to the interesting question of why we have good manners and etiquette in most cultures? Anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers all have their unique perspectives - see Wikipedia article on etiquette. Manners and etiquette seem to be a natural development in any society where people have to get on with each other, avoid being exploited, and also mark out their identity compared to other social groups. Human ingenuity simply means that even a meal can be a nightmare: Eating all the food given on your plate can be considered polite in one location as it shows you appreciated it; whilst in others, you should actually leave something on your plate as otherwise you offend the host by indicating that there was not enough food.

And what is the difference between good manners and etiquette? That is another can of worms  because of the unspoken underlying assumptions made by those aiming to give solutions.

In our complex interconnected world, perhaps this is all a complicated dance where the objective is to offend the smallest number of people the least amount of the time. But whatever you do, the only certainty is that you will put your foot in it big time sooner or later. You just have to hope that Jim and Aunty Ethel don't hold nuclear weapons when it happens.