Amazing what can crop up in your photos…

Thursday last week was a beautiful day on the islands: calm, with winds dropping to the single digits mph from the 40/50+ they’d been for much of the previous seven days and with cloudless, spring-like blue skies.

In short, a good day for travelling – and good timing, too; as we’d long planned a trip off-island via the Lochmaddy-Uig ferry.

Seeing the colour of the skies – and the Cuillin ridge on Sky, visible from our house for the first time in weeks of mist and low cloud cover – I made sure my camera (a simple Canon compact) was with me in the front of the car and, coming off the ferry (a first time for me on the MV Hebridean Isles, I started snapping away through the windscreen as we came down through Skye and especially as the Cuillin Ridge came into view. On my second effort, I was aware of two lapwings that rose from the left, startled, across the road and my field of view just as I pressed the shutter release (I know: they probably don’t still call them that). I thought little of it – lapwings are easily disturbed – and, on checking that my view of the total width of the Black Cuillins had indeed been photobombed by a lapwing, nearly deleted it immediately. It’s not, in any case, a great photo (enhancing (as I have done below) via software easily available over the internet improves somewhat the original over-exposure of the ridge and restores a little of the blue sky, although I’ve lost quite a bit in straightening the horizon line). Further down the road, once I’d got my focusing sorted out, I have much better snaps – although that is all they are, given the circumstances – albeit of the Red Cuillins, not the Black ones.

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And yet, and yet. Look a bit closer. What’s the bird in the middle of the photo? One of the disturbed lapwings is clear enough, in the foreground, but that bird top centre, a little further distant. Is that ‘fingers’ visible on the end of its brown, and very broad, right wing, or a simple blur of movement as the bird changes direction? Is that an interesting-looking tail arrangement, or a mistake in the colours given the limits of the photograph being taken? Something in any way potentially predatory, looking to cut off the lapwing’s exit right? Zooming close in on the bird in question, gives me this, inevitably poor quality, blurred shot:

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Clearly it is a raptor which has raised the lapwings – and a major one, judging by what seems to be a fearsome hooter. Look at the power in those shoulders. My first thought was a white-tailed eagle (which I have seen, memorably, on Skye before, in a boat trip out of Portree harbour a little way south into the Sound of Raasay). The wings are not big or broad enough for a white-tailed, however – but it is most certainly a golden eagle: most specifically, a juvenile one: the white tail tipped with black feathers gives it away. My first, confirmed, sighting of a goldie, too: and in what dramatic circumstances – the bird seems to be clearly arching in towards the second, slower of the two lapwing(s) although whether they or something else is the target of the hunt is uncertain. I (and the passengers in the other drivers in the convoy of cars coming down Skye from Uig) seem to have been an unwitting, uninvited witness to a strike by one of the UK nature’s finest, and perhaps most feared, killing machines.

Or is it my sighting? Yes, it is absolutely a golden eagle (unless anyone with better knowledge can correct me!). But does a picture of one – a moment in and out of time – really count as a sighting? Especially one in which the bird in question features as a mistake, and from the safe, sealed environment of the inside of a car? What makes my picture of the young goldie any different from one I’ve seen in a book or on the RSPB website? Yes, I took the picture – but I didn’t mean actually to take a picture of a golden eagle. And – to confess the key point in my philosophical ramble – I can’t recall whether I actually saw it live: I’ve only seen it on my photo. Yes, dear reader, I took a picture of a golden eagle without actually seeing one. What happened after its swoop – the key part in its hunger chase – I didn’t catch: my attention was all on the lapwing(s) with the cheek to photobomb my shot of the Cuillin Ridge, which quickly went out of sight on the moorland to the right and behind as the car continued to roll forwards. Does an image of a bird, unseen in the original, really count as a sighting in these circumstances? The lapwing is a striking and exotic enough bird but not only is it a bit commonplace (red listed it may be but, in the Hebrides, they’re really two-a-penny), in these particular circumstances, sighting a lapwing is the very definition of anti-climax.

I think my quest for a confirmed golden eagle sighting might well have to continue – even if I could scarcely have got closer this time. But it does demonstrate the importance of paying attention; seeing the full picture and not losing focus in the frustrations of a moment apparently lost but which, when afforded the opportunity of such hindsight, had the makings of something much, much better.

Book Review: The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau

Like probably a lot of readers, I picked this up fairly recently in the wake of Graeme Macrae Burnet‘s second novel – His Bloody Project – being shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize (and which has just now worked its way to the top of my reading pile). And absolutely fair play to his publisher – Saraband, a tiny but brilliantly creative Scottish publishing house (check out the video to support part of the backstory of this first novel) – for using the Booker to add a bit more juice to an earlier novel.

Bedeau purports to be the author’s translation of a French cult classic by one Raymond Brunet (see what he did there?): one that has been effective enough to confuse more than a few poor souls. It is, of course, a novel, with the ‘translation’ constituting an elaborate structual device whose purpose is conjectural but which seems to have been to support what is arguably the book’s main purpose. John Fowles of course deployed similar structural devices in several of his works.

The novel itself need not detain us too long: it is, in truth, a rather slight story with the disappearance of Ms. Bedeau being simply a MacGuffin on which to hang a study of two men – one being a detective; the other a social misfit who may know something about the disappearance but who has a complex psychological history – located in smalltown France (the very real town of Saint-Louis, close to Strasbourg). Having himself spent some time living in France, Burnet’s observations are well-informed and the novel’s keen sense of atmosphere and place, particularly around the role of food and drink in French society, is likely to owe significantly to his experience. The tale is assured and well-told, with chapters consumed by your reviewer at a rapid pace and unfolding in a well-described timeframe, partly in the current and partly in flashback for both the main protagonists; and there is an appreciable level of sly humour surrounding the author’s observations. And yet ultimately the author pulls his punches on the main plot; sub-plots are left undeveloped and, in one case, completely hanging; and the key to the denouement of the main plot appears trivial and would, thus, be unsatisfactory in a more major work.

It is interesting to learn (from the author’s profile page on the Saraband website) that Burnet is returning to his detective – Inspector Georges Gorski – in his next novel, since this gives us the key to Bedeau‘s main purpose: it is a homage to Georges Simenon, the French writer whose Inspector Maigret books are modern classics and who (alongside other European crime novels) is a declared major influence on Burnet as an author. It is in this novel-as-homage that we might view some of its weaknesses (weak and poorly developed female caricatures; bad sex scenes; a level of misogyny in describing the women characters and one instance of casual racism towards the book’s end): this is not Burnet’s voice, necessarily, but that of the purported author he is translating and whose roman fits into a genre of cheap, and rather dated, French detective novels which are themselves Simenon pastiches. Consequently, we should probably cut Burnet a little slack on such weaknesses: in this reading, this novel of his is only partly his own and the weaknesses may stem, more or less built-in, from the purpose of the novel-as-homage rather than from the mind and the pen of Burnet as himself. It will thus be interesting to see how Gorski features next, what device Burnet will use to support his re-appearance and how much of Burnet’s own voice, as opposed to him acting as a channel for forgotten (and minor) French authors, is contained in that work.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward immensely to hearing a little more of Burnet’s own voice sans the influence of French crime novelists in His Bloody Project.

IndyRef 2 becomes a reality

Nicola Sturgeon made the call this morning for a decision at the Scottish Parliament ‘next week’ to open discussions with the UK government on a new referendum on independence for Scotland.

Following the recent Ipsos MORI opinion poll putting support for (and against) independence at 50:50, such a move was likely on the basis that the largest party in the Scottish Parliament believes in independence and whose Green partners believe likewise. The SNP does not have a majority of the 129 Scottish MSPs but, with the support of the Greens, Parliament will approve the motion seeking such authority when put to it next week.

I’ve stated before – and this blog’s comments on Brexit highlight passim – that I’m not instinctively in favour of any approach to a country’s affairs rooted in the national as opposed to the international. I can’t see myself voting next time in any referendum any differently to the last one – although it does depend significantly on the question that is put to me in the voting booth. The difference this time around is the context of Brexit which is leading – apparently inexorably – to the break-up of the UK, as Ian Dunt successfully argues. He’s not right in everything (I am a Yugo-nostalgist, but it can’t be only me to notice that this is clearly not the first ‘active dismemberment of a country against itself’). More particularly, I don’t blame those voting ‘Leave’ last June for the break-up of the UK – this is, as Dunt also points out, quite clearly the fault of Theresa May and those others backing a hard Brexit. Arrogance, an anti-consultative tendency and a totally un-nuanced approach to the questions posed by the referendum – even to the point of government ministers claiming that parliament should reject the opportunity re-given it by the Lords to maximise its role in the process (EDIT: as indeed, and shamefully, happened tonight) – were always likely (and with evident justification) to see a Scottish government feeling its active marginalisation to kick back. You would expect that of any government in an active, engaged democracy and the Scottish Government is right to raise the question as it has done. The vote to leave the EU changes everything.

Consequently, I won’t – yet – be joining any ‘Together Stronger’ campaign. Indeed, one may not be necessary should Theresa May take this signal from Nicola Sturgeon for the final warning that it is, and change tack on the hard Brexit that she is relentlessly pursuing. David Allan Green in the FT notes the constitutional connections between Brexit and future of the UK; while it appears clear that the UK government has yet to learn the importance of listening to the priorities of the Scottish Government, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Welsh Government, as Stephen Tierney also argues. I’m not holding out any hopes of that, however: and, indeed, the early signs are not good with May having already criticised the move as ‘deeply regrettable’: a sign that she has surely missed, or otherwise ignored, the signal entirely.

Meanwhile, the dark days for those who believe in a UK where resources are pooled and shared for the greater good of all – as much as for those who believe similarly on a pan-European scale – just got that little bit darker.

CD review: Love and Hate

I’m coming a little late to this one, Michael Kiwanuka’s second CD, released in July 2016, being a present (thanks, Tracy!) to which I’ve only now got around. Nevertheless, this was quite a timely listen since Kiwanuka has been sitting in on a Sunday afternoon during February on 6Music for Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service (some episodes still available for listening).

A look at the playlists for the shows reveals a lot about the influences on Kiwanuka at this point, alongside the playlists he has also put together on iTunes (apparently…) in support of his 2017 Brits award nominations (for male artist and for album of the year); and on his own Spotify account (subscription required). (Though listening on the radio is always better, right?) Alongside the well-known influential figures from soul and jazz (sadly, most of them dead), there are some surprises too, revealing Kiwanuka, evidently a shy and even introspective man (there’s little of himself on his website or on his Twitter feed – and fair enough for all that, although artists are by definition public figures and, perhaps, need to give a little of themselves if their work is to be understood), to be something of a rocker, too (something which becomes also clear on the CD, which heavily features blues guitars and the influence of Ernie Isley (‘Summer Breeze’)).

On to the CD, and the most immediately obvious reference points vocally are Richie Havens and Ted Hawkins, but, primarily, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’ in both the themes of the songs (spiritualism, racism and agonised pain at the state of the world) but also in the over-riding ethos of orchestral soul drawn from the shimmering, soaring strings that underpin the key moments in the majority of the songs, in the chorus of voices providing backing for them and in the sudden key, and mood, shifts in the melodies within them. Extraordinarily tough footsteps to follow, perhaps (although, alongside the utterly sheer brilliance of some of its songs, it has to be said that ‘What’s Going On?’ also contains moments of unlistenable psychedelic filler: it’s an album of great songs, but it’s not a great album). Nevertheless, Kiwanuka manages successfully to tread on similar ground while not plummeting as many of the depths – a fact betraying, despite his apparent introspective nature, a level of confidence about his abilities and in the strength of his songs.

After a period of time-out to re-appraise himself and his music, this makes a bold statement. The otherwise somewhat overblown review of ‘Love and Hate’ in The Guardian points to the inner belief involved in putting a ten minute track (‘Cold Little Heart’) as the first song on the album, with Kiwanuka’s own vocal (though of course his voice is heard also in his guitar…) heard for the first time only after nearly five minutes. This is perceptive in some respects, although it’s also possible to see this as an attempt to put off the moment of saying something as long as possible. The moment he does is not only joyous but joyously cathartic: against the stirring strings, the repeated intonations of his backing singers and in his bluesy guitar in that first five minutes, it’s also clearly possible to see this as a man re-awakening, revitalising, drawing strength from the voices that surround him, overcoming his doubts and, finally sucking in air, gathering himself to say what it is he has to say.

Which brings us to his vocal (and his lyrics): cracked and pained, doubtful and unforgiving of himself, and cuttingly honest, but nevertheless capable of positive and even upbeat moments, Kiwanuka’s is finely tuned to his own, deeply personal observations and experiences. If the predominant feel of ‘Love and Hate’ is downbeat, geared towards a Sunday afternoon and a soul searching for answers even in the first, let alone from the second, half of 2016, Kiwanuka is clear that, while we need to look for sources of strength within ourselves, we can’t do this by ourselves: that we have to walk with each other, not just in someone else’s shoes but alongside them.

Key songs: the title track; and ‘Cold Little Heart’ – that gorgeous, raw opener. In fact, if you don’t like that, simply move along – there’s nothing else to see here. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with a thing of great beauty and emotional power. And this is a great album.

“I’m sorry Bill; I’m afraid we can’t do that”*

Crossing my Twitter feed quite a lot in the last few days has been snippets of information contemplating the future of work in the context of the growth of applications of artificial intelligence. Frequently, the recent debate uses the somewhat ancient terminology of robots, but the focus of the analysis is mostly the same: robots have already stolen the futures of much of the now left-behind working class; and are now coming again to steal the futures of much of the middle class, leaving behind in employment only artists, carers and supervisors. (And, probably, (Polish) plumbers.) The result of that is, of course, sheer panic among the chattering classes much of whom were either fairly silent first time round or otherwise insistent that people had simply to adapt to market forces and get on with it.

The spark for these thoughts here in this post was firstly a brief report of UNI Global Union’s contribution to the Trade Union Advisory Committee of the OECD (hat-tip: Denise McGuire), which was recently considering the issue under the somewhat more sophisticated title of ‘digitalisation and the future of work’; together with a thoughtful post on ToUChstone from the TUC’s own Tim Page (hat-tip: Sue Ferns) (and building on top of Helen Nadin’s earlier series of posts).

The threat posed to employment by new technology is of course a very real one – even if it is not one that is particularly new. Trade unions have been grappling with issues of applications in the workplace of new, computer-aided technology, initially in manufacturing industry, since at least the 1960s. The issue of ensuring how a just transition can take place is not only a reasonable, entirely rational call, as Page argues, but is also likely to continue to dominate the approach typically adopted by trade union negotiators faced with local arguments for change.

Whether the threats now being posed by AI do represent a quantitatively-different series of scythes through our employment base and structure than what we have seen before of course remains to be seen. I’m a little sceptical: capitalism is, by force of necessity, endlessly creative at establishing new forms of work (and, indeed, so are workers) and has been since the days of the Luddites and Captain Swing; the list of jobs unheard of ten years ago is fairly legendary (in the World Economic Forum’s list or that of many others) and, of course, all these robots will need servicing and maintaining not least to prevent them from going wrong. And software can, as we all know, be notoriously buggy. Some future jobs will be very well-paid, others less so – pretty much as now – but I tend to share less the fairly apocalyptic vision that this level of disruption will lead to mass unemployment and bankrupt states.

Enter Bill Gates, with his ‘robot tax’. To be fair, though, it’s not just Bill, as Market Watch‘s excoriating and mostly on-the-button review illustrates. Gates’s concern is really two-fold: to slow down the process of automation; and to prevent the process of automation becoming discredited. The obvious news on the first is that ‘well, you can’t’, although I am with him a bit more on the second. But a robot tax is not the right solution. That it’s so against the zeitgeist in the UK and in the US, among others, is neither here nor there in terms of its value as a policy prescription, although this does reduce its likely potential for adoption; the key here is actually in persuading the likes of Google and Amazon to pay their fair share of the current tax take rather than be endlessly creative around the tax laws, as well as in persuading right-wing governments not to engage in tax competition policies. (If only there was an international bloc to which we could belong that made tackling both of these a little easier: you know, like a Union of Europe, or something.) Secondly, automation should lead to improved productivity, and the UK needs a lot more of that, so anything that has the potential to inhibit investment has to be rejected; here, the major policy issue lies in narrowing the growing gap between wages and productivity and in addressing the share of national income taken by wages. In short, ending inequality. And thirdly, taxing a robot for taking someone’s job – and precisely how difficult would that be in the detail? – tends to lead to workers affected allocating the blame for that job loss on the robot rather than on the manager who has actually taken the decision to automate it.

Applications of new technology in the UK have, as they were supposed to, led to a continuing reduction in working time – at least, at the average level. What has happened is that this reduction has led to increasingly precarious forms of work being introduced for some workers (involuntary part-time working; bogus ‘freelance’ employment or self-employment); while others, in the ‘core’, tend to be working even harder, and longer. The rewards of lower working time have not only been unfairly distributed; but management has found a way to make that reduction actually seem like a penalty; and on both those who have too little work as well as on those who have enough of it. There is a debate to be had on the introduction of a basic income such that the rewards that automation has brought are better distributed (and, indeed, valued). And, of course, workers in precarious forms of employment need to be better protected – which includes treating those who are clearly workers as such.

The question nevertheless remains of how to ensure a just transition.

Firstly, and remembering that people in cities in northern England feel that they have been ‘left behind’ substantially because there was no serious, concerted attempt to deal with the impact of manufacturing job loss in the 1980s, we need to have a proper national industrial strategy which approaches digitalisation recognising the benefits of automatisation but which also systematically attempts to deal with the impact. The lesson we should be learning about areas like Stoke and Copeland is that it is the market solutions that we tried in the 1980s and 1990s that do not work. It is precisely the market, not politicians, that has left people behind (and if people need any arguments about the disconnect between people and the policy process, just look at the turnout in Stoke – just 36.7%). Reinvesting in areas of decline will take money, and substantial amounts of it – of course, one of the arguments behind the uses to which a ‘robot tax’ could be dedicated although the drawbacks sketched above still lead me away from it.

Secondly, the collective, societal issues sparked by automatisation require collective solutions. Individual responses often lead to the expressions of political frustration that we are seeing because individual voices appear incoherent. Consequently, we need to find ways of re-collectivising our society around establishing a meaningful and coherent social dialogue around the variety of issues raised by digitalisation. At company level, this means a re-focus on establishing proper collective bargaining in the interests of a fairer workplace; and it probably means worker directors, and in the form perfectly encapsulated in the fifth paragraph of Janet Williamson’s piece for ToUChstone (and nothing other than this). At national level, establishing collective social dialogue in the interests of a fairer society means changing the language around trade unions, such that effective industrial action is not immediately demonised by the government either in parliament or in terms of reaching for the statute book; and it means inviting trade union leaders into specific dialogue, and with a view not just to listening but to reaching agreement. Brexit, and the plethora of issues that will be raised once the process of withdrawal has been triggered, represents an important test of the realism of the government’s intentions n this respect.

Giving effective voice to people demands that we listen, however uncomfortable that might be and however inconvenienced we might be by it. The alternative – around automatisation as well as any other aspect of the national dialogue that we might consider – is that we create (or that we entrench) pathways for nationalism and for extremism.

 

* Of course, an adapted quote from HAL9000, the computer whose sentience continues to influence our thoughts and fears about the dangers of AI.

Before… and after

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1 tonne of Verdo briquettes

Weather: clear, dry (bit windy). Gloves required.

No. of packs on pallet: 96

No. of trips to shed: 48

No. of steps, pallet to shed: 23 (in each direction)

No. of times slipped on wet ground: 1

No. of times banged head on low shed entrance: 0 (Result!)

No. of minutes start to finish: 41

#SportingClubOfUist