23 august 2018, little amber man

Russia's has used "alternative warfare" for years, its most notable victory the little green men's bloodless invasion of crimea and successful destabilisation of ukraine, stopping modernisation and leaning to europe (and more importantly away from russia) in its tracks (see and the beast goes on, 17 april 2014). Divide and rule and undermining western democratic institutions are now standard russian infowar with its own specialist division (the internet research agency). China is at it too, establishing armed artificial islands in the disputed waters of its self-declared nine-dash line. Economically, from 1991 to 2013, china's share of global exports rose from 2 to nearly 20%, all but wiping out parts of american manufacturing. Despite chinese investment in military tech, america's overwhelming firepower still makes the mcmasters doctrine about how to fight the us - asymmetric or stupid - true. Alternative warfare has the distinct advantage of avoiding head-on conflict, so if the hegemon hesitates, as both bush and obama did, gains can be banked. No-one has any plans to challenge russia's intense integration of the crimea. Trump's law-of-the-jungle worldview means positive connivance. Indeed, the us now seems an active alternative warfare player itself, with the strengthening dollar its main weapon. It broke the iran agreement and actively sabotaged the turkish economy with barbs and tariffs designed to force submission. Trump's mercantilism though confused iranian adversary and turkish ally, risking devastatingly tipping the latter away from the west entirely. Richard haas already noted we are "witnessing the gradual but steady demise of a relationship that is already an alliance in name only". Without qatar's billions to save it (and make the emirate a good return) continued currency turmoil could (and may yet) have tipped turkey into recession, inflation, banking collapse and mass bankruptcies - for which all would blame washington instead of turkey's own debt-fuelled profligacy. The risks of reckless vandalism are a very high-price to pay for the meagre gains alternative warfare practioners eke out because they don't have the means and global alliances america forged over decades, and which without superpower sponsorship look increasingly fragile defences against a dangerous dystopian world.

11 august 2018, we DON’T need to talk about boris

For those that don't already know, I am living in muscat at the moment, where around half of the population are expats, who walk around in shorts, t-shirts and pretty much whatever. Half are omanis, a traditional people where the men wear a distinctive hat and long white dishdasha and women cover their heads, mainly with an open-face hijab, not-unusually with the full niqab (see we will fight them on the beaches, 27 august 2016). I smile and talk to everyone, every day, whatever they wear. It takes a little cultural recalibration, but is entirely easy. I do recall the first time I saw someone in a niqab, which can be quite a strange and intimating sight to a westerner. It was summer in geneva, working at the united nation's palais des nations. They were visiting saudis, walking along the promenade and it reminded me of nothing so much as the orthodox jewish area I grew up near where even in the heights of summer the women wear their heavy wigs on shaven heads, the men their top-to-toe black raincoats and fur-lined black hats. Though not as many as in muscat, manchester clearly now has more hijabs and niqabs alongside its still-growing orthodox jews, to which I can only say how wonderful to see greater cultural diversity and more people coming to visit, work and live in global britain. Like carly simon I've nearly managed to write without reference to the grand poobah who spectacularly achieved the aim of his telegraph column last week and has everyone talking about boris by taking a leaf straight from the trump playbook and acting as a lightning rod for an issue that divides rather than unites and everyone can have an emotional response to. I am pure voltaire on this, disagreeing with what he said but defending his right to say it. It was purile, sensationalist, offensive and entirely self-promoting. It was also evidently successful and in the utter wilderness that is british political leadership probably did his prospects no harm. To quote the organ-grinder: sad.

24 july 2018, manchester, monsal & muscat

It's been a rolling month of finishing off and goodbyes, as I slowly make my way from manchester to muscat, which if you're wondering is the capital of oman, which for those wondering is in the gulf and for those wonks wondering (I know many), the gcc. After a gorgeous little holiday with my younger a few weeks ago, I then had a weekend away with the elder, cycling from buxton to matlock, mainly along the monsal trail (collage). This whole period has been incredibly sunny (somewhat taking away from my poor weather excuse for leaving) so the cycling was just wonderful, as well as quite leisurely, with lots of stop offs for coffee & world cup matches. We had a good saturday night too, in matlock bath, which oddly enough is a little bit of blackpool in the peaks (see 23 may 2010, blackpool). Last week it was various goodbyes at work, with the inevitable drinks and also a lovely dinner with quite a few of my favourite people, of which MAG has many. Companies are little more than people and I will miss them, though hope to have formed a whole new outer layer of friends to stay in touch with. This weekend was center parcs, with brother and sister and families, which was just the perfect place for it, with great fun had by all, especially me. It's just the four of us now, for my last few days before flying out on sunday...

9 june 2018, if nothing ever changed, there'd be no butterflies

One of our biggest treats as kids was a trip to kendals, then manchester's only posh shop. Though spared the chop this week as house of fraser announced half their stores closing, it crossed my mind I've not taken my own kids there once in the ten years we've been here. John lewis is closer, fresher and has that umbilical link to our desktops. The youngest wouldn't go anyway, his retail is all online, like supreme, which, astoundingly, just anchored a top paris auction. Recognising the internet is killing the high street is not new: I did it myself in 2012, noting that many more would go the way of travel agents and video shops, and so they have, the casualty list now deeply mainstream. If woolworths was a shock for many, bhs, toys r us and dixons were greeted more with a what-took-them-so-long. Now joining the likes of mothercare and debenhams on the near-dead list are middling food outlets like prezzo and jamie's italian. The reasons for all this are well-rehearsed. Out of town retail parks, lack of investment and innovation, wage depression in less well-off areas and chains like m&s trading on their legacy have all supplemented t'internet in slicing sales and profits. However, omnichannel success stories like jd sports and river island show there are responses, as do clever local councils shrinking retail into smaller areas and more pro-actively bringing life and experience back to town centres, though it's much easier where there's money around and high concentrations of people. Levelling the playing field with online through reducing business rates would help a lot. Meanwhile better airports, train stations and big shopping centres are thriving, as are festivals and markets, again showing that if retailers can collaboratively create experience to attract footfall, they can turn it into sales. As with so many commercial evolutions, shops aren't dying, they are changing. Those that adapt quickest will profit, the laggards lose out. Meanwhile I'm jumping on amazon to buy that hook I need to hang a plate on the wall...

Attached File: ARTCURIAL_C.R.E.A.M.PDF

22 april 2018, a convenient non-truth

A favourite adage I often drop into conversation is that a lie can travel halfway round the world before the truth gets its boots on. Now comes proof, with an mit study of several gazillion tweets, showing conclusively that false stories were retweeted faster, and by more people, than true ones. Fake political news is the most likely to go viral. This is not new (the economist suggests the french revolution was sparked by a false rumour being gossiped), but is certainly supercharged when social-media can literally send a story to billions in moments. The reason, the study concludes, is pretty straightforward: information is not exciting. What encourages effort, including passing things on, is the novel, the exciting, the unusual, the things that stir emotion. Incredibly, no-one at all died in a plane crash in 2017, making it the safest year ever. However, somehow that didn't find its way on to any front pages, just like the real story that 137, 000 people came out of extreme poverty yesterday. What most people take from this is the retreat into tribalism it enables, as we all surround ourselves with the news and views we want to hear and don't just ignore everything to the contrary, but increasingly don't even see it. Taking this to the next level, the messenger itself becomes the arbiter of truth, the most obvious example being to some trump supporters what he says is right because he said it. The other point though is that for those who see the world in a dark state, there is perhaps a lot of good news out there we're just not seeing and celebrating (with thanks to steve pinker) and the lack of that may itself be helping create the darkening environment. Hope springs eternal.

5 april 2018, it could have been me

What I must admit is now a long time ago, I planned to write a book, which I got about one-third through. I started on my amstrad, but did the most part on a sleek black laptop I bought way ahead of time before I went to budapest, my base for a magical year and a half buzzing around the most incredulous countries of eastern and central europe working with students. Though most of my writing took place (and as it stands now is set in) my next big stop in life (the middle-east being wonderfully conducive to writing), the book is undoubtedly about that time in my european ancestral home. A bit late to the party, I've just read jonathan safran foer's everything is illuminated. I thought it was good, but not that good. More importantly, I read it thinking this was the book I could have written. Only better, I'd like to think, though probably not. I could have written it, perhaps, had I stopped doing everything else and stuck with that for a year, as I could have done then. It is or would be, of course, part-biographical, drawing on a very rich stock of adventures and emotions, which make me smile even now just to begin the remnants of remembering. I've started the novel many times. The current opening is "there was nothing she could do but wait..." though the real one is probably midway through the first chapter, "it had been a summer of love...". Oh, what could have been. Or, can I dream, may yet.

3 february 2018, the next dudline

Whatever else tries, brexit continues to monopolise uk political oxygen. The december narrative was progress (phase one complete !). In fact, the uk definitively scrapped its earlier (ridiculous) ambition to negotiate a trade treaty before "brexit day" march 2019. With its new (manageable) aim of a vague political declaration, the focus has moved to the so-called transition period. Again, the uk is taking a little time to understand the situation. It has asked if it can have a transition period, enabling it to keep the benefits of being in the single market and the rest until a new trade treaty is agreed and implemented, to which the eu has said yes - as long as all the current arrangements of its complex, interdependent legal architecture are maintained. Whilst breezily accepting that in principle, the dynamic of the next period already seems to be the uk popping up with various things it wants to be different (ecj jurisdiction and eu citizens rights the current ones) and the eu repeating, as if to a rather slow child, it's a package deal you can't cherry pick from. The other stumbling block is the supposedly-agreed withdrawal treatment. No sooner were handshakes concluded than the government's key negotiator (seemingly not understanding either the nature of an agreement or that his party-facing comments could be heard across the channel) popped up to say agreed yes but conditional on any number of other things. The withdrawal agreement, as was always clear, is not conditional on anything: it's the terms by which britain will leave the club, whatever happens, or doesn't, afterwards. That bravado made ensuring the agreement quickly finds binding legal form an eu priority. This then is the 2018 uk agenda: get the withdrawal agreement agreed and thread the political needle of moving into an open-ended transition period where nothing changes, with all those continuing positives and negatives. Handily, and contrary to media consensus, this enables the government to avoid the definitive "hard decision" around whether the uk wants to remain as close and aligned as possible to the european economic, social and regulatory sphere, or whether it will sacrifice some of that to strike out in a different direction (see 10 april 2017, going it a loan). It all needs to wrapped up ready for 29 parliaments to agree in October. At that point, the british body politic and public should see the choice before them differently from now. The question will be: how can we best negotiate our (post-brexit) future and have as much control of our destiny between now and then ? Option 1 will be to leave at 11pm on 29 march, accept all the rules for an open-ended period as they are handed down, as we will no longer have a seat at the table, and also give up our right to retain that influence, as once we're out, we're out. Option 2 will be to push back the date of our exit, which may require mutual agreement but will be entirely possible, so retaining our seats at tables and also retaining the possibility of staying a member should that turn out to be the best option as we work through what the world after we've taken our hard decision will actually look like. As October looms, so will the benefits of option 2.

22 december 2017, ever-shrinking england goes back to black

Finally a benefit of brexit: uk passports are to change back from boo brussels burgundy to brill british blue. Just don't mention that the uk voted in 1981 to go with burgundy nor is it impossible within the eu for the colour to differ (croatia's is blue). It's not just the pointless gestureishness that grates, but the presumption that going "back" is seen as a good thing. I like my passport, and not for the colour, but because it's like that of my fellow europeans. What next for faragist nostalgia: bring back hanging, shillings & inches ? Nigel really is the most successful politician of our era, riding the tide of anti-elitism into the coves and bays of little-england that have come to define the depressing rolling back of liberalism, openness and general progress that still laps our shores and beyond. My old passport - and its black not garish blue - is chock-full of stamps from my days stomping around europe. Do we really miss having to queue up at border posts to cross from austria to hungary or slipping underpaid border guards a few dollars to get into romania when the train stops at the border for an hour ? Just ten years ago (watch the video) I was lauding europe's seemingly unstoppable progress that where what was once a border fought over with thousands of lives is today a bridge over which without blinking you pass from germany to france. Today may have seen the pushing forward we had hoped replaced by the need for defence of what we've got, but that's just as worthwhile, even and especially back in little olde england. Keep the flame future dwellers, we'll be back !

24 november 2017, you don’t know what you’ve got til...

This week's charlemagne (my alter ego, see 25 august 2012, eur in or eur out) insightfully bemoaned how despite everyone's best efforts, brexit risks destroying the northern ireland consensus, because its open border, allowing everyone to be irish or british citizens and range of all-island institutions were steps shrouded in constructive ambiguity. Some questions are best left unanswered concludes the colomnist, which brexit's hard choices make impossible. After 2 decades of relative peace and tranquillity, our complacency over how things can change for the worse is remarkable, though perhaps not to the people of ukraine, syria or myanmar. Or indeed yugoslavia, who seemed a proud, successful and tolerant society just years before descending into all-out war that killed hundreds of thousands. In europe. In the 1990s. The last echo of that was heard this week, as ratko mladic, murderer in chief of some 8000 at srebrenica, was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. He will now die in jail a criminal, like slobodan milosovic, radovan karadizic and 158 others, the crowning, and last, achievement of the war crimes tribunal in the hague. My optimism of 2011 though (see 26 may 2011, mladic) is rather less today in a world where nationalism, putin and trumpian realpolitik seem to make all the running. What chance of similar convictions in a decade for the butchers of syria and myanmar ? Like british economic stability, international law and order is something we are far too complacent about and risk carelessly throwing away before too late realising the consequences.

2 november 2017, 100 years is not a long time in politics

Contrasting accounts this morning on the flagship today programme (1:32:25 and 2:36:35), with an eloquent ambassador making a compelling case for a palestinian state and a deputy foreign minister dismally refusing to admit the west bank is occupied at all. It's a long way since we were in touching distance of a two-state solution. Meanwhile, the excuse for a now-rare news item on israel is that its 100 years since the balfour declaration, which I happened to write my dissertation on. Tolerant, prosperous and open, england (as everyone then called it) had a sizeable jewish community, growing rapidly before ww1 due to polish/russian immigration like my grandparents. Zionism though was very much a minority sport amongst them and indeed world jewry. Yet, an eclectic group of marginal lobbyists somehow managed to get the greatest power on earth to give such a boost to its epochal quest that it's a leading news item a century later. Balfour is still seen in israel as the first great cornerstone of the state, with kudos for it generally given to the chemist chaim weitzman. Oh for the days when manchester-based lobbyists could turn government policy. In fact, balfour had form, having already offered the zionists uganda in 1903, which herzl accepted, splitting the movement. By 1917 david lloyd-george was pm, a devout sunday school-goer who supposedly learnt more about the geography of palestine than wales. The declaration though was not an altruistic gesture but hard-nosed pragmatism, granting something thought to be of no consequence at a moment of supreme national weakness to a group of people who were considered as having wildly-disproportionate influence on the two countries the foreign office saw as central to the country not losing the war, russia and america. The resulting 67 words did have consequences, giving international benediction to the concept of a jewish homeland which was then followed through with the british mandate there. As time wore on it became more burden than bounty to london and they eventually withdrew both their backing for balfour and then rather chaotically from palestine itself, facilitating israel's own declaration, of independence, so drawing a clear arc drawn from one declaration to another.

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