Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Cigarette industry – grim prospects?

For a number of years this blog has reported, as irreverently as possible, cigarette advertising in Germany. Germany is one of the few places in Europe where it is still possible to advertise cigarettes. The contrasting campaigns are a source of endless fascination as the brands pit themselves against one another.

However, cigarette advertising is one thing, the continuation of the industry more generally is now in some doubt. I say this after reading an article in the Economist magazine (link below). Apparently, it is fifty years since the US Surgeon General declared smoking to be a ‘health hazard’ requiring appropriate ‘remedial action’. This remedial action led to a decrease in cigarette consumption from 43 to 18 per cent in the American adult population. Still, 20 million Americans have died from smoking-related diseases since then. The current Surgeon General has declared smoking deadlier than previously thought and has promised ‘end game strategies’.

e-cigarette-brands-300x300What does this mean for the tobacco companies? Traditionally, they have found new markets, particularly in Asia. But here, also, the regulatory environment is becoming hostile. Arguably, too, the firms have not seen the e-Cigarette phenomenon coming – dominated at the moment by new firms, a selection of which are represented on the panel (left). Perhaps they have failed to understand fully what is their business? The customer craves nicotine, not tar: e-cigarettes seem to be efficient deliverers of nicotine, and less riskily. Though this may well be scrutinised closer in coming months and years.

Another approach seems to be cigarettes that do not actually burn the tobacco. Rather they heat it to deliver their nicotine payload.

Picture: http://www.eciguserguide.com/promising-e-cigarette-brands-2014/

Article: http://www.economist.com/news/business/21594984-big-tobacco-firms-are-maintaining-their-poise-quietly-wheezing-running-out-puff

Making trains

Bombardier_logoFinally, some good news for UK manufacturing. Bombardier, the Canadian engineering firm, which owns the former British Rail train factory in Derby, has won the competition to supply 66 units to Crossrail opening in 2017 (impression, below right). They beat off competition from Siemens and Hitachi. The former recently won the contract to make the Thameslink trains. Hitachi trains can be seen running on HS1 between St Pancras and Dover.

Whilst I understand that competition is necessary when placing orders for expensive long-lived kit to ensure some Crossrail trainsdegree of value-for-money and quality (British Rail supplied to itself a lot of over-priced un-tested stock in the 1950s that very quickly found itself decommissioned), I despair at the ease with which much of the UK’s supply comes from abroad. The train building capacity and capability in the UK has been lost.

I despair even more, however, at the madness that the structure of the railway industry in the UK. This week, we learned who were the preferred bidders for the re-privatisation of the East Coast Mainline ‘franchise’ between London, the North of England and Scotland. The current operator, EastCoastDirectly Operated Railways (DOR), has been running the route successfully and profitably since National Express handed back the keys, so-to-speak, in 2009 after they failed to deliver the returns to the UK Treasury pledged in the contract (DOR has returned some £600m to the Treasury so far). National Express replicated the error made by its predecessor operator, GNER, that equally over-stretched itself and delivered those very same keys back to Department for Transport a couple of years earlier.

Three private-sector charlatans will slug it out in a race to the bottom. Here they are:

East Coast Trains Ltd/FirstGroup the very same that submitted an unsustainable bid for the West Coast route leading to a collapse in the bidding and its re-run at our expense (see post, 15 August 2012) .

Keolis/Eurostar East Coast Limited (Keolis (UK) Limited and Eurostar International Limited) – a nice little pairing of the soon-to-be-sold off British bit of Eurostar – the remainder is SNCF oddly publicly owned but allowed to run trains in the UK – and Keolis, a global French-owned public transport operators that ‘thinks like a passenger’. Apparently. They have a stake in the Southern Franchise that I use. If that is thinking like a passenger, this route is destined for exemplary bad service.

Inter City Railways Limited (Stagecoach Transport Holdings Limited and Virgin Holdings Limited) – ah yes, Richard Branson who is currently carving up a nice slice of the UK National Health Service for his ‘health’ business as well as good at picking up cheap banks that once were mutual (now Virgin Money). A favourite of a succession of UK Souter_Gloaggovernments. And the brother and sister partnership of Brian Souter and Anne Gloag (right), the Perth-based tycoons who peeled off (allowed by the UK Government) much of the UK bus industry when it – or rather the land that housed depots, workshops and bus stations – was given away in the 1980s. It’s not their fault, we invited them to do it. But should they win, they will control all services to north of Border as they already command the rails on the parallel West Coast, at least for the time being.

Readers interested in DOR’s performance can get a summary here

Pictures: Bombardier Trains: www.crossrail.co.uk; East Coast trains: www.rail.co.uk; Souter/Gloag: This is money: http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/article-1201254/Stagecoach-pair-18m-court-battle-disappearing-fortune.html

What is this about?

ArabellaIn my search for cigarette advertising today in Munich, I had the mis-fortune to come across this explicit piece of advertising for a local radio station. Just in case any readers are wondering what it is, it is a naked woman with her breast covered by the hand of some disembodied man. The strapline, I think, translates as ‘close-up on the hearing’.

I do not know this radio station. A quick visit to the website suggests it is a subsidiary of a group of stations with the same name in various cities pumping out pop music – old and new - and news. This photo was taken at a busy transport interchange in Munich! It is difficult to explain to adults what this is about. I’d be hard pressed to say much to a child who might notice it.

It breaks my heart

Dolphin_slaughterThis blog has been a shade quiet since Christmas. I really did not want to reawaken with this post, but the image on the left has been haunting me since I saw it yesterday. My earlier years were dominated by my campaigning against animal abuse. Large aquatic mammals, especially. I even bought a Praktica SLR camera rather than support the Japanese optics industry back in the 1980s when the Japanese persistently blocked a moratorium against whale hunting; particularly humpbacks that were endangered at the time.

I knew that the Japanese had an annual barbaric killing of pilot whales, but this slaughter of dolphins had escaped me. It is the dolphin on the left that haunts me. It will soon be speared by the ‘fisherman’. It will drown. At the risk of anthropomorphism, I ask myself what is going through its head. On the one hand, it knows what its fate will be. But as a higher mammal with quite developed communication, not only is it trying to communicate with its rapidly diminishing peers, it is saying to humanity, ‘why are you doing this to us?’

The process is not random, it seems. The dolphins are rounded up and herded into coves. They are left for four days and then released. In the video, men in wetsuits are seen in the water securing the animals by their tails before they are speared. And so orchestrated is this slaughter, the ‘fishermen’ have built a very large screen to keep away the cameras.

This is not to feed people who are hungry. It is not even fishing. This is a crime against nature. And it breaks my heart.

Picture: The Guardian – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/21/japanese-fishermen-begin-annual-slaughter-of-hundreds-of-dolphins

Industrial action, Quarks and Gravity

Yogeshwar_Ranga2I’ve just been watching an edition of Quarks and Co., a German-language science magazine programme on WDR with the ever-compelling musician turned astro physicist, Ranga Yogeshwar (http://www.wdr.de/tv/quarks/). Yogeswar (left) is a true polymath with considerable charm. I watch this when I can as part of my German learning programme. The Edition on 3 September was all about time. Why does it feel different, depending on what we are doing? And what do we do with time saved as a result of taking a fast train, plane, etc.? The answer to the latter question it seems is that we work more. However, being on strike, as I have today over the erosion of pay in the higher education sector in the UK, frees up time - after first doing the picket line duties – to go to the cinema for the first time in what may be two years.

Spoiler alert!

Was it worth it? No.

Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, according to the Guardian’s three reviewers, Xan Brooks, the ever unreliable Peter Bradshaw and Catherine Shoad, is amazing. Sandra Bullock stars as the sole survivor of a disastrous US mission on the space shuttle after the Russians detonate a satellite that generates considerable debris that destroys the shuttle, the International Space Station and a mysterious Chinese craft that we did not know existed. All are in the same unfortunate orbit around the Earth.

George Clooney’s character makes an unexpected - though not real - return to the capsule in order to stop Gravityher suffocating herself out of sheer desperation. There is a lot going wrong and the Earth seems a long long way away. Bullock’s character comes back to life after a word with God – seemingly never needed before – and memories of her lost child.

I could go on. Others intelligently have: http://thepoliticsofexperience.net/tpoehome/?p=143

At least I did not squeeze this film into my normal free time. Had I done, I would have felt cheated. And lunch beforehand was most agreeable. Such is the nature of industrial action.

Making the case for leniency for marines who murder

What is the normally thoughtful Michael White, assistant editor of the Guardian newspaper in the UK, doing calling for leniency for the  marine who executed an Afghan man? The Guardian itself (8 November) reported the details of the story thus: “In the graphic footage, Marine A leans over and Imagefires into the chest of the bloodied and moaning insurgent with a pistol. He then tells him: “There you are, shuffle off this mortal coil, you c***. It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.” A few moments later Marine A is picked up telling colleagues: “Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere fellas. I’ve just broken the Geneva convention.””

The marine is unnamed to protect him. The Afghan man is unnamed because his name is not important.

The call for leniency is not restricted to Michael White. The Daily Mail, a notoriously partisan and reactionary newspaper, had a couple of days earlier made clear its position by making the quote of Major General Julian Thompson, a veteran of 3 Commando Brigade in the Falklands War, a front page banner headline: “I won’t condemn him…”

We can all think of many cases where similar arguments could be used in the case of civilians. Would Michael White and others advocate taking evidence of victims of child abuse as mitigating circumstances when as adults they go on to do similar things, or worse, themselves? I think not.

Photograph: MoD

Wretched terms and conditions

Brighton and Hove-20130808-00294There is a lot of talk at the moment in the UK media about Zero Hours contracts for employees. Seemingly – and to the surprise for some of the UK’s lawmakers – many high profile firms offer these contracts as standard. For example, MacDonald’s and Burger King Hamburgers, Mike Ashley’s  Sports Direct clothing retailer (Ashley also owns Newcastle United football club), Domino’s Pizzas. Less high profile is how certain private firms that provide public services such as home helps for the elderly and handicapped use Zero Hours contracts for their ‘employees’ who are paid only for their contact time with ‘clients’ and not for travel time, fuel, etc; nor are they afforded national insurance contributions. Moreover, Zero Hours workers do not know how many hours they may be working from week-to-week. This builds in immense uncertainty and affects negatively things such as credit ratings. There are over 1 million British workers on these contracts according to a recent poll by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development.

Oddly, Mike Ashley seems to be able to pay his footballers well and on long contracts. I assume footballers are well represented by agents who earn for themselves a nice percentage of any footballer’s transfer fee – a good case for organised labour if ever I heard it.

Now here is my link. I have been for many years a satisfied customer of Charles Tyrwhitt menswear. Until now. My last online order – few sale items including some shorts it being summer – was confirmed with the message that my order will be delivered by Hermes Couriers.

Hermes is a German company, part of the Otto group (German readers will know aboutHermes_Europe_van Otto), that came to the UK in 2000 in what seems to have been a joint-venture with Speedlink. Its business model is based on sub-contracting the delivery to ‘self-employed’ drivers. My attention was brought to this company by chance watching a TV documentary made by Germany’s national broadcaster ARD. (http://programm.ard.de/TV/daserste/ard-exclusiv–das-hermes-prinzip/eid_281066630812527)

This sub-contracting was found to involve sub-sub contractors all earning progressively less as the parcels moved down the food chain. The sub-contractors are effectively paid piece rates, often having to work very long hours to deliver the requisite number of parcels to cover costs. When the man or woman from Hermes arrives at 2100 it is not because it is convenient, but rather that the sub-contractor needs the delivery to make a living.

Hermes_PacketHere is the package (left) that arrived from Hermes a couple of days ago. Fortunately in this box is a shirt, tie and a pair of shorts. On the whole not fragile. One must ask, however, what kind of operation is it that does this to a humble box of clothes? Actually, we do not need too much imagination.

So, what I thought was a reputable retailer – Charles Tyrwhitt – uses a disreputable courier to squeeze out profit. Oh, and while we are at it, those very same lawmakers who are so surprised at Zero Hours contracts want to privatise the Royal Mail – a state-owned parcel service that has organised workers who earn a living wage.

Credits:

Hermes van: Musikmichi1407

Speechless over Zimmerman

Zimmerman_SZ_15_7_13This picture is scanned from the Südeutsche Zeitung (Monday, 15 July 2013). It is copyrighted RTR, but it one of the most chilling pictures I’ve seen in recent times. On the right is George Zimmerman, acquitted of murder in a Florida court on Saturday. The smiles demonstrate the ‘success’ of the defence in evading justice. Knowingly. Even if it is a job well done – which it is not – the smiles seem to demonstrate some perverted sense of ‘citizenship’. Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed 17 year old black man, Trayvon Martin, in what can only been seen as vigilante justice defending a gated ‘community’ against the threat of robbery. ‘Stand your ground’ laws permit lethal force in Florida and other states. Using such force against an unarmed teenager brandishing sweets from a local shop has been demonstrated in a court to be legitimate. It is also seen to be a cause for celebration. Shameful.

There are many who are more eloquent and informed than I am on this case and the implications. The Südeutsche Zeitung (below right), for example, pulls no punches. There is no attempt to ‘explain’ the Jury’s decision, only to describe what happened (black man shot) as a mixed race white man ‘feared’ for his life after having stalked the young man and been told by the police to stop following him. Zimmerman’s 911 call can be heard here

Gary Younge’s first paragraph in the Guardian newspaper on 15 July says enough: “Let it be noted that on this day, Saturday 13 July 2013, it was still deemed legal in the US to chase and then shoot dead an unarmed young black man on his way home from the store because you didn’t like the look of him.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jul/14/open-season-black-boys-verdict

The President – increasingly becoming illiberal and reactionary – could only say: “The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher.”

“But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.”

“And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem theS_Z_15_7_13 tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this.”

The short answer surely is, convict racist killers. Guns, compassion, understanding and the other apparent platitudes are red herrings.

Abu Qatada

Abu QatadaEvery picture tells a story. This one more than most. It is credited to the RAF (Royal Air Force), MoD (Ministry of Defence) and the Press Association. Though it is presented as though it was taken secretly by a photographer keen to alert the world to an important event. In the event, it was stage managed.

Abu Qatada is now in Jordan having for eleven years fought extradition from the UK where he faces no charges. In Jordan he was wanted in connection with a “terrorist bombing conspiracy”.

The British Government has spent a lot of time and money trying to deport him. But attempts to deport him have been consistently adjudged to be in contravention of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This Article relates to the prospect of a free and fair trial, something which the European Court and the UK Supreme Court both concur is not possible in Jordan for this case.

The solution is threefold. Leave the jurisdiction of the European Court in order to deport people to places where they may be tortured or ‘evidence’ arising from confessions of others under torture is admissible; change the law and agree a Mutual Assistance Treaty with said country; or both.

Edward Snowden and Prism

PRISM_logoThe treatment of Edward Snowden and those who might give him asylum, tells us as much as we need to know about in whose interests states act and where the current balance of power lays. In the name of anti-terrorism, we are all being monitored. They say that they are only collecting “meta data”; i.e. data about who ‘citizens’ contact rather the content of that contact. The usual guff comes from politicians – ‘if you have done nothing wrong, then there is nothing to fear’.

The vilification of Edward Snowden – the whistleblower – is clear. The US state brands him as a traitor, a fugitive from justice guilty of treason and much of the media is aligned with this position. The latest post from Medialens gives Snowden their usual treatment: http://www.medialens.org/index.php/alerts/alert-archive/alerts-2013/737-snowden-surveillance-and-the-secret-state.html

And then there is the Latin America situation. The denial of Evo Morales’s plane access to key parts of European airspace on 2 July is extraordinary. Morales, let us not forget, is President of Bolivia and was attending a legitimate energy conference in Moscow. Clearly pressure had been put on European states from the US. But it is interesting that ‘they’ – whoever they are - thought that Snowden was on the plane; he may well have been stupid with respect to whistleblowing and his own safety, but he is not, surely, going to do the obvious (as he demonstrated by not being on the plane to Cuba a couple of weeks earlier)?

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