Friday, January 30, 2015

Particle physics, politics and our breakfast at our shelter....

So the morning I hd a conversation that at times I struggled to keep up. It was with a particle physicist, a man who is mid-way through a PhD and who has been involved in developing and building proton beam machines for use in cancer treatments (little wonder I was getting lost!)

We were actually talking about CERN and the large hadron collider and what it might reveal when it starts up again in the spring, having undergone a refit. Some of this conversation ran away from me as well!

I was having this chat over breakfast in our winter night shelter, for this guy is a guest of ours, one of the growing number of homeless in my apparently prosperous bit of London. He is not a drug user or alcoholic (he drinks less than I do); he is not the victim of a break down of relationship that's left an angry, wounded partner in the family home. It's unclear what he's the victim of. Yes, he is vulnerable to depression, but this seems to be a consequence rather than cause of his current situation.

He is looking for work, a job that would use his skills. But he is constantly being told that he is too well qualified. In a country that desperately needs investment in the kind of ground-breaking medical technology he has been involved in developing, it seems that society would rather pay him to be idle or push him into some useless zero-hours contract job.

If you remember the Aysha King story last summer, the little boy taken to Prague to have proton beam therapy, my friend's story is even more maddening. He has been working on such technology in South Africa but not here.

It's a small story that illustrates the insanity of our current way of running things. He's homeless because there's a chronic shortage of affordable homes across the country, but certainly in London. He finds himself in a system that doesn't understand his skills and therefore can't find room for them and yet which, at the same time, bemoans the fact that we are lagging our competitors in cutting edge technology; that we are apparently unable to turn pure science into innovation and hence economic growth.

We fell into our conversation because we shared the experience of having studied at Manchester University. Back in 1977-78 I was part of a social science research council funded MSc programme that had been founded a decade earlier to answer the question 'why can't Britain innovate?' It struck me that I was having the same conversation with my guest as we had had in our seminar rooms almost forty years ago; and nothing has changed.

I left feeling sad and mad at the waste of so promising and so clever a man languishing in our shelter because he has neither a job or a home.

New government, anyone? Fresh thinking on how we organise ourselves, about how we utilise all the skills and talents of all our people to create a better society for all of us?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

register to be part of a momentous year

I've been sent a copy of Andy Flannagan's new book Those who show up by the lovely people at Muddy Pearl, who are publishing it. I've promised to blog a few thoughts as I work my way through it.

But I thought I'd preface those comments by saying how important it is that people register to vote in the forthcoming general election. This particularly applies to people younger than me who might not see anything on a ballot paper worth getting out of bed for. I have to say I sympathise with them.

And I'm not writing this because Andy's book is yet another appeal to people get involved in the political process by voting. Indeed, he kicks off by suggesting that the book will be urging its readers to consider putting their names on the ballot paper so others can vote for them. I'll return to this when I've read beyond pxii.

But I do want to return to the issue of registering to vote. This is probably the most important election for a generation. It will determine the shape of our country for many years to come.

I have just returned from having coffee with a bright, energetic, capable friend who has given the best part of 20 years to working in local government in a bid to improve the lives of ordinary people. He is severely disillusioned and between jobs. In one sense he is an example of someone who has been broken on the wheel of a malfunctioning political system. But his passion for the process is undimmed; his desire to see justice and equity at the heart of decision-making at all levels in the country fires everything he is and does.

I'm sure there are lots of people like him all over the country. All of us need to be registered to vote in May and get out - and encourage our friends to get out - and cast our vote. We cannot have another government that is elected by 30% of the 60% or so who turn out. On any way of doing maths that is an underwhelming minority. The current government wants to change strike ballots to mean that workers can only withdraw their labour if more than 50% of their workplace votes in favour. This from a government with a mandate of considerably less than 40% of the electorate. Pots and kettles, hey?

Such things make people cynical. But what we need to do is seize the debate back from the cynics and start talking about the kind of society we want to live in, what we want to see our taxes used for (as no party if offering to abolish taxation, we'll be paying it anyway, so it might as well be for something we support!). Our debates, however, shouldn't begin with what things cost; they should begin with whether they are desirable and how they would work and how they would benefit ordinary people. We can cost things later.

And yes, some cynics will respond by saying that this will result in all sorts of uncosted pledges being made. Well, maybe. Both major parties already have a list of uncosted pledges up their sleeves, so let's add to them. If we do, we will see the quality of the conversation rising. The election will become a genuine battle of ideas rather than a race to the lowest common denominator, where parties  pledge the lowest spending for the maximum benefit of that party's natural constituency.

When that happens, it's little wonder people are cynical. So, let's hear ideas being debated, visions of the world we want to live in being sung to the rafters. And let's turn up at meetings, urging those on the platform to take our ideas seriously, debate with us, respond to our ideas, argue with them; and let's do this courteously and kindly, recognising the humanity of our opponents and the common good that we are all working to achieve.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

day 19 and the year's first great album emerges

Well, let's hope it's the harbinger of a vintage year for music, for three week's into January we have the first storming release of the year. Two year's after the King is Dead, the Decembrerists have returned with What a terrible world. What a beautiful world, 14 wonderful, lyrically playful songs.

Colin Molloy's song writing is on cracking form here. He opens with a witty reflection on stardom and fandom which contains the great lines: 'we're aware that you cut your hair in the style that our drummer wore in the last video, but with fame came a mounting claim for the evermore...So when your bridal processional is a televised confessional to the benefits of Axe Shampoo, you know we did it for you.' Eat your heart out Taylor Swift!

It's uphill from there, every song putting a smile on the listener's face and a spring in their step.

Great stuff. And the title is a seminar in itself. So, grab a beer and crank up the turntable...