Page Not Found – I don’t belong here…

Page Not Found 404 ErrorCame upon this today having clicked on a link for the Story Cellar website.

It was almost worth the page not being found, almost!

It is a bit like if Carlsberg did 404 Errors! Not sure if this remark works if you are outside the UK?!

Anyone got any other similar examples?

By the way Story Cellar was recommended to me via a Tweet from Stephen Fry – the site is a virtual book-club where members can download original unpublished short-stories from new and established writers.

You can also submit your own works to the site – any story of between five and ten A4 pages in duration.

I find the website a bit ugly to look at but naturally you should not judge a book by its cover – forgive me!

As anyone had any experience of this site, as author or member?

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The beauty of ugly, the ugly of beauty – David Kretschmer

Mirrors - David KretschmerMirrors - David KretschmerIn my post International Photography Awards 2011 I promised further posts about some of the individual photographers who received awards or placed second or third.

One such was German photographer David Kretschmer, currently based in the Netherlands, whose entry ‘Mirrors’ was runner-up in the Non-professional Fine Art category.

He describes his work thus:

“Mirrors shows the contradictory view on beauty in the modern society. Four beautiful young girls, looking very doubting and insecure. As they are almost perfect looking, they observe themselves very strict and criticize every single flaw on their body and face. The four guys are in complete contrast to the girls. They are not perfect at all but they look very confident at themselves and don’t care about any beauty ideals. They are not pristine but they are satisfied.”

I have to agree.

Consider too a couple of recent pop songs.

Christina Aguilera‘s torch-song ballad ‘Beautiful’ nails this subject to its scarred beating heart. It was penned by Linda Perry and could we imagine her having penned it for Justin Timberlake?

The Sugababe‘s anti-anthem Ugly was similarly stirring in sentiment, but again could we have imagined the, let’s face it, far less photogenic Take That, agreeing to sing the Dallas Austin lyric?

I only have to think of myself and how much time I spend in front of a mirror before venturing out into the big bad world – barely a cursory glance often enough as I tumble outside – and believe me I am not one of nature’s pretty pictures!

Mirrors - David KretschmerMirrors - David KretschmerNot all of David Kretschmer’s work is detailed on the IPA site but you can see it in full on his own website. He is a newcomer to professional photography beginning as a freelancer last year. He already has a number of other photography awards to his name as well as appearing in numerous international publications including the UK’s Digital Photographer, the South Korean Blink and the Russian Fotovideo.

As well as the concept beyond his ‘Mirrors’ work I enjoy the way they have been executed – the opposite of Omar Ortiz who paints pictures that look like photographs, Kretschmer’s photographs look like paintings.

I also like the way some of the subjects have been shot – looking less like reflections and more like they have become Alice Through The Looking Glass as we bare witness to their out of body experience.

I look forward his future work.

Mirrors - David Kretschmer

Mirrors - David Kretschmer

House of Lords Reform – I agree with Nick

House of Lords

Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament

Currently there is a Lords Reform Bill going through the Houses of Parliament on the behest of Lord Steel of Aikwood, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats.

I have some queasy concerns about bills of a constitutional nature being progressed through the Houses of Parliament – as such bills by their nature will very likely be proposing changes that will effect – often negatively – the status of those existing institutions and members deciding them. Turkeys being very foolish to vote for Christmas syndrome. On the other hand I am not sure what the alternatives might be – certainly not I would think a third house to oversee the current two houses!

Both houses are comprised of members of differing and opposing political parties but few things it seems unite its two biggest protagonists, Conservative and Labour, than proposed changes to the existing parliamentary status quo.

The current Bill I am referring to is a modest one in terms of its ambition – proposing as it does changes to the Membership of the Lords – how Peers are appointed and retired.

Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg

Another Draft Bill proposed by the current leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg – and does it need to be said Deputy Prime Minister of the Liberal Democrat-Conservative Coalition Government – is far more ambitious in the changes it envisions.

But when considering changes to the House of Lords a more pertinent and fundamental question needs to be asked. Namely do we even need a second house, should the House of Lords be abolished? This really would be Turkeys voting for Christmas and explains why it is able to preserve its anachronistic set up and remit against the changing democratic times.

So could we get by with a Unicameral Legislature? Or is a Bicameral model to be preferred, better to check and sometimes restrain Government?

Only if we think the bicameral model is to be preferred should we consider proposals to reform the House of Lords.

And if we do believe we should have a second house we don’t have to re-invent the wheel as many democratic bicameral parliaments exist we could use as a template such as Sweden and New Zealand and indeed the most famous of all across the Atlantic in Washington DC, the American Houses of Congress.

So then do we need a second house? Certainly there is no point of a house that just rubber stamps the legislation of the government of the day or conversely trenchantly opposes and creates legislative gridlock. In both cases making a mockery of democracy.

Occupy Together poster

Occupy Together poster

Is it just another level of governance that could be removed saving the country money in these cash-strapped times? The Conservatives in particular are ideologically wedded to smaller government – is it a bit odd then that they are the main defendants of this second house?

The ultimate check on a government is the electorate. If a Government passes legislation that is unpopular then it is very likely to be voted out at the next election.

Parliament too provides a check – though perhaps more so if there was no Whips in operation – but that is a post for another day!

There is also an issue of how much power resides with a National Government – how much should be devolved downward and how much upwards – and this post is certainly not going to get distracted on the subject of Europe! Often it feels political parties are most interested in transferring powers to those legislatures that most mirror their own political preferences whether they are supranational or local.

But again the subject of where various legislative powers are best seated is a subject for another post.

Likewise the nature of how our Commons is elected. I do think that if we had a system of Proportional Representation such as STV this would better reflect the peoples and not current vested interests, encouraging multiple parties and viewpoints and be less vulnerable to special interest influence. And that in itself may mean that there would then be no need for a second revising house.

AV - ERS Leaflet

Electoral Reform Society – AV Leaflet

However we had that of course proposed via the Alternative Vote referendum which was defeated and it is not likely to re-appear on the constitutional agenda for many more parliamentary terms to come, alas.

Historically we have a bicameral legislature due to wanting to represent different social interests – such as the Commons and Lords! Still centuries later not an antiquated concept with this them-and-us set up still entrenched. Recently established is the Occupy Movement and We Are The 99% – but the 1% have long been with us.

If we are all in this together then there should be but one House? The main class now is the middle class – if hanging on – and do either of our current chambers represent them, let alone the working and non-working class?

The Labour Party used to be their voice but with New Labour and sole ambition to be Tory Lite, no longer.

The USA itself used to have its Houses divided on a social basis – the Senate was unelected and for the Wealthy only, as considered wiser (!), but quickly moved passed this idea to be voted by the people too. Though I am not sure how well represented the American people are nowadays – we have OWS because the American people have to choose between the Extreme Ultra Conservatism of the Republicans and the mere Ultra Conservatism of the Democrats? Both represent the elite, neither the mainstream?

I do though think there is a need for a second house, just not to represent different social interests. Rather to provide checks and balances to the government of the day.

The draft proposals for an elected House of Lords have this as a preference but will accept a 90% elected compromise. My preference is certainly for 100% elected – though I sadly understand the Realpolitik need for a 90% elected compromise too – but election by appointment in a time when Crony Capitalism is so widely described, decried, even derided, if not despised and yet still seeking to justify and promote appointments as an alternative to elective democracy seems almost perverse. The only appointments that should matter are those by the voter themselves?

House of Lords Reform Draft Bill

House of Lords Reform Draft Bill

Another aspect of these proposals is that elections are of fixed terms but longer than those of the Commons (which are currently unfixed but due to become fixed at five years) rather like the US Congress with a 3:1 ratio – only the Senate is voted on every two years and the Representative’s every six years – whereas proposed here are five years for the Commons and fifteen years for the Lords.

This I feel too is pandering to the centuries old ‘for life’ nature of the current system of patronage. On the other hand perhaps a longer term will attract a different type of politician – perhaps more independent of political parties, less concerned with preferment and advancement. It would certainly provide a brake to the Commons where we see not just with the parliamentary landslides of Thatcher and Blair but even with this present coalition and its wafer-thin majority that a Minority Government is still able to streamroll legislation through Parliament often with no indication of it in their manifesto and with no proportionality to the number of the electorate who actually voted for the party – this democratic deficit must be curtailed.

The proposals of longer terms do I think provide a better ground for a more thoughtful and revising second chamber. Allowing if you like the Commons to be responsive (or faddish) to the political times and the Lords to be less concerned of political fashions and more concerned with ensuring a more enduring legislation.

I agree also with its proposal it should be voted for by a system of Proportional Representation – the Commons still providing a local or constituency link with the First-Past-The-Post voting system, and the Lords  representing the national political makeup of the British people via a Proportional Representation voting system.

There are other proposals in this bill too relating to the size of the House of Lords and aspects of the Appointments process.

And unfashionable as it may be I do indeed agree with Nick!

Holy Flying Circus – The Resurrection of The Life of Brian

Holy Flying CircusHoly Flying Circus explores the controversy surrounding the 1979 film The Life Of Brian. Explores not as some dry academic documentary but in the inspired spirit and fantastical imagination of its film’s creators, Monty Python.

That is not to say this ninety minute drama, from production companies Talkback Thames and Hillbilly Films and Television currently airing on BBC 4, is completely surreal and irreverent. There are moments when it veers – if briefly – on to the straight and narrow – and serious points get made. Freedom of speech is both no laughing matter and very much grist to the comedy mill.

And this is comically and tragically what Holy Flying Circus is about.

Holy Flying Circus follows the period following the release of Life of Brian – its critical and public reception – especially in the Python’s home country of Britain (well leaving aside Minnesotan Terry Gilliam).

The Life of BrianAnd for those of you have not heard of let alone seen The Life Of Brian, BBC 4 were showing this too – so that we can discover or remind ourselves, as the case may be, what all the fuss was about.

Briefly Life of Brian is based on the Life of Jesus where Brian is mistaken for Jesus. And the film then pursues the mishaps following this mistaken supernatural identity. So a satire of the Christian Religion, not of its figurehead Jesus, and what could possibly go wrong? Who could possibly be offended?!

The film was classified by the British Board of Film Classification as AA (which meant those 14 years of age and older could view the film), and not the adult classification of the time X as many were expecting. However the last say on film distribution in the UK is with its Local Councils and thirty-nine of them re-classified it  to the  then adult (18 and over) X and in many cases imposed an outright ban.

Toward setting the record straight the Python stars of the film were reluctantly persuaded to appear on a discussion program on the BBC called ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’, though John Cleese himself initially was opposed arguing the film should be allowed to speak for itself.

It was then agreed that it would be the initially recalcitrant and combative John Cleese that would appear alongside the ever-reasonable and accommodating Michael Palin (who in the shows words ‘is even self-deprecating about being self-deprecating’!)- a sort of bad cop, good cop rationale – that would represent the half-dozen Pythons on the debate show.

Holy Flying Circus - Friday Night Saturday Morning

Friday Night Saturday Morning scene

This debate would be hosted by Tim Rice (himself the subject of a similar if more minor controversy for writing and staging in 1971 the Broadway musical Jesus Christ Superstar). Representing those opposed to it would be writer and born again Catholic Malcolm Muggeridge and the then Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood.

The debate itself did not go as many might have anticipated – without giving it all away it was Palin who proved to be more combative than Cleese and the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge more pugilistic than the Python pair.

And The Life of Brian itself despite showing in British cinema, well in some of them at least, it was not until 1995 that British Television felt brave enough to air it.

Here we are in 2011 and would a film satirising the beliefs and practices of a major religion be met now with greater tolerance if not complete magnanimity?

It would certainly depend on what part of the world such a film was being shown in. A better question might be would a film satirising the belief’s and practices of the established religion of a particular country be shown without censure and rancour?

Paradoxically perhaps in the UK I think a film satirising Christianity would be tolerated whereas a film satirising Islam would not be.

Holy Flying CircusConsider in Holy Flying Circus that God has a part and that this part is played by secular saint Stephen Fry. But would Mr Fry have been so comfortable playing Allah? Would the writer of the show Tony Roche have had Ben Crispin playing the prophet Mohammed as he had him playing Jesus? In both cases I doubt it.

With the controversy following The Life of Brian the writing Pythons were keen to state that it was the practices of the believers of Christianity that were being satirized not the beliefs itself. But can you really successfully satirize like this without also satirising the beliefs themselves?

Religion is privileging its beliefs? Any secular beliefs are open to full and frank debate and exploration – neither the beliefs or the author/s of those beliefs are off limits. But with religion we are saying that some aspects of the debate are off limit. Or rather those that have those beliefs are saying this. More specifically it is Established Religion that sets itself up as being beyond criticism. Less mainstream and orthodox religions are as liable to be lambasted and ridiculed as any secular belief.

Holy Flying Circus

The Pythons portrayed

The question is why do those who do not share the beliefs feel the need to be so circumspect? The fear of hearing the ultimate censuring word ‘blasphemy’?

We should respect each others rights to believe whatever the hell we want but that is not the same as saying we should respect whatever the hell it is each of us believes?!

Holy Flying Circus itself does not pull these philosophical punches – it opens with a figure on the desert plains suspiciously like Jesus advising that none of what follows actually happened, ‘that it is largely made up. Like The Bible’ and the show proceeds in this irreverent spirit till its conclusion ninety-minutes later with Michael Palin appearing in Heaven – or at least its ante-chamber – and saying to Stephen Fry that ‘he is not sure that he believes in him anymore’ God, that is!

The three main protagonists of the showing of The Life of Brian in Holy F$%ing Circus include a Andrew Thorogood, played by the ubiquitous Mark Heap, and one accomplice with Tourette’s Syndrome and another with a Stutter – the comedy here writes itself!

Some of the portrayals of the original cast are eerily reminiscent. John Cleese in particular played by Darren Boyd captures not just the physical demeanour of Cleese (if through a Basil Fawlty filter!) but also his very spirit. The portrayal of Michael Palin by Charles Edwards and Eric Idle by Steven Punt are similarly compelling.

Comedy like freedom of speech is a serious business but as you would hope Holy Flying Circus when not provoking and stimulating does not forget to divert us, entertain us, and well, makes us laugh out loud.

And we are warned when watching at the outset that Holy Flying Circus like The Life of Brian contains very strong language and adult humour, but that if we are okay with that then we can go ahead and watch, freely and untroubled, unlike until very recently we could with The Life Of Brian.

That I guess is some progress.

Holy Flying Circus

Criminal Video – Britney Spears

Britney Spears Criminal Opening sceneCriminal is the latest song from Britney Spears, released last month. The most recent single from her seventh studio album Femme Fatale.

Britney Spears CriminalIn the video that accompanies it a one-couple crime-wave is unleashed by Britney Spears and her boyfriend – I have avoided making the Bonnie and Clyde comparison, damn!

Britney Spears CriminalIt seems another age now since she first burst onto the pop-scene with ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ proving to be more than just a one-hit wonder, more than just another passing pop fad. Like her other pop contemporaries of the time Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake they have all endured, continuing to make great pop music if Britney herself the more hit and miss of the three.

Justin Timberlake indeed has successfully made that usually doomed transition from the pop stage to the cinema screen (think Prince, think Madonna) with The Social Network and Friends with Benefits – nevertheless more of the music please Justin.

Criminal is an unusual popsong in that it has a flute – but please don’t think Jethro Tull! – providing a recurring theme to the persistent beat of the song itself. Lyrically it is in the tradition of the Shangri-Las – Britney running away with a bad-boy and pleading with her Mum not to disown her – remember I Can Never Go Home Anymore? – but musically it has none of the melodrama of those Shadow Morton produced epics.

Britney Spears CriminalThe video though does have pretensions of higher things.

The video director is New Yorker Chris Marrs Piliero, whose most famous pop video to date perhaps is the witty ‘Tighten Up’ by The Black Keys, who sees himself here it seems as a film director – and why not – with Criminal a stab towards his Hollywood CV.

The first clue of this being the inclusion of opening credits, the video later ending with a long credit role.

Add to that it is filmed in 16:9 aspect ratio.

Britney Spears CriminalThe video itself as Britney Spears living a double life – day-job as a lady of high society, off the clock a less than petty-criminal sticking up local convenience stores.

An early getaway scene sees the two partners in crime fleeing a party – Britney Spears having booted her be-floored assailant in the family jewels – on a motorbike in traffic which red Double Decker buses establishes that the City we are in is London. And not the Tourist spots of London either but Stoke Newington – I wonder how this Hackney area came to their attention? It was one of the riot-affected London areas so perhaps that is how?

Her villainous accomplice is her jobbing actor boyfriend Jason Trawick – what’s a little nepotism from your millionaire girlfriend?!

Later in a preposterous scene that might have made even Guy Ritchie blush the Metropolitan Police Armed Response Unit are seen letting rip a hail of bullets upon the couple’s hideout apartment as Britney and her beaux passionately embrace. We then discover that this symphonic salvo of shrapnel was all in vain as in fact the both of them have escaped and eluded the law’s grasp yet again.

Earlier in the video we have even more passionate scenes between them so much that YouTube has age-restricted the video. I do not know if there are many readers of the blog below 18 but I shall ensure I am circumspect with my choice of video-stills!

Inter-cutting the story line we have shots of Britney Spears glamorously dressed and made up wistfully eyeing the camera.Britney Spears Criminal - Gun still

The video was also criticized for Britney Spears sporting a gun – but I feel, a bit like the faux-controversy over Rihanna’s Man Down video, it is not clear why guns are an accepted staple of Television, Cinema and Computer Games but not Music Videos?

The local Hackney Council even criticized Britney Spears for promoting gun violence – a premise only credible if you consider depicting something as promoting something. Then the Member of Parliament for Hackney, Diane Abbot, got involved acknowledging it was only ‘a music video’ but then going on to say it ‘was glamorising gangs’ and perhaps most absurdly of all that ‘Britney should know better’ – why Britney Spears has a popstar should know better I am not sure!

Still on the basis that all publicity is good publicity then no doubt quietly Britney and her record company were pleased with this Yankee storm in an English tea-cup.

The Video Director Chris Marrs Piliero will have also been pleased with the video’s cinematic reception – Rolling Stone going as far to make Hitchcock comparisons. Music critics and their hyperbole hey!

Criminal is not of course anything close to classic cinema. No Oscar will be coming its director’s way – a VMA though most certainly could. Though Britney as leading actor will not I think be walking the MTV carpets should they have had an actors section, which they don’t! Damning with faint praise she acts better than Madonna but no match to her aforementioned ex, Justin…but the video provides a good enjoyable five-minute odd romp for all that.

Britney Spears Criminal

Britney Spears Criminal

Britney Spears Criminal

Britney Spears Criminal

West Lothian Question – and the answer is…

The West Lothian Question had been better named the West Lothian Conundrum? So long as its question remain unanswered, even unaddressed. The West Lothian question still waiting for a Westminster answer.

Tam Dalyell

Tam Dalyell

The House of Lords can process a bill through parliament at snails pace – for but one example the current Lords Reform Bill. All bills get three readings and between the second and third readings there is Committee Stage and a Report Stage. And then this same process gets repeated again in the other house! Then there is a Consideration of Amendments before Royal Ascent. And you might think the amount of time on legislation is less about ensuring it is thorough and well-thought out and more about seeing it never makes the light of day.

The aforementioned Lords Reform Bill received its second reading in the Lords on December 3 last year. And what date was set for the Committee Stage? October 21 this year – really! Even Franz Kafka would raise an incredulous eye-brow to that!

And it is hardly like Turkeys voting for Christmas – the changes to appointments of Lords envisioned in it are nothing to the more wholesale changes proposed earlier this year by our Much Unloved Deputy Prime Minister.

Franz Kafka

Kafkaesque trial…

And this stifled progress is as nothing compared with that made by the West Lothian Question.

For those of you who do not know what this question is let alone its answer, it is the situation where in effect Members of Parliament from constituencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can vote on legislation effecting the constituencies of England but which same legislation has no effect in their own constituencies due to the devolved local powers of these three nations.

The West Lothian Question (and I think the question merits a capitalized Q!) is not a widely known question – much more constitutionally obscure than it ought to be and I am only aware of it myself, as aside from being a bit of a political nerd, am also a West Lothian constituent.

Nevertheless it is not just because of the powers devolved under the last Labour led British Parliaments to the Scottish Holyrood Parliament and Welsh & Northern Irish Assemblies that this question has arisen. It actually first became an issue following the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 – remember it?! – which had the effect of devolving some British powers to local Scottish government.

It is so called because it was raised by a West Lothian Labour Member – and the Ulster Unionist Member responding to his speech by saying ‘We have finally grasped what the Honourable Member for West Lothian is getting at. Let us call it the West Lothian Question’. And this Ulster Unionist Member was? Enoch Powell!

The issue was raised back in 1977, back when God Save The Queen by the Sex Pistols was kept off the number one spot in the year of the present Queen’s Jubilee, by the then West Lothian Member Tam Dalyell – there is not even a West Lothian political constituency any more! – having deceased in 1983 to be replaced by Livingston and Linlithgow respectively. And Tam Dalyell himself in this period became Father of the House before retiring from Parliament in 2005. Well 28 years was just too short a time to expect an answer.

Ken Clarke

Ken Clarke

Finally though a commission has been agreed to examine the West Lothian Question. And it was agreed in September of this year – again like a previous post I cannot resist to say ‘I am not making this up’!

Some of this protracted delay might be because some of the solutions would be very significant indeed such as the establishment of an English Parliament and perhaps an over-reaching British Federal Structure.

Or conversely abolishing all the devolved bodies altogether – and the latter is definitely not going to happen!

Last I heard Kenneth Clarke had set up a Democracy Taskforce (!) charged by the Prime Minister in well not exactly solving the West Lothian Question but producing a report on it. The report was completed and proposed a compromise technical solution where Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MP’s would be involved in the first and second readings of laws pertaining to England but not the third and final reading.

I am not sure whether I think this is a reasonable solution or just another semi-pragmatic fudge.

Perhaps the West Lothian Question will be Question Resolved by the end of this current parliament? Perhaps!

Origins of Us – nature’s story with Dr Alice Roberts

Origins of Us LogoOrigins of Us, the new Natural History three-part series from BBC Productions currently airing on BBC 2 (and on BBC HD and iPlayer, the latter subject to usual time constraints), explores human evolution.

It aired after Channel 4′s new series Brave New World with Stephen Hawking  it exploring how science is striving for humankind’s next leap forward. A welcome two-hour celluloid science session of a Monday evening. I am hoping the BBC and Channel 4 get embroiled in an escalating TV science war vying to produce and schedule ever higher quality and ever greater quantity of science programming, an antidote to the endless cookery and home improvements shows that saturate our schedules. And I am not averse to a Sophie Dahl or Kevin McLoud but all things in moderation – even Crime drama’s have their limits, just about!

The opening one-hour episode of Origins of Us is called Bones, the next episode is Guts and third and final episode is Brains.

The aim of the series then is to explore the evolutionary development of humans focusing on our bones, guts and brains.

Origins of Us Episode One BonesThe programmes are presented by Dr Alice Roberts. Viewers may be familiar with her from archaeological programmes such as Time Team and Extreme Archaeology – proving that presenters of archaeology programs don’t have to be living fossils themselves.

Archaeology and Natural History are a natural enough step (sorry!) though Origins of Us is not Dr Alice Robert’s first foray into Natural History programming or indeed those specifically about Natural Selection having presented the BBC series The Incredible Human Journey and an episode of Horizon earlier this year titled ‘Are we still evolving?’.

Origins of Us Sahelanthropus

Skulls of Sahelanthropus or Toumai – and Chimpanzee – which is which?!

Are indeed Natural History TV Presenters still evolving? Some may have argued that David Attenborough is that roles natural full-stop but Dr Alice Roberts does prove otherwise!

Dr Alice Roberts herself is not just a TV presenter but author, Anatomist and Physical Anthropologist.

She is an engaging, impassioned and informed presenter. The content of Origins of Us is presented in an accessible way so as not to be so dry as to verge on an Open University Documentary Tutorial, but not dumbed down to insult our intelligence either.

The first episode ‘Bones’ looked at how our skeleton reveals the evolutionary journey of our ancestors. The BBC webpage for this program explains more about the purpose of the series and the background of Alice Roberts.

In their words this program is ‘a journey through your own body, 6 million years and 300 000 generations of our family, from a tree dwelling ape in the forests of Africa, to you and the six billion other humans on Earth today.’ The BBC’s Family Research series Who Do You Think You Are? for the whole of humankind.

The web-page also provides some great art visualising our ancient ancestors from Propliopithecus right up to we modern Homo Sapiens.

There is also a link to Dr Alice Robert’s blog on the series. She also has her own website. Or if you prefer to digest her thoughts in bite-size she tweetstoo.

Homo heidelbergensis

Homo heidelbergensis

The nub of the first episode was exploring what it was about we humans that caused us to diverge from our nearest animal relatives chimpanzees and to look at the first forest dwelling ape to stand up on their own two feet and walk, six million years ago in Africa.

The program commenced in the jungles of Uganda observing chimpanzees in their natural forest habitat and examining how their anatomy allowed them to climb and then jump from tree to tree as oppose to how ours is built to allow us to be upright, to walk and to run.

The show goes on to explore variations in our skeleton to that of a chimpanzee such as how our spine joins to our skull, the shape of our hands and feet (did you know that 25% of your bones are in your two hands?!) and of surprising significance to me at least the role of our posterior in our human motion.

Origins of Us Babies in motion

Early Ascent

One charming section of the program exploring human motion saw Dr Alice Roberts among a group of babies and toddlers – some of them walking, some of them not quite there.

A later section has Dr Alice Roberts wired up as she is monitored on a running machine exploring the surprising muscle combinations required for this such as a ligament in our neck essential for keeping us balanced when we are running.

Origins of Us - Running Machine Alice Roberts

Dr Alice Roberts on Running Machine

As I share this with you I am sitting down in front of my iMac – typical of my sedentary lifestyle – and typical I suspect of the majority of you reading this. But as Alice Roberts points out even the most active of us today is sedentary compared with our first human ancestors who spent most of their time not even walking but running – for prey, for safety, the proverbial fight or flight.

Finally the first episode explored our tool-making abilities with the perhaps surprising revelation that it was not the making of tools that defined us from the other apes but how we made use of those tools.

Also a quick mention to the musical soundtrack by English composer Niraj Chag though it should be added that the sounds of the African jungle were captivating enough.

Origins of Us

Chimpanzee and Human skeletal hands – we are the big thumbed humans…

I am greatly looking forward to the next ‘Guts’ episode.

Education, education, education and the Hillsborough Disaster

HansardMonday October 17th in the House of Commons was Education, Education, Education before the finale of the Hillsborough Disaster and whether there should be full disclosure of government documents relating to it.

The education debates were certainly varied and detailed – Maths GCSE Results were debated as were the GCSE results of the new Academies. Additionally the new English Baccalaureate and University Technical Colleges were tabled along with Faith Schools, Music, British Sign Language and Sure Start.

Strood Academy

Strood Academy, Kent

Academies are a current favourite of the Conservatives, primarily it seems because they can perform beyond the control of their Local Authority – a politically motivated and ideologically driven change does not inspire me with confidence in them. The Conservative Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton explaining ‘that all the evidence from around the world…’, a statement itself so ludicrously sweeping as to confirm that there is no such universal evidence, ‘…is that three factors give rise to improved performance – autonomy, high-quality teaching and external accountabilities’.

I am not going to spend much time on external accountability – who could argue with it? – other than to merely note that it is not clear how a school outside the control of a Local Authority is any more accountable than what that is not?

Autonomy though concerns me as it suggests that schools are better off running themselves without any over-riding national body or external audit, indeed to borrow that ugly phrase, without any external accountabilities.

I strongly question the idea that parents should decide a school curriculum – what do most of us know about most secondary school subjects? How well educated are most of us that we could better decide syllabus than Education Professionals with University Degrees?

And why stop at the parents, why not let the pupils decide? If that idea was proposed the conservative commentariat would cry ‘Lord of the Flies’ and pooh-pooh the woolly-headed liberalism of it all – but parents deciding is not much of a further fetch from that?

I want my teachers to educate not manage school budgets. The same as I want my GP to treat not  manage health budgets.

As for the phrase ‘high-quality teaching’ that is a facile circular remark – like saying high-quality care leads to the best outcomes – you don’t say! Such a statement completely absents itself of how an academy education provides high-quality teaching in a way that other private and public education does not.

University Technical Colleges

University Technical Colleges

Also discussed were the new University Technical Colleges – Comprehensive Schools with a greater vocational emphasis and sponsored by business such as Rolls Royce, Blackberry makers, Research in Motion, and Boeing. This is an England wide initiative and one that I believe has promise. The last Labour government rightly focused on increasing participation in education but I thought over-focused on academic skills at the expense of vocational ones. There is also I think good reason to re-introduce Apprentices which surely ally to these University Technical Colleges.

They also provide another source of education funding from the private sector – but one that will need to be monitored – no strings attached as it were. The Member of Surrey Heath also used perhaps the most purplest prose of the day in answer to a question about government bureaucracy not hampering their implementation “…the officials in my Department are allies. They are terrible, swift swords cutting through the bureaucracy that has so far held this country back” – recent examples have suggested this swiftness can often come at the expense of cool consideration and I do not buy this idea of unpatriotic public servants bent on stalling all private-led initiatives.

I love the language politicians employ – a balancing act between masters of spin and masters of the meaningless! Are our primary schools to be next renamed as University Technical Schools, and Kindergarten as University Technical Pre-Schools?!

English Baccalaureate

Already abbreviated to EBacc – because it cannot otherwise be reliably spelled correctly!?

Michael Gove Secretary for Education

Ed Sec

The new English Baccalaureate was later debated, introduced by the Conservative Member for Surrey Heath, I will refer to it hereafter as that member does by the short-hand ‘E-bac’. The Conservative Member for Banbury expressed concern on the negative effect of the ‘E-bac’ on Religious Education. The Member for Surrey Heath first thanked him for ‘being an effective spokesman for the place of faith in the nation’s life’ but then countered that the number of pupils studying RE was on the increase. One wonders whether there is any place for faith in education, that faith by its nature is anti-education? And was saddened too that the teaching of RE (or RI – you work it out!) is on the increase and that the Education Secretary thought this was something to be applauded. With apologies to Pink Floyd but ‘we don’t need no Faith education’.

Next up for debate was the reduction of funding to the Labour initiative Sure Start. It does appear this excellent program of theirs is only being cut due to party-political spite from the Conservatives and it is a notable shame that the Lib Dems led by their Member for Brent Central have not broken coalition rank on a social democratic issue such as this. The Labour Member for Washington and Sunderland West successfully summarised that the Brent Central Member did not have very much of a clue, beyond the usually woolly rhetoric, of the actual impact on the ground of their revised measures.

British Sign Language was raised by the Liberal Democrat member for Wells in respect of its possible pilot as a GCSE Foreign Language.

Hillsboroguh Stadium by Jam Sandwich

Theatre of Dreams, as the fans have it!

The final item of the day was the Hillsborough Disaster recorded as ‘Backbench business’ and a debate commenced by the Labour Member for Liverpool, Walton in respect that the “House calls for the full disclosure of all Government-related documents, including Cabinet minutes, relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster; requires that such documentation be uncensored and without redaction; and further calls for the families of the 96 and the Hillsborough Independent Panel to have unrestricted access to that information.”

He then proceeded with a very long speech in favour of such actions.

The Home Secretary then gave a long speech in response. Reading the minutes of Hansard may give a dry feel to this debate but which, as reported on Twitter and other media outlets, was a very emotionally cathartic process difficult to convey by the written word alone. Better instead to watch the televised recordings of the debate.

Many further contributions were made of similarly substantial length by members from both sides of the House with notable contributions from those members of the constituencies most effected in Liverpool, Sheffield and other neighbouring areas of the North West of England.

The debate commenced at 5.42pm and went on to 10pm and I could not possibly do it justice by commenting on it, save but to urge you that rather than reading about it in the particular prism of a party-political media outlet, you should consider reading the minutes of it verbatim here on Hansard.

A batty Thursday in the House of Commons…

Oliver Letwin

Carry On, Minister!

Foremost political news story in the British media last week was regarding the increasingly incredulous revelations about the foreign and security affairs of the Conservative Member for North Somerset and the cherry on the ice-bun the Conservative Member for West Dorset with his disposing of Government papers in the bins of his local park. Both were members of the Coalition Cabinet at the time – the Doctored one no longer is, the unDoctored one still remains – for now?

While these scenes, that would be barely plausible in a Spooks episode, continued to struggle to resolve themselves, in the House of Commons on Thursday October 13 more prosaic affairs were being debated.

The affairs of the House of Commons (and Lords) are ever available for scrutiny even before cameras were allowed into the Houses thanks to Hansard and now more current and accessible thanks to their online publication.

The days affairs are started rather like a school day and its assembly with prayers. And rather like a school I wonder whether this is the secular place for such a practice? Certainly I have never been at a workplace where we all first gathered to say a prayer.

Much of Thursday’s business was broadly regarding matters of faith too.

Bats in the Belfry by Bennie B Off

From Flickr, by Bennie B Off

And to paraphrase the Conservative Member for Maidenhead ‘…I am not making this up’ one of the first items up for debate was Bats in Churches – these purblind creatures cause damage to Churches internal fabrics through their urination and defecation – but this item was not the day’s final item on churches or indeed bats.

Later debated were Church Commissioners then The Theft of Metal in Churches and then again Bats this time sans Churches! Then time was given to the inhabitants of those buildings practised beliefs, first on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit to Africa then the fate of Coptic Christians in Egypt. Fiona Bruce – no not the Scots newsreader and current presenter of The Queens Palaces – but the Conservative Member for Congleton – wanting to know what support the Church Commissioners were giving to them. Pardon me but this feels very much like the business of a village hall and raffle raising for those deemed less fortunate and deserving of charity. Whilst accepting there is a very serious and difficult issue about respecting the sovereignty of a country whilst having concerns of the (often deadly) treatment by governments of those sovereign nations towards groups of peoples it is supposed to be representing (and protecting) – if that is they have any sort of democracy in the first place.

Threading through the odd-couple chiroptological and Southern Kirks affairs were a number of constitutional issues.

United Kingdom Elections were considered toward increasing their participation – notable with voter turnout at historic lows – since 2001 less than two-thirds has become the new-norm. Though also notable in the context of other plans by The Electoral Commission to move toward Individual Voter Registration from the current system of Household Voter Registration which if not implemented carefully could lead to voter-registration falling not rising – some estimates such as from Unlock Democracy – by over one million.

MP Edinburgh North and Leith

Member for Edinburgh North and Leith

In passing the Labour Co-op Member for Edinburgh North and Leith challenged the very integrity of our UK elections due to a section (of about one-and-a-half-million) who can work, join the armed-services, give their sexual consent (and there are further anomalous examples) yet are legally disenfranchised – namely those 16/17 – no taxation without representation! An organisation Vote at 16 are currently campaigning this issue. The Member raising the issue noted that in Scotland the SNP as part of their proposed Scottish Referendum to separate Scotland from the rest of the UK are now considering adding another motion to it, that the voting age should begin aged sixteen.

Vote at 16 LogoFurther constitutional business concerned the proposed election of Police Commissioners. The Labour Member for York Central was more concerned about the cost of such elections making an obvious political if not unfair cost comparison to the cutting of police numbers and budgets as part of the Coalition Government’s ideological – sorry necessary – shrinking of Big Bad Government. And if Small Government is Good Government then presumably the apotheosis of Good Government is No Government – Anarchy for the UK – is that the Conservative Member for Whitney’s real unsaid agenda?! A Big Society, just not one that involves very much governance or regulation.

Next up was Local Referendums, specifically proposals to give powers to communities to hold local ones. This issue was raised by the Conservative Member for Harlow. Though it was not quite clear how a community was being defined here – I presume at the very least an electoral ward. I support referenda and do feel our democracy would benefit from greater use of them – whether at national or local level – though can see a danger too that if used too liberally they will decrease rather than increase electoral participation. And rather like online petitioning which I also approve the sheer number of them is making them unmanageable and thus unworkable?

On the other hand we already have a worrying Democratic Deficit where the two main political parties (leaving aside the SNP in Scotland) Conservative and Labour struggle now to get a third of the voters behind them – a feeling of Crony Capitalism and Government by the Few for the Few?