Archive for united kingdom

Notes on Eurovision

Posted in Biographical, Music, Politics with tags , , , , on May 15, 2022 by telescoper

To nobody’s surprise Ukraine won last night’s Eurovision song contest after collecting a huge dollop of the televotes. After the jury votes, the United Kingdom’s entry was in the lead which surprised me because I thought it wasn’t much of a song at all. I’ve never been very good at picking the tunes that do well though. I didn’t like Ukraine’s entry – Stefania by the Kalush Orchestra – much either, but obviously there are special circumstances this year and I’m not at all sorry that they won.

In fact I thought the best song – and the best singer – by a long way was the Lithuanian entry sung by Monika Liu, who held the stage brilliantly by standing there and singing, without any fancy staging. She finished a disappointing 14th.

Monika Liu

Other entries I enjoyed were: Spain, catchy dance number with excellent choreography that finished 3rd; Moldova, an energetic performance full of humour (7th); and Norway, whose entry Give that Wolf a Banana was enjoyably deranged (10th). The less said about the other entries the better. I’m still as baffled by how Sam Ryder’s entry for the UK, Space Man, did so well in the jury votes as I am that Lithuania did so badly there, but there you go. What do I know?

I’ll state without comment that the Ukrainian jury gave a maximum douze points to the United Kingdom, but in return the UK jury gave Ukraine nil points

Anyway, three things struck me as I sipped my wine and watched the show:

  1. Ironically the Opera on the radio last night was Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg which is about a sixteenth century song contest that resembles the Eurovision versiononly in the length of time it goes on for. Perhaps someone should write a modern music drama called Die Meistersinger von Eurovision?
  2. I think the Research Excellence Framework would be much more fun if it were done like the Eurovision Song Contest. Each University regardless of size could be given the same distribution of scores to allocate to the others (but not itself). I can see interesting patterns emerging during that!
  3. When I was formally presented with my DPhil in the summer of 1989, the graduation ceremony took place on the same stage (at the Brighton Centre) on which Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 with their song Waterloo.

Mutatis Mutandis

Posted in Covid-19, Politics with tags , on December 21, 2020 by telescoper

So here I am, first full day of Christmas vacation and, boy, am I pleased I didn’t try to take a trip to the UK for the festive season. Had I tried to do so I’d either have got stuck there for an indefinite period or be still here frantically doing some food shopping for a solitary Christmas. Having settled for a solitary Christmas some time ago I’ve actually got – without getting the least bit frantic – most of what I need not only to survive Christmas here in Maynooth but also to have a massively self-indulgent time. I’m looking forward to cooking myself special dinners on Christmas Eve (Sea Bass), Christmas Day (Confit of Duck) and Boxing Day (Lamb Shank) together with carefully chosen wines.

The cause of the sudden isolation of the United Kingdom is, allegedly, the appearance of a new “mutant” variant of the SARS-COV-2 virus. I say “allegedly” because it isn’t clear to me that this is any different from the thousand-plus other variant forms of this particular Coronavirus. One thing viruses do rather well is mutate.

It seems perfectly possible to me that this mutation has been seized on by the Johnson administration as an excuse for a changing a policy that they should have changed ages ago but didn’t want to lose face. They did, after all, know about this variant way back in September. They may not have known then that this strain might be more infectious, but their response to Covid-19 generally has been careless and inept even without this new development. As it has been on other matters too, on top of their laziness and corruption. Am I being too cynical? Perhaps, but the Tories have shown themselves time and time again to be pathological liars so I hope you’ll forgive me for not believing a word.

What seems to have happened is that Johnson hyped up the threat from this new variant for a domestic audience but it put the wind up Macron and other leaders. Assuming Johnson was telling the truth they closed their borders.

There’s quite a strong chance that there will be some disruption to food supplies here in Ireland as a consequence of the land route from the continent being closed so I will try to get the last of my “essentials” today. It will be worse in the UK, though, and I feel very sorry for all my friends there who will be effectively cut off for the holiday season. I hope they can console themselves with the fact that Christmas isn’t cancelled this year, it is just Australia-style…

UK and Ireland Trade

Posted in Politics with tags , on February 2, 2020 by telescoper

For reasons that are probably obvious I recently took a look at the latest figures relating to trade between Ireland and the United Kingdom. These were produced by the UK Government but I’ll nevertheless assume they are trustworthy. The latest complete figures are from 2018; the report was published in January this year (2020).

Here are the key points:

  • In 2018, UK exports to Ireland were worth £35.1 billion; imports from Ireland were £21.6 billion, resulting in a trade surplus of £13.5 billion with Ireland.
  • The UK had a surplus with Ireland in both goods and services.
  • Ireland accounted for 5.5% of UK exports and 3.2% of all UK imports.
  • Ireland was the UK’s 5th largest export market and the 10th largest source of imports.
  • The UK has recorded a trade surplus with Ireland every year between 1999 and 2018.

Brexiter logic states that the fact that the EU exports more to the UK than vice versa means that the EU needs the UK more than the UK needs the EU. Applying the same argument to Ireland would imply that the UK needs Ireland more than Ireland needs the UK (if it were correct). The reality is that membership of the single market has been of benefit to the economy of both countries (and the rest of the EU). Trade is not a zero-sum game. While the Single Market has allowed the UK to generate a trading surplus with Ireland, Ireland has found other opportunities elsewhere to more than make up. Contrary to popular myth, the UK now only accounts for a small fraction of goods exports from Ireland.

As the United Kingdom has left the European Union it must now try to negotiate new trading arrangements that will cover trade with remaining member states, including Ireland. No doubt the EU negotiators will be pressed by Ireland to take steps to reduce the imbalance described above. As the UK no longer wants to avail itself of the benefits of Single Market, it seems likely that other EU member states will want to seize the opportunity to boost their trade by filling the gaps.

Since the UK’s trading agreement with the EU (if there ever is one, which is doubtful) will probably not include services, I thought it would be interesting to look at goods: here is a summary of the breakdown of this category of UK exports to Ireland:

`Miscellaneous manufactured articles’, incidentally, means things made out of plastic, etc.

As a relatively recent arrival in Ireland I find these figures quite interesting in light of my own experience of shopping here. I know that consumer goods aren’t representative of all trade so this is just a comment on my own impressions and is not to be taken too seriously.

If you go into a Supermarket in Ireland you will find that fresh vegetables, meat and dairy products are generally all from local sources. There is a wide choice of these items and value for money is generally very good. The same is true for bread and bread-related products. Some fruit is imported from the EU (especially France and The Netherlands, but including some, e.g. apples, from the UK) and some from further afield (e.g. bananas from the Caribbean and Latin America). You will be shocked to learn that bendy bananas are freely available.

Moving to processed foods (including confectionery, canned items, etc) the picture changes quite a bit. There are local Irish brands but they tend to be alongside familiar British ones. There are also items from elsewhere, e.g. from Italy, that I have never seen on sale in the UK. The (smaller) Irish brands of, say, marmalade seem to be a bit dearer than their imported equivalent but are often of better quality.

As an aside I’ll also mention that supermarkets here have a noticeably smaller range of convenience foods (e.g. microwave meals and ready-made sandwiches) than in corresponding outlets in the UK.

I’ve been impressed at the quality and availability of another important staple, wine. There is a better range of French, Spanish and Italian wines in Supervalu in Ireland, especially at the quality end of the spectrum, than in stores of a similar size in the United Kingdom. There is also a good range of wines from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Latin America. I haven’t tried Irish wine yet…

In summary, then, it’s perfectly easy to eat and drink well in Ireland without buying any British products. For myself, I have always tried to buy local food products whenever possible to support the Irish economy as best I can.

Elsewhere in the store however you can see a much greater dominance of UK products. This is particularly true of toiletries (including toothpaste, shampoo), pharmaceutical goods, domestic cleaning products and so on. These tend to be dominated by familiar British brands, although they seem to be more expensive here in Ireland than in the UK.

None of the goods mentioned in the previous paragraph are at all perishable so they could in principle be quite easily be imported from further afield. I wonder if we’ll soon start seeing products of this sort starting to appear from elsewhere?

Scotland Should Decide…

Posted in Bad Statistics, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2014 by telescoper

There being less than two weeks to go before the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, a subject on which I have so far refrained from commenting, I thought I would write something on it from the point of view of an English academic. I was finally persuaded to take the plunge because of incoming traffic to this blog from  pro-independence pieces here and here and a piece in Nature News on similar matters.

I’ll say at the outset that this is an issue for the Scots themselves to decide. I’m a believer in democracy and think that the wishes of the Scottish people as expressed through a referendum should be respected. I’m not qualified to express an opinion on the wider financial and political implications so I’ll just comment on the implications for science research, which is directly relevant to at least some of the readers of this blog. What would happen to UK research if Scotland were to vote yes?

Before going on I’ll just point out that the latest opinion poll by Yougov puts the “Yes” (i.e. pro-independence) vote ahead of “No” at 51%-49%. As the sample size for this survey was only just over a thousand, it has a margin of error of ±3%. On that basis I’d call the race neck-and-neck to within the resolution of the survey statistics. It does annoy me that pollsters never bother to state their margin of error in press released. Nevertheless, the current picture is a lot closer than it looked just a month ago, which is interesting in itself, as it is not clear to me as an outsider why it has changed so dramatically and so quickly.

Anyway, according to a Guardian piece not long ago.

Scientists and academics in Scotland would lose access to billions of pounds in grants and the UK’s world-leading research programmes if it became independent, the Westminster government has warned.

David Willetts, the UK science minister, said Scottish universities were “thriving” because of the UK’s generous and highly integrated system for funding scientific research, winning far more funding per head than the UK average.

Unveiling a new UK government paper on the impact of independence on scientific research, Willetts said that despite its size the UK was second only to the United States for the quality of its research.

“We do great things as a single, integrated system and a single integrated brings with it great strengths,” he said.

Overall spending on scientific research and development in Scottish universities from government, charitable and industry sources was more than £950m in 2011, giving a per capita spend of £180 compared to just £112 per head across the UK as a whole.

It is indeed notable that Scottish universities outperform those in the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to research, but it always struck me that using this as an argument against independence is difficult to sustain. In fact it’s rather similar to the argument that the UK does well out of European funding schemes so that is a good argument for remaining in the European Union. The point is that, whether or not a given country benefits from the funding system, it still has to do so by following an agenda that isn’t necessarily its own. Scotland benefits from UK Research Council funding, but their priorities are set by the Westminster government, just as the European Research Council sets (sometimes rather bizarre) policies for its schemes. Who’s to say that Scotland wouldn’t do even better than it does currently by taking control of its own research funding rather than forcing its institutions to pander to Whitehall?

It’s also interesting to look at the flipside of this argument. If Scotland were to become independent, would the “billions” of research funding it would lose (according to the statement by Willetts, who is no longer the Minister in charge) benefit science in what’s left of the United Kingdom? There are many in England and Wales who think the existing research budget is already spread far too thinly and who would welcome an increase south of the border. If this did happen you could argue that, from a very narrow perspective, Scottish independence would be good for science in the rest of what is now the United Kingdom, but that depends on how much the Westminster government sets the science budget.

This all depends on how research funding would be redistributed if and when Scotland secedes from the Union, which could be done in various ways. The simplest would be for Scotland to withdraw from RCUK entirely. Because of the greater effectiveness of Scottish universities at winning funding compared to the rest of the UK, Scotland would have to spend more per capita to maintain its current level of resource, which is why many Scottish academics will be voting “no”. On the other hand, it has been suggested (by the “yes” campaign) that Scotland could buy back from its own revenue into RCUK at the current effective per capita rate  and thus maintain its present infrastructure and research expenditure at no extra cost. This, to me, sounds like wanting to have your cake and eat it,  and it’s by no means obvious that Westminster could or should agree to such a deal. All the soundings I have taken suggest that an independent Scotland should expect no such generosity, and will get actually zilch from the RCUK.

If full separation is the way head, science in Scotland would be heading into uncharted waters. Among the questions that would need to be answered are:

  •  what will happen to RCUK funded facilities and staff currently situated in Scotland, such as those at the UKATC?
  •  would Scottish researchers lose access to facilities located in England, Wales or Northern Ireland?
  •  would Scotland have to pay its own subscriptions to CERN, ESA and ESO?

These are complicated issues to resolve and there’s no question that a lengthy process of negotiation would be needed to resolved them. In the meantime, why should RCUK risk investing further funds in programmes and facilities that may end up outside the UK (or what remains of it)? This is a recipe for planning blight on an enormous scale.

And then there’s the issue of EU membership. Would Scotland be allowed to join the EU immediately on independence? If not, what would happen to EU funded research?

I’m not saying these things will necessarily work out badly in the long run for Scotland, but they are certainly questions I’d want to have answered before I were convinced to vote “yes”. I don’t have a vote so my opinion shouldn’t count for very much, but I wonder if there are any readers of this blog from across the Border who feel like expressing an opinion?


Not a cloud in the sky…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on May 29, 2012 by telescoper

Now here’s something you don’t see every day. Not if you live in the United Kingdom anyway. This satellite picture taken yesterday (which I nicked from the University of Dundee) shows completely clear skies over virtually the whole country…

..but hang on. What’s that coming up from the South West, just in time for the Jubilee celebrations?