This week with Brian 1 to 8 June 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including extinction events, exciting opportunities, redundancy, scrutiny, public barking, releasing the messages, no bail-out, pothole art, ain’t misbehaving, taking the plunge, blue or red, the longest match, off the rails,  a cupcake bear, psycho psychiatrists and no ham and eggs.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (updated every Thursday evening).

If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

• I remain as confused as anyone else about what artificial intelligence might mean to, or do to, us all. I also can’t help wondering if the word “artificial” is relevant any more. That suggests something that’s a copy, a pale imitation of the real thing. Increasingly, this seems not to be the case. It appears to be something different from us: born of humans, certainly, but not subject to or dominated by them. Indeed, quite the reverse.

[more below] 

I was re-reading the early chapters of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari last night. I was struck by his point that we had not only caused major extinction events every time we had occupied another part of the world; also how, before then, we had either eliminated or dominated through interbreeding every other branch of our family, such as the Neanderthals.

Co-habitation clearly isn’t in our genes. It may therefore not be in the genes of something which, as Kipling put it, “our ‘satiable curiosity” has created. Let’s have a look at two of the many views of this alarming digital mutation.

On the negative side, a number of experts have warned that AI could lead “to the extinction of humanity.” Much the same things were doubtless said about the internet, electricity, steam engines, the spinning Jenny, gunpowder, the wheel and fire. But this one seems a bit more real.

Until a few decades ago it wouldn’t have mattered if AI didn’t have opposable thumbs but now that seems to be unimportant. So much of what makes us tick is now controlled by a series of digital neural pathways that are only remotely safe because no one really knows how they are all connected and thus how they can be manipulated.

AI, however, has been brought up on this, even more than have our children. We’ve given it the keys to the palace. As the above-mentioned Yuval Noah Harari suggested, we might have AI might have “hacked the operating system of human civilisation.” It’s hard to think of a phrase of only seven words on the subject which packs more of a punch: and this from a man who has thought and written a lot about our relationship with creation, and ourselves.

The other point of view is that it’s all “summat and nowt” as they say in Yorkshire: a media firestorm designed to sell papers, publicise blogs and employ consultants. Today, for instance, I received an email from a company I’d never before had dealings with telling me the following:  

“We hosted our first ‘ChatGBT and the AI Revolution’ event for business owners across the UK last week and really enjoyed it! We’ve had some really nice feedback and undertook some initial research at the event to see where participants are with ChatGPT at the moment and thought you might be interested…

74% indicated that they were ‘Excited about the opportunities from ChatGBT’, 17% ‘Neutral’ and 9% ‘Scared’!” There are good arguments for all three responses,” the email gushed on, ” but we are definitely on the ‘Excited’ side!”

Are you?! Wow! That’s great! Let’s use lots of exclamation marks to show how fun this is! The summary reads as if it’s about a new online game: which, I suppose, in a way it is.

None the less, I can’t help feeling a bit miffed that what I’m doing now – writing this – is one of the few things I can do reasonably well. Now, however, it seems that I might soon be as redundant as a hot-metal compositor when Apple Macs appeared or a canal engineer at the time of Stephenson’s Rocket.

• Actually, I can do one other thing quite well: I can bark like various kinds of dogs. As I don’t like dogs, this is often used for negative or defensive reasons, such as when I’m in the front garden and see a passing canine about to take a dump on the verge on the other side of the hedge. Yesterday, I used this skill to more positive effect in helping break up a dog fight in Hungerford High Street. Like the Police, I can’t claim always to be on hand when crisis strikes but can be booked for weddings, baptisms, bar mitzvahs or whenever on-call barking might be required.

• The revelation, or not, of BoJo’s un-redacted WhatsApp messages to the Covid enquiry under Heather Hallett may produce more embarrassment to the members of the current government than to the former PM, something that until recently seemed impossible. The investigation has turned into another circus with, as ever, Boris at the centre of it. Points of principle and legal arguments have been mentioned. Leaking out of the sides are all manner of stories about dodgy PPE deals, along with fresh partygate allegations. Will it never end?

It seems not. On 1 June the BBC reported that “the government is to launch an unprecedented legal challenge over the Covid inquiry’s demand for WhatsApp messages and documents. Officials missed a 4pm deadline to disclose messages between Boris Johnson and his advisers during the pandemic, as well as his diaries and notebooks. The government has refused to disclose some of the material, arguing it is not relevant to the inquiry’s work: but the inquiry’s boss says deciding what is relevant should be her job.” 

This article in Reuters reports that “The European Union, Brazil and the United States are all facing major setbacks in legal environmental protection efforts as some legislators are pushing back against laws aimed at safeguarding biodiversity, indigenous forests and wetlands.” The piece looks at several examples of this across the globe and added that “environmental groups decried the decisions as putting the interests of polluting industries and landowners ahead of public health and the environment.” Many Republicans and conservatives, on the other had, “lauded the rulings as necessary checks on the power of federal agencies and unelected officials.” Last time I checked, the CEOs of large corporations weren’t elected either, except perhaps by the shareholders.

Reuters also considers the matter of Environmental Sustainability Governance (ESG) which is, it claims, “good for business and actually boosts shareholder value…The greater the transparency and third-party validation, the more your company will become a trusted business appreciated by your local and global customers, employees, and neighbours. After the initial plunge into environmental conservancy your stakeholders will be appreciative…”

Many large companies seem, like a group of people looking at slightly cold sea, unwilling to take this plunge. Once enough have done so, however, no one then wants to be left on dry land. Many might feel that the only way of dealing with this is to push them in. That is not the way the market works, though.

• The FA Cup Final generally used to involve at least one team that might have found themselves slightly surprised to be there at all. The saying was that the best team won the league and the luckiest team won the cup. Now, it’s generally fought out between two sides both of whom have already qualified for the Champions League. This weekend is no exception. My distaste for the team from Manchester that plays in red is quite extreme so I suppose I want City to win. If their beast of a centre-forward is on song then they should do it quite easily. I probably won’t be watching though. There: that’ll show them.

Council tax bills were sent out in April and for most of us represented a 4.99% increase, this being in the general the most that councils can raise theirs by without going to referendum. Where authorities get themselves into a huge financial mess, however, they can get permission to raise them by more. This happened in Croydon where after issuing three section 114 notices (effectively, admissions of bankruptcy) in two years, a rise of 15% was agreed.

Croydon had hoped that it would be able to get the debt written off, a request other councils were watching with interest. It appears from Private Eye 1599, however, that the government has realised that one immediate result of this would have been “a queue of chief execs from other skint councils seeking similar deals.” As a result, about a quarter of the council’s spending will go on servicing its debt of £1.6bn.

Potholes are certainly a thing at present and were one of the major matters of doorstep complaints to candidates during the recent elections. Councils across the country have blamed a combination of a series of extreme weather events and our old friend, lack of funding. One man in south east London has come up with a way of drawing attention to the problem in his area by turning them into works of art. The tableaux created by Tim Webb from Orpington are not permanent: he arranges the figures, rubber ducks and what have you, takes the picture, posts it and clears up. Still seems like a slightly risky undertaking. Mind you, an accident, that would certainly get some extra publicity…

Across the area

• News from your local council if you live in the Vale of White Horse, Wiltshire, Swindon or West Berkshire.

• Further information on your district, county or borough council’s activities is referred to in the respective Weekly News sections for the nine areas that Penny Post covers – Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area

Scrutiny

A council’s Oversight and Scrutiny Committee fulfills a very important role: as the West Berkshire Council’s website describes it, it “is responsible for reviewing the decisions, policies and services of WBC and, in some cases, those of other organisations and partners to improve the lives of local people.” Its nine members are drawn from any councillor who is not on the Executive: these are chosen pro rata to the parties’ representation on the Council. 

In the past, the Chair of the Committee was a member of the ruling party. This surprised me but research revealed that about two thirds of about 30 councils in the area arranged matters this way. It didn’t seem like best practice. It also left the Chair open to the charge – even if unfounded – of political favouritism. The Lib Dems made a manifesto pledge that they would, if elected, not mark their own homework in this way and would appoint opposition members as Chair and Vice Chair of this committee. This promise they have kept.

Many, including the Conservatives, may have thought that both positions would be theirs, as the second largest party. In fact the Chair is the Green councillor Carolyne Culver . This is, I think, a very shrewd move by the new administration. The Committee will be looking at many matters which had their origins in the period of Conservative control: having a Conservative Chair would therefore be to replace one perceived or actual partiality issue with another.

Carolyne Culver is not a member of either the current or the past administration and so cannot stand accused of bias one way or the other. Nor will a anyone be able to accuse her of not being familiar with the issues: in the last council she was there only member with a 100% attendance record at meetings. This important committee has thus got itself a first-class Chair with no prior baggage. I think members from all sides recognise what an excellent and diligent councillor she is. Certainly the interests of the district – which is what it’s all about – seem to have been well served by her appointment.

More information on the committee and its work can be found here. Members of the public can suggest matters that the the Scrutiny Committee should look at: click here for how to go about this.

Off the rails

We’ve written many times about the pretty terrible rail service between Bedwyn and Newbury and highlighted the excellent work done by the Bedwyn Train Passenger Group (BTPG)  to lobby GWR into doing something to improve this.

Local MP Laura Farris has recently issued a statement on this matter in which she says that she has asked for government time to debate “the adequacy of GWR’s performance” through West Berkshire. This, she explains, “follows changes to timetables that have seen capacity on the busy morning commuter service from Newbury to Reading slashed, resulting in overcrowding, in a move that Ms Farris has called “short-sighted”. Ms Farris says she was told by GWR that the decision to reduce capacity on this service was a result of a network-wide need to reduce fleet size due to financial constraints.”

The statement adds that “this intervention by the Newbury MP follows a continued campaign to improve local rail services. Last year, Ms Farris and her constituency neighbour Danny Kruger MP (Devizes) successfully campaigned for service improvements which resulted in the reinstatement of one direct evening service between Hungerford and Paddington.” This also includes a comment from the BTPG that the shuttle service “is causing missed connections, extending journey times and making passengers having to run at Newbury. The three stations have had the majority of their direct trains allocated elsewhere with no consultation.”

I contacted the BTPG about this and the group confirmed that it had recently had a Zoom meeting with Laura Farris’ office. “It’s good that she is highlighting this,” a spokesperson told me. “This is likely to form part of a wider campaign over the rest of this year to try to get our through services reinstated.”

I also asked to what extent the group had been involved in the restoration of the service to which Laura Farris referred. “The two MPs have made efforts to improve matters,” I was told, “and the evening service mentioned was one success. We did specifically ask for this train to be reinstated. Just to get this back took a considerable effort.”

We’re all being exhorted to use trains although there’s little in the either the simplicity or the prices of the tickets to encourage this. Having a perfectly simple journey to Reading or London split in two with an unreliable connection doesn’t make it stack up on timing or convenience either.

To some extent, this is down to the failure to electrify the line west of Newbury (the whole network could be been electrified for the cost of HS2) but I was more surprised by the reference to the “financial constraints” placed on GWR. This is, of course, a trump card for any organisation to play – don’t blame us, guv, it’s the government’s fault. However, I thought these companies were privatised, so enabling them to invest what they wanted in order to attract customers. Could it be the the Department for Transport is micro-managing their spending?

A bit of research suggested that this is exactly what’s happening. It’s less clear why. Perhaps the government doesn’t trust the rail companies. Certainly, several of them have been placed on the naughty step over the years. It also seems pointless privatising something if you’re then going to try to do everything yourself. Rail privatisation only created an artificial market in any case: if I want to go from Hungerford to London, I don’t have a choice of operators in the way that I do with telecoms or utilities. In this respect the rail firms are like those that provide our water.

It thus seems even odder that whereas GWR would perhaps like to improve the service, the DfT is preventing it from doing so and telling it how to spent its money: whereas with the water companies, which have only recently woken up to the fact that they need to improve their services, the government and its agencies seem disinclined to force them to do so. Just remind me – why did we privatise these industries in the first place?

Other news

• West Berkshire Council is planning to invest an additional £1.9m on ahousing scheme for displaced people to help provide an additional ten homes. More details here.

• Good news for bus passengers: fares have for some time been capped andthe government has this week announcedthat the scheme will be extended.

• West Berkshire Council has been allocated £275,000 of funding to provide a new school streets scheme and develop improvements to walking and cycling routes. It is part of the council’s “ongoing commitment to boost active travel options for residents whilst also helping to drive down carbon emissions.” More details here.

Click here for information about help available with thecost of living crisis in West Berkshire, the Vale and Wiltshire.

Please click here for information about what local councils are doing to help support refugees from Ukraine and how you can help.

Click here for the best coverage we’ve seen of all things football-related in Berkshire.

Click here for the latest museums newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Click here to visit WBC’s business website.

Click here for details of consultations currently being run by WBC.

Click here for the latest libraries newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest community learning newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest waste and recycling newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest residents’ newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest business newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest health and wellbeing in schools newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest environmental newsletter from WBC.

• You can click here to choose to receive all or any of West Berkshire Council’s e-newsletters.

• See also the sections for Wantage,Marlborough and Swindon for initiatives from Vale of White Horse Council, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Council and the various towns and parishes.

Click here for a post listing the various places which are offering a takeaway and/or delivery service. If you are aware of any others, let us know.

• The animal of the week is this cupcake-stealing bear in Connecticut. I never know they had bears there.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of Sandleford, appointments at the tip, climate-change doubts, SEN education and Harry and Megan’s titles.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently: see the various news area sections (links above) for further details.

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• Here we are at the Song of the Week. An oldie but a goldie (and my mum’s favourite song): Ain’t Mishevin’ by Fats Waller.

• So next up must be the Comedy Moment of the Week. Time for a bit more Fry and Laurie: here they are as a pair of psycho psychiatrists.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is supplied by Ed James of Wimbledon Debenture Tickets and is as follows: “How many games comprised the final set of the first-round match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon 2010?” Last week’s question was: “FU NE MNX?” “9,VFN 10E MNX.” In what kind of place might this exchange be taking place and what nationality might the second speaker be? This was probably taking place in a café and the second speaker was probably German. “Have you any ham and eggs?” the customer asks. “Nein, ve effen’t any ham and eggs,” the other replies.

For weekly news sections for Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area please click on the appropriate link.

Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
Email
Print

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up to the free weekly

Penny Post
e-newsletter 

 

For: local positive news, events, jobs, recipes, special offers, recommendations & more.

Covering: Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage, Lambourn, Compton, Swindon & Theale