A useful message?

I’d a big day ahead of me. I’d done all my preparation. I’d rehearsed the presentation, and prepared the room the night before. On the early train to London, I’d looked over my notes one last time, and visualised how things would pan out. What could go wrong?

Arriving in the conference room, I checked the room was as I’d left it the night before. It was. So I got myself a strong coffee and turned on the projector, only for the following to display on the screen.

“The bulb is coming towards the end of its useful life.”

As user assistance goes, it tells you exactly what you need to know, but it’s not what you need to see at 7:45am when you’re expecting a room full of people in little under an hour’s time!

A St.Valentine’s day message

My nephew is getting married in September. His fiancee is a lovely lady, and I’ve no doubt they’ll be very happy together. His Mum and Dad are of course overjoyed that they’re finally making it official, as they’ve been together for several years.

As their wedding is being planned in all its painstaking detail, it reminds me of my own wedding. It was one of the most stressful experiences of my life, and a good test of our relationship. Looking back, a lot of the stress was caused by a lack of appreciation of what we both wanted out of the event. It was only as the planning ensued, that we really understood what was important to us.

Looking back, a lot of the stress was caused by a lack of appreciation of what we both wanted the event to be. It was only as the planning ensued that we really understood what was important to us. Then of course there was the realisation that our special day wouldn’t be quite as perfect as we’d originally envisioned. Why, because of the compromises we had to make for one reason or another.

Then there were both our families. It is naive to think that your big day is solely about you. Both our families were super supportive, but we became experts at walking on eggshells at times. The fact that great Aunt Bettie just had to be invited, despite the fact that she lived in Australia, was unable to travel, and you hadn’t met her in 30 years. Throw in the issues with the reception seating plan, with Joe still refusing to speak to his half sister, and whether to put your aunt Mary and her second husband anywhere near her first.

Looking back on things, it was a fun day. People enjoyed themselves, despite the caterers nearly dropping the cake on the floor, and my cousin destroying the garden fence of a garden across the road from the church, after they left the hand break off their car!

In the here and now, we can laugh at all things that didn’t go according to plan. At the end of the day, none of that stuff matters. Here we are 13 years later happier than we ever were. We’ve mellowed and come to appreciate exactly why we both made that leap of faith. And if I want a reminder of why I’m so happy we met, I just need to look at pictures like this.

The new Mrs Online Chameleon

How would you reform the United Nations?

The UN logo

The United Nations isn’t perfect. So in a perfect world, how would you change it? This was the question I asked myself recently, after someone at our local Amnesty International group meeting suggested a particular reform.

Before you answer that question, it is best to understand the complexities of getting any reform agreed. The United Nations is governed by the UN Security Council.

  • It is made up of member states, each of which has one vote. However, there are five “permanent” member states that have a veto. This means that if any one of those five members doesn’t like something, they can vote against it and the motion fails. As those five are the USA, UK, China, France, and Russia, it means the various political and geographical divisions that exist between those states, often leads to stalemate.
  • The five permanent members are broadly speaking the major powers at the end of World War Two, and were all fighting against Germany and Japan. So as victors they enjoyed special status. And of course the UN is far from being a purely humanitarian body. Member states often look after their own interests first, with ambassadors appointed by their government.

The idea raised at our meeting was to replace the current five permanent members with five other members that were elected by the other members. An admirable idea maybe, but the proposal was short on detail. The questions in my mind were many:

  • Assuming each permanent member state would be for a set period, how long would that be?
  • Could a permanent member state seek re-election? If so, how many times?
  • With your permanent member state term having come to an end, would there be a period of time before you could seek re-election again? If so, how long?
  • Would the permanent member states, still have a veto?
  • What checks and balances would be implemented to prevent the current voting bottlenecks?

Perhaps the biggest question of all, is how the heck you expect such a reform from getting through the Security Council with the current setup? It is a classic case of idealism, with little realism. It just won’t happen.

Activism is healthy, as is having a questioning mind. It adds some checks and balances to what can often be overlooked. But having a solution, doesn’t make it a good idea. There is little point in betting your life’s savings on a donkey to win the Grand National. The chances of winning such a bet are so extreme, that it doesn’t make strategic sense. It is much better to have realistic aims.

To some this may seem like defeatism. To me it is achieving reform that may not otherwise happen. In a situation where you’re up against an immovable force, you may have to continually chip away at the bottom to bring the mighty oak tree tumbling down.

There is little doubt that the United Nations isn’t perfect, but then neither is any democratic body. That’s not to say I’m in favour of dictatorships. It’s just that we have to accept that not everyone thinks the same as us. If we accept this, we must expect shit to happen sometimes.

With the UN, there is little doubt in my mind that the current system sucks, but we’ve little or no chance of getting it changed. Plus the UN for all its faults has succeeded in many areas. It’s peacekeeping operations may not always have been successful, think of the Rwandan genocide or allegations of human rights abuses by UN troops, but they often have limited or stops armed insurrection. The UN has provided aid when there’s been a humanitarian catastrophe, and continues to work for impoverished sectors of society.

Would I reform the UN? Yes, but I’d ensure the aim was tempered with a strategic and realistic vision of what could be achieved.

Recruiting: the upside of management

Being a manager can be tough. Not only do you have to make difficult decisions that affect both you and you’re team, you have to deal with others doing the same for theirs. But occasionally you’re placed with a difficult decision that’s a joy to make. I was in this situation yesterday, following the move of one of my staff to another team.

I’ve been conducting interviews for her replacement since the New Year. The quality of the CVs that have passed my way surprised me, which made it more difficult to narrow the field down. A nice problem to have though.

Eventually we interviewed six, narrowing this down to three who came back for a second interview and technical test. Of those initial six, only one was a definite “No”, and only because they didn’t fit our office culture. They actually were the best technically.

Of the three who returned for the second stage, there were two stand out candidates. Both were fairly similar in experience, but had very different personalities and backgrounds. They both did well in the technical test, although perhaps one just shaded it. So who should I disappoint?

As I said management can be difficult at times, but this is the sort of decision every manager craves. Either of the candidates would have fitted in well and done the job. In the end it came down to who best fitted my needs. One candidate would have needed more support in the early stages. The other seemed more capable of working independently. As I’m not a micro-manager, that candidate got the nod.

Having analysed the facts, making the final decision was relatively easy. Coming from a strong position helped, but so did having such good candidates. I’m truly sorry that we didn’t have two vacancies. I’d have had no qualms about hiring them both. But I’ve no doubt the unsuccessful candidate will get another job soon.

Are the New England Patriots “America’s worst nightmare”?

Last weekend’s New England Patriots victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, was described by their own TV station as “America’s worst nightmare”. The five time world champions had reached yet another world championship game this Sunday. Things were made worse by their victory only coming thanks to an overtime touchdown. They came so close to failing at the final hurdle.

So why are they hated?

In a sport that is based on parity, the Patriots have succeeded like no other team. They’ve made the Super Bowl ten times since 2000, winning it five times. The draft system in the NFL should make such dominance impossible. Unlike UK football, where anyone with a pot of cash can buy the best players and management, there is no guarantee of success.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are the stars of this astonishing achievement. 41 year old Brady has been been with the Patriots since the sixth round draft in 2000, the year Belichick joined as Head Coach. This double whammy forms the base of their success. The very fact that Brady is still playing when most men of his age have long since retired, is testimony to his preparation and dedication.

Arguably more than any other team, the Patriots know how to win. They have a formula built over 20 years of success. Yes they have an outstanding Head Coach, but they’re not afraid to mix things up. Belichick was rumoured to have created 11 plays the night before their AFC playoff game, and given it to the players in their hotel the night before the game. They successfully used those very the next day, even though they hadn’t a chance to practice them on the field. That’s either incredibly lucky, or sheer brilliance.

So will the Patriots win Super Bowl LIII by beating the Los Angeles Rams? We’ll have to wait and see, but the Rams will have to play at their best to upset the odds.

AFC Wimbledon and the magic of the FA Cup

Every sports fan knows, that every now and then the result of a game beggars belief. On such occasions the form book goes out of the window, and shares in crystal balls plummet. There’s no rhyme or reason to the result…. or is there?

Yesterday saw two Premier League teams exit the FA Cup. In fact only seven of the 20 Premier League teams will play in the 5th round. Millwall beat Wolves in controversial style. But arguably the biggest shock of the 4th round, was AFC Wimbledon’s 4-2 win against West Ham United.

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“Making good use of the things that we find. Things that the everyday folks leave behind”

The Wombling Song – Lyrics: Mike Batt

Wimbledon’s squad are a rag bag, but effective, mix of young untamed talent and seasoned journeymen. In fact the cost of their three goalscorers last night was nothing, nada, niente! By contrast the cost of West Ham’s two goalscorers is £50m. The whole West Ham’s squad cost £162m, which could have bought the Wimbledon squad 3000 times over. West Ham’s squad is full of international players. Wimbledon only full international, Montserrat forward Lyle Taylor, left for Charlton Athletic last summer.

So why did AFC Wimbledon triumph?

A lot has been said about desire. The multi-millionaires of Premier League teams used to the trappings of a closeted existence, having to squash into a small changing room with little of the home comforts they’re used to. Throw in a largely partisan home crowd, and it can feel like a world away from where you’d want to be. But these are professionals. They should be able to deal with such situations, but it was clear that for at least the first half they didn’t.

So is the FA Cup a distraction from the bigger prize for Premier League clubs. You could argue that for the big boys, yes it is. The financial gain of winning the FA Cup pales into insignificance compared to winning the Premier League or Champions League. So the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool could be forgiven for giving the FA Cup a lower priority.

But this was West Ham. They’re currently in 10th place, some 13 points off a European place next season. They’ve next to zero chance of reaching that goal. So with nothing else to play for, why didn’t they:

  • Field their strongest squad.
  • Look like they give a toss for the first 45 minutes.

Surely winning the one piece of silver wear they still had a chance of winning should have been a priority. You could argue that the West Ham starting 11 on Saturday was more than capable of winning the game. With the likes of Mark Nobel, Andy Carroll, and Javier Hernández, it should have been men against boys.

For the first half, it wasn’t. West Ham had one early effort that hit the woodwork, but by half time hadn’t threatened the Wimbledon goal further, and had themselves conceded two goals. Half time saw three changes in personal in an effort to get back into the game. But two minutes in and the three players brought on, only stood and watched as Wimbledon went 3-0 up.

Had that early Hernandez chance gone in rather than hitting the post, maybe things would have ended differently. But Wimbledon had enough of the ball before this to suggest they could make a game of it. And once that first deflected shot went in, we suspected something special was about to happen. When a defensive catastrophe led the second goal, we KNEW the shock was very much on.

The second half brought the West Ham cavalry. They scored a good goal ten minutes after we went 3-0 up, then got another from a direct free kick . With 20 minutes left, we suspected West Ham would sneak a draw, or worse, a win. But as the game went on, Wimbledon looked relatively comfortable defensively.

The final nail came with the Dons fourth goal. With 88 minutes gone, most teams would have run down the clock and keep the ball down by the nearest corner flag. Not Wimbledon. They went for the jugular. Their two goal hero Scott Wagstaff passed to Anthony Wordworth who appeared in acres of space in the West Ham penalty area. One exquisite cross to the back stick later, and there was 19 year old academy product Toby Sibbick heading in his first senior goal. A great goal, and an even better goal celebration. As manager Wally Downes said, that goal gave the fans a chance to enjoy those final few minutes. It was the final nail in West Ham’s FA Cup coffin for this season.

With both Millwall and Wimbledon through, the anticipation of who they’d meet in the next round grew to a crescendo. But dreams of away trips to Old Trafford or Anfield we’re dashed, when they were drawn against each other. Yes Wimbledon are at home again in yet another London FA Cup derby. Haringay Borough, West Ham, and now Millwall.

Could Wimbledon’s dream repeat itself? Only time will tell, but Wimbledon fans everywhere will remember Saturday 26th January 2018 for a very, very long time.

A first world problem waiting to be solved

How many times have you had to stop mid stride to bend down and retie your shoelaces? The inconvenience of having to find somewhere with a suitable obstacle to place your foot, to prevent you having to bend down too far. And it always seems to happen when you’re in a hurry or have your hands full.

If only there was a way to prevent it happening. Surely you just need to take more care tying them. A rushed job is a bad job. Quality control every knot, and a day free of shoelace hassle is instantaneously yours.

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If only that were true. According to scientists, a recent study concluded that no matter what you do, there is no silver bullet. The BBC’s website demonstrates various methods of tying shoelaces. Who knew there were so many, and none of them the perfect solution. There’s the:

  • Reef knot
  • Granny knot
  • Berluti knot
  • Surgeon knot
  • Quick knot

So it’s time to get those grey cells working and come up with a foolproof knot that always stays tied. Just ensure it is as easy to untie as it is to tie, so double knots don’t count.

My own (unscientific) research has unearthed another solution. Based on a lifetime of buying footwear, I’ve concluded it’s down to the quality of the laces. I’m amazed at how often I buy a £60+ pair of shoes, with thin synthetic laces that look like they’d disintegrate the first time they’re exposed to daylight. In the same way as you can buy an electric kettle with less than a meter of electric cord, it just doesn’t make sense.

So just what am I?

One of the side issues of the UK’s Brexit deal, is that EU citizens living in the UK will no longer be entitled to stay unless they are granted “settled status”. This is a new category of status that’s different to indefinite leave to remain. It is open to all EU residents who’ve lived in the UK for five years or more.

Applying is an easy process except it’s currently only available to users of Android devices. Oh and it costs £65 per adult. The Home Office insists that the starting position for applications, is that the applicant has the right to remain. But past Home Office and Government IT projects weren’t exactly without controversy.

However for me there’s a get out clause. Settled status won’t apply to Irish citizens because of a 1920s agreement that predates the EU.

I was born in Ireland, and despite having lived in the UK for over 50 years, I still hold an Irish passport. Yet here I am able to vote in UK elections. What’s more, that won’t change even if Brexit happens. My Austrian wife on the other hand, won’t have those rights after Brexit. She’ll have to apply for settled status or Irish citizenship.

This raised the question of identity. Just what am I? Cut me, and my blood is Irish. My maternal grandfather would probably disown me if I said otherwise. Yet I’ve a mix of Irish and English culture in me. I don’t speak more than a few words of Gaelic. I was educated in London. As a result I’ve learnt about Irish history from an English perspective. I’ve read unbiased work to fill in the gaps to see things from the other side, but I still don’t feel I know as much about Irish history as I should do.

I ask myself if I’m really English. I don’t think I am. So does that make me Irish? Well yes, but with an English slant. Personally I identify more as a Londoner than English. Actually I see myself as a south west Londoner. Well No. I’m a south west Londoner who enjoys his work, watching football, drinking the odd beer or two, and spending time with my family.

Does that make me Irish? Well, yes and no. I’ll never be anything other than Irish. I’ll maintain that passport as long as I’m able to. But who I really am is so much more than a legal piece of paper. I’m a citizen of the world.

The Orthodox Church in Ukraine

Monty Python famously satirised the early Christian / Roman era in their film The Life of Brian. In it a small disparate group of well meaning, but frankly hopeless, individuals plotted the downfall of the Roman Empire. Calling themselves The Judean Popular People’s Front, the group despised a rival group called The Popular People’s Front of Judaea, even though their ideological beliefs were broadly the same.

The last 2000 years has seen several splits in the Orthodox religious tradition. Largely focused on local customs and identity, there’s Greeks, Russians, Syrians, Albanians, Armenians, Coptics, and more. Even the Roman Catholic Church is just a “communion” of disparate Christian groups governed from Rome. What all these churches have is a common sense of belief and faith, but an equally strong sense for identity.

So it’s hardly surprising to read in recent days on the BBC and elsewhere, about another split in the Orthodox Church. The Church’s Patriarch has allowed the Ukrainians to split from the Russian Orthodox tradition to form a Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This even though most Orthodox churches in Ukraine are conservative by nature, and still align themselves with their Russian counterparts. However some don’t.

This split of course has more to do with the geopolitical tensions in the region. Ukraine has long been split between those who see themselves as European, and those looking towards the east and considering themselves Russian. Throw in Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and the continuing conflict along the Russia / Ukraine border, and this split is no surprise.

The dawn of the new church hasn’t exactly started smoothly. Some congregations have barred their priests from entering their church, because of their affiliation with one side or another. At face value this is strange, when you consider that the theology of the new Orthodox Church is exactly the same as their Russian counterpart. There maybe slight changes going forward, but these are likely to be cultural rather than theological. After all any theological change must be within the overarching beliefs of the Orthodox faith.

However in the wider political context, this is a huge change that divides opinion along Russian and Ukrainian lines. If you identify as Russian, the Ukrainian church is committing a mutiny. If you identify as Ukrainian, the Russian church is suppressing the identity of its flock.

This is another example of the complexities of everyday life in Ukraine. Russia sees it as an extension of their border. It still has a largely Russian population in the east, and the nearby Crimea peninsula has a naval base where the bulk of the Russian navy is based. Russia was never going to give that up easily. There’s also the largely forgotten conflict along the Russia / Ukraine border. The stalemate there isn’t widely reported, as the media has lost interest.

Whatever happens going forward, I hope that all sides remember that a religion mixed with politics is a toxic affair. It serves no useful purpose apart from helping the power brokers involved, and makes the lives of others in a much less safe place.

With democracy comes responsibility.

Westminster in London is the center of the UK’s parliament. It’s where the Houses of Parliament are located and where our parliamentarians work. It is also where the worlds media have a semi-permanent presence, particularly at times of big news stories.

At the moment, the UK is struggling with the biggest issue in awhile; Brexit. There’s a lot opposing views, and a lot of people willing to voice their right to speak out. This applies equally to politicians speaking to the media, and members of the public talking to their politicians. This is a sign of a healthy functioning democracy.

Trouble is, some seem to have forgotten that free speech doesn’t mean hate speech. It’s a fine line admittedly. But when that line is crossed, it ceases to become speaking out, and becomes a threat to the very act of free speech.

Yesterday one of our politicians was being interviewed by the BBC who has strong views on Brexit. I may not agree politically with everything she says,  but I’ll listen to what she has to say. However a growing and vocal number of protesters are attempting to sabotage such interviews by standing close by and shouting. Most of the vocalisation is just words, but there have been occasions where it has become very personal.

Some may argue that being called a liar is par for the course for a politician. After all they often find themselves having to avoid answering a direct question, even if they personally want to give a direct answer. A politician should be able to rise about that abuse. Being called a Nazi on the other hand is something else.

Over the last few years the rise in such rhetoric has been noticeable. We saw it in the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014. We’re definitely seeing it now both during and after the Brexit referendum.

As responsible individuals, we must remember that our right to free speech brings with it a responsibility that we treat lightly at our peril. Speak out, yes, but do it with respect for the other side. The irony for those calling our politicians Nazis may be lost on them, as this is exactly how the Nazis came to power. If that happens, there won’t be a lot of opportunity for protesting.