Blog Archive

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Welcome to the new post-truth world, Thanks to the IRA we have The Gherkin, Three most famous British dishes.

Welcome to the new post-truth world

Where the people are voting in new leaders with a huge swing to the popular right, where 'truth' is being re-defined, where notions of basic freedom are suddenly being questioned, where a few hundred workers, goaded on by their Unions, can bring relentless misery to millions for months on end, where inflation is galloping back with a vengeance.

I naively thought that these were bad memories from my childhood or from my history lessons or news from 'developing' countries. However, it now seems that these poisons are with us to stay for at least a few years. The affirmation by Donald Trump and his press secretary, Sean Spicer, that more people turned out for his inauguration that any previous president are clearly nonsense to anyone who cares to look at the facts and the images. I am equally concerned by his lying and bullying of the press as I am by the fact that the turnout figures actually matters to them so much! Truth, it now seems, is something to be invented and broadcast by the President and his team.

Trump on the left, Obama on the right. Who had the biggest turnout? Does it matter?

Of course, 'truth' had already started to become a confused word in the UK Brexit campaign with both sides exaggerating, and the pro-Brexit team coming up with ridiculous benefits (such as the vast amounts of extra funding for the NHS) that would become available. And Trump questioning where Obama was born and so on. One of the downsides of our social media today is that our 'friends' are mostly of a similar political persuasion so those of us who use social media to deliver news and opinion will be getting a very one-sided 'true' story. At least when we read the press, we generally know the political persuasion of the publications we read, and of course the press is regulated and has to apologise for lies and libel.

The recent strikes on the UK transport systems is definitely a echo backwards and I think that one of the principle reason for the success of the Trumps, the Brexiteers and similar changes we will see this year across Europe, is that a vast number of people (probably nearly half of the workforce) who have not seen any personal progression in their standard of living for ten years now, are frightened of what technology is doing to the world. Add in many retired people who are still dreaming of a better yesterday and you have a majority. Read what Nick Clegg said in the London Evening Standard last week:

According to one recent report, truck driving and related jobs employ more people than any other job in 29 out of America’s 50 states. It is estimated that there are 8.7 million trucking-related jobs in the US. It is one of the few jobs that still attracts a fairly decent income — about $40,000 (£32,000) a year — without requiring higher academic qualifications. In other words, it’s a precious ingredient in the American Dream: a dependable job, accessible to everyone.

Except it might soon be extinct. On May 6, 2015 in Nevada, a huge, shiny Daimler truck became the first licensed self-driving truck to hit the American highways as part of a massive testing programme before self-driving trucks are rolled out nationwide. The technology is not very complicated: radars, cameras and some straightforward software. It is a question of when, not if, American highways will be crisscrossed by thousands of similar self-driving trucks. 

Technology is doing similar things in many industries and unfortunately something I thought I would not see during my working career is now going to be coming much faster. The massive crippling strikes on the London Underground will hasten driverless trains - exactly the opposite of what the Unions are trying to achieve. At the moment, only the Victoria, Central and Jubilee lines are operated by Automatic Train Operation (ATO) systems - the Victoria partially so since 1968 - which mean they aren't manually controlled by people sitting in cabs at the front end except in an emergency. The main responsibility of those individuals is to safely operate the carriage doors. 

The ATO system on some tube lines

The big row on Southern Rail over the last months is about who pushes the button to open and close the doors. That's all that's left for the train staff to do! It doesn't take a genius to work out these rows will only accelerate the automation. Take Trump's requirement for US manufacturers to stop building abroad (e.g. Mexico) and build new factories on home soil. Guess who is going to benefit from this? Very few workers and very many robots. And then all the competitors will be forced to follow suit to cut their costs. An Insurance company in Japan has recently announced that their entire workforce of 34 employees (excluding the boss I presume) and being laid off at the end of March and being replaced by robots. Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance believes it will increase productivity by 30% and see a return on its investment in less than two years.

Ah it seems that Trump requires me to work in a new factory

How long will it take for people to realise that the new truth-pedalling-leaders are just making things worse for the people who voted for them. Will no more Obamacare in the US for the 20 million voters without healthcare have any impact? Will the millions of Just-About-Managings in the UK have any regrets as they see more and more price rises of 10% to 20% on basic foods, energy and everyday basics as we go through 2017? Most of that is due to the collapse in Sterling since the Brexit vote which is finally starting to catch up in shop prices. Average salaries are only increasing by about 2%, so that sounds like a bigger drop in standard of living than we have seen in living memory. "UK inflation forecast to rise to 4 per cent next year. Sterling weakness will raise prices and lower consumer spending power, says think-tank" according to the Financial Times.

Big price rises of up to 20% expected this year on imported foods and goods

I don't like our new world and I am guessing that the people who voted for it may start to regret it too. Nationalism, torture, import tariffs, 'truths' and goodness knows whatever next are all policy decisions that will be damaging but can be reversed and the damaged repaired over time. The technology march can not be stopped. Any country that tries using policy to do so will slow it down at home whilst the rest of the world will move rapidly ahead of them. It's a no win. The answer is to embrace it not resist it. Maybe I should just go and live with a robot :)

Embrace it or suffer the consequences!

Thanks to the IRA, we have the Gherkin

30 St Mary Axe, or The Gherkin as it is more commonly known, is one of my favourite London buildings from an architectural point of view. The only other one that rivals it is The Shard. The Gherkin is in the heart of The City of London and was built on the site of the Baltic Exchange.

The Baltic Exchange was the headquarters of a global marketplace for ship sales and in 1992 the Irish Republican Army (terrorists) detonated a one-ton bomb close by which killed 3 people and injured 91 and badly damaged the Exchange. It was a Grade 2 listed building originally built in 1903 and English Heritage insisted it be restored using the original building facade on St Mary Axe. After several years, it was finally established that it was beyond repair and permission was eventually granted in 2000 for the Swiss Re building, named after its principal occupant. The original name has today fallen out of favour and it is widely known as The Gherkin. 

The Gherkin was designed by Norman Foster and Arup and built by Skanska

The building was ahead of its time, using energy-saving methods, which allow it to use half the power that a similar tower would typically consume. Gaps in each floor create six shafts that serve as a natural ventilation system for the entire building. The shafts create a giant double glazing effect; air is sandwiched between two layers of glazing and insulates the office space inside. Despite its overall curved glass shape, there is only one piece of curved glass on the building — the lens-shaped cap at the apex. Whereas most buildings have extensive lift equipment on the roof of the building, this was not possible for the Gherkin, since a bar had been planned for the 40th floor. The architects dealt with this by having the main lift only reach the 34th floor, and then having a push-from-below lift to the 39th floor. There is a marble stairwell and a disabled persons' lift which leads the visitor up to the bar in the dome. When you are up in the dome, you can see the surrounding skyscrapers mostly have ugly lift and ventilation equipment and window-cleaning machinery of the roof, making the Gherkin special.

View from the glass dome at the top on the 40th floor
The original Baltic Exchange building, which is due to be re-constructed in central Tallinn in Estonia, has a glass dome which influenced the design of The Gherkin. It also had a glorious stained glass war memorial which survived the bomb and can now be seen at the Greenwich National Maritime Museum. Again, you can see the design influence on The Gherkin.

The War Memorial from the Baltic Exchange now at Greenwich

I am very lucky to have had a number of meetings and meals at the top of The Gherkin and the design and views make it a calm and exceptional London venue, which I am always delighted and excited to visit. Swiss Re sold the building in 2007 for £600 million making it the most expensive office space in the UK and booking a profit of £300 million! In 2014 it was purchased by the Safra Group for £700 million.

Three most famous British Dishes

Fish and Chips, Chicken Tikka Masala and Crispy Aromatic Duck.

I am going to have a look at the origins of these three most famous 'British' dishes which celebrate some of the things that have made the UK so great: immigrants, creativity, re-invention, diversity.

Fish and Chips

Fried fish was first brought to England by Spanish Jews, and is considered the model for the fish element of the dish. Originally, Spanish Jews settling in England in the 17th century would have prepared fried fish in a manner similar to Pescado frito, which is coated in flour.  In 1860, the first fish and chip shop was opened in London by Joseph Malin who sold "fish fried in the Jewish fashion".

Deep-fried chips (slices or pieces of potato) as a dish may have first appeared in England in about the same period: the Oxford English Dictionary notes as its earliest usage of "chips" in this sense the mention in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (1859): "Husky chips of potatoes, fried with some reluctant drops of oil".

It rapidly became a popular working class dish, with people queuing at a counter behind which the fryers were located. Traditionally it was served in newspaper although in more recent times it is served in plain paper and legislation often required the fish to be named 'cod and chips' for example. By 1910, there were more than 25,000 fish and chip shops across the country, and in the 1920s there were more than 35,000 shops. In 1928, Harry Ramsden's fast food restaurant chain opened in the UK. On a single day in 1952, his fish and chip shop in Guiseley, West Yorkshire served 10,000 portions of fish and chips, earning itself a place in The Guinness Book Of Records.

In recent times, fish and chips outlets have declined in great part due to the vast number of alternatives now available providing the public with far more take-away choices than ever before.

Chicken Tikka Masala

Declared by government minister Robin Cook in 2001 to be a British National dish, Chicken Tikka Masala was probably invented in 1971 in an 'Indian restaurant' in Glasgow.  Most 'Indian' restaurants in the UK are run by the British Bangladeshi community.

Chicken Tikka Masala consists of chicken tikka, which is chunks of chicken marinated in spices and yogurt, that are then baked in a tandoor oven, and served in a masala (spice mix) sauce. Although there are many versions of the masala sauce, they usually contain tomato, coconut cream and spices.

Pakistani chef, Ali Ahmed Aslam, proprietor of the Shish Mahal restaurant in the west end of Glasgow, is credited by his son, Asif Ali with inventing Chicken Tikka Masala by improvising a sauce made from yogurt, cream and spices. In 2013 Asif Ali told the story of its invention in 1971 to the BBC's Hairy Bikers TV cookery programme:

"On a typical dark, wet Glasgow night a bus driver coming off shift came in and ordered a chicken curry. He sent it back to the waiter saying it's dry. At the time Dad had an ulcer and was enjoying a plate of tomato soup. So he said why not put some tomato soup into the curry with some spices. They sent it back to the table and the bus driver absolutely loved it. He and his friends came back again and again and we put it on the menu."

Crispy Aromatic Duck

Peking Duck is an ancient Chinese delicacy served with pancakes, hoisin or plum sauce, cucumber and spring onions dating back many centuries. The specially bred duck is killed and cleaned, air is pumped up under the skin to separate the fat, then it is soaked in boiling water, rubbed, glazed, and hung up to dry for 24 hours. That's a lot of work! It becomes the whole meal with the skin served first, then the meat and the remaining fat, bones and meat either being made into soup or other dishes.

In the second half of the 20th century, the Chinese community in London's Chinatown created a simpler modern version of the dish better suited to its clientele. Crispy Aromatic Duck.

The duck is first marinated with spices, then steamed until tender, and finally deep fried until crispy. The meat has less fat and is drier and crispier compared to that of Peking Duck. It is still eaten with the traditional sauce, pancakes and trimmings but forms just one course of a modern British Chinese banquet! I can't really see the Brits having a three course meal of duck, duck and duck.

I love all three of these dishes.

This month's quote is by the the US President from 1801 to 1809, Thomas Jefferson:

"In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock."

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