Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Reading In Confinement

I have never been in prison and, by the grace of God, may that condition continue.  But my work often leads me into that state of confinement that is known as an offshore oil rig.

It was an early morning, last minute call and I had to pack in a rush.  Making the flight from Stavanger, it was straight down to Amsterdam, a train link to Den Helder and then immediately offshore and into work.  The survey was partly achieved but had to be suspended owing to bad weather.  It was only then I realised that I had not taken any books with me.
After rechecking the tools, there was little else to do.  The following two weeks passed at a crawl.  Mentally I was in some distress; bouncing off the walls one could say.   The OIM (offshore installation manager) even took pity on me and had me arrange to give a talk on my speciality to the crew as part of that week’s safety meeting.  I am sure that it was less to do with keeping the personnel informed as to the dangers of seismic guns and high pressure air, and more with helping me keep my sanity together.

Even in these days of the Internet and Facebook, books are my constant companion both at home and offshore.   I even launched a mini rebellion at one oil company’s ban on reading material during helicopter flights to their installations.  Wedged into an old Bell Huey with ten other guys, there is little to do other than sleep or read; the latter option being taken away.  Frankly it felt like being in a cattle truck.

Reading is a transportation of the mind from the immediate physical surrounds and leads it into contact with other minds and areas.  This is usually just seen as a choice entertainment, but when the body is in confinement, whether voluntary or being incarcerated, it becomes so much more than that.
So it comes to the recent call from Chris Grayling to ban books from prison.  Actually, he didn't say that.  What he wants to do is ban prisoners receiving packages from the outside, with them only allowed cards and letters.  This is to be done both in the name of security and of punishment.  Apparently loss of physical liberty is not enough and Grayling claims there is a demand for "a regime that is more Spartan unless you do the right thing".  The book ban is about receiving literature from the outside, which under new rules are now seen as a luxury.

Prison is about punishment but it should also be about rehabilitation.  Many criminals see the world from only their own selfish viewpoint, and anything that can help to broaden their outlook, help them to feel empathy with others, should not be curtailed but actively encouraged.  Books, and novels in particular, can fulfil this role.  For those who cannot read, prison is another opportunity to address the holes in their education that school was unable to fill.
It is hard not to see Grayling’s claims terms of cost cutting, for of course there are security implications.  But that is what scanners are for, are they not?  Mail depots and airports have the technology so it is hard to claim that it is not possible in prisons.

The exchange of ideas is one of the things that mark us as being different from other animals on this planet.  Limit that, take it away, and a person is quickly reduced towards the level of a beast.  This is what the new rules on the banning of outside books will do to prisoners.  It also shows from the Conservative justice minister the same kind of paucity of thought, empathy and imagination that has led many others into a prison cell.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Ruble vs. The Euro: What Putin Didn't See.

In the good old days of the Soviet Union, the leadership of the Kremlin did not really have to care much about neither public opinion nor world markets.  During the 1980s, the citizens of the Soviet Europe did not even know there was a war on in Afghanistan until the dead and wounded started to return and mothers started to take to the streets to prevent their sons from being drafted.

Things have changed a great deal since then.  Take a moment to consider this:

This graph (courtesy of XE shows the fall of the Russian Ruble against the Euro since mid January. 
Here are some “highlights” of events in neighbouring Ukraine.
A.  22 January: Street protests in Kiev spread beyond the capital to other cities. 
B. 12 February: in the Russian weekly Zavtra, the Izborsk Club publish an article titled Save Ukraine! In it, the authors appeal for Russian intervention to prevent the Ukraine’s, as they put it, fascist and Nazi creeping coup”.   According to the Centre of Research on Globalization, the Izbork Club is a think tank that has gained prominence under the leadership of Vladimir Putin.
C.  18 February: Night of violent riots in Kiev with deaths, as police surround Independence Square.  There are reports of police using plastic and live rounds, as well as fragmentation grenades against protesters.
D.  21 February: EU intervention leads to a compromise agreement being reached between President Yanukovych and  demonstration leaders agreeing to early elections and the return to the 2004 constitution.  The Ukrainian Parliament passes a bill approving the release of former president Yulia Timoshenko.  
E.  22 Febuary: President Yanukovych flees the capital after being impeached by parliament.   25 Febuary sees Pro-Russian Aleksey Chaly appointed mayor of Sevastopol as pro-Russian rallies in Crimea gain strength.  Russian troops mobilise outside their barracks.
F.  2 March:  The day after the Russian Parliament approves the use of troops in the Ukraine, Russian forces take over the Crimea.
G.  5 March: US Secretary John Kerry has face-to-face talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and Ukrainian foreign minister Andriy Deshchytsia.  Talks fail as Lavrov refuses to talk with Deshchytsia.
H.     6 March onwards.  US imposes visa sanctions on selected Russian and Ukrainian officials and Russian annexation of the Crimea continues.

In the past, the Soviets controlled very effectively what their people were aware of, both in their empire and in the world beyond.  That is no longer possible.  Nor was the Ruble  a transferable currency.  It is now.

During the past week, I was listening to City Radio, Moscow.  There was a phone-in during which business people and small traders had made the link between the Ukrainian crisis and the fall of the Ruble against the Euro.  Now the drop in value may not seem much: around about ten percent.  But, as one restaurateur pointed out, he has to import seventy five percent of his ingredients.  The fall in the value of the Ruble is causing real hardship for business, some are starting to fail, and they are vocal in their complaints.   
The unwritten deal with Putin and the Russian people is that in exchange for power, he will provide economic stability.  The longer this crisis continues, one very much laid at his feet by the business owners phoning in, the more he will fail.
One also has to wonder what the reaction of the people of the Crimea will be when they convert to the Ruble (currently scheduled for April), only to find themselves instantly more poor.

Other sources: