It’s About Time

Isn’t it about time we left our clocks alone all year round instead of putting them forward an hour in March only to put them back again in October? The 21 December was the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, the shortest day of the year. In Gibraltar the sun set at ten past six – I’ve barely finished having tea by then! At least if we were still on Double Summer Time it would be an hour later. It gets worse the further north you go. The UK is an hour behind us anyway, which means that in London, last Friday’s sunset was at 3.53pm: bang on teatime.

Those who know me can confirm that I thoroughly dislike the short days that characterise this time of year. In my childhood and early teens I’d only ever travelled to the UK in the spring or summer, so it was a real culture shock when I arrived as a fresher at university in October 1976 and it was already pitch black in the early afternoon. Luckily I was with two friends who were also starting uni that year and we helped keep each others’ spirits up, otherwise I might well have taken the next flight back home!

Why can’t we stay on summer time permanently?

The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, proposed exactly that last September in his annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament. He suggested an end to seasonal time changes in all Member States following one last switch to Summer Time on 31 March 2019. Members would have had the option of a final reversion to standard time on the last Sunday of October 2019.

The initiative was postponed after countries including Portugal, Greece and the Netherlands called for the time change to be maintained, or for more evidence that the benefits of abandoning it outweigh the perceived disadvantages. However, ministers still intend to press for the twice-yearly change to be abolished in 2021.

Mr Juncker’s proposal followed an EU-wide consultation. 4.6 million citizens responded, with 84% in favour of not changing the time. This month, a survey by the Spanish Centre for Sociological Studies also found a large majority (62.5%) in favour of abandoning the time change. Two in three respondents wanted summer time to be kept all year round.

Daylight Saving Time (DST) was introduced in Europe during World War One by Germany as a means of reducing the use of artificial lighting to save fuel for the war effort. But nowadays we have energy-hungry appliances like televisions, air conditioning units and computers that are in constant use, day and night. In fact, evidence shows that the total amount of energy saved from DST is negligible: a 2008 US report to Congress concluded that electricity savings were no more than 0.03% of the total national consumption; in Indiana, which introduced DST in 2006, energy use actually went up.

Meanwhile, medical research suggests that changing the time disrupts our body clock. This usually results in nothing more serious than making us a little more tired, but it can have worse consequences. Scientists now think that seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which affects around 1.6 billion people worldwide, may be brought on by DST. SAD’s symptoms are akin to those of generalised depression, but the condition is triggered by winter’s shorter days and long, dark nights.

I look forward to spring and the advent of an extra hour’s daylight as much as I lament the change back in the autumn. How much better to remain on an even keel the 12 months of the year.

 

Technology Retreats

Spike Jonze’s 2013 sci-fi/drama ‘Her’ is quite memorable. It won the director an Oscar for best original screenplay, and received four other nominations including for best picture. The plot involves the central character, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falling in love with his computer’s new, artificially intelligent operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson. There are numerous twists and turns that I won’t go into as I don’t want to spoil the experience if you haven’t yet seen it. I highly recommend that you do.

One of the things I found most interesting about the film is its vision of how technology has evolved. It’s the near future in California, and some of the technologies on view already exist today in a more primitive form. Theodore, our hero, has a personal computer, sure, but it has no keyboard: everything is voice-activated. Lights go on and off automatically as he moves around his home. He plays video games that are console-free and fill the room with larger-than-life holograms.

In 2018 we possess cordless ear buds, but in ‘Her’ everyone wears just one that connects them instantly to the digital world.  There’s no fumbling around for signals orWi-Fi connections. Technology, essentially, has just gotten out of the way.

With no item of hardware is this more apparent than the mobile phone. Theodore’s looks more like a photo frame and is quite chunky compared with today’s ever-slimming smartphones. He rarely needs to hold it and when he does there’s no dazzling array of apps to bewilder him. The phone just does its (stripped down) job quietly and unobtrusively. It’s as if there’s been a backlash. Just as nowadays many of us seek out the pleasure of listening to a good old-fashioned vinyl LP maybe in a few decades our descendants will revert to using their cellphone simply as a telephone. Ok, and to text possibly.

Wait a minute though: did I say decades?

In this respect at least the future according to ‘Her’ is already here!

Light Phone 2

It’s been here for a while in fact. In January 2017, the Light Phone was launched which its inventors said was: “designed to be used as little as possible”. The size of a credit card, all it does is make and receive calls. Nothing else. It was intended as a second phone when you want a break from your regular one. However Light Phone 2, due out next year, will encourage users to ditch their smartphone altogether. It does have a few more features though, like the ability to text and an alarm clock.

There’s clearly a market for this kind of device. If you want a Light Phone, never mind a Light Phone 2, you have to join a waiting list. And there are a growing number of low-tech competitors entering the market.

Could we be experiencing smartphone fatigue? Sales in Europe during the first quarter of this year were down by almost 7% compared with 2017 with customers complaining that manufacturers appear to be innovating for the sake of innovation, introducing unnecessary features while increasing the prices of their handsets. One analyst has predicted that most mobile apps will disappear in the next three to seven years.

In a way it would be nice if ‘Her’s’ version of the future materialises. There are far fewer cars, for instance. But I for one am looking forward to unwrapping my feature-bloated, shiny new iPhone come Christmas Day!

 

 

Are We Heading for a People’s Vote?

Call me a fantasist but I have a sneaking feeling, maybe it’s wishful thinking, that the UK – and with it Gibraltar – may yet avoid crashing out of the European Union. I remember the mood of despondency among my GBC colleagues when the result of the Brexit referendum came through the morning of Friday 24 June 2016 and it started to sink in that despite Gibraltar’s 96% vote to “remain” the UK as a whole had voted, narrowly, to leave. I shared my newsroom friends’ trepidation, but nevertheless a tiny voice in my head said: it can’t happen – surely MPs will come to their senses when they realise what exiting the EU means?

I’m not sure that’s what’s occurred but it’s looking increasingly likely that the House of Commons will reject the withdrawal agreement that prime minister Theresa May brought back with her from Brussels and in so doing, put paid to the Gibraltar Protocol and associated Memoranda of Understanding that have so occupied our minds in recent days.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and Northern Ireland’s DUP, on whom the Conservatives rely to govern, have said they’ll vote against as will around a hundred Tories, unless Mrs May and her whips can persuade them otherwise before next Tuesday’s “meaningful vote”. The prime minister is trying to drum up support for her deal with voters hoping they will urge their constituency MP to support it, but the initiative seems to have backfired, with critics describing it as a desperate move. An online poll by The Times and the Sunday Times suggests that three of every four readers would like their MP to reject the Brexit deal.

With the country facing a possible “no deal” scenario, the idea of a second referendum is gaining currency. At the weekend another minister resigned over what some sectors of the British media are taking to call the “Brussels agreement”. (Not, I daresay, because it’s as unpopular as its 1984 namesake was in Gibraltar, but you never know!)

Sam Gyimah, the science and universities minister, who’s tipped as a future Conservative leader, stepped down saying the plan is not in the national interest and that voting for it would mean the UK surrendering its voice, its vote and its veto. Mr Gyimah asserted that the public had no idea what Brexit meant before the referendum and that the only way of legitimising the UK’s departure was to hold a second vote. His resignation brought to seven the number of government ministers who’ve quit since the draft withdrawal agreement was made public in mid November.

Meanwhile Labour appears to be edging closer to adopting a second referendum as policy. Ideally the party would like to force an early general election, but shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer says if that fails Labour will seek parliamentary support for a people’s vote instead. In that eventuality he considers voters should be given the choice of staying in the EU. Sir Keir is among a group of shadow cabinet members, who include deputy leader Tom Watson and shadow Northern Ireland secretary Tony Lloyd, that is pressing Jeremy Corbyn to prepare to campaign for a second referendum.

And that’s not all.

The LibDems and the Green Party both want a people’s vote. A cross-party group of 17 influential MPs from constituencies that voted both Leave and Remain in the referendum have signed a letter calling on “all party leaders and parliament to trust the people with the final say so we can face the future united”. They say the people must be given “their rightful seat at the table”. And on Monday two petitions with over a million signatures calling for a second referendum were handed in at 10 Downing Street. Even Theresa May, for whom the mere mention of a second referendum was once taboo, now openly cites it as one of the options, alongside “her” deal and “no” deal.

Locally, the GSD opposition has said it would welcome a fresh referendum and chief minister Fabian Picardo is also beginning to talk about the possibility of having one. On Viewpoint last week he said that if it comes to a second vote, people should hold their noses and vote remain once again even though the institutions of the EU have behaved “abominably” towards Gibraltar.

There is, of course, no guarantee that the outcome would be reversed. For all we know the Brexiteers would win again, but somehow I don’t think so. Nearly three quarters of a million people demanded a Final Say when they marched through London in October and opinion polls consistently indicate that the electorate wants another opportunity. A YouGov poll published last Sunday showed support for staying in the EU at the highest level recorded by the company since the 2016 referendum: 55% compared with 45% for leaving.

Holding a second EU referendum would be controversial and fraught with difficulties. But for Gibraltar, as much as for the UK, it might just be the best way out of the Brexit quagmire.

(First published as an opinion piece in the Gibraltar Chronicle of 5 December, 2018)