Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Wednesday, 30 June 2004

US Dollar interest rates set to rise

For purely selfish reasons (I have significant amounts in USD deposits) I hope that this speculation is borne out; if it helps to dampen down the inflationary pressures which seem to be growing, in various countries, then that will be good, too - of course, that's the reason the rate rise will happen, if it does, not to suit my convenience.

UPDATE: (Wednesday 30JUN04 19.55 BST) Breaking news on BBC News24 in the last few minutes is that the Fed. have raised the rate 0.25 percent to 1.25 percent.

Monday, 28 June 2004

Guantanamo detainees may contest their captivity in US courts

The US Supreme Court has ruled that the detainees held by the US government at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, may launch claims against their captivity before a US federal judge. This is at least a step in the right direction to bring the US back within international law. Time is running out for this US administration to redeem itself. The detainees need to be charged with whatever crimes they are alleged to have committed before a US court, not a military tribuanl, and if no charges can be made to stick then they should be released. Simple, really.

Sunday, 27 June 2004

May I be facetious, if only briefly?

The experiences recounted here are worrying, if it is true that some doctors in the NHS face discrimination under various pretexts - whether because of their race, gender or sexual orientation. Now pan forward to the end of the report where a spokeswoman is quoted as saying:

"The government is fully committed to diversity and equality of opportunity for all health service staff.

"There is no place for discrimination or harassment in the NHS on grounds of race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, or age. The NHS workforce must reflect the population it serves."

Now I think that spokeswoman must have disengaged her brain before giving voice to that last sentence, assuming she has been quoted accurately. Unless she, or the person who wrote this nonsense for her, truly believes that a predisposition to various kinds of bigotry forms no part of even a small part of British society, then if the staff of the NHS are to be genuinely representative of that society then it is inevitable that there will be at least a few NHS staff, at all levels, who come from bigoted (in various ways) segments of the population. No, what the good lady should have been saying is that NHS staff should be representative of only the better aspects of British society and exclude, quite deliberately, those who exhibit attitudes which are quite obviously unacceptable. The kind of moral cowardice which this bland and seemingly sensible NHS "Nuspeak" statement represents is illustrative of the trap that some of those who run our NHS, and our government, have fallen into.
Stasiland - thank goodness it's only history now

I just received my copy of Anna Funder's new book, Stasiland, yesterday as part of my latest order from Amazon, so I've done no more than glance at it briefly yet, but from extracts and a review I read in a newspaper a few weeks ago it should prove a most interesting and illuminating read. This only whets my appetite to get started. I did travel across East Germany once on a train journey from Beijing to London and a grey and unattractive place it seemed; the alsatian dogs searching under our train, under the guidance of their handlers, whilst we were stationary at an East Berlin railway staion was interesting only in that it seemed to confirm quite graphically all I had ever heard about that wonderful country. Now another trip I want to make in the nearish future is to Berlin and a few other cities in the former DDR.
A new gay tourist destination - Argentina?

I've been hearing about this for a couple of years. It's almost the only area of the world I haven't yet visited (barring sub-Saharan Africa, that is, and Antarctica of course - and I'm not a 'cold' person, anyway) and for a few years some of the countries of Latin America have seemed increasingly like places I want to visit. Now it seems that the 'gay tourism' aspect of venturing there is becoming almost mainstream - cruise down, fly back seems like a good idea. Must investigate ...
A 'rebranding' exercise for Scotland

A quite large sum of Money (GBP300k) has been spent by the Scottish Executive trying to identify the best symbol to represent Scotland, at home and outwith Scotland. Unsurprisingly, the four advertsiing agencies who were commissioned and paid to do this non-work have concluded that the Scottish Saltire (St Andrew's Cross - a white diagonal cross on a blue background) is the most suitable. It has been around for, oh, something like 1,200 years (!), is simple, easily-recognised and has no known negative connotations, unlike some other flag symbols. There really was no contest, I think.

It is reassuring to know that the Scottish Executive husbands the expenditure it makes on our behalf so wisely.

Saturday, 26 June 2004

China 'stamps its feet' at US Senate resolution on Hong Kong

In a rather petulant (again, nothing new there, then ...) riposte to a US Senate resolution calling for democratic reform in the Special Administrative Region, China has criticised the "groundless censure from the US" and said that the US move "hurts the feelings of the Chinese people". If these remarks were not so ridiculous, and potentially serious, they would be quite funny. It's just another signal to the rebels on that offshore 'province', Taiwan, that the One Country-Two Systems formula agreed for Hong Kong and occasionally mooted as a possibility for the 'Republic of China' (Ooh, slap my wrists!) to become re-united with the People's Republic of China is not likely to grow in popularity in the RoC.
No suprise there then ...

... I take no pleasure from writing this. It is worthy to try and negotiate with North Korea, but it is not going to be easy to to find a way to a solution we could be safe or comfortable with. No joint statement has been issued after this round of talks, although there are to be more in September - good for the hospitality industry in the host city, at least.
Pork-barrel politics, Scottish-style

This has been much controversy recently over a decision by the Scottish Executive (aka 'government') to regionalise a number of SE jobs around the country, to spread the jam more widely, or to ensure that areas other than the Edinburgh conurbation get some of the public money expended on these jobs injected into their local economies.

This particular controversy centres around a plan to relocate Scottish National Heritage (SNH) from Edinburgh to Inverness. The problem? Some of the job-holders don't want to move, and some jobs (or rather the job-holders) are not included in the relocation, either to be filled by locally-hired employees in the new location, or absorbed in a general re-organisation of the department. The real problem is resistance to change, of course. Unions may (and I write this only theoretically, as I have very equivocal views on the matter) exist primarily to improve the welfare of their members, but they also tend to act as a brake on innovation (and my views on that are not equivocal at all), in fact bizarrely one could almost say that unions are the true 'conservatives' of British society generally, in practical terms if not in their own self-images. It's not as if a move from Edinburgh to Inverness (or Kelso or Lochgilpead, for example) is very drastic in cultural terms, we're all pretty much the same, even if some of the regional areas don't have the same depth and breadth of social and cultural opportunities - but the addition of more sophisticated people (I speak ironically) from big cities could not but help, surely, drag these regional backwaters (as seen from a metropolitan perspective, that is) into the 'modern world'. I have two things to say:
- to the unions: GROW UP!
- to the Scottish Executive: I hope your motives are genuine and not merely paying lip-service to the idea of regional diversification whilst still ensuring that the 'real' jobs remain firmly in Edinburgh.

In a wider UK context it is striking that the relatively 'unglamorous' departments were those which were relocated from London to the regions, for example the DVLA/DVLC (driving licences, car taxes, etc) to Cardiff or the DHSS(now DSS - social security, etc) to Newcastle, but naturally the really important ministerial jobs for those departments, and all the 'hangers-on' needed to service the MInister, remained firmly in London.

Forgive me for being cynical.

Historically, of course, a ruler of a country distributed some of the 'booty' around a country, appointing local people to help him rule or putting in some of his own people to subdue the local inhabitants. Now we do things differently. It is colloquially called 'pork-barrel' politics (a term originating in the US although it has always existed here, too, in one form or another). Nothing more, nothing less. Like all such manoeuvres they are useful for political purposes; their economic worth is often much more tenuous, once the initial capital outlays have been made, unless there have been genuine attempts to plan the moves and their effects long-term.

Friday, 25 June 2004

Now this is really positive news!

A concert yesterday evening in Hackney (London) was cancelled on the advice of the police because some of Beenie Man's songs had provoked complaints that they contained "lyrics that are an incitement to homophobic murder and violence". Jamaican rap artists' songs are, unfortunately, riddled with this kind of filth. I watched a segment on a news programme earlier this evening (Channel 4 I think, but I can't be certain) in which a rap artist, it might not have been 'Beenie Man' as I was making dinner at the time and was listening with only half-an-ear, seemed to minimise the potential effect of such lyrics. Nonsense. If I were to stand up tomorrow in a public place and mouth similar obscenities, but directed at racial minorities or religious minorities then I would quickly and rightly be charged with, at the very least, public order offences. Gays are not similarly protected, but it is heartening to note that the police have begun to take note of what lies behind this noisome aspect of 'cultural diversity'.

UPDATE: (Saturday 26JUNO4 10.35 BST) There is a lengthier and more detailed report on this matter here.
The Conservatives in the 21st Century

A a former member of the Conservative Party (until September 2001, when IDS became leader) I have been looking for an opportunity (since Michael Howard took over), or rather a situation I could square with my conscience, to rejoin what is my 'natural home', politically speaking. But when I read things like this, it becomes clear that the time when that can happen is not yet here. Sigh ...
Guantanamo military tribunals 'unacceptable', says UK Attorney General

Lord Goldsmith has voiced reservations before about the military tribunals being planned by the US government for at least some of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This morning, however, he has issued his clearest statement to date on the matter:

"We in the UK have been unable to accept that the US military tribunals proposed for those detained at Guantanamo Bay offer sufficient guarantees of a fair trial in accordance with international standards."

Meanwhile, Downing Street has issued the following statement:

"The position is that we are continuing to work to resolve the situation with regard to the four remaining British detainees.

"The attorney general's remarks haven't come as any surprise to us because we have always said British detainees should be treated in accordance with international standards, and discussions are continuing."

And former Labour attorney general Lord Morris said Lord Goldsmith's comments showed how "fed up" he has become with the situation in Guantanamo. Lord Morris is quoted as telling the BBC's Radio4 'Today' programee:

"In this country we wouldn't put up with it for one minute if there were prisoners in jail for 18 months who had no access to lawyers."

Quite! It is high time our good friend and ally the United States started behaving again like the enlightened, civilised nation it mostly is.

Thursday, 24 June 2004

The BBC may be (re-)launching an Arabic language television service

... which may be receivable in the UK, Europe and across the Arab world. As someone keenly interested in the language and in the Arab world I certainly welcome this possible development; it would act as a valuable alternative voice to some of the other services available throuhout the Arabic-speaking countries. I imagine, also, that the existing Arabic service on BBC radio frequencies is no longer as popular as it was in the days before stations such as al-Jazeera came along, so it is probably essential for the BBC to capitalise on its experience if it wants to retain a more youthful audience.
On being gay in Ghana

I rant on (and on, and on, and on) about matters gay. I know I do and I'm sure it must sometimes become wearing on those who kindly visit from time to time, but we in the UK mostly have it easy compared to similar people in Ghana (and many other countries besides).
New link added

BoiFromTroy is a gay blogger from West Hollywood in California. I've been following his blog for quite a few weeks now. He is a Republican and writes interestingly on a wide variety of topics, although focussing mainly on US politics and gay-related matters. He also writes on a subject evidently close to his heart, American Football, not something (I have to admit!) I know - or care - anything about. Whatever, his blog is certainly not boring.
Letters from Iraq

I just listened to this programme on BBC Radio4 earlier this evening. It is a half-hour programme comprising some of the letters, emails and journals or weblogs written by various American soldiers, British officials and Iraqis of their experiences over the past year in Iraq (read out by actors). It's a fascinating series of snapshots of their day to day lives and views. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a permanent stream of the broadcast on the BBC's website, but it will be broadcast twice tomorrow (Friday 25th June) on the BBC World Service internet service at the following times (GMT):
- 08.30
- 17.30

At these times, you can listen by pressing the 'Listen now' link at the top of this page.
Homophobic hate crimes likely to be outlawed in France

Excellent though this news is, it is a shame that it had to await an horrific attack on a gay man to shock 'La Belle France' into action. I hope we can have a similar law in the UK (soon!) ...
The Metropolitan Police appears to be trying to be enlightened about gay personnel

This Daily Mail report (not one of my journals of choice, ha ha) informs us that the Met have dismissed two trainees for homophobic note-writing involving a third trainee. Good news!
The Tories in the House of Lords try to scupper Civil Partnerships Bill

No surprise really, Baroness Young's spiritial successor in the House of Lords (Tory Baroness O'Cathain) had an amendment to the Bill passed relating to long-term carers, clearly desgined as a wrecking amendment, a Government spokesperson has apparently told BBC News Online. Read this and see what you think. Personally it suprises me not in the least; I'll be interested to see what, if anything, Michael Howard plans to do to try and salvage his Party's feeble record on all matters relating to sexual diversity, something he pledged to do when he became Leader late last year.

Wednesday, 23 June 2004

Chairman of Humberside Police Authority says 'Non!'
- see update at the foot of this posting


Brave man! I wrote about this whole matter only yesterday, but it is of such interest (to nerds like me anyway) and importance that it merits being revisited. Colin Inglis believes that the 'suggestion' of the Home Secretary David Blunkett that the Humberside Chief Constable David Westwood be requested to resign or retire, and be suspended meantime, is an attempt to scapegoat him for police failings identified in the Bichard inquiry. Quite. Mr Inglis opined:

"My personal view is that David should be allowed to see out his contract. The last thing Humberside police needs is a big song and dance about the home secretary trying to get rid of him."

Of course Mr Blunkett has the law behind him and one imagines that the Humberside Police Authority will have to comply fairly rapidly. However, it's rather like in the 1970s when President for Life Idi Amin Dada of Uganda awarded himself all sorts of spurious military and other titles ('President for Life' for a start). In the much more sedate context of UK politics the huge majority that the Labour Party has in Parliament allows this government to do more or less as it likes, slowed down only by the cussedness of the upper House of Lords - but the government has made it its business to emasculate that body with its botched attempts at constitutional reform. The fact that Mr Blunkett is a blind man who comes across (as even I admit quite readily) as a benevolent man who is often quite humorous is not enough to hide the truth; he is a danger to democracy in this country, as many of his crackpot ideas make very clear (in my ever so humble opinion).

UPDATE: (Friday 25JUN04 11.53 BST) In a surprise development, Humberside Police Authority Chairman Colin Inglis has announced that they are asking the Home Secretary to 'reconsider' his request for the suspension of Chief Constable David Westwood. The law is apparently very clear that the Home Secretary does have the legal authority to request the move, and that it be complied with. Whether this stand-off relates solely to Mr Westwood's individual case or whether it represents a quesdtioning of the new powers Mr Blunkett gave himself a couple of years ago is not entirely clear. An announcement from the Home Office is awaited.
Be careful 'the neighbours might see'

This is what this shameful 'gagging order' against two New Zealand MPs amounts to. I read about this yesterday in the online version of a New Zealand newspaper, but now I've had a night to think about it have come to the conclusion that it is a truly pusillanimous effort by the NZ government to unsay what I imagine every NZ citizen already knows, whatever they happen to think about the underlying issue, the Civil Union Bill. It really has come to something when a government tries to silence voices of duly elected members of the country's parliament, it's like something out of 'Alice through the Looking Glass'.
The moral bankruptcy of the Bush administration is clear

The release by the White House of documents designed to blunt criticism that it authorised the use of torture unfortunately does no such thing. The information issued reveals a line of thinking, and certain actions which flowed from that line of thinking, that confirm to a horribly large degree the charges made against, at the very least, the Secretary of State for Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

It is all very well for the President to decline to exercise the authority his legal advisors claim he has, in time of war, to suspend US compliance with the Geneva Conventions, but he accepts that he DOES HAVE THAT AUTHORITY. Frankly this is just not good enough! Unless the US wishes to abrogate the Conventions, it does not have the option to 'pick and mix' when they will apply and when not. It is precisely in time of war that prisoners, of all sides (including US and UK military personnel, for example) need the assurance that their countries are applying the conventions so that they themselves can hope to receive similar humane treatment in return. It does no good at all to complain that the 'war on terrorism' is different and that our adversaries apply different rules, or rather that they follow no rules. For nations purporting to strive for a better world to adopt, in any way, shape or form, the anarchic policies of terrorists is completely counter-productive and removes our claim to be acting in a more morally upright way.

Of course, the documents also reveal some actual practices during interrogation which neither the President nor his Secretary of Defense forbade. They are convicted and must, if the US people are to reclaim their until now unchallenged position as torch-bearers for a better world, be booted out of office at the earliest opportunity. I am still not being drawn into internal US partisan politics - if it happened to be a President of the other main US political party who occupied the White House at present, and who had permitted and accepted such lines of reasoning and practices to be done in the name of the US, then I would be saying exactly the same thing.
The Telegraph saga seems to be over - the Barclay brothers have it

This is what was thought to be going to happen MONTHS ago, but now has it seems. One minor difference between then and now; they had to pay GBP665m (USD1.2bn), rather than the GBP245m (USD441m) earlier agreed by Lord Black, but blocked by a court case.

Tuesday, 22 June 2004

The sun goes down over Nairn




I interrupted dinner at about 9.45pm BST (yes, I eat late) to capture this partial rainbow ...

... and this was about 10.20pm BST just as the sun was setting

(This blog uses GMT, one hour earlier than BST)

David Blunkett is at it again!!

What is it with David Blunkett, our illustrious Home Secretary? Does he not recognise that this remains, nominally at least, a parliamentary democracy governed by law, not by government 'diktat'?

So, what's irritating me about him now? I've written about his wild policy announcements many times in the past, when he has announced radical (maniacal?) schemes one day with the whole idea being seen to be completely unworkable and/or illegal the next. Now, in the space of three days, two announcments seem to show he remains wedded to his 'diktat' theory of government.

Yesterday it was his reaction to the news that an English football fan, who had been convicted in Portugal of acts of hooliganism, and sentenced to two years imprisonment by a court there, could not be imprisoned here on his return. A blunder by the Portuguese authorities in not actually imprisoning the man before deporting him back to the UK meant that the procedure did not comply with the terms of the Anglo-Portuguese (EU-wide) agreement governing such matters, so the police here are not it seems legally in a position to imprison him here. I agree with Mr Blunkett that this is highly unfortunate, scandalous even, but IT IS THE LAW. It really is no good at all for Mr Blunkett to blurt out in a fit of pique that he still wants to try to 'get' the English hooligan; he is the Home Secretary and such idiotic, illegal commentary is simply unacceptable, whatever he may think privately, if the 'rule of law' is to mean anything. If he wants to 'get' the man (i.e. gaol him) on this particular act of criminality, then he will have to try and get Parliament to pass a RETROACTIVE amendment to the relevant law - I doubt very much that he would succeed.

Today David Blunkett announced in Parliament that he was asking the Humberside Police Authority to suspend the Chief Constable of Humberside Police, Mr David Westwood, in the light of the findings of the Bichard Inquiry into the Soham murders (for which Ian Huntley was convicted). Of course, under the Police Reform Act 2002, the Home Secretary now has the power to make the request and order the Police Authority to do as he asks, and the Police Authority is legally required to comply. I understand that there are some sections of the police who are unhappy that this power is now vested in the Home Secretary; so far as I am concerned, however, Parliament passed the law so the police must follow it. It will be the first time that the Home Secretary has exercised this new power. However, the Home Secretary does NOT have the authority directly to suspend a Chief Constable so Mr Westwood is quite correct, having taken the decsion not to resign voluntarily (which it is reported he was requested to consider doing yesterday), to continue in his post until the Police Authority advises him otherwise. To be fair to Mr Blunkett, he did not seek to suspend Mr Westwood directly, but it seems very clear he expected him to stand down immediately - the suggestion that Mr Westwood resign voluntarily seems to have come from the Home Office. But Parliament passed the law it did, not the one Mr Blunkett might have wished it to. No doubt, too, Mr Westwood has other concerns (besides those he listed in his press conference today) which are governing his actions - his pension, for example.

I am sure that many of us, in our 'Walter Mitty' moments, might wish that we could cause various things to happen merely by expressing the wish that they would, but fortunately we moved away from that kind of thinking when the absolute right of the monarch to govern our lives was challenged successfully some centuries ago. Since then we have been a parliamentary democracy and the Home Secretary has to realise that he is governed by the laws Parliament has passed, just as much as any other citizen. The time is fast apporaching when the ability of the Prime Minister, whose own popularity in the Labour Party and in the country generally has fallen dramatically in recent times, to continue to support his gaffe-prone Home Secretary will be exhausted - and not before time.
Kim Sun-il murdered - BBC 6pm news reports 'breaking news'

The South Korean hostage held in Iraq has, it seems, been murdered by his captors. This was just mentioned, as 'breaking news', on the BBC's 6pm main news bulletin; they say they just had the news from al-Jazeera; the first internet link I have for this is via the Houston Chronicle and now on the BBC website as well. Another act of barbarism. Rest in Peace.
Heritage is great - but let's not become "hung up" on it!

The British Library is working out how best to archive the best of the web in the UK for 'posterity'. Marvellous as this idea sounds, I hope it won't get in the way of what the web seems to be fostering - innovation and diversity. I sometimes feel that the 'heritage' industry in Britain is simply an excuse for wallowing in the past, to the exclusion of thrusting vigorously into the future.

Yes, our past needs to be cherished, but only so long as it doesn't get in the way of allowing people to make their own futures. I am thinking particularly of some of our planning laws as they relate to 'listed' buildings and the way these can often thwart sensible [to me, that is!] developments! I daresay some will accuse me of being a complete 'philistine' for daring to say such things, but there it is ...
Gays really are just like other people

This is obviously terrible for the man concerned, but from a wider perspective I regard it as evidence that gay people really are no different in most of the important ways from other people. That's to say, some are good, some are bad, some are weak and some are strong - and some are a mixture of all those things, and a lot more besides. The idea that gays should somehow be 'perfect' in order to be fully accepted by society generally may be a nice notion, but if that's the standard then it will never be achieved. No group is entirely perfect, not even those from the most devout groups of church-, mosque- or temple-goers. What we are all, though, is human with all the foibles, quirks and, yes, virtues that this status confers.
Is this a sign ...

- that anti-semitism is rearing its ugly head in Britain, or are there multiple (and equally sinister) reasons for this development? Perhaps police investigations will bring a little clarity.

Monday, 21 June 2004

Civil Partnership Bill - a good thing, but it has some serious defects ...

... yes, pensions are boring, but it is essential to know where you stand. I've written about this subject before, but it bears repeating and this excellent article lays it all out very clearly. Basically, the Civil Partnership Bill currently going through Parliament will grant a pension to surviving same-sex partners calculated only from the date the bill becomes law - even if pension contributions had been made for years (or decades) prior to this. The linked article debunks very effectively the spurious claims that it would cost too much to backdate benefit to the date contributions commenced; it points out that most pension schemes are designed on the assumption that employees will marry and be liable to pay widow's benefits (in more recent years, widower's benefits too).

When the government announced the bill, it sounded good - and indeed it mostly is - but the impression was given that same-sex partners would benefit from the same rights, in terms of property and other rights, which have always applied to married couples. The bill as published clearly shows that, in some important respects, this is simply not true.
Law Lords confirm gay tenancy rights.

Excellent news. The ruling relates to a Court of Appeal ruling in November 2002 which granted homosexuals the same rights as heterosexuals to inherit the tenancy rights of a deceased partner. However, an appeal against that ruling was brought by a landlord who wished to end the statutory tenancy of a surviving gay partner, the existing tenancy agreement being subject to rent rise restrictions. The Law Lords have dismissed the appeal by a 4-1 majority. Baroness Hale, in issuing her ruling, commented:

"Everything which has been suggested to make a difference between the appellant and other surviving partners comes down to the fact that he was of the same sex as the deceased tenant."

"Homosexual relationships can have exactly the same qualities of intimacy, stability and inter-dependence that heterosexual relationships do."

- it is pleasing that such humane decisions are, at last, being upheld before the highest court in the United Kingdom.
Spain appoints gay lawyer as ombudsman for the Basque region

Inigo Lamarka, the current president of the Basque Association of Gays and Lesbians and a respected lawyer, has been appointed to his new role over the weekend. This seems to show that the promises the new Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, made after his unexpected victory earlier in the year, were not mere rhetoric.

UPDATE: (22JUN04 08.52 BST) A couple of comments to this post have put me right on some of the realities of internal Spanish and Basque politics - for which thanks. I'll venture another comment though; maybe what this appointment shows is that the appointment represents a deeper change in Spanish society than a mere change of national government?
Spaceship One touches down safely

I've just watched, live on BBC News24, Spaceship One touch down safely in California (Mojave) after the first privately-funded near-space flight carrying a passenger.

Marvellous!

Friday, 18 June 2004

EU constitutional settlement

Under better circumstances I would have written now about this evening's news - the constitutional settlement thrashed out between the 25 EU member states. However, after hearing about the murder I wrote about just a few moments ago I'm afraid I cannot do it this evening. I'll revert to the EU summit after the weekend as, quite obviously, it is of major importance, whatever view one takes of the matter.
Horrible! Outrageous! Evil!

The al-Qa'ida so-called 'militants' (aka criminals and murderers) have carried out their threat to kill Paul Marshall Johnson, the 49-year old American hostage held in Saudi Arabia.

In this BBC article they did not commit the sin of calling what has been done an 'execution' (which was how it was described in the 10pm news bulletin on BBC1 television), which is at least something! It was not an 'execution', it was simple MURDER!!

I watched a plea for his life earlier today from his wife and I extend my sincere and heartfelt condolences to her and to all his family. Rest in Peace, Paul Marshall Johnson.

(There is much more I want to write, but now is not the time.)
European Union (EU) - Croatia becomes official candidate for entry

Croatia is now officially a candidate for entry to the European Union, it was announced in Brussels. Speaking of Croatia, the European Commission's President Romano Prodi said:

"We are very satisfied because Croatia is going with us into Europe."

- it is expected that detailed negotiations for Croatia to enter the EU will begin next year and it is possible it may join as a member in 2007 when both Bulgaria and Romania are scheduled to join. There is, as yet, no scheduled date for Turkey (already a candidate country) to join or for detailed negotiations on the matter to begin, although Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also at the Brussels summit, speculates these may begin as early as March 2005. My main website has a section on the EU here, with a link to the 'enlargement' area here, although Croatia has not yet been added to the EU website - no doubt that will be done very soon, now that the political decision has been taken.

This is good news, although I would like to see a definite date for Turkish entry, and for detailed negotiations to allow this to happen, set as soon as possible.
Switzerland adopts gay partnership law!

Both houses of the Swiss Parliament, writes Un Swissroll (in French, though), have adopted the gay partnership law. This is obviously very good news indeed but, as 'Un swissroll' cautions, there most probably remains one more hurdle to surmount, assuming those opposed to the law can gather the 50,000 signatures necessary for the law to be put before citizens in a referendum, perhaps in December or more probably next year sometime.

Thursday, 17 June 2004

Channel 4 and its 'Big Brother' hypocrisy

I enjoyed watching 'Big Brother' the first couple of years, but lately it has become rather tired, with the producers attempting to find ever more bizarre methods of heightening tension in 'the house', hoping thereby to boost viewing figures.

They appear to have succeeded this time around by engineering situations desgined to arouse suspicion and mistrust amongst the housemates. Last night, this policy seems to have resulted in an outbreak of physical violence between two of the participants. Channel 4 may, in an attempt at high-mindedness, state:

"At the end of the day, it is the health and welfare of the housemates that we are concerned about - the game show element is secondary.

"We want to talk to them individually and see how they are all feeling today. Then we will take a view on what to do next."

- but we all know the truth; their tactics have back-fired and have been an integral reason why this violence has erupted.

UPDATE: (17JUN04 17.05 BST) Of course, what is really worrying Channel 4 is this and where it could lead, if it is held that the television company has behaved irresponsibly in setting up this emotionally volatile situation.
Britain's immigration visa scandal

According to a National Audit Office (NAO) report, 9 out of 10 visas granted to immigrants from eastern Europe (principally Romania and Bulgaria) should never have been issued. The number of applications rose in those two countries from 63 in 2001-2001-2 to 8,034 in 2003-4.

The matter came to light after a British consular official in Bucharest (Romania) revealed what was going on. The visas continued to be issued on the instructions of London, despite local consular officials warning London privately of their concerns that massive scams were being perpetrated and recommending that the vast bulk of the applications be refused. As a result Beverley Hughes, the relevant government minister, was forced to resign.

Naturally, this being a Britain governed by Tony Blair's Labour Party, the 'whistle-blower' has been punished, by being recalled to London, his salary frozen. [The gentleman concerned, James Cameron, is for the record not a relative.] However, what is true is that this government has a lamentable, and sinister, record of attempting to smear or denigrate those who speak out against its policies and shortcomings. I hope there will be a public outcry to ensure that only legitimate matters of concern may be laid at this civil servant's door.
America's shame - Rumsfeld remains Secretary of Defense

An Iraqi 'terror suspect' prisoner has been 'held off' the books, specifically it seems to hide his existence from the Red Cross. Quite breath-taking! Who ordered this? Why, according to Pentagon officials, none other than Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Why hasn't the President dismissed this person already? Good question, but if he doesn't do so now then he personally must be considered equally culpable.

Tuesday, 15 June 2004

Flyposting - don't get mad, get even ...

That's what Camden council in north London has done. Despite having won 50 prosecutions for flyposting over the past two years against major record labels (BMG and Sony are mentioned), the council had not succeeded in diminishing (far less eliminating) the practice, probably because the fines are relatively low (only upto GBP750-), paltry when compared with the costs for similar 'advertising' by legitimate means.

The tool the council have identified to allow them to tackle the problem effectively has been to threaten, in their personal names, senior executives of the firms concerned with ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders), a tactic more usually associated with unruly teenagers. Richard Gruet, the council's head of litigation, in speaking of the new tactic said it represented:

"a really good alternative way of bringing this case to the companies involved in a way that they couldn't ignore."

Other councils are apparently interested in following Camden and the council is looking at prosecutions against upto 50 other companies and organisations, including some of the minor political parties. Sounds good to me.
Four British soldiers face court martial for sex abuse in Iraq

The four are from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and are accused of abusing and sexually assaulting Iraqi civilians said the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, in announcing the charges. The alleged offences were uncovered when one of the soldiers left a photographic film for processing at a shop in Tamworth, Staffordshire. On seeing the photographs, staff called the police and the soldier was taken into military custody.

The Government says it is determined to punish severely any abuses which are proved, although it denies that the alleged offences were in any way sanctioned by higher ranks. Such abuse, if substantiated, will be extremely serious and those responsible (whoever they are) must be ruthlessly exposed and punished. Any such transgressions are an appalling stain on this country's reputation ...
Prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib - Brig Gen Janis Karpinski speaks out

There was a very interesting programme broadcast on BBC Radio4 this morning in the 'On the Ropes' strand. It was an interview by John Humphrys with US Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the person until recently in charge at Abu Ghraib.

She contends that her principal role in this whole affair is as a 'convenient scapegoat'. You can listen to the whole interview - click on the link at the top right of the page I link to; the programme lasts 30 minutes. Listen and judge for yourself.

Friday, 11 June 2004

A great man passes ...




Ronald Wilson Reagan, 6th February 1911 - 5th June 2004, R.I.P.

I am watching the funeral live on television as I write this, just now listening to the eulogies, which are very moving.

Death is only the beginning ...

Wednesday, 9 June 2004

Review: 'The Day After Tomorrow'

I'm a sucker for apocalyptic disaster movies, so this was one I had to see. So this afternoon I did.

Briefly, the special effects were amazing and very believable. It's amazing how far digital effects have come in a very few years (Titanic was marvellous in its day, but the digitally-created aerial shots of the ship, with passengers on the decks, already look very stilted in my view).

The storyline is, ahem, weak - positiviely narcissistic, I'd say. And the dialogue is, for much of the time, pretty dire. On the other hand, there are attractive male and female characters who can deliver the nonsense the writiers have put into their mouths and still contrive to make it sound reasonable.

Was it worth the GBP4.70 (USD8.50) and two and a bit hours of my time? Definitely yes, but only for the incredible special effects.

UPDATE: (Thursday 10JUN04 00.21 BST) And now the science.
UN Resolution 1546: let's see if the doubters now 'fess up'

The unanimous vote in the Security Council is welcome. What we now need to see is certain nations putting their point-scoring behind them (e.g. France and some others) and waking up to real-life politics (e.g. Spain), to demonstrate that they really are pleased that a tyrant is gone from Iraq and they really do wish to see the Iraqi people in a position to create a working democracy.

UPDATE: (Thursday 10JUN04 11.47 BST) Well it didn't take France long to make clear that it's up to no good, did it?
European Election: a reminder - don't forget to vote tomorrow

Thursday 10th June is the day we in the UK will have an opportunity (but see below) to cast our votes in the elections for the European Parliament (EP). Most other countries will be voting on Sunday 13th June, so the results will not be known until late Sunday or during Monday 14th. At stake are seats in the newly-enlarged EP with newly-elected MEPs coming from all 25 member states, including the 10 nations who became members on 1st May this year.

I might be said, however, to have adopted the first part of a sarcastic French exhortation: Votez tot, et votez souvent (Vote early, and vote often), because I took the opportunity a few years back to register for a permanent postal vote. My original reason for doing this was simply to understand exactly how it worked, so I would be able to judge whether the fears being expressed (they still are!) about the safety of this system were well-founded. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is feared that postal voting is wide open to abuse. My conclusion? Well, I wouldn't say it is wide-open to abuse, but it seems certainly not to be entirely secure. A few points (not exhaustive):
- the 'witness' system seems pretty lax;

- obtaining multiple votes at 'accommodation' addresses appears possible, if journalistic exploits are to be believed;

- the postal system for sending out voting papers, and for receiving them back, may be slow or defective.

In my case it all seemed to go smoothly; I received my voting papers in good time (Thursday 27th May, well before the 1st June deadline) and I posted my voting papers back on Monday 7th June, plenty time for my vote to reach its destination. Of course, I cannot be absolutely certain that my vote reached its destination (point 3 above). Now that I have voted 3 times (in differeent elections!) using a postal vote, I think that I shall cancel my postal vote, though, and revert to polling station voting; efforts by this government to move to compuslory postal voting, which has been done in four regions this time, seem to have been plagued by administrative problems and the whole system needs to be tightened up before such a dramatic change could be worthy of support.

How I voted? Well, I'll reveal that next Monday. Let's just say, I wish we had a box on our voting forms along the lines of that on Australian voting slips, which apparently says 'none of these' ...
Alan Turing: 23 June 1912 - 7 June 1954

Alan Turing committed suicide on 7th June 1954, so it is just over fifty years ago. I wrote recently about a lecture I attended some weeks ago given by a lady who helped operate the 'Enigma' machines at Bletchley Park, but this sad anniversary has only just come to my attention, courtesy of AndrewSullivan.com, who also provides a link to an online biography of this great man.

It is a sad fact that his undoubted major contribution to the Allied victory in World War II counted for nothing when his homosexual liaison with a young Manchester man was discovered. He was arrested in 1952, when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, and threatened with prison. As an alternative, he agreed to treatment with oestrogen (a female sex hormone) in an effort to inhibit his sexual libido. His homosexuality had precluded his being granted security clearance as early as 1948, thus preventing him from continuing his work with GCHQ, the successor body to Bletchley Park after the war.

Shameful and ungrateful behaviour by this country!!

Rest in Peace, Alan Turing, Sir.

Tuesday, 8 June 2004

Ronald Reagan, a 'conservative', but a tolerant conservative

This has for many years been my view of the late President. Like many people outside the US, I knew little of him prior to his election as President, although I was aware he had been considered a 'good' Governor of California by many. Quite apart from his achievements in international arms-reduction, which I applaud, it quickly became clear that, whatever his own personal views might be, he declined to impose his moral values on others. I have read a number of comments in recent days on both sides of this particular argument, but I am delighted to read what Un swissroll (in French) has to say; the link to the Cato Institute article is most interesting, and like Un swissroll I quote one particularly salient segment:

Reagan was regarded as a social conservative, and he often spoke of "our values of faith, family, work, and neighborhood." But he rarely sought to use government to impose those values. In 1978 he spoke out against an antigay initiative in California. Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post, noting that the Reagans were the first White House occupants to have hosted a gay couple overnight, dubbed him in 1984 a "closet tolerant."

Enough said.

UPDATE: ( Tuesday 8JUN04 20.17 BST) This National Review article also lays it on the line about Reagan's alleged homophobia and indifference toward HIV/AIDS. Incidentally, the remark in passing about Margaret Thatcher's similar alleged indifference to HIV/AIDS is equally false, given that her government spent large amounts on efforts to combat the scourge in various ways, even though her government was repsonsible for the odious 'Section 28'.
UNITED STATES (insert appropriate word/s) TORTURE

My understanding has always been, even after the revelations about Abu Ghraib (perhaps I'm being optimistic here, but bear with me), that the only possible word(s) which could fit here, in the context of the United States, would be something along the lines of:
condemns; or
deplores; or
does not use
.


Now it is possible that this cosy view will need to be revised, if this Telegraph report (about the leaking of a Pentagon memo to the Wall Street Journal, link not available) is in any way factual, to something along the lines of:
tolerates; or
justifies; or
sanctions;

- with these qualified by something like:
under certain circumstances; or
in the fight against terrorism
.


The Telegraph postulates that:
The leak appears to be part of an extraordinary civil war in the Pentagon between civilian officials and uniformed officers appalled by what they have described as moves by political appointees to shroud the war on terrorism in an "environment of legal ambiguity".


If any of this is true it will blow to shreds the pretence that the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were the acts of a few US military personnel or civilian contractors operating outside approved procedures. That will lead, in my view, to only one conclusion: that those ultimately responsible may be much higher up the chain of command, perhaps close to or at the top. Whoever is responsible needs to resign, or be forced out, and punished without delay.

To reiterate, torture is outlawed, without any qualification, by the International Convention on Torture.

It is never justified, or justifiable, on any pretext whatsoever. I hope our Prime Minister, Tony Blair, will think about this in the coming weeks should the substance of the leaked memo be authenticated. To date, and despite my usual antipathy for anything said by Tony Blair's Labour government, I have supported strongly his stance on terrorism and our participation in both Afghanistan and Iraq in partnership with the United States, but I would expect him to dissociate himself immediately, and in the strongest possible terms, from cooperation with this US administration if any of these allegations are borne out, until and unless it roots out the evil which seems to be growing like a malignant cancer within it.

I hated to write that last bit above, but there it is ...
Scottish Opera has been forced to adapt, to survive

Scottish Opera has been in dire financial straits for some time. The crunch had come - close, or adapt to survive. It is a long and not particularly unusual story - the artistic ambitions of those who ran Scottish Opera were not matched by the realities of the funding available or the potential audiences available (and the ticket prices that could realistically be set) outside the major populations areas of Scotland, which had to be served if the opera company was to be 'national' rather than limited to Glasgow and Edinburgh. This is explained at much greater length here. One particular comment from an indirectly attributed interested party, said to be someone 'closely involved with the opera for many years', strikes me as particularly to the point:

"It was one of the saddest results of the move towards independence that the Scottish Arts Council was split to match the political scene. We are now dealing with a much smaller view of Scottish Opera than was managed when it [was] dealt with down south. Overall, there is a general feeling that it is an elitist entertainment for wealthy people."

- I have never made any secret of my view that Scottish Devolution was a huge mistake, based upon misguided notions of Scotland and its place in the United Kingdom. Just as I predicted, the Scottish Executive is dominated by people largely drawn from the Central Belt of Scotland, only natural in one sense because that is where most Scots live. Many of these characters might just about have managed to make the grade on local or regional councils (but one look at Glasgow's public debt level might cause one to revise one's views!), but are pretty low calibre people to have running a 'national' budget (the stunning fiasco of the new Scottish Parliament building project and the lack of intelligent parliamentary oversight, and the grandiose financially moronic decisions which have been the sad result, speak for themselves). The other reality is, of course, that opera is (in the UK at least) an elitist activity - the numbers of people wo wish to attend opera productions are quite limited, quite apart from the cost of doing so; even were attendance 'free', I am not sure that huge numbers would flock in. Those who are specially keen are not, however, an economic elite - they wish their interest to be financed largely by those who have no particular interest in opera. Afficionados of opera are a self-selected 'cultural' elite, perhaps. I enjoy opera, and usually try to attend productions put on by Scottish Opera locally, in Inverness, but I do not travel to the other end of the country to see productions (as some do). Those who wanted devolution (or 'inependence' - and I use quotes around that word quite deliberately and for good reason) are now seeing the inevitable results of confusing mystic notions of what they wanted to see happen with the reality of what was likely to happen. Undoubtedly 'independence'/devolution for Scotland could have been made to work (Ireland has proved this), but to do so one has to adapt to changed circumstances. Currently we have in Scotland the very worst of both options (full integration within the UK, or 'independence'). Scottish Opera had struggled financially long before devolution ever happened, of course, but it is thrown into sharper focus today because of the wider financial and political consequences of devolution.

The solutions chosen have provoked anger amongst those who criticise the decisions taken, some of whose main effects will be to 'let go' all the professional singers, whilst retaining a core central staff and a 53-piece orchestra. Of course it still has to 'sound' good, so the continuing role of Scottish Opera regionally is emphasised, but quite how this is to be achieved with itinerant singers, in an opera company of all things (!) will be interesting to watch.

Monday, 7 June 2004

Hansard remixed for the net generation

This article in the Guardian discusses a new website designed to make the Parliamentary debates recorded in Hansard (and available for some years at the Hansard website) more readily accessible to ordinary users, as distinct from political journalists, 'think tanks' and lobbying firms; I have on occasion looked up information online in Hansard and, whilst I have usually found what I wanted eventually, it can be a cumbersome process. I have tried out the Theyworkforyou.com website and it does indeed seem to perform well; simply type in a word, or phrase in quotation marks (to avoid extraneous results), and up come the results - magic! Easy as pie, too, to find your MP and how (s)he voted on various subjects; there are other sources for this kind of search (e.g. The Public Whip). Try it out ...
Simon Cumbers, a freelance photojournalist, has been killed in Saudi Arabia. R.I.P.

Simon Cumbers, aged 36, was in Saudi Arabia filming with BBC journalist Frank Gardner, when the two were attacked in a suburb of Riyadh, the capital. You can read an obituary here.

Frank Gardner is 'critically wounded but stable' and has apparaently undergone surgery during last night.

Both are experienced and respected journalists who were in Saudi Arabia on their current project with the assistance of the Saudi authrities. I have come specially to appreciate Frank Gardner's reports on the al-Qa'ida phenomenon, and the Arab world generally, over the past couple of years. He is described as the BBC's 'security correspondent' and is a fluent Arabic speaker; I have always wondered precisely what is his background (e.g. ex-spy or 'military attache'?), but his commentary has always seemed to me to carry great authority, being delivered in a calm and measured way, even when delivering horrific news or projections for the future.

This can only add the the unease regarding the political stability of Saudi Arabia, which I discussed only recently.

Sunday, 6 June 2004

Today we commemorate the D-Day landings of sixty years ago



The beach here in Nairn was used as one of the training sites for British troops who took part in 'OPERATION OVERLORD' on 6th June 1944.


This small commemorative cairn is visible from my home, which is less than 100 yards from the shore.


Sixty years ago today, on 6th June 1944, 'Operation Overlord' was launched, to start the process of recapturing territories in Europe which had been overrun by Nazi tyranny. A force of 156,000 was assembled, comprising 73,000 American and 83,000 British or Canadian troops, of whom 132,500 were transported across the English Channel to the Normandy beaches of France by sea, the remainder by air. All this was accomplished with the aid of 1,200 fighting ships, 10,000 planes, 4,126 landing craft, 804 transport ships, and hundreds of amphibious and other special purpose tanks.

Beach-heads were established and the process of liberating Europe had begun, but at a heavy cost in human life. Today I give thanks to the brave people who made possible the lives we all enjoy today.

UPDATE: (Monday 7JUN04 12.26PM BST) The BBC has a nice photgallery of a few moments from yesterday's day-long series of events.
Ronald Wilson Reagan, 6th February 1911 - 5th June 2004, R.I.P.



Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States of America (1981-1989), has died in California.


I took this photograph of his boyhood home in Dixon, Illinois in the course of a visit to friends in De Kalb, Illinois during July 1982.

Ronald Reagan was in my view undoubtedly one of the great U.S. Presidents of modern times. He presided over the demise of the scourge of Communism as a major force in world affairs and for that, amongst other things, I remain deeply grateful. He may not have been the greatest actor who ever lived, but his political skills were strong. Rest in Peace.

Friday, 4 June 2004

A schoolboy 'comes out' ...

... a very intertesting story here (names changed and location not mentioned) about a 15-year old's experiences after revealing he is gay. His is not a 'rough' school, by his account, so perhaps his story would be atypical, even today, but I still prefer to see it as a moderately hopeful sign, if only because my recollection is that I had no idea (whatsoever) what the explanation for my different reactions to growing up were when I was a similar age. Of course I happened to turn 15 at almost exactly the moment when homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967, although this did not affect where I lived at the time (the Isle of Man), nor of course did it affect Scotland until MUCH later. In any case I was completely ignorant at that age that such a thing as 'homosexuality' existed, or that it was the explanation for some of my feelings then. At the very least it seems that adolescents of both sexes are at least more aware now, than then.
If you buy online, be careful

Yet another malicious worm ('Korgo') has been detected which is said to "aggressively steal" credit card numbers and passwords. I haven't bought online in the past week, but it makes me wonder if I need to change any details/cards I may have used anytime; or perhaps I'll just go lock myself in a cupboard ...

Tuesday, 1 June 2004

Prophylaxis: Swedish-style

Just imagine it; you and your partner have a real emergency. You want to 'get down to it' and make whoopee! Problem is, you haven't got any condoms. What do you do?

If you're in Sweden (in the cities of Stockholm, Malmo and Gothenburg at least) you can call The Condom Ambulance, and for the modest price of SEK50- (roughly GBP3.50) they'll despatch a pack of 10 (ambitious folks, those Swedes, no?). You've just got to hope you and your paramour can hold out 'til the van gets to you! (thru Drudge)

Petrol prices on the rise ...

The last time I filled my tank (last week I think) it cost 82.9 pence a litre (roughly USD 1.50 a litre) and we are warned to expect further increases this Autumn when taxes are raised. I wrote about supply problems for petrol a couple of months back and the latest alarming news coming out of Saudi Arabia, the world's major international supplier of oil, gives considerable grounds for believing that we are headed for a VERY rocky next few years. I have wondered for many years just how long the current regime in Saudi Arabia could continue largely unchanged; we may perhaps be just at the beginning of a phase of major, perhaps cataclysmic, change there which will affect the economies of major parts of the globe. A whole series of other factors has already begun to come into play (the rising role of China as a major importer of oil for its burgeoning 'industrial revolution', for example, which itself will mean that other major economies will have to adapt to survive). All of these factors, and more I cannot probably even imagine just now, are likely to bring to life very starkly that dark Chinese forecast/curse: "May you live in interesting times".
Mbeki has been re-elected - what does he care?

Less than two months after being re-elected for a second term as President of South Africa, and less than a month after he announced that 113 Aids health centres would be fully operational, treating 53,000 people, by next March, we now read that South Africa is to stop its roll-out of anti-Aids drugs.

Why? Good question, but this man who has throughout most of his time in office shown very little indication that he accepts the scale of the disaster for his country that HIV/AIDS represents (never mind his bizarre ideas about its transmission), is perhaps simply reverting to type - now that he has successfully crossed that minor little hurdle of having been re-elected.

I'm afraid this is just one more sign that this man, and his corrupt ANC government, is leading his country down a very shaky path. Nelson Mandela has unfortunately, but understandably in the light of his advanced years, just announced he is to reduce drastically his involvement in public life.
Is the Royal Free and University College Medical School latently homophobic?

Probably not, but I find the assumptions which seem to underlie this type of survey highly questionable, nevertheless.

The survey has found, for example, that "one third of gay men with the HIV virus do not know they are infected". How many heterosexual men (nominally, at least) know their HIV status? Very few, I venture. I suspect strongly that there is potentially a huge pool of travelling businesspeople (of both sexes) whose partners might benefit from knowing the status of the other; the same might also be said for the travelling partner not knowing the status of the stay-at-home partner.

A much more sensible attitude is taken by Lisa Power of the Terrence Higgins Trust:

"People are having unprotected sex across the board - it's not just gay men.

"We need to get the message across to say that we all need to protect our health - whether or not we think we have a sexually transmitted infection, whether or not we think our partner has - it's important that all of us should practise safe sex."

- the type of judgementalism seemingly (and perhaps unwittingly) displayed by the Royal Free and University College Medical School is perhaps less so.