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

Monday, 30 August 2004

Protests put end to reggae festival

The reaction by organisers, and potential venues, in the face of protests by gay protesters objecting to the presence of two homophobic artists on the bill seems a little over the top - they could just have agreed to uninvite the two acts concerned. Evidently that would have been too simple. It's a shame the whole thing has been cancelled - I've nothing against reggae per se, even if it is certainly not my kind of music. However, the protesters are not responsible for the cancellation, the organisers and potential venues have acted in what they no doubt consider their own best interests. So be it.

Atkins Low Carbohydrate Diet - Weeks 50 to 63

Over six months on 'Lifetime Maintenance' and so far maintaining my weight at roughly its existing level has been easy. My weight as at Sunday 29th August was 63.5 Kg (140 Lb), a marginal increase of 0.1 Kg (0.2 Lb) since I last wrote here on 24th May. My overall weight loss since I started this 'way of eating' on 15th June 2003 is 34.5 Kg (76.1 Lb) - or almost 5 1/2 stones!! Measurement indicators for the last 14 weeks:
- waist static at 30.2 inches (total reduction 14.8 inches);
- hips down 0.1 inches to 37.4 inches (total reduction 11.1 inches);
- thighs down 0.1 inches to 21.3 inches (total reduction 7.2 inches).

I'll write here again about my 'Atkins' experiences after another 12 weeks (toward the end of November 2004). You can read an expanded version of this entry here. Or click on the permanent link under 'Atkins Diet' in the column to the right, to read the full story.

Friday, 27 August 2004

" 'All Postal' voting not safe" rule Electoral Commission

I have been voting using a postal vote for the past four or so years so am aware personally of exactly how it functions. Originally I got myself a postal vote just to see how the postal voting system functions, in practice, and whilst I think it is a valid option I also think it would be folly to make it the only way of casting a vote, as the Government seems to want to do.The system, whilst pretty good if it is used as it was designed to be used, is in fact worryingly wide open to abuse if you are so minded. It is also cumbersome to operate.

Today's ruling by the Electoral Commission that plans for all-postal voting should be abandoned is, so far as I am concerned, welcome. This follows a trial in four of the English regions at the recent European Parliament elections, which revealed them to be "marred by complexity, logistics, abuse claims and a tight timetable". It seems that areas in which postal voting has become widely-used, or where it has been compulsory, have shown a larger turnout of voters than recently, but if this is at the risk of the integrity of the system then the added convenience is probably too high a price to pay.

Prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, Iraq - and at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan

Not only does this report comprehensively nail the lie that the Geneva Conventions were being applied in Iraq, but also the lie that those same conventions were being applied 'in general terms' (Rumsfeld's words) at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan.

It is good that a mechanism exists to get at the truth. That's the good news. The bad news is that Rumsfeld is still in post. The US has gone a long way in its self-investigation. Now it needs to complete the job and get rid of Mr Rumsfeld. Over to you, Mr Bush ... (a long wait is anticipated)

... and this is the farce surrounding the permission now granted (for the first time) for lawyers to visit the four remaining UK citizens held at Guantanamo - they will not even be able to report back on the physical condition of the detainees to their families. This, after nearly 1,000 days without charges having been brought before any court, even of the 'kangaroo' kind. Is the US a nation guided by civilised, democratic procedures, or is it an out-of-control monster? The answer should clearly be 'what utter nonsense' and until recently I would have had absolutely no doubts, but one does begin to wonder.

Thursday, 26 August 2004

Comments down ...

... and Haloscan website does not respond so presumably there is a glitch, temporary I hope. Until it is back in operation I've disabled comments in this blog so that it loads more rapidly. Meantime any comments you care to make can be sent by e-mail or by making an entry in my guestbook - see the link under 'Feedback' at right.

UPDATE: (Friday 27AUG 08.30 BST) Haloscan seems to be back in business so I've restored the commenting code to the template.

The car you drive 'reveals your state of mind' ...

... as well as your aspirations, if you buy into this. I drive a Honda so I 'imagine' that that says it all about me.

Scotland to target gay tourists

The 'pink pound' has been recognised as a potential way of increasing Scotland's gross take from tourism and will be targeted at different markets in slightly different ways, in an effort to focus on what is most likely to interest visitors (who happen to be gay) from various countries. Enlightened tourist-related businesses will undoubtedly welcome this - I expect that gay tourists are at least as high-spenders as most other visitors, possibly more so. I am pleased to see this development - with luck it may improve things for gays who live in Scotland, too.

Inheritance Tax: should the 'rich' pay a lot, or should almost everyone pay a little, or no-one pay anything?

The answer seems like a no-brainer; Inheritance Tax is completely iniquitous and should be abolished.

However, not everyone sees it like this. Currently a deceased's estate is taxed at 40% on everything over GBP263,000 (about USD475,000). Because the threshhold has nowhere near kept pace with inflation, indeed it has been pegged from time to time, what might once have seemed a level which would have affected only the moderately to very rich now draws in a much larger sector of the populaton, principally because of the rise in property values.

A Labour-leaning 'think tank', the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) wants to cut the starting rate (and perhaps the threshhold) for inheritance tax and to raise the upper rate to 50%, perhaps from a threshhold of as low as GBP475,000- to 'as much as' GBP763,000.

A few days ago I was nonplussed to read an article in The Daily Telegraph (of all places!) by its City Editor Neil Collins. In it he seemed to accept the validity of the principle of taxing people on their estates; I emphatically do not. He suggested a better way would be to have a much lower threshhold (say GBP50,000) above which everyone would pay a flat 10% as he suggested that no-one would seriously object to finding say GBP100k to pay the tax on a GBP1mn estate, probably largely in the form of property. He seems to imagine that those liable (or rather the beneficiaries) would not feel it 'worthwhile' to employ expensive tax accountants and lawyers to arrange their affairs legally so the liability would either be reduced or eliminated. Not in the universe I inhabit, Mr Collins. The best way of eliminating the need for expensive and complex tax arrangements would be to eliminate the tax altogether; it is not as if it brings in a huge amount, relatively speaking, to the Exchequer - about GBP2.5bn in 2003.

In today's Telegraph I was relieved to see that Quentin Letts has written a very necessary counter-blast to Mr Collins. Why should what for most people nowadays are assets acquired out of taxed income be subjected to a further levy upon death? The reason is quite obviously not principally a matter of raising money. Rather it is used as an instrument of social policy. But why should someone not be able to leave his/her assets to anyone they care to, without the state taking its pound of flesh? I can see no good reason, except a socialistic (a dirty word so far as this blog is concerned) desire to thwart individual effort, thrift and foresightedness and instead substitute a system where the state , as a 'benevolent' "Big Brother", provides for all our needs and really prefers not to allow individuals to be independent of its clutches. In other words, the 'socialist' ideal is for everyone to be levelled-down, rather than risk the 'horror' of allowing anyone (and their beneficiaries) to rise above the rest by dint of their own efforts.

In earlier years opposition to Inheritance Tax would have been difficult to 'sell' to the bulk of the population, as only a small percentage were ever likely to fall within its clutches, but that is changing rapidly. It is no longer necessary to be wealthy, merely moderately comfortable, and there are many millions of such people in the UK. Old-style socialist re-distributive policies such as that not-so-subtly being proposed by outfits such as the IPPR have no place in a country which wants to stimulate continuing growth in its economy and with it the living-standards of most of its residents. If the gap between rich and poor widens somewhat, so what? The important thing is that the poorest amongst us gradually become better off and private enterprise and initiative has been proven over many decades (and indeed centuries) to be the most efficient at delivering this happy outcome, however superficially attractive the obsession with re-distribution has sometimes appeared.

Roadside memorials may be curtailed in Aberdeenshire

It seems that an organisation calling itself "Society of Chief Officers of Transportation in Scotland (Scots) - geddit? - has put out a report suggesting that flowers at the roadside at scenes where accidents have occurred have a distracting effect on other drivers and, by implication, may cause more accidents. The policy recommends that floral tributes be removed after 30 days and that permanent memorials be discouraged. It seems that Aberdeenshire Council is considering adopting this policy.

I have no strong views about this one way or the other, except to say that I find some of the memorials I have seen around Scotland to be somewhat tasteless, although I don't doubt the sincerity of the people who placed them. The other thing that strikes me is that I don't recall these very much from my childhood as they seem to be a phenomenon of more recent years. I first recall seeing these in large number at the sides of mountain roads in both Turkey and Greece - I wonder if the numbers of British people visiting these and other countries in the last 30 or so years, where this practice is longer-standing, has resulted in some "cross-cultural fertilisation"?

On-line bullying: how youngsters use technology to hurt others

This New York Times story about the growing prevalence of the use youngsters, in particular, are making of modern technology to pursue their victims beyond the playground and into their bedrooms or onto their mobile 'phones, is salutray and I must say I was not entirely surprised. There have been a few indications over recent years here in the UK that such things were probably beginning to happen. Most children have access, at home or at school, to computers and of course mobile 'phones and "texting" are completely ubiquitous amongst most people under thirty.

I have seen bullying in operation, both during my own childhood and in more recent times (in schools and in the workplace) although happily report that I have never really been a victim nor a perpetrator. There were one or two occasions when attempts at verbal bullying were directed at me (not of the 'gay' variety, incidentally, but more because I wore spectacles and was connsidered a 'serious' child), but either through luck or good judgement - take your pick - the way I reacted seemed to defuse these efforts and they moved on to other targets. I don't recall ever witnessing, or hearing of, physical bullying at any school I ever attended, but verbal taunts can be just as painful (and longer-lasting) as all but the most serious kinds of physical assaults.

Wednesday, 25 August 2004

I ask again - "Is the Tory Party really changing?"

As a former member of the Conservative Party (until IDS became the leader in September 2001), and as someone who would willingly re-join were it to ditch, defintively, some of the outmoted policies and attitudes on social matters which, even today, it continues to espouse, I read this article in today's Daily Telegraph with a feeling of sadness, but no real surprise, that certain sections of the grass-roots are what is really holding the Conservative Party back, aided and abetted of course by certain senior Tories (David Davis last Monday, for example) who seem to see it as their mission to be the voice of the most bigotted sections of British society.

Ashley Crossley is currently the Conservative PPC for the Falmouth and Camborne constituency. This constituency is considered as a 'target' seat by the Tories, as the relatively low Labour majority there (4,500) indicates it is potentially winnable by the Conservatives. Mr Crossley is a barrister who lives in London. He is homosexual, and has never made a secret of the fact.

Several members of the constituency leadership have been suspended, the Telegraph reports, by Conservative Central Office for allegedly promoting a video put out by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Mr Crossley supported, naturally enough, Central Office. A local 'activist', who evidently has issues with Mr Crossley, is quoted as saying:


"People don't think he is good enough for the job. This man has decided to come down here and walk over everybody. He is to blame for the suspensions."

and

"We have no problem with his sexuality but he should have disclosed he had been living with a man for seven years."

Now of course I have no personal knowledge of Mr Crossley's character, whether he is overbearing and arrogant, or whether he is a friendly and cooperative individual. In any case, it seems uncontroversial that a PPC should support most of the broad principles of the Party, although there may be room for divergence on details of policy - there always is. However, supporting the avowed policy of the UKIP to withdraw the UK from membership of the EU is most definitely not a minor detail, whatever view of the argument of whether the UK should remain within that organisation you take.

The second comment from the activist gives the real clue, I suspect, to the reasons why there are moves in the constituency to deselect their current PPC - they may pretend they have "no problem with his sexuality", but do they really think it better for Mr Crossley either to:
- live a lie and get married to a woman, simply to be conventional in their eyes, when both he and the lady in question would probably end up being very unhappy; or
- live a celibate life as a 'confirmed bachelor'; or
- indulge his 'lifestyle' furtively, so as not to upset their sensibilites?

It seems that there was no secret that he was a homosexual when they selected him, if the facts reported in the Telegraph story are true; did their imaginations not run to the possibility that he might have a 'friend', or partner, or whatever other euphemism you care to use? The man is a barrister, for goodness sake, not a 'crack dealer'.

It is good that Central Office, and Mr Howard, are saying they have full confidence in Mr Crossley. I wonder how people such as David Davis feel about the matter, though. I really do despair for the Conservative Party.

UPDATE (Monday 13SEP2004 23.05 BST): I just read this report from 9th September this evening. It seems the moves to deselect Ashley Crossley as a Conservative PPC have been overwhelmingly defeated, although it also seems clear that not all of those who were thwarted plan to let the matter go.

2ND UPDATE: (Wednesday 22DEC04 16.35 GMT) The denouement of the above. The Telegraph reported yesterday that "virtually the entire leadership of [Falmouth] Conservative association was sacked yesterday for allegedly promoting the UK Independence Party". Five of the six who have been sacked, including the Chairman and Treasurer, have been barred indefinitely from holding office in the local association or from standing for election under the Tory banner in the area. The sixth has been barred from holding any office in any Tory association and from standing for any elected public office as a Conservative candidate for at least a year. Ashley Crossley remains the consituency PPC for the next General Election. A necessary purging of bigotry, it seems.

3RD UPDATE: (Wednesday 5OCT05 17.30 BST) Over the past week or so, I have observed in my site statistics regular visits as a result of web searches on 'Ashley Crossley', seemingly all from the same server. I am deeply curious to understand why there is repeated interest in this post. Just an observation ...

'Fly boys' to take part in Manchester Pride parade

Royal Air Force personnel are, for the first time, to take part in Manchester Gay Pride parade. Great news! (Good about NHS people, too, of course)

Tuesday, 24 August 2004

MOBO bars anti-gay musicians

Whilst deploring censorship, the organisers of this year's Music of Black Origin (MOBO) awards have nevertheless, in what is perhaps a surprising but very welcome move, excluded reggae and dancehall musicians who include homophobic lyrics in their songs. Affected are those such as Beenie Man (real name - Anthony Moses Davies) and Buju Banton.

Beenie Man has already been eliminated from a number of concerts in his recent US tour, after several in the UK were cancelled and it seems that several concerts Buju Banton was to have given in Germany are likewise to be cancelled after the sponsors withdrew their support.

It is becoming more and more difficult for those who peddle hate in their songs to perform in front of paying audiences - this is a tremendously welcome development. Either they will have to change their ways, or their commercial futures will be in jeopardy.

UPDATE: (Wednesday 25AUG 14.40 BST) It seems that MOBO's stance against anti-gay performers in the upcoming awards may be just as much of an effort to manipulate public opinion as was Beenie Man's recent "apology". Oh well, it sounded hopeful at the time ...

Monday, 23 August 2004

Tories could repeal Human Rights Act if elected

I have only just realised the significance of this news item, which I first caught on BBC News24 a couple of hours ago. David Davis of the Tories has been in the media today announcing plans to repeal the Human Rights Act which gives effect, in domestic law, to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to which the UK has been a signatory for fifty or so years (!) and which was largely drafted by UK lawyers, in the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust, etc, during World War II.

The ostensible purpose would be to reduce the amount of what is deemed to be spurious litigation. Perhaps there is something in this, up to a [very limited] point, but it is in reality a blatant attempt to spotlight what are probably a few negative consequences when compared with the largely positive consequences.

It will be recalled that the government's promise to implement this legislation was one of the reasons why it was not subjected to a humiliating defeat in a case to be brought before the European Court of Human Rights concerning the euqalisation of the age of consent for gays. Similarly, negative results for the government in cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights concerning the ban, at that time, on gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces were a further reason which shamed the British Government into legislating.

David Davis is well known as one of the most reactionary leading Conservatives of his generation in matters affecting social policy. His attempt to capitalise on what is a Human Rights issue, by conflating it as some sort of EU creation (when it is nothing of the kind!) is quite despicable. It truly reveals the depseration of the Conservative Party to reverse its electoral decline that it is dredging the bottom of the barrel with policies designed to appeal to the many bigots amongst us.

This so-called policy needs to be revealed for the sordid political ledgerdemain it is.

Sunday, 22 August 2004

Now that's a Marathon!

An ultra-Marathon, something I had never heard of before, is apparently the sport of people for whom the normal roughly 26 mile Marathon is just not enough. A primary school teacher from Cornwall, Bob Bwown, has won the California to New York ultra-Marathon by running 50 miles a day(!) for two months. It puts my few hundred yards light jogging a couple of times a day into its proper perspective, I think. Now all we need to wait for, political stability en route permitting, is for someone to run from Lisbon to Seoul (or would Cape Town to Seoul or Beijing be farther?) ...

Saturday, 21 August 2004

Why I don't comment on US politics during election years

The current controversy over the role Senator John Kerry played during his time in Vietnam, and his activities after he returned back to the US, illustrates perfectly why I have declined to get involved in comment about US politics, most specially during Presidential election years, although outwith those periods I have risked a comment from time to time.

Trying to get at the truth of what happened in Vietnam way back in the late 1960s is hampered by people's differing memories, and perhaps also their emotions following some of Kerry's actions both there and following his return to the US. Apart from that, I must also say that whilst I am interested in what goes in the US (it is after all of major importance quite often in our own domestic scenario here in the UK), my interest in the minutiae of what goes on there goes only so far; life is far too short and however important the US may be, I have a life to lead and not all of it is in any way affected by that country. In addition, much of this current controversy seems to be fuelled by partisan views (on both sides) which have little to do with the ostensible matter being discussed.

Now that I've written all that, the reason for this post is that my attention has been drawn to a very interesting article in The Washington Post which seeks to try and garner as much evidence as is available about key periods of Kerry's time in Vietnam and to collate it in such a way that some kind of 'objective' view becomes possible when considering the contentions of the pro- and anti-Kerry factions, and Senator Kerry himself. The writer of the article does not conclude that he has entirely succeeded in disentangling the multiple versions of events then, but his article does seem to present its evidence in what looks like a reasonably dispassionate manner, something that is unfortunately sadly lacking in much of the commentary from both sides. (thru An Englishman's Castle)

Realistically all I can do as a non-US citizen is wait patiently until the results of this year's Presidential election become clear; we will have to live with the consequences whatever they are. It seems to me that both of the major political parties there have had both successful and inadequate (for various reasons) incumbents as President. I do have views on both the contestants this time around, but they shall remain private until after the results are in. My comments after the last Presidential election are here (in the comment area of my main website, as I hadn't begun this blog then); they are of no value whatsoever, I assure you, in ascertaining what my views are this time around.

Nairn Highland Games - Saturday 21 August 2004

The 127th Nairn Highland Games are being held in Nairn today and the main events take place on the cricket pitch just outside my home; the official website is here. The following photographs were taken from my apartment today:


The massed pipe bands make their inaugural circuit of the field. I abhor nationalism, but there is something about a massed pind band playing 'Scotland the Brave' that makes me very proud and happy to be Scottish and British

Early rounds of the Scottish Country Dancing competition

The Half-Marathon gets underway

Tossing the Caber. The caber is almost vertical in mid-air and will shortly fall the correct way, that is to the left, meaning that this was a valid toss

A Shot-Put competitor does his stuff

I usually have a few friends over to help pass the day and along the way a few bottles of champagne get opened. Cheers!

The funfair, just beyond the cricket pitch, has been operating for the past ten or so days and had a busy evening yesterday, but will probably have a better evening today, because the weather so far today has been much better - it will probably go on until just before midnight, so there will be lots of lights, noise and laughter (and screaming) drifting across the cricket pitch tonight!

The place of Islam in Britain

There is a very interesting 'Opinion' piece in today's Daily Telegraph by Charles Moore (a former Editor of this newspaper and something of a 'guru' amongst a certain type of right-of-centre Briton) on the place that Islam should occupy in Britain. I do not agree with everything he writes today, but it is nevertheless very thoughtful and is well worth a read. See what you think ...

The 'war against terrorism' finds some extraordinary targets

Luckily if you are Senator Edward Kennedy you can, eventually, do something about it. I expect if you have less clout that this is well-nigh impossible. The incidents recounted in this sorry tale seem almost too incredible to believe. There but ...

Friday, 20 August 2004

David Blunkett's latest wheeze

Home Secretary David Blunkett, according to this story in the Scotsman (and I can hardly believe it, even from him, maybe it's the Scotsman's idea of a joke) is seeking to apply complete equality to those applying for naturalisation by enforcing the evaluation of competency in English on all applicants, including those from English-speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Now I suppose it is theoretically possible that a Canadian applicant, who is monolingual only in French (or Inuit?) is trying to gain naturalisation in the UK, but I submit (M'lud) that this is not very likely.

If it was not completely tasteless, indeed crass in the extreme, I would be forced to wonder whether Mr Blunkett is not blind to how his actions and striving for some kind of Blunkett definition of 'equality' quite often come across (for those not familiar with British domestic politics I should clarify that Mr Blunkett is in fact blind and makes use of a guide dog and reads most of his speeches from Braille texts). Surely the Scotsman must be exaggerating what is being proposed? If only it were that simple, because many of his proposals are decidedly wacko (not to say illiberal); on balance I cannot discount the possibility that it might be just as the Scotsman is reporting it to be.

2nd Olympic Gold for the UK in Athens

Cyclist Chris Hoy has this afternoon won a Gold medal in the men's cycling 1km time trial, with a time of one minute 0.711 seconds - the fastest-ever time at sea level. He has his own official website here, although the photos are VERY slow to load, but the wait is worth it (for other fine looking Olympians, you can visit Hot Olympians - link thru BoiFromTroy).

To bring this back down to earth, the first Gold for the UK was won yesterday in the Yngling class Sailing competition by our team comprising Shirley Robertson, Sarah Webb and Sarah Ayton.

Congratulations to all four of these Gold Medal winners and to the other UK medal winners. Good luck for the rest of the Athens Games!

"Preparing for emergencies - what you need to know"

I wrote a few weeks back about the government's plan to issue each household in the UK with a booklet desgined to help us to prepare ourselves should some unforeseen disaster arise. I received my copy (two copies, actually - *) today:




© Crown Copyright 2004

I hope, firstly, that this whole exercise will prove to be a great deal of unnecessary expenditure - by that I mean, of course, I hope that no unforeseen disaster will eventuate, but in case it does this public-awareness building exercise may just possibly help to mitigate the damage.

The booklet may be viewed in full, and copies can be downloaded in PDF format in various versions and languages, at www.preparingforemergencies.gov.uk.

Other useful links included within the booklet are:

Civil Contingencies Secretariat
UK Resilience

Emergency planning for schools
Teachernet

Advice on emergency planning for businesses
MI5

Basic First Aid
- if people are seriously injured call '999' (or '112', the EU-wide standard emergency number)

For other First Aid advice, visit:
- Red Cross;
- St. Andrew's Ambulance Association (if you are in Scotland);
- NHS Direct

Helping to prevent a terrorist attack
- You can call the Police Anti-Terrorism Hotline on 0800789 321 (freefone);
- If you believe there is an immediate threat to life, call '999' (or '112')

This has been a public service announcement from billcameron.blogspot.com
(* - I have two mailboxes, for reasons which are unimportant here)

Thursday, 19 August 2004

A frustrating day!

A lot of the reasons for my frustration today are to do with personal matters (not in my personal life as such, more to do with some of the petty indiviudals I come into contact with) that I don't discuss in my blog; suffice to say that I went to bed last night in a very irritable mood, with the world in general and a few acquaintances in particluar. I wakened up frustrated.

It got better during the morning - I had just composed another of my usual brilliant posts (ha! ha!) and pushed the 'publish' button; it was slow and eventually all I got was the 'website not responding' message. This has been happening of late from time to time and I keep reminding myself that I really should make an off-line copy of my posts before uploading them in case it all goes wrong and I lose the whole lot; today I did not do that. Usually these comms problems don't actually cause the whole thing to disappear - I suppose it depends on precisely how much has been saved by the Blogger server when the comms 'glitch' occurs. Today the whole lot was lost and whilst I could have re-created the post more or less from memory, with all the various links I had used, I had to go out for several hours soon after it happened and when I returned (after lunch) I really couldn't be bothered. I daresay the world will get along just fine without these particular pearls of wisdom.

A little later in the day I ended up smoking out most of the house as I forgot I had left something gently simmering on the hob; apart from ending up a charred remnant in the bottom of the pan, no real damage except that there is a lingering burning smell in the rooms nearest the kitchen.

Later still in the day I started to look to take a look at my [investment] portfolio as I need to finalise this year's tax return shortly; for the past few months (indeed for the past couple of years) that has not been a subject to bring much joy to most investors and I am probably no exception, although luckily it can be classified as merely 'disappointing', definitely not 'critical'; it's too well diversified for that. Nevertheless, not something that brings a smile to the face.

Added to which the weather here has been lousy these past few days; water has been coming down from the sky all over the country at a rate of knots with severe disruption to roads and day to day life in a number of areas. Very unseasonable weather, even for the UK!

Right, I think I've ranted on long enough; I better stop for today. But all this is why I've not really posted anything today (other than this petulant outburst). A small glass of sercial [madeira] is what I need. Cheers until tomorrow ...

Wednesday, 18 August 2004

Big Brother (aka your friendly motor insurer) is watching

Norwich Union is piloting in-car vehicle tracking devices with the aim of allowing insurance premia to be paid monthly based on a vehicle's journey characteristics (distance, location, etc etc). It is being 'sold' as a way of allowing low-mileage drivers, in particular, to reduce their premium payments, although it is accepted that high-mileage drivers could end up paying more.

At one level, and indeed when I first read this report, this sounds like a 'good thing', but after a few moments reflection the other aspects of this development began to become clear. A private company, with an interest in making a profit (fair enough) will come to know a great deal about one's movements (or at least those of one's vehicle). How, exactly, will this information be used? To which organisations outside of Norwich Union will the gathered information be made available, if any, either voluntarily or compulsorily (for example to the Police)? Naturally White Rose has not neglected to look at this aspect of the 'surveillance society' we may be sleepwalking into.

Now it so happens that my own motor insurance recently came up for renewal. For many years I have insured my cars with Norwich Union and indeed my home and contents insurance is with them, too. However, whilst there was a moderately large increase in the premium for motor insurance last year, this year the increase was considerably larger - over 20% in fact. This was not entirely a surprise becasue just a few weeks before I had been discussing motor insurance with a visitng relative and he had advised me that his motor insurance (also with Norwich Union) had increased dramatically; he telephoned them to query this and they almost immediately agreed to reduce his premium to what it had been before so he has kept it with them. In my case they immediately agreed to reduce the increase by over a half, but as I had already had a quote from a rival (and good quality) insurer for a premium less than what I was paying two years ago I decided to change to the new company; that's what market economics is all about.

When my home and contents insurance comes up for renewal next Spring I suspect I shall not take my usual path of least resistance (by sending off a renewal cheque), but will instead get a few compteting quotes. And keep 'Big Brother' at bay for a little while longer, into the bargain ...

Tuesday, 17 August 2004

Gays can marry - so long as it's to someone of the other gender ...

... and even if it's a sham.

This interesting article in the Guardian looks at the case of former New Jersey Governor, James McGreevey, who recently resigned from the Governorship during a press conference called for the purpose. Mr McGreevey also announced that he was gay.

Like many gay men (and women, too) he has been married for many years to the same woman and it is speculated that she may have known all along of her husband's confused sexuality (the article suggests this is what Mrs McGreevey's own mother believed to be the case). And if this arrangement works for these two people, then good luck to them.

It would be much simpler, though, and echoing the point the article is making, if gay men and women could marry someone of the same gender, if a suitable person is met, so that the heterosexual spouse can get on and marry another heterosexual. Of course I have nothing against 'mixed' marriages, but in the case of heterosexual/homosexual liaisons society generally, and the religious right in particular, do seem to have pretty curious views on what is good for the individuals concerned, far less society as a whole, as such liaisons are very often (although perhaps not in this case) based on deception.

Is this really something to be encouraged in a healthy society? Wouldn't it be much simpler to let gay people marry and not coerce them into a social conformity which very often leads to long-term unhappiness for both parties and for their progeny, if there are any? These double-standards have, at the very least, in this case resulted in Mr McGreevey's resignation; I have no idea whether he was any good as Governor or not, but if he was performing well just why was it deemed necessary for him to resign?

Monday, 16 August 2004

ID cards may lead to a "surveillance society" ...

... says the Information Commissioner for England and Wales, Richard Thomas. I am even more alarmed when I read someone in his position writing:

"My anxiety is that we don't sleepwalk into a surveillance society where much more information is collected about people, accessible to far more people shared across many more boundaries, than British society would feel comfortable with.

"The government has changed its line over the last two or three years as to what the card is intended for.

"You have to have clarity. Is it for the fight against terrorism? Is it to promote immigration control? Is it to provide access to public benefits and services?"

David Blunkett, Tony Blair and those that think like them, definitely need to be watched. Why is all this information necessary and will it serve any useful purpose? Useful, that is, to the citizen, not solely for the purpose of allowing the state even greater control over our lives. This government has a record of trying to smear individuals who speak out against it; we fool ourselves if we think that an ID card system will not be abused if the government sees advantage in doing so.

Friday, 13 August 2004

Beenie Man sees more US shows cancelled

Good!

California State Supreme Court voids 4,000 gay marriages

Perhaps not an entirely unexpected development, but an extremely disappointing and dismaying one nevertheless.

It is only a short time ago that a gay marriage was similarly voided in France.

Despite all the comment from groups vehemently opposed to gay marriage, most usually on religious grounds (and are we secular societies, or not, pray?), no one has ever been able to explain precisely how the legal union of two gay men or women in a loving relationship is damaging to the institution of marriage. As gay marriage is almost universally outlawed worldwide, and divorce rates are already so high in many countries, it seems to me that the arguments used by the religious 'traditionalists' are not simply deeply prejudiced, but deeply illogical.

UPDATE: (Wednesday 18AUG04 17.35 BST) Interesting post today in BoiFromTroy's blog, generally, and in the light of an exchange of comments on this entry.

Thursday, 12 August 2004

Scotland's major north-south trunk road blocked by flooding and mud-slides

Heavy rain over the past few days in central Scotland has caused havoc on the roads. The most dramatic example has been the closure yesterday of the A9 as a result of a major mud-slide which engulfed cars, lorries and buses. It is not expected to re-open until late today.

Some have attributed this to the effects of 'global warming', perhaps accurately for all I know. On the other hand a Met Office official I saw yesterday evening on the television suggested that heavy summer rains are much more common in Scotland than is realised by most people. As there are few alternative routes to get to this part of Scotland (i.e. the north, where I live), and those alternatives involve very considerably longer distances, the A9 is vital not just for car travel, but for getting goods to and from the area. It is salutary to be reminded of the power of nature.

Police powers of arrest may be vastly extended

Home Secretary David Blunkett has proposed that the range of offences for which a police arrest is justified should be very significantly extended. The Home Office has asked for comment on a consultation paper it has published. If implemented this could see arrest being an option for police in the case of persons who drop litter or who perpetrate graffiti, for example. At present only offences susceptible to a prison sentence of at least five years are arrestable offences.

This proposal, together with a number of the other proposals included in the paper, would represent a considerable extension of state power over the citizen. It seems to be yet another example of Blunkett producing crack-pot ideas during the politically-quiet summer recess. This must be the most illiberal Home Secretary we have had in many decades, from either major political party. The BBC has a comment area to leave views on these proposals. My vew, simply put, is that what we really need (and quickly) is a new Home Secretary who is wedded to the values our democracy is supposed to represent, not someone who seems to have it as his mission to turn us into a nation of helots. He needs to remember he works for us; we do NOT work for him.

'I, Robot' - a review

I saw this on Tuesday, partly as a way of occupying myself for a few hours whilst my mother was having her operation (previous story). I have been reading the science fiction writings of Isaac Asimov since I was nine or ten years old and know most of the stories backwards; they can always bear a further reading, so far as I am concerned. Visit the movie website here.

So I was particularly excited to hear that some of his short stories were to form the basis of a major film. As with all summer 'blockbusters' the interest in the film lies in the special effects, which were pretty excellent.

I think the movie drew also on some themes from others of Asimov's writings - notably 'The Caves of Steel', which had as a major factor the dislike of robots, and the modern world in general, by plainclothes policeman Elijah Baley - this is really the role that Will Smith was playing, in my view. He turned in a workmanlike performance, I'd say, but I was not entirely convinced by it. The other major character was Dr Susan Calvin, the robotocist responsible in the short stories, but not so much in the movie, for much of the design of 'positronic' robots. Bridget Moynahan (whom I had never heard of before) played Dr Calvin in the film and whilst she is an attractive woman, an obvious foil for the 'macho' Will Smith, her acting in this movie did not reach any particularly high notes - as I don't recall having seen her in any other movie, maybe I am doing her a mis-service, though. However, whilst I can understand the desire of the producers to cast an actress in this role who was beautiful and who would be a quasi-romantic interest for Smith, this is VERY different from the character Isaac Asimov created - she was clever, with an icy charm and she could be guaranteed to see nothing but the grimmest of amusement in anything, but she often saw things that 'mere men' (Lanning, her nominal boss, for example, or owner of US Robots, Robertson) would gloss over or fail to identify at all. The idea of her heart 'melting', as it does in the movie, because of a human being is not likely in my view.

However, leaving aside these divergences from Asimov's plotlines, it was an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. I'm glad I went to see it, but doubt if it merits a second viewing, except perhaps once the video is released and appears on the 'bargain' shelf.

I'm back ...

... and happily the 'family matters' I referred to in my last entry seem so far to have proceeded successfully. My mother, who is now quite elderly and somewhat frail, had to go into hospital for what is in theory a minor operation, but as her heart is not strong any operation involving anaesthetics carries some risk. In any case, the result so far is very positive and she says the constant pain she suffered hitherto has reduced considerably; the full effects will only become apparent after a couple of weeks, according to the consultant, but so far it is looking good.

Sunday, 8 August 2004

Brief 'hiatus' until Wednesday

I'm going to be away for a few days from tomorrow, most probably returning on Wednesday, as there are some family matters that require my attention. I'll try and post sometime on Wednesday, but realistically it may be Thursday before I find some time for this.

The weather here in Nairn has been glorious today - something like 23 degC with a clear blue sky and with the wind coming from the south, so it felt balmy for most of the day from late morning on. As well as taking the dog for several walks, I got on my bicycle during the afternoon - something I do far too infrequently - and had a very enjoyable excursion along the shore paths which run for several miles in both directions just in front of my home. There must have been several hundred people on the beach today; it's not often there are so many, but of course it's not very often that we have such pleasantly warm weather here and because it was over a weekend, during the school holidays, a lot of people took the oportunity to head for the beach.

Next Saturday (but see update at end) there are the Nairn Highland Games, which take place immediately in front of my home. In preparation for this, today saw the first contingent of the pleasure fair people arrive - they will set up in the links area immdeiately beyond the cricket field (which is where the Highland Games are held), so from mid-week onward there will be quite a lot of light and noise during the evenings as the pleasure fair starts to open for business; I always enjoy these couple of weeks, but of course it does in fact signal that summer will soon be drawing to a close. Next Friday and Saturday evenings are the busiest, of course, and on Saturday itself there will be a few thousand people attending the Games with more arriving in the evening to keep the pleasure fair busy until well after midnight - it's great fun whilst it lasts, if rather noisy.

I'll be back mid-week. Bye ...

UPDATE: (Monday 9AUG04 12.35 BST) I now discover the Games have been delayed by a week (to Saturday 21AUG04), probably to fit aroound other towns which have Games as well from what I can gather - the judges for the events travel around so for practical reasons clashes are avoided. After a quick lunch today I shall be leaving mid-afternoon, until Wednesday; it's another beautiful and WARM day here.

Thursday, 5 August 2004

Many young people believe 'Gandalf defeated the Armada' ...

... according to a survey carried out for the BBC and reported in the Guardian.

Interesting as all this is, and it is indeed quite illuminating, I think the other aspect of this little piece of social observation which is of even more interest is that these same children presumably equate the Spanish with the Orcs and the Spanish king, in whose name the Armada set sail, as Sauron (or possibly Saruman). It's quite a thought, many of those kids will be taken on holiday by their parents to various Spanish holiday resorts this summer and all the while their unsuspecting Spanish hosts are seen as goblins of various kinds. Methinks there is some cognitive dissonance going on somewhere.

Give me strength!!

This bizarre military review into the conduct of Lynndie England during her time at Abu Ghraib detention centre in Iraq has disclosed that she was 'undisciplined' and had been reprimanded on numerous occasions for "... sneaking into the part of the jail where inmates were housed to visit her boyfriend, Spc Charles Graner. She was sloppy at her administrative job at the jail as a result ...".

Now let me get this straight, the US army is very hot on discipline when it comes to relationships between serving soldiers, hence the need for regular disciplinary measures (which of course seem not to have prevented her having become pregnant). But the US army is not so hot on exercising discipline, far less simple supervision, over what was(is?) going on in the prison cells, as the photographs of Lynndie England 'at work' amply demonstrate. And we are expected to believe that there was no complicity 'up the chain of command'? As I said in the title for this post: "Give me strength!!"

Wednesday, 4 August 2004

Exterminate! Exterminate!

The nation sighs in relief. It seems that the BBC has now settled its dispute over editorial control with the estate of the creator of one of the 'baddies' for the new series of Doctor Who currently in production and due to be screened on BBC1 next year.

So the Daleks are set to play their normal evil role. Doctor Who was one of my favourite television programmes when I was a child, wobbly scenery and rubbish dialogue notwithstanding, and I am looking forward to seeing the new version. Christopher Eccleston is a good choice for the lead role of the errant Time Lord; he seems to be quite a versatile and skilled actor.

'Beenie Man' says 'sorry' (through gritted teeth) ...

... Homophobic rap artist 'Beenie Man' has issued a statement through his record label, Virgin, which is quite obviously a cynical manoeuvre to try and minimise the commercial damage he is suffering (concerts cancelled, etc):

"It has come to my attention that certain lyrics and recordings I have made in the past may have caused distress and outrage among people whose identities and lifestyles are different from my own.

"While my lyrics are very personal, I do not write them with the intent of purposefully hurting or maligning others, and I offer my sincerest apologies to those who might have been offended, threatened or hurt by my songs.

"As a human being, I renounce violence towards other human beings in every way, and pledge henceforth to uphold these values as I move forward in my career as an artist."

What's all this nonsense about may have caused distress and outrage; there is absolutely no doubt that it caused both conditions mentioned and it is inconceivable that the writer of the lyrics (aka 'Beenie Man' himself) did not deliberately use such foul lyrics both to appeal to his depraved fans and with the specific intention of causing the maximum distress and outrage amongst his targets that he now tells us was not done with the "intent of purposefully hurting or maligning others". Pull the other one, mon!

If he lives up to the promise implied in his final paragraph above not to indulge in such foul behaviour in future, nor to use again any of the lyrics in songs already written which have caused so much offence and distress, then it will perhaps become clear that his 'apology' has real meaning and is not just a crass attempt to pemit him to resume his concerts and then, little by little, return to his old foul ways.

UPDATE: (Thursday 5AUG04 00.43 BST) It seems my cynicism about the motives behind this so-called apology were fully justified. According to this report in 365gay.com a different line is being peddled in Jamaica, Beenie Man's home country. There the story is that it is not an apology. It seems clear the sole motive for the statement issued through Virgin is to try and protect the commercial viability of the Beenie Man brand in Europe and North America. Stuff that, is what I say!!

Well I never ...

... Hull, it seems, may become a 'new Mecca' for the gay community; this is the hope of city tourism bosses in Kingston-upon-Hull. Look out Manchester!

I expect we shall see Hull MP and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott boogying on down at 'Affinity' on opening night? I do think he should at least be invited ...

Guantanamo - the mess continues

This Guardian story about alleged mistreatment of British detainees held by the US in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is, if true - explosive.

The story reports allegations by one of those released in March 2004, Rhuhel Ahmed (one of the "Tipton Three"), that he was interrorgated with a gun held to his head with threats he would be shot if he did not respond, by a US personnel, whilst a British personnel (who identified himself as being from the SAS) did the questionning. This would contravene directly the Geneva convention and, according to the MoD would be the subject of an investigation. I am sure that, under normal circumstances, it would be - but nothing about the circumstances of what is being done at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, under US jurisdiction, is in any way 'normal'.

Asif Iqbal, on of the other British detainees released in March, moreover alleges that a British Embassy official wrote down a two-page list of alleged abuses, which if true would directly contradict a statement made in the House of Commons by Chris Mullin, a Foreign Office junior minister, that no Briton had complained of their treatment in Guantánamo.

The 'Tipton three' may be telling a pack of lies, but this affair is so murky and so many backs are being covered that it is very difficult to form any kind of coherent judgement. I rather suspect that the real damage the terrorists threat we face is not the physical damage that has been, and may be again, caused to various locations around the world. Instead the damage is to our own standards of democracy and justice, which have very successfully been distorted, and very possibly abused, by the people we elect to serve us (in the US and the UK) and it is, I'm afraid to say, no longer clear to me that this has even been done with the best of intentions. This is the real triumph that the terrorists have already scored.

Tuesday, 3 August 2004

Jam today ...





'Jam to-morrow and jam yesterday - but never jam today'
(Lewis Carroll - Though the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There)

... this is what I've been doing for the past few hours, proving that you can indeed have 'jam today', at least in this literal sense. Although I no longer eat jams and marmalade myself (courtesy of the Atkins diet I have been following for the past 14 or so months), I still make some of many kinds to give to friends and family, many of whom were upset when I suggested at the time I commenced the diet that I probably would make no more. Now that I've given away almost all that was in my store cupboard (although I discovered six jars of the 'special edition' of my Seville Orange Marmalade from earlier this year today, so that will be a treat for a few people), I thought I shouldn't let the summer soft fruit growing season pass without making at least some.

Today it was the turn of blackcurrant jam production; it is probably the most straighforward of all jams to make as it never fails to set properly - the fruit has so much pectin it is impossible to fail.

In a few days I'll probably turn my attention to raspberries; that is pretty easy, too, although it does require a pectin boost in the form of fresh lemon juice. As for strawberries, I'm going to give turning them into jam a miss in future - the fruit has very little pectin and whilst lemon juice helps it also needs a further boost in the form (usually) of apple pectin to get it to set properly, but as I am not going to consume jams any more, I'm afraid I'm not strongly enough motivated to persevere with it. Very good strawberry (and other) preserves are available from a local north of Scotland firm Baxters of Fochabers, so I'll give people gifts of that brand as required.

I get all my soft fruit from Wester Hardmuir Fruit Farm, just about three or so miles along the road from Nairn. They also produce all manner of vegetables and I am a regular visitor.

As well as enjoying making jams (and 'lemon cheese', mine probably being the best I have ever tasted - not modest, am I?), I do find it fun to put reasonably professional looking labels on preserves I make - the one above is this year's version. The photograph in the background is of the Nairn shore very close to where I live, taken on a brilliant mid-Autumn day last November - you can see the full photograph here.

Monday, 2 August 2004

BNP 'in turmoi' - we can but hope ...

According to this Guardian report, the British National Party (BNP) chairman is under pressure from 'racial nationalists' because of his alleged 'moderate' policies, specifically his wish that non-whites be permitted to join the party.

The BNP is a sinister and worrying organisation. One part of me sees it as potentially beneficial that the party becomes even more extreme because it is likely its growing support may drop-off to leave a much smaller extremist core of members; on the other hand this smaller band of misfits might be more dangerous in practical terms. Of only one thing am I certain; it is better not to try and drive this kind of organisation underground as at least whilst the party remains legal they act as a kind of safety-valve for some of the bigots amongst us.

The 'Hexagon' flies higher

HSBC, the UK's largest bank and the third largest in the world, had a[nother] bumper result in the first half of 2004, with profits reaching GBP5bn (USD9.3bn) for the period. As a former long-term employee I try to follow its activities as closely as I can, not least because I have a financial stake.

(The 'Hexagon' is the HSBC corporate symbol)