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

Tuesday, 30 November 2004

An evening of Sherry, mainly Andalucian wines and Tapas

Yesterday evening the local wine society I am a member of, The Inverness Wine Appreciation Society, had its final tasting evening of the year. The evening was devoted to sherry and various mainly Andalucian wines and was accompanied by various tapas dishes throughout the evening.

Instead of our usual and very good venue, The Glen Mhor Hotel, we were off the river this time close to Inverness Castle at La Tortilla Asesina, a popular tapas restaurant in the area.

We had thirty-five people attending and managed to taste 12 different wines:
- as aperitifs we had three wines, a Palomino Fino, a Pamelita (a fizzy red wine) and a Trencadis Cava Brut Nature NV. The second wine was nicer than it sounds.
- with the various tapas dishes we had a Grimau Chardonnay, a Dry Sack Fino, a 20 year old Palo Cortado, a Hacienda Zorita Aribes des Duero (a red wine), a 30 year old Amontillado, an Andalus Petit Verdot (another red wine) and a Walnut Brown. Most were at least good and a few very much better than that, with the Walnut Brown being very good indeed - it's not a style that is common nowadays and I don't recall ever having had it before.
- following the food and with coffee we had a 15 year old Sweet Oloroso and a Creme d'Alba Liqueur. Both were excellent and the final wine was much less 'cloying' than many of the other liqueurs with added cream I have sampled before.

Even better was that I shared a taxi to and (more importantly!) from the restaurant, so driving a car was not necessary.

Monday, 29 November 2004

Murder in Nairn

Further to my article posted last night, I notice that the 'gentlemen and ladies' of the media have now arrived in force:

- there seems to be a group of about 15 of them at the end of Crescent Road, either trying to get photographs into the street where the crime occurred, or being given a briefing by the police, who seem to be here in quite high numbers. As well as regular police, there seem to be quite a large number of altogether more serious looking individuals ('men in black', so to say) - I counted about 25 of them a couple of hours ago - who one can only assume are here until they actually catch the murderer, said to be armed and dangerous. Although I cannot see into Crescent Road from my apartment, I can see the end of it, where it joins Marine Road, and it is there that a lot of the activity seems to be happening. I cannot get closer because the whole area is cordoned off, including the whole of the cricket pitch and links area beyond.

The latest story on the BBC Scotland website is here - it seems that at this stage there is no known motive for the murder of the 30-year old bank manager.

UPDATE: (Monday 29NOV04 15.47 GMT) As is mentioned in the article BBC article I link to above, the police are in process of visiting all households in the immediate vicinity to interview residents. I just had my visit from the police (2 officers) about a half hour ago - not that I could tell them anything as my curtains/blinds were drawn yesterday evening and with the television on, making supper etc., I heard nothing of what may have been happening outside. The murderer seems not yet to have been caught, so I'm going to get off for my walk with the dog before it gets dark again.

2nd UPDATE: (Tuesday 30NOV04 18.00 GMT) The latest report from the BBC is here. Whilst snippets of additional information are being released, there is as yet no public indication that the police have begun to establish a motive or that they are getting closer to apprehending the murderer. From a purely selfish perspective, however, the police barriers have been removed from all the areas that were cordoned off, so the most direct road access to where I live is open again.

3rd UPDATE: (Wednesday 1DEC04 16.56 GMT) The latest BBC report is here.

Interesting visits to my site

Occasionally I notice visits to my little site, in my stats pages, that strike me as a little unusual - either because of the general weirdness of the query-strings that have been put into a search engine, or because of the origin of the visit.

Yesterday, for example, I noticed I had had a visit from someone in Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean - but I've occasionally seen the '.tt' suffix on IP addresses before, so didn't think it worth mentioning. However, this morning I noticed the '.np' suffix and hadn't a clue as to where that might be from - a little bit of research reveals it to be Nepal; the subject of the query, however, reveals why whoever it was alighted on my site - I had written a very brief article about the Gurkhas in the British military, a couple of months ago. It's this kind of thing which brings home to one just how the internet is bringing the world closer together in many ways.

'Murder on the links' - or at least close by!

I've just been out for my final walk with the dog before bed. At this time of night I normally proceed along a level well-lit road which runs past my building and which runs alongside the cricket pitch; this is a photo I took from my apartment last May to illustrate the scene:

- this whole area (obviously completely dark now), and the road which runs along at the right (out of the photo) is tonight blocked off with 'Police do not cross' tape so I turned down the side road which runs between my side of the building and the cricket pitch toward the cricket pavilion at the bottom corner of the pitch, where I saw there was a police car parked. As I approached, the officer got out and came to talk to me and suggested I go around to the other side of the building, the putting pitch side, with my dog. I asked him what was going on, and he replied (just like you see on television) that it was 'a crime scene' and was being guarded until the crime squad could get to the site in daylight tomorrow morning.

I then asked him if it was serious - he replied 'yes, probably'. Now that I have had a chance to look at the BBC Scotland website, I realise that this was a classic British understatement, as the article I found about the incident was headed Bank manager killed in shooting - a pretty sensational development in a small place like Nairn, believe me. Crescent Road, referred to in the BBC article, is a small road running off Marine Road, which is the road I referred to at the beginning, just at the edge of the cricket pitch to the right of the bandstand (the domed structure in the photograph above) - I often cut up through Crescent Road when I walk up into the town, on the rare occasions when I don't just hop in the car. No doubt there'll be more about this in the news bulletins in the morning, although I've just watched a brief report on the incident on BBC News24.

(The heading for this article comes, by the way, from the title of one of Agatha Christie's 'whodunits')

Friday, 26 November 2004

A walk on the beach in the 'gloaming'

I set off from here just before 4 o'clock, when it was still pretty light although the light was already failing (and it's an overcast day), for a walk along the beach with my dog - we both enjoy running along the sand when the tide is quite far out - and whilst it was obviously not warm, the wind at least was very weak. In any case I was well wrapped up with a down jacket and insulated hat. The lights across the Firth were twinkling and by the time we reached the harbour, about a mile along the beach, the sky was really 'gloaming' - a walk back across the links, and it's almost dark. Curtains and blinds drawn - a bottle of wine chilling to go with my dinner (salmon today) in a few hours time. Contentment.

I thought a more down-to-earth posting was appropriate after my last depressed (and depressing) effort. Have a great weekend!

(PS/ I'll feel a lot better tomorrow evening. A lunch I have had a major part in organising for ninety-eight people at the last count -to celebrate Scotland's Patron Saint, St Andrew - is tomorrow and once that is successfully concluded without too many bread rolls being launched in my direction I shall be able to enjoy the rest of the day.)

UPDATE: (Tuesday 30NOV04 18.10 GMT) I'm pleased to say that the St Andrew's Day lunch last Saturday went very well and that all the bread rolls stayed in the appropriate places. There were minor quibbles with the quantity and quality of the waiter service, but broadly speaking it was a very satisfactory afternoon. We also had a very good presentation about the redevelopment of the Culloden Battlefield site (located about 11 miles from here, toward Inverness), which is being planned for the next few years.

Is the end nigh ... economically speaking?

I have thought for many months, indeed in a less urgent way for a number of years, that the world is long overdue for a major economic correction. Over the past year, in particular, I have begun to feel that this correction cannot be delayed for very much longer, specially since the alarming growth in the US trade and budget deficits has become more widely known - the last figure I had heard was that the US required USD2.0bn of additional borrowing, every day. Now I read that the daily borrowing requirement is now estimated at USD2.6bn a day!

Stephen Newton has a very interesting post about the possible imminence of the trigger that will unleash the financial, economic and human maelstrom that would very probably follow (I know I am using 'purple' prose here, but the situation warrants it). The Economist heads its Buttonwood column this week 'The dollar’s demise' (probably available for subscribers only); persevere with this depressing article, and make sure you read the final part 'Get out while you can'. I wrote about just this matter in the final line of my post when the results of the recent US Presidential election had become clear, although I touched on the interest rate (if not the currency) implications in this post in June 2004.

The great danger with this kind of situation, apart from the underlying fiscal ineptitude of the current US Administration itself, is that talking about the risks will panic people into a stampede away from the Dollar - this will make absolutely certain that what we (or at least I and many others) fear is going to happen, does happen. I leave you to make your own judgement as to how you need to proceed yourself. Recognise, though, that it will be almost impossible for most of us to insulate ourselves from what may be coming; at least you can make your personal situation a little less perilous by being very cautious about using your credit cards between now and January. I am one of those people who has no debt of any kind, but even a creditor like me risks being caught out; if you have significant personal debts, then your situation is probably a lot worse. Now, 'Have a nice day!' folks.

Wednesday, 24 November 2004

Disability and Discrimination Bill reforms to improve position in workplace of those living with HIV

It seems that one of the changes proposed in the Queen's Speech yesterday will have a direct and positive impact on the lives in the workplace of those living with HIV. Reforms to the Disability and Discrimination Bill will extend the definition of disability to cover those with progressive diseases such as HIV, cancer and multiple sclerosis.

There are many other items of legislation announced yesterday to which I take strong exception, notably those relating to 'terrorism' (however tangentially), but these reforms at least do seem to be a step in the right direction.

Monday, 22 November 2004

Atkins Low Carbohydrate Diet - Weeks 64 to 75

After a further 12 weeks on 'Lifetime Maintenance' (since I last wrote here on 30th August) I have managed to maintain my weight at exactly what is was then; my weight as at Sunday 21st November remains at 63.5 Kg (140 Lb); my weight continues to hover between about 62.5 Kg and 64.5 Kg, but it has proved easy to prevent it going outside those limits. 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 static at 37.4 inches (total reduction 11.1 inches);
- thighs static at 21.3 inches (total reduction 7.2 inches).

I'll write here again about my 'Atkins' experiences after another 12 weeks (mid-February 2005). 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.

Sunday, 21 November 2004

Home Secretary Blunkett proposes more dictatorial legislation

The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, today proposed yet more crackpot, and deeply sinister, legislation with the stated aim of 'fighting terrorism'. He said in a television interview that he wants to have anti-terror courts without juries and for phone-tap evidence to be used in trials.

Even more sinister (if that is possible), is that consideration is being given to having civil orders imposed against people suspected of 'acts preparatory to terrorism' even if no offence has as yet been committed and that breach of such orders would become a criminal offence which could result in imprisonment. Yes, this is really what is being proposed. Don't believe me? This is what he is quoted as saying:

"We'd be able to use civil law, like anti-social behaviour orders, to say, 'If you step outside what we've precluded you from doing, if you, for instance, use this particular banking network... then we can move you from the civil into the criminal law', and then we can use the normal criminal justice process."

- does this frighten you as much as it frightens me? Basically what it boils down to is this: the state says it thinks you are planning action against it, gets a civil order approved in some secret show trial, without a jury, you breach the order - and voila you are in prison. ALL WITHOUT HAVING COMMITTED ANY ACTUAL CRIME!

Blunkett says that legislation to do all this will not be tabled until after the next General Election, whenever that is. I am not reassured; the Government knows that if it tried to push through this draconian legislation before the election it would jeopardise its election prospects - that's the only reason for the delay, in my view.

And to top it all we have the 'Civil Contingencies Bill', debated in Parliament last week. This charming piece of legislation, which has on Thursday 18th November 2004 received Royal Assent to become the 'Civil Contingencies Act', allows the Government to repeal or suspend any Act, apart from the Human Rights Act, and despite attempts by the House of Lords to preserve Habeas Corpus and the Bill of Rights (1689), the Government insisted they might have to be repealed, too!!!!!!!!! Read more about the Civil Contingencies Act here. This has received remarkably little attention in the media this week, all the attention having gone to the fierce debate between the Houses of Commons and Lords about the Hunting Bill, which was forced through by the Parliament Act - all very convenient for the Government, of course, as the Hunting Bill drew all the attention away from the far more important Civil Contingencies Bill. If you consider that preserving what remains of our democracy is in ANY way important, that is. In summary, we are being asked to acquiesce in the destruction of our democracy in order to preserve it (to coin a phrase).

All in all, a very depressing end to this year's legislative programme. I await with trepidation to see what further attacks there are to be on civil liberties in the United Kingdom in the forthcoming Queen's Speech.

Wednesday, 17 November 2004

Brutal abuse and torture - and just a few miles from here across the Moray Firth!

At the High Court in Edinburgh today, Martin Ferris, 28, and Selina Kay, 25, were each jailed for four-and-a-half years for the abuse and torture to which they subjected Charles Kelman, 32, over a period of several months whilst all three shared a house at Alness (a town on the Cromarty Firth, just across the Moray Firth from here). It seems that the perpetrators believed that their victim has 'grassed them up', but it also seems that they became 'aroused' by the abuse. It is quite sobering to think that such things are going on only a few miles from here.

National Trust for Scotland stands firm despite complaints from some 'homophobic' members

I wrote last Friday that I was to be away over the weekend. As predicted then, the journey across the Highlands was somewhat unpleasant because the weather was poor - in fact there was a blizzard for part of the journey and the road surface felt rather treacherous so it was necessary to reduce speed substantially. The journey back home on Sunday evening was considerably easier, I'm glad to say; I haven't posted since then because I have been quite pre-occupied with various matters.

The reason for the journey was to attend the annual Members' Centres Conference of The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) which are held at Pitlochry every year; I am Vice-Chairman of the Highland Members' Centre and we usually try and have anywhere from two to four delegates from amongst the Committee - this year we managed four. This year's conference wasn't perhaps quite so useful as it was last year, but it was certainly a worthwhile trip. Pleasingly, it was confirmed that the NTS finances are now back in much better shape, after a number of difficult years, despite visitor numbers to NTS properties being down this year, for various reasons - not the least of which was the poor weather over much of the summer.

One point of particular interest for me, though, came up during one of the presentations last Saturday afternoon, when the operations of the Customer Services Centre were discussed; this is the department within the head office which deals with communications from the public and/or members, whether by telephone or by e-mail. It seems that the largest level of negative feedback received concerned the willingness of the NTS to hire out certain of its properties (castles, stately homes and the like) for what are known as 'Pink Weddings', but are in reality of course not weddings at all, but 'commitment' or 'blessings' ceremonies for same sex couples who wish to express publicly their commitment to one another, in the absence of any more formal mechanism being available to them (until the Civil Partnerships legislation was passed earlier today - see previous story!). I wrote about the NTS's willingness to host these these 'Pink Weddings' here in July last and speculated at the time whether complaints from our own home-grown bigots might put this enlightened policy in jeopardy. Sure enough, during the presentation last Saturday my worst fears seemd to have been realised!

However, it was not mentioned during the presentation what changes in policy, if any, had been provoked by these criticisms. So on Monday morning I contacted the NTS head office in Edinburgh and spoke with the person who had made the presentation (the head of the department) to ask him about this. He confirmed that whilst a significant number of complaints had been received, and whilst most of the complainants had resigned as members of the NTS, no change in policy is contemplated. Apparently the NT (the sister National Trust in England and Wales) has also received a significant number of complaints about their similar policy - I wrote about this in the above earlier article, too - although I do not know what changes, if any, these have provoked there.

Whilst it is very pleasing to note that the NTS is holding firm to its enlightened policies, I learned during the telephone conversation on Monday that no bookings for 'Pink Weddings' have been made so far, probably because we Scots are much too sensible to 'waste' money on what is at present, after all, a purely symbolic ceremony with no legal significance whatsoever. However, now that the Civil Partnerships Act has come into being and is likely to take effect in about a year's time, it is possible there will be bookings for Civil Partnership ceremonies at NTS properties in due course. The use of NTS properties for heterosexual marriages has been growing steadily in recent years (and this was the subject of one of the presentations last Sunday) and is providing useful additional income to help fund the upkeep of the properties where they occur, so the prospect of adding another revenue stream from Civil Partnership ceremonies sounds like an attractive proposition - I am glad, but not entirely surprised, that the NTS continues to look at this in a practical and enlightened way.

House of Lords passes Civil Partnerships Bill

The House of Lords this evening passed the Civil Partnerships Bill, with 251 voting in favour and 136 voting against. The Bill has now passed all legislative hurdles and once granted Royal Assent, expected later this year, will become law. The first civil partnerships under the new Act are expected to occur in about a year.

This is really tremendously good news! It will now be open to same-sex couples to obtain many of the protections before the law hitherto available only to married couples. This will be of particular importance in issues relating to inheritance, rights as 'next of kin', pension rights and many more. The new legislation will also impose a number of obligations upon those who form civil partnerships. It is gratifying to note that this legislation passed with the support of all the major political parties, despite rearguard action to prevent it on the part of a number of Conservative dinosaurs in both Houses. I think another glass of marsala is called for this evening!

Friday, 12 November 2004

A brief 'hiatus' until Monday

Blogging has been somewhat sporadic recently, real life having intervened. I'm off in the next couple of hours and will most likely return Sunday evening, although there'll be no postings here before Monday. The weather forecast in this part of the country for this afternoon is supposed to be quite 'wild', so my car trip across the Highlands may prove eventful, but not too eventful (I hope).

Many things have been going on the past few days, personally and in the wider world. In the latter, the death early yesterday morning of Yasser Arafat is probably the most significant; I've been waiting to consider this before writing about it as it seems to me many opinions I have heard/read on the matter are so polarised that rational analysis becomes difficult. Perhaps next week, when the 'dust has settled' on the emotions of the past few days, will be the time to try and look at what this may mean for the future. We'll see ...

There are some fine blogs linked to in the column at right; pay them a visit if you have time. Now, have a great weekend!

Wednesday, 10 November 2004

British diplomat praised by FCO, but remains suspended by it

Mr Craig Murray, formerly British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, has been praised in a Foreogn and Commonwealth Office report for drawing attention to human rights abuses there. However, he was some time ago 'recalled' from his post, then suspended indefinitely and it is stated by the FCO that he had lost the confidence of senior officials and colleagues.

Mr Murray contents that he has been victimised becasue he has criticised MI6 for using intelligence gained under torture by the Uzbek authorities (there have been persistent rumours that suspects have been handed to the Uzbek authorities by western governments - the US being most frequently mentioned - so their intelligence services are not directly involved in the torture they are alleged to turn a 'blind eye' to). This brings to mind the saying that a diplomat is a person sent abroad to lie on behalf of his country. Mr Murray is very probably a very sound individual whose conscience has placed him at odds with some of his colleagues (and servants of our government) with less highly-developed ethics. Sordid.

Scotland to ban smoking in enclosed public places

The Scottish First Minister, Jack McConnell, announced in the Scottish Parliament this afternoon that the Scottish Executive is to legislate against smoking in enclosed public places, supported by fines against businesses who fail to comply and against individuals who are persistent offenders. The legislation is to be introduced before Christmas this year and is expected to become effective in Spring 2006.

As a lifetime non-smoker I am neither in favour of nor against this legislation. I am not militantly opposed to smoking and often observe that it is those who were smokers formerly who become the most opposed to it. On the other hand, it is true that many public places become unpleasant for me because of the smoke-filled air, but perhaps even more because fabrics and furnishings become impregnated with stale smoke. Assuming that this legislation passes, and assuming that most businesses comply, it will require refurbishment of many affected premises to remove long-standing odours. That's really all I have to say about this - possibly it will have a long-term beneficial effect on the general health of people in Scotland, in itself no bad thing as we tend to be well down the league tables on many health criteria.

Tuesday, 9 November 2004

US Attorney General John Ashcroft resigns

The Indepundit is reporting that John Ashcroft has resigned, along with Commerce Secretary Don Evans. Ashcroft is commonly viewed as one of the most right-wing members of the Bush Administration and as 'Citizen Smash' writes it will be very interesting to see whom President Bush appoints to replace him as it may provide a clue as to the direction Bush plans for his second-term Administration.

As this seems to be 'breaking' news, the BBC simply has a brief announcement and it doesn't yet appear in the DrudgeReport, probably because he is on the East coast (same goes for InstaPundit), whereas Smash is on the West coast ; no doubt there will be copious comment about this in a few hours.

UPDATE: (Wednesday 10NOV04 00.35 GMT) A fuller US-based report here.

2ND UPDATE: (Thursday 11NOV04 00.10 GMT) The new U.S. Attorney General is to be Alberto Gonzales, currently White House counsel. Whether this will be a 'happier' appointment than was John Ashcroft's is unclear, specially after reading this.

Tory Civil Partnerships Bill 'wrecking amendment' rejected

The latest attempt by backbench Conservative MPs to 'derail' the Civil Partnerships Bill, by introducing an amendment for siblings who have lived together for twelve years or more to benefit from the same rights as homosexuals, has been defeated in the House of Commons with only 74 voting for the amendment and 381 opposing it. An amendment was earlier tabled in the House of Lords by Tory Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, to give long term carers rights under this Bill, but was later removed by the House of Commons. I expect there will be other attempts to wreck this Bill, up until the moment when it is signed into law by Her Majesty The Queen. Until the Conservative Party distances itself formally from the dinosaurs who support such amendments, and who take the Tory whip, then it is not safe to let this Party near the reins of power again. (This post has been amended subsequent to first publishing, for accuracy)

UPDATE (Wednesday 10NOV04 18.35 GMT) The Civil Partnerships Bill has now been passed by the House of Commons (389 for, 47 against), and now returns to the House of Lords next week. Developments are awaited ...

Monday, 8 November 2004

Laughably 'free and fair' (not!) hearings at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

The US Administration has responded to the June 2004 Supreme Court ruling that the Guantanamo detainees have the right to challenge their detentions in federal court, by bringing those who do not decline before anonymous military hearings (free registration required), without benefit of legal assistance to support their cases.

Such, in the early 21st century, is the way the United States of America, consdidered by some [still] to be a democracy committed to the principle of 'innocent until proved guilty' in judicial proceedings, chooses to conduct itself.

UPDATE: (Monday 8NOV04 21.50 GMT) After Lt Cmdr Charlie Swift, a military-appointed lawyer acting for Yemeni Salim Ahmed Hamdan, filed a federal lawsuit arguing the military commissions are not legal and should not have jurisdiction in his client's case, a US federal court has halted proceedings at Guantanamo Bay against the former driver for the al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden. It seems that when the light is shone into the sordid goings-on at Camp Delta, the US civilian courts are forced to act.

Oh, how right the EU Parliament was to blackball Buttiglione from the EU Commission!

Signor Rocco Buttiglione's petulant announcement that he plans to camapign for 'Christian values' in Europe reveals just how vital it was for the EU Parliament to disallow his candidature as the EU Justice Commissioner. If he hadn't been directly implicated in efforts to remove discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation from the Charter of Fundamental Rights, then I could just about have gone along with his nomination to the EU Commission, but as it is we are FAR better off without him.

Sunday, 7 November 2004

That didn't take long ...

... I've been reading nonsense in a number of right-wing US-based blogs and websites over the past few days, since the US Presidential elected concluded. The nonsense being that there was no direct correlation between the success of President Bush in his recent re-election bid and the desire of evangelical Christians to make marriage between gays, or civil unions, impossible and indeed generally to make life as difficult as possible for 'homosexualists'. Rather it has been suggested that the desire of said evangelical Christians was merely to reflect their support for what are supposed to be some anodyne 'family values'; they want us to believe that this had little to do with dislike for gays, but take care not to talk about what they do mean by these amorphous 'family values' or 'moral values'. The fact that there was intense political advertising pre-election demonising gays is conveniently overlooked; writers of this nonsense must believe we suffer from severe short-term memory deficiency; this may be my fate in years to come, but not yet awhile ...

Now it seems that Mr Karl Rove has told Fox News Sunday:

"Without the protection of that amendment, we are at the mercy of activist federal judges or activist state judges who could, without the involvement of the people, determine... that marriage no longer consists of a union between a man and a woman," Rove told Fox News.

"Marriage is a very important part of our culture and our society. If we want to have a hopeful and decent society, we ought to aim for the ideal.

"And the ideal is that marriage ought to be and should be a union of a man and a woman."

to emphasise that 'Bush would "absolutely" push the Republican-controlled Congress for a constitutional amendment, which he said was needed to avert the aims of "activist judges" who would permit gay marriages'.

He went on to say, referring to the statement by the President that he supports civil unions, that:

"He believes that there are ways that states can deal with some of the issues that have been raised, for example, visitation rights in hospitals or the right to inherit or benefit rights, property rights.

"But these can all be dealt with at the state level without overturning the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman," Rove said.

"We cannot allow activist local elected officials to thumb their nose at 5,000 years of human history."

- but this presupposes that States will, without a Federal law to force them to, wish to enact such legislation. Indeed it is clear that the amendments passed last week to various of the State constitutions run in entirely the oppposite direction. Unless I, as a non-American, am overlooking something pretty fundamental about the way the US operates then I think that Mr Rove is indulging, yet again, in an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes! And I would like to see him justify that last bit about "5,000 years of human history", as the period of time during which our notion of marriage has existed is very considerably shorter than 5,000 years! Even 500 years might be pushing it!

Further, I think this clears up satisfactorily any confusion as to true motivation. No doubt some right-wingers with aspirations to belonging to a media elite (even of the right-wing variety!) find it embarrassing that the notions they have been peddling are in reality of the 'redneck' variety, masquerading under the cloak of piety and evangelical values; it is good that Mr Rove has cleared the matter up.

Friday, 5 November 2004

More Andrew Sullivan ignorance about the Middle East

Andrew Sullivan displays, once more, his ignorance of the Middle East with this sneering comment, following reports of the death of the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan:

Check out this fawning account of the life of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan in yesterday's Daily Telegraph. My favorite snippet:
"His skills as a mediator were celebrated throughout the region. They had been honed during a long apprenticeship as Ruler's Representative in the Eastern Region of Abu Dhabi, lasting from 1946 until he took over as Ruler in a bloodless coup 20 years later. His sense of honour became a trademark. He never betrayed the solemn fraternal oath he and his brothers swore before their mother Sheikha Salaama not to murder each other."
What restraint!

Yes, Arab desert culture is very different from that of your average urbanised Briton or American. Sheikh Zayed was, however, unequivocally, a good man and to mock his pledge before his mother, in a culture where fratricide was not uncommon, is quite uncalled for. Whilst it is certainly true that there were certain aspects of Sheikh Zayed's life that were somewhat 'curious', it remains a fact that he did a great deal for his country, partly through the good luck of the territory he controlled containing something like 10% of the world's known oil reserves, but even more because of his very effective political skills in uniting warring tribes into a pretty peaceful and moderate country, the United Arab Emirates. In his own Emirate, Abu Dhabi, his similar skills, not the least of which was the 'restraint' he showed in not following the common path and eliminating his brothers as potential rivals, but instead making sure that every citizen had a chance to benefit from the wealth made possible by the natural resources their Emirate was blessed with.

Even I, as a foreigner, benefitted in a small way from his goodness. It was his dream, as someone born in a country short of potable water, to make the desert 'bloom'; of course, he couldn't do that literally, but there is still a lot of greenery in the capital and other major settlements, with little expense being spared to bring the water there (from desalination plants) to allow this to happen. How did I benefit? Simple - if you had a garden, you could get enough plants to fill your garden, of whatever kind you wanted, simply by applying to the municipality nurseries. There was no charge of any kind. Similarly, one of the other senior people locally had laid out a public park on his land, but outside the walls of his palace, where anyone could have a picnic or simply take the dog for a walk - that's what I used it for. It was relatively little used, because it was in a secluded residential area, pretty close to where I lived, so one never felt in any way crowded in what was in any case a pretty large space - several dozens of acres.

No, Sheikh Zayed was a good man who could so easily have taken his country in a quite different and less attractive direction.

Government suffers spectacular defeat in North East devolution poll

Deputy Prime Minister John 'Slugger' Prescott, suffered a major defeat last night, after the good folks of the North East of England delivered a resounding 'No!' vote in the referendum they were presented with for a devolved regional assembly. The proposition was rejected by 696,519 voters, with 197,310 supporting it; turnout was 48.36%, considered quite a good level for such a pointless referendum. It was pointless because it was generally agreed that the devolved assembly would have had almost no real authority, but would simply have added another layer of government and expense, without bringing any discernible benefit.

Even more devastatingly, the proposition was rejected in all 23 council areas in the region, including in Sedgefield, which encompasses Prime Minister Tony Blair's own Parliamentary constituency. Let's hear no more of such pointless publicity stunts from this Labour government; it's bad enough having the talking-shops in Edinburgh and Cardiff and London, of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the London Regional Assembly, respectively. Enough, already!

Another gay hate attack in London

Just days after the murder of David Morley in London, there has been another hate crime directed against a gay man, in north London this time. The victim, as yet unnamed, is a 25-year old who was visiting the UK to see his partner; the two were travelling back home at around 4am this morning by bus, when the attack took place. The victim is in "serious but stable" condition in hospital after being knifed in the neck, arm, and leg; his life is, fortunately, not thought to be in danger.

There is a CCTV image of the attacker, taken on the bus, and the Police are trying to trace him; let's hope they succeed so he can be punished severely.

Thursday, 4 November 2004

Homophobic reggae performer refused UK visa

Sizzla, a Jamaican reggae singer who has advocated the killing of gays, has been denied a visa to enter the UK. This means that the remaining concerts on his planned UK tour, which the venues had refused to cancel, will no longer happen. Good! People who incite violence, and who do not have a right of abode in the UK, need to be kept out.

President Bush re-elected for second term

Well, the US Presidential election has now reached a conclusion; President Bush has been re-elected for a second four-year term. I cannot say I am very cheered by this development; it will be no surprise to anyone who has read my blog for a while that the socially conservative policies pursued by Bush are NOT to my taste! On the other hand I supported his (and our) policy in Iraq, even if some aspects of the way he is waging the 'war on terrorism' strike me as counter-productive if the aim is genuinely to reduce terrorist threats in the future.

I watched Senator Kerry making his concession speech live and thought that his delivery was much, much better than any I had seen from him before. His usual style is rather 'wooden', but in his concession speech he somehow managed to sound much more natural. Basically he always struck me as a pretty 'sound' individual, but today he showed that more than this he was quite capable of injecting some warmth into his delivery. An hour later I watched President Bush deliver his victory speech; I hope he meant it when he said:

"A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation. We have one country, one constitution, and one future that binds us."

and that this translates into a less vicious attitude toward that sector of the US population which some of his supporters characterise as 'perverts', 'deviants' or 'homosexualists'. Of course, as I wrote in the article before this, the fact that eleven states have outlawed same sex marriage has not diverted the 'Christian Coalition' from its determination to have sweeping anti-gay legislation written into the US Constitution. It is sobering to read that 1 in 5 of gays who voted, voted for President Bush.

I was glad four years ago when Bush was elected, given that the alternative was Al Gore, and I wrote as much at the time. On this occasion, however, there was a perfectly acceptable alternative - but the American people have made their decision, albeit a pretty evenly divided American people, and we will all just have to learn to live with their decision. Luckily I do not live in the US, so I will not have to bear the brunt of the religious intolerance which seems to form such a central part of his policy-making agenda - billandkent do, however, have to face up to what a Bush Presidency has meant to date and will continue to mean for the next four years and here is what that Bill has to say about it. And that is only one aspect of his agenda - the economic profligacy of the US government he presides over, and of course of Americans generally, is only sustainable because of the willingness of major international lenders such as China and Japan to keep on accepting US debt in vast quantities - we're talking here of the order of USD2bn a day! Even for an economy so large and broad as that of the US one really does have to wonder for how long this is sustainable. Tax cuts are all very well, but President Bush cannot be 'accused' of managing the US economy prudently (memo to self - switch US Dollar deposits into Euros pronto). Rant over ...

Wednesday, 3 November 2004

Eleven US states ban gay marriage

In the elections yesterday, eleven US states have voted in state constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage. The states are: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, Oregon and Utah. Only in Oregon did the measure pass with a slim margin.

In three of the states that is 'all' that is banned (namely Oregon, Mississippi and Montana). In eight states (Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio and Utah), hoewever, additionally banned are civil unions and domestic partnerships, with the amendment in Ohio going further by banning the granting of any benefits to same-sex partners.

Frankly, for a country supposed to be based on 'freedom' and 'liberty' this doesn't shock me any more, but it does disgust me. I'll comment on the big issue only after the result of the Presidential election is announced formally.

Bermuda government proposes to legislate against homophobia

Bucking the trend of governments in or near the Caribbean the Bermuda government has announced proposed legislation to ban discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation to bring the island "out of the dark ages and create an awareness about living openly rather than hiding these things in the closet", in a staement by Community Affairs Minister Dale Butler.

Welcome news, if unexpected (having been omitted from the recent 'speech from the throne'). One wonders if the high importance of the tourist dollar is at least partially responsible for this move.

Tuesday, 2 November 2004

Rest in Peace - David Morley

David Morley was murdered on Saturday night. He died in hospital after having been beaten in a savage attack in London in what it is suspected was a series of gay-hate crimes, where a gang of youths (male and female) seemed to be attacking people in an area where homosexuals were known to congregate.

It is especially poignant, and angering, that Mr Morley had survived the 1999 bombing of the Admiral Duncan Pub in Soho, in which a homophobic and racist terrorist carried out a series of attacks on the gay and the black communities.

Now he is dead.

Windfarms in Moray

Just after finishing writing the previous article, I happened to look out of my study window. Immediately outside my building I look out over the cricket pitch, the bandstand and beyond that part of the town of Nairn with in the far distance a view stretching for many miles south east (probably east south east, more precisely) over trees, farmland and hills.

I noticed away in the far distance some white pillars glinting in the sunlight (it is a beautiful early winter day here) and on looking through my binoculars confirmed my immediate assumption that I was seeing some of the towers in a windfarm; I seem to be able to see about four clearly and through the binoculars they are very prominent. If my research is correct, what I am seeing is actually roughly 35 miles away - there's a photograph of what I'm seeing (evidently taken from a different direction as I'm west north west) available here, if you scroll down the page quite a way.

There has been quite a lot of controversy (scroll down page from the third link) in the past few years here about the wisdom of developing windfarms; personally I am moderately in favour, although the drawback is that when the "wind don't blow, you don't get no power" so that pushes up the real cost of the investment. But from an aesthetic point of view, I think they look quite attractive - a view not shared by everyone, of course, and that is putting it mildly! At the last Scottish Parliament elections here, in 2003, there was indeed a small pressure group party named "Stop Windfarms in Moray" (scroll down to the 'Protect Rural Scotland' section). Anyway, for me it provides a point of interest away on the far horizon.

A useful counterblast on the role of France in countering terrorism

Despite what one might believe from reading some of the more lurid commentary (mainly emanating from the US) about the 'cowardly' French and their 'cheese-eating surrender monkey' ways - almost all of the most well-known right-of-centre US-based weblogs seem to talk about this often - the truth is rather different, and this article in EURSOC makes some useful points, specially coming as it does from a source which is often pretty critical of France.

Having lived in France itself for a number of years, and in various French-controlled or French-influenced territories for additional years, I have been well aware for years that the French can be pretty ruthless, and ruthlessly pragmatic, when furthering what they see as their own national interests. Quite apart from their pretty rigorous practical steps to counter terrorism domestically and the efforts of their (by repute) well-respected intelligence services to gather and share information, one has only to recall how they dealt with the fallout from the Rainbow Warrior sinking in New Zealand to realise that the Scottish Royal motto 'Nemo me impune lacessit' might apply with equal vigour to France. Sometimes the actions of French governments are pretty distasteful, but they always have the interests of France (as they see them) in mind - there are countless examples to choose from: the 'Vichy' regime, the processes of disengagement followed in Indo-China and later in Algeria, not to mention the petty (but drastic) actions in some former French West African territories.

Trouble in 'Middle Earth'

I've just been listening to a recording from yesterday evening of a programme on BBC Radio4, in the Crossing Continents strand, entitled "Trouble in paradise?". It discussed what seem to be growing racial tensions in, of all places, New Zealand. I remember hearing vaguely about this a few months ago, but New Zealand is a long way away (from the UK). Nevertheless, the programme was a real eye-opener for me, when a great deal of unfamiliar material was discussed and names brought up that I find surreal (for example, rival Maori gangs called Black Power and Mongrel Mob), but unfortunately all too grounded in reality. The programme will be available via an audio feed from the link above, for the next couple of days - until the next programme is broadcast on Thursday. There is a lengthier BBC internet article about the programme here, in case you miss the audio broadcast.

The trigger for what may be a major factor in next year's general election there is the Foreshore and Seabed Bill proposed by the country's current Labour administration, which would have the effect of nationalising these areas, by making them 'Crown Property'; as an aside, here in the UK the foreshore is already Crown Property and has always been so. In New Zealand it seems to be different, perhaps (and I speculate here) because of the provisions of the Treaty of Waitangi, signed between the British Crown and the Maori in 1840. A fuller treatment of the documents which comprise the Treaty can be found here. The crux of the current dispute is that the Maori claim that the Treaty recognised Maori ownership of the natural resources of the country, whilst granting the Crown preemption in acquiring same.

My impression of New Zealand is that they had so far managed relations between the European incomers and the indigenous inhabitants in a rather successful manner, at any rate far more successfully than in neighbouring Australia, with Maori participating much more fully in the life of modern-day New Zealand than is the case across the Tasman Sea. This happy consensus may be breaking down; a startling fact is that, coupled with the immigration into New Zealand in recent years of sizeable numbers from Asia (i.e. non-European) it is estimated that within the next thirty years the Europoean population will become a minority there; the character of the country is likely to change significantly as a result. Unfortunately all these changes will probably take many decades to develop fully, so will probably only become of international significance long after I am 'pushing up the daisies', but I will certainly be very interested to see how this interesting transformation progresses in the coming years. New Zealand is one of the few countries I haven't yet visited that I really want to see (and not just because of 'The Lord of the Rings' although that has added some topicality).

Tomorrow we may know (I hope!) the result ...

... of the US Presidential election. Readers of this blog will know that I have refrained from making any comment on the presidential campaigns currently reaching their climaxes in the United States. On the other hand, whilst I do have views on the matter, there is nothing I can do to affect the result except to hope that the American people get it right. What I do think I can say, though, is that neither man fills me with the feeling that he is particularly meritorious of being President; neither seems an outstanding individual to me, someone whom you recognise immediately as being specially worthy of becoming President for this next term. The choice really seems to be one of: which is the less likely to be a 'bad' President?

The only comment I would make at this time is to refer you to this Guardian article by David Aaronovitch, flagged up by Andrew Sullivan. Finally, I will undoubtedly be up quite late tonight, as I am most nights, but I have no intention of carrying out some kind of all-night vigil to await every snippet of news; I expect a good night's sleep will be a lot more beneficial in the wider scheme of things.

Monday, 1 November 2004

ElBaradei issues N Korea warning

Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is urging North Korea to re-join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (it left two years ago).

This follows on from his warning in January 2003, just after North Korea expelled the UN inspectors, which I wrote about at the time (scroll down to the second article from the link).

Truly worrying ...

'Sick Leave' in the public service

It seems that civil servants in the UK took, on average, two weeks off work as 'sick leave' last year. Curiously the start day for such 'sick leave' was most often a Monday. Roughly a third of staff took no time off at all, and a further third took somewhere between one and five days off work a year each as 'sick leave'. So the remaining one third were taking much more than two weeks each.

In my working career of a little over twenty years I don't think I can have had to take more than five or ten days in all throughout that whole period. Luckily I enjoyed (and enjoy) pretty good health, but nor was there any particular pressure not to take time off when genuinely unwell. Personally I always felt it my duty to take time off if I was unwell with something even mildly infectious (a cold, for example) or, obviously, more infectious (e.g. conjunctivitis, which I had on one occasion). I also occasionally had to insist that staff working for me take time off for similar reasons.

I suspect civil servants behave somewhat differently because the tapxpayer has no choice whether to continue to fund the 'businesses' these people work for. And apart from cases of gross negligence or misconduct their employment is pretty secure. And if they waken up on a Monday not in the mood (for whatever reason) to go to work what can anybody do about it? Probably very little.