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

Thursday, 31 January 2008

Day 3 - Orléans to Millau

Today was a lengthy drive, so far as I am concerned (520km or about 323miles) and I was pretty tired when I got here - and rather 'ratty' with it, I'm afraid. It was an excellent drive though - overnight in Orléans it had been bitterly cold (several degrees below zero) with thick ice on the car in the early morning. However, by the time I came to leave (about 10am) the ice on my front and rear windscreens, not to mention the headlights, was pretty soft and could be brushed off easily.It was still overcast though, and there was a pronounced freezing mist (luckily not fog) for the first couple of hours. However soon after passing Clermont-Ferrand the sun started to make tentative efforts at piercing the gloom and it grew steadily brighter until it was a bright sunny afternoon, although it never got very far above freezing - briefly about 7degC, but as most of the final couple of hours was well above 700 metres altitude, wirth lengthy periods well above 900 metres (and a maximum signposted alitude of 1,110 metres (3,642 feet) it was considerably cooler, hovering just above zero for the last 2 or so hours.

The highlight of the day for me was near the end when I approached Millau - instead of going down into the town (literally, as it's at the foot of the Tarn valley) I decided to cross the Viaduc de Millau in both directions, inquiring of the young woman at the toll booth before the first crossing if I could get back down into Millau from the northern side (approached from the south) after coming back across the Viaduct; she explained which junction I should turn around at; the toll to cross the bridge is €5.40 each way - I considered the €10.80 money well spent to experience crossing it twice! There's quite a good view of the Viaduct from the motorway when approached from the north, but not much from the south, but crossing it was both a great and an anodyne experience - it's really just a 2-lane motorway and the Viaduct is just a well-integrated part of it, although it's not flat - it slopes upward quite a lot from north to south. The engineering achievement is best from from the side, however and the image below was taken from the balcony of my hotel bedroom at sunset:

Viaduc de Millau, Millau (Aveyron), France
31 January 2008

Click here to see a larger image.

The hotel I'm in tonight is quite comfortable, the bedrooms particularly. I had an excellent dinner, mainly fish and seafood based, but the décor in the dining room was decidedly dated and the service was small-town well-meaning and friendly, rather than big-town slick and professional. The 'rattiness' I referred to earlier was nothing to do with the restaurant, just the lead up to arrival at the hotel and a few things that happened soon after. The hotel is located in the centre of this very old town with the narrow streets you find in such places. Without SatNav I'd still be looking for it! First one must block the very narrow street outside the hotel to announce one's arrival to get authorisation to get into the private garage, then negotiate the very narrow lane to get into it, all the while traffic is piling up behind! Then when I get into the room a couple of the table lamps need their bulbs changing (something house-keeping should have done earlier in the day!!) so I am moved to the room next door. All this takes time. Then when I try out the codes for the wi-fi internet access, it doesn't work. Frankly if companies are going to give complicated codes using 'O' and '0' (the letter O and the number 'zero') they should do so in a typeface that allows one to distinguish easily which is which!!!! After I've tried it a couple of times the ISP (Orange in this hotel chain) tells me this code is blocked!!!! A little later the young lady from reception brings up another 'gratis' password sheet and I get online with that. All well and good, but instead of having an hour and a half to get everything done before going down to dinner I have barely 20 minutes because of the room change and the problems with the wi-fi code. Hence my 'rattiness'.

Now enough of this - after copious quantities of wine with dinner (I decided after my irritating arrival at the hotel to have wine with the meal, despite my diet not premitting this) I am more or less back to an even emotional keel.

Tomorrow's drive will take me, at long last, into Spain and I will be spending tomorrow night in Castelldefels, just south of Barcelona.

¡Hasta Luego!

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Day 2 - Zeebrugge to Orléans

The crossing last night was very comfortable indeed, although the cabin was rather over-heated for the first few hours. Whilst the sea was moderately rough, the ship is well-stabilised (as I knew from previous crossings) so any movement was very minor. After a decent dinner and some coffee watching the news on TV and reading, I headed straight back to my cabin and continued reading for a while. But I was very tired (not having had an enormous amount of sleep the night before leaving home) so soon put my book down and got to sleep.

The ferry arrived bang on schedule in Zeebrugge and by 12.30 pm I was heading down the highway to Bruges and then on into France. The weather was a bit hit-or-miss; quite a lot of rainy showers really until nearing Paris, when the sun came out briefly. Going round the Bd Périphérique was every bit as tiresome as I had anticipated; I was hitting Paris just around 4pm and by the time I was on it it was already about 4.20pm and the late-afternoon traffic jams were in full swing. That probably added 45 minutes or so to my journey time, but apart from that the journey was straight-forward. Only problem I had was that my SatNav kept falling off the windscreen - the new model (a TomTom GO 720T) I got a few months ago is a lot lighter than the earlier model and I've not had this problem with it before; perhaps the suction cup has become a little weakened or I need to clean the windscreen thoroughly. Anyway, it got me around Paris efficiently and up to the door of the hotel. I think part of the problem is that there was a lot of stopping and starting going round Paris and some pretty uneven road-surfaces. However excellent meal here earlier this evening made up for most of these frustrations; a really nice steak cooked exactly as I had asked - saignant - when one asks for the equivalent 'medium-rare' in the UK it is invariably what the French would call au point (i.e. 'medium'). It is impossible to get a proper bleu (very rare) steak in Britain in my experience. Being in France again is very reassuring if you care about what you eat - even in the most basic establishment (e.g. motorway eating places, for example) they try their best to serve decent fare.

Tomorrow the plan is to drive to Millau to see and travel across the spectacular Viaduc de Millau, designed by Sir Norman Foster and opened three or so years ago; supposedly it's a 4 1/2 hour drive from here, so with lunch I expect it'll take me at least 6 hours. This is the whole reason I'm travelling this route rather than down the A6 Dijon/Beaune/Lyon route I have always taken before; I'm looking forward to seeking the Viaduc de Millau a lot!

Now to other matters completely. Whilst driving down toward Paris I heard on the radio that Derek Conway MP has announced he won't contest his seat at the next election, after having had the Conservative whip withdrawn yesterday by David Cameron. I think this was inevitable and very welcome - he really had got to go. I saw his Commons apology before I left and the way he made it sound was as if it had been a minor 'oversight'. Stuff and nonsense - simple pure crookery instead and he has been found out and humiliated. It's a remarkable change for someone who was thought a possible future Speaker to fall so far so fast. His case was blatant, but frankly so are some of those on the Government benches - why is it taking so long to get these ... [delightful people] out! It seems that the difference between the Conservatives and Labour is that when a Conservative does it, the method is blatant and spectacular, whereas 'sleekit' Labour politicians nudge the laws as far as they can, so it is too often difficult to prove rather than just very strongly suspect they are wrong 'uns. I think also that when Conservatives are found out they treat it more seriously and respond quicker - this was as true when the Conservatives were in Government as it is now. I'm sorry to be old-fashioned about it, but whilst the Conservatives may often be 'cads', they have some modicum of honour, whereas for Labour everything seems to come down to 'finessing' the rules, but has precious little to do with dignity or self-respect. As for the LibDems, well I abjure swearing in this blog as regular readers will know, but I will permit myself to say this - the LibDems are far too often two-faced, self-serving swine of the very worst kind. Much as I dislike what Labour is supposed to be about ('socialism'), I have long accepted that most of those who support it are sincere in their deluded ideas of what might make Britain a better place, even if the present crowd are rapidly reaching the same end which has befallen every other Labour government - spending far too much on the wrong things and doing so poorly; as I suspected almost from they were elected in May 1997, Brown's claim to be a prudent guardian of the economy has proven just as false as every other Labour government previously in power.

Oh, and to close, a couple of topical subjects about France, as I am currently enjoying the hospitality of these wonderful and highly individualist people:
- there was a discussion programme earlier on TF1 about the SocGen affair with some of the great and good of French politics and television alongwith a lawyer acting for SocGen. The burden of it was that whatever happens a foreign takeover, or any takeover, of the bank must be prevented - this being France I really don't think the EU telling France to avoid protectionist moves will stop them if they have a mind.
- the other item was about the President's latest squeeze; such reporting would have been impossible to imagine in France before Sarkozy deliberately changed the long-standing rule (at least so far as he is concerned) about not reporting on the private lives of important people. Apparently it was Carla Bruni's birthday recently and there was a report about all the guests arriving at her swanky apartment in the 16th arrondissement of Paris (*) and how big were the gift packages they were carrying; really cheesy tabloid stuff and completely revolutionary in France, unlike in the UK, the US or indeed Italy where reporting on public personalities is exhaustive and exhausting. One of the guests was a certain Monsieur Bouygues, ultimate boss of TF1 and long before that the boss of the eponymous engineering and industrial group which is the source of his wealth and power; another guest queried cheekily of the reporter whether they had a heated mobile film unit vehicle and if not perhaps they should ask their boss to provide one, specially on such a cold evening. This kind of thing is completely novel in France; whether it's a good thing is another question entirely.

(*) Not a million miles from where I had my apartment when I lived there - one of the great and good of French television was a regular visitor to another apartment (of a relative, I believe) in the building. Most such people live either in the 16th, or perhaps the 7th, the latter particularly for 'old money'.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Day 1 - Nairn to Rosyth and on-board Blue Star 1

I left this morning around 10am and by about 11.45 was driving into House of Bruar (a rather upmarket pit-stop for food and some quite fancy shopping), a little north of Pitlochry on the A9, where I had some lunch and bought a few 'typically Scottish' gifts to give to a couple of people at my destination - basically jams produced locally. Then just before 1pm I was on my way. The weather when I left home had been overcast, but there was no rain. However maybe 20 or so miles north of Bruar the rain began, light at first, but as I travelled south it got steadily heavier. By the time I reached Perth it was raining quite heavily and that continued until I reached Rosyth at about 2pm - where the ferry port is. However, it doesn't seem to be raining now - perhaps it's such a fine drizzle that it's not showing up on the surface of the water - we're still in port of course and will be leaving here at about 5pm assuming we keep to schedule.

Now I am seated in the bar near the prow (is that the right word?) of the ship, just having a glass of sparkling mineral water and trying out wi-fi access to see how it works from on-board. It was pretty straightforward and I was online wihtin mintues - however, they sell access in 90-minutes slots and it is relatively costly at €9- (GBP6.29), so I think the novelty of trying it will be enough. If I recall from last year wi-fi access from most of the hotels I stayed in was about €9- for 24 hours in France and about €12- in Spain, so I shall probably give that a go during the next couple of days, if only to check my email.

In a couple of hours I shall go and get dinner (wine-less I'm afraid as I'm back on 'Atkins' - see section at right for my diet details if you're not familiar with it; basically it's lo-carb and in my case is mainly protein of whatever kind I fancy, accompanied by copious salads at all meals, including breakfast). Over the past year I've seen my weight creep back up a little and this process continued over Christmas and New Year. About 10 days ago I decided that this had to stop as I had been having to buy clothes (trousers especially) a little larger to be comfortable - 33" waist instead of 31" or 32". Of course I'm nothing like as heavy as I was before I started 'Atkins' about 5 or so years ago and I never intend to let myself get that way again.

OK, enough of that. Tomorrow I should be heading down through Belgium from Zeebrugge and will soon pass into France where I'm headed for Orléans tomorrow evening, having transited a part of the Boulévard Périphérique in Paris - that should be enormous fun (not). I used to travel on a small section of it pretty frequently (around the other side of Paris near Neuilly) and it is a road which is never not busy, even during the wee small hours of the night.

I suppose one of the advantages of having only 90 minutes access, and working purely off battery power, is that it focusses the mind - rather than spend idle minutes 'surfing the web' and generally wasting time, one is forced to do what one wishes to do then close the machine up. That's what I plan to do in the next few moments. As I'm typing this it's about 4.45pm and just getting dark - we should be leaving port in the next 15 or so minutes, hopefully.

PS/ I hope you notice the serious political content in this post; time constraints and being 'on vacation' make me feel whatever disasters may be happening onshore, it's not my concern just for these few brief hours!

Monday, 28 January 2008

Soc. Gen. - Jérôme Kerviel's activities become clearer

There is an excellent report today in the Financial Times. He seems to have been carrying on unhedged trading since 2005, and although his activity was being monitored and he was asked about his activities on several occasions, he was always able to 'show' that his deals were hedged and therefore not risky. He is apparently cooperating fully with investigators upto now. His motive appears to haveen to increase his chances of a good bonus for 2007, for which period he closed out all deals with a profit of around €55mio. Apparently his more reckelssy huge deals began only in early 2008 (it's yet to be shown if this is true) and that as late as midday Friday 18th January his operations remained profitable. Quite extraordinary!

Most worryingly he claims that "the practice of making trades for which he did not have permission was widespread". As I mentioned in my last post on this topic, I expect many other banks are frantically checking all their deals and their dealers' activities to find out if this is true! It is quite clear that Soc.Gen.'s own checking procedures to ensure the autheniticity of what Monsieur Kerviel was telling his bosses was factual were sadly deficient. How many other banks are in this precarious position? Of course 'trust' and 'self-certification' is the basis of much business activity, but there really do need to be back-up methods of verifying that what is certified to be true (whether verbally or in writing) is so and it seems to me that this need is particularly importing when off-balance sheet and hedged operations are at issue.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Temporary blog header change

Keen-eyed readers may notice that the sub-heading at the top of the blog has changed to reflect my departure next Tuesday from Scotland for Spain. In theory I should be blogging en route whilst driving down through France and Spain, where I expect to arrive at my destination in the Murcia region on Sunday 3rd February. Obviously this will depend on wi-fi availability on the ferry and the various hotels I'll be using on the way. Once I complete my journey I will probably be off-line for at least a week, as it'll take me a few days to get round to organising broadband in my own house - more a function of me being too busy to visit the ISP's office on-site to ask for it to be installed than any anticipated difficulty in getting it done; during this time my only way of blogging will be to visit a nearby internet café, but I doubt I shall have much time for that either.

For those that are interested I'm reposting my itinerary (originally posted at the beginning of the month):

On Tuesday I shall be departing Nairn (a little town on the Moray coast of Scotland, just east of Inverness) and beginning my journey to Mazarron, where I hope to arrive about 126 hours later. First will be a three or so hour drive down to Rosyth, the ferry-port on the Fife shore just north of Edinburgh, where I will board the Superfast ferry for Zeebrugge. With luck, assuming we arrive on time (weather permitting - last year we arrived a couple of hours late), I will be driving out of the port there soon after midday on Wednesday 30th.

My first overnight stop will be in Orléans, about an hour south of Paris. The whole journey, which will take me around part of the Bd Périphérique in Paris (a road I haven't had the 'pleasure' of driving on since I ended my 4-year sojourn there in 1988!), hopefully missing the worst of the early-evening traffic. I've been to Orléans only once before, a Sunday lunch destination on one occasion when I lived in Paris, although I have toured parts of the Loire region a few times as well (to visit the mediaeval castles and of course sample the wine).

The next day will take me from l'Aquitaine (the French A10 motorway linking Paris to Bordeaux) onto the A71 (l'Arverne - see a website about the names given to French motorways here) in the direction of Clermont-Ferrand, a city I've not been to before (and indeed will only transit this time). It is, however, the home of the ubiquitous Michelin company. Then it will be onto the A75 (la Méridienne) and my destination for the night, Millau, because I've wanted to cross the Viaduc de Millau, the spectacular bridge across the Tarn valley designed by Sir Norman Foster, ever since it was opened at the end of 2004.

My third day out from Zeebrugge will take me into Spain, where I'll spend my first night in a place called Castelldefels, just south of Barcelona; although I've been to Barcelona before (I drove through it earlier this year and did the 'tourist thing' there some years ago) and must have passed through Castelldefels before on the train on the way to/from Sitges (where I have holidayed before), I've not actually visited it yet.

The following day will take me farther down the AP-7 motorway to the city and region of Valencia where I'll spend the final night before arriving at my destination near Mazarron in the Murcia region on Sunday 3rd February.

I'm unsure about wi-fi availability at the hotel in Millau, but apart from that I should at least have the possibility of blogging if I get the time. There may be a couple of new posts before I leave on Tuesday - it all depends on pressure of time, which is becoming more intense as I prepare to leave.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Why no photos of convicted British war criminal Donald Payne?

Whilst scanning my newsfeeds this morning I came across an article about an imminent report which is expected to conclude that there are 'flaws' in army training for the handling of detainees. The report was necessitated after there were allegations of mistreatment of civilian detainees in Iraq, including the death in custody of hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, having suffered 93 injuries. Although the report is expected to say that there will be no further criminal proceedings, the family of the victim hope that British military files, to which they gained access in October last year, may provide further evidence to trigger a full public enquiry.

However, as I delved into this story, I was reminded of the name of the British soldier who achieved the 'distinction' (perhaps 'opprobrium' would be a better word) of becoming the first convicted British war criminal. Cpl Donald Payne of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment was convicted after 'pleading guilty to inhumanely treating civilian detainees'. He was gaoled for 1 year and dismissed from the army. Basically for murder!

However, try as I might, I have been unable to discover any photograph of former corporal Donald Payne in any of the online articles on the subject - and a search in Google 'images' produces no relevant result either. His Wikipedia article has no photo and this Trial Watch potted biography does not have one either. I conclude that somehow or other this particular individual, a convicted war criminal (or those acting on his behalf), has been able to prevent his image appearing anywhere. Why?


Wouldn't it be interesting to know if one found oneself sitting in a train or a 'plane next to this person? It's not only Germans and Japanese who are war criminals - and there was never a shortage of images of them, or indeed of the Yugoslav Milosevic. Why the discretion, just because he is British?

One suspects that if the army or the military hierarchy had been able to cover this up, they would much have preferred this and possibly they would have dealt with Cpl Donald Payne in their own perhaps much harsher way. He might in bygone days have been left in a room with a loaded revolver to take the 'honourable' way out. However, in the modern world he will have served his sentence and quite possibly taken a new identity (or been given one by the military or the government) - all for the sake of preserving the notion that we are somehow 'better' than our enemies; except for the fact that this blemish could not be entirely hidden from scrutiny. Of course I am not encouraging, nor would I condone, any kind of vigilante action against him, just pointing out what appear to be double standards. This video report, at the time of Cpl Payne's conviction, makes a strong case for there being others, higher up the army (or civilian?) chain of command, who were ultimately responsible for the crime for which Cpl Payne was convicted. Possibly the agreement to censor images of Payne from appearing was a quid pro quo for the authorities attempting to halt any further action which might lead to whole areas of military policy being questioned and those held accountable for 'bending rules' coming under the spotlight. The whole thing stinks. I will be interested to read the report when it is issued - it sounds very much as if it will be designed to close down the possiblity of further investigation of military procedures and our compliance with international law - a 'white-wash' in other words.

If anyone reading this finds an image of the correct Donald Payne please let me know.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Midweek YouTube - Bell (Switzerland)

No moral to my ad. spot this time - I just thought it fun. It's from Switzerland and is 'pushing' a firm called Bell which manufactures sausages and meats. Apparently the ad. was shot in Argentina and Uruguay to promote their 'Barbecue' line of products.

More about my imminent departure for Spain

I wrote a few days ago that I had been putting off making a couple of telephone calls to people supplying things for my new house in Spain (see near the end of the 4th paragraph in the linked posting). Well I just made the two calls a short while ago.

First I tried the curtain shop, where I recalled that the lady speaks a little English, roughly of the same mediocre level as my Spanish. In any case we seemed to be able to understand each other enough, using a mixture of the two languages, and I told her when I epxect to be in Mazarrón and hoped the venetian blinds and roller blind I ordered could be delivered during the following week. I'll visit the shop the day after I arrive to confirm I got there. She seemd to understand and I am pretty sure she said there should be no problem - she is going to check with the main shop in the nearby town of Totana that I am booked in for their installation schedule, but didn't anticipate a problem.

Next up was the bathroom shop, who are supplying the shower screen and various other things for the bathroom (towel rails, etc). The lady there speaks very little English, but she asked me to call instead the person who had visited my house to do the detailed measurements when I was there in October/November last; I had his mobile number so called and with my Spanish and his English am fairly confident I got my message across; he said he would pass on the details to the lady in the shop. As with the other shop, I'll visit soon after my arrival to firm up the precise date for their visit to the house to install things.

All in all I'm reasonably happy with how things went. Other good news was that I had word from the person installing a security grille outside a small window that he had done his thing and he sent me an email with photo attached yesterday evening to show me - see my post in my other 'casabill' blog earlier today about this.

Hain under investigation by Met. Police - and resigns from Government

Peter Hain, Labour MP for Neath, who only a few days ago received a vote of utmost confidence from Neath Constituency Labour Party, is to be investigated by the Metropolitan Police in connection with apparently 'dodgy' donations he received to help fight the Labour Party deputy leadership contest recently.

Minutes after the announcement of the police investigation, he announced he is resigning from the government, where he held two Cabinet positions in charge of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Wales Office. The official story is that he is resigning in order to be able to fight to clear his name. Good luck to him!

Perhaps he will eventually be cleared. However, I just wonder if his resignation from the government will not be followed in due time by his resignation as an MP and his return to a well-deserved obscurity - hopefully not on the public pay-roll, although I imagine that some sinecure will, whatever happens, be found for him.

This Labour government is not only serially incompetent, but the stench of graft hangs around it. Enough!

"Red, Black and Rising"

Or should that be "in the Red"! (The title has been used as an advertising slogan by the bank for some years.)

French Bank Société Générale (link is to the main French website) has just announced a double-whammy - an internal fraud by a 'rogue trader' which has lost it EUR4.9bn (USD7.1bn; GBP3.7bn) and write-downs of EUR2.05bn (USD2.97bn; GBP1.55bn) worth of lending relating to the sub-prime market in the US. Although the bank states it will still make a profit of EUR600mn to EUR800mn for 2007, it needs to raise new capital of about EUR5.5bn to offset the losses. It's not clear if the latest write-downs in loans are are in addition to or part of the rescue package announced in December 2007, when it had to rescue an investment vehicle in the US.

Société Générale is one of France's oldest banks (founded 1864), it was nationalised in 1945, then in 1987 the government decided to choose it, of the three major French state-owned banks, for privatisation. It has always, until now, had a pretty good reputation for prudence and for careful credit-control, before, during and after the period when it was under direct state control. I knew a few people in Société Générale both when I lived in Paris and then some years later when I lived in Vietnam, where that's bank's person in Hanoi was a good friend.

It is however mind-bloggling to learn that a person described as 'mid-level' has been able to commit the bank to contracts of the scale required to produce a loss of EUR4.9bn - Robert Peston, the BBC's business editor, has his views on what's been going on. Worth a read. From the details that are emerging so far it seems that the bank's own internal control mechanisms of what its trading desks have been up to have been sadly deficient! No doubt a lot of internal checking (I hope) will be going on today in other banks to see just what may be lurking under the surface.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Al Gore on gay rights and equality before the law

This is a remarkable rebuttal of the 'family values' argument often used in the US (and indeed in the UK by some people) to justify not permitting gays and lesbians to have equality before the law in all spheres:

"Shouldn't we be promoting the kind of faithfulness and loyalty to one's partner regardless of sexual orientation?"

Frankly I have never before heard a senior politician in any country express the views Al Gore expresses quite so candidly and unambiguously.

Before I get carried away, though, Al Gore has the 'luxury' of not standing for office and not having to win the votes of many people who would not be prepared actually to vote for someone expressing the views he does now. A luxury granted him by his status as a former Vice President and more recently by his quasi-elevation to 'secular sainthood' since becoming a Nobel Prize winner. I doubt very much if any of the current batch of potential Presidential candidates in the US, whether Democrat or Republican, would be prepared to endorse, far less emulate, Al Gore as they would know, probably quite rightly, that it would be electoral suicide; the same could probably be said of most politicians in the UK, too, even in a country which already has Civil Partnership legislation in the statutes. Unhappy as I am to write this, it is the bald truth. Very good to see it though and even if he's not standing for election nevertheless quite courageous.
(thru Andrew Sullivan)

Scotland as seen from parts of Europe ...

... with varying degrees of desire for independence. A BBC Scotland reporter has been travelling around various parts of Europe, reorting for BBC Radio Scotland's 'Good Morning Scotland' programme, about the differing views on regional autonomy or independence in various countries of Europe. David Miller, the reporter who made the trip, has written a blog to record his impressions during his week-long travels to the Galicia region of Spain, to Rome and finally to Slovakia's capital, Bratislava. I'd say his reports are pretty balanced and attempt to look at the issues from both the 'unionist' and the 'independence' sides of the Scottish political debate. Anyone who has read my blog before will know which side of the debate I am on - I favour Scotland remaining in political partnership with England and with the other countries of the United Kingdom. Read the whole of Miller's blog for yourself - there are things to please all strands of Scottish opinion, although the final comment from his visit to Bratislava is perhaps the most telling:

In Slovakia, independence has been a success and has made a real difference to people's lives. Slovakians are wealthier than they've ever been. But can that success be attributed to independence or free-market economics?

Could those advances have been achieved within a united Czechoslovakia? Even the most senior politicians here in Bratislava can't decide on the answer to that question.

I think BBC Scotland's research may allow a more balanced perspective than seems to have been on the agenda at the recent European Free Alliance ministerial 'summit' in Edinburgh which I wrote about a few days ago.

NB/ I rarely lissten to BBC Radio Scotland myself as I normally listen to Radio 4 for my 'voice radio', so I have not heard David Miller's radio reports on his trip, excerpts of which have been on 'Good Morning Scotland' this week it seems, but I'll listen shortly to this morning's show through the BBC's listen again facility to get a flavour - you can too by clicking here, presumably available until replaced by the next programme tomorrow morning.

Multiple pile-ups on Madrid-Toledo motorway in Spain

As I'll be driving down lengthy stretches of Spanish motorways (mostly the AP-7 and A-7) myself next week, news of three multiple pile-ups on the A-42 Madrid-Toledo freeway yesterday is rather worrying (a brief report in English is here). The area was affected by heavy fog and about 100 cars were involved with 68 people injured, of whom 54 had to be taken to hospital. Eight were seriously injured and one person, a young woman, is in critical condition. The good news, so far, is that no-one has died.

Heath Ledger - RIP

I heard late yesterday evening with initial disbelief of the unexpected death of Australian actor Heath Ledger, aged 28 years. He was found dead in his New York apartment by his house-keeper. Initial indications are that drugs were involved, although I heard this morning that these may have been prescription drugs, possibly sleeping pills. Whatever happened it is desperately sad.

Heathcliff Andrew Ledger
4 April 1979 - 22 January 2008

- Rest in Peace -

Heath Ledger was still in the early stages of his acting career and many thought he would have a successful future - sadly that is not now to be. Obviously I knew him best from his role in Brokeback Mountain, and this link will bring up all my posts to date on this movie and related matters. His role in that movie as a closeted gay man was vivid and painful to watch - his performance was in a word superb. The Wikipedia article on Heath Ledger has already been updated to include news of his demise and the BBC obituary is here, with the link to its video report on his death here.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

The Fed shaves (more like 'lops') 75 basis points off rates

The US Federal Reserve dropped its overnight lending rate by an almost unprecedented 0.75 per cent this morning to 3.5 per cent in the wake of the sell-off in stockmarkets worldwide yesterday and today. At the same time it lowered its discount rate by 0.75 per cent to 4.0 per cent. It would seem that the move has had, at least for the time being, the desired effect in that the New York market had, at the time of writing recovered much of the losses at the beginning of today's session to leave it about 1 per cent down on Friday's close (the US markets were closed yesterday for a Public Holiday) at present. The London market has closed higher after early severe falls, largely in the wake of the Fed cuts. It closed at 5,740.10, up 2.9 per cent.

The US Dollar is down on the day so far against other major currencies and it is being speculated there may be further interest rate cuts at the Fed's meeting next week, perhaps by a further 25 basis points - which would take the cut during the eight days from this morning down a full percentage point, the droanticipated for the whole of 2008, if that happens.

Whatever the immediate effects of the Fed cut today, which seem to be 'beneficial' so far, it does indicate a certain level of raw panic on the part of the US authorities in the wake of the wave of turbulence in the world's financial markets, themselves reacting to the fragility of the US lending market. I put that word in scare quotes because I worry that any benefit today's move will confer will be short-lived - giving more drugs (money and easier credit) to a drug addict may very temporarily stave off the effects of the drug withdrawal (credit-crunch) we have seen over the past few months, but attacking the symptoms by such methods is unlikely to remedy the underlyingh causes. I fear that this is only the beginning of a quite [to make use of a somewhat tired pun] Rocky Road. An appearance by Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Fed, just a few days ago does not seem to me to show a man brimming with confidence:

He presumably knows a lot more about what is going on than most of the rest of us, so his somewhat nervous hand-twitching towards the end of the above sequence gives me the jitters. I'm not panicking yet, however - and in any case in a panic people do things which only make the situation worse than it really is. Probably the best thing to do just at present is to take a deep breath and hope the roller-coaster ride we may be in for does not shake too many of us out of the game!

One week countdown for my departure for Spain begins

This time next week I shall just be about an hour and a half away from my departure for Spain (I wrote about my detailed itinerary for this trip a few weeks ago here). Most of my pre-departure preparations are made, but a task I will do today (or just possibly tomorrow) is to do a dummy-run of packing up the car. One of the rooms in my apartment has all of the suitcases and bags laid out in it, and some are even already packed, with most of what is still to go in the bags laid out there, too. My visual checks seem to show that everything I want to take can physically be accommodated in the car, and I am normally pretty good at estimating this kind of thing, but I want to make sure - I don't want to find, next Monday evening (or even worse, next Tuesday morning!) that a door or the boot-lid of the car won't close.

Although I am buying all of the furniture and most of the equipment for my house in Spain there, there are certain things I want to take with me from here, either because I couldn't find precisely what I want there, but more usually because I have duplicates, triplicates or quadruplicates of certain things here in Scotland and I don't want to acquire yet another set of something or other in Spain. The two best examples of the latter are china-ware and cutlery. I have something of a 'fetish', I must confess, for both and as a result I have over the years bought a lot more than I can make use of regularly so it seemed only sensible to transfer one set of both to do duty in Spain; even after I have taken a 12-setting dinner service and cutlery with me I will stil have at least two similar sets of both here in Scotland. My 'problem' is possibly even worse with cutlery; a year or so back I bought additional sets, but decided later that I didn't particularly like them so whilst I do very occasionally use them I've never enjoyed this, so more recently I bought another set of cutlery that is much more to my taste, so that is part of what is coming along with me. Over the past couple of weeks I have become an expert at using bubble-wrap [for the china-ware] and tie-grips to make sure everything I have packed is secure and rattle-free; there's no point in taking a lot of china-ware if a lot of it is going to be broken when I get there!

Now a bit of a diversion, if you'll bear with me. I first learned about tie-grips when I was still involved in party politics as one of the jobs I used to assist with was going around Inverness, Nairn and Grantown-on-Spey with one of my political-junkie friends equipped with a step-ladder, piles of plastic signs (pre-punched with holes, using a hole-punch acquired from the local farm-supplies outlet as it was designed for use in marking livestock) and loads of tie-grips so we could fix the signs on lamp-posts; the trick was to get around before one's political rivals so you could get the best locations, but if there were already signs up on a pole we had to position our own signs without physically touching another party's signs; electoral law and local regulations are quite strict about such things, also about the need to avoid lamp-posts or other poles in specific locations (those bearing traffic signs, minimum height above the road/pavement, for example - although some parties seem to ignore such niceties, we always tried to obey the rules scrupulously.

OK diversion over! As for my furniture and equipment (i.e. 'white goods') for the house in Spain, it is all ordered and should be delivered soon after my arrival there in a couple of weeks. However, as I wrote here (in my other 'casabill' blog), although my contacts with furniture shops there show most items ordered are on-track for delivery, there is a hitch with certain items of living-room furniture (wall units, etc), so I will have to identify and order alternatives when I get there. Since then I've been in touch a couple of times with both the carpenter and the metal-worker who are doing work for me and they assure me that their jobs at my house will be completed by Wednesday or Thursday this week; I spoke with one of them on the telephone yesterday evening and he confirms they have already made arrangements to get the keys from the key-holder (and the kep-holder confirms this, too) so I am hoping it will all be done for my arrival. The only other places I have still to contact are the bathroom shop (for the shower screen and certain other bathroom fittings) and the curtain shop for the blinds ('venetian' and 'roller') I have ordered - I have to some extent been putting this off because their English is pretty rudimentary, as is my Spanish - however, I'll get that done today or tomorrow as well, just to re-confirm to them when I am scheduled to arrive.

Now I must get back to the real, practical world! Me typing about this, laptop on my lap as I sit up in bed listening to the 'Today' programme on BBC Radio4, isn't going to get the dummy-run of loading up the car accomplished, which I referred to above. I must steel myself to get out of bed, get showered, shaved, dressed and get some breakfast!

Monday, 21 January 2008

Saudi Arabia may permit women to drive

One of the curiosities of living in Saudi Arabia (Jeddah in my case) many years ago was that women were not permitted to drive; that is still the case today, around thirty years later! Of course this caused frustration to women and I certainly know that many of the foreign women whom I knew (mainly the wives of colleagues or friends working for other companies or embassies) led rather bored lives because they weren't allowed to work either - a few did manage this trick, indeed we had a few working for our company, but very definitely on a 'need to know' basis. But of course some younger Saudi women, and their husbands, were also frustrated at the restrictions they lived under, specially those who had attended universities in either Europe or the US, and they used every opportunity to escape for a few weeks to other counrtries where they could be rather more relaxed. At home they had to conform - although a few did try and bend the rules, with young husbands allowing their young wives to drive on isolated roads. Fine until the religious police caught up with them - I witnessed that at the 'Creek' just north of Jeddah on quite a few occasions.

Anyway, it appears that a very slow programme of 'softening up' the Saudi population to the possibility that women might one day soon be permitted to drive seems to be making progress. The Telegraph reports today recent comments by the Deputy Information Minister, Abdulaziz bin Salamah:

"In terms of women driving, we don't have it now because of the reticence of some segments of society. For example, my mother wouldn't want my sister to drive.

"It's something she cannot grapple with. But there is change on the way. I think the fair view is that one can be against it but one does not have the right to prevent it."

Limited as this is, and however bizarre it would seem if it were sopken by a government official in almost any other country on the planet in the 21st century, I nevertheless recognise that it does represent a kind of progress in this very traditional Moslem (Wahhabi) society. Comments attributed to Mohammad al-Zulfa, a reformist member of the Saudi consultative Shura Council, indicate that he considers the possibility of reversing the driving ban to be part of a "clever" strategy by King Abdullah to bring about incremental reform:

"When it was first raised, the extremists were really mad. Now they just complain. It is diminishing into a form of consent."

Not everybody is convinced by these modest steps toward change! A letter in al-Watan ('The Nation') newspaper illustrates this only too clearly:

"Allowing women to drive will only bring sin. The evils it would bring - mixing between the genders, temptations, and tarnishing the reputation of devout Muslim women - outweigh the benefits."

Certainly when I lived there in the late 1970s I think such attitudes were pretty commonplace amongst most Saudis (possibly not some of the younger senior Princes and the growing numbers of the foreign-educated middle classes and merchant classes, though, but they generally kept their views on such matters strictly to themselves) and whilst I would wish to see the ban on women driving there to be dropped at once I think one has to recognise that the tensions in Saudi society probably mean that a process of gradual change is the correct one.

Not too gradual, however, I hope! Let's wait and see if the ban is overturned before the end of this year as the article indicates may happen - I hope it will be, but I'll not be terribly surprised if it remains in place for a while longer after that.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Sunday YouTube - Canada: RCMP Mayerthorpe tragedy in March 2005

In March 2005 all four Royal Canadian Mounted Police were slain in the town of Mayerthorpe, Alberta, a killing spree which shocked all of Canada. A leaked Federal report in March 2007 confirmed the worst fears about the circumstances surrounding the murders. Below is a video tribute to all four fallen RCMP officers:

The video is somewhat maudlin' in tone, but I think it is nevertheless a simple expression of the grief and the pain that a community and a nation felt at such mindless and tragic killings.

I want a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty

The government has gone back on its promise at the 2005 General Election to hold a referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty (now defunct), which has been replaced by an EU Reform Treaty. Most commentators (including many heads of government of other EU member states) agree that the EU Reform Treaty is in all important respects indistinguishable from the EU Constitutional Treaty, rejected in referenda by the peoples of France and the Netherlands. Having failed to be ratified unanimously within two years by all 15 members of the EU when the ratification process was launched this Treaty has become defunct.

The new EU Reform Treaty was signed in December 2007 by heads of government in Lisbon and must be ratified by all 27 current members of the EU within two years in order to take effect. The UK government, almost alone amongst governments of EU, contends that the new Treaty is sufficently different from the defunct EU Constitutional Treaty that its commitment to hold a referendum amongst the British people is no longer valid. If you disagree and you wish to signal to our government that they MUST honour their 2005 pledge to hold a referendum on this crucial piece of legislation to decide whether it is ratified by the UK, then I urge you to add your name to the petition.

Please click on the logo above or the link which follows to visit the I Want A Referendum . com website.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

European devolution 'cliques' gather in Edinburgh

Where else? First Minister Alex Salmond's SNP Scottish Executive [*] (aka 'Scottish Government') continues to meet with groups from various countries in Europe as a sort of mutual self-appreciation society to bolster, they all presumably hope, their chances of furthering their aims for devolution/independence from the political entities of which they are currently parts. Those who attended the latest kaffeeklatsch include:

from the UK
- Scotland / Linda Fabiani MSP, Europe Minister;
- Wales / Rhodri Glyn Thomas MLA, Heritage Minister;
from Spain
- Catalonia / Joan Manel Tresserras, Minister of Culture;
- Basque Country / Tontxu Campos, Minister of Education;
- Galicia / Anxela Bugallo, Minister for Culture and Sport;
- Flanders / Bert Anciaux, Minister for Youth.

They are part of some grandiose-sounding grouping called the European Free Alliance (EFA) and their ministerial 'summit' was held at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh. For those not familiar with Edinburgh's geography this is located just across from the Scottish Parliament building.

Now I have absolutely no objection to these characters meeting up whenever and wherever they wish IN THEIR FREE TIME and provided I am not expected to pay for it. We all, as citizens of free and democratic countries (more or less - the UK is one which might be considered, since 1997, as part of the 'less' group) with the right of free assembly (except in the case of the UK since 1997, where there are now restrictions on assembly within one mile of the Houses of Parliament in London). However, I wonder who paid for today's meeting. Was it the Scottish National Party? If so I have no objection as so far as I am concerned there seems to be nothing illegal in the meeting and if they wanted to spend their money on such an event, who am I to object? However, I strongly suspect that today's event will have been funded out of the budget of the Scottish Executive [*] (aka 'Scottish Government') and to that I object strongly, if this is the case. The SNP does not currently have a mandate from the Scottish electorate for independence and I think it is outrageous, if they have done so, to have used taxpayer's money in furtherance of an aim for which they have no democratic mandate; their job is to govern Scotland in terms of the Scotland Act 1998, no more and no less. I recall in passing that Alex Salmond had another meeting with one of his European regional cohorts (from Catalonia) earlier this month in Edinburgh.

[*] This blog uses the legal term for the devolved administration in Scotland as specified in Article 44 of the Scotland Act 1998; what others choose to call it is their business, but until there is an amendment to the Scotland Act 1998 sanctioning the term appropriated to itself by Salmond's mob in Edinburgh I shall stick with using the legally sanctioned term - and I don't want to be bothered with moans about this from any SNP member or supporter or hanger-on who is unhappy about this. Clear? What I want to know is why the Scottish Executive (aka 'Scottish Government') has appropriated to itself a term which it has no right to use and why the UK government has acquiesced in this appropriation. Of course I know the political reason why the Labour government in London, recently thrown out of power in Edinburgh, has done this, but I make the point nevertheless.

Government attempts 'smoke and mirrors' solution for Northern Rock

Northern Rock is a mess - everyone knows this and no private buyer has yet been found that is mad enough to take this huge problem off the Government's hands - it has committed about GBP26bn (USD51bn approx) in loans. Let us be quite clear that loans represent money out the door. It is gone. If a borrower is sound, one will probably get it back, but let us not forget that the borrower in this case is Northern Rock; servicing the loans at a relatively punitive rate of interest, which Northern Rock is currently managing to do, is not equivalent to saying it is capable of paying them back - it is obviously not in a position to do this anytime soon, if ever. In addition to the loans, the government has issued guarantees so that the total government commitment (i.e. the taxpayer's ) is about GBP55bn (USD107bn).

Now we are told that the Government (i.e. Prime Minister Gordon Brown) is looking favourably on a proposal by Goldman Sachs effectively to securitise the loans by issuing government bonds and, legally, avoid 'nationalising' Northern Rock, so permitting the rump of the business to be sold to a private buyer. However, the bonds issued would be on the public balance sheet and be an additonal government (i.e. taxpayer) liability - no liability for repayment of these bonds will be assumed by any private buyer of Northern Rock. In effect, if not legally, the government is considering writing-off the loans it has provided to Northern Rock. It is theoretically possible that these loans might be repaid in part or even fully, but if so this will take many, many years; it will be a problem for whichever government takes over from the present shower of incompetents - and the ones after that, too. Not to mention the British taxpayer!

Undoubtedly the guarantees given by the government already to secure Northern Rock's continuing ability to operate will have to remain in place for the time being, too. We have no indication at present about which liabilities, if any, of Northern Rock that a private purchaser of the bank would assume in place of the government - my impression is that they would assume very little of any liabilities other than those which their own 'due diligence' teams state are covered by the existing mortgages (which we are told are generally well performing) altough in the case of a 'fire sale (which, let's be frank, this will be) I think one can be fairly certain that the private buyer's credit controllers will be pretty strict about what part of Northern Rock's existing loan/mortgage book they are willing to accept as collateral for liabilities they are asked to assume. In any case, if the government is to retain the collateral of Northern Rock's loan/mortgage book to allow the fiction to continue that the loans to it might one day be recovered, then the loan/mortgage book obviously won't be available to any private buyer to set against any liabilities it might otherwise assume.

Given the conditions which existed in September 2007 I do not quarrel with the comments of Chancellor Alistair Darling last week that urgent and drastic action had to be taken then to prevent the possibility (the likelihood?) that the troubles which had hit Northern Rock would spread to other financial institutions and to the wider economy. However that begs a very large question. It is very arguable that Northern Rock was only able to get into the position it did (borrowing short in the money markets, lending long in the mortgage market) because of the dilution in responsinility for the conrol of the financial sector which his boss, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, engineered as Chancellor soon after Labour came to power in 1997. The 'spin' now is that issuance of bonds will somehow clear the way for a private sale of Northern Rock and obviate its nationalisation, the 'spin' then was that the Bank of England was being granted automony by the government to regulate the economy by being given power to set interest rates (or at least that governing the rate used for loans given under 'lender of last resort' terms) without government interference, but less stressed (i.e. not stressed at all) was the removal of most of the Bank of England's role as regulator of the financial sector. In retrospect this was a calamitous decision and the responsibility for it rests soley with Gordon Brown.

The latest 'spin' is a desperate measure on the part of the government, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, to avoid having to nationalise Northern Rock by concocting a mechanism which will persuade a private buyer to take over management of the bank. However, let no one be under any illusion that all the troublesome parts of Northern Rock's balance sheet will not remain as a public liability for years to come.

As the BBC's financial editor Robert Peston observes quite correctly:

In this game of chicken, by signalling how reluctant he is to push the nationalisation button, it was the Prime Minister who blinked this weekend – and the hedge funds may well be feeling pretty chipper.

The hedge funds, to recapitulate, are shareholders to the extent of about 18 per cent in Northern Rock who last week were, in the 'spin' at the time, defeated in their efforts to have resolutions passed at the EGM held then to restrict the powers of the Board of Directors to dispose of assets, to issue new shares or to acquire new assets. The defeat for the hedge funds, and all shareholders, last week needs to be seen in the light of the latest evidence of the government's reluctance to go for the nationalisation 'nuclear option'.

As a minor shareholder in Northern Rock myself I long ago gave up any hope of getting much (or anything) back from my investment and whilst I cannot pretend I am happy aobut this I accept it as a part of the risk I take in holding shares - as the caveat emptor phrase always states: "the value of your shares can go down as well as up".

Although Gordon Brown and his cohorts are presenting their latest 'spin' as some kind of solution to the Northern Rock crisis it is in reality nothing of the kind. It is merely an acceptance forced upon them of the harsh realities of the market. They hold an asset on the nation's behalf (the value of the loans granted to prevent the bank's collapse) which no private buyer wishes to acquire except under the most stringent conditons. The government has, however much it may puff and blow, been forced to accept that its, and our, commitment will have to continue for the forseeable future. That is the real meaning of the latest proposals.

Friday, 18 January 2008

"Pitfalls facing gay recruits overseas"

There's an interesting letter in today's Financial Times high-lighting some of the special problems gay staff with long-term partners may face when endeavouring to have their partners accompany them on overseas assignments. The case in the letter is not about some backward country, but the second economy in the world, Japan, which decided it no longer wished to allow a gay partner living there with his 'spouse' to re-enter the country after a trip abroad.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Insultingly small compensation offered for covert nerve gas tests

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is offering a paltry £3mio compensation to be shared between 360 people who took part in tests of nerve gas agents during the 1950s and 1960s at Porton Down, or roughly £8,300 each. The scandal is not that nerve gas tests were conducted, although some might disagree about that (I'm not one of them), but that participants say they were told they were taking part in cold remedy tests. Now I suppose that being killed by nerve gas would certainly take one's mind off something so ubiquitous as a cold, but I hardly think it falls under the category of 'fair dealing'!

To add insult to injury it appears that the MoD is declining to pay out any compensation even to the 90 per cent of participants who have already signed until all the others have signed too. Cases like this absolutely call for an American-style class-action suit to force the MoD and the Government to take responsibility for their actions. This happened a long time ago, but governments of all political parties are equally responsible for this shocking policy and for the cover-ups and prevarications with which they have dealt with the aftermath!

Midweek YouTube - Handicap Welfare (Singapore)

If you're anything like me this little advertisement for Singapore's Handicaps Welfare Association will have the tears welling-up as the 'punch-line' become clear. A clever ad. I think - let's hope it has helped heighten people's compassion for the less fortunate there.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Asda finally wins approval for Inverness store

After many years of trying to gain a foothold in Inverness, supermarket chain Asda has at long last received formal planning approval from Highland Council ofr its proposed new outlet in Inverness, the vote was an overwhelming 15-2 in favour of permitting the development, despite the opposition to approval of planning planning officers (*). The only 'negative' thing I can think of to say here is that the name of the suburb in Inverness where the store is to be located, Slackbuie, sounds faintly ridiculous to this writer's ear. It is high time, however, that Tesco and to a lesser extent Morrison's are faced with some real competitiion.

(*) Ive written a couple of times before about this and other aspects of 'supermarket wars' in Inverness - see here and here. An earlier article on Asda's US parent, Wal-Mart, is also of continuing interest, I think.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

New Visitor Centre at Culloden Battlefield

The National Trust for Scotland's(NTS) new visitor centre at Culloden Battlefield, near Inverness, had a 'soft opening' just before Christmas 2007 and will be opened formally in April 2008. Members of the Highland Members' Centre of the NTS were today given a guided tour around the new visitor centre. Unfortunately the weather today was not good, so few of us had much enthusiasm for exploring the exterior, but the new visitor centre is well laid out and leads the visitor through the run-up to the battle, the battle itself and its aftermath in a very gripping way. There are a number of inter-active areas in the exhibit, designed to appeal to a younger audience and the facilities (shop, refreshment area, etc) seem adequate to cater for a much larger volume of visitors than could comfortably be accommodated in the old visitor centre. I will re-visit the new centre in the spring or the summer when I return from my winter break in Spain, but my initial impression is that the new centre will be very successful in fulfilling its aim of attracting a growing number of visitors and holds enough interest to attract a younger audience, too. A couple of the images below are of the memorial wall which forms the rear of the main building; this illustrates graphically, by the placement of the memorial plaque, the disparity in numbers killed on the Jacobite side (to the left of the plaque) and the Government side (to the right); although the battle lasted only about one hour it fundamentally changed British history and, because of the role of Britain internationally, it can be said to have had a major effect on world history.

The external areas are still being finished off and because the building was completed in mid-winter most ofthe plants and grass which will presumably be put in place in due course have not yet been installed and what is there has not had time to grow yet and on a rainy day like today the surrounds, beyond the paved areas, are all quite muddy; I expect it will all look very different in the spring and summer, well in time for when large numbers of visitors arrive. The images which follow have been 'doctored' somewhat as it was a very dull rainy day and I wanted visitors to the blog to be able to see them clearly, not the rather 'gray' images which they started out as.

NTS Culloden Visitors Centre
15 January 2008

Main entrance

Memorial plaque

Close-up of memorial wall

Wide angle of memorial wall

Click here to see larger images.

The NTS's own news page about the new visitor centre is here and its micro-site for Culloden is here.

Problems with PC ...

... and this time it's not my Vista-equipped laptop, but my XP-SP2 one. I was offline yesterday evening, doing some work on databases and graphics design, then decided to go online again briefly. The AOL browser software owuldn't load - my anti-virus software ('Norman') informed me a particular '.dll' file had been sent to quarantine; it's a file required for AOL to work I believe. After a while I contacted AOL helpline (in India) and thought I was getting somewhere, but the line ('phone line, that is) went dead and when I called back I got a different lady.

Long boring story, but the result is that not only will AOL not load, nor will IE7 now (the latter did work until I did something the second lady in India suggested I do)!!

I'm actually on the XP-laptop right now, online via Firefox, and it seems otherwise to be working fine, online and offline, except for AOL and IE7 not wanting to do what I ask. I'm not sure what I'm going to do to resolve this pest of a problem, but meantime I've done another back-up of all data onto the other laptop; that applies to everything expet the AOL email files stored on this PC, which is a real nuisance, but I don't know how to do that; the AOL email files on my newer Vista machine are not nearly so complete except in very recent months.

I'm off up to Culloden Battlefied in an hour; W're going to be shown around the new NTS visitor centre, just completed before Christmas and due to be opened officially in April - I hope to get a few photos, and may post some here later.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Government announces that all children are to have lower legs amputated ...

... and be fitted with prosthetic blades. Of course this is (for the moment) pure fantasy on my part. However if it is true, as announced by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), that young Mr Oscar Pistorius has secured for himself an unfair advantage over his less 'differently-abled' competition then it seems only logical that the carbon-fibre blades that Mr Pistorius is 'lucky enough' to use become the norm for all athletes. It's quite obvious that this is the next stage of human evolution and that ordinary lower legs, ankles and feet are in evolutionary terms, obsolete. It reminds me of some of the arguments used many years ago when attempts were being made to outlaw the use of tennis racquets which made use of what was at that time an innovative material (i.e. the ubiquitous 'carbon fibre').

Sunday, 13 January 2008

"Soldier's death due to shortages"

That's the claim of a military inquiry into the death of Cpl Mark Wright, who could not be abstracted quickly from the battlefield in Afghanistan after being gravely injured by a landmine because the 'RAF Chinook sent to pick him up did not have a rescue winch so he had to wait five hours to be rescued by a US helicopter'. The MoD claimed that 'all of the winches had been returned to the UK for inspection'. One other shocking part of the linked article:

Major General Andrew Farquhar, who presided over the inquiry, said his wounds may not have proved fatal had a British helicopter been equipped to get soldiers out of a minefield.

Quite sickening!

Sunday YouTube - Dubai: A guide to driving

Skillful drivers at the Dubai airport tunnel show us all how it should be done (not).

- please, please don't follow this demonstration next time you are out driving!

Apart from anything else, I enjoyed listening to the quite clear Arabic commentary and seeing how much of it I can still understand (less and less as the years go by, unfortunately).

Are we helots or free individuals?

The UK Goverment has announced that it favours changing the law to make a presumption of consent to harvesting of human body parts after death, unless specific prior opposition had been registered or the deceased's family objects. At present only those who who have given prior consent may have their organs harvested after death, although this is sometimes thwarted, I understand, by the objections of family members. See (*) at the end of this article, too.

I have no personal objection to donating my organs and indeed have carried an organ donor card for many years, although I have not added my name formally to any 'Organ Donor Register' as this is presumably a centralised register and I have deep misgivings about the whoe concept of centralised registers for this or any other purpose (e.g. Personal Data Register, NHS online centralised records).

Now I learn that the Scottish Executive (aka 'Scottish Government') is sympathetic to the change suggested by the UK Government.

My position is very clear. I think I have the sole right to decide what will happen to my body parts after I die. I resent strongly the notion that if I were to object to the harvesting of my organs after my death (which as it so happens, I don't) that I must make a positive declaration to that effect. My body belongs to me, not to the State and the presumption is and should remain that no harvesting of body parts can occur without my specific prior consent. Similarly I will choose if and when I wish to end my life (since 1961 suicide has no longer been a crime), provided I am physically able to carry it out (assisting another to commit suicide remains a crime).

The reasoning behind criminalising assisting another to commit suicide is that there is a risk that the person's 'loved ones' might collude in a suicide because they may have a material interest in the person's death, or otherwise gain from it (for example a carer who is member of the family would be 'free' to pursue his/her own interests if there was no longer a requirement to care for the fmaily member who wishes to commit suicide). There is also the fear that 'loved ones' might tacitly, or even explicitly, encourage a relative to commit suicide or cause the person to feel they were doing the 'right thing' by committing suicide.

I'm afraid that whilst I think the effects of this law are sometimes harsh, specially when the person who wishes to commit suicide is physically unable through disablement or infirmity to carry it out without assistance it is probably a necessary precaution in most cases to prevent abuse. Notwithstanding this, I believe that the Swiss organisation Dignitas does valuable and worthwhile work; the link is to the part of the site which is designed to inform people from the UK about the organisation, as the main site is in German. A BBC article about this organisation is here.

To get back to the subject at hand, I think there is the potential for abuses with the harvesting of organs. Of course, we are told that body parts would only be harvested upon death (excepting the case of organ donations made of ogans which are in pairs (e.g. eyes, kidneys) where the donor can survive on one remaining organ, but what if the person was very old, or severely disabled, whereas the potential donee was young and otherwise physically fit? What if the person being looked at as a donor was regarded as in some way less worthy then the potential donee? Far-fetched, you may argue, but it is only a couple of weeks ago that the Prime MInister suggested that people could be refused treatment on the NHS if it was felt they should lose weight, stop smoking or take exercise. The fact that such people were most likely helping to pay for the NHS through their taxes seemed an irrelevant detail! How hard, in such circumstances, would medical personnel try to keep a potential donor alive, specially if the official attitude of the government is to make a presumption that body parts may be harvested unless the donor had lodged specific objection beforehand.

Many will say I am being alarmist. However, it is only a few years ago that it was discovered, accidentally, that for years doctors in various hospitals around the country had been taking organs from dead infants for medical experimentation, without the permission of parents, a matter which was discovered only when the body of an infant had to be exhumed after burial and it was found to be missing most of the vital organs. I think the scandal, when it was exposed, happened to involve a hospital in Liverpool, but was later found to have occurred elsehwere, too.

Basically what all this boils down to is individual liberty. This Government seeks to take unto itself the power of life and death over all citizens. However, the Government is only granted temporary powers by citizens at an election. I think the Government, indeed Parliament itself, would be going way beyond its mandate to change the law to permit post-mortem abstraction of body parts without the specific approval of the donor or, in some curcumstances, members of the deceased's family.

(*) A horrid aspect of this whole issue is the way that the Government's proposals are framed is to imply that a person is somehow lacking in civic-spiritedness by declining to agree to donate body parts after death, by stressing the long waiting-lists of potential donees awaiting body parts and organs. I may feel, and in fact I do feel, that it would be humane on my part to permit my body parts or organs to be taken after my death, if they could help someone else to live longer or in better health. However I would absolutely refuse to feel in any way guilty if I chose not to have this attitude and I object strongly to the moral blackmail being pushed down our throats by the government and the way this is being reported in the media, particularly the BBC, in its reporting today on this matter! It really is just like some of the public 'hate' or 'love' sessions described in George Orwell's novel 1984, where citizens were expected to follow the latest policy changes of 'Big Brother', however quixotic. On this subject in general a lot of the news reporting on the BBC of late has veered away from the delivery of news to the promulgation of propaganda on behalf of the government under the guise of 'manufactured' news stories.

Friday, 11 January 2008

"Human Foulers anger dog walker"

Note: if you are of a delicate disposition you might care to skip this article completely. If, however, you'd like to know what's really going on in a small seaside town in a northern Scottish winter, then by all means read on ... [+]

This was the title of an article this week (edition of 8th January) in our local newspaper The Nairnshire Telegraph (no online version) in which they report that a Nairn woman, a dog owner, alleges that it is not only dogs who foul paths, but humans too:

"Three times in one week just before Christmas I was walking the dog in three different places - the Carse, West Beach near Hilton of Delnies, and Delnies Wood - when I came across human faeces and got very angry.

"Each time the faeces were on the edge of the paths and there were tissues as well, which was a nice dleicacy for my dog!

"The last couple of years it has got really bad in Delnies Wood. The beach and Carse Wood are more recent, but I'm not the only one who has found it in Carse Wood.

"I spoke to the police who told me there is a law against it, but the problem is catching them at it and there needs to be two officers present to prosecute.

"My dog is more discreet when it defecates and we're supposed to clean up after them. But people [*] are quite happy to leave it behind along with tissues, and, of course, dogs will sometimes go for it."

- there's quite a bit more in the same vein, but I think that is quite enough for a refined blog such as this, don't you agree?

Now I have no idea whether defecation by humans in public has become some kind of a 'fad' in Nairn of late (perhaps amongst gangs of wayward teenagers?), although I don't disbelieve the notion that it occasionally happens - on the other hand I find it quite hard to believe that this is a major problem. In my experience, as a former dog owner and dog-walker, public paths in and around Nairn, and public grassed areas, quite often have recently-deposited (and more ancient) faeces deposits on them - some in pretty public places, some less so.

However, the real question I have about these distasteful occurrences is: How can she tell? Maybe it's just me, but I don't think I could, with 100 per cent accuracy, always distinguish human from canine faeces. Some larger dogs (labradors, for example, of which there are a lot in Nairn) do prodigious 'jobbies' and looking in my own lavatory bowl I'd be hard-pressed always to know the difference. Nor do I think that the odour of human faeces differs, quite often, in any marked fashion, from similar dog faeces. I must also report, with scrupulous honesty, that my own little 'doggie' (sweet little lady-like thing that she was most of the time) sometimes attempted to gobble down fresh faeces deposited both by herself and by other smallish dogs - I never saw her go for the 'super-size' deposits of a labrador or a Great Dane, thank goodness! In any case, on the occasions I caught her attempting to do this I would I'm afraid tell her very sternly that she was being a perfectly disgusting little creature and that she could expect no kisses from me that day, nor would she be permitted to lick me! I am absolutely convinced she knew she was being naughty as she always gave me the exact same look a young child gives an adult when caught doing something he or she knows she ought not to be doing. However, I never once thought (or even imagined) that the pile of 'doggie delight' my little monster was going for had been left by a human! Maybe I'm just a poor naïve, sheltered soul.

Possibly it's the presence of the 'tissues' at the scene of the crime that convinces this lady that it must be human faeces; I'm sorry, but I think there are all sorts of other plausible explanations. One can't help feeling that this first issue of the new year of The Nairnshire Telegraph must have come during a particuarly slow news week even by the standards of our local parish-pump journalism for them to consider giving such prominence (almost a third of page 2) to such an issue. I hesitate to write that it seemeth to me that the good lady protesteth too much! ... but there, I've just written it.

[+] I thought it was appropriate to print the warning at the beginnning of this entry in brown, given the topic under discussion.
[*] The lady implies (and I do not doubt her for one instant), without stating so explicitly, that "it wisnae me!".

Juries choose words for the Spanish National Anthem

(Please see UPDATE at end)

One of the curiosities of Spain is that there are no words in its national anthem. Apparently this has caused disquiet amongst people in situations where the anthem is played and they must stand there mute, whereas citizens from most other countries can yell out their own anthem's words at the top of their voices. This has been particularly evident at sporting events. Last year, therefore, the Spanish Olympic Committee (Comité Olímpico Español [COE]) and the Editors and Writers Society (Sociedad General de Autores y Editores [SGAE]) got together to organise a competition to choose suitable words for the anthem.

According to this report in local Murcian newspaper website the words will be as follows:

¡Viva España!
Cantemos todos juntos
con distinta voz
y un solo corazón

Ama a la Patria
pues sabe abrazar,
bajo su cielo azul,
pueblos en libertad

Viva España!
desde los verdes valles
al inmenso mar,
un himno de hermandad

Gloria a los hijos
que a la Historia dan
justicia y grandeza
democracia y paz

- it is expected to be sung for the first time at the annual gala of the COE on 21st January, when it will be performed by tenor Plácido Domingo. ThinkSpain has an unofficial translation into English:

Long live Spain!

Let's all sing together
with different voices
and just one heart.

Long live Spain!

From the green valleys
to the immense ocean,
a hymn and brotherhood.

Love the homeland
for it embraces
under a blue sky
villages at liberty.

Glory to the children
that Histroy gives
justice and greatness
democracy and peace.

If you're not familiar with the Spanish anthem or 'Spanish Royal March' (Marcha Real Española) you can listen to a realPlayer version of it on the Spanish Government official website here. I'll be very interested to hear how Plácido Domingo fits the words shown above to the tune.

UPDATE: (Tuesday 22JAN08 16.40 GMT) Well, if words are ever going to be chosen and accepted by most Spaniards for their national hymn, it seems it won't be these particular words; the COE has just announced that there is too much controversy surrounding them. The fact that the words are cringe-making is probably only a side-issue, given the quality of the words of many other national anthems. I posted an update to this story on my other 'casabill' blog on 16JAN08.

Indian firm Tata unveils 1 Lakh car!

Quite a concept, a 1 Lakh car. For just over Rs100,000 (about £1,277, €1,700, $2,500) a lot of Indians will soon be able to own a 5-seater all-weather vehicle as an alternative to the ubiquitous 50cc scooter with a family and often a fair amount of luggage precariously balanced on top. I imagine if this project is a success there will soon be a clamour for it to be available in other countries, and possibly not just in the third-world. According to an AFP summary box included in this BBC article, the Tata Nano meets European emissions standards, although there is no mention of its possible Euro NCAP rating (wikipedia article on Euro NCAP is here).

It seems to be relatively fuel-efficient car and will undoubtedly meet the aspirations of a lot of moderately affluent Indians. I might even consider buying one myself, except for this nagging worry that it might be a death-trap; some of the other inexpensive imported vehicles on sale in recent years in the UK (although still a lot more costly than this one) certainly never received very high marks for safety from consumers' organisations. However, I certainly don't wish to pour cold water on Tata's remarkable achievement.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

New links added for January 2008

Just a couple of new links this time around; perhaps there'll be more later in the month:

Aussielicious - "Naked on the inside - sometimes on the outside!". A very naughty, but amusing, gay blog from Australia. I only came across this blog a day or so ago, as a result of a comment he left on the blog below, although I see he is included in the blogrolls of several bloggers I have had in my own blogroll for a very long time, but never clicked on before.

London Preppy - Tales from the life of a body- , clothing label- and self-obsessed young gay Greek man living in London. Quite amusing though! I came across this blog a month or so ago and enjoy reading it a lot, sometimes with my mouth hanging open in amazement.

You may have noticed that both these blogs are written by gay men; that probably just shows where many of my interests lie I'm afraid. I'll no doubt be adding a wider cross-section of new links in due course; I have a few in line to be added pretty soon. I like to think, though, that my blogroll is already pretty diverse.

"Lark Rise to Candelford" - an Oxfordshire idyll

The BBC is to begin a serialisation of Flora Thompson's autobiographical homage to her Oxfordshire childhood with the first of a 10- part television dramatisation of "Lark Rise to Candelford" being shown on Sunday at 7.40pm on BBC1.

It so happens that friends used to live in the tiny hamlet of Cottisford, just yards from the church depicted below and not far from Juniper Hill, the real-life location of Flora Thompson's childhood home in Oxfordshire; these small hamlets, hardly justifying the designation of 'villages', are not very far from the bustling market town of Bicester. One of the friends is a pretty skilled amateur artist and I was able to acquire a couple of her ink and pastel drawings of buildings cloesly associated with Flora Thompson and which hang now on my dining room walls. It is a beautiful part of England and I have spent a number of all-too-brief holidays there. I look forward to watching the first episode of the dramatisation this coming Sunday!

"Lark Rise to Candelford"
Flora Thompson

Flora Thompson's Cottage
Juniper Hill, Oxfordshire

Cottisford Church, Oxfordshire

Click here to see larger images.

"... it was a no brainer"

I'm afraid that this phrase at the end of a post in a blog I like very much, about getting oneself tattooed, sums up (in a way) my simple attitude toward the concept of getting a tattoo - people who do so really have no brains! I know that is not true of Mak, but I'm afraid I am completely at a loss to understand why otherwise seemingly intelligent people think it acceptable or in any way 'cool' to have their bodies vandalised in this way.

If I ever write here that I'm thinking about getting myself a tattoo I beg of any kind reader to get me sectioned for my own good.