31 January 2006

Who's a pretty boy?

The BBC reports an influx of parrots to Edinburgh:
"An aggressive parrot, known as the Houdini of the captive bird world, has caused concern after a flock was reported flying over Edinburgh.
Several sightings of a group, as well as individual ring-necked parakeets, are worrying experts who fear they will push out the city's native birds.
The Indian Himalayan species, which has been escaping from city aviaries, can easily survive freezing temperatures.
The foot-long bird, which lives in tree holes, could displace a native owl.
As it is the first time the species has been seen in a group in the city, the news has caused concern among experts who say this could be a sign the birds are looking for a place to roost and produce young."

The Scottish Executive has welcomed the arrival of these parrots, commenting that it is further evidence of the success of the Fresh Parrot Initiative. Edinburgh Council is making arrangements for the parrots to be given accommodation in Wester Hailes and the social work department is manufacturing suitable perches. The First Minister, Mr Jack McConnell, said that the incoming parrots wanted to be part of the best small country in the world, although those who were failed asylum seekers could expect to be rousted from their nests early in the morning and despatched back to the Himalayas pronto. Some Labour MSPs voiced concern about the parrots' religion,wondering if their attendance at non-denominational schools would contribute to the development of sectarianism. But Peter Peacock MSP (appropriately enough), the schools minister, claimed that any parrots who misbehaved in school would be immediately excluded. Health Minister Andy Kerr was said to be worried that the green plumage of the parrots indicated that they were Celtic supporters. But who pays any attention to Andy Kerr?

Lighting up

According to The Evening News, the anti-smoking legislation descends further into farce:
"SCOTLAND'S smoking ban is threatening to create widespread confusion for passengers waiting at bus stops across the Capital.
Smokers run the risk of landing on-the-spot fines of £50 for lighting up at certain bus shelters because they meet the Scottish Executive's definition of "an enclosed space". But the rules will not apply to many other stops because of their more open designs...
Under Scotland's anti-smoking law, lighting up will be banned in any public area that is either "wholly or substantially enclosed".
The guidelines set out by the Executive state that a "substantially enclosed area" is anything where solid walls make up 50 per cent or more of the perimeter of the structure.
City council leader Donald Anderson admitted there was confusion over the status of bus shelters and said officials were considering whether "No Smoking" notices should be put up in shelters where smoking is banned."

And remember not to throw away your butt in a careless way, because you thereby face the risk of another £50 fine.

30 January 2006

Stating the obvious

The Evening News reports:
"DRIVERS in Edinburgh are more likely to be involved in a serious road accident on their way home from work than at any other time of the day."

Well, they are not likely to be involved in a serious road accident during their morning coffee break , over lunch, watching telly in the evening or sleeping in their beds, are they?

Now I understand...

I always wondered but The Scotsman has the definitive answer:
"DAVID Icke, the former sports presenter who once proclaimed himself to be the Son of God, has offered up more of his unusual wisdom, this time claiming that the Royal Family are "bloodsucking alien lizards".
Mr Icke, 53, claims the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are shape-shifters who drink human blood to look like us.
And the father-of-three says a race of half-human, half-alien creatures has infiltrated all the world's key power positions.
He claims the US president, George W Bush, and his father, the former president, George Bush, are both giant lizards who change into humans. "

And, if these lizards have also taken over the Scottish Executive, it would explain a lot.

29 January 2006


From The Sunday Times (here):
In the odd way of modern culture, though, her success at being a fake has brought her real celebrity. With the prospect of television appearances, record and modelling deals, she stands to earn a fortune. She has already been offered one role as the face of Travelodge, the hotel chain with beds at £26 a night, after friends said they called her “Paris Travelodge”, a cut-price Paris Hilton.
“I want it all . . . I want it right now,” she said yesterday, reciting the words to the song. “It looks like I’ve got it right now.”


Jack hits back, but gently...

Chancellor Brown and Secretary of State Darling must be quaking in their boots. According to The Observer, the First Minister is taking off the gloves (here):
McConnell, who has always been extremely cautious about veering into matters reserved for Whitehall, said it was time to take a stronger stance on issues for which he does not have direct responsibility, but which have implications for Scotland. Devolution had bedded in enough, he said, to allow for more robust public discussion and debate between the two governments.
'There has always been a protocol between ministers in London and Edinburgh that they would keep their nose out of our business and we would keep our nose out of their business. I believe that was right in the first four or five years of devolution. But increasingly we have made representations, and increasingly we have made them in public. I think it is a role for the First Minister of Scotland to speak up, but to do it sparingly. I will increasingly not hold back.'

So there. The First Minister "will increasingly not hold back". An inspirational message. "We will fight on the beaches, we will fight on the landing grounds, we will increasingly not hold back.."

Stories you might otherwise have missed

From The Observer (here):
Experts announced that Liquorice Allsorts are good for your teeth. A Californian scientist said they are 'at least as powerful as some tooth-care products'.

28 January 2006

You couldn't make it up!

An irresistible story in The Guardian:
The deputy prime minister, John Prescott, was given medical treatment for nearly 30 minutes after pulling a muscle during a race against primary schoolchildren.
Mr Prescott, 58, pulled up in pain a few metres from the start of the event at Sheepmount athletics track in Carlisle, where he was visiting redevelopment projects after last year's floods. Onlookers said he sprinted from the line, but then staggered sideways and hobbled off the track. He said afterwards: "I thought I was winning. I suppose I should have warmed up properly." The children carried on with the race.

No sniggering, please.

27 January 2006

How come we always get the group of death?

It's more than we might have hoped for. Le Figaro recommends that the French football authorities should take us seriously (although Italy and the Ukraine are regarded as more dangerous):
"Dernier candidat qu’il faudra prendre avec le plus grand sérieux, l’Ecosse. Non pas que l’équipe britannique soit un foudre de guerre, mais on connaît le jeu rugueux des hommes en kilt. Invaincus contre ce pays depuis 1989 et une défaite à Glasgow (2-0) en éliminatoires de la Coupe du Monde 1990 (2-0), les Bleus ont depuis rencontré à 4 reprises cet adversaire. Avec un certain succès lors de la dernière visite à Saint-Denis en 2002 (5-0)."

We could have done without the reference to the kilt. But at least Le Figaro rates us higher than the Faroese...

The old jokes are the best...

Dr Crippen (here) is referring to Ms Hewitt but it applies with much more force to Commissar Andy Kerr:
Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev are travelling on a train. The train stops. Stalin leaves the compartment. When he comes back, he says:“It's all sorted - I've shot those responsible”.
Train doesn't move. So Khrushchev leaves the compartment. When he comes back he says 'problem solved - I've rehabilitated those responsible'.
Train still doesn't move. Finally, Brezhnev stands up.
'Well, what are YOU going to do?' say Stalin and Khrushchev.
'Easy', says Brezhnev, 'I'm going to pull the blinds down and PRETEND the train is moving'.

A tax on stupidity

The Times wonders about the value of the National Lottery:
"As a gamble the lottery game is a cruel joke. Casinos typically pay out more than 97 per cent of money staked. With Premium Bonds you actually get to keep your stake, plus an average of 3½ per cent, in prize money per year; small wonder the Government doesn’t promote them. The lottery payout? Fifty per cent.
And these pathetic returns are so skewed to the jackpots that the average player receives far less than that, even over a lifetime. If you bought ten tickets a week for 50 years, your chances of winning one jackpot in that time would be less than 1 in 500. You would almost certainly lose about 80 per cent of your cumulative stake...
But it goes to good causes, right? Well, if you want to give 28p to a good cause chosen by the lotterycrats, buy a £1 lottery ticket. Or you could give £1 directly to a charity of your choice — that’s £1.28, with gift aid.
Nor is the lottery much of a tax. The operator, Camelot, raised £4.77 billion in 2004-05, of which it and the retailers shared equally the last 10 per cent: £477 million. The Inland Revenue, over the same period, raised £380 billion at a cost of less than 1 per cent of the money raised."

You would be far better off doing the pools.

Can they think?

Sports journalists (oxymoron again) carry out their usual efficient and intelligent job of explaining the draw for Euro 2008. Here is The Herald's contribution:
"It is possible that, because each country is seeded differently, all four home nations could be picked in the same qualifying group.
England are in the top tier of teams alongside holders, Greece. Scotland have been seeded in the fourth tier, Wales in the fifth and Northern Ireland in the sixth.
The Republic of Ireland are among the fourth seeds, meaning they cannot be drawn in the same group as Scotland, but could face England.
Seedings are based on qualifying records for Euro 2004 and this summer's World Cup. Hosts Switzerland and Austria qualify automatically.
The remaining 50 teams will be split into six groups of seven and one of eight, with the winners and runners-up qualifying."

And these reporters get paid?

"We'll build new ring roads to go nowhere in particular"

The by-election gets down and dirty. The Scotsman reports:
"A NEW road bridge across the Forth is expected to be approved within weeks following fears there may be no viable solution to corrosion problems on the current structure, The Scotsman can reveal.
Ministers yesterday dramatically fast-tracked the process by announcing a decision in principle would be made by Easter - 16 April.
But The Scotsman has learned that Scottish Executive officials are nearing the conclusion that only another bridge - costing at least £500 million - would ensure the crossing between Edinburgh and Fife remains open.
Ministers have said an independent expert assessment of the state of the bridge, which they will receive next week, would enable them to make a final decision."

Read Minister Tavish Scott's speeches on the matter during yesterday's parliamentary debate - there was no announcement that a decision would be made by Easter. Nor is there any Executive news release.

My advice to the voters is that they should not believe a word of what the politicians are saying - and distrust those in the media who claim to know what politicians and civil servants are thinking...

Neglect of history

Those who know nothing of history are condemned to repeat past mistakes. It would seem that the Ministry of Defence has neglected its historical studies. The Guardian reports:
"Britain will deploy nearly 6,000 troops to Afghanistan - more than expected - over the next few months in the biggest and most hazardous military operation since the invasion of Iraq, the cabinet agreed yesterday.
Most of the troops will be based in Helmand province, hostile territory at the heart of the country's opium poppy area, in a three-year deployment costing £1bn...
There are already some 1,000 British troops in Afghanistan. The total will peak at 5,700 in the summer, falling back to about 4,700 when engineers have built the British base at Lashkar Gar, capital of Helmand province. The British taskforce will consist of the Colchester-based 16 Air Assault Brigade, including 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. For the first time, US-designed, British-made Apache attack helicopters will be deployed.
The brigade is part of Afghanistan's Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), to be
commanded by a British general, Sir David Richards, with the support of some 1,000 British soldiers based in Kabul. Isaf's job is peacekeeping and "nation building", including training a new Afghan army and helping to restructure the country's economy...
[Dr Reid] said British troops would also be involved in counter-narcotics, further complicating their mission with potentially dangerous consequences. Though President Hamid Karzai recently got rid of the governor of Helmand because of his links to the drug trade, the Ministry of Defence told MPs last week: "The narcotics trade influences senior levels in the [Afghan] government and effectively controls some of the provincial administration".

I have enormous sympathy for the British forces who are being asked to undertake a mission in which, successively, forces from the USSR and the USA failed. Indeed, it could be argued that the British Army itself failed in earlier centuries to bring peace and nation-building to Afghanistan.

If more than 100,000 troops from the coalition of the willing cannot pacify Iraq, what hope do the considerably fewer numbers of NATO and US troops have in Afghanistan?

And to those who ask - what is the alternative? - I have no answers. It would be nice to think that the current proposals would lead to a competent Afghan national army, as well as the elimination of the warlords, of the Taliban and of the narcotics industry, but it's not going to happen.

No such thing as bad publicity (2)

There are certain people in this world who will do anything to see their name in the media. Obvious examples of the publicity-hungry genre are Gorgeous George and, of course, Branson. The Independent identifies another:
"Sir Ian Blair, the country's most senior police chief, apologised today for saying that "almost nobody" could understand why the Soham murders became "the biggest story in Britain".
The Metropolitan Police Commissioner said he was sorry for his remarks about the murders of the two 10-year-old schoolgirls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, which have attracted widespread criticism.
He cited the case yesterday at a meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority, in which he accused the media of "institutional racism" over its reporting of murders.
But speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, he said: "First of all, I obviously have to unreservedly apologise to anyone connected to the Soham murders, especially the parents of Holly and Jessica, for reigniting the story.
"It was not intended to diminish the significance of this dreadful crime, which is exactly how I described it yesterday."

It would be nice if Sir Ian would maintain a period of silence but I suppose that it is too much to hope for.

25 January 2006

Incapacity benefit

Ms Treneman in The Times is in sparkling form (here):
"JOHN HUTTON came before us yesterday with the toughest shake-up of the welfare state in years. It was vital that he hide this fact and so he deployed his extensive camouflage skills. The spies who hide transmitters in fake rocks could learn a thing or two from Mr Hutton.
In fact, Mr Hutton may be a sort of human fake rock, if there can be such thing. On the outside he looks all shiny and smooth and . . . well, normal. He blends, as rocks do, into the landscape. But on the inside lies the steel heart (which also doubles as a transmitter) of an ambitious technocrat...
He talked fast. He talked politics and, it must be said, for those of us who don’t speak welfare technocratese, he talked nonsense. He kept referring to “gateways” and “pathways”. To the uninitiated he seemed to be wandering round a garden centre. But Hutton’s World is a murky place where almost nothing, and especially rocks and pathways, is what it seems."

How nice to see the proper use of the subjunctive in the second sentence of the first paragraph above.

24 January 2006

Oh woe, thrice woe!

This is becoming tiresome. The London press ignore Scotland for weeks on end, until some minor issue catches their attention. The they proceed to lecture us about our inadequacies. Recently we had Professor Ferguson. Now we have Mark Steyn in The Telegraph (here):
"With half the annual births it had in the 1950s and a population on the brink of falling below five million, Scotland has become a minor member of the axis of extinction: Germany, Japan, Russia - once great nations now recording net population loss. In its general approach to economic reality, not to mention the physical health of its population, Scotland is closer to the Russian end of the picture than to the German-Japanese end.
How did this happen? Almost everywhere you go on the planet, the great institutions of this world were built by Scots, from the Canadian Pacific Railway to the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank. Where is the spirit of Mel McGibson in Braveheart?
But it is all more complicated than that. The modern Scot is prepared to fight - or, at any rate, strike - but only for the right to die in his bed on a government pension. In fact, one of the small signs of the country's woes is the byline of Peter MacMahon's Scotsman story. It is apparently possible to make a career in Scottish journalism as a "Scottish Government Editor", which in itself tells you something about the Scottish state."

Does Mr Steyn know what he is writing about? Has he ever visited Scotland?

What is the world coming to? (Part 37)

The Times reports on how not to serve haggis:
"Haggis with Drambuie cream

Bung the haggis in a pan of water, bring to the boil and simmer for 30min till it’s heated through. Peel and chop the potato, simmer till tender and mash with a little butter and warm milk. Do the same with the swede, but omit the milk and add lots of freshly ground black pepper. For the sauce, heat a small pan and sweat the shallot in a little butter till it’s translucent. Warm the Drambuie slightly, light it with a match, pour into the pan and shake it till the flames die down. Stir in the cream. Let the sauce bubble and reduce a little. To serve, divide the sauce among four warmed plates and pile three equal mounds of haggis, potato and swede on top. Sprinkle with chopped parsley."

Drambuie cream? Disgusting...

Burning bridges

Perhaps we should have by-elections more frequently, as it appears to lead UK Ministers to offer gifts to fortune. The Scotman reports:
"ALISTAIR Darling, the Transport Secretary, yesterday became the second Cabinet minister in a week to upstage the Scottish Executive when he supported the idea of a new road bridge across the Forth.
He gave his unequivocal backing to a new £500 million link despite the fact that only two months ago Jack McConnell, the First Minister, said it would be "stupid" to agree to any such plan without waiting for an assessment of the current bridge.
Last night, Mr Darling, also Secretary of State for Scotland, was accused of electioneering after speaking out while campaigning for the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election.
The minister, who spoke out against a second bridge ten years ago, said: "The key thing now is to campaign for a second bridge because of the fact that the existing bridge is not going to last as long as people thought."

Not exactly responsible behaviour, however, either on the part of UK Ministers in promising things which they cannot deliver or on the part of Executive Ministers in allowing them to do so.

23 January 2006

Getting GPs to do the dirty work

The Herald reports:
"Family doctors could be offered cash bonuses for cutting the number of long-term sick notes as part of the government's radical drive to slash the high levels of incapacity benefit (IB) that cost the taxpayer £12.5bn a year.
Glasgow, the sicknote capital of Britain where one in five of the working population is on IB, is in line to become one of the pilot areas where government money will be injected into schemes to help reduce dependency and get people back into work.
Ahead of tomorrow's green paper on welfare, John Hutton, work and pensions secretary, said of cash bonuses: "This is something we would like to talk to the GPs about."

But Dr Crippen (in his admirable blog here) points out some of the practical difficulties:
"I have five patients, all under the age of 45, who have severe sciatica and have been off work for nearly a year. They have "slipped discs". Bad ones. They cannot work. They can barely walk. Opening their bowels is agony. They need disc decompressions. This relatively minor surgery could have them back to work in a few weeks.
To get this surgery, they need to have an MRI scan. The government does not allow me to get an MRI scan directly. So I refer them to the "back clinic". The waiting list is seventeen weeks. When they get to the back clinic, they see the "nurse specialist" who is cleverer than I and so is allowed to order MRI scans. After a two minute assessment she orders the scan. The waiting list for the waiting list is three months and the waiting list is another three months. The MRI scan will then confirm that they need an operation, which I already know (before we had the advantage of MRI scans, they just had the operation). They then go on the waiting list to have the operation. That will be another six months or so. Thank God it is a Three Star Hospital.
During all this time, they have to be signed off work. And they are off so long they end up on invalidity benefit.
How is the certificate commissar going to advise me on this?"

Dr Crippen's whole post is well worth reading.

What Kermit said next

Tim Hames in The Times sees the contest for the Liberal Democrat leadership in terms of the muppets (here):
"What we are left with instead might be described as The Muppet Show election. It pits Gonzo the Great against Sam the Eagle. It is a classic confrontation of political styles.
Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat president, is the personification of Gonzo. He is energetic, engaging and sincere. He is also perceived to be chaotic, idiosyncratic and unpredictable. In one Muppet episode, Gonzo shouts out towards the audience: “Ladies and gentlemen. This evening, I will perform a feat of lunatic daring.” There are too many Lib Dem MPs who fear that this would also be Mr Hughes’s approach if he were their leader.
Sir Menzies Campbell, by contrast, is a ringer for Sam the Eagle. He looks the part. He is austere, reliable and sage. His age in that context is an asset. He has had his faults as a foreign affairs spokesman; he is rather too keen on the EU, the UN and the Palestinian cause for my taste, but he has always exuded authority. Sam the Eagle told the rest of the Muppet troupe that: “You are all weirdos.” It is a sentiment that Sir Menzies might keep in mind if he addresses the next party conference as leader."

I can't help wondering what Miss Piggy would have made of it...

22 January 2006

I'm afraid I have a big bum...

The following report from The Independent is appalling:
"Zero. It may sound an implausible size for women to aspire to while squeezing into the latest fashions. No longer. The era of battling to claim that you are a size 8 rather than a 10 is so last year. Britain's high streets are downsizing at an unprecedented rate in a bid to make women feel good about themselves. A burgeoning number of British stores are clamouring to provide clothes in a stupefying US size 0 - a British 4.
And when US brand Abercrombie & Fitch pitch up in the UK later this year, skinny women will be able to snap up a pair of their favourite size 00 clothes - that's a British size 2.
The retailer TopShop has already started stocking size noughts in branches across the country, following in the footsteps of American chain Gap.
London's fashionable department store Harvey Nichols has bought in a range of designer labels in a zero, the French women's clothes shop Morgan now does a taille 0 and Australia's Wheels & Doll Baby is selling skin-tight dresses for the 0 frame in stores here."

This is advertising hype. Men (well this man at least) do not want to sleep with women that are so skinny.

The twitch is back...

I sometimes think that Mungo's diary in Scotland on Sunday is too close to real life to be funny. Here is an extract:
Still no response from the Treasury to our request that they make it clear the Chancellor does not want to "abolish" Jack. He was forced to go into FMQs and wing it, insisting that relations with Number 11 are hunky dory, and that the story was the work of "media fantasists and opportunist opposition politicians who are obsessed with spin and do not care about the hard working families of Scotland".
Even I thought he took it a bit far when he said that "the Chancellor and I are exceptionally close, personally and politically". This was greeted by hoots of laughter which, worryingly, seemed mostly to come from the seats behind him.
Later, Patricia Ferguson read out the statement Bridget wrote for her on the arts commission report. My God, she's rubbish.
Jack looks terrible. He's so worried about the Brown situation that his twitch has come back. He's even stopped watching Celeb BB, which has only added to his grumpiness. "There's a Galloway-sized hole in my life," he grumbled. Worryingly, McCabe and Curran flew to London today at the Chancellor's invitation. When I told Jack he went a very odd colour and emitted a high-pitched squeak. "

20 January 2006

The one-boy crimewave

The Evening News reports:
"A TEARAWAY teenager suspected of committing 800 crimes in the Capital has been caught by police breaking his antisocial behaviour order.
The 15-year-old was served with an Asbo after being reported to police for a catalogue of crimes including car theft, joyriding, housebreaking and assault.
The youngster was banned from entering the Gracemount area, where his reign of terror was concentrated.
But he has been arrested at least twice for violating the order, imposed three months ago. Officers caught him on one occasion travelling in a stolen car...
Since the Asbo was imposed, police and residents say there has been a sharp drop in problems in Gracemount.
The order, served last October, was the first for an under-16 in Edinburgh and only the second in Scotland, and followed 80 reports made to police about his behaviour since he was aged ten.
But police believe that the total number of offences he committed could be around ten times greater than the amount reported."

It will be of no consolation to Gracemount residents but you have to respect the young man's persistence - 800 crimes in 5 years. And they serve him with an Asbo?

19 January 2006


It's a relatively minor point but consider this extract from Ms Kelly's statement today:
"I will shortly bring forward regulations automatically to enter on List 99 anyone who is convicted or cautioned for a sexual offence against a child. I will also automatically bar individuals for a range of other serious sexual offences against adults. By including cautions as well as convictions the anomaly between offenders who are convicted and those who admit their guilt and accept a caution will end. Individuals will have the right to make representations but they will need to prove that they are not a threat to children before they can work in a school or other education establishment. I shall consult widely on the detailed implementation of this measure."

There are two mentions of "automatically" in this paragraph. But how can someone be barred automatically when they are entitled to make representations against such barring? If the representations were successful, then presumably a convicted sexual offender or someone having received a caution could end up working in a school. Is such a process significantly different from the current procedures? Admittedly, it would not be Ministers making the decision but there would appear to remain a mechanism whereby sexual offenders could end up working in a school.

Ms Kelly's full statement is here.

Would they recognise artistic merit if it sat up and ordered another pint?

The Executive's press release (here) on culture makes depressing reading, and not just because it is written in a language somewhat remote from normal English:
"In her response to the report by the Cultural Commission, which recommended ways to develop the nation's arts and culture, Ms Ferguson said: "We are ambitious for Scotland's cultural life, which is why we plan to invest significant resources to realise our aspirations.
"We shall channel this new investment into bolstering the capacity of cultural organisations throughout Scotland to develop and present the best creative and cultural talent.
"Today our commitment has been stated, our ambition to achieve excellence has been declared, and the First Minister's St Andrews Day vision of access and excellence is now becoming a reality."

Not so ambitious - additional resources amount to £20 million rather than the £100 million recommended. And stating a commitment (especially a half-hearted one) and declaring a (modest) ambition does not convert a vision (even a McConnell vision) into a reality.
"The First Minister proposed a fresh policy of 'cultural rights' for every citizen to access high quality provision. We will take forward plans on rights and entitlements.
"Under new legislation local authorities will develop plans to ensure every person in Scotland is entitled to access cultural activity, reflecting the needs and wishes of local people and ommunities.
"The kinds of opportunities provided through entitlements may include - access to information about the local area's cultural heritage, free access to live performances, or the chance to take part in a community art project."

Big deal, no? I will have a "cultural right" to have a chance to take part in a community art project. Haud me back!
"In future, the Executive will fund the national companies direct. That is consistent with our relationship to the national collections.
"We will establish an explicit criteria [sic] to define the status of a 'national performing arts company' so as to include both adult and youth companies alike.
"To qualify for this status national performing bodies will have to meet exacting criteria, including achievement of the highest artistic performing standards.
"Excellence will be rewarded. We plan to increase funding for the companies which qualify, beyond the level currently made available through the Scottish Arts Council."

And who will be the judge of whether a company meets the criteria to qualify for the status of a national performing arts company?

And what happened to the safety provisions to protect the arts companies from political and bureaucratic interference?

It's enough to make you weep...

An old fogey pontificates...

Ann Treneman of The Times comments on the Government's recent announcement on prostitution:
"The winner of the most out of touch idea of the week is the Home Office junior minister Fiona MacTaggart. She has the unenviable task of figuring out what to do about prostitution and her big new idea is mini-brothels that can be populated by three women (two prostitutes and a “maid”, whatever that means). “I do think that very small-scale operations can operate in a way which is not disruptive to neighbours,” she said.
I do not know where Ms MacTaggart lives or who her neighbours are. She certainly has the means to live well. She may be Labour to the core but she also inherited pots of money from her multimillionaire property developer father. She is the second richest Labour MP after Geoffrey Robinson.
I live in a normal street (if there is such a thing) in suburbia and I would certainly be disrupted if a mini-brothel was operating in the house next to mine. There would be an uproar over parking for starters. The net curtains would not be twitching so much as dancing the cancan all day long. "

I have commented on this before, but it is worth repeating. Politicians no longer appear to think through the implications of their policy announcements. They only seem to want a quick favourable headline; never mind if what they are proposing makes no sense in the longer term; never mind if it cuts across policy in adjacent areas. It is as if the most junior civil servant in the department had been given half an hour to come up with a policy announcement for the Minister to make that afternoon.

We will get another example this afternoon when Scotland's culture minister (if that is not an oxymoron) makes her announcement this afternoon.

18 January 2006


From The Independent (here):
A 38-day cruise on Britain's biggest ocean liner the Queen Mary 2 (QM2) has had to be halted because of a propulsion unit problem.
With about 2,500 passengers on board for a cruise around South America, the 150,000-tonne Cunard vessel had to return to port at Fort Lauderdale in Florida shortly after sailing yesterday.
"There is a problem with one of the four propulsion units and it was thought best to go back to port," a Cunard spokesman said today.
He went on: "The vessel had just left Fort Lauderdale when it was discovered that there was something wrong with the unit, known as a pod.

I think they mean that one of the engines is knackered.

Jobs for the boys (and girls)

Scottish Executive Ministers make life more difficult for themselves. What did they think would happen when this saga became public? Political stupidity. From The Herald (here):
"Jack McConnell's former adviser has been given a consultancy deal with the Scottish Executive just months after quitting her job.
Jeane Freeman, who resigned as the first minister's most trusted political aide last year, has been hired by Peter Peacock, the education minister, to work on plans for the under-fives. She will be paid a total of around £5000 for 10 days' work, at a rate of about £500 a day, over a period of several months.
The job was awarded directly to Ms Freeman's new consultancy firm, Freeman Associates, without a tendering exercise. The threshold for such an exercise is £10,000. The executive's rules say such non-competitive deals must be done with "great care" and be "fully defensible". The executive last night said Mr Peacock had decided Ms Freeman should be approached because her abilities were ideal for the job specification he helped draw up.
"There was no suggestion of cronyism," a spokeswoman said."

Well, there is now...

Cowboy joke

The Master is remembered in The Guardian Diary (here):
The victory in the Golden Globes this week of the cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain inevitably brings to mind the joke from the late Scottish genius Chic Murray: "I met this cowboy with a brown paper hat, paper waistcoat and paper trousers. He was wanted for rustling." Yes, it was the way he told 'em.

17 January 2006

A dependency culture?

Melanie Reid writing in The Herald offers a right-wing saloon bar rant about workshy scroungers:
"Nobody likes to face up to the fact that the average jobless Scot, in possession both of a healthy body and reasonable mental faculties, is workshy. It offends our romantic view of ourselves as tough, thrifty toilers with a can-do attitude, even though this honourable, sweat-stained image is probably the best part of 50 years out of date.
In the cold dawn of 2006, however, workshy – or, more accurately, work-ignorant – is a reality we should not disguise with warm words and gentle euphemisms. There is no nice way to say this. A whole generation thinks it is acceptable to take a free ride. There is a chronic attitude problem among a substantial section of the population, children of the dependency culture, who regard working for a living as a completely alien concept."

No sign of any understanding of the benefits trap - indeed £232 (gross) per week on the minimum wage is described as not bad. Nor is there any appreciation of the efforts being made by both public and private sector to encourage the long term unemployed back to the world of work, such as the pilot pathways to work promoted by DWP.

No, it's just a whinge, based on prejudice and anecdote. There is even a reference to a factory owner of Ms Reid's acquaintance, obviously the journalistic equivalent of "a man in the pub told me..." Pretty shoddy stuff.

Compare and contrast a much more cheerful attitude to financial dependency exhibited by The Scotsman:
"A SCOTTISH farming business collected more than £1 million in European Union subsidies, while six others took more than £500,000 each, according to figures released yesterday by the Executive.
Almost 750 farmers received more than £100,000, the figures for 2004 reveal. But 15,735 of Scotland's 21,047 farmers and crofters received less than £30,000, and 10,682 of those received less than £10,000 from Scotland's £484 million share of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget...
John Kinnaird, NFU Scotland's president, said that individual identification was not a problem.
"We should be proud of our industry and the value for money we deliver in return for public funding," he said. "All single farm payments will be in the public domain from now on, and rightly so.
"We must not be driven into feeling defensive about what we do as an industry purely because of a few simplistic headlines and soundbite attacks. Total subsidy to Scotland's family farms represents only 2 per cent of Scottish Executive expenditure. Farms, big or small, have a tremendous story to tell and the industry cannot afford to be shy in letting people know about it."

So it's entirely OK for farmers to have their hands in the public purse. Isn't it?

16 January 2006

Culture - Executive reaching for revolver

The Scotsman anticipates the Executive's culture announcement later this week:
"MINISTERS are expected to take direct control over the funding of Scotland's major art companies this week in the biggest shake-up of Scotland's cultural establishment since devolution.
Patricia Ferguson, the arts minister, will unveil the Executive's approach to the arts on Thursday, giving her long-awaited response to last year's Cultural Commission report into Scotland's artistic future.
She is expected to announce that the national companies, Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet, the National Theatre of Scotland, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, will no longer be funded by the Scottish Arts Council.
Instead, the arts companies expect to be funded directly by the Executive, but only after safety provisions have been agreed to prevent civil service interference."

If I were the head of an arts company, I would look very carefully at those safety provisions. Will Scottish Ministers be able to resist interfering in operational matters? The removal of the SAC buffer will place the arts companies directly in the firing line. Any hint that taxpayers' money is being misspent - always a danger for the arts - will lead straight to questions of Ministerial responsibility. After all, that is the reason for the SAC's existence - to divorce Ministers from day to day responsibility for decisions on funding and policy for individual arts companies. Direct rule, with annual reports and plans, financial audit and quinquennial reviews, will give Ministers lots of scope for intervention. Given the average Executive Minister's desperation for a headline, I do not expect "the safety provisions" to amount to much; indeed the more effective the safety provisions, the more likely Ministers are to be accused of neglecting their responsibilities. I wonder if Ministers have really thought through what they are proposing to do?

13 January 2006

Faites vos jeux

Politicalbetting has the latest odds (here):
"Meanwhile in the betting the best prices are: Simon Hughes 1.54/1; Menzies Campbell 2.2/1; Chris Huhne 8/1: Mark Oaten 8.3/1"

Horror story (2)

The Times reports another scientific breakthrough:
"Scientists have bred three pigs which glow fluorescent green in the dark, in a potential breakthrough for stem cell research.
The team from Taiwan bred them by injecting a protein from jellyfish into pig embryo cells. It is hoped that the transgenic pigs will enable researchers to trace the tissue development when stem cells are used to repair damaged organs. Wu Shinn-Chih, of National Taiwan University, said: “Pigs are among the animals most similar to humans.” (AFP)"

Sausages for lunch, anyone?

Horror story

This article in The Independent would seem to raise all sorts of ethical implications:

"Scientists are planning to create animal-human embryos cloned from human skin cells and unfertilised rabbit eggs.
Professor Ian Wilmut of Edinburgh University, who cloned Dolly the sheep, and his colleague Professor Chris Shaw, of King's College London, want to clone rabbit-human embryos for stem-cell research into severe illness, because of a shortage of good-quality human eggs.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority said yesterday that the HFEA Act did not cover the creation of animal-human embryos but its legal advisers have ruled that scientists need a licence for such research.
The law stipulates that human embryos created by cloning cannot be allowed to survive beyond the 14-day stage of development. "

But this is the full extent of the article. None of the implications is even hinted at, never mind explored. Are we so complacent about scientific advances that the creation of hybrid animal-human embryos is simply noted?

Tra la la

Anybody can make a mistake. So perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister should not feel too disheartened about this one, as reported in The Independent:
John Prescott was forced to apologise to the Commons for an "inadvertent error" in failing to pay the full rate of council tax on his grace-and-favour flat in Admiralty House.
The Deputy Prime Minister, who is responsible for council tax policy, agreed yesterday to pay his unpaid council tax bill for the past seven years, although he was not legally bound to do so, and he has reimbursed his department £3,564 for its payment of his council tax since 1997.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "It was a classic case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing." He added: "He discovered the misunderstanding because he thought what was being asserted [by the press] was wrong and discovered it wasn't."

What a strange thing for the Spokesman to say. At the heart of Government, the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing? Why not simply say that it was a muddle not a fiddle?

12 January 2006


The Scottish Executive has introduced a firewall banning access by its officials to blogs. I gather it applies to all Blogger blogs; I cannot confirm other types. Officials who try to access blogs are warned that people have been sacked for seeking to access such sites.

I cannot say that I am crying in my beer about this, but it does seem rather petty and rather sad. But if the Executive chooses to cut its officials off from the expression of views by an admittedly self-selecting segment of public opinion, then hell mend them.

Don't ask...

For those of you who are obsessed with Lost, the outstanding questions are not answered here.

Extraordinary rendition

The New York Times has the story - so why is there nothing in the British media? Here is an extract:
"Switzerland is conducting criminal investigations to track down the source of a leak to the Zurich-based newspaper SonntagsBlick of what it reported was a secret document citing clandestine C.I.A. prisons in Eastern Europe.
The Sunday weekly published what it reported was a summary of a fax in November from Egypt's Foreign Ministry to its London embassy that said the United States had held 23 Iraqi and Afghan prisoners at a base in Romania. It also referred to similar detention centers in Bulgaria, Kosovo, Macedonia and Ukraine.
"The Egyptians have sources confirming the presence of secret American prisons," said the document, dated Nov. 15 and written in French to summarize the contents of the fax.
"According to the embassy's own sources, 23 Iraqis and Afghans were interrogated at the Mikhail Kogalniceau base at Constanza, on the Black Sea."
The leaked fax, which the newspaper said was sent by satellite and intercepted by the Swiss Strategic Intelligence Service, was signed by Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the report said.
Christoph Grenacher, the newspaper's editor in chief, said that before the article was published, newspaper officials met with high-ranking Swiss government officials, who urged the paper to withhold the information. "We concluded that the discussion about so-called secret prisons is much more important than the interests of the secret service in Switzerland," he said."

This seems to constitute firm evidence of CIA prisons in Europe.

Aw shucks!

The Herald reports:
"AS if our politicians don't love themselves enough, the members' restaurant at the Scottish Parliament is holding a Valentine's night dinner for MSPs on February 14 in a bid to drum up business for the loss-making venue. The restaurant gushes in its invitation to MSPs: "With champagne on arrival and a red rose for that special person in your life, you are sure to impress the one you love." But we suspect the red rose will only impress the Labour MSPs."

The mind boggles - Jack and Nicola? Rosie and Captain Mainwaring? Tommy and Auntie Annabel?

More yogh

The Herald catches up:

"A quirk of linguistic history explains why Sir Menzies Campbell's first name is pronounced Mingis. It can be traced back to the alphabet used by Irish scribes who arrived in Saxon Britain in the eighth century, and taught the Anglo Saxons to write. The letter yogh, used in middle English and Scots, was pronounced yoch, then later ye and gi. Chris Robinson, director of the Scottish Language Dictionaries, said: "Before the Irish scribes arrived, old English was written in runes. But this fell out of favour with the Normans, whose scribes disliked non-Latin characters. "They replaced yogh with a y or g sound, and in the middle of words with gh. But the Scottish retained the yogh in personal and place names."The rise of printing in the sixteenth century coincided with the decline of the yogh, and it tended to be rendered in print as a z, and pronounced as such, which helps explain the discrepancy between the spelling of Menzies and the way it is pronounced. "
You read it here first.

And, strictly speaking, it is an orthographic quirk rather than a linguistic one.

Love means...

M Nicolas Sarkozy and Mme Cecilia are back together, according to The Guardian (here):
"I can confirm they're back together," a close friend, MP Patrick Balkany, told Le Parisien newspaper. "She returned from New York on January 2 and he met her off the plane in his ministerial car. She's back in their apartment at the interior ministry. Both of them have turned the page; we're delighted. They belong together."
The couple separated this spring after Mrs Sarkozy, 47, a dynamic divorcee who has long acted as her husband's senior adviser, diary-fixer and principal private secretary, admitted she could not face the idea of ever being first lady and needed "time out to be alone and to think".
She did not spend a great deal of time alone, appearing on the front cover of Paris Match in August with her new companion, Richard Attias, an events organiser, in New York. Mr Sarkozy was deeply shaken by her departure, to the extent of cancelling a number of TV appearances.
Friends said he was "completely lost" without his wife, blaming some more than usually inflammatory statements by the ambitious interior minister on his "emotional disorientation".
Mr Sarkozy, 50, was not so directionless, however, that he failed to fall into the arms of an attractive political journalist from the conservative daily Le Figaro - and then threatened
to sue anyone who published her name."

I thought that the French were supposed to be more discreet about this sort of thing.

11 January 2006

News values

The following story was posted here on the BBC website at 5.19pm. The story led on Radio 4's PM programme at 5pm. But it was ignored by the BBC tv 6pm news, by the ITN 6.30 news and by Channel 4 7 pm news.
"The head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, is being investigated by police for saying that homosexuality was "harmful".
In an interview with BBC Radio 4's PM Programme on 3 January, Sir Iqbal also criticised same-sex civil partnerships. However, he went on to say that everyone in society should be tolerant.
The Met Police said they were examining if his remarks constituted an offence under the Public Order Act following a complaint from a member of the public.
Scotland Yard said in a statement that it had "received a report of comments made in a radio interview which the complainant believed were homophobic in nature and asked us to investigate".

Porridge for Leader!

The Times mocks the Oaten launch:
"THE word went out that Mark Oaten would be launching his Lib Dem leadership bid at a Westminster hotel yesterday afternoon. This turned out to be not entirely true. First, it was not a launch. Oh no, that would be too obvious. It was a personal statement. Nor was it in the hotel. That would have been too warm. Instead it was just outside the hotel, in a concrete walkway that had all the charm of a cattle pen.
Still, there was a sense of occasion, although I am not sure what that occasion might be. It was a bit like when the car breaks down and you have to stand on the verge waiting for the RAC man. The TV people had put down a big X with white tape in the middle of the wind tunnel (sorry walkway) to show Mr Oaten where to stand. We all huddled around it, as if it were a fire.
“He’s on his way!” cried an aide. “Thirty seconds! I’ve just been told!” About ten Liberal Democrats had been corralled to clap and cheer the great man’s entrance. He arrived, as a pedestrian of course, with his wife, Belinda, who used to import clogs, and Lembit Opik, the MP best known for his fear of giant asteroids. All of this is entirely normal for Lib Dems."

I have no wish to intrude into private grief but why would anyone vote for a man named after a breakfast cereal?

10 January 2006

Deja vu again

The Prime Minister returns to his respect agenda. From The Guardian here:
"Thousands of parish council wardens are to be given powers to hand out fixed fines for litter, graffiti or noise nuisance offences in the drive against antisocial behaviour.
Tony Blair also confirmed yesterday that the government was looking at expanding the range of offences for which the police can issue on-the-spot fines to include criminal damage, minor theft and the misuse of fireworks.
Ministers are also trying to find ways of giving civil courts the power to ensure that drug abusers who are issued with an antisocial behaviour order (Asbo) can be compelled to undergo drug treatment. Currently only those convicted of a criminal offence can be ordered to take a course."

In fact, this is from The Guardian of 29 October 2004. But we do not seem to have moved on very far. How often does Mr Blair have to re-announce an initiative before it begins to have an effect?

Resurrection of the yogh

Guido gets it right (here). Ming-iss, not menzees.

No accounting for taste

The Independent highlights the fact that Glasgow is one of the ten "must-see" tourist attractions in the world:
"It has more rainfall than the plains of Africa and colder temperatures than Hawaii, but according to one of the world's top guides, Glasgow is now one of the most chic, up-and-coming holiday destinations in the world.
Glasgow is the only European city in a top-10 list of the world's "must-see" places for 2006 compiled by the travel publisher Frommer's. For a city which has worked hard to shake off a mean reputation born of decades of violence and deprivation, such elite status is quite an achievement. Glaswegians will also be delighted to note that Frommer's describes the city as "more cosmopolitan and modern" than its traditional rival, Edinburgh.
As with the other destinations on the list of "interesting, affordable destinations" for 2006, Scotland's largest city is described by Frommer's as relatively free of tourists.
"Glasgow features radiant Victorian architecture," states the guide. "It encompasses a large artist community with museums; fine art and contemporary galleries as well as music venues. "Although cosmopolitan, Glasgow's parks provide the city with a real outdoor feeling. A 45-minute drive can take you to the outskirts of the Highlands."

Oh those wacky Americans! Do they really rate Glasgow above Paris, Prague, Barcelona, Rome? But if it encourages the tourists to visit the dear green place, then so be it.

08 January 2006

Gorgeous George - again

This kind of thing may be childishly amusing but it is essentially unfair. Would the fulfilment of Mr Galloway's duties as an MP have achieved anything tangible during these three weeks?

On the other hand, it is Mr Galloway to whom we are referring, so why not? He deserves whatever vilification he receives.

06 January 2006


The NY Times has an interesting profile of Ana Marie Cox - she who used to be the great Wonkette:
"Ana Marie Cox, a woman who knows her way around a scandal, was having none of it. Having just quit her gig as Wonkette, the scandal-sniffing blogger who bent the rules every time she stepped up to the keyboard, and with her first novel about to hit the stores, she nursed a large Bombay Sapphire martini and made her way through a shrimp cocktail, a filet and potatoes at a back table of the nearly empty Palm, Washington's longtime power restaurant.
In her blogging persona, Ms. Cox would have been in pajamas in her apartment on Connecticut Avenue, trafficking in tips and rumors about all the Senate aides quaking in their cubes. But after two years of being the skunk at the garden party of Washington's journalistic community, Ms. Cox has said goodbye to all that. True, she checked her Treo for updates, but it was mostly for details on the various readings she has scheduled for "Dog Days," her roman à clef, give or take, about a different scandal. It is being published Thursday. "

"Way to go babe!" as she might have said. She may have been a bit potty-mouthed and obsessed with doings inside the beltway - but I will miss her scabrous but cheerful take on US politics...

"Thank you for the music"

The Guardian tells us about Dave Cameron's ipod listening:
"Discussing his iPod selection on Radio One's Colin and Edith Show, he acknowledged that his taste was influenced by 1980s indie and Britpop. "Because I'm 39 there's The Smiths, Radiohead, Pulp, Blur - all that quite gloomy music."
But, ever the politician, he made some attempt to reach out beyond his natural constituency. "I'm a big Bob Dylan fan, so there's a lot of Bob Dylan in there. There's a lot of reggae in there." The iPod was a Christmas gift from his wife, Samantha.
He confessed he preferred Will Young to James Blunt and eventually named Cheryl Tweedy as the most attractive member of Girls Aloud - because she most resembled his wife."
What to say about someone who actually knows the names of Girls Aloud?

Reality bites

President Bush chooses an unfortunate day to comment on progress in Iraq. The Guardian reports:
"The president then offered a quick summation of his strategy in Iraq: "We're making darn good progress."

But the same article records:
"More than 130 Iraqis and seven US soldiers were killed yesterday in one of the deadliest days of insurgent attacks since the fall of Saddam Hussein...
More than 240 people have been killed and 280 wounded since the new year, a death toll comparable with some of the bloodiest weeks since the US-led invasion in March 2003. Insurgents also continued their attacks on the country's infrastructure, sabotaging an oil pipeline near the northern city of Kirkuk, causing a huge fire."

I am not in a position to judge the situation in Iraq but disintegration into all-out civil war seems an increasingly real possibility. But still, it is good to know that President Bush thinks differently.

05 January 2006

Picky, I know...

From The Telegraph (here):
"I mention all this partly because of the amazing case of Jack Abramoff, of Washington, the man who appeared in our papers yesterday in a belted mac and a Capone-like trilby. "

It is a sad state of affairs when Boris Johnson (for yes, it is he) doesn't know the difference between a trilby and a fedora.

Makes you think...

From The Times (here):
"THE average cost of motoring has risen to £5,000 a year for the eight million owners of cars that are less than three years old, according to the RAC.
The breakdown company’s most comprehensive survey of motoring costs, including depreciation, maintenance, road tax, insurance and the cost of borrowing, found that the average driver spends £14 a day to keep a car on the road.
Even those with the most economical models, such as the Citroën C2, spend almost £3,000 a year. The worst petrol guzzler in the survey, the Porsche Cayenne, costs its owners £19,000 a year to run, or £1.58 per mile over the average 12,000 miles a year."

By comparison, the odd taxi seems cheap.

04 January 2006

For the benefit of Professor Ferguson

It was cold this morning. As I walked to the co-op to buy my morning rolls, the sun was only just dissipating the freezing mist that hung over the city of Edinburgh. The slate roofs of the new town tenements were white with hoar frost; the air was crisp and sharp. As I walked back, the sunshine illuminated the grey walls of the city so that they became honey-coloured in the northern light.

As I cooked the square sausage to insert in the roll for breakfast, I reflected on Voltaire. Perhaps I lived in the best of all possible worlds. Despite the Scottish Executive, despite all our problems, despite embittered expats seeking to do us down, perhaps - just perhaps - I live in a decent small country. Not the best, but no' that bad.

New year non-resolutions

Alan Coren in The Times experiences some difficulties in making his mind up - I know where he's coming from:
"Since about 1985, I had been reading about showers being better for you than baths. I couldn’t see why, except that you can’t smoke in a shower, but in 1999, I began considering buying a Walkman so that I could listen to Radio 4 in the bath without Mrs Coren shouting from the bedroom for me either to turn it off so that she could sleep or turn it up so that she could hear, a choice I was never able to make; but I did not buy the Walkman, for reasons that will escape
If I bought one now, however, it would enable me to listen to Radio 4 in the shower, and I could then think about taking them instead of baths. This January may therefore be the time to reflect on how one would set about buying a Walkman. And which kind.
So I shall very possibly go out in a bit, to walk up and down either Oxford Street or Tottenham Court Road to look in those windows that have several million different things with headphones. Once, of course, I have decided whether it makes more sense to hop on a bus or a Tube than wait for a cab. Or take the car. The car would be quickest, but it would add £8 congestion charge to the bill for the headphone thing I might or might not buy, plus however much it cost me to park, depending on how long I had to walk up and down looking in the windows of whichever street I managed to decide to do it in.
It isn’t easy for me, January."

What planet are they living on?

BBC Scotland concludes - not very surprisingly:
"Scottish councils believe education reforms planned for England stand no chance of being replicated in Scotland.
Critics have said a bill to be debated in the Commons later this month would result in local authorities having less control over education.
But the UK Government said the bill's aim was to give schools more freedom.
Ewan Aitken, spokesman for the Scottish Convention of Local Authorities, said Scottish schools were hugely successful and did not need major change. "

Well no, we are not likely to get education reforms, not for so long as Executive ministers are totally in thrall to the teaching establishment. But for COSLA to declare that Scottish schools are "hugely success ful" is rather breathtaking, given the apparent numbers of schoolchildren who complete their education with an inability to read, write and do basic maths.

Unjustified sensationalism

If you believe The Herald, the country is in the grip of a serious epidemic:
"Hundreds of thousands of people have been struck down by a virulent stomach infection which has reached record levels, sweeping through hotels, hospitals, care homes and even passenger ships. Health officials in Scotland have recorded a 65% increase in cases of the highly-infectious norovirus, the so-called winter vomiting virus, during the past 12 months. The medical profession has been unable to explain the surge in sickness in the latest figures, although a new strain of the bug could be to blame."

Unfortunately (or fortunately), as the article reveals, the number of recorded cases is not quite as high as suggested:
"Last month, Health Protection Scotland, which conducts infection surveillance for the country, reported there had been 1491 confirmed cases of norovirus in the first 48 weeks of 2005 compared with 906 for the same period in 2004."

In order to justify its opening remarks, The Herald offers the following somewhat improbable (and of course unverifiable) claim:
"However, experts said hundreds of people will have been struck down by the virus for every case logged, as many people who contract the bug do not seek medical advice. "

"A virulent stomach infection" and the overwhelming majority of sufferers do not seek medical advice? Not very likely, is it?

03 January 2006

Cooking with gaz

I have yet to make up my mind on the significance of the recent dispute between Russia and the Ukraine over gas supplies. The New York Times makes a decent stab at explaining what is happening, although it appears to be rather anti-Russian:
"The job of clarifying the record fell to Andrei N. Illarionov, who was Mr. Putin's top economic adviser until he resigned in frustration last week.
Mr. Illarionov said in a radio interview that Ukraine's subsidized rate was essentially a problem of the Kremlin's own creation. Gazprom had agreed to the $50 price in 2004, he said on the Ekho Moskvy radio station, to help a Kremlin-backed candidate in Ukraine's presidential election.
The $50 deal was supposed to last until 2009, he said. But when the Kremlin's candidate lost the presidency to Viktor A. Yushchenko - who wants Ukraine to join the European Union and NATO - the Kremlin changed the rules. Market rates were invoked.
Moreover, Gazprom has been using different pricing criteria for different nations. Georgia pays $110 for the same amount of gas, as does Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Baltic states, which are members of the European Union, pay $120 to $125. Moldova pays $160. Belarus, a firm Kremlin ally, pays $47.
The origins of Ukraine's current rate, and this variable pricing regime, allowed critics to suggest that the Kremlin suffers from amnesia and hypocrisy alike.
The problems only piled on. Experts also charged that Mr. Putin had undermined the credibility of Gazprom, Russia's largest company.
Gazprom has been seeking international respect and trying to shed its image as a Kremlin stooge. But at important moments last week, it was not the company's official leadership making proposals for settlement, but Mr. Putin."

It does, however, seem clear that the emergence of doubts as to the reliability of Russia as a gas supplier is extremely convenient for the UK nuclear lobby.

01 January 2006

Dearie dearie me...

Professor Niall Ferguson in The Sunday Telegraph, on holiday in South Africa from his academic fastness of Harvard, is a wee bit critical of the best small country etc:

"1. Scotland is a small, sparsely populated appendage of England. Those who called it 'North Britain' in the 18th century had it right.
2. The weather is impossibly wet.
3. Most of the land north of Loch Lomond is barren rock.
4. Scotland lost its political independence 300 years ago and the creation of a Scottish Parliament, a glorified county council housed in a risible and over-priced folly of a building, has not restored it.
5. Educational standards in Scotland, once the highest in Europe, have - with a few exceptions - collapsed.
6. When it comes to sport - and I do not count the one decent tennis player - Scotland is the Belarus of the West.
7. In fact, when it comes to just about everything, it is the Belarus of the West.
8. That is why so many Scots emigrate. As I did.

This is not to say that there were not once things about Scotland that were truly wonderful. The country's transition from a theocratic Reformation to a bountifully creative Enlightenment was one of the great makeovers of modern history. The point is that (in the words of a mawkish song all Scotsmen know) "Those days are gone now / And in the past they must remain."
It's over. Over the way countries are sometimes just over. Over the way Prussia is over. Over the way Piedmont is over. Over the way the Papal States are over. Or, if you prefer, over the way General Motors will soon be over."

Dinnae be silly, laddie! How can you prefer the USA or South Africa to our wee bit hill and glen? OK, Scotland may be far from perfect, but some of us chose to live here and like it. Do you know what you're missing?

And, apart from its politics, what's so wrong with Belarus?