27 April 2009

Swine flu

I might feel inclined to panic if the media, the authorities and the telly's talking heads were not already well capable of making a drama out of a crisis without my assistance. (incidentally, does Professor Pennington ever worry about over-exposure?)

Nobody seems able to explain why the poor sodding Mexicans are getting the short end of the stick with over 100 fatalities, while elsewhere the symptoms appear relatively mild.

But here is a rather splendid map of the spread of the disease - if you're into that kind of thing.

In view of the fact that there is now a confirmed case in Spain, I wonder if they will let me back into the UK later this week? As usual on my trips to Spain, I have something of a snuffle (I blame the aeroplane which brings me out) and the old hay fever is rather acting up. And I don't suppose regular doses of San Miguel are likely to be much of a cure.

22 April 2009

Hullo, hullo, hullo

Remember that "very big terrorist plot" (source: G Brown)? Turns out it wasn't so big after all. The Guardian reports:
Britain tonight moved to deport nine men arrested earlier this month following one of the country's biggest anti-terror operations since the July 7 attacks in 2005.
The men have not been charged with any offences nearly two weeks after being arrested in raids across Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Lancashire.

21 April 2009

Buckets and spades at the ready

Look, it's only 82 days. Our MPs have been working hard, holding the government to account and filling in their expenses forms. They deserve a decent holiday.

Besides, it's not as though anyone would notice their absence ...

20 April 2009

Salami slicing

Here we go again. The BBC website reports:
Chancellor Alistair Darling is expected to announce some £15bn of spending cuts over the next few years when he delivers his Budget statement.
He will say the money can be found by making Whitehall more efficient.

This is ducking the issues. For politicians to suggest that you can deliver the same services or achieve the same results with substantially fewer resource inputs is no longer credible. What happens in practice is that when staff leave they are not replaced. Service levels crumble in an unplanned way and morale hits bottom.

If politicians want to make savings, they really have to face up to the difficult business of stating what tasks and what policies they are prepared to dispense with, instead of pretending that they can wave a magic wand to dispel inefficiencies.

17 April 2009


It's been light blogging this week, I know. I could offer excuses. Parliament is in recess (when is it not?). I'm on holiday (when am I not?). Essentially, I lack inspiration. I've been flogging this dead horse for four years.

But hey, Scarlett had it right - tomorrow is another day.

16 April 2009

Livres de poche

So farewell Maurice Druon. The Telegraph only remembers your role in the Academie Fran├žaise:
He became famous for his angry tirades against the invasion of English into French.
He spent decades trying to rid his language of hundreds of foreign words – everything from "supermodel" and "takeaway" to "low-cost airline" and email" – which he claimed destroyed the purity of his mother tongue.

But some of us admired your splendid series of historical novels Les Rois Maudits, still worth reading and re-reading.

15 April 2009

Foreign footie

I guess I'm a European. Here I am in Spain, watching Man Utd play Porto on a German TV channel. I still find it strange. It is like that night in Prague watching Taggart dubbed into Polish - somehow they managed to retain the Glasgow accents.

Man U are one up - Ronaldo of course.

13 April 2009

Quote of the day

From The Telegraph (here):
Until the downfall of Damian McBride, it was still, just about, possible to argue that political blogging was an essentially marginal activity suited to obsessives and insomniacs.
Ta very much ... (No mention of pyjamas?)

11 April 2009

Another brick out of the wall

A certain Mr McBride, a special adviser to the Prime Minister, based in No 10, has resigned.

No, I'm not going to explain all the sordid details - you can read them in the more lurid Sundays tomorrow.

Westminster politics has become a soap opera.


A reminder that the BBC may just - from time to time - make decent television programmes, even if it chooses to hide them away by broadcasting them on Good Friday afternoon.

Anyway, I enjoyed Hallelujah! The Story of Handel's Messiah. Howard Goodall, the presenter, like anyone who knows his stuff, is always worth a listen, even if he does look uncomfortably like Rory Bremner.

You will be able to see the programme here, at least until next Thursday.

Cause for despair

What bright spark in the CPS dreamt this one up? And what idiot approved it? The Daily Mail reports:
Hundreds of public sector workers have been handed £250 each simply for turning up to work after heavy snow.
At a cost of £56,000 to the taxpayer, Crown Prosecution staff were rewarded for making it into the office on February 2 when London and the South East were paralysed by the Big Freeze.

10 April 2009

Straws in the wind

Just a thought but I do hope that the police and security services have a firm basis for this security alert.

The Times (here):
A desperate search was under way last night for the terrorist bomb factory from which a suspected al-Qaeda cell planned to launch a devastating attack in Manchester.
The Independent (here):
Raids to foil an alleged al-Qa'ida bomb plot, hurriedly brought forward after a blunder by a senior police officer, are yet to uncover any explosives or firearms, according to senior security sources.
The Guardian (here):
Counterterrorist sources admitted that despite intensive surveillance they had uncovered no definite targets for an alleged plot, and described reports citing a shopping centre and nightclub in Manchester as targets as "wide of the mark".
So, despite covert surveillance for up to a month, there are apparently no explosives, no firearms, no bomb factory and no known targets? What evidence have they got?

09 April 2009

Jumping the gun?

Political Betting highlights the odds on the outcome of an independence referendum (2 to 1 on in favour of a no; 3 to 1 in favour of yes, if you're interested). I would be looking for much longer odds in favour of a yes to get me interested.

The more pertinent question is whether a referendum is at all on the cards (at least in the foreseeable future). The current betting must be against - but we'll see.

Another useless factoid

Imagine that. From The Guardian (here):

Last year Royal Mail bought 872m red rubber bands at a cost of more than £1m.

08 April 2009

Music of the week

Cos I'm an old romantic:

Statistical clutter

Sounds bad, doesn't it? The Herald reports:
Scotland's coastline is the messiest in the UK with an average of one piece of litter for every 15 inches of beach, according to new figures.

Wait a minute, though. If the average depth of beach were 100 feet (and I have no idea whether this is accurate but it would not seem unreasonable), then the above might be expressed as an average of one piece of litter per 125 square feet. Now that does not sound good but it's not as appalling as one piece of litter per 15 inches.

A rented top

I have been critical - perhaps excessively critical - of MPs' expenses and allowances. But not all the animals in the Westminster jungle are baddies, as this story in The Times demonstrates:
I heard a story this week that made me think about the extra costs and pressures that we pile on to our political families. I realise that the climate is not right to ask for sympathy for them, but have a think. There was an article in The Times during the G20 summit, applauding Sarah Brown for wearing a “£9,000 top”. Idly I wondered how she could afford to pay for that.
It turns out that she couldn't. She has no income of her own, having given up all paid work when her husband was Chancellor to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. She is not allowed to receive gifts, nor to borrow clothing, not even for a summit.
So to look the part for Britain, Mrs Brown has to rent these outfits, the ones that we all scrutinise so brutally, paying a tenth of their value (excluding shop mark-ups) each time. She paid hundreds of pounds of her own money to rent that top, and returned it afterwards.

OK, there are many women in a much poorer financial position. But it would be wrong to define all politicians and their partners as money-grubbing ne'er-do-wells.

07 April 2009

Tennis maths

Sports journalists who understand the associated mathematics are rarer than politicians without their hands in the till. But The Independent provides a comprehensible explanation of how young Master Murray might shoot up the world rankings:

In his sights: How Murray can catch Federer
The world rankings, updated after each tournament, are based on a rolling total accumulated over the previous 12 months. Players therefore have to "defend", or try to improve on, the points they won at tournaments the previous year. In the coming weeks Andy Murray could catch Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, who both have significant points to defend in the clay-court season.

Current rankings
1. Rafael Nadal 14,470 pts
2. Roger Federer 11,020
3. Novak Djokovic 9,010
4. Andy Murray 8,840

Monte Carlo Masters (12-19 April)
Murray would replace Djokovic as world No 3 if, for example, the Scot was knocked out in the last 16 and the Serb lost in the quarters. In choosing to miss the event Federer will lose the 700 points he earned last year.
Points to defend: Nadal 1,000, Federer 700, Djokovic 450, Murray 150.

Rome Masters (27 April-3 May)
Djokovic's victory at the Foro Italico last year leaves him particularly vulnerable to progress by Murray.
Points to defend: Nadal 10, Federer 250, Djokovic 1,000, Murray 70.

Madrid Masters (10-17 May)
Federer, who will have lost the 350 points he earned last year through winning Estoril (which he misses this time around), also has runner-up points to defend in Madrid, which replaces Hamburg in the clay-court schedule.
Points to defend: Nadal 1,000, Federer 700, Djokovic 450, Murray 150.

French Open (24 May-7 June)
The top three all have big points totals to defend, whereas Murray needs only to reach the fourth round to improve his tally.
Points to defend: Nadal 2,000, Federer 1,400, Djokovic 900, Murray 150.

Incidentally, I managed to catch the second set of his Miami victory - extremely impressive, thoughtful tennis on his part.

06 April 2009

Something to look forward to?

Jackie Ashley in The Guardian (here):
You might think that after the Jacqui Smith pay-movie story and multi-homed minister Geoff Hoon we must have plumbed the depths of "politicians on the take" stories. You'd be wrong. Tens or hundreds of thousands of claims by MPs are shortly to be released publicly. Most are unexceptional and within the rules. But according to plugged-in government sources, some are "awful, just worse than you can imagine" and likely to destroy careers.

05 April 2009

Same old, same old ...

Sometimes, Sunday mornings can be so depressing. The Independent reports:
Tony Blair has emerged as the leading candidate to become the first permanent president of the European Union after Gordon Brown gave his grudging blessing to the plan. The former prime minister has stepped up his campaign for the job, which he wants to use to build a bridge between Europe and the new Obama administration.

Was counting his money not enough? It's not as though his Middle East role has been conspicuously successful.

03 April 2009

Improbable factoid of the week

... or perhaps it's a three days late April fool (here):
Cheap beer in union bars is one of the few perks left for students struggling to survive during the recession. Now this, too, could disappear, thanks to their own leaders who want a minimum price on alcohol.
The new edict threatens the practice of all-day sessions in the bar — a longstanding tradition for generations of students.
The National Union of Students (NUS) has decided to campaign for alcohol prices to be raised because of concerns about binge drinking. At its annual conference in Blackpool, delegates voted to start consultations to set a minimum price on alcohol in students’ unions.
What is wrong with students today? I bet they even attend lectures. It would not have happened in my day.

Quote of the day

From the Prime Minister's statement at the end of G20 (here):
We have today therefore pledged to do whatever is necessary to: restore confidence, growth, and jobs; repair the financial system to restore lending; strengthen financial regulation to rebuild trust; fund and reform our international financial institutions to overcome this crisis and prevent future ones; promote global trade and investment and reject protectionism, to underpin prosperity; and build an inclusive, green, and sustainable recovery. By acting together to fulfil these pledges we will bring the world economy out of recession and prevent a crisis like this from recurring in the future.

So you will prevent the recurrence of a crisis like this in the future? How does this differ from promising to abolish boom and bust? And why should it be any more believable?

02 April 2009

As usual, limping along behind the curve

It can't be any less interesting than the economics. The Guardian reports on what really matters:
Essex, Tuesday evening
Stansted airport has its very first fashion moment. Michelle Obama will forever be to Stansted Harrods Terminal what Anita Ekberg is to the Trevi Fountain. This is the Brand Michelle we know and love: the lady owns chartreuse right now. After showcasing her mastery of bright-on-bright colour blocking, a top story from the spring/summer 2009 catwalks, with her daughters' inaugural coat-and-hat combinations, Michelle here shows she has moved on with impressive speed to acid brights with black, which will be autumn's big trend. The black coat and yellow dress - by Jason Wu, who shot to fame when Michelle chose his one-shouldered ivory gown for the inauguration ball - was cinched with her favourite Azzedine Alaia belt. Barack, we know, doesn't get this belt: he calls it "the Star Trek belt".

Do I understand it? No, haven't a clue. But then I don't understand the economics either.