Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Please, please, please can we join the Euro?

To Euro or not to Euro

One of the most annoying things about travelling to other countries in Europe is the need to change currency in advance or be face exorbitant handling fees when withdrawing money abroad. Now this may seem like a minor quibble, but this particular annoyance goes well beyond a personal pet peeve. Every time a friend or family member visits the UK from a eurozone country, they are annoyed. Every time exchange rates fluctuate so as to make British imports more expensive, people are annoyed.

Now I have always been pro-Euro, while the majority of people in Britain have always been anti-Euro. While times were good, it was virtually impossible to make convincing arguments for why Britain should join the euro; the pound is strong so we don't need anyone else. simple as that. However, with our global economy souring somewhat over the last year, the fragility of the pound has been laid bare. When markets began collapsing, investors and currency speculators dumped the pound en masse, seeing massive falls against the US dollar, Japanese yen and the euro. If Britain had been part of the eurozone, the sheer bulk of belonging to the world's largest currency (having surpassed the dollar in 2006/07) would have offered protection from such market turmoil, providing some much needed stability and perhaps also alleviating mild annoyances.

Now it seems the time has come again for this debate to rear its head. There have been recent murblings in the UK press, with Time Dowling of the Guardian suggesting Britain should join before it has to beg, as well as Jose Manuel Barosso (president of the European Commission) suggesting that Britain is closer than ever to making the leap into the Eurozone.

I sincerely hope Britain is readying itself to make this leap, as my mild annoyance could easily bubble over into something resembling nettled disgruntlement. And no one wants to see that!

Sunday, 23 November 2008

If I ruled the world...

If I ruled the world, things would be different. Ok, let's not be completely unrealistic; if I ruled Britain, things would be different.

The papers are full of speculation regarding Alistair Darling's imminent pre-budget announcement, suggesting a broad range of direct and indirect tax cuts which will cost us in the region of £80 billion. The idea being that this economic injection will get us up an running again and in a few years when we're all better off Alistair can safely increase taxes without reprisal. There are a couple of problems with this approach, as you may have guessed.

Firstly, none of these proposals addresses the underlying issue of banks failing to make credit available to would-be borrowers, regardless of whether they are first-time buyers or small business owners. Peter Mandelson (as business secretary) claims he has had words with the banks and from next week we should be seeing a slight loosening of the banks' purse strings. We'll see.

The second issue is that these measures presume that giving people tax or VAT cuts will mean them spending the money that they have "saved" with these reduced taxes. In some countries, such as France, where short-term personal debt is at reasonable levels and most people pay off credit card balances by direct debit each month, this might seem perfectly logical. In the UK, where people are saddled with unbelievable sums of credit card debt, it would seem the more prudent option to clear these debts and not rush out on a manic, high-street spending spree. With credit-card debt at an estimated £60 billion (accounting for two thirds of total European credit-card debt), a massive handout from Darling and Brown might make a dent in associated repayments, without ever becoming the economic stimulus they are praying for.

I am all for cutting VAT and increasing personal tax credits for lower-pay workers, with or without impending recession. However, while fiddling about with these rates might provide a short, sharp jolt to the system, Brown and Darling should be using this opportunity to think big: VERY BIG. Now is the time to look at long-term infrastructure projects (think high-speed train lines from London to Glasgow), hoovering up unoccupied buy-to-let properties to meet affordable house building targets (think an end to endless housing waiting lists), providing massive incentives for sustainable enterprise and energy development (think Britain as a world leader in green economics) and finally putting this country on a path of social, environmental and fiscal responsibility.

Remember Alistair, a nation is not just for Christmas...I'll let you finish that one yourself.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Dodged a bullet

Ok, so we were always going to be leaning towards an Obama presidency...and of all the Republican congress people, John McCain is quite far down the chain of evility. It is worth noting however that during a presidential campaign successful candidates manage to hide 1) much of their true feelings and 2) the fact that there are greater complexities to almost every possible issue than they are presenting to you at any given moment. Hence the runaway success of mindless 3-syllable chants (as discussed on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart) such as John-Mc-Cain; U-S-A; Yes-We-Can and so on.

However, one element of John McCain's personality that really didn't get as much of an airing as it should have was his belief in all things superstitious. Here's an excerpt from the Association for Psychological Science's "Observer" magazine:

  • Famously superstitious, John McCain avoids taking salt shakers handed to him, tossing his hat on a bed, or commenting on his prospects without touching wood. An aide always has his lucky pen at the ready. And, a confirmed triskaidekophobe, he always carries 31 cents in his pocket (that’s 13 backwards) — in lucky coins. Also, since his campaign headquarters happened to be on the 13th floor of an Arlington, VA office building, he renamed the floor. He’s a powerful guy. It’s the “M” floor now.*

Bloody hell; this guy's nuttier than a squirrel's hibernation savings. Let's just hope Obama isn't on the same page as McCain on this issue and that he is not the type of guy who refuses to take right turns when driving or step on cracks in the paving or has to have all the light switches in the White House pointed in the same direction. That's all we need!

* You can read the full article here.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel pretty fine ackshully

A black man in the White House; it is a nightmare scenario for many of the US's right-wing evangelical "Christians". The coverage on both sides of the pond of this presidential race has been unprecedented. This has meant that us lily-livered, European, pinko, liberals have been exposed to extreme views coming from both the Republican and Democratic sides of the great political divide. But is it just me, or are the views on one side just a little bit more extreme than the most extreme views on the other side?

From insidious comments about the "Arab" Obama and the "un-American" nature of his name to downright bigoted and racial slurs, it has been terrifying to watch the citizens of the US give voice to their most deep-seated fears and prejudices.

Let me give you a few simple examples...

  • "I'm not voting for Obama, he's black" - Charles, Pennsylvania
  • “It’s important to scrutinize Obama’s Muslim background to determine if his Islamic past influences his decisions and actions toward America, including his decision to select an anti-American pastor as his spiritual adviser.” - National black Republican Association
  • “He’s a Muslim socialist.” - Marcia Stirman, chairman of Otero County Republican Women in New Mexico
  • "I like McCain because I can say his name, so I'll probably vote for McCain. [Obama ]He's from Africa or something. I don't even know where he's from". Waitress, Pennsylvania
  • “President Hussein” - Ann Coulter, American Political Commentator
You get the picture! And The examples are practically endless.

Now, although Obama may be ten or so points ahead in the polls I would like to remind you of a few things. Firstly, the examples given above are not isolated. Even if such views are not publicly expressed, they may be privately felt. This may have a dramatic effect on polling day.

Secondly, disenfranchisement of voters has gone on for decades in the US: from deletion of people form electoral registers through to the use of faulty voting machines, both of which disproportionately affect people from poorer socio-economic classes; in other words, democratic voters.

Finally, do not forget that this nation has only returned two democratic presidents since Lyndon B. Johnson, and never forget that this nation saw fit to vote George W. Bush in for a second term with an even larger majority than his first run for the office. Until all votes are in, count no chickens, and be afraid!

To end on an even more gloomy note, I leave you with some infamous words on the democratic process - it's not the votes that count, it's who counts them (often attributed to Joseph Stalin). Let's hope the right man wins.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Not enough zeros in the world

So it seems the "clock" that keeps track of the US's national debt has finally run out of digits; I think that pretty much sums up how fubar this whole thing is.

On the upside, there may be a slim chance that the accounts that the US and UK governments are pilfering money from may be based on the same shoddy programming used to design the debt clock and thereby have also run out of digits, thus capping the amount of money they (and by they, I mean WE) have to claw back. Here's to hoping!

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Republicans' Fiendish plan? Democrats' hidden agenda?

Now there's been a lot of discussion about presidential running mates over the last few days, from Obama's blue-collar Joe Biden to McCain's maverick Sarah Palin. While much attention has been given over to things like their personal history and voting records, no one has spotted the coded messages buried in the naming of these running mates!

The Republican McCain-Palin combo, with a little transformation, suddenly becomes the foreboding "I c manic plan!". What devious Republican plot could this be referring too? There are just so many to choose from. Of course there's also "I limp can can" which we feel maybe a coded reference to John McCain's advancing years, but our team is still working on that one.

On the Democrat side, the Obama-Biden team ackowledges the problems Barack Hussein Obama (thank you Fox News for continuously reminding us) has suffered because of his name. Obama-Biden reveals itself as "Bad name, Obi", managing to include reference to Obama's early-years teacher and advisor Obi Wan Kenobi. Worryingly there are additional codes that we have yet to fully comprehend, including "A bad omen, Bi" and "an idea Bomb", which could refer to potential smear campaigns being developed to thwart the Republican onslaught.

Many of the team at Spy Wednesday feel that only rigorous unfounded speculation will reveal their true meaning.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

We come in peace. Shoot to kill.

Ah, once again we hear the sweet, dulcet, reasoned tones of the Democratic Unionist Party (Remind me, what's democratic about their views again?). Recently we've had the lovely Iris Robinson spreading her venomous bile concerning the possibility of "saving" anyone who's gay in Northern Ireland.

I thought it would be difficult to top this, both in terms of sheer bigotry and downright stupidity. However, Mr. Ian Paisley Jr. has swept aside my doubts with ease.

Ian, in his wisdom, has decided to call for a shoot-to-kill policy against dissident republicans. It's really difficult to know where to start with this one.

First, if you're going to call for a policy or legislation of any kind, you cannot apply it to one half of a community and not the other. That is sectarian bigotry at its purist.

Second, anyone with an iota of knowledge of the history of Northern Ireland would understand that a shoot-to-kill policy has never worked there (even if SAS and security forces in the North always denied the existence of such a policy).

Thankfully, there are still some level heads in the political arena in the North. While the SDLP labelled Paisley's rhetoric as "dangerous nonsense", Sinn Fein managed to hit Junior where it hurts...his knowledge of A-Level history, claiming that Junior "hasn't learned anything from the history of the last 40 years".

The sooner people realise that religious or any fundamentalist attitudes get us nowhere in Northern Ireland, the sooner we can be rid of these well-funded mentalists. *

Sunday, 17 August 2008

God doesn't drive a hybrid?

I was sure that it was standard economic pressures that were behind the recent drop in oil prices. Following the massive surge in the price per barrel over the last few months, it became prohibitive for companies and consumers to purchase oil, resulting in lower demand, which in turn lowered the market price. I really thought that might explain it. I was fool. I was more than a fool; I was wrong.

In fact, we have the good folk belonging to the "Pray at the Pump" campaign to thank. Apparently they've been praying hard around fuel pumps in the Washington DC area since April for God to reduce the punitive $4 a gallon price for gas. Many sceptics felt that God would not take a hit on the price per gallon, given that he invested heavily in the petrochemicals when he buried all that organic material deep in the Earth to be later found and put to good use by the human race and the major players in the petrochemical industry.

However the heartfelt murblings of the pray-at-the-pump campaigners found a kindly ear upstairs resulting in a massive 20 cent drop in the price per gallon. Praise be! Thank the Lord!! Get the Vatican on the phone!!!

Although I do wonder why it took four months for their prayers to take effect...

Saturday, 26 July 2008

They all look like tiny ants from up here!

Some people manage to make you feel proud to be a member of the human race. Others, well, are the kind of people who would be banned from the gene pool for pushing (thank you Terry Pratchett for that one).

Earlier this week two women on a flight from Kos to Manchester decided half-way through the flight would be a good time to try to open a cabin door to get a bit of fresh air. The fact that they were about 10 kilometres in the air, and could see the alps below them, did not diminish their determination for fresh air.

But let's not prejudge these women in their mid 20s who were on a flight from Kos to Manchester. Were they drunk? Well, yes. Apparently they had been drinking heavily. But they were happy, pleasant drunks right? Well, not exactly. It seems they became highly abusive, made excellent use of colourful language, brandished a vodka bottle at staff when they were refused more drink and eventually had to be restrained in their seats by security staff.

Of course the plane had to be diverted and make an emergency landing in Germany. The two women were arrested on arrival at Frankfurt airport.

Does anyone else think the cabin crew should just have let them open the damn door?

Friday, 25 July 2008

Is this it?

Is this it? Has Labour finally crumbled. Their behaviour of late has been that of an injured bee: flying around this way and that, disoriented, not sure which way to turn. all the time losing altitude. And now that weakened body has finally given up the ghost.

In the current climate losing a seat in Scotland is perhaps not that surprising, but having a majority of over 13,000 overturned is something else.

I get the feeling this really could be it for Labour. Now it is time to remove the head to save the body...or some other more apt metaphor. We have waited for too long. Waited for some sign that Brown could turn things around. It is now so crystalline clear this is not going to happen.

Goodbye Gordon! I wish I could say it's been a pleasure.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Do you want the good news or the bad news? Tell you what, let's just forget about the good news for now.

When I heard the latest crime figures I really thought this could be a turning point for Gordon Brown and his team of floundering flounderers. The downward trend from the mid-90s when Labour took over is really quite impressive; the risk of being a victim of crime down from 40% in 1995 to 24% in 2006, with overall crime levels falling 42% over the same period. "Popular" crimes that affect many families in the UK such as burglary and car theft are down a whopping 59% and 61% respectively. Notwithstanding small rises in more serious crimes, such as murder and knife crime (not that we couldn't have guessed that was coming), these are a seriously praiseworthy set of figures.

This would be Labour's time to make hay while the crime-figure sun shone. But what's that? What's that I hear from Labour's press office? Resounding silence. Labour couldn't have made less of this news if they tried. As the Guardian's heading on Polly Toynbee's opinion column proclaimed - "Labour does one thing really well - burying good news". Toynbee goes on to highlight numerous occasions where Labour have failed to capitalise on old-school Tory cock-up and scandal, including the ongoing MPs' expenses debacle.

Is this inability to crack a glimpse of a smile, in response to what should have been one of Labour's top headlines in recent years, a sign of an old man on his deathbed? I had hoped and hoped that Brown had the capacity to turn things around (and I think he does), but it is clear it is never going to happen. Now, nothing short of a labour revolution is going to give Labour a majority in the next general election.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Still doing the right thing...

Following my deeply involved discourse analysis of Gordon Brown's response templates, I've picked out a few examples of where GB's reasoning boils down to "doing the right thing".

On 42-day detention without charge - "We have made a judgment, after looking at all the evidence, including the evidence from the police and security services, that this is the right thing to do."

On availability of prison places - "we will make our decisions on the right thing to do about early release."

On detention without trial, while purporting to support civil liberties, when in fact sprinting in the opposite direction of anything resembling a pro-civil liberties agenda - "surely the right thing for a Government to do is to respect the civil liberties of the individual by avoiding arbitrary treatment"

An on basically anything else the government are doing - "We make the right decisions at all times."

At least Colin Powell had pretty pictures when the US argued for invading Iraq. Please Labour, can't we do better than this?

Doing the right thing

Has anyone else noticed how Gordon Brown has lost his capacity for providing a valid justification for anything he and the Labour party are doing?

At practically every prime minister's question time, when stuck for a truthful/honest/valid response, he engages the following foolproof template answer; "we did X, because it was the right thing to do". No other explanation needed, apparently. We no longer require reasoned political debate, bipartisan discussions or meaningful compromise; we can now do things simply because we say they are the right thing to do. Certain African despots could learn a lot from our Gordon.

Now this is an exceedingly flexible template for Gordon. It is not just in defense of the litany of poorly-conceived Labour policies where he can wheel this one out, as he has on the 42-days detention bill and the abolition of the 10% tax rate. No, he can also used it to defend the actions of others. When asked by David Cameron why Geoff Hoon was writing thank-you letters to Keith Vaz regarding the detention bill, what was Gordon's response? That's right, Geoff Hoon was merely thanking Keith Vaz for doing the right thing. Again, no details needed. And Mr. Brown had the gall make this response repeatedly to parliament.

If Gordon Brown believes so strongly in his current policies, shouldn't we get to hear the sound, logical reasoning that has led him to want to implement them? Is it enough to say that 42 days is the right number of days for detention, without any further justification? Surely we deserve better than this?

Brown Envelopes?

So it appears that Gordon Brown has reached the stage where he must bribe members of his own party in order to get bills through parliament. The Tories appeared, grinning smugly, at prime minister's questions brandishing a letter from Geoff Hoon to Keith Vaz (or Nigel Keith Anthony Standish Vaz, if you prefer) intimating that Mr. Vaz would be justly rewarded for supporting the Orwellian 42-days detention bill.

This really is a sorry state of affairs for Labour. It would have been a minor coup had he been found converting Tory party members to his worldview, but when it's a member of your own party, it simply smacks of desperation. For god's sake Gordon, pull it together man!

Saturday, 21 June 2008

First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

Like a grey ghost, first edging slowly onto the stage, then like that bird on a wire, Leonard Cohen showed us all how to be free. Seeing him play last night at the Manchester Opera house merely served to cement his legendary status in the minds of all present. For an amazing three hours, the 73-year old moved effortlessly through old, familiar classics and some of his more modern greats. Notwithstanding the frequent cheesefest that was the backing band (we're talking the schmaltziest of solos on the sax and Hammond organ here) or the guy sitting next to me who intermittently decided to sing out of time and key, this was a fantastic gig.

From peppering the show with humorous little anecdotes to lifting the roof off the opera house with a spectacular version of Hallelujah, Mr. Cohen presented a masterclass in performance. I don't even care that every gig cannot be this memorable; I will take this one with me to the grave.
Sincerely, S. Wednesday.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

So, is Ireland going to become part of some pan-European superstate with huge military expenditure and the capacity to fiddle with the corporate tax rates of individual nations?

According to some "No" camp commentators, this is the vision of Europe that awaits us. While there may be many valid reasons for voting No in the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty tomorrow, the primary arguments put forth from the "No" side are generally not among them. These arguments include loss of neutrality, loss of control of internal tax systems, introduction of abortion, legalisation of prostitution and the mandatory taking of hard drugs (I'm not sure who came up with that one, but it's been bandied about repeatedly). Fortunately for the "Yes" camp, none of these issues rings true.

For me, voting yes tomorrow is a vote for a more streamlined, democratic and transparent EU that guarantees the basic rights of its people. The fact that there is no single giant golden carrot to offer the Irish people has made this a hard sell for the "Yes" side. It is a much easier decision to say that the treaty is too complicated and other people should have done a better job at explaining it to you, than to actually go out and try to understand the core issues.

More than one person has told me that they planned on voting no until they found out more about the actual content of the treaty. So, please, if you plan on voting No, at the very least make sure you are informed and you do it for the right reasons.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Something to keep you off the street...

With Ireland's referendum on the Lisbon treaty just around the corner I hope to soon provide a completely impartial analysis of what the treaty offers Ireland and Europe. In the mean time, I recommend taking a look at the Referendum Commission's booklet which summarises the key changes the treaty would implement. If that isn't enough to keep you occupied, then Jamie Smyth (of the Irish Times) is breaking down various aspects of the treaty each day this week. Enjoy!

Friday, 2 May 2008

Hilary, on mature reflection, will attack Iran

I love the fact that even the most senior of American politicians still grapple with the concept of irony. In the past week, Hilary Clinton made an outrageous statement, saying "If I'm the president, we will attack Iran... we would be able to totally obliterate them".

If making that statement wasn't enough, Hilary provided further justification adding that this would deter "those people who run Iran [] from doing something that would be reckless, foolish and tragic." Yes, whereas obliterating another sovereign state, for whatever reasons, is a calm, collected response in anyone's language. Go Team America!

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Gordon, Darling, WAKE UP!

You may have noticed this week that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling are doing very good headless chicken impressions. Many moons ago, Gordon, as chancellor, introduced the 10% tax rate (which really did benefit many low income earners). More to the point, it was a classic Labour-helping-the-poor type of policy. Last year, Gordon decided that this in fact did not help the poor and so ditched that tax rate in favour of a reduction of the higher rate from 22% to 20%. The effect of this was, that anybody earning below about 17K a year would be worse off and anyone earning above this would be slightly better off.

At the time, nobody particularly commented on the inequitable nature of the tax change. Furthermore, Labour MPs had to back the change in order to pass the budget. It seems to have taken those poor, slowminded Labour backbenchers a year to figure out their sums and see that something is not quite right here. Now, following a minor revolt, Gordon and Alistair are backpedalling in order to come up with some way to recompense those most affected by the tax change (primarily young workers and pensioners).

Nick Robinson attempted to get Grodon to clarify what this means for those who pay tax, but one thing that is certainly clear to everyone - Labour has lost its way and is falling deeper into disarray. From Gordon being labelled "pathetic" by David Cameron or considered increasingly "pointless" by Nick Clegg to the growing number of dissenting voices from Labour back and front benches, things do not look good. Expect punishing local election results for Labour!

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

The New, Disimproved and Less informative BBC

What the hell has happened to the BBC RSS news feeds lately? I regularly use the BBC feeds to get a quick summary of the news and until recently the headlines were enough to give a clear idea of what was going on in the world.

Something like "Mortgage lending hits 16-year low" seems reasonably unambiguous and allows me to make a fair assessment of whether I would want to click through and read the rest of the article. Now, however, somebody has decided that these headlines are just too darn useful and informative. The headlines have been "improved" to become empty, uninformative statements of nothingness such as "After 94 days...", "Too Diplomatic" or "Given the Boot". And they're just from today's listings.

Unless the Beebs are planning on releasing a Telepathy software patch that allows me to mentally peer into the content of these stories without clicking through, the new headline system has got to go! Pleeeease...

Friday, 21 March 2008

Cut, cut, cut...cut, cut, cut...

The US Federal Reserve (or "The Fed" if you're a too-cool politico or city type), cut interest rates again in attempt to stave off recession in the US. Will it work? In short, no. The Fed's reactionary approach of late (I'm not sure Alan Greenspan would be responding in the same fashion), shows a real failure to understand the most basic aspects of human psychology. Apart from the fact that banks worldwide are less willing to lend to each other and to us normals, the real issue is that public confidence in these institutions has taken a massive hit.

You might be thinking, "But isn't the Fed trying to restore confidence in the economy?". Yes, that's exactly what the Fed thinks it's doing. In fact, by making such dramatic rate cuts (about 3% in the last 6 months) the Fed is merely underlining the fact that there are lean times ahead. It's like shouting from the rooftops that we're in big trouble and hoping that it will resolve everything. Unfortunately for the Fed, and probably the rest of us, that shouting is going to fall on deaf ears.

I imagine the rate cut will offer some short term bump in economic performance, but it will take a lot longer for public perceptions to shift and for confidence to grow.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Boring, boring, boring (AKA The Budget)

Was it just me, or was this year's budget the most depressingly boring in years? In a way, I pity Alistair Darling; him being the human face for Gordon Brown's "leadership" on budget day. Poor Alistair hadn't a drug-free-athlete-in-the-Olympics chance of adding colour to Gordon's beige economics. For me, it was the government's failure to introduce the much-discussed plastic-bag tax that summed up Labour under Gordon Brown. Such a simple thing, and yet it could so easily have added a spark to this year's banality and shown that Gordon Brown actually has the capacity to make forward-looking policy decisions. After all, who would the plastic bag tax have adversely affected? Apart from plastic bag manufacturers, no one is really going to find themselves in economic turmoil because of it...if you think about it. It is a tax on laziness ("just didn't bother to bring one") and forgetfulness ("oh, I left it at home again"), and yet this tax would have signalled a government commitment to make real, society-level changes on environmental policy. I'm in agreement with Nick Clegg on this one...this was a "meagre, tinkering budget" with little evidence of leadership, even between the lines.

Gordon Brown still thinks he has adequate time in the chair to make up for Labour's lost ground in the polls. However, if he continues to squander every opportunity to make real decisions, we could be looking at Primeminister Cameron in a couple of years time. Scary!

Sunday, 2 March 2008

The Long Road to Lisbon

It was an utterly shocking outcome. It seems that 88% of the British public are in favour of a referendum on the treaty of Lisbon. What makes this result doubly surprising is that the poll was carried out for the completely unbiased "I Want a Referendum" campaign group. Whether the poll itself is flawed or biased is, in fact, irrelevant. Let us instead consider the potentially monumental impact of this poll. Yes, that's right folks, it will have absolutely zero impact on Britain's acceptance or rejection of the treaty. Unfortunately for anti-EU and anti-treaty groups, Britain's brand of constitutional monarchy makes no legal requirement for the holding of a referendum on any matter; it is for parliament to decide.

Aside from these issues, the simple fact is that such a poll will tell us very little about whether the treaty will ultimately be ratified or rejected. Furthermore, considering the Lib Dems are likely to support Labour in the passing of the treaty in parliament, the treaty is practically a shoo in as far as the UK is concerned. In fact, the only country where the treaty will be (by law) ratified by the people is Ireland.

For the Irish people there are many issues to consider in the run up to the referendum - the status of EU commissioners, Ireland's neutrality, and the roll of national governments in the EU, to name just a few. With any luck we'll be looking at those in a more detail as R-Day approaches (the date has yet to be finalised in Ireland). Whatever the outcome, I hope that the European Union will actually respect the decision of the Irish people.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Shaken, not stirred

At 1am this morning I was more than a little traumatised when jolted from my slumber to find the bed beneath me shaking forward and back. On the sixth floor of an apartment block in Manchester, the earthquake (centred in Lincolnshire) felt very real. Apart from a couple of picture frames knocked over and a few lopsided books, there was little evidence that anything out of the ordinary had happened. It makes you wonder though; if you can't rely on the ground beneath your feet, what can you rely on?

Monday, 25 February 2008

Road to Kosovo

Following yesterday's post, here's some additional background information on the history of the current conflict in Serbia/Kosovo.

The BBC have some pretty graphics walking through the breakup of Yugoslavia. And here's a look forward at what is in store for Kosovo, according to the Beebs.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Independence Day?

Last weekend saw the declaration of independence by Kosovo (or Kosova, depending on where you learned your Albanian). It has pulled into focus major divisions across the globe and even within Europe as to whether Kosovo is entitled to this independence. On the one hand, we have countries like China, Russia, Spain, Greece, Cyprus and others who are categorically against sovereignty for Kosovo. On the other hand, we have everyone else.

One thing is clear about this situation; it is not an easy problem. Although, what is making it more difficult is the shifting of national political positions from where they were just a few years ago when the majority of nations were united against Slobodan Milosevic's uber-nationalistic activities in the Balkans. So what has changed? Well, nothing really, except that the anti-independence (or anti-interventionist) self-interest module has kicked back into action. All of the countries mentioned above see Kosovo as some sort of precedent, whereby its independence will be seen as a green light to other groups in their search for sovereignty. I'm referring here to Northern Cyprus, Tibet, the Basque Country and any number of satellite Russian states.

The truth is, of course, that Kosovo is no precedent (as Martin Kettle in the Guardian highlights). Why is it that we can easily see how right it is to have independence in places like Ireland (yes, that one next door), East Timor, Solvenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and elsewhere, but have somehow managed to close our eyes and ears to the plight of Kosovan independence?

We started this journey with Blair and Clinton way back when. Regardless of what we think of those politicians today, and regardless of the very real difficulty of this task, we now need the courage and conviction to see this through.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Observer comment

As an example of the type of response to the Hospital-Gate story in the press, check out the observer comment piece.

Target practice

So the government decided it would add some new rules to the game and gave hospitals some targets. They decided that every patient arriving at A&E should be seen within 4 hours. That sounds like a good idea for the game you might say. And it would be a great idea, if hospitals (and A&E in particular) weren't already stretched to snapping point. So, what did hospitals do? They played the game.

The targets given by the government suggested a 4-hour limit for treating patients entering A&E. Many hospitals quickly realised they had no hope in hell of reaching this target if they continued to play the way they always had. To get around this obstacle, hospitals prevented ambulance patients from entering the hospital until they were sure they could treat them within the target time. We cannot blame the hospitals for this; whose budgets live and die in the reaching of these government targets. Rather it is another example of the government failing to see the woods for the targets.

In true Labour style, the government have not been careful in what they measure. Prior to the introduction of these taregets, the statistics may have revealed something about the ability of hospitals to deal with A&E patients in an efficient manner. However, once the statistics became part of the game, they lost all meaning. The goal is not to get patients in and out in 4 hours; the goal is to treat patients successfully. Much like targets in primary education, the goal is not to have children abeing able to do X,Y or Z at key stage 3; the goal should be to reach 100% literacy and give our children the tools to be able to think for themselves.

When New Labour moved to the centre, they abandoned much of their socialist rhetoric. Somehow, they managed to forget how counter-productive targets were in the old Soviet Union. Yes, targets will be reached, but what will be achieved and at what cost?

Friday, 15 February 2008

Flawless Logic

You can just hear the UKIP rally cries - "What do we hate? Europe! When do we want them so stop interfering in UK domestic policy? Eh, soon!". Hugh Muir, in The Guardian, picks out a lovely flow of logic compliments of the UK Independence Party. As we all know, UKIP abhors European interference in the British way of life. Apparently, the EU is responsible for everything that's wrong with Britain today. However, a marvelous display of right-wing logic saw UKIP attempt to start a debate on the current government's failure to offer a referendum on the proposed EU-(not-a)-Constitution reform treaty, while calling for the EU to intervene and force the government to do so. Brilliant!

Of course this brand of warped logic is a hallmark of individuals and groups on the far-right of the political/social spectrum. It is this amazing ability to hold conflicting thoughts and beliefs simultaneously. UKIP's actions are not at all dissimilar from those of Americans who believe in Jesus and follow his commandments with zeal (including "Thou shalt not kill") and yet see no problem at all in having someone killed by hanging, electric chair or lethal injection. Oh, how I envy their logic.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Smile! You're looking at the future of homeland security!

Here's some science news to put a smile on the faces of those nice folk over at the department of homeland security (or maybe not). In a brief note in the journal Science, Rob Jenkins and Mike Burton of Glasgow University managed to boost off-the-shelf facial recognition software performance from 54% to 100%. This particular recognition system is used by Australian customs, amongst others. So what sort of tinkering with the software algorithms did they have to undertake to manage this you may ask? Absolutely nothing. These clever chaps simply created "average" faces for each of the people they were trying to recognise. That is, they took all of the photos they had of a person (different angles, different periods in their lives, different lighting) and morphed them all together (slightly more complicated than this, but not much). They then presented this averaged face to the same recognition system and, lo and behold, accuracy reached ceiling. Such an improvement in facial recognition software is unparalleled and will have interesting ramifications if it is widely applied to systems currently in use around the world. On the one hand, no more false alarms or facial mismatches. But on the other hand, security services will have less call to "randomly" pull people aside because they look a little bit like someone who they think might just possibly be involved in dodgy dealings. Having this option removed is not something they will enjoy.

The paper can be accessed here (password may be required).

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Plug Time!

Check out Emmett Quanne's musings on life, liberty and rugby (in no particular order).

Friday, 8 February 2008

Oh agreement with the Tories!

Dang! Don't you just hate it when you find yourself in agreement with an old-school Tory. Oh well. Maybe we really do get more right wing as we get older. Here, Malcolm Rifkind echoes my feelings (see previous post) on Blair's suitability for the European Presidency, although he also plays down the importance of the role.

Happy Birthday Mr. President Blair?

Well I see the case for Tony Blair to become president of the European Union is gathering some momentum. Or at least, that's what Blair would like to think. Pushing equally hard is the campaign to prevent him from getting the job, even before the position officially exists. Here lies a petition replete with some pretty angry comments from European citizens voicing concern over Blair's possible selection. Some of the comments contained therein are pretty close to the bone (warmongerer (sic), responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, Iraq holocaust etc. etc.). While many of these comments make reference to important aspects of Blair's premiership, particularly with respect to his "legacy" and an evaluation of his role in history, I feel there are more pertinent issues that need to be looked at when considering the case for his presidency of Europe.

Although Blair always claimed pro-European credentials, his 10 years in Downing street do little to support his protestations. In considering his suitability for the post of President of the European Union there are a few questions I would like citizens of Europe to ask themselves. First, leave behind all personal feelings that Blair may stir deep within you and think objectively about his potential as "leader" of Europe. Now, ruminate on these questions (which may refer to any potential candidate, not just to our own Tony).

As President of the European Union, do we want a person that was leader of a country that was not part of the Eurozone? A person who instead raised barriers to the possibility of Eurozone membership for the foreseeable future?

Do we want a President who was leader of a country that did not fully support freedom of movement within the European Union and had not signed up to the Schengen Agreement?

Do we want a President who does not appear to believe in electoral reform or government by proportional representation?

And finally, following the comments of many of the signatories of the aforementioned "No to Blair" petition, do we want a president who supported the initiation of the Iraq war, a view contrary to that held by the majority of European nations?

So, even putting aside all vitriol and bile (of which there is much), for me there are many aspects of Tony Blair's past performance that would not sit easily alongside the role he would play as President of the European Union. What makes this worse is that Blair does not have the defense of having had a weak government or of being part of a shaky coalition, of being a a lame duck prime minister (at least not for the first 8 years) or of having had little time to display his true European colours. Indeed, at the time of his stepping down, he was the third longest serving leader in the European Union. It is clear that Blair had ample time to push a pro-European agenda. While all of this may be true, and should be uppermost in people's minds when thinking about who we would like to represent us at the top echelons of the EU, Blair has many excellent qualities as a leader (but let's save that discussion for another day). And, as the Advertising Standards Authority demands adverts for "sure thing" investments to make clear: "Past performance is not an indicator of future results".

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Welcome, welcome, welcome

Welcome one and all to a blog like any other. Here lies yet another unstructured, incoherent set of ill-informed ramblings that serves to clog up the already polluted and much-abused blogosphere. However, amongst the inevitable dross there is a infinitesimal possibility that I may write something of note, consequence, value or substance. I look forward to that day.