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".