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Wednesday 23 December 2009

‘Tis The Season

The time has most definitely come – for a break. Zelo Street has been up since March this year, and recently has come not only from Crewe, but Vienna, Amsterdam and the Algarve. It’s time to take a break, have an extended family Christmas, and recharge the batteries.

I’ll be back with more from the Crewe end of the telescope in the New Year. Have a good Christmas, and check back soon.

No Closure On Gitmo

It was supposed to be closed come the end of the year, but it now seems that moves to transfer detainees away from Guantánamo Bay have been slowed, as the New York Times has reported.

The closure of “Gitmo” was pledged by Barack Obama, and with mid-term elections next year, there will be no shortage of opponents ready to highlight it. That is, of course, when they’re not acquiescing in the continuing abuse directed at the Prez: one GOP candidate, noted here, declining to take to task one attendee at a voter event who asserted that Obama was a Muslim.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Out On The Circuit

Some in the history of motorsport have retired and meant it: nobody, but nobody, was ever going to persuade Jackie Stewart to get back behind the wheel – well, not in competition, anyway. Others have returned: Niki Lauda came back to gain a third Drivers’ World Championship, and, sadly, the USA’s Mark Donohue was persuaded back by his friend Roger Penske to drive for him in F1, only to die as a result of a practice accident.

One retirement that was never going to stick was that of seven time World Champion Michael Schumacher, and so it was no surprise to see him sign up for another season with his old mucker Ross Brawn at the team now rebranded as Mercedes GP.

Will he still be competitive? Well, given that the habits of bears in woods are as before, he may just be. What will the competition think? I don’t inhabit the world of F1, but the impression is gained that, up and down the pit lane, drivers, management and sponsors will be thinking “Oh no – not him again”.

Safety First

A police officer has apprehended two young men for cycling whilst naked. No prizes for figuring out that it didn’t happen in the UK: the location was Whangamata, in New Zealand. The officer decided to allow the pair to go free, but warned them to wear protective headgear in future.

So there you have it – nude cycling is OK, provided you wear a helmet.

No further comment necessary. Frankie Howerd would have strung that one out to fill a half hour show.

Monday 21 December 2009

The Republican Wrong – By Popular Vote

The excellent PolitiFact site run by the St Petersburg Times – a 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner, no less – has run a poll to find which, of eight “pants on fire” entries nominated, is the year’s biggest whopper. And the result has been conclusive: 61% of all votes went to the Right’s favourite former Governor. Step forward Sarah Palin.

And the Palin assertion that topped the poll was her infamous “death panels” posting on Facebook. There was no truth whatever in this, but the idea has gained traction, particularly with older voters, and thus a lesson for the Democrats: they were not fast enough, or focused enough, in their rebuttal.

That may change next time the former Alaska Governor sounds off.

A Stroll Across The Astroturf - 7

In the news today are the affairs of the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, which, it seems, has a charitable arm called the Politics and Economics Research Trust. So what? Well, the question has been raised as to whether the TPA is using this registered charity to channel donations and thereby gain tax relief on them. The use of any registered charity for political ends is forbidden.

The usual suspects have been quick to provide quotes, not least “Shagger” Prescott (“traditional misbehaviour in a modern setting”), who has asserted that the TPA is a Tory front organisation. As I said recently, this is not my reading: the TPA has many supporters who are Tories, but they will be kicking a Cameron Government just as hard as they kick Pa Broon if they don’t get their way.

Meanwhile it seems that the nice folks at the Charities Commission have opened a number (plural) of assessment cases and are examining the arrangements of the TPA and its charitable arm. Hopefully for the TPA, the burden of proof will be of a higher order than the “Dodgy Dossier” which alleged that the Government was paying for organisations to lobby it.

Sunday 20 December 2009

What A Star!

Mystifying. What caused five Eurostar trains to sit down – and well inside the Channel Tunnel – is still not clear. After all, this isn’t the first time that the service has run during the winter months, and we’ve had cold snaps during those months on a regular basis. Moreover, the Eurostar is one of the French TGV family, trains that rack up large mileages across not only France, but Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain.

However, the worst part of the failures has been that Eurostar have taken so long to extract trains and passengers from the Tunnel and get them to their destinations. Whereas the main line network in the UK has so-called “Thunderbird” locomotives at a variety of locations, ready at short notice to rescue failed trains, Eurostar has none, although Eurotunnel provided some switcher locos to extract two of the failures.

Also, there are other train services running between London and the Kent coast, so it might be thought that, once passengers were brought out of the Tunnel, they could be moved onwards pretty quickly. Instead, we have been treated to a series of horror stories, with unfortunate punters arriving at St Pancras more than half a day late. Then, the time taken to get the failed trains out of the Tunnel has started talk of it being a “death trap”, despite there having been no fatalities thus far either on Eurostar, or car and lorry shuttles.

The reputational damage that has been done to Eurostar, and to an extent to rail travel generally, is substantial. It will take time to recover customer confidence, and in some cases that confidence will have been lost for good. Whatever the cause, we need to know that this operator has measures in place to avoid another fiasco on the scale of the last few days.

Or, failing that, the concession to run these trains should be given to someone who will.

Class Not At War

At the moment, it doesn’t take much prompting to get Tory cheerleaders crying “class war” at their Labour opponents. This was shown by Pa Broon’s recent remark at PMQs about policy being made up “on the playing fields of Eton”, which provoked much frothing and assertion that the coming General Election campaign would be based thus.

This points up the nervousness out there, and not only in Tory land. Remarks by party leaders and anyone held to be “influential” are seized upon for their supposed relevance to the campaign.

As I posted at the time, the only target of Brown’s remark was Zac Goldsmith, Cameron advisor and more significantly Tory PPC, who had admitted to non domicile status. This was confirmed this morning on the Andy Marr Show by Home Secretary Alan Johnson. Also on the Marr sofa, and demonstrating its robustness, was Fat Eric, who did not show any noticeable dissent on that point.

Next: Brown says he had steak for lunch, which is immediately held to be a central plank of the Labour manifesto. Yes, General Election 2010 will be the Steak Poll. Wheel out your fillet, t-bone and rump jokes, everyone.

Beginning Of The Beginning?

The Copenhagen summit is over – at long last – and analysis has begun: the Beeb has this round up of some of it. Much has been made by those participating in the discussions that the outcome was at least “a beginning”. But there has been no legally binding agreement.

This has been meat and drink to the antis, who don’t want to admit to what is happening elsewhere in the world. Sea levels are rising, and weather patterns changing, yet the rump of denial continues its howling.

Meanwhile, on an earth that is not flat, the jury is out, but the prognosis is not good. This post, with a variety of links, gives an idea of the urgency required. If a beginning has really been made, then we should not have to wait until Mexico next December to see progress.

Thank You Andrew

It must be happy coincidence – I doubt that the Beeb read this blog – that the part of Andrew Marr’s interview with Nicole Kidman that I mentioned last week turned up this morning in a look back at 2009.

The short segment was fascinating for one reason: La Kidman clearly wasn’t happy with the question about scientology, but the smile and pose hardly slipped.

Another fine performance.

Friday 18 December 2009

Out Of Time

The news from Copenhagen is not good. Agreement on climate change and limiting emissions of carbon dioxide doesn’t appear to be happening – at least, not in a way that will give any reassurance that countries and their Governments are prepared to take the difficult decisions and face up to the problem.

No doubt the denial lobby will be overjoyed at this: after all, they still cling to the belief that it’s not happening. But, as those who are prepared to consider the evidence out there keep trying to tell the antis, it is happening, and it’s going to get worse. Hurling abuse at those warning of irreversible change will not hold back that change.

One comment sticks in the mind, and its author was Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chávez:

If the climate were a bank, it would have been saved already”.

Timeless Technology

The Beeb is showing a variety of reports, mainly from the south-east, telling of disruption due to snowfall. Well, it hasn’t happened here in the north-west – it’s just very, very cold, and for the kind of reasons I described yesterday.

[For anyone wanting to see a plain English explanation of the current weather pattern, the Met Office has just the thing, below its surface pressure forecast]

But Zelo Street has not been free of its own disruption. Today brought gremlins in the opener mechanism of the main bedroom window. Double glazing, eh? All sealed units and maintenance free, but sticking open. What to do?

After yet another obligatory nice cup of tea, the solution became clear. Spray all the affected parts with WD-40, leave it to sink in, then apply a little gently persuasive force.

Sure enough, the opener mechanism later yielded, and the window has been securely closed. I don’t know what goes into WD-40, but it’s hellishly effective.

Thursday 17 December 2009

What Does A Cold Snap Prove?

Among all the other excuses offered up by those flailing around trying to discredit the Climate Change science is the idea that, well, it can’t be true because it’s cold right now.

And it’s complete baloney. It’s cold right now because, well, it’s mid December – the weather in the UK tends to get cold this time of the year – and we’ve got an established north easterly airflow. This latter means that the wind is blowing off a cold continental land mass, and given a little encouragement will start dumping a moderate covering of snow over the eastern side of the UK.

Should the prevailing wind move round to the south west, or preferably a little more towards a plain southerly, all will change, especially if that wind originates in north Africa or out in mid Atlantic. Then, temperatures will rise, and if anything falls from the sky, it will be rain.

Problem is, getting from established very cold weather to something milder often has a transition period involving more of that snow. Hmm, guess what we have forecast for next Monday?

The Republican Wrong – Just For Christmas

Freedom of speech may allow some, shall we say, diverse views to be aired, but there is a fortunate flip side: it also allows for satire and occasional ridicule. The latter case is especially deserved by Glenn Beck, “star” of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

And, in this festive season, cracked.com has just the thing. For anyone feeling a little jaded in these uncertain times, I commend to them The Christmas Sweater. All you need to know about the American Right in general, and Fox in particular, without getting too serious about it.

Happy holidays!

Wednesday 16 December 2009

It Was Fifty Years Ago Today

Some acts are hard to follow, and in football, that doesn’t mean just players, but managers. The shadow cast by your predecessor can be a long one: you need to look no further than Crewe Alex, where two replacements have failed to measure up to Dario Gradi’s stature. Tonight, that thought will be among the crowds at Anfield.

Because, fifty years ago, Liverpool, then a second division club with a tatty stadium and non-existent training facilities, appointed as their manager a dour and uncompromising Scot called Bill Shankly. It was not just Shanks’ achievements with the club – his successor Bob Paisley won much more – but his putting Liverpool back on its feet that drove the legend.

Ever since Paisley left, successive managers have struggled to keep the team at the top, and this season has started badly for Rafael Benítez, the current incumbent. He has been fortunate that two of the team’s victories have been against Manchester United and in the derby match with Everton: these are prize scalps for the fans. But, whatever the cause, Liverpool are not having a good time of it, and the celebration of Shankly’s arrival will just cast that long shadow once more.

But then, Shanks’ great friend and rival Matt Busby cast his own long shadow across Man U for two decades after he retired. Eventually, Alex Ferguson remade the club and stepped out from the shadow, so it can be done. My feeling is that Benítez will not be the one to return Liverpool to the promised land.

But someone will, one day.

Non Exemplary Behaviour

A regular visitor to Zelo Street has emailed me a list of the Australian delegation to the Copenhagen summit. So what? Well, so it’s a very long list, that’s what. After the name of Aussie PM Kevin Rudd at the top, there are another 113 (yes, one hundred and thirteen) names. That’s a lot of hotel space, seats on aircraft, food, personal transport, and yes, carbon footprint.

And, if that one delegation is so large, the corollary is that there will be a lot more of those non-trivially sized groups representing several other countries. When we consider what the gathering is supposed to be about, it’s not good publicity, and it’s not a good example. This will be meat and drink to the denial lobby and their cheerleaders such as Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

Perhaps the next such summit can be held by teleconference. After all, we are supposed to be setting an example. Meanwhile, Fox “star” Sean Hannity has continued his attempt to rubbish the established science by saying that “it snowed yesterday in Houston”. Anyone not knowing better might think that Rupe was wanting to keep his target audience ignorant and frightened.

What We Didn’t See

Last Sunday, the Andy Marr Show included an interview with actor Nicole Kidman, who was clearly very keen to promote her new film Nine. The interview we saw, however, had been edited to remove an exchange that Ms Kidman clearly found less to her taste.

This was sparked by Marr asking her directly about Scientology, the so-called religion espoused by her former husband Tom Cruise. Kidman didn’t want to talk about that, thanks very much. Fortunately the exchange has been noted elsewhere.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Greasy Polls – 2

And then there was another poll showing a narrowing Tory lead: this, the latest in the Guardian/ICM series, shows a 40-31-18 split between Tory, Labour and Lib Dem. Also, it was conducted after last week’s Pre Budget Report, with all its attendant bad news on taxes.

On these numbers, Young Dave should still be able to muster a majority, but one in perhaps single figures. Should he worry? Maybe not: for an opposition to defeat him, they would need to be united, and that would have to include Plaid Cymru, SNP, Independents, and the Northern Irish members – some of whom won’t take their seats at Westminster. Is there a scenario where the SDLP and DUP would file through the same lobby?

So maybe the time has not yet come for the Tories to worry unduly. That would only happen if the numbers continue to move against them: if they were to drop another five points to Labour, their lead would be gone. And, after all, Labour won in 2005 on just over 35% of the popular vote.

Meanwhile, there is talk of a so-called “early election”. In late March next year. This is “early”? It’s more than three months away. Somewhere in the ranks of assembled hacks, someone is getting carried away. Pa Broon will not be getting deflected, and neither will his opponents, whatever their followers say for public consumption.

The real message is that we should concentrate on doing Christmas, and have a think about the politics in the New Year.

Monday 14 December 2009

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Flight

This time of year brings many traditional offerings: Christmas itself, too much food, too much shopping, short days, chilly weather, and a British Airways strike. Even if I’d stopped off at the bookies, the chances of getting half decent odds would have been so close to zero as to make the bet pointless.

The man with the job that very few others would go near, Willie Walsh, will not have relished the news that his cabin crew have decided to walk out from three days before Christmas until after New Year, and without a break for such trifling things as work.

The Guardian estimates that this will hit a cool million passengers, many of whom may not readily return to BA. But rival carriers won’t be too worried: any spare seats on popular routes will be snapped up, and not at the lowest price, given another day or two.

BA and Spanish carrier Iberia are still on course to merge. It will be interesting to see which of the two ends up the more dominant partner. There cannot be two winners.

The Limits Of Denial – 2

The loose convocation of climate change naysayers came under pressure recently, following the well publicised confrontation between a group of student activists and hereditary peer Christopher Monckton, which occurred at a meeting on the fringe of the Copenhagen summit.

Monckton, who has asserted that the summit would lead to the imposition of a “Communist world government”, repeatedly called the activists “Hitler Youth”, despite being told that one of them was Jewish, and whose grandparents had mercifully escaped the Holocaust. The exchange has been preserved for posterity.

This kind of behaviour has caused the Spectator to call Monckton a “swivel-eyed maniac”, which is particularly significant, given that the magazine’s editor, Fraser Nelson, is firmly in the climate change denial camp (he also has a problem with the connection between HIV and Aids).

So, while the denial lobby continues to peddle a variety of spoiling tactics against mainstream science, and its supporters deploy terms such as “liar”, “warmist” and “eco fascist” as they flail around trying to attract attention, the infighting merely underlines the pitifully low level at which their debate is being pitched.

Fairly Straight Kind Of Guy?

The Iraq Inquiry grinds on. Occasionally a nugget of information, or more usually gossip, emerges, but otherwise the process is so mundane as to be off most commentators’ radar. Or rather, it was until the upcoming appearance before it of one Tony Blair. The former Prime Minister, of course, was a man of supposedly unimpeachable integrity, and a “fairly straight kind of guy”. So he would appear before the enquiry for us all to see and hear, wouldn’t he?

Well, apparently, no he wouldn’t. The Chilcot enquiry team are now insisting that his evidence will be heard in public, but that some of it may have be heard behind closed doors, the usual catch-all excuse of “national security” being deployed. Also, some of the intelligence reports that may be discussed demand more of that privacy.

I don’t buy this. Blair can, and should, be the most open and transparent of all witnesses before the Iraq Inquiry, and Sir John Chilcot should insist on it. Alternatively, Blair could declare himself that everything would be in public – he is, after all, a “fairly straight kind of guy”. Isn’t he?

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 9

Two years ago, Rupert Murdoch bought the Wall Street Journal, and many commentators had misgivings about the sale. Many still do, even though the paper has not become quite as downmarket as many of Rupe’s titles in the UK and his native Australia.

What has happened, though, is that the WSJ has shifted to the right, and now exhibits the usual Murdoch traits: Obama bashing, anti health care reform, and of course anti anything to do with global warming. These attributes can be seen, in rather sharper focus, on Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

This move rightwards has been picked up by the New York Times, in this article which points up the WSJ’s change to a more general and less analytical perspective. In an interesting coincidence, some from the right and libertarian part of the blogosphere have been enthusing recently about the WSJ and putting the boot in to the Financial Times, even to the point of painting the FT as left wing (I kid you not).

As Private Eye might have said, “I wonder if the two are in any way related? I think we should be told”.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Put It In The Curry

I first visited Berlin during a work assignment back in 1998. The city had been reunited for almost a decade, but the infrastructure had not yet followed suit: parts of the city’s iconic S-Bahn network were still being rebuilt and reopened. More, the “new” centre around Potsdamer Platz was one gigantic building site.

But one thing was the same then as it was last year when I renewed my acquaintance with Berlin, and that was the citizens’ love of currywurst. That’s right: traditional German sausage, chopped up and smothered with curry sauce. And there are hundreds of places across the city where you can partake in the ritual.

I never did the currywurst thing, but as this clip shows, Berliners love the stuff. Each to their own.

Saturday 12 December 2009

Camera Obscure – 2

Another week, another exhibition of harassment by the Met. This time, the unfortunate photographer was from the Guardian, and the accusation one of terrorist reconnaissance. This comes after new guidance issued through the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) told explicitly that taking photos of public buildings was not normally an excuse to stop and search them.

As usual, the justification given is by quoting Section 44 of the Terrorism Act. Apparently there are “designated areas” within which police are allowed to stop and search anyone without there even being a need to demonstrate suspicion. Unfortunately for the public, who are generally not inclined to acts of terrorism, the presence of these areas is information that is not routinely available to them.

As I said recently, this is utterly and absolutely cracked. The police service, at times of greatest need, asks the public for their help: when the police have earlier behaved so as to harass that public, they should not be surprised when they do not get it.

Friday 11 December 2009

Let He Who Is Without Sin

As Expensegate has rumbled on – more MPs expenses revealed this week – there have been those in the House of Commons who have given the impression that they are above all the alleged troughing.

And the eccentric Tory MP for Harwich and Clacton, Douglas Carswell, is one such. But his expense claims for 2008-9 include an amount for food. And it’s not a trivial amount.

It’s just a shade over 2,960 quid. I’m sure it’s all above board, or will be in the retelling.

Bad Sports

Another day, another apparently wide ranging injunction, this time guaranteed to put a stop to a source of increasing curiosity. Yes, lawyers for Tiger Woods have succeeded in having certain information about their client suppressed.

As in so many of these cases, exactly what the information is, we are not told. But whatever the information, it can’t be repeated. The injunction applies to the UK, but as far as is known, not to the USA. Just in case you missed that, the injunction doesn’t apply to the USA.

Better not say any more. Wouldn’t want the spoilsports to get upset.

The Goose Must Have Been Getting Fat

What’s with all the goose fat? Earlier this week it was piled high at Aldi, and today there it is at Asda. But, after sitting down with the obligatory nice relaxing cuppa, the penny dropped.

Somebody on the telly has been plugging it.

Well, it can’t have been Delia, or the stuff would have sold out before I’d even noticed it. And that much is true, although she’s recommended the stuff for basting the goose before it goes in the oven.

No, the culprit this time is the agreeably upmarket Nigella Lawson, who is majoring on goose fat to help you produce the ultimate roast potatoes. Whether it makes your kitchen sparkling clean, despite all the cooking, is another matter.

Thursday 10 December 2009

Elocution In Reverse

Over the time he was Prime Minister, much about Tony Blair irritated me: the regular use of “y’know”, the idea that his integrity, like Caesar’s wife, was beyond reproach (every politician tells the odd porkie, even if only by accident), and ultimately his almost messianic belief that the so-called WMDs in Iraq would be found, despite their not existing.

And then there was the pronunciation. Blair attended Fettes College – aka “Eton in a kilt” – but he was leader of Labour, supposedly a party of the ordinary folk. So, consciously or otherwise, his speech became “ordinary”. It might not have registered on most folks’ radar, but it irritated the heck out of me, so much so that I recognise anything similar very readily.

So it was that the alarm bells sounded yesterday while I was watching coverage of the Pre-Budget Report. And it wasn’t anything coming from the Government side, but the response by the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the Seventeenth Baronet. He was starting to sound like Blair, and less like his old self. Why should that be?

Perhaps the talk from the Labour side about their background is getting to some in the Shadow Cabinet. From Osborne, who, as I said a while back, I found instantly dislikeable, one can understand it. After all, when the accusations of privilege and never having had a “proper” job get thrown, he doesn’t have any means of countering them.

Hopefully the rest of Young Dave’s team will not follow suit: Cameron himself won’t go in for any of that, and one reminder of Tony Blair’s attempt to sound “ordinary” is quite enough.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Murdoch Is Served (9)

And so it came to pass that the Commons culture, media and sport Select Committee considered their report on Phonehackgate, which I last looked at back in July. But they are not happy about the evidence given by Rupe’s Troops, and so have requested the presence before their good selves of the twinkle-toed yet domestically combative Rebekah Brooks (née Wade).

Ms Wade, now chief executive of News International, may not make her appearance until the New Year, but appear she will. Meanwhile, expect Tory cheerleaders around the blogosphere to either ignore this, or howl “non story” in response. They have good reason to respond thus: Young Dave’s new spinmeister Andy Coulson was editor of the Screws when the initial hacking story broke.

Moreover, Coulson has recently come out of a wrongful dismissal case brought by a former NotW hack very badly indeed: he’s been identified as part of a bullying culture at the paper. As Nick Davies – himself involved in the phone hacking story – has said in Flat Earth News, “Dog doesn’t eat dog”. So it is no surprise that, apart from the Guardian, other papers have managed to ignore the story.

But that’s no guarantee of continuing silence, and a General Election looms. Young Dave is now locked in to being Murdoch friendly – so he’ll just have to hope that this potential IED doesn’t go off.

Hung Over The Gap

Another day, another poll: this one had Tory, Labour and Lib Dem on 38, 30 and 20, which at least gave “only” 12% for “others”, but otherwise just fuelled talk of a hung Parliament. Why so?

Ah well. It’s all about the gap that an opposition party has to cross if it wants to form any kind of majority – let alone a working one. And over the years that gap has been widening.

Back in 1959, the number of MPs not part of Tory or Labour was just seven. Six of those were Liberals: this was the age when the Parliamentary Liberal Party could indeed be fitted into the back of a taxi. So the scope for a hung Parliament was very narrow: an opposition party merely needed to gain another seven MPs to cross the gap.

It was all rather different in 2005. The Lib Dems, as successors to the 1959 Liberals, now had 62 seats. Moreover, the various Northern Ireland members, 18 of them, mostly did not take the whip of any major party. Then there were nine nationalist MPs from Scotland and Wales, and two Independents. That’s a gap of 91.

So Young Dave and his chaps need to gain enough to wipe out the Labour majority – and then another 90-odd on top of that. Only then will they be in a position to form a majority Government. The only other way is to squeeze the Lib Dems, but the days when the Super Soaraway Currant Bun would routinely field a “Libs In No Seats Shocker” edition during the General Election campaign are over – well, credibility wise, anyway.

And the Tories would prefer any majority to be substantial enough that a few by-election losses would not cause too much concern: many in the party still remember the erosion of John Major’s 21 seat advantage during the 90s.

The Network That Gives 120 Per Cent

There are, across the USA, and even further afield, folks who trust what they are fed by Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). And Fox have been hot on the issue of global warming of late – majoring on anything that undermines the scientific consensus.

Thus it should not be a surprise to see that Fox have published the results from a recent Rasmussen Reports poll on the subject: it backs the generally sceptical mood in the USA right now. Look at the response to question 3, which asks “In order to support their own theories and beliefs about global warming, how likely is it that some scientists have falsified research data?"

The response was as follows:

35% Very Likely
24% Somewhat Likely
21% Not Very Likely
5% Not At All Likely
15% Don’t Know
Total 100%.

This, however, wasn’t enough for Fox. On December 4, Fox And Friends put up a graphic which added the “Very Likely” and “Somewhat Likely” together to make 59%, but then restated the 35% “Very Likely” and even discarded the 15% “Don’t Know”. The upshot was a total percentage of 120.

As the article in the link says, this could be the first example of Climath Change.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Greeks Bearing No Gifts

I’ve enjoyed some excellent holidays in Greece. The people are on the whole welcoming and laid back, and it tends to be sunny and warm there. Yes, things don’t always work, and service might not come when you’d like it – or even the next day – but you can’t help liking the country and its people.

But successive Greek Governments have never got on top of the country’s economy. In the days of the Drachma, there was always inflation, and a lot more than in the UK: in 1990 a pound bought about 290 drachmae, by 1992 that had gone up to 340, then in the mid 90s it had gone over 400. By the end of that decade it had reached over 500.

So I did wonder how the country would manage to get its currency in line with the Eurozone, and adopt the Euro. The short answer is that they never really managed it, and thereby hangs the problem. The idea of just marking up prices and then blaming the resulting problems on the Euro failed to address the problem: now their sovereign debt has been downgraded, an event which the Cicero’s Songs blog had considered a while back.

This is, as far as is known, a first for a Eurozone country. And Greece not only has a stubbornly high level of debt, but has not displayed the will to tackle it. How the ECB and other Eurozone countries tackle this one is uncharted territory, as the Beeb’s Stephanie Flanders has shown on her blog.

One to watch.

Monday 7 December 2009

Common Sense Prevails

As it became clear that Donington Park was never going to be ready to stage a modern day British Grand Prix, there was only one alternative, and that was to return the race to Silverstone. And so it has come to pass: today’s deal should keep F1 at the former wartime airfield for another seventeen years.

Bernie Ecclestone seems at last to be happy; Damon Hill, as head of the BRDC, looks positively ecstatic. After all the smiles, you have to wonder why there was all the manoeuvring in the first place.

And it will be free to view.

Unlucky Seven

Last week there were reports that golfer Tiger Woods had been injured in a road accident. Then it started to escalate: Woods and his wife had been involved in an altercation over his alleged infidelity. Then there were photos and names of supposed mistresses.

Well, today the number of alleged mistresses has reached seven. Woods’ recent appearance before the media to confirm that he had transgressed is starting to look like the ultimate understatement, but I do have a sneaking respect for the bloke: how on earth does he fit them all in?

It brings back memories of JFK and his nickname of Jack The Zipper: the women came and went as in a revolving door, at least three of them on the night of his inauguration (and none of those was his wife).

Will Holly Sampson be the last? It’s all getting rather addictive.

Sunday 6 December 2009

An Inverted Class Warrior

First things first: a confession that I don’t watch every politics oriented item on TV. Hence my having something better to do than take in today’s Beeb One Politics Show. So I initially missed Young Dave getting jolly miffed about Pa Broon’s remark during last week’s PMQs about Tory policies being dreamed up “on the playing fields of Eton”. Yes, Dave’s jolly angry about this, and has left everyone in no doubt that it’s “Class War” – and that sort of thing doesn’t work (allegedly).

So who is making all the fuss about the remark? Had it been Big Al, or Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole, then the “Class War” assertion would have been credible. But for Cameron to major on it is not: moreover, such an approach fails to grasp the real purpose of Brown’s remark, which was to get at Zac Goldsmith, advisor to Young Dave, Tory PPC, and a “non dom” – yes, he’s in line to become an MP, yet does not pay tax in the UK.

This has not stopped the usual cheerleaders from lining up to denounce Brown and stating that “Class War” does not work. Their single by-election sample is Crewe and Nantwich, though factors other than the “Tory Toff” stunt played in favour of Edward Timpson: he was minded personally throughout the campaign (and even on Andrew Marr’s sofa afterwards) by Fat Eric, the Government was for a variety of reasons unpopular at the time, the seat isn’t the working class Labour stronghold that some paint it, and the Labour campaign, as I noted at the time, effectively gave up in the last few days and failed to get their vote out.

I would be more than happy to show any of the Tory cheerleaders round Crewe and Nantwich to demonstrate the area’s uniqueness – and how it is much more of a swing seat than they might think – but somehow know that this is an area that they would rather talk about than visit.

Meanwhile, despite Cameron saying he’s relaxed about having gone to “School” (Old Etonians only recognise the one), the impression is given that he’d rather his opponents talk about something else. So expect them not to.

The Stationary Station Scheme

As I posted recently, CREAM put forward their contribution to the “masterplanning” process at their recent Heritage Centre presentation. This was in advance of meetings and decisions with the new Cheshire East Council in the driving seat, but so far everything has gone quiet. Moreover, my email prompt to one of the councillors hasn’t even been answered, and the next relevant meeting – to which the general public, in contrast to the CREAM presentation, aren’t invited – is next Wednesday.

The silence from Cheshire East, together with the leaked suggestion that the Crewe Gateway scheme (leaving the station in its current location and updating it) did not have a “valid business case”, has caused concern. If the Gateway scheme had not had a sound business case, it would not have been put forward in the first place, and, as nothing of any substance has changed in the meantime, one can only wonder how the new Council has arrived at its conclusion.

That concern was voiced in an article that has appeared in the local press, the main contributor being Labour PPC David Williams. There has been no comment from MP Edward Timpson, but neither has he dissented from Williams’ line. It is certainly strange that Cheshire East Council is apparently still considering the crackpot idea of moving the station out of town, especially given that Network Rail (and it’s their rail network) abandoning the idea, not least because they cannot fund the necessary track and signalling works.

Also, one of the consultants advising Cheshire East tells in its literature of its commitment to “sustainable” solutions, and such an attribute could not be associated with a scheme that forces more punters to get in their cars and drive, just to be able to catch a train. All eyes are now on Wednesday’s meeting at the Alex Stadium: it is to be hoped that the Basford move will be dropped for good, and that the Gateway scheme can proceed.

More news as it appears.

Saturday 5 December 2009

Your Fifteen Minutes Is Up ... For Now

Who in the blogosphere, I wonder, recognises the name of John Ward? He hadn’t registered on my radar, I confess, until a former work colleague took time out to put me straight. Ward was the first to publish the Pa Broon medication story, and has been running with it for some months. He doesn’t actually blog, but has a website and sends out a regular email post.

Unfortunately, as Ward himself concedes, he clearly believes that Brown is on a particular kind of medication, but has no means of proving it. And, without the proof, his story is going nowhere. Other better known bloggers and pundits are drifting away, and Ward’s use of his newsletter style postings to tell of disputes with neighbours is not helping him.

At least Ward has discovered one thing about the blogosphere: even those bringing the exclusives to the table can drift out of favour. He is also right that there are too many folks chasing cheap popularity and embracing a variety of conspiracy theories along the way. His angle on “serious” journalists getting in on the New Media is, of course, already happening with sites like the Huffington Post, which I check out regularly.

What is happening over in the USA, I reckon, will not take too much prompting to happen here: conspiracy theorists calling their opponents “liars”, along with so much that is blatant party propaganda, will not survive competition with anything half decently presented and properly researched.

At which point John Ward may come right back into favour, so I for one hope that he sticks around.

The Limits of Denial

The debate over man made climate change rumbles on, and with fresh intensity on the approach to the Copenhagen summit. The lobby denying that such change exists has drawn new strength from a recent hacking of emails from the University of East Anglia, although the interpretation of this correspondence is disputed. Moreover, if this University were the sole repository of climate change data, the idea that some of it may have been lost would be genuinely disturbing. But UEA is one of many places studying climate change – so it isn’t.

Nevertheless, the antis have dubbed the product from the hacking “Climategate”, while getting terribly sensitive to the charge of climate change denial. The D word, it is argued, makes them sound like holocaust deniers, while trying to re-categorise themselves as merely “sceptics”. This latter would be fine if they were in “show me” mode, but those who have decided that climate change is some kind of hoax, conspiracy, or cover for more taxation are not. They deny that man made climate change exists, hence the legitimate use of the D word.

The chorus of denial should surprise nobody. Many centuries ago, there were those who denied that the earth was other than flat. In the nineteenth Century, some argued that travelling at over thirty miles an hour would be fatal to humans; Dr Dionysius Lardner was particularly concerned at the effect of the first souls to travel by train through Mr Brunel’s tunnel at Box. Before Charles Darwin, the idea of evolution of species through natural selection would have been considered blasphemy, and in some resistant parts of the world still is.

And so it was with exercise. Nowadays we accept that regular exercise is good for you, but half a century ago this was revolutionary stuff. It was substantially due to pioneering work by Professor Jerry Morris, who has just died at the age of 99, that the link between exercise and a healthy heart was proven. Morris’ studies first covered London’s bus crews, noting that conductors were far less subject to sudden heart attacks. Then he looked at postal workers, seeing that those who delivered the post on foot or by bicycle were healthier than office workers.

After all his research, Morris got outsiders to try and destroy his thesis. They could not. Subsequently the research was published in 1953. This came hard on the heels of the publishing of evidence demonstrating the link between smoking and lung cancer in 1950 by Richard Doll. Both these publications were opposed by interest groups, and were not at fist taken seriously – which brings us back to man made climate change.

We now accept that exercise is good for you, and that smoking causes lung cancer. Hopefully the climate change evidence will also be accepted - before it’s too late.

Thursday 3 December 2009

The Laws Don’t Work – 7

Another day, another routinely dispiriting confirmation that being “tough on drugs” is not working: today’s Guardian has revealed that the number of cocaine addicts entering treatment is increasing sharply. And the numbers shown in the article are more than likely to be only a small fraction of the total number of those so addicted.

Why should this be? Ah well. There may be occasional headline grabbing drugs busts, but their effect on supply is trivial. The product gets to the market, and, being delivered there by organised criminality, is certainly plentiful, but has been adulterated with a variety of additives to bulk it out. Some of these may be carcinogenic: the drug gets the blame for the cancer, while the real reason gets ignored.

Current policy on drugs reinforces the presence of the criminally inclined in the supply chain, along with the variety of lawlessness that comes from the need to feed habits, debt collection, and turf wars. All could be reduced or even eliminated by ending the present charade and legalising – and regulating – the industry. All would then follow: education and treatment would occur without the threat of criminal sanction.

It would also become easier to make comparisons between drugs as to their relative ability to harm, modify behaviour, and cause dependency. Thus another reinforcement of public education. Only in a rational and unthreatening manner can we all become better informed – and have the ability to make our own choices.

The Republican Wrong – Wrong Again

Routinely at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) there has been yet another attack on Barack Obama by Glenn Beck. However, Beck’s claim – that less than 10% of Obama’s Cabinet appointees have worked for the private sector – has been comprehensively debunked by PolitiFact. And it begs the question of the accuracy of Beck’s assertions, along with their apparently not being checked prior to broadcast.

Beck, with no apparent sense of irony, has defined private sector experience, partly, as “folks that have done more than write on the chalkboard”, which is the defining activity of his Fox show. Perhaps he will tell of his own entrepreneurship in a future presentation.

At least the verdict of PolitiFact was merely that Beck’s assertion was “untrue”: thus he avoided the most severe assessment – “pants on fire”. Beck has, however, attained a recent entry in this category, as have Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, Orly Taitz and (you just knew this was coming) Sarah Palin.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Greasy Polls

The Beeb’s poll tracker is now showing one clear message: the much debated Ipsos Mori poll recently was not the only one showing a narrowing in the Tory lead. But, so what? These things show movements to and fro, and a few more weeks down the line, things may be different. This stance, I suspect, is the one being taken by Young Dave and his chaps: they might have less good days, but they’re still nicely in front.

And it’s probably the sensible line to take, as is the Tories’ newly defined stance on the EU. But the cheerleaders in the blogosphere are more easily unnerved, and it’s easy to tell when a less favourable poll comes out – it gets ignored. Conversely, a better than expected poll is greeted by coverage bordering on overkill. The thought that the poll lead might fritter away, as Neil Kinnock’s did back in 1992, is preying on many minds.

Added to this is today’s apparently happy and confident performance by Pa Broon at PMQs, likely to have been bolstered by the return to the top team of Big Al, who is one man who still frightens the Tories – more so than Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole. Tory cheerleaders are now whining about Brown’s “playing fields of Eton” jibe and shouting “liar” (unfortunately, much in the blogosphere has difficulty rising above this level) at his rather broad definition of the G20 (is Spain a member or just an attendee?).

On the other hand, the playground smears about Brown’s alleged medication are being shouted all over Tory blogland. I make no complaint about this apparent factual imbalance: it is symptomatic of folks getting – prematurely, I would suggest – nervous and rattled. And, if a mere dip in opinion poll ratings gets folks rattled, what if the lead were to vanish?

One thing is for sure: shouting “liar” and making medication jokes won’t bring it back.

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 8

The attempt by dear old Rupe to make the punters pay for access to news continues, as does the demonisation of aggregators and linkers around the Web. How News International is going to make its content so unique as to make folks willingly pay for it is a mystery: as Nick Davies has explained in Flat Earth News, there is little to differentiate between a variety of presenters of what is in effect the same news.

Murdoch himself has been at the forefront of cutting costs by cutting down on the numbers of journalists. Unless he is going to spend more, in order to give his content a uniqueness and quality not available elsewhere, he’s on a hiding to nothing.

Moreover, the whole idea of simply walling up his empire behind a pay barrier misunderstands the way the Web works. This has been brought home in typically forthright style by Arianna Huffington, in this post. I commend it to anyone not yet persuaded of Murdoch’s folly.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Longer Exposure

All the photos from my sojourn in warmer climes have now been selected, edited, uploaded and titled. So, as previously signposted, here are some links for anyone who is interested.

New views of the city of Lisbon have been added; these are marked as “New”, as are additions to the collection on the city’s much photographed trams. A collection of views from the less touristy part of Portugal has been assembled, with images from Braga, the Douro Valley, Évora and Beja. A tour of the National Rail Museum at Entroncamento is there too, as is one of the Algarve.

By all means stop by, browse, and let me know if there are any howlers, or anything I might have missed.

Bring Me Sunlight – 3

Back in October I checked out the particularly eccentric stance of backbench (and, apparently, determined to stay there) MP Douglas Carswell, who sits for the constituency of Harwich and Clacton. The Guardian, being a broad church despite those – on the same part of the political spectrum as Carswell – who like to pretend otherwise, has featured an interview with him in its Environment Blog. Carswell, as I’ve previously mentioned, doesn’t believe in such things as man-made global warming.

And Carswell is refreshingly candid about his recent conversion to climate change scepticism. This, he tells, follows his investigation into the writings of one Ian Plimer, particularly the book Heaven and Earth: Global Warming – The Missing Science. In the Guardian interview, this is the only author and volume he quotes in his defence. But there is a problem with this approach: Plimer and his book have been savaged by the scientific community.

This, however, has not stopped several on the libertarian right from taking Plimer, and those of similar persuasion, as their particular gospel. Meanwhile, this article tells you all you need to know about the critics.

Guilty Until Proven Guilty

Desperate times, desperate measures: the town of Standish, Michigan is down on its luck, so much so that it hopes to improve things by successfully bidding to bring inmates from Guantánamo Bay (aka “Gitmo”) to a nearby, and otherwise disused, facility. Some of the responses have been truly bizarre.

Some assume that the detainees are all terrorists, although no charges have been laid, and no trials started. Others suggest they will break out of the jail and rape their way around the county, although none were detained on those grounds.

The most bizarre assertion of all is that having the detainees in the nearby prison will make the area a terrorist target. And how many terrorist actions have been targeted on Guantánamo? Well, as far as is known, none.

The ultimate solution is, as ever, straightforward: bring forward the evidence, put the detainees on trial, and apply the appropriate sentence to those found guilty. Otherwise set them free: being Muslim with Intent, or Reading the Qur’an with Malice Aforethought, are not indictable offences.

Who Checked The Figures? – 2

Yesterday in the House of Commons, Young Dave did something that Pa Broon does not find easy: he made a public apology. As I posted recently, there was a row of non-trivial size after Dave’s assertions about money going to Muslim schools, and now he was admitting getting some of his facts wrong.

So far, so honest, but we are no nearer to knowing how the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition got it so wrong. Where did the assertions originate? Who checked both them and the figures? One thing, if previous discussion of the Cameron character is to be believed, we can expect: whoever put this particular “dodgy dossier” before Young Dave will have found out directly what the Tory leader thinks of such service.

Moreover, the source will not be so readily trusted any time soon – that being any time this side of the General Election.

Monday 30 November 2009

Final Pleading

Tomorrow, we are told, Barack Obama will announce his decision on whether to send more troops to Afghanistan. He has been pressured by the generals, and those of a more right wing persuasion, to vastly increase those numbers. As I’ve previously posted, there is increasing disquiet within the USA about this campaign. But, as with Vietnam, those who speak out to warn of the futility of the adventure get heard too late, if at all.

Adding his voice to the calls for sanity today has been Michael Moore, who has pointed up the mistakes of the British, and then the USSR, in trying to pacify Afghanistan. But Moore omits one name from his analysis: that of Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson was elected President in 1964 in a landslide, and his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater was portrayed as a warmonger. Soon after, more troops were sent to Vietnam and the bombing of the North started. Unlike previous wars, Vietnam, with all the horrors of modern warfare, was captured by the TV cameras and the images broadcast into millions of homes across the western world. Johnson’s reforms, his “Great Society”, counted for nothing.

Eugene McCarthy declared not only his opposition to the war, but his candidacy for the Presidency: his success in early Primaries precipitated the end of the bombing and Johnson’s refusal to run for re-election. Moreover, the spectre of Vietnam split the Democratic Party, and let in Nixon. The parallel with Afghanistan will not be lost on today’s Democrats.

So what is it to be? My suspicion is that Moore’s pleas are in vain.

Sunday 29 November 2009

Camera Obscure

Plenty of railway enthusiasts have been challenged when in the less than subversive act of photographing trains. I am not yet among their number – well, not in the UK, at least – but no doubt my time will come. That time has, after all, come for an increasing number of those innocently snapping city sights, as was demonstrated on this morning’s Andy Marr Show.

The show has a stills photographer, who is normally well out of studio camera range, taking photos for the following day’s papers, who routinely report on the contents of major set-piece interviews. Today he briefly sat on the sofa alongside newspaper reviewers Matthew Parris and Mariella Frostrup. The reason for this brief elevation came last week.

He was taking some late afternoon shots of St Paul’s Cathedral when approached by a WPC, who was in turn accompanied by a PCSO. The officer suggested that his actions could be in breach of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act. Moreover, both WPC and PCSO told that many others had been so advised by them in the past few days, and that none had objected.

If no-one has objected to such a ridiculous suggestion, then they only have themselves to blame for the continuation of such a blatant waste of resources. The idea that terrorists would openly use an SLR – perhaps with a tripod – if engaged in any kind of subversive behaviour is laughable.

Perhaps the police are not yet aware of mobile phones with a high resolution camera inside. Or maybe they believe that Al Qaida will not be tempted by the availability of compacts with a 12Mp resolution, 10X zoom, and most importantly the ability to be fitted into the user’s pocket (I know – I’ve got one). And you can do without a tripod by using a wall or street sign to steady the camera.

Both phone and camera are available over the Internet, and now. Perhaps Amazon will be getting a visit from the law next. It’s utterly cracked. Can someone apply a little common sense, please?

Pull The Other One

At last week’s meeting marking the launch of the CREAM contribution to the debate on the future of Crewe and its railway station (for anyone interested, my photos are at lower left and second from top right), I heard mention of a dissenting voice from the business community. Roy Cartlidge made reference to this, but at the time I was more concerned with keeping warm.

The attempt to pour cold water on the efforts of CREAM was made by John Dunning, who is the chief executive of South Cheshire Chamber of Commerce. He has backed the “master planning process” that Cheshire East Council is progressing, which should present no problem to anyone, but has described CREAM as a “break-away group”.

As CREAM came into existence solely to register dissent to the crackpot proposals of Network Rail (NR), it has not “broken away” from anyone or anything. Perhaps Dunning is trying to infer that CREAM is some kind of rogue or subversive body. Here, too, he would be plain flat wrong to make such a suggestion: the group’s meetings and processes are open to anyone.

What CREAM has done is to focus the dissatisfaction of many in the community with the ideas of NR and the lack of backbone shown by organisations that, one might have thought, are there to stand up for them. If Dunning and those of similar attitude cannot, or will not, address the concerns of the community, he and they should not idly dismiss those who will.

Moreover, he would do well to choose his words with greater care, having gone on the record as saying “ ... we will not be going to this meeting, as we are keeping out of politics”. Given the nature of how organisations work and interact with one another, it will be interesting to see how Dunning manages to lobby with any success for his membership, while maintaining this unequivocally principled position.

Or, perhaps, not. See title of post.

Friday 27 November 2009

Launch Day

This morning, despite the noise and the cold, the campaigning group CREAM premiered its suggestions for redevelopment in Crewe, with of course the railway station being left, more or less, where it is. The noise and cold came from the meeting being held at a very out-of-season time at the Heritage Centre, which has work to do on a whole range of “heritage” railway stuff.

Since my return from the mild climate of the Algarve to the cold and damp of the north west had induced yet another cold (three this year, folks, and counting), I kept myself wrapped up and tucked away at the back. Roy Cartlidge corralled a number of guest speakers, all with differing agendas, but united against the daft Network Rail (NR) proposal for moving the station to Basford.

What I found relieving – and instructive – was that, despite a full diary, CREAM has at least gained sufficient recognition from MP Edward Timpson that he sent a representative, the most attentive Ros, to attend on his behalf. Previously, there was a vacuum here: nobody knew whether he was interested or not. This does not mean he approves of the group, but at least he is in touch.

The “masterplanning” process for the town that Cheshire East Council is going through will proceed, and there will apparently be some kind of announcement early in December. More news then!

Only Kidding

Tory culture spokesman Jeremy Hunt has chosen to get his own particular “policy adjustment” announced well before the General Election – as with Young Dave on the EU – and while there is plenty else to distract potential voters. So forget all the talk about him “ripping up the BBC charter”: he’s now said it won’t happen.

And, like Cameron’s realistic approach to the EU, this is surely right, as is Hunt’s confirmation that TV impartiality rules will not be relaxed under a future Tory administration. So little chance of a UK version of Fox News channel (fair and balanced my arse).

But the best bit comes when Hunt is pressed about any potential quid pro quo with the Murdoch empire. He says there is “no contract” between Murdoch and the Tories.

Does there need to be a contract for there to be influence?

A Distressing Interlude

This afternoon, as one might, I walked into Crewe to do a little shopping. It is not a hazardous or usually eventful journey. But I am still concerned about what I saw on my way there.

I’d crossed the road at the traffic lights where Oak Street and Wistaston Road cross Edleston Road and was near the bus lay-by when I noticed a distressed toddler approaching – or, rather, tearfully seeking his mum. As he passed me, I looked round expecting to see her, but there was no-one in sight.

The toddler carried on going, and yet still there seemed to be no sign of his parent. He kept on going, not just as far as the traffic lights, but right on almost into the middle of the road where cars and commercials were thundering past. By this time I wasn’t the only one watching.

It seemed inevitable that the little boy would get mown down by the traffic, until, from round the corner on Wistaston Road, his mum finally appeared and snatched him away from the danger. What she had been doing I don’t know.

The feeling I got from this incident was that, not only should I feel uneasy about seeing it, but should feel equally uneasy that it happened at all. Another second and everything could have been irreparably changed.

Thursday 26 November 2009

Who Checked The Figures?

At first it looked like Young Dave had scored a seriously heavy blow on Pa Broon yesterday at PMQs: the contrasting of Brown’s constant justifying of the Afghan campaign by saying that it kept terrorism off the streets of Britain with the Government funding of schools connected to Hizb ut-Tahrir. This is an organisation that Tony Blair considered proscribing, although neither he nor Brown have done so.

Then, later in the afternoon, everything in Tory land went quiet. The cheerleaders haven’t mentioned the exchange, and shadow Education spokesman Michael Gove became rather less available for interview. The idea that Young Dave may not have got his facts straight has been meat and drink for Pa Broon’s pal “Auguste” Balls, as has been reported. Cameron has alleged that the schools concerned – run by the Islamic Shakhsiyah foundation – have had trustees that are linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir, but then, that’s rather like saying that, if a school has a governor who is a Tory politician, that makes it a Tory oriented school.

The claims made by Cameron and Balls cannot both be true. And there is the problem that Young Dave and his chaps could end up looking as if they were playing the Islamophobia card to garner votes. The whole exercise looks like the kind of guilt-by-association idea so beloved of the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, whose “dodgy dossier” alleging that Government was paying firms to lobby it was so comprehensively demolished by Mick Fealty earlier this year, as I noted at the time.

So who did the research, and who provided the figures (and, hopefully, checked them)? Cameron is still asserting that the schools are run by Hizb ut-Tahrir, and both that group and one of the head teachers involved have commented adversely on his intervention. Come on, Tory politicos and cheerleaders – don’t be shy.

Be There

The campaigning group CREAM are presenting their proposals for the future of Crewe and its railway station tomorrow morning at the Crewe Heritage Centre (it’s behind the Tesco store – you carry straight on instead of bearing right into the Tesco car park).

There will be a number of speakers from across the business, political and trades union spectrum. Also anyone attending will be able to quiz anyone connected with the proposals, including me. Proceedings start at 0930 hours and continue until 1145.

See you there!

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Driving Concerns

We see the usual horror stories about road accidents and lesser tales concerning the usual variety of bad behaviour behind the wheel. But the UK is, generally, one of the better EU countries when it comes to road safety. Bottom of that league has routinely been the preserve of places like Greece and Portugal, although the latter is a lot better than when I first visited.

There is a general acceptance of allowing pedestrians to cross roads at recognised locations, and even to slow down or stop to allow them to make their ground. The almost obligatory tailgating has been reduced, although one of Senhora Eva’s drivers nearly got caught out by a braking shock coming back through the line just after the Ponte Vasco da Gama last Friday. I know this as I was on board.

Making further progress in this area is a hot topic right now in the country, particularly as the GNR Traffic Brigade has been disbanded, with its officers being redeployed to eighteen other traffic units. This has been controversial, and the President of the Portuguese Automobile Club, Carlos Barbosa, has called for the Brigade to be reinstated.

What relevance does this have for us Brits? Well, until recently, car hire companies across the Algarve worked hard to keep the vehicles that had come back in a less than pristine state away from the eyes of prospective punters: the incidence of crashes on roads like the EN125 was grim, and tourists got caught up in too many of them. So the continuing improvement in road safety in Portugal is in our interest too.

Election News

Much has been discussed since the Ipsos Mori poll recently reignited fears of a hung parliament. Many have risen to speak adversely on the idea: no kind of half decent government could emerge from such a result, the sky would fall in, and decisions could not be made in the normal way.

Over on the European mainland, this happens from time to time, and yet the world does not end: Germany hasn’t had one party with more than 50% control of the legislature in the recent past, yet it carries on – rather well. The latest EU member to join this club is Portugal.

Prime Minister José Sócrates and his PS (Socialist Party) won a majority in the 2005 elections, gaining 121 of the 230 seats in the Assembly of the Republic. In September this year, they won only 97. But, again, there was no single party with that coveted majority, so the PS, being the largest party, carries on. They will inevitably have to make alliances and do deals. But their world will not end, the sky will not fall in, and the work of Government will continue.

This should not be a difficult concept to understand: after all, it is only reflecting the will of the electorate as expressed through the democratic process

Easy Gaffe

There is always one thing to read on the aircraft, just in case you forgot to bring your own: the in-flight magazine. So it was no surprise to see the November edition of the EasyJet offering in the seat back on the flight out to Faro. What was a surprise was its absence on the return journey.

And the reason for that absence has meant red faces all round at the carrier: the mag had a photo shoot from Berlin, where permission to use one of the locations featured – the Holocaust Memorial just south of the Brandenburg Gate – had not been given.

EasyJet leave the compilation of the mag to a third party company, but appear to be “considering their position”. Hopefully for the third party, they won’t foul up with December’s edition.

Monday 23 November 2009

Wine With That, Sir?

This blog is all for a bit of feedback, so when my recent thoughts on the supermarket industry away from home were commented on with an emphasis on wine, that gave a very useful pointer.

There are signs in supermarkets that are characteristic to the country in which they are based: the Spanish love their jamón, the French their cheese and paté, and the Portuguese their salt cod, or bacalhau (along with the joke about there being 365 recipes for the stuff). Then there is the wine.

The French (still) major in their own produce here, but then they would, wouldn’t they? Even so, the alcohol advertising ban (why Wales’ rugby shirts can’t advertise Brains’ beers when they play there), and the hated Australian and US produce have taken the edge off sales. Fortunately, some French producers “get it” that we the consumers tend to like wine that is of a predictable standard and good for opening and drinking, well, now. Hence the proliferation of single varietal wines, mainly from the Oc. Buy Couleurs du Sud or Roche Mazet (their Merlot is particularly good) and you get decent value, while knowing it won’t be a let down.

Spain also does a good trade in home produced wine, but, like election results, we tend to find out about only a very few of them. So apart from Rioja (and other Tempranillo based stuff) and perhaps Valdepeñas, this is not known in the UK. So we don’t know that the Madrid region produces some cracking reds – not unless we go shopping in Madrid, that is.

What of Portugal? Well, again, we know very little in the UK, barring Vinho Verde, Dão and of course Mateus bloody Rosé. This is a great pity, because in recent years there has been the development of regional wines: Alentejo, Extremadura, Lisbon region, and of course Douro Valley (where the port comes from) among them. And a good Douro red is in the stonkingly good category. Trusht me.

On wine, as with much else, we still have a lot to learn about Europe. Not a bad subject to major in, mind.

The Voyage Home Once More

Yesterday began with mild farce: there I was, outside the apartment complex that had been home for just over a fortnight, and at the appointed hour (a ridiculously early 0645 hours), when, well, nothing happened. At least, not for a few minutes, until a car bearing the discreetly applied logo of the transfer company pulled up. The driver asked my name. I gave it. It was not the name on his list. I was to be collected by another driver. What to do?

The driver went to talk to the night reception man. He returned with the news that someone else had already collected the person, or persons, with the correct name. The driver, now slightly exasperated, decided to collect me instead, whatever the list told him. We then proceeded via the A22 to Faro Airport, and it dawned on me that this was the “taxi equivalent” service (as opposed to the minibus of two weekends before), and was normally charged at a substantial premium – or, in my case, not.

That was the relatively pleasant part. There then followed the wait for check in to open, followed by the routinely humiliating “security” process, the wait for the gate to be announced, and the wait to board the aircraft. The flight came with half an hour of moderately unpleasant turbulence, and then as we descended towards Liverpool, the realisation that the rain was falling in non-trivial amounts. Welcome home.

But the question can now be answered very simply: folks choose to live in places like the Algarve – and southern Spain – because they no longer have to put up with unpredictable weather (today was not going to be wet, but then it was) or the cold of English winters. Neither is the shortening of the days during that season as extreme further south – today, sunset was at just after 1600 hours in Crewe, but is an hour and a quarter later in Faro. Sunrise is half an hour later here in the North West.

And the clincher is, of course, that people own property in these more southern locations because, as EU citizens, they can. Around 38,000 British expats live in Portugal, with a whopping 760,000 in neighbouring Spain – including Kilroy. Can anyone smell hypocrisy?

Poll Text

Many punters are getting terribly worked up over a poll that appeared in yesterday’s Observer, produced by Ipsos Mori. This is, more or less, down to its findings, showing the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem percentages at 37:31:17, which gives the Tories a lead of only six percent. This is the lowest Tory lead for some time, and the reaction has been predictable: Tory cheerleaders have gone into “rogue poll” mode (which, in translation, means “poll that brings news I don’t want to hear”), and some Labour supporters have gone so far as to predict victory in the next General Election, which is probably the more daft of the two.

What can be said of this poll is that it is one poll, and one only. More usefully, one could put it in context by looking at the trends shown over time in polls carried out by other organisations: if these were to start showing a decline in the Tory lead, then the news would be more significant. What is also clear is that the numbers above do not add up to 100%: there is a significant 15% for “others”, for which read UKIP (taking votes from the Tories), the BNP (taking from both Labour and Tory, but probably more from the former), and Greens (taking votes from the Lib Dems). Any of these, while not capable of winning seats in any numbers, could have an influence where majorities are small.

But Young Dave would do well not to dismiss this poll out of hand: after all, close to the 1992 General Election, more than one poll had an 8% Labour lead, and they ended up losing.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Wrap Up Warm

The time is rapidly approaching for departure from the pleasantly warm Algarve and a return to what looks like a far colder and wetter home climate. I remain optimistic that nothing will be forgotten from the ritual of packing, and will be keeping the second LumpCam (tm) with me at all times. And I will try to make time at Liverpool Airport to check the hold luggage to make sure it’s all there before I walk out of the place and therefore “accept” it.

There may be less posting on Zelo Street for a few days, as I’ve got “only” 363 photos to sift through, group, edit, then upload some to Fotopic and finally title them all. But then, there will also be renewed exposure to the spectator sport that is Politics, so if events intervene, perhaps the photos will have to be sifted through more slowly.

Empty Houses

A frequent topic for debate across the UK is the housing stock, and why it has to be that there are folks with nowhere to live, when there are so many empty properties. It’s another example of how the market does not always provide, although admitting the fact may be distressing to the more conventionally minded of economists.

This is not confined to the UK. I’ve noticed how many apartments and houses across the Algarve give the appearance of being empty, and today I found an entire complex closed up, perhaps for the season, though this will be of little comfort to those living in shacks behind Albufeira’s shiny new bus station.

At first I could only see one row of apartments, but then it became apparent that the complex had three or four rows, taking advantage of the landscape to give everyone the coveted south facing view. How long it will be before one or more empty properties are taken over by squatters I don’t know: maybe the laws in Portugal work against this kind of thing.

Later on, I at last found a development apparently abandoned part way – as with the apartments opposite the entrance to Crewe Works. Not only was it unusual (the cranes and construction are still at work elsewhere in Albufeira), it was also very, very large, spread across the hillside overlooking the marina.

A faded sign on one of the panels fencing off the area proclaims the development – or lack of it – as being a Crowne Plaza resort. Anyone looking for something upmarket from that name would be disappointed: much of the construction was of structural steelwork and breeze block.

Boas Festas

Midweek saw the Christmas lights being put in place across Albufeira. They’re already adorning the streets of Lisbon’s Baixa. It’s another thing that is universal across so many countries, but seems incongruous given the daily sunshine and temperatures still over the 20 Celsius mark. And you get so used to that sunshine that when it clouds over – as it has today – this is considered to be poor weather.

From news reaching these parts from the UK, many folks there would rather like a bit of that poor weather themselves, with torrential rain having caused flooding and broken transport links in the Lake District. That does happen in Portugal too: when I visited in November 2006, there had been persistent heavy rain across northern and central areas, with road and rail links south of Porto cut.

But the instance of extreme weather, like the length of the Christmas retail season, does appear more prevalent over time.

Supermarket Sweep – Same Everywhere

Back in the mid 90s when I first visited Albufeira, there was one supermarket in town, the Modelo just to the east of the old centre, and it was neither large nor inexpensive. Things change: although it’s still there, the Modelo is now larger (and being extended) and has become much keener on price, partly because it’s now part of the Continente group.

Another part of the reason for keener prices is that discounter Lidl has also arrived in town during the intervening time, and with a large car park and seven days a week opening. Many expats from across the more northern European countries shop here: it’s a name they know. No, it’s not merely about competition, but brand awareness and the size of the market: both these stores stay busy most of their opening hours.

Added to the mix recently has been a largish Pingo Doce outlet, which suggests that the market for locals’ custom is also growing: this is a brand that you would normally associate with convenience store and town centre shops, and it’s not one I’ve seen outside Portugal. For instance, you’ll find their stores in the building by Track 5 of Lisbon’s Santa Apolónia station (oriented towards travellers – always a good stock of inexpensive sarnies), and tucked away on the city’s Rua 1. Dezembro (manically busy, and an indication of how many folk live in the Baixa).

There are also the inevitable out of town supermarkets – Continente have one nearby – and other chains (the Jumbo in Faro is part of the French Groupe Auchan). Apart from the absence of the usual British culprits, this is the same kind of retail scenery you might encounter anywhere in Europe (the bus journey from Budapest airport to the Metro terminus takes you past one of the city’s substantial Tesco stores).

All this, we are told, gives us what we want, and, more or less, whenever we want it. But it also enables various large organisations to grab market share, so is not so different across borders.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Not Dead and Still Red

The UK media tends to cover elections in other countries on a distinctly irregular basis – except for the USA, where we get pretty thorough coverage of the Presidential elections, and often the mid-term ones too. Not so with other EU countries, which is odd, given that so many punters and politicians enjoy banging on about that same EU.

So while I know that there is an election happening somewhere on the Algarve some time soon, as I haven’t asked around or tried to unpick the Portuguese posters and fliers, I don’t know what’s up for grabs. But I do know the identity of one of the parties on the ballot.

There are an awful lot of posters for the PCP. Who they? Well, mastery of the language on this occasion is not necessary. The familiar hammer and sickle device at the foot of the poster tells you that this is the Portuguese Communist Party. And they’re hot on dealing with corruption.

Other European countries also have Communist parties active in local and national politics. But then, most of the demands in the original Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels have become part of the mainstream.

A Direct Journey

In more relaxed mode today, and a trip to Faro for a walk around the old town, along with a stroll around the marina. The journey pointed up one of those areas where languages do not easily translate between one another, and the difference in traffic volumes between weekdays and weekends. And there were interesting sights along the way.

Eva put on a so-called Directa bus between Albufeira and Faro on weekdays (altogether, the weekend service offers only a third of the weekday service level). I’d used it before, and wondered what was “direct” about it when compared with its seven days a week “normal” cousin. My assumption was wide of the mark: the use of the term Directa means “limited stop”. This would have been useful information for the bloke who should have got off this morning’s bus in Almancil and found himself carried on to the outskirts of Faro.

Faro’s old town, which is worth the detour, is also no less crawling with traffic than the rest of the city. After all, many of the buildings are residential property, and if you arrange so much of life around the motor vehicle, residents will buy cars and want access, wherever they live. And where many of the expats live can be glimpsed from the windows of that bus as it picks its way around the coastal towns and villages on its way into Faro.

The glimpse is possible as you pass by the golf courses, country clubs and upmarket resort complexes that are Vilamoura. Here, there is also a marina filled with the most upmarket of yachts: the equivalent in Faro has only small motor boats on view, as the bridge carrying the railway over the entrance is welded shut. Those golf courses look unnaturally green, due to regular watering, and their regulars, if they do not live in the resort, have their satisfyingly expensive homes in Vale do Lobo or Quinta do Lago.

They shop at the Apolonia supermarket near Almancil, as there are English speaking greeters, plenty of free parking spaces, and lots of reassuringly familiar brands. The locals frequent the little Minipreço in the town centre, where no English is spoken, there is no car parking outside, and if it’s on the shelves, it’s usually Dia own brand.

Those folks on the golf course may look down their noses at the punters on Albufeira’s “strip”, but the idea is much the same: both want the parts of countries like Portugal that appeal to them, while keeping out the locals.

Pass The Sick Bag

Back in the regrettably brief heady days of British Rail’s Advanced Passenger Train (APT), which was abandoned, setting travel on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) back a quarter of a century, argument raged over whether tilting trains induced a kind of travel sickness in passengers. On APT’s inaugural trip from Glasgow to London, many of the assembled hacks thought it did, but then, many of them were still in a tender state after not getting to bed nice and early.

Eventually it was conceded that, when the tilt of the train compensated fully for the increased side force generated by cornering, it was possible for the brain to think that the train was travelling in a straight line, only for the passenger to then look out the window to see that it was not – and thus the occasional sickness. BR sorted this by making the tilt mechanism compensate less than fully for the cornering force, which tilting trains generally all do nowadays.

Even so, the case is made across Europe that tilting trains using the Fiat hydraulic tilt system are prone to make their occupants feel queasy, and I have to confess that during a journey from Lisbon to the Algarve back in 2006 I felt less than comfortable at one point, but it was dark, so the case above should not apply. It was with this in mind that I boarded the Alfa Pendular service on Monday afternoon at Albufeira, worked by a train with the Fiat tilt system. We certainly generated some aircraft style bank angles, given that the train body can tilt up to nine degrees, and the banking of the track has to be added in. But there was no queasiness.

So I was reassured, but clearly not everyone is happy: these trains have sick bags provided, discreetly deployed with any mention of sickness on the side away from the passenger. Knowing that some will not believe me, I took one as proof.

[Trains using the Fiat tilt system include the Italo-Swiss Cisalpino, the Italian ETR 460, 470 and 480, and the Spanish Alaris, as well as the Portuguese Alfa Pendular. Similar trains operate in the Czech Republic, Finland and Slovenia. However, the Pendolino trains operated by Virgin Trains on the WCML use the Swiss SIG electronic tilt system, which is also proving surprisingly reliable. So there]

On The Mark

After checking out of the residencial this morning – not totally straightforward, as the card reading device had to be kicked to get it to work – I had a few photos to take in and around Lisbon and then it was time to head for Gare Oriente for the train back to Albufeira. Oriente is one legacy from the 1998 Expo, and is memorable for its spectacular and delicate looking overall roof. Fortunately it also has waiting areas below the otherwise bare looking platforms, although the toilets, which still look as temporary as they did back in 2001, are routinely disgusting.

The train’s First Class was almost full, many of them British expats or visitors, and we not only left on time, but remained on time all the way: at Funcheira we even had to wait time, and there was enough in hand for the wait at Luzianes for the northbound Alfa Pendular for it not to matter. All this, despite there being an irritatingly noticeable number of temporary speed restrictions, one or two to just 30 km/h. This is a lesson that the coach operators could learn from: most of the rail route is single track, so it’s important for the schedule to be as robust as possible.

Even so, the Intercidade is nothing like as fast as the coach, for a number of reasons: the coaches post over-optimistic schedules which in my experience they can’t maintain, the motorway is straight, and is also shorter by quite a way. Why should that be? The railway was built long enough ago, and to what appears to have been a limited budget, so there are lots of twists and turns: these slow the speed, and add to the distance. But improvements are on the way: a cut off line is under construction on part of the route, and a new river crossing is almost complete.

The new route will be faster, it will add capacity – many more trains right now would cause operational problems – and it will cut several kilometres off the distance. But it could be bad news for the ancient town of Alcácer do Sal, which is bypassed by the cut off.

Crunch in the Soup

I had one of those determined interludes last night: this was to do with food, more specifically eating out. After returning from Entroncamento into Lisbon’s Santa Apolónia station, and walking from there back towards the Praça do Comércio, I passed by a number of eateries. None was particularly expensive, which made them all the more interesting. And then I saw a menu outside a little cantinha that advertised both grilled dourada, and Alentejo style soup.

It wasn’t a particularly challenging walk from the residencial, so that was that. Dourada, simply grilled and usually served with salad and proper potatoes (yes, real ones, not reconstituted chip style shapes), is a regular on the daily specials menu all over Lisbon. As it’s “real” fish, with head, tail and of course bones, a little more effort is required – but is worth it. The Alentejo soup was something else.

I remembered from years ago that it would be a little oily, which it was, and that there would be bread on top, and that was present, as was the egg underneath. What I’d forgotten over time was that the little flecks of crunchy grey material were fresh – and in this case good and strong – garlic. It was only a second or two for the memory bank to recharge, and a relief that I wasn’t expecting close contact with anyone later.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Going South

Tomorrow will be time to head south from Lisbon, across the Ponte 25 do Abril, and ultimately back to the old town of Albufeira. It’s been yet another sunny and pleasantly warm day, and yet another reminder that timing is all: had I made the visit a day earlier, I’d have been considerably wetter by now. And when it rains in Lisbon, you find out about it.

That is part of the difference between the Algarve and the more northern parts of Portugal: once you cross the Tagus from the south, everything becomes a little greener. That means wetter, and is no doubt another reason that Lisbon folk like to descend on the Algarve themselves once in a while.

There will be more from Zelo Street later in the week, then, all things being equal, it will be back to the UK. Where it will probably be even colder than when I left.

Oh well.

In A Museum

When British Rail, as it was then, made the decision to site the National Rail Museum over 180 miles out of London in York, there was an allegedly national outcry. I say allegedly, as much of the grumbling came from London based newspapers and those who found getting to Clapham (Remember that museum? Not very large, and not very cheap) easier and quicker.

The Portuguese approach was also to establish their national collection out of the capital. The museum has opened in the railway town of Entroncamento, which is the country’s equivalent of Crewe, Derby and York in one: the national network, even at its zenith, was far smaller than that in the UK. Whether the assembled hacks based in cities like Lisbon and Porto were outraged I don’t know, but in both cases, the trip to the museum can be easily made by rail – which is supposed to be the point.

Unlike the UK, a charge is levied, but two Euro is hardly an onerous amount. There is a modern roundhouse display – the original one that stood on the site was demolished many years ago – and many photos and models of trains past and present. Sadly, not many takers visited today: it’s no surprise, therefore, that opening hours extend only from 1400 to 1730 hours. Also, be warned that it’s closed on Mondays.

One promising prospect is that there are plans to extend the museum into an adjacent and much larger building, which might give it the “must visit” factor and thereby bring in the punters. It’s certainly worth the effort, and the staff are very helpful. From Lisbon there is a more or less hourly Regional service that serves Entroncamento, and at a return fare of 13.5 Euro it’s not expensive.

Your Money? It’ll Still Cost You

ATMs – those hole in the wall machines that give you access to cash all day and every day – are now a part of everyday life. What the world was like before their coming is for many unknown, or a fading memory, which latter is a good thing: not so long ago, if you came up short out of banking hours, you were stuffed.

But not all has been plain sailing with ATMs in the UK. There were for many years networks that only yielded cash if you were a customer of a particular bank or building society. Then there were networks that worked more flexibly, but you still had to be a member of a particular “club” of banks.

Here in Portugal, the ATM appeared rather later than in many countries, and with one important benefit: they all sit on the same network, and all behave in an identical way: they are called Multibanco machines. This is a big plus for those like me that like the country, but have difficulty figuring out the language – well, at the kind of speed that isn’t going to cause annoyance to the rest of the queue.

Yes, a Multibanco ATM will talk to you, reassuringly, in English. There is also a standard series of animated characters to help pass the time while one country’s network talks to another, to make sure your credit is good.

Monday 16 November 2009

On The Tiles

This evening I have arrived in Lisbon. And it’s been raining – heavily enough to have disrupted transport links further north. This means that special care is needed on the streets, especially those with the unique tiled surface so characteristic of Portugal. Why so? Because when it rains, those little tiles become, as Neil Kinnock once said, absolutely bloody lethal.

Even in the dry, the tiles have a tendency to become shiny and slippery. When it rains, they don’t shine, but merely reflect. They are yet more lethal. So when I came out into the open at the eastern exit from Baixa-Chiado Metro this evening, the downhill slope of traditionally tiled pavement told me to beware.

And here I am at the residencial – that’s the Duas Nações, at the intersection of Augusta and Vitoria. In one piece. Even after a very agreeable feed and drink session at Casa Liège earlier. For those not familiar with the area, that’s the eatery at the top of the Bica funicular, east side. You can manage a good meal with wine for less than ten Euro a head.

But not a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, mind.