Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Mr Brown and His Code

Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else. - Leonardo da Vinci

I confess. I'm totally ill-equipped to comment on the case currently being fought out in the High Court between Mr Dan Brown – very rich author of The Da Vinci Code - and the plaintiffs, Richard Leigh and Michael Biagent – who claim he has infringed their copyright by stealing material from The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail, a non-fiction work that examined the Jesus theory and which was itself a best-seller. Why am I so ill-equipped? Easy, I haven't read either book.

What may seem like a storm in a teacup to the average punter is a big deal to authors. A very big deal. No more vile calumny can be accused than plagiarism. However, things, as usual, are not always as cut and dried as they appear. Let's have a look at the law.

Interpretation is related to the independent creation rather than the idea behind the creation. For example, your idea for a book would not itself be protected, but the actual content of a book you write would be. In other words, someone else is still entitled to write their own book around the same idea, provided they do not directly copy or adapt yours to do so. Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Seems fairly clear. I am familiar with this concept. One of my most famous quotations to seemingly endless generations of school children, “Ideas are free, but someone's actual writing isn't” applies here. Therefore, if I want to write a book called say, “George Barnes and the Castle of Doom” and set it in a boarding school for apprentice witches and warlocks where George and his mates, Herbert and Hazel, have many adventures whilst trying to find the entrance to the Castle of Doom – fine. If, on the other hand they play a game called Sliddich on powered broomsticks, I may be in difficulties. I say may be, because even then I might argue that I was simply adapting an idea I read in a more famous (and tedious – in my opinion) work of a similar theme, like Harry Potter.

As it so succinctly says on the UK copyrite website: Has a copyright infringement actually occurred? Be clear in your mind that an infringement has actually occurred and that this is not simply a case of incidental inclusion or coincidence. The work should be substantially similar in design, structure or content, to the degree that it can be said that the work was coped or adapted from your original, rather than simply a similar idea or concept. Fact sheet P-05

I'm particularly intrigued as to why the case is being heard in the High Court at all? Random House are big all over. They are big in America. Big in Australia. Big in New Zealand. They are pretty much ubiquitous in the English speaking world. I suspect, though I have no evidence, that the UK courts are more likely to look favourably on this claim than other parts of the world where the Random House Empire operates. It certainly wouldn't surprise me as UK libel laws are probably the most Draconian since Draco himself. I mean Draco the Athenian law-giver who decreed the death penalty for minor offences, like owing money on your drachma credit card – not Draco Malfoy who is just an unpleasant pilloch in Harry Potter novels. Perhaps the copyright laws are similar.

Incidentally, whilst on this topic, I'll never forget the look of absolute wonder and amazement on the faces of a class of 7 year olds when I was able to translate the Hogwarts school motto, Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus (colloq. Don't Mess About and Tickle Sleeping Dragons!) off the top of my head. Ah, the joys of classical education!

I digress.

I expect the erstwhile suitors who hope to relieve Mr Brown of a substantial portion of his “lolly” think they've got a better chance here in dear old Blighty. Perhaps they are right.

Some more comment from the Times:

Mr Rayner-James said his clients had invested a great deal of time, effort and skill in their book, while Dan Brown had “appropriated its architecture”, and had even copied some of the language. The author’s copy of HBHG was heavily annotated, it was alleged. Mr Rayer-James went on about “levels of abstraction” as though he were talking about drawing water from an aquifer. The implication, however, was that Brown had abstracted so much from HBHG that he should have gone back to original sources, which were largely the Dossiers Secrets in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, containing narratives on, among other topics, the Merovingians, the Knights Templars and the Tribe of Banjamin. Every lawyer in court yesterday was equipped with copies of both books. Mr Justice Peter Smith, who exhibits both a refreshing northern accent and a magnificent moustache, disclosed that he had read both — but not, he said, in an analytical way. Jonathan Rayner-James, QC, for the claimants, told the judge that Dan Brown had “appropriated” the central theme of HBHG. “The claimants are not alone in this. Many people all over the world have commented to the same effect since The Da Vinci Code was first published.” One who noticed was a letter-writer to The Times.

Last word to the Times literary critic Peter Millar:

“What The Times said:

The Da Vinci Code THIS is without doubt, the silliest, most inaccurate, ill-informed, stereotype-driven, cloth-eared, cardboard-cutout-populated piece of pulp fiction that I have read. And that’s saying something. It would be bad enough that Brown has gone into New Age overdrive by trying to draw together the Grail, Mary Magdalene, the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion, Rosicrucianism, Fibonacci numbers, the Isis cult and the Age of Aquarius. But he’s done it so sloppily.” Peter Millar — June 12, 2003

Maybe the boys are arguing about nothing of much worth at all. Must be the money.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

IM Revisited

ICQ was the first general instant messenger combining presence or list of contacts with the ability to send messages. ICQ was introduced in November, 1996. ICQ was awarded two patents from the U.S. patent office. After its introduction, a number of variations of instant messaging have arisen in parallel in many places, each with its own protocol. This has led to users running many instant messaging applications simultaneously to be available on several networks. Alternatively they could use a client which supports many protocols, such as Gaim, Trillian or Miranda clients. - Wikipedia

Yes, I confess, I spoke too soon. After enthusing about IM last week, I have discovered a few drawbacks. Very foolishly I assumed that IM is genuinely cross-platform, like every other part of the internet. This is, after all, the basis of the internet – no matter what type of computer, processor, operating system or browser you may be using - you can interact with every other part of the net. So, being used to interchangeability as a core principle of the net, I just assumed that IM worked the same way. I thought it was pretty much like email. I was very wrong.

One of the key features of email is its cross-platform usage. No matter which internet service provider you are with (even one of the web-based providers of free email services) you can send messages to anyone with an email address. IM doesn't work that way. There are a number of providers and they are not compatible with each other.

Therefore, what I assumed about IM was not true. Actually, it was totally false. There is no industry standard and each network is independent of the others. This was a bit of a shock – and not entirely expected. Learning this, I felt like the man who fell off the Empire State building. As he passed each floor, people heard him saying, “So far, so good.”

Ok, so IM is a bit quirky. Actually it's worse than that. If you are unaware of these protocol difficulties, you may erroneously assume you have done something wrong when you cannot connect with someone on a different network. You may think that you have done something wrong when the fault is just the system itself. This is an inherently nonsensical situation. Not knowing that that there are other networks which you cannot connect to becomes de rigeur; therefore if you do not know - you are in some kind of internet limbo – destined to wait forever for a contact that you can see but can never get in touch with. Geeks beware. This could be geek hell.

What really puzzled me was the sign-up process for the various networks. When I first tried to sign up for MSN – or get a MSN passport – or whatever its called - for heaven's sake I don't want to invade a foreign country – all I want is to try the instant messaging – get a life, Microsoft! Not possible without a Hotmail account – only it doesn't tell you this until the very last stage of the process. Then, and only then, does it say it does not recognise other email addresses. Now, I have reason to believe that this is not true all over at all times. I think this because my sister – who lives in Missouri – has an on-line identity with a non-Microsoft provider, yet also has a MSN Messenger account? How can this be? I'm just guessing here, but it may be that Microsoft have fallen so foul of the U.S. Authorities that they have been forced (in America) to let people without Hotmail accounts to get a MS Messenger IM account. I'm going to believe this until someone proves it different. Nevertheless, here in jolly old England it appears that without a Hotmail account – there is no chance of getting a MSN Passport and therefore no chance of Instant Messaging with Microsoft. Look like Catch 22 to anyone else?

Same thing, with minor variations, happens with the other major networks, ICQ, AIM, etc. Result: no sign-up – no contacting anyone on their network. A nice variation on “no tickee -no washee”! Bottom line – IM is not as easy as it appears. You need to know what you are doing or you can get confused with the various networks and protocols. After some scouting around, I found a nice open source program called Trillian. Kind of nice – I'm sure that was the name of the female “assistant” in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. That makes sense if you consider that the infinite improbability drive is possible and the earth is being run for the benefit of the white mice. Not forgetting the dolphins, “Bye, bye and thanks for all the fish!”

The advantage of this program is it allows you to connect to different networks - all from within the same software. Also, it has no adverts or other junk bundled with it. I am not getting paid for saying this – honest. There is also a Windows/Linux program called Gaim. Unfortunately, I missed this first time around - or I might have given it a whirl – in keeping with my Windows/Linux backup strategy. I may investigate it later. Till then I fear I may have opened a can of worms for my friends/contacts. Hope I'm wrong – honest.

PC Plod

Crime is not a light-hearted subject. Violence against people or property is no laughing matter. General disgust is more the general publics' proper reaction to incidents of lawlessness. Quite right too. Yet, for some reason, let a bunch of crooks walk off with a large sum of money from one of the big banks and our attitudes change into something close to admiration. Mind you, some of the daft things the coppers do in pursuit of the criminals makes it all the more amusing to say the least.

There was a program on TV called, “America's Dumbest Criminals” - or something very similar. This show featured the mind-stupefying antics of criminals who were so stupid as to be hardly able to walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. And, it was all based on true stories. Funny stuff. Unless you happened to be one of the numskulls being featured. I'm sure the unspoken “message” of the program (to be consumed by the kids who were watching) was, “See how incredibly stupid crooks are? You don't want to be this stupid – do you?” Whether this experiment in social engineering had any affect, I just don't know.

Real life of course can be far more interesting and amusing. Thus, when some enterprising crooks walked off with 50 million this week from a storage facility in Kent, lots of people were secretly thinking, “Well done, lads! Wish I'd have thought of that!” The best thing about this crime was that no-one actually got hurt (though the manager of the facility and his family were kidnapped and threatened) and the “victim” was the Bank of England – who actually “owned” the notes in question. A more “victimless” crime it would be hard to imagine.

So, enter the local police whose job it is to find the crooks and make sure justice is done. How do they go about this? Well, they investigate. First, they go and take into custody for questioning all the known crooks and villains they can find. Starting with those nearest the scene of the robbery. What they hope is that even if they haven't done the crime, the crooks will know who has. Sometimes this even works.

Two other people in Forest Hill, South London, were arrested on Thursday night on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a robbery, as detectives drew up a list of the usual suspects — the 20 or so criminals believed capable of organising such a sting — and released an e-fit of one of the men, who posed as a police officer. All three suspects were later bailed. - The Times

Many years ago there was a murder in the village where I lived. An old lady was beaten to death just around the corner from me. I first heard about this when I met a friend – who was a Special Constable – and he told me about it – under the strict understanding that I keep quiet. Ten minutes later, in the pub, we found out that the whole village already knew about it. Next lunchtime you could not get to the bar of the pub because it was wall to wall coppers. They had set up a mobile incident room down my road. They knocked on my door and wanted to know where I had been at the time of the murder. Fortunately, I had been in my solicitor's office at the time! Lucky me!

This went on for two or three days. By that time, they had interviewed nearly everyone in the village (it was a small village). They found nothing. A week later they got a call from the mother of the murderer who told PC Plod that she had found a blood-stained shirt in her son's room and could they please come and get him. Case solved. Great police work? Not really. Every policeman knows that without the help of the public they are unlikely to solve many crimes. The corollary is also equally valid – with information from the public, solving the crime is easy.

What has this to do with the millions missing in Kent? A lot. Apparently the crooks are a lot smarter than the ones who feature on “America's Dumbest”.

Detectives hunting the armed gang responsible for stealing up to £50million in Britain’s biggest cash robbery have arrested two people, police confirmed last night. The suspects, a man aged 29 and a woman aged 31, were arrested separately in South London.

It is understood that the woman walked into the Portman Building Society in Bromley, Kent, and said that she wanted to make a large deposit. Staff, noticing that the £6,000 was bound with tape marked Tonbridge, kept her talking while they phoned the police. - EDP

At first glance, this looks pretty dumb. But, is it?

Detectives investigating Britain's biggest armed robbery have found an undisclosed sum of money - possibly in the order of several million pounds - in the back a white Ford Transit van abandoned in a hotel car park.

Witnesses described seeing officers in white overalls struggling to lift two large black bags from the rear of the van in the Ashford International Hotel in Maidstone, Kent, several miles from the scene of the raid on a Security cash depot in Tonbridge two days ago. - The Times

Looks like the police are on the case and winning! I'm afraid this is a classic case of looks can be deceiving. Finally we had a “security consultant” being interviewed on the news with an explanation that may be closer to the truth. I hate to be an “I told you so” but I have been telling people for two days that the money in the transit van and the Portman Building Society is just a red herring. And, a clever one at that! “Security Consultant” agrees. The boys have 50 million – what's the odd million to them? So, they leave bags of money lying around in various places in the South-east hoping that mugs will find it and try to put it in the bank. One lady did. Some idiot – instead of taking some of the million or so in the white van (what a plonker!) actually called the police to report something suspicious. I know we're a ways from Kent but any vans parked around here that look abandoned – I'm checking them out! If there's lots of money inside – PC Plod, don't hold your breath waiting for a call!

There was a famous case (so famous I can find no reference to it!) in Missouri where a local smeg-head that everyone knew deserved to be dead was murdered and everyone in town knew who did it. Police arrived. No-one would tell who did it. End of case. This is where the police are now. If no-one talks and the crooks are pretty much unknown – they may never catch them! Every dog is entitled to one bite! No doubt the detectives have their list of usual suspects. If these boys are not on it – it could be a long investigation.

Lest anyone reading this be in any doubt where my sympathies lie: this was a despicable crime. The manager of the storage facility and his family (assuming they were not part of the plan) were put in fear of their lives, the employees (at least the ones that according to the police were not in on it ) were no doubt scared to death and anyone crossing the robbers' path would have been and will be in great jeopardy. It's fun to laugh about only because, apparently, no-one was hurt in this crime. That doesn't excuse the crime – it's just mitigation. If and when they are caught, they will go down for a long time. You can bet on that.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Slobbo and Ratko

Sub titled: how the twentieth century's dastardly duo happened to be running a modern western European country. And, what's in a name – again.

Trying to make sense of the Balkans has bemused men far more clever than I for many a year. From the first time a Roman legionnaire stepped across the Danube, the rest of the world has been alternatively bemused, confused and befuddled at the unfathomable politics, religions and ethnicity of the region.

A good primer on the subject can be found at:


What is not found there is any sense of how two obvious and obnoxious loonies came to be sufficiently in charge so as to be able to set about a fairly successful extermination campaign in what is supposed to be a civilised country. Shades of old Adolph here.

I confess that I don't know many Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins, or Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonians (whatever they are called?). But I do know someone whose real name is Slobodan. Fortunately, he is usually called Ted.

His father was a Balkan immigrant to the UK during or shortly after the second world war. Not surprisingly, when Ted was born that proud man insisted on naming him Slobodan. Must have been rough for him at school - though I suspect (probably much to the old man's annoyance) he was always called Ted. In any event his real name is Slobodan and he is quite a nice guy.

As far as I know, there are no Ratkos here in the UK. A search on Google turns up our Yugoslav friend, Ratko Mladic. Frighteningly there are 1,200,000 hits for Ratko. I just don't have the time or stomach to search through all of them. There is a Ratko Zjadca who is, apparently, a prominent and unfortunately named composer. Ratko Varda is a guard for the Washington Wizards in the NBA, so perhaps it's not such an uncommon name – no matter how unfortunate or comical it seems to westerners. Somehow I can't see the fans in the MCI Center raising the roof with a stirring rendition of the Serbian National Anthem ("Boze Pravde" ((God of Justice)) – for those who are interested). Actually, it's quite a catchy tune - so I couldn't resist the temptation to have a look at the lyrics:

Lord! Avert from us Thy vengeance,
Thunder of Thy dreaded ire;
Bless each Serbian town and hamlet,
Mountain, meadow, heart and spire.

When our host goes forth to battle
Death or victory to embrace-
God of armies! be our leader
Strengthen then the Serbian race.

I think you've got the idea! I suspect the Wizards fans make do with, “Come on, Ratko!” - shouted loudly and repeatedly. Or, more entertainingly, maybe they just chant, “Rat, Rat, Rat” over and over again. It would certainly give the opposition something to think about.

Oh yeah, I wonder if God appreciates being called a Bozo, sorry Boze, in Serbian?

Without prejudice, it is apparent to me that no amount pretending is going to disguise the fact that

down in Balkan heaven things are not all that rosy. This latest attempt to join both the western world and the present century is dependent on being able to put behind them the difficulties of the last thousand years or so. This, though very laudable, does not seem very likely.

Slobbo and Ratko will just have to wait until they meet up in the detention centre for a good old Serbian homecoming. God knows what that entails?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Moors Murders

The “Moors Murders” is one of the most infamous and well-known mass murder cases in Britain.

Even though one of the principals, Myra Hindley, died a few years ago, the phrase “Moors Murders” still has the power to bring out the worst of hysteria and prejudice in the British public.

Myra Hindley spent the last few years of her life in the anticipation that one day she would get parole and be able to rejoin society. For various reasons this was never going to happen.

Hindley and her lover, Ian Brady, began their killing spree on July 12, 1963. They were both jailed for life in 1966.

Brief facts of the case at:


What is more amazing than the tragic events surrounding this case is the powerful feelings the case continues to elicit from the British public and media – even after Hindley's death. Brady remains incarcerated and has said that he never wants to be released. Myra Hindley was the most hated and vilified woman in Britain for more than 40 years. During that time she was very seldom out of the news for long. On any “slow” day the media could rely on finding something to write about Hindley – usually concerning her efforts to obtain parole. It became formulaic. Newspaper reports about parole board hearing on Monday. Tuesday same paper, usually joined by a few others, recounts the facts of the case. Wednesday, victim's relatives are interviewed and vow to fight for their right to have Hindley serve life. Thursday – papers interview leading politicians who all vow never to release her. Friday, Hindley is refused parole by the board. This went on for more than 30 years. Throughout this time, Hindley's supporters argued that she had shown remorse since going to prison, where she became a devout Roman Catholic. She obtained an Open University degree in humanities and become a "good woman", her supporters said.

In her later life, it was Lord Longford's prison visits and continued pleas on behalf of Myra Hindley that focussed the debate about Hindley's eventual fate. He described Myra Hindley as a "delightful" person and said you could loathe what people did but should not loathe what they were because human personality was sacred even though human behaviour was very often appalling. None of this had any effect either on public opinion, the parole board or the Home Secretary. Though she was not always told this, it was obvious that she was never going to be released.

The really strange thing about this case was the ease by which the public was unable to equate Hindley's long period in prison with any sense that she had paid her debt for society. Hating Myra Hindley and refusing to countenance her release became a national obsession – despite the fact that no-one looking dispassionately at the case could argue that she was a danger to society. Many, many prisoners in England – who had committed equally horrific crimes had, and continue to be, released on parole. Myra Hindley never had a chance.

Although some supported the idea that Hindley should be released, the majority of the British public was strongly opposed, and relatives of the victims vowed to kill her if she was ever let out. In 1990, Home Secretary,David Waddington, agreed with public opinion, imposing a whole life tariff on Hindley, which meant she would never be released. Hindley was not informed of the decision until 1994, when a Law Lords ruling obliged the Prison Service to inform all life sentence prisoners of the minimum period they must serve in prison before being considered for parole.

British justice can be very capricious. Hindley's real problem was that it was a politician, the Home Secretary, who was charged with authorising her parole. Since the media and the public would have hounded any holder of that post from office in less time than it takes snowball to disappear in Bali, it was never going to happen. This iniquitous state of affairs could not last forever. On November 26, 2002, the Law Lords and European Court of Human Rights agreed that judges, not politicians, should decide how long a criminal spends behind bars. The ruling arrived too late for Hindley. On Nov. 15, 2002, Myra Hindley died of a heart attack in the West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St. Edmunds. She was 60 years old. Just eleven days later, the Home Secretary was officially stripped of the power to set minimum sentences.

It is an indication of Hindley's notoriety that dozens of crematoria refused to take her body and the company that finally did so insisted on anonymity as a condition of performing the service. Need I say more!

Other “equally” horrendous murderers have fared differently. For example: “serial child killer Karla Homolka was released from prison today after serving only 12 years for the rapes and murders of three teenage girls, including her younger sister -- who she offered to her husband as a gift.”

  • a report from July 2005

Some have gone on to receive “acclaim” for their talents: “Cannibalistic killer Nicolas Claux has an eye for color, shown in his portraits, which include several of Charles Manson. Another talent appears to be David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam. Claux—now released from prison and living in his native France—offers paintings by commission, the current work reminiscent of famed French painter Rene Magritte. Claux’s sample gallery displays work centering on mutilated bodies.”

- recent news report

Difficult to see how these crimes are any more horrific than Hindley's, yet these people were paroled.

Finally, from the epitome of journalistic propriety, The Sun:

Meanwhile, Ian Brady has written to the mother of one of his victims complaining about his treatment at the high-security hospital where he is imprisoned.

Ms Johnson, 72, from Manchester, told The Sun last night that the letter had arrived "out of the blue".

"It nearly killed me when I saw who the letter was from. It frightened the life out of me," she said.

"I've written to him four or five times over the years trying to get him to help me find Keith's body - but I've never heard back off him.

"He's just trying to further his own means. It's all about him - Brady. He's just playing games. I've written back and told him what I think of him. But I can't get over this."

Ian Brady, of course, was also vilified by the British public and continues to be an object of hate and loathing. Were he ever to be released, the whole hate campaign would start again. This time Myra Hindley would not be around to take the flak. That's probably the only “justice” she received in this sorry affair.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Looking Back – Not Necessarily in Anger

Better bring together some threads. Intelligent Design – 28 January.

Scientists trying to prevent US schoolchildren from being taught to doubt the theory of evolution are seeking to recruit mainstream churches to back them up.

Good plan. Scientists have decided to call the churches' bluff – at least the mainstream ones. They are asking for support from church leaders in stopping the Intelligent Design lobby from hi-jacking the teaching of the origin of life in schools.

This may work – as long as a true debate can be held. It's no good just stopping your opponents ideas from getting an airing. Much better to convince people by the force of your argument.

"The intelligent design movement belittles evolution. It makes God a designer - an engineer," said George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory. "Intelligent design concentrates on a designer who they do not really identify - but who's kidding whom?"

Nice one George. But, the opposite view makes God into an indifferent, rather than omnipotent, father. Evolution seems to suggest that God may have started the ball rolling – but that's about it. Might be nice if someone could suggest a theory (that's what evolution is – though you would be hard pressed to get some people to admit it) that could bring together both strands of this argument. Don't hold your breath waiting.

Warren Eschbach, a retired Church of the Brethren pastor and professor at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, helped sponsor a letter signed by more than 10,000 other clergy, according to the Reuters news agency.

"We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests," the clergy wrote

Of course Warren is entitled to believe whatever he wants, but I'm not sure he's entitled to describe evolution as “a foundational scientific truth”. What “evidence” there is for evolution is still circumstantial and conflicting. I suppose that's better than no evidence at all as in the case of intelligent design – but it's still less than satisfactory. All quotations from The Times.

Back to Guantanamo – which simply will not go away.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said today that he did not believe that the United States wanted to be burdened with a permanent Soviet-style Gulag at Guantanamo Bay.

Jack gets first prize for stating the obvious. However, he forgot to clear this with Dubbya who only last week strongly implied that some terrorist attacks had been prevented due to evidence gained from the detainees. In those circumstances, the chances that Jack and Tone will be able to convert Dubbya into a human rights activist seem about as likely as the Second Coming. You know, Jesus turns up, takes a look and holds a press conference where he complains bitterly about the mess we have made since his last visit.

A panel of UN human rights experts called last week for the camps, at a US naval base on Cuba, to be closed as soon as possible. The experts said that almost 500 terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay were being denied justice and subjected to inhumane treatment that sometimes amounted to torture.

In case anyone is in any doubt - the Bush administration is not listening. They're more concerned about keeping well behind the Vice-President – in case he's carrying a shotgun. Can't say I really blame them.

Foxy Gets Away With It

THOUSANDS of huntsmen and women will be out in force today in defiance of the year-old ban on their support. But there is nervousness after last week’s BBC documentary, The Last Tally Ho, when hunters admitted that foxes were still being killed by hounds in hunting “accidents”.

On the fox hunting front not much has changed. Hunts rode out all over Britain last week in celebration of the first anniversary of the “ban” on hunting. TV presented documentaries that clearly show the ban isn't working. Hunts were interviewed and solemnly swore that they were doing their best to avoid foxes and no-one much believed them. Just a classic example of bad law.

Some hunting figures are also worried that forces may feel the need to bow to the pressure from anti-hunt organisations. The League Against Cruel Sports believes it now has sufficient evidence to prove to police chiefs that there is widespread abuse of the hunt ban and that breaches are regularly occurring during early morning weekday meets.

Notwithstanding that there are some very nasty characters indeed in the League, it should be obvious to anyone with brain zero that the police have no time, no inclination and no surplus manpower to start a concerted campaign to catch naughty hunters. It's just not going to happen. Unless people are prosecuted and fined or jailed, being a fox in rural Britain is likely to remain a risky occupation for some time to come.

Quotations from The Sunday Times

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Instant Messaging

Technophobes stop reading now!

I was persuaded just the other day to try instant messaging. I knew very little about – email has been good enough for me for a long time – but, what the heck, might as well try it.

First problem. I have an aversion to Microsoft products. I have nearly eliminated them from daily use. I use Open Office (open source – free – better than MS Word, Excel) for text, spreadsheets, etc. I use Mozilla Firefox for web browsing (open source - safer by far – lots of excellent features!). I use Mozilla Firebird for email (truly excellent - open source, of course, packed with features and so much more secure than Outlook it borders on the criminally insane for anyone to use Outlook!) For keeping track of the vast family finances, I use a nifty little program called Moneydance (this is not open source, but was quite cheap and it has a Linux version as well - as do Open Office, Firefox and Firebird. This last point is a key part of my backup strategy. Because I have both Windows and Linux installed on my main computer, I can survive when Windows goes belly-up – as it is wont to do. Pretty clever stuff, huh! I just boot to Linux and I can stay working while I try to fix Windows. Pretty good, huh! More about this another time.

So, I looked for an open source alternative to MSN Messenger. What I discovered was:

First Movers & Creators of the Space

ICQ Inc., the successor of Mirabilis Ltd. was created when America Online acquired all Mirabilis' assets on June 1998. Mirabilis was founded in July 1996 when four young Israeli avid-computer users established a new Internet company. Yair Goldfinger (26,Chief Technology Officer), Arik Vardi (27,Chief Executive Officer), Sefi Vigiser (25,President), and Amnon Amir (24, currently studying), created the company in order to introduce a new way of communication over the Internet.

Apparently these young Israelis were streets ahead of Microsoft in 1998 and walloped them over the left field fence with their program, ICQ. Then, in a tried and tested internet statement of solidarity - they sold out to the big boys. In the meantime, Bill Gates wasn't going to take this on the chin, so MS came up with their alternative, MSN Messenger and its predecessors. And, of course, shipped it with Windows.

So, my first instinct was to thumb my nose at MS and Bill and go for ICQ. Before I could, I thought I would look for an open source Linux and Windows compatible program that would fit in with my extra clever back-up strategy. Apparently, there isn't one. Hummmm! OK, I'll go for ICQ then. Wait a minute - had another scout round and found a program called Miranda – it was open source – but with no Linux version. Decided to support the developers anyway and install it. Did. Didn't work. At least I couldn't see how to make it work. Hummmmmmm! (More m's this time!) Finally, in an effort to get started I decided to use the MS program already installed on my computer – it was Messenger version 4.something. OK, even to get this to work I had to open a MS Hotmail account because it would not accept my normal email? But, eventually I was up and running.

If you are a very fast typist and are not easily confused, IM might just be for you. Once you get used to it it's not too difficult to keep up with the conversation – even with more than one person at a time. What's lacking is the time to think and compose some worthwhile statement. Most people are reduced to a very low common denominator simply because they can't think and/or type quickly enough.

That's not the only problem as I learned from a quick search on the net.

Some advice from the Yahoo message site:

Do not harass, abuse, or threaten other members.

  1. Do not post content that is obscene or otherwise objectionable.

  2. Try to stay on topic. If you want to discuss a topic that is not related to the community area in which you are participating, please go to another topic area or create a new one.

  3. Refrain from using these community services for commercial or advertising purposes, or for any illegal purposes. Please do not "spam" or otherwise post in quantity through automated methods..

  4. Don't post content that infringes the legal rights of others, such as material that is defamatory or that makes use of copyrighted content without permission from the owner.

  5. In some areas of our Yahoo! communities (for example, adult clubs and personals) we require you to be of legal age to participate. Please check the terms of service for more details.

  6. Adult-oriented content is permitted only in areas marked as Adult Content areas --- if no such areas exist then adult-oriented content is not permitted at all. (Note: You must be of legal age in your location to access Adult Content areas.)

Good enough advice for any communication, but the implication is clear – not everyone is just trying to keep in touch with friends and family and save on phone calls. You would be wise to only add trusted friends to your list of contacts.

My personal strategy will be to only install the IM on my laptop. Then I can turn it on when and if I have the inkling without interfering with anything else. Once I get the complete hang of it I will search diligently for a dual Linux/Windows open source client to replace the ad-ridden MSN Messenger. I may try to search out other friends who may be into IM without me knowing it.

I'll keep you posted!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Terrorism and Response

Simon Jenkins is a well-respected commentator and columnist for the Sunday Times. Some of his thoughts about the UK and US governments' response to the threat are contentious in the extreme – but deserve an airing.

Almost nothing is known about the organisation we call Al-Qaeda. This lack of formal structure and purpose can be its most precious asset. Nothing is likely to cause more concern and alarm than the unknown. This plays right into Ben Laden's hands (provided he's still alive – we can't even be sure of that!). By overplaying the fear of attack, Western governments – UK and US in particular - are doing the terrorists work for them. The danger is that over zealous governments will destroy the very freedoms they purport to hold most dear in the mistaken belief that to defeat terrorism you must use fundamentally anti-democratic methods. This must be a mistake. This must be resisted.

Jenkins begins with the contention that, “On any objective measure, terrorism in the West is a trivial crime.” Essentially, none of the attacks on the West attributed to Al-Qaeda (no matter how ill-founded) has led to a systematic attack on people or property. They could most accurately be called random and infrequent. This type of terrorism is not new. The IRA and the Basque terrorist organization, ETA, carried out similar campaigns for many years. What was “new” was the attack was on the continental US – the last time that happened was in 1913 when in the early morning darkness of March 9, 1916, guerrillas of the Mexican Revolution under General Francisco "Pancho" Villa attacked the small New Mexico border town and military camp at Columbus, New Mexico. 17 soldiers and civilians were killed. Before that you have to go back to the 1812 attack by the British on Washington to find a comparable event. Seen in this paranoiac light, Jenkins comment does not seem so controversial.

Jenkins view that, “Vigilance is important but only those with money in security have an interest in presenting Bin Laden as a cosmic threat.” may be closer to the mark than we like to admit.

Indeed if ever there were a case for collective restraint it is in response to terrorism. The word refers to a technique, usually a bomb, not an ideology. A bombing is an anarchic gesture calling for police and medical services. It becomes a political weapon only if publicised and answered with hysteria. A killing is so staged as to cause over-reaction, violent response, mass arrests and a decay of civilised values. Bin Laden’s intention in 2001 was to portray the West as scared, emotionally vulnerable, over-reactive, decadent and careless of liberal values. The West has done its damnedest to prove him right.

I'm reminded of FDR's famous assertion, “that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” When and if Al-Qaeda convince the majority in the West that almost any measure is justified in the cause of combating terrorism, they will have won the war without really engaging in a battle. Bush and Blair are doing their work for them.

There never was a “terrorist threat” to western civilisation or democracy, only to western lives and property. The threat becomes systemic only when democracy loses its confidence and when its leaders are weak, as now. Terror attacks are for the police. For George Bush and Blair to demand a “long war” against Bin Laden and, by implication, a long suppression of civil liberty is ludicrous. Western civilisation is not some simpering weakling that cowers before a fanatic ’s might, pleading for leaders to protect it by all means, however illegal. It has been proof against Islamic expansionism since the 17th century. It is not at risk.

If Simon is right – and I suspect he is - the real danger to be confronted is far closer to home. If we allow the Bush/Blair axis to set the agenda and erode civil liberties in the name of protecting us from Al-Qaeda, we will be guilty of not only foolishness but criminal negligence.

Let Simon have the last word, “Bin Laden is not going to win and never was. But Bush and Blair are giving him an astonishing run for his money.”

Read the whole of Simon's article at


Sunday, February 19, 2006


Guantanamo Bay is in the news – and not for any good reason. Most of the world is so used to hearing the name Guantanamo that they don't ever stop to wonder how the United States happens to have a military base on the island of Cuba; the Cuba that is still controlled by the communists led by Fidel Castro. That old cigar-chomper Fidel is not known for his good will towards Uncle Sam.

The United States Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – to give it its full title is an anachronistic remnant of the drive by the U.S. to obtain colonies and become a world power before WWI. It was probably inevitable that as the Spanish colonial empire in the new world came to an end, the U.S. would attempt to influence the outcome of any attempt by Cuban nationalists to hasten the departure of the Spanish. Egged on by some of the most unscrupulous newspaper tycoons in history, William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal, and Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World, President McKinley shamelessly had Congress declare war on Spain. Hearst had sent his artist and reporter, Frederic Remington, to Havana with instructions to report on and draw atrocities committed by the evil Spanish. Receiving his report that there was no war and no atrocities, Hurst famously replied, “You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war.” After some fine, new American warships had butchered the Spanish Pacific fleet at Manila, and a crushing victory at Santiago Bay in the Caribbean, it only remained for Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders to fashion a charge up San Juan hill to settle the war on land. At Guantanamo, The first Marines to be killed were Privates William Dumphy and James McColgan of D Company. Thus the history of the U.S. Involvement at Guantanamo Bay began.

Having embarrassed Spain and shamelessly stolen the island of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Phillipines and a few other bits of real estate, the U.S. Government reached an agreement with a puppet Cuban government to lease Guantanamo for a peppercorn rent and has never seen fit to abandon it.

A 1934 treaty reaffirming the lease granted Cuba and her trading partners free access through the bay, modified the lease payment from $2,000 in gold coins per year, to the 1934 equivalent value of $4,085 U.S. Treasury dollars, and added a requirement that termination of the lease requires the consent of both the U.S. and Cuba governments, or the abandonment of the base property by the U.S. Since the 1950's the Cubans have refused to cash the cheques that Uncle Sam regularly sends.

  • It is interesting, perhaps to contrast this with the British hand-over of Hong Kong to the Chinese. Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain in 1842 under the Treaty of Nanking, at which point in time the island itself became a Crown Colony. Later Britain leased the New Territories from China for 99 years. So, Britain was under no obligation to return Hong Kong Island to China at all. Not that it really mattered – Britain had long since lost its appetite for colonies. The U.S. has suffered no such loss of appetite and it seems unlikely in the extreme that it will ever be returned. The result is a strange limbo where Guantanamo is neither a colony nor U.S. territory. It is simply a part of a foreign county (Cuba) that is leased to the American government. This, as it happens, suits the United States very well; for clearly such protection as the Constitution affords individuals is not applicable in a foreign country.

This has not stopped some very senior figures calling for the detention facility to be closed. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, endorsed a report calling for closure last night and called on the US to close the detention centre “as soon as possible”. But the White House remained defiant. “These are dangerous terrorists that we’re talking about,” Scott McClellan, President Bush’s spokesman, insisted. He said that “nothing’s changed” in the US view that the facility is a legitimate and necessary tool to combat terrorism, and called the report a “rehash” of old allegations. And, because Guantanamo is not US territory Bush can get away with this. The message is clear – we are going to do anything and everything we want to prevent another attack on the US. Most Americans probably agree with him.

From The Times

US churches denounce Iraq war

A coalition of American churches sharply denounced the United States-led war in Iraq, accusing Washington of "raining down terror". The churches apologised to other nations for "the violence, degradation and poverty our nation has sown". The statement, issued at the largest gathering of Christian churches in nearly a decade, also warned that the US was pushing the world toward environmental catastrophe with a "culture of consumption" and its refusal to back international accords seeking to battle global warming.

The US is in danger of alienating the support of the international community for no good reason. If there are any terrorists at Guantanamo then they should be brought to justice. If there are detainees who have intelligence value then anything of use should have already been discovered. Not much is to be gained now in exposing the US to continued criticism from the UN, friendly governments and international public opinion.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou?

Down here – the ladder broke!

Apparently some teachers are concerned about pupils acting out love scenes in school productions – including Romeo and Juliet. A peck on the cheek is as far as pupils should go according to guidelines reported in the TES. The guidelines advise teachers to avoid kissing and other close physical contact in drama productions. The guidelines insist that there is no room for nudity or close physical contact in school productions.

Margaret Higgins of the National Association for the Teaching of Drama told the TES, “You can't just cut out scenes like the kiss in Romeo and Juliet. It is a crucial moment. If this isn't fit subject matter for children, perhaps they should put on Eastenders after the watershed.” Guidelines counsel teachers not to insist that any child or young person kiss another.

A review of drama teaching followed an inquiry into allegations of child abuse at a secondary school in South Wales. A drama teacher was found to have used drama as a vehicle for “improper activity” with children. Headline of this article: Romeo – “unable to kiss and die” still.

Now, when I first read this article it seemed that the busybodies and the bureaucrats had gone mad and taken over the running of the loony bin. That's pretty much the tone of the headline and Ms Higgins railings against the idiots in the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority - the really big cheeses in the educational hierarchy). It is only at the end of the article that the sinister spectre of drama teachers abusing children whilst pleading “artistic license” becomes apparent.

So, is Margaret right? Can you cut the kiss? Actually, yes, quite easily. If we look at the actual play it says, “He kisses her” twice in the stage directions in Act One, Scene 5. Here Romeo is clearly overcome with his physical attraction to Juliet. Hopefully teachers will have already pointed out that he was, in Scene 2, so madly in love with someone else that he was almost dying! Not a very constant boyfriend – is he?

If they are really on the ball, hopefully the teachers will point out that this is only the stage direction - which Shakespeare never wrote. Or, if he did – they have long been lost. I used to have lots of fun demanding that children go home, search their attic and other nooks and crannies and bring to me any Shakespeare play (written in his own hand and signed) without passing Go – I promised to give them the $200! Fact is there are no known examples of his plays written in his own hand, so we are unlikely to ever really know exactly what Bill meant to happen in this scene. That is the beauty of it in many ways. Because we don't know, we are free to interpret as we see fit. Contrast that with, say, George Bernard Shaw – whose stage directions and commentaries often are longer then the actual play.

Bottom line. If there is any possibility that drama teachers might abuse children under the guise of explaining Shakespeare, I'd be inclined to forget the kiss and concentrate on the rest of he play. Teachers could, and should, point out that the ideal of propriety in a drama production has changed significantly since the 1600's. Shakespeare's plays are littered with crude language and action (Porter's scene in Macbeth – opening scenes of Othello, to name just a few) and this should be explained to children deemed old enough to study the play in question. Point is – you can explain without demonstrating. Not much will be lost in the study of Romeo and Juliet – or in performance - if children leave out the kissing altogether. It's probably best not to take chances.

Friday, February 17, 2006

It's a Gas, Man

Visiting the old home in America this summer for the first time in many years, I was struck by the fixation of the populace on the price of gas (petrol). What they thought was an extortionate price and some kind of sinister plot to deprive them of their cheap gas was to us poor folks from England a land of milk and honey and cheap petrol. No matter how many time you explained to people what Europeans pay for gas – they just looked at you with glazed eyes and a silly grin and continued the litany that the price is too high for Americans.

I snipped out of the local paper an editorial by a former state legislator wherein he used the (somewhat spurious I thought) premise that he was recalling a conversation with a reader on the subject of the price of gas. Clever. I thought he was just being a chicken. This “reader” started with the premise that there is 200 years of oil in Alaska, but it is not in the interest of “big business” to tap into it because they can make more money by selling less at a high price. (No, Mabel, I'm not making this up!)

He went on to explain that in the 1970's U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, went to the Middle East and told them that oil was too cheap and they must raise their prices. He continued: in 98 the price of crude was so low that the oil companies capped proven wells and set about convincing us that we are running out of oil. Nonsense he says. Our intrepid apprentice oil mogul goes on to explain that he has a friend in Arlington, Texas who has been told by a geologist that his local creek - which has oil seeping to the top - will never run out! Of oil that is – about the water I'm not too sure! (Honest, I'm really not making this up!)

His peroration – we need a price support of 20 dollars a barrel to encourage oil companies to explore more drilling options and uncap existing wells.

Now I know this sounds amusing with the price of a barrel of oil hovering around 60 dollars, but it does go a long way to illustrate some important facts. Number one: many Americans believe something like the above scenario is probably true. Number two: most Americans have no intention of moderating or changing their lifestyle to suit an age where oil is no longer cheap. Number three: I'm beginning to believe that that old oil man”Dubbya” may just have started a war in Iraq to get his hands on the oil.

More about Number one. It would be easy just to assume that the average American is just too stupid to see that this is a con. Not so. Most Americans are suspicious of the government and big business. This in itself is no bad thing, but it does make them very susceptible to unscrupulous snake-oil pedallers. After all, it's more comforting and palatable to imagine that your problems are caused by some unseen, insidious conspiracy than to actually deal with the problem. Unfortunately, most Americans are in denial and easy prey for the con-artists.

On to Number two. Notwithstanding the American penchant for gas-guzzling large cars, what really struck me was the size and layout of the new homes that were being built. Most American homes are a larger to start with. This simply reflects the relatively low price of land and building material. However, some of the new homes I saw were simply gargantuan. I mean obscenely gargantuan. Some of the new “family” homes I saw would have rivalled Dallas' Southfork Ranch. And, these were for ostensibly normal families. What it would cost to heat and air-condition these homes beggars the imagination. Were the owners of these “palaces” be forced to pay UK prices for energy I'd be sending Care packages to friends and family.

Number three. I know this is playing into the conspiratorial trap of thinking everything is a conspiracy. But, it is just possible that Bush and his advisers saw the removal of Sadly Insane as an all round good thing in itself – and in the mean time there's all that oil to consider. As much as I detest those morons who think that the whole world is a big conspiracy, I'm beginning to wonder if the truth will, or would, ever come out if Bush really started a war to get the oil. I'm beginning to think it is just possible. Sad, really.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

No Fire Without Smoke

From the EDP 15 February

MPs last night voted overwhelmingly for a blanket ban on smoking in all pubs and private clubs.

In a decision with far-reaching implications for Britain's social and drinking habits, proposed amendments to exempt pubs not serving food and private members clubs were thrown out as MPs approved legislation that will herald a massive change for pubs and clubs.

MP's have finally got around to voting a ban on smoking down your local boozer. Not a difficult call really. Only about 20% of the population smokes nowadays – and most of them would like to quit. Perhaps not being allowed to light up in their local pub may encourage them to quit. Or, will it?

The news was trotted out to a couple of die-hard smokers who were adamant that they did not want to quit and did not want to stand outside the pub either. Both were in their 70's and, apparently, fit as a fiddle. One old boy of course had been smoking since he was 10 - and “it never did me any harm”. A more responsible press might have left these two to their own devices. They are atypical in the extreme. Everybody knows smoking is dangerous and will probably kill you and has known this for 30 years.

It's easy to be condescending to smokers – if you have given up after 35 years of smoking. Like me. When I started smoking in the 60's no-one knew about the health risks. Or, if they did, nobody paid any attention. So, we smoked. We were young and seemingly invulnerable, and so the health risks, when they became apparent in the 70's and 80's, were ignored. You get so busy and so addicted you just carry on. By the time you consider the consequences, it's too late. So, you carry on smoking. Eventually, when the risks are so immediate and apparent that they can no longer be contended with or ignored it's far too late. Pressures of work, family, and just living leave you psychologically unable or unwilling to contemplate getting through the day without tobacco. So, you carry on smoking. People in this position are unlikely to be swayed by the risks – they already know them. When Parliament decrees that you have to stand outside the pub to smoke – you stand outside the pub. The Irish have been doing it for some time now. (In typical Irish fashion they ignore this while adopting their usual “holier than thou” attitude – no-one does this quite so charmingly as the Irish).

Over the years, as tobacco became more and more expensive and the health risks became more and more apparent, the case for quitting became more and more pressing. So, in April 2005 when Mrs K suddenly announced that she was quitting – not on health grounds of course, even the cheap rolling tobacco I drove to Belgium to get for her had become too expensive for her tastes – I immediately quipped, “Ok, I'll quit too.” She laughed and scoffed. Her comment, “You'll never do it.” Good to have the support of your family! The day was fixed in early April and we trooped off to the Doctor's for our appointment with the no-smoking counsellor. It took a few days to get the no-smoking aids on prescription (nicotine patches, gum and inhalator) sorted out. During this time Mrs K decided to bring forward the actual day we were going to quit. Fine. The day arrived. I got up, put on my no-smoking patch and had a cup of tea – without a cigarette for the first time in over 30 years. I fixed up my inhalator and had a suck on that. So far so good. I made it all through the day until about 7 that Thursday night. Mrs K was going to her art class so, after I dropped her off, I stopped at the local shop and bought ten cigarettes. I smoked one. I put the other nine in the glove box. I realised that if you smoke just one – you will want to smoke another. I was determined! That weekend I took my step son into Norwich. I took the nine cigarettes out of the glove box and gave them to him. I told him to give them to any old dosser he might see on the street. He did. He has never smoked.

That Thursday evening's was the last one I ever had.

The first week or two is tough – very tough. I was determined not to become a hermit and hide at home until I could face the world without a fag, so I carried on with my usual activities. A week after I quit I had to go to a meeting in a pub in Dereham. I had a pint – but no cigarette. It was not easy. (I hate those few people who can seemingly quit without any problems at all – or are they just very good liars!)

Uncharacteristically (for me), I got lost after the meeting and couldn't find my car! Perhaps it was the withdrawal symptoms! I really needed a cigarette. I think if I had had one I would have smoked it. Fortunately, I found the car before I found shop open. That was the worst time!

I'm concious that I'm an ex-smoker, not a non-smoker. You can still be tempted by the smell of tobacco occasionally. We have a smoker in the house, but it's only annoying to me – not tempting. It's Mrs K that is the problem. She cannot give up the lozenges. She sneaks a puff on an old discarded butt that she finds laying in a dirty ashtray! This I do not understand! Mind you, I'm just as bad I suppose. I forever have the inhalator in my mouth. There's no nicotine cartridge in it – but I can't seem to let it go.

If I can quit - anyone can. This is the message the government should be plugging. Stopping people from smoking in pubs may encourage a few to quit - but I suspect not many.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Foxy Locksie Loses Again

Oscar Wilde: Foxhunting... the unspeakable pursuing the inedible.

Dozens of illegal foxhunts are taking place each week in defiance of the government’s ban on hunting with dogs, hunt supporters have admitted.

On the eve of the first anniversary of the Hunting Act, The Sunday Times was last week allowed to accompany a hunt that used a full pack of 18 dogs to chase down four foxes, which were then killed. - Times 13 February.

A year later the reality in the countryside is not what was predicted. Those who said they would carry on as before looked guilty of bravado but they have been as good as their word. Every week, up and down the country, dozens of illegal hunts are taking place; foxes are being hunted with hounds and killed by them. Those who perpetrate this “crime” appear to do so with impunity. Not a single police prosecution has been brought under the Hunting Act and only one other prosecution, by the League Against Cruel Sports, is before the courts. Hunts make little effort to conceal their activities despite breaking the law, and the police have little or no stomach to pursue people who are generally regarded as law-abiding. - Times (editorial 13 February)

Prime time TV on Sunday night was devoted to the ballyhoo surrounding the first year of the ban on fox hunting in England. What an interesting program. Apparently, the fox-hunting fraternity – having only lately realised that no-one, especially the police, has the slightest interest in actually enforcing the law against fox hunting has simply carried on more or less as normal. Lots of foxes have been and continue to be killed. The anti-hunt supporters are more or less powerless to stop hunting.

Personally, I have no interest in hunting foxes. I also, have no interest in fishing, ice-dancing or origami – but I don't think my prejudices should be a good excuse for banning these activities. Despite all the efforts to portray it as a county pursuit beloved be all members of the countryside community, it still appears to Joe Public to be an exclusive activity designed to continue the socially divisive divide between toffs and plebs. Is this a reason to ban it? According to Labour MP's, it is. They should know, Parliament devoted over 700 hours in debating the ins and outs of the question. Never mind that the Iraq crisis was degrading down and down towards its inevitable, costly and useless waste of human life – the elected representatives thought that the spectacle of foxes being chased and killed by dogs was more obscene. Shame on them.

Having voted to ban hunting with dogs – well, actually they didn't ban hunting with dogs – they just made it more problematical and difficult to police. Trail hunting (following a man-laid scent), exercising hounds, rabbit and rat hunting and using no more than two dogs to flush out a fox from cover to be shot are not banned. Neither is riding horses through fields whilst the dogs do any of the above. Result: fox hunting has not really been banned at all. Nor is it likely to be banned in practice for a long time. Why? Imagine the hounds, accompanied by the fox hunters, following a man-laid trail and running into a real fox. Of course, the hunters will decry this accident – but it is inevitable and unavoidable. Couldn't those idiots in Parliament see this when they framed the law? Of course they did.

What the Labour MP's were actually interested in was mollifying their supporters without really dealing with the real problem – you can no more ban fox hunting than you can prostitution. Well, that's not actually true. You could ban fox hunting and prostitution. All you have to do is shoot the horses that fox hunters ride and the chaps who ride the prostitutes – or the prostitutes themselves and the chaps.

In any event this was not likely to happen; therefore, the con is complete. The public think fox hunting is banned. The hunters continue much as before. Parliament (not for the first time) is made to look foolish. And, apparently no-one, including the Ban Foxhunting Brigade, are much interested. The League Against Cruel Sports has launched one prosecution – still before the courts. It is bad law and has no chance of working. That suits some politicians. Silly!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Wolves in Sheepie Fleeces

Strange that politicians' policies never quite turn out the way you expect. No two could prove the point quite so well as Tony “Big Tone” Blair and his old buddy George “Dubbya” Bush.

Blair was ambushed into supporting the war in Iraq. There isn't any other way to describe what happened. Perhaps in two or three hundred years we may learn just how this strange state of affairs came about. Certainly if you had suggested only a few years ago that the British Prime Minister would risk alienating his party and, indeed, the whole country by supporting a ill-thought out and extremely contentious overseas expedition by a Republican American President people would have, quite rightly, concluded that you had lost your marbles. But, it happened.

Likewise, ol Dubba has presided over a vast expansion in the American debt. Andrew Mellon must be whirling dervish-like in his grave. The national debt has sky-rocketed under the care of Dubbya. This is not normal Republican policy. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Dubbya's economic policy is simply to do whatever he fells like at the time.

In his strategy for dealing with the threat to America post 9/11, Dubbya shows again how Republican Presidents are temperamentally unsuited to waging war. Look at your history book if you're unconvinced. Civil War – Abe Lincoln. Now, in America it is almost impossible to find fault with “Honest Abe”. He saved the Nation. He saved he Union. He wrote what is probably the most succinct and stirring prose in the English language – next to Henry V's speech before Agincourt – the Gettysburgh Address. He also presided over the greatest loss of American lives in war ever – by a long way.

Other Republican Presidents in war time: Nixon (need I say more); William McKinley (Spanish-American War, as naked a piece of aggression it would be hard to find); War on Terror (Dubbya) – James Madison (War of 1812).

Evidence has it that Republicans are not really suited to the kind of discipline required to pursue a successful war policy. The painful experience of having to borrow vast sums of money to finance the same just sits too hard on their big-business supporting shoulders. They are more comfortable shafting the people and presiding over depressions (Herbert Hoover).

Blair, on the other hand, is simply inexplicable. How he could even begin to see any advantage in supporting Dubbya in his Iraqi invasion beggars the imagination. You would, quite rightly, expect him to organise the opposition – not lead the cheering. Unless there are unseen (and unreported) underhand deals to provide the UK with some substantial rewards for trooping off to Basra, Big Tone's abandonment of traditional Labour policy and manic support for a failed and flawed policy cannot be understood. As he winds down towards retirement to the lucrative lecture circuit, Tone is the only one who can possibly explain his strange conversion to conservative policies. It would be interesting if he decided to do so – don't hold your breath. People in the know should have seen this coming. Tone has been stealing conservative policies for years. He understands well that the British public are essentially conservative – but love to vote Labour to assuage their consciences. He has cunningly provided them with the opportunity.

Cartoonists should portray him as a slavering wolf dressed in a very fine fleece top.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Robbins, North Carolina

Robbins is a small town out in the “boonies” of North Carolina. I mean way out. At least it was the last time I was there – in 1968. Perhaps it has grown and prospered in the intervening 38 years but somehow I doubt it. The population in 2004 was 1,214. Interestingly, 97% of the population is either white or Hispanic and only2.3% black. As I recall, there are a lot of black people in North Carolina – obviously they avoid Robbins. Wonder why? 32% of the population was born in Latin America. Wonder what the attraction is? It was a very sleepy place.

In 1968, I was spending a few joyful months at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Why? No-one was quite sure. The Army was large due in no small part to a very unpleasant conflict in South-East Asia. You may have read about it in history books – or seen it in films, like Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July or Platoon. The Army was large because of conscription and, not surprisingly, not entirely organised very well. With so many troops some were bound to get lost. I was lost for about 5 months at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, approximately 50 miles from Robbins.

There was not much to do at Ft. Bragg except wonder when and if you were ever going to get out. Perhaps the Army had really forgotten about you. It's possible. In September, some excitement. The Special Forces were having an exercise and they needed some “volunteers” to participate. Sounded uninteresting and possibly dangerous – but at least you would get to do something, so we volunteered. Here's the deal: we go out into the boondocks of North Carolina and pretend to be “guerillas”. The Green Beanies parachute in and “organise” us into a real fighting unit of “guerillas”. We wander around rural North Carolina ambushing convoys, blowing up bridges and assassinating bad guys. All “pretend” - don't worry. So, we jumped on a deuce and a half and wandered off with Sgt. Gambol in charge.

Sgt. Gambol was the most aptly named soldier in the United States Army. He loved to play Hearts (a card game) – for money. Not much money, but it passed the time. We arrived early so as to have plenty of time to familiarise ourselves with the local area. Yeah, right. We slept late, ate heartily and played Hearts with Sgt. Gambol. That's about all we did for the first four days.

Somehow on the Saturday afternoon Sgt. Gambol (he was a good 'ol boy – even if he was black) persuaded the powers that be it would be good for morale for us to pay a visit to the nearest local town. As part of the exercise, we had not shaved or had a bath for nearly a week. We were wearing civilian clothes with a field jacket over the top and packing M14's and bayonets. Nevertheless, we were deposited on Main Street, Robbins, North Carolina with a whole afternoon and evening to amuse ourselves. I'm not sure the locals were all that pleased to see us. Certainly they were not keen to stand downwind and smell us. A few of us went to the movies. There wasn't anything else in Robbins that might pass for entertainment.

A miracle! We got lucky. Very lucky. In the early evening, we got invited to a party. Yep, a real party - with booze and women. Somebody was definitely living right. It was at someone's house not too far out of town. Nice house, dirt road, lots of people our age or a bit younger, nice parents. This is about as lucky as you can get in rural North Carolina on a Saturday night. We were supremely happy - despite the fact we smelled so bad it was unlikely (unless North Carolina girls spend so much time slopping hogs that their sense of smell is profoundly damaged) that we would get close to the girls. No matter. It was a beautiful Saturday night. Balmy breezes sighed through the trees seeming to whisper our protestations of eternal friendship, and gratitude to our hosts. After all, these folks had invited a bunch of smelly, unshaven, starving rag-a-muffins masquerading as United States soldiers into their home and shared their booze and women. That's more than hospitality in my book.

It was too perfect and, of course, could not last. Some kid arrived breathless and whispers went around the gathering - there had been a car wreck down the road a piece. What car, whose car, anybody hurt? More whispers – a modicum of concern gravitated from the knot of family members towards the periphery where we stood, quietly now. I heard a sob. It was very quiet. We were stuck there – there was no way to leave. Three kids had been killed a few miles down the road. One was the family's only son.

It's probably selfish to write about my pain. I can still see his Mom and Dad to this day. We just left and walked back to Robbins, North Carolina.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Show me the way to Amarillo

Norfolk is one of only four non-metropolitan counties in England which does not have a motorway.- Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia

It is a commonly held belief, particularly by the French, that the “Roast Beefs” are a bit backwards – particularly when it comes to transport. With the French GTV trains that go a million miles an hour and their extensive, though expensive, motorway network, they can afford to be very smug.

Things actually aren't that bad now-a-days. After all, when I first came to England there was the M1. Yep, that was it. Arriving by boat in Newcastle, I was faced with a tedious jog south on the M1 to reach Mill Hill at the southerly terminus – just north of London proper. In my ignorance, I thought, “Only about 12 miles to go – probably be there in an hour – at most.” What an ingĂ©nue I was - except for the obvious sex difference. Five hours later I arrived. Folks down the Old Kent Road left their cars in the traffic and went and did a little shopping. Honest. I saw it.

Now-a-days we have the magic of the world's largest car park – otherwise know as the M25 – to make the journey completely around the capital the relatively simple matter of a few hours at most – all 117 miles.

When the motorway network was planned and built it followed a simple plan. Take the routes of the old “A” roads and build the motorways along roughly the same line. Fairly sensible. Therefore, the M4 goes from London to South Wales, roughly along the line of the old A4. Likewise, the M2 goes from London to Dover on the line of the A2; M20 follows the A20 to Dover as well. The idea is clear and sensible.

But, when the M11 was planned and built something odd happened. The A11 goes from London to Norwich. The M11 goes from London to Cambridge?

What happened? Did the planners forget to consult the map? Did they think the in-bred clodhoppers in Norfolk wouldn't notice?

No, I suspect they actually made a conscious decision to stiff the dozy pig-stickers in the hope that they wouldn't notice. They almost got it right – as far as I can tell – I'm the only one that twigged. Doesn't say much for our elected representatives, does it? As a result, we've been suffering for 20 years as one of the four counties without adequate road links. Not for lack of trying, of course. Our local representatives and the local media are forever banging on about it – to no avail – simply because they fail to see the real problem.

Various road improvement schemes have been put forward that would help to alleviate the situation. Improvements have been made – to the extent that the A11 is now dualled (in effect a motorway) from Norwich to London – except for the 10 miles between Thetford and Mildenhall. Herein lies some of the most nonsensical stupidity yet seen in the western world.

What happens is this: schemes are put forward (over the years) to dual this or that part of the A11. Take, for example the Thetford bypass. When first approved and constructed the powers that be would only provide a single-carriageway bypass for part of the notorious bottleneck that was Thetford – on the basis (wait for it) that there would not be sufficient traffic to justify a dual carriageway! Can you smell that stuff you shovellin?

Of course, they couldn't possibly get away with this, so a few years later they had to go back and dual the whole thing. What was the extra cost? Astronomical! How much could have been saved if they had done it all all once? All the equipment is there. Material has already been ordered. The planning process has been substantially completed. Result. Millions are wasted.

And so on, seemingly ad infinitum, so the road builders all turn up, eventually, at say the stretch between Attleborough and Thetford and begin the arduous task of actually building the road. What a task! The land is flat. There are no rivers to cross. Actually, there are no natural obstacles at all. Result – they take 3 years to build about 5 miles of road. Unbelievable! Then, with only one section to be completed, they cheerfully load up all the equipment, take it away and disappear. For 5 years they wait whilst the whole planning process starts all over again – then, maybe then, they will all turn up and start over again. This last bit however may be different. They may have a generation off; because, after all, when (and if) this last section is done there will be nothing left to build and the gravy train being run by the government for the benefit of the road construction industry may be temporarily derailed.

Incidentally, Amarillo is served by Interstate 40 and Interstate 27.