Saturday, October 31, 2009

Steamie post - the secret truth behind the private Lib Dem Conference

My latest Steamie post, on the goings on in Dunfermline today (which I'm not at), is here.

Happy Hallowe'en

Ok, yes, I know, it's a vile piece of brash American commercialism, but producing all the tat and growing all the pumpkins and stuff keeps people in jobs - no bad thing in this climate. It is indeed a day full of horrors, as Lewis Hamilton being on pole position in Abu Dhabi shows. The Red Bulls being ahead of Rubens Barrichello isn't good either so the chances of me being in a huff tomorrow afternoon about this time are quite high - I want Ferrari to get back their 3rd place in the Constructor's Championship and Rubens Barrichello to come 2nd in the Drivers' race. Neither option seems very likely at the moment.

Anyhow, I digress. Back to Hallowe'en. If you have a child, you are kind of sucked into it all and you might as well go along with it willingly.

I have to say I'm a bit of a purist. I don't like the idea of Trick or Treat. In my day, you went guising, you had to sing a song or tell a joke before you got your sweets or nuts and you certainly didn't complain if someone gave you an apple as happens today.

Last might was my first venture out after dark in months as I'm usually too exhausted to do anything in the evenings. Anna went to a friend's house for the afternoon, though, so I had a rest before heading out to the Fright Night at the local farm park.

We took two of Anna's friends with us. I suspect that when they were a couple of years younger, more things would have actually scared them. Instead they were high fiving the "ghosts" in the trees on the trailer ride round the "Fields of Doom". There was one point where the picnic barn had been transformed into a haunted house - duly notified outside "We are sorry that this picnic barn is currently haunted. Please look elsewhere for a space to eat your packed lunch". There was one exceptionally dark part that the girls wouldn't go in to. My husband had gone off somewhere and one of them said that we'd have to wait for him to get back. This set me into a fit of feminism so I announced to them that we did not need a man because it was scary. We would do it ourselves. So, we all held hands and went through the pitch dark scary house. I will admit to hating every second of it, but that's not the point.

The staff at Almond Valley Heritage Centre had put on a great event, with apple dooking, eating doughnuts from strings (oh dear - a recipe for spreading germs, but so what?), fabulous costumes, scary werewolves, a pumpkin lantern trail and a ghost train (which we didn't get to go on because it was sold out by the time we arrived). We've had a membership there for virtually all the time since Anna was a baby and we go there a lot. At the moment, they have the cutest, tiniest baby bunnies (don't tell our Benjamin and Patches I said that) I've ever seen, too.

I was so shattered by the time we got home and I've felt really rough today, but I'm glad we went. All the girls had fun.

Now we have to get our little devil dressed up to go guising. Whatever you're doing tonight, have fun.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Caron gets Steamie

Ok, so that's a bit of gratuitous headline grabbing. Alternatively, for those of you who actually know me on real life, it's put you off your dinner. There is more than a grain of truth in it, though, unlike my previous attempt at getting your attention, when I intimated that Charlotte Gore was a witch.

Anyway, the reason for this attention seeking is to tell you about a new(ish) collaboration between proper journalists and humble bloggers north of the border. The Scotsman newspaper runs a political blog, called The Steamie, and has added a blogger from each party as a guest contributor. So I, Jeff at SNP Tactical Voting, Kezia on her Labour soapbox (which has moved this week so click this link if you haven't updated your blogroll to get the new address), Scottish Tory Boy and James for the Greens will all be indulging in robust political debate and banter in the run up to the General Election.

A steamie is a Scottish phenomenon, as the Steamie's homepage puts it:

The 'steamie' was the name given to the communal wash-house that was common in urban Scotland in the 1950s. The phrase has survived into contemporary Scottish speech - when something is "the talk of the steamie" it's the talk of the town, the word on the street.

The raison d'etre of the blog is, apparently, to be the place where Scottish politics "washes its dirty linen". It has a mix of serious posts and titbits of gossip from Scottish politics.

I wrote this post earlier in the month about Labour and Tory spending plans and today I've done this one called "It's the Economy, Stupid". It certainly seems appropriate as my friend has lent me the War Room DVD of the Clinton election campaign which I'll watch once this weekends orgy of reality tv, F1 and Hallowe'en is out of the way.

What I'd like to know from you, dear readers is whether you want me to cross post the Steamie posts in full here or whether a link when I've done one will suffice.

It's an interesting project and I'm looking forward to contributing more regularly.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

F1 gears up for season finale in Abu Dhabi

The F1 world is gathering on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi for the final race of the season at the brand spanking new Yas Marina Circuit. At this point, I get a bit squeamish and start wringing my hands a bit because I'm not terribly keen on the idea of building huge, opulent, unsustainable facilities like this in a part of the world where water is so scarce. To add insult to injury, there even having the race at dusk so there will be lots of unnecessary lighting, too.

It's been amusing seeing the tweets from all the media folk and teams and tyre people who are out there. To say that they sound like children who have been given the key to Santa's grotto would be markedly understating the case. The pictures are incredible. My favourite is this from the Official Brawn Twitter account. Some terrace to have!

The place has a marina (you can watch the race from your yacht, apparently), a massive Ferrari World theme park with the fastest rollercoaster in the World, a shopping mall and a luxurious hotel which sits on top of the track.

For the drivers, there are numerous challenges. They are all going to have to learn this circuit in just 4 hours of practice sessions on Friday and Saturday. It'll be interesting to see them all tackling a new circuit together. At least we can expect that the weather will not give us the deluges of recent sessions in Brazil and Japan.

The Drivers' and Constructors' Championship have been decided but I will still need the Official Hiding Behind Pillow for the race. Second place in the Drivers' Championship has yet to be decided and my favourite driver, Rubens Barrichello, slipped down to third after Lewis Hamilton's car punctured his rear tyre in Brazil. He's just two points behind Sebastian Vettel so can easily regain that second place. Let's hope that the precedent set the last time F1 hit the Middle East (Bahrain earlier this year), of a Brawn 1-2, is repeated. It would be a fitting end to the season.

On a bittersweet note, this may be the last chance we have to hear the fabulous commentary of Anthony Davidson on 5 Live. He's so good at explaining all the technical stuff and bringing the race to life. He really wants to be out there driving, though - and I do hope he gets his wish, even though we fans will really miss him.

Vote for your biggest Eco-Villain of the Decade

The Guardian is running a poll to find out who we think is the Eco-Villain of the Decade.

For me, the choice was easy - the person whose actions have caused real harm and distress to people I care about. I can't describe the sadness and anger I feel about all the issues surrounding his planned Aberdeenshire golf course.

Even reading that, the arrogant and horrible way his son talks about my friends, by implication, at least, and dismisses their concerns makes my blood boil. Time for a cup of tea, I think.

Lib Dems Stand Up for Scottish Banks and Business

You may remember that when the banks collapsed, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott campaigned against the merger, pointing out that it would cost jobs, be hugely expensive for the taxpayer and restrict consumers' choice in banking.

It was good to see Liberal Democrats vote against the Labour Government's plans to rush through the takeover regardless of the Competition Commission's concerns, when Alex Salmond, for all his bluster, didn't bother to turn up, as I said at the time.

I'm glad that Tavish is continuing to stand up for the Scottish banking industry and is continuing to call for the superbank to be broken up, bringing the Bank of Scotland home, in the interests of Scottish business.

In an e-mail today, he said that:

"I met the EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes in the summer. She made it plain to me, as a fellow Liberal, that she thinks that giant banks are bad for business for everybody else – especially when they are being financed by the taxpayer. That’s why I propose to move Bank of Scotland out of the giant Lloyds Group and have it back home in Scotland, lending to soundly-based Scottish businesses. That is the demand I hear from the companies I have been speaking to in high streets and business parks across Scotland."

Earlier in the week, Lib Dem shadow Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael warned of the consequences of the news that Barclays is to take over Edinburgh based Standard Life's banking operations:

“Scotland’s financial services have already been hit by the misguided creation of the Lloyds-HBOS superbank, supported by the Labour government. The takeover of Standard Life’s banking business by Barclays threatens to further damage competition.

“It could also mean further bad news for Scotland’s financial sector as yet more Edinburgh-headquartered business moves under London-based control.

“Labour and the SNP need to get their acts together – or Edinburgh risks losing its hard-won reputation as a leading European financial services centre, and the many jobs that depend on it.”

Stephen observed that business's love affair with the SNP is cooling as they cope with the reality of Alex Salmond's unsubtle, tackety booted and sometimes unhelpful approach to business.

Labour ought to be ashamed of themselves, both north and south of the border, for their failures - firstly to regulate the banks properly in the first place, and then in going to their first instinct - to centralise and control, rather than find a solution which served the interests of hard pressed individuals and businesses.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

F1: Jenson Button, Brawn and an overall question of ego

Before I get into full flow, let me just say that I have just about come down from Cloud Nine after the Brazilian Grand Prix which saw my favourite F1 team, Brawn GP grab the Constructors' Championship in style with Jenson Button winning the World Championship.

Considering that 8 months ago, this team did not exist, its achievements have been absolutely remarkable. The car they came up with went through the final stages of development while the designers didn't know if they'd have a job by the start of the season. During the first few races, they had to lose a third or their staff to make the business plan work. It was particularly good to see Ross Brawn, team owner and F1 legend, pay special tribute to these workers in the celebrations. You can tell that it was very painful to him to have to make them redundant.

Had Jenson Button not taken the car he was provided with and won six out of the first seven races, there's no way that either championship would have been won by the team. He thoroughly deserves all the praise and accolades we can throw at him for his achievements on the track.

That said, it would have been nice if he could have just enjoyed the adoration and basked in the glory of the media attention rather than conduct his negotiations for a new contract via the sports pages of the national press. Now, I'm sure that not all the reports have been stirring by Button's manager, but they are certainly behind some of them. How else would we know that he has to pay for his own overalls to be washed after races and the nasty Brawn accounts people refused to reimburse him. Well, I'm sorry, but nurses have to clean their own uniforms so I really don't have any problem whatever with someone who earns several million pounds a year doing so. Especially when that someone is a resident of Monaco where the rate of personal income tax is, um, zero.

Jenson deserves credit for offering his services cheap to the fledgling Brawn team this year, which was helpful given that they had no sponsors. Cheap, in F1 driving terms means a cool £3 million. Now, I know that it's not just a simple question of turning up for work for 17 weekends a year, but that is a fairly hefty pay packet by anyone's standards. If the newspaper reports are to be believed, he's holding out for £8 million.

My friends at Brits on Pole have usefully reminded us of Jenson's sometimes complex contractual history. Sometimes, it seems, he can be his own worst enemy.

Obviously there's going to have to be some negotiations, but I really don't think it's wise for Jenson to be pleading too much in the press, not at a time when many of his fans are going to be facing pay freezes, cuts or even unemployment because of the recession.

While the Brawn team's commercial future is now thought to be assured for the next three seasons, they are now a very small team compared to the likes of McLaren and Ferrari with their pretty much bottomless pockets. These teams, and Red Bull, had the ready cash to throw money at the development of this year's car during the season. While they're keen to pay Jenson as much as they can, they're not going to be able to match what the richer teams might offer him.

I think another thing for Jenson to bear in mind is that it wasn't just him - he was helped on his way to victory by the sweat, toil and tears of the 450 staff at Brackley. They will have mortgages and fuel bills and all sorts to pay and they need a decent pay rise to reward them for their effort. That's not just engineers and mechanics - there's also the people who don't often get the accolades, like the network people who have to provide race cover from the HQ in Brackley over race weekends, the catering people, marketing, PR and Admin, everyone who has kept this team going over the last year. Every extra million Jenson holds out for will be an extra million Brawn don't have for everyone else.

He also needs to think about the future development of the car - again, he doesn't want to squeeze those budgets too tight if he wants something half decent to drive.

Ultimately, if he really wants the big money, he probably will have to go off to one of the bigger, richer teams. Having said that, I can't imagine for one minute that either Lewis or Jenson would fancy being team mates at McLaren. It's not all about money, though. Pretty much everything in F1 that Ross Brawn has touched has turned to gold and he will ensure that the team comes up with the best possible car with the resources available.

So, it's time for all the posturing to stop - Jenson needs to decide whether he's going to stay at Brawn or not. Only he can do that, but I'd like to see him make his decision quickly and without any more fuss in the press.

Newspaper publishers threaten end of free internet linking

My attention was drawn to this by my friends at Brits on Pole on Twitter. I'm technically pretty stupid, but I think that what NewsNow are trying to say is that they provide a service to others by providing lists of links to newspaper's internet pages. Now, News International, publishers of the Times, Sunday Times News of the World and Sun are trying to stop them linking completely while other publishers of other papers like the Daily Fail, the Independent, the Mirror, the Telegraph and the Express are trying to impose either a charge or conditions on the links.

Newsnow's MD has also written an open letter to these publishers which explores the issues further.

This to me sounds like a pretty major threat to one of the fundamental freedoms of the internet, to link to other sites. If companies like NewsNow are stopped, then are bloggers, and even those who post links on Twitter next? I don't really understand why the newspapers want to exert such control. Maybe they take exception to bloggers having a laugh at their expense, fisking their articles in the way that Stephen and Mark recently did Jan Moir's hideously homophobic article about Stephen Gately and her subsequent apology for an apology.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but I would have thought having a link to the original in an article criticising it actually gives the reader a chance to judge whether the criticism is valid. It's actually quite a fair minded way of doing things because you get to see both sides of the argument. It's also not necessary to put that link in. My criticism of Jan Moir's article deliberately didn't include the link because I didn't want to give the Mail any more traffic. If the newspapers think that they can somehow quell criticism of themselves by controlling who links to them, they're very much mistaken. It's a move that makes them more like an old style Soviet bloc news agency than a vibrant free press.

The other week the blogosphere and Twitter created a fuss to defend the rights of the Guardian to report Parliamentary proceedings over the Trafigura affair so I am somewhat dismayed to see that they are part of this move.

Sometimes I'll use a link to a news story from a newspaper website to give a bit of background information to a posting without being in any way critical. Having the link in also drives traffic to the website in question. Why on earth are newspapers complaining about getting more traffic to their websites at a time when their industry is struggling?

At first glance, this seems to me like big companies trying to control the internet, to curb the freedom that is an integral part of its existence. It seems also to be completely counterproductive.

It strikes me that if newspaper publishers turned their energy to meeting their readers' and potential readers' needs in the internet age, rather than, Canute style, try to stem the progress and freedom that the web brings, their industry wouldn't be in the mess it's in.

More Sexist Tories

However much David Cameron's Tories try to pretend that they've dragged themselves out of the Dark Ages and are now nice, fluffy, liberal minded tolerant folk, every so often the proof comes that they are still the same old nasty, judgemental neanderthals that they always have been.

First we had the chair of Gosport Conservatives saying that he'd be fine with a woman candidate as long as she was pretty.

Now we have the SW Norfolk Conservative Association in high dudgeon because their new female candidate, Elizabeth Truss, didn't tell them that she'd had sex with someone who wasn't her husband a few years ago. So pissed off are they that they want to deselect her - even though they only selected her at the weekend. It's not exactly a secret, either. I typed her name into Google and I didn't have to look very far down the page to find the Daily Fail article about the matter from three years ago.

Words fail me. I am certain that if she had been a man, there's no way they would be taking such action. They certainly don't seem to have expressed any concern that the man she had the affair with is in fact a Tory MP and has had no repercussions on his career. I don't remember anyone calling for Boris Johnson to be deselected even though he also had a highly publicised extra marital affair. Nor can I imagine that anyone would have expected that he should have made a point of telling London Conservatives about it when he was selected as the Mayoral candidate.

To be clear, I don't think that people's personal lives are remotely relevant to their suitability to public office. This shouldn't be an issue for Elizabeth Truss or Mark Field or Boris Johnson. The problem I have with the Tories is their disproportionate and utterly sexist treatment of a female candidate.

I can think of a gazillion reasons why the people of South West Norfolk might not want to vote for Elizabeth Truss, the Conservative logo next to her name on the ballot paper being the most obvious. Daddy Alex has a few more from his knowledge of her.

There doesn't seem to be any sign of Tory Central Office intervening so we must assume that they think the conduct of their local branch is acceptable.

It's clear to me that the Tories can't be trusted to understand what equality means, in practice and that's as good a reason as any to give them a very wide berth. They might talk the talk, but their deeds don't pass muster. They say they don't believe in discrimination against women but then allow their apparatchiks to do exactly that. They say they believe in gay rights and then they shack up with a nasty bunch of homophobes in Europe. In the not so distant past, Tory MPs have voted against extensions of maternity leave, against civil partnerships, and against the equalisation of the age of consent to name but a few crucial issues.

Update: House of Twits has published this post with a fantastically appropriate photograph:-)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I am still alive, honest......

I thought I should let you know that I am still alive, although blogging has been a lot lighter than I thought it would be.

Healthwise, it’s been an interesting, in the Chinese proverb definition of “interesting” time. Recent tests have revealed that my body is doing some strange things, so these have to be investigated some more. In a way that’s a good thing because it will hopefully show up some answers, but there are elements of it which are also a bit scary.

Ironically, though, and fortunately, I have had some flashes of feeling if not exactly good, at least a good bit better. The latest change to medication seems to have pushed something in the right direction, anyway. The other day I had so much energy that I very stupidly thought it would be a good idea to clean out the rabbits’ hutch, given that my long suffering husband complains at great length about doing it every week.

Well, by the time I’d got to the end of it – and that’s a job that once you start, you really can’t stop – I was pretty much collapsed in a heap and it took me 3 days to recover from the exertion.

The good thing is that I haven’t caught anything else since I had a really heavy cold about a month ago – it took me ages to get through that. That’s been part of the problem – the last few months have been punctuated with me catching other things which seem to bring the whole Glandular Fever nightmare back again.

I’m conscious of not wanting to sound like I’m whinging too much given that others have much more serious and life threatening conditions, but it’s now nearly a year since I last actually felt well. It was the Saturday 9 days after the Glenrothes by-election, when I was sitting on the settee watching tv that I very suddenly started feeling very poorly. Although they didn’t diagnose the Glandular Fever until February, that was the start of it all.

It’s also been school holidays up here and while I’ve not been able to go to far afield, it’s been better than the Summer holidays when I could barely get off the sofa. It’s been fantastic to spend time with Anna and I can’t believe that they’re as good as over already. We’ve had a lot of fun and laughter these last few days.

My sister came down on Sunday with her four children and we went out yesterday to the local farm park. I don't think I'll ever be allowed to forget that one because I slipped on some mud and ended up on my backside. I'm only grateful that my lovely family were too busy laughing to record the moment for posterity. I'm very proud of Anna for being able to stop laughing for long enough to actually ask if I was ok. I was - the only thing seriously injured was my pride - not helped, of couse, by my sister asking on Twitter if anyone else had felt the earth tremor in Livingston at around 3pm.

Anna loves seeing her cousins and is particularly close to my nephew, who is 10 weeks older than her. If I write this, I’m slightly worried that it’ll tempt fate, but there has never been a cross word between them and they really enjoy each others’ company.

I'm particularly pleased that I'm up and functioning today - only a few weeks ago an exertion like yesterday would have put me in my bed for a couple of days. Still, I reckoned it was wise not to push my luck so I've stayed at home while the others have all gone off to the Glasgow Science Centre.

My husband's mobile phone was flat and there was no way he was getting to take my Blackberry (aren't I nice?) so he took his work mobile with him. He actually doesn't get this mobile phone thing at all. He hardly ever uses his and he has maybe sent two text messages in his entire life. The thing about his work mobile is that he's not allowed to make any calls on it, so the only way of communicating with him is to call him. Helps if he switches it on, then, isn't it? At one point I had my sister complaining that she'd lost him and two of the children. Like I could do anything about it when he had his phone switched off! And then, when she did eventually find him, did she phone me to tell me all was well? Of course not!

Anyway, apart from that, they seem to be having a fine time while I've been taking it easy.

I'm hoping, broadband connection permitting (I'll post separately about that particular nightmare in a minute), to get back to more regular blogging soon, but in the meantime, thanks to those of you who have e-mailed, or tweeted, or facebooked to ask if I'm ok.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Help Save the British Grand Prix - Rennard style

How would you feel if your favourite sporting event was suddenly removed from the calendar?

Each year we have certain set iconic sporting events that we're aware of even if we absolutely hate the sports involved. How would you feel if the World Tennis Association decided not to hold a Grand Slam at Wimbledon anymore, or if the FA decided not to bother with the FA Cup, or if the Grand National was cancelled, or if Test Matches no longer happened in England any more.

The guy who holds the commercial rights to Formula One, the infamous Bernie Ecclestone, decided to give a 17 year contract for the British Grand Prix to Donington Park, a yet to be suitably expanded circuit near East Midlands Airport. Unfortunately, and as predicted by many, Donington's chances of holding the race have now fallen through. Silverstone, where the race has been held for many years, a circuit loved by fans, teams and drivers alike, could easily host the race again. Unfortunately, Bernie is doing some of his normal macho willy waving instead of doing anything sensible about securing the race's future.

If Silverstone is to host a race next year (and hopefully beyond) they need to start making arrangments soon. In fact, ideally, they should have done so by now, but it's still feasible. Those nice people at Brits on Pole who occasionally let me write for them so long as I promise not to crash their server have come up with a list of 5 things that people who want to see a British Grand Prix could do to try to influence the process.

I quite like the practicality of their ideas - they don't buy the idea that the internet, just by disappearing up its own backside in a frenzy can change things without real practical action. It's a bit like the idea that all the Facebook groups, twitter accounts and blogs in the world won't help if you don't get out on the streets door knocking and leafletting in the run up to the General Election.

Here are their 5 steps in full, but do click through to see their reasoning behind what they're doing:

"Demonstrate to Bernie that this race can still be successful
We know there’s absolutely zero point trying to get our views heard by Formula One Management. But there might be some mileage in demonstrating that the event can be profitable, even though three months’ worth of ticket-selling time has already been wasted. If you’re on tenterhooks waiting for tickets to become available, and aiming to be at the front of the queue to buy yours, turn your anticipation into something concrete with this Pledgebank pledge. We’re aiming get people who are planning or hoping to attend the race to show their support for it in a tangible way, so please consider signing up.

Let Silverstone know that you want to buy a ticket
Whether you preferred Donington, Silverstone or even an outside bet like Brands Hatch, it really is time to accept that it’s probably the old Northamptonshire airfield or bust, at least for 2010. Now, we respect the circuit’s need to come to an arrangement with Formula One management that is in its long-term commercial interest. And we know that a lot of ticket-selling time has been lost. But equally, we think it’s worth proving the strength of demand for this event. So, if you want to buy a ticket, make that clear. Let Silverstone know that you’d like to attend the race here. Ask them to inform you immediately if tickets go on sale.

Lobby the Formula One Teams’ Association
One of the few organisations in F1 that has shown any awareness that fans even have views – although if we are honest it has tended to be because those views accorded with its needs at the time. Even so, McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh said recently: “A lot of changes that have occurred in Formula One over recent years haven’t really taken into account the wishes of fans and we haven’t brought those into the thought process. And hopefully in future we will see much more of that.” So we suggest letting FOTA know that you want the British Grand Prix to stay on the calendar. Find their contact details here.

Lobby your favourite team
Following on from FOTA, it is worth noting that the date of the Monaco Grand Prix has just been moved by a week – because that’s what the teams needed to happen. Help convince them to bring that power to bear on our behalf. You can find contact details for all the British-based teams here and many, such as Brawn GP, Red Bull and McLaren, also maintain a presence on Twitter, Facebook or other social media sites. Let them know that their fans want to see them race in Britain next July, and ask them to help make sure the event happens.

Contact your MP
It’s part of your MP’s job to represent your views to ministers. And they do take a great deal of notice of ‘background noise’ – what issues are currently of concern to their constituents. So we suggest using this website to let your MP know that the future of the British Grand Prix is important to you and to ask that he or she makes sure sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe is aware of that fact too. Keep it brief and polite. You might want to mention the importance of motorsport jobs to the British economy, the fact that the race is one of the country’s great sporting events, the development of important safety and eco-friendly technologies such as enhanced brake efficiency, run-flat tyres and KERS, or its potential to promote tourism and regional growth. Don’t fall prey to cynicism, this is undoubtedly worth doing – but we’ll say again, keep it brief and polite."

The more people who do this, the more likely we are to be able to influence the people who are making the decisions, so if you feel strongly about retaining one of the key dates in the British sporting calendar, please take a few minutes to complete these five steps - and if you can think of anything else useful, that's what the comments are for....

Sunday, October 18, 2009

F1: Countdown to Brawn boys' Brazil duel

It's a bit weird for it to be this time on a Formula One Sunday to not be watching the race - but today it's in Brazil and doesn't start until 6pm.

Rather than bite my nails in anticipation at the duel to come, I've written an article on the Brawn team for those nice Brits on Pole people who thankfully seem to have forgotten that the last time they let me write for them, their site crashed. Let's hope I don't jinx them this time.

My nerves are slightly in shreds after yesterday's dramatic and protracted qualifying session and are not helped by Jonathan Noble from Autosport telling Twitter that local weather forecasters expect another downpour about an hour into the race. Fabulous! There was a Sunday at the very beginning of the 2005 General Election campaign when it was so wet in Edinburgh that even Stephen wouldn't go out delivering leaflets, the only time that's happened in our long history of me driving him to places in all weathers and dumping him until his delivery bag is empty. That, however, was but a tiny shower in comparison to the Sao Paolo deluge.

Those said nice Brits on Pole people run a liveblog during the race. Do come over and join in. My participation is dependent on whether I can get hold of the laptop. There is a certain strand of opinion in this house that it's unfair for Mummy to have both tv and laptop.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Where to get Swine Flu information

The headline of the Daily Express today screams out that two young pregnant women have died of Swine Flu. Anyone who sees it, especially if they're pregnant, is bound to be worried by it.

I live in a house with 3 risk groups in it out of 3 people - an asthmatic (albeit one who's over 55 so he has less chance of catching it), a child and a person whose immune system can be best described as the word that rhymes with Carter Rucked. We certainly have reason to be concerned. When I spoke to my doctor about it yesterday, she warned me not to go anywhere near anyone with flu like symptoms. Well, my husband works in a building with 1800 other people and my daughter goes to school and we all know that schools are torrid breeding places for germs. Funnily enough, I'm not climbing the walls with anxiety as I maybe would have been in my younger day but it is a bit of a worry.

The last place I would ever look for advice on Swine Flu is any tabloid newspaper and I would really prefer it if they'd tone down their headlines a bit. The running Swine Flu death total that Sky News was running during the first big wave earlier this Summer was pretty grim and can only have served to heighten panic. Sensationalising in order to make money out of people's fears is pretty low. If I want accurate, up to date information, I go to the Health Protection Agency's Swine Flu page or the NHS's Important Information about Swine Flu page.

For information on Swine Flu and pregnancy, there's a dedicated NHS page. I know that some people have a healthy scepticism about NHS advice, but, trust me, it's much better than anything you'll ever find in a tabloid.

Stephen Gately 1976-2009

Like Andrew and Stephen, I was really saddened to waken last Sunday morning to discover that Boyzone singer Stephen Gateley had died suddenly on holiday in Mallorca at the agonisingly young age of 33.

At 26, I may have been much older than their target market when they appeared on the scene in 1993. However, and much to my husband's eternal shame, I just love that sort of trashy, cheesy boyband pop. I bought their stuff - I still listen to No Matter What and Love me for a Reason and I actually preferred Boyzone to Take That. Stephen, with his elfin good looks and permanent cheery demeanour was my favourite.

It was heartbreaking to watch his bandmates gather in Mallorca today to accompany his body back to Ireland for his funeral tomorrow. Five days on, they are obviously still in shock and I really feel for them and Stephen's partner, friends and family.

It was around the time that my daughter was born that Stephen decided to tell the world, his way, that he was gay. Ok, his hand had been somewhat forced given that somebody was attempting to breach his trust by selling a story on him to a newspaper, but he chose to take control of the situation and by doing so became a positive role model for young gay men who may have been struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. There was, of course, no backlash from fans. I, for one, had not really ever thought he was anything else and I admired the courage and dignity with which he came out. I just think it was such a shame that he had to endure years of anxiety beforehand. Even now, though, in sport and music, people still feel that they have to hide who they are. That's not their fault - and if you ever need proof that homophobia is alive and well, all you need to do is pick up a copy of the Daily Fail on probably any day you care to mention.

Today, though, they have excelled themselves. You would think that they would have the decorum to show some respect both to Stephen and his grieving family. Before I go on, I should say that it's been confirmed that Stephen died of natural causes, fluid on the lungs which is commonly a sign of a heart attack. Apparently there is a history of a heart condition in the Gately family.

Unfortunately most of us either know or know of someone who has died in similar circumstances - a young, fit person just basically dropping dead all of a sudden. It's horrible, but it happens.

But no, the facts aren't good enough for Daily Fail, whose columnist Jan Moir has today published a piece so crammed full of innuendo and homophobic bile that I actually felt like I wanted to go and have a shower after reading it. It takes a special kind of narrow minded bitterness and maliciousness to produce an article intended to provoke at any time, but especially on the eve of someone's funeral.

Her main assertion is that Stephen died because he was gay. What sort of person writes this?

"The sugar coating on this fatality is so saccharine-thick that it obscures whatever bitter truth lies beneath. Healthy and fit 33-year-old men do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa, never to wake up again."

She describes is death as "strange, lonely and troubling". I don't know if she ever met Stephen, but I doubt that she knew him. I tend to take more seriously the views of those who actually were close to him. We've heard in the past week from them how happy he was with life in general. Moir talks about a rented cottage but in reality, Stephen was on holiday with his partner in the apartment they'd just bought and done up. Career wise, things were going really well for him. He had a children's book about to come out and he'd shared in the success of the Boyzone reunion. How many of us have gone on holiday with our partners, gone out for a few drinks and fallen asleep on the sofa?

I don't know who is more despicable - Jan Moir for writing such prejudiced bile or the Daily Mail for publishing it. It's hard to believe that somebody actually took money for writing such a hatchet job and using a tragic, premature death as a springboard for an unjustified attack on everyone who's gay.

What's even more disgusting is the fact that she has a go at Kevin McGee, the ex partner of Little Britain's Matt Lucas, who tragically committed suicide last week. Apparently his demise and that of Stephen "strikes a blow to the happy ever after myth of civil partnerships". So what's she trying to say? Does she think relationships between men and women are based on the Disney Princess idyll? In fact, poor Kevin McGee had a long history of depression and addiction that would test any relationship. I've seen the toll that those awful illnesses had on the relationship of a close family member and how they contributed to her early death. Her partner loved her so much and he endured so much over so many years, despite her leaving him on several occasions. Sexuality has nothing to do with it. I've really felt for Matt Lucas since Kevin's death because I can empathise with what he's been through. Illness and addiction is hell for the people going through it and their loved ones.

For the second time this week, Twitter has risen up in outrage. There's a group on Facebook as well.

I like the way Stephen Fry puts it on Twitter:

"I gather a repulsive nobody writing in a paper no one of any decency would be seen dead with has written something loathesome and inhumane.".

It appears that people have been constructive with their outrage, complaining to the Press Complaints Commission to the extent that their website has crashed. Once it's up and running again, if you feel as strongly about this as I do, add your voice against this piece of insensitive and disgraceful writing. I'm not gay, but I'm sure as hell not going to stand about and watch an ignorant, prejudiced newspaper columnist away with a poisonous attack on a whole group of people.

I can't imagine that anything can actually make things worse for Stephen's friends and family at this time, but it must be horrendous for them to see such twisted half truth and innuendo about the person they loved. Jan Moir is only one person. Most deceent people will find her comments abhorrent and send their sympathy and love to them as they prepare for the ordeal of Stephen's funeral tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Why is Twitter going mad about Trafigura?

I have to confess that I'd never heard of Trafigura until today. Then, this morning, I logged into Tweetdeck and found a stream of tweets containing tagged #trafigura so intense that it felt like being bombarded by water cannon. It's even made it into Twitter's trending topics.

So who are these people, and what's all the fuss about?

Well, their own corporate brochure describes them as the "world's third largest independent oil trader". From the same document, we can also see that they're bloody rich. While small businesses in this country still struggle to get a fair deal from their banks, this company tells of having access to $17 billion of credit, assets of $1 billion and a turnover of $73 billion last year. Enough ready cash, then, to afford to engage expensive lawyers. Rich enough, as well, to ensure that they carry out their work and, for example, dispose of any toxic waste, for example, properly and safely.

Moving away from their own information, a rudimentary Google search reveals that the Independent newspaper has written about them quite a lot. An article entitled "The Dark Secrets of the trillion dollar oil trade" is bound to entice an enquiring reader.

Then of course we have their biggest controversy to date, concerning the dumping by one of its sub-contractors of toxic waste off the Ivory Coast which led to residents falling ill. Although an out of court settlement was reached with some of the residents, environmental group Greenpeace is trying to get Dutch prosecutors to bring murder and manslaughter charges against the company.

Today we saw the Guardian tell how it had been banned from publishing details of a question being asked in Parliament and outlining what it intends to do about it. Cleverly, though, it realised that it wasn't banned from publishing the name of the expensive lawyers who had obtained that Court injunction, Carter Ruck.

The Guardian knew that every journalist, blogger and outraged individual on the planet would pounce upon the Parliamentary Order of Business paper like a pack of frenzied vultures and wouldn't take long to work out that Carter Ruck was in fact mentioned in a Parliamentary Question along with their Clients, you guessed it, Trafigura.

They would then, because they weren't prevented from doing so, give that Parliamentary Question in full, giving it much greater publicity than it ever would have had.

This is Paul Farrelly MP's question in full:

"Paul Farrelly MP: "To ask the secretary of state for justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura."

Well, certainly, it looks like Mr Farrelly's question has answered itself - clearly current legislation is powerless to prevent large, rich corporations from gagging a free press from reporting on activities in Parliament.

Parliament needs to stand up against this sort of corporate bullying and I'm delighted (though not surprised) to see that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are taking this very seriously indeed, joining in the Twitter campaign to say:

Very interested concerned about this #trafigura / Guardian story the @LibDems are planning to take action on this

Very shortly afterwards, we heard from Jo Swinson that:

"RT @LibDemPress @LibDems have requested urgent question and debate on preventing reporting of parliament #Trafigura"

I think Parliament and the Government needs also to assess whether current legislation holds companies properly to account for the environmental damage they cause. Is it not time that they had to show as much responsibility to the environment as they do to their shareholders?

I expect Trafigura will be mentioned in many inventive ways in Parliament over the next few days. Jo Swinson already has done so, tweeting that she "was able to mention #trafigura in China debate by making point about media censorship & power of the internet.

While we can all take some satisfaction in the internet rising up and sticking two fingers in Trafigura's and its expensive lawyer's direction, longer term action is needed to stop large, rich corporations interfering with press freedom and particularly the reporting of what happens in Parliament. The Liberal Democrats are clearly up for the fight, but what about the Tories? Will they take any meaningful action against the interests of big business? Will the Government stand up for the rights of Parliament and a free press?

It's up to the internet, having rushed to the defence of the press and parliament, to keep up the pressure and make this into a long term campaign for effective legislation stopping this sort of blatant abuse of freedom.

UPDATE: I'm notorious for being late, but how come is the BBC only reporting this at 12:33, after me? And it fails to mention Trafigura at all. Why?

UPDATE 2: 13:00 It all changes so quickly. A few months ago, I ditched Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger as one of the people I followed on Twitter - too many tweets, too little time. A stupid move - he's now been reinstated and has not long ago reported that Carter Ruck has caved in and the Guardian is now free to report on the details. Presumably the firm weren't able to send anybody to Court as they were too busy wiping the egg from their faces.

Too late, though - the genie is out of the bottle, and we need to make sure that the right of papers to report what happens in Parliament is not interfered with again.

UPDATE 3: You have to love Jennie for her original take on this, Stephen continues his satirical streak and and Andrew gets serious.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

EXCLUSIVE: Guest Post from George Lyon MEP. Cameron must be praying for Czech "no" after Irish "yes"

I'm delighted to be able to present a guest post from Scotland's new Liberal Democrat MEP, George Lyon.


One question the Conservatives have studiously avoided answering during their party conference is what will happen to their hallowed referendum on the Lisbon Treaty after Ireland’s resounding ‘yes’ vote.

Where do the Conservatives go from here? We know what Boris thinks, but what about Dave?

Some said that a no vote would have sent the EU spiralling into crisis. But it is the yes vote that now threatens to send the Conservatives lurching back down the Euro-sceptic road.

The Irish yes vote is a hammer blow to Mr Cameron, one that threatens to crack open the traditional Conservative divisions over Europe. Now he is forced to confront the issue that all Conservative leaders fear, particularly when heading into a General Election.

The Irish referendum signalled the beginning of the end of the ratification process. Poland will ratify in short order leaving only the Czech Republic with the chance to bring down the treaty.

Seventeen anti-European Czech Senators have lodged a legal bid in an attempt to derail the process. A 60-page document outlining why they believe the Treaty is unconstitutional has been submitted to the Republic’s highest court. Although it will take some time to digest, it is expected that the case will be thrown out in four to six months time, leaving the Lisbon Treaty ratified and the Tories in European limbo.

By then the Tories hope to be the party of power in Britain. Cameron must be praying that the Czechs take Lisbon off the table before it lands on his lap.

Despite the chipper mood of the blue rinse brigade, a Tory victory is far from a foregone conclusion. If Mr Cameron wants to be taken seriously at home or abroad he must begin to fill in the yawning policy gaps that exist, starting with what to do about Lisbon.

The choice Cameron faces is quite clear. He can face down the Euro-sceptics in his party and embrace Lisbon as the way to strengthen Britain’s position in Europe through a more democratic EU. The alternative is to find himself pitted against Sarkozy, Merkel and all the other European leaders with whom the UK must work constructively with to get the best deal for our country.

David Cameron has already thrown a bone to the rabid euro-sceptics in his party by banishing the Conservative MEP group to the margins of European decision making. It would be disastrous for Scotland if the Conservatives were to force Britain to the European fringes by putting a collision course with our European neighbours.

With big EU decisions looming on reform of financial regulation, agriculture and fisheries, a Tory Government at war with itself over Europe would have a devastating impact for our farmers and fisherman, our economy and environment. Issues of importance to families across Scotland will be neglected and all because the Tories choose to put their own divisions ahead of the countries best interests.

We need a Government in this country that is willing to work with Europe, not against it. The fact that Cameron is unwilling to be honest and upfront over this key issue shows that the change they offer is fake and the promises they make are hollow.

The country deserves a straight answer from Cameron. Are they going to accept the Treaty that is designed to make the EU more efficient and effective or continue down the Euro-sceptic road which will leave us isolated and without influence?

The Irish yes vote has set the dominoes tumbling; all we can do now is wait to see where they fall.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Friday Plug 2 - The Cake Guru

Regular readers of this blog and others around the Scottish Blogosphere will be familiar with often very wise and relevant comments made by someone called PJ. For a long time I wondered who on earth this person was and then got chatting to her on Twitter.

I've yet to meet her in real life, as my current state of health keeps me pretty much tied to the house, but she has been to a couple of the Bloggers' meets and I think it's safe to say everyone thinks she's fabulous.

After she produced guest posts of this sort of quality on other blogs, some of us were trying to persuade her to start her own.

So far she's resisted, but this may be a good thing, because she's clearly found something a lot better to do with her time. Yesterday saw the launch of her new website, The Cake Guru which showcases the beautiful cakes she bakes and decorates for people.

My personal favourites are pictured here but there's one Mermaid cake which I can't manage to get on here for some reason but it's on the Cakes page of the website.

I'm frantically trying to invent a reason why I need one of these cakes. Her site is now firmly added to my favourites because you can't look at those beautiful cakes and feel miserable.

Friday Plug 1 - Choc and Wine - A New Blog

My lovely sister has decided to get into the blogging game. The title of her new blog, Choc and Wine, brings together two of her favourite things in life and sources close to her tell me that the first posting was written while she was on a Minstrels high.

She might be 8 years younger than me but she's the one with the common sense in our family. She's also very funny. I don't think she knows yet quite where she's going with her blog, but I'm looking forward to finding out.

So, pour yourself a glass, snap open a bar of Green and Black's and come and join her on her journey.

UPDATE: Cervical Cancer Jab - getting accurate information from Google

Just as a quick follow up to yesterday's post, Malcolm Coles has published a more detailed list of instructions for people to follow if they are interested in ensuring that the Google search results for the Cervical Cancer vaccine include accurate stuff and not just sensationalist tripe.

This will ensure that if people search for cervical cancer jab or cervical cancer vaccine they will find sites with proper information about it.

Thanks to Malcolm for showing that geekery can actually be a good thing.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Cervical Cancer Jab - where to get accurate information

I think everyone is full of sympathy for the family of Natalie Morton, the 14 year old who died very suddenly the other day, just a few hours after being given the HPV vaccination. Today we've had the news that, unknown to everybody, she had a large malignant tumour in her chest which led to her death. I can only imagine the torment and trauma they are going through.

Unfortunately, Natalie's death has led to a flurry of sensationalist and inaccurate reporting about the safety of the jab. A hat tip to The Lovely Chocaholic for drawing our attention to this post by Malcolm Coles. Coles shows how the most inaccurate stories find their way to the top of the Google search results, which is no help to you if you're an anxious parent trying to decide whether your daughter should have the jab.

He's actually had a comment on his blog from someone from NHS Choices promoting this site which has a video and lots of information about how the vaccine can prevent cervical cancer.

He suggests that we should share this information so that "maybe with a bit of SEO we can get the NHS site in the top 10 results." I did wonder what on earth sort of geek-speak SEO is. A bit of googling suggests that it stands for Search Engine Optimisation" which sounds about right.

It's important that anxious parents like me get balanced, evidence based information rather than a whole host of sensationalist tripe when we are making crucial decisions about our children's future.


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