Sunday, October 31, 2004

Some interesting British political news

There has been a bit of a hoo-haa in the British press today about the chances of Tony Blair calling a February election. This article from the Sunday Telegraph was one of two responsible. It has been denied by Downing Street.
The short and long of it is however that under Alun Millburn, who was recently reappointed to the Cabinet and put in charge of the electioneering, there is a push going forward for a February election to exploit weakness in Michael Howard, and also assuming a relatively positive Iraqi election (thereby sidelining Lib Dem chances).

I'm moderatey skeptical, if only because one of the apparent reasons (a successful Iraqi election) is something that cannot be guaranteed (even though I personally think the elections will be mostly successsful). The other reason that I'm skeptical is that it would be held in February. It's not a month to be holding an election. Unless Tony Blair is being unusually masochistic.

So, here are three variants of what I think has happened here.

1) Downing Street (and the Labour machine) has been floating various ideas around. February was mentioned, and someone did a document on it. That has now been gotten hold of by the papers, and it may or may not have any relevance.

2) This was a purposeful leak by Downing Street to test the waters (sort of Yes Minister style).

3) This was actually a leak by a Blair opponent, fearing a bounce from successful Iraqi elections, and hoping therefore to make it impossible for Tony Blair to hold a snap February election. It's a conspiracy I tell you!

I rather like my conspiracy in number 3, and given that the Telegraph is an anti-Blair paper I think there is some possible credence. But in reality I think the first option, the most prosaic, is most likely to be closest to the true. Certainly Downing Street has denied (BBC article) it.

All in all, I think sensible bets are still for a May date for the election, though I would not be surprised if it turned out to be a different time. After all, no one, and I mean no one, with any authorative say-so has committed to the May date. It's all just speculation, column writers and editors wasting ink when they have nothing better to do, and it will remain so until Tony Blair takes the car to Buckingham Palace and asks Her Majesty to dissolve the Parliament.

Not an original thought

Given that this is the year when the Red Sox won perhaps this means that nearly all traditional indicators should just be ignored. It seems quite possible whoever wins on Nov 2nd could do so without Ohio, maybe if the Redskins loose tonight the Republicans won't, and so on and so forth. Just a thought.

Another First

I've just downloaded my first music file - all perfectly legal. I never bothered until I had broadband (and I was adamant not to download illegally - which I realises puts me in a serious minority).

Another first - last week I used herbs for the first time in my cooking. Well, to be accurate I used one herb (dried basil). Who knows what other culinary adventures await?

A partial explanation of absence

It's been a while since I posted with any regularity. Two reasons for that. The second (and this is good news) is that my connection has now moved from dial-up to broadband. Had a few snags at first, but all is operating now with no problems. And wow. Technology is a good thing. Easily worth the extra £10 a month. Incidentally, I did upgrade just about as soon as I realised my local had now been covered. For the past 18 months the coverage ended half a mile or so up the road.

The first reason that really unsettled me was work. As I may have stated somewhere on this blog I work in a hospital - as a matter of fact I'm a medical secretary. Not a glamorous job, but a vital one, and worthwhile. Unfortunately I deal with a lot of very sick people and their families, and when you are able to help such people, even if in only a small way (and in administration it is only ever going to me in a small way) and they say thank you, well, that is when you know what you do is worthwhile. That it matters.

The problem is that I work in the NHS, and I get to see just how truly fucked-up the system is, and the profanity is very much justified. At the beginning of the month there were a number of things going on which exemplified everything wrong with the system, and the emotional stress went overboard. It is one reason that, at some point, I fully intend to get out of working for the NHS. People spend their lives paying their taxes into it, and in all too many cases they get a poor return.

Just as well I'm now on holiday. Some of the issues are resolved, thankfully. Others are probably insoluable, and will be necessarily awaiting for me on my return. Whatever the faults with a system of health insurance, gettingt he government involved is simply the worst of all possible options. A government screws things up in a way no single company or person could imagine in their wildest dreams.

There, that's off my chest now.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

The Immortal Memory

History is littered with dates, and each year is full of annivesaries. Some mean a great deal to a great many people, like July 4th or December 7th. Others are now have no relevance outside of historical journals, their emotive pull long-faded from popular memory. Who now cares what day the Battle of Cannae was fought on, a day of ill-omen for centuries. Yet more mean something to a few. And today is one of those day for me.

I come from a naval family. Not only that but I am historically minded. Dates and anniversaries do have a relevance for me even if they don't for others. Thus it should come as no surprise that today is a day of special significance to me. For today is the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

The best way to understand Trafalgar is a modern analogy. From the breakdown of the Peace of Amiens in 1803 England had been concerned of the threat of invasion. An enemy with a vastly superior army was only hampered by the Channel, England's trusty Moat. All they needed to do was to control the Channel. It was 1940. It was the Battle of Britain of a former age. And like the Nazi invaders of recent times the Continental would-be conqueror was denied. He was denied, and his eventual defeat was assured.

On the 21st October 1805, the Combined Fleets of France and Spain clashed with the British Fleet, commanded by Lord Nelson. Inflicted upon them was probably the most crushing naval victory since the Greeks annhilated the Persians in the waters around Salamis millenia before.

The deck of a ship of war is no place of safety. There are no headquarters miles behind the lines. For anyone in Portsmouth I urge them to visit HMS Victory. One of the largest warships of her day, she seems impossibly small from within. The horror of war must have been compacted into a tiny space, just a few feet across. At about 1.15 Nelson, who had long history of personal bravery, was hit by a musket ball in his shoulder that lodged into his spine. He had already lost an arm and an eye, but this wound was to prove his last. He lived long enough to know that he had won. He died at about 4.30pm.

Less than five hours earlier, as the lines of British ships sailed inexorably into the Franco-Spanish Fleet, Nelson had sent a signal to the fleet. It ran "England Expects Every Man to do His Duty". Nelson's final words had a similar theme: "Thank God I have done my duty".

The euphoria of that sensational victory has always been tinged by the knowledge of its most famous casualty. For that reason alone, the memory of that day is inextricably linked with Nelson himself. I was hearted, and surprised, to see that in the recent populist Great Britons contest Nelson managed still to secure a place in the top of this nation's heart.

In the Royal Navy there are a series of dinners at this time in memory of Trafalgar, and of Lord Nelson. My father invited me to one some years back. The toast to Her Majesty was given sitting down. And then, with great solemnity that fascinated as I watched, we all rose, and toasted Lord Nelson's Immortal Memory.

To Lord Nelson.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

A short note

Yesterday I received news that my brother, who has been away on his first deployment in the Royal Navy, will be coming alongside tomorrow. This makes me very happy for entirely obvious reasons, and I just hope he's alright.

In other news my cousin has recently gone on overseas deployment to one of the many places where British troops are stationed (he is in the army, and it's not Iraq). About the time my brother sailed I posted "Eternal Father strong to save". I simply don't know an equivalent army hymn, but whatever you're doing right now K, good luck (not that he even knows of the existence of this blog).

And finally, my father, who also happens to be deployed overseas (again not Iraq) has found himself serving with someone who used to live in the village where I grew up while we were there. Several thousands miles away, it's a small small world.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

While browsing The Record - Harvard Law School's independent newspaper (blame Waddling Thunder) - I came across three exemplary Letters to the Editors over the vexed issue of the US military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy.

First off I should say that, on balance, I probably favour not having gays/lesbians in the military, but it not a firm view. My basis from this is mostly my own experiences at boarding school, which I was at from the age of 7 to 18. All I really know for sure is that it is a difficult issue.

From the letters this is the background I have worked out. Colleges that do not allow on-campus military recruiting forfeit federal funds. HLS has decided to allow recruiting rather than forfeit these sums, but continue to oppose recruiting in principle because of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Letter 1 rather neatly describes how unprincipled, and frankly avaricious, the current stance is. It also draws a comparison between this and the recent plaigarism scandal in the Faculty.

Letter 2 really looks at the focus of the apparently annual protest, or perhaps misfocus.

Letter 3 laments a specific, judicial, consequence of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy.

What really struck me about all three letters was how well-thought out they were. Critical indeed - all plainly oppose Don't Ask Don't Tell - but also reasoned and constructive. Generally when the issue of homosexuality comes up these days I tune off as the hate level on both sides is reaching stratospheric levels. It was wonderfully refreshing to read something civilised.

I simply lament that such well-thought comments are likely to be forgotten all too quickly.

Incidentally, if anything all three letters combined made my own views on this issue even less decided than they already were.


Another thing that occurred to me over the weekend is that I have no precise idea what states form the American Mid-West, or more accurately, I don't know its borders. Where does the Mid-West translate into The South? Of all American regions this is the one that I find blobbiest - given that all regional designations are fairly blobby to begin with.

The only other query as large I have is the American south-west, and I have the perception that this involves New Mexico and most of Texas. How accurate that is I have no idea.

Just a couple of random thoughts.

A belated note

Kenneth Bigley, may you rest in peace.

Test match cricket / playoff baseball comparison

I spent most of the weekend feeling rather worse for wear. What was particularly irritating about the situation was that there was no particular reason for my being off-colour. So I spent an appreciable portion of the weekend watching baseball, and I came to the conclusion that the play-off series are the most similar sporting event to probably my single most favourite sporting event: a cricket Test Match.

For those that don't know a cricket Test Match can take up to a maximum of 5 days, with most games finishing either on day 4 or day 5. Relatively few will finish on day 3, and I don't know of any matches that have only lasted two days (though there may have been the odd one or two). In my opinion the Test Match is the most strategic game that I have ever seen. This is most obvious when making a decisions to declare an innings, but infuses the entire game when one considers that a captain has to carefully manage his players - especially the bowlers.

It was the bowlers that got me thinking along these lines. In a playoff series deciding the starting pitchers is very important. Do you play a star pitcher in a critical game on 3 days rest, when they have never done that before - or go with someone less stellar but better rested? I get the feeling that this does not just apply to the starting pitchers, but to the whole bullpen as well.

Managing bowlers involves similar questions of their fitness and how well-rested they are. A team relies on usually four or five bowlers, perhaps backed up by a number of non-specialists (0-2). If you wear out your main attack...

Of course, there are many differences between the two, primarily the fact that the Test Match is a continuous game while a playoff series is just that, a series.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Differences between UK and US campaigns - Part VII: Issues

Some issues are probably common to every major election on the planet: healthcare, education, crime, and so on. Other issues are issues of the moment, based around current events. I think though that there are other issues that are idiosyncratic the nations and cultures concerned. In this update to this series I hope to look at a few of these more idiosyncratic issues, including one or two "of the moment" issues that I think are unique to the US and the UK.

1) The Gun. One of the biggest differences between the UK and the US. Guns are common in the US, both legally and illegally. The right of ordinary people to own guns, as expressed by differing interpretations of the Second Amendment, is hotly debated. While I don't think it ever comes up as a major issue, it does count as being an important one. Contrast this to the UK where the vast majority of our policemen and women not only don't carry guns, but don't want to carry them either. Indeed, there is likely to be more support for outlawing all firearms altogether, including air pistols (don't ask) than allowing farmers to keep their shotguns. But it's not an issue.

2) The Fox. This is a UK issue, or rather, it has been a background issue for the last ten years or so, and is now becoming an Issue. The reason being that the Labour Party has now banned hunting with hounds. This has rather riled plenty of people in the countryside, as I have commented on before. While it also won't be a major issue (except possible in a handful of very rural constituencies in the south-west and Yorkshire) it will be an interesting side-show.

3) Religion. I find the debate about religion in the US to be fascinating, simply because there is one. In the UK we basically don't have one, and therefore it never intrudes into electoral politics. But in the US you have issues of federal funds for charities, the phrase "under god". Basically, it all comes down to that separation of church and state business. In the UK, where there is an Established Church, these issues are, again, none issues.

4) Currency. This one is about Europe. Almost inevitably in the UK the whole issue of the EU is seen through the prism of the Euro. Oddly enough, this isn't a particular concern in the USA, can't think why...

Just a pair a side, but I hope they shed some small light on what some of the important, but non-major issues, differ.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Review: Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

Well, time for a complete review of this most excellent book. It is, unsurprisingly, all about the Ankh Morpok Post Office. As such it is not part of any of the little mini-series that run through the wider Discworld books. But it is one of the Ankh-Morpok books, and many of the old characters from that setting make cameos, such as Vimes, Carrott, and even Sacharissa Crisplock from the The Truth. Notably I don't think Dibbler put in an apperance.

Like all the best Pratchett books this is not just a vehicle for some quite brilliant humour, but like all the best comedy takes an irreverant look at our life. In this book Pratchett sends up the whole business of Hope. It views hope, as it were, from the perspective of the non-virtuous.

This is also a book in which Vetinari plays more than his usual cameo roles. Indeed, there is now a greater sense of character about this man, and it comes across well. He is always watching - a bit like a CCTV camera. He lurks in the pages.

In short, I highly highly recommend it.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Quick Review

This is very quick. I've just finished Going Postal, the new Terry Pratchett I referred to below. It's a great read. I'm about to head to bed, but I first just had to share the following line:

Steal five dollars and you were a petty thief. Steal thousands of dollars and you were either a government or a hero.

And with that happy thought I with you all good night!

A note

I was intending to post something about various important UK political bits and bobs, but while I was at Tesco's today I noticed they were selling Terry Pratchett's latest Discword novel for just £12. Since I got paid last week...

The UK politics will have to wait.

Weekend activities & The Battle of Gettysburg

This does make a little sense, honestly.

I spent this weekend doing basically four things (apart from sleeping). Firstly housework. Which is just a pain. Once I've ensured things are basically hygenic it takes real effort to conver that into those mysterious qualities of neat and tidy. This weekend was fairly average on this front, and so went various parts of Saturday and Sunday. NB: The only part of housework which is not a real chore however is the ironing. Ironing is easy. I do it while I'm watching something on the telly.

Secondly was playing a game called Dungeon Siege, which I bought for a fiver on Friday after work. My brother had it when it was new, and I liked it then. A pleasurable monster-bash. Relatively mindless, which after last week was just what I needed.

Thirdly, watching sport. In the end I only watched the first half of LSU v Georgia. The reason was simple enough. Immediately before that they were showing the Giants vs the Dodgers, and this run over by a considerable amount of time (45mins I think), which meant the delayed coverage of the football game would have had be staying awake to at least 4am, which really just wan't on the cards. Still, a great baseball game. Dodgers went into the 9th 3-0 down, and pull of the win. Great game.

Finally, in counterpoint to my monster-bashing in too I was playing Battleground: Gettysburg, an old Talonsoft game. It's the sort of game that I would describe as a computer board-game, with hexes and everything! Playing as the Union. There are but two problems: 1) the AI isn't that great, and 2) even a cursory knowledge of the battle like I have allows you to anticipate likely moves. Thus I was able to hold the line of McPherson's Ridge throughout the first day, and keep the Rebels out of Gettysburg (albeit things got a dicey on the ridge about 4pm). Much fun was had.

However, while I was playing it occurred to me that one thing that is quite special about Gettysburg is how utterly unplanned a battle it was. Elements of the two armies more or less blundered into each other, and then pulled the rest of the armies into the clash. I started trying to think of how many other major battles were so unplanned.

I mean, quite often you get battles where one side has a plan and the other is just desperately trying to hold on - Shiloh springs to mind, or in another age Tuetonbergerwald, or in the modern era Barbarossa, or the Normandy beaches. Mostly though I seem to think both sides have plans for the battle, even if it just a defensive one to the other's offence. The examples are really too numerous - Cannae, Zama, Cynoscephalae, Hastings, Agincourt, Bosworth Field, Austerlitz, Wagram, Waterloo, Fredericksburg, Verdun, El Alamein, and so on.

Just thinking I can't actually recall anything quite as unplanned as Gettysburg, as unintended as Gettysburg. If anyone has any ideas please air them, cause I'm pretty certain that Gettysburg can't be unique in this regard. Cheers.

See, it does make sense, sort of.

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