Monday, September 24, 2007

No news is bad news

What is possibly the UK's biggest news story is still not in the news. It's as if there has been a blanket news blackout over the Usmanov/Murray assault on internet free speech affair.

It's taken British blogging by storm and more bloggers are adding their names to the list of those outraged at such a vicious attack on freedom. For an up to date list, see Curly's excellent post.

Surely the news editors know the story is out there. Why aren't they reporting it?

Just for laughs

Professional cheeky chappies Ant and Dec decided to chance their arm at a bit of current affairs humour on their Saturday night show with a dig at Northern Rock.

The sketch featured the diminutive one leaving the studio in a Mourinho-esque style pay-off. "I'm off to the bank" he says. Twice. They might has well have flashed the punchline at the bottom of the screen there and then. He then walked out of the studio to a branch of Northern Rock, where he pauses outside, shakes his head then cheekily looks at the camera (the trademark 'yes I think I'm funny' look) and then turns round and returns to the studio with his cheque.

Okay, I should have known better than to watch this tedious shit so it's my own fault. I was forced to watch it, honest, but once you're sucked in it's like watching a train crash in slow motion.

Given that Northern Rock has been the sponsor of Ant and Dec's All Star Cup golf event there is a hint of biting the hand that feeds you - so future sponsors beware.

I know there's no such things as out of bounds when it comes to comedy, but I'm guessing there's nearly 6,000 people who wouldn't laugh their tits off at tits Ant and Dec.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Freedom of speech gunned down

In an impressive example of how the blogoshpere can work, the issue surrounding the clumsy attempts to silence Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, for his criticisms of billionare Alisher Usmanov, have had the opposite effect and blown the story wide open. Usmanov's lawyers Schillings has scared hosting company fasthosts into taking down Murray's site, but in a scattergun approach to block Murray's comments, Boris Johnson's website has become collateral damage despite not mentioning the Murray issue.

The tsunami of online outrage that has followed has had the opposite effect that presumably Schillings intended and turned it into a major news item. Unfortunately when the print media should be shouting about this assault on freedom of speech on the front pages, there's only the merest squeak.

Given that Usmanov is tipped to buy the chairmanship at Arsenal football club, I wonder what South Shields' most prominent Arsenal supporter, MP and Foreign Secretary David Miliband, thinks about someone with a chequered past taking over?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Hole lot of debt

More on the second Tyne road tunnel. The New Tyne Crossing Project Board has just announced that it's begging to be allowed to extend it's borrowing limit to £130 million and increase tolls. Since the second tunnel was given the go ahead by Alistair 'Rock' Darling in 2005, the project has rocketed up in price from £185m to today's announcement of £260m. Given that turf hasn't yet been cut, it's reasonable to expect costs to rise still further.

It's the kind of increase that would make the 2012 London Olympic committee proud.

Given the fragility of the wholesale markets at the moment, who is going to lend that kind of money, and if someone does, what guarantees will they want? The concessionaires can rely on HSBC and the Bank of Scotland, the Tyne & Wear PTA probably as yet don't have such luck. The current tunnel was bailed out in the 1980s when Newcastle City Council loaned the Tyne Tunnel money (interest free) to refinance the latter's loans because of the volatile lending markets at the time. £4.1m is still outstanding to Newcastle City Council.

Unfortunately veteran tunnel toll campaigner Stan Smith is too poorly to respond to this news, and there is little chance of local councillors having the nerve to call the Tyne & Wear PTA to account, so the announcement will probably go without challenge.

At a time when the finance industry is in such turmoil our politicians should be especially vigilant of dependence on debt. If the new tunnel does go awry, will the public be expected to bail it out again?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Yellows going green?

So far, Labour's effort in reducing carbon emissions has been a failure, with CO2 emissions increasing since 1997 despite countless speeches on the dangers of climate change. In particular it's handling of renewables has been pathetic, the incompetent management of micro renewables grants a specific case in point.

The only plus I can think of was the introduction of the Climate Change Bill, but since that had cross party support, and Miliband's minions ripped the guts out of it, I won't include that as a Labour success unless it hits the books as a strong climate law.

The Conservatives, apparently recent converts to green politics, seem to be suffering from a split personality - one side wanting to continue with more flights and more roads, the other trying to grasp the green nettle. It looks like Redwood's carbon spewing proposals have the Cameron favour at the moment, possibly because they are not too far from Gordon Brown's "concrete it" attitude to the environment. Depending on which personality wins will confirm if the Tories are genuine on the environment or just copying Labour's greenwashing.

So it's refreshing to see at the Lib Dem conference Environment honcho Chris Huhne calling for the country to be 50 per cent carbon neutral, with energy from "clean, non-carbon-emitting sources" by 2020, rising to 100 per cent by 2050. It's a courageous idea (for a 'mainstream' party) and what's needed - a strong target with a clear objective.

What's telling is that we haven't so far heard a peep in response out of Hilary Benn. Labour are so keen to try and outstep the Conservatives that they've missed the Lib Dems, although I'm not sure if that really worries them.

Let's hope that Hebburn Lib Dem Councillor Joe Abbott pricks up his ears and thinks about how the Lib Dems' new proposals can be realised in local terms, especially considering his objection to the proposed wind turbine at the A&P yard in Hebburn. Cllr Abbott has also got into the unusual frames of reference for the measurement of objects, saying that the turbine would be "six Angels of the North on top of each other". Since that particular gem seems to have originated from a Northumberland "No to Wind Turbines" group it suggests what's really informing his thoughts, and it's not what's coming from Chris Huhne.

Realistically, if we want renewable energy, we need wind turbines. Of course wind won't be able to provide all of our energy, so solar, tidal power, wave energy and other renewables as part of a balanced mix also need to be developed urgently, along with initiatives to reduce energy use.

In terms of siting wind turbines, my personal sequential preference is for offshore, then industrial site, brownfield site, urban areas and finally rural areas. Also, land based sites should be as close to the point of use as possible to minimise transmission losses through our aged grid. There is a fly in my preference ointment though - on the land wind tends to be stronger and more consistent in upland rural areas, so I wouldn't rule out rural areas - they need electricity too.

The infrastructure isn't yet in place to support offshore, so until it is we've got to go with onshore for quick wind energy wins and personally I think industrial, brownfield and urban sites should be treated as the next best option.

This is where the A&P development fits in. It's a working industrial site and most of the energy produced will be used in the yard. I can understand the concerns about the noise and the size of the turbine. Bejaysus, at 80m high plus the blades (or two Concorde jet planes placed nose to tail) it's big. But we need to remember this is a river which once had a skyline dominated by cranes, so I think in terms of visual intrusion it's replacing one industrial structure with another. As for noise, it's an industrial site and if the level isn't worse than what is already produced then there's no net disadvantage. Being a previous resident of Hebburn Village I can attest to the audible volume of ship hull sandblasting, but accepted it as the price for purchasing a house in an industrial area.

It's disappointing though that the planned turbine (as with others erected locally) is going to be imported. As shipbuilding was winding down on the river an opportunity was lost to shift the massive resource of first class engineering skills from building ships to building renewable generation units for wind, wave and tidal power. In the past the Tyne was famous for exporting coal; in the future the Tyne could be exporting clean green energy. Even though I don't believe in Karma, if I did there would be a poetic green Karmic balance somewhere in there.

Hopefully in light of the Lib Dems' new aspirations for CO2 reductions Cllr Abbott will reconsider the plans more seriously than dismiss them with a knee jerk. However, given his (and Newcastle Lib Dems) support for the second Tyne road tunnel, I'll not be surprised if he continues his business as usual attitude.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Smash and Gran

First they destabilise the finance industry, now they're smashing up Metros - is there no way to stop the OAP menace?

The results of a review of an incident in May involving an electric scooter, an octogenarian and a Metro train door by Metro safety inspectors have been reported today in the Gazette.

The inspectors reported that Mrs Dees, 80, had hit the Metro doors with an equivalent force "of a rhino ramming the door". Have we started to quantify impact force in units of rhino because of the dropping of metric measurements? I'm looking forward to the return of the double decker bus to measure height.

I'm not sure quite why such an apparently powerful vehicle requires a "bull-bar" style front bumper - perhaps to see off any rampaging elephants on the Jarrow savannah.

These electric carriages are unregulated and the only qualification needed to drive one is the cash to buy it. The one in the incident reported didn't even have brakes, presumably relying on the inertial resistance from the electric motor to stop. Then again, who needs brakes when you have a choice of handy crumple zones: Metro doors, someone's shins, a push-chair?

These things are everywhere. You can't walk down the shops without having to dodge these pavement dodgems, and I've even seen one on the access road to the Tyne Tunnel. Soon they'll be travelling in gangs terrorising poor hoodies. The police will need a special electric scooter force to bring these ruffians to justice. Just as soon as they've charged up.

This menace must be stopped now.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Time for a climate scare?

It's despairing that in the 21st Century people can be so easily panicked. The trials of Northern Rock is a classic example of mass hysteria, which leads me to think that, along with the growth of religion, 'intelligent design' (I know, it's a facet of religion, but it's special because it pretends to be science), and climate change scepticism there is an ongoing assault on reason.

The Northern Rock incident has made me think that if people took the threat of climate change as seriously as a manipulated media event then the UK would be running carbon free in a year.

Rock hammered

Northern Rock has long followed a model of borrowing short and lending long to fund it's growing mortgage business, which has so far provided the company with massive success. But the folk standing in the queues don't hear this.

To these folk, it doesn't matter that Northern Rock is looking at making at least £450m profit this year, or that the bank is otherwise in a financially strong position. It doesn't matter that Northern Rock, unlike Barclay's which was twice bailed out by the Bank of England last month, has yet to touch a penny of the Bank of England loan facility.

It also doesn't matter that, the more that people withdraw, the greater chance that Northern Rock will be taken over, which would mean massive redundancies in the North East's biggest finance industry employer. It doesn't matter that the loss of Northern Rock would also mean the loss of the Northern Rock Foundation, the biggest charitable giver in the North East, which could also mean goodbye to a number of local charities and good causes.

All these people see are the queues, and all they hear are the interviews with the headless chickens (although the rush to join the queues is more like a flock of sheep if you want to continue the farming analogy). To a large extent, the media herd has driven the events, starting with the BBC's misleading labelling of Northern Rock's request for the Bank of England facility as 'unprecedented'.

It's been interesting to follow the media coverage. Everyone with an opinion, including inveterate band wagon jumper Dave Cameron, has been falling over themselves to criticise Northern Rock or the government for not predicting this. Hindsight is indeed an exact science, but the reality is it couldn't be predicted. Of course there were risks in Northern Rock's model, but no one foresaw all the banks shutting their doors to short wholesale borrowers like Northern Rock. Normally, the banks loan money to each other, but Northern Rock and others were locked out by the liquidity freeze.

In a tsunami of silly media comment and downright stating the bleedin' obvious that has more in common with football than finance, the most idiotic comment award has got to go to ITN's annoying Chris Choi, who tonight called the queueing an "investor revolt", as if those people in the queues were on some honourable crusade, rather than a panic of self-interest.

Hopefully tonight's announcement by Alistair Darling will cool some heads amongst Northern Rock customers, quieten the nerves of staff and stave off a takeover, which would be disastrous for it's employees. And judging by the speed at which the queues dissolved when the rain started at 3pm in Newcastle this afternoon, here's hoping for a bit of bad weather to help restore calm.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Freedom fries

Simon Jenkins' comment piece in The Guardian, reflecting upon the abandonment of our freedoms pretty much echoes my thoughts. It's disappointing that so many of our politicians are happy to see our liberty dismembered, some of them even cynically trading on the emotive 'remember 9/11', apparently unaware that each freedom lost in the name of security is a small victory for the terrorists.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Jesus saves... on bus fares

What do you get when you cross bureaucracy and religion? Idiocy.

The news that 11-year-old Elliott Stewart from Brasside in Durham has been refused a free bus pass to get to school, just because he hasn't been baptised, would be worthy of the sitcom Father Ted, if it wasn't true.

Durham Councillor Clive Robson said (presumably not realising how stupid it sounds):

"Although a child does not have to be a Roman catholic to attend a Roman Catholic school, he or she and at least one parent has to be baptised Roman Catholic to be considered for free travel to it."

So, it seems a ritual splash of water is all that is stopping Elliott from enjoying free bus travel to school.

In an attempt to make it appear that faith schools have become more open in their admissions rules, policies have been changed to allow children not baptised in the Roman Catholic religion to enrol in a Roman Catholic school. But the mechanism that would allow Elliott to have the same opportunity of access to school as his schoolmates doesn't exist.

But rather than put their hands up and admit it's a silly rule, and that special dispensation will be given for Elliott until the policy is changed, the jobs worth drones at Durham County Council have stuck to the tried and tested 'rules is rules' excuse, with a the 'Ombudsman sez so, so there' for good measure.

How long before Durham becomes known as "The Deep South of the North East"?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


It's been ten days since my birthday, and an apparently 'significant' or 'watershed' one at that. I've never been too bothered about my own birthdays and don't like fuss, although I try to be vigilant in remembering others'.

However, there is one special thing about the day. I treat my birthday as a day not about me but my mother, recognising what she went through on that day to bring me into the world. Unexpectedly, this made for a more personal and meaningful day than the current Mothers Day card-fest, and the practice has now become a tradition that's passed onto my son.

As this birthday was supposed to be significant for me, it's caused me to wonder precisely why it's significant. Many significant birthdays are related to key life events - 13 - the first teen year, 16 - the age of consent and to bear arms for the state, 18 - the right to vote and purchase alcohol. After 21, birthdays move to decimal years - 30, 40, 50, 60 and so on; 10 years apparently being an arbitrary period of note.

But I couldn't find anything definitive on this one. I suppose there's the argument that any celebration is a good thing, but the only conclusion I can come to is that measuring years in tens must mean something to someone other than greetings cards manufacturers, but not to me. Maybe there's some kind of birthday bingo going on and I haven't been given a card.

I don't feel 14610 days old (well, 14620 now) at all. I don't know if you are supposed to 'feel' a particular age, but something I've noticed about this one is that everyone is asking if I do.

That's worrying. I still haven't worked out what I'm going to do when I grow up.

Dawn on day 14610

Day 14610