Friday, August 17, 2007

Calling my generation - remember Focus with their Hocus Pocus ?

Yes, I thought some light relief was in order. Here's a YouTube clip of Focus doing that manic performance of Hocus Pocus live, way back in 1973. Unbelievable, hilarious, OTT, fuelled by who knows what ?

The Dutch band has a Wikipedia entry, needless to say. Here's what it says about Hocus Pocus, and that amazing guitar riff :

"1971: The group released Moving Waves, which brought the band international acclaim and a hit on both sides of the Atlantic with the radio edit of the rock rondo Hocus Pocus. This rock classic consists of Akkerman's guitar chord sequence used as a recurring theme, with quirky and energetic interludes that include alto flute riffs, accordion, guitar, and drum solos, whistling, nonsensical vocals, falsetto singing, and yodeling. This album established Van Leer and Akkerman as composers who could appeal to progressive-rock album listeners (a large audience in the early 1970s) and radio single buyers."

Message from the conservative grassroots to David Cameron

Decisions, decisions...
I've just submitted the following to a thread on the Telegraph's Speaker's Corner , which asks us whether we think John Redwood's tax-cutting proposals will persuade folk to vote Conservative:

"Just as the Wilson/Callaghan era needed a Margaret Thatcher to restore common sense and sanity, so the Blair/Brown era needs an equivalent.

(Brown the Roundhead's wearing of not-made-in-Blair-Land clothes should fool no one, since it was he who used pensioners and taxpayers' money to bankroll one botched, half-baked, misguided project after another. He deserves a lengthy period in the political wilderness to reflect on the enormity of what he and his Laughing Cavalier predecessor inflicted on Britain, leaving an angry resentful population, cynical about politicians of all colours).

The present tax -cutting proposals are welcome, and will help re-connect with traditional Conservative voters who are not all in their dotage. But piecemeal tax cuts are not enough: the Tories should aim to become the June 1st party, that being a target for Tax Freedom day, presently postponed till July 23rd, thanks to the ex-Chancellor and his predecessors. The aim should be small, lean, financially-astute, ruthlessly-cost-cutting Government in which not every other person in the country is on the Government payroll.

There is one other nettle that Cameron needs to grasp if he is to restore confidence in his stewardship. He has to address the legacy of Blair's typically messianic pledge to have 50% of our youngsters in higher education. Yes, I know it's a separate issue, but it's the source of much that is sick in our society.

That pledge looked superficially attractive when first announced, at least to the gullible, but as we now know it was a poisoned chalice, only being possible by youngsters being forced to buy £20,000 of chips on tick to be able to play in Nu-Labour 's employment casino . That's the one with the slogan: "Get something better than a McDo job - at an eye-watering entry fee - and even then you'll have to be lucky."

See what you have created, Mr. Blair, Mr. Brown - a generation of youngsters for whom adult life on the 18th birthday requires immediate decisions that could make or break their entire careers, indeed lives ? How many of us would opt for university, if it meant starting one's working life with £20,000 of graduate debt ? But what are the alternatives ? A job at the minimum wage, with few if any career prospects ?

Welcome to Blair/Brown's Brave Nu-World of opportunity, provided you have a degree from an "old" university, and your Dad has contacts to get you into that vital first job, so you can then start repaying that mountain of debt.

Is it any wonder that so many youngsters, especially on the estates, shrink from adult life and its responsibilities ?

Thanks to that pledge, we have also seen the inevitable proliferation of third-rate universities, devaluation of degrees, and with it, the perception that non-graduate employment means failure, such that we now have to rely on Polish plumbers and other immigrant workers to fill the gap. They prosper, as well they should, while our disaffected youth congregates on the estates, taunting those who still have property to protect.

Don't hug a hoody, Mr. Cameron. Give him a decently paid job, with prospects, that is within his capability, backed up with day-release training. Don't let employers skimp on that - use a carrot-and-stick approach.

Scrap the Blair madness that requires youngsters attend their first job interview clutching £20,000-worth of largely useless paper. Then maybe you will start looking like a credible Prime Minister-in-waiting, with John Redwood as your red-in-tooth-and-claw Chancellor."

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Diary of a day spent with a Peace Corps worker in Ghana, Xmas 1967

Did you read the item two days ago about gap-year students ? According to an article in the Telegraph, those adventurous young folk may be wasting time on projects.

So says the long-established VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas), claiming that what they cheekily call "voluntourism" may be doing more harm than good . According to them, teenagers looking for a life-enhancing break between school and university are being packed off to developing countries to work on one project or another without sufficient training or know how.

Here's a near-verbatim record from my travel diary, written on Day 4 of a 10 day trip into the Northern /Upper East regions of Ghana in December 1967. It describes a chance encounter I had with one Norm Haskett, a US Peace Corps worker. ( How come we never hear of the Peace Corps these days ?)

I'd be interested to hear your views on whether you think Norm Haskett was doing a valuable job or not.

(Hi, Norm, if you're reading this. No, we sadly never kept in touch, but I hope you don't mind my using your real name here, some 40 years on.).

The day I describe here was spent in a region to the east of Bolgatanga. It's a vast and largely empty savannah country up near the border with Burkina Faso (then called Upper Volta). Bolgatanga is marked on the map.

December 20th 1967 (Day 4)

"The greatest impression of my whole 4 months in Ghana. Walked out of Bolgatanga in the direction of Nangodi. The country was just my cup of tea - wide and open, with hills in the distance.

( I was) Just through Zuarungu when a beautiful green jeep stopped with Norm Haskett, Peace Corps Co-op Officer inside with young Martin ( a Ghanaian). He was going to Nangodi.

Jumped at chance to accompany him on round.

First stopped at house of Mr. Bag? (Chief of Spirits). Then moved on to meet Paramount Chief of Nangodi. Watched all the greetings being exchanged with sub-chief. ? Na ?Na ?Na Never looked at each other once.

Then came "pito" a sweet yeasty brew of guinea corn. After greetings we moved to school house for meeting proper. Norm was taking £5 per farmer.

Many had not turned up or paid. Norm sold the 'self-help' idea and said that nothing could start until (there was) £300 in the kitty. Idea was to eliminate the middle man primarily. Co-op buys produce from farmers and markets the collective produce - shea nuts, groundnuts, millet and maybe tomatoes.(We) then retired for lunch at Mr. Bag?. Had a bowl of "TZ" (maize meal), groundnut soup and chicken. More pito. Returned to Jeep, led by men with 'sitar' and calabashes.

(Was) Requested to dance. Did so to great amusement of all. About this time Mr. Bag? called me Atenga, meaning Chief of the Land. Mr. Bag liked me. He himself, however, had just withdrawn from the Coop to join a cattle one instead, he said. We went to his (dead) father's home. His father was previous chief. At place of his grave were four writhing bil-bau (baobab?) trees. Told these sprang up when Chief was buried. More dancing. More pito. Getting a bit fed up with it all at this point.

Then on to Pelogo (sp?) - sub-chief wanted his farmers educated. Felt in very subdued mood. Too much pito I guess.

Then we had to go to place on fringe of Congo district for second round of greetings. First time, said Norm, the Chief was drunk and had no recollection afterwards. He showed marked antipathy to Bolga-based farmers. Said his territory was large enough for separate Coop. This was smoothed over in mysterious way. Then drank akpateshie (palm-gin) by oil lamp. Finally back. Said goodbye to Pious, a very able administrator and interpreter. who like Norm is a Govt. officer.

Back to Norm's place for tasty supper and game of spa. Spa seems to be not so much a mastery of card play as keeping score.

The visits to villages have left a lasting impression.The round stone huts with their stalky roofs, all merging to form a maze, the stumps coated with blood and feathers, the colourful but often ragged smocks of the locals (Nabdam), the dry parched guinea corn, the smell of goats, the flies (tsetse included) the hand clapping, the wonderful hospitality. Tomorrow Atenga continues.

(the following day, Norm gave me four eggs for breakfast, and took me down to the lorry park).

PS: For the record, I went to work in Ghana as a specialist science teacher (chemistry) at Accra Academy, recruited by the Ghana Teaching Service ( ad in the Telegraph!). It was a 2-year contract, supported by the UK Overseas Development Ministry, as it was then called. I was 23, had graduated and done a year of commercial research in industry, combined with 5 hours per week of teaching evening class O-Level Chemistry at the local Technical College."

Update Thursday 18:40

Have just discovered a highly relevant blog by googling. It's called "Sarah's Summer in Ghana". (No, it's not our Sarah). This one worked in Tamale, which is capital of the Northern region, and she describes, with pix, how TZ is made.

My recollections of Tamale: having travelled there by bus from Kumasi (where I had run into 2 work colleagues - the Carters- CUSO volunteers (Canadian equivalent of VSO) - who were en route to Ougadougou and thence by train to Ivory Coast ). There was an incredibly rude women in the ticket booth for Bolgatanga buses - quite the most imperious individual I've met in my life, who treated everyone as though they were an inferior life form, including us white neocolonialists, although she stopped short of calling us that.

And the most amazing row in a restaurant kitchen, with just occasional glimpses of the combatants, screaming at the tops of their voices, with sound effects suggesting that utensils were being thrown each other.

And flying back from Tamale to Accra, somewhat the worse for wear as a result of a bout of dysentery, requiring several days hospitalisation at the Southern Baptist Missionary hospital in Gambaga (at which a kind British doctor and his wife took me into their own home for the duration !).

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Guest blog from GROCE (Get Rid of Cow Emissions)

*Yes, today it's my turn to take a back seat . Dreams and Daemons hosts its second guest blogger, whose name you may have encountered in the press, from proceedings at the Horseferry Rd Magistrates Courts. Or perhaps you have seen her on TV being dragged by her hair or feet into waiting Black Marias by the Metropolitan Police. It is Chardonnay Crabtree, the Chairperson of GROCE ("Get Rid of Cow Emissions"). Whilst I don't agree with all her positions, and certainly not her understanding of the sciences, I feel she has a timely message to offer which should be heard. Over to you, Chardonnay.

GROCE Campaign logo: " Get Rid Of Cow Emissions"

Hello people. Please spare a minute or two to read my message, and try to suspend any judgements you have formed about me and my organization. Most of what you have read is probably lies, put out by the beef and dairy industry, as well as my step-Dad.

GROCE was formed last year by me and my best friend Stasi (that's pronounced Stacey, BTW) straight after we did our GCSE's in Enviromental Science.

After learning all about Global Warning we felt we just had to do something to help the planet.

The problem is one of wide spread ignorance. Everyone has heard about CO2 (carbon deoxide ), it being a polluting greenhouse gas (GG) , which heats up not just greenhouses but everything else on the planet.

If you know the facts as well as Stasi and me it would really do your head in . Did you know there's another GG which is a much greater thret than CO2. Its called Methane, and it is a major cause of those carbon footprints.

You probably don't know this if you haven't been to school for a long time, but Methane is in flammable gas. If you live near a landfill sight you can see it burning at night, heating the planet. It leaks out through old pipes that have been left sticking out of the ground. Methane burns a lot more easily than CO2, which is why we should be a lot more worried about it, and not just the greenhouse owners.

Where you may ask does this Methane come from ? There are two main sauces: one, which I have all ready mentioned, is rotting uneaten food in rubbish tips (probably stuff like quiches, spinach, broccoli, hole-meal bread etc if you ask me).

The main problem however is COWS. Cows produce a lot of Methane . Sooner or later that methane will catch fire somewhere and warm the planet, which we don't want, certainly not at this time of year.

My carefully chosen campaign logo above is intended to bring home forcibly the thret that cows represent to our continued survival on this planet.

No, I am not suggesting that you will ever see flames shooting from a cow's backside, but belief me, sooner or later that Methane will burn up, probably up in the Ozone Layer where you can't see it.

When it does you get Global Warming which is a major cause of storms, hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes, volcanoes, skin cancer, forest fires, and bad TV reception. When it melts the ice at the poles, the Inwits will not have anything to build their igloos with, and polar bears will have to go and live in zoos.

So much for the science. I hope this has not gone over your head. I realise that old people who read this blog cannot be expected to be fully eau fé with all the modern stuff.

So what can we do to save the planet from the scourge of cow bums you may ask ? Quite a lot, you may be surprised to hear. Me and Stasi have drawn up an action plan for GROCE.

It is our aim in the coming months to campaign for the abolition of all cattle-raising and breeding in the UK ( except for Scotland, because my real Dad who's from Ayrshire, and still doing stir at the Scrubs, and looking forward to his release in November, says Aberdeen Angus cattle do not produce Methane).

GROCE intends to see beef and derry products abolished and replaced with substitutes, like farmed cod and scampi, chicken and turkey, imported lamkebabs etc. Who needs milk when there are lots of other drinks with a more exciting taste and colour ?

Once we get rid of cows, we won't need to worry about foot-in-mouth disease either, which sounds very unhygienic. No wonder the silly moos fall ill when you think what they tread in.

Our first target will be the nerve centre of Britain's beef industry, namely the Smithgate meat market in London, assuming it's still there and hasn't been turned into trendy cafés and boutiques. Thousands of beef carcassonnes are sold there as well, so it's not just our own beef we have to worry about, but imported French beef as well.

We intend to set up camp nearby in somewhere that is quite and specious, like Hyde Park maybe. Don't spread this around, we are also thinking of the back garden of Buckingham Palace for its publicity value. We are just waiting to hear back from Brian May, having wrote him and asked if he can suggest a route over the Palace rooftops.

We hope through our days of action to impede the flow of lorries to the market and generally make a nuisance of ourselves. The aim is to make both market porters and the public aware of the damage being done to the planet by all those cows and their emissions.

Let me say straight away that we are normally peaceful law-abiding citizens who simply have the interests of everyone at heart. Sometimes, though people don't bleeding realize (if you'll pardon my French) what is in their best interests and it's then the job of those of us who are better informed to take a lead. I learned that in the new Good Citizenship lessons at the Cherie Blair City Academy, earning a near-pass which is in my Record of Achievement..

Something else we learned about was the necessity for freedom of expression, which is why I refuse to be judgmental about Stasi's friends in the Direct Action group. What they do is of no concern to me, provided it's not done in the name of GROCE.

I personally abwhore all violence, whether it's against people or property, although I would make an exception for my stepfather who's a low-life scumbag, and not someone you would want to share a park bench with.

So if Stasi's strange friends exploit the situation to further their anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation agenda that's not something over which I shall lose a moment's sleep. Maybe that break-in at the Pirbright lab, and spreading those foot-in-mouth germs around the countryside was maybe a bit OTT, but I think they have their hearts in the right place.

You may be wondering what you can do to help, now you are aware of the justice of my cause.

First, obviously, you have to stop eating beef , or meat from any other rheumatoid species, such as lamb, sheep etc. If a single stomach is good enough for us humans, it should be good enough for farmayard animals too. Pigs are OK, despite smelling 10 times worse than cows, and twice as bad as my step-Dad.

Remember, that means no beefburgers, steak-and-kidney pie, rump steak, or burfborg onion if you're posh.

You also have to cut out milk, yoghurt, cheese, butter and other dairy products. Remember, there's always crisps if you're feeling peckish.

Refuse to buy anything made of leather, unless you're certain it's not from a calf, a cow or a bull.

But whatever you do, don't make Stasi's mistake: she invited all the media to a ceremonial burning of her motorcycle gear, being President of the Ilford Hells Angels. So what happens ? A smart arse journalist picks up a smoking fragment of lining and reads the label: "100% pigskin leather". They made her look a right prat. That's the trouble with the media - they try to confuse you with the facts.

A final word: we are desperately short of funds, after participating in the Heathrow demo'. (it's unthinkable there should be an extra runway while there's the slightest chance of cattle being flown in or out the country, and there were passengers wearing or carrying leather too who deserved to have their flights delayed).

Please make your cheques (uncrossed) payable to Chardonnay Crabtree. Send them to me c/o POBox 23, Unit 3, The Old Industrial Estate, Dagenham, Essex.

Remember: £25 buys 5 balaclava helmets, £50 buys wire- cutters and pepper spray, £75 buys a pack of non-traceable SIM cards, £100 buys a sack of marbles and a dozen smoke bombs. £1000 buys a dodgy lawyer on the Legal Aid Panel.

Thanks for hearing me out. I actually quite like old fogies really. You're like me really. Non-judgmental, except on the subject of those bloody cows and their digestive systems.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Did anyone actually see that spectacular meteor shower ?

One of those misleading pictures off the internet of a meteor "shower " (a time-lapse photograph, or more probably artist's impression, needless to say)

I thought the big one was supposed to be on Saturday night. So I watched the night sky up until midnight, saw one or two streaks across the sky, thought "Mmmm, that's promising" and set the alarm clock for 2am.

So there I was, out on the balcony, in a handy recliner chair, scanning the night sky in search of those "spectacular meteor showers", as gushingly described last night on the 10pm BBC News. In the next hour, I saw just 4 streaks of light across the sky, in other words one every 15 minutes or thereabouts. That's a lot of concentration span for a pretty small payoff, especially as the trails were fairly short, not a patch on some I've seen "accidentally" in previous years.

According to the books, these Perseid meteors, so called because they appear to originate from a single point in the sky, corresponding with the Perseid constellation, should arrive at the rate of some 80 to 100 per hour, but that's for the entire night sky.

I don't know about you, esteemed reader, but my particular configuration of eyes and cervical vertebrae only allows me to see a fairly small part of the night sky, possibly an angle of arc of some 100 degrees at the most. I could try viewing meteors as if on the centre court at Wimbledon, but wonder what any neighbours might make of it.

I had decided not to try a second night, until looking at that BBC News bulletin last night, and hearing that the main spectacle was yet to come. More later about some of the ridiculous hype that laced that announcement.

So last night I tried standing or sitting under our Velux in the mezzanine directly under the roof. The hinged glass was tilted to give a view from north-east to south west.

In the space of the next three three and half hours , with muscle cramp, and the sensation, psychosomatically at any rate, of being bitten around the ankles and legs by every passing mosquito I saw 4 meteors. Yes, just 4 !

Admittedly there was a thin haze that was dimming the stars last night, and there was the inevitable light pollution from Antibes, a sizeable town of some 80,000 souls. Is that so unusual ? How many folk have the luxury of viewing the Perseids from a location deep in the countryside one wonders ? My situation was probably more typical than theirs

During a spell of boredom, or was it muscle cramp, I logged on to MyTel, to read that my friend Ped in Britanny had already seen 10 by midnight, but he didn't seem too impressed by the spectacle. Ped, incidentally, has recently been awarded the title of Grumpiest Blogger on MyTel. Grumpiness must be contagious: I wondered where I'd caught it.

Did I maybe miss a hundred meteors while looking at those comments on the computer screen ? Hardly likely methinks.

Now to the BBC. As someone who has previously taught science, I'm glad in a way that Aunty Beeb talks up the subject, given that it now seems in its death throes in the UK, but she's rather given on occasions to over-hyping (think total solar eclipse) , and last night was a case in point.

It began with a reference to the "spectacular meteor shower". That's a misnomer if ever there was, because meteors usually come singly, widely spaced in time, usually by several minutes.

Those photographs or other representations one sees of "showers" (see graphic above) are time-lapse, taken by special cameras, much beloved by astronomers , since they give a permanent record of events for subsequent scientific study. It is quite wrong to portray meteor trails in real time as a kind of firework display.

Patrick Moore was wheeled out, sorry, I meant to say interviewed, as usual. He produced an ancient woodcut, showing multiple meteors radiating from that single point in the sky. Incredibly, however, unless I was not listening properly, he failed to say that it too was an attempt by our ancestors to portray the effect of time-lapse viewing. There IS no simultaneous fanning out of meteors, of the kind portrayed in the graphic above.

That is not the first time that Sir Patrick has been less than candid about what we ordinary mortals can expect to see - with our own eyes.

I have never really forgiven him for the time I sat up into the early hours expecting to see the first encounter between a space probe and a comet, only to be fobbed off with a technicolor computer image of the comet's nucleus. Why had he not explained at the outset that we would not be seeing real video footage, as seemed to be suggested in the programme trailer ?

Sorry, Sir Patrick, I know you're a colourful character, and much beloved for your "Sky at Night" series, which I admit I rarely watched, maybe because I'm somewhat irritated by your stuffed-shirt, bemonacled TV persona. I prefer my TV scientists to look and sound like ordinary folk, without odd mannerisms or 19th century dress sense.

More importantly you don't pass that vital Ronseal test. You don't do what it says on the tin, namely educate. You simply want us to know that there's a whole universe of stuff out there which we lesser mortals can never hope to comprehend,, unless one happens to be an iconic TV astronomer with the initials PM, looking like an irascible character to whom Berty Wooster would have given wide berth.

We were then shown a short video clip of children supposedly watching a previous meteor event . It could have been taken from a Steven Spielberg film. There was this vast blinding incandescent comet-like object arcing toward the group of youngsters, all squealing with excitement -or was it terror ?

Inevitably, parents then were given a big hint that they should postpone kiddies bedtime, and transport their offspring out into the garden to enjoy nature's pyrotechnics. To persuade any doubters who thought the sofa was more comfortbale, there was talk about meteors travelling at 130,000 mph, before colliding with the Earth's atmosphere, but with no mention of those long waits between fiery collisions, say10 minutes on average if you are lucky. Ten minutes is a long time to look at the night sky, especially if you can't be sure of looking in the right direction.

I don't think the BBC is doing science any favours by making the real world look tame in comparison with what children see on the screen. It's self-serving in a way: "When you are bored and disillusioned, come back to us. We the fabled BBC, do things properly, geared to your microscopic attention span, the result, as often as not, of spending 4 hours a day in front of the screen. "

Nerds corner
Two niggles re the science, both minor, but an irritant if one knows the facts. The Beeb correctly referred to meteors being caused by collisions between dust particles in the tail of the comet Swift-Tuttle - often no more than the size of a sand grain, - with the Earth's atmosphere. They then referred to them encountering "friction" between the outer atmosphere, and then "burning up".

In fact the heating is actually not by friction, but by a ram pressure effect. What is a ram pressure effect ? Er, look it up. That's what encyclopaedias are for.

The dust particles do not "burn up", in the usual sense, there being nothing combustible to burn. Sand, which is silicon (IV) oxide, for example, is fully oxidised silicon. The mineral grains first glow white hot and then vaporise. The light one sees is not from the glowing speck itself, obviously, but from the surrounding air which becomes ionized (electrically charged) by the intense heat from the incandescent particle.

Update: Monday 13th Aug 23:43

The sky is clearer tonight, and I caught a glimpse of a meteor just a minute ago. I might try viewing from the sea front later on.

The Times has an article headed: "Meteor showers provide breathtaking sight, but British clouds ruin the view".

There's just one small problem. Its accompanying photograph purports to show a meteor shower, but as one "Samuel in Chicago" points out, it's nothing of the sort, merely a time-lapse photograph of stars wheeling in the night sky.
I submitted the following comment:

"It's OK for astronomers to describe the phenomenon as a meteor "shower", using time-lapse photography, but it's a total misnomer from the standpoint of an observer, relying purely on his or her eyesight. Even under ideal viewing conditions, it's unlikely one would see more than one trail per minute.

Samuel of Chicago is of course right.

I have today reported on two nights of disappointing viewing in the south of France."

Submitting and getting published are sadly two entirely different things where the Times is concerned, as I've said before on more than one occasion. Since that paper steadfastly refuses to date- stamp readers' comments, it may be hours before one knows if one's merely held up in a queue or, as usually happens with my contributions, held back. There is no love lost between myself and the snooty Times.

I believe it's time the media stopped referring to meteor showers, and leave that term to astronomers with their time-lapse photography. Let's simply call them "meteor displays" to avoid raising false expectations.

Links: Wikipedia on "Perseids" and on comets

Wikipedia on the difference between meteors, meteroites and meteoroids

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Why I have re-posted on the Tour Montparnasse

If you're a busy person, ignore this post. If you're a blogger with a touch of geekishness in your makeup, not to say readiness on occasion to think the worst of big business, read on.

I have just re-published a post that appeared at the end of November 2006, entitled "Montparnasse: the Parisian Dark Tower".

Now why would I do that, one might ask ?

There are have been odd things happening with this post for a while. People have been doing Google searches on entirely different topics and have been directed, or rather, misdirected, to my Montparnasse post, and, as often as not, then giving up on their original search .

It gets worse, much worse. In the course of investigating this Montparnasse black hole, I discovered that although I had entered "Tour Montparnasse" into my list of tags, to flag up my modest contribution, "Tour Montparnasse" was not appearing automatically in my list of labels down the righthand side.

What is more, the system still prevents me adding it. It allows "Montparnasse Tour" or "Montparnasse Tower" of simply "Montparnasse" but not "Tour Montparnasse". All very strange, would you not say ?

There may be an innocent explanation, like some glitch or software bug in the system. There again, I may have stumbled on something about the way in which Blogger communicates internally with its parent organization, Google Search, giving greater visibility to some posts rather than others. Note the careful choice of words.

If one enters "Tour Montparnasse" into Google, one gets back a long list of returns. Interestingly, these are usually headed by a sponsored link headed "Tour Montparnasse" which is an advertisement for the Tour, the top floor and roof terrace of which are open to paying visitors. Advertisers pay for those sponsored links. They are the means by which Google has become a multi-billion dollar organization.

My post describes my visit to the Montparnasse tower-block. It relates mainly positive experiences, but lists some negative ones about the multi-story Tower too, like being a blot on the Parisian skyline. I'm not the first to have said that, needless to say.

My post used to be searchable under "Tour Montparnasse" but that is no longer the case, perhaps because of the missing label, or perhaps for some other reason. Who knows ? Any ideas ?

(ed: added Sun 20:55) within an hour of submitting this post, it appeared under listings for a Google search using tour montparnasse, having picked up the above phrase "My post used to be searchable .... ".

It's odd that it went for the phrase in the body of the post, instead of the title.
What's the point of choosing title words carefully, to reinforce tags, if title words are not given top-weighting ?

It will now be interesting to see if it this post goes up or down in the Google rankings. Watch out Google - the tables are turned: Small Brother is watching you.)

It has not disappeared completely off the system: it is still accessible if the search profile includes unusual or "powerful" search terms , but no one will find my post if they have to enter "dreams " or "daemons" into the search profile.

Re-publishing the blog seemed the logical thing to do. I have retained the original title, but entered just one tag/label. You can probably guess what it is: "Tour Montparnasse". Let's see if the post becomes searchable, and if so, for how long.

Footnote: I'd use this occasion to mention another, totally unrelated gripe re Blogger/Google. None of my posts topics are searchable in Google UK. They would only be found from the UK by someone opting to search in Google World Wide Web, but there's a lot of Brits I know who avoid the latter when searching for UK-ish topics, to avoid a welter of US and other listings.

It should be possible to opt for listing under Google UK, or any other national "currency" for that matter.

Update Sunday 12th Aug 20:30

As an illustration of the anarchy of Google image search, try entering plensa nomade antibes, the subject of a recent D&D post. Instead of taking you to that post, it takes you to an image of Prince Charles that I used in the Montparnasse post. Clicking on the image takes you to the Montparnasse post, instead of Plensa's Nomade. One wonders how many prospective readers one is losing through this software glitch.

Montparnasse: the Parisian Dark Tower

ed: This is a re-posting of a topic I covered way back in November 2006 : see the post immediately after this one entitled "Technical Stuff" for the reasons why I have felt obliged to do this.

There was an article in yesterday's Independent. Paris considers itself to be short of high rise office space, placing it at a commercial disadvantage to Moscow and London.(Moscow ? What about Frankfurt ? Or Beijing or Mumbai ?)
So it is planning to add a super-skyscraper to the collection of towers already bristling on the skyline at La Défense. The tallest, to be known as La Phare (The Lighthouse) , scheduled for completion in 2012, will be be 300m high ( almost a 1000 feet in old money), just 20 m shorter than the Eiffel tower.
The central area of Paris is blessedly free (almost) of that scourge of the London skyline – namely the stick-out-like-a -sore-thumb solitary skyscraper. London knows all about those, ones that are hideously out of scale and character with their surroundings.
A year ago, our beloved Deputy PM John Prescott (aka Jabba the Hutt) was reportedly intent on adding some more. Is it too much to hope those plans have been shelved with the loss of his departmental responsibilies for the "environment" .
But there is one exception to the idea of Paris as a harmonious unblighted feast for the eye. It's called the Tour Montparnasse ( see picture above - but don't on any account click, unless you want to enlarge it still further).
This furoncle gets its own entry in Wikipedia, from which some of the following is cribbed.
Built between 1969 and 1972 and 210 metres high, it was ( and may still be ?) the tallest building in the whole of France. But Parisians were so appalled at the sheer brutality of the architecture that it remains to this day a one-off, at least within a 2 mile radius or thereabouts of Notre Dame. All the more recent skyscrapers are further out, notably at La Défense, the Parisian business quarter that is the equivalent of Canary Wharf.
But from the tourist's perspective, the Dark Tower does have one big advantage.

From its enclosed viewing deck (see picture) or windy roof terrace one gets an unbeatable view of Paris, with the bonus that it includes that other iconic tower - the lacy steel one, that Parisians hated at first, but now regard, along with the rest of the world, as a national treasure.

Apologies by the way for the quality of my pictures . They were taken last year, on a grey March day.
Whereas........ if you join the queues to go up the Eiffel Tower, what do you see – the hideous one ! The moral, then, is obvious.
I expect you know that the boxy Arch at La Défence is carefully lined up so that one sees it through the Arc de Triomphe, some 2 miles distant. It's a clever and ambitious idea that, don't you think ? – to create sight- lines that counter the feeling of being trapped in a concrete jungle, even the superior kind of concrete that constitutes the French capital.

The Montparnasse Tour is also said to be lined up with the Eiffel Tower and La Defense. But as sightlines go, it's missing one small ingredient that would lend it impact, like the Champs Elysées/ Ave Charles de Gaulle etc. !

Here are some other pictures from the roof.

The one above is Montparnasse railway station. This is the one you use if you are going to Britanny. Apparently the station is surrounded by Breton creperie, allegedly there for the benefit of Bretons who might feel homesick within 2 minutes of arriving in the capital.
The next one is looking along that artery known as the Rue de Rennes, (mentioned in Day of the Jackal) towards the Seine and the Louvre.

The last one (above) is the stately and charming Jardin du Luxembourg, with Notre Dame behind.
I was not until yesterday, reading Wikipedia' s entry on the Montparnasse tower that I came to hear of the man dubbed the "incredible spider". It's the Frenchman Alain Robert who scales skyscrapers with nothing more than his hands and his feet. And he's done some 70 of the world's most famous. Britain (typically) paid him to do 1, Canada Square ("Canary Wharf") as a promotional stunt.

What makes things bizarre beyond words is that early falls in his youth broke, or smashed, not only his wrists, ankles and pelvis but left him, as a result of head injuries, with (wait for it) vertigo. Yes, vertigo ! Mind you, I confess to having some confusion as to the precise meaning of the term. Until yesterday, that is, through researching this post.
I had always assumed vertigo to mean " fear of heights" or the symptoms that accompany fear of heights, such as stomach butterflies, paralysis etc. (all of which I get when up a ladder painting bedroom window frames). Well, I was wrong, it seems. Fear of heights is called acrophobia, whereas vertigo is dizziness, disorientation etc , not exactly what you want when climbing, but perhaps not totally incapacitating. In none of the online references is there any mention of fear. Which is just as well for the likes of that spiderman: how could anyone scale a multi-story building with virtually nothing to grip onto if he was scared rigid ? Personally, I don't think I could even bear to watch. Is there a medical term for over-empathising, to the extent that you feel that it's YOU up there, hanging on for dear life, picturing oneself as stawberry jam on the pavement below?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Would you sign up to equity release with this Swiss bank ?

I have just been leafing through the glossy Riviera Times, an English language periodical which circulates in this part of the world, including Monaco and the Italian Riviera.

It's an Aladdin's cave stuffed full of useful tips for expats, listing of forthcoming events etc. Its cover price is €2.50 but it depends heavily on advertising.

How effective are those ads, one wonders, in attracting new custom? One assumes the paper would never permit discussion on whether the goods or services on offer are a sound investment . What about independent bloggers ? Should they feel any inhibitions about expressing an opinion on what they read ?

Certainly not this one, your fearless man in Antibes.

Where the owners and editors are concerned, a blog post of this nature has an upside and a downside. Firstly, what follows will prove that readers do look at the ads. The downside is that some of us look at them , especially those making a financial pitch, and begin to speculate about what kind of folk rush to the phone, asking for more details.

It was the full page ad, hastily photographed above, placed by a Swiss bank (whose name is prudently just out of the picture) that caught my eye, under the heading "Your home equity". Well, anyone with a garret or two to their name is interested in home equity, so I read on.

Immediately under the title were the words: "... a valuable factor when you wish to optimise your capital."

Mmm. Personally, I would have thought the best way to optimise capital tied up in a house is to live in it, rent-free, wait till one had a decent equity stake, and then sell, moving into a smaller property, or an equivalent one in a cheaper location.

There's the Anglo-Saxon solution, admittedly somewhat derided, which is to re-mortgage with a lender that is relaxed about leveraged buy-to-let investment, allowing one to recycle equity released as a downpayment on a second home, or even to finance something more ephemeral, like a Caribbean holiday or a BMW.

However, this is France, in which the property market is more conservative, with less fierce competition among mortgage providers (which may help to protect it from the current meltdown in world markets).

When Jane and I enquired about re-mortgaging one property to buy another here in Antibes the reply was somewhat peremptory, along the lines of "that's not how we do things".

"How we do things" is apparently to win the lottery, or wait for a relative to die, leaving you property in their will. The system does not encourage those of limited means to become property speculators.

So that leaves the field wide open for enterprising Swiss and other banks to assist folk who are desperate to release equity from their property, but on terms that we in the UK might find intolerable. I leave you, the reader, to judge for yourselves, based on the following précis.

The scheme imagines you own an upmarket property valued at 1,000,000 euros, on which there is no outstanding charge or mortgage. They clearly don't wish to deal with riff raff.

Using the property as security you are allowed to take out a loan for a maximum of 80% of the value of the property, ie €800,000.

But there are strings attached. You are only allowed to take 20% of the loan (€160,000) as a cash sum, with which to buy your yacht or Porsche. The scheme requires that 80% of the loan be invested in a mix of bonds and equities. The composition of the portfolio appears to be of the bank's choosing.

Secondly, the period of the loan is 30 years, no less (!), and the first 10 years operates on an interest-only basis. The total one pays in interest is not given, but must be hair-raising.

One might have expected a fixed rate of interest, but no, it's only fixed for a year at a time. It's presently 4%, low by UK standards, but times they are a changing. Just wait till Nicolas Sarkozy seizes control of the ECB, assuming Angela Merckel lets him, and runs up the borrowing and budget deficits in Europe as a means of stoking up the French economy !

But there is worse to come re the scheme - much worse- when one looks closely at the setting up-fees. (They are at least clearly set out, so no one can complain they were sold a pig in a poke). They come in at an eye-watering €15,500 for a €800,000 loan.

€2,300 of that is an administration fee, a further €800 is brokerage (why isn't that included in the admin fee?) .

It was spotting the final item that inspired me to write this post, touching as it did a raw nerve. It was a so-called "notarial fee" , ie a fee for legal charges, of, wait for it, €12,400 !

Clearly we are all in the wrong jobs - we teachers, scientists, journalists, translators whatever. If you're a lawyer dealing with loans based on property you are in clover.

I don't pretend to know the current hourly rate for lawyers who are not involved in litigation. Let's say it's €300 an hour for perusing documents, making sure that the claimed owner has title to the property, there are no restrictions or covenants on its sale, no outstanding charges etc, no defects that would reduce its market value etc. How long to do all of that - maybe a maximum of 5 hours ? That comes to €1500, not €12,400. Valuation fees, insurance etc add to the total, maybe a thousand or two. So how can that astronomical total possibly be justified ? How much is actually paid to the notaire, one wonders ? How much is in reality another of those lucrative upfront charges ? Let's not forget: in this case the property is not even being sold - merely used as security.

The rest of the figures in the ad are intended to show how those compulsorily-invested funds generate an income that, at least in the example given, more than covers the loan repayments. One can imagine the salesmen making a big play on that, so let's look at the figures in more detail.

The example supposes that none of the loan is taken as cash (unrealistically in my view), that all €800,000 is invested, generating a total of €190,604 in dividends after 3 years. (We are not told why 3 years are chosen, rather than 30).

From that sum is deducted the following charges: the hefty setting-up fees, already mentioned, investment charges - another whopping €15,690 , and interest payments on the loan of €118,980. That leaves a surplus of €40,434. It's not clear if that can be taken out, or has to stay in the fund. Irrespective, it's a modest amount for 3 years investment, seen alongside the property value. Imagine the property were sold for €800,000, and that sum was invested at 5%. That would yield €40,000 a year - 3 times as much income, and virtually risk-free.

Ah yes, there is the small matter of risk. The equity release is based on servicing a loan at a mortgage rate that can vary from year to the next , while relying on investments to perform better.

Suppose one had signed up to this scheme last week, and then, just as the ink had dried on the contracts, one watched helplessly as equity prices head south, and mortgage interest rates in t'other direction.

The worked examples mention only "expected" yields from the bonds and equities, and is silent on the matter of their underlying value, and how that could play havoc with the gamble one was taking.

But if everything goes pear-shaped, they, the Swiss bankers, not only have the deeds to your house. They also have the share and bond certificates. If you defaulted on repayments, they could, and probably would, take you to the cleaners.

The arithmetic looks even more precarious if some of the loan is taken as a cash sum. There is then correspondingly less to invest, a lower dividend income, but the same hefty monthly mortgage outgoings. This equity release scheme could quickly become a financial quicksand, with a millstone around one's neck.

This scheme might attact someone who has inherited a property, and who wants to release a cash sum without having to sell it (incurring capital gains and other taxes and fees). To be told that dividend income "should" more than cover loan repayments would be music to their ears.

So what is the French, I wonder, for "sailing close to the wind" ? What is the Monégasque for "it could all so easily end in tears" ? What is the Italian for "rather you than me, chum ".

What's the Swiss-German for "laughing all the way to the bank?"

Friday, August 10, 2007

Colin Randall goes from strength to strength

Glancing at the Independent today, I did a double-take, that was followed quickly by a sense of déjà vu.

The headline read "Provençal bar is two steps too close to God"

Now where have we read before about a vexatious proximity between wine pichet and communion cup (vexatious, at any rate, for the French, who, with their tidy minds, like to keep things in their separate compartments) ?

Was it not ex-Telegraph journalist Colin Randall, writing on his Salut! blog ?

Indeed it was, and he is now spreading his wings further as a freelance journalist, reporting for the Independent on the foibles of our occasionally perplexing French neighbour.

(He has other blogging interests too, notably Sunderland football club and folk music, but we'll come back to those another day - or, there again, maybe we won't).

I warmed to his opening paragraph:

"For tourists passing through the idyllic Provençal village of La Motte, the Bar des Cascades is a convenient watering hole on a drive round the spectacular Gorges du Verdon."

Why ? Because although Jane and I have still to visit La Motte we made our first visit recently to those Gorges du Verdon, the subject of a post. What a spectacular region that is, and so handy, as he says, for a day trip from the coast.

Anyway, it's good to see Colin continuing to establish himself as an independent with "un doigt en beaucoup de pies".

Operating as a freelance after the security of salaried employment is no easy task, as this writer (and fellow victim of Mammon) knows from his own experience.

Incidentally, visitors to his Salut! will find yours truly has posted Part 2 of his guest blog. It tells of our our recent mission to Tuscany in search of a strategically-sited location for a planned late-life "gap year".

Some may find the organization of my screed a little puzzling, not to say quirky.
Well, I freely admit to the latter. It is quirky, but I don't like my readers to be puzzled, so a brief word of explanation is in order.

Colin R has suffered in his career, no doubt, at the hands of editors wielding the blue pencil. The original script I sent him was prefaced with a warning that my script was organized as a "conversational Möbius strip", my having borrowed that term from a recent article by that clever and effortlessly (?) eloquent A.A.Gill.

I assumed that most folk would know what a Möbius strip was, but Colin, wearing his no-nonsense editorial hat, appeared to think otherwise.

Möbius strip

My script was originally organized as a long preamble, followed, finally, by the main thrust. Responding to faint praise from my wife, it was then re-organized as main body first, with the preamble as postscript, or should that be "prescript", with a jokey pointer at the end back to the main body.
Oi, wake up there, you in the back row !
By sheer coincidence, AA Gill was writing in the Times that day about that "conversational Möbius strip".

The Möbius strip, apart from being a one-sided loop (yes, one-sided, despite appearances to the contrary !), has some other remarkable properties.
If anyone wishes to know more, I'd be happy to do a short post on how you can make your own in a second or two, and then , with a pair of scissors, proceed to amaze your children or grandchildren .
A word of warning: their school teachers might not thank you for stealing their thunder on this vital part of their armoury, like how to keep 3B quiet on a wet Friday afternoon.
Anyway, to loop back to that initial subject ( that bloody strip again) : one hates to see talent go to waste, especially when it has a rare and fine writing style. So hats off to Colin for picking up the pieces and making the best of a bad situation, in so exemplary a style. His wife and family must be very proud of him We his devoted readers certainly are.
Links to Colin Randall's blogs to follow:

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Why I blame the Tardis police box for a lost youth


Yes, that's right, dismantle it, demolish it. Tell those conservationists or Dr. Who fans to go hang. I'm surprised that any of these pernicious objects still exist on our streets. If they do, then get rid of them, now.

I've explained why in a submission to today's "Your View" in the Telegraph,:

"...time can be warped by the gravitational pull of objects..."

Don't talk to me about time warps. They were commonplace in West London suburbia back in the 1960s.

Each Sunday I would rise at 11am, get dressed, and then find myself drawn by an irresistible force towards The Rising Sun. All my mates were there too, equally helpless to resist The Force.

Now here's the odd thing: we'd re-emerge an hour later, give or take, but on getting home find it was mid-afternoon, with parents furious that we'd failed to show up for Sunday dinner.

Of course, there were still a few of those old-fashioned blue police telephone boxes around, even if rarely used.

I reckon it was they that were warping the local space-time continuum, robbing me and my mates of much of our leisure time as young adults.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

George Orwell was not wrong, maybe just 25 years too early

Current affairs

I have no qualms about filching the above image off Google's image file. My pix on this site are free for the taking, and that splendid and apposite image above adorns a statement put out by a French group promoting international Communism . Well, pure communists don't believe in other folk having private property, do they ?

I found the image quickly by punching "Orwell 1984" into the search box. It seemed just right for today's hot topic in the Telegraph's "Your View" entitled "Has Big Brother taken over our security ?".

I find it increasingly difficult to talk about things in isolation. Other thoughts start crowding in. Oh, what the hell. Let it all come out ...

"Governments come, governments go, but the State and its apparachiks are always there, buiding their databases with a pitiful level of surveillance from the politicians. None of this will change while we continue to cast votes at General Elections for career MPs who won't touch issues of this nature for fear of being branded a maverick.

Nothing will change until the present first-past-the-post electoral system is replaced a more enlightened form of PR, suited to the 21st century. Then it will be possible to form minor parties campaiging on single issues - lower taxation, a proper Freedom of Information Act etc. Though numerically small, their support could be needed for coalition governments, giving them some leverage in a political system that is otherwise dominated by the major parties and their stale or starry-eyed agendas.

If a minor party were successful in its objectives, it could disband, leaving a small lacuna in the political firmanent to be occupied by another campaigning on some other issue that is perceived as peripheral to the big picture, but which is important nonetheless.

Personally I would like to launch a "Build a Britannia Mark 2 for Her Majesty" party. After seeing it launched and presented to her on her 90th birthday (or sooner), I would quietly disband my party, and then launch a new one called "Bring Tax Freedom Day Forward to June 1st".

In the meantime, it should be possible to call a number, and obtain a print-out showing which agencies, public or private, have accessed one's personal details and for what reason, similar to checking one's credit rating with Experian etc. We have the technology - what's needed is for we the public to insist it be made available on our behalf.

As a stopgap measure, the threat to vote tactically at the next General Election as a protest against Big Brother might concentrate a few minds."

Colin Berry, Dreams and Daemons

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The thrills and spills of Old Antibes

Local life

The four pictures you see below were taken in the space of about 10 minutes last night, and are in random order. Anyone care to guess the sequence of events ?

Picture 1
(all pictures can be enlarged by pointing and clicking)

Picture 2

Picture 3

Picture 4

A previous post of mine, on Jaume Plensa's 'Nomade', viewed at its unveiling ceremony in daylight, might just provide a clue ...

Technical PS: anyone know why I get those haloes when using the flash on my horrid digital camera (can't wait to replace it with something better) ?

Foot-and-mouth update

Current affairs

The latest outbreak is still headline news, with the depressing announcement of the discovery of a second affected herd. Being unvaccinated, it too has been culled, and because smoking funeral pyres of cattle are now politically-damaging, the extraordinary decision has been made to move the carcases to Somerset for incineration. How the Somerset beef and dairy farmers must like that.

The Telegraph has opened a thread under Your View, also accessible under the headline article, asking if we think the crisis is being handled properly this time. Here is my second contribution, submitted a few minutes ago, less bland than yesterday's.

"The policy of culling all suspect animals, instead of vaccinating beforehand as a precaution, was one discussed extensively at the start of the 2001 outbreak. We were told that vaccination could mask symptoms, and cause disease to spread further than it otherwise would, and if my memory serves me well, that was considered the clinching argument.

There were others, however, who claimed that the real clincher, behind closed doors, was the special pleading of the cattle farmers, who wished to preserve the status of the UK as F&M-free, and with it their export markets. What we were not told at the time was the cost to the taxpayer of pursuing that policy.

We now know it was some £8 billion - an extraordinary sum of money- just one billion short of the current estimate of hosting the 2012 Olympics. That worked out at something like £1300 for every man, woman and child in the country. Speaking for myself, as someone who probably eats no more than £100 worth of beef a year, I resent having paid some 13 times that amount in extra tax and for what ? Answer: to make compensatation payments to someone else's private-enterprise profit-making business, in which I get no share of the proceeds in the good years, but am expected to act as insurer of last resort when things go wrong.

If farmers wish to continue in this way, with F&M an ever ticking time- bomb that can wipe out millions of animals at a stroke, and make huge dents in the nation's GDP, then why are we, the taxpayer, expected to underwrite this mad exercise in national chauvinism ? Let the farmers arrange private insurance if they wish to play Russian roulette with microbiology. If they won't then let's switch to a policy of vaccination now, and set up research programmes that permit earlier detection of F&M, and restrict movement of animals and carcases except when absolutely necessary."

Update Wed 8th Aug

Have just spotted the following on Orange, one of those handy aggregation sites:

Blogs round-up: foot-and-mouth returns
Posted by Dom Passantino

With a second bout of foot-and-mouth disease confirmed at a farm in Surrey, the bloggers have had plenty to say about the countryside outbreak. Here’s our pick of the blogosphere’s best comments on the topic.

“If farmers wish to continue in this way, with F&M an ever ticking time- bomb that can wipe out millions of animals at a stroke, and make huge dents in the nation's GDP, then why are we, the taxpayer, expected to underwrite this mad exercise in national chauvinism? Let the farmers arrange private insurance if they wish to play Russian roulette with microbiology.”

From Dreams and Daemons

It's nice to be noticed !
Thanks Orange.

British building-site look conquers the USA


The above picture is one I have just this minute spotted - and now filched - from Toby Harnden's Telegraph blog. Maybe I'm still suffering from last night's tumble (about which more later), but I had intended the following as a caption:
"Has no one told the lady that it's vertical stripes for the fuller figure."
But in the course of copying and pasting the picture, I spotted it had been given a simple filename - "bum" - and then took a closer look.
Unobservant me: the title of Toby's post is : "Ifs and butts on the campaign trail". That's the US presidential campaign, btw. Nuff said.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Ken Livingstone's congestion charge, aka London admission fee

Chelsea, West London
Politics and environment

Is one allowed to start a blog post with "once upon a time" ?

Right now my head is spinning, and the only way I can see to order my thoughts is to start with a throwback expression like "once upon a time".

Once upon a time, like yesterday, I was reading the Sunday Times front page. There was an article about Ken Livingstone's London congestion charge, and the way it has quietly mutated into something entirely different. My ears pricked up ( well, no they didn't - I'm not sure what the visual equivalent is ) but anyway I read on, and while I didn't quite get the migraine-like fortification illusions that came last week when attempting to submit to Times online, my hackles began to rise.

At least, I think they did, but I'm not quite sure what or where the hackles are. Maybe hackles are the things that prick up when reading something that looks dodgy ? If so, my hackles are usually in a permanent state of elevation whenever I read about the devious and cunning Ken, which I've been doing from GLC days, back in the 1970s, if not earlier.

Anyway, I read about his proposed "pollution" charge on vehicles that emit more than a permitted amount of C02.

Note that I use quotation marks around "pollution" in referring to C02, which Ken and his ilk do not, given that the labelling of C02 as a pollutant is his 21st century brand of New Speak that allows him to belatedly inflict his 1984ish vision of London on us all (he tried earlier with the defunct GLC, but failed, and is now having a second go in its GLA reincarnation).

Yes, I know I am rambling, and no, I have not taken any illegal substance ( and boringly have never done so in my entire lifetime). But that's the great thing about having one's own blog. One can ramble on interminably, and there's no one saying, please, have mercy, stop.

Sometimes there's a flood of words and ideas, trying to get out, without a single superstructure on which to order them. Today is a case in point.

"Congestion charge" ? What a misnomer! What a confidence trick ? What an insult to the intelligence, and an even bigger insult to the pocket if you're driving anything bigger than a Citroen C4 !

Shortly after it was first introduced, traffic levels in the Mark 1 congestion zone were said to have dropped 30%. Ken said he had no plans to increase the charge, nor the zone. Then the queues began to build up again, and what did Ken do ? He increased the charge, now £8 a day, and extended the zone westwards to Kensington and Chelsea. Traffic levels are now just 9% below what they were before the charge was introduced.

Before you sat in a traffic jam for 30 minutes, burning petrol, creating pollution - the real stuff - like carbon monoxide (despite catalytic converters), unburnt hydrocarbons etc. The last thing you were concerned about was carbon dioxide, which was, after all, keeping Green Park green, and all the parks, Royal or otherwise, and gardens too for that matter.

Now you sit in the same traffic jam almost as long, creating all the same pollutants, but now you are paying for the privilege of being there, and being punished NOT for creating carbon monoxide etc - a threat to the quality of inner City life - but carbon DIoxide, which is no immediate threat to you or anyone else around you, but a perceived threat to the entire planet through being a greenhouse gas.

Ken and his ilk are apparently so concerned about planetary C02 that he has created a new environmental tax. If Ken deems you a global polluter he will hit you with a huge extra penalty, even if your effect on London air is minimal. Haven't we been here before ? Remember when left-wing strongholds were declared nuclear-free zones ? Gesture politics ? Political grandstanding ? The loony left ?

He would have much preferred to wage his class war by taxing you on the make and cost of your vehicle, but that would be too difficult to administer. So he has a carbon pollution tax instead, that still hits the nobs in their 4x4 s, or even your 2 litre Peugeot 406 ( the car I had when last living in the UK).

And while you or I may think it's a sordid bit of nob-bashing, he can claim with that sneering smile of his that it's all environmentally green and good for the planet, even if the benefits to Londoners are not immediately obvious.

Oh, but they are. How silly of me to wander off like this, when I had intended at the outset to start this post from an entirely different angle, but knew it would end with the Artful Dodger of GLA HQ. When you read the next paragraph you will perhaps understand why my head's in a spin.

Once upon a time (well, last week actually) Jane and I were in Pisa, the subject of my post on Colin Randall's Salut, and I was amazed to find firstly how down-at-heel Pisa looked, needing a few billions of euros for facelift, yet how we had been able to visit that Leaning Tower without paying so much as a centime.

In fact, apart from a snack, and later, lunch, we made no contribution whatsoever to the City's coffers, and the same could presumably be said for the millions of other tourists who visit Pisa each year.

So I got to musing about walled cities in the Middle ages, thinking, "I bet they didn't allow foreigners access without stopping them at the city gate, and charging an entrance fee."

So I googled "city state entry charge" to see what I'd get.

Amazing: one of the first returns was for a news item from the Independent I had read about last year, namely for plans to charge an entry charge for tourists who visit Venice . (Good thing too in my view, especially if it cuts down the daytrippers off those absurdly large cruise ships that are damaging the lagoon).

Now that was quite a coincidence, would you not say ? The same article mentioned that plans were in hand for other Italian tourist sites to do likewise, although curiously no mention of Pisa.

But then my eye alighted on a gem of a sentence that is responsible for my current blogger's block, or should that be cybersensory overload ?

" ...... The admission that a scheme to charge visitors is on the table comes in the context of a wave of enthusiasm for admission charges to major cities, the idea pioneered on a large scale by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. "

Wow. Isn't that internet research for you. Up comes what you wanted, but it's got something else that totally preempts your reasons for doing the research, casting one in the role of also- ran, or plagiariser, were one to push on regardless.

I refer, needless to say, to that reference to Ken Livingstone, not as a pioneer of a congestion charge, which as already indicated has largely failed in what it set out to do, but as someone who is the de facto pioneer, intentional or otherwise, of what might be called a "city admission charge".

Once upon a time there was a blogger who thought he could cope with anything the internet threw at him ......

Well, as you can see, we have come full circle, and I seem to have nothing to say that has not been said already, but I'm still indignant, still uptight. Why is that ?

It's that abuse of the science, I think, with Professor Livingstone self-servingly describing CO2 a pollutant, as a pretext for charging an entry tax to London . His sources are impeccable of course: if you go to the fat tfl (Transport for London) report on the congestion charge, you will see tables for vehicle pollution that list nitrogen oxides, PM10s, ie soot particles from diesels and one, and one, just ONE other item - yes, it's that deadly, noxious stuff called CO2 (despite it sustaining all life on earth, starting with the green producers at the bottom of the food chain).

The concept of an admission charge to London may be an entirely valid one, as valid for London as it would be for Venice and Pisa. But call it such, please, Commissar Livingstone. Don't dress it up as something else. It's not a pollution tax if it ignores nitrogen oxides, PM10s, sulphur dioxide and other agents directly injurious to human health. It's not a CITY "pollution tax" if based on C02. If it were, then every city, town, village in the world would be equally entitled to throw road blocks in one's path , imposing a punitive tax to let one drive on.

C02 may certainly be a threat to the planet: the evidence for that is becoming harder to falsify by the day (and that's what we scientists- or ex-scientists do - we try to falsify theories , rather than be starstruck by every plausible -sounding idea). But are we now going to wage war on every appliance that burns fossil fuels - such as our gas- fired central heating systems ? Are we looking for ways to block-up every volcano on the planet that vents C02 ( yes, I read somewhere that volcanoes emit vastly more C02 than all the man-made sources put together) ?

So please stop using mickey mouse science to justify your fake environmental tax, Ken Livingstone, aka London admission charge. Try telling it as it is, without all the smoke and mirrors.

I think I'm finally there, folks, you'll be relieved to hear, but the daemons of "dreams and daemons" have clearly been making their presence felt today.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Taking the rest of the day off


The previous post concerning the latest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain is not quite complete. It might have been entitled " The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind (perhaps)" but that hypothesis - which is not mine, I hasten to add - has now been somewhat overtaken by events.

The strain of virus is unusual, and corresponds with one being used in a research laboratory just three miles down the road from the sole outbreak so far in Surrey. The obvious conclusion is that there has been a breakdown in biosecurity.

Serious though that is, it will be a relief if that is indeed the cause, assuming the present outbreak was spotted fast enough to prevent it spreading. Full marks to Gordon Brown ( not up till now my favourite politician, at least in his role as stealth-taxing Chancellor) for cancelling his holiday plans to chair those Cobra meetings.

Yours truly currently has guest spot on Colin Randall's Salut! blog. There is to be a second instalment towards the end of next week.

If you arrive at this post late, say in a fortnight's time (that's two weeks if you're American), you will find my dreams and daemons laid bare in Salut!'s archives under "Forum" in the left hand margin.

Thanks, Colin, for the invitation.

BTW: Blogger allows me to use "Salut" as a tag, but not "Salut!" !

PS Apologies to recent visitors if they have had problems with this site, like getting multiple images as soon as they try to scroll down. The source of the problem has been pinpointed and dealt with. It was the recent post which had 10 of YouTube's thumbnails on the one page. This post has been placed into Edit mode, where it's now invisible, and will remain so until I have time to go through and replace those memory-hungry thumbnails with simple URL links - they make less demand on a computer resources.

Louise please note (if you're reading this): I've had exactly the same problem with your site, ever since you switched to the dark blue page and/or have inserted lots of images.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Foot-and-mouth disease is Britain's recurring nightmare, but why ?

Sahara dust: is this the source of Britain's foot-and-mouth disease ?

Science/animal health/environment

Here we go again: Ministry scientists in their biohazard suits, spraying disinfectant. EU bans on cattle movement.

We know what to expect: dire warnings about the loss of the UK's beef and dairy exports, ruinously high compensation payments to farmers, more of those TV images of funeral pyres of cattle, a repeat
performance of 2001. Fasten your seatbelts, UK taxpayer, we have flown into an area of turbulence, yet again.

And why ? All because that microscopic virus , an incomplete organism we are told, with no independent existence, except as a parasite, has returned to the UK, quite how no one is sure.

Perhaps it was on the wind, or on vehicles returning from abroad, or feet. Perhaps it was a re-activation of latent virus, lying dormant since the last outbreak. Or maybe you are open to conspiracy theories, in which case it was bio-terrorism. Thinks: who doesn't like us ? No, that would take too long...

Irrespective of how it gets here, once it's in, it is devilishly difficult to control, more so, it would seem, that in neighbouring EU countries such as Eire, Denmark, the Netherlands etc. Now why is that, one asks ?

We all learn at school how we raise our cattle in the western half of the country, with higher rainfall, a damper climate with lush pastures, preferring to keep the drier eastern half of the country for growing crops, such as wheat, sugar beet, legumes etc.

What that means is that once the virus gets in, by whatever means, and infects a single animal, it then has near ideal conditions in which to transmit infections , not necessarily by direct animal-to- animal contact, as Ministry officials hopefully surmise, but simply by blowing on the wind, especially at dawn when those mists lie over those fields in the valleys.

Now consider the devastating effect on our economics. The UK is supposed in theory to be a free-enterprise nation, or so we are told. Anyone is free to buy some land and a herd of cattle, for milk or beef, and pocket a few EU grants in the process.

If it's a good year, then you bank your profits, and pay the same graduated taxes as your neighbour, who runs a filling station, or a sweet shop in the village, without benefit of subsidies.

If your animals infected, through no negligence of your own ( or you are Bernard Matthews, in which case the rules are waived), then you are deemed a victim of events beyond your control, and if your animals have to be slaughtered, then you can put in a claim for compensation that is based on the market value of your animals, prior to their being infected. After a period of upset and inconvenience, you have a substantial cash sum in the bank that allows you to start over again. You have not paid a single penny towards an insurance policy, so who has picked up the tab ? Answer: central government, in the first instance, and we the taxpayer in reality, whether we like it or not. No one bothers to consult, needless to say.

Free enterprise economy ? It is nothing of the sort. Our system is essentially a soft-centred form of Stalinism, which allows farmers to make hay while the sun shines, then rushes to protect them at the first drop of rain, waving blank cheques from the taxpayer. You might like to remember that next time the speeding de-luxe 4x4 careers round the bend on the single lane road, forcing you into the rough at the side.

Why are we, the taxpayer, so obliging, so understanding, so complacent, passive and indifferent, seeing as how we are the victims of a State-sanctioned con-trick that make us the insurer of last resort, with no cut of the profits in the good years ?

Clearly, it has a lot to do with the curious rôle the Chancellor plays in that unwritten UK constitution., someone who is appointed by the PM, not the electorate. But then, we do not appoint the PM directly either. No 2's task is to look after the finances, veto expensive proposals, over-rule PMs even, yet who is given a green light to play Father Christmas on the pretext of protecting industries, livelihoods, jobs, and, oh yes, that rural vote.

But enough of the politics. Can anything be more depressing thatn watching the way UK Chancellors misspend and squander billions of taxpayers' money, pouring it into blackholes where it disappears without trace. Meanwhile the infrastructure: the roads, railways, airports, water, and other utilities, high streets, schools, hospitals, deteriorate year on year, and one thinks how much better things could be if cash were properly channneled where it's really needed.

A slight change of focus now: you may be wondering why I chose the particular above of the car caked in dust. Yes, it was almost certainly Sahara dust that settled on them with a few drops of summer rain: the picture could have been taken in the UK, but was in fact taken on the outskirts of Pisa on our recent trip to Italy.

I had taken it, intending to add it to an archive of photos to accompany a new theme on this blog, started recently, on innovative technology that might be brought to bear that could make the world's deserts green, especially the Sahara.

At the risk of seeming to go off at a tangent, I would mention that I did a post recently on that vast untapped planetary resource, the Sahara desert, blessed with an abundance of solar energy, but lacking an essential ingedient, namely water, that leaves it essentially unpopulated. But is the desert sand potentially fertile, if modern technology could supply it with water (eg by piping electrolytic hydrogen from the coast, and combusting it to pure water inland) ?
Internet research quickly picked up on the fact that Sahara dust not only falls on Europe, but is carried on winds right across the Atlantic Ocean, depositing vast amounts of dust (millions of tons) on the oceans, and, more importantly, on the Amazon rain forest. Incredibly, this dust is now suspected to be a major source of plant nutrients for this hugely important planetary resource, one which traps a vast amount of carbon as living biomass, slowing the accumulation of atmospheric greenhouse CO2, and the rate of global warming and climate change.
Despite its lush appearance, the soil beneath those trees is a virtual desert in terms of minerals and other nutrients, most of which are already locked up in the vegetation. Without that sprinkling of Sahara dust, the Amazon rain forest would probably have died out millennia ago, to be replaced by a barren landscape.
Speculation ? Fantasy ? Maybe, but even Darwin noted the dust clouds in the sky above him as the Beagle headed west across the Atlantic. That first rate scientist was not content to note the sky was dusty. He collected some of the dust that fell, on the ship, and his precious instruments, making the following observations:
“Generally the atmosphere is hazy; and this is caused by the falling of impalpably fine dust, which was found to slightly injured the astronomical instruments. The morning before we anchored at Porto Praya, I collected a little packet of this brown-coloured fine dust, which appeared to have been filtered from the wind by the gauze of the vane at the mast-head. Mr. Lyell has also given me four packets of dust which fell on a vessel a few hundred miles northward of these islands. Professor Ehrenberg finds that this dust consists in great part of infusoria with siliceous shields, and of the siliceous tissue of plants. In five little packets which I sent him, he has ascertained no less than sixty-seven different organic forms! The infusoria, with the exception of two marine species, are all inhabitants of fresh water. I have found no less than fifteen different accounts of dust having fallen on vessels when far out in the Atlantic. From the direction of the wind whenever it has fallen, and from its having always fallen during those months when the harmattan is known to raise clouds of dust high into the atmosphere, we may feel sure that it all comes from Africa.” (Darwin 1897, p. 4-5)
So what you may ask is the relevance of all this to outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain ? Sahara dust, as noted, is now believed to be a a carrier of plant nutrients to a distant continent. Might it not also being carrying less desirable passengers to the UK, and other countries to the north, like microorganisms, including the viruses that cause foot-and-mouth and other diseases ? Attached to a dust particle, the virus particle may be protected from solar uv radiation that would normally have a sterilising effect. On arriving in Britain, and settling in damp pastures, the virus then re-activates and becomes infective. That's the theory, anyway, and although far from proven, it is one whose implications need to be considered in any discussion of the viability of our dairy and beef industry.
More to follow

Amazingly, much of Sahara dust comes from one small area - the Bodélé depression, marked with a red circle. It's the remains of a dried-up lake, where the lie of the land causes winds to funnel though a gap at high speed, stirring up vast clouds of dust. Their path across Africa and the Atlantic has been tracked by satellite imagery.

Update Monday 8th Aug. "Has the Government handled the foot-and-mouth crisis effectively?" is the title of today's "Your View" in the Telegraph, to which I've just submitted the following:

"What may have saved the day on this occasion ( we hope) is the boring old science, which the public and media take for granted. I refer to the speedy identification of the F&M viral strain as an unusual one not seen in the UK since the 60s, and the equally quick realization that this strain was presently being used for vaccine production.

Of course the nearby Institute of Animal Health IS ramshackle and run down. Such is the fate of most publicly-funded research institutes that do the patient, painstaking, research needed to keep tabs on each new variant of human and animal infectious disease.

In America, it is poorly maintained bridges that collapse. In Britain, it's our science and technology infrastructure that is neglected. Both suffer for the same reason: they are seen as unsexy, and drip-fed just sufficient funds to maintain an appearance of responsibility.

Note the way our research institute directors are hauled in front of the cameras on a Sunday when something goes wrong. What kind of recognition do they get when things don't go wrong ? Answer: only jealousy and sniping at their public service pensions for a lifetime of unglamorous attention to detail, and virtual anonymity - not even a modest OBE or even MBE- but that's provided, of course, nothing goes wrong on their watch."