Sunday, 26 October 2008

500 places to see before they disappear

There's a new book out that lists 500 places to see before they disappear because of climate change or aggressive developers. According to Holly Hughes, co-author, "this book is a carefully chosen list of last-chance destinations that eco-conscious travellers can enjoy - if they move sharpish". Eco-conscious?! How best to move sharpish? By plane I'd wager.

Travelling to see somewhere before it disappears because of climate change simply hastens its departure date. You get to see it, admittedly, but you reduce the number of other people that will be able to enjoy it. You'd have to be pretty selfish to say, "I think I'm important enough to fly to the Everglades/the Dead Sea/Peru/The Falklands/New York before they disappear/change forever. Other people might not get to see them but I should because I'm me."

There are some British entries that you might be able to get to in a relatively sustainable way such as the Jurassic Coast in Dorset and Roundstone Bog in County Galway but here the authors remain oblivious to the idiocy inherent in their work. Also included are Hadrian's Wall, whose biggest threat is identified by The Guardian as being the "tourists who walk [its footpath]", and The Burren, County Clare, where "more hikers are trampling over it to marvel at the stone relics of its ancient inhabitants."

Hughes's co-author Larry West states that "The planet is poorer every time we allow something beautiful to die." The planet is also poorer every time some idiots bring out a book urging us to be selfish.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

One in ten British prisoners are ex-Forces

Research carried out by the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) shows that roughly 10% of those incarcerated are ex-services. Elfyn Llwyd brought attention to this fact by hosting a parliamentary debate last Tuesday. He talked of receiving communication from one ex-serviceman:

"...on the conclusion of his tour of duty he was flown to Cyprus with his comrades for three days’ R and R. There was alcohol day and night. On the concluding day, they were all put together in a hall and an officer asked them, “Any problems, anybody? No? Fine.” Tick the box, and that was it. Obviously, in the macho culture that exists in the services, those men would not admit problems in the presence of their friends and comrades."

Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have calculated that as of late 2007, the UK had spent some £7bn on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While this may compare favourably to the $3tn that the USA has spent, why hasn't more of that £7bn been spent on post-combat care?

Llwyd went on to quote an article from the Independent on Sunday that sets out some MoD expenditure: "£86.8 million was spent on private education for officers’ children, and in the Royal Air Force £1 million was spent on chauffeurs, £3.4 million was spent on waiters in officers’ messes, £800,000 was spent on bar staff and £2.8 million was spent on paying chefs."

Not only does the government send them to fight an unjust war and is failing them in combat, it does not care enough what happens to them when they return.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

150 years of Cardiff history or 50 parking spaces?

One of the oldest buildings in Cardiff is set to be demolished next summer. The Council plan to pull down The Vulcan pub on Adam Street to make way for a car park that will serve the St David's 2 shopping centre.

The situation is made worse by the fact that, according to the developers' own leaflet, the demolition of The Vulcan will add a mere 50 parking spaces to the 450 that are already available on that site. There will in addition be 2000 spaces on top of the shopping complex and 550 underneath John Lewis.

The Vulcan was opened in 1853 and has retained its original frontage. Three years ago owners Brain's were adamant that they would not sell. However, despite the landlords making good money, the brewery have since been served with a compulsory purchase order. It is institutions like The Vulcan that make a place that bit different and provide some relief from the ubiquitous everytown high rise flats, Starbucks and Walkabouts.

There is a Facebook campaign group and a campaign blog with petition. If you live in Cardiff contact your local Councillor about this atrociously short-sighted, profit-driven decision. We've got about six months to change their minds!

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Could Welsh rugby organise a piss-up in a brewery?

The Guardian reports that Wales wonder coach Warren Gatland is questionning his position. The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) and Gatland want the regions to release their international players thirteen days ahead of the opening Autumn fixture against South Africa. They argue that this is in line with the existing participation agreement between the WRU and the regions, signed in 2004.

However the regions are refusing and claim that Gatland did not approach the regions with his requirements for the whole year as the agreement requires. Asking for players to be released at this stage in the season is not allowed for in the agreement. Such a move would also leave the regions' squads depleted for the final group round of the Anglo-Welsh Cup. The resulting stand-off has led to the WRU asking the International Rugby Board for a ruling to resolve the matter.

In the meantime the regions have formed a group - Regional Rugby Wales (RRW) - that will speak with a united voice when dealing with the union. Former WRU Chief Executive and author of the 2004 agreement David Moffett has been recruited to head RRW and says that the regions want a new participation agreement, presumably along the lines of that negotiated in England earlier this year. That left the clubs in a much stronger position than before, receiving healthy sums for releasing international players and bypassing the union when striking sponsorship and television deals.

Wales's previous Grand Slam-winning coach Mike Ruddock prophesised back in March that the only thing that could stop Wales from conquering the world was internal discontent. Ruddock lost out in a power game with the WRU and Welsh rugby was in the doldrums for more than a year. Gatland has the WRU under control but the creation of RRW means that the regions could well prove to be his bete noire.

Friday, 17 October 2008

McCain fries French

Speaking on the Late Show with David Letterman earlier this week, John McCain blamed the French for several high profile inappropriate comments heard at electoral rallies. [At 8m56s into the video.]

Letterman asked the Senator from Arizona about the Republican supporters who have been heard to shout 'Traitor' or 'Terrorist' when he or Sarah Palin ask 'Who is the real Barack Obama?'. McCain responded by saying 'There are always a few French people who will abuse their constitutional rights.' Blaming the French for these outbursts represents a new low in Republican attacks on Europe and its alleged elitism.

This allegation has not been well received in Paris where the Quai d'Orsay released this statement:

"Nous sommes completement etonnes par les mots de Senateur McCain. Il devrait s'en tenir a produire des frites."

Alexis de Tocqueville was unavailable for comment last night.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Cwmniau Cleantech clodfawr

Two of the top ten hottest clean technology companies in Europe are based in Wales. According to Cleantech 100, produced by The Guardian and Library House, Deep Stream Technologies in Bangor and Atraverda of Abertillery are worthy of a place in the higher echelons.

Deep Stream Technologies are reshaping electronic circuits to monitor, measure and manage energy at the point of use. Sensors within the circuits help to control the use of power.

Atraverda work with conductive ceramic that stores power better than conventional lead-acid methods. This allows for smaller, lighter, more powerful and longer-lasting batteries. The bipolar batteries developed by Atraverda can be 40% smaller, 30% lighter, and use approximately 50% less lead than normal batteries.

Other Welsh companies to make the list are Inetec, Bridgend, generating energy from food waste, Pelikon, Caerphilly, developing next generation liquid crystal displays, and G24i, Cardiff, creating new solar cells that operate in low-light conditions.

Jimmy of Wales

When both First Minister and Deputy First Minister were in Kentucky for the handover of the Ryder Cup, much was made of Wales needing to boost its image abroad, especially in the States and especially among businesspeople.

Step forward Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia. He should be signed up to record a TV commercial exploring Wales. The guy's got the perfect name and the perfect profile to penetrate the USA psyche with tales of Wales. With a name like that I can only assume that there's some Welsh link somewhere in his ancestry; even if there's not, if it were me I'd still be interested in learning about the country I had for a surname.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008


The French Sports Minister has declared that booing the French national anthem prior to an international friendly match will result in the cancellation of the fixture. Her decision follows Tunisian attempts to drown out the singer of the Marsaillaise at the Stade de France last night, herself of Tunisian origin.

Liechtenstein got off lightly last Saturday, then, as their anthem sounds suspiciously like that of our near neighbours.

Miliband of Brothers

Foreign Secretary David Miliband has claimed that climate change is a 'low impact risk'. Interviewed in the October edition of Prospect, the former Environment Secretary compares climate change and terrorism in terms of their probability and the risk they pose to the UK (his second answer under ' On British politics, the future of Labour and the left'). He says that terrorism is low probability but high risk, while climate change is the opposite.

On the risk that climate change poses to the UK Miliband has got it wrong. It is true that we might not suffer most from changes in our immediate climate - although the floods will most likely get worse and more frequent, and the summers might disappear as they did this year - but the mistake that Miliband makes is to consider climate change solely from an environmental perspective. It is much more than that. It will create huge movements of peoples, seeking land safe from rising sea levels, floods, droughts, and hurricanes, and suitable for agriculture to sustain them. It will create conflict where these migrations inflame tensions between the nations of the world. There is in reality no limit to the impact that climate change will have, particularly for a nation like the UK that will be seen as a haven due to its relatively unaffected climate and its wealth.

One can only hope that his brother at the newly created Department for Energy and Climate Change has a different view. Although seeing the government's recent approval of a new runway at Stansted, it doesn't look like Miliband Jr has much clout at the Cabinet table.

The absence of love is the most abject pain

Herr Lipp and Icelandic PM Geir Haarde share more than a passing resemblance; both are denied the love they crave. Justin resists Herr Lipp's amourous advances and Gordon certainly doesn't love Geir.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

US National Debt clock "too small"

A couple of days ago the display that records US National Debt became too small to accommodate the new $10 trillion figure.

Re-thinking recycling

First we learn that Wales is recycling more than ever before. Then we hear that the amount of harmful gases Wales releases into the atmosphere continues to increase. This is reminiscent of a story earlier this week about a couple who had recycled enough tins, bottles and cans at their local supermarket to earn thousands of loyalty points that they then spent on two return flights to the US. (Point, the, missed, they).

Recycling is commendable in as much as it develops understanding that many resources are finite, and it is an easy way for people to engage with the climate change agenda. People and politicians alike have latched onto recycling precisely because it is easy, but it is only one aspect of a familiar refrain: 'Reduce, re-use, recycle'. It is obvious that even recycling double what we do now will not prevent the disastrous consequences of climate chaos - especially if that means twice as many loyalty points and twice as many transatlantic flights.

WWF have calculated that if everyone on earth lived as we do in Wales, we would need three planets to sustain that lifestyle. We simply have to reduce our levels of consumption; the way we are living now literally cannot last.

The world has recently been caught out living beyond its financial means and is suffering a massive 'correction'. The WWF research shows that an environmental 'correction' is inevitable, and it would be more devastating in the long term than any financial collapse. Reducing drastically our environmental footprint now will make that environmental 'correction' less painful.

In one way Wales is lucky. Power stations account for over a third of Wales's carbon dioxide emissions and Wales has wind, waves and tides in abundance that could replace dirty coal. If we are going to cut emissions, leadership needs to be evident and big decisions taken about the de-carbonisation of our energy supply.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Price misses the mane target

Sport and politics do not mix. This mantra was heard for months leading up to the Beijing Olympics as justification for attending the games in a country whose human rights record is second-last to none. Is Adam Price not familiar with it?

He wrote an article recently, referring to it on his blog, that questionned the future of the British and Irish Lions. The Lions, he said, should be "superseded by a standing European team which would play a series every two years, alternately home and away, against a Southern Hemisphere XV: a sort of Ryder Cup for rugby." The reasoning behind this idea was "half sporting, half identity-politics". It looks more like 100% identity-politics to me.

Even were this European team to exist alongside the Lions - highly unlikely given the already full fixture calendar - such a move would serve to dilute the Lions project. Rugby fans rightly love the Lions: the heritage, the all-too-rare series wins; one simply can't argue for an attack on the Lions from a sporting point of view. In making his case, Price says that the world has changed. Indeed it has; 'British' no longer necessarily means empire.

Plaid made good ground in several south Wales councils in May. They gained six seats in Caerffili, three in Torfaen, seven in Rhondda Cynon Taf and now lead the Council in Caerffili. Price's comments on the Lions will no doubt have been heard and discussed in one of the rugby heartlands. He must hope that his comments, sacreligious to many in the rugby world, do not alienate these new-found voters. As Director of Elections, he should concentrate instead on communicating Plaid's vision for Wales in terms of jobs, education, health and housing.

David Cameron: odd one out

Of the four most senior members in the Conservative Shadow Cabinet, only David Cameron did not go to Magdalen College, Oxford. Shadow Chancellor George Osborne, Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve, and Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague were all privileged enough to have a deer park outside their bedroom window at university. Cameron had to make do with Brasenose.

Grieve for Davis

A combination of reading Nick Robinson's blog telling how 42-day detention is now dead and coming across a Guardian interview with Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve made me think, how did David Davis get on in his by-election?

It was back in June that Grieve's predecessor resigned over the government's proposal to extend the period of detention without charge from 28 to 42 days (or, in his words, over the government's 'strangulation' of British freedoms). He triggered what was to all intents and purposes a single issue by-election in Haltemprice and Howden, causing masses of media coverage for a few days, but I have absolutely no idea what the outcome was.

It transpires that Davis won with over 17,000 votes, almost 6,000 fewer than he received in 2005 yet tripling his majority. The Green Party came second with over 1,700 votes. Turnout was 34%. In the event, there were 26 candidates including David Icke and those representing 'Church of Militant Elvis Party', 'Make Politicians History', and 'Miss Great Britain Party'. Labour did not field a candidate, calling Davis's resignation a 'farce' and a 'stunt'. The Lib Dems also decided not to contest the election.

So was it worth it? Are Davis's by-election and the Lords' reported inclination to hammer 42 days linked? Davis says that before his resignation polls showed that 69% of people supported the government on 42 days, but afterwards this figure had fallen to 39%. Davis certainly gained himself and the issue a great deal of publicity by resigning. However the story quickly disappeared and Davis lost the trust of David Cameron and a seat on the front bench in the process. Moreover, given the conservative nature of the Lords, they are somewhat unlikely to have been moved by the extraordinary actions of a member of the Shadow Cabinet. 42 days would have failed without David Davis's resignation.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The mind boggles Part One

From BBC News 24...

Presenter: Could we see something approaching the Depression of the 1920s [sic]?
Will Hutton (via telephone): ...[it's possible that the crisis] could wipe 5-10% off UK GDP - this country's biggest ever fall, not as bad as the USA in the 1930s but still...
Presenter: Will Hutton, thank you. And now Entertainment 24.

[Very short Entertainment 24 title sequence]

Presenter: I am so excited right now.
Ent 24 presenter: So am I.
Presenter: I love High School Musical.
Ent 24 presenter: Yup, and number three's coming out. Have you seen one and two?
Presenter: Like, ten times.

Me: Like, who gives a fuck about High School Musical in the midst of what could be the country's biggest ever economic crisis?

I bet on a horse at ten-to-one and it came in at half-past five

The Western Mail reports today on the unnoticed success that Wales is enjoying in the world of horse racing. Wales currently provides four of the top ten National Hunt trainers. Surprising though this is, the piece fails to mention Sam Thomas winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup this year, Carl Llewelyn's successful move into training or the amazing return from injury of Christian Williams.

The article does draw attention to the importance of the horse racing industry to rural communities. South west Wales, home of two of the four trainers, is fast becoming a horsey hub. Alongside Wales's first horse hospital at Narberth, the new racecourse at Ffos Las, near Trimsaran, will be completed next August - the first new National Hunt racecourse to be built in the UK for 80 years.

While horse racing may help rural communities, the betting industry that it spawns is turning some urban areas into pockets of uniformity, feeding on the dreams of those who live there. On a recent half-hour walk through Grangetown, I passed at least six betting shops.

About a year ago the applications process for new betting shops was relaxed. Previously, the bookmaker had to prove that demand in the area was not already fulfilled; last September this requirement was removed. As a result, councils can turn down an application only if they are able to prove the bookmaker is not "fit and proper", unfair to punters, a source of disorder and putting children or other vulnerable people at risk.

It is not only horse racing that draws in the punters, of course. Each betting shop is allowed four 'fixed odds betting terminals' - electronic touch-screen roulette and blackjack machines. The Guardian estimates that they produce £2000-2500 of profit per week and notes that they have been dubbed 'the crack cocaine of gambling addicts'.

The Gambling Commission survey of 2007 found that most people in the UK (68%) take part in some form of betting. If we remove the National Lottery from the results and examine all other forms of gambling - casinos, bingo, horse racing, etc. - around 1,000,000 more people placed a bet in 2007 than in 1999. Indeed betting on horse racing jumped from 13% of all betting to 17% over the same period and was the only form of betting that both men and women did more of. There are over 250,000 problem gamblers in the UK, mostly from low-income backgrounds.

The rash of betting shops spreading across our towns and cities not only removes a little more of their individuality, it also facilitates the proliferation of poverty in what are often already deprived areas.

[I should point out that I like a bet (and was gutted when Thomas won on Denman as I was on Kauto Star). Unsurprisingly there are no betting shops in Pontcanna.]

Thursday, 2 October 2008

PFI: People Filched Indiscreetly

Politicians' lack of foresight never ceases to amaze. On climate change, even when a former Chief Economist of the World Bank advises to "spend 1% of global GDP to address climate change now or global GDP will be 20% lower than it otherwise would be", still the wheels of change are turning so slowly, if at all.

On Public Finance Initiative (PFI), New Labour has since 1997 enthusiastically embraced John Major's idea to open up the public sector to private competition. This is in spite of the fact that schemes run under PFI tie the tax-payers of tomorrow into decades of payback and end up costing far more than they would had they been directly paid for by government in the first place. As things stand today PFI contracts in the NHS alone will provide private companies with £23bn profit over the next thirty years.

In Wales there are 42 PFI projects with a capital value of over £1bn. Neath Port Talbot Hospital was built under PFI at a cost of £66m. The tax-payer will end up paying the private company £300m, nearly five times the original cost. St David's Community Hospital in Cardiff will cost nearly eight times as much to the tax-payer as the private company spent on its development.

It seemed that the One Wales government had seen the iceberg as it ruled out the use of PFI in the Welsh health service during the third term. (It is unclear why One Wales rules out PFI in the NHS and says nothing about its drawbacks when it comes to building roads or schools.) Now, sadly, Captain Morgan might be tempted to steer the good ship Cymru onto the rocks. The National Assembly's Finance Committee has produced a report stating that Wales "needs to develop partnerships with the private sector" in order to deliver "the investment and modern public services that Wales needs."

Government both local and national has long contracted private companies to build roads, prisons, hospitals, schools, etc., paying for them directly out of taxation. PFI works by getting private companies to build roads, prisons, hospitals, schools, etc. and then renting them to the government, which pays the rent with taxation. As any property developer knows, over time renting will bring in much more cash than selling.

Registered private companies have a legal duty to their shareholders to maximise profit. In other words, profit comes before everything else, including people. Profit comes before not only the people who use these services but also those who work there - the teachers, nurses and doctors. In the public sector, which is historically where most schools and hospitals have been, people come first.

Government, elected by the people, also should put people first. One might argue that it is concern for people that leads to PFI being used to construct new roads, prisons, schools and hostpitals. Yet ultimately the people will pay more - far more - than these things are worth. As with life under the credit boom, we are told that we can have it all: put it on the card! Eventually though we'll have to pay for it, most likely through higher taxes. Yet higher taxes now could have meant paying £66m for Neath Port Talbot Hospital directly in the first place rather than £3oom a few decades down the line.

It's short-sighted, it's irresponsible, and it sucks.