January notes on things

Unless one is a fanatical Scot, it’s impossible to read the whole torrent of comments on the new-found Scottish Question, so selection is unavoidable. Actually, it’s only necessary to read one blog post and two articles from the UK press of recent days: Neal Ascherson in the Observer of 15 January, and Simon Jenkins in the Guardian of the 12th. An Observer sub-editor has tried to put readers off Ascherson’s article by giving it a misleading headline (confusing ‘sovereignty’ with ‘devo max’), but the article itself, as usual with Professor Ascherson, is spot on. Some 70% of Scots, according to the polls, want devo max, and their elected First Minister is apparently prepared to offer it as an option in the referendum. All signs are that with devo max on the ballot paper, the independence option would be defeated. So what do the leaders of all three main UK unionist parties say? That devo max should not be offered as an option in the referendum, which should be confined to two options, independence or the status quo, neither of which the majority of Scottish people appear to want. No one has been able to put forward a single argument for denying to Scotland a constitutional development which a clear majority of Scots do want, which would be capable of changing the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK for the better while leaving the Union intact, and which might well save the UK from disintegration. Truly, those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.  Wake up, Mr E. Miliband!

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According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, a group of right-wing Tory grandees are planning to derail the cuts in legal aid provision proposed by the Justice Minister, Ken Clarke, in his Legal Aid, Sentencing And Punishment of Offenders Bill currently going through the House of Lords.  If the Lords vote to delete the cuts, there is likely to be a battle royal between the Lords and Commons when the Bill returns to the Commons, where the government will presumably seek to restore them. Fortunately or otherwise, the same Bill provides for the abolition (euphemistically described as the ‘replacement’) of the scandalous system of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection, or IPPs, under which nearly 7,000 men and women are crowding our jails in preventive detention, despite having in most cases completed their punishment for the offences they have committed. Those who care about justice must hope that abolition of IPPs will not fall victim to a battle between the two Houses over legal aid, which has nothing to do with indeterminate sentences: these are an ugly blot on our justice system and Mr Clarke, the coalition’s house liberal, is absolutely right to want to get rid of them.

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It may be some time before we know why the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia hit the rocks in one of the biggest ever disasters in the world of cruising. Nor do we know yet why the evacuation of the ship seems to have been so chaotic, although some survivors are already being quoted as claiming that there had been no boat drill since the start of the cruise several hours earlier. Costa executives, currently no doubt unusually busy, can be forgiven for not yet having removed from the Costa website the page devoted to the joys of cruising on Concordia:

It’s here, on this futuristic and exclusive ship, that the fun, relaxation and excitement of a special holiday take shape. Imposing and majestic, Costa Concordia is one of the biggest ships in the Costa fleet, a real floating temple of fun that will amaze you. Wellness, sport, entertainment and culture: a thousand different experiences on a unique holiday await you on board Costa Concordia.

Excitement indeed, and ‘a thousand different experiences’!  And, as the Costa website also promises:

Costa sails always with you: Stay connected from wherever to start your holiday right now! Immerse yourself in the world of Costa Cruises …

According to Wikipedia, Costa Cruises is part of the predominantly American Carnival group, which comprises eleven individual cruise line brands (including Cunard and P&O Cruises), operating a combined fleet of over 100 ships with a total of over 190,000 cabin berths.  Carnival Corporation and Carnival UK control operations in North America and the UK, while Costa Cruises Group, based in Italy, control operations in the rest of Europe. The latter is responsible for operation of Costa Cruises in Italy, AIDA Cruises in Germany and Ibero Cruises in Spain. AIDA was previously a subsidiary of P&O Princes Cruises PLC, being transferred to Costa following the merger of Carnival Corporation and P&O Princess in 2002. Ibero Cruises is a new brand, created in 2007 as a joint venture between Carnival Corporation and Orizonia Group.  Tracking down the ultimate responsibility for what happened to Costa Concordia will be no simple matter.

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Returning to Scotland for a moment, lovers of the natural beauty of the Lanarkshire landscape are appalled by the threat to one of its most outstanding and historic beauty spots posed by an imminent application for planning permission to undertake opencast sand and gravel quarrying on a vast scale in the immediate vicinity of the Falls of Clyde. This is officially designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, yet the Lanarkshire and Scottish planning and preservation authorities mostly seem to have been persuaded (how?) that there is no need to object to the quarrying application. Luckily a professor at nearby Glasgow University (and an old friend), Mark Stephens, has set up a campaign, Save Our Landscapes, to try to save the Falls of Clyde and the surrounding area from ruin. As another distinguished economist has pointed out in a letter to The Scotsman, there is plenty of sand and gravel all over (or under) Scotland, and no need to pick on an area of special natural beauty to dig it out. Please have a look at the Save Our Landscapes Facebook page, and if you’re convinced by it, write a letter to The Scotsman or the Glasgow Herald, or to your MSP (if you live and vote in Scotland), or to South Lanarkshire Council, or to Scottish National Heritage (“We are the Government funded body that looks after all of Scotland’s nature and landscapes across all of Scotland for everyone“), urging that the quarry company, Cemex, be told to look elsewhere for their sand and gravel.

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As a consequence of trouble with ageing, arthritic fingers plus outstanding filial generosity, most of this web post has been produced by dictation to a program of voice recognition software, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, absolving me from almost any need to hammer away at a keyboard. Initially sceptical about the possibility of any software reproducing my dictation without the need for me to spend as long correcting it as it would have taken to type it in the first place, I have been dazzled by the eerie accuracy with which this disembodied secretary reproduces virtually every word I say, down to the last name and comma. You have to ‘train’ the thing to get used to your tone of voice, accent, vocabulary and normal volume, by reading some prose to it and giving it some documents that you have written for it to scan and commit to memory. Once you have done this, it seems to know what you’re going to say even before you have said it. However quickly you type, Dragon will reproduce your dictation at 10 times the speed. No, I don’t have shares in the company that produces Dragon, so I feel free to recommend it to those whose typing is substandard or whose eyesight is beginning to fail, condition all too common in my age group. Just speak up!







7 Responses

  1. Timothy Weakley says:

    Brian, your dictation-taking Dragon is fascinating! I assume it works best with grammatical prose of the type you’ve already made it familiar with. How would it cope with lists, I wonder? Particularly lists containing words spelled differently according to meaning – their or there, you or ewe, bow or bough, bow or beau; also words stressed differently according as they are noun or verb – record, object, and so on. How, too, would it cope if you were dictating a letter to Messrs. Cholomondley, Colquhoun, Featherstonehaugh and Dalziel?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I am still in the early stages of using Dragon, and I’m learning more about what it can do every day. I don’t see any problem over dictating lists in Dragon: it recognises the command “NEW LINE” – and even if it didn’t, you can easily use the keyboard for formatting or words, names etc that you don’t expect it to recognise. There may even be a command such as “begin list” that it will recognise. There is also a facility for ‘teaching’ it names and words by typing them into a spelling box which ensures that they will be remembered in future. There is no problem about mixing dictation with ordinary keyboard strokes: indeed Dragon itself recognises that most people combine both. It almost always chooses the correct homophone — their or there, you or ewe, bow or bough, etc. — from the context, provided that you speak in phrases or sentences, not one word at a time. Indeed, it seems to like it if you speak normally at ordinary speeds. If it chooses the wrong homophone, you can make it bring up a list of alternatives, each numbered: you just say “choose 4” or whatever, and it types out the alternative that you have chosen. You can tell it which text to select and then what formatting you want to apply to the text selected. I think there is very little that you can’t do by voice, although as a practical matter it’s often more convenient and quicker to do some operations on the keyboard: Dragon doesn’t seem to mind!

  2. Pete Kercher says:

    Thanks for the tip about Dragon, Brian! I’ll look it up.

  3. Pete Kercher says:

    Brian (2), I have looked at the website and contacted the customer service: they immediately called me and answered all of my questions bar one, for which I can call weektime line tomorrow (about whether they have a verins that will also take my dictation in Italian). I recommend you do the same for any queries, they were very helpful.
    So thanks again to Brian (1) for this tip.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Pete. A very impressive response by Dragon!

  4. Peter Harvey says:

    I have looked at the Dragon website. It has an impressive video demonstration showing that it can present numbers as words in text and as numerals in currency, and can also distinguish between ‘they’re’ and ‘their’ in context.

    Instead of the normal FAQ it has a series of video presentations from Peter Mahoney, the dictator (geddit???). In one of them, if I have understood it right, he says that you can buy a foreign-language version that comes with English as an extra but there is no mention of adding Spanish, for example, onto an English version. I assume without seeing it (Brian?) that there is a British English version.

    If I use it, it will be for translation — of every subject under the sun. That should test it to destruction!

  5. Peter Harvey says:

    I have read that the wretched master of the Costa Concordia was not
    simply cutting a corner as one might have imagined. The ship had in the
    past sailed close to the coast of the island so as to put on a show with
    lights and music, and the mayor of the coastal town had emailed the
    company thanking them and hoping that it would become a tradition.
    Schettino’s comment that the rock ‘shouldn’t have been there’ must
    surely go down in history.

    And, as I say, he is the master not the captain as the British media
    all seem to be saying. Explanation:


  6. Pete Kercher says:

    I spoke to the Dragon customer service today, Peter: it is possible to set the software to British English. They could not tell me with certainty today about other languages, but asked me to call their number tomorrow in office hours: 18006541187 Monday to Friday 9 AM to 6 PM Eastern.

    If you search a bit on FB, you will eventually find the video that I found yesterdy of the Costa Concordia passing dangerously close to Porto del Giglio one evening in August last year. There seems to be little question that the master was simply slapdash about this bad habit. There is no question of “new” rocks cropping up overnight to save his sorry skin: zoom in on the satellite version of Google maps and you can clearly see the rocks of Scola off a small promontory just to south of Porto, about 150 metres off the coast, exactly where several passangers have reported that the impact occurred.

  7. Peter Harvey says:

    It seems, pending the investigation, that not so much the rock shouldn’t have been there but the ship shouldn’t have been there. I can just imagine what my Uncle Roy (master mariner) would have had to say about the idea that ‘That rock shouldn’t have been there when I wanted to sail my ship there’! These must be well-charted waters. I find it difficult to believe that the ship hit a rock that had eluded mariners since the days of Odysseus.

    We are awaiting official details. As for the master abandoning the ship early, first reports look bad but I remember a case a couple of years ago when an Iberia plane made an emergency landing and it was said that the crew had jumped off first. What actually happened was that the copilot went down to supervise operations on the ground while the pilot stayed on board and was, correctly, the last to leave the plane. We don’t know what happened. We will see. I suspend judgement.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Peter. The ship’s master has been quoted as saying that the rocks which the ship hit are not marked on the nautical charts, according to which his ship was at a safe distance from the shore and in deep enough water. That of course is a factual assertion, easily checked. The ship’s owners have already declared that the master is to blame for the disaster, which seems to me disgracefully premature. Of course they have a motive for naming the master, in the hope that any systemic defects will be overlooked. As you say, we should all suspend judgement until there has been a proper inquiry.

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