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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!

Brian

 

 

 

 

 

If you get an invitation seemingly from a friend or contact to join ‘Quepasa’, please take no action on it of any kind except to delete it.  I’m sorry to say that the wretched nuisances at Quepasa have once again sent out a fresh crop of fake “invitations” purporting falsely to have been sent by me . I did of course change my email password when this happened before (please see http://www.barder.com/3171) but there’s no way to prevent Quepasa using the email addresses which they copied and evidently stored from my email account a few days ago as often as they like. It seems that this odious practice is probably not technically spam (because those who have been tricked into authorising Quepasa to send invitations to their friends have formally given their permission) and it probably doesn’t break any laws. The only thing you can do if you receive one (or more) of these fake invitations is simply and promptly to delete them.

A few people who received what appeared to be invitations from me to join me on Quepasa understandably accepted the ‘invitation’ and authorised Quepasa to inform their other contacts.  In some cases Quepasa has been able to access these persons’ address books and I am now receiving identical fake invitations pretending to have come from them.  If you start to receive messages from Quepasa indicating that anyone has accepted your invitation, the first thing to do is to change your email password.  But unfortunately that won’t stop Quepasa continuing to use the data that they have already got from your address book and emails.  All you can do is to delete all these Quepasa messages and take no other action on them.

For further information on this tiresome business, please see http://www.barder.com/3171.  Quepasa is a mainly Hispanic dating agency which makes a bigger profit from selling advertisements on its websites the more ‘members’ it can claim to have recruited.  Hence these fraudulent ‘invitations’.  Even if only a minority of these are accepted, it swells the nominal number of members that Quepasa can claim to have on its books.

As I’m once again receiving a great many of these ‘invitations’ and messages from friends and contacts notifying me that they too have received one or more of them, I can’t reply to each one individually, so please don’t think it necessary to let me know about them.  If it’s to do with Quepasa, just delete it!  (Unless of course you want to use Quepasa to meet a Hispanic boy-friend or girl-friend.)

Brian

I have unwittingly been instrumental in causing dozens, possibly hundreds, of innocent people, including some complete strangers, to receive messages purporting to contain invitations from me to become my “friend” on a website called Quepasa.  As far as I can make out, this is some kind of predominantly Hispanic dating service.

I have no idea what this is all about.  I received a message purporting to have come from someone I’m working with on an editing project, a colleague whom I am naturally anxious not to upset, which seemed to be inviting me to be a “friend” on Quepasa;  and it seemed churlish to refuse.  The website said it was sending messages to three people I know who appeared to be already members of this Quepasa, so I clicked OK and only then realised, too late, that the damn thing was sending out these invitations to everyone in my (substantial) address list.

I have now been receiving dozens of messages, some from friends and other people whom I know, many from complete strangers, either notifying me that they have accepted my invitation to be a friend on Quepasa, or asking what’s going on, who I am, and how I know their email addresses (which in many cases I didn’t).

This is evidently a tiresome form of spam (but as far as I can discover, not involving a virus and not listed by Hoaxbuster or other similar sites that expose online hoax sites).  I suggest that you do not try to access the Quepasa web page and do not authorise it to access your email account.  If you have already done so, it would be wise to disable the Quepasa access authority in your email web page, and then, but only then, to change your email account password.

I am sorry to have caused you this trouble.  I have now received too many messages about Quepasa, both personal and automatically generated, to be able to reply to them all individually. I hope some of those affected may read this post and accept it as an apology for my action in unintentionally exposing them to these time-wasting and mysterious communications.  I shall not visit this tedious and unscrupulous website again and I shall delete all future messages from it unread.  I have removed Quepasa’s authority to access my email account (which I unwittingly granted) and changed my own password, so I hope the nuisance will now, or soon, stop.

Damn.  Sorry!

Brian

Update, a.m. Friday 26 March: We are back online earlier than expected.  It turned out that Virgin Media cable broadband (and cable television) had gone down throughout almost the whole of south London, so we didn’t have to wait until Monday for them to realise that something needed to be done about it.

Business as usual!

BLB, 26 March 2010

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My internet connection has gone down (since mid-morning on Thursday 25 March) and is unlikely to be restored before Monday the 29th, if then.  Until it is, J and I shall not be sending or reading emails, nor posting on Ephems, nor responding to comments.

I’ll update this blog post when we’re back online.   Meanwhile we’ll just have to try to remember how to read books.

Brian

In a fit of absent-mindedness (aka sheer stupidity) I have just opened a seriously infected file (sent to me via Skype with a message purporting to come from a reliable Skype contact) which has played havoc with my computer, including disabling every known application that might have been able to clean it up.

So if you get a message on Skype purporting to come from me, on no account open the link in it to a zip (or any other) file:  and please don’t expect any new Ephems posts or comments or responses to your comments for a while.  I suspect that it’s going to be a question of reinstalling Windows and then a raft of programmes and applications and data files from back-ups.  The mind boggles.

Please don’t think it necessary (or desirable) to post messages of sympathy here.  Of course if you know of a quick and safe way to get System Restore Point working again (the virus has thoughtfully switched it off and it won’t switch on again), or how to change all the registry entries back to how they were yesterday, by all means let me know.  Meanwhile I’m going to absent me from electronic felicity a while.

Update (8 Feb 2010): Many hours of effort by myself and my state-of-the-art, chip-off-the-old-block computer guru have failed to remove the various nasties let loose in my PC by the vile virus that I idiotically unloosed — and the latest news of fresh disasters is that I have now found that I have a Trojan (html/Harnig.A) in my faithful laptop, too, and have no idea how to remove it.  I think I may feel a new computer coming on, but I can’t afford a new laptop as well.  Perhaps a few months without a computer at all will be good for the soul.  Cold turkey, anyone?

Brian

It looks as if YouTube and its owner, Google, may have come up with a revolutionary new idea that could save classical music from extinction in the digital internet age.  If you have ever been moved by a string quartet, an opera aria or a cello concerto, you should give a warm welcome to the birth of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, announced on 1 December this year (2008) and launched at the New York and London offices of Google.  “YouTube Symphony Orchestra” looks at first sight like a sort of oxymoron, but don’t laugh. If it all goes according to plan, a symphony concert at the Carnegie Hall in New York in April 2009 will mark the culmination of an extraordinary global collaboration between both professional and amateur musicians that is going to use the power of the internet to marginalise constraints of distance and time change to produce a symphony orchestra and even an original orchestral performance of a completely new kind.

The leading classical music magazine, Gramophone, has described the project like this:

The idea is to bring together a collaborative orchestra online by targeting as many musicians as possible around the world, made possible by the internet revolution. For the project, Tan Dun has composed the “Internet Symphony No 1, ‘Eroica,’” a piece which attempts to conjure a “21st century sound,” and which features hubcaps in the percussion section. By going to www.youtube.com/symphony, you can watch his performance with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Then anyone from Tasmania to Timbuktu, from Trenton to Tokyo, is invited to audition online now until January 28. Just download the part of your choice – violin, flute, bassoon, whatever – and play it with Tan Dun giving you the downbeat. You must also submit a video that shows off your musical and technical abilities. Hundreds if not thousands of entries are expected.

Then a panel made up of experts drawn from the LSO, the Berlin Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony and other leading orchestras, will choose a group of semi-finalists in February 2009. This is eventually winnowed down to the lucky finalists in March – determined by vote on YouTube. The democratisation of classical music has never been so palpable.

Perhaps even more strikingly innovative, Gramophone adds that

In addition to the culminating Carnegie performance, the most impressive videos submitted will be “mashed together” to create a YouTube Symphony, presumably watchable online.

Tan Dun, composer

Tan Dun

You can watch and hear Tan Dun, who has composed the inaugural symphony, and his collaborators talking about the project here.  And Tan Dun conducts the LSO in a performance of his symphony — including the hub-caps and car brake disks used as instruments — here.

If news of this project doesn’t energise flagging music departments and school orchestras all over the world, nothing will.  Classical music purists (including me) may raise a sceptical eyebrow or two at the idea of choosing the orchestra performers at the final stage of the selection process by popular vote on YouTube, a palpable concession to the current vogue for ‘reality TV’ and shows such as the Popstars series, America’s Got Talent, Dancing with the Stars, and Celebrity Duets, in which winners are ‘selected’ by the votes of viewers.  But if this increases popular interest and involvement in the whole project, good luck to it.  Anyway, since the earlier stages of selection will be in the hands of professional musicians, there should be no risk of the final outcome being corrupted by what one might call the John Sergeant effect.

So get that dusty viola down from the attic, all you musical geniuses out there;  polish up the long neglected clarinet, and get the old piano tuned.  Then download your score from YouTube and get practising.  And if you’re a school music teacher, now’s the time to expose your star pupils to a spot of global competition.  Who knows?  They might yet be on the plane to New York to start rehearsing next March.  The danger that the glories of classical music might have lapsed into oblivion in 20 years or so might yet be kept at bay.

I ought, I suppose, to declare an extremely indirect interest in all this.  The prominent classical music promotion and consultancy firm 21C Media Group, based in New York, has been involved closely with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra project since its conception about a year ago (see the press release on its website here).  I have no financial stake in 21C, only a proud paternal one, explained here.

Brian

Thanks to my trusty filial Webmeister-in-Chief, Website and Blog Manager, Ephems has had another major makeover. It’s now even more closely integrated with its parent website and the very useful ‘Search’ facility at the top of each page has been restored to health, now for the first time searching the whole of the website and not just the blog. It’s now possible, also for the first time, to append comments to most web pages as well as all blog posts.

The categories in the bar along the top — “Politics”, “Family”, etc. — take you to a list of relevant website pages, but not Ephems blog posts. In contrast, those in the panel down the right-hand side take you to lists of relevant Ephems blog posts (but not to non-blog pages). Many of the non-blog pages are cross-referenced with hyperlinks in blog posts, so it’s generally easy to hop from one to the other.

There are other changes, too, but most won’t affect — or be noticed by — visitors and contributors to the blog and website.

If Manners Makyth Man, vigorous comment makyth a blog. So please keep those comments coming in, whether dissenting or supportive, earnest or witty. Personal abuse and foul language are easily and swiftly deleted, but apart from them (almost) anything goes. Please, though, resist the temptation to write your comment in Word, and then copy-and-paste it into the blog Comment box at the foot of the relevant post. I try to remove all the Word formatting imported with a comment. I do this partly to preserve a reasonable uniformity of style in the blog and to reduce the formatting clutter that documents written in Word generally carry with them, but also because occasionally a comment with Word formatting contaminates subsequent comments with changes of font size and style that are then surprisingly difficult to track down and eliminate. My website guru is working on a gadget that might automatically clean out Word formatting tags and clutter from comments as they are uploaded, but that great work is not yet completed. So I’ll appreciate it if you will write your comment directly into the box provided in Ephems, or as a last resort write it in Notepad (although this has fewer formatting options than the Comment box) and copy-and-paste it from there.

Brian

What a useful resource could be provided if any student could put his or her essays on international affairs on a website for all to read!   Now an enterprising group of graduate students from a number of universities have done just that.  In the words of one of its editors: 

A group of postgraduate students from UK universities including Oxford, Leicester and the LSE run an independent website (e-International Relations) aimed at international politics students. As well as essays, news feeds, and political blogs it contains short editorial comment pieces. The recently built site has already had submissions from British, American and Islamic academics, students, journalists, politicians and advocacy groups. Amongst others we've received pieces from Ian Lustick, Charlie Beckett, John Redwood and David Steinberg.

Since that was written, I too have responded to an invitation to contribute an 'editorial comment piece' on one of my favourite topics, familiar to all Ephems readers:  it's currently the 'featured editorial' on the website.   

"e-International Relations", at http://www.e-ir.info/, is well worth a visit, not only as a laudable and interesting initiative, but also for lots of stimulating content (not just my own contribution, either!).  Of course the student essays as well as the gurus' and others' 'editorial comments' offer rich pickings for student essay-writers to plunder, but then so does all Web content, and these days alert tutors have ways of tracking down plagiarism.  Anyway the line between plagiarism and inspiration fired by others' ideas is a blurred one.  (Personally I would find it rather flattering to be plagiarised, although naturally I'm unlikely to know it even if I have been.) 

The other possible objection is that the mere appearance of an essay or a comment piece on a quasi-academic website may lend it a spurious air of authenticity and authority when in real life it may be full of inaccuracies and misrepresentations.   But "e-International Relations" is frank about the status of its contributions, and anyone who takes a student essay (or even a comment piece by an old fogey) as gospel has no business being a student, formal or informal.  Caveat lector!  In some cases hyperlinks to original sources are an aid to verification by the suspicious;  in other cases the main substance is more opinion than fact, and the reader is at liberty to agree or disagree.  Some essays include impressive bibliographies and other footnotes, facilitating verification: and all of them include provision for visitors to append comments, or to comment separately on the associated blogs, both sure-fire ways of keeping writers in the blogosphere honest (as we bloggers all know, sometimes to our cost). 

It's an excellent initiative, expertly executed, and it deserves to flourish.  More publicity for it is needed: fellow-bloggers, please copy!

Brian 

Owen in PhiladelphiaOlder bloggers may remember Owen Barder — yes, we are by no chance at all related — as a distinguished blogger who vanished from the radar screens some time ago after a little local difficulty of no lasting significance.  Now he's back in the blogosphere, based in Addis Ababa but currently posting in profusion from New York.  There's plenty to read about all his usual themes: development, running, development, cycling, Ethiopia, development and much else.  

Owen is the bright new chip off my ever older block and the resident guru of this website, Ephems, and all who sail on it or them:  three years ago he gave the whole thing a magnificent face-lift (admiringly recorded here)  and since then he has gallantly conducted running repairs to keep it alive.  Welcome back!

Brian 

On reining in the private sector to make the hyper-rich, very rich and quite rich take their share of the burden of avoiding an incomes-price spiral, and not making the less well-off employees in public sector take all the strain, I can't see any objection to some steeply graduated income super-tax rates rising from 50 to 95 per cent on all incomes from, say, £100,000 to anything over £5m a year so that any increases through salary increases, bonuses, cashing in of share options, etc., in excess of the rate of inflation would be negated by moving the taxpayer concerned into an even higher tax bracket.  Tack on a windfall tax on the oil companies and any others profiting from higher international commodity prices unrelated to their own performance, and you have the beginnings of a case in equity for appealing to ordinary working people for wage restraint. 

You'll probably say that all this is an Old Labour nightmare and that all our best and most entrepreneurial businessmen and financiers would up sticks and emigrate, presumably to Abu Dhabi, which might get a bit crowded.  I doubt if they will fancy their chances with President Obama, anyway.