Thursday, December 31, 2009

2010

In January I will re-commence regular attendance at the gym which I joined in September; my attendance fell off after the temperature dropped below -20 C. My response to the cold during my first two winters here was to reach for the familiar British comforts of stodgy puddings and cocoa and crumpets by the fireside, and as a result I became clinically overweight for the first time in my life. Thanks to the gym's classes for the over-fifties, the pudgy phase of my life is now over.

In February I will cash in my Scottish Widows Savings Bond, which I bought ten years ago on the advice of an Independent Financial Advisor. Taking inflation into account it is worth less than when I bought it.

The advice I followed when I was young was that people on small and moderate incomes should not buy market based investments. We should buy a house with a mortgage we could afford and put our savings in Building Society. Prudence turned her face to the wall in the eighties, since when I've bought endowment policies, unit trusts, investment bonds and private pensions. They were all described to me as safe investments and several were bought on the advice of an IFA. There was a small unit trust that did miraculously well in the three years I had it, but the rest have all been duds. I suspect that even the pension policies (one was with Equitable Life) have lost me more by poor returns than I gained from the tax rebate.

In March I'm going home. If Gordon Brown calls the election early, then I'll arrive a couple of days before polling, but otherwise I've volunteered for Norman Baker's campaign. After a confined winter in Alberta, a spring spent walking the lanes, streets and twittens of Sussex will be my idea of heaven. The Lewes Liberal Democrats will not have a more enthusiastic canvasser and leafleteer.

In May, Ian is joining me and we are taking trains from London to Prague via Cologne, a journey I've planned, as usual, with the aid of The Man in Seat 61. We're touring the Czech Republic, then going on to Vienna, where we have friends and where Ian will stay to do research, while I come back to Edmonton to plant out our vegetable garden.

In June, Ian and I will keep in touch using Skype. For that purpose Ian is taking our Dell Mini 10v to Austria. The Mini 10v is my favourite toy this winter. I've never had a computer that was cute before; I started buying it presents, a speaker and a sleeve, then realised I was treating it like a doll. So I'm not sure which I'm going to miss most, Ian or the Dell.

In July, I will do a fresh install of Ubuntu Linux on my desktop PC with the latest version, which will be 10.04 - the Lucid Lynx.

For the rest of the summer and the autumn, I'll be continuing our programme of improving the insulation and energy efficiency of our house, plus some maintenance and decorating. Since we are not intending to remain in the house for more than a few years, none of the work we've done on the place since we bought it in '06 makes much sense financially. We've been motivated partly by concern about global warming, but also it would just feel odd and vaguely improper to own and live in a house without taking care of it.

By the end of 2010, I expect I'll still be trying to finish the Fair Isle cardigan I started in the autumn of 2008. The project appealed to me because the pattern uses undyed Shetland wool in natural shades from white to black. The amount of pollution caused by industrial dyes is appalling, and Shetland sheep were at risk for a while because farmers were replacing them with Merinos whose wool is more suitable for dyeing. I pictured myself sitting by the fire on cold days, skilfully turning out a series of environmentally friendly jerseys, which Ian and I would wear for the admiration of our friends. In fact, it took me 6 months of knitting and unpicking to just get the tension right. I'd nearly finished the body, when I realised that I started the arm-holes too early, so now I'm going to have to unpick half of what I've done.

New Year's Resolutions

My other resolutions are:

  • To avoid using the word invidious, which I thought meant unenviable, but according to the dictionary means the exact opposite (admit it -- you thought it meant unenviable too).
  • To say nice things about Canada.

I'm a loaner

One of my New Year's resolutions is to increase our charitable donations, because when we moved to Canada in '06 we canceled some of our regular donations to British charities and I'm ashamed to admit that our charitable giving is still not at the level it was.

So, we have just become Kiva loaners, making microloans to low-income entrepreneurs. I think the Kiva site is a work of genius; you can see the people you are lending to and the loans being made. When a loan is just a few dollars short of being fulfilled, helping to make it up to the full amount is almost irresistible.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Families -cousins in particular

Following an exchange of emails yesterday, I've arranged to meet up with my fourth cousin who lives in Calgary. "Fourth cousin" immediately identifies me as a family historian, because who else would know?

Our original contact with each other in 2006 contained two pleasing coincidental symmetries: that she got in touch with me in England, as part of her own family history research, just as I was about to emigrate to Alberta, and secondly that my cousin's ancestor (who was my great-grandfather's first cousin) had emigrated to Alberta almost exactly one hundred years before I did.

I heard David Willetts on the radio recently, talking about the family. He thought it was true and important that the nuclear family (2 parents and children) had been the family unit for the British since time immemorial. He suggested that evidence for that lay in the lack of words we have for wider family beyond first cousin. However, we do have the word cousin. In Thinking Allowed on Sunday, Laurie Taylor hosted a discussion about the importance of cousin relationships, and cousin marriages in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain. The historians disagreed on the causes and how widespread the phenomenon was, but agreed that cousins and even sibling relationships were more important than today.

There are no cousin marriages in my (mostly artisanal) family tree, but going through the nineteenth century census records, what I found was a complicated web of mutual support which encompassed not just extended families, but also friendships and communities, At the end of the nineteenth century, my family were part of a supportive network which stretched from Wiltshire and Dorset, via London, to Norfolk, Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. It involved a childless woman fostering two of her friend's large brood; a father bringing up three stepsons and one of his nieces as well as his own children; weaving families from Coventry giving each other support and intermarrying two generations after they'd moved to Nottingham; a widow being given accommodation by her husband's great-nephew; and everywhere elderly parents moving in with, or close to, their adult children.

So, where David Willetts sees the nuclear family, I see community, which I suppose is why he is a Conservative, and I never will be.

Inheritance Tax again

Thanks to Anonymous for correctly stating that my last post was garbage (an odd Americanism for someone who knows British tax law). I moved to Canada in 2006, so in 2007 when the law changed I was busy grappling with IKEA flatpacks in Alberta. The question is what was Phil Hammond doing in 2007, since he seems to have missed the law change too?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Inheritance tax

The Conservative claim that 4 million people are liable to inheritance tax at a threshold of £325,000, assumes none of them have access to a solicitor. Here's why:

Terry and June, who have two children called Jack and Jill, own a house worth £500,000. If they do nothing, then when Terry dies, June will own the house on her own. No inheritance tax will be due at that stage, but when June dies, Jack and Jill have to pay inheritance tax on the full amount.

However, if Terry and June go to a solicitor, she can do something called "splitting the tenancy", which enables Terry and June to each leave their half of the house to their children. So, after Terry's death, June owns half the house, while Jack and Jill each inherit a quarter of the house from Terry. No inheritance tax is payable because Terry's share of the house, valued at £250,000, is below the inheritance tax threshold. When June dies, her half of the house is also left to Jack and Jill, but since it is also worth £250,000, it is still below the inheritance tax threshold.

So the Tory claim should be amended to 4 million people are liable to inheritance tax, but only if they don't trust their spouse, or their children, or have a phobia about lawyers.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas dinner in Canada

We ate our Christmas dinner in a light smog, due to my continuing inability to adapt my cooking to a North American oven. Next year we'll have pot-roast again and I'll wait until I'm back in the UK with an oven that does not smoke and a kitchen which is a separate room with doors, before I attempt another roast duck (or goose or chicken or turkey).

In Europe the advantage of having one's kitchen separate from the rest of the dwelling area had been discovered by the medieval period. N. American kitchens are an example of how a culture can go backwards. After three years of cooking smells wafting round our house I'm no longer surprised at how often Canadians eat out.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Twelfth cake for a bread-making machine.


A few months ago I listened to food historian Ivan Day, on R4, explaining that the British heavily fruited Christmas Cake evolved out of an earlier sweet bread relative of the German stollen and Italian panettone, called a Twelfth Cake or King Cake. He supplied an eighteenth century recipe by a chef called John Molland. Twelfth Night cakes of various sorts are still made in parts of Europe and the USA, but the English version has died out.

Since it is a yeast based recipe, I thought it would be interesting to adapt John Molland's recipe for a breadmaker, and I'm pleased with the result. It is more like a stollen than a panettone, but with the fruitiness and spiciness of a Christmas cake. The recipe uses American measuring cups and spoons:

Put the following ingredients in the bread-maker pan in the order given:

Skimmed milk - 1 1/3 cups
Butter - 2 ½ oz, at room temperature and cut up into small chunks
Salt - a pinch
White flour - 1 lb
Granulated sugar - 3 oz
Currants - 10 oz
Mixed spice - 1 tsp*
Mixed peel 2 ½ oz
Baking yeast 2 ¼ tsp

Set machine to sweet-bread cycle, at 2 lb setting and light crust.

When cooked sprinkle with sifted icing sugar. The original twelfth cake would have been round in shape, iced and decorated with crowns or figures of the Twelfth Night king and queen.

*Mixed spice is a traditional British spice mix. If you are outside the UK you'll have to mix your own, you will find plenty of recipe's for it on the web.

Turkey Terror

The CBC today has an article on food safety headlined "Feasting without Fear".

Snair Mair

One of Ian's colleagues has received a greetings card from a friend in Japan. The envelope is labelled "AIR MAIR".

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Why Paul Hutchinson's conviction is irrelevant to the argument for a DNA database

The murder of Collette Aram took place before DNA testing was available. Hutchinson was interviewed as part of the original investigation. If the investigation were taking place today Hutchinson would be asked for a DNA sample and there would be no need to call on a database containing DNA from his relatives.

The number of old unsolved cases like this one, where DNA evidence could still provide a clue, is finite and must be few in number and dwindling. These cases hardly provide a justification for the expense of maintaining a huge DNA database, let alone the interference with civil liberties.

It always seems to be this kind of case that results in calls for a DNA database, but despite tragic cases like Collette Aram's, Britain is an extraordinarily safe place. If you do become one of the few hundred people murdered each year it is most likely to be by someone close to you, who is easily identified. Despite the emphasis put on this type of crime by the press, you are probably more likely to win the National Lottery jackpot than be murdered by a stranger, which in itself makes the Hutchinson case a bad argument for a national database.

The NDP

Canada's third party, the NDP is usually described for British audiences as "old Labour". Linda Duncan, the NDP MP for this riding (constituency) has written me a letter. I forgive her handwriting, because like me, she used to be a lawyer. It says:

"Dear Jane,

Thanks for your feedback. We have not suggested addressing Climate Change will not cost everyone. Our [illegible] is that major reduction can be acheived [sic] by directing stimulus money to home and business retrofits and deployment of greater renewable power and public transit.

but [sic] families and small business can only do so much. The major industrial emitters must be regulated with a tight timetable to reduce [sic]

I support any tool that our government are willing to find the potential will to implement.

Linda"

Strange, I could have sworn that at the last election in 2008, the NDP weighed into the Liberal "green shift" manifesto, attacking the proposal for a carbon tax. Here's David Suzuki on the subject:



And, somebody should buy Linda Duncan a word processor with a spell-check programme.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Albertan city gets award at Copenhagen

Yesterday, a group of 10 Canadian environmental groups gave Edmonton an award for "climate leadership". Why, oh why? When Edmonton's emissions have gone up from 13.2 million tonnes in 1990 to 18.3 million tonnes in 2008, an increase of 39 per cent, while the population only grew by 27 per cent. Why, when the city owned power company ignored protests and built a new coal fired power station?

Canadians just love giving each other awards. The environmental groups also gave awards to Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Ontario. I don't suppose they'd actually achieved anything either.

Living here, I sometimes wonder whether if I just stand still for long enough someone will pin a medal on me*, or as Lord Moran the British ambassador to Canada put it more eloquently:

"Anyone who is even moderately good at what they do - in literature, the theatre, skiing, or whatever - tends to become a national figure, and anyone who stands out at all from the crowd tends to be praised to the skies and given the Order of Canada at once."

*I've already got a certificate signed by the mayor, a framed photo of myself shaking hands with a local dignitary and two t-shirts, and that's just for recycling.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Essential Websites for Homesickness

This is my fourth Canadian winter and each one gets a little easier to bear, but still when the temperature drops below -20 C and the landscape is blanketed in thick snow which probably won't melt until April or even May, then I get homesick.  I cope by cocooning myself in Britishness with the help of the internet.  The essential website is, of course, the BBC, particularly radios 3, 4 and 7.  The BBC iplayer won't play TV programmes outside the UK, but I can catch up on The Archers, listen to Farming Today, and in a few days time I'll hear nine lessons and carols from Kings College,  even though I didn't listen to the Archers in the UK, have never been a farmer, and I'm an atheist.

While listening to the radio, I go house-hunting with the aid of Rightmove.  I look for a little old house in, or near a market town, with a garden big enough to grow some vegetables; in other words a house like the one we used to have.  I've set up weekly searches on Leek, Ashbourne, Ludlow, Devizes, Wirksworth, Bridport and Buxton. My current shortlist of properties numbers 53, and the favourite is a cottage near Devizes on a one acre plot; I have already redesigned the garden and decided what improvements I'll make to the interior. I plan excursions from my fantasy home using Transport Direct, and get an aerial view of the area using Google or Bing maps.   

If I'm really far gone in fantasy, then I start furnishing my dream home from the IKEA catalogue.  Actually, I can do better than the internet and visit IKEA in Edmonton.  Every IKEA, wherever it is in the world, looks exactly the same.  Once, near Christmas time, we met a couple of Polish friends in Edmonton's IKEA, who told us they were just there for a stroll, because it reminded them of Europe.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Trafigura



Following Liberal Conspiracy's lead I've embedded the Trafigura video. And this is the link to the pdf

What more can I add?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Weather update

At 5 a.m. the temperature in Edmonton was -46.1 C, or -58.4 C with wind chill.

Don't emigrate to Canada.  Don't even think about it.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Weather report

It's 5.30 pm. The temperature outside is currently -29C, -34C with wind chill, and it is forecast to fall to -38C overnight, and reach -30C during the day tomorrow.

Monbiot again

People who want the luxury of flying to become limited to the privileged few often use the excuse of climate change to support their argument.

No, I didn't mean that, since I'm not going to descend to Monbiot's level and use the cheap rhetorical trick of questioning other people's motives, as he does in today's Guardian. While I broadly agree with Monbiot's conclusion that it should be cheaper to take the train than to fly, or drive to your destination, I don't think that  insulting people who don't agree with you, ignoring the benefits of air transport and ignoring the implications of the very statistics he quotes, is going to win this particular argument.

Taking the statistics Monbiot quotes as given: if "sixty-four per cent of all flights from the five busiest UK airports were made by people whose income in 2004 was £28,750 or more", then forty-six per cent of all flights were made by people earning less.  That is not a small proportion, and even if £28,750 was above the average wage in 2004, it was still much closer to that of a school-teacher than a city banker.

While cheap air fares "allow executives, second home owners and those who can afford to take several foreign holidays a year (often the same people) to pursue their extravagant lifestyles at very little cost to themselves", they allow thousands of other people to travel abroad who would not otherwise be able to do so. The effect of raising fares would be for the same high earners to continue the same lifestyle, with perhaps one less holiday a year, and a little less business travel.  it would be the other 46% who would have to possibly give up travel altogether.

The most telling statistic Monbiot quotes is that 74% of the long-term unemployed don't fly at all, which means that a remarkable 26% do.  I had no idea that the benefits of cheap flights had filtered down to that extent.

There isn't any getting away from the fact that if flying is deliberately made more expensive, hundreds of thousands of people will no longer be able to afford foreign travel, but the wealthy, including Monbiot himself (who has just flown to Canada and back), will be able to continue to do so.  How are politicians, who also come into the wealthy category, expected to sell that argument?  What I want to know is if there is any way of making the railway network capable of transporting the same numbers of people around Europe and as cheaply as the airlines do now



Thursday, December 10, 2009

Mending

I've been listening to a Daphne du Maurier drama on Radio 7, from a novel published in 1969. The hero and heroine are upper middle class as evidenced by the heroine flying with her children from New York to London, something only the wealthy could do in the sixties. Yet, after dinner, the same character spends the evening mending her husband's torn trousers. When, I wondered, did we stop mending things?

I still have a pair of socks that I darned in 1981, but I can't remember darning a sock since, although I still make occasional small repairs to other items. One of my New Year's Resolutions will be to go through my sock drawer and darn all the holes I find. After all, I did earn the darning badge when I was in the Brownies.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Christmas E-Cards

If you have given up sending Christmas cards, but still want to spread some Christmas cheer, I recommend Sussex based Jacquie Lawson's E-Cards. She has a card for all tastes, secular or Christian, schmaltzy or elegant, or even mildly disturbing (check out the festive goldfish bowl).

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

George Monbiot's dreadful week.

First he reacted to "climategate" by calling on Professor Phil Jones, one of the world's leading climate scientists, to resign. That article is now being quoted, gleefully and selectively, by climate change deniers all over the internet.

Then he flew to Canada.

Now, I admit that on the vexed ethical issue of flying I have reason to be grateful to George. Since moving to Alberta three years ago, I've made an annual trans-Atlantic trip to visit family in Sussex, but George has relieved me of my guilt, because in his book Heat, George sanctions air travel for the purposes of family reunions, using the buttock-clenching term "love miles". However, he is also quite clear that air travel for other purposes has to stop:

"It means that business meetings must take place over the internet or by means of video conferences."
So why did he go? Because of Canada's tar-sands and its heinous position on climate-change:

"So amazingly destructive has Canada become, and so insistent have my Canadian friends been that I weigh into this fight, that I've broken my self-imposed ban on flying and come to Toronto."
Yeah...you stick it to 'em George. You show that nasty Mr Harper what for Georgie boy!

In fact, George had a gig. He wasn't the only one flying to Canada, all expenses paid. He and Canada's Green Party leader Elizabeth May, were lined up to debate Nigel Lawson and Bjørn Lomborg. And what did that achieve? Well here's the verdict from one of George's friends:
"It was a bad idea because merely taking to the stage reinforces the notion that there IS a debate about climate change. Lomborg and Lawson know theh [sic] will never actually triumph over the science. The certainty of climate change's ultimate damage will occur whether they convince us to delay mitigation or not. But the sustained confusion allows people an opportunity to turn away from the issue - to delay personal action and to forgive obstructionist politicians - on the basis that the "experts" are still arguing about all this."
So, even George's friends think he should have stuck to his principles and stayed at home.

I share Monbiot's horror at the environmental crime that is the tar-sands industry, and Canada's spoiler tactics in climate change negotiations, but let's look behind George Monbiot's trademark hyperbole to look at the reality behind his singling out of Canada for particular vilification in the run up to the Copenhagen conference:

Canada did nothing substantive to comply with its obligations under the Kyoto treaty, and since then its emissions have risen by 26%. However, Europe has done very little that is effective either. The cap and trade scheme hasn't worked at all. The only reason Europe will meet its Kyoto target is because its reduction in industrial activity. If you take into account the emissions Europe imports from China in manufactured goods, then Europe's emissions have gone up by a similar amount to Canada's.

As far as the Copenhagen negotiations are concerned Canada's current tactic is to cling on to the USA's coat-tails. Canada's emissions reduction target of 20% from 2006 levels by 2020 is on a par with the USA's (see my last post).

The prospects for real change in Canada's policy on the climate change issue are not good. Harper's Conservatives are unrepentant Bushite neocons, but the main opposition is the Liberal Party, led by Michael Ignatieff who is no less enthusiastic about developing the tar-sands.

Monbiot's characterisation of Canada as a corrupt petro-state is hyperbole he has borrowed from some of Canada's most strident environmentalists, but it is true that Canada's federal political system is disfunctional. A national energy policy is taboo because of resentment against Trudeau's NEP, which strained national unity and is remembered with resentment in the west to this day. I question whether it is possible for a country without an energy policy to have a coherent policy on climate change.

However, the tar-sands are being developed chiefly to supply the USA's need for oil. Canada is economically dependent on its trade with the USA, and he who pays the piper calls the tune. Perhaps George should have used his tonne of CO2 flying to Washington instead.