Friday, December 31, 2010

The Archers 60th anniversary episode

My money is on Elizabeth and Nigel Pargetter both getting killed in an horrible accident.  Maybe they both fall into the ha-ha.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Insufficient Punctuation.

Radio 3 has listed Tannhäuser, omitting the umlaut.  Standards are slipping at the Beeb, or has Zai Bennett, the controller of BBC 3 decided that he agrees with the citizens of Lancre, that one should avoid unnecessary punctuation?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Have Pity

This Christmas, spare a thought for those less privileged than yourself.  You get the Dr Who Christmas Special, and John Hurt in Whistle and I'll Come to you my Lad.  Here in Alberta we get  A Conversation with the Prime Minister and repeats of Keeping up Appearances.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

2010 things I didn't blog on at the time 2: Train Journeys.

In May Ian and I went from London to Prague, by the Eurostar to Brussels, the high-speed Thalys to Cologne and then after an excellent dinner in a Cologne beer-house we got the sleeper to Prague. Early in the morning the Cologne-- Prague train goes through the very beautiful Elbe and Vltava valleys.  Here's a taste of the scenery:

Later in the month, I returned to London from Vienna, taking the sleeper from Vienna to Cologne.  That train travels through the even more scenic and romantic Rhine valley. I arrived in Cologne with time for breakfast at the station cafe on the square in front of the magnificent Cologne Cathedral, before traveling on to Brussels.

As usual I'd booked the cheapest tickets I could, following the excellent advice of the Man in Seat 61. I highly recommend both train journeys.  They were the best part of my holiday, and very good value.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


The let's- humiliate-the-unemployed movement comes to Britain.  This is how we can combine the iniquity of truck payments with all the stupidity of the Speenhamland system.  Lets remove all dignity from people on benefits, so that a few (usually religiously motivated) do-gooders can feel good and go to heaven.  Foodbanks. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On not leaving.

For the last couple of weeks my husband has been telling me that I ought to make some kind of statement of loyalty to the Lib-Dems on this blog, what with rats  people jumping ship, media obituaries for the party, low poll ratings, and so on.

What has made me hesitate is that saying I'm staying in the party is a kind of null blog entry, like saying I'm not going shopping this afternoon, or that after serious thought I've decided to eat dinner this evening.

I could explain at length why I think the people leaving the party, or wanting the party to leave the coalition, are wrong, but there are other people doing that far more cogently than I can. So, I'll just say this:  I agree with him

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The problem with Michael Ignatieff

The British know Michael Ignatieff as an engaging liberal academic and TV pundit, so Canadian disenchantment with him as Liberal leader must be puzzling.

This article by Ottawa journalist Susan Riley takes a cool look at Ignatieff's strengths and weaknesses.

For my part, the biggest disappointment about Ignatieff is his complete implausibility on climate change, something he shares with the leaders of the other two parties.  It is a huge volte face from the Liberals under Stéphane Dion.

The other off-putting thing about Ignatieff (which as a recent migrant from the UK, I'm probably more sensitive to than most) is that in his public appearances and statements he always seems to be trying to do a Tony Blair impression.  If Blair is his model, it is not surprising that he is so often in agreement with the bushy Stephen Harper. Between the two of them they give Canadian politics a dated, cheesily stale air, which makes the Globe and Mail's current slogan: "Canada: Our Time to Lead" singularly inapt.

The Union Jack

The British media have recently started using the term Union Flag in preference to Union Jack, as in this article about Charlie Gilmour.  I don't understand why.  It is technically correct, but so is Union Jack, and less likely to cause confusion.  Union Flag brings to my mind the image of the USA flag, not the British one.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

2010 things I didn't blog on at the time 1: Waiting for a duck.

London, April 2010.

I suspect my old friend's teenage daughter  disapproves of me.  She thinks I am a bad influence on her mother, who needs firm guidance.  The three of us are in the car, OF driving, me in the front seat, and TD in the back.

OF stops at the roundabout.  I point out a duck on the pavement, looking as if it is about to cross the road.  We wait.  A small queue grows behind us.

"You're not supposed to stop for ducks you know", exclaims  TD, exasperated.

A car horn honks.  The duck flies off.

Our journey recommences with OF reciting:

What is this life if full of care
We have no time to stand and stare?
So who really gives a .....
If we were waiting for a duck?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tuition fees

At the time Labour brought in fees, my husband was working as a history lecturer at an ex-polytechnic university in a midlands town.  Following their introduction, there was an immediate drop in applications, particularly from mature students.  My husband's job was at threat from that point on, and he was eventually made redundant in 2004, when the university temporarily stopped offering a single honours history degree.

The opposition to tuition fees was not a significant factor in my joining the LD's.  That had more to do with Iraq and civil liberties.  But, I never questioned the policy, and certainly supported it until recently.  My mind has been changed by the very persuasive articles by Peter Wilby in the Guardian, which among other things has reminded me that not only did the old system have considerable disadvantages, but that I experienced those disadvantages myself, and I also agree with Chris Rennard.

I do have some reservations, but nevertheless I accept that the no tuition fees policy was an error, and I think that Liberal Democrat MPs should vote for the bill.

I also want to say that the cock-up over the tuition fees pledge is the fault of the entire party, including people like me who didn't think very hard about an impractical policy, and I have a lot of sympathy for Nick Clegg who has been taking most of the flack.

Lush Cosmetics against Tarsands

Every time environmental groups report that a big company is pledging to boycott tarsands oil, it seems to be quickly followed by a denial from the company concerned.  Not so with Lush whose campaign manager had a very good letter in The Edmonton Journal today which states "The oilsands represent the biggest environmental disaster of our time."

Expect smelly bath-bombs for Christmas.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The working class's fear of debt

Jackie Ashley in today's Guardian rolls out the old chestnut about the deep seated fear of debt in working class households.

At least, I think it is an old chestnut.  Is there any evidence for it?  My gut feeling is that it is more myth than substance, and if it was once true, it is of historical interest now.  If not, why haven't we still got a substantial stock of social housing, since uptake of the right-to-buy was such a failure? Why are levels of household debt so high? It seems to me that the British public of all classes have embraced debt with enthusiasm in the last few decades.  That's one of the reasons we are in the mess we're in.

Thank-you Lib Dem Bloggers

As an exiled Englishwoman, perennially homesick, and with a great love of the parochial, idiosyncratic and mildly eccentric aspects of English life, I'd like to thank all the Lib Dem bloggers who blog on local affairs.  Today's posts include:
The individual posts are usually mundane and worthy notices about local issues, but the English tapestry the headings create on my blog-list gives me great pleasure.  Thank-you all.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Baby boomers and "free" education.

I do get fed up with commentators referring to the free education had by my generation and comparing it to the high cost of further education for students now.  Actually, taken as a whole, students now are better off than my generation for two reasons.

Firstly, far more young people have the opportunity to go to college.  That was something only enjoyed by a minority of my generation.  The lack of opportunity started long before you got to further education. In the London suburb where I lived there weren't enough grammar school places for all the girls who passed the 11+, so you only got a place at a grammar school on an interview and a reference from your head-teacher. That enabled the head at the grammar school I attended to weed out any children from council-estates, or who were black, or belonged to any other minority she despised.

Despite having la creme de la creme  at the school, the number of girls who went on to further education was pitifully small. Each year consisted of 90 girls, and less than half went on to any form of further education, but only 15 or so to university, the rest to 2 year teacher training or nursing college.

Secondly, you could only get a grant for college if your parents were prepared to be means tested and sign a grant form.  Mine refused.  So, I left home and got married, which was not a good move, because when I applied for a grant a couple of years later, I was awarded a "married woman's grant" which was far less than I could live on.

If I'd been able to take out a student loan, that made me independent of my parents, and that I would not have to start repaying until I was in work and my income had reached a certain level, I'd have jumped at the chance. It would have seemed like heaven to me.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Variations on Godwin's Law.

As I'm sure you know, Godwin's Law states that as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches.

After lengthy study of The Guardian's Comment is Free pages, I can add the following variations:

  • In any online discussion of an English Parliament the probability of someone mentioning Edgar the Atheling approaches.
  • In any online discussion of climate change the probability of someone mentioning the measurements he has been taking in his back yard approaches.
  • In any discussion of the economy the probability of someone mentioning the coming crisis of capitalism approaches.
  • In any discussion of Christianity the probability of someone mentioning  Hypatia approaches.
I'll let you know if I find any more.

    Sunday, November 28, 2010

    The Green Deal

    Juliette Jowit in the Guardian on Wednesday made some very good points about the loans that home-owners will be able to take out for energy saving makeovers.

    She points out that on the Decc's own figures, if the loan is taken out for solid-wall insulation, the annual payments for the loan will be more than the amount saved on fuel.

    Jowit does not take into account the effect on the home's value of making the improvement.  At the moment insulation may not increase the home's value very much, but as fuel bills rise, buyers are going to become more aware of the value of insulation and at the very least, insulation will make a home easier to sell. So, home-owners may choose to take out one of the loans on the basis that even if they end up paying a little more than they are saving on fuel, they will increase the amount of equity in their home.

    It also seems likely that solid-wall insulation will become cheaper as the market for it grows.

    Nevertheless, Jowitt has highlighted a major problem with the scheme.  I'm fairly certain that most of the UK's housing stock is still pre-1930's and built with solid-wall construction.

    Jowit also points out that a number of policies on climate change, for example the EU emissions trading, are driving up underlying energy bills, effectively amounting to a form of regressive taxation.  Surely this is true of all green taxes?  Even where the taxation is a tax on industry, as with the carbon trading scheme, the cost will ultimately be borne by the consumer.  I don't see that this is a bad thing.  Consumers need to be encouraged to reduce their use of fossil fuels and the easiest way to do this is to raise the price.  The regressive effect can be ameliorated by using some or all of the revenue from green taxes for progressive tax allowances.

    Friday, November 26, 2010

    Those charging horses

    I'm very fed up with watching videos of policemen assaulting peaceful protesters or keeping them penned in (surely false imprisonment?) for hours on end, together with bystanders who weren't even demonstrating.

    As someone who has been on many marches, and also organised peaceful demonstrations, I'm very concerned that British citizens can no longer exercise their lawful right to march safely, without risking police assault.

    Can anybody seriously think that the British police are dealing with protest marches appropriately or even legally?  Their current methods are clearly inflaming and inciting violence and making things worse.

    I agree with David Cameron that protesters who commit acts of violence or vandalism should be prosecuted, but such people are always a small minority on any march and their actions do not alter the fact that there is an urgent need to review police methods for dealing with public order.

    Thursday, November 25, 2010

    Canada's insidious campaigning against climate change action

    Emma Pullman on DeSmogBlog details how Canadian and Albertan governments are using public funds to try to undermine US and EU climate change legislation.

    Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    We shall not be moved

    To the students in Oxford whose education has clearly been too narrow in scope -- the next line is

    Like a tree that's standing by the waterside
    We shall not be moved.

    Tuesday, November 23, 2010

    Canada's example

    If you still think that following Canada's example is a good idea, take a look at the graph on the right hand side of this BBC page.

    Arctic Weather

    The Grauniad's In Praise of column often has an Eeyore quality, a clutching at straws by hacks forcing themselves to view the glass as half full, even though they really think the world is a damp and boggy place, leading to pathetic pleasure in a burst balloon and an empty jamjar.

    Today it's "Arctic Weather".  Nothing to praise from where I'm standing Sunshine!  The temperature outside at midday is a balmy -9°C, up from -24° first thing this morning. Yesterday it got down to below -25° and never got above -17°.

    Sunday, November 21, 2010

    Canada and Climate Change

    At Cancun, Canada will be playing its usual role of trying to obstruct any meaningful progress.  Canada's own target of a 17% emissions reduction from 2005 levels by 2020 is both totally inadequate and totally unreachable on current policies.  Stephen Harper's Conservative government's aims are quite clear.  Harper was a climate change denier when he came into office in '06, and has only changed his line since to keep in step with the USA. Under Harper, Canada is betting its economic shirt on the tarsands industry, the emissions from which are so high that arguably the industry's success depends on potential importers -- chiefly the USA and China - not treating climate change seriously.

    But what of the two opposition parties, the Liberals and the NDP?  If, following the next election, the Liberals were able to form a minority government with NDP support, would Canada start taking constructive steps to reduce its emissions?  The recent performance of both parties does not augur well.

    The last federal election in 2008 was fought on the issue of climate change.  The Liberals,led by Stéphane Dion, put forward a radical and detailed "Green Shift" programme which would have used carbon taxes to force a shift of Canada's economy from carbon intensive industry to green technologies.  The aim was to reduce Canada's emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2020. However, the Liberals lost the election, Dion resigned, Michael Ignatieff took over as leader; the green shift and carbon taxes were immediately forgotten.

    The Liberal Party currently supports a cap and trade system to reduce emissions, but is vague about targets.  Ignatieff has a habit of contradicting himself, and it is difficult to tell how sincere he is about this (or any other) issue.  Prior to Dion's leadership, the Liberal Party's record on climate change has been described as "hot air", paying lip-service but doing nothing. The signs are that the Liberals are back to business as usual.

    The NDP also supports a cap and trade system, but is against carbon taxes, and on that basis opposed the Green Shift.  They want a 25% emissions reduction by 2020 and an 80% reduction of emissions from 1990 levels by 2050, but their road plan for getting there is no more substantial than the Liberals', and given that they don't support carbon taxes, the target is in the realm of fantasy. 

    The Climate Change Accountability Act was to embed the NDP targets into law. It was introduced by the NDP and passed with Liberal  and Bloc Québécois support.  The Act is a short read - little more than 2 pages -  and that's only with the bilingual translation.  It's a holiday brochure without a price list, an itinerary, a map, or a picture of the hotel. I've been told a lot of work went into it, in which case I'd like that job. The Act has just been killed by the Senate.

    The problem with Canada adopting a target for 2020 which is actually more ambitious than the EU's is that whereas the EU had reduced its emissions by 8% from 1990 by 2005, Canada had increased its emissions by 10.54%.  A lot of that growth has come from the tarsands, and although the NDP have called for a moratorium on new tarsands development (while Ignatieff has boasted about having enough oil for the USA for a hundred years), even the NDP has not suggested the tarsands should close down tomorrow.

    The Senate rejection of the Act has enabled the opposition parties to complain about lack of democracy.  The Act was never going to achieve much else, and cynical me suspects it was never intended to.  I know a number of young people who are sincerely disappointed.  Meanwhile the NDP is campaigning to abolish the Federal Sales Tax on home heating, one of the very few taxes on carbon in Canada.

    Scallion Rap

    I've started a separate blog about cooking called Scallion Rap.

    Thursday, November 18, 2010

    The NHS

    Partly due to the very poor health care that I and other members of my family received in the years before I emigrated to Canada in '06, I do not share the British NHS fetish. I am a NHS sceptic who wonders if it would be better to re-organise it following the example of some of our European neighbours who as David Laws says in his Orange Book chapter.

    "succeed in delivering health services with greater choice and competition than our own, but also with better health outcomes and fairer access for lower income groups."

    After we came to Canada it did not take long to decide that we would not stay here in old age, (partly because seeing homeless people freezing on the streets makes me cry). However, my first thought was not to go home, but plan for retirement in France, where as well as lovely countryside and nice food, there is a greater chance of surviving if you have a stroke. That plan was vetoed by my multi-lingual husband on the grounds that although he speaks several foreign languages, he refuses to die in one. So, England it is, and we will have to take the health service as we find it.

    It follows that I am comforted by the report in today's Guardian that "the NHS fares better on free access to healthcare" out of 11 advanced industrialised nations, even though I think the report by the American Commonwealth Fund needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.  There are a number of factors liable to skew the figures.

    For example, it is usual for people in both France and Canada to have annual health check-ups with a full blood screen, which is fairly time consuming for the patient.  I've currently got one routine screen outstanding from my annual check-up in August. It is not surprising that more people in both countries report skipping a test, treatment or follow-up than in the UK where there is far less screening. This has nothing to do with access to treatment being denied.

    Nevertheless the report does suggest that the NHS is doing relatively better than I'd realised, and I am a little reassured.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010

    Homeless families in Edmonton (Alberta)

    The results of the biennial homelessness count were published today. Unexpectedly, the figure is down 21% from the last count to 2,400 (Edmonton's total population is 730,000). That includes people sleeping in the streets and in hostels, but not the wider definition of homelessness we'd use in the UK.

    Whereas the majority of the homeless are singles there are about 70 families. About half of these are absolutely homeless - that is sleeping on the streets, and they include sixty-two children. No you didn't read that wrong. There are sixty-two children sleeping on the streets, in a stairwell or in a tent, in this one, small, Canadian city.

    The temperature this afternoon is -10°C, feels like -18°C with wind chill. Tonight it is expected to fall to -18°C (that's about the temperature of the inside of your freezer).

    Monday, November 15, 2010

    The stories that mattered on climate science

    Climate Progress has a summary of the really important climate science stories that were missed while the media (including The Guardian) concentrated on the non-story of "climate-gate".

    It makes for worrying reading.

    Sunday, November 14, 2010

    Student Fees and the Canadian example

    An interesting article in the Globe and Mail, by economist Armine Yalnizyan, comparing the UK's austerity measures with Canada's in the nineties, with special reference to the hike in student fees.

    The author makes some interesting points about the effect of rising fees in Canada, but, note that the average tuition fee in Ontario is currently $6,307 p.a, which is roughly comparable to the fees currently being paid in Britain. That means that the increased UK fees in two year's time are going to be two or three times what Canadian students are paying.

    Friday, November 12, 2010

    Holy Days and Fasting Days

    There are a large number of web pages stating that the Holy Days and Fasting Days Act of 1551, which makes church attendance on Christmas Day compulsory, is still in force. James Paice MP is one of the authors.

    I'm sorry to spoil the fun, but the Act was actually repealed by the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1969.

    Shellac, Tim Farron and Christmas Cake

    I was interested to discover, from Mark Mardell's blog, that shellac, as a verb, can mean trounce in North America, while we Brits only use it for varnishing. Knowing what the Washington Post meant does not alter my mental image of a shiny shellacked Obama.

    I was impressed by Tim Farron's piece in the Guardian. I'm glad I voted for him.

    Today I'm making a Christmas cake, although I'm not sure this is a wise thing for me to do. I may end up eating most of it myself. As a rule, North Americans, including Canadians, do not like baked dried fruit, or the flavour of mixed spice. However, Ian has promised me that if I make a cake, pudding and mince pies, he will eat his share.

    Friday, November 5, 2010

    Terry Pratchett Interview

    Prepare to be charmed. Routledge are promoting the journal of the Folklore Society with podcasts of a conversation between Sir Terry Pratchett and Dr Jacqueline Simpson, who has, as Pratchett puts it, an "accent that runs round Europe", not dissimilar to that of the denizens of Uberwald. The first podcast also features Sir Terry singing a folksong, and it's not about hedgehogs.

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010

    A weird day on Jane's blog

    Two things happened on this blog today:

    Someone has left their entire life story in comments.

    A government left a comment. Admittedly it's only the government of Alberta, population one third the size of Greater London, but it's still a government.

    Beat that.

    Poppies red and white

    The Royal Canadian Legion is yet again threatening a legal action to prevent the sale of white poppies in Canada -- this time in Prince Edward Island (the last time was in Edmonton). In recent years, as well as opposing the sale of the internationally known symbol of the Peace Pledge Union, the Legion has objected to an academic reassessment of Vimy Ridge -- a battle which has become a totemic symbol of Canada's nationhood.

    I used to buy a red poppy in the UK, but I've been rather taken aback by the political stance taken by the RCL. That is not the role that I expect the Legion to play. I expect them to ensure the war dead are remembered with respect and to help veterans and their families. I don't expect them to assume a monopoly of the historic record or threaten legal action against pacifists. So I regret that yet again I won't be buying a poppy.

    EU delegation to the tar-sands

    Yesterday an EU delegation toured the tar-sands. What is at stake is how the EU Fuels Quality Directive is implemented. Since the Directive is intended to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of fuel used in the EU, it has the potential to ban the import of tarsands oil. However, a direct reference to tarsands oil was taken out of the legislation, thanks to oil industry lobbying.

    It's interesting to note the importance the Canadian and Albertan governments have attached to this visit, even though the EU is currently a very small market for Alberta's dirty oil. Federal minister Iris Evans even described it as "crucial". She stated that the fear is of the EU's influence on other states who might implement similar legislation.

    Kellie Cottam replies

    Kellie and her mum have both replied to my post on the article about her in the Daily Mail. As I suspected, the Daily Mail contrived to give an impression of a much more luxurious lifestyle than Kellie actually has.

    Monday, November 1, 2010

    Food Banks and Halloween

    Halloween is one of the delights of living in Canada. Canadian kids are very well behaved; there is no risk of getting broken eggs all over your parked car as there can be in the UK. They only call if you have your lights on, and most will only call if they see you have a pumpkin or other Halloween decorations. We were visited by about 20 trick or treaters this year. Their costumes were mostly home-made. One child was a "transformer" made from cardboard and papier mâché, with flashing head-lights -- amazing!

    There was one embarrassing moment when a dad carrying his tiny tot did not want candy, but asked for food for the food bank. We don't give to the food bank.

    Food banks are a difficult issue for me. I feel very strongly that rich countries like the UK and Canada can afford for all their citizens to be adequately housed with enough income to feed themselves and provide a basic standard of living. I think that if people have to accept charity, particularly if it is in the form of goods rather than money, that is demeaning for the giver and the receiver alike. It is precisely what the welfare state was created to avoid.

    I've stated several times on this blog -- and I can't state it often enough -- that Canada did not cut its deficit in the 90's without social cost. It did so by creating a permanent underclass of many thousands of homeless people in every city, dependent on charity to survive. It is not acceptable for that to happen in the UK.

    Food banks fill some of the gap left by the welfare cuts, but they are not a good solution. The American experience shows that donations to food banks go down during a recession when the donors are themselves feeling the pinch, but when the banks are needed most. Much of the food donated by food producers is of poor quality or inappropriate to needs. One might hope that the existence of food banks would shame governments into increasing welfare payments, but in the USA and Canada, the opposite seems to be the case: food banks have become an accepted alternative to welfare payments, and in the USA they are funded by taxpayers' dollars as well as charitable donations.

    A friend who works at a food bank in Toronto has argued with me that I should donate to food banks, whatever my reservations, because I can't deny people need the food. But I feel that if I do, I am implicitly accepting an ideology that prefers discretionary charity to welfare payments as of right, and what is more I am encouraging the decay of the welfare state by assisting in the growth of the alternative.

    Friday, October 29, 2010

    Thursday, October 28, 2010

    Stuck in the corner with...

    Bracknell Blog yesterday led to my doing the political compass test for the umpteenth time.

    As usual I'm in the bottom left hand quadrant with Mandela and the Dalai Lama, although over the years I seem to have been drifting away from the former and towards the latter. It's a bit lonely down here. I think it would help pass the time if one of us played a musical instrument. The top right hand quadrant on the other hand seems to have a party going on, though you'd want the music turned up loud to avoid having to engage in conversation with Stephen Harper or George Bush.

    My position is also a long way from the placing of the Liberal Democrats for the general election this year who were put in the rarely used bottom right hand quadrant. The Greens on the other hand are down in the secular saints' corner with me.

    Cobblers. I'm not a socialist. It's a crap, biased quiz.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010


    The Guardian is praising George Soros. Hear, hear. Definitely one of the good guys. I recommend his dad's book Masquerade, which is about how he survived the holocaust in Budapest. It's a good read and it gives an insight into how Soros became Soros. Tivadar Soros originally wrote it in Esperanto.

    More on Kelly Cottam

    Let's examine Kelly's case in more detail. Why does she get such high benefits? Can they be reduced without causing undue hardship to her and her children? Is such a high level of benefit a disincentive to work? Are working parents on the median wage actually worse off than Kelly?

    There are things to like and dislike about Kelly. Despite a disability and 4 kids she has done a degree and is doing a further training course. She wants to work. She's made the most of what is available and she has four presentable children. She's probably a good mother. On the negative side one wonders why a woman with an inheritable illness has had four kids and also why she chooses to be a useful fool for the Daily Mail. One also wonders where the fathers are and why they aren't paying maintenance (or are they actually paying child support direct to the CSA, which the Daily Mail has forgotten to mention?).

    The Daily Mail article doesn't itemise Kelly's benefits to explain how they add up to £37,000, so I tried to estimate them using the government calculator. Incidentally, playing with the calculator will make you an instant fan of IDS's proposed simplification of the benefits system. I hadn't realised quite how Byzantine it had become.

    I assumed that Kelly is paying the average rent for a 4 bedroom house in Chorley, which, using Rightmove, I estimate at £800 a month, and I also assumed that she is getting the maximum in disability benefits. Even so, I only reached a total of £34,836.88, more than £2,000 below the £37,000 she says she gets. The extra £2,000 could be because she is paying an above average rent, or because the training course she is doing is government sponsored, or she is simply taking into account the value of the benefits in kind such as free school meals for Liam and Daniel and her travel costs to hospital for NHS treatment.

    So how can money be saved? The most obvious way is less expensive housing. Until Aaron is older she could manage with a 3 bed house, but it must be borne in mind that any property she is in must be adapted for her disability. It is probably cheaper to adapt 4 bed accommodation for her now, than to do it now for a 3 bed and later for a 4 bed house. Anyway, let's assume that Kelly is paying an above average rent for her accommodation and could save £2,000 a year by moving. That leaves her with an income of £35,000, still £9,000 above the £26,000 cap on benefits that is going to be imposed.

    Next, could Kelly manage on less for child support? I calculate this at £10,279.36 in child tax credits and £3,146 in child benefit. Note that Kelly's child tax credits are higher because she has a child under one year old and will be going down in 6 months time. Now the really interesting thing about these benefits is that Kelly would not lose them if she started working. She keeps the child benefit as long as she is not paying a higher rate of tax. She keeps the child tax credit in full if on a low wage and it would be withdrawn in stages as her income went up. In other words the system is already designed to ensure that someone who has children is never better off not working. The rates are also already graded to take into account the economies of scale that can be made with a large family.

    The final part of Kelly's income is the amount she gets for her own maintenance. I've assumed that she gets the highest rates of incapacity benefit of £4,752.80, disabled living allowance of £3,712.80 and mobility allowance of £2,592.2.

    The long-term rate of incapacity benefit is significantly higher than income support. If Kelly was on income support she would only be getting £3,403.40 p.a. Whether you think that is justified depends on whether you think someone on incapacity benefit is a disabled person deserving sympathy or a work-shy scrounger. For the sake of argument we will assume that you are a Daily Mail reader and reduce Kelly's benefit by the difference of £1,349.4. But that still leaves Kelly with £33,650. We've still got to find £7,650 to dock off Kelly's income.

    So shall we scrap Kelly's disability living allowance and mobility allowance completely, saving £6,305? Despite the fact that these are benefits that would not be withdrawn if she was working? Despite the fact that without them she would probably find it impossible to even look for work? I know someone in a wheelchair who has to pay £44 for a taxi every time she wants to go shopping, so Kelly's mobility allowance probably covers one shopping trip a week.

    As far as I can estimate, the figure of £60,000, that Kelly says she needs to make it worth her while working, does not take into account the benefits she would continue to receive if she got a job.

    So, in answer to the questions I posed earlier:
    • Kelly gets such high benefits chiefly because of an unusual combination of a large family and physical disability. All 50.000 of the families affected by the benefit cap probably fit this profile.
    • Can her benefits be reduced without causing her and her children undue hardship? Yes, but not to anywhere near the £26,000 level.
    • Is such a high level of benefit a disincentive to work? Apparently not in Kelly's case, and since many of the benefits she gets would be retained if she was at work, this is a question to which the answer is no. However, I wonder why we think it important to get a disabled woman with four children, two of whom are under three, into work at all.
    • Are working parents on a median wage actually worse off than Kelly? Since they have access to many of the benefits she has, I'd say probably not.
    So, now I'd like you, dear reader, to explain to me how you think Kelly should adapt her lifestyle to live on £26,000 a year.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010

    The crime of living comfortably

    Being in Canada, I can't watch the news item about Kelly Cottam, but I can see the blurb: "She admits she lives a comfortable lifestyle".

    Gosh -- that's appalling isn't it? The gall of the woman. A single mother with four children living a comfortable lifestyle. What can we do about that? I know. Let's make them pick oakum.

    Monday, October 25, 2010

    Pension again

    The Guardian editorial explains that the proposed change to pensions entitlement actually scraps the state second pension, and raises the basic pension reducing the need for, not abolishing, means testing. It says the Daily Mail suggested wrongly that the pension would be granted to anyone who'd lived in the UK for a certain period of time, conveniently forgetting that the piece in Monday's Guardian did the same thing, or at least that's the meaning I'd give to the words "the new system would be based on residency".

    So it seems my voluntary contributions were not pointless after all.

    The latest CAPP Pin-up.

    CAPP's latest pin-up is John Parr. John is a hunky kind of guy, mature but still in his prime. He's wearing a crisp blue open necked shirt, that speaks no-nonsense professionalism. He has a serious, soulful look, with a slight furrow to his brow; you can tell he's deep and he cares. He's standing in front of a lake. Yes, it's that lake again. John works for Canadian Natural at the Primrose development (what a pretty name for a slice of Mordor).

    The shout caps read "Through innovation we've achieved a huge reduction in fresh water use. More solutions are within reach".

    One hopes he is right. Take a look at this article in The Economist. In March the Pembina Institute did a report on the steam assisted method of extracting oil from the deeper sands, which is touted as less environmentally damaging than open pit mining. "Projects were judged on general environmental management, land use, air emissions, water use and impact on climate change, and then given an overall score." Guess what, Canadian Natural's project at Primrose scored the lowest at 25%. And, they scored poorly on commitment to regional environmental initiatives.

    Nobody from Canadian Natural was available to comment. Maybe they were hanging out at the lake.

    The £140 pension

    Don't get me wrong, I'm all for it.

    But, I'm one of the thousands of people who have paid voluntary payments to make up for the gap in their National Insurance record. That option, by the way, is open to anyone not paying NI compulsorily, such as a full-time mother, and it can be done later, when she is back at work. Furthermore, a lot of the women pensioners, who are not receiving full pensions, voluntarily elected to pay the lower NI "married woman's rate" when they were working, knowing that it would deprive them of a pension.

    That's not to say that the present system is fair to women who are full-time carers, but the fact is that it is possible to get a full pension even if you have gaps in your employment, and there will be a lot of people who took care to cover those gaps feeling they might as well not have bothered.

    Sunday, October 24, 2010

    State Pension Age

    I'm grateful to Radio 4's Money Box Live for providing a calculator for the new pension ages. It was reassuring for me personally because it shows that Ian's retirement age is unaffected and mine is only delayed by a month.

    On the other hand I can't work out whether I'll get any of the Equitable Life compensation. I've always been confused by this issue, and I've probably made the wrong decisions. I had a small fund with a guaranteed endowment rate which does not mature until I'm 60. I lost the guaranteed annuity as a result of the collapse. I've read that anyone like me who invested before 1992 hasn't lost anything, but I don't see how that is the case. However, I also invested after 1992, so maybe I get some compensation for that. Apparently I should also have taken my fund out of Equitable Life and invested it elsewhere, but at the time there was such a whopping penalty for transferring my fund that I thought it best to leave it where it was. I suppose I should have consulted an IFA, but by that point I'd been given some very bad investment advice by an IFA that lost me thousands, so I'd decided to make my own investment decisions from that point on.

    The fact is that market investments are too much of a gamble for people who are on small or medium incomes, but some of us have no choice but make our own provision if we are not in employment with a pension scheme. If I had to do it all again I would not take out a private pension policy at all, and do all my saving in building society accounts, or National Savings. Alternatively I'd just put all my money into buying a property. Despite the recent dip in property prices and the further fall we will probably have, property has been the best investment in my lifetime.

    Friday, October 22, 2010

    Appeal for middle-class families.

    I've spent an enjoyable morning going through the Two Ronnies clips on YouTube trying to find their charity appeal for middle-class families sketch. I can't find it, which is a pity because it would be a wonderful response to the surgeon's wife (economising by growing her own courgettes), the IT consultant interviewed on Radio 4 (deserves child benefit for putting the children to bed) , and all the other rich women who've been pleading poverty because they are losing their child benefit.

    As I remember it, Ron and Ron made an appeal for donations for "middle class families who haven't got quite enough", the sketch ending with a solemn reminder that "this Christmas thousands of children will go without a skiing holiday."

    Since I can't find the sketch, here's Ronnie Barker as the Minister of Cuts:

    Wednesday, October 20, 2010

    The Spending Review

    My instant reaction.

    Overall, I'm relieved that it is not as bad as I feared.

    The measures for schools which show definite LD input are the most satisfactory. My two oldest friends are teachers in inner-city schools, who voted LD for the first time this year. I've been wondering if they are still speaking to me ever since, but I think they are going to be pleased by this.

    However, I'm very unhappy about the prioritisation of universal benefits over welfare. I fear that British society is going to increasingly look like Canada, with an underclass who are homeless and/or dependent on charitable handouts. I don't find that remotely acceptable.

    I predict that the rise in the age threshold for housing benefit will result in a flood of homeless young people sleeping on the streets as we had when Thatcher removed benefits for young people. Expect tent-cities in London parks. There will be a reduction in sex-trafficked migrants smuggled into the UK because the pimps will find plenty of recruits among our homeless young women.

    The time-limited invalidity benefit together with the cap on benefits for large families is going to have a disastrous affect on the lives of many vulnerable people. It will result in broken marriages, children going into care and single parents and disabled people who would benefit from the support of a relationship being forced to struggle on alone.

    Protecting non means-tested fuel allowance while slashing welfare benefits is breathtakingly cynical, and of course exactly the kind of thing Brown would have done.

    I'm also very conscious that were Ian and I still in the UK, the spending review would be a disaster for us personally. We are in Canada because Ian's an historian who was made redundant by his university in 2004, but if he'd kept his job he'd be facing redundancy now, and I'd be losing my incapacity benefit, leaving us subsisting on very inadequate pensions. I used to be a legal-aid family lawyer, so even if I'd still been working, I would be hurting now. There are a lot of measures in the review that look a lot more bearable from 4,000 miles away.

    Ian and I are going to be affected by the rise in state pension age. I think all people in their fifties would like the details as soon as possible so that we can amend our plans for our retirement. This is going to be a big blow for many women. However, it is also something I accept as a necessary and fair economy.

    My mum is likely to be affected by the changes to social care. I'm pleased by the localisation, but if the NHS had not been ring-fenced, social care would not need this level of cuts. Should we expect a log-jam of elderly people to taking up much needed hospital beds because there are no care places for them?

    What is very clear is the Liberal Democrat input into the review. That is a boost for us. I can't pretend to be happy with the coalition economic policy. I would have preferred the deficit to be reduced over 2 government terms, not one, and although some regressive measures are inevitable with cuts of this size, I think the most deprived are being hit too hard. However, the Conservatives on their own would be far worse.

    Tuesday, October 19, 2010

    Dr Who again -- again.

    Excuse me for posting this, but not everyone who reads this blog reads John Rentoul. My domestic experience suggests that the humour of Questions to which the answer is No doesn't survive the Canadian irony deficit. Anyway this is my patriotic fix for the day:

    Friday, October 15, 2010

    Fair Chance

    I received Nick Clegg's email today titled "Giving a Fair Chance to Every Child". Surely that should have read "Giving a Fair Chance to Every Child except those from Large Families"?

    Thursday, October 14, 2010

    Lego Don

    I love this election video from one of the candidates in the Edmonton City Election:

    Monday, October 11, 2010

    Universality and the Welfare Safety-Net

    To me, it seems a very big leap to say that the coalition is abandoning the welfare state principal of universality, just because it is removing child benefit from higher rate taxpayers. As Michael White has pointed out the welfare state has always been full of quirks and anomalies. The way some politicians and commentators have reacted, you would have thought that Osborne had announced the introduction of means tested health care.

    I'm much more worried that the coalition will do the opposite: that is maintain universal benefits at the expense of the welfare safety-net. Based on my observations since I moved here, I'd say that is exactly what has happened in Canada. Universal benefits such as education, libraries and health care are generally very good. The contribution based state pension is better than the UK's (no surprise there). But, on the other hand, the welfare safety-net fails many thousands of Canadians who need help, who end up on the streets, or dependent on food-banks to feed themselves and their families, and even more live with the stress of being just one or two paychecks away from disaster.

    There are good grounds for being concerned that the coalition will prioritise universality over welfare. It is already doing so; not only is the NHS ring-fenced, but less justifiably universal benefits for the elderly are, as yet, only subject to rumours of cutbacks. It is the means tested benefits of last resort which are being reformed, and children in large families on welfare will lose the most through the cap on payments. I see absolutely no justification for this. However galling it is to see large families on benefits getting more than than the median income, the fact is there are very few such families, and the saving for the state is tiny. Since some children will probably end up in care as a result of their family's loss of income, there may even be an overall financial loss.

    I don't like living in Canada. I don't like living in a society that has thousands of people sleeping on the streets. I don't like living in a society where thousands of people need help from food banks. I regard that as too high a price to pay for good schools and libraries and free health care. I don't want Britain to become like that, so I'd welcome the slashing of universal benefits, if that will preserve the welfare safety net.

    Friday, October 8, 2010

    My year of Shingles

    I spent the first four months of 2010 nursing my mum through a bad attack of shingles. Now I've got it. On Wednesday evening I noticed what looked like a mosquito bite on my waist (we are having an Indian summer here, so a bite was not impossible). Yesterday evening the single blister had become a line running for a few inches round my waist -- a classic shingles rash. I've been feeling under the weather for a few weeks and had an itchy back; that is often how the disease starts.

    I didn't catch it from mum. You can't catch shingles from someone else. I've got it because I had chicken pox as a child, because I have a genetic vulnerability, and because I've been under physical and emotional stress (I've just had two abscessed teeth treated and we've had a death in the family).

    On New Year's Day I blogged about the vaccine (currently unavailable in the UK), and about the ethically dubious UK policy of not vaccinating children against chicken-pox in order to protect the older generations, so I won't repeat myself, but I will say this:

    IF YOU ARE OVER 50 YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT SHINGLES. The chance of getting the disease increases with age and by the time you are retired you are very likely to get it and the symptoms will be more severe. Treatment with anti-viral drugs can lessen the symptoms, but you need to start taking them within 72 hours of the rash appearing. Make sure you know how to recognise the rash.

    I'm still within the 72 hours. I'm seeing the doctor at 1.30 today, so hopefully I'm not going to go through the agony endured by my mum and my brother.

    Thursday, October 7, 2010

    On Romney Marsh

    National Poetry Day is an excuse to share this poem by John Davidson with you:

    As I went down to Dymchurch Wall,
    I heard the South sing o'er the land
    I saw the yellow sunlight fall
    On knolls where Norman churches stand.

    And ringing shrilly, taut and lithe,
    Within the wind a core of sound,
    The wire from Romney town to Hythe
    Along its airy journey wound.

    A veil of purple vapour flowed
    And trailed its fringe along the Straits;
    The upper air like sapphire glowed:
    And roses filled Heaven's central gates.

    Masts in the offing wagged their tops;
    The swinging waves pealed on the shore;
    The saffron beach, all diamond drops
    And beads of surge, prolonged the roar.

    As I came up from Dymchurch Wall,
    I saw above the Downs' low crest
    The crimson brands of sunset fall,
    Flicker and fade from out the West.

    Night sank: like flakes of silver fire
    The stars in one great shower came down;
    Shrill blew the wind; and shrill the wire
    Rang out from Hythe to Romney town.

    The darkly shining salt sea drops
    Streamed as the waves clashed on the shore;
    The beach, with all its organ stops
    Pealing again, prolonged the roar.

    Davidson was a Scotsman who abandoned a career as a teacher to write. He committed suicide aged 52 in 1909, by drowning himself at sea. When I was a small child my family spent summers on Romney Marsh, and as a London child, I loved the open space and freedom to roam there. When I was given this poem to read for a drama exam, it was the first time I'd read anything that echoed my own experience. I liked the truthfulness of including the pervasive sound of the wind in the telegraph wire in a nature poem.

    Climate Prosperity

    "While the phrase ‘climate change’ is familiar to many — and a scientifically accepted phenomenon — the phrase ‘climate prosperity’ is newer. It is a phrase the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy wants Canadians to embrace."

    The Canadian Government's spin on climate change. Richard Littlemore dissects it here.

    Wednesday, October 6, 2010

    Edmonton Civic Elections

    Edmonton's civic election, which is held every 3 years, takes place next Monday. Edmontonians vote for a mayor and 12 councillors, one per ward. I'm fairly certain that the election is FPTP. Elected councillors receive a salary, currently $79,787; the mayor gets $144,061. These salaries are augmented by health care, a vehicle allowance, and partial tax exemption. The small size of the council is admirably lean and efficient, and the salaries, while good enough to attract able candidates, are not excessive.

    For some reason that I don't understand, the political parties have no involvement in civic politics. All candidates are non party-political. Campaigning is very low key, which makes it very difficult to work out what candidates stand for or believe in, except for their position one or two current high-profile issues, such as whether a new sports arena should be built downtown. The elephant in the room is homelessness, which only fails to be treated as a current crisis because it is chronic; I've not been able to discover how any of the candidates in our ward would deal with the issue.

    I don't have a vote (which I resent), but Ian does. So far he has not received one candidate leaflet. No canvassers have come to the door. Most candidates seem to think the watchword for success is anodyne. The incumbent councillor in our ward is Ben Henderson; view the first interview with him on this page for a demonstration of how to spend an entire minute talking but saying absolutely nothing.

    Tuesday, October 5, 2010

    Homelessness in Canada

    Edmonton is carrying out its annual count of the homeless, that is of rough sleepers or people in temporary shelters - a much narrower definition of homelessness than in the UK. The last time the count was done was in 2008 when there were 3078. It is expected that the figure will be higher this time. Edmonton has a total population of less than 1,000,000. Those homeless figures will be repeated in every city in Canada.

    By way of comparison, there are around 500 people sleeping rough in the whole of England and between 90,000 and 100,000 households in temporary accommodation (many of whom would not be classed as homeless by the Edmonton criteria).

    I often wax lyrical about the standard of Edmonton's public library service, and I could also praise the quality of their public buildings, and the funding for further education and the health service; but the fact is the priorities for public spending here shock and appal me. A large number of the people on the streets have obvious mental health or substance abuse problems or are learning disabled, and this is a city which in the winter can become the coldest place on the planet. Yes, people do freeze to death.

    Monday, October 4, 2010


    i just want to point out that david marsh in today's guardian, setting out the case against using capitals, nevertheless capitalises Estate Agents.

    Sunday, October 3, 2010

    More Kindling

    My experiments with downloading kindle files from the Internet Archive have not been an unalloyed success. Some of them are too garbled to be easily read. Two of them were completely different books to the book described. One of them crashed my Kindle and I needed Amazon's technical help to get it up and running again. On the other hand, I've managed to get a complete collection of Peninsular War memoirs from members of the 95th Rifles and the regimental history by Sir William Cope, and it is a lot easier reading them on the Kindle than in PDF form on my computer screen.

    On the plus side, I've discovered the cheap classics sold by Amazon and am building up a huge library just because I can. So far I have the complete works of Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy and Edith Wharton. I'm disappointed that I can't find a complete Proust.

    Karl Pyrdum, of Got Medieval is delighted by the Kindle screensaver from the Lindisfarne Gospels and may augment it with another 24 medieval images. I hope he does.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010

    Religious Knowledge

    Michael Tomasky didn't set a Friday quiz this week, so I searched for another quiz to do and found my way to the Pew Research Centre's quiz on religious belief, via Richard Adams blog.

    I scored 100%, which apparently makes me more knowledgeable about religion than 89% of Americans, and that's despite my shameful ignorance about Cardinal Newman.

    Friday, October 1, 2010

    Tony Curtis

    None of the obituaries I've seen so far have mentioned Tony Curtis's philanthropy. He helped restore the synagogue in Budapest. It is quite beautiful and well worth a visit.

    Wednesday, September 29, 2010

    Family history and "cultural identity"

    I answered a questionnaire today, set by a cultural studies researcher doing a doctorate on how family history research affects cultural identity. I don't think my replies will have helped her much. For example, one question was "How did you see other people's cultural identities before you started doing family history research?" My reply was "It was something I never thought about". I found most of the questions baffling. Are there really people who have thoughts beginning "My cultural identity is..." or "His cultural identity is..."? That is, apart from cultural studies academics.

    I attempted to answer the questionnaire for two reasons. Firstly I'm always in favour of people completing their doctorates, even in the field of cultural studies. There are far too many abandoned doctoral theses out there haunting their hapless progenitors' lives like the ghost of Jacob Marley. Secondly, I think that the popularity of family history research is an interesting cultural phenomenon and someone should be studying it.

    Monday, September 27, 2010

    Amazon gift certificate and Kindle

    My brother sent me an gift-certificate for my birthday. He was probably thinking that I could use it to buy e-books for my new Kindle. Only I can't, because to buy e-books I've got to use the Kindle shop at either or, and Amazon gift-tokens cannot be transferred from one of their domains to another. He wasn't to know this, but you'd think could flag up "Hey, if you buy a gift-certificate here it can't be used for e-books!".

    Sunday, September 19, 2010

    Amazon as Big Brother for Kindle

    There is an interesting debate going on on the Linux Ubuntu forums about the implications of e-books for freedom from censorship.

    What this amounts to is that the Kindle owner does not have ultimate control over the books on their Kindle. This is retained by Amazon which can delete them.

    This may not matter much now, but imagine a society in which physical books are no longer produced and everyone has their library on an e-book reader instead. Then suppose the government in that society decides to ban Orwell's 1984. One press of a button and 1984 is deleted from everyone's library simultaneously.

    Even now, one can see how the potential of e-book readers like Kindle might appeal to regimes like China that want to control their population's access to information and monitor what they are reading.

    Friday, September 17, 2010

    The Pope again

    I admit that I'm finding the Pope's visit to Britain quite disturbing. I'm reminded that I may be an atheist but (to use Christopher Hitchen's terminology), I'm a protestant atheist. I learned Latimer's words to Ridley at the stake by heart when I was at school, and somewhere deep in my brain, all that early indoctrination must have stuck.

    I wish the Pope didn't have such a cloth ear for history and culture. For a Pope to visit England and then make references to Sir Thomas More is not tactful. I can almost hear my puritan Congregationalist ancestors turning in their graves. It makes me want to go out and lay a great big flowery wreath at one of the memorials to Protestant Martyrs.

    On the other hand, as a humanist and a secularist, I find the people purporting to speak on my behalf almost equally annoying, and none more so than Polly Toynbee. Her astonishingly shallow statement in today's Guardian that the great moral question of our time is how to share the nation's wealth, almost makes the Pope look like a profound thinker, rather than the intellectually sclerotic old man he really is.

    So thank whatever isn't up there, for Julian Baggini's article in today's Guardian. In my opinion he's spot on.

    Monday, September 13, 2010

    Bushiness post Bush

    Also in today's Edmonton Journal, a report that the Harper Government is muzzling scientists working for Natural Resources Canada. NRCan was even prevented from discussing a study in a major research journal that had nothing to do with climate change, but was about a huge flood caused by a collapsing ice-dam that occurred 13,000 years ago. It's reminiscent of Bush's attempt to muzzle climate scientists.

    Another CAPP ad

    CAPP's latest full page ad in today's Edmonton Journal features Syrie Crouch, who works for Shell, looking soulful with some rocks.

    Syrie works on C02 storage and she finds it exciting. I wonder if she was excited by the report that said that CCS cannot significantly counter the high levels of greenhouse gases emitted by the tarsands and the process cannot possibly achieve what is claimed by the oil companies and the Canadian government?

    Parading my ignorance

    While I do not oppose the Pope's visit, the complaint by Opus Dei's spokesman that nobody knows anything about religion in the UK and we Brits know more about Paul Newman than Cardinal Newman is a provocation.

    I decided to apply the 1066 and All That test -- i.e. everything I can remember about Cardinal Newman without Googling:
    • He was a Roman Catholic cardinal.
    • He was effeminate
    • He had a very good friend, never got over his death and asked that they be buried together, which makes him the Heathcliff of repressed homosexual priests.
    • I know a lot more about Paul Newman.
    I'm puzzled by the beatification thing. This Pope and the last Pope seem to do a lot of beatifying. Applying the 1066 test again, I thought that to be a saint you had to be an apostle, a martyr, an angel, a demoted celtic god, or a pubertal girl trying to get attention by claiming to see visions.

    Saturday, September 11, 2010

    Green v Nerd

    My inner Green who wishes to consume less and my inner Nerd fascinated by gadgets are in frequent conflict, and currently the Nerd is winning.

    A while ago this was not the case. Nerd wanted to buy an all American coffee maker that actually ground the beans as well as filtering the coffee. Nerd almost won on the basis that the device was space saving, but then Green noticed the machine also had a programmable clock. Green drew the line at coffee makers that tell the time.

    However Nerd learned from that experience and now realises that if she wants something she only has to say the magic words "you need this because it is energy efficient" and gullible Green will weaken.

    Earlier this week our electric kettle died so today we went to the kitchen shop to replace it and came away with a Chefs Choice Smart Kettle which can be set to turn itself off at any temperature you choose up to boiling point.

    It is an interesting fact about Edmonton that although the landscape is as flat as a pancake, we are in fact about a thousand feet above the comfort zone for a Swiss mountain goat. Our high altitude means that boiling point is lower here than at sea level, around 208˚F rather than 212˚F. This may have been why our old kettle packed up. It always took a while to shut itself off after the water boiled and eventually the automatic cut-off failed altogether.

    Cunning Nerd used these facts today to defeat Green. Nerd argued that since the Smart Kettle can be set to cut off at 208˚F, electricity will be saved. Only when we got home did Green realise that the Smart Kettle has to be filled with a minimum of half a litre of water -- a lot more than one cup of coffee, and there is an LED display, which means the kettle has to be unplugged when not in use.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010

    Nancy Pelosi discussing tar-sands

    Nancy Pelosi is in Canada today and tomorrow to discuss the tar-sands issue in a series of meetings with Canadian politicians, campaigners and oilmen. She is accompanied by democrat congressman Ed Markey. Both Pelosi and Markey are known for their support for environmental causes, so this bodes well.

    The Pope's Visit

    I'm an atheist, so I could be expected to support the Protest the Pope's campaign. Actually, I don't. I neither object to the Pope's visit, or object to public money being spent on it, and I think the protests are a little ridiculous.

    Stating the bleeding obvious, there are more than a billion Roman Catholics in the world which makes the Pope a significant world leader whether we like it or not. Yes, the church's opposition to condoms is helping spread AIDS and it has dealt too slowly and very badly with sexual abuse of children by priests, but for human rights abuses I don't think that puts the Roman Catholic Church in the same league as China or Saudi Arabia, two countries whose leaders have also made state visits in the last decade.

    Dialogue with the RC church makes a lot more sense to me than campaigning to have the Pope arrested, so I have no problem with the state visit.

    Monday, September 6, 2010

    Tarsands employees love fluffy bunnies.

    The oil industry and the governments of Canada and Alberta, continue to respond to the growing international concern about the tar-sands ecocide as if it is nothing more than a public relations problem.

    The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) have started running a series of ads in which photogenic tarsands employees state how much they love fluffy bunnies, or words to that effect. For example a full page ad today's Edmonton Journal shows biologist Megan Blampin looking soulful beside a lake with the quote:

    "We know what was here before, what's here now, and what we need to do before we leave".

    Which is really informative isn't it? I bet reading that you've realised how wrong you were about the tar-sands up to now.

    Bamplin works for Devon Energy which has a tarsands project at Jackfish using steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) to extract the oil. It is claimed that this method is more environmentally friendly than open cast mining since it has less impact on the forest. However, SAGD requires vast amounts of energy, far more than open cast mining, and huge areas of forest still have to be destroyed to make space for the necessary infrastructure.

    But that's all right because Megan's out there monitoring

    "rare species like Arctic Grayling and Woodland Caribou. Everyone I work with loves the outdoors."

    That's the outdoors that Albertans love exploring in their mammoth 4x4 pick-up trucks.

    So what if the world temperature rises by a few degrees by the end of Megan's life and the millions of people we saw affected by climate catastrophe this year increase every year, until our species itself is threatened? At least Megan, with her creamy skin and blonde highlights cared.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010

    Cookery Books

    With the grim prospect of another winter in Alberta before me, I've been cheering myself up by buying lots of cookery books so I can liven up our diet over the winter, which has inspired me to make a list of my favourite cookbooks:


    If you are a new cook, this is the one to get. I don't currently own a copy, but I'm intending to inherit my mum's, and meanwhile I can ring her up and get her to read out the recipes.

    I have mixed feelings about Delia. My main criticism is that the book uses too many different different sizes of casseroles, cake tins, etc. You'd need a farmhouse kitchen to house the containers to do all the recipes, not the single cupboard that most of us have. Secondly, some of the recipes are not good (use the Dairy Book's recipe for lemon meringue pie, and don't do Delia's chocolate mousse either). Nevertheless, I admit that my copy is dog-eared.

    La Varenne Pratique also published as the Reader's Digest Guide to Cookery
    Anne Willan is not well enough known in the UK. This is a superb book for the serious cook; it has some recipes, but it concentrates on explaining cooking techniques in detail. I used it to learn how to joint a chicken. I followed its guidance to prepare garden snails for cooking, and I had it open in front of me while I plucked and drew a pair of wood-pigeons and then made a casserole of them with vegetables and herbs from the garden.

    Ian consults it every time he wants to boil an egg. I use the jam recipes.

    Jocasta Innes is best known for her interior decorating shops, but this is a very good book for the starter cook. It's a great present for someone setting up home for the first time. Unlike Delia, Jocasta does not assume you have the space or the money for huge amounts of kitchen equipment.


    Sussex Pond Pudding, Gooseberry Sauce for mackerel, Gooseberry fool. Actually, I'd buy it for the gooseberry recipes alone.

    This book is from a 1970's series on Yorkshire TV that showcased regional recipes sent in by the general public. It includes Staffordshire oatcakes, Nottingham gingerbread and so on. These are the real local kitchen recipes, not made over by a TV chef.


    by Marcella Hazan
    I own the American edition. Widely regarded as the best Italian cookbook in English. I use it constantly. As an Americanised Venetian, Hazan uses very large quantities of salt and butter; I reduce the salt and substitute olive oil for the butter.

    A more health conscious Hazan.

    by Edward Giobbi
    I found this book on a second-hand stall years ago, when I was looking for a book on southern Italian cooking which uses more olive oil and less butter. Giobbi is not a southern Italian, but an Italian-American artist who lived for a while in Tuscany, but I prefer a lot of Giobbi's versions of classic Italian dishes to Hazan's, including his meatball recipes and caponata.

    I've just acquired this classic, having coveted it for years. I'm overawed by the size of the book and the number of recipes.


    As well as La Varenne Pratique (see General Cooking above), I own three other books by Willan: French Cookery. Chateau Cuisine and Country Cooking of France. She is a marvelous teacher, but she is also a very prolific author, which leads to some repetition. Many of her books are sumptuously illustrated, which makes them expensive and not very practical for use in the kitchen. Nevertheless, I'm a big fan and I prefer following her instructions to Elizabeth David or Julia Child.


    The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen
    I was a vegetarian until my mid-thirties. These two books were my main cookbooks in the seventies and I still use recipes from them. As far as I know, Clare Bryant never wrote another book, whereas Mollie Katzen is still going strong -- there is now a whole Moosewood library available.


    This very pretty book has given me a lot of fun and the nasturtium and beetroot salad has become one of our summer favourites.

    Tuesday, August 31, 2010

    Britain's Finest Year

    Peter Kellner's article led me to the YouGov poll on Britain's Finest Year. Apparently Liberal Democrats tend to choose a year of social or democratic advance rather than military. I find the choice difficult.

    I'd reject The Magna Carta - 1215 as in reality too limited a reform which at the time affected only the aristocratic class. I'd also reject Women's Suffrage -- 1928 as nothing to crow about since other countries had granted women the vote years earlier. I'd also reject The NHS -- 1948 on the grounds that other European nations were setting up socialised health care at the same time. I wouldn't be tempted by The Abolition of Slavery -- 1833 either, on the grounds that it is equivalent to a husband being proud of having stopped beating his wife.

    Of the military years, Agincourt -- 1415 is out -- there is nothing about the 100 Years War to feel proud about. The defeat of the Armada -- 1588 had more to do with luck than judgement. I've changed my mind about the Falklands War; at the time I was anti, but since then I've come to think Thatcher was right. Nevertheless I would not pick 1982 as our finest hour. I reluctantly reject Waterloo, since our victory was a jointly shared with our allies, although the lion's share of the honours go to Britain and the victory ensured that the nineteenth century was Britain's century.

    That leaves one "social" year and one military: The Bill of Rights -- 1689, and 1940, but I can't decide between them.

    More on the Tarsands

    Levis's, Gap and Timberland have joined the tarsands campaign. The Alberta Enterprise Group has called on Albertans to boycott Levi-Strauss, Gap and Timberland. I've just bought my first pair of Levi's for about twenty years (and they are very comfortable).

    Meanwhile the indefatigable Professor Schindler of the University of Alberta has produced a report showing that the tarsands monitoring by government is totally incompetent -- conclusive evidence for what we already knew was probably the case.

    Not long after we came here we decided that since Environment Canada and Environment Alberta could not be trusted on the tarsands, or the oil industry generally, then it seemed unwise to trust any other environmental monitoring here, in other words the food, the water and the air quality are also suspect, so we buy our food at a rather expensive organic supermarket, and filter our water, but there isn't much we can do about the air.


    My first Kindle arrived yesterday. It's a birthday present. I wanted it primarily as a travel accessory, but also because my whole personal library is going to have to be shipped back to Blighty in a few years time, and with that in mind I've been operating a strict one-in-one-out policy for paper books. Now I can expand my library electronically without guilt.

    The jury is still out on whether or not e-books are less environmentally damaging than paper books. Cleantech in Los Angeles claims that Kindle is environmentally friendlier, but the study assumes that a Kindle user would otherwise buy 3 new paper books a month, rather than borrow from a library or buy second-hand. Hmmm. Ian's library is so big that when we were buying a house here in Alberta I had to get advice from a structural engineer on whether the building could cope with the weight, but even Ian does not buy three brand-new books each month.

    This is my first electronic book-reader. I wasn't able to try out the Kindle software on my computer first because I use Linux Ubuntu (that's an 0pen source operating system) and Kindle is very difficult to install on Linux. This is silly of Amazon, because they use open source software for the Kindle, and not making it compatible with Linux loses them friends who would otherwise be supporters.

    I bought the 6" Kindle because it is the most practical for travelling and small enough to slip into a capacious pocket. Its design may not be up to Apple standards, but it is still good looking. With its leather cover on it looks like a smart travel journal or a filofax. You buy the cover separately. I chose a green leather Amazon cover with an integral light. The cover looks sturdy enough to last for years. The light is very useful but held on such a fragile stem that its life-span has to be limited.

    It didn't take me long to learn how to operate my Kindle. It is much easier than a mobile phone. The point of Kindle, and what makes it different from reading book on a computer screen, is that it is not back-lit, making the experience less wearing on the eyes, and more like reading print on paper. Amazon's mantra is that the Kindle should "disappear", that is that you should forget that you are reading a machine. That works for me. You can customise the font, and font size as well as choose whether to view the text in portrait or landscape view. Navigating around a volume is very easy. There is a dictionary tool, which is useful, and you can bookmark pages, plus there is a search tool. You can also annotate what you are reading using the keyboard, but that is fiddly compared with using a pencil and for that reason, if I was studying I'd prefer a paper textbook.

    Making my first purchase from Amazon and downloading to my Kindle was a doddle. I chose The Girl Who Played with Fire because I'm 74th in line for this book at my local library. I've read that Amazon e-books are cheaper than print in the UK, but they are not in Canada. I have to buy from the Kindle store in $ US. The book would have been $1.00 CAN cheaper in print from, although it would have been more expensive with postage. For second-hand books the saving is even greater. For example, the Kindle Jane Grigson's English Food is $9.99 US ($10.62 CAN), but I've just bought a second-hand copy for $5.57 CAN which included postage.

    E-book fans make much of the thousands of free volumes on the web, but reading these with Kindle is not problem-free. I transferred a Project Gutenburg PDF file: Adventures in the Rifle Brigade by Sir John Kincaid to my Kindle from my computer, but I could not read it. If I email it to my Kindle instead, Amazon will convert it to a Kindle file, but they will charge me for doing so, so it will no longer be a free volume, and since I can read it for free on my computer I probably won't bother.

    The new Kindle also comes with some experimental features, including a web-browser. I tried this to see if I can read my gmail, which would be very useful while travelling. Yesterday I could do so, but I've been unable to make a connection today. If the web browser could be improved and Google maps made accessible the Kindle would become an ideal travel companion.

    One more thing. Every time you open the Kindle it displays a screensaver, which is usually a portrait of an author. One of the portraits (I won't tell you which) bears a disturbing resemblance to my first husband. You can't change the screensaver and I'm going to find that very irritating very soon.