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 Amazon.ca, 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.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Paying Down

Today (it's till Monday here in Alberta) Larry Elliott uses the phrase in Economics on Monday.

I think the first use in a British context, of the American phrase paying down, to mean reduce mortgage debt was in the first TV election debate when David Cameron used it. I suspect he picked it up from the American advisors he was consulting.

Nick Clegg used it in his last email to Liberal Democrats.

Now Larry Elliott.

All the Building Society and Bank web sites that I've checked are still using reduce.

It will be interesting to see how the phrase progresses. Will it stay confined to politicians and journalists, or will it get taken up by the British financial services industry and the general public?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bastard and other terms

Writing my last piece this morning, it struck me that although the stigma of illegitimacy is long gone, its legacy is that there is no satisfactory term for someone whose parents were not married.

Natural child is probably the least potentially offensive, which makes it a favourite with family historians, but it is also rather odd, implying that children with married parents are unnatural.

Born outside wedlock is cumbersome and sounds archaic and coy. Born outside marriage is not much improvement.

Illegitimate is precise and formal, but carries an undertone of illegality, seeming to imply such a child has no right to exist.

On the whole I think I prefer bastard, which may still be used as a term of mild abuse, but has the capacity to be reclaimed.

Who were the illegitimate children?

"Florence becomes the second child born to a serving leader in a decade after Leo Blair in 2000, who was the first legitimate child born to a serving prime minister in over 150 years — since the birth of Francis Russell in July 1849." states the Guardian today.

This is the second time I've seen that proviso legitimate, which strikes me as unusually cautious for the modern British journalist who is usually cavalier about historical accuracy. So, have there been any illegitimate children born to serving Prime Ministers? A quick skim through the Wikipedia biographies doesn't reveal any. I've only found two bastards, but neither was born, or even conceived, when their father was in office. Lord Palmerston was reputed to be the father of Lady Emily Cowper, whose mother later became his wife. The second, of course, is Lloyd-George's daughter by Frances Stevenson.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Why not to pick a fight with a desk

I've recently had two root canal fillings, and I was wondering what the prognosis was for keeping them in the long-term, so I did a web-search and came across this video which did not give me the information I was looking for, but is entertaining:

Monday, August 23, 2010

Will they let me declaim poetry?

I have a family history website for the benefit of my relatives, but I try to keep it separate from this blog because my family history is really very dull, and this blog has enough problems with my life being boring. Certainly I can't compete with Nick Clegg or David Cameron's genealogies; nobody in my family has ever been beaten to death by his own peasants, had an affair with HG Wells, or been King of England.

Alas, not only are none of my ancestors famous, but they are also all English: there's not even an Irish, Scots or Welsh person, let alone a Jew, Huguenot or freed African slave, thus making my family history so un-PC that it must be ineligible for BBC Radio 4's Tracing Your Roots which seems to require at least one immigrant strand to your family to be included in the programme.

However, I discovered a week ago that one of my great-great-great-grandmothers, named Elizabeth Watkins, was briefly famous in the last year of her life for being the last surviving witness of the Battle of Waterloo. This was in 1904, she was 94 years old and she'd been five when she helped her mother bandage the wounded. Her father Daniel Gale was in the 3rd Battalion of the 95th Regiment of Foot - the same regiment as the fictional Sharpe, which gives me an excuse to insert a picture of Sean Bean. Please feel free to admire him for as long as you wish before continuing:

Elizabeth's longevity with all her wits about her has been repeated in every generation of her descendants, which gives me cause for optimism for my old age. But, there's more: when she was interviewed in 1904 they let her recite a poem about Waterloo "with much dramatic action", which must have been a sight since she was wearing a voluminous black skirt with a bustle.

My mum wanted me to talk nice, so I did speech and drama lessons from the age of five to sixteen, which left me with an RP accent, fearlessness about public speaking, and a large stock of memorised Victorian poetry which I've been wanting to perform ever since, but whenever I launch into verse people either leave the room or throw something at me, so my ambition remains frustrated. Can it be that if I make it to my nineties I'll get an audience at last? I'll start rehearsing now:

"It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wintery sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughter,
To bear him company...."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Giant Rat of Bradford

Our local paper, The Edmonton Journal, covers world affairs by culling stories from English language papers worldwide and re-writing them for an Albertan audience, often with surprising and delightful results.

Yesterday it informed its readers that the Kremlin's past owners include "two royal dynasties -- the Ruriks and the Bolsheviks".

The Journal had the cheek to keep the Daily Telegraph's Moscow correspondent Andrew Osborn's byline on the piece. I think he should sue.

This is a re-write of a tongue in cheek Sun article about an escaped coypu in Bradford transformed into a tale for which the world is not yet ready.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Nick Clegg's letter

"When the history books are written, I want them to say that this government paid down the budget deficit..." [my emphasis].

Is that American history books? I hope British history books don't adopt that Americanism, which Nick Clegg seems to have picked up from David Cameron who used it in one of the TV debates. "Paid off", or "reduced" please, not paid down.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Canadian Ecocide.

Canada, through its tar sands industry, is engaged in a callous, venal and mercenary rape of the environment on an almost unimaginable scale. An area the size of England will be denuded of boreal forest in order to extract the dirtiest oil on the planet. Tar-sands oil has three times the emissions of conventional oil because of the energy used in extracting and processing it. In the process air and water are poisoned with disastrous consequences for the local population.

The industry is the reason that Canada cannot meet its emission reduction commitments. Defence of the industry has turned Canada into a spoiler and saboteur of climate change negotiations.

Contrary to the claims of the Canadian government, there is no way to make this industry environmentally sustainable. It should simply be stopped.

When I moved to Canada in June 2006 I knew almost nothing about the tar-sands, but by the end of that year I was wondering if moving here was any better than emigrating to South Africa during apartheid, and I've been wondering that ever since.

The EU Fuel Quality Directive, when implemented, should stop tar sands oil entering Europe, but Greenpeace say the oil companies are lobbying hard to weaken the legislation. Greenpeace are asking people to write to Theresa Villiers to ask her to support a strong law.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Speed cameras

There is only one reason for opposing speed cameras and it is because you want to break the law without being caught. All the other reasons are rubbish.

If there was a camera in a supermarket which could be magically programmed to only record an image when it had a shoplifter in its sights, would anyone object? Or, if there was a similar camera outside a pub that only recorded an image when it witnessed a knife or gun fight, would anyone protest? Would there be concern that the cameras were being financed by the fines from successful prosecutions? If it was erroneously claimed that the fines exceeded the cost of the cameras would there be outrage?

Supposing those magic cameras existed, would you hear your neighbour, or workmate, complaining he'd been caught and fined for nicking a tin of baked beans from Tesco's when he was only doing what everybody did, and as an experienced shopper he was the best judge of when to shoplift or not?

It is a small miracle that we have the number of speed cameras that we have, because although they are popular with the majority of the population they are not popular with habitual speeders who are mostly middle-aged men, and most politicians and media pundits are middle-aged men.

Personally, I'd have a speed camera on every street corner, and I'd have them hidden. That would deal with the objection that a camera in one place only moves the accidents somewhere else (for which there is not one shred of evidence).

So, middle-aged middle-class man, boring me to tears explaining that you are a better judge of the safe speed for the road than the highly qualified County Accident Prevention Officer, I have this to say to you: Be grateful that you were only fined because if there were no cameras you might have killed a child by now. Next time you are caught, take the opportunity offered to do a re-training course because I guarantee that you will learn something.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Who cares who got the vote and when?

I guess the story of how we got the vote is just too complicated and boring to be taught in schools any more. Who wants to hear about £10 copyholders when they could be studying Nazis?

Earlier this year I visited a county archive to do some family history research and asked the county archivist for the 1830's electoral rolls, explaining that my ancestor had been a draper and I wanted to know if he had been enfranchised by the 1832 Act. "Oh no" she replied with an impressive air of authority. "Only the really big landowners were enfranchised in 1832."

A month later, during the general election campaign, I got talking to a man in his early twenties who told me that he wasn't voting. I told him that he should think about the fact that people died so he would get the vote (well yes, I was being a pompous ass -- but it had been a long day). He reacted with astonishment. It turned out he'd done the Suffragettes at school, but nobody had bothered to inform him that men hadn't always had the franchise.

Finally, I've just listened to the second instalment of this week's Women's Hour drama -- The Shooting Party by Elizabeth Colegate, set in 1913. In it, one agricultural labourer says to another "They'll never give the vote to the likes of we". His companion replies "And if they do, who will be next -- townsfolk?".

I have no idea whether this excruciating, historically illiterate dialogue is in the original 1981 novel or was added by the dramatist, but it makes me want to weep.