Tuesday, 31 August 2010

US forces withdraw from Iraq

Today, after seven long years and around 100,000 deaths the United States is to formally end combat operations in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said the country's security forces would now deal with all threats, domestic or otherwise.

It's been a hard time for Iraq, whatever one's opinions on the legality and desirability of the original coalition invasion back in 2003; security in the country seems to be in as precarious position as it ever was and kidnappings, shooting and suicide bombing occur with depressing regularity. Many would find sympathy with the view that post-war reconstruction had not been adequately thought-out before the war's beginning.

It's important to note that today's event will not mark the complete cessation of American military activity in Iraq; up to 50,000 troops will remain behind in a supporting capacity. Overall control of security operations, however, will now rest with the Iraqi administration.

But one doubts that this will see an end to the violence. A Baghdad resident by the name of Ilifat summed up how many in Iraq must feel; "When the last US soldier leaves Iraqi bases and no US base remains in the country, we will say that the US troops have withdrawn".

This is perhaps the greatest problem that has always faced today's foreign troops in the Middle East; that their very presence acts as a catalyst for the violence that they seek to stem. If the Iraq war is to have some meaning then it must be seen as not interfering with internal politics. A gradual withdrawal will readily determine whether this is the case.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Obama and the Ground Zero Mosque

The battle of wills over the so-called 'Ground Zero Mosque' in the United States offers a valuable insight into the psychology of a nation that has spent the best part of a decade later war against the agents of militant Islam. It would seem that in this post-9/11 world the place of Muslims within American society is as vague as ever.

In case you've not been paying attention to news from the other side of the Atlantic the essentials of the story are these; that there is a proposal to build an Islamic cultural centre in Manhattan two blocks away from the former site of the World Trade Center; that this project has been greenlighted by current New York mayor Michael Bloomberg; that President Obama has defended the right of its backers to proceed with its construction in accordance with American values of tolerance; and that many people oppose what they see as an insensitive decision replete with Islamic triumphalism. Some have even advanced the bizarre contention that the entire episode is proof of an anti-white conspiracy in American policy and that immigration itself is "madness".

 There has been so much debate on the topic that it's hard to add anything that hasn't been repeated already. But what I find particularly worrying is the lack of recognition that the actions of those on 9/11 are not supported by the vast majority of America's Islamic population and share the same degree of horror and contempt as their fellow countrymen. That the centre has been described as a 'mosque' - it isn't - and at Ground Zero - it isn't - leads me to suspect that many are intentionally seeking to take offence or twisting the facts so that others might.

Obama has got it right and his comments are a vindication of America's legendary reputation for religious freedom and cultural tolerance, values not shared by its fundamentalist adversaries. But the reaction the affair has provoked is a worrying sign that many Americans are losing sight of those values and that tolerance is being increasingly spurned for the rhetoric of the far right. It's a sad and worrying development.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Sarkozy banishes Roma from France

Worrying news from France. Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has declared war on the country's Roma population, raiding illegal settlements and sending hundreds back to Romania and Bulgaria. Around 1,000 are expected to have been expelled by the end of the month, in addition to the 10,000 the government claims were deported last year.

Opposition groups have been extremely concerned over the whole affair, accusing Tsarkosy of milking the issue to deflect attention from his flagging support and other domestic issues like soaring public debt and pension reforms. Even the EU commission has expressed concerns over the policy and the Romanian authorities have questioned its legality but the PM has been in a bullish mood, arguing that the Roma camps are sources of crime, prostitution, trafficking and child exploitation. It's also been suggested - replete with straight face - that the majority of the repatriations are 'voluntary'. Sarkozy has said that there will be no reprieve.

There is something downright disturbing and pogrom-esque about the enforced targeting of a specific racial minority and suggesting - overtly or otherwise - that they are responsible for much of the current economic woe that grips the French Republic so tightly. That they have come from other EU countries makes the policy even more questionable, and its appeal to the "send 'em home" brigade of the likes of the BNP and Le Pen belies its racist overtones. The expulsion of the Roma is morally unsound and Sarkozy deserves to be punished for it come election time.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Surviva Jak

I don't tend to watch reality television very much, and more often than not I actively seek to avoid it. It's not that I consider much of it to be vacuous, formulaic and unimaginative but because in all honesty I'd rather be doing something else.

But earlier this week I tuned into Dragons' Den on BBC2, a show where entrepreneurs pitch business ideas to a group of wealthy - but naturally sceptical - investors. I'd not watched the programme before but this particular edition featured two good friends and their product Surviva Jak. Needless to say that what was a show that had previously held very little attraction suddenly became compulsive viewing.

The idea behind Surviva Jak is a simple one; it is a heat-reflective jacket designed to prevent hypothermia and shock aimed primarily at the outdoor recreation market, where poor weather conditions can make such an item of clothing invaluable. One of its greatest assets is that it comes as a lightweight pack similar in size to a deck of cards.

Needless to say the couple got a torrid time from the Dragons - such is the nature of the show - but the Surviva company deservedly came away with a significant monetary investment and the means to create new products, as well as helping to secure new orders for their existing ones. I look forward to tracking their progress on their excellent website and I can only wish them every success now and in the future.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Government Minister reveals homosexuality

Crispin Blunt, the Conservative minister for prisons, has revealed that he is gay. The MP for Reigate has confirmed that he has separated from his wife and that he had "decided to come to terms with his homosexuality".

Homosexuality and politics have not always shared an easy relationship; it was a Conservative government, after all, who introduced the now-infamous Section 28 decreeing that local authorities "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". It was later repealed by a subsequent Labour government, despite opposition from the then-unelected David Cameron. The current Prime Minister has since apologised for his stance, which remained unchanged as recently as 2003; even Blunt's record on legislation pertaining to homosexual matters is distinctly mixed.

Over in the US, on the other hand, the issue of homosexuality in the political sphere has been even more partisan and controversial, with laws prohibiting gay activity only repealed nationwide as late as 2003. In England and Wales, on the other hand, sodomy laws were abolished in 1967 and the early 1980s in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The fight for gay rights - and the fight against them - have been the subject of recent films, ensuring that the topic remains an important part of the US domestic agenda.

Despite the UK's relatively progressive view on gay rights - in some countries around the world homosexuality remains completely illegal - relatively few MPs have 'come out' since Labour's Chris Smith became the first to do so in 1984. The paucity of openly homosexual politicians is suggestive that being gay is still something of a taboo in the corridors of Westminster.

But what is most striking about this announcement is that it is newsworthy at all. For a state of equality to truly exist a person's sexuality should be considered irrelevant, and the news that someone is gay to be greeted with as much revelation as if someone announced themselves to be heterosexual. It's only then that we will all know that the struggle for equal rights has been won.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The woman, the cat and the bin

There are occasions when the media's ability to influence opinion can be so overt that issues it chooses to cover are often accorded much more attention than would otherwise have been the case. This isn't just applicable to broadcast and print; no, even user-produced online content can help to shape and mould opinion in a way that could have only been dreamed of previously.

This story about a Coventry woman who threw a cat into a bin is a good example. For reasons known only to herself Mary Bale first befriended and then lifted four-year-old Lola into the wheelie bin outside the owners' home. There the cat lay undiscovered for fifteen hours; it is now said to have made a full recovery.

The entire incident was inadvertently caught on a private CCTV system installed by Lola's owner Darryl Mann, who then decided to post the footage on Youtube. It wasn't long before Bale was identified - she lived less than a mile away - and has since been the subject of a Facebook group calling for her execution and other threats serious enough for her to merit police protection. She has also been interviewed by the RSPCA and faces the possibility of losing her job as a bank worker.

Most people would agree that Bale's actions were wrong and unfathomable, a view she seems to share: "I cannot explain why I did this, it is completely out of character and I certainly did not intend to cause any distress to Lola or her owners. It was a split second of misjudgement that has got completely out of control."

One suspects that it was only good luck that Lola been discovered before fatal dehydration set in or the dustmen arrived, and it right that the episode is placed under scrutiny by the authorities. That Bale appeared to look around before doing what she did strongly suggests that she knew it was wrong and morally indefensible.

But the whole affair has been blown out of proportion by the decision to place the video images on the internet. True, the Manns wanted to discover who the person mistreating their cat was but this could have been achieved by passing the evidence directly onto the police or the RSPCA instead. By posting it on Youtube the episode - almost inevitably to be termed 'Bingate' or 'Catgate' or variations thereof - provoked a sensationalist backlash and resulted in a form of online virtual vigilantism.

The thing is, reprehensible as Bale's actions were, far worse cases of animal cruelty take place with depressing regularity. Only a few days ago the corpses of over a hundred dead animals were found dumped in a river in Somerset, and animal welfare charities will readily attest to the many cases of horrific maltreatment that they come across on an almost daily basis.

The case of Mary Bale does not so much illustrate the high regard with which many people in the United Kingdom have for the principle of animal rights but rather that tabloid sensationalism is not just restricted to the red tops. An independent media has its advantages - like blogging, for example - but for those who would doubt the power the media can hold over a population this sorry saga provides compelling evidence to the contrary.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Budget 'hits the poorest hardest'

It would appear that what many of us suspected to be true is in fact just that. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has announced that the measures announced in the coalition government's June Budget were "regressive" and would disproportionately hurt society's poorest.

Its report suggests that low income families with children are set to lose the most - about 5% of net income - due to benefit cuts. Reductions in other areas such as housing benefit and disability allowance would also have a similar effect on the economically disadvantaged.

The Treasury, unsurprisingly, have roundly rejected the report, arguing that its findings are "selective".There may also be some suspicion that the report's commissioning and part-funding by the End Child Poverty campaign may have influence results.

But the report makes an important observation; that the coalition's original contention that their Budget was a progressive one is undermined by their omission of certain aspects of household income. The Treasury had, among other things, excluded the impact of cuts in tax credits and disability living allowance and relied on the Consumer Prices Index instead of the Retail Prices Index.

It's a similar story with the proposed rise in VAT from 17.5% to 20%, also made in the same June Budget. Whilst on the face of it it may seem reasonable to levy a tax only on the goods and services that people actually use, the fact that it is the same for all irrespective of income means that it's impact is much more keenly felt by those on the lowest incomes. It is extremely regressive.

No-one can doubt that the current economic state of the country requires a degree of belt-tightening and a restriction in some areas of public spending. But this burden must be shared by all sections of society and not just those who can least afford it or stand the most to lose. Now is not the time for a party of the rich to make economic decisions on distinctly ideological grounds.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii

On this date in AD 79 the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Southern Italy destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. In what was a cataclysmic event the towns were buried and eventually forgotten, only to be rediscovered around 1,500 years later.

And yet the towns' apparent destruction actually resulted in a marvellous state of preservation, offering an unparalleled insight into the daily life of a Roman city, caught in a single snapshot. Perhaps most haunting are the plaster casts of the victims' bodies; men, women, children and animals caught in the exact moment that they succumbed to the searing temperatures of the ash cloud coming from the volcano.

I've never been to Pompeii or the surrounding area, but would like to at some point in the future. It must be a curious sensation to walk in a place that all those years ago was subject to an unimaginable terror.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Leeds skyscraper firm 'seeks liquidation'

A while ago I bemoaned the fact that overoptimistic speculation in the pre-recession boom years had bestowed upon Leeds and Bradford not gleaming spires and glitzy retail developments but instead several rather large holes in the ground. Like festering rubble-filled sores, these huge craters are a constant reminder of the folly of the over-reliance on a credit economy. That the number of city centre apartment blocks had long reached saturation point probably didn't occur to those keen to ride the property bubble.

One of these projects was the £225 million Lumiere scheme, right in the middle of Leeds; had it gone ahead it would have resulted in the construction of one of the largest apartment blocks in Europe. Alas, it is not to be; put on hold for the last two years, the firm behind it has announced that it is seeking liquidation. What will happen next to the fenced-off chasm it was supposed to occupy is anyone's guess.

Bradford has had a similar story with its Westfield site, which has been lying dormant even longer. This huge retail development has been completely mothballed after demolition work removed many of the local businesses which once traded in the area. But local council bosses have shown an uncharacteristically enlightened attitude, giving the go-ahead for the creation of an 'urban garden' in its place. It may be temporary, but it's certainly preferable to a vacant hole in the heart of the city.

The wind up of Lumiere presents Leeds City Council with such an opportunity. The centre of Yorkshire's largest city is not well endowed with green space, and Lumiere is not the only stalled development to make this absence feel even more acute. The demand - and the cash - for such grandiose schemes is not likely to become a reality again any time soon, and the lack of activity on the omnipresent building sites that dot the middle of town is a damning indictment of the lack of vision that created them in the first place. More shops and more apartments are not going to be built; we now have the opportunity to create a city centre park Leeds can be proud of.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

ScotsCare - helping Scots in London

I've just got back from a weekend in London, a brief but enjoyable return to the city of my birth. Needless to say it was packed but given that it's the summer holidays it wasn't entirely unexpected.

Even less surprising was that one of the busiest areas was Covent Garden, a popular tourist mecca well known for its shops, markets, buskers, street entertainers and musicians. It's also home to the London Transport Museum, which I remember visiting when I was a youngster and enjoying very much. With so many ways to spend money it's probably not surprising that it rates as one of the most desirable business locations in the Capital.

But one address that did catch my eye was the office of ScotsCare, a charity which gives help and support to 1st- and 2nd-generation Scots living in London. Its remit is fairly broad and its aims laudable; according to its website they "run assisted housing communities for the elderly and those with disabilities, offer financial help to students and those re-training for new careers, help for low income families and a host of other support functions for the Scottish community." They also offer a Samaritans-style phone line for Scots feeling lost and simply in need of someone to talk to.

I have to admit I'd never heard of ScotsCare, and I was surprised that there would be enough demand for such an organisation to exist. There seems to be a wiff of Dr Johnson in the air; a quote by actor Denis Lawson carried on the website suggests that "Many Scots still believe London's streets are paved with gold, sadly they're not but at least ScotsCare is here to offer much needed support". Whether that's the case or not is I suspect a matter for debate.

I also have to admit that I'm uncomfortable with organisations and charities that require a particular ethnic or cultural background as a condition for support - to qualify for help from ScotsCare you must have at least one parent born in Scotland - and even more so when that group is simply from another part of the same island that London finds itself a part. The fact that ScotsCare seems to provide potentially useful services makes it seem even more unfair that other people not fortunate enough to claim Scottish ancestry but who are just as needy would be turned away. It'd be interesting to see what others think.

Saturday, 21 August 2010


Call it cynicism, but I've always had a sneaking suspicion that not everything that appears in the tabloid press is completely true and without bias. On more belligerent days I might even be tempted to suggest that many have a predetermined political agenda and mould their stories to fit as a result. It would seem that the independence of our press as enshrined in law has in some cases given us little more than propaganda sheets, and usually of a rightist persuasion to boot.

Yet it would seem that I'm not alone in thinking these dark thoughts. There are several excellent blogs which are doing a good job of exposing the often lazy journalism which characterises some of the biggest selling British papers, and how stories are often spun or simply concocted out of thin air to reinforce certain themes.

One of those that frequently comes under fire is the European Union. Papers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express will often carry anti-EU stories, suggesting that the organisation is unwieldy and bureaucratic and exists solely to pass bizarre laws that restrict the British way of life. Take this peach; according to the Mail the EU is "to ban selling eggs by the dozen", the latest in a long procession of tabloid articles directing our attention to the latest piece of meddling from Brussels.

Of course the article was complete nonsense, and the European Parliament confirmed as such by stating that "There will be no changes to selling foods by number. Selling eggs by the dozen, for example, will not be banned". Had the Mail bothered to check the facts behind the story - it wrongly claimed that "eggs and ­other products such as oranges and bread rolls will be sold by weight instead of by the number contained in a packet" - then it would have realised that it was at best woefully inaccurate and at worst intentionally manipulative.

Similar doubts plague tabloid coverage of sensitive political issues such as immigration - "Migrants rob young Britons of jobs" - and crime - "Immigrant gang of eight molest girl, 14, in street" - among other things. That so many of these articles carry more than a hint of bias suggests that an anti-EU, an anti-welfare and in particular an anti-immigration agenda - sometimes bordering on racism - dictates what we read more than the events themselves do.

What's worrying, of course, is that many people may not realise that what they are reading is so often a load of cobblers; even respected bloggers can be fooled, accepting without question the stories that they want to read and the tabloids so desperately want to provide them with. If people are to base their views on what they read in the press then they are being fed a very partisan version of events.

It's encouraging to know that there are people out in cyberspace who have taken it upon themselves to expose the often cavalier use of the truth employed by a press that continues to carry a great deal of influence. Whilst the Press Complaints Commission remains as a self-regulating body with some of the worst offenders at its helm they will almost certainly have their work cut out.

Friday, 20 August 2010

I'm on Twitter!

One of the first things I wrote about when I first started this blog last year was Twitter, the online social networking service that allows any user to post messages of 140 characters or less. It's fairly safe to say that at the time I wasn't entirely enamoured by the programme, thinking it utterly inane and narcissistic - not at all like blogging! I also disliked the way it had begun to dominate and trivialise news agendas in a way that Twitter's PR department could have only dreamed of.

But some 18 months later I've decided to join up, and not because I think anyone would be particularly interested about what I'm wearing or what I've had for breakfast. As others will confirm writing for a blog can be a pretty time-consuming process, and it's easy to either miss things that are worthy of comment or that might not merit a lengthy discussion but still be worth mentioning.

My Twitter account is here, and the 'Tweets' will also be displayed in the right hand column on the Daily Rant's home page. If anyone else uses the service or knows of some interesting users to follow then please let me know...

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Adoption charity: discrimination no longer permitted

A Catholic adoption charity has failed in its appeal to be allowed to discriminate against gay people when it comes to finding homes for children. Leeds-based Catholic Care wanted exemption from new anti-discrimination laws so it could limit services provided to homosexual couples on religious grounds.

The Charity Commission quite rightly thought this nonsense, justifying its decision on the observation that gay people were suitable parents and that religious views did not justify discrimination. Catholic Care said that the judgement was "very disappointing".

The judgement itself came about after a dozen Catholic agencies in England and Wales were forced to change their policy towards homosexual people by equality laws passed in 2007. Catholic Care had previously argued that the new rules went against the Catholic Church's teachings on marriage and family life.

It is a good thing that we live in a society that is broadly tolerant of different religious faiths, and it would be reasonable to argue that no religious group suffers genuine persecution on grounds of their faith in the United Kingdom.

But that does not mean that the intolerance and discrimination that seems to be inherent in so many religions should be allowed to dictate - or demand exemption from - our secular laws designed to challenge that very discrimination. If there is no evidence that gay couples cannot provide a stable family home for children then it would be unreasonable to prevent that from happening on the basis of belief and nothing else.

There is another - and perhaps more important - outcome to this decision. By arguing that gay couples cannot constitute proper parents Catholic Care are guilty of suggesting to children that discrimination on the basis of sexuality is acceptable. This outcome will now make this indoctrination of intolerance that little bit harder.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Should drugs be legalised?

I've long thought that the legalisation of drugs would actually cause more good than harm; that government regulation would not only allow for a more proficient system of rehabilitating drug users but that it would destroy one of the major sources of revenue for organised criminal gangs and terrorist groups. It would also allow users to access a purer product that hadn't been cut with similar looking - but far more dangerous - substances.

So it's reassuring to hear that the outgoing president of the Royal College of Physicians has effectively said as much in a parting email to colleagues. Sir Ian Gilmore suggested that by reviewing current drug laws and regulating their supply the government could drastically reduce crime, free up valuable police resources and improve health, conclusions not entirely dissimilar from a recent report on the topic. It's a similar set of arguments to those who believe that legalised brothels would do much to improve working conditions for street workers.

But the government has reiterated its commitment to prohibition, arguing that such a course of action would not work. It's particularly worried that decriminalisation would send out the impression that drugs are not harmful, when - of course - they are. The experience of Portugal - which decriminalised drugs in 2001 and has seen a marked drop in drug use since - has clearly made little impression.

And yet Westminster has not shied away from the narcotics debate in the recent past; cannabis was reclassified from a class C to a more serious class B drug last year - reversing an original decision to downgrade the drug - despite protests from government advisers that such a move was both illogical and a sop to the right-wing press. It was such a concern that recently led to MP Julian Huppert's call for mandatory science lessons for all those in parliament. It would be fair to say that few of our policy makers come from a scientific background.

Which can make it extremely frustrating for those of us who seek a change. The RCP, for its part, has pledged to review a report calling for much greater investment in research and in treatment programmes under the stewardship of its incoming president. The coalition is examining current drug policy and will have reached a conclusion by the end of December but it seems unlikely that much will change.

Ultimately large amounts of money are being spent combating a problem which could be better spent on treating the real issues at their source. The nature of drugs - and the illegal activities that the whole sordid business entails - has remained the same since time immemorial, and nor will it change any time soon. The answer is not to turn addicts into criminals thereby sending their activities underground but rather in providing a safe and constructive alternative to the seemingly never-ending and horrific cycle of drug abuse.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Australia: monarchy or republic?

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has declared that the nation should become a republic when Queen Elizabeth II dies. Welsh-born Gillard said the Queen's death would be an "appropriate point" for Australia to move away from having a British monarch as head of state.

The issue of monarchy in Australia has long been a divisive one, and Gillard's announcement has been intentionally timed to coincide with an imminent general election. A referendum proposing to replace the Queen as head of state with an elected president was narrowly defeated in 1999, a result which surprised many in the pro-republic lobby; most opinion polls at the time had suggested that a 'yes' vote would receive majority support. Much of the blame at the time was placed on disagreements within the 'yes' camp as to what constitutional composition an Australian Republic would and should take, with many disagreeing with the proposal advanced in the referendum's wording.

The queen's position as Australia's head of state is a remnant of its former status as a collection of British colonies, and the national banner - like many others - continues to carry a Union flag in the top left corner. A low-level but persistent campaign to adopt a new flag without any trace of Australia's British heritage has mirrored the louder calls for a republic, most famously articulated under Prime Minister Paul Keating's premiership when he announced that "I do not believe that the symbols and the expression of the full sovereignty of Australian nationhood can ever be complete while we have a flag with the flag of another country on the corner of it". Supporters of the status quo, on the other hand, prefer the retention of the current design. Polls have suggested that support for a new flag languishes some way behind that demanding a new head of state.

There is a suspicion that Gillard's call is motivated primarily by next week's election; her main opponent - in the guise of Tony Abbott - is a staunch monarchist. But it does once again raise the issue of whether an independent Australia should not only elect its own head of state via the democratic process but also sever the link between it and another country with which it continues to share a strong historical, cultural and political relationship. Whilst other matters may seem more pressing in this age of economic uncertainty it is an issue that should not be ignored.

Referendums are not an ideal way to solve political disputes. They are crude platforms prone to over-simplifying complex issues and are often based on emotive rather than objective reasoning. For Australia to consider ditching its monarch it needs political parties to adopt such a stance as a core manifesto commitment and letting the electorate decide via conventional democratic means.

Monday, 16 August 2010

How much does it cost to design a website?

The answer is quite a lot, it would seem. An investigation by two journalists has revealed that council spending on redesigning their websites has run into millions of pounds, and this at a time when cuts to the public sector are likely to be the deepest in living memory. To make matter worse much of the work was outsourced at rates some industry experts are claiming are outrageously exorbitant.

One of the worst offenders is Birmingham City Council, which spent £2.8 million on redesigning its website earlier this year. And another profligate council is Essex, which spent around £800,000 on its new website despite having an expected budget shortfall of £300 million over the next four years. The full list of those in the dock can be found here.

It's hardly necessary to say that at a time when the current government is embarking on a systematic implementation of budget cuts the public sector - which has been earmarked for particularly harsh treatment - needs to appear as efficient and waste-free as possible. Figures like these - available only after numerous freedom of information requests - do not help its case one little bit.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

65th anniversary of Victory over Japan

Today marks the 65th anniversary of 'VJ Day', the moment which marked the surrender of Japanese forces and the effective end of World War II. Germany had already surrendered on 8th May - Victory in Europe Day - but Japan had refused to halt fighting until the dropping of the atom bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki some three months later. Events to mark the occasion have taken place across the country.

The war in Asia was every bit as brutal as its European counterpart, with conditions in POW camps gaining a particularly grim notoriety. Captured soldiers were frequently forced to work as slaves and mortality rates were extremely high, whilst the Imperial Japanese Forces earned an unenviable reputation for sadistic cruelty. The fighting was so fierce in places that the decision to drop nuclear weapons on Japan was largely taken on the assumption that far more casualties would occur if the island nation's capture was attempted by more conventional means.

The war in the Far East also touched members of my own family. Forced to flee the Japanese advance into Burma, my maternal great grandparents and their children sat out the remainder of the war in India and were only able to return to Rangoon after VJ day. A similar experience was had by many other Anglo-Burmese families.

This year's commemorations will sadly be among the last to be attended by those who witnessed such horror all those years ago. Because of the focus of historians and the media alike on the European theatre of the war it is easy to forget that whilst we were celebrating the demise of the Third Reich fighting was still ongoing on the other side of the world, a fact not lost on the members of the 'Forgotten Army'. That their deeds received much less recognition - and were even rewritten by Hollywood - must have been particularly galling, at least here in the UK. The war in the Far East, whilst mainly fought by American troops, also saw active service from numerous Commonwealth and Dutch soldiers.

The purpose of today's events is not to glorify war but rather to remember those whose lives were so needlessly sacrificed by the demands of militaristic nationalism. Whilst it is important that we reflect and learn so that such a conflict is never repeated again it is equally important to recall the events that actually occurred. Attempts at revisionism must not be allowed to go unchallenged.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Children injured in Lurgan explosion

Two 12 year old children and a toddler have received minor injuries in a bomb explosion in the Armagh town of Lurgan. The no-warning bomb went off in a bin as police investigated reports of another device at a nearby primary school; it's almost certain that the blast was intended for PSNI officers who would have potentially set a cordon in the area. One Chief Inspector said the tactic bore "similarities to the Omagh bombing that we would not like to repeat".

Dissident republicans are once again being blamed, amid claims that private talks between themselves and the British government have been taking place for months. If such talks had taken place - they are being vigorously denied by the authorities in question - it would at the very least suggest that the threat that they are posing is indeed a relatively serious one.

One thing that is striking, however, is that the term 'dissident' is habitually used to describe any violent action by nationalists and republicans in Northern Ireland, as if only a very small minority are actively involved in maintaining the fight against British rule. That police investigating the various bomb alerts in Lurgan were themselves subject to attack from youths throwing petrol bombs and other missiles shows that, just as with the violence that flared during this year's July 12th parades in Belfast, it would be erroneous to assume that confrontation to the authorities is restricted to a select few. It is tempting to think that the current political climate wrought by the implementation of devolution - and Sinn Féin's involvement with it - has meant that any violent opposition must be considered 'dissident' rather than as the product of the mainstream.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Exposing shooting and snaring

The League Against Cruel Sports has released two short videos to coincide with the start of the grouse-shooting season, colloquially known as the 'Glorious Twelfth'. They examine different aspects of the shooting industry and unsurprisingly both make for uncomfortable watching.

The first is entitled 'Blood Still on the Wire' and examines the deadly use of snares on shooting estates in Scotland. The film - and its accompanying report - expose the serious danger to wild and domestic animals that snaring poses. It's of particular concern to the League because the practice - illegal in many European countries but not in the UK - is entirely indiscriminate in what it catches, and those animals unfortunate enough to be ensnared frequently die a slow and lingering death. That the clampdown supposedly imposed by the Snaring (Scotland) Order 2010 seems to have had little effect north of the border suggests that a total ban will be the only effective method of controlling their use, a position shared by the Scottish SPCA.

'A Good Shoot', on the other hand, looks at the extent of suffering inflicted on game birds bread purely for recreational shooting. The often disturbing footage shows numerous birds writhing in agony after having been shot, evidence which would seem to contradict claims by the gun lobby that birds are almost always killed outright and that their actions are humane. If this is not the case - and this evidence strongly suggests that it is not - then one has to ask why those that indulge in this particular sport feel the need to lie about how it operates.

Both films highlight the cruelty inherent in the breeding and killing of game, an activity which has hitherto been so brazen and unashamed that its participants have not even bothered to declare it as the sort of 'pest control' so beloved of those who hunt foxes. That the practice of snaring causes so much damage to wildlife simply serves to undermine this activity even further.

The League is urging those concerned with snaring and shooting to contact Caroline Spelman, the Secretary for Environment Food and Rural Affairs; I sincerely hope you will too. It's time these practices were halted for good.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Iran and stoning

A women under threat of execution by stoning has made an on-air 'confession' on Iranian television. Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has apparently admitted conspiring to murder her husband in 2005, an offence punishable by hanging.

The mother-of-two had previously been been convicted of adultery following another confession that she claims was made under duress; officials temporarily halted the stoning sentence for that crime last month following an international outcry.

Whatever events actually took place in the run-up to the killing of Ashtiani's husband in 2006 it is clear that the judicial process surrounding the case has been nothing short of farcical. The death penalty in itself is not an instrument of justice but rather that of revenge, and its use by tyrannical regimes in perpetuating a conformist state of fear over its citizens is well documented. That the life of a person is being toyed with by the Iranian government undermines the moral authority of the regime and serves to expose this barbaric practice for what it really is. The death penalty must be abolished.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Asian natural disasters

Asian nations are once again bearing the brunt of natural disasters; almost 2,000 people have been killed by floods in Pakistan and a similar number are feared dead in a massive landslide that struck north-west China earlier this week. Both have been caused by extremely heavy and prolonged rainfall.

The situation is said to be particular grim in Pakistan, with some estimates suggesting that around 10% of the country's population have been affected. The UN has appealed for £290 million to help what they are calling the worst humanitarian crisis in recent history and thus far the UK has pledged to supply aid to around 1.5 million people but already there has been criticism of those nations who thus far have appeared reluctant to help.

But the local authorities in Pakistan have come under much more severe fire for their slowness to respond; some reports state that officials have been attacked by enraged locals unhappy at rescue efforts. The Pakistani President has also been fiercely criticised for proceeding with a visit to the UK.

It's striking that when events such as these hit nations in poorer parts of the world the death toll is invariably much higher than when similar disasters befall the developing world. The quality of buildings and transport networks, the availability of medical help and supplies, and a general awareness of how to deal with emergencies are all dominant factors in keeping mortality rates to a minimum. It's unfortunate in the extreme that a person's chances of survival are dictated not so much by the severity of the event but rather the host nation's ability to deal with it.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

'Oldest house in Britain' discovered in Yorkshire

Archaeologists are claiming that they have unearthed the remains of the oldest house in Britain near Scarborough in North Yorkshire. The circular structure has been estimated to be around 10,500 years old, beating the former record holder - in the Northumberland village of Howick - by half a millennium; a wooden platform nearby is potentially the oldest example of carpentry in Europe.

The importance of the find is hard to overestimate; not only does it suggest that people at that time had much more sedentary - as opposed to nomadic - lifestyles than once thought, but it also demonstrates that conditions at the end of the last ice age in a Britain still attached to Continental Europe were clearly conducive to settlement. One of those working at the site has described it "as important as Stonehenge for archaeologists."

A lot of people in this neck of the woods are rightly proud of Yorkshire, even if the epithet of 'God's own county' may seem a little far-fetched. But for now - pending further discoveries elsewhere - it would seem that Britain's original house-dwellers thought it a mighty fine place to set up shop too.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Royal Mail to ditch counties

The Royal Mail has revealed that it will no longer store county names in its database of UK addresses and predicts that they will be phased out of postal use by 2016. The corporation is doing so because the information is not required to accurately pinpoint any given location in the country.

People using Royal Mail's online address finder will have been aware of this fact for sometime; all that is actually required to find any UK address is a house number and the postcode. The rest of what we write on an envelope is merely ephemeral, although some of it - such as street name - is of course useful when it comes down to the everyday nitty-gritty of postal delivery.

Unsurprisingly the move has created some considerable controversy, particularly among those who sense an assault both on regional identity and the charming idiosyncrasies inherent in British place-names. But immediate fears may be unfounded; there will be nothing to stop people writing these extra details on their items of mail and no doubt many will continue to do so. It just won't be necessary anymore.

But local identification within the United Kingdom can be notoriously strong, not withstanding the various secessionist movements that operate in all four of the UK's constituent nations. Traditional counties are a good case in point; ever since local government reorganisation in 1974 and again in the mid 1990s the administrative boundaries currently in use rarely match those of the ancient counties that preceded them. Not everyone is happy with this state of affairs; the Association of British Counties is dedicated to promoting awareness of the old county divisions - "counties are an important part of the culture, geography and heritage of Great Britain" - and several militant groups have even taken to removing boundary signs of some of our more recently-created authorities.

And yet the truth is Royal Mail is not planning to abolish counties, whether current or otherwise, because it can't. They are merely utilising a more efficient method of delivering the post. It's the same with postcodes; I once lived in Norfolk but we had a Peterborough postcode - then in Cambridgeshire, now a unitary authority in its own right - and more extreme examples see parts of West Wales with a Shrewsbury postcode and the English Berwick-Upon Tweed having a Scottish postcode. Royal Mail's system for addresses are simply the best way for that organisation to deliver what it has to the correct place. People who see a profound political statement in this announcement are simply reading - or writing - too much into it.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Is it right to stereotype?

Yesterday at Pisa airport I had quite an interesting experience which caused a greater deal of soul-searching than one might normally experience in the purgatory that is international departures.

Directly opposite where I was sitting was a man dressed in Islamic clothing, replete with bushy beard and closely cropped hair. He seemed visibly nervous and uncomfortable, an appearance only enhanced when he pulled out a small religious book and began audibly mumbling the text, rocking back and forth as he did so. After a while the man decided to make a phone call so he got up and wandered to another part of the terminal, leaving his large and bulky rucksack unattended for the best part of twenty minutes.

Should I have been worried or concerned? Should I have been suspicious and should I have said something to someone in charge? Would I have felt justified in doing so - and felt that I needed to - had the man not been a Muslim? And should I have felt relief when he boarded a flight to Fez rather than Leeds?

Whilst such questions might seem trivial they are at the heart of the debate concerning anti-terrorism legislation and other areas where race and culture are an issue. Take the recent furore over the use of stop and search powers by the police, where it was found that Knacker was disproportionately targeting ethnic minorities. Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that black people were at least six times more likely and Asian people around twice as likely to be stopped and searched as their white counterparts. Last month the European Court of Human Rights deemed the anti-terrorist power of stop and search illegal and its use has since been restricted.

The original research by the EHRC concluded that racial stereotyping and discrimination were significant factors behind the apparent targeting of ethnic minorities. But it also found that black and minority-ethnic youths were over-represented in the criminal justice system, and currently around 25% of the prison population is from a BME background despite constituting less then 10% of the overall population of the UK. So are the police justified in stopping more ethnic minorities because - statistically speaking - they are more likely to be guilty of committing an offence? Or is it this disproportionate targeting that helps to explain the ethnic imbalance extant in our prisons and remand centres?

It's a thorny issue, and certainly being targeted simply because of one's race or religion is simply not acceptable and can understandably lead to the resentment of authority. But would it also be sensible to ignore the fact that the overwhelming majority of terrorist-related offences are committed by Muslim extremists and not by adherents of other faiths? Is there the possibly that terrorists might use settled immigrant communities in Britain to disguise their whereabouts? And would it have been desirable not to disproportionately target white men with Ulster accents back when the threat of IRA terrorism dominated the domestic security agenda?

All these thoughts went through my head as the man going to Fez acted so suspiciously. Either that or he was simply shit scared of flying. If only it weren't for those extremist-looking clothes...

Update 11/08/2010
A radio advert urging listeners to report suspected terrorists has been banned by a watchdog for suggesting that certain law-abiding people might be acting suspiciously. The Association of Chief Police Officers said seemingly insignificant behaviour could be linked to terrorism but the Advertising Standards Authority ruled it could cause "serious offence".

And so the debate rumbles on...

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Where are you from?

Like a lot of bloggers I use a website which can tell me how many visits my blog gets and where those visitors are coming from. The data isn't particularly detailed - it's impossible to tell which computer is looking or who it is doing it - and is otherwise anonymous. It's really just a useful tool for discovering how people have got here whether by link or directly and where in the world they're based.

Take the last twelve months, for example; of the 6,600 or so individual visits to the Daily Rant a not entirely unsurprising 54.9% came from the UK, where I'm currently based. The next largest proportion of visitors were from the US, and no doubt for similar reasons the top five nations in the list are all majority English-speaking.

But where it gets interesting is taking a look at some of the smaller nations that appear. There have been almost 30 visits from the Ivory Coast, more than some other European countries which one might expect to feature more regularly. And the blog appears to be more popular in, say, Vietnam - with 10 visits - than in Greece or Portugal - 5 each - even though they are much closer to home.

What is especially pleasing, however, is to see just how far the internet can spread one's ramblings across the globe in a way that just wasn't possible before. Some of the people coming to this website - accidentally or by design - have come from as far afield as the Falkland Islands, Lesotho, Haiti, Moldova and Mongolia. It's an extremely exciting prospect.

It's easy for those of us who blog to complain about the sheer number of similar websites out there in cyberspace and how hard it can be to attract a decent sized readership with all that competition, and it'd be disingenuous of me to suggest that it's not a time-consuming and sometimes frustrating process. But the internet does offer an amazing opportunity for our work to be read and disseminated by a truly global audience. We are really very lucky indeed.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Cloned cow meat in UK foodchain

The Food Standards Agency has said that meat from the offspring of a cloned cow was eaten in the UK last year. Two bulls from the embryos of a cow cloned in the US were bought by a farm near Nairn in the Highlands, and meat from one was sold to consumers. Perhaps most alarming to those opposed to such developments the FSA also claimed that it did not know how many other embryos from cloned animals had been imported into the UK.

Already certain sections of the British press have been having something of a field day, with prominent front-page splashes decrying the FSA for allowing such a thing to happen and arguing that cloned food is dangerous, cruel and ethically unsound. Comparisons with the moral outrage provoked by the emergence of genetically modified food several years ago are immediately obvious.

But not everyone seems to share the concerns of the more excitable sections of the media. The FSA itself has stated that "there is no evidence that consuming products from healthy clones, or their offspring, poses a food safety risk" but bizarrely classes such meat as a "novel product" requiring special authorisation to enter the food chain. This stance has been rubbished by the Roslin Institute - where Dolly the sheep was cloned - which has not unreasonably pointed out that "The FSA cannot produce any evidence that meat from clones or their offspring is novel in any way, or is any different to other meat. There is none, because it must be exactly the same."

And research into the safeness of cloned dairy products has found that they are safe for human consumption. In the United States, where many of the studies have been carried out, the Food and Drug Administration states that that "meat and milk from clones of cattle, swine and goats, and the offspring of clones from any species traditionally consumed as food, are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals." Those that oppose the existence of cloned food purely on safety grounds appear to do so in spite of scientific evidence to the contrary.

Animal welfare groups may have a more legitimate case. It has been demonstrated that animals conceived through an assisted reproductive technique have a higher risk of neo-natal death, and those clones that do survive are often much bigger at birth than animals born in a natural way. They can have abnormally large organs which in turn can lead to a number of problems with breathing and blood flow, in a condition known as 'Large Offspring Syndrome'. If animals are to be born and raised with the intention of slaughter then it is not unreasonable to demand that their standards of living are as high as possible.

But one wonders whether much of the opposition to cloned animal products is derived - just as it was with GM crops - more from squeamishness and a conviction that tampering with food at the genetic level is akin to 'playing god'. Presumably such groups are similarly opposed to the likes of organ donation, blood transfusions, plant cuttings and mechanised transport - all of which cannot possibly be described as natural.

And yet in light of continuing pressures on global food production and an ever-burgeoning world population such a self-indulgent stance is likely to become more and more untenable. It's more than reasonable to demand that any new methods in creating food need to be subjected to rigorous scientific testing, both in order to ascertain its safety and to examine whether any harm is caused in its production. But to not explore the possibility of improving both the standards of the food we eat and the quantity in which it can be produced is simply to invite trouble for future generations. Talk of 'Frankenstein foods' helps no-one.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

A trip to San Marino

Earlier today I visited San Marino, a small independent enclave completely surrounded by Italy. The microstate of just 30,000 souls - the last remnant of the once numerous Italian city-states - also claims to be the world's oldest republic and has one of the highest standards of living in Europe.

It certainly has a dramatic location, sited as it is on a sheer cliff face that dominates the surrounding plains. Despite the torrential rain that did its best to mar the day the views from the city's summit were truly stunning.

But that's where much of San Marino's charm ends. Virtually the entire country is given over to commercial premises, a veritable shrine to rampant capitalism. The Old Town, perched high on the slopes of Monte Titano and the focus of the Republic's busy tourism industry, is so densely populated by shops that for even the most ardent bargain-hunter it can become overwhelming. That San Marino is a popular destination for those apparently seeking cheap alcohol, perfume and - bizarrely - modern and antique weaponry has much to do with the characterless experience that now constitutes a visit here.

There are some who might argue that for a small country such as San Marino to survive as an independent entity it must embrace every revenue-making opportunity that it can. But unrestrained and crass commercialisation can do much to spoil a visit to a place that might otherwise be such a rewarding historical destination. San Marino, inadvertently or otherwise, now encapsulates perfectly the growing problem with mass tourism; that the sheer number of visitors has essentially destroyed what they have come to see. One wonders how exactly this riddle can be solved.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The need for science lessons in Westminster

Julian Huppert, the Liberal Democrat representative for Cambridge and the only parliamentarian to have been a practicing scientist, has called for mandatory science lessons for all MPs. He said that he was alarmed at the lack of scientific knowledge among colleagues.

The issue has become particularly pertinent because the current coalition government is continuing to allow the NHS to fund alternative treatments such as homeopathy despite proceeding with swinging cuts across numerous government departments. A recent appeal by the House of Commons science and technology committee to halt the practice was rebuffed by ministers who claimed that such moves would limit patient choice and undermine the government's committment of devolving power to NHS Primary Care Trusts.

Homeopathy - its practitioners believe that 'like cures like' and sell highly diluted remedies containing trace amounts of active substances - has been found to be no more effective at treating illness than a placebo. It's also estimated that the NHS spends around £4 million on homeopathic treatments each year.

It's a ludicrous situation that the taxpayer is being forced to fund a so-called 'medicinal' practice that has no real scientific basis and amounts to little more than modern-day quackery, and this at a time when our political masters are demanding economic belt-tightening across the board. Offering patients a choice is certainly no bad thing, but the utility that this freedom can offer will only be undermined when these alternatives prove to be entirely useless and misleading.

Almost all of our MPs are career politicians, lawyers, economists or others with a non-science background. Huppert's demands for those that decide national policies to undergo a basic grounding in scientific principles would almost certainly be money well spent.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

A trip to Florence

Earlier today I had the good fortune to visit Florence, capital of the Italian region of Tuscany and considered by many to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Here was the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, that busy period of great cultural advancement that would go on to drag Europe out of the Medieval era. The city also attracts millions of tourists every year and has been a World Heritage site since 1982.

And given that it is August it was not surprising to find that crowds dominated the city. It was not enough to spoil the charms of Firenze for its architecture can been enjoyed by all from the outside, but it did render any visits to some of the main attractions such as the Uffizi, the Accademia and the Cathedral entirely impractical; long queues snaked their way around the centre of town, even for those wise enough to pre-book tickets. Crowds, after all, are to be expected in this veritable tourist Mecca for culture vultures of all ages.

Florence, perhaps unsurprisingly, is almost entirely reliant on its tourist industry, and it'd be hard for one of the world's best preserved Renaissance-era cities to be anything but. And thus far it appears to be coping, with some of the more crass commercial developments that can mar other tourist hotspots being kept in relative check. It's good, too, that its World Heritage status will encourage preservation and sustainability; UNESCO are not adverse to remove a location from the prestigious list if certain criteria are not met and maintained.

It is a city well worth visiting, in spite of the crowds. If you happen to be in the neighbourhood there are few better ways to spend a few hours then to simply wander its streets.

Monday, 2 August 2010

The Appleseed Project

Over in the US an organisation which hopes to teach every American how to shoot has already trained 25,000 to do so and is looking likely to increase that number by 7,000 by the end of this year. It is the stated aim of the North Carolina-based Appleseed Project to teach "traditional rifle marksmanship skills" as well as spread awareness of "our early American heritage". It denies any political affiliation or link to those anti-government movements which can be infamously militant.

But others are not quite so sure. A recent article in the New York Times found evidence that the aims of those opposed to the powers enjoyed by the federal government in Washington and those of the Project have a strong propensity to intersect. Indeed, Appleseed itself declares that "our citizens seem all too content to relegate governmental decisions and knowledge to those that have been elected, all the while assuming these officials' abilities and agendas are working on their behalf. We believe that if this trend continues, our country will be left with an expansive gulf between the populace and the government", as if the threat of force is somehow preferable to the democratic process. The ideological implications inherent in linking the contemporary ability of American citizens to shoot a human-sized target from 500 yards with a greater understanding of the historical foundation of the US and the American Revolutionary War will not be lost on anti-federalists who share similar beliefs.

The often-fractious debate over the public ownership of lethal weaponry is, from a European standpoint, a curiously American phenomenon. Yes, the second amendment to the US constitution states that "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" but this must be viewed in the context of the times. In 1791, when the alteration was enacted, the United States was still a young nation with its survival as an independent country far from guaranteed. The domestic ownership of guns would have not only been a useful deterrent in times of danger from overseas but also a method of quick mobilisation across a large and often sparsely-populated landmass.

But the US is now the only remaining global superpower, and the need for a domestic militia has all but disappeared. It's rather telling that many who defend the need for every citizen to either own weapons or be trained in their use cite the need for defence against the US administration and not from despotic overseas regimes who would seek to rob them of their freedom. It is disappointing that recent Supreme Court judgements have ruled that the legitimate possession of firearms in the home need not be connected to membership of the militias that the American constitution demands for that very right to exist.

Another problem with programmes such as Appleseed is that they offer the potential for undesirable individuals to access weapons and be trained in their use. The US has had an unfortunate and well-documented history of both individual killings and mass shooting sprees that have largely occurred because of the ease of access to guns that citizens are afforded. Just one individual who is gifted the opportunity to do just that via this Project is almost certainly one too many.

The reality is there is no real need for today's US citizens to bear arms, which only serves to undermine Appleseed's spurious claim that American history can only be appreciated by those trained in the use of lethal weapons. Guns may have once been vital in securing the independence of the United States, but times change and this is no longer true; it's a lesson the organisers of the Appleseed Project would do well to learn.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

New Daily Rant poll - who will win the Labour leadership?

It seems that support for electoral reform here in the UK is strong, at least among Daily Rant readers; every person who voted in the last blog poll answered 'yes' when posed with such a question. It'd be interesting to see what exactly people think of Prime Minister David Cameron's half-hearted promise of voting reform, made only to placate his Lib Dem coalition partners and which he has made no secret of opposing on ideological grounds.

Staying with the theme of politics, this month's survey switches attention to the Labour party, and more specifically the five candidates in its upcoming leadership contest. Who do you think will win? And will they have what it takes to mount a strong challenge at the next general election, whenever that will be?