31 January 2008

US elections - the fields thin out...

Big news from both US presidential races yesterday as dropouts were announced.

For the Democrats, John Edwards has thrown in the towel after failing to make much impact in any of the primaries so far, running a distant third behind the media frenzy enveloping Clinton and Obama. Despite making substantial criticisms of Clinton's attacks on Obama during the early primaries, Edwards is not endorsing either Clinton or Obama - for now. This is probably strategic - keeping his options open to cut a running-mate deal with whoever wins the presidential nomination. It's a pity Edwards didn't make more headway as he was the most radical of the candidates and the only one who made action to reduce the shocking levels of poverty in America the centrepiece of his campaign. To a large extent he has been eclipsed by the emergence of Barack Obama as the alternative to the Clinton dynasty in this campaign - although Obama's policy platform isn't actually that radical.

Meanwhile, after what has turned out to be the most strategically wrongheaded campaign in recent history, one-time favourite Rudy Giuliani has pulled out of the Republican race. Giuliani's campaign was a disaster, full stop ("period"). He didn't bother to campaign in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan etc because he was concentrating on Florida because it had a lot more convention delegates. What he didn't take into account is that by failing to compete in those early primaries he looked like an also-ran time after time, and he missed out on any media coverage. The strategy might have worked if the early results had been a complete mess, with none of the other candidates gaining any net advantage, but the fact that John McCain was in the lead by Florida, and that McCain was also the candidate whose policy stance is closest to Giuliani's, effectively wrote him off. It's an extraordinary failure for the guy who was at one stage being touted as the great white hope for '08. Giuliani has endorsed McCain.

29 January 2008

Good to see the Tories can still pull out a real turkey

The heat's been on New New Labour (aka 'New Conservatives', 'Stalin's Bean Feast', etc) for several months now, and sleaze has been a central element of that. But lest we forget, the Tories were the masters of sleaze under John Major in the good ol' days of the mid-90s, and it's good to see Old Bexley and Sidcup MP Derek Conway keeping up the tradition.

Conway paid his son Freddie about £40,000 for three years of employment as a 'researcher' although there is no obvious evidence that he did any work whatsoever. Now, that's not necessarily incriminating in itself - parlimentary researchers don't tend to publish huge great wodges of research reports, for example. They tend to be more occupied with day-to-day "bits and pieces" - looking up statistics and references, for instance. But £13,000 per year is, to my knowledge, a pretty high rate for a parliamentary researcher even if Freddie wasn't just taking the money and doing naff all. It looks a hell of a lot like a way of funding the kid through university at the taxpayer's expense. Well, I guess once the Tories introduced student loans in teh early 90s we were always going to be on the slippery slope to this kind of thing.

Dave Cameron has acted quickly and decisively by withdrawing the whip from Conway, which is probably a sensible thing to do unless this kind of thing turns out to be rife on the backbenches, in which case the Tory party could be looking a bit thin in a few months' time.

The most ludicrous stance came from fellow Tory MP Roger Gale, who said that Mr Conway was "an honourable man" who was being accused by a Labour MP (John Mann) with an "axe to grind".

Yeah, right. So presumably Roger would say the same about Peter Hain and Alan Johnson? They're the subject of "witch hunts" too? Twat.

In any case it's good to see Tory sleaze back on the shelves, selling next to the Labour variety. So when are the Lib Dems gonna get in on the act?

27 January 2008

Cabinet '08: it's the march of the duffers...

...or in fact the January of the duffers.

First the resignation of Peter Hain three days ago, after alleged irregularities in donations to his deputy leadership campaign were referred to the police by the Electoral Commission.

This followed news coverage of alleged irregularities in donations to Harriet Harman's (successful) deputy leadership campaign back in November.

And now... alleged irregularities in donations to Alan Johnson's deputy leadership campaign.

Would Hazel Blears or Hilary Benn care to step forward now so we can get their investigation of donation irregularities over with? Or shall we just carry on doing them one by one?

(I think Jon Cruddas is safe as he didn't take up a ministerial post despite being allegedly offered one by Brown just after the handover in June).

Back in the spring when there was an extensive debate in the Labour Party over whether it would be a good idea to hold a deputy leadership, there were several arguments against having one: it was too expensive, it would distract from the key business of getting Brown established as the new PM, it would turn Labour's focus inward instead of outward, etc. One argument I can't remember anyone using was, "there shouldn't be an election because no-one involved will adhere to the rules on donations and so it will result in an avalanche of negative publicity and a police investigation." And yet this is precisely what has happened.

It seems to be the case that almost no-one involved in several of the deputy leadership campaigns either understood or adhered to the donation rules. WIth people this lame involved in the day-to-day running of the Labour party, is it any wonder Labour is behind in the polls?

Perhaps the worst aspect of Hain's resignation is that his place has been taken by James "Mr Photoshop" Purnell, a Blairite hack of the very worst kind. Hain may have been clueless, but he at least had a radical history, even if it was pretty distant. Purnell seems like the kind of guy for whom buying The Independent constitutes a radical act. It's a glimpse of the future of mainstream politics in this country, and it's depressing. One of the (few) consolations of a Conservative victory next time round is that Purnell would be out of the Government - unless he decides to switch parties, which, given that his political position is indistinguishable from David Cameron's, is quite possible.

The boys are back with the Barack

(with apologies to Alan Partridge...)

Good result for Barack Obama in the South Carolina primary. 55% for Obama against 27% for Clinton is a huge victory margin and it looks like Obama benefited from a backlash against the increasingly negative campaigning of the Bill and Hilary double act. Those two are pulling dirty tricks out of the bag as fast as they can, in a way that suggest they may be running pretty scared... and it's gonna be interesting to see what they pull out next in the run up to 'Super Tuesday' in 9 days' time.

I was surprised to see John Edwards not doing better than 18% of the vote in what is almost his home turf, but I think he's been squeezed badly in the Clinton/Obama crossfire. Nonetheless, if he stays in the race up to and including Super Tuesday he could still emerge with enough delegates to hold the balance of power at the Democratic Convention, if it's a close enough race.

I've not yet seen detailed polling from any of the Super Tuesday states so at this point there's not much more to say on this topic at this point in time - I'll come back to it later in the week.

24 January 2008

Rogue Trader Plus

As if the stock market turmoil of the last few days weren't enough, news emerged today that 31-year-old Jerome Kerviel has just become the Nick Leeson of the 21st century, blowing a €4.9bn hole in Société Générale's balance sheet.

Details of what exactly happened are very sketchy but it looks like Kerviel was cultivating an increasingly large uncovered position - effectively betting that the market would rise, and doubling up when the index moved against him. Very similar to what Leeson did in Singapore in the early 1990s (his Rogue Trader is a pulp classic if you haven't read it.)

SocGen's losses are an order of magnitude greater than what Leeson inflicted on Barings in the mid-1990s - the difference is that Barings was tiny by international standards and collapsed as a result of Leeson's antics, whereas SocGen is a major multinational player and will, incredibly, still manage to turn a profit despite the huge losses on Kerviel's trading.

All of which makes the London Lite free paper's assertion that Kerviel caused the global stock market crash by spooking the market with huge volumes of unorthodox-looking trades somewhat hard to swallow, to say the least. €4.9bn is big money to most of us, but compared with the scale of losses from the sub-prime fallout, it's tiny beer. Still, if you get your news from London Lite you deserve to be misinformed.

Amazing, though, that over a decade after Barings, a major bank did not have basic safeguards in place to stop this happening (separation of front and back office operations, anyone?) More on this as more of the details come out.

23 January 2008

The Fed takes a gamble (but the Bank of England may be taking even more of a gamble...)

The US Federal Reserve panicked yesterday in the face of a global stock market slump and cut interest rates by 0.75 percentage points (or 75 "basis points" as the guys in the City like to say). That doesn't sound a lot, but given that they were only 4.25% to start with, it's a huge reduction. Also it was a week before the Fed's normal Open Market Committee meeting - which made it look even more like a panic move.

The States is desperate to avoid going the way of Japan over the last fifteen years, where the collapse of the huge 1980s asset bubble was followed by a prolonged economic slump. At one point interest rates in Japan fell to 0.1% - pretty much the lowest practically possible. Hence, fiscal and monetary stimuli are being applied - the interest rate cut on the monetary side, and on the fiscal side Bush has lined up a $145bn stimulus package of tax cuts. Naive Keynesian economic theory suggests that both these measures should have positive effects by boosting demand for goods and services and making it less likely that high borrowing costs will force firms into bankruptcy. However, naive Keynesianism also ignores a lot of other factors (many of which would have been familiar to J.M. Keynes himself), for instance:

  • if the interest rate cut and fiscal stimulus reduces investors' and consumers' confidence in the strength of the US economy it could have the reverse effect to that intended.
  • the current crisis was partially triggered by an epidemic of bad (sub-prime) lending facilitated by low interest rates - so is it really a good idea to fan the flames by sending interest rates even lower?
On balance I think it would have been much better to go with a series of smaller reductions, month by month or quarter by quarter, rather than one big splurge. I also think that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke doesn't really know what he's doing. Having said that, he more opportunity to at least have a go at the right solution than Bank of England Governor Mervyn King, who said today that the UK would just have to "tough it out" come what may. So even if the economy goes completely down the tubes (quite possible, if still unlikely), we won't be cutting rates for quite some time.

Why? Basically because King has a sole remit to keep inflation at a 2% target rate, whereas the Fed is tasked with maintaining a monetary environment conductive to "high and stable employment" as well as low inflation. This means that when times are difficult, Bernanke can (at his discretion) slack off on inflation to boost employment. But King doesn't have that flexibility. And he's worried that oil, gas and food price rises are going to feed through to inflation, which doesn't give the Bank of England any wiggle room on interest rates.

Now, the FT, Economist and many other commentators will tell you that taking risks with inflation is dangerous. They're almost completely wrong. There is very, very little evidence that an inflation rate of (say) 10% is any worse for economic growth or employment than a 2% inflation rate. Now, I say "almost completely wrong" rather than "completely wrong" because at some point, inflation does have big costs - look at Zimbabwe for example, where it's 4,000,000% (or something like that). But that's hyper-inflation, not 'regular' inflation. The idea that we would be taking huge risks with the economy if inflation had to rise to (say) 5% rather than 2% because of temporary price pressures on oil and food, is garbage. Remember that next time you're in the pub with an FT journalist!

20 January 2008

Clinton vs Obama: close calls, stupid voting systems and stupid voters

Results from the Nevada Democratic primary show a narrow win for Hillary Clinton.

Or at least, the headline results do. The actual delegate figures show Obama with 13 delegates from Nevada to Clinton's 12. This is due to the idiotic first-past-the-post system of delegate selection by precinct (and that isn't a dig at the States because we have the same stupid system for our elections - it's how New Labour ensures a working majority with only 35% of the vote.) Overall, Obama has 38 delegates to Clinton's 36, with Edwards on 18.

What this means is that one has to 'read the small print', i.e. look at how the primary and caucus results are translating to numbers of delegates at the Democratic Convention in the summer, before making any predictions on who's going to get the nomination. Based on current evidence the Democratic race looks too close to call and it's entirely possible that neither Obama nor Clinton will end up with the necessary 2,025 delegates by the time of the Convention - which could leave Edwards as the 'kingmaker'. An interesting thought.

Also interesting, if a little spooky, is BBC North America editor Justin Webb's claim in his blog today that some people haven't been voting for Barack Obama in the primaries because they think he's a Muslim. Well, I guess if the American education system is set up to produce drones - both working and middle class - who get their entire info from Fox News, then this is the kind of crap you end up with. And that's not to say the UK system is any better - anyone who remembers the 1987 general election and the widely touted claim that if Kinnock won, Soviet Tanks would be rolling down Whitehall within 48 hours, will know there's no room for complacency.

16 January 2008

Staying on a sci-fi tip...

Continuing my limited excursion into sci-fi blogging that began with Sunday's post discussing differences between Battlestar Galactica DVD sets in the US and UK, whilst following a BSG link I came across a blog post from a couple of years back by Wil Wheaton, who will be familiar to Star Trek: The Next Generation fans as the guy who played Wesley Crusher. I always thought he could have been called 'Ratings Crusher' as if I had a pound for everyone who had told me over the years that they found The Next Generation unwatchable because of that silly twerp Wesley, who managed to save the ship week after week despite being only about 14 years old and having no formal training whatsoever... and being an annoying whiny little bastard to boot... I would be able to afford at least one of the Next Gen season box sets.

Early Next Gen was the perfect example of a good basic concept hamstrung by a couple of characters so annoying you wanted to beat them up; Crusher, and Will Riker, played by Jonathan Frakes so cheesily that he made Shatner look like a vegan. If the original Star Trek series had had anyone as duff as these two in the cast it wouldn't have lasted six episodes.

It wasn't Wil Wheaton's fault that Wesley was crap, of course; the character was written to be an annoying jerk, and like Colin Baker in the ropey mid-80s Doctor Who era, Wheaton did the best he could with the dross he was given. Anyway it was a pleasant surprise to find his blog and it seems very good. He's recently got into Tom Baker-era Doctor Who, for instance. Additionally, I'm a sucker for posts which swear a lot, so I enjoyed this one. Although I would argue that five or six swear words is not "lots", Wil.

His book 'Just a Geek' looks interesting, too - great title. Must read that one.

Republicans '08: and the frontrunner is...?

The Republican primaries continue to provide electoral excitement here in dreary old blighty. (Well, at least to sad people like me who find the presidential race interesting.)

The Michigan primary yesterday resulted in a comeback for Mitt Romney, who got 39% of the vote to McCain's 30%, with Huckabee third with 16%. This means total confusion for electoral pundits already reeling from Hillary Clinton's surprise win in New Hampshire after being written off.

Romney's winning speech in Michigan was lame even by the low standards we've come to expect from this campaign. "Tonight marks the beginning of a comeback for America" indeed... the guy is a third-rate cheeseball - even by the low standards we've come to expect... etc. etc. It's quite possible he only managed to win Michigan because it's his home state.

Right now, one would have to be brave, rich or stupid (or all 3?) to put a bet on who's gonna win this Republican campaign. All this confusion is probably going to help Rudy Guiliani a lot as by targeting his resources on the Florida primary in late January and then a blitz on 'Super Tuesday' on 5 Feb, he may be able to exploit a divided field and emerge as the frontrunner. Advertising agencies must be having a field day - after all, the longer there are multiple candidates in the race, the more money is spent on advertising in aggregate. Good to see someone's doing well out of the current US economic collapse.

13 January 2008

Battlestar Galactica: a guide to DVD Regions 1 and 2 for the perplexed

2 days ago Battlestar Galactica: Razor arrived in the post on US import. As soon as I have a chance - yesterday evening - I gave it a spin in the player. Great stuff, but I'm not going to say anything about the plot here. If you've already seen it plot analysis will be redundant, and if you haven't seen it, you don't need some idiot giving away spoilers in a blog that is only occasionally about TV. Instead I'm going to talk about the huge contrast between how BSG gets released on DVD here in the UK, and the US release.

Razor- which is a TV movie designed to fill the gap between BSG seasons 3 and 4 (18 months or longer) - was shown pretty much simultaneously on Sky in the UK and on whatever channel broadcasts the show in the US, and then rush-released on DVD. The UK DVD release of Razor is atypical because it seems to have the same extras - commentary, deleted scenes, etc. - as the US release. In all the previous BSG releases the UK extras have been minimal - in fact on Season 3 they're non-existent. By contrast, US viewers in Region 1 get commentaries for each episode from series creator Ronald D Moore. The UK version of the Season 2 DVD has the podcasts for the first 4 episodes but nothing after that.

Fortunately the episode commentaries are also available here at the Sci-Fi Channel's US website. However if you are watching the Region 2 DVD whilst listening to a downloaded podcast you need to bear in mind that PAL (Region 2) DVDs run about 4% faster than NTSC (Region 1) DVDs, so your podcast will drift out of sync with the video unless you use an editor like Audacity to slow the mp3 down.

Bizarrely, Season 3 is available here in the UK, but not yet in the US - which has resulted in some people who can't wait importing the UK Season 3 set into the US, which is unusual - normally it's the other way round.

Even more bizarrely, I must mention the flyer that comes with the US edition of Razor - apparently "BATTLESTAR GALACTICA ACTION FIGURES ARE AVAILABLE NOW!" They are available from Diamond Select Toys. The initial choice of figures is somewhat strange - why Hotdog, or Kat, before they've done Baltar, Roslin or Admiral Adama, for example? Also, none of the figures looks anything like their real-life counterpart. That'll be familiar to anyone who bought Star Wars figures back in the late 70s and early 80s... but what's the audience for BSG action figures? The show's not aimed at kids, so who's buying them? Sad thirtysomethings who want to put them on their desks at work? Maybe...

10 January 2008

The big nuclear sell-out: a corporate cave-in disguised as environmentalism

Big news of the day in the UK was the Government's decision to give the go-ahead for a new generation of nuclear power stations.

This is an extraordinary turn around from five or ten years ago, when it was only really the nuclear industry - the companies that build, maintain and supply the plants - that were pushing nuclear. It was seen as an expensive and unpopular failure from the post-war era, along with things like Concorde. So what's changed?

Essentially the nuclear industry has found a new, 'progressive' argument to use in lobbying the government - which is that nuclear power can help the UK meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets. It could - but renewable energy sources like wind farms would do that just as well, without huge subsidies from the government, and without creating radioactive waste which we still have no long-term plan for disposal of. But of course wind power is still small beer at the moment and there isn't a huge corporate lobbying industry around renewables the way there is around nuclear.

The recent 'consultations' over the issue were, as usual, a complete fraud - the Government had already made up its mind. No wonder Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth pulled out.

The Tories, as so often nowadays, have parrotted the Government line on this (Except to say that there shouldn't be any Government subsidies for the new plants - of course there shouldn't, but how likely is that?) Of the big parties, only the Lib Dems have a sensible position. Good for them - I'm thinking very strongly about joining up. Anything to get rid of the two Conservative parties... 'New Conservative' and 'David Cameron's Conservatives'. Go Cleggie.

With any luck there are going to be massive on-the-ground struggles when they start trying to build these new plants. It'll make the Twyford Down M3 bypass protest of the 1990s look like a village fete. That's assuming, of course, that potential protesters haven't already been detained under anti-terrorist legislation...

Fight the power.

08 January 2008

A Toshiba Libretto for the 00s?

And so to technology... I was flicking through Linux Format magazine today (somebody has to) and read a very positive review of the Asus Eee laptop.

For those who don't keep up with this sort of thing, the Eee is a very cheap, small and light laptop which runs Linux as the default operating system (although it is capable of running Windows), has a 4 Gb flash drive instead of a hard drive, a 7 inch 800x600 display, a built in webcam, and weighs only about 900 grams. As a concept it reminds me a bit of the Toshiba Libretto which was a 'sub-notebook' PC of similar size and weight from just over a decade ago; the main selling point of the Libretto was that, unlike the other sub-notebooks of the time, which were jumped-up PDAs, it was fully capable of running Windows 95. A good mate of mine who was very active in the IT industry at the time, bought a Libretto in about 1997 and says that it 'saved his ass' on more than one occasion. The Eee has much of the feel of the Libretto about it - except that, at £220, it is MUCH cheaper than the Libretto, even relative to current laptop prices (if I remember correctly the Libretto was about the same price as an average-spec full size laptop of the time.)

Anyway these things seem to be flying off the shelves - they're out of stock at most of the main online stockists (scan, dabs etc.) Given that you're effectively getting full PC functionality for not much more than a well-specified iPod, it's starting to look very tempting... certainly more exciting than an iPhone IMHO.

07 January 2008

Ha! Clarkson PROVES he's a complete idiot

As the great Hunter S Thompson would have said, this is a "ho ho ho" moment... after saying that 'Discgate' was a fuss about nothing, and publishing details of his bank account in The Sun to prove it, Jeremy Clarkson has become a victim of identity fraud.

Always great when someone you know is a complete twat proves it voluntarily in so spectacular a fashion. In the inhospitable bastard of a month that is January, we need stories like this to raise a smile. Thanks Jez.

06 January 2008

Barack Obama storms out of the blocks...

And so, as promised, on to the Democratic race, where, only 4 days into the campaign proper, Hillary Clinton is already starting to look like a lame duck. The general media consensus was that the amount of funds raised by the Clinton campaign and the support of Bill would be enough to propel her through the primaries with Barack Obama a creditable second, and John Edwards a long way back in the rear.

Instead, what seems to be happening - based on the results from Iowa and the latest polls in New Hampshire - is that Obama is surging into a big lead, with Edwards and Clinton fighting over second place. Obama got 38% of the vote in Iowa with Edwards and Clinton pretty much tied at 30%. One of the polls from New Hampshire puts Obama 10 points in front - and if the actual result goes that way, it would be an even bigger upset than Iowa.

The factor that seems to be propelling Obama to the front of the field seems to be a big surge in support among young activists and voters - see, for example, this BBC piece. It could be that, like George McGovern in 1972, Obama is going to cruise to the Democratic nomination on a wave of youth radicalism - but unlike McGovern, there is a strong possibility Obama has the charisma to go all the way to the White House.

This of course, doesn't mean in itself that he'll be any good. Democratic presidents of whom much was expected have been complete letdowns before - Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter (although his focus on energy policy now looks extremely ahead of his time) and, arguably, even JFK. However, Obama does have the advantage of not being George W Bush, Hilary Clinton, or Mike Huckabee, which, given the state of politics in the US, might be as good as any reason to vote for him.

To finish, a few words on John Edwards, who is unlikely to get the nomination - he doesn't have anything like the campaign funding that Clinton or Obama have, but his decision to mount a (relatively) left-wing campaign highlighting the appalling levels of poverty that exist in the US and a strategy to reduce them, is to be applauded. He may well decide to drop out if he has won few or no primaries by 'Super Tuesday' in February, but he'd surely be a good choice for running-mate if Obama does get the nomination. An Obama-Edwards ticket would be about as good as we can expect from the Democrats this year, and should be strong enough to beat anyone the Republicans can come up with.

04 January 2008

I Hate Huckabee (even though I don't know him at all well... yet.)

The US presidential election kicked into life yesterday with the results from the Iowa caucuses. Whereas most news reports seem to have covered the Democratic results first, I'm gonna start with the Republicans in this post, just for the hell of it. And also because I didn't know who the hell Mike Huckabee was until this morning.

Looking like a morph between John Hutton and Robert Lindsay, former Arkansas governor Huckabee got 34% of the Iowa vote, 9% in front of Mitt Romney, who had expected to win after spending heavily. Everyone else was a long way behind.

A surprise result, according to most of the news sites, and especially to me, as the last time I looked at the Republican race in any detail (which was about October, I think), the front-runners were Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain, with Ronald Reagan wannabee Fred Thompson as a wild card outsider. Huckabee didn't even figure on the menu - he was out there with principled no-hopers like the libertarian congressman Ron Paul. But here he is with 34%.

Of course, Huckabee has God On His Side - his main strength seems to be that he is the 'genuine article' religious conservative. Evangelicals have serious doubts about the relatively late conversion of Romney to the anti-abortion platform, and Giuliani is viewed in certain parts as pretty much a Satanist for his pro-choice stance. All this plays pretty well with a certain constituency of Republican voters - who I guess are probably the same kind of people who can be bothered to turn up at caucus meetings in the middle of winter in Iowa. You know... the hardcore.

I checked out the Huckabee site and the initial quote from him on there is not promising:

I think the country is looking for somecody who is vertical, who is thinking, 'let's take America up and not down.'

A vertical candidate's probably preferable to a horizontal one - I'll give him that. But surely the vertical axis runs up and down? I mean, what is this cack? A click on 'learn more' takes us to the blog page, with a roll of about 200 Huckabee-supporting blogs. Jeez, Mick... "there's too many of them". I'll be restarting Hal's Friday Evening Blog Review as Huckerbee's Sunday Evening Blog Review (the day of the Lord) in a couple of days' time.

God-fearing Democrats and even the odd agnostic will probably be praying tonight that Huckabee continues to gather momentum to the extent that Giuliani's campaign pretty much collapses before 'Super Tuesday' in early February, where he's spending most of his campaign funds on trying to get a big result in Florida and other key states. If Huckabee can mop up the Romney and Thompson support he certainly stands a reasonable chance of getting the Republican nomination, and that would be the biggest help to the Democrats since the days of 1964 and Barry Goldwater. That is, of course, assuming that hardcore religious conservatism, making even George Bush look wishy-washy, is a big turnoff to a large enough section of the US electorate. If it isn't, then we really are in big Barney Rubble. But back to that sometime soon...

It should be stressed however that this is VERY early days. If Iowa turns out to be a complete freak-out and Romney does well in New Hampshire and the other primaries over the next few weeks, Huckabee will be out of the race probably by the end of February. However, no-one in the US (or UK) media predicted this result so I don't feel particularly compelled to stick to the form-book any time in the near future. Next post... the Democratic race.

03 January 2008

'one'/Network Rail hate me and my wife... and if they get the chance they'll f*** up my life

Daylight dawns... you wake up and you're... not going into work today because the train station still isn't properly open.

Doesn't scan as well as Paul Weller's original but it's certainly accurate.

Some of you may remember the comedy last year with 'one' railway where Managing Director Andrew Chivers was dodging an interview with the local paper. He did eventually give that interview, and it was, for the record, complete bollox.

Anyway, this time 'one' and Network Rail have surpassed themselves by failing to re-open Liverpool Street station after it was closed between 23 December and 1 January for engineering works. TfL needed to demolish a bridge on the approach to Liverpool Street for the East London line extension, which is fair enough - it's a big job and it's gotta be done so why not do it over the quietest period of the year? What isn't fair enough is that thousands of commuters went back to the grindstone yesterday and were faced with no rail service whatsoever on the Colchester - London line... there was no replacement bus service (unlike the previous ten days) and passengers were simply advised not to travel. 'one' couldn't even be bothered to try to arrange alternative transport... we were told the station would be open at 10, then 11, then 4pm, and by now they have managed to restore some of the Colchester line into Liverpool Street but other lines (Southend and the Metro service) are terminating at Stratford until mid-morning. I'm working at home until I'm confident the station is completely sorted. Which will probably be March at the earliest...

The core balls-up here is from Network Rail - although 'one' are good at making a bad situation worse by failing to implement any sort of contingency plan. Network Rail say 'a shortage of skilled engineers' has been responsible for the overrun. That's a great idea... schedule a line closure and then find you haven't got enough staff to do the job. Maybe it's because loads of them got fired when British Rail got privatised... But why the hell not just hire in extra staff from abroad? That's what happens with most infrastructure projects.

Really, the managing director of Network Rail should be fired over this. Hitting the management hard is, at the end of the day, the only way to ensure a good quality of service from these monopoly operators. The poor bastards travelling on this line pay through the nose for an appalling service. Is there anything they can do? I guess the main practical measure is to buy some shares in National Express, who own 'one'. Analysis of the company's share price over the last five years shows that it's roughly tripled. That outstrips even the inflation in rail fares over the period... so buy some shares and get your money back! It also means you can turn up at the AGM and disrupt the bastards.

01 January 2008

Greetings, Team '08

Happy New Year to all and sundry...

Hope everyone is doing well. I'm well aware that 2007 was not a majorly productive year for giroscope, most of the time. Posts were often sporadic and pithy, the Friday evening blog review project was abandoned, and everything seemed to lack focus.

In short, by the end of the year, giroscope was looking at bit like the Brown administration.

So the objective for '08 is to Do Better in almost every conceivable way... at least 2 decent posts a week for starters, some action (finally) on the "Golf Ball" blog (first proper post planned for Sunday 6th), and also more contributions to Dilate, BHappY... more of every damn thing really, and less falling asleep on the job. We'll have a look back at the end of this month and see how things are going but I feel quietly confident I can get my shit together this year.

Whether Gordon Brown can do the same remains to be seen. To paraphrase a lyric from a band I was in back at school, "he had it/ and he's lost it." One of the greatest absentees from the blog over the last few months has been a proper analysis of what the hell went wrong for 'Newer Labour' between September, when they looked on top of the world, and December, when things had collapsed to such an extent that I was wondering if Iain Duncan Smith was moonlighting as Gordon's chief political strategist. (The quiet man advising the clunking fist... strange days indeed).

There is little doubt in my mind that the idiotic build up to the 'ectopic election' of October was the major mistake that Brown and the so called "creche team" of Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander made. These guys marched the troops up to the top of the hill, banging the drum loudly, expecting Cameron and Osborne to simply fall over, and then, when the opposition showed some last ditch bite and balls, cut and ran - leaving the impression of being (a) cowards and (b) completely green incompetents. Which they probably are. It's quite probable that a November election would have been a toughie, although I think it's unlikely Labour would have lost. It's a much bigger possibility that they could lose in '09 or '10 now. The polls, for the first time under New Labour (bar about a week during the 2000 fuel protest) are pretty damn awful. Of course governments have come back from being this far down before (the 80s Tories spring to mind), but the election-that-never-was precipitated such a wall of adverse publicity, with bad news for the government arriving virtually every day and from every quarter, that one was left wondering what the f*** was left to go wrong next. Northern Rock! Discgate! David Abrahams! Vince Cable correctly identifying Gordon as a cross between Stalin and Mr Bean at PMQs!

Meanwhile, Dave Cameron, who had been in all kinds of trouble in July and August with internal dissent and complete confusion over policy, suddenly started to look like a possible election winner. He was partially assisted in this by the continuing freefall of the Lib Dem's electoral prospects at the tail end of the Ming Campbell era - culminating, of course, in Campbell's quiet assissination by Lib Dem MPs desperate to recover some chance of actually saving their seats (those guys must be REALLY pleased there was no election last year).

So what can Labour do to get the initiative back? In some ways, not doing too much would be good. I can't think of anything LESS guaranteed to dig them deeper in a hole than another wave of bullshit policy initiatives designed to cover up the fact that the extra public spending money has run out - without producing sufficient improvements to convince the public it's been worth it and what they have left is an economic straitjacket that no-one wants to wear, particularly with a recession probably around the corner. Rather, they need to get health, education and transport policy sorted (admittedly a pretty tall order), whilst abandoning plans to destroy our civil liberties with crap like ID cards. If a cabinet minister would go on the TV and it were to look, even for a minute or two, that they weren't lying through their teeth, it would be a start.

Gordon Brown needs to stop being a neo-liberal who talks a lot to Irvin Stelzer and Alan Greenspan, and start behaving like the progressive social democrat that he has spent the last years telling the Labour party he.is He's never going to be a Bill Clinton style communications expert but if he could at least act like a man who's held a conversation a few times before when he gets up to PMQs, it would be a start. Failing that, a well placed sniper with a tranquiliser gun and instructions to fire if Gordon starts to flail too badly would at least ensure damage limitation. This guy has dug his own grave and looks increasingly ready to walk into it... salvation is still possible, but there needs to be a complete change of tone from the last ten years, and pretty damn quickly. Doing a hatchet job on Tony Blair similar to what Kruschev said about Stalin at the 1956 Soviet Party Congress would be a good start. If Brown isn't prepared to say Blair was a disaster then Dave Cameron, or indeed Nick Clegg, will be quite happy to, as the public increasingly comes to realise that it has been sold a pile of doo-doo over the last decade.

More on this rather soon. Hope everyone's recovered from the hangover by now!