Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Blind Veterans and technology

Blind Veterans (see sidebar) have started a supporter newsletter named "Debrief". I was particularly interested in the article in the first issue dealing with technological assistance. At the charity's Brighton centre, in addition to other assessments, IT instructors

help assess veterans' needs and run various workshops and training sessions to help meet them. They start by asking blind ex-service men and women about their lifestyles, what they do and what they want to do, how they communicate and who they want to communicate with.

For those with some residual sight, there is software to make tablet computers usable. For these and others there is also the Amazon Echo Dot and its incorporated voice-driven assistant, Alexa. Such devices enable blind veterans to lead fulfilled lives, and for those still of working age, productive ones.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Councillors should take the bus once in a while

After scrapping one of the best train/bus interchanges in the country, Cardiff City Council still does not have funding in place for its planned replacement bus station. Describing the situation as "outrageous", Liberal Democrat council group leader Elizabeth Clark said she feared Cardiff wouldn’t “have a proper bus station again”.

Meanwhile, Neath Port Talbot has been taking out bus shelters - even relatively new ones - and gradually replacing them. The new ones (presumably to be subsidised by advertising in illuminated panels) are airier and more attractive than the old blue jobs. Time will tell whether they are more vandal-resistant. The trouble is that the programme is too long drawn out. For instance, my regular stop for a week or more has had neither shelter nor bus stop sign. The new shelters still do not have printed timetables. The optimist in me anticipates a linked electronic indicator system such as the one which has been in operation in Cardiff for many years - there are already indicators in Neath's Victoria Gardens. The cynic fears that this is an attempt to push would-be passengers to the council's phone app. Everybody has a mobile these days, right?

In each case, the council clearly believes it is doing good and that the upgrades will be better than what went before. However, officials should make sure that the transition is as swift and as painless as physically possible. The Cardiff example is egregious, but passengers in Neath are suffering a period of inconvenience and there is no intimation as to when it will end. If councillors had to rely on public transport as their young, old and physically handicapped citizens have to, perhaps these people - and those of us who believe that public transport is the "green" future - will receive more consideration.


One of those widely-celebrated festivals I had never heard of, I was alerted to Noruz (or Nowruz) by, of all things, a point of order raised in the House of Commons on the first of this month. Marking the start of the Zoroastrian new year, dedicated to fire, and also having been adopted by the founder of the Bahá'í faith as the start of their new year, it is one of the great survivors of the Islamic takeover of Persia/Iran.

[Later] The festival is being used to demonstrate against the unjust detention of three women, including that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, imprisoned in Iran since April 2016. Mrs Ratcliffe has UK as well as Iranian citizenship.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Wet blanket time

I don't wish to disparage Ms Lynn's great - and occasionally brave - war effort, but she was not the only "forces' sweetheart"*. Anne Shelton and Gracie Fields also did their bit.

The great "British" flag-waver "The White Cliffs of Dover" originated in America from a poem by Alice Duer Miller and cribbing from Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's "Over the Rainbow" by jobbing song-writers Nat Burton and Walter Kent when the US authorities wanted a song to encourage reluctant Americans to support Britain against Hitler - and months later to  boost the morale of a nation which was dragged into war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

*actually, my ex-ATS mother used to refer to her as "adenoidy Vera".

[updated 2017-03-21]

Liberal Democrats stick to multi-lateral policy

Caron Lindsay sums up the nuclear weapons debate at the Liberal Democrat conference here. I was saddened by the large majority by which the abolitionist amendment was defeated, but at least my conscience is assuaged. A chest infection prevented my attendance in York, but as it turned out my one vote would have been irrelevant.

It seems to me that insufficient weight was given to the economic argument. As I wrote around the time of the 2015 debate:
The nuclear deterrent may have been just that in an earlier age but it is not one now and the cost of Trident replacement - conservatively, £15bn for the hardware, and £2bn annual running costs - could be better diverted into more relevant areas of defence.

The costs have gone up, but another serious argument has arisen as a result of the US presidential election. Who would have thought even two years ago that we could be prevented, by means of its built-in technological lock, from deploying Trident against the only major power likely to threaten us militarily, namely Putin's Russia? Yet the White House is now occupied by one who is friendly to authoritarian Russia and antagonistic towards the democratic Germany. If Putin decided to follow in the footsteps of Catherine the Great and extend the Russian empire westwards, would the US president enable Trident so that we could threaten nuclear retaliation, or would our fleet have to float impotently while we attempted to stem the progress of the Red Army with our conventional forces?

It is more likely (though still a remote possibility, thank goodness) that we will be dragged into a war in the far east, and be expected to deploy Trident on behalf of the United States and Japan against China, the nation the current UK government is depending on to fund so many of our technological developments. Just the threat of such an alignment would surely persuade Beijing to pull out.

It will be argued that Trump is a temporary aberration. But he is going to be there for nearly another four years, and who is to say he will not renew his mandate in 2020? The established parties in the United States seem to be eroding, increasing the chance of mavericks with good PR and money succeeding to the presidency in future.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Netherlands not a pointer to France

It seems to me that Liberal International is optimistic when it proclaimed in the warmth of the Dutch results:
The election, which saw the highest turnout of Dutch voters in 30 years amid earlier concerns that the far-right party of Geert Wilders would emerge with the most seats, is seen as a bellwether for the French elections later this year.

 France sticks to a first-past-the-post system (though with a run-off election) of voting which favours the leading parties. Nor does she have an explicitly liberal party. These are major differences with the Netherlands. So it is almost inevitable that Marine le Pen of the National Front will be one of the two candidates for president in the final vote on 7th May. The signs of a racist campaign are already evident - and that was from the conservative, not the fascist, camp.

The prospects in Germany which also has a proportional system and now a resurgent liberal party are much better. It would be great if the increasingly racist AfD were to be stopped in its tracks next September - but a lot can happen between then and now.

Friday, 17 March 2017

St Patrick and Banwen

This is what the contributor to ODNB has to say:

Patricius, or Patrick, was born in the late fourth or first half of the fifth century in Roman Britain, that is, south of Hadrian's Wall. His father, Calpornius, was a deacon; his grandfather, Potitus, a priest. His mother may have been called Concessa. Patrick's family were of free birth and belonged to the local gentry. In addition to (or perhaps before) being a deacon, his father was a decurion, that is, a member of a 'city' council. Calpornius lived at the vicus ('small town') 'Bannauem Taburniae' (or 'Bannauem Taberniae'), owning a nearby country estate (villula) run by slaves, which was where Patrick was captured by Irish pirates (see below). Emendation to 'Bannaventa Berniae' produces a plausible place name, but it still cannot be securely identified: Bannaventa near Daventry is too far from the coast for Irish raids; the Banna on Hadrian's Wall, now identified with Birdoswald, is on a military frontier with no appropriate villa sites nearby. The villa could well have been in south-west Britain, or perhaps somewhere not too far from the coast between Chester and the Solway Firth; Wales is unlikely.

People round here would object to that off-hand dismissal, with no reasons given for it. The Irish influence in this region after the Romans left was strong. I still believe that Banwen has as good a claim as any place to be Patrick's original home. It will be objected that no villa has been found in the Dulais valley. I would counter that there has been no serious digging there, which is not exactly a trendy area for archaeology.

Anyway, whether Patrick was from England or Wales, he was still an immigrant to Ireland, which gave current Taoiseach Enda Kenny an opportunity to lecture Donald Trump on the subject.