28 December 2007

Merry Blogmass

In a shameless piece of promotion, I have included a puff for Hofflimits on recent Christmas greetings to friends and family. Nothing by way of explanation, but I shall be interested to see if my visitor figures go up, in the absence of any other promotional activity by me.

Since the round-robin formatted letter that carried the URL is mostly for consumption by my American relatives, I shall keep an eye open for any spike in the site visitors logging on from over the pond. And if you are one of those mystified relatives, welcome to my world, or a part of it - mostly the part that deals in fatuous opinions and lazy assertions.

There are only two rules that govern content for Hofflimits - it must be about the external world rather than self-obsessed, self-referential solipsism, and the opinions must be my own, rather than received wit published elsewhere.

And if you are logging on from the States, here's a quick guide to some of the characters: Gordon Brown is our Prime Minister, like Tony Blair but fatter; football is almost certainly what you would call soccer; the House of Commons is the equivalent of the Senate; and Anne Widdecombe is a society beauty known for her devastating put-downs and an unbroken series of number one records.

And this blog is one of the most influential sources of opinion in the UK that can bring down governments at a stroke.

Those in-between days

This time of year is an odd one to go to work. Deserted car parks, half-empty trains and, when you get in, no-one actually calls. And on the train today, the bloke opposite me was clearly letting his hair down between Christmas and New Year as he was wearing socks with ‘Thursday’ embroidered across them. On a Friday. It really is a mixed-up world these days.


The depressing assassination of Benazir Bhutto yesterday provided the media jackals with a much-needed, juicy news story, having been fed on religious scraps this last week. The poor things have had to make do with taking seriously whatever the Archbishop of Canterbury said and, of course, other “faith leaders” in the interest of balance.

In such a vacuum, the conversion of Tony Blair to Roman Catholicism took on monstrous proportions – leading the BBC Ten O’clock news on the day it broke. People who claimed to be serious journalists were actually debating the event as though a) Tony Blair were still Prime Minister and b) it actually mattered.

Anne Widdecombe was wheeled on first to provide her usual semi-detached interpretation of reality. This was presumably because she publicly, and very ostentatiously, converted to Roman Catholicism after the Anglicans allowed women to train for the Priesthood in the 1990s. As understanding voice of reason for a fellow-traveller, she was all for a public recantation of all areas of New Labour that didn’t coincide with Catholic doctrine, presumably with some sort of self-flagellation involved.

Blair claimed to be many things, but I don’t remember him invoking the Divine Right of Kings at any point in defence of his actions. So I’m guessing the reason Blair’s voting record on so-called “Catholic issues” – such as abortion, stem cell research etc – were because he felt we lived in a modern, liberal democracy that allows people to make choices, rather than a 17th century theocracy.

I’d be interested how Widdecombe would vote if a bill were ever put forward outlawing all forms of contraception in the UK. Presumably she’d be happy to take those sorts of moral decisions on behalf of the rest of us who are clearly too weak and stupid to think for ourselves.

14 December 2007

It's not dull, it's 'classic'

Ham, Cheese & Pickle; BLT; Prawn Mayo - three ordinary sandwiches. But they come together with the magic of Marks and Spencer to form a 'classic selection' sandwich, to give me the lunch equivalent of a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost.

Here 'classic' has come to mean 'safe'. Much as you like to think of yourself as broad-minded, adventurous, always chasing new sensations - you still can't bring yourself to risk sandwich disappointment on a felafal and tabbouleh bagel.
Here's where the marketing man can help - he rebrands your lack of adventure. You may have thought you had chosen a boring sandwich, but no; in fact, congratulations, you've actually bought a "classic".

06 December 2007

Think of a number

7,90,28, 56, 58 - not next week's winning lottery numbers but the various numbers of days suggested that the police can incarcerate people without charge in the UK. This week's bonus ball is 42 - the new compromise number being nudged up from the present 28, in an indecently hasty attempt to get Labour party funding off the front pages.

The new number is being smoothed through Parliament by the promise that the House of Commons will have some part in authorising the 'occasional' use of 42 days. Home Secretary Jaqui Smith said: "To emphasise that the higher limit is exceptional, it must be approved by Parliament within 30 days."

What happens when someone is detained and we get to day 27? Plod asks Home Secretary for permission to extend this to 42 days, who then has to ask Parliament's consent to validate it. Within 30 days.

In 2005-06 Parliament sat for a grand total of 283 days. And when they did bother to turn up, each day lasted an average of 7 hours and 33 minutes. Given government legislation often fails to get through because of a lack of parliamentary time, it seems to be putting an awful lot of faith in getting the rubber stamp applied within this 30-day window.

But let's assume the MPs can be roused from one of the many subsidised bars of the Commons to approve an extension by 14 days. Suppose it takes them the full 30 days to get around to it? By which time our suspect would have languished 57 days already - if they approve it, does he have to do the additional 14 days still, taking the total up to 71?

But let's be charitable and assume not. If the Old Bill wants to get his extension - and he knows it could take up to 30 days - he can't assume it will be granted. If he's allowed to hold someone for 28 days, this gives him minus two days to apply for the extension to get it granted in time. In other words he'll have to apply for the extension two days before the original arrest is made. In which case will Mystic Meg be joining the Met?

Talking with the lawman about poetry

The first woman prosecuted under the Terrorism Act 2000 has escaped jail. It seems she came to the attention of authorities while publishing verse under her pseudonym The Lyrical Terrorist (it's got quite a ring to it).

It seems a sensible decision - after all, if you locked up every person who wrote bad poetry and had dodgy reading habits, the universities of England would be empty.

04 December 2007

Please murder responsibly

Alcohol, in case you were unaware, can make you drunk. Under some circumstances it is unwise to drink a lot of it. If you drink a lot over a sustained period of time, it may give you quite a hurty tummy. But I know this because I am "drinkaware" (www.drinkaware.co.uk).

This website is a 'get out of jail free' card for the drinks industry, and you may have noticed it adorning some of the most creative advertising this country produces. Creative not through choice, but through necessity - according to the law, booze ads cannot "suggest that any alcoholic drink has therapeutic qualities (for example, stimulant or sedative qualities) or can change moods or enhance confidence, mental or physical capabilities or performance, popularity or sporting achievements...[they] must neither link alcohol with seduction, sexual activity or sexual success nor imply that alcohol can enhance attractiveness, masculinity or femininity." Given the usual subject matter of 95% of ads aimed at the under 40s, this rules out a heck of a lot.

Once upon a time you could advertise fags on telly more or less by suggesting the lower tar brand gave you a healthy chesty cough. As advertising has become more restrictive, and our reading of its messages more sophisticated, we are apparently in even greater need of protection from ourselves. In the information age there is a website to tell us how to enjoy Jack Daniel's "responsibly".

Jumping on this bandwagon, the newly-respectable world of online gambling similarly exhorts its gamers to "please gamble responsibly". They haven't yet got around to creating the fig leaf of a website yet - I expect they're just waiting for that next big win before they can afford to build it.

I may be missing a trick here, but I thought the idea of gambling was to be a little bit irresponsible. Like the idea of drinking was to get a little bit drunk. Not necessarily to excess - but similarly I don't expect a packet of cream cakes to tell me that eating them all may make me fat. The idea that sitting up until the wee hours playing cards with strangers for money can somehow be "responsible" seems a little at variance with my definition of the word.

I would suggest a new disclaimer instead to sit on the bottom of those ads for various pokertastic.com websites: "If you are the sort of person who needs a website to tell you what is and isn't responsible behaviour, then we suggest you don't visit this website. And stay away from sharp objects".

28 November 2007

Idle or idol?

The story rumbles on of an English teacher arrested for allowing her class to name a teddy Muhammed in the Sudan. At the moment opinion seems divided about whether they will throw the book at her, or something a bit heavier.

Clearly the Sudanese Police must have a bit of spare time on their hands - no doubt they've cleared up that genocide problem they were having in Dafur. Leaves them free to concentrate on the really serious matters.

Last post for ID cards?

The silver lining from the cloud that is the loss of personal data by HM Revenue and Customs is the unexpected doubts it has cast over the future of ID cards. It exposes the "honeypot" flaw: in designing a database big enough to hold all the necessary records, its very size makes it too high-risk if something goes wrong.

Ministers have been quick to try to turn something very negative into a positive. The curiously culpable argument goes that if we all had biometric ID cards, then the loss of our data by, say, a recklessly cavalier approach to handling other people's information by the government wouldn't matter.

However, I think it throws up another contradiction that I have yet to hear an answer to - the more useful an ID card supposedly becomes, the higher the risk of data theft. If you create an enormous database which will simultaneously protect the UK from terrorism, benefits fraud, illegal immigration, credit card fraud and overdue library books, think of all the number of people who will need to, potentially, access such a database. Multiply that by the number of different government departments employing "junior staff" and the chance of a breach moves from being likely to inevitable.

20 November 2007

All for nought

John Maynard Keynes once said that if you owe the bank £100, you are in trouble, but if you owe the bank £1,000,000, then the bank is in trouble. And if that bank owes the government £24,000,000,000 I suppose we're all in trouble. But it does at least allow us to enjoy the irony of watching some of the biggest defenders of free market capitalism suddenly discovering the joys of government protection. But that's quite an expensive joke to enjoy.

Given the rather cocky and aggressive investment strategy that landed Northern Rock in this position, I suppose we should expect a little chutzpah after the fall. Even with a government bail-out only someone with as big a brass neck as the chief shareholder in Northern Rock, an organisation called RAB Capital, could be quite as phlegmatic about where blame should lie. RAB's Chief Executive, Philip Richards, this week announced: "We believe that's been caused by the way the Bank of England handled the interbank market after the crisis broke in the summer."

The "that" in that last sentence is credit lines. And the genius business model that couldn't fail, based upon not actually lending your own money, but money that you borrow from someone else and call your own money. Given that all the other major banks have also sustained losses caused by the sudden tightening of credit, it seems everyone was borrowing from everyone else, under the economic principle of hubris: the greater fool theory. Presumably, therefore, to keep Mr Richards happy, the Bank of England should have "handled the situation" by lending everyone £24bn to keep the merry-go-round going.

I've been trying to work out what the difference is between "a short-term funding problem" and a pyramid scheme. Probably the difference between owing the bank £100 and £24,000,000,000.

12 November 2007

All or nothing

Walking down the Obsesity Aisle in my local Tesco, beyond the mega bumper multi-packs of reconstituted fried vegetable matter and salt, I was looking to see if they still also sold single serving sized packets of crisps. For those days when you can't quite manage 24 bags of Wotsits for lunch.

The section for single portions was marked with a sign that read: "Individual Crisps". Which seemed to be taking things to the other extreme - even I'd expect to buy more than one.

11 November 2007

Car Meccanic

In a not-at-all cynical piece of marketing by the Proton motor company, plans were announced today for an Islamic car. Sadly for the faithful, the car is still only being talked about, but "special features" could include "a compass pointing to Mecca and a dedicated space to keep a copy of the Koran and a headscarf", according to the rather desperate-sounding press release.

Or, to put it another way, Sat Nav and a glove compartment. And with such imaginative development ideas, it would seem to be set to be a design classic. But it does raise some interesting questions. For a start, who will endorse its Islamic status? And, once granted, does this mean all other cars are infidels?

I can see the attraction from a manufacturer's point-of-view to corner such a market, but they'd need to be able to cater for the wide variety of prospective customers. The economy model would presumably be the Proton Taleban, with no stereo and a stopped clock. Further up the scale, there'd need to be Suni, Shiite and Sufi models as well, to ensure no-one is left out.

Presumably with the Palestinian model you'd get a free Roadmap.

The right man for the job

Jonathan Aitken has been invited to advise the Conservative Party on prison reform (story here). Presumably Jeffrey Archer's invitation got lost in the post.

Whatever next? David Mellor on incentives for married couples? Norman Lamont on fiscal policy? Neil Hamilton on financial probity and standards in public life?

But it all makes sense when you realise who was behind the idea: Iain Duncan Smith, on behalf of Centre for Social Justice. I suppose if Iain Duncan Smith can run a think-tank, then Aitken can provide a moral compass for criminal justice.

03 November 2007

Seat or stool?

News reaches Hofflimits of unusual candidate requirements for standing for public office in India. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, the Rural Development Minister, said all rural council members should only be eligible for election if they have a toilet at home (story here). In an attempt to outlaw the more common rural practice of public defecation, Mr Singh is insisting that elected officials should set an example, to reduce the still high incidence of diarrhoea in the countryside.

It's rather touching to see there are places in the world that believe a politician's example will bring about change in public behaviour. By contrast, I note my local council is looking at innovative ways to stop voters from urinating in the streets - though I don't think this is necessarily in reaction to the fact that our politicians do have indoor plumbing. According to the official website, it is "part of the Council's over-arching toilet strategy". This confirms what many have already suspected - Colchester Borough Council really does take the piss.

Intelligent design?

The former head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove said when the government made its case in Parliament for the invasion of Iraq, too much emphasis was put on intelligence.

If the last four years is what happens when you have too much intelligence, I'd hate to see what happens when you have too little.

19 October 2007

Aussie Rules?

Australian Prime Minister John Howard fired the starting gun for a general election this week, with the passion and charisma usually associated with funeral directors. As a quaint aside, I noted the formal process involves requesting the Governor General to dissolve Parliament on behalf of the Queen.

Given that HM lives 10,000 miles away, this could potentially cause a few problems - what if she's not in or it's the middle of the night? Do they have to wait until she finishes her marmalade on toast before Australian politicians can begin canvassing? Of course in these days of email and GPS it's probably not too difficult - probably the Governor General 'pokes' her on facebook.

I hope the request reaches Liz before she settles down with a cold one and some chips to watch England vs. South Africa in the Rugby World Cup final. The Australians, of course, will be cheering on the South African team under the age-old principle of my enemy's enemy - after all, they wouldn't be seen dead kowtowing to the supercilious POMs. Unless it's over something as trivial as democracy, of course.

17 October 2007

You can take it with you

The Conservative Party have fallen upon inheritance tax like a hobo would a discarded pizza. And what an amazingly sustainable meal it has proved, tapping into a previously unrecognised phenomenon of large public anger directed at a tax most do not have to pay.

As with all promises of tax cuts,the secret is to pretend it is not about anything as vulgar as money. We wouldn't wish to be thought of as greedy, so politicians flatter us with high-minded platitudes of choice and freedom - and we go along with the idea. The latest in this long line of euphemisms is "aspiration". According to George Osbourne, Shadow Chancellor, inheritance tax (or estate duty as it is more formally and dispassionately known) is "a tax upon aspiration".

I think I can comfortably speak for many when I say that death is not actually an aspiration of mine. In fact, I think there's a good chance I will achieve it without trying. To say that taxing my estate after my death will somehow inhibit my aspirations implies that the Conservative Party has discovered a way of taking wealth beyond the grave. Now that would be a policy worth voting for.

14 October 2007

Give cheese a chance

Left-field news story of the weekend was Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his "efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."

Some commentators have been cynical about this award: that it's for making a movie - not lying down in front of a tank, getting beaten by police or being put under house arrest. The word "peace" is not even mention in the official citation for the award.

But the way I look at it, it opens things up for the rest of us. By the same criteria, I might reasonably expect to get nominated for the Nobel Prize for Chemistry next year, on the grounds of the excellent cheese on toast I have been making in 2007.

11 October 2007

The Roman way of shopping

Boots are the latest company to get into hot water for selling H20. In the wake of the Dasani disaster a few years ago, they reckoned there was room for one more player in the crowded Overpriced Goods For The Gullible market. The twist here is the delivery mechanism: Boots' "Expert Sensitive Refreshing Facial Spritz" offers its water in an aerosol spray format, which presumably justifies the price tag of nearly £4 a can.

At around £25 per litre, that works out at about 85,000 times more expensive than the version you can get in the convenience of your home. But despite its revolutionary “delivery system”, Boots are a little coy about admitting what their product actually is. So the ingredient listed on the side is called “aqua”, presumably figuring that plain old “water” would seem, well, a little ordinary.

I think this must be the first time a company has sold its products in a dead language since Roman times. You don’t often see Sainsbury’s trying to sell coffee in Coptic or its soap in Sanskrit.

Maybe it’s an idea that politicians will pick up on? When it comes to releasing disappointing economic figures or a rise in crime, maybe we’ll hear politicians in the future say: “We published the information on the internet in Atsugewi back in June, so it’s been public knowledge for quite a while”.

09 October 2007

The Last Post

In case you hadn’t noticed, Royal Mail was on strike last week. And this week. And next week too - the CWU (Communications Workers Union) warned that a further week of "continuous disruption" to all Royal Mail services would begin next Monday if the dispute was not resolved.

It seems to me the main effect of this strike is probably the opposite of what was intended. Instead of holding the country to ransom with the risk of paralysing the economy, the main effect of the mail strike seems to be to remind people of how irrelevant the service has become. With so many transactions being conducted online, via email, or via mobile, there seems very little that is totally dependent upon the whims of the Royal Mail. And with the cost-cutting measures enacted ahead of open competition, if I truly had to get a hard-copy document anywhere in a timely way, the last place I would go would be the Post Office, unless I wanted it misdirected or its contents stolen.

In fact the real losers in the dispute have probably been the burgeoning producers of Direct Mail, who devise ever more ingenious ways to disguise their product in the vain attempt to get you to open it. For the majority of the population, respite from this modern curse is a blessed relief. Long may the strike continue.

Diving and the divine

Like any other successful multinational corporation, the Roman Catholic Church has been diversifying of late. Not content with reaching out into deep space, as reported recently by Hofflimits, it is now reaching into depths almost as murky and mysterious: Italian professional football. Having resolved all other spiritual matters successfully, the papacy has now turned its attentions to saving the soul of Italian football, which has recently been through one of its periodic bouts of corruption.

The Italian Bishop's Conference now has a controlling stake in AC Ancona, currently top of Italy's third division, after money was provided by a group of Catholic businessmen. Edoardo Menichelli, the Archbishop of Ancona, said the move would help bring more morality into football: "We want to bring some ethics back into the game, which has been undergoing a grave crisis in terms of sportsmanship''.

A new code of conduct has been introduced for the club's players, whereby on field lapses are punished with off-field penance - voluntary work for a red card, for example. And so now it is not just England football fans who will know what it is like to be punished by the hand of God.

03 October 2007

Total eclipse of the mind

Rather than burning heretics, these days the Roman Catholic church likes to grapple with the latest ideas on cold dark matter and disc galaxies. So much so, that the Vatican is hosting a scientific conference for astronomers, their second in seven years, and has observatories in Italy and the USA.

While some might think a dogmatic view of the world and free enquiry make for odd bedfellows, Brother Guy Consolmagno, curator of the Pope's meteorite collection (yes, really), explains: "They want the world to know that the Church isn't afraid of science."

Brother Consolmagno makes a brave case for religious endorsement of the scientific method: "This is our way of seeing how God created the universe and they want to make as strong a statement as possible that truth doesn't contradict truth; that if you have faith, then you're never going to be afraid of what science is going to come up with."

This is an interesting departure from the scientific method as I understand it. I'm not aware of any branch of science that allows the assumption of a God to underpin its outcomes. When Watson and Crick uncovered the human genome I don't think they stayed up nights thinking: "But where does God fit into all this?"

And what is Brother Consolmagno's defence for allowing God into the equations of space-time?: "Because it's true."

With such arguments on their side, no wonder the church is not afraid of science. But science should be wary of them, no matter how plush the Vatican's observatory, or how agreeable the lunches.

Climate change? Case closed.

In what could very well be a sign of the apocalypse, a spring lamb has been born in September. Ever quick to grasp the science behind the story the metro newspaper concludes it was "thanks to the topsy-turvy temperatures."

And there was me thinking it was something to do with sexual reproduction.

30 September 2007


If you will forgive a little self-indulgence, today marks one year since Hofflimits published its first posting. During that time we have hosted over 500 visits, not all by me, including 381 unique visitors from 7 different countries. Of these, 231 of you were brave enough to come back for more than one visit - if that's you, Hofflimits thanks you for your persistence, or optimism that the quality might pick up. Actually these stats belie the true data, since I only started tracking activity about 6 months ago.

A year ago, as Hofflimits was finding its voice, the country was caught up in a row started by Jack Straw about the appropriateness of the use of the Muslim veil in public. One year on, and we find a dentist has been found guilty of serious professional misconduct for insisting female patients wear headscarves (story here). The dentist admitted he would ask Muslim women to cover up in accordance with Islamic law, but, thankfully for comfort of those whose teeth he might drill, this doesn't seem include wearing the veil. So we've obviously come a long way since 2006, and I like to think Hofflimits has played its part in framing the debate.

24 September 2007

Every cloud...

I was reading an article recently by Max Hastings, who complains that people are negatively disposed towards the war in Afghanistan (article here). That all people hear is the negative - friendly fire, British army deaths, uncertain aims, a faltering coalition etc.

Here at Hofflimits we want to address this imbalance - consider some of the positives coming out of the place that others overlook. Take suicide bombing, for example. The bad news is the number of suicide bombers continues to increase. The good news is that number is also falling. Albeit one at a time.

23 September 2007

If you can't pack the heat, get out of the classroom

The latest teaching debate going on in the US is whether teachers should be allowed to carry weapons to class. No, really (story here).

The idea is not about trying to enforce higher homework completion but, apparently, to try to prevent a repeat of the various campus-based mass murders that have taken place over the last 10 years. The theory is, because everyone at school is unarmed - and gun-wielding maniacs know they are unarmed - it makes them more vulnerable to any Tom, Dick or Seung-Hui Cho who fancies dealing with their personal issues through firearms.

At first glance, the figures appear alarming: According to the Journal of American Medical Association (December 2001), between 1994 and 1999, there were 220 "school associated violent events" resulting in 253 deaths - 74.5% of these involved firearms. That's about one death a week. Until you realise that, outside of school, 15 young people are murdered every day in the USA, 82% with guns. In fact, less than 1% of child murders happen in school.

Unless this is a clever piece of reverse psychology to get the guns off the streets. After all, what could possibly make a gun less cool than if your teacher had one too?

21 September 2007

The firing line

According to the official Chelsea Football Club statement:

"Early this morning we announced that Chelsea and Jose Mourinho had agreed to part company by mutual consent. The key phrase here is that there was mutual agreement. Jose did not resign and he was not sacked."

If he didn't resigned and was not sacked, then surely that must mean he still has a job? This could be the ultimate "mind game" - imagine the look on Sir Alex Ferguson's face when he leads the Chelsea team out at Old Trafford on Sunday.

16 September 2007

That "just got off the building site" look

A "product", according to the dictionary, is "a thing produced by labour". A pretty all-encompassing noun you'd think, but one that has recently been highjacked by vacuous marketeers to mean exclusively 'personal grooming materials'. Here at Hofflimits we have little time for the flim and flam of head-boiling hair treatments that strive to convince you they are as desirable and useful as a spare kidney.

Nevertheless there are occasions when I am forced to look for some tub of snake oil that will keep my unruly hair under control. So yesterday found me trawling the vanity aisles of my local Tesco. And I was truly baffled by the type of 'product' being sold, and wondered whether I hadn't, in fact, walked into B&Q by mistake.

The L'Oreal Studio Line series used to win my business for its "styling Creme" product - a bit pretentious, but you could work out what it did - until they discontinued it. By contrast the replacement is something called "Mouldable Fibre Putty", which has me wondering which surface I should be applying it to. Further down the shelf, they were offering me "Radical Fixing booster gel technology" in a tube of something called "glue gel". The final option was something called "Architect Wax", which I thought might be a depilatory treatment for a narrow group of professionals.

Given the choices, maybe I should start hoping for middle-aged baldness to strike. At least I wouldn't need to arrange planning permission every time I stepped out of the shower.

15 September 2007

A hair's breadth

Having sustained newspaper circulations through the flat summer months, it would seem the tables have been turned on the McCann family, whose daughter Madeline is still missing. For so long the personification of tragic despair, a whispering campaign to indict them has led to a sudden distancing between them and the previously supportive media.

Partly this may be explained by the new friends the fourth estate seems to have found in the Portuguese police; back in May the local fuzz was infuriatingly tight-lipped. Now, it seems, they are leakier than Sellafield, if the rumours of physical evidence are to be believed. New updates come almost daily about hair and body fluid DNA matches to Madeline from a car hired by the family 25 days after her death. Nothing official, of course - just a drip-drip of innuendo to establish a presumption of guilt in the public's mind.

For let us be under no illusion that this is about due process of law. This is a case that is being fought in the court of public opinion, for which read Tabloid Opinion. The McCanns have announced the equivalent of a rebuttal in the form of new press and TV advertising to appeal for help in finding her. Such a campaign will not be about finding the girl, but about reminding the public they are innocent until proven guilty - for there can surely be no-one left in the Western Hemisphere who couldn't identify her image.

A cheaper and easier rebuttal would surely be this: if the police truly believe that Kate and Gerry McCann killed their daughter, hid her body for 25 days and then buried her, how on earth was this not spotted by the press? Given the saturation coverage of this story for the first two months, it is inconceivable that not one long lens paparazzo would have snapped them in the act. In this regard, the press that now seeks to bury them may be their best alibi.

11 September 2007

Facebook update

It seems Hofflimits is at the vanguard of the backlash against Facebook - 2007's Friends Reunited. A company called Peninsula has published a PR story masquerading as serious research, estimating that Social Networking sites "cost" companies 233 million working hours in the UK. Mike Huss, director of employment law at Peninsula called on all firms to block access to sites such as Facebook, asking: "Why should employers allow their workers to waste two hours a day on Facebook when they are being paid to do a job?"

Ignoring the rather obvious point that Facebook no more created time-wasting at work than the 1960s created fornication, Mr Huss goes on to say that loss of productivity was proving a "major headache" for firms. However, according to a recent study, poor management, which contributed to 64% of wasted time, was the chief cause of low productivity in the UK, alongside insufficient planning (34%) and inadequate control and supervision (30%). The UK's productivity, at 63%, trailed that of the US and Germany at 64%, but was slightly ahead of France at 60% (although it seems we have to work twice as many hours to achieve this competitive edge). Nowhere in the top ten did "poking" your pals on Facebook enter into the equation.

Given this evidence, maybe the likes of Peninsula should steer its energies towards something more productive, like better management training. Maybe they could set up a forum to discuss ways of tackling low productivity with like-minded employers. I know just the website where they could meet such people...

10 September 2007

The Futures market

On the week my son started school, Gordon Brown announced that Children as young as five will learn how to open a bank account and manage their money in maths lessons. They will also be taught about interest rates and investment banking as part of a Government drive to wipe out debt problems in later life.

The government was keen to point out that these children are also the first to benefit from Children's Trust Funds, set up five years ago to give a cash lump sum to each child born. Cunningly, to prevent mum and dad spending this money on gin and fags, these special savings accounts are held in trust until the child turns 18, when the whole lot becomes his by right. Mum and dad are encouraged to chip into this pot to encourage a supposed sense of fiscal responsibility, or "ownership" as it is probably described on the scheme website.

At the moment my son's spending priorities seem to be Playmobil characters and dinosaurs. By the time he is 18, based upon my recent memory of 18 year-old boys' desires, I'm not sure they will have advanced very much, so the thought of me salting away piles of hard-earned, in order that he can blow it on a gap year in Ibiza, is less than appealing.

Presumably, then, the economic lesson behind this scheme is if you wait around long enough you'll get a wad of cash for doing nothing except not dying. Like a small scale version of what he'll be facing in his 30s: waiting on his inheritance to give him a pension because all his earnings go to saving for a house he'll never be able to afford to buy.

When he's six, they'll teach him about pension schemes by secretly taking away the snack he was saving for break, and claim it was actually a school asset so not technically his.

04 September 2007

The long lens of the law

Gatso road cameras - those that catch motorists exceeding the speed limit and create instant penalty notices served via the mailbox - are called many things, some of which are not repeatable here. "Speed Cameras" has given way to the more politically pointed (and debatable) "Safety Cameras". In Wiltshire, where I found myself driving last week, they go by the less explicable title of "Police Enforcement Cameras", which was a new one to me.

According to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, last year the Wiltshire Constabulary caught 2,386 policemen speeding, via these devices, making one of the highest detection rates of heavy-footed police drivers in the country. They issued fixed penalty notices in just 8 cases. It would seem that police enforcement was just about the last thing such cameras actually do.

31 August 2007

Requiem for a nun

Today's memorial service for Diana, Princess of Wales was to celebrate her life by coinciding with the anniversary of her death. Which seems aptly confused; like the original events surrounding her demise, today's service leaves us unsure how to react. The sequel was devoid of the controversy of the original funeral - clearly the only interest being generated by The Earl Spencer these days is on the £12.50 he charges the gullible to see his sister's mausoleum. Which forces us instead to consider the whole point of the occasion.

A number of young people, of course, cannot remember Princess Diana, and some of those of us who can might legitimately wonder what the fuss was about. The real answer tells us more truth about ourselves than we care to know, so there is a certain amount of self deception by the commemorative plate-collecting community who tuned in to today's service. The truth is she was a famous, photogenic member of the royal family whose wedding day left an impression longer in the nation's mind than in her husband's.

But we daren't admit that her legacy was Hello! magazine, so people cite her love of children and work for landmines charities. I also think children are, on the whole, a positive thing, and landmines less good, but I don't expect Elton John to commemorate my death by rewording a song he wrote for somebody else. More to the point, people seem happy to forget that charity work is what Princess Diana and her ilk should do. The only way we can possibly tolerate a hoary institution such as the royal family is if they do charity work - if we give them £37million of tax revenue every year, a collection of posh houses and free tickets to the cup final, I think the least we can expect is for them to touch a few lepers, metaphorically speaking. If they didn't visit the odd hospital, they would just be over privileged bags of horseshit, leeching off the public exchequer.

Curiously absent from this year's tenth anniversary pomp is mention of someone else almost as famous who also died in 1997. Someone who actually did touch lepers for real, on a daily basis, in a life of selfless denial. But, then again, Mother Theresa never dressed in Versace.

23 August 2007

The thought police...

In case you thought that Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was a chilling warning of what might be, were we not to learn the lessons of history, the UK and US governments are intent on making it seem like an understated documentary of 21st century life.

In the UK, time was, if you were drunk and disorderly, you might get nicked and spend a night in the cells. This might get you a reputation, of course, so repeat offences would earn you an ASBO - preventing you from getting drunk in a certain part of town. Fair enough, if you've got previous, some might say.

But this clearly doesn't go far enough for the government, and a little-noticed part of the 2006 Violent Crime Reduction Act came into force today, which allows the police to target those it thinks might be looking for a drink. If Plod considers you a potential trouble maker - for no other reason than the way you look or dress - you can be banned for 48-hours from your local town centre. Should you wish to challenge this, expect fingerprinting and a sample of your DNA to be added to the Police National Database, already one of the most substantial DNA databases in the world.

You don't have to be drunk to fall foul of this law, of course. Merely looking like you fancy a cheeky one is enough to get you busted. Presumably as the police get more practised at vetting pre-crime drunks, they will develop an expertise at spotting a certain nuance in the eyes of the thirsty. One day I expect to be apprehended after a hard day at work, accused of being over the think-drive limit: "But officer, I was only visualising a quick half"...

...and the face police

Meanwhile, news reaches Hofflimits of a new breed of security officer that will be patrolling US airports from next year: Behaviour Detection Officers at JFK will be keeping an eye on your "micro expressions" for tell-tale signs that you might be a terrorist (story here). Although suicide bombers try to conceal their emotions as they prepare to detonate their payload, they give themselves away by "facial flashes." Self-appointed experts - who seem to be a mixture of phrenologists and eugenicists, with about as much credibility as either - have determined that fear and disgust are the key things to look for because they can hint of deception.

So Americans can now forget the mundane, constitutionally-protected legal oddity of Probable Cause; from 2008, if they show a little too much disgust, they might also be treated to a full cavity search and trip to Guantanamo Bay. After all, what possible reason could there be for showing "fear and disgust" after you find out your flight has been delayed, your baggage lost and that the only place to eat is Taco Bell? Let's hope they don't try similar tactics at Heathrow, or else they'd be forced to arrest more or less everyone who entered the airport.

16 August 2007

stumbling along the carbon footpath

I am intrigued by how the concept of "offsetting" my "carbon footprint" has infiltrated our everyday life. Some might see this as a departure from old habits - taking responsibility for our actions. To me, though, it seems entirely in keeping with present social and economic mores - the idea that you can pay someone some money to take the problem away. The language that is used is an important part of this illusion: "neutral", "off-setting" - it's as though the pollution never happened in the first place. So I visited a site that specialises in calculating carbon footprints

According to http://www.erasemyfootprint.com/ I and my household are directly responsible for the release of 7.32 tonnes of carbon a year into the atmosphere. The only way to expiate these miasmic sins is to plant 11 trees - and immediately my carbon lapses are forgiven. Even better I don't actually have to get hands dirty - I can pay £110 and trust that someone will do it for me, thus completely removing the inconvenience of penance.

To me, though, this raises more questions than it answers. For instance the 11 trees that are busily sucking my carbonaceous flatulence out of the atmosphere - this only actual works while the tree is growing. Forests capture and store carbon whilst establishing; once mature, the amount of carbon taken in and released by a tree "equalises", as the site delicately puts it (or to put it another way "stops working", at least for the purposes we are discussing).

I am guessing that there must be an "optimum window" when carbon absorption is at a peak in a growing tree? After all, I can't imagine a weedy sapling doing much offsetting of anything. So, in other words, the actual offsetting of my 2007 emissions will not actually take place for another, say, 20 years, allowing for an average growing tree (erasemyfootprint.com calculates a tree lifetime as 60 years). Assuming I remember to plant another 11 trees in 2008, and the years beyond, I will always be playing catch-up, a score of years of carbon behind my present consumption - not even allowing for an increase in the size of my "footprint".

And what happens when my trees die? Do they get replaced under the scheme? After all, a dead tree promptly releases all its stored carbon back into the atmosphere - the carbon doesn't magically disappear. The 550 or so trees needed to offset my life from now on (allowing for a reasonable old age) will need to remain on permanent vigil just to keep the planet as wheezy as it would have been if I hadn't been born. That's quite a lot of acreage, before you even get to offsetting members of my immediate family. Trees are the carbon equivalent of garden sheds, places to lock away unpleasant or unwanted things for the next generation to deal with.

13 August 2007

Advertising eggsplained.

A pub near my office in London promotes a commuter breakfast, using a fondly-remembered advertising slogan that has now passed into popular culture: "Go to work on an egg with our breakfast special". It could be argued that the strapline has greater resonance than some of the more celebrated works by its famous author, Fay Weldon, who created it back in the 1950s. Seeing it still being used, years after the campaign ended, brought a smile to my lips.

By coincidence, this campaign is 50 years old. And to celebrate this milestone, the improbably-named Egg Information Service wants to re-run the original 1957 campaign that featured Tony Hancock. But such a move has been blocked by the even more obscure Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC). BACC spokesman Kristoffer Hammer said: "Dietary considerations have been at the centre of the new rules for advertising and in consideration of this we felt that these adverts did not suggest a varied diet." (full story here.) Strangely this accusation is not also levelled at the manufacturers of breakfast cereals who actively promote such monotonous behaviour in the name of well being.

Modern Britain is often accused of dumbing down; our exams are too easy, Mastermind admits questions on David Bowie, Des O'Connor gets to present Countdown. But I don't think anyone has ever accused advertisers of creating selling propositions that are too complicated. I'm surprised they didn't also canvas the AA for an opinion about whether it would be possible to travel to work aboard an egg. It makes as much sense as banning Ford commercials because they don't tell you about Volkswagens.

A recent YouGov poll showed that nearly half the population does not eat breakfast at all, which must be the ultimate unvaried diet. Such people are less alert and less productive in the morning. Given the choice between going to work on an empty stomach or a free range soft-boiled, surely the latter is preferable, if only to enable the less-sluggish commuters to be able to safely interpret any advertising campaign they might come across, without intervention from a public watchdog.

12 August 2007

Flower power

Commemorating the dead is a task for the living - a truism, but one worth repeating. As often as not the way we react to death in our midst is guided by the dread hand of maudlin journalism; the visual shorthand for grief and loss is flowers tied to railings at the scene of a private tragedy become public. It is the personal rendered impersonal by so many reproductions in hackneyed news reports. In turn, we have been conditioned to create these displays at the prompting of too many lazy TV reports on the latest senseless loss of life at a roadside, street corner, school gate or housing estate.

The acme of such tendencies was obviously the death of Princess Diana, where a veritable swamp of flowers laid by the public threatened to overwhelm Kensington Palace and cause a world shortage of cellophane. The effect of this nationalised, ostentatious grieving was almost oppressive, smothering any other reaction in a self-righteous, directionless rage; what The Guardian called "the fascism of flowers", that stymied any sensible debate by the sheer volume of bouquets.

A bathetic example of this phenomenon occured in 2005, where flowers were laid in response to the discovery of a supposed human foetus in an alley in Liverpool, which turned out to be raw chicken (story: click here). The same media outlets who had wept crocodile tears in 1997 for Diana, and watched their circulations rise, poured scorn upon this other public response, superciliously attributing it to the laughably self-pitying nature of Scousers.

Last December, in Ipswich, several prostitutes were murdered, and their bodies dumped in surrounding villages. In a slow news week, the media got excited once the body count had reached three, culminating in the BBC 10 o'clock news reporting live from East Anglia at the height of the manhunt. On the way to my parents-in-law I drive past the site where the first body was discovered - a river near a processing plant in Copdock. Although Huw Edwards and his team have since moved on to report on newer corpses, to this day, every time I drive past, fresh flowers are tied to the railings of the bridge.

This is a genuine, simple act of remembrance, not a media driven griefathon to entertain the masses before chasing the next ambulance. And incredibly moving with it. It actually raises the spirit that, as human beings, we haven't completely surrendered proper commemoration to another branch of the entertainment industry. And that flowers themselves, as symbols of remembrance, haven't been stripped of their power to stand for something meaningful.

How green is your email?

Although email has been around for many years now, and could even be described as being widespread for at least 10 years, the subject of "netiquette" - or agreed bounds of behaviour when corresponding via email - continue to change. Once upon a time it was to cover people getting to grips with the new technology - NOT USING CAPS FOR EXAMPLE - or the expanding list of acronyms used by lazy typists.

Recently I have noticed a different strand to this debate over the way we consume emails. Apparently a great many of us print them off, performing a form of communications alchemy, turning ethereal, soft copy into black and white print. Those who had visions of email creating the paperless office consider this self-defeating. Others of us who felt a paperless office was as realistic as a paperless toilet consider this to be normal when creating an audit trail of transactions with a client, retailer or online bank - often as not because we have been burned when trying to find that "smoking gun" correspondence that proved a clerical error was not our fault.

So, many emails I receive have a green disclaimer at the bottom, the 21st century equivalent of an equal opportunities statement, that reads: "save the planet - think before you print this email". If only saving the planet were that easy, it wouldn't be so easy to dismiss this as idle posturing. However, a form of Sod's Law I have noticed is, when printing off emails, one page emails are often turned into two page emails, thanks to these green rejoinders; inevitably, the second page of every other email I print is blank except for one sentence at the top that says: "save energy - don't print this email". Somewhere there must be an email guru, equivalent to Heisenberg, working out an equation that demonstrates the amount of energy wasted telling people not to waste energy is greater than the amount of energy that will be saved. Either that or there is an environmental consultancy at work right now that is measuring the carbon footprint created by printing emails. And how a tax can be levied against it.

27 July 2007

Giving back to the community

For the first time in a while, the Liberal Democrats are making political headlines in the cut and thrust of local government. The election of Cllr Myrna Bushell to Bideford Council has recently caused a schism within the local party; three fellow Lib Dem Councillors, including the deputy Mayor, have resigned in protest, and now sit as independents. The reason for this blackballing? Mrs Bushell earns a living as a stripper.

Given the Liberal Democrats' recent troubles over senior members being accused of the vices of alcoholism, rent boys, coprophilia and The Cheeky Girls, you'd think they'd positively welcome someone as normal as an ecdysiast. Apparently not, though they were at pains to point out that the resignations were not about personal issues. In a joint statement, the three Councillors said: "We believe that our integrity and principles will be compromised if we stay."

Before Mrs Bushell's victory, they were though apparently happy to stand for election as proud members of the same party as Norman Baker, MP for Lewes, who admits earning up to £10,000 by writing articles for the Mail on Sunday (q.v.). While we all have to earn a shilling somehow, given a choice between the two, I know who emerges with greater moral standing.

23 July 2007

Face the music

Do you have trouble remembering the names of your friends? Then what you need is an entry on facebook.com. Facebook describes itself as "a social utility" that "connects you with the people around you", creating the image of a metaphorical water company, pumping gallons of networked greetings across the country. This seems to be another way of saying it is the new Friends Reunited.

Either way, it has attracted a remarkable amount of attention in recent weeks, especially when its systems start to leak metaphorical raw sewerage over the carpets. Recently a group of Facebook users got together to form a social forum on the site with the sole aim of saying rude things about a librarian at the university that they all attended.

But it's not all bullying - there's also artless boasting about illicit behaviour. Oxford University used photographs taken from Facebook profiles to discipline some students it accused of anti-social behaviour. It seems the witless participants recorded their unruly behaviour and posted it onto a "secure" area of their site profiles, only to be caught out when University authorities posed as students to access the images. Clearly destined for careers in MI6, the students professed astonishment at the university's "invasion" of their privacy.

I'm not sure which is more stupid - posting the evidence or complaining about being busted. It certainly shows a frightening degree of naivety about the online world, as though the Internet is somehow not real and anything you do or say on the web doesn't count.

Another way of looking at this is as part of a long-established tradition - the egomaniac criminal who is undone because he can't resist boasting about his deeds. Maybe in the future we won't need bobbies on the beat, but have them treading the information superhighway instead. The police will become like the rest of us office drones - instead of doing any original work, they'll end up Googling for results instead.

19 July 2007

History is Balls

Like his boss and mentor Gordon Brown, Ed Balls, the new Secretary of State for Schools, is making policy pronouncements at a furious rate of knots. Having denounced over-protective Health & Safety policies in schools one day, the next he is complaining of an over-trendy curriculum that finds no room for Churchill. However, it would seem that Sir Winston himself has become more than a mortal human being - he has become a subject in his own right, like Physics.

According to The Sun, Balls insisted: “Churchill should be taught to all pupils and I shall be taking steps to ensure it is.” I'm not sure whether that means "it" is now something taught according to set principles - Laws of Churchill, or Winston Theorems. Keen not to be out-Churchilled, the opposition has also joined in this non-debate; Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove said: “Winston Churchill is the towering figure of 20th-century British history. His fight against fascism was Britain’s finest hour. Our national story can’t be told without Churchill at the centre.”

At the risk of introducing a sense of perspective here I was rather under the impression that it was the people of Britain under Churchill's leadership who stood up against fascism - certainly it was they who fell in their thousands, at home and overseas. Not to mention a few Americans and Russians. For a number of years, history teaching in schools was accused of a 'Cult of Personality' - overly focused on 20th century giants such as Stalin and Mao as simplistic embodiments of complex forces and political ideas.

Churchill himself once wrote: "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." He may not have realised he would have so many keen publishers.

15 July 2007

Sign o' the times?

The artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known As Prince has now entered the third stage of his pop career, where his status is now bigger than the actual number of records he sells (the fourth being death and posthumous critical acclaim and record sales). After the heady peaks of Purple Rain twenty years ago, nowadays his ability to shift units is somewhere between The Kaiser Chiefs and the Cheeky Girls. But unlike fellow Third Stagers, such as Michael Jackson or Paul McCartney - or The Kaiser Chiefs, for that matter - he still retains the potential to be interesting.

Today he has tried to boost a fifteen year decline by giving away his record free with copies of a UK national newspaper, rather than selling it in record shops or available to download online. This could be necessity acting as the mother of invention - an acknowledgement of his recent selling power; maybe he was tired of people telling him his recent work was so terrible that you couldn't give it away. Whatever his motivation, it was amusing to hear music retailers whining about this betrayal after the years of "support" they had given Prince - presumably in the same way that crack dealers feel let down every time the Colombian government impounds a shipment of cocaine.

Perhaps the most lamentable part of the story was the fact that Prince fans would have had to buy a copy of the Mail on Sunday to get the album - possibly the nastiest, splenetic, small-minded, vindictive, peevish, curtain-twitching publisher of bile of all British newspapers. The sort of organ that has been reviled by every challenging piece of art and popular culture in the last 100 years. For those of you unfamiliar with Prince's oeuvre, here's the first verse of a song called "Nikki" from the above-mentioned Purple Rain (with apologies to the easily offended):

'I knew a girl named Nikki
I guess u could say she was a sex fiend
I met her in a hotel lobby
Masturbating with a magazine
She said "how'd u like 2 waste some time?"
And I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind'

Not sure how that would go down behind the lace curtains of Middle England. When the day comes when your work is so ordinary that you're forced to give it away with the Mail on Sunday, I think it's time to throw in the towel. Either Prince has now become so mainstream as to be utterly irrelevant or he must really hate his fans.

08 July 2007

How many pop stars does it take to change a light bulb?

There's been some speculation about the amount of carbon expended on "Live Earth" in order to warn us of the danger of global warming. It may have had some effect, as I decided to keep my television "carbon neutral", via the off switch, lest I should accidentally become exposed to James Blunt. Organisers offered a lame statement about the event being "as carbon neutral as possible", in much the same way as the 2003 invasion of Iraq aimed to kill as few civilians as possible.

I'm intrigued by the way that, it seems, young people can only grasp political issues in terms of pop concerts. Do teenagers only understand the Common Agricultural Policy in terms of Foo Fighters albums? When the government wastes millions of pounds on a hare-brained IT scheme, does the Daily Mail, tell us it's the equivalent of 300 Arctic Monkeys concerts?

Maybe that's where the Stop The War coalition went wrong four years ago. Instead of organising a million people to march through London, they should have got Joss Stone on stage to denouce the American political hegemony through the medium of limp soul music. That would have showed 'em.

How healthy are your clothes?

I had an eye-opening time at ASDA today - even more eye-opening than a visit to ASDA normally is. It's the in-place to buy school uniforms, so, as my first born is due to start school in September, I was duly dispatched to buy the final item not already purchased: polo shirts.

Gone are the days of ties and poly-cotton - these days its all sweatshirts and soft collars. Gone too are the days of "official" school uniform shops in these globalised times of free markets. And the benefits are certainly plain - at £1 per polo shirt, my son's school uniform is actually cheaper than my own school uniform was, purchased some thirty years before. Not just cheaper in relative terms, but absolute terms.

Our friendly Walmart outlet clearly hopes we don't question how this counter-inflationary, not to say counter-intuitive, price shift is possible. My pound-per-shirt outlay is clearly not enough to sustain a minimum wage in the UK, so I wonder how much of that ends up in the hands of the sweated labour in Asia who undoubtedly made the garment? At a time when many products are undergoing heavy scrutiny as to their provenance, I think we should be allowed to know the same about clothing.

Take food. Most supermarkets are falling over themselves to show exactly how many calories, grammes of fat or likely coronaries are in their food. But they'd never think of doing it with other products they sell. I think ASDA should be made to show where, of the £1 per polo shirt, the different parts of that quid are spread along the supply chain from cotton bush to shelf. Like Sainsbury's, maybe we could adopt a "traffic lights" system: red for clothes made predominantly by 5-year-old orphans in China, amber for adult labour, green for where more than 10% has been earned by the manufacturer.

Across ASDA stores, carrier bags and advertisements, it asks: "Why pay more?" With such a scheme, we might finally get the answer to that question.

04 July 2007

hostage latest

No news today on the fate of five British hostages held in Baghdad by Iranian-back terrorists. But not being journalists, they are not entitled to disproportionate news coverage by their friends at taxpayers' expense. Welcome though Alan Johnson's release is, was it really the most important thing in the world to have happened today?

To play the King

With ironic timing President Bush has commuted the sentence of Lewis Libby just ahead of the 4 July holiday. The day when Americans remember the principled stand against tyranny, and in particular against a British king who was said to have "obstructed the administration of justice" in that famous document of 1776. Two hundred years later and new country that was born has a head of state who can arrogate the rule of law for reasons of blatant personal expediency. I'm not sure what John Hancock et al would have made of that.

02 July 2007

The price of liberty is eternal legislation

I suppose I should feel encouraged that, after a potentially explosive weekend, it wasn't just the bombs that failed to go off. The government managed not to promise to enact a new raft of legislation in response, in an attempt to Be Seen To Be Doing Something. If the Brown era is truly one without spin, then this was its biggest test - to resist to temptation to shout: "WE'RE DOING SOMETHING RIGHT NOW".

Having said that, it is difficult to think of many more anti-terror measures the government could take that they haven't already. Having suspended habeas corpus, allowed indefinite house arrest for foreign nationals, attempted to remove trial by jury, the right to silence, the right of public protest and "only" imposed the longest period for arrest without charge of any western democracy, probably the only things left are military curfews and shoot-to-kill policies. And ID Cards, of course, but we can't afford both them AND the Olympics.

And sure enough, before long, the new "calm" Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, was telling MPs: "There may well be a case for looking very carefully at the amount of time that we are able to detain people pre-charge in order to ensure the very best opportunity to bring convictions." Note how being arrested without charge has become "pre-charge", as though those banged up for 28 days "pre-charge" were simply on phase one of the inevitable march to justice. Lest anyone should dwell on the fact that only 4% are ever charged with anything.

Mr Brown, like his predecessors, says he refuses to be intimidated by terrorists. Maybe he will be the first PM to recognise the irony of introducing the sort of laws that intimidate the British people, just to show the terrorists that we're not intimidated. But I'm not holding my breath.

29 June 2007

The bomb that got away

On the whole, bombs placed in cars outside nightclubs are probably bad things. Not a controversial point of view, but nevertheless one that was repeated quite frequently on the BBC news tonight, after a major terrorist attack was averted in London. Because the bomb didn't go off, we were presented with the rather surreal spectacle of people who hadn't been blown up asked to comment on what it would have meant to them if they had been.

"Charlie", who had been at the Tiger Tiger bar nearest the suspect car bomb, was left to speculate on the "talented people" he'd been with who might have been killed, had the bomb gone off. To be fair, talented though Charlie's friends may be, even they must have been a little stumped to describe what it was like to witness a bomb not exploding.

Having the right tools for the job

I like the idea of running as a hobby. It's free, minimal equipment required, can be done at any time and keeps you fit - what could be against it? Well mostly the fact it is even more boring than swimming. Any of those treadmill activities have always seemed, to me, to be the most senseless hobbies - how does anyone become motivated to do them?

Today on the tube I saw a fit young man proudly sporting a tracksuit with BRITISH SWIMMING TEAM emblazoned on the breast, and the UK Olympic symbols to denote a bona fide swimming star of the future. He was lugging up the stairs the most enormous kitbag that looked like it contained a dead wildebeest. For swimming? It was either a heck of a number of towels or swimming has become a whole lot more complicated than the 1970s, when I could fit trunks, goggles and a towel into a single Sainsbury's bag. Unless he had to bring his own pool to practise in.

Bloggin' USA

A brief hiatus to take in a family holiday in the USA. I'd like to say I came back from the trip full of insights into cross cultural difference. But, actually, when I come back from a trip to the States, I feel more like Rip Van Winkel. When holidaying in Europe, it's hard to avoid contact with the UK - English newspapers, BBC World on the hotel TV, British holiday makers pack the beaches. In the US, the international news vacuum allows you to retain a sense of perfect isolation. So when I return to the UK, it's like someone has erased a portion of my memory - I don't get the satirical jokes on the radio, someone important dies and I don't find out for months.

This time when I came back it was as though the UK had been frozen in time for two weeks and it was I who had moved on. Gordon Brown was still not Prime Minister, the weather was still lousy, the Tories were still bleating about grammar schools - absolutely nothing had happened. And within five days we have a new Prime Minister, apocalyptic floods, terrorist bomb threats and Tim Henman's annual anguished exit from Wimbledon. Maybe America doesn't really exist, but is really a tear in the fabric of space-time. It would certainly explain why the jet lag lasts a week, and you can't buy Oreo cookies in the UK shops.

01 June 2007

Health and Safety: sofa so good.

Just when did Health and Safety has become a dirty word? Once it would have been seen as the working man's defence against finger-removing machinery or asbestos-laced working environments. Now it is the meddling maiden aunt, wagging its finger at us for using a lift incorrectly.

There is a case for saying it is victim of its own success. As recently as the 1970s, thousands of British workers died every year from untrained operatives incorrectly using unsafe equipment. Since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act in 1974, fatal injuries at work have fallen by 76%. In the EU, Britain has one of the lowest rates of workplace fatalities, and the numbers continue to fall year on year. Clearly the story "No-one died at work today" will not sell many papers, so the media latches on to over zealous H&S practice to ridicule the entire profession.

Playing into their hands this week was the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, who disciplined three firefighters for sleeping on the floor, instead of designated chairs bought for the purpose. Or as they rather pompously described it "involvement in the use of unauthorised rest facilities" (click here for full story). The Health and Safety Executive have so far refused to say whether furniture-related injuries had hampered the operation of the Fire Service in the past, but they were clearly taking no chances.

And with good reason too, for there is clearly cause for concern. In 2005, in separate incidents, a south London drug dealer was murdered on his sofa, while a man in the USA was crushed to death on a settee by an ice-laden tree. And just last year, two people were crushed to death in Saudi Arabia, in the grand opening of IKEA in Jeddah. Given the challenges firefighters face every day in their job, why take the risk?

31 May 2007

Tonier than thou

As part of his plan to have his own career mirror the rise of Tony Blair, David Cameron has now reached his very own "Clause Four" moment. Remembering how Tony Blair faced down the unions, Cameron now has his very own dinosaurs of the 1922 Committee to vanquish - proving himself not only a man for change, but a strong leader.

The parallels are striking - The Labour Party never came anywhere near to enacting "public ownership of the means of production", any more than a Conservative government has built any grammar schools in the last 30 years. Yet each clings to its unenacted policy more out of a sense of identity than anything else: "if we don't stand for this, then what do we stand for?" No doubt the answer will dawn now as it did then: "whatever it takes to get elected."

I just hope he stops before he reaches his equivalent of the Iraq war.

29 May 2007

The Middle East Roadmap: park and ride

Exciting developments in the war on terror, as the leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Ramallah has been detained by Israeli security officials.

Apparently he was arrested while having sex in a car just a few hundred feet from late PLO leader Yasser Arafat's grave. My friend Phil reckons this could be the terrorist who has been dogging the peace process for some time, but of course Hofflimits would never stoop to make such a joke.

Given Mossad's record of using "honey traps" in the past, it is perhaps surprising such captures are not more widespread. The alternative is that this warrior from the frontline of Palestinian resistance can bring mayhem and destruction down upon the enemies of Islam, but is still too embarrassed to bring girls home to his parents' house.

Might this suggest it's worth sending women agents into Afghanistan to approach Osama Bin Laden with the promise of a snog round the back of the Tora Bora mountains?

Do as I say, not as I do

Sometimes being successful isn't enough - you want respect too. So McDonald's this week launched a campaign to remove the term "McJob" from the Oxford English Dictionary, claiming that the term is insulting to the thousands of staff working in the service sector. First invented 20 years ago by Douglas Copeland, McJob has moved from its original coinage of a "slacker job" to come to mean the more general: "unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector".

If this sounds a little Big Brother-ish for you, here's another Orwellian concept McDonald's seems to have mastered: doublethink. Check out this website offering a challenging career in fast-food retail that is "so much more than a McJob". That's a career with, er, McDonald's. Posted on their own website.

http://www.mcdonalds.co.uk/ - click on "careers"

I guess you could call that McHumbug.

24 May 2007

Shoot: the messenger

Ronaldo, Andriy Shevchenko, Steven Gerrard, David Beckham and Phil Neville. Not an odd one out contest, but just some of the footballers who have taken a stand against the kidnap of Madeline McCann.

Astonishingly, their no doubt heartfelt pleas at recent football matches have failed to reveal her whereabouts. When criminals stop listening to our footballers, then you know the world has truly become a rotten place.

23 May 2007

Listen with interest

Senator John Edwards is probably best know for two things: not becoming the Vice president of the USA in 2004, and for not going to be President in 2008. Given that this also applies to 5,999,999,998 other people, he must have some other quality that makes people at the University of California want to hear him speak.

Sen. Edwards was at UC Davis to talk about poverty - apparently, he's against it. So strongly against it, it seems, he insisted on getting paid $55,000 as a precautionary measure, to prevent any outbreak of poverty affecting him personally. In case you may have missed that last point, that's $55,000 for talking about poverty, not curing it.

Defending its decision, UC Davis officials pointed out that Edwards was a "speaker of interest that people in the community were clearly interested in" [sic]. Given that he racked up nearly $300k last year from just nine speeches at US colleges, Sen. Edwards is cetainly a speaker of considerable interest: at least $10,000 a year, I'd guess.

20 May 2007

Avoiding a scan-dal.

Here at Hofflimits we are a pretty law abiding bunch, though even I was taken aback by an example of Tesco's commitment to lawful trading on Friday night. I was queuing at one of the "self service" tills - where you scan your own purchases into a computer and pay the machine at the end. A clever way for Tesco to get you to do their work, but clearly open to abuse were it not for the monitoring of purchases by a Controller, who monitors all of these tills at once from a screen off to one side.

As I queued at such a till, a woman in front was scanning her goods and packing. In point of fact, her teenage daughter was scanning the food while she packed the bags. All was fine until the Ubercontroller realised three beers had been purchased - which requires her nod to make sure the transaction is legal. The thirty-something woman may have been the purchaser - indeed the one paying for the goods. But because her daughter had been the one who scanned the beer through the till, she was attempting to commit a crime.

Fortunately for the moral safety of the community, our Controller leapt into action. She made the woman unpack her shopping to find the beer, cancel the beer scanned by the daughter, and made the mother re-scan the very same beer through the till again before the transaction could be completed, all the while repeating her stock answer to all questions: "it's not my fault". Mercifully for the rest of the queue, she resisted calling the police to arrest the daughter.

So although Every Little Helps, that doesn't mean Every Little Helper.

17 May 2007

Things you won't find on eBay...

Turning to more serious issues, the theft was reported today of a blue-throated Amazon parrot who delivers a high-pitched squawk if Manchester United are mentioned within earshot. The bird doesn't appear to have any other talents, apart from speaking his name, but the owner believes that the bird was stolen to order, which is an interesting concept:

Customer: "I'd like to buy a parrot that shrieks whenever I say 'Manchester United'."
Pet shot owner: "Sorry, sir, I've just sold the last one."
Customer: "You couldn't tell me the address, could you?"

14 May 2007

Blair's legacy: taking the Michael

A good many trees have been pulped to pass sentence on the passing of Tony Blair from top political office by the fourth estate. The double-edged sword of personifying a political movement means you can gather its plaudits, but also risk taking flak for things that were probably beyond your control. But whatever the rights and wrongs of ten years of New Labour, we'll always have Enfield South.

In 2007, as a re-invented writer and broadcaster, and acceptable face of contrite, 21st century conservatism, Michael Portillo now seems a benign character, cuddling up to Diane Abbott on the sofa for Westminster TV chit-chat. It's easy to forget what a repugnant, oleaginously self-aggrandising little turd he really was. Like Grand Admiral Durnirtz at the end of World War Two he was the last defender of the Poll Tax who talked with an SAS swagger and combined hatchet-faced, New Right thinking with a peculiarly charmless charisma. When the Major government fell, he would be the man to lead the Conservative party back to the promised land.

For those of us who had reached a quarter century without being able to remember another party in power, May 1997 was a giddy time. I was probably one of a large number of people who couldn't quite believe the Conservative party would ever be out of government, in the same way you can't quite ever believe you will leave school as a child. I can still remember at about 3a.m. on election night, when the results for Enfield South were beamed across the country, the collective roar of the country when Stephen Twigg was elected ahead of the Heir Apparent.

Of course dreams turn to ashes, and promises are forgotten like sweet nothings in a debutante's ear. Money is wasted, expectations are disappointed, hopes are dashed and we all grow older. The jury may be out on Tony Blair's true achievements. But do you remember the look on Portillo's face?

09 May 2007

I felt the news today, oh boy...

Why do you watch the news? To keep informed of current affairs? How very old-fashioned. Today it's not enough to "read all about it" - you have to feel it too.

Take the desperate story of the abduction of a British girl from a Portuguese holiday resort. It is revealing about the extent to which we, in the UK, accept media demands to be made the focus of all investigations, like a gluttonous child in its insatiable demand for fresh material. There can never be too many shots of distraught parents, photofits of suspects or pictures of the victim. Not for prurient reasons, you understand, but in the name of a public service, armed with their ever-present asinine question: how do you feel?

When such a story breaks in the UK, local police believe the more information that is released, the higher the chances of finding the child alive. The fact that this is also serves the agenda of the British press doesn't come into it. So when the Portuguese police don't play ball, the self-righteous, mercenary media dress up their professional frustration as a lack of concern by the local police. Why should the Portuguese police feed the British press corps? How does it help their investigation to keep the British public hundreds of miles away up-to-date with every false lead, random sighting and unsubstantiated rumour? How does it help our understanding of the story to be told on the hour, every hour that there are still two crushed parents in the Algarve with no news of their missing daughter, live via satellite.

It is a slow-cooker of emotion that is always threatening to boil over, as rolling news coverage demands that its stories expand to fill the dead air. And where there is nothing concrete to say, we resort to impressionism; we have to be made to feel the anguish of bereft parents 24-hours a day, just to show we care, unlike the Portuguese police. As with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, you need to react emotionally to the news, or get pilloried as inhuman - what do you mean you didn't pull your own hair out and chain flowers to some railings? You heartless bastard.

01 May 2007

Give us a clue

Naturally Tony Blair is upset to be leaving office. But not half as upset as he is about who will succeed him as Prime Minister. So when he annouced the inevitable today, he couldn't even bear to mention his name, as if the very words 'Gordon Brown' would ensure the succession would come to pass, like a performatory utterance.

Instead he opted for a parlour game, when he said:

"In all probability a Scot will become prime minister of the United Kingdom, someone who has built our economy into one of the strongest in the world, and who, as I have said many times before, would make a great prime minister for Britain."

Ooh, hang on, I know this one. Is it John Reid?

Incidentally, what's with the "Scot" reference? If the front runner had been Gerald Kaufman, would Tony Blair have announced that a Jew would be the next Prime Minister?

30 April 2007

Flushing away our future

Sheryl Crow made the headlines recently, but predictably enough it wasn't for her music. Rather, she has suggested that we could all contribute to reducing energy consumption by being a little more sparing in our use of the loo roll. One square per session would be her guide, "except, of course, on those pesky occasions where 2 to 3 could be required."

This has provoked surprisingly strong reactions from American commentators, some dubbing her "The Toilet Taleban" as they assert their constitutional rights to use as many trees as possible when "drawing an ace" in the bathroom. For a country so squeamish of bodily functions as to eshew the use of the T-word altogether, this is commendable frankness, though with current average use of 8.6 squares per session by Americans (according to research by Charmin), Sheryl has quite a way to go before she realises her dream.

While doing some work with Kimberly-Clark a few years ago, I found out an important cultural difference between Europe and the USA over the use of loo roll. Apparently in Europe we tend to be "folders" whereas the Americans are "scrunchers". This has big implications for the types of paper manufactured on each side of the Atlantic, and, given that scrunching ought to be more wasteful, I would expect the US to be the most profligate country in this area. Surprisingly, the USA is only second in the list of biggest consumers of paper per head of population - heading the list is... Belgium. Clearly I am not the only person to have suffered the consequences of eating dodgy mussels in Bruges.

23 April 2007

Blood Steyns

Mark Steyn has been offering his latest words of wisdom on the Virginia Tech campus shooting:

For those of you unfamiliar with his work, he used to be a columnist on the Daily Telegraph, until it became a bit left wing for him. So he seems to have moved the the USA from his native Canada, where he can find a larger audience for his famously perspicacious brand of right-wing mentalism.

Virginia Tech's great crime, according to Steyn, was to put signs up proclaiming the campus a "gun-free zone", which naturally lulled all the students into a false sense of security. One may argue about the benefits of placing public aspirational messages around a college campus - indeed you may even call it fatuous. But it scarcely makes you more vulnerable to complacency about mass murder, any more than seeing street preachers proclaim the end of the world makes me check the news for an apocalypse.

It turns out the real reason for the tragic loss of life at Virginia Tech (VT) was because there weren't enough guns. Had "the Second Amendment not been in effect repealed by VT", he goes on "someone might have been able to do as two students did five years ago at the Appalachian Law School: When a would-be mass murderer showed up, they rushed for their vehicles, grabbed their guns and pinned him down until the cops arrived."

Of course Cho Seung-hui would also have had to remember to wear his "would-be mass murderer" T-Shirt that day as well, just so the cops didn't add to the mayhem by shooting the wrong armed student and anyone caught in the crossfire.

19 April 2007


Two months after the importation of Bird Flu into the UK via a Bernard Matthews plant in Suffolk, we learn he's going to get his comeuppance. According to the BBC: "no specific proven source has been found but the reports says the most likely explanation is that the infection came from the importation of turkey meat from Hungary". Let's just clarify that for a moment - this is a Bernard Matthews farm in Hungary importing livestock to a Bernard Matthews farm in the UK - where the outbreak occurred.

So surely the government has come down like a ton of bricks on Bernard Matthews? Why of course: the company will get £589,000 compensation for the birds compulsorily slaughtered to prevent the spread of bird flu.

Clearly this is a tricky problem, and not a reflection on the bizarrely sacred position of agriculture as a business. After all, imagine if, say, a sausage company had been accused of producing sausages infected with e-coli. How much compensation do you think they would have been entitled to?

17 April 2007

Onward Christian Soldiers

Reporting on yesterday's shooting at Virginia Tech University, this morning's first edition of the Metro described the shooter as carrying "an ungodly amount of ammunition". Presumably if he'd just been packing a couple of clips the Lord would have smiled sweetly upon his work.

16 April 2007


A new TV show has started on CBeebies, the BBC's TV channel dedicated to the under-5s. It stars an eco-super hero called Tommy Zoom, and charts his battles with the villain Polluto. The first time I watched this programme, I was struck by a resemblance to a certain leading British politician. Maybe it's my overactive imagination, but this couldn't be some subtle indoctrination, could it? A way of getting back at the Government after the humiliating climbdown over the Andrew Gilligan affair?

Polluto and The Prime Minister - separated at birth?

12 April 2007

A penny for his thoughts

David Miliband MP, Government minister at DEFRA (Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and anointed successor to Tony Blair, has been in the news this week. It seems to be for refusing to deny his refusal to confirm his withholding or otherwise of support or non-support for Gordon Brown becoming the next Prime Minister. Something like that, anyway - I was beginning to lose the thread of the story, a thread that has come close to snapping under the weight of desperate journalists clinging to it for ANY kind of controversy about the Prime Ministerial succession.

The political hacks are clearly looking in the wrong place - check out his blog (http://www.davidmiliband.defra.gov.uk/blogs/ministerial_blog/default.aspx) and you'll come across this rather defensive posting :

"Contrary to the repeated falsehood that this blog costs £40,000, here are the facts. The initial start up cost of the blog at ODPM was £6,000. The changeover to Defra cost £1,250 and ongoing technical costs amount to £900 pa. Since I write my own blogs, read comments, and don't have a shadow blogger the admin costs are low: one valiant official spends part of his time posting blogs and comments. It is estimated that this takes around 10 hours per month at an estimated cost of £300."

According to official figures published by the Lib Dems, Government IT projects have overrun their initial budgets by more than £260 million over the last five years. And the worst performing department, in terms of proportion of overrun? None other than Mr Miliband's DEFRA.

My blog cost £22.50 to register two domain names, and monthly broadband connection of less than £30 per month. I can't quite afford to employ a glorified spell-checker at £30 per hour, but for half that money, I'd gladly show Mr Miliband how to press the "Upload Post" button.

04 April 2007

Our survey says...

Do you church? Or maybe you've been de-churched? It's a hot topic of the moment, according to Christian charity Tearfund, which has just published a survey. One in ten in the UK attends church once a week, rising to one in seven once a month. I thought that was quite a good rate of attendance (or bad, depending on the state of your faith), but apparently it gives us the fourth lowest rate of attendance in Europe, despite all the mythical migrant Polish plumbers swelling the Catholic masses (in both senses of the word).

"The first thing they [churches] have really got to wake up to is that there is this big cultural gap between churched and non-churched" Tearfund's president, Elaine Storkey, explained.

Presumably this is something to do with those non-churched people being non-faithed in a non-Christianed sort of way. Or maybe they didn't understand the question.

01 April 2007


"Everything has been figured out, except how to live" Jean-Paul Sartre once said. Undeterred, the post-existentialist builders next door to where I work are offering what are described as "7 living solutions for rent". Imagine my disappointment when they turned out to be merely a series of apartments.

It probably represents one of the worst examples of the random application of the word "solution" to things which do not, apparently, answer a problem. Soup, for example, has not troubled the minds of many philosophers. Yet Baxters new 'Soup Choices' is described as a "deliciously tasty new range of healthy lunch solutions".

In the ready-meal aisle of every supermarket I'd expect to see a row of worried bachelors finding ecstatic relief upon encountering a freezer full of "meal solutions". As someone who has actually tasted some of these "meal solutions", I'd have to say: if that was the answer, it must have been a stupid question.

27 March 2007


Apart from the occasional murder, the Cricket World Cup, does not set pulses racing in the outside world. For those who don't follow the sport that Robin Williams described as "baseball on Valium", the ICC tries to entertain the world every four years with a jamboree of One Day Cricket. If you don't know cricket, you may be surprised to find out people can make a game last a whole day. You may even be astonished to learn it should actually last for five days - it is known as a Test Match for very good reasons. If you do know cricket, you may mourn the transformation of what should be a game of physical chess into tic-tac-toe.

The world's 8 best teams meet to play 8 other teams who are anything but, at a warm and agreeable place. Having dispensed with the illusion that the game has relevance beyond a hard core of Commonwealth countries, the 8 best teams then indulge in another round robin of matches until everyone has given up caring and somehow there are four teams left. A straight knockout then brings a merciful release, and Australia are declared to be the winners.

To give some context, being the best team in the world at test match cricket is the equivalent of three michelin stars. Being the one day cricket World Champions is like being the best in the world at making cheese on toast. Whereas cricket should be about finesse of technique, tactics and patience, the World Cup One Day version has been reduced to hitting the ball as hard as you can.

But in recent years, even this questionable format has been reduced to fit the attention span of a teenage mayfly with ADHD, into something called 20-20 cricket. This now lasts a couple of hours, and every team has a very small number of opportunities to score as many runs as possible.

All this is sold as a pragmatic response to sport in the 21st century. Life and the demands of TV are so kinetic we need new formats for previously savoured pleasures to reduce the time between anticipation and satisfaction. Anyone who feels uncomfortable with such innovations is either old-fashioned or naive. Maybe we could apply this to all sports - instead of four rounds of golf to win The Open, perhaps Tiger Woods could go to the driving range to hit a bucket of balls over 400 yards? We could finally get all sports into a format that fits between the news and the late night movie with ad breaks in between, and delivers all the enjoyment and complexity of a bag of crisps.