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.