Monthly Archives: December 2007

Awesome stuff

Until the last hour, Malcolm had no clue what “paramotoring” could be.

Then, via the BBC Northern Ireland website, he found a selection of aerial photographs by and a link to Gordon Dunn.
Those two, by the way are looking east from above the coast of the County Londonderry (top: the rail journey along there is worth the effort and cost) and (below) the magical, mystical Grianán of Aileach in the County Donegal (for an all-round view of which go here).

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Unhealthy comparisons

Others try it: none do it better. As usual the New York Times has produced an essential overview of the candidates and their positions on half-a-dozen key issues.

The choice of those issues tells the rest of us how far the battle ground has shifted (or not) over the Bush interregnum: health insurance, abortion, climate change, immigration, Iraq and Iran.

It also shows how the Republicans are still what Malcolm’s Democrat-voting son-in-law would pointedly describe as “retards”.

The summary of six of the seven GOP contenders’ health position starts with the same mantra:

For free-market, consumer-based system…

— precisely that which has failed so many Americans, and (in a dodgy employment market) terrifies far more. The evidence is in Table C-1, on page 58, of Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2006, published by the Economics and Statistics Board of the US Census Bureau, last August. There is no need to plough through the whole document; just one line tells all:

  • Covered by private health insurance: 67.9%
  • of which, covered by employment-based private health insurance: 59.7%
  • covered by direct-purchase private health insurance: 9.1%;
  • Covered by Government health insurance: 27.0%
  • of which, covered by Medicaid: 12.9%
  • covered by Medicare: 13.6%
  • covered by military health care: 3.6%;
  • Leaving 15.8%, some 47M people, with no health-cover at all.
Nor do we need to look very for for whom to blame.

At the end of the first Bush Presidency, in 1992, about 15% of the population had no health cover. By the end of the first Clinton Presidency, 2000, with sooo much cooperation from those sooo moral Republicans in Congress, that was down to 13.7%. Now the second Bush has ramped it up to the highest-ever figure, that 15.8%.

And, inevitably, there are racial discrepancies: 10.8% of white Americans are not covered, but it is 20.5% for black Americans.

Meanwhile, also in today’s New York Times, William Safire does his annual Office Pool,

a New Year’s tradition that has become the most excruciating multiple-choice prediction test in world media. Nostradamus himself couldn’t score over 50 percent.

This includes:

13. The issue most affecting the vote on Election Day will be:
(a) immigration: absorb ’em or deport ’em
(b) taxation: soak the rich or lift all boats
(c) health plans: incentivize or socialize
(d) diplomacy: accommodating realism or extending freedom

Safire’s own choice there is for (b). That’s predictable in a self-described “libertarian conservative”, who served his stint as a speech-writer for Nixon and Agnew.

To which Malcolm says: Hmm, wait and (c).

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Spirited flotsam

Yesterday, Malcolm was browsing his mother-in-law’s bookshelves. He settled down, post-prandial and seasonal glass of Black Bush at hand, to renew his acquaintance with Compton Mackenzie’s delicious Whisky Galore (note: 1947 and still deservedly in print. The exclamation mark arrived only with the 1949 film adaptation).

Today, by coincidence, he picked up the mystery of the empty sixty-foot long cylinder, washed up at Benbecula, that turns out to be a Coors beer fermentation vessel.

Whisky Galore, of course, describes the effect of a ship-wreck, involving 28,000 cases of export whisky, between the two fictional islands of Great and Little Todday, and in the great drought of wartime.

Quite what the islanders would have thought, today, of the dubious benison of several thousand gallons of American fizzy beer defies even Malcolm’s imagination.

Mackenzie’s original conceit was derived from the sinking of the SS Politician at Eriskay, and he based the topography on Eriskay and Barra. From Barra (where, by choice, Mackenzie is buried) it can only be a couple of dozen miles to where the Coors cylinder arrived.

There is a further twist to the story, about which Mackenzie was apparently ignorant. Also on board the SS Politician was a large consignment of ten-shilling notes, nearly £150,000 in worth, apparently bound for the West Indies. As wikipedia has it:

By 1958 the Crown Agents reported that 211,267 notes had been recovered by the salvage company and the police and had been destroyed. A further 2,329 had been presented in banks in England, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, Malta, Canada, the US and Jamaica. Only 1,509 were thought to have been presented in good faith. That still leaves 76,404 banknotes which have never been accounted for. Like the whisky, their fate remains a mystery.

There may also be a few heirloom bottles of “Polly” still out there, too. In 1987, eight were sold at auction for a total of £4,000.

For once, Malcolm can claim no direct link to these events. It does faintly remind him, though, of the prevalence of Spanish brandy in the County Cork in the late 1950s. This was the result of a profitable barter scheme involving Cork fishermen swapping pilchards for the hard stuff.

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Just bloody-minded?

What is it about the Ulster Protestant that leaves Malcolm lost for a word?

Well, one might well start with the seasonal spat between the two Presbyterian churches in Portadown.

The Presbyterians ordained their first woman Minister, the first woman ordained by any Irish faith, over thirty years ago. Well-educated (Edinburgh BA and BD, with further qualifications in social work, and an OBE to boot), literate and civilised, Ruth Patterson still represents too much of a novelty for many in the sect.

Witness the curious goings-on (or, rather, not going-on) between the two presbyterian fanes at opposite ends (in so many ways) of Portadown.

Since the end of another war, the Second World War, the two churches in Portadown (Armagh Road and Edenderry) have alternated Christmas services. The First Presbyterian (a nice piece of élitism, there, and pictured above) in Portadown extended its biennial invitation, as usual. There was, however, a caveat: the Edenderry Minister, one Stafford Carson, would not share his pulpit with the Minister from Armagh Road, Christina Bradley. The reason: the Rev. Bradley is not a pukka gent, and so fails to reach St Paul’s exacting standards.

Mrs Bradley put her case with reasoned dignity:

… although the Edenderry session sent an invitation to Armagh Road, Mrs Bradley sought clarification and it was confirmed she would not be permitted to play any part. Thus, the invitation was “sadly declined”.

“It has been the tradition for the ‘away’ minister to preach the sermon, while the ‘home’ minister conducts the service,” said Mrs Bradley. “Stafford Carson and I had a long talk about it. He was the essence of courtesy, but the bottom line is that I am not welcome in his pulpit.

“It is sad to see such a long-standing tradition terminated. It has been an excellent tradition. I would have been proud to continue it, but I am precluded from doing that.

“In Faith, I studied for the ministry to which God called me. I am a woman and cannot change that. This discrimination against women is created by society, not by God.”

Or, as said Stafford Carson is also quoted:

I … am saddened at the end of such a long and fruitful tradition of united services and am sorry to see it end, but I believe that the Bible – especially in the Letters of Saint Paul – is specific on this issue and therefore I must follow my conscience.

There are twelve months for the two sides to made some kind of Christian peace. On past experience of the stubborn Ulster constitution, that is not exactly a sure-fire prospect. Meanwhile, Malcolm refers to Ruth Patterson for an appropriate comment:

When I look back over the years I see many areas where we, the church, did not provide leadership and didn’t speak out when we should have. We should have been the prophetic voice speaking out in front. Certainly, there were some who did that but by and large we weren’t courageous heralds of a new age.

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Another day, another graph

Has Malcolm suddenly learned “graphicity”? He invites us to consider this:
That’s the share price of ITV over the last twelve months.

Today, the Competition Committee’s wheels ground out exceeding small on the BSkyB holding in ITV:

The regulator said that BSkyB should either sell all of its shares or cut its stake to below 7.5% and promise not to take a seat on ITV’s board.

The BBC, naturally, has to be strictly neutral in its commentary. Others were not so restrained, as on Bloomberg:

“This recommendation to reduce the stake by more than 10 percent will come as a strategic blow to BSkyB,” Martin Slaney, head of spread betting at GFT Global markets in London, wrote in a note today.

And in the FT:

BSkyB reacted angrily to the news. In a robust defence of its position, it said: “We find it difficult to understand how a minority shareholder can exert material influence over a company’s policy if it has neither board representation nor enough shares to block a special resolution. This becomes even more difficult to understand when that shareholder has offered to give up all voting rights.”

It said that a “properly functioning” board would be able to withstand any attempts by a large shareholder to exert influence, adding: “It is implausible that Sky’s ‘industry knowledge and standing’ should give it special influence over a supposedly independent board or the big, sophisticated institutions which own most ITV shares.”

Malcolm particularly relishes that “properly functioning” thing. He cannot conceive why the presence of a blocking share-holding, and the ability to insert News Corp minions (studiously avoided so far, so as not to seem threatening) onto the board would greatly improve its functioning.

Let us recall that BSkyB paid 135p a share (20p over the odds), for a total of £940M for that shareholding. That share snatch:

came as NTL, its cable television rival, was finalising a £5bn-plus bid for ITV. It also interrupted talks between RTL, the pan-European broadcaster, and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts about providing private equity financing for a rival approach.

On today’s price (which is down by about 37% from that level), there would be a loss to BSkyB of £200M. Now, at the time of the grab, Murdoch

said BSkyB saw “an exciting opportunity for long-term value creation”.

So is it a total loss?

Well, first of all, there is going to be some discreet but frantic lobbying of John Hutton, the Secretary of State for business, enterprise and regulatory reform, who must respond to the Competition Commission by the last week in January. He cannot change the ruling that the holding is against the public interest, but he can shade the penalty. This could affect the holding allowed to BSkyB, or allow extended time for the disbursement.

Arm-wrestling enthusiasts should know that this is a sport at which the Murdoch Evil Empire excels. We can expect a whole volley of warning sounds, and bone-wrenching tweaks from the likes of the Sun and the Times, in the hope of persuading the Government to soft-pedal this one: though, quite frankly, anyone watching the Murdoch media over the last while must wonder what is left in the shot-locker.

And, yes, James Murdoch will not regard the last year as a total loss. He has substantially weakened his main opponent, Beardy Branson. Virgin Media (the merged identity of NTL and Blueyonder) has its position assessed in the International Herald Tribune:

Even so, BSkyB’s share grab achieved its apparent objective of blocking a takeover of ITV and leaves BSkyB in a stronger position, said Sam Hart, analyst at Charles Stanley in London.

“Virgin Media’s financial position is now weak and a revival of its previous interest in ITV is now almost inconceivable,” Hart said.

BSkyB’s possible loss on a share disposal “must be seen in the context of the much larger hit to profit that would have resulted from a successful takeover of ITV by NTL and the subsequent creation of a formidable competitor,” Hart added.

Malcolm regards the whole sordid business with a very jaundiced eye. In all of the commentary he has scanned, only the Competition Commission has commented at any length on the real loser: the general public. Throughout the Report, a curious acronym appears: “SLC”. This translates into “substantial loss of competition”. That competition is both commercial and informative: it is the continuing depletion of sources of information that should concern the consumer of news and information. Curiously, when there are now only three providers of TV news (The BBC, ITV and Sky), paragraph 27 of the Report finds:

We concluded that the acquisition was unlikely to result in an SLC arising from a loss of rivalry in the wholesale provision of national television news.

That is only credible in the context where competition is already severely degraded: for example, the existing links between ITN, Channel 4 and BSkyB. The clincher for the Commission seems to be only that:

no relevant contracts will come up for renewal before 2010.

So that’s all right, then. Two years’ breathing space.

Any reader of the Report will find this symbol liberally scattered throughout: ✂. It indicates huge swathes of information withheld

having regard to the three considerations set out in section 244 of the Enterprise Act 2002 (specified information: considerations relevant to disclosure).

Not surprisingly, a large number of those excisions relate to the commercial practices of News Corp and BSkyB. Which is worrying, for the rationale of the share snatch was:

Mr Murdoch described the purchase as a long-term financial investment but said there were opportunities for “fruitful relationships” between the UK’s largest pay TV operator and its largest commercial broadcaster.

“Fruitful”? For whom? Or not for whom?The answer is implied by “Figure 1” on page 18 of the Commission’s Report. This involves a whole series of arrows, all pointing downward to the bottom of “The Television Supply Chain”, reminding us who is at the top, calling the shots. Those arrows all threaten the least significant and least powerful of the participants, the poor bloody infantry at the wrong end of the heap: “Viewers/subscribers”.

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Filed under BSkyB, Competition Commission, ITV

Supply-and-demand … or rip-off?

Consider this:

That shows the air-fares between New York JFK and Miami over the next month. Malcolm would suggest it could be parallelled almost anywhere in the Western world (but, since he does not dare annoy those lines which will be conveying him and his over the next few days, he looked further afield).

The chart illustrates quite nicely the grasping quality of our “service” industries.

Air fares are a commodity, like bread or whatever. Like bread or whatever, one must expect some variation according to circumstances. But a differential of 300%? How can that be justified?

Air travel is unlike bread or whatever in one important respect: it is oligopolistic, and quite obviously a grand cartel. To that extent, it is more like the market for oil, or, to come down to basics, “take-it-or-leave-it”.

So much for “open skies“.

The derisory term for passengers in the industry is, apparently “SLF” (self-loading freight). As we all prepare to be herded into cattle class, we may meditate on an extra beatitude:

Blessed are they who expect noting, for they will not be disappointed.

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Can Nick Clegg be done for corrupt practice?

The Universities of Sheffield (Sheffield and Hallam) have an enlightened policy. They automatically register their students on the electoral roll.

This means that each individual student should vote either by post from a home address or in the constituency in Sheffield.

Guess what?

Many choose to be ignorant and vote twice.

And who is the main recipient of this concentration of adulation? A former lecturer at the University, since 2005 MP for Sheffield, Hallam: Nick Clegg.

There are 45,000 students in Sheffield.

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