Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Estonia fails to elect a president from a field of one

Unlike most democracies with a separate head of state and head of government, Estonia does not elect the former by popular vote, but by a convoluted process in parliament. Euronews reported last week that, if it had been up to the people, 

incumbent president Kersti Kaljulaid would be re-elected for a second, five-year term.[in a] recent poll by Kantar Emor, Kaljulaid got the highest proportion of first-choice votes (37% of respondents). In addition, 51% of survey respondents put her in their top three.

How powerful is Estonia's president? In Estonia, the president’s most powerful capacity is to send law proposals back to the parliament if deemed in need of changes. She or he also plays a major role in representing the country abroad.
The charismatic Kaljulaid, a long-time member of the European Court of Auditors, was an unexpected candidate five years ago, getting elected in the sixth round of voting. She has since convinced Estonia with her down-to-earth demeanour, unwavering opinions and humour.

The parliament elects Kaljulaid has repeatedly stated she is available for a second term. But in the presidential election system of the small Baltic nation, the 101 members of the parliament (the Riigikogu) will make the decision. It’s not even up to Kaljulaid to announce her own candidacy.
In other words: one could want to become president of Estonia, but one first needs MPs for support. A party can nominate a willing candidate with 21 votes [in the first round of voting a] nominee needs to secure 68 out of 101 votes (a two-thirds majority). If no one reaches this number, one or two more votes will be held the day after. To make things even more uncertain, new candidates can be added to the roster at several moments during this process.

Kaljulaid being too outspoken and critical for most members, parliament settled on Alar Karis, director of the Estonian National Museum, as the sole candidate. In the event, he did not receive the required majority in yesterday's vote. A second round of voting will take place later today.

Monday, 30 August 2021

Flight from Afghanistan

 It is almost as if there were a hidden agenda. Western governments assert concern for the Afghans that worked for them or the UN-supported Kabul government, while making sure that very  few arrive on their shores to arouse anti-immigrant feeling. Chris Bryant MP on yesterday's Sunday Supplement expressed his anger that the transport of Afghans in danger had not started nine months ago when President Trump concluded a withdrawal deal with the Taliban behind the back not only of the official government but also his NATO allies and the EU nations which were contributing to nation-building in the country. I am just as angry and would put the start date for rescue of translators and contractors even further back, to the date when the combat mission ended and the first threats to our Afghan friends arose. What Priti Patel and her civil servants secure in the Home Office failed to take on board was that the security services based in the capital had - and still have - little control over what happens in the provinces. So local activists were inspired by the pullout of troops starting in 2011 to seek retribution as they saw it.

At the weekend we learned that the UK embassy staff left the building without bothering to shred the contact details of Afghans in authentic danger. And on the radio today the BBC's Lyse Doucet cast doubt on the US official story that a drone strike had taken out a suicide bomber about to travel to Kabul airport. From interviews of neighbours, she gathered that what the armed drone had destroyed was a car bearing ten members of a family with documents which would entitle them to settle in a Western country. Ms Doucet is not naïve nor a supporter of Islamic extremists, so one should give more credit to her report than to a US Defense Department media release.

Saturday, 28 August 2021

Chinese communism is really fascism

When Xi Jinping had himself declared ruler for life, China completed the transition to classic fascism as laid out by Gentile and Mussolini. Power is concentrated in the absolute rule of one man. The nature of the state is militaristic and ultra-nationalist to the point of genocide. The future is the expansion of the empire. Commercial enterprise is tolerated but it must never contradict the diktats of the supreme leader. Mussolini's Italy never achieved the fascist ideal. Mao came closer but eventually communist collectivism succeeded. Xi has gone further.

Now the process has been cemented by the indoctrination of children

Friday, 27 August 2021

Chineke in the Albert Hall

I don't usually bother with the TV presentation of concerts when I have already heard the live broadcast on Radio 3. However, intrigued by the information on Facebook that the oboist who played an important part in both major pieces was the daughter of a doyen of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, I had to watch yesterday's show. I am glad that I did. The sound balance was very good (not always true of TV), the cutting was less fussy than usual but, most of all, the sheer enjoyment of all concerned came across as it could not do on the radio. 

Perhaps the Coleridge Taylor symphony will not enter the standard repertoire. If the composer had had the time (he was condemned to work himself virtually to death to support his wife and family, having sold the copyright to his most famous work, Hiawatha) he would surely tightened up what was after all initially a student work. However, Florence Price's Piano Concerto in one Movement will surely continue to gain friends, joining Gershwin's works of the previous decade in the roster. 

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Where is our Clean Air Act?


One year ago the Welsh Government published their ambitious Clean Air Plan. It represented a huge step forward in our fight to clean up our air and create a cleaner, greener, and healthier Wales. The Clean Air Bill that was promised had developed meaningful cross-party support in the Senedd and real change felt possible.


All four parties promised to prioritise air pollution and introduce a Clean Air Bill in their manifesto, the First Minister even mentioned it in his first post-election speech.


However the Clean Air Bill is still yet to be developed.


Poor air quality has been linked to the development of several conditions, with growing evidence highlighting the high levels of air pollution impacting every level of society by increasing the chances of lung cancer, childhood asthma, miscarriage, premature birth/low birth weight, heart disease, dementia, mental health, obesity, and many other conditions.


Air pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats to public health, second only to smoking. It is also bad for our planet - causing climate-changing emissions and impacting nature, as demonstrated by the rise in flooding across Wales.


We're asking you to email your MS to ask them to support the introduction of a new Clean Air Bill this year.

Tell your MS to tackle air pollution now 

[Thanks to AsthmaUK for this]

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

An improvement the council has a right to be proud of

 One of the major criticisms of Neath Port Talbot CBC going back to its earliest days was its care of looked-after children. When I was part of the opposition up to 2012, it had more children in care per head of population than any other Welsh council. It had a poor attitude towards foster parents and natural parents alike. Things came to a head a short time after when the council was censured by central government inspectors. Changes had to be made.

The improvement has been such that the council has attracted praise from the Sunday Times this week. There is still plenty wrong at Port Talbot, and in some ways the Labour-run council has gone backwards, but on one important part of its responsibilities it has made progress.

Sunday, 22 August 2021

SARS-CoV-2: evidence veers to lab source

In April, May and June of last year, I posted references to news items and Web articles that pointed to a source other than the Huanan fish market for the leap from wild animal to human of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The leap must also have occurred before the first cases confirmed by the Chinese authorities. I also recall that in a September edition of Five Live Science (now no longer available on BBC Sounds, unfortunately) a British gene sequencing expert had worked back to an "A" version of the virus in humans which existed in September 2019. He had it seems established that there were mutations (B and C) circulating in Wuhan in 2019, but only A in Guangdong where there was a significant bat population. He drew the conclusion that the original species leap occurred in Guangdong.

At the time, from my reading of the literature, I discounted the suggestion mostly coming from America that the virus had leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. After all, had not Dr Shi Zhengli, director of the Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases, and her co-workers there, been among the first to publish papers, in English, warning that there would be other diseases spreading from bat to man, as SARS1 had already done? It strained credulity that a lab well aware of the dangers would be so sloppy as to allow any of the viruses they were working on to escape. An expert contributor to al-Jazeera's Inside Story who had visited Wuhan attested that the safeguards there were as good as any other lab he had worked on.

Now comes a Channel 4 documentary, Did Covid Leak from a Lab?, to be shown tonight at 22:15. In a preview in the i newspaper, two pieces of circumstantial evidence leap out. First, in September 2019, the Wuhan Institute's database of samples and sequences, including the world's largest collection of bat coronavirus sequences, was taken offline. That date is significant, suggesting that Dr Shi herself had become aware that the A strain was out there. Secondly, the Institute had been investigating how viruses could mutate to leap from one animal to another. American researchers have pointed to a particular component of the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 which they say could only have been engineered artificially. (There is more in the i article.) 

A possibility which is not discussed in the article, but which was raised by the al-Jazeera contributor referred to above, is that the virus was released deliberately. The West does not have a monopoly of disgruntled employees or psychopaths. One recalls the Japanese who terrorised the subway system with Sarin nerve gas in 1995. It is hard to say whether this is more or less worrying than the leak hypothesis.

None of the above excuses the criminal negligence of the UK government. Chinese lab workers did not infect citizens throughout Britain in January and February of 2020; returners from known virus hot-spots did. In the spring of 2020, Dr Shi did not tell the NHS in England and Wales to send recovering patients who had acquired the coronavirus in hospital back to institutions caring for vulnerable elderly people; that was down to local managers, not directed differently. 

Stories can be told of most major governments failing to have a plan ready to tackle a pandemic. Indeed, in the USA not only President Obama in 2014 but also GW Bush in 2005 moved for such action, only to be thwarted by Trump and Congress respectively. As a reminder, here is a timeline issued by the national broadcaster of a country which did act promptly: New Zealand.

Saturday, 21 August 2021

David Morris: there are still unanswered questions

 So the convicted killer of the Power family has died in prison, of natural causes probably arising from his diabetic condition. There is outstanding a re-investigation of the physical evidence in the case, in response to calls for the conviction to be overturned, but one wonders whether another police force, namely Devon and Cornwall, can be truly objective. There have already been a couple of investigations by TV journalists. One trusts that at least one of these will be updated, 

Two factors which I recall from the time were not mentioned in the brief summary on BBC Radio Wales news this morning. Firstly, there was an immediate false arrest in the case and one wonders about the motivation for that. Secondly, against the spirit of the common law rules then still in force, evidence of Morris's previous convictions for violence was introduced and may well have swayed the jury. Justice may have been done, but it cannot be said that it was seen to be done. 

Whether or not the facts of the killings are ever established beyond reasonable doubt, the lives of a lovely lively family were brutally extinguished, and I still grieve.

Friday, 20 August 2021

Raab is the scapegoat for nine years of no phone calls

 The need for Afghan translators and support staff to be saved from Pashtun retribution was apparent soon after the NATO combat mission ended in 2011. Conservative Home Secretaries from Theresa May to Priti Patel had ample time to grant asylum to the people who now have virtually no chance to get to Kabul airport or to the border and who dread the knock on the door from Taliban fighters.

Thursday, 19 August 2021

A celestial coincidence

 August 19th is the birth date of both pioneer aviator Orville Wright (in 1871) and Gene Roddenberry (1921) show-runner (as they would say nowadays) of the hugely influential TV series Star Trek.

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Afghanistan debate: first impression

It did not rise to the level of the last big parliamentary event following a failure of UK defence, but there were still giants in the House when Argentine's takeover of the Falklands was debated. There were some highlights, though. Most of the genuine feeling was expressed by women MPs, who understandably feared for the future not only of female MPs, judges and other officials in Afghanistan, but of all girls in education. On the other side, most men were concerned by the loss of face on the part of our military, though the United States' unilateral decision to withdraw all support came in for criticism.

The prime minister seemed ill at ease but was able to announce a resettlement scheme for a limited number of Afghan refugees. In interventions, he was challenged to make this allocation additional to the current 20,000 target for asylum-seekers, to provide emergency funding to local authorities who will bear the brunt of resettlement and to cut the bureaucracy hindering Afghans at risk seeking asylum here.

One Labour MP asserted that right up until last week, immigrants were still being repatriated to Kabul as being a safe place. Ironically, for the short term at least, Kabul is probably safer than it has been for years given the Taliban leaders' determination to present an acceptable face to the world. The gravest, and increased risk, is in the provinces after the withdrawal of UK military personnel who could have protected locally-employed staff of both the military and NGOs such as the British Council. Many MPs, in speeches and in interventions, pointed out the need for safe corridors to either Kabul or to the Pakistan border so that those people we owed a duty of care to, could escape. Tragedies could have been avoided, of course, if the Tory government had granted asylum immediately that the danger to locally-employed Afghans had become apparent, over a year ago. 

The PM also ignored demands for the so-called anti-migrant legislation, the Nationality and Borders Bill, to be dropped in view of the Afghan emigration emergency. Sadly, the leader of the opposition, also failed to add his voice to the demands, even when prompted to by Caroline Lucas of the Greens. Nor did he endorse Layla Moran's demand for a safe corridor. Sir Keir's contribution was a disappointment all round. He devoted virtually all his speech to an attack on prime ministerial failings, with no constructive content at all. This was in contrast to Johnson's opening speech and indeed the foreign secretary's summing-up which, to their credit, eschewed political point-scoring. More depressingly, Ed Davey was guilty of the same fault. It got worse when Ian Blackford spoke - at length - for the third party in the House. Tory back-benchers could not resist using the occasion to snipe at SNP-controlled Glasgow City Council and the Scottish government.

Those MPs (who included Sir Keir) who attacked the fundamentalism of the Taliban and condemned the armed overthrow of the elected government were not all on firm moral high ground. Many were silent when the army seized power in Egypt and welcomed the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE whose failings on human rights and justice are well-known.

"We do not abandon our friends in their hour of need" was one cry. Too many of those friends in Kabul were taking Western aid money and sticking it in their back pocket instead of spreading it where it was needed. Too many commanders were inventing "ghost soldiers" and pocketing their pay - incidentally, making the hard-pressed Afghan army look larger than it actually was.

Theresa May, who looks more statesmanlike out of office than she ever was in it, asked what it said about NATO when it can be by-passed by a unilateral decision by the president of the USA. In response to an intervention from Alistair Carmichael she agreed, with hindsight, that it would have been more sensible to have looked at functionally devolved government when the Taliban were first ousted twenty years ago. Stuart Hosie of the SNP later asked rhetorically why there were always funds, voted for by Parliament and by Congress, to wage war but never for reconstruction and to win the peace.

The failure to consult other NATO nations was echoed in other speeches, mainly from the Tory benches. Democrat president Biden ("more concerned about the mid-term elections than the people of Afghanistan") came in for most criticism, but Republican Donald Trump's decision to sell out the Afghan government by making a back-stairs agreement with the Taliban was also condemned. There were those on both sides who felt that Johnson could have done more to dissuade either president from a commitment to pulling US support out. It made a mockery of Johnson's boasts about UK's influence in the world.

The presidents' slur on the bravery of UK and Afghan troops was condemned in a moving speech by Tom Tugendhat, one of many members who had served in Afghanistan. He also implied that NATO had had its day and that the UK should actively be seeking multilateral and bilateral military alliances around the globe.

On the Liberal Democrat benches, in addition to Alistair Carmichael, Jamie Stone and Layla Moran made up for their party leader's failure by avoiding political knockabout and asking pertinent questions. Moran drew attention to the vulnerable position of the Hazara community in Afghanistan. Earlier, Chris Bryant had predicted the genocide of known homosexuals under the Taliban. Both groups as I understand it are protected under the 2004 constitution which it is feared the Taliban will tear up.

There may be more tomorrow when I have had a chance to read the official Hansard report.

Tuesday, 17 August 2021

Two stories on human rights and inclusiveness in Afghanistan

Research by an American independent think-tank is being widely and partially quoted on the EU news hub (e.g. this from a Spanish MEP). Among other things, it appears to show that 99% of Afghan Muslim are in favour of Sharia, and of those 85% would accept stoning as a punishment for adultery. The research is over four years old, and one wonders how easy it was to obtain a statistically-significant sample in Afghanistan then, in spite of the high standards which PEW Research professes. However, it does suggest that there is a gulf between the public statements of the incoming national Taliban regime and the populist sentiment in the provinces.

The major difference between the Taliban leaders of today and the government ousted by the US twenty years ago is that the "new" Taliban is clearly concerned about how it is seen in the outside world. Its PR has been strengthened and it has been at pains in the last 48 hours to promise inclusive government and not to row back on advances made in the last twenty years, for instance in girls' education. As an insurgent organisation, it had no qualms about financing its operations through opium trafficking, but as a responsible government it has to turn its back on what is not only an international crime but is also anathema to Islam. If the economy is to thrive, legal replacement must be found. Changing agriculture requires investment. So does exploitation of the country's mineral resources, including, it is said, vast quantities of lithium. So far, of Old World nations, China has had a virtual monopoly of the latter which is essential for today's electric vehicle batteries. There are obvious advantages to the West in having a second source for this and other key metals. For all these reasons, one can expect the incoming leaders to yield to the West over human rights in return for access to lucrative markets overseas and support for its farmers at home.

There will be no rush (apart from Pakistan, and Russia and her fellow-travellers) to recognise the new regime. We will need to see deeds match words. Especially, we will need to see the central government come down hard on a reversion to tribal barbarism in the provinces. But we must keep open the non-governmental channels which have been opened under the previous administration, not only the social ones but also the cultural ones. (It is a good sign that senior Taliban figures have taken to cricket!) If the benefits of a more tolerant society and of dialogue with the West have genuinely been taken to heart by a government free of corruption and in touch with its people, then the human sacrifices made by the UK, US and EU nations will have not been totally in vain.

Monday, 16 August 2021

Israeli leaders should remember their Jewishness

 Zachary Baker, a Liberal Democrat member in Bristol, has launched a campaign to institute a new Associated Group within the party, "Liberal Democrats for Peace in the Middle East". His intentions laid out on Liberal Democrat Voice are clearly heartfelt, but the comments - well worth reading - to his piece show how difficult it will be to achieve his aims. Thankfully, the two relevant groups already existing in the party, Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel and Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine, have a mutual constructive relationship and contribute to party policy.

I have occasionally criticised the politicians in Israel, particularly those of Likud, for turning the dream of Zionists into just another client state of the US military-industrial complex. For those people, keeping conflict boiling not only within the boundaries of the modern state but also in the wider Middle East suits their financial and political interests. One hopes that the more disparate coalition which has now taken over will, in addition to weeding out the corruption which has flourished in the last decade, remember another strand of their common religion, and one which they share with the one Muslim member of government, the "obligation to strive for peace". The phrase is that of Richard H Schwartz in his blog on The Times of Israel.

Most of us are already familiar with the quotations from Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3-4:

“And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” 

Richard Schwartz comments 

The Jewish tradition does not mandate pacifism, nor peace at any price, although some Jews became pacifists based on Jewish values. The Israelites frequently went forth to battle, and not always in defensive wars. But they always held to the ideal of universal peace and yearned for the day when there would be no more bloodshed or violence, and when the instruments of war would be converted into tools of production

He goes on to list many more texts from the books which Jews, Christians and Muslim hold in common, together with judgements by Jewish thinkers down the ages. This section of his blog seems particularly relevant to the current situation in Israel:

While Judaism recognizes the duty of each person to protect his own life and to defend others from violence, it specifically prohibits the shedding of innocent blood:

Murder may not be practiced to save one’s life… A man came before Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (Judah the Prince) and said to him, “The governor of my town has ordered me, ‘Go and kill so and so; if not I will slay you.'” Rabba answered him, “Let him rather slay you than that you should commit murder; who knows whether your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder.”

Even in a clear-cut case of self-defense, Judaism condemns the use of excessive violence. The Talmud stresses that if a person being pursued could definitely save himself by maiming a limb of the pursuer, but instead kills him,” the pursued is guilty of murder.

Sunday, 15 August 2021

Escape from Afghanistan

Denmark, last Thursday, was the first nation to help its Afghan workers escape Taliban violence. Since then, there have been media releases promising that UK locally-employed staff would be included in the airlift from Kabul announced on Friday. Given our government's failure to give refuge to translators subject to revenge attacks even before the Taliban launched its current offensive, one has reservations about this commitment. MPs and defence officials must ensure that government is held to its word.

Saturday, 14 August 2021

The US and dirty money

 The UK has long been a haven for hot money. Our laws, which allow anonymity of the true ownership, encourage shady entities to buy properties here. 

It seems from ICIJ investigations, though, that the United States also enables money to be laundered through real estate. 

A new report by Global Financial Integrity digs into the scale of the problem, and examines why so many alleged criminals have found a home for their dirty money in the United States — literally.

One example detailed in the report is that of now-sanctioned Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, whose Midwest real estate empire was the subject of a FinCEN Files investigation on dirty money flows.

Our reporting showed how Kolomoisky and his associates, accused of orchestrating one of the biggest bank heists in history, funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into a U.S. real estate buying spree — spelling ruin for local workers and residents.

The saga embodies many of the patterns that GFI found in their analysis of more than 100 real estate money laundering cases: a politically exposed person who secretly owns commercial property far from a well-known U.S. real estate hub.

“Everyone’s discovering how easy it is to use and abuse the real estate sector,” Lakshmi Kumar, an author of the report, told ICIJ, noting gaps in U.S. real estate regulation and anti-money laundering oversight that have helped make the country the biggest hotspot in GFI’s study. “If you’re a criminal, why would you not choose a method that allows you to flaunt your wealth openly, but also hide its illicit nature?”

Friday, 13 August 2021

GDP growth

 http://aberavonneathlibdems.blogspot.com/2021/08/gdp-stats-massive-obstacles-lie-ahead.html refers. This OECD chart puts the figures for the UK in perspective. Considering how far the economy has fallen, one would have expected a more robust bounce-back than the ONS reports. Most EU nations are doing better in spite of poorer handling of the pandemic. Greece, Hungary, Italy and Poland are worse off than the UK, but these nations have other troubles.

[Later] The Bibby index, which tracks the profits of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), actually showed a slight fall in July, when lockdown restrictions in England were already being eased.

Thursday, 12 August 2021

IBM PC anniversary

On this day forty years ago, IBM, then the dominant force in business computing world-wide, announced that it was joining the microcomputer revolution. That was in the US. The official launch in the UK was not until January 1983, though a "grey" import market rapidly grew and I was one programmer contracted to work on one such IBM PC patched to work in UK conditions.

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

The Daily Mirror in 1941

Among the presents for my eightieth was a most exciting surprise from number one daughter: Mirror On 1941. This is a collection of photocopies of  news items from the year of my birth from what was on its way to being, if it was not already, the biggest-selling daily newspaper in the English-speaking world. There is only one page per issue, and only 120 issues are excerpted, but the yearbook certainly gives a flavour of those times.

The progress of the war is reported, but also the occasional failure, something which distinguished the British media from those under Axis control. The coverage did tend to be jingoistic, though, and the socialists who staffed the Mirror were not afraid of epithets which today would not be regarded as PC: "Record run by wops" headlines a report of a retreat by Italian forces. "Hun troops move into Spain" and "Japs warn whites to quit the Pacific" are typical headlines from February.

There are stories from the home front apart from the war, but one suspects that the balance between foreign and domestic news was rather more even in the actual newspapers. The most obvious omission, presumably for copyright reasons, is that of the cartoon strips for which the Mirror was well-known. The most famous, "Jane", is at least available by other means.

Be warned, when inspiration fails, the author will dip into the Mirror collection for a news item relevant to the day.

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Libertarians and Liberals

 Thanks to William Wallace for his pithy encapsulating the difference between Liberals and Libertarians. 

The difference between Liberals and Libertarians is that Liberals position liberty within community: the limits on individual freedom are set by consideration for others.  (In this Liberals follow J. S. Mill, Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and many others.)  Libertarians reject the idea that individuals are rooted in communities.  They are for individual freedom without qualification.  For them the pursuit of individual self-interest provides the dynamic for economic growth and personal freedom; state interference only limits both.

In his post on Liberal Democrat Voice,  Lord Wallace goes on to apply the distinction to the current Covid-19 situation and contrasts the approach of the Liberal Democrat party with that of Johnson's Tory government and of the more extreme libertarians. (It has to be said that there are one or two dissenting voices in the Comments section, quibbling at the definitions, but they seem good to me.)

Monday, 9 August 2021

Wildfires make Turks and Greeks temporary brothers

One Greek island has already been evacuated and wildfires have devastated parts of Turkey where what used to be regular rains have not arrived to save them. (A TV news correspondent, against background pictures of melted fixtures in a children's playground, has just said that rainstorms are gathering as he files his report.)

Only last month, Turkey was harassing the Greek-speaking official Cyprus government over the rights to extract fossil fuels from under the Mediterranean. One fears that lessons have not been learned about man-made climate change and that just as soon as there is nothing left to burn, Turkey will resume her destructive course.

Tokyo Olympics - a footnote

Whether it was a result of the absence of partisan crowds or not, one pleasing aspect of this year's delayed Olympic Games has been the number of medals being won by countries for the first time. One can take pride in the UK's performance out of proportion to our population size, and decry the extent to which commercial interests dominate the four-yearly extravaganza, but meeting one of the high-minded aims of the people who created the modern Games must give hope for the future.

Sunday, 8 August 2021

Daniel Ortega was a freedom fighter once

Liberal International has issued the following statement:

Democrats and human rights defenders around the world are outraged that, on Friday 6 August, the regime of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua has dissolved the main opposition party, Citizens for Freedom, and stripped its leader, Liberal International Vice President Kitty Monterrey, of her Nicaraguan citizenship.

These are the actions of a regime that has acted to criminalize democracy and a president who is struggling to contain the desire of the Nicaraguan people to live in freedom.

We are deeply concerned for the safety of those targeted by the Sandinista government and the victims of arbitrary arrests.


We are urging all LI members to raise awareness of this injustice by sharing the statement and using the hashtag: #IStandWithKitty, as well as within their Parliamentary Groups.

Saturday, 7 August 2021

Angola's asset-stripper has to give up nearly the last of her ill-gotten gains

 The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is celebrating its latest coup:

Isabel dos Santos, once Africa’s wealthiest woman, must surrender one of her last remaining major assets.

ICIJ’s 2020 Luanda Leaks investigation revealed how Angola’s former first daughter amassed a fortune through decades of inside deals. Among them was the controversial acquisition of a stake in an energy company from the state oil company Sonangol, which was, at the time, overseen by dos Santos’ father, then-President José Eduardo dos Santos.

Our reporting showed how a company owned by dos Santos’ husband paid an initial deposit of just $15 million for the shareholding. Its value now? An estimated $500 million.

Since ICIJ exposed these details, the deal has been embroiled in separate legal proceedings, as authorities took action in fallout from the investigation and the dos Santos business empire crumbled.

The controversy over the half-billion-dollar stake has now come to a head for dos Santos, as an international tribunal has ruled that the deal “cannot be explained but for grand corruption by the daughter of a head of state and her husband” and declared it “null and void.”

Dos Santos has been ordered to return the shares to Angola, where she’s also facing criminal charges — one of a number of countries with investigations pending against the billionaire.

Friday, 6 August 2021

What do Norway, Brazil and New Zealand have in common?

This is a cross-heading on a report  on countries' renewable energy rankings in 2021. That Norway comes top will surprise nobody and few will question New Zealand's position. But Brazil, that destroyer of  the Amazon carbon sink? The answer is that 

With the second highest supply of renewable energy, Brazil is the leader in biofuel and waste energy. These sources account for 32 per cent of its total energy supply. It is the second-largest producer of ethanol fuel and is an industry leader, with sugarcane-based ethanol being touted as the most successful alternative fuel to date.

It just goes to show that no nation is wholly bad. In the same league table, the UK ranks 20th with clean energy only accounting for a dismal 13 per cent. However, we are not as dependent on fossil fuels as Singapore (98%), Australia (93%) or South Africa (91%).

There is more on the Utility Bidder web site.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

Writers in a local minority but global majority?

 Tamasha is a theatre company specialising in presenting the work of minority ethnic playwrights. They are London-based but with travels to the English provinces when constraints permit. They are now looking for new writers. It seems to me that there are many talented people with an Asian or sub-continental background in South Wales who could write about their experience, much as the Jewish experience in the Valleys has been explored.

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Tories and possible corruption

 Peter Black draws attention to the money which is flowing into Conservative party coffers from interested parties. His post reminds me of the long-standing reports in Private Eye of the financial standing of the Halcyon Gallery owner Sir Ehud Sheleg who is treasurer of the party. In May, the magazine recapped:

in 2011 an appeal court judge found that, in a dispute over a contract one of Sheleg's art companies had reneged on, his and others evidence was "not just dishonest but indicative of a willingness to say whatever was required by the exigencies of the moment" 

Before that, 

Sheleg was known for dissolving companies with unpaid VAT liabilities so often that he managed to acquire the unflattering nickname of "Alka Seltzer". Since then, he's been known more for doing business with a Russian organised crime figure in Cyprus, as well as several other shady characters, and conducting much of his business via opaque offshore companies. 

All this before gaining a knighthood in Mrs May's resignation honours list after only a couple of months as party treasure. Somewhere in the years between there was a small matter of a total £2.7m donation to the Conservatives. 

The art market is known as a conduit for hot money. Even without the judicial reprimands and the creative skirting of financial regulations, surely there should have been doubts about appointing someone in that business to a critical post in the party of government, where the incumbent should be like Caesar's wife?

Tuesday, 3 August 2021


 Naively, I thought that the work to remediate the damage caused by the mineshaft inundation earlier this year would have coped with yesterday's storm. In fact, dispersing this flood was the task of the council's surface water drainage (SWD) system which was not up to it. Several homes in Dynevor Road, some of which have only just been refurnished, were flooded. There has even been a suggestion that the Coal Authority's remedial works have interfered with the SWD network. Well away from the Skewen mine workings, the roads round Tesco have suffered worse than usual and even Old Road was for a time passable only with difficulty. Whatever, the council is now on notice that it will have to do something about the effects of climate change. 

Worrying signs in Peru

 It had to be good for the ordinary people of Peru that an ultra-conservative did not succeed in the recent presidential election, in spite of a Trump-like last minute appeal to the electoral authorities on grounds of vote-rigging. However, in spite of soothing noises about seeking consensus in his second-round campaign, one of Pedro Castillo's first acts after inauguration was to appoint a hard-line Marxist butty as prime minister. Moreover, Guido Bellido, the man in question is reported to have in the past expressed sympathy with the Shining Path violent guerilla movement. 

Castillo has appointed a moderate economist as his finance minister, which has pacified international investors somewhat. He should though tread carefully, bearing in mind the precedent of Mohamed Morsi who was elected as president of Egypt as democracy returned to that country in the wake of the Arab Spring. Morsi felt that he had the power to impose the philosophy of another extremist organisation - in his case, the Muslim Brotherhood - and was soon disabused by the Egyptian army who, with the latent support of the US, restored their hegemony in a coup. Castillo would be well advised to make haste slowly in his reforms and aim for a mixed economy rather than a socialist state. 

Monday, 2 August 2021

A new device to help diagnose asthma in a few minutes

 For some time now, I have felt that the surge in the number of asthma diagnoses may have been deceptive. As Dr Thomas Brown reports on the AsthmaUK blog, it’s very much an umbrella term for a whole group of different conditions that present with similar symptoms. Breathlessness, chest tightness, wheezing, and coughing are the most common. This has no doubt helped those pharmaceutical companies which provide relieving inhalers while not helping true sufferers. Dr Brown goes on:

we call this ‘asthma’ when these symptoms are accompanied by variable narrowing and/or inflammation of the airway tubes which we can measure using breathing tests. However, the symptoms, airway narrowing, and inflammation can vary a lot over time, and sometimes this means tests can be normal even though a person has ‘asthma’.

There can be a big difference between the types of tests somebody might have access to in different parts of the country, particularly in primary care. And some of these tests are difficult to do well. Spirometry, which is one of the blowing tests we use is a really good example. To do that well is actually very difficult, but not just technically very difficult, it can be really uncomfortable and distressing for our patients.

The other point is that in people who have asthma, they might be completely well at the time that they have their test. So it may be that their tests are all normal, but they have symptoms at other times. And so, what we’ve ended up with is this acceptance that it’s okay to go with either a trial of treatment or a ‘wait and see’ option, but that leaves a lot of uncertainty for patients. It can also mean people getting the wrong treatment or delays in them getting the right one.

This can mean that patients are presenting to us with a crisis such as an acute asthma attack in order for us to make the diagnosis. We know that we have effective treatments for a lot of these patients that we could start if we could have made the diagnosis before the crisis point.

The other problem is that there’s a lot of overlap with the symptoms of different lung conditions, which can make it difficult to make the right diagnosis. This means that some people may receive an incorrect diagnosis and therefore be put on the wrong treatment. What we’ve also learned, particularly over the last 10 or 20 years, is that there are different types of asthma and that’s very important because the different types of asthma may require very different treatments.

There’s no doubt it’s absolutely vital that we make the right diagnosis early and that people are aware of the condition they have because the treatments we have are effective. It’s about getting the right diagnosis and the right treatment as early as we can.

Research supported by Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation looking at a new breathing test Our research recognises the difficulty of identifying asthma. At the moment the diagnosis of asthma is a bit like a jigsaw. We bring together different pieces of information, including symptoms, results from the blowing tests and sometimes we look for inflammation, although that test isn’t always widely available, particularly in a GP setting.

In our study, we’re looking at a new breathing test that might be useful in identifying whether somebody has asthma. This test could be used alongside existing tests or might have value in its own right as a stand-alone test.

The device we’re testing is a “point of care” test, which means that it’s something that you do in the GP surgery. It’s a breathing test that takes one to three minutes for a patient to do, but importantly you don’t have to do a forced breath as you do in spirometry. You do gentle breathing in and out, and the device measures several different things over that time period, and it forms then what we’re calling a ‘breath print’.

We want to see if this ‘breath print’, alongside the other information that we have in terms of established tests for asthma, can enhance diagnosis. We also want to see if this test can help us to identify specific characteristics of that person’s asthma that might help us tailor an individual person’s treatment so that it’s optimal. And this new test might also help us diagnose other lung conditions.

We want people with asthma to have access to the right treatment as soon as possible, and also make sure that people who don’t have asthma are not then taking treatments they don’t need, which can be detrimental in their own right. We hope that this new test will help make problems with asthma diagnosis a thing of the past.

Sunday, 1 August 2021

There *were* George Dixons in the Met.

- and probably still are, but in all the current pudder of  corruption starting at the top and of systemic racism we do not hear of them.

It's not clear what suddenly brought this recollection to mind, but there was an off-beat story from the 1960s which exemplified neighbourhood policing. One of the duties of the junior clerical officer in the MoT's divisional road engineer's office in London was to visit Scotland Yard and obtain various statistics relating to road use. Our liaison man there was a genial man by the name of (if I recall correctly) Fred Vanderhoek. When I was on data collection duty, he told me of a police station where a call went out for a certain PC: there's a parrot at the front counter for you. What had happened was that an old lady in his area had confided in him that she felt lonely and he had put out feelers for someone to provide a caged bird to provide her with a bit of company. The parrot was the result.