How Did I Get Here?
This blog was brand new for 2015, and all posts with an earlier date have been rescued from somewhere else!
Back to the Past!
Well, I suppose it was appropriate that it would happen in the week of Back to the Future day. Except for me it was more a case of ‘Back to the Past’, or ‘back to the exact instant before I did something incredibly stupid’! Intrigued? Allow me to expand…
They say there are only two kinds of computer owners – those who back-up, and those who wish they had! Until recently, earlier this year in fact, I was one of those carefree souls who added, subtracted, updated and migrated files, programs and even entire systems without a problem. Any time I did think about backing-up I thought, I really should do that. But I didn’t.
Then, I must’ve read an article too far and realised I was playing Russian Roulette with a lot of precious stuff, especially photos, that would cause intense anguish if they ever disappeared into the ether completely. Not to mention the grief I’d get from she-who-must-be-obeyed!
Anyway, when everything else was getting updated and upgraded I reckoned the new Mac Mini and fibre broadband deserved a new router too, so why not go the whole hog and do the funky back-up thing as well. So, an Apple Time Capsule was duly added to our tech family. Now, clearly, other back-up solutions are available, but who can resist yet another piece of sleek white Cupertino magic that just, well, works?
Since February, said piece of white sleekness has sat innocently in a corner beaming tinterweb all round our house without missing a beat whilst also, surreptitiously, backing up our entire system every few hours. So far, so fantastic but, so what? If you’re thinking ahead you’ll probably know what’s coming…
In an idle moment last week I decided to clear out some space on our hard drive so started junking redundant download managers and other pieces of accumulated debris (as an aside, they should get the ‘Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners’ engaged in some hard drive decontamination – now THERE’S a programme, Channel 4!). And very satisfying it all was too. So much so that I decided to rectify something else that’s been bugging me for a while.
Without going into too much excruciatingly boring detail… I had somehow created two accounts for each of us on the computer when I went through the initial set-up. No great problem, as I was able to delete the extra ones at the time, but they hung about in a ‘Deleted Users’ folder as a constant reminder of my faux pas. Cometh the day, cometh the hour – why not get rid of them too?
Checking online, in case I did something stupid (watch THAT come back to haunt me…), I set about my task and had soon deleted my deletions. Did I stop there? Of course not, as that would be too sensible. What was still bugging me was that the remaining user accounts had the digit ‘1’ after them so I set about changing that too. Oh, the sense of achievement! I was on a roll! All that remained to be done was to restart the computer so everything would tidy itself up. Then, I could bask in the glory of space on the hard drive, properly named user accounts and the ‘Deleted Users’ ghost would be gone for good.
As the chime kicked in and the Apple symbol appeared, all seemed well. Then, wait a minute, that doesn’t look right and… why on earth is it asking me to set up my account again? Oh well, just a quirk, carry on… and then, it happened. I stared at the screen in disbelief. Where my overstuffed and badly organised desktop should’ve been set against a backdrop of Lake Trasimeno at dusk, was… nothing. Well, not nothing exactly, but a fresh, empty desktop straight out of the Apple playbook. The Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners would’ve liked what they saw, but I was too gripped by panic to appreciate its squeaky cleanness!
I checked the other account desktop, by this time more in hope than expectation, but it was the same story across there. Not only had I lost everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, but I had also lost the Boss’s everything! This was not good.
Then I remembered Time Capsule, that shiny plastic beauty whirring away silently in the background, so I entered Time Machine and prepared to go ‘Back to the Past’. At this point in the story probably only the geeks are still with me, but for all the normal people out there, Time Capsule is where the back-ups live and Time Machine is the proverbial Delorean that gets us into those back-ups.
Except, it didn’t! Now, whatever panic I felt before was nothing to what was going on now! More hyperventilating research led to me discovering that my very own Flux Capacitor (if you haven’t seen Back to the Future, and shame on you by the way, the Flux Capacitor is what allows Doc’s Delorean to travel through time) was a specific restart procedure involving the Command and R keys. Bear with me…
Wow, pressing those two keys on restart had me hitting 88 miles per hour tout suite, the Flux Capacitor kicked in and Time Machine took me back to that far off place of about an hour before where everything was right in the world, except for United being bottom of the league and my hard drive being a wee bit full, right before I had got involved in deleting the deleted.
About half an hour later I was gazing lovingly at exactly the same scene I had been gazing critically at less than two hours previously, and boy it looked good. It was like the last two hours hadn’t happened. Fantastic.
I now look upon my ‘Deleted Users’ folder in the same way a child looks at a favourite toy, and bathe in the security that it affords me. Once I’ve calmed down, and done a heap more research, I may return to the task I so painfully failed at, but the moral of this simple tale, dear reader, is… BACK UP, BACK UP AND… BACK UP AGAIN!
Lies, damned lies, and… eh, experts?
A funny thing happened to me during the Scottish Independence Referendum campaign last year – I pretty much gave up on a lifetime habit of reading newspapers and generally ended up avoiding TV news and current affairs programmes too. As far as I could manage it this continued, in truth intensified, during the recent UK General Election too.
Why? I was, am, fed up, frustrated, outraged and, well, just generally hacked off with being lied to or hearing interminable and unintelligible spin masquerading as fact.
Now, I’m not naïve, I expect to be lied to by politicians, that’s just what they do. But they are getting worse. More blatant. Sometimes they don’t even try to spin to disguise the fact they’ve lied, they just blunder on regardless and either hope we haven’t noticed or, more likely, they simply don’t care. And too many journalists appear all too happy to perpetuate their lies.
To be fair, (even though I’m really not inclined to be), sometimes they’re not exactly lying per se, they just don’t know any better. And therein lies the real problem, and the fundamental reason I’ve stopped listening. They are not experts. I’ll say that again for emphasis… They. Are. Not. Experts.
Take George Osborne (and I really wish someone would!) as an example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in charge of all the dosh and all of our economic futures, has a degree in Modern History. His immediate predecessor, Alistair Darling, studied Law and the one before that, Gordon Brown, History (in all senses!). Am I the only one spotting a pattern here?
Moving on, how about the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, (and how accurate was James Naughtie about him, by the way?) – the dreaded Philosophy, Politics and Economics, usually glorified as PPE in ‘meeja’ circles. His shadow, Andy Burnham, is an English graduate. Maybe Education is better served…? Maybe not. Nicky Morgan was a Solicitor, and her shadow, Tristram Hunt, is another with a History degree.
I’m shouting at the page now… They. Are. Not. Experts.
So what about the people who allegedly hold them to account, the journalists? Let’s take just one example, Jeremy Paxman. He has an English degree yet we are expected to accept his forensic questioning on economics, health, education, defence, foreign policy and everything else, unquestioningly. Just because he’s read a bit of Shakespeare?
Now, I’m not saying you have to have been a doctor to have an opinion on health, or a teacher to have an opinion on education, but in positions of absolute authority surely it helps? And perhaps someone with a sound and proven grasp of Economics might just have a better understanding of, well, and I’m just throwing this out there, Economics, than some hooray with a History degree?
And that’s mainly why I switched off.
I also believe there’s an agenda in the media. The BBC has made it explicitly clear that it is the State broadcaster with an absolute responsibility for promoting the Establishment position at all times. Its conduct during the Scottish Referendum campaign was reprehensible. By the time the UK General Election rolled around most people in Scotland, thankfully, had realised that and treated everything broadcast by the BBC with an entire proverbial salt cellar.
So, what am I really trying to say here? People have to see beyond what’s presented as ‘fact’ and look behind the rhetoric. Returning to my Scottish Independence theme, for just one important example, I know that our friends in England have been fed a line by UKIP, fuelled by Labour and the Tories, that ‘their’ money is subsidising free prescriptions, free education and lots of other goodies in Scotland. That is a lie. It is simply not true.
But our beloved State broadcaster won’t correct it. Other vested interest outlets such as The Torygraph, The Daily Wail and others gleefully perpetuate it because it suits their agenda. Ask yourselves why? Even those erstwhile paragons of virtue The Guardian and The Independent are not immune, and just don’t get me started on Dan Snow! It suits the Establishment to perpetuate such mistruths and they rely on the ‘it’s in the paper so it must be true’ mythology.
And, it’s not just me. Something has fundamentally changed in Scotland over the past couple of years, and central to that has been the increasing numbers of ordinary people finding alternative sources of information. There is widespread mistrust of the so-called MSM (mainstream media) and new, mainly online, outlets have sprung up to fill the void. The rest of the UK must now do the same and hold the traditional political parties and news outlets to account. Remember my main message here – they are not experts.
Procrastination - curse or blessing?
I’ve been putting off writing this latest post while I carefully considered what particularly pressing issue I should address next. So, for a few weeks now – OK, four to be precise! - I haven’t been able to decide between expounding on either the unfairnesses suffered by Dundee United FC every time they play one of the “dark forces” (that’s Celtic and ‘the club formerly known as’ Rangers to you!), or the relentless travesties visited on the people of Scotland by our imperial masters in Westminster.
No doubt I’ll cover both of these nagging concerns soon enough but, like I said, I’ve been deliberating on this for around a month now (yes, even before THAT cup Final!). It’s probably better to, once and for all, confront the long-lasting elephant in my now lavishly kitted-out work room… and that is, my ceaseless ability to waste time to an almost professional standard.
Procrastination, my friends, is widely acknowledged as a curse of our modern age, especially for writers. To make sure of its exact definition, I procrastinated a wee bit more, purely in the name of research and accuracy you understand, and looked it up - “Procrastination: the action of delaying or postponing something.” Those nice chaps at Google go on to offer some synonyms: dithering, delaying tactics, dilatoriness, stalling, hesitation, vacillation; humming and hawing, dilly-dallying, shilly-shallying. All sounds about right – guilty as charged!
Once I get going I can be an absolute machine! Things get done, projects get started, sometimes even finished… And yet… and yet, there’s that whole ‘starting’ thing. It’s not just me, I hasten to add, most people have this affliction to some degree. And just as well, since our polar opposites are knee-jerky reactivists who steam into things without properly thinking it through.
It’s not that us procrastinators are lazy, it’s just that there’s always something else to do first, or think about. “I’ll be alright once…” Sound familiar? Writing has been pretty much my full-time occupation for a few years, yet it’s only now that there is any credible evidence of that at all.
There were various non-reasons for the time not being quite right while I shilly-shallied (thank you Google, nice use of synonym there!) round the fringes. Then, last year I decided to take the bull by the horns and… “do a course”! Just to get me into the correct frame of mind you understand, fill in some gaps and provide a structure for moving on, and procrastinate a wee bit more...
So far, so careful. But good. Course completed, distinction achieved, plan made, then… hmm, my working area isn’t inspiring enough! Honest, I’m not making this up, this is really how my head works sometimes. Most of the constituent pieces were in our possession however, they just needed to be assembled and gathered in the correct location.
And finally, once this absolutely essential preparatory activity was complete, we gazed proudly upon what we have now christened our Creative Hub, and a place of beauty it is too. I love it.
So, am I proudly dashing this little ditty off from the Creative Hub? No! That would be too easy dear reader. What we now have is two beautifully appointed work areas and I’m currently sitting in the original one while my proofreader other half is out being a ‘lady who lunches’. Well, I wouldn’t want to get my Creative Hub dirty, would I?
Welcome to 2015...
Well, it may be the end of February but… Happy New Year! Waddya mean, “you’re a bit late”? I got here as quick as I could! I had places to go, things to do, people to see. And websites don’t build themselves you know. Yes, this shiny new site is all my own work… well, with the help of those awfully nice people at Weebly, but still, it takes time…
Anyway, it’s here now and I’m raring to go with 2015. Like it says above, the blog entries dated earlier than 2015 have previously appeared elsewhere and have now been rescued to here, sort of like a ‘greatest hits’ compilation. This venture has been a long time in the planning, but that’s probably a story for another day, maybe even another place.
And, readers, it’s not just websites that don’t build themselves, oh no. Another continuing story has been the setting up of our new IT infrastructure, better known to the rest of the world as ‘getting a new computer’! You may be able to tell from the banner photo up above that I’m firmly in the Apple camp when it comes to technology. So that should’ve made the changeover process a scoosh, right? Well, not entirely but, in Apple’s defence, this was largely self-inflicted! It all started back in 2013…
Our aged Mac Pro, the last of the PowerPC beasties (technical term), was starting to baulk at certain modern webpages and programs so we had the “time for a new one” conversation. As resident, and self-appointed, tech expert it was down to me to research and procure the replacement. Our super-duper 20” Cinema Screen was still doing the business so I wasn’t overly keen on forking out for an iMac. That left the field clear for the Mac Mini, but it was overdue an upgrade…
I’d been here before, but although waiting for the next generation of tech gear is generally a pointless process – it’s all out of date once you’ve bought it anyway – this upgrade appeared to be ‘imminent’ and therefore apparently worth hanging on for. So we waited… and we waited… and meantime I got far too well acquainted with all manner of Apple rumour websites. Finally, the waiting paid off and the upgrade was announced in… October 2014!
That’s not the end… then the Apple community spun into some crazy fervour warning people off buying the new model for various spurious reasons but, having waited this long, I decided to wait until I could see it in the flesh. Or aluminium…
We’re not blessed with an Apple Store in Dundee so I trotted off to our ‘Premium Reseller’ but couldn’t see the Mini on display. “Can I help you”, said a slightly shifty looking youth. I told him I was looking for the new Mac Mini. “The iPad Mini?” he offered. “No, the Mac Mini” said I. Looking around the shop he gestured at an iMac and said, “that’s the smallest we have”. Left speechless by his complete and unashamed ignorance and incompetence, I left.
Next stop was our out-of-town electrical and computer superstore that I usually try to avoid, but, needs must. A quick play around with a display version convinced me that the naysayers were wrong and that this was indeed for us. So, back home and one of the last big jobs for our trusty Mac Pro was to order its own replacement – poignant.
Anyway, my research had also told me that the screen needed an adapter to fit the new Mini as the connections had changed. Relevant adapter ordered. When it came to hooking up the machine though I discovered there were 3 cables – the first was OK with the aforementioned adapter, the USB was fine but the third, Firewire, needed another adapter. Mama mia!
Back to Premium Reseller, no chances taken with discussion this time, Firewire to Thunderbolt (are you following this?) adapter purchased, return to base camp. Didn’t fit! Further research confirmed this adapter was for Firewire 800 and I had Firewire 400 – who knew? Yet more research confirmed the requirement for yet another adapter, Firewire 400 to 800. I wasn’t convinced…
‘Phone a friend’ time, 2015 style - I went online and had a web chat with Scooter (no, really) who was reading from an Apple script somewhere in the good ol’ US of A. After a bit of toing and froing Scooter patiently explained that I didn’t really need the Firewire link at all! How on earth are you supposed to know this? Anyway, there was still reason enough to order the new adapter from eBay for £3.60 including postage, but I could continue the setup without it.
So, to cut an extremely long story a little shorter than I could make it if I really wanted you to suffer, our new IT infrastructure is absolutely splendiferous and it has been a pleasure to write the first blog post of 2015, belatedly, using it!
Oh, just realised, I forgot to tell you about the new phones…!
There are many magazines on the market that help to bring together people who have a love for foreign travel, and a fascination with the possibility of living abroad. Many readers take that a stage further and look to purchase a property so they can really live la dolce vita. But what happens when plans change a few years down the line? Does the dream always have a happy ending or can it rapidly turn into a nightmare?
Susan and Malcolm had a dream of owning a home in Italy and, for the last 13 years, they’ve done just that. Their idyllic two-bedroom cottage is set in a quaint Umbrian village and enjoys views over the countryside to Lake Trasimeno in one direction and to the fabled hilltop town of Cortona in the other.
Malcolm said “We’ve had some great times here, with family and friends too, but now we want to sell up and move on, travel around a bit, see other places and help our two boys out financially”. Their plan sounds reasonable enough but the problem is their property has been on the market for over two years without a sniff of an offer, despite lowering the asking price several times.
A few miles away David, a semi-retired English academic, has successfully rented out his fully serviced 12-room villa for the last seven years. Having finally achieved his ambition of clearing the mortgage last year he put the villa on the market with the intention of buying two smaller places with the proceeds, one in Italy and another back ‘home’ in England. Looking to take life a little easier, he said “This has been a great little business but the last few years have been tough. I’m too old for all of this, or will be very soon, and I had hoped it would be attractive as a going concern. Bookings are up for this year and this will be an excellent season. I just hope it’s my last one – I want to put my feet up!”
So far David has had only one viewing with no indication of any offer forthcoming. With asking prices around £70,000 and £600,000 respectively, these two properties are clearly at opposite ends of the buying spectrum. Are these owners just unlucky or is this part of a worrying trend?
Donatella, an estate agent based in Castiglione Del Lago, thinks it’s a tough selling market just now. “You do need a bit of luck but, outside of the big cities, it’s always been like that. In a rural area it’s always been a strange market. You can have a great property at the right price and nobody seems interested while at the same time poorer quality homes that are well overpriced can sometimes sell quickly. Also, Italians don’t like to reduce their asking price!”
At a nearby estate agency in Passignano sul Trasimeno the owner, Loretta, agrees with her colleague. “I would say that generally it is slower to sell right now, but there are signs of the market picking up. 2013 was better than 2012 and the trend is continuing albeit slowly. We are seeing English, American, Belgian and Scandinavian buyers becoming more active, and Italians are starting to look again too. They have the money but in recent years they’ve been too scared to buy because of the economic crisis”.
The Economist House Price Index shows exponential growth in Italian house prices between 1997 and 2008. A slower drop off followed, with a slight recovery in 2010 before the downward trend resumed. Donatella’s experience echoes these figures as she observed “The real bargains were to be had in the 90s. Prices were probably generally fairer for a while after that as Italians realised the true values of their properties but then greed kicked in and prices were too high from about 2006 onwards”.
When things slowed down it wasn’t just the sellers who suffered. Loretta added “Many estate agents went out of business. In the boom years it was all too easy to sell houses and make big commissions. Then it became too difficult and many businesses simply failed”.
It’s often noted that the Italian property market is different to those in France, Spain and even the UK as it didn’t have the same level of expansion and was therefore more resilient. Tight controls on building, particularly in the countryside, meant that restoration was the bigger attraction.
However, Italians have long tended to prefer new builds and the younger buyers in particular have been moving into condominium style developments in towns rather than traditional or restored rural properties like their parents. Changing demographics and circumstances, like couples separating or divorcing for instance, have also resulted in a greater tendency to rent rather than buy.
Donatella agrees with this and said “The types of houses that Susan and Malcolm, and David, are trying to sell are more likely to appeal to foreign buyers, who are only now starting to return in numbers. The fact is that a good property, in a good area, on sale at a good price is still not guaranteed to sell quickly. It’s always been like that, there’s a huge element of luck involved”.
One factor arguably working in favour of these sellers, and others who bought some time ago, is the exchange rate movement over the last 15 years. In 2000 the value of £1 peaked at just over €1.75 while today (at time of writing) your £1 only buys around €1.25. Put simply, that means that to buy a €100,000 property in 2000 cost £57,143 while selling today at €100,000 would yield £80,000, an apparent profit of £22,857. Of course that over-simplifies the whole calculation as it ignores inflation and other relative price movements, but on paper at least it still represents a healthy profit of 40% on the purchase price, due only to currency fluctuation. That may provide sellers with some price flexibility or “wiggle room” but, to benefit in any way, first they have to sell.
For David, and for Susan and Malcolm, their only option is to wait it out and hope that luck will be with them and that someone soon will fall in love with their properties in exactly the same way they did all those years ago. The general message for all foreign homeowners in Italy is to start thinking about your exit strategy early and seek good advice, as there are no quick fixes and no guarantees.
So be aware, for some, la dolce vita may leave a bitter aftertaste.
Please note that the names of all the homeowners and estate agents have been changed to protect their privacy
It’s Vegas baby… but not as we know it!
Las Vegas - there are few places I’ve been less enthusiastic to visit. But, as it turned out, I kinda liked it…
Think of Las Vegas and what comes to mind? Gambling? Sin City? 24-hour party people? A symbol of shameless consumerism in the middle of a desert?
Yes it is tacky, loud and full-on but it is perfectly possible to negotiate all of that and enjoy the experience on your own terms without spending a fortune. Or maybe you want to wallow in tacky, in which case, fill your boots!
Not sure what you want to see and do or like to get your bearings first? Take a Big Bus Tour. Get online and find a 2-for-1 deal and this may be the best $38 you spend. It’s the usual touristy hop-on, hop-off experience but if you’re lucky with your tour guide then you’ll get a fair amount of stand-up comedy sprinkled over your facts & figures. Best to allow a full day for this to get maximum benefit.
Almost everything is based on or around ‘The Strip’, local shorthand for the 4 mile stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard that hosts most of the Vegas action. To experience anything approaching ‘old’ Vegas then a visit downtown is recommended, so this is definitely one of your ‘hop-off’ priorities.
Here is the Vegas of the old films, overdosing on neon signs and celebrating Nevada’s cowboy heritage. Compared to The Strip everything is smaller, tackier and, well, cheaper. Old names do survive, like the Golden Nugget Hotel or Binion’s Horseshoe, all within walkable distance from Fremont Street, the original main street.
But you can quickly get bored of small and tacky so it’s time to hop back on your bus and rejoin the big and tacky…
On The Strip virtually everything is new and shiny, and if it’s not then it’s being demolished or redeveloped into something newer, shinier, and bigger!
It may be show-offy in the extreme, but there is something cool about finding Manhattan, Paris, Venice and the rest surrounded by hundreds of miles of desert wasteland.
That wasteland hosts the awesome Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam. Americans tend to over-use ‘awesome’, but flying over the Canyon truly is. Again, choose your deals wisely and never, ever, ever pay full price. There’s always a discount…
But… The Strip is what you’ve come to see, right? It’s all about gambling, casinos and drinking and… if you’re gambling in a casino you’ll never have to pay for a drink! Seriously.
Just tour all the hotels until you’ve had your fill of fake grandeur. Check out the Grand Canal at the Venetian, Brooklyn at New York, New York or even the Pyramids at Luxor. My favourite? La Tour Eiffel, the centrepiece of the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and a half-size replica of the real thing.
Vegas on a budget is possible and enjoyable and, at the risk of repeating myself, I kinda liked it!
Let the children be
We have many political issues of our own to contend with in Scotland, but we can at least console ourselves that our children’s future is not (currently) being dictated by a “demented Dalek on speed” who is on a mission to “exterminate” education!
Sounds harsh, but that’s how the National Union of Teachers in England described the UK Education Secretary, Michael Gove, last week. It may indeed be a reasonable assessment of the man, given that he has previously espoused the abolition of school holidays and the imposition of an 8-day school week! Clearly I have paraphrased those two particular ambitions but, in any event, I am confident we should remain grateful that Michael Gove has no influence on education North of the border.
However, we should still be wary of those who seek to influence our political leaders as it often appears all too easy for them to be led down the path of increasingly irrational, unfounded bureaucratic nonsense. For example, only last month this newspaper reported that a Scottish ‘think tank’ had declared “children should start school at the age of four”. When these people are thinking in their tank do they ever bother to read, research or, heaven forfend, ask some experts?
Sadly, politicians often seem intent on packing kids off to school ever younger, then hot-housing them through some ‘rigorous’ Victorian throwback system in a frantic sprint to have them graduate into the world of work. Then they can work hard, pay high taxes and regenerate our economy – hurrah!
Instead of the Chinas, Japans or South Koreas so beloved of Gove and his ilk (and we have them in Scotland too) can we perhaps find inspiration in Finland? There, formal schooling begins at age seven yet they consistently achieve credible educational statistics. Of course there’s more to it than simply starting later, but allowing ‘kids to be kids’ is central to the Finnish philosophy. Who could argue with that?
In Finland, state schools are highly localised; there are no private schools. Childhood independence is promoted and most pupils will walk or cycle to school by themselves. Class sizes are small and highly-qualified, well-paid teachers are charged with treating each child as an individual. It’s not rocket science, is it?
We can be reassured by the fact that the Scottish Government appears to at least aspire to many aspects of the Finnish approach. One of the strengths of our education system, as opposed to that in the rest of the UK, is that Scotland has long enjoyed an all-graduate teaching profession. Finland takes that a stage further and insists on all teachers having Masters degrees. This is a trend in many European countries and is in complete contrast to the latest Gove-inspired fad in England of introducing unqualified teachers into the system. You couldn’t make it up, really!
So, in Scotland, we appear to be doing, or attempting to do, most of the right things, most of the time. This is something we should be proud of, but we cannot be complacent while ‘think tanks’ continue to push in the opposite direction. Perhaps, some might agree, they are what should be exterminated?
In her excellent book Blossom, What Scotland Needs To Flourish, Lesley Riddoch argues a convincing case linking the small number of Scottish local authorities to a perceived disconnect between local government and the people they are elected to serve. In contrast to other European countries Scotland is, by this measure, the least democratic country in Western Europe.
Prior to the 1930s we had 871 local councils, which were then reduced to around 400 by the Local Government Act (1929). In 1975, ‘regionalisation’ brought that down to 65 (a two-level system of regions and districts) before we finally (for now!) arrived at our current, paltry number of 32 in 1996. Each of our councils oversees, on average, over 160000 citizens. In France around 37000 councils oversee an average of 380 citizens, Norway has 431 councils looking after just under 4500 citizens each, Germany has just over 12000 councils responsible for just under 7000 citizens each, and even England fares slightly (but not significantly) better.
This reduction in numbers has mainly been brought about under the guise of increasing efficiency. For me, this increased efficiency is probably most notable in the saving of time and personnel when counting the votes at local elections, as only 38% of us bothered our backsides last time out in 2012.
What may have slipped under a lot of peoples' radar is that we've just made exactly the same mistakes with our Further Education Colleges. We had 43, we now have 12, it's more efficient you see.
Let's think about the cost of these efficiencies. How much did we spend on redundancy payments? How much did we spend on 'rebranding', changing all the signs and letterheads and...
It's not that long ago I worked at Lauder College in Dunfermline, which only a few years ago decided that 'Carnegie' was a better 'brand', only to be scooped up as part of the new Fife College which also, incidentally, includes the old Fife College that had temporarily lost its name when merged with Glenrothes to form Adam Smith! Are you keeping up?
Further Education used to be affectionately known as FE until some branding zealots decided that 'the College Sector' had a much more professional, business-like ring to it. The Scottish Further Education Unit (SFEU) had to be renamed Scotland's Colleges to reflect this brand-new era. Last year, in keeping with this most recent reorganisation, it too had to get a new name... Colleges Scotland. See, how much better is that? No, me neither!
And what of the human cost? Hundreds if not thousands of professional people cast adrift at or approaching their peak. Efficiency?
Needless to say, the Principals who progressed into the new structure enjoyed healthy increases to their already generous salaries...
Further Education has long been regarded as 'the Cinderella Sector', oft neglected and maligned when it comes to funding, but absolutely crucial in every government policy aimed at eradicating youth unemployment or retraining older workers for the 'new' industries. Why neglected? Well, in political thinking, schools consist of pupils who have parents and grandparents who are voters - best keep them onside. Universities have always been part of the Establishment elite and make great contributions to our economy and wealth generation. And they're awfully clever chaps too!
But, FE? Brickies, plumbers, joiners, hairdressers, beauty technicians, childcare assistants and folk who were too thick to pass their exams first time round? Nah!
Scotland has much to be proud of in respect of education, as I have said in these pages before, but this latest reorganisation of our post-compulsory education provision is not one of those. We may live to regret this latest bout of efficiency savings/cultural vandalism - delete as appropriate!
The 'State' broadcaster?
BBC Scotland annoys me! There are many reasons for this, one being that it consistently misses our fine city of Dundee off the weather map. We’ll always see Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, usually Inverness, and regular appearances from apparently important outposts like Kelso – no disrespect Kelso! Why is that? Is there a conspiracy against Dundee? Actually, there may well be but that’s another rant for another day. No, what’s exercising my ire right now is a rapidly growing dislike of the inaccuracies, spin and unsolicited, thinly disguised opinionated slants contained within their news reporting.
Take Reporting Scotland last week as an example, and their feature on the (then) upcoming public sector Day of Action. Newsworthy, certainly, but presented in a very sinister way didn’t you think? For me, it certainly didn’t help that it was presented by David Henderson, you know, the one who’s far too posh for his own good and with a delivery style that’s way too contrived even by BBC Scotland standards. As an aside, just exactly why do they keep choosing presenters with appalling presentational styles – think Bob Wylie, or his extreme (and extremely irritating) disciple Seonag MacKinnon? And, why are we usually no better informed at the end of one of their tedious pieces than we were at the beginning?
Anyway, back to last week and what really irritated me was the whole tone of the article. Someone had clearly decided beforehand that the upcoming strike was a bad thing and should be presented in such a light. How else could you explain the introductory heart-tugging piece focusing on some random Edinburgh graphic design business owner whose “colleagues may be off work on strike day looking after their kids”? As the article was actually predicated on the announcement by the police that, although they can’t go on strike, they were adding their voice to the protest against the UK government plans for pension reform, why was this not the lead in to the story?
It didn’t make sense. Posh David did finally get round to speaking about the police, and their spokesman made the very valid point that the fact that the UK government was attempting to enforce the reforms on police pensions when that was a matter reserved to the Scottish government was “an affront to the whole of the Scottish parliament”. Surely this is more of a story, worthy of further expansion and investigation? Apparently not, as oor David moved on to report that coastguards, driving instructors and even Glasgow Underground would be on strike, the latter prompting him to comment “so even those who want to work might find it a challenge”. Ouch!
Reading that last bit back, I can imagine some of you thinking “what’s wrong with that, he’s just reporting facts” but my gripe is the selectivity of the facts, the order of apparent importance afforded to those facts and, most of all actually, the tone adopted in presenting these facts. We all know how sentiments and feelings are conveyed by the tone of a voice, and how the same words spoken in two different tones can have entirely different meanings, and you can just feel the disapproving tone in this report.
I happen to believe that these proposed reforms are shockingly misjudged, and I also believe the way public sector pay and pensions have been represented in the media generally over the last few years is appalling. A more cynical individual might even suggest it’s all been part of a government campaign to drip-feed the “public sector bad” message into the national consciousness so that come the time, now as it happens, they can justify draconian reforms as ‘reflecting public sentiment’. Shame on you BBC for appearing to collude in this campaign!
Just present the facts and let us make up our own minds, though that’s not very fashionable these days as evidenced by media manipulation of the Scottish Referendum debate – surely a topic for another column? And, in this case, the facts contained in their report centred on over 250,000 Scots being willing to withdraw their labour and forsake a days pay on a point of principle, supported by the police adding their voice despite being legally obliged not to withdraw their labour. Those are the important bits, not the fact that some graphic designer may be inconvenienced by a few of her pals taking the day off to look after their kids. Get it right!
Lies, mistruths and… politics!
OK, enough’s enough, am I the only one who sees through these politicians and their completely shameless attempts to browbeat an entire nation through fear? What, in particular, has set me off on this particular rant? One day last week, I open my Courier and out jumps Danny Alexander as the latest Westminster apparatchik to take his turn in spreading bogeymen stories about Scotland and the proposed Independence Referendum.
Apparently this is “causing real uncertainty” and follows on from George Osborne claiming that “companies are being put off investing in Scotland due to fears the country will break away from the UK”. For me though it’s just the latest in what appears to be a concerted and sustained attempt to influence the Scottish electorate with scaremongering.
What uncertainty? Unlike the vague promises offered up by countless previous governments, UK and Scottish, the current Scottish government were elected on a mandate including a firm commitment to hold a referendum in the second half of this parliament. Nothing vague about that.
And is it not simply commonsense to allow plenty time for reasoned debate and considered reflection before asking the electorate to take possibly the biggest political decision in Scotland for over 300 years?
I’d have thought so, but as we listen to unionist politicians of various hues deride this plan do you not wonder, as I do, why they want us to rush this? To get rid of uncertainty? Give me a break!
Surely it’s entirely self-seeking, as they believe the polls that seem to indicate they would win if the referendum was now, before all the arguments are out in the open, digested and reflected upon. I really can’t be doing with it anymore, it’s just all so transparent. If politics isn’t about presenting your beliefs, arguing your corner then testing the outcome in an election then what is it about?
There’s been a lot of talk in recent campaigns about negative electioneering and it is widely believed that a major factor in the last two Scottish elections has been the positivity of the SNP against the constant sniping and downplaying of the other parties. Have they learned no lessons? Do they ever?
As the referendum debate gathers pace, what I would naively expect to see is reasoned political argument from those who believe in the union to try to persuade those undecided or already inclined towards independence to change their minds.
Equally I do expect to see the SNP continue to promote what Scotland can be in the future without interference from Westminster. What we do know for certain is that successive Westminster governments have consistently lied for decades about matters affecting Scotland and, specifically, about the implications of independence.
It’s all there in the public domain thanks to the 30-year rule and all that. They lied about oil, they lied about finances, and they continue to lie or at the very least peddle falsehoods and half-truths in order to mislead the Scottish electorate in order to get the result they want.
After all, if they were so convinced of their case why would they not indeed say “bring it on”, present the positive benefits of Scotland continuing within the UK and then trust their own judgement and that of the Scottish people to come to the “right” conclusion?