Archive for the ‘General’ Category

… OK just to be clear, I didn’t wear a flower in my hair. Although I did hear that song playing as I walked along Haight Street.

I’ve done a fair bit of international travel over the years and, as my friends will know, have had more than a few adventures along the way. Most of the trips has been for pleasure alone though. My business trips abroad mainly came during my time working in European funding, with a few visits to Brussels and two real highlights: an exchange visit to Cork and an invitation to speak at a conference in Marseilles.

Last year I was invited to take part in some discussions through an inter governmental body called the International Initiative for Mental Health Leadership, or IIMHL for short. A group of us from the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England and the Netherlands met in New Haven, Connecticut, which many will recognise as the home of Yale University.

We spent a few days together, including sessions in the Yale University Library, which was great. The result was a proposal to form what we provisionally termed a Leadership Academy for People With Lived Experience. The theory is simple: change in mental health systems will best come from those who know best what it’s like to live with a condition. So we need to develop the leadership skills required to challenge and to lead change in a constructive manner. Our hope is to create an Academy at Yale University that can deliver educational opportunities directly, remotely and through partner institutions in other countries.

Over the past year we’ve been meeting as a Steering Group, working through teleconferences and e-mail. We’ve got a draft proposal together, we’ve interviewed some key people throughout the world and we’ve carried out a survey to get the views of those involved in mental health in various capacities throughout the world, and that achieved over 1,200 responses.

To refine our draft proposal we decided to meet for a couple of days’ hard work – and San Francisco seemed a good place given the vast geographical spread of our group. Hosted by the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, we planned our sessions, set our agenda and travelled across the world.

Now it goes without saying that the five thousand mile journey to San Francisco took a while. Door to door this one took me almost a full day. I’m not sure if the eight hour time helped or not – the clock said the journey was 15 hours but my body made it 23.

I’ve done a lot of air travel over the years and the hard part for me is always the amount of time you seem to spend sitting around doing nothing. The six or seven hours on a plane is actually fine. A book, a laptop to get some writing done and frequent meal and drink rounds by the cabin crew see to that.

I left the house at 6am on Saturday, dropped the car off in Paisley and then hit Glasgow airport. By 10am I was on the way with a seven hour plus flight to Philadelphia first on the agenda. Three hours turnaround made it my shortest stay in Philly ever, which was a shame. Still, another six hour flight and I was all the way on the other side of the USA in San Francisco. It didn’t take too long to get into the city and I checked in around 9pm – or 5am Sunday morning UK time.

I got a pretty good night’s sleep and was awake by 6am on Sunday. After breakfast I decided to head to Fisherman’s Wharf and spent time wandering around and seeing the sights. Pier 39 has all sorts of attractions from shops to sea lions – great for the photographers. I also had some very nice clam chowder served inside a sourdough bun, a real local delicacy. One of the great things about a port city is of course the variety and quality of the seafood.

I also headed out onto San Francisco Bay in a small boat. At only $15 (about £10) for an hour’s trip under the Golden Gate Bridge, across the Bay and around Alcatraz it was well worth it. The sun was shining, the water was pretty calm most of the time and I got some great photos too.

There’s so much to see in San Francisco and it would take a lot longer than I had to spare to do it any kind of justice. But then this was mainly a work trip, and so Monday and Tuesday saw a lot of hard work. We spent a very productive couple of days going through an awful lot of information and refining our proposal. All of us left feeling that we’d achieved a great deal. Our ambition of an International Academy for Lived Experience at Yale is getting closer.

That left me with just one day to see a little more of San Francisco before tackling the lengthy journey home. I’ve done City Hall tours in quite a few cities over the years and it was great to add SF to the list. It’s quite a building too, opulent and full of wood and marble inside – and there’s even real gold on the dome.

The official tours are taken by volunteer docents. Ours was very knowledgeable and the hour flew by. The building has changed a bit since it was constructed, mainly due to a couple of rather large earthquakes that moved the entire building, causing cracks to the marble as well as structural damage. The building now sits on what are effectively shock absorbers, added in a major renovation of the foundations that took years. Quite a feat of engineering.

The other place I really wanted to see was the historic Haight-Ashbury district. It’s clearly not the place it once was, but there are some good photo opportunities and a range of very interesting shops. I’m sure I caught the odd whiff of illegal substances being smoked several times too. I also came across a couple of great book shops and bought a fair few to bring home, including a Janis Joplin biography. Well, it seemed appropriate.

The long journey home is always a chore, and this one was no different. But I got a fair amount of writing done and made it home twenty some hours after leaving the hotel. Needless to say it was raining In Glasgow.

So my first visit to San Francisco was both very productive and a lot of fun. It’s quite a place and I’d love to return for a longer visit sometime. There’s an awful lot I didn’t have time to see. Maybe one day.

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2014 And All That

The year 2014 will surely be remembered for the publication of my first novel, Calling Cards. Well, by me anyway. But for everyone else there have been an awful lot of other significant events over the past twelve months.

And it has often been the horror stories that have dominated the news this year, from floods and other weather related disasters to missing planes and ongoing wars in various parts of the globe. 2014 has also seen the Ebola outbreak, slaughter in Palestine and school shootings leaving hundreds of children dead, as well as ongoing wars in many countries. The year ended in tragedy much closer to home with six people killed in the centre of Glasgow as a bin lorry caused carnage.

Sports have provided many of the happier moments – well unless you are Brazilian of course. World Cup winners Germany’s stunning 7-1 destruction of the hosts in the semi final will live long in the memory. Glasgow hosted a fine Commonwealth Games while golf’s Rider Cup was also held in Scotland. I’m sure the Americans will have enjoyed the trip, if not the final score.

Money means success in many sports, and football leads the way. The top Spanish sides continued to flash the cash, while Manchester United joined in by breaking the British transfer record, paying £59.7m for Angel di María. The Red Devils also added loan Columbian Radamel Falcao on a reported £265,000 per week. That’s around 500 times the average weekly wage. Obscene is the only word to describe it.

Mind you, farce of the year probably came in motor racing, when billionaire Bernie Ecclestone found that the best way out of a bribery charge was to offer the court a large one off payment – and all the charges disappeared. All perfectly legal of course. But FIFA might just put in a claim too: the decision to play the 2022 World Cup in Qatar remains under investigation, with all sorts of allegations being made.

Scottish football had its moments too in 2014. In the top division, Celtic ran away to another league title, the last of Neil Lennon’s reign. After four years he moved south to Bolton, where he will have only football to worry about, rather than all of the trials and tribulations that sections of Scottish society threw at him. The cups went to Aberdeen and St Johnstone, giving many long suffering fans a taste of glory. Hearts’ administration and relegation was inevitable it seemed, but Hibernian’s slide to the second tier was more unexpected.

And the Ibrox soap opera continued to entertain, with tax cheat Dave King initially hailed as the latest saviour of Scotland’s newest club. Or was it to be the Easdales? Or maybe Mike Ashley? To the apparent surprise of many this genuine billionaire seemed intent on taking as much money out of the three year old club as possible. What a shock! Still, there are new saviours aplenty waiting in the wings, as the Three Bears join the pantomime. Oh yes they do. And the former quiz show captain’s time finally ran out, as the world renowned Petrofac Cup proved beyond his oh so limited abilities. So not so super Ally McCoist left to spend more time in his garden – although the man who loves the new club so much continues to take his large salary for doing nothing.

The biggest UK political story of the year was the conclusion of the lengthy Scottish independence referendum campaign. The contest became closer than many people expected, but in the end Better Together did just enough and the final 55.3% to 44.7% victory for the No side was decisive. The turnout of 84.6% was the highest in many years, surely a good sign whatever side of the argument you were on.

In the end many previously undecided Scots simply saw independence as too big a risk. The unanswered questions on currency and economic issues were too big, the Yes side’s unsubstantiated assertions of prosperity to come and dismissal of any questioning as scaremongering were unconvincing. And the recent collapse of world oil prices showed that Better Together’s critique had substance – an economy that relies heavily on one product is always susceptible to market fluctuation.

Alec Salmond responded to the defeat by resigning as First Minister, to be replaced by his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon. While Salmond planned his return to UK politics via the Gordon parliamentary seat, Sturgeon reshuffled her cabinet, with several long serving ministers reaching the end of the road. Labour also lost its Scottish leader, with Johann Lamont being replaced by Jim Murphy, who will now look to move from Westminster to Holyrood.

In the year before a UK General Election the major parties struggled to convince the electorate that any of them are worthy of support. David Cameron and the Tories continued to cut and cut, supported by the Lib Dems. Clegg and co tried to move away from their coalition partners, but it is hard to be part of a government for four years plus and then claim no responsibility for its actions. Labour continue to look for a convincing line of attack, while media attention concentrates on Ed Milliband/s supposed weaknesses. But are we really that interested in how a politician eats a bacon sandwich?

Nigel Farage and UKIP made gains in the European elections and also secured a couple of by election victories in the south after two Tory MPs defected. But the price of their success is greater media attention on both the incoherence of their policies and of the assortment of political oddballs behind the bafflingly popular Farage. Perhaps the shine has gone off UKIP a little, but the party remain a headache for those seeking to form a majority government.

In the US, the Republicans made mid term gains while attention is already shifting to the 2016 Presidential election. Hillary Clinton is favourite for the Democratic nomination, seeking to become the first female President, while the Republican field is a lot more open. And the year ended with civil rights back at the top of the political agenda, as the deaths of several black men at the hands of while police caused major controversies.

As ever, the year saw some big names take their leave. Veteran politician Tony Benn was a great loss. Musicians Pete Seeger, Joe Cocker and Jack Bruce all exited stage left, while two great footballing names, Eusebio and Alfredo Di Stefano, also perished. Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes died two days after being struck on the head by a bouncer at the Sydney Cricket Ground aged just 25.

Other celebrity deaths in 2014 included comedians Robin Williams and Joan Rivers, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and writers Maya Anjelou, PD James and Jeremy Lloyd. So much talent …

The fall out from revelations about Jimmy Saville’s despicable history of abuse continued to grow. As more and more details came out many other former personalities found past misdeeds catching up with them. Rolf Harris and Dave Lee Travis were among those to find themselves jailed, and there may be more to come. And evidence of an abuse ring involving senior politicians continued to bubble under the surface, with suspicious of a cover up still growing.

So that was 2014. The year of a referendum and a World Cup. Of selfies and ice buckets. I’m sure there were many other public or personal highlights for many people too. But for now let’s say goodbye to 2014 and bring on the new year. I wonder what 2015 will bring us?

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Why do so many religious bodies seem to spend so much time debating issues related to sex? I’m no psychologist, but there seems to be something rather odd at work in the collective psyche in the Church of England right now.

Not content with splitting itself over whether women should be allowed to become bishops, the established church in England has, it seems, been debating whether or not gay men should be allowed to don whatever fancy robes their bishops wear.

Now normally such a discussion in a church would be of interest only to the ever decreasing numbers who actually take part in its activities. But as an established church, the C of E is allied to the state. Some of its senior figures sit in the House of Lords, taking part in the governance of the country, and the appointments the church makes are therefore of interest to all of us.

So back to the division in the church. On the one hand there are the fundamentalists who say no to gay bishops, arguing that the bible defines gay sex as a sin. Then there are the modernisers who say yes, contending that a church must change to reflect the society it finds itself in. So it was perhaps inevitable that the House of Bishops would look to fudge the issue.

Their rather bizarre solution is that gay men will now be allowed to become bishops as long as they are in a civil partnership – but don’t ever have sex. And they must also repent for any past sins, meaning sexual acts of course. No, this is not a long lost Monty Python movie script, although it sounds very much like one.

Now this raises so many questions. Why not single gay celibate men? Just what will the interview process be? What exactly constitutes gay sex in the Church’s view? What sort of guarantees will any potential candidate be expected to give? How will their continued celibacy be monitored once in post?

And can you imagine the conversation that a gay candidate would have with his partner, telling him that there was good news and bad news: a possible promotion to look forward to – but also a lifetime without sex. (There’s a joke about bashing the bishop in here somewhere …)

There are those who see the fact that the church has moved this far as a good thing. The Rev Sharon Ferguson of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement said the change was welcome. “This is good news that makes common sense,” she said.

But the Rev Rod Thomas from Reform, which is an evangelical network that wants the church to be more traditional, said, “It’s a very worrying development. If someone were to be appointed who was in a civil partnership, that would be a very divisive step”

So should a Christian church not simply stick to the biblical position? After all they do believe that it is the word of their god, don’t they? “You shall not lie with a man, as with a woman: it is abomination” according to Leviticus. Seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?

But then a lot of things are wrong according to Leviticus. Eating three day old cooked meat for example. Harvesting the corners of fields. Cursing the deaf. Wearing a garment of mixed linen and wool. Shaving the side of your head. Tattoos. All of these are forbidden in that one book of the bible.

And there are some pretty strict rules for priests there in Leviticus too. They cannot become bald, must only marry virgins and cannot offer the bread of god to any disabled person. Honestly, it’s all in there.

I’m sure anyone who considers homosexuality to be wrong because of the biblical prohibition also follows all of these other rules, and also the many other oddities that their holy book contains. Because to pick and choose which of their god’s pronouncements to obey and which to ignore would be rather hypocritical, wouldn’t it?

But back to the Church of England. It will be interesting to see what happens the first time that a gay man applies for a post as a bishop. Just how will they apply these rather strange new rules – and how will congregations react to them?

The Church has got itself into a rather strange position after its considerations of who can become a bishop, first over women and now over gay men

Its conclusion seems to be that a bishop must have a penis, but can only use it in some circumstances.


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SpockSo is everyone busy preparing for the Winter Solstice celebrations? Or will you be celebrating Christmas instead?

Now some will see this as a silly question, as everyone “knows” that 25th December is Christmas Day, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, while the Winter Solstice is a totally separate occasion on 21st December.

But it’s actually not as simple as that.

The Winter Solstice does indeed happen on 21st December. Technically this is the moment in time when the earth tilts furthest from the sun. The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days. The word solstice comes from the Latin phrase for “sun stands still”.

The Winter Solstice is essentially the year’s darkest day, but it’s almost never the coldest, as oceans are slow to heat and cool and the seas still retain some warmth from summer.

For thousands of years the winter solstice has been celebrated as the rebirth of the sun by societies who placed astronomy and the turning of the seasons at the centre of their beliefs. One of the functions of Stonehenge, built at least 4,000 years ago, is to mark the time of the solstice.

And as many of these societies worshipped the sun as a deity, the idea of the winter solstice marking the birth of a god an ancient one.

Roman pagans introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between 17th and 25th of December. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule”. The victim was then forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week.

At the festival’s conclusion on December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.

This was actually based on an older Greek festival. The ancient Greek historian Lucian (in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia) describes the festival’s observance in his time. In addition to human sacrifice, he mentions widespread intoxication, going from house to house while singing naked, rape and other sexual license and consuming human shaped biscuits.

On December 25th, many pagan Romans celebrated Natalis Solis Invincti, the Birthday of the Invincible Sun God, Mithras. The Mithras cult originated in Persia and rooted itself in the Roman world in the first century BCE.

And then, somewhere around 320 CE, the Christian church decided to import the Saturnalia and Mithras festivals into its own rituals, hoping to bring the pagan masses in with it. Christian leaders did indeed succeed in converting large numbers of pagans by promising them that they would continue to celebrate the Saturnalia.

But they decided to rename the festival to make it less pagan sounding. They chose to mark the final day of the festival, December 25th, with a special mass to mark the birth of Jesus, calling it the Christ Mass. The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence and singing naked in the streets – an early form of carolling, perhaps, although I guess it has changed a little since then!

So it was a deliberate decision of the Christian church to locate Jesus’ birth on 25th December. Nowhere in the bible is the date mentioned. There is no suggestion in Christian mythology that the nativity even took place in December.

And indeed many of the traditions that we now associate with Christmas come from very different, and non Christian, traditions.

The Celtic festive of Yule is celebrated at the solstice; the name refers to the wheel of life. The winter solstice was considered a mysterious and powerful time. After the longest night of the year the sun is seen as growing stronger and the eventual return of the warmer season is welcomed

The Celtic tradition of bringing sprigs of holly and ivy into the home pays homage to the masculine and feminine elements. Both plants are evergreen, a reminder in itself that the earth never dies, but merely sleeps during the winter months. The male element is represented by the prickly holly, with its sexually potent red berries. The mistletoe is the female; entwining, gentle yet powerful. The idea of “decking the halls” seems to have started in London in the 15th century.

The use of a Christmas tree seems to come from 16th century Germany. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”

And the eating of turkey on 25th December seems to have been imported to the UK from a native American custom.

So Christmas is merely the Christian version of several very much older festivals based around the Winter Solstice. And any talk of the true meaning of Christmas should really include the honouring of ancient festivals that go back much further than 1,700 years.

It’s only logical after all, as Mr Spock would surely say.

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The recently published 29th British Social Attitudes Survey has a vast array of interesting results. It shows a country that sees health as its priority (68%), but wants to see a reduction in immigration (75%). A country that is steadily losing trust in all political parties but still believes in a United Kingdom.

And it also shows a country where religion is less relevant than ever. 45.7% of respondents stated that they do not belong to a religion. And this figure rises to 65% for the 18–24 age group.

Since the British Social Attitudes survey was first produced in 1983, religious affiliation among people in Britain has dropped from 68% to the current figure of 54%. Clearly this is a trend and not just a one off finding or a statistical blip.

The survey also showed that levels of religious practice remain static at a fairly low level, with only 14.3% attending religious services once a week or more. So it seems that even among those who consider themselves to have a religion, under a third actually attend a church or equivalent place of worship.

The annual British Social Attitudes Survey is prepared by the National Centre for Social Research and asks a vast array of questions to a sample of over 3,000 people, representing a cross section of the British population.

The religion with which the largest number identify is ‘Church of England’ at 21.1%. 8.7% of respondents identified as ‘Roman Catholic’, and 10.1% identified as ‘Christian’ but did not give a specific denomination. 3.4% of respondents identified as ‘Muslim’, 2.2% as ‘Hindu’, 0.8% as ‘Jewish’, 0.4% described as ‘Sikh’, and 0.2% as ‘Buddhist’.

The results of the questions on religion have not been widely publicised, with the media concentrating on findings about attitudes to public spending and immigration. But surely almost half of respondents having no religion is worthy of comment?

The academics who analysed the 2011 findings concluded that this long term decline in religion is not good news for the current Government, which seems more and more inclined to involve religion in public life.

“What does this decline mean for society and social policy more generally? On the one hand, we can expect to see a continued increase in liberal attitudes towards a range of issues such as abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia, as the influence of considerations grounded in religion declines. Moreover, we may see an increased reluctance, particularly among the younger age groups, for matters of faith to enter the social and public spheres at all.

“The recently expressed sentiment of the current coalition government to “do” and “get” God (Baroness Warsi, 2011) therefore may not sit well with, and could alienate, certain sections of the population.”

Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs at the British Humanist Association, commented on the government’s attitude. “Certain government ministers have recently taken a more aggressive stance regarding the role of religion in public life, and have claimed that Britain is still a Christian country. We urge the government to take note of these new survey results, and to recognise the fact that almost half of the British population are in fact non-religious,” he said.

At a time when church leaders are commonly in the media being quoted on all sorts of subjects it seems strange that I cannot find a single quote from any religion on this survey. Perhaps they are all too busy with campaigns against marriage equality?


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500 Not Out!

It’s a more than a couple of years now since I started up a blog. Inflicting your thoughts on the world in this manner is a relatively new phenomenon but as everyone else seemed to be doing it, I thought I may as well join in. And I kept going.

So welcome to blog number 500!

In the past 499 blogs I’ve covered many of my favourite subjects: sports and music, politics and mental health issues. And the surprising thing is that people like you regularly read what I have to say.

In total, WordPress’s excellent stats facility tells me that my articles have been read about 119,000 times in total. That’s an average of around 240 reads per article. And it seems that around 140 people will read an article on my blog every day. 5,000 per month us about average at the moment.

Of course the numbers vary daily depending on what I write about. And readership understandably dropped during the three months or so that I was ill and didn’t write anything at all.

In recent times my blogs on the demise of the former Rangers Football Club PLC in administration) have proven to be particularly popular, with several achieving over 1,000 views in a day. I guess bad news really does sell – particularly amongst those who don’t see it as bad news!

My blog has been viewed in 99 different countries to date. Not surprisingly the UK, the USA and Ireland are topping the list, but for some reason I also seem to have regular readers in Iceland, Thailand and India. And I’ve even managed to reach Vietnam and China, which is nice.

As well as those who follow my blog and receive notice of new posts directly (and thanks to you all!), a large number of visitors come from Facebook and Twitter, and many come from other sites that have links in place permanently or who take a particular liking to an individual article.

Celtic sites are high on the list of referrers – Celtic Quick News, Celtic News Now, Kerrydale Street and Celtic Minded among them. But there are political sites there too – Lallands Peat Warrior, Newsnet Scotland and Scottish Round Up have all sent people to my blog.

Thousands also find my writing through search engines. WordPress helpfully lists all of the terms used in these searches, and while many are the obvious footballing and musical ones, there are some strange searches in there too.

Some relate directly to particular blogs I’ve written. How much pocket money to give children seems to be a common search, as do various republican and anti-royalist terms. Some interesting combinations used include “coalition, Thatcherite” and “MPs, convictions”.

I’ve written a fair bit about bipolar disorder and so quite a few folk find my sites by googling celebrities’ names in connection to the condition. Johnny Cash comes up quite often, and I’ve often wondered myself. But the one that surprised me most was “Is John Major bipolar”? Now if you can think of anyone less likely to suffer from extreme mood swings then let me know!

On a sad note, the individual article that has been viewed the most times is one I wrote when I lost a good friend, Steve Reynolds or Pablophanque as many knew him. That’s a tribute to how many people marked his passing and still miss the man.

So, 500 blogs and still going strong. Who would have thought it? I’ll keep writing as long as folk keep reading – I’m never short of something to say! With Scottish football in a turbulent state and a referendum campaign just starting I won’t be short of subjects.

My thanks to everyone who has read my blog. I know the totals are probably small in comparison to those that some other sites get these days, but it’s kind of gratifying to know that my articles have been read almost 120,000 times in total!



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It’s 2012!

Like many other people, my thoughts in January turn to trying to predict the year ahead. It’s never an easy task of course, and one that exposes the writer to risk of later ridicule if he turns out to be well off the mark. But I’m going to assume that the world won’t end in 2012 as some believe and go for it anyway.

Let’s start with sport. Come May, there will be title celebrations in Glasgow and Manchester. That much is fairly obvious given that the titles on both sides of the border look very much like two horse races, but who will take the honours?

Celtic will lift the Scottish title. I know I’m not exactly a neutral observer, but I’m convinced that momentum lies with the green side of the city. Rangers’ financial problems will likely see a January weakening of their already stretched squad and a rather large tax bill expected sometime near the end of the season threatens the very existence of the club. Ally McCoist could go down in history as not only an unsuccessful Rangers manager, but also as the last Rangers manager, at least in its present form.

In England, City may be the favourites but I have a sneaking suspicion that the red side of Manchester might just be the ones to take the title. Come the business end of the season the great experience of Sir Alex in the home straight could be the difference between the two clubs.

Euro 2012 will see Spain seeking to win a third major title in succession and it is hard to see past them. The golden generation of Xabi, Iniesta et al has been all conquering so far and I’m backing them to do it again. The one Spanish weakness may be up front, with Villa injured and Torres off form, but goals in this side come from all over the park. The main challenge will come from a young and improving German side who play exciting football. England? The usual hype, exit and media recriminations for them.

The summer’s other big sporting event is the Olympics, which are being held in London. I added that last bit just in case anyone has managed to avoid every media outlet in the country for the past year and didn’t know that the games are coming to the UK. Look out for a torch procession coming to your town soon.

Home field advantage should mean a good medal haul, especially in the traditionally strong area of the sitting down sports – cycling, rowing, sailing and whatever they do on horseback. The UK will probably do less well in things that involve running and jumping. And it will be very interesting to see how a combined British football team does.

In the political world, David Cameron will hope for a feel good factor from the twin flag waving opportunities provided by the Olympics and by some anniversary relating to Elizabeth of Saxe Coburg and Gotha that involves parades and days off work.

Cameron will be praying that all the Union Jack photo opportunities he will no doubt find will keep people’s minds off other stories, like economic failure, rising unemployment, repeated attacks on the sick and the poor, creeping privatisation of the health service and xenophobic immigration policies.

What of the Lib Dems? Well, Clegg and co are rather stuck at present. They cannot pull out of the coalition as the party would be wiped out in an election. So they will remain locked with the Tories while trying to distance themselves from the more extreme actions of a government of which they are a part. Not a great position to be in – but one entirely of their own making.

Ed Miliband meanwhile will be trying to persuade the public to blame the current government for the mess it is making of things rather than continuing to lay all the problems at the door of the previous one. The economy is always the key issue and at the moment Cameron and co.’s policies are not working yet they retain a strong support in the country. If Labour can’t change this in 2012 they really are in trouble.

Talk is of an offensive that will portray the government as the party of the rich while Labour will present itself as the champions of the “squeezed” middle classes. Which begs the question, who speaks for the poor in British politics? With a battleground that looks like right against far right, where is the left wing?

And talking of right against further right, there will be a presidential election in the USA this year. While the reality of an Obama administration may not have lived up to the over hyped visions of milk and honey presented during the last campaign, the incumbent should win comfortably come November against whichever of the ragtag bunch of contenders the Republicans eventually choose as their candidate.

In Scotland, debate will concentrate on when the long promised SNP independence referendum will take place. Alec Salmond appears to favour the anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn in June 2014 – nothing like stirring it, is there? If he wants to recall a victory over the English, what’s wrong with Wembley in 1977?

Salmond knows that he does not have a majority in favour of independence but will gamble that he can build one over the next two years. Hopefully the debate will concentrate on the real issues of how an independent Scotland would be financed, defended and governed. This must not become a romantic discussion of some oil funded paradise where the sun will always shine and we can all wear kilts and eat shortbread to our hearts’ content. Hard questions will need to be answered if the people of Scotland are to make an informed choice rather than one based on emotional rhetoric.

Alex Salmond has secured a dominant position in Scottish politics at the moment and the job of leading the opposition now falls to my old friend Johann Lamont. She is an astute and experienced politician but has a massive job on her hands. The Labour Party in Scotland is at a low ebb and needs considerable work if it is to regain the trust of the Scottish people.

Scottish Labour has to realise that simply opposing David Cameron and Tory cuts is not the way to win votes in Scottish elections. The party must make a case that it can govern the nation better than the SNP can. It must develop a distinctive programme and sell it to Scotland. Labour cannot rely on gratitude for delivering devolution – it must show that it can make it work.

So those are my thoughts on 2012. A new age of enlightenment, as some interpretations of the Mayan prophesies suggest, seems unlikely. Another hard year of economic gloom, erratic weather and the occasional unexpected good news story is far more likely.

Enjoy 2012 everyone!

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Looking Forward

The more observant amongst readers of my little blog will have noticed that I haven’t posted anything over the last few months. At least I hope you noticed …

2011 had not been the best of years for me. I won’t go into why: it’s a long story. Then in October I ended up in a Liverpool hospital for a few weeks with a bad case of pneumonia and several chest infections. My lungs were severely weakened to the point that I was intubated and on an intensive care ward for several days. But I lived to tell the tale – although a consultant did later tell me that my condition was “touch and go” at one point.

This was the first time that I had been an in patient in a British hospital since I had my tonsils and adenoids removed when I was five. I don’t remember much about that stay in Hairmyres some forty years ago, apart from that the ice cream after the operation was excellent.

I’ve always been a strong supporter of our National Health Service. It’s the single greatest achievement of the Labour Party in government. High quality health care on demand and free at the point of need is something that my generation has come to take for granted. But we are privileged to live in one of the very few countries to have such a wonderful system – and I will never tire of defending it.

Despite the cuts imposed by the current government, the creeping privatisation agenda that continues to threaten its very existence and the repeated reorganisations it has suffered from, the NHS is still a marvellous institution. It is there for all of us. There are no financial checks or expensive health insurance required. No danger of being refused treatment on economic grounds.

The staff at the Royal Liverpool Hospital who treated me were, quite simply, wonderful. Nothing was too much trouble for the nurses, many of whom routinely stayed on the ward long after their shifts were supposed to have finished. The commitment to patient care they displayed each and every day was inspiring. And their professionalism and compassion greatly assisted in the first phase of my recovery.

The second phase, now that I am out of hospital, has taken far longer, but I am finally getting back to somewhere near full fitness. Or at least as near to fit as I am likely to get.

So I will be glad to see the back of 2011.

Hopefully 2012 will prove to be a better year – although the whole concept of a new year is a somewhat curious one. It’s just a convention really to decide that one day in particular is the one where we will reset the calendar to 1/1 and start all over again. But it does offer a convenient point for reflection and to look both forward and backwards from.

I gave up making New Year’s resolutions a very long time ago. Most of them never see the end of January anyway so what’s the point? But I will be trying to get back into the habit of regular blogging, which some may see as a good thing.
So, see you all next year?

And whatever you are doing when midnight strikes wherever you might be, I hope you have a great time and that 2012 is a good year for us all.

A Happy New Year everyone!

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A New Lie Detector?

Scientists at Bradford University have developed a sophisticated new camera system that can detect lies just by watching facial changes.

Like a poker player the system picks up on tells, such as dilated pupils, biting or pressing together of the lips, wrinkling of the nose, breathing heavily, swallowing or blinking. And a thermal sensor can pick also up on non visible signs such as the swelling of blood vessels around the eyes.

The computerised system uses a simple video camera, a high-resolution thermal imaging sensor and a suite of algorithms. It successfully discriminates between truth and lies in about two-thirds of cases. Lead researcher Professor Hassan Ugail from Bradford University believes that he will eventually be able to reach a 90% accuracy level.

So far, the new system has only tested on volunteers. Researchers say the system could be a powerful aid to security services. Later this year, though, they plan to deploy it in a UK airport, probably running alongside experienced immigration officers as they conduct security interviews. The algorithms can then be tested against the verdicts of these officers.

This new system does have advantages over the polygraph. It is unobtrusive and quicker to use. And secondly the subject need not know that he or she is being tested. This, in theory, gives a more honest response.

But the researchers acknowledge, though, that these tests can never be 100% accurate. And so any use that is made must be done carefully, especially if it is to be used in security situations.

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The photograph above is of a model of New York City that used to sit 102 floors above the city in the Observation Deck of the World Trade Centre. It was taken on 12 March 2001.

At the time I took that picture the phrase ‘nine eleven’ would have meant nothing. Just six months later it was to enter the lexicon after the terrible events of September 11 2001 in New York City and Washington DC.

There were a total of 2,996 deaths on that day. The victims included 246 on the four planes (from which there were no survivors), 2,606 in New York City in the towers and on the ground, and 125 at the Pentagon in DC.

I was in New York City on the fifth anniversary of the tragedy and witnessed the memorial ceremony at Ground Zero. I stood beside New Yorkers and others from many cities, many countries. I heard the names of the dead read out one by one. I watched the grief and the tears.

So much has been written about the events of 9/11 that little more needs to be said. It’s a day I will never forget.

Those who were killed, the survivors and their friends and families are in my thoughts today, ten years on.

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