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February 28, 2007

'Twas a wild and stormy night ....

Every book and tract I have read about how to sell my books and stories to prospective publishers begins with an admonition never, ever, under any circumstances, to submit a piece of work which opens with those words ..... But then, this blog is my own publication forum so here I can.

Monday saw me in that den of expediency and cynical abuse of power, the so-called mother of parliaments, for a seminar. I managed not to set a match to any fuses - and there were plenty about. Having to listen to a series of pompous and opinionated Labour placeholders telling us what a magnificent service the fire services will be when we get rid of all tradition, all professional officers and replace them with Managers was more than I could take by the cocktail session so I made my excuses and left. The most telling comment came from a little photographer who makes a living taking "happy snaps" of delegates at these functions. His comment - "The place has been ruined by this shower of s****! They are a bunch of vandals."

Still, I managed to give my paper and enjoyed a very good lunch in the Churchill Dining Room for my efforts. My biggest regret is that while I was sat in the large Committee room listening to the afternoon's papers there was a debate in the Commons on the future of the RN - one I would have given anything to hear!

But my MP was not in residence and he was apparently the only one who could sign my Pass. We're apparently now very strict about who is allowed to listen to these debates from the public gallery. It boils down to - only our friends, cronies and sycophants.

Sorry, my cynicism is showing again. Contemplating the supposedly "rotten" Borough PM's on the Grand Stairs, I was struck by the similarity to the state of play under their regime when their friends and cronies were openly awarded plum contracts and the present system where the civil service now awards the plums to their friends and cronies on the "Approved Supplier" lists. No change there then either.

As I said at the outset, It was a dark and stormy night ....

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:49 PM | TrackBack

February 27, 2007

The Old Naval Cemetry at Port Royal

When I visit countries like Jamaica I find myself torn between a desire to respect their desire to turn their backs on the past, particularly when it is as painful as the slavery issue, and a need to show respect to those who helped shape the future. Near Port Royal I found something however, that moved me to tears of rage! Not necessarily against the Jamaicans themselves, but against my own government. It was the Old Naval Cemetry.

This sign is about the only thing that shows there is a cemetry here in which lie the remains of the men who stopped the slave trade, defended the island and kept the peace in these waters.

In this sandy and overgrown enclosure, lie the remains of the men who gave their lives expelling the Henry Morgans from these waters, who protected the trade for the wealthy of Europe and Britain, who suppressed the slave trade and kept the seas free for the law abiding to go about their business. They performed feats of seamanship in saving lives and in protecting their country and the ideals of their rulers - and these photographs show all too graphically how we show them our thanks.

The overgrown cemetry - many graves unmarked, the markers having decayed, collapsed, or in some cases defaced or stolen.

Jamaica is a place where Malaria (Yellow Jack) is endemic, and huge numbers of the seamen who lie neglected in these graves died of it in the days before the means to control it and treat it were discovered. Yes, many possibly hoped to return home rich enough to lift their own families out of poverty, but they were rendering a service to their nation in so doing.

Successive government's can spend vast sums of tax payers money lining their own pockets, providing for the comforts of themselves and their cronies, but they cannot, it seems, provide a paltry sum to have this cemetry cleared, restored and attended to honour our dead. If there is a monument to the ignorance, stupidity and cupidity of our present generation - this is it!
One of a pair of cenotaphs to the dead of HMS Goshawk, lost with almost all hands during a storm on these shores. The second cenotaph has had it's anchor stolen.

The Book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, says; "And some there be that have no memorial. They have vanished away as if they had never been, and their children after them." These men have a memorial - their legacy is far greater than Blair's, Thatchers's or any of their predecessors. For it is by their efforts that we enjoyed the peace of the Pax Britannica, it is by their efforts that we live in a supposedly free and democratic society and not one dominated by dictators. We owe them some respect.

Anyone care to join me in a campaign to get this cemetry cleaned up? It is the very least we can do for the men who lie there!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:34 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 26, 2007

Historic Jamaica

The oldest part of the English settlement on Jamaica is Port Royal which lies at the end of the long sandspit that forms the protective break water enclosing Kingston Harbour. Port Rpyal has a long a violent history, having been first established as a base for pirates and slave traders following the displacement of the Spanish. Captain Henry Morgan was based here, one of the most violent and unpleasant characters one could wish to meet (or NOT meet for preference.). Having read a little about the man and his activities there is little doubt in my mind that he fits the classic profile of a psychopath. One substantiated story concerning the behaviour of the men who built this place recounts how a group had observed a woman in the last stages of pregnancy from their favourite drinking den and made a bet as to which sex the child she was carrying would be at birth. Not prepared to wait for nature to provide the answer, one of the number drew his sword and cut her open in the street to find out.

It is probably small wonder, with genetic material like that in the population, that violence is endemic.

The plan of Port Royal as it was in its heyday around 1690. A violent earthquake a few years later saw the whole of the waterfront along the lower side of this plan (the North) sink into the sea.

The settlement was protected by fortifications from assault from the sea and from the land. Fort Charles, the largest of these and the Headquarters of the garrison still remains, its bastions now some distance from the waterfront on the Southern and seaward side. Once the pirates and their supporters were dislodged from the area following the earthquake, the Royal Navy took ovver and established a base here. Sadly many of the original buildings that would have been familiar to Rodney, Hawke and many other famous seamen (and many more not so famous!) are now being allowed to fall apart even though some of them are still in use by the Jamaican Coastguard.

A model of Fort Charles as it was in the early 1700's.

While Fort Charles is the only one of the three forts that is preserved, the ruins of the one that guarded the land approach are still visible on the seaward side of the road approaching the town. The town itself has shrunk as evidenced by reference to the plan shown here and the fact that the Land Guard fort is now some distance from the remaining settlement.

The outer wall of the Western Bastion of Fort Charles. This was once on the sea's edge.

There are signs that something is being done to preserve their heritage - and it is as much the heritage of the modern Jamaicans as it is ours - and some of the buildings that are still saveable are apparently being preserved. The Coastguard has just taken delivery of three very modern and fast strike craft to be used against the drug and gun runners who infest these waters and it is to be hoped that they will make a difference.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:05 AM | TrackBack

February 25, 2007

Lenten beginnings

The First Sunday in Lent already. Ash Wednesday been and gone, same can be said of Pancake Tuesday .... the year seems to be accelerating. I find myself rushing about as never before and the last five weeks are now merging into a blur. Today I am involved with three services at the Abbey and one at our sister church, plus a reception this evening. Tomorrow I must get myself up at a very early hour to catch a train to London so I can be the first speaker in a seminar at the biggest hot air generating plant in the UK. Me? Surrounded by politicians and civil servants? I think I will need some serious therapy after a day of that .....

And that is what Lent is about. Therapy of preparation, review and renewal. A time to look at how well we have performed as Christians in the year past, and how we can do better in the year ahead. A time of prayer for help and for improvement, a time to take stock and sort our selves out.

My Lent seems to have started up as a bit of a muddle and rush. From today it will start to become much more what it should be. I pray that everyone else will experience during Lent a spiritual renewal. May you have a blessed Lent.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:23 AM | TrackBack

February 24, 2007

Keeping one's cool .....

One of the most difficult things about working for oneself is deciding which work to accept and which to refuse. My recent jaunt to Jamaica was not an easy decision to make in the first place and now appears to have been the wrong one. In accepting the offer I made myself unavailable for other work here in the UK, work which would have paid a lot better, but which wasn't on the table when I accepted the Jamaica contract. I was aware that there might be some work coming from the alternative source, but was also conscious of the need to build opportunities for the future.

Well, the company that enagaged my services in Jamaica now has all the materials I put together for them for their courses and, having had me deliver the first of these, now knows how they should run as well. Pricing this sort of work is always tricky, as to front load pushes the cost for the client out of the affordable. So you spread your costs over the estimated number of courses you will be delivering for them.

Generally it works out, but every now and then, you get stung. I have just been stung. I was scheduled to go and deliver the next course in a weeks time, no longer. I received a rather abrupt e-mail informing me that my services will not be required. No explanation, no apology - and no payment in lieu! So the Monk now has three weeks on his hands with no income (it's too late to pick up the alternative work since it has gone to someone else.) and there doesn't seem to be much on the table at present.

Lesson learned? You bet.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:52 AM | TrackBack

February 23, 2007

More unintended consequences ....

The Sun, a newspaper I would be reluctant to use even in the event of a world shortage of toilet tissue, has today carried a picture which surely sums up the problem we face in Britain with "Youff" and gun crime. The picture shows a young "hoodie" aiming his fingers, firearms style at the retreating rear of the Leader of the Conservative Party. Said Leader having just visited a deprived estate and spoken to the local gang members and general "youff" about their use of guns and other weapons to kill one another and generally terrorise the estates they infest.

Mister Cameron has echoed Mister Blair in stating the blindingly obvious - these youngsters have no respect for authority, no respect for the law and absolutely no respect for their parents. Their role models are violent crack and herion addicts, footballers whose behaviour on and off the pitch is disgraceful and "rap" stars whose "lyrics" praise the use of guns and violence to force people to "respect" you. So what do our favourite politicians do - rush about tellimng us that this is the problem.

Yeah, well. What did you expect? Leadership? Don't make me laugh.

These politicians have no respect for the traditions of our nation, no respect for the family (unless its theirs!) and even less respect for the forces of law and order. The role models of former generations, men who embarked on voyages of discovery, blazed trails through jungles, led their troops bravely in battles and showed compassion in victory have all been consigned to the rubbish bin by Blair, Cameron and others of their generation who have made an artform of denigrating our past and particularly the giants of our history, castigating them as exploiters, tyrants and sexual deviants. So what have we got instead? Footballers who can't join up words, rap artists who are so drugged up they can barely stand and violent gangsters who show their contempt for the new society in the traditional manner. Blair and his testoterone enhanced Blair Babes have downgraded men to inferior oppressors of women and destroyed our history and the structure of our society. They have disarmed the law abiding and empowered the criminal classes to the extent that the majority of crimes now involve the use of illegal firearms at some point.

With role models like these, is it any wonder that the disenchanted and essentially disenfranchised young men (who have been denied a decent education by the politically correct educational system now slewed entirely towards feminised learning styles) seek to find themselves a new "rebel" outlet for themselves. Part of this new image is the carrying of lethal weapons - weapons that society deems to be unacceptable and are therefore attractive to the disenchanted.

Change the culture? Well, we can try, but I rather think the damage is already done.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:34 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 22, 2007

Since it is unlikely to be read by Mister Blair .....

The debate concerning the introduction of ID Cards has rather disappeared beneath the avalanche over the "Road Pricing" debate, but it is still a live issue. My daughter, The Postulant, was one of those who responded to Mister Blair's E-Petition to stop the ID cards and, surprise, surpirse, got an e-mail (Obviously Global!) explaining why the Whitehall W*****s think it is essential.

Her response is a gem. Pity Blair and his cronies won't read it or respond to it!

Dear Mr Blair (or the unfortunate person who has to answer any replies), I have a few questions: 1) Who will you be outsourcing the massive IT contract to? 2) Will they do a better job than all of the other IT contractors that your government has signed deals with? 3) Will the project be completely secure (which has been a problem in the past), 4) Will it be delivered on time and... 5) ...are you really really sure that the cost won't creep up like National Insurance contributions, council tax, bus fares, train fares, tube fares, inheritance tax, petrol tax, the Red Ken Olympic fund... the list goes on. I would want these questions answered in a way that suggested that you recognised the potential for identity theft from a leaky government second-rate database, outsourced to contractors who don't give a damn about anything other than the bottom line. You have taxed my generation into oblivion and given us nothing in return. You have presided over a deterioration in healthcare, education, transport and job security and you offer us... shiny new ID cards that the police and armed forces are under-resourced to deal with and that will be easily faked by some gang somewhere within a few months. We are no longer interested in style over substance. Stop waving nice futuristic ideas at us and get your hands dirty doing some real work for a change. Best regards (not), Signed

The PM's e-mail is in the extended post below - Read it and weep for the future of Britain and the (Dis)United Kingdom.

From: 10 Downing Street [mailto:team@petitions.pm.gov.uk]
Sent: 19 February 2007 15:53
To: e-petition signatories
Subject: E-petition: Response from the Prime Minister

E-petition: Response from the Prime Minister
The e-petition to "scrap the proposed introduction of ID cards" has now closed. The petition stated that "The introduction of ID cards will not prevent terrorism or crime, as is claimed. It will be yet another indirect tax on all law-abiding citizens of the UK". This is a response from the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
The petition calling for the Government to abandon plans for a National ID Scheme attracted almost 28,000 signatures - one of the largest responses since this e-petition service was set up. So I thought I would reply personally to those who signed up, to explain why the Government believes National ID cards, and the National Identity Register needed to make them effective, will help make Britain a safer place.
The petition disputes the idea that ID cards will help reduce crime or terrorism. While I certainly accept that ID cards will not prevent all terrorist outrages or crime, I believe they will make an important contribution to making our borders more secure, countering fraud, and tackling international crime and terrorism. More importantly, this is also what our security services - who have the task of protecting this country - believe.
So I would like to explain why I think it would be foolish to ignore the opportunity to use biometrics such as fingerprints to secure our identities. I would also like to discuss some of the claims about costs - particularly the way the cost of an ID card is often inflated by including in estimates the cost of a biometric passport which, it seems certain, all those who want to travel abroad will soon need.
In contrast to these exaggerated figures, the real benefits for our country and its citizens from ID cards and the National Identity Register, which will contain less information on individuals than the data collected by the average store card, should be delivered for a cost of around £3 a year over its ten-year life.
But first, it's important to set out why we need to do more to secure our identities and how I believe ID cards will help. We live in a world in which people, money and information are more mobile than ever before. Terrorists and international criminal gangs increasingly exploit this to move undetected across borders and to disappear within countries. Terrorists routinely use multiple identities - up to 50 at a time. Indeed this is an essential part of the way they operate and is specifically taught at Al-Qaeda training camps. One in four criminals also uses a false identity. ID cards which contain biometric recognition details and which are linked to a National Identity Register will make this much more difficult.
Secure identities will also help us counter the fast-growing problem of identity fraud. This already costs £1.7 billion annually. There is no doubt that building yourself a new and false identity is all too easy at the moment. Forging an ID card and matching biometric record will be much harder.
I also believe that the National Identity Register will help police bring those guilty of serious crimes to justice. They will be able, for example, to compare the fingerprints found at the scene of some 900,000 unsolved crimes against the information held on the register. Another benefit from biometric technology will be to improve the flow of information between countries on the identity of offenders.
The National Identity Register will also help improve protection for the vulnerable, enabling more effective and quicker checks on those seeking to work, for example, with children. It should make it much more difficult, as has happened tragically in the past, for people to slip through the net.
Proper identity management and ID cards also have an important role to play in preventing illegal immigration and illegal working. The effectiveness on the new biometric technology is, in fact, already being seen. In trials using this technology on visa applications at just nine overseas posts, our officials have already uncovered 1,400 people trying illegally to get back into the UK.
Nor is Britain alone in believing that biometrics offer a massive opportunity to secure our identities. Firms across the world are already using fingerprint or iris recognition for their staff. France, Italy and Spain are among other European countries already planning to add biometrics to their ID cards. Over 50 countries across the world are developing biometric passports, and all EU countries are proposing to include fingerprint biometrics on their passports. The introduction in 2006 of British e-passports incorporating facial image biometrics has meant that British passport holders can continue to visit the United States without a visa. What the National Identity Scheme does is take this opportunity to ensure we maximise the benefits to the UK.
These then are the ways I believe ID cards can help cut crime and terrorism. I recognise that these arguments will not convince those who oppose a National Identity Scheme on civil liberty grounds. They will, I hope, be reassured by the strict safeguards now in place on the data held on the register and the right for each individual to check it. But I hope it might make those who believe ID cards will be ineffective reconsider their opposition.
If national ID cards do help us counter crime and terrorism, it is, of course, the law-abiding majority who will benefit and whose own liberties will be protected. This helps explain why, according to the recent authoritative Social Attitudes survey, the majority of people favour compulsory ID cards.
I am also convinced that there will also be other positive benefits. A national ID card system, for example, will prevent the need, as now, to take a whole range of documents to establish our identity. Over time, they will also help improve access to services.
The petition also talks about cost. It is true that individuals will have to pay a fee to meet the cost of their ID card in the same way, for example, as they now do for their passports. But I simply don't recognise most claims of the cost of ID cards. In many cases, these estimates deliberately exaggerate the cost of ID cards by adding in the cost of biometric passports. This is both unfair and inaccurate.
As I have said, it is clear that if we want to travel abroad, we will soon have no choice but to have a biometric passport. We estimate that the cost of biometric passports will account for 70% of the cost of the combined passports/id cards. The additional cost of the ID cards is expected to be less than £30 or £3 a year for their 10-year lifespan. Our aim is to ensure we also make the most of the benefits these biometric advances bring within our borders and in our everyday lives.
Yours sincerely,

Tony Blair

Useful links
10 Downing Street home page
James Hall, the official in charge of delivering the ID card scheme, will be answering questions on line on 5th March. You can put your question to him here http://www.pm.gov.uk/output/Page10969.asp
To see his last web chat in November 2006, see: http://www.pm.gov.uk/output/Page10364.asp
Identity and Passport Service
Home Office Identity Fraud Steering Committee

Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:30 PM | TrackBack

February 21, 2007

Colonial splendour

At the heart of Spanish Town, to the West of Kingston and in the foothills of the mountains which encircle Kingston harbour, stands this gem of the Colonial past. The two wings are linked by the open colonade which is known as the "Rodney Colonade" and which commemorates Admiral Lord Rodney, the victor of the Battle of the Saints in 1782. This was the one really successful naval battle of the American campaigns and a French Force under Admiral de Grasse was soundly defeated - too late to prevent the loss of the American Colonies.

The Colonade in memory of Admiral Lord Rodney and his defeat of the French Fleet at the Battle of the Saints or Isles des Saintes.

A detail of one of the bas relief panels on the colonade.

Admiral Rodney was the Commander in Chief, West Indies Fleet for much of the War of Independence, although his attention was focussed, perforce, on the hostile fleets of the French and Dutch in the Caribbean. This resulted in his leaving the activities along the American seaboard to subordinates, some of who where decidedly unproductive! The CinC had several bases to draw on, Bermuda being one used for activities and patrols along the American coast. Jamaica provided a useful base from which to watch the French in Martinique, the Spanish in Cuba and Dominica and the Dutch further South. Admiral Rodney was followed as CinC here by Admiral Sir John Jervis, later to become Lord St Vincent after his defeat of the Spanish and French Fleets in the Battle of Cape St Vincent at which a certain Captain named Horatio Nelson distinguished himself.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:03 PM | TrackBack

February 20, 2007

Computers, don't you just love their little ways .....

About six months ago I bought a "Portable Drive" with 50 Gb of storage space on it. Great, I thought, now I can carry my working files around with me and work on them where ever. I could even find space to download and copy all the stuff I had accumulated on my computer at work before I retired - taking care that I took only the stuff that was my own and nothing that was theirs! The result was that I had the means to carry my presentations, my book drafts and a whole load of useful and irreplaceable information that I use all the time with me.

Most of it was "backed up" on other machines, drives and sticks. Most of it.

Yesterday the Portable Drive ceased to function. My desktop can "see" that it is there, but cannot "read" any of the information on it. This is when you discover that what you thought you had stored on other drives and machines isn't. Ninety-nine percent of it is, the one percent that is vital isn't - including the draft of a technical book I have been writing for the last eight months.

A visit to a hardware fixer and data retriever was my first step. He has done his best, he tested everything on it and in it. He has tried inserting it into a laptop as the "main" drive, he has tried to breathe life back into the device, to no avail, my Portable Drive is now, like John Cleese's parrot, an "ex-Portable Drive". It appears that there is a tiny motor inside the thing which allows the disc to spin and be read. The motor turns but the disc doesn't and as it is sealed there is no way to discover why without destroying it entirely.

The supplier is sympathetic - bring it in and we'll exchange ot for a new one. Fine, but I have still lost almost 30 Gb of data ........

I could weep, but it will serve no purpose whatever. A lesson learned the hardest way possible I think!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:37 PM | TrackBack

February 19, 2007

The Law of Unintended Consequences ....

The Law of Unintended Consequences is one of the most frequently overlooked physical "laws" in life. There are any number of glaring examples where some well intentioned action has had exactly the opposite effect to that intended. My recent visit to Jamaica brought me face to face with one of the most devastating examples - the Emancipation of Slaves. The intention was laudable and extremely desirable, but the outcome was anything but what the protagonists intended - and the legacy is still having repercussions in Jamaica and elsewhere to this day. It was one thing entirely to, at the stroke of a pen, "free" several hundred thousand slaves, it was another entirely to provide them with living incomes, homes, food and even clothing! One moment they had all these things - admittedly fairly basically - and the next they had nothing and nowhere to go!

The planters and slave owners received compensation for the loss of "assets", the slaves got nothing but to be shown the gate. Some, it is true, managed to find employment, usually with their former owners, others had no such luck and had to find their own means of subsisting. The impoverishment of the entire nation from there on seems to have been inevitable and is stamped large on Jamaican society even now. I will admit that I had not appreciated this until I read about it in "The Gleaner", Kingston's principle newspaper. Further research showed me that this was just one of a number of consequences arising from that single event and to be honest, I am not at all sure that the Emancipation lobby ever understood the effect it has had.

What has sparked my writing about this? Several things, first an acquaintance is organising a "March against Slavery" in London to mark the anniversary of the Emancipation in 1837 and secondly the rise of the "Fair Trade" movement which, like the anti-slavery league, has the best of intentions, without, I fear, understanding the affect their campaign is likely to have on the very people they seek to help. In the same week I have had to endure the incredibly intense anti-nuclear movement led by the Greenpeace Eco-terror mob as they campaign to stop the building of any nuclear power plants in the UK. Again, the law of unintended consequences is likely to bite every UK based person hard as our power demand continues to grow and the so-called "renewable" resources are exceeded while Greenpeace and their anti-progress lobby force further delay (and escalation of costs) on the only sensible option.

Likewise we see in the "Global Warming/Climate Change" hysteria another group whose demands for reductions in Carbon Emmissions, ecologically friendly farming, and much more can really only be met if we all stop travelling anywhere, stop manufacturing anything and stop heating or cooling our homes. Oh yes, and we need to cut the world population by about two thirds as well. We cannot have it both ways, if we cut our emmissions something has to be given up - something that is at long last acknowledged by the Kyoto Fascisti now that they realise it is stupid to demand that the developed world do one thing while the world's greatest polluters, the developing world, do another.

Taking the Fair Trade campaign as a starting point, the campaigners want the "workers" in the developing world paid a fair price for their goods and their labour. Fair enough, but what is the price tag? Looking at our end, we will pay more for the raw materials, fair enough, but that is not the greatest part of the cost of these goods. So, if they cost more to start with, they will cost even more to finish because the cost of transport, processing and delivery will all rise commensurately. Ergo, demand will fall, or wages at their end will rise to meet the rising cost. That will start yet another spiral as the costs at this end rise to pay for the rising cost of living and so on .....

Then there is the question of a "fair" wage at the other end. First question, what do we regard as "fair"? Second question, is this really what is needed at the supply end or will it simply drive the living costs there even higher? So the coffee farm worker is paid what we regard as a wage below the poverty line. He or she can't afford a television, gameboy and Nike trainers - but, do they need them or is this a case of our material ambitions being superimposed on another culture and society? Do those who support this campaign and insist that the rest of us drink only "Fair Trade" coffee (ghastly stuff!) or eat "Fair Trade" chocolate (even more ghastly!) really care about the workers who, if the wages are forced up by their campaign, will find themselves in the same position as the Jamaican slaves in 1837 - without any income at all? Do they understand the consequences of this? From my contact with those I know who really do get rabid about "helping the poverty stricken of the world" I would suspect that they don't - or, if they do, they don't care because the "cause" is far more important than the people it will impact upon.

I fear that this same attitude is what drives the Greenpeace Eco-terrorists - their fear of nuclear power drives them to declare that anything will be better than taking a sensible and reasoned approach. One nuclear power plant can produce five times the electricity that is produced by the largest wind farm currently in the UK. They would still rather see every square hectare of this countryside covered by windmills than admit their "renewable" energy sources cannot provide the power on their own. They must also have a scape goat, so humanity is blamed for what may very well turn out to be a natural change occurring in our climate, although I have to admit that the current level of world population and our heating systems and air conditioning systems (all providing some form of heat exchange) are definitely not helping!

This is a living planet and it is slowly entering a warming phase. We may be able to slow that down, but I doubt very much if we can stop it! In the meantime the unitended consequences of their campaigns are to drive prices of basic commodities up, move jobs across continents to where their influence is ignored and to generate poverty among those who lose out as a result.

Looking about me, I see a number of things where the good intentions have been entirely negated by the Law of Unintended Consequences. As I said earlier, this is one law that really does bite!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:59 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 18, 2007

Sunday sermon

It has been a while since I last preached a sermon for the Sung Mass in the Abbey. There is a simple reason - I am now a Church Warden and my attention and labour is directed at the administrative side rather than the ministry. It is, of course, a ministry in itself, but a vastly different (and more trying!) one to that I have performed in the past. I am glad though that I have been tasked with preaching on this Sunday, the last "Common" Sunday before we begin the Lenten Fast.

The Readings for this Sunday in the new Lectionary are all about revelation and transfiguration. For the record they are:

Exodus 34. 29 to end
2 Corinthians 3.12 to 4.2
Luke 9.28 to 36

The first describes the affect on Moses of his encounter with God on Mount Sinai and his need to cover his face with a veil following that. The second is Paul's interpretation of what has gone wrong with the Old Testament "being veiled" to the Jews as a result of their blindness to Christ, and the third, the Gospel describes Christ Transfiguration in the presence of Peter, James and John.

An interesting aspect of faith is raised by these and our response to God. My sermon is in the extended post below.

Quinquagesima Sunday 2007
Sung Eucharist
Tewkesbury Abbey

+ May the Word be on my lips, and in my heart,
May he be on my mind and in my going out and my coming in,
Now and forever.

“When he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, his face was radiant.”

Encountering God is something we have all done at some stage in our journey through Faith. It would be fair to say that few of us have experienced the sort of encounter described in either the lesson from Exodus or in the Annunciation. I think it would be fair to say that very few of us have experienced the sort of encounter St Paul had on the Damascus road and perhaps we ought to be thankful for it, since each of these encounters marked the recipient and the witnesses indelibly. But I would suggest that we all encounter God in some way each and every day. Perhaps we don’t realise it at the time, but think carefully and you will realise that we encounter him in many different ways, in the unexpected meeting, the stranger who smiles and shares a pleasantry and in the child who greets us in a burst of love. And, of course, we meet him here, in the Eucharist and every time we pray.

There are several accounts in the Bible where we are told of specific individuals encountering God in the flesh. On at least three occasions we are also told that the people involved were changed in appearance as well. In Moses’ case his face became so radiant that it frightened the people he encountered on descending from the mountain. In Elijah’s case, the transfiguration had a slightly less frightening affect – but it alarmed those that saw it nonetheless. In our third encounter, Jesus himself is transfigured and his disciples see Moses and Elijah standing with him. Peter was so struck by this encounter that he even recalls it in his letters – and it is an event recorded in the Gospel of Mark as well. As you will probably be aware, Mark wrote his Gospel while living in Rome and in daily attendance on Peter himself, so this is a story he would have had first hand from the man himself.

St Paul in writing to the Corinthians makes the parallel with Moses’ veil between the manner in which the Jewish faith of that time followed to much the letter rather than the spirit of the Torah. Hence his statement:

“But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read.”

The simple truth, which Paul again alludes to, is that you cannot truly encounter God and not be changed. The changes may not be as dramatic as that described in Exodus, but as Peter discovered, it certainly left its mark on him and his companions when they came down from the mountain with Jesus after his encounter. We are not told how it changed them, but we can surmise. Before this, they were unsure of who Jesus really was – or what he was. After this event they knew, all doubts vanished.

But what does this say to us as we stand at the beginning of the Lenten season? Have we really recognised Christ? Have we really been marked by Him? Do we show this in the way we have changed behaviour? Attitudes? Actions? Does it show, as it did in Peter and the others, that we have seen the glory of the Lord? Or are we so blinded by the realities of this world that we missed the vision?

We who have encountered God in our lives should, like Peter, like Paul and all the other Apostles and saints should be showing in our daily lives the joy that comes from knowing and encountering our God daily. We are not expected to achieve perfection, but we should be more conscious than ever of those moments when we are less than full of the grace of God. That is really what Lent is about, a season to seek ways to change our lives into what God demands; to put aside the cares and distractions around us and show the gospel in the way we live.

St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians makes a very interesting point on this subject. We have, in our encounters with God, been shown the perfection to come but we are still bound by the rules of this life. Called to be God’s ambassadors and subjects, we are still subject to all the frailties that go with being human. Paul frequently points to his own past and his own infirmity when making this point – his life has been transformed by the call to be an Apostle, yet he must still struggle with the day to day distractions of life.

The ancient Israelites found the radiance of Moses face so disturbing they ran away and in order to avoid alarming them, Moses hid behind a veil. As Paul says, the fear of encountering God leads some people to draw a veil over the revelation that comes from the Gospels as we encounter God in word and sacrament. It is truly in Jesus that the full meaning of the grace revealed in Christ’s transfiguration is revealed to us, with the promise that we too will share in that perfection in due time.

As we prepare ourselves to encounter the risen Christ yet again in the commemoration of his death and resurrection at Easter, let us use this lent to find ways to show in ourselves and in our daily lives, how our own encounters with God are transforming our lives. Let us draw aside the veil that we use to conceal that grace and show it to all those we encounter. Let us truly prepare to greet the Risen Christ as we go through the days ahead. We know that we meet him in prayer and in every day things, so let us show that to the world. Let us make this Lent a time for thoughtful and frequent prayer, let us make this Lent a time when we show others how we care for each other and for those outside our Church family. Let us show how God has transformed us. Let us show each other the true Peace of God that comes from encountering Him in all we do and say.
Let us pray ..
Almighty God, who has shown us in Moses, Elijah and Jesus the Christ, your Son and our Lord, the grace and perfection that is to come, give us the strength to hold fast to that vision, to cherish our encounters with you and not to shrink away from them, to acknowledge our shortcomings and to strive to do what you would have us do. We ask this in Jesus name,

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:36 PM | TrackBack

February 17, 2007

The Fifth Season

It's the end of the Carnival Season again which always ends with big parades in the strongholds Mainz, Köln,
Düsseldorf along the Rhine and countless smaller ones in the towns around. One should not forget Aachen, though, which also indulges in Carnival festivities being a very catholic area. One of the biggest parades will take place in Mainz on Rose Monday, starting at 11.11 a.m. and taking several hours. The first paraders will have finished the course before the last ones have started. It is always great fun to watch as people work all year to make this event work. They build wagons on which themes from politics or local events are on display. Or just costumed people from one of the countless Carnival Clubs of the area. Watching the Guards marching is another highlight of each parade.

This year spectators and parader are in luck: we now have a spot of warm, springlike weather with a clear blue, sunshine and temperatures well above zero. During the last years they often had to walk through a light snowfall. Which is not much fun and ruins your costumes on top of it.

Children love these parades because tons of sweets are thrown from the wagons for them to collect. You'd think they never have sweets for the rest of the year - but it is of course much more fun picking them up than just go into a supermarket and buy them.

In the middle ages Carnival festivities and parades were the opportunity for the simple folk to tell their rulers what they thought of them without being taken up for it. This is still a good tradition. As almost every year Mausi has watched the joint TV programme by the Mainz Carnival Clubs. It is a broadcast from the Big Hall inside the Castle in Mainz with speakers and music and dancers' groups. Tickets are always sold out well in advance. Some of the speakers were really good. But during the last year our politicians provided them with a lot of ammunition: the reform of our National Health System which is not that much of a reform at all, various politicians making fools of themselves and not recognising it and the most hilarious incident of all: Wiesbaden is going to elect a new Mayor in March and the Social Democrats missed the deadline and forgot to register their candidate and having put a lot of effort and money into his campaign. Of course, none of the other parties dropped a hint and now the election will
take place without a candidate from the Social Democrats. How stupid can you be? With Wiesbaden just on the opposite side of the Rhine from Mainz this was running gag all evening. But I must admit that the said candidate of the Social Democrats is a real plucky man - he was present in the audience and took all jokes at his expense with a smile. And there were many!

The best thing about it all is that Mausi was given a holiday on Rose Monday by her employer. It sometimes pays iving close to Mainz. People in the protestant parts of Germany are not that lucky.

Posted by Mausi at 10:08 AM | TrackBack

February 16, 2007

Little colonial gem

The former Colonial Administrative Capital of Jamaica lies in Spanish Town. Unfortunately very little survives in good repair, the former government buildings in the main square stand as a lonely testament to the neglect that the colonial heritage has suffered since the independence of the island in 1962. Two of the squares buildings stand as empty shells, gutted by fire at some time and evidently not considered worth restoring then, and now there is no money for such work. Outside the central square stands St Jago's Cathedral, the seat of the Bishop of Jamaica. Built originally in the early 1700's, St Jago's was restored by the Victorians and is a fine example of a large brick structure. It is home to a fine organ installed in 1849 and 'modernised' in 1953 with a free standing Walker console.

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The Chancel and Sanctuary of St Jago's Cathedral, Spanish Town, Jamaica.

The chior and the organ are situated at the back of the Cathedral on a large gallery and accessed by a grand staircase set to one side. This gallery also provides a place for the chior vestry which is tucked in beneath the main body of the organ itself.

The magnificent organ in St Jago. The Walker Console can be seen at the front of the gallery.

Worshipping here was an experience in itself, it is a long time since I last heard a sermon lasting over an hour and the Sung Eucharist itself lasted two and half in total. That said it was a rewarding and enriching experience to share with the large congregation. Certainly one of the memories I will cherish of Jamaica.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:47 PM | TrackBack

February 15, 2007

Consultation? Only when we agree with our Illustrious Leader it seems ...

The recent spectacle of the "Online Petition" against the proposed "Road Charging" scheme our Illustrious Leader and his merry minions have dreamed up as another scheme to penalise everyone who dares to use a private car having backfired badly, is enlightening by reason of the responses it has drawn from our Whitehall W****rs and their Westminster cronies. Firstly, the petition was evidently supposed to be seen by only a few selected signatories. That didn't work because the word spread like wildfire and everyone with any sense at all logged in and "signed" it! So many in fact that the website crashed. Instead of the "less than 750,000" Number 10 expeted, they got over a million signatures before it crashed.

Does this mean the government (and more especially the Civil Service) will now shelve this stupid idea? Of course not, the Minister responsible merely gets himself on TV and announces that the petition "clearly shows that people simply don't understand the need" to do this! Like hell we don't. What we do understand very clearly is that Whitehall spends less than 25% of the money collected at present in "Road Tax" and "Fuel Tax" from every motorist and vehicle user on roads and transport. The rest vanishes into the vast Black Hole that is Whitehall, lining the pockets of the army of "special advisers", "consultants" and other hanger's on that infest that place. The Minister bleated that we should trust him that there would be a reduction in the standard Road Tax rates to compensate for the "Road Charge". Oh yeah, like we were all born yesterday and have fairies at the bottom of the garden.

The truth of Mr Brown's "Economic Stability" is that we are sat on a huge bubble of debt. A growing debt what is more! When it, as expected, bursts, the only way to balance the books for this shower of tax and spend merchants will be to raise every tax they can - and guess who will be hardest hit - you've got it - you and I! Road Tax will never be reduced, Road Pricing or charging is merely another of Brown's stealth taxes, taxes that he squanders on ever more useless (and conversely powerful) Civil Servants and their inflated budgets and incompetent planning.

I have signed the petition, but I am of the opinion that even if every motorist in Britain signed it, this government would still go ahead and implement the scheme. Why am I so convinced of this? Consider their record on everything to date. Regionalised England? No one wants it, but they have gone ahead and created them anyway - only without elected assemblies, just more of Blair's cronies 'appointed' to the "Boards". Devolved government to Scotland? Everyone warned of the consequences, but they went ahead with it anyway and now are panicked by the threat that Labour could lose control of the Scottish Parliament - and be forced to allow Scotland to seek independence! Gibralter? They planned to hand it back to Spain - despite the clear will of the Gibraltese to remain British! The government simply declared the Gibraltese Referendum "irrelevant". Health crisis? There isn't one says the Minister in the face of the evidence and the story goes on and on.

Face the facts. This is no longer a democracy, it is an oligarchy ruled by the unelected in the Civil Service for the benefit of the few who are suppoed to be our servants. Watch this space - the referendum will be ignored when this shower of dishonest charlatans think they can safely get away with it - the Minsiter has already declared that the "trial" schemes will go ahead anyway. You may be sure that once in place they will not be removed.

Send Blair and his chums a message anyway, hit his site and sign the petition!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:12 PM | TrackBack

February 14, 2007

Valentine's Day

February 14th is the Feast Day for the Christian martyr, Saint Valentine. It has a somewhat chequered history since it is also the date of a number of massacres in history, particularly that of the Hugenots in Southern France and perhaps more notoriously still, Al Capone's murder of a rival gang in Chicago in the 1930's. That said it is today the date on which it has become customary to send someone a romantic card or some other token of love - preferably anonymously.

It is a day I try to avoid! Twice I have received Valentine Cards and twice I have landed in trouble over them. I have even managed to send gifts for Valentines and landed in trouble for that too! I shall keep the saint's feast in my own way - and I won't be sending any anonymous cards or gifts to anyone! Should I receive any I shall hide them!

Somebody let me know when the 15th arrives!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:38 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 13, 2007


Yesterday, a German court ruled that Brigitte Mohnhaupt, a well known member of the former German terrorist group RAF (Red Army fraction) is to released from prison at the end of March after serving 24 years of her life long sentence. She will be out on a five year parole. Her release has stirred up quite a discussion in the country if and under what conditions people like her should be released from prison at all.

The RAF formed in the late 1960's at the end of the student protests in Germany. It was also known in the beginning as the Baader-Meinhof gang after her founders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. Its purpose was obviously to fight a war against the German state which its members thought oppressively capitalistic. The RAF is thought to be
responsible for killing 34 people between 1972 and 1991. It officially disbanded in 1998 admitting they couldn't win the war they had started.

Brigitte Mohnhaupt was studying journalism when she joined the RAF in 1971 supplying them with weapons. She was arrested in 1972 and sentenced to five years. She spent the last months of her sentence in the same prison as Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, another member of the first RAF generation. After her release in 1977 she became one of the key figures of the second RAF generation.

1977 went done as a bloody year in German history. Mohnhaupt was involved in the murders of leading figures in German industry and politics including industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer, the head of the Dresdner Bank ¨rgen Ponto and the federal prosecutor Siegfried Buback. German society was stunned by the sheer brutality of these crimes. For example, the car of Hanns-Martin Schleyer was stopped, his driver and two companions gunned down and Schleyer was abducted and held prisoner for several weeks. Mohnhaupt and her accomplices demanded the release of the other imprisoned RAF members but the German government refused to be blackmailed. So, in the end Hanns-Martin Schleyer was shot by the RAF terrorist. They never showed the least bit of compassion for their victims.

In October 1977 Palastinian terrorist abducted the German Lufthansa plane 'Landshut' on its way from Mallorca to Frankfurt. They too demanded the released of the imprisoned RAF members. At their first stop in Aden they shot the captain and then flew on to Mogadishu where they were eventually overwhelmed by special German military orces. During the next night the imprisoned RAF terrorist Jan-Carl Raspe, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin committed suicide in their cells.

Brigitte Mohnhaupt was eventually caught in 1982. But the terror still went on with the assinations of the head of the
Deutsche Bank Alfred Herrhausen in 1989 and the head of the Treuhand trust (an organisation which, from 1990-1994, took over the state owned firms of former East Germany after reunification and sought to bring them into the private sector) Detlev Karsten Rohwedder in 1991 and the bombing of a newly built prison complex in 1993. I have seen the remnants of Herrhausen's car and I've heard the 'bang' when the car bomb went off right beside the prison wall as a lived only about 20 km away at that time and both was a real shock to me.

As mentioned before the RAF officially disbanded in 1998 and it is said that Brigitte Mohnhaupt supported this decision whole heartedly. After having been sentenced to five lifetimes of imprisonment she will have served the required minimum of 24 years in March this year. As she is no longer believed to be a threat to society and has said herself that guerilla war is no longer an option for her she will be released on parole next month.

I must admit that it is not easy to come to terms with that. I know that our juidicial system is not built on revenge but on resocialisation, i.e. giving people a second chance to prove themselves useful for society. It is certainly correct that from a legal point of view Brigitte Mohnhaupt is entitled to her release. But still - I could believe a murderer regretting his deed if it was committed in the heat of a moment. But I have severe doubts in this case where the murders were carefully planned and carried out coldblooded and without mercy. And I wonder how the surviving family members of more than 30 victims of those 20 years can live with this.

It was said in the media that Brigitte Mohnhaupt wanted to do something more for the victims' families than just telling them that she was sorry for what she had done. It remains to be seen if she really will. The tragedy is that whatever she will do it will never make undone what she has done in the past.

Posted by Mausi at 07:09 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 12, 2007

Master's of flight - Buccaneers of the skies!

One of the most beautiful birds in the Caribbean - at least in terms of flight - is the Frigate Bird. These graceful birds drift about the skies, following ships, boats and anything else that may turn up a meal. They are birds I have read about in numerous books and they are always described as graceful and effortless fliers. They are also frequently described as the signal that the Tropics and the West Indies in particular are near, not surprising since they are natives to these parts. What is surprising is that they cannot fish for themselves, simply put, they cannot get into the water.

Frigate Birds.JPG
A pair of Frigate Birds soar above Downtown Kingston near the water front.

The reason is quite simple; their feathers lack the oils which would waterproof them and, if they land in the water, they are in trouble. That said, they can and do scoop smaller fish from the surface, one reason they follow ships is because the passage of a ship - and the rubbish sometimes dumped by them - attracts fish to the surface where the Frigate Birds can get at them. However, they are much more adept at stealing fish from other birds. Pelicans, Cormorants and even the ubiquitous gulls are no match for these sky pirates. They will even rob each other to get food, true "Buccaneers of the Caribbean".

They are quite large birds with a very large wingspan and a long tail which, opens out into a classic swallowtail and to watch them gliding effortlessly on the air currents is pure magic. They appear to be of the Albatross family - my ornithological references are a bit thin on that aspect - with a long narrow and jointed wing, long beak and head and narrow body. They land only to breed and raise the chicks and then take to the air again spending almost all their lives aloft. Buccaneers they may well be, but they have a grace and a presence that gives them a magic that makes one indulge their depredations on their fellow sea birds.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:22 PM | TrackBack

February 11, 2007

Return from the Caribbean

As you will have gathered, and in the immortal words of the character played by Arnold Schwarzeneger in Terminator - I'm back! The flight was long, tedious because I couldn't sleep, and so I am worn out. At present I have loads of observations to make on what I saw and was shwon in Jamaica, but will wait until I can make more sense of them.

Suffice it to say at this stage that it has been a very interesting and enlightening experience. I have made some good friends there and not everything is as negative as it appears. The hotel was an experience in itself, but the treatment I got from the staff made the rest insignificant. The staff went out of their way to look after me in every sense of the word. Nothing was too much trouble for them and their friendliness and willingness more than made up for the rest. One important point though is that I got to see real Jamaicans, something I would not have done if I had been staying in a more upmarket ex-pat establishment. That, in itself, was worth the experience.

One observation I will make here. The Jamaicans believe in sharing - particularly their music. When someone throws a party - you can hear every word from around a mile away. I don't think my ears would survive too many of those encounters, but from the comfort of my bed at 03.00 in the morning it is interesting to be able to hear the DJ extolling the virtues of the artists .....

And so to bed!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:05 PM | TrackBack

Short Story release

As part of my effort to become a recognised writer of fiction - some might say an ambition difficult to fulfill at my age - I recently submitted a couple of short stories to Amazon as part of their "Amazon Shorts" programme. These sell for a grand sum of $0.49c each and are supposed to help raise an authors profile. Well, my first two such stories have now appeared and are entitled "Facing the Banshee" and "Troubled summer". They can be found at present on Amazon.com and search for the book or my author name. Alternatively, click the links above!

The stories are both based in fact - the "troubles" in Ireland really do go back that far and further! The first story is also built around a tale from my grandfather's childhood and the second touches on how families are divided by poiltics, religion and blood. I hope that those who read this will feel an urge to spend the 0.49c (about 30p in English money and 40c in Euros!) and learn a bit more about Harry and his friends and the age they come from.

Do let me know if you have enjoyed them - there are several more on the way!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:45 PM | TrackBack

February 10, 2007


The storm Kyrill that swept over Europe a few weeks ago has brought a great deal of destruction to the woods around Mausi's village. Luckily the village itself was spared, nothing more serious than a few roof tiles lost here and
there. But the woods are quite another matter.

The trees snapped like match sticks.

Hessen, the Federal State where Mausi lives, is known for its abundance of woods. Quite beautiful really but in the area around here it's mostly conifers. And those are always the first to go in a storm.

The annual rings tell you this specimen must have been about 60 years old.

Mausi very much prefers mixed woods with intermingling conifers and deciduous trees. Now that nature has weeded out many of these asparagus like conifers maybe the decidous fraction will have a chance to catch up and fill the gaps. Mausi will watch out.

Posted by Mausi at 09:23 AM | TrackBack

February 09, 2007

Cute Assistants

Have you ever wondered why Microsoft Office products need a cute and cuddly 'Office Assistant'? During the last two weeks Mausi has developed the theory that they were incorporated into the programmes to prevent the user from smashing his/her keyboard into the computer screen!

At work Mausi needed a new bit of software which wouldn't run under her current operating system Windows NT so the IT people changed it to Windows XP - and that's where all the trouble started. Mausi spend half a day getting used to all the annoying alterations in the system like that you have to set the viewing options like column width for every single folder to make it permanent. And Mausi has loads of folders - it'll take years! Then Mausi discovered she had forgotten to jot down her desktop connections and spend another exhilirating hours putting the important ones back into place.

Some of her old software that had worked perfectly all right with Windows NT started to behave very strange. Corel Draw suddenly insists that it has an English instead of a German keyboard layout which can be particularly annoying if you need the Umlauts ä, ö and ü! I think I could live with 'z' and 'y' changing positions but the rest is a d****d nuisance. There are of course always ways and means to get around it but it takes time.

One of the things that are realling getting on Mausi's nerves, however, is the stupid question if she wants to save the style sheet as well every time she saves a WORD document. And lots of other little things that would drive Mausi mad if it weren't for Minki. Minki is her Office assistant, not that stupid paper clip this time, but an entertaining little cat. Okay, Minki's not really much help if you ask her a question but she is still young and she's trying. You should see her carefully writing down your question letter by letter, her tongue sticking out between her teeth. She usually enters the document through a catflap and gives a soft meeow greeting. Whenever she gets bored she either falls asleep, even snoring sometimes, or rises up on her hind paws and hammers blue paw marks on the screen. She accompanies each printing job with stamping paw prints on a pile of paper. And you should see her when you ask her to search for a lost file. She even lifts and carpet and peers underneath it! That never fails to make Mausi grin and relax.

You see there is a purpose behind these cute little fellows. Otherwise people would probably get angry enough not to use Microsoft anymore. Mausi is quite sick having to pay good money for being allowed to be the beta tester for that company. At home she has joined the Linux community but at work there's not much she can do about it. Mausi is one of the old fashioned computer users who likes to think for herself and not let the computer take over completely and telling her what to do and what is best for her.

Ah well, if she doesn't have a choice she'd better learn to live with it and allow Minki's antics to make her smile once or twice a day.

Posted by Mausi at 06:44 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 08, 2007


Germany has been battling the EU again for the last weeks or probably months about the amount of CO2 emissions. We agreed at last to reduce our CO2 emissions to 453 instead of 465 million tons as originally planned.

Overall Europe today cars emit an average of about 163 grams CO2 per kilometer, in 2012 this will have to be reduced to 130 grams per kilometer by improving car motors and technology. Originally, EU-commissioner Stavros
Dimas wanted CO2 emissions reduced to 120 grams per kilometer. The German car manufacturing industry promptly cried out loud and kicked up a fuss and said this was impossible to achieve and thousands of jobs would be lost and Germany would loose one of its key industries and all the rest that is usually said in such circumstances. What really astonishes me is that 130 grams is a value the car industry can agree to. Piece of cake, they said. I mean, if 130 grams are easy to achieve, why not 120?

The real reason, I think, is that the German car industry has taken a wrong turn some years ago. They thought the most promising car models were the one of the high price sector: fast, powerful engines, lots of horse power, admittedly nice to drive but guzzling up petrol at an appalling speed. I really have no patience with those people driving these new luxury off roaders made by Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen not because they live in the wilderness and need the car to get around but because they like to park it in front of the supermarket where it instantaneously becomes an obstacle in our narrow streets just because they like to show off on their way home from the tennis court. I may be prejudiced but what really got me going the other day was watching an interview on TV a few days ago with a middle aged blond lady driving one of these, her daughter sitting in the passenger seat and answering the question why she drove a car like that in town with: "Well, my husband chose this car for me. And I feel very comfortable and safe driving it. And if it uses up 18 litres of petrol for 100 kilometers - hmm, it can't be helped, can it?"

Mind you, I am not jealous because I cannot afford to drive a car like that. It is not my lifelong ambition to do that. Being a chemist, I just think that petrol, or rather all the different hydrocarbon compounds it contains, could be put to a much better use as raw materials for quite a number of products instead of simply being burnt in a car no one really needs around here. The other thing I fail to understand is why people are so opposed to a speed limit of 130 km/h on German otorways. There's so much traffic around by now that it is very seldom you can go faster than that anyway. It's probably just the feeling that you could if you could and with a speed limit you can't even if you could!

Posted by Mausi at 06:52 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 07, 2007

News from The Monk

The Monk has survived the Jamaica earthquake early this week thinking it was the wind rattling his window panes! Obviously the quake was less felt on his side of the island. Work is taking place mostly outside this week and he is lamenting the pouring sunshine and high temperatures. It could be a lot worse, I think - it could be sleet instead of sunshine!

Posted by Mausi at 07:17 PM | TrackBack

Winter has come at long last ...

Just when Mausi had almost given up hope - the white fluffy stuff appeared over night as if by magic. Only it's not exactly fluffy this year but contains rather a lot of water. But Mausi doesn't want to split hairs. As every year she just enjoys the beautiful sight. The snow making the whole village appear neat and quiet.

Mausi's village, looking even better in winter than in summer

Posted by Mausi at 07:11 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 06, 2007

Food from Cotton?

I bet that idea never crossed your mind. I certainly didn't know that a cotton plant could provide you with anything else than wool. But nonetheless this plant seems to hold more potential than meets the eye.

Cotton plants were already used by Egyptians, Babylonians, Indians and the native tribes of Mexico thousands of years ago. Nowadays cotton plants seem to be ubiquitous on all continents except Antartica - of course. In 2004/2005 as much as 26 mio tons of cotton wool were picked and about 40 mio tons of cotton seeds were recovered. For some time now seeds have been pressed to get the cotton seed oil but the residues could only be used as cattle fodder because in contrast to humans cattle is resistant against the cotton plant toxin 'Gossypol'. Gossypol makes the cotton plant resistant against pests.

In the 1950's researchers had already cultivated a variation of cotton wool that was free of Gossypol. Well, the bugs had a field day with that one. Now scientists have created a new cotton plant whose seeds contain less only 2% of the usual amount of Gossypol which makes the seeds edible for humans. The beauty about this creation is that the Gossypol level in the rest of the plant remains unchanged so that it can still fend off hungry insects.

What makes the seeds so attractive as food is that they contain about 20 weight% of proteins. It is estimated that the yearly harvest of 40 mio tons of seeds would be enough to feed about 500 mio people. Another bonus is that as contrary to for example corn the cotton plant is a very hardy one it would be even attractive to small farmers in developing countries.

Ah well, trust the scientists to come up with a brilliant idea now and then. However, I wonder when the universe will strike back and some hidden flaw will emerge from this. On the other hand - you never know, it might even work.

Posted by Mausi at 07:43 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 05, 2007

A society running on guilt?

There are definitely times when you have to wonder about the society we live in - the society we have created around us. Look about us and what do you find? Anyone who does manage to rise above the average, who dares to stand above the crowd, immediately becomes a target for those who cannot stand anything or anyone who threatens their cosy view of their own self importance. It often seems to me that those who do this have something to hide themselves, in that they hope that by distracting the rest of us, by diverting our attention to the misdemeanours or flaws in someone else, they can themselves be made to look and feel better.

I know I have written on this subject before, but enforced watching of CNN and the debates (a year in advance of the elections!) on the merits of the various potential Presidential Candidates, and the so-called "Experts" on military affairs (many of whom do not seem to have held any high ranking post and many more who seem never to have served in any military capacity in a war zone!) all decrying everyone else, it does stike me that there is something desperately wrong with our society and the attitudes it engenders. This made me think deeply (always dangerious!) on how I view the people around me and the manner in which I select my friends. Surely I cannot be unique in selecting those I feel comfortable with as friends, people for whom I have some affinity? I would not choose to have Mr Blair as a friend simply because I have nothing in common with him, least of all his political philosophy, but primarily I see nothing in him that attracts me to his company. That can be said of a vast number of people I meet, we share the same space briefly (in the figurative sense) and move on. We are polite, we deal with one another (mostly) courteously, but I would not seek to pursue a future contact as there was no meeting of minds.

I cannot pretend to understand the mechanisms that operate in selecting friendships since it is always complex, especially in the social context. I am even less able to understand why some people seem to take great pleasure in pulling down someone for some error of judgement at some stage of their lives, completely ignoring all the good things that person may have done. Why this line of thought you ask? Well, it was occassioned by a news item here outlining the recent case of a man who has done a huge amount of charitable work bringing help to literally thousands, but who is now the target of a vitriolic campaign over an alleged misdemeanour committed in his youth. Local opinion is that he has an enemy in the press who is determined to destroy him. They even name the name, but shrug and say 'it is our way'.

If it is 'our way', what does it say of 'our' society? And while this may well be a different place and a different culture, I have to say that I find the same approach in the UK. As soon as some newspaper takes a dislike to some public figure, they are vilified. I am constantly surprised by the way the media deal with some of our public figures when I am abroad. And yes, I do know that I am pretty negative about politicians and bureaucrats! I also believe that we should be accountable for our actions - but I worry that our unhealthy fixation on the wrongs of others is nothing more than a comfortable way of hiding our own shortcomings.

If I look back at the Witch Hunting age of the 17th Century I have to ask myself whether we have replaced the Witch Finder General and the Witch Finder Army with a more insidious version. Has our Press, our 'Caring' society become engaged in a new witch hunt in which any man or woman who dares to be different, dares to have an opinion not shared by the 'people' (in reality usually the latest set of prejudices driven by the chattering classes of which the Blairs are a part) must needs be hounded and 'investigated' until we can find something we can 'accuse' them of and destroy them.

I hope I am wrong, but I am concerned that we are living in a very sick society, one which will destroy itself from within unless we can learn to accept that we are all flawed, we all have things we are ashamed to admit to and we are all somewhat less than perfect. Only when we learn that we cannot improve our own standing by dragging down another will we be able to move forward again.

But I won't hold my breathe for a while yet.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:54 AM | TrackBack

February 04, 2007

News from The Monk

The Monk is still enjoying warm and sunny weather in the Caribbean this weekend. Today he attended a very early morning service at St Jago. He said it lasted for two and a half hours and was a bit different from what he is used to at home in Tewkesbury Abbey but nonetheless enjoyable. He'll certainly be back.

Posted by Mausi at 05:13 PM | TrackBack

We are the Champions!

I don't know if this is of interest to the rest of the world - but Germany has just won the Handball World Championships for the third time after 1938 and 1978! Mausi played a bit herself in her youth and has watched the last three games of the German team. It was a rather young and inexperienced German team that started into the Championships almost three weeks ago but they grew up to their challenges and today was just a demonstration where sheer willpower, determination and a bit of skill, of course, can lead you. Well done!

Posted by Mausi at 05:07 PM

February 03, 2007

What's new today?

That's a strange question to ask a cat. Nothing much ever happens in the life of a cat. We eat, we sleep sometimes even with our eyes open.

Mausi in one of her favourite resting places - contemplating the world, no doubt.

At the moment I don't do much except cursing ourselves for having grown such a thick fur in a tropical winter like this. As if it were not enough that I feel extremely hot in it I get told off by my humans for generously shedding it all over the house. There are days when I almost wish I were a dog - that would at least keep my tongue cool.

I do a morning patrol however and - if I feel like it - another one in the late afternoon. Not much to do at the moment outside anyway, except for keeping Boris the red-and-white tom clear off my patch. I love that - he's a good one for getting pounced on unawares! There are not as many birds in the garden as there used to be during winter time. They apparently find enough to feed on in the fields and woods around.

This, however, is what I stumbled over in the morning: the first of the crocus family have made it through the mulch!

These blue ones are always the first - still wet from the early morning mist.

Posted by Mausi at 12:22 PM | TrackBack

February 02, 2007

Will we ever be smoke free?

During the last years I've often lamented the fact that Germany is a Federal State. If you look at everyday politics you get the feeling we still seem to live in this conglomeration of little kingsdoms that lasted until the 20th century. Every federal state is seeking its own advantage and trying to fulfil its own interests instead of contributing to the interests of the whole country. After the experiences that led to WW II precautions were taken to prevent a centralist government coming into power ever again. So we have the 'Deutsche Bundestag' which is the representative body of the Federal Republic of Germany and is elected by the people. It passes Federal laws, elects the 'Bundeskanzler', exercises parliamentary control over the Federal Government and sets the Federal Budget. The corresponding institution in each of our 16 Federal states is the 'Landtag'. Then there is the 'Deutsche Bundesrat' representing the 16 states ('Länder'). Its 69 members are not elected but delegated by the 'Länder'. One of its most important tasks is that it has to approve any of the Federal laws passed by the 'Bundestag' that impinge on the responsibilities of the 'Länder'. You can easily see what might happen of course: one party may have the majority in the 'Bundestag' and another one the majority in the 'Bundesrat' which might effectively slow down your law passing process.

Under the last government from things got so bad that almost no necessary laws and reforms made it through the 'Bundesrat' with each party shoving the blame to the other one. With the present government coming into power at last changes were put into effect. The responsibilities between Government and Länder were newly defined with the aim of fewer laws having to get the approval of the Bundesrat. Well, trust the politicians to make a mess of everything. Somehow they must have completely lost the overall picture. When the reform was approved it turned out that now even more laws have to pass the approval of the Bundesrat than before!

Another example that is affected by this is the proposed ban on smoking. The Government thought the general ban on smoking in public places, restaurants and pubs a great idea and started drafting up a law for it. Until the Länder said 'You can't do that, it's our responsibility now'. And right they were. So now every single one of the 16 Länder decides for itself if it would like to put a ban on smoking in pbulic places or not. You might be allowed to smoke in one restaurant but not in the one in the next village because that is part of another Land.

Some of the Länder want to ban smoking in places where food is served but not in pubs. But they all claim that they want to protect the non-smokers. I think this discussion hypocritical. If you want to protect the non-smokers then ban smoking in all public places like restaurants, pubs and bars. Then perhaps even the non-smokers would return to these places. I cannot see why Germany should not survive a ban when quite a few neighbouring countries like have. No one thought that Italian coffee bars would survive a ban on smoking - but they did. And I heard a few months ago that the Irish have even invented a new pastime - "smirting" (smoking + flirting), meaning you smoke outside the pub and chat up to the girls.

I sometimes wish we could take a more practical and down to earth approach on problems around here. I cannot believe that we shall have to hope for a European law to reach a consensus on smoking in Germany. But that may well be the case.

Posted by Mausi at 05:33 PM | TrackBack

February 01, 2007

Kite-flying cargo ships?

Mausi's been watching a fascinating programme on TV last night. You think the days of sailing ships as commercial transport vessels are over? Wait until you see the invention of two German engineers: cargo ships are pulled through the ocean by big kites called "Skysails"!

The skysail has the form of a paraglider and will be huge - up to three quarters of a soccer field. It is made from new high-tech and ultra light materials and has a little gondola attached to it that contains sensors for measuring wind direction and velocity. Data are transmitted to the autopilot who adjusts the direction and velocity of the ships so that the pulling force of the kite is always at its maximum. The kite is flown in curves in a height of up to 500 metres.

The kite is connected to the ship by a single rope that only branches out farther up. If the kite were operated by two ropes instead of one this would result in the cargo ship leaning to one side as a sailing ship does which would most probably cause the load to slide as well. In heights between 300 to 500 metres winds and breezes are stronger and more reliable than closely to the sea surface so that the kite will always get enough wind to make it tow the ship effectively. Interestingly all the major routes the merchant sailing ships travelled came into existence because those ships could not cross before the wind. And 80% of these routes with their major trading ports still exist. So quite a number of our modern cargo ships should be able to use skysails effectively.

The kite could not tow a cargo ship of up to 100,000 tons all by itself of course. But it could save a considerable amount of fuel, probably up to 50%. In 2004 the biggest container ship was the Hongkong Express who needed 50,000 litres for 100 km (I don't know if that is true but my pocket calculator says that's 9 metres to the gallon). Saving up even 20% of fuel in times like this would be a considerable amount of money saved. Not talking about the cubic metres of carbon and sulphur dioxides the atmosphere will be spared as well.

When will we spot the first skysails? Probably as early as this year. After testing a model (an exact replica of a container ship on the scale of 1:26) on the Baltic sea near Wismar where the waves matched the size of the model the TV programme showed a real cargo ship being towed by a skysail of 80 square metres. It looked great. And with all this modern weather forecasts, GPS and other fancy computer data it should be possible to pull down the kite in time even from several hundred metres height if a storm is coming up.

If you are interested to see the real thing - google Skysails website. There's an English version for you to enjoy.

Posted by Mausi at 09:04 PM | TrackBack