Archive for category Miscellaneous

The UK’s “Christian” holiday calendar

As part of the “the UK is/isn’t a Christian country” narrative, earlier this week the BBC published an article listing “Eight arguments about whether the UK is a Christian country“.

The dates of our holidays were listed in the “for” column:

For: The calendar

A glance at the way national holidays are structured – not to mention the working week – demonstrates the continued influence of Christianity, says Rees.

The major holidays around Christmas and Easter are there for the Christian festivals and events,” she says. Despite occasional warnings about a “war on Christmas”, both festivals are widely celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike.

This has always seemed a rather weak argument when you look at the influence that older religions have had on how Easter in particular is celebrated. Here is a complete list of the bank holidays in England and Wales:

  • 1st January – Originally based on the Roman celebration of Janus, on which the Julian (And thus Gregorian) calendar is based. Some association with the Christian “Feast of the Circumcision of Christ”.
  • Good Friday/Easter Monday – At least in name is based on the original pagan Ēostre festival. Edit: Although I was aware the bunnies/eggs link is recent, it appears by disclaimer about “at least in name” is not sufficient – see this blog post for more information on the history of the name
  • .

  • May Day (First Monday in May) – An old pagan fertility festival, whose rites (Such as dancing around the maypole) are still practiced today
  • Spring Bank Holiday (Last Monday in May) – The only totally Christian holiday by date in the calendar, although ceased to be known as Whitsun until 1971.
  • August Bank Holiday – No religious significance.
  • Christmas Day/Boxing Day – Also the old pagan Saturnalia/Yuletide festival.

So that’s 1 completely non-religious holiday, 5 days that are jointly Roman/Pagan as well as Christian and one each that can be claimed solely as Pagan/Christian. There are other celebrations that do not have holidays associated with them in England and Wales too – Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve/Samhain) is a common one celebrated as a Christian holiday in some parts of Europe, but that retains some of it’s pagan ritual.

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Unnecessary calls for voter ID in the UK

In the news last week were reports that the Electoral Commission wants to introduce mandatory photo ID before people can vote in England, Wales and Scotland. (It’s already a requirement in Northern Ireland)

The obvious reason for wanting to do this is an attempt to reduce electoral fraud in the UK, which is laudable. (For those not familiar with UK elections, the current system means you can only vote in one location, and your name is crossed off the list once you’ve voted, preventing voting twice)

But there are always drawbacks. In this case, two – firstly, the obvious that you get with nearly any measure is that it will cost. In order for this to work, the Electoral Commission or Returning Officers locally would need a process of issuing electoral ID to anyone who does not have a driving license or passport.

The second drawback is the one that is of more concern, and that is disenfranchisement. It is far more likely that marginalised groups will not have a driving license or passport, or have changed their name recently via marriage, or have a name that doesn’t translate into English consistently, which could cause problems matching up ID with voter records.

So, do the benefits of introducing voter ID outweigh the problems? It would seem not.

Widespread voter fraud does get detected in a number of ways by those involved in the process, such as individuals being seen voting more than once, people attempting to vote twice, (Once legitimately, once fraudulently by an imposter) known deceased people voting and so on. Despite this, only 25 allegations of voter impersonation at a polling stations were recorded by the Electoral Commission in 2012. (PDF Link, see paragraph 1.16) 19 of those related to one specific area, Peterborough. The Electoral Commission also highlights that none of these cases had any influence on any election result.

You’d not know this from reading press coverage, as news outlets list all electoral fraud, not cases that would have been stopped by mandatory voter ID. The Daily Mail is, unsurprisingly perhaps, the worst at this, with four of the five cases they listed having nothing to do with voter impersonation at polling stations. The fifth case involved corrupt polling station staff, so requiring polling station staff to check ID would not have helped. But it was not just the Daily Mail, as Channel 4 news also fell into this trap, citing the 2004 case in Birmingham which was down to postal vote fraud, not in-person fraud.

So why the push for ID? The Guardian gives us a clue, stating “tightening of the rules is necessary to restore public confidence following fears of ballot-rigging“. But we need to turn to the Electoral Commission’s own paper on the issue (PDF link, paragraphs 3.28 onwards) for the full story. They are pushing for ID checks for voters not because of fraud or even because they think it will have any impact on fraud, but purely because asking leading questions suggests the public think it will reduce fraud.

I would rather the Electoral Commission spent the money on voter education, rather than fixing a problem we don’t have and inevitably creating new problems.

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Political Careers of NUS Presidents, 1969-present

Given the news that Wes Streeting has been selected as a parliamentary candidate for Labour in Ilford North, it’s time to update my list of political platforms NUS presidents stood on and the posts they have gone on to hold. Candidates prior to 1969 did not appear to stand as part of a formal organised grouping and none I can find had any further political career.

Name Years Party/Platform at time of election Subsequent political activity
Jack Straw 1969-71 Radial Student Alliance Labour MP, Shadow Cabinet member, former Labour Foreign and Home Secretary.
Digby Jacks 1971-73 Broad Left/Communist Party of Great Britain Former Labour councillor in the London Borough of Hounslow.
John Randall 1973-75 Independent No connection to the Conservative MP of the same name, appears to have had an entirely non-political career since.
Charles Clarke 1975-77 Broad Left/Labour Students Former Labour MP and Home Secretary.
Sue Slipman 1977-78 Broad Left/Communist Party of Great Britain Joined the SDP and stood for parliament, but did not join the Liberal Democrats post-merger.
Trevor Phillips 1978-80 Broad Left/Non-aligned Former Labour member of the London Assembly. Blair’s preferred Labour candidate for London Mayor in 1999.
David Aaronovitch 1980-82 Broad Left/Communist Party of Great Britain Non-political career, became a journalist.
Neil Stewart 1982-84 Labour Non-political career, as far as can be established.
Phil Woolas 1984-86 Labour Former Labour MP and Immigration Minister.
Vicky Philips 1986-88 Labour Non-political career, became a lawyer.
Maeve Sherlock 1988-90 Labour Labour member of House of Lords. Special advisor to then-chancellor Gordon Brown.
Stephen Twigg 1990-92 Labour Labour MP, former Minister of State.
Lorna Fitzsimons 1992-94 Labour Former Labour MP
Jim Murphy 1994-96 Labour Labour MP, former Cabinet Minister, current Shadow Cabinet member
Douglas Trainer 1996-98 Labour Special adviser for the Labour Scottish Executive 2006-07
Andrew Pakes 1998-00 Labour Former Labour Councillor and special advisor to Labour Deputy Mayor of London, Labour parliamentary candidate in 2010
Owain James 2000-02 Independent Former Labour party employee
Mandy Telford 2002-04 Labour Former Special Adviser to Labour MP Tessa Jowell, married to Labour MP John Woodcock.
Kat Fletcher 2004-06 Campaign for Free Education/Independent Labour candidate in 2013 by-election for Islington Council.
Gemma Tumelty 2006-08 Independent Labour Party employee, stood for selection as Labour parliamentary candidate.
Wes Streeting 2008-10 Labour Labour Prospective parliamentary candidate in Ilford North.
Aaron Porter 2010-11 Independent Labour party member and contributed to the book “What Next for Labour? Ideas for a new generation”.
Liam Burns 2011-13 Independent Labour party member.
Toni Pearce Current Independent Joined Labour only after being elected.


Labour’s plan for Tea and Coffee prohibition

Clearly the result of a poorly thought out clause rather than any deliberate attempt to ban the popular hot drinks, the following amendment (PDF link – page 15, New Clause 2) proposed to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill rather oversteps the mark. It appears those drafting the amendment did not realise that the scary sounding phrase “psychoactive drugs” includes caffeine.

To move the following Clause:—
‘(1) It is an offence for a person to supply, or offer to supply, a psychoactive
substance, including but not restricted to—
(a) a powder;
(b) a pill;
(c) a liquid; or
(d) a herbal substance with the appearance of cannabis

which he knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, to be so acting, that the substance is likely to be consumed by a person for the purpose of causing intoxication.

Maybe it’s an attempt to get back at Starbucks for tax dodging, because I’m pretty sure this amendment would put them, and many other similar chains, out of business…

(H/T to Dr Julian Huppert MP and Tom King for pointing this one out!)


Scrap compulsory school sport – but not PE

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoicePredictably, because of the Olympics, there has been much discussion recently over funding of sports in the UK – including school PE.

David Cameron caused a fuss because he wants to cut the 2 hours a week of compulsory school PE, stating that Indian Dance is something “you and I probably wouldn’t think of as sport”.

Zoe on a Via Ferrata

Probably not what David Cameron would call “Sport”

It’s called PE. Physical Education – not “Sport”. This is the problem faced by the (And yes, I’m banging my usual drum here) male and pale crowd who probably did well in competitive sports at school – Boris Johnson and John Prescott also waded in on the side of school sport.

But ask on Twitter or elsewhere amongst the type of people in their 30s or older, particularly women, who engage in healthy physical activity and what to you find? Generally people who were put off by being pushed in the mud during school PE and regarded the whole thing as just an excuse for the bigger kids to have a go at the smaller ones. Many people, including myself, only rediscovered physical activity when they were older.

Despite being pretty fit (and I think being able to easily pass British Army fitness tests I can claim that easily) I simply do not like the kind of sports that are taught at school. I run, but I compete only against my own personal best. I climb and do Via Ferratas, but they are not competitive sports at my level. And I ride horses, which is rather more energetic than it sounds. Did you see any overweight riders winning medals in the equestrian events?

My kids are the same. They enjoy outdoor physical activities despite, not because of, school PE.

We need to continue to fund Physical Education at Schools, and make time for it but not on either David Cameron or Boris Johnson’s terms. Indian Dance is exactly the sort of thing we should be getting kids to do. Give people enough of a sampling of different activities that don’t involve having a ball kicked at their head and they’re more likely to find something they like and will carry on with in later life.

But please, not more “Sport”. I hated it, many others did too and we’re putting off the very people that need the most encouragement.


Fining so-called “no-show” patients is a bad idea

It has been suggested this morning (Telegraph) that NHS “no-show” patients should be charged a fee – basically a fine by another name.

Norman Lamb, a key adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, told the Sunday Express: “We should consider introducing a charge for missed appointments.

“People have to understand when there is only a limited amount of money available it means cuts on care that could go on other patients.”

I’m surprised this has been suggested and I am most definitely against it, for two reasons.

Firstly is having heard stories about the historical (thankfully!) practice of Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic to discharge patients who failed to show up for two appointments. However – and this is the reason I’ve said “so-called” no-show patients – stories of appointment letters turning up after the appointment and people being discharged as a result were common. In some cases, letters simply did not turn up at all.

Some bits of the NHS have very good administration but in any organisation of this size, there will be areas where the paperwork is not of the same standard. It is dangerous to make a universal assumption that the NHS is functioning correctly and fine patients, probably already suffering from appointment confusion, if it is not.

Secondly, what should the fine be? £100? That’s an awful lot of money to someone on benefits who really needs the NHS and does not have the mental energy to spare appealing fines if the administration is messed up. It’s not a great deal of money to someone who is earning a decent wage and thus is not so dependent on the NHS. £20? That’s still a big blow to someone on the poverty line but just a meal out for the middle-classes.

What has also been suggested are SMS reminders for those patients who supply a mobile phone number, something that both my hairdresser and my dentist (And I suspect many other similar organisations) use. I would prefer rolling out this more positive, cooperative approach across the NHS first before we even consider the authoritarian penalty approach.


The apostrophe must die

I’m mildly amused but mostly slightly irritated by those seeking to attack the decision by Waterstones not to use the apostrophe in their name any more. I’m annoyed mostly because of their reasoning – it’s really not that inconvenient, right?


My surname is O’Connell. In general, I don’t use the apostrophe when I enter my name on computer systems. It does not appear on my bank cards for example, because I asked them to take it off when I changed my name. It’s not on my blood donor card, because I did not put it on the forms when I signed up.

But some people will “helpfully” reinsert it if I leave it off. This leads to problems. Not just the Little Bobby Tables problem, but that’s bad enough when systems won’t let you enter it but still require an exact match on your name. More than once I’ve started at a company to find my email is “Zoe.O’” which isn’t a valid address.

And you can forget personalised domains, because someone is bound to try zoeo’ which also won’t work.

Fix the computers? I wish it was that easy but humans can’t handle it either. I’ve been stuck at the front gates of data centres or on the phone to some call centre more than once because they are typing “O-Connell”, “O,Connell” or even just Connell on the computer to search for me.

I’ve ranted about this before, back in 2009:

I’ve decided that I’m going to change my name to संसृति कुमारी. This is, as far as I can figure out, the closest you can get to “Life Maiden” (Zoe Imogen) in सम्भाषनसंस्कृत (Sanskrit). I shall write to everyone – banks etc. – and inform them of my name change. Of course, they’ll all write back and tell me that they’re very sorry, but their computer systems can’t handle सम्भाषनसंस्कृत letters.

To which there’s a simple reply – You can’t handle the stupid apostrophie in my surname as it is without breaking things, why would having it in Sanskrit make any difference?

So, until someone can fix the whole Internet and teach all humans everywhere to enter data properly, I’ll stick without it.

(As an aside, there is likely not even supposed to be an apostrophe in the name anyway. I’ve seen various explanations but it’s most likely simply an anglicisation that happened during the first censuses of Ireland to mean “of the Connell clan”, “son/daughter of Conall” etc.)


Fat, Damned Fat and Statistics

Today’s big news (Well, it had first billing on the radio this morning) is that women in the UK are fatter than anywhere else in Europe. Men don’t escape criticism either, being second “fattest”.

Whilst I don’t doubt health is important, I’m always wary of the numbers like this. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, the British Army regards me as both healthy and fit enough to serve on the front line, and I can comfortably pass all the fitness tests required.

But my BMI, 26.1, says I’m “overweight”. 18-25 is regarded as a healthy range, depending on who you ask, but I suspect I’d look like an unhealthy stick insect with a BMI of 18 and I’m almost certain I would struggle with fitness.

I do wonder how much of the media focus on BMI is due to a Daily-Mailesque obsession not with fitness and health in general, but with looking like a supermodel.


Bisexual Depression

According to a study reported in Pink News, Bi women are more likely to get depressed. (They actually studied teenagers it seems.

This might explain why I’m feeling rather down at the moment, although I’m hoping it’s just Seasonal Affective Disorder (a.k.a. “It’s wet, cold, dark and depressing outside, isn’t it?”) and a stupid amount of money spent on some hopefully-not-snake-oil “daylight” lamp might fix it.

Alternatively, someone needs to produce some good Science Fiction TV for me to watch, or something nice and shiny for me to buy. (Or at least covet, if it’s expensive)

I never said I wasn’t shallow, did I?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice



Augmented reality glasses for a dystopian present

I’m currently on a roll with near-future Science Fiction (Rule 34 currently graces my iPad Kindle app) with all it’s predictions of a capitalist, dystopian and advert-laden future. And I run across a blog post called 5 Terrifying Things Movies Don’t Tell You About Los Angeles. It’s number 5 entry bemoans the capitalist, dystopian advert-ladent present that is LA.

Billboard ads for gastric bands proclaiming “Dieting sucks!”? With a man who appears to be struggling with some sort of food-related being that’s attempting to stuff itself down his throat? Perhaps Ridley Scott just came forward in time three decades to modern Los Angeles before filming Blade Runner.

But I have a solution. Augmented reality glasses feature heavily in some modern Science Fiction, usually coupled with intrusive advertising being thrown through the cybersphere at the protagonist. We already have Augmented Reality apps of a sort on the iPhone, and seperately from this Ad-blocking technology is popular with some folk. (I use it myself on Firefox, because Flash hurts)

So, instead of glasses or a VR application on the iPhone that allow unscrupulous spammers to invade your reality with their sales pitch, how about a version with that blacks out locations of known billboards? You could even filter certain kinds of adverts perhaps. Or replace the adverts (And paper copies of the Daily Mail that accidentally come too close to you) with pictures of kittens.

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