Saturday, December 27, 2008

A New Toy

Negligent fellow, that Santa. For a couple of weeks now I've been scouting around for a new laptop. Christmas has come and gone, yet despite food being left out for reindeer and mince pies left in the hearth, there was no joy.

I guess he's got sloppy without any competition, or maybe that 'Spitting Image' video below was a wee bit close to the bone for him. Either way, in time-honoured fashion, to get something done properly I had to do it myself. And so it was that I could be seen emerging from one of Princes Street's myriad consumer electronics emporia late this afternoon as the proud owner of a dinky little Samsung netbook.

First of all, let me blow a resounding raspberry at PC World, who are still selling this particular model at the same price in their sale as they were before, despite most retailers having cut almost £20 off the price overnight. These computers can also be obtained free if you take out a 3G mobile broadband contract at the same time. A fantastic deal for someone, which left me cursing the fact that I already have such a long-term contract in place. See being an early adopter? Harumph....

There's actually not a lot that's wrong with my old IBM laptop. I've had it for about 3 and a half years now and it's still going pretty well. Unlike flashier contemporaries, it never claimed to 'do' multimedia (it's a laptop, for crying out loud – your 'multimedia experience' is going to be through a set of headphones on a train). Instead, it came built like a tank and eschewed all but the most essential features, which is probably why IBM and now Lenovo laptops remain so popular with corporate IT departments worldwide.

Kitted out in angular, Kevlar-like black plastic in a design which never changes from year to year, they just seem to say, in the most understated way possible, that serious people doing serious work don't mess about. Now, I've got a spreadsheet to update - what was it that you were trying to get your flabby and tarnished lump of overpriced, gaudilly-coloured plastic to do again?

Anyway, thanks to the costs of replacing a dud battery holding less than 10 minutes charge (nearly £100 by the looks of things), the IBM laptop has been relegated to home duties only, where it will stay plugged into a big monitor, a full sized keyboard and, of course, the mains electricity supply. Instead, that £100 has been put towards the new netbook, which at just over 1kg and with a screen size of 10”, is a considerably smaller beast, even though it is every bit as powerful.

What tipped the balance for me was the growing realisation that despite being a portable computer, the IBM wasn't, well, very portable. Combined with the bag and the power supply, it was adding about 5kg to my luggage every time I went somewhere (that was enough for Easyjet to sting me for £25 in excess baggage once!). Humphing it around airports and railway stations when combined with a case on wheels took some doing. My mobile phone can deal with most things valiantly, but sometimes, it's a computer you need and nothing else will do. In the end, the idea of having something smaller and lighter for those occasions when I was out on the road began to take on an obvious appeal.

So, I've now got a remarkably well-spec'ed little machine, with enough USB ports to keep me going, a network port (a seriously underrated feature), a surprisingly good keyboard, a lightweight power-pack (v. important), no annoying sticky-out bits when you want to use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and best of all, a battery which lasts for about 6 hours on a full charge.

There's no fancy speakers or DVD drive to weigh it down (when did you last use yours, anyway?), and while the screen is much smaller than what I'm used to, it's perfectly adequate for everything I'm likely to ever want to do on it. I've also managed to avoid the deadweight that is Microsoft Vista, getting one which runs the perfectly adequate (for a laptop) XP. Thanks to the wealth of free software there is out there, like Firefox and the superb OpenOffice suite, there isn't another piece of expensive Microsoft software on it. Cha-ching!

After all, what is it that most of us want a laptop for? If it's to download movies or do some serious filesharing (legally, of course), then you'd be better off with something else entirely. If it's to pose at your local Starbucks, then you've probably already bought a Mac or a Sony Vaio. If, on the other hand, you're like me and only want to surf the web, check your emails and do some simple word processing or number-crunching when you're out and about, then you can jettison most of the features. Just give me a good battery, a fast processor, a decent keyboard, ease of connection to the outside world and I'll be perfectly happy with that.

It's amazing what can be achieved when manufacturers stop trying to get laptops to be desktops, and just concentrate on the basic functionality which people need when they're on the move. My traveling, like my bank account, just got a little bit lighter.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Free Ride

What a great idea. Will it ever catch on here?

December 19, 2008

While you celebrate the season, if you find you've had too much to drink, the Chandler Law Group is once again helping to ensure people make it home safely.

Starting Friday, they'll be offering a safe ride home to anyone in Charlottesville.

All you have to do is call Yellow Cab at 424-295-4131 for a free ride home within a ten-mile radius of Charlottesville.

The Safe Ride Home program runs until New Years Day.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Doing It Deliberately...

From the BBC:

An estimated 95,000 people have been overpaid a total of £126m over 30 years as a result of errors in public sector pensions, the Cabinet Office has said.

Retired civil servants, health service workers, teachers, judicial workers and armed services personnel were given too much money.

The government said the money need not be repaid, as this would not be cost-effective, but many face pension cuts.


It's worth pointing out that as things stand, the UK Government is planning to adjust pensions to remove the effect of these overpayments from future calculations - something which could see peoples' pensions reduced and monies clawed back. In contrast, the Scottish Government is guaranteeing not to reduce anyone's pension which has been overpayed in this instance, and will instead apply future increases correctly to existing payments.

Unfortunately, the UK Government has responsibility for the pension schemes for teachers and those in the NHS, so many will find their payments reduced alongside those in the armed forces and civil service. However, those in the Scottish local government, fire and police service schemes will be able to keep these small historic overpayments.

As someone who used to ply his trade in the pensions industry, I have to say that in my opinion, the approach of the Scottish Government is the only fair one here. In contrast, the approach of the Labour Government in Westminster is both miserly and crass. Proposing to cut back veterans pensions at Christmas time? Good grief...

Frankly, as long as people's expectations were reasonable at the time and if the error is as long-standing as this one seems to be, it'd be better just to write it off. Especially given 1) the small amount of money involved (we're talking about the future indexed effects arising from a £124m overpayment made over a 30 year period - i.e. chickenfeed) and 2) Westminster fiascos like this one here.

Nonetheless, I daresay it still won't stop the inevitable incoherent ululations of distress about the supposed unfairness of Scotland doing its own thing here where it is able to do so. Who'll be the first rabid anti-SNPer to go off on one about this, do we think?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"But Flash! We've Only Got 14 Hours to Save The Earth!"

There you have it. Of all the phrases to stumble over at PMQ's, Gordon Brown managed it when trying to say "We not only saved the world..... [Hon members: Uprorious laughter] We not only saved the world's banking system..."

Sometimes, those Parliamentary sketches just write themselves!

UPDATE: Via Guido, here's someone else's grab of events from YouTube:
UPDATE 2: An interview with the German Finance Minister, Peer Steinbr├╝ck, in Newsweek. Explosive stuff...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Constitution Unit Takes Calman To Task

From the Press Association...


SCOTLAND Devolution
03 Dec 2008 - 13:37
By Katrine Bussey, Deputy Political Editor, Press Association Scotland
(ScotFile:News special)

A think-tank warned today that the final conclusions of a high-profile body set up to examine devolution "may be too restrictive".

The Calman Commission, which was tasked with looking at all aspects of constitutional reform short of independence, published its first report yesterday.

But today a university-based think-tank raised concerns about the commission's eventual findings.

Members of the Constitution Unit, an independent research centre based at University College London, argued that because the Calman Commission incorporated a wide range of views, it may end up only reaching conclusions on those issues where there was a consensus.

It said as a result of that there was a danger that the commission's work "may lead to lowest common denominator solutions".

And the unit warned: "Such solutions are unlikely to provide a compelling way forward for devolution in Scotland, or across the UK."

Because the SNP are not involved in the Calman Commission, the unit said yesterday's report "only represents half the debate".

And it added that the commission and the Scottish Government's National Conversation "needed to engage with each other to ensure that issues of great importance of Scotland and the UK as a whole are debated in a more comprehensive way".

The unit claimed the Calman Commission was "only looking at part of the picture from a unionist point of view".

It stated the composition of the commission was "entirely Scottish" and said it had "looked at devolution chiefly from the position of Scottish-UK relations, with some attention paid to English concerns".

And as a result the unit said Calman was "not a thorough consideration of the implications for England of devolution to Scotland, or questions relating to Wales, or of broader issues for the UK as a whole".

In its report yesterday the Calman Commission ruled out full financial autonomy for Scotland.

But it identified broadcasting, energy policy, animal health, firearms and misuse of drugs among a range of areas which could see further powers given to Holyrood, in an interim report out today.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Tak a donner doon ma' steamie

Reciprocating a link here to an interesting new blog from The Scotsman/SoS/the Edinburgh Evening News. 'The Steamie' combines the politics journalists from the Scotsman stable and includes such luminaries as Kenny Farquarson, George Kerevan, Hamish McDonnell and the only person of my acquiantance to have met Saddam Hussein, Gerri Peev.

The Herald blogs have been one of the brighter points of that particular title's online presence, while Brian Taylor's writings are, without exception, a delight to read. For that reason, The Steamie has a fair bit to live up to in terms of meeting the standards set by others. Having stuck with the Scotsman through thick and thin (v-e-r-y thin indeed when Brillopad was at the helm), I wish it well.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Nyahh! Yez Widny Get Intae Europe! a charge often levied about potential independent Scottish membership of the EU, as is the 'argument' that Scotland somehow wouldn't be capable of Eurozone membership on budgetary grounds.

Nonsense, both. However, my eye is drawn to the section of last week's pre budget report (page 27, table 2.3 as it happens). Here, you can learn that projected UK government borrowing will peak at over 8% of GDP in 2009/10. And there's every prospect it could be higher than that.

Normally, to get these kinds of figures, you have to treat an independent Scotland as being saddled to UK spending commitments and leave out the oil. These UK figures, remember, include 100% of North Sea revenues. Leave them out, as is traditionally the case when calculating the supposed Scottish 'borrowing requirement' so beloved of unionist barrack-room economists, and there isn't a single year from 2003 onwards where the UK would have operated within the 3% deficit limit (see right hand column - positive numbers indicate a deficit).

Of course, allowances can always be made and I've no doubt that just as an independent Scotland would find a path smoothed for her in terms of EU membership, so too would the UK in terms of Eurozone membership. However, as the pound slides towards parity with the Euro, and even with 'the people who matter' apparently in support, the possibility still has to be acknowledged that the UK might not be allowed to join the Euro even if it wanted to.

Fun and games. Anyway, to end on a positive note, with all this government debt, it might be time to buy shares in companies which make scientific calculators. My bog-standard desk one has already run out of zeros trying to keep track.