Lord Smith of Kelvin has been tasked with overseeing the process of devolving further powers to the Scottish Parliament. As part of this process, the Smith Commission has launched a public consultation asking for representation from the general public, as well as political parties. This is my submission.
Tuesday, 14 October 2014
Saturday, 13 September 2014
I know, I call myself a political geek and yet I haven’t written anything about the Scottish referendum on independence. Well, not here anyway. I’ve tweeted (and retweeted) about it and have discussed in person with almost everybody I know. And that’s one of the things that really excites me about the referendum: just how much it has engaged the entire Scottish electorate. The news today tells me that about 97% of the Scottish electorate have registered to vote. That is incredible; this will be the biggest turnout, and the most important vote, of my life.
And after a lot of thinking and soul-searching, I’m going to be voting Yes. I’m certainly not a natural nationalist and a few years ago I wouldn’t have contemplated such a move, but a lot of exposure to the arguments over the last two or three years (that the UK-wide media are only picking up on now) and a number of other factors have led me to this conclusion.
The democratic deficit
The first, and probably most important, element in my thinking is the democratic issue. There is one Tory MP in Scotland. Scotland, over the three or so lustra that I’ve lived here, has consistently delivered centre- to left-wing MPs to Westminster, and yet we’re governed by a centre-right coalition led by the Conservatives, and before that, a centre-right government called New Labour. When England (which has the bulk of the UK population) is going in one direction, there’s no way that Scotland can counterbalance that. This is why I believe that a smaller country, with a more representative Parliament would work better. The existing hybrid constituency-plus-list system works well for us (although I’d really want to see a second chamber for an independent Scottish parliament) and I foresee a resurgence for Labour, and maybe even the Tories, in a Scotland where the whole of politics isn’t overshadowed by the giant that is Westminster.
Governing for the whole country
Following on from that, it feels to me that Westminster doesn’t govern in the interests of the UK as a whole. It governs in the interests of London and the south east of England. These regions are where both the population and the wealth of the nation is concentrated, and it distorts the whole of politics. London and the south east are crowded, so the government tightens immigration rules to breaking point, rather than encouraging migrants to spread to other parts of the country, such as Scotland, which is going to need larger numbers of immigrants over the next few decades as our own population ages.
This isn’t just a function of the current Tory-led coalition, the last New Labour government was guilty of it as well, as I’m sure many, if not all, governments over the decades have been. And I can see their point: they know where the wealth and population (hence number of MPs) is, so that’s where they focus. But it means that the rest of the country, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the north of England, suffer for it. Changing this system would be incredibly difficult without some huge external trigger. The only one that I can see that might do it is Scottish independence, or possibly the threat of it. It’ll be good for us, but I hope it’ll also be good for the English regions and the other nations of the rUK.
In recent days, with Westminster panicking as a couple of polls put the Yes campaign neck and neck, or even ahead, of the No, this sort of major constitutional discussion is finally starting to happen. And it’s too late, for me, at least. If this had been discussed two years ago, putting forward a federal structure for the UK with powers being devolved down to the nations and regions of the country then I think it would have made a difference. But now it just seems like a panicked response at the last minute.
There’s been lots of drum-banging by certain kinds of No campaigners about the reduced defence power, prestige and spending of an independent Scotland. To which I respond: yes, and…? Trying to be a major player on the world stage has got Britain into a lot of trouble over the years. I foresee a much smaller armed force for Scotland, something that can be involved in UN- (and maybe NATO)-led peacekeeping operations, with no need for ridiculously expensive jets, missiles, and, of course, nukes.
I have no illusions that independence will be easy, certainly not within the first few years. Despite what the Scottish Government says, I think that the rUK government won’t go out of their way to make anything easier for us. In fact, I think quite the reverse. This article in the Independent has some views of the English on what the rUK government should and shouldn’t do if we leave (and, indeed, if we stay, which is no comfort either). I suspect that currency union wouldn’t be certain, that there’d be no common research area or many other agencies or services that spanned the nations. At least not in the first few years. After a while, things would hopefully settle down and more normal relations would develop. But then how long did it take for normal relations to develop between the UK and Ireland? I suspect we’ll eventually muddle our way back into the EU and maybe NATO as well, even if it does take some negotiation and time.
And yet, I can’t help but be excited and exhilarated by the prospects of independence. For me the currency and economics are quite low down on the list of priorities: it’s social justice and the prospects of finer democratic control that are the key. The idea that Atos won’t be turning down benefits claims of sick and dying people, and that those social tenants who have a “spare bedroom” won’t be charged for the privilege and so forth mean that I’m happy to pay a bit more in taxes to support that.
In the last weeks of the campaign, I think something has changed. The constitutional settlement of the UK is no longer a settled thing. If we gain independence, then the rUK will still need to take a long look at itself and change internally. And if we don’t, then the same will happen. The English are getting stirred up and are looking enviously at some of the powers that the other nations have. Devolution to the English regions must happen, and with it, I hope, the democratic renewal that the country needs. And I go back to the point I made right at the start: 97% of the electorate has registered to vote, many for the first time. As long as we can retain that engagement over the next years and decades, no matter which way the vote goes, we’ve already won.
Thursday, 26 June 2014
I’ve been reading some new webcomics recently, to supplement my already fairly long list. In the spirit of sharing, here’s a few that I’ve enjoyed that people may like.
First up is my favourite discovery of 2013: Gunnerkrigg Court. This is a long-form story comic that you really need to read from the beginning. It concerns the school days of one Antimony Carver at the eponymous, and very strange, boarding school. Her life is weird from the start: almost the first thing she does is build a robot to take a living shadow back into the mysterious forest on the other side of the ravine that the students aren’t allowed to enter. I love this comic, have bought the hard copy volumes and spin-offs, but now that I’ve caught up with the archive, limit myself to only reading it every few months, as a chapter is completed: reading it a page at a time (it updates three times a week) is just too frustrating. It’s definitely worth it though, and I’ve nominated the most recent hard copy volume for this year’s Hugo Awards.
Digger is a comic that I discovered by accident, while looking for new comics to read. It’s the slightly odd (to put it mildly) story of a wombat called Digger, who digs her way into a patch of bad swamp gas and as she’s hallucinating, finds herself in a completely unknown land, talking to a multi-armed statue of a god and trying desperately to figure out how to get home. This was a long-form story comic that has now ended, so you can dive in, safe in the knowledge that you’ll not have to wait days for the next page. Digger herself is a marvellous character, as grounded and down to earth as you’d hope for in someone who spends so much of their time underground, where a mine shaft could collapse at any moment. There are a lot of other good characters too, especially Ed, who provides much of the heart and soul of the story.
A Miracle of Science is a manga-flavoured space opera set around the solar system, where the Vorstellen Police try to control a plague of Science Related Memetic Disorder, while the whole system looks on with unease at a colonised Mars that went insular for a while and has returned as a super-intelligent group intelligence. This is a great fun space opera, with lots of mad science, Big Ideas and some really fun artwork. Oh, and this is a completed story as well, so you can read it right through without having to worry about cliffhangers.
Another accidental find, and another completed story, is Spacetrawler. This is a space opera featuring a number of people kidnapped from Earth to help in an interstellar rebellion, featuring some in-depth moralising, slavery, bureaucracy and the rights of of sentient species. But it also features an anime-obsessed girl who gets herself cybernetically enhanced at every opportunity, a Russian who sleeps with everything he’s biologically compatible with and an angry Australian. Veering from hilarious to full-on tragedy and back, this is a great read.
It was Sacha who first introduced me to Girls with Slingshots. This concerns a group of friends living their lives, trying to get by in a recession-laden world, touching issues including unemployment and sexuality . It’s the characters who keep me coming back to this comic. Our ‘protagonist’ is Hazel, who drinks too much, has trouble with relationships and has a talking Irish/Mexican cactus called McPedro. She, along with her best friend Jamie, form the core of the comic. Although there are definitely serious plotlines, the tone is generally quite light-hearted, and I’m very much squeeing over the current storyline involving secondary character Clarice (which I’ll not reveal due to spoilers). GWS updates five times a week.
I came to Darths and Droids after I’d been raving about DM of the Rings to a friend, and he recommended this as it sounded similar. I recommend both (with a caveat) as they’re both hilarious. The caveat is that you’ll get the most out of them if you’re a roleplayer, or have had some roleplaying experience (or roleplaying friends). The idea behind both is that the story in question (Star Wars and Lord of the Rings respectively) are roleplaying campaigns played by your average roleplaying group who basically want to kill things and take their stuff, and the long-suffering GM who has to try and herd these cats. Oh, and the new dialogue is set to screencaps from the films. DM of the Rings is complete, having gone through all three films, while Darths and Droids is currently making its way through The Empire Strikes Back (or The Enemy Let Slip, as they would have it). I love the way that they incorporate the plot of the original story into the group (e.g. in Rings they cope with the splitting of the party at the end of Fellowship by having some of the group decide they can’t be bothered playing the campaign any more, and leaving). Darths is very good at subverting the original story as well, while keeping up its own internal consistency. Darths and Droids updates three times a week.
And last, but by no means least, is Questionable Content. This is a comic with many indie music references I don’t get, but plenty of fun characters (more as it goes on), lots of soap-opera drama, mischievous robots, sentient space stations and superheroes who deliver takeaway. Very silly, in the best way, but with scope for serious plots as well. It feels a bit more soap-opera-y than Girls with Slingshots, although in some ways it’s sort of similar. QC updates five times a week.
I haven’t even mentioned old favourites like Girl Genius, PvP, Order of the Stick and the always awesome XKCD, but if you don’t know them, they’re all worth a look. If you have any webcomics that you’re fond of that I haven’t mentioned, especially long form story-based ones, please let me know in the comments (‘cos it’s not like I’ve still got a huge post-Eastercon book pile or anything).
Wednesday, 23 April 2014
I had a brilliant time at this year’s Eastercon, Satellite 4, in Glasgow. There was a very strong programme, and like previous Satellite cons, there was very strong science thread running through it, not least through having Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (or the Queen of Pulsars, as Sacha put it) as one of the guests of honour. I got to know a few new people, mostly thanks to dancing with them at the ceilidh, and went to a lot of panels and talks.
Some of the programme highlights for me included the privilege of hearing Dame Jocelyn discuss current and upcoming trends in astronomy; finding out more about the Historical Thesaurus developed at my alma mater; an excellent discussion of women in science and SF; a discussion of CubeSats by local boys Clyde Space; scone tasting; inadvisable rocket science; and the intersection of gynaecology and lasers (Sacha again).
The guests of honour were all delightful as well. Juliet E. McKenna was kind enough to point me to some of her free fiction online when I twittered that I hadn’t read any of her work (after reading it, I’m afraid it’s not really to my taste, but it was still very kind of her to respond on Twitter). I picked up several of John Meaney’s books in the dealers’ room and spent the rest of the con trying to corner him to sign one. I eventually spotted him making a beeline for the bar at the dead dog party on Monday evening. I approached him, and not only was he very happy to sign for me, but he offered to buy me a drink (something which I was going to offer him) and spent ten or so minutes just chatting (turns out he’s a Haskell and formal methods fan), confirming the impression that I had formed of him during the rest of the con as a thoroughly nice chap and all round good egg. I bid on a couple of prints by (artist GoH) Jim Burns in the art auction, but was outbid on both of them. I did attend his interview though, where I learned that he had provided some early conceptual artwork for Blade Runner, which I hadn’t known before.
Other con highlights include the aforementioned conversation with and signing by John Meaney; talking to Charlie Stross about the future direction of the Laundry series (spoiler: doooooooooom!); the ceilidh (although I felt the band themselves were a bit bland and less than engaging) and, of course, the general hanging around in the bar. I should also congratulate the committee on wrangling cheap tea and coffee at the hotel bar. Normally, you pay an arm and a leg for bad tea at cons, so I was very pleased to see that the bad tea was going for just £1 a cup.
The one problem with the con, that was more noticeable as the con went on, was the under-representation of women. Fandom has worked pretty hard over the last few years to move towards panel parity, or at least an equal-ish overall number of men and women doing talks and on panels across the event as a whole, and I didn’t think that Satellite 4 managed that. This may have been a function of the panels and events that I attended, but I did notice a few people on Twitter saying the same thing. Hopefully this is just a blip in the process but it was a bit of a shame, I felt.
Sir Terry Pratchett was supposed to have been a special guest at Satellite 4, subject to health. In the end, he couldn’t make it, but he did record a short video message that was shown at the opening ceremony. And it was heartbreaking. The video was very short, but Sir Terry was obviously struggling, and the whole thing took multiple takes to do. My heart goes out to Sir Terry and his family and I wish them all the best. I’ll treasure my own con memories of Sir Terry all the more now.
Other than that, and despite my inability to last beyond midnight for two out of the four evenings, I had a blast. I had a lot of fun with my friends, and got to know some new people, and to cap it all, the weather was absolutely gorgeous all weekend. I’m not sure what the next con that I’ll go to will be, but roll on Satellite 5!
Wednesday, 12 February 2014
Glasgow City Council have proposed new rules for park management, and have set up a consultation on them. Having looked over these, the rules are draconian, illiberal and probably unenforceable. I’ve written a response to the consultation, which I include below the fold, and here’s some media attention, from Patrick Harvie in the Record; the Evening Times and STV. There’s also a petition on change.org.
If you want to respond, you’ll need to do it quickly though, as the closing date of the consultation is this Friday 14th February.
Tuesday, 28 January 2014
Science fiction loves its big, dumb objects. Although almost always macguffins, the best are mysterious, creepy and mind-blowingly awesome. They epitomise SF’s sensawunda at its best and I love them. So, to celebrate them, below the fold, in no particular order, are some of my favourite. Where I’ve read and reviewed books that refer to some of these objects, I’ve linked to my review on GoodReads.
Warning: there may be some spoilers ahead.
Thursday, 2 January 2014
Happy new year to everyone! My annual retrospective is now up, as usual, on my website.
Whether for sadness or joy
The old year comes to an end
The slate wiped clean.
May the new one bring you
More happiness than sorrow.
Happy New Year.
Sunday, 8 September 2013
There’s been a lot of discussion recently about a new Hugo award category for best Young Adult novel. My instinct is that this is a bad idea. Not because I have any problem with YA literature or any desire to ‘snub’ it, but for the same reason I don’t like the Oscar for Best Animated Feature: it feels like it ghettoises the genre. At least with Best Animated Feature, there’s the possibility of being nominated for Best Picture as well (although this has very rarely happened), but as it stands, being nominated in one category for the Hugos precludes nomination in other categories and I’d hate to see novels which are good enough to win the Best Novel award being ‘relegated’ to Best YA Novel.
Reading up the subject, there have been some creative solutions, including the suggestion that only young people should be able to nominate and/or vote in any YA Hugo category, to avoid the suggestion that older people are telling the younger what to read, which is interesting. This, and the suggestion of the YA category at all are both touted as ways to make WorldCon and the Hugo awards more relevant to young people and bring the next generation into fandom, something which can only be a Good Thing.
After having followed up on some of the discussion, I’m not as opposed to the idea as I was at the start. There are some good reasons out there for having one. I just think it needs to be done carefully, to avoid the problem of ghettoisation.
Sunday, 10 March 2013
First Glasgow have responded to my comments on their consultation and I’ve included their response below. As expected, there’s little there, but at least they’ve agreed to indicate when buses have differing termini. Although you know you’re in trouble when something as minor as that is considered a victory.
Services with different terminii will now have a different prefix.
The vast majority of passenger journeys are to or from the city centre and due to the proposed changes to corridor services the waiting time for customers who wish to change services will be reduced.
Service 2 will continue to provide a high frequency link between the east and west ends of the city as will services 3 and 6 between the west end and the south side.
There are a relativley few number of withdrawals in the network and these have been taken as a result of the continuing poor financial performance of these services. Strathclyde Partnership for Transport are aware of our proposals.
Thursday, 28 February 2013
First Glasgow recently announced an major change to their service network in Glasgow. Although I think that Glasgow’s bus network needs an overhaul, I don’t believe that First’s plan is the solution. Below is my response to their consultation.
The first thing that jumps out at me in this proposal is the unwelcome extension of an existing problem — that of bus services with the same number that have different destinations (and, in come cases, different sources). This problem exists at the moment — for me on the number 23, which goes to both Blairdardie and to Summerston — and would be exacerbated on the proposed new 19 service which not only goes to two different destinations, but has two different sources (Easterhouse or Robroyston). A similar problem will exist on the proposed new service 6, which seems to just merge the existing 20 and 66. The worst culprit seems to be the proposed service 38, which has no less than four different sources and four different destinations!
There is no current shortage of numbers available to us, or even letters, if you want to indicate that two services are related; there is a time-honoured tradition of appending an ‘A’, ‘B’ etc to the end of a route number to indicate a variation. The only justification that I can see for this change is so that you claim a high headline frequency. Of course, this is merely misleading window dressing — just because the service runs every 10, or even 5, minutes along some core part, doesn’t help anyone travelling from, or to, the extremities of the route.
Examining the proposed changes, it seems that you are also falling into the trap of designing a ‘star’ network, with a hub — the city centre — and spokes, similar to Glasgow’s rail network. In my opinion, this is a mistake. Forcing people to change buses in the city centre merely lengthens journeys and frustrates passengers. Having longer point-to-point connections, some of which bypass the city centre entirely, would help to reduce city centre congestion and connect the city up, especially the somewhat neglected East End of the city.
The proposed changes seem to make no effort to connect the East End with other parts of the city, particularly into the West End, which also seems to be lacking connections to the South Side, at least without having to to along one of the spokes into the hub and change in the city centre. I urge you to look again at longer routes that connect all parts of the city.
Finally, I am worried about the withdrawal of services in “unprofitable” areas. This is something which is unconscionable as it will leave poor and/or elderly people stranded, with no way to get to their local shops or around to other parts of the city. I am uncomfortable that you may end up creating ghettoes in areas that are not served by other forms of public transport.
I approve of this attempt to look at Glasgow’s bus network from a completely fresh point of view, trying to determine what the needs of a modern city are and I hope that my comments will help improve your current proposals and that we end up with a network that we can justifiably be proud of.