bookmark_borderA bigger greenhouse

Thomas’s new toy
Originally uploaded by PhylB

Our old greenhouse lost a few panes during Hurricane Bawbag, and somewhat bizarrely the insurance company decided it would rather give us a new greenhouse instead of replacing the two broken panes.

So today two guys from Evander turned up with a half-assembled greenhouse.

However, the one they brought was significantly bigger than the old one (same width, but much deeper), so they had to build it in a different location from the old one.

I’m well chuffed, however – I’ve been annoyed for years that the old one was too wee.

The old drawback is that I now need to move the fig tree and the grape vine into the new greenhouse, and the ivy out of it, but I’m sure it’ll be worth it!

bookmark_borderThe jobs created by independence

Independence sceptics are often worrying endlessly about the jobs that might disappear as a result of Scottish Independence.

However, many jobs will be created as a result of independence. Here are a few areas that spring to mind, but I’m sure there will be many more.

  • A lot of countries will open embassies in Edinburgh — we can’t be sure of the number, but there are about 60 embassies in Dublin, and about 75 in Copenhagen, so one would expect a similar number. Some of these will be small, but others will be huge, and there will be lots of local jobs needed to set them up and keep them running, on top of the money created by embassy employees finding places to live and spending money in local shops and restaurants. Of course Scotland will need to finance a similar number of embassies abroad, but we’re already paying about 10% of what the UK are spending on representations abroad, so I reckon there’ll be a net gain.
  • There will be ministries created for the previously devolved areas. Using Denmark as a basis (it’s probably a better guide than using 10% of the UK), there might for instance be about 850 employees in the Scottish Foreign Office in Edinburgh and about 150 in the Scottish Ministry of Defence.
  • Even if the SNP at the moment claim it won’t be needed, I think it’s likely there will be a Central Bank of Scotland, even if it’s just to administer a currency board. Using Denmark as a guide again, there might be more than 500 people working there.
  • There are other government offices of various kinds. For instance, the DVLA in Swansea has almost 7000 employees — a Scottish DVLA would therefore probably have at least 700 employees. On the other hand, there are UK government offices in Scotland — for instance, the HMRC accounts office in Cumbernauld AFAIK covers an area larger than Scotland — so it’s somewhat complicated to work out exactly the net number of jobs created in Scotland.
  • Some companies would need to create separate Scottish subsidiaries. For instance, mobile phone companies would presumably need completely separate organisations in Scotland. I’ve no idea how many companies we’re talking about here, or how large their Scottish operations are, but we must be talking about thousands of jobs moving to Scotland. Of course there will also be companies based here that will need to create English subsidiaries in the same way, but I have a feeling the net effect will still be very positive for Scotland.

Of course there won’t be a perfect match between the jobs that will disappear and those that will be created — you can’t retrain a nuclear weapons worker to become a Foreign Office employee overnight — but I think on the whole it seems likely that independence will be very good for Scottish employment figures.

bookmark_borderDavid Livingstone, the inventor of Newscots

(An article from the English-language Wikipedia of a parallel universe that slipped through a wormhole and ended up in my inbox.)

Livingstone's statue in Princes Gate Gairdens, Edinburgh
David Livingstone was born on 19 March 1813 in the mill town of Blantyre, five years before Scotland would regain her independence as a result of the Napoleonic wars, into a Protestant family believed to be descended from the highland Livingstones, a clan that had been previously known as the Clan MacLea. Born to Neil Livingstone (1788–1856) and his wife Agnes (1782–1865), David, along with many of the Livingstones, was at the age of ten employed in the cotton mill of H. Monteith – David and brother John working 12-hour days as “piecers”, tying broken cotton threads on the spinning machines. The mill offered their workers schooling of which David took advantage.

Gradually, and by dint of infinite patience and concentration, the young cotton worker became master of many languages, and began the scientific study of their structure. About 1841 he had freed himself from all the burden of manual labour, and could occupy his thoughts with the dialect of his native district, West Central Scots; his first publication was a small collection of folk songs in the Ayrshire & Lanrikshire dialect (1843). His remarkable abilities now attracted general attention, and he was helped to continue his studies undisturbed. His Grammar of the Scots Dialects (1848) was the result of much labour, and of journeys taken to every part of the country. Livingstone’s famous Dictionary of the Scots Dialects appeared in its original form in 1850, and from this publication dates all the wide cultivation of the popular language in Scots, since Livingstone really did no less than construct, out of the different materials at his disposal, a popular language or definite people’s language for Scotland. With certain modifications, the most important of which were introduced later by Livingstone himself, but also through a latter policy aiming to merge this Scots language with Buikscots, this language has become Newscots, one of Scotland’s three official languages (the others being Buikscots and Gaelic).

He lived very quietly in lodgings in Glesga, surrounded by his books and shrinking from publicity, but his name grew into wide political favour as his ideas about the language of the workers and peasants became more and more the watch-word of the popular party.

Livingstone holds perhaps an isolated place in literary history as the one man who has invented, or at least selected and constructed, a language which has pleased so many thousands of his countrymen that they have accepted it for their schools, their sermons and their songs. He died in Glesga on September 23, 1896, and was buried with public honours.

bookmark_borderThe Oneiric Ocelot

cat wallpaper
Originally uploaded by SkanD GupT

I recently installed Ubuntu 11.10 – Oneiric Ocelot – on my work laptop, upgrading from Ubuntu 10.10.

I had read about how many people criticised it for making Unity the default window manager, but I had expected it otherwise to be quite a straight-forward upgrade.

It turned out to be quite a nightmare, however. Basically, it seems to be an odd mixture of annoying the power users, while allowing so many errors that ordinary users cannot use the system:

  • My wireless card, which had worked flawlessly in earlier versions, didn’t work out of the box. Eventually I found some advice, namely to remove bcm43xx from blacklist.conf, and it’s now working fine again, but non-techie users would probably not have worked this out.
  • The built-in webcam has stopped working, and I cannot find a way to make it work (although Ubuntu 12 beta testers report it should be working there).
  • After I installed Skype and minimised it, it completely disappeared, and I had to kill it and start it up again to get the window back. It turns out Skype by default is blacklisted in the notification area. It was quite easy to fix, so long as you know how to edit notification area blacklists.
  • Bash autocompletion is broken, and to fix it, you need to make a change to line 1587 in the system file /etc/bash_completion.
  • Different from most flavours of Linux, Ubuntu 11 assumes the computer’s internal clock is set to local time rather than UTC. To fix that, you need to edit /etc/default/rcS.
  • Most of the system preferences have disappeared, so you cannot by default change the default font size, make windows get the focus on mouse-over, or many other small details that were easy before. To get the same options as before, you now need to install either gconf-editor or gnome-tweak-tool, but if you’re not aware of these tools, you’ll be seriously annoyed for a while if you don’t like the default settings.
  • Synaptic is now a separate install – by default you have to use the software centre, which means that many programs are unavailable by default.
  • Also TEX Live is completely outdated – the included version is the one from 2009, not 2011, so if you’re serious about TEX, you need to install it separately.

I’m sorry, Ubuntu people, but this just isn’t good enough. You can’t remove all the power tools but still require users to know how to edit system files by hand.

I’m hoping Ubuntu 12 will be better, but otherwise I’ll be looking for another flavour of Linux next time.

bookmark_borderLes tickets restaurant

Tickets restaurant
Originally uploaded by viralbus

When I worked in Champs-sur-Marne (Paris) last week, I was impressed by the way most of my co-workers would jump into their cars at 12 o’clock, drive to a nice restaurant, have a leisurely two- or three-course meal and then return to work around 1.30.

I then realised it wasn’t just because they were really fond of good food, but also because it’s encouraged by a system called “Ticket Restaurant“.

Basically each employee can buy a number of tickets restaurant at half their nominal value (i.e., they pay €5 for a ticket worth €10), while the employer pays the other half; I believe the employer gets some sort of tax relief so that the actual cost is less than €5.

It’s really a win-win-win situation:

  • The employee gets a relaxing lunchbreak and a square meal at a very decent price.
  • The employer has satisfied employees and doesn’t need to provide a canteen.
  • The wider economy can sustain many more jobs in the restaurant trade than if the system didn’t exist.

I have a feeling introducing a similar system in the UK could help kickstart the economy, as well as decreasing stress levels in industry.

bookmark_borderTwo options: Independence or Devo-Max

So now David Cameron is promising more powers after a No to Scottish Independence:

And let me say something else about devolution.

That doesn’t have to be the end of the road.

When the referendum on independence is over, I am open to looking at how the devolved settlement can be improved further.

And yes, that means considering what further powers could be devolved.

But that must be a question for after the referendum, when Scotland has made its choice about the fundamental question of independence.

Alex Massie sums up quite nicely how much the Tory position has changed recently.

However, I do think Cameron’s idea that the SNP have to spell out in minute detail what independence will mean while he only needs to put his thinking-hat on after a No vote is manifestly unfair.

If a No vote effectively is a vote for Devo-Max, then Cameron needs to say so clearly now.

Incidentally this would solve the big outstanding issue about the referendum, namely that the SNP would like to include Devo-Max on the ballot paper while Westminster want only two options. The solution is simple: Put the following two options on the ballot paper:

  1. Independence
  2. Devo-Max

Of course, the Unionist parties would have to spell out Devo-Max in full detail before the referendum, but surely they’ll have time to do that before 2014.

bookmark_borderChez l’ Savoyard

Chez l’ Savoyard
Originally uploaded by viralbus

For the past three days I’ve been working at a French company in Champs-sur-Marne, a Parisian suburb. Every day we’ve gone for lunch at a local restaurant, and it’s been a pleasant experience every time.

Today we went to quite a special place, Chez l’ Savoyard in the historical centre of Champs-sur-Marne.

At first I thought it was just a traditional little pub and restaurant.

However, when the owner spotted me, he shouted “Il est nouveau!” and rushed over to shake my hand, saying “Mon fils s’appelle Thomas aussi.” (He quickly forgot, though, and started calling me l’anglais instead!!!)

We then sat down at a table, and one of my temporary colleagues went into the kitchen to find out what was on the menu, while one of the others fetched a bottle of white wine in the bar and grabbed a bottle of crème de cassis from another table.

There were four starters to choose from – eggs mayonnaise, herring salad, charcuterie and salad Parisienne – but there was only one main course on offer: cuisse de canard.

We didn’t have to cook the food ourselves, but the starters were served by another customer who happened to be near the kitchen at that time.

The food was lovely, though – the mayonnaise was homemade, very runny and mustardy, and the duck leg was perfectly cooked.

After each course, we carried the dirty dishes back to the kitchen ourselves.

Because it was my first time there, the owner made us a special dessert – some sort of ice cream with meringue served together with a slice of custard pie. To show that I had sussed the system, I carried our dirty plates back to the kitchen.

We paid €12.50 (£10.37) each. Funnily enough, we didn’t have to work the till ourselves.

Don’t miss Chez l’ Savoyard next time you’re in Champs-sur-Marne!