Sunday, December 31, 2006

Book Review: The Maritime Paintings of Montague Dawson

For my last post of 2006: I was given as a Christmas present the book
The Maritime Paintings of Montague Dawson
by Ron Ranson

and appreciated it so much that I would write a quick review of this wonderful collection of the works of a master.

As it says on the back cover, "Montague Dawson is considered by many to be the supreme maritime artist of the twentieth century." Well, I don't claim to be a great expert on art but I share that opinion.

This paperback version, published in 2004, updates a hardcover edition first released in 1993. It contains an introduction which describes Dawson's life, work and painting style, and then a collection of his paintings and sketches, including 57 colour reproductions, 21 monochrone ones and photographs, and 14 sketches. Most of these have some explanatory text attached describing the ships in the pictures, the historical scenes portrayed, or how Dawson came to paint them.

Several of the photographs show the artist with some of his most famous works and with people associated with the ships in them, including Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten and Sir Francis Chichester. The book concludes with a list stating which of Dawson's paintings had been reproduced (useful but very disappointing as some of the pictures of which I would most like to buy a print do not ever appear to have been published in that form.)

Rather than concentrate on the best known of Dawson's paintings, Ranson has included many which are equally brilliant but not as famous. Many of these deserve to reach a wider audience.

I have appreciated Dawson's paintings for many years, but I didn't know anything about the man who painted them until I read this book: I value it almost as much for what it told me about this remarkable artist as for the beautiful pictures it contains. At one time he was said to be the second best remunerated artist in the world (after Picasso) and the pictures in thes book show you why.

Ron Ranson's book is an absolute must for anyone who collects or enjoys pictures of ships and the sea: it will appeal to many others who enjoy looking at beautiful things.

If you enjoy this book, another work that you might appreciate is "The Marine Paintings of Geoff Hunt" and vice versa. However, I cannot pretend that the two books are on quite the same level. Hunt is brilliant: Montague Dawson was the master.

Monday, December 25, 2006

The real millennium?

Today Christians all over the world, and millions who are not christian but welcome the excuse for a celebration, remember the birth of Jesus. Seven years ago we also celebrated the 2,000th anniversary of that birth: however, there is some doubt over which year Jesus was actually born.

Anyone with no interest in either religion or historial detective stories should probably skip this post, and let me just wish you a Happy Christmas. But I find it an interesting intellectual exercise to look through the evidence and try to work out when Jesus was actually born.

It's extremely probable that the actual date was between 8 B.C. and 6 A.D. - in other words this year is the last of the likely dates for the real second millennium. It could be this Christmas which is the actual 2000th anniversary.

Prior to the reforms introduced by Pope Gregory in 1582, when he corrected the errors in the calendar brought in by Julius Caesar, the idea of a universal system of dating barely existed. Most people counted dates from the founding of their city, or according to how many years the current monarch had been reigning, or by some similar method. These systems are very hard to collate, and it can be extremely difficult to compare dates of events in neighbouring kingdoms or to establish exactly when ancient events happened.

Ironically, although Pope Gregory's estimate of the year of Jesus's birth now provides the foundation of our entire system of dating, it is fairly unlikely that he got the year precisely right. To work out when Jesus might have been born, we have to consider the known dates of two monarchs and two roman governors: Herod the Great, Herod Archelus, Quirinius, and Pontius Pilate. Two of the four gospels, those of Matthew and Luke, contain accounts of the birth of Jesus: the accounts are very similar but the dates inferred by references to these four rulers do not quite match, and neither correspond to Pope Gregory's dates.

The gospel according to St Matthew, and one very old version of Luke's gospel in which one name is different from the draft usually accepted today, suggest that Jesus was born between 8 B.C. and 5 B.C. while the usually accepted version of St Luke's gospel suggests that he was born in 6 A.D.

Both gospels refer to the birth of Jesus as taking place in the time of "Herod the King." All six of the princes who governed parts of Palestine as client rulers under Roman authority between 37 B.C. and 93 A.D. had "Herod" as one of their names, so there is some potential for confusion about which ruler is meant when the name is used in the bible.

The compiler of Matthew's gospel clearly intended the expression "Herod the King" to refer to Herod the Great. After the death of this ruler, the romans divided the kingdom between three of his sons, Herod Archelus, Herod Antipas, and Herod Philip, none of whom had the title of King. Matthew's gospel also refers to Archelus as the son of the King Herod in whose reign Jesus was born.

We can be fairly certain that the Herod who put John the Baptist to death and who sent Jesus back to Pilate was Herod Antipas. The dates match, and the Jewish historian Josephus states that Herod Antipas killed John the Baptist (and severely criticises Herod for the killing.) But it is not quite so easy to be certain which was the Herod in whose reign Jesus was born.

Records state that Herod the Great died of a particularly nasty medical condition shortly after a lunar eclipse. We have the advantage over Pope Gregory, in that modern astronomers have calculated the dates of both past and future eclipses: the eclipse a few days before Herod died must have been on 23rd March 5 B.C. pm or 13th March 4 B.C, probably the latter.

So if Jesus was born in the reign of Herod the Great he cannot have been born in the year which our calendar is based on: if Matthew's Gospel is right then Jesus was born between about 8 B.C. and at the latest 4 B.C.

However, this date is not consistent with the currently favoured text of St Luke's Gospel.

St Luke refers to the birth of Jesus as being in Bethlehem because his mother's husband, Joseph, had to go there for a census. The currently approved draft of the gospel refers to this as "the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria."

The significance of the governor of Syria in this context is that this was the official who supervised the client kings in the area on behalf of Rome. During the period when Judea was run by Roman Prefects such as Pontius Pilate, they reported to the Governor of Syria.

The life of Publius Sulpicius Quirinius is fairly well documented in Roman records. After being consul in Rome in 12 B.C. he went to the middle east to put down a rebellion and held various senior positions over the following 20 years. He was governor of Syria from 6 A.D. until 9 A.D. and there was indeed a census (mentioned in history because it was unpopular enough to spark an uprising) at the start of his period in this office.

So if Luke's gospel is right, Jesus was born in 6 A.D. In this case the Herod who ruled at the time of his birth would have to have been Herod Archelus, who ruled Judea and Samaria from the death of Herod the Great until he was sacked by the Romans in 6 A.D.

This is a much later date than is usually assumed for the birth of Jesus, but Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea from 26 A.D. to 36 A.D. so birth in 6 A.D. would still give Jesus time to grow to manhood by the time Pilate was in office. Luke's gospel gives the start of John the Baptist's witness as "The 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" which means 29 A.D. If he was born in 6 A.D. Jesus would have been 23 in that year.

Not surprisingly there have been various attempts to explain the apparent contradiction between Matthew's and Luke's gospels. One theory holds that Quirinius might have had some previous authority over Syria before his formal appointment as governor of Syria in 6 A.D.

As Quirinius was a former Consul and held various senior commands in the middle east from 10 B.C. onwards, it is not entirely impossible that he might have been given some such authority during one of his campaigns. The theory goes that there might have been an earlier census during that period.

I am, however, dubious about this idea: if Quirinius was given any authority over Syria while he was suppressing the Homanadensians' rebellion from 10 B.C. to 7 B.C, it would have been as a military commander in chief for the area. Since it was not unknown for a census to provoke revolts - as the 6 A.D. one did - you would think that a military commander who already had one major rebellion on his hands would not want to risk further trouble by organising a census in the provinces surrounding his main area of operations.

Another possible explanation concerns an alternative draft of Luke's Gospel. A copy has survived of a version of this gospel belonging to Tertullian, a North African Christian who lived about 200 A.D. His version appears to have the name 'Saturnius' as governor, instead of Quirinius. And there was indeed a Saturnius who was governor of Syria from 8 B.C. to 6 B.C.

Now it is possible, and was assumed by the scholars who compiled the bible as we currently use it, that Tertullian's version of Luke's Gospel was in error on this point. But suppose that his version is right and the other drafts were wrong.

If Saturnus was the governor of Syria who should have been referred to, and if he held a census the year after Quirinus had put down the rebellion in the neighbouring province of Asia, that would give a date for the birth of Jesus of 6 B.C. which lines up perfectly with St Matthew's Gospel.

So to sum up, the two most likely dates for tbe birth of Jesus are 6 B.C. and 6 A.D. If the former is right, we celebrated the Millenium six years too late: if the latter, we celebrated seven years too early, and should instead be marking the 2000th anniversary of Jesus's birth today. I do not claim to know which is right. But I hope the possibility that this is a very special anniversary gives you every excuse to have a very special and happy Christmas.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Only Tony's Cronies need apply for English Heritage job

Tessa Jowell was at the centre of a bitter new row over Labour "cronyism" last night after she vetoed both the recommended candidates, selected by an independent panel, for the post of chairman of English Heritage. The apparent reason was their political leanings. One, Lord Marland, is the Conservative party Treasurer, the other, Lady Cobham, the partner of the former Conservative Cabinet minister David Mellor.

The post will now be readvertised at further cost to us, the taxpayers.

The move follows controversy over the appointment of Labour supporters to the Big Lottery Fund, which distributes £2.3 billion of lottery money.

Last night Lord Marland, who had been told he was the favourite, accused Miss Jowell of rejecting him because he was not a member of the Labour Party.

"To have been independently deemed the preferred candidate and then rejected by the Culture Secretary, shows the Labour Party is only interested in appointing one of its own," he said.

According to the Telegraph, Lord Marland and Lady Cobham, who chairs the British Casino Association, were recommended after being interviewed by the independent body set up by Lord Nolan which aims to ensure that public bodies are not stuffed with political appointees.

This really is disgraceful, but no surprise.

Heaven only knows that all governments in history have made some use of patronage to bolster their position and appoint friends, but New Labour have been particularly shameless and quite hypocritical. They complained bitterly about supposed cronyism under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, but at least most of the people we appointed were qualified.

Labour keep setting up independent reviews and panels, then finding ways round them, or just ignoring the results if they don't like them.

Apart from anything else, if they were going to rig the appointment process to appoint one of their own, could Labour not at least have been competent enough to find someone they wanted to give the job to who was able enough to get through the sift, so they didn't have to waste money going through the appointments procedure twice?

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas 2006 Duty Chemist rota for Whitehaven

A few items of holiday information for Whitehaven and Copeland which I hope readers of this blog from that area may find useful.

First, here is the Duty Chemist rota for the Whitehaven and North Copeland area:

Christmas Eve: Normal Sunday hours.
Pharmacies at Morrisons, Tescos and Boots, and most of those other chemists which would normally open on a Sunday, will all be open.

Christmas Day: Emergency rota, 6pm to 7pm:
Alliance Pharmacy,
67-68 Main Street, Egremont.

Boxing Day: Emergency Rota, 6pm to 7pm
Morrisons Pharmacy, Whitehaven

Wednesday 27th to Saturday 30th December – Normal hours

New Year’s Eve: Normal Sunday hours.
Pharmacies at Morrisons, Tescos and Boots, and most of those other chemists which would normally open on a Sunday, will all be open.

1st January 2007: Emergency Rota, 6pm to 7pm
W Fare Ltd,
11 Market Place, Whitehaven.

In an emergency phone your GP out of hours service or the A&E department at WCH. Urgent prescriptions should be endorsed “Urgent” by a GP.

West Cumberland Hospital: 01946 693181

NHS Direct: 0845 4647

Other holiday details:

Copeland Borough Council:

For emergencies relating to flooding, homelessness, or dangerous buildings, ring the emergency out of hours number, which is Whitehaven 815500.

Non-emergency services are closed until 2nd Jan: there will be no refuse collection between Christmas and New Year, and collections in the first week of 2007 will be one day later than usual.

However, most household waste sites in Cumbria, including the one at Frizington in Copeland, will be open for most of the holiday period, excluding bank holidays on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and New Year's Day.

Cumbria Highways:

24 hour highways hotline, 0845 609 6609

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Save our post offices

Hospitals under threat: schools facing rationalisation: now the latest vital service under threat is post offices.

The Labour Trade and Industry secretary, Alistair Darling, has announced that 2,500 post offices are likely to close because the network loses £4 million a week.

People running post offices in Cumbria say they are preparing for the worst.

If there are large scale closures of post offices, especially in rural areas, it will be bad news for the elderly and those without cars. It will also be deeply damaging for many villages - as one Cumbrian postmaster said that if the services which local post offices like his are withdrawn it would be a "crushing blow" to the village.

One reason for the persistent threat to post offices is that many of us can and do access so many more services through the internet and telephone. But this is not available to everyone. Hence there is a real social need for the post office service.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Public Meeting re Pica Wind Farm proposals

A public meeting is to be held on 8th January to discuss revised proposals to build five windmills at Pica. It will take place at Distington Community Centre on January 8 at 7pm.

There have been a number of previous applications to build wind turbines at the Fairfield Farm site over the past 10 years and they have always been extremely controversial.

The present set of plans was submitted on 29th September by the company Wind Prospect, which is based in Bristol. Their previous application, for six turbines, was withdrawn last year.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Next Digital TV public meeting will be early 2007

I'm grateful to John Askew of Digital UK for responding to me with some more information about the switchover to Digital TV. Amongst other things he advises that the date of the next public meeting about the Whitehaven TV area switchover will be early next year.

This can be read as a comment on an earlier post but I thought the message from John Askew important enough to put up as a post in it's own right so here is what John had to say:

"Thanks Chris, for a useful report on the switchover to digital tv. Two small points:

Firstly, viewers who receive signals directly from the Caldbeck main transmitter (and not via a relay) can switch to digital tv through the aerial (Freeview)now if they wish as Caldbeck already carries digital signals.

The Bleach Green (Parton) and St Bees relay transmitters cannot be switched over early as they rely directly on the Caldbeck transmitter which is being replaced as part of the programme. They will be switched over to digital when the new Caldbeck transmitter is ready in the second quarter of 2009.

We hope to have another public meeting as soon as we can in 2007 and should be able to publish details very soon.

John Askew
Regional Manager
Digital UK

Helpline: 08456 50 50 50"

How Journalists steal confidential information

In these days of over-mighty government, we need a strong free press which can hold parliament, whitehall, big companies, and councils to account.

What we do not need is to add intrusive snooping into people's private lives by journalists to what we already have from the state.

If an MP or government minister is shutting my local hospital, wasting money which comes from my taxes, giving contracts preferentially to companies which give money to Labour party funds, or otherwise misusing his position, I want to know about it. But his private life is another matter entirely - if he's cheating on his wife that is her business, but not mine.

I'm most grateful to Iain Dale's diary for drawing my attention to a story which should have been in the national newspapers but has not. With the honorable exception of the Daily Telegraph website they appear to have ignored it. Perhaps, since one or two national papers come very badly out of the report, this was too close to home.

Earlier this year the Freedom of Information commissioner published a report, "What Price Privacy" about the trade in stolen private information. When a private detective was arrested this year it was found that he had been involved in selling confidential information including Telephone records, DVLA records, and National Police Computer information to hundreds of journalists, most of them working for supposedly reputable organisations. He was part of an agency which was stealing and supplying such information on an industrial scale.

Following a Freedom of Information request by Lord Ashcroft, details of some of the supposedly respectable companies which are buying this stolen information have now come out.

A report published by Lord Ashcroft based on his freedom of information request shows that more than 300 journalists had commissioned more than 13,000 lines of inquiry from the agency which the man arrested worked for. More than 5,000 of these lines of inquiry were stated by the information commissioner as being definitely known to have broken the Data Protection Act, and another 6,000 were probably such a breach.

You can read the full report by Lord Ashcroft here

The URL is

His report gives the numbers but does not name names. However, Iain Dale reported on Wednesday that a report to be presented to Parliament this week would name the newpapers and magazines which are the main offenders. You can read his article

EXCLUSIVE: Press Stand Accused of Illegal Activity


I would hate to see action taken against the press which prevents them from doing their legitimate job of holding the government to account, especially as Britain really needs to have our present government held to account.

But this sort of massive illegal snooping into people's private lives is not just intolerable in itself. It is also dangerous both for the press themselves and for a free society, because it is very likely to provoke a backlash against the media, including legislation and court action which may interfere with their ability to carry out the duties which we desperately need them to do.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Jedi Jamie apologises for his speech

Jamie Reed has apologised for his speech at the "Save Our Services" march on Saturday, but only for taking too long (seventeen minutes, apparently.)

However, if he imagines that the length of his speech was the main reason it went down badly, he is still not on the right page.

Almost all the letters about the Save our Services march in today's Whitehaven News expressed criticism or disagreement with our MP's speech, as did the Leader column, and the opinion piece from former local health manager Brian Early. (My letter was probably the mildest).

None of the letter writers made particular reference to the length of the speech. Examples of the comments were

"It is sad that the local MP is still at the "puppy walking" stage of his career and that he had to deliver an approved Labour party diatribe ... "

"It is great that our local newspaper is in touch with the community on major issues such as this and just a shame that the local MP is not."

"... the party political broadcast by Jamie Reed"

"Mr Reed's promotion of government policy at this protest was not" (welcome).

(The MP's speech was) "the only scuff-mark on an otherwise clean sheet."

What upset people was not just the length, it was that it was a political speech where that was not called for, long on sentiment but short on substance.

Blair questioned by police

Tony Blair has been interviewed for two hours by police investigating the so-called "Cash for Peerages" scandal. He was not cautioned and did not have a lawyer present.

However, this is believed to be the first time that a serving Prime Minster has been interviewed by the police as part of an inquiry into suspected criminal activity.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

"Support West Cumbria's Hospital Services" blog set up

From now on I will be running two blogs: this one with the simple title of "Chris Whiteside's Blog" and a second with the title "Support West Cumbria's Hospital Services"

I am setting up a separate blog on health issues for two reasons.

First, with the threat to hospital services in West Cumbria posed by the "Whole Systems Review" which the local NHS trusts in North and West Cumbria are conducting, support for our hospital services is such a critical issue that it deserves special attention.

Second, the health issue is far more important than party politics and it is one where the whole community must stand together. The "Support West Cumbria's Hospital Services" blog will concentrate entirely on campaigning to defend our services in a non-partisan manner, and I will seek to keep party-political comments to an absolute minimum on that site.

However, for democracy to work there has to be debate, and there are some instances when political criticism of someone is fully justified. For example, the one sour note at the otherwise excellent march and rally yesterday was a truly terrible speech by the local MP, Jamie Reed.

Sadly, our local MP has form in talking nonsense on health. During the 2005 election he suggested that there was no threat whatsoever to West Cumberland hospital; then a year ago he ruined what would otherwise have been a quite good speech in the House of Commons about Community Hospitals by including a partisan and dishonest attack on my 2005 election campaign which would have been irrelevant even if it had been accurate.

At the conclusion of the rally yesterday, the Rector of Whitehaven, the Rev John Bannister, told Jamie Reed and Elaine Woodburn that they must fight effectively for the community in defending our hospitals and "we will hold you to account." That has to be right, and it must be possible to make criticisms. When I think that such criticisms, expecially if they are political, are called for I will make them here on "Chris Whiteside's Blog" to keeping them away from my "Support West Cumbria'a Hospital Services" blog, which as far as possible will be a non-partisan campaigning blog.

The URL for my hospital campaign blog will be

Are "Friends of the "Earth" starting to wise up ?

Due to a clash of dates yesterday I was unable to attend a conference for Conservative candidates - I thought it was even more important to attend the "Save Our Services" march to defend local hospitals in West Cumbria.

However, I am intrigued to learn from the "Conservative Home" website that Friends of the Earth may at long last be softening their opposition to Nuclear Power.

According to the Conservative Home report on the conference,

"Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth admitted that nuclear power was an option even if it wasn't FotE's favoured option."

This comes a few months after the FoE demonstration at the Drax coal fires power station which is of course Britain's largest emitter of carbon into the atmosphere.

It is beginning to look like the debate on this complex subject is going to become more grown-up and less simplistic, which has to be welcome.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

5000 people march to defend West Cumbria's hospitals

The "Save Our Services" march was a massive success: it was initially estimated by the police that about 4,000 people attended to support local hospitals. That was the figure was quoted in the rally at the end, and it seems to be the number which has gone into community memory as the attendance. However, the police subsequently revised their estimate upward to about 5,000.

The march had support throughout the community from Conservative and Labour politicians to Help the Aged, from Trade Unions in the NHS and at Sellafield to the Rugby Club, the motorcycle club, and everyone you could imagine.

People also came from throughout West Cumbria: I recognised people at the march from St Bees to Lamplugh and from Whitehaven through Egremont, Seascale and down to Millom, and I know there were representatives present from local communities in just about every other part of West Cumbria.

All of them came to send the Strategic Health Authority and Patricia Hewitt the message that we want to defend our hospital services.

As one speaker put it, what price can you put on the pain of an expectant mother with complications who has to travel forty to sixty miles over some of the worst roads in the country to Carlisle or Barrow if we did not have a consultant-led maternity unit in West Cumbria ?

It's been suggested to me that this was the biggest demonstration that Whitehaven has ever seen. The community is united to defend our hospitals. And we will keep up the pressure.

Save our hospital march today - 10.00

Assembly point Castle Park at 9.45 this morning.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Save Our Services - three days to go

The "Save Our Services" march to defend local hospitals in West Cumbria is in three day's time in Whitehaven. Assemble at Castle Park by 9.45 am to move off at 10 O'clock on Saturday 9th December.

I hope this march will get the strongest possible support.

Tony Blair made a speech yesterday suggesting that the country needs fewer, bigger hospitals as centres of excellence to save lives. In cities and other densely populated areas this argument may not be as daft as it sounds (though it is certainly going down like a lead balloon in Central Hertfordshire where I am serving out my last few months as a councillor.)

However, in rural areas like Cumbria where the towns and villages are a long way apart and have mountains and poor roads and public transport between them, this will cause more people to die because of the long journeys to and between hospitals. We need to send the strongest possible message to the Strategic Health Authority and the department of health that the whole community in West Cumbria wants to keep our hospital services and restore what has been lost - both at the West Cumberland hospital and at Community hospitals such as those at Millom, Keswick, and Workington.

Anyone reading this who is able to get to the march - please come and show your support for our hospital services.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Save Our Services march - One week to go !

The "Save Our Services" march to support local hospital services in West Cumbria takes place one week from today (on Saturday 9th December).

Anyone wishing to show their support for services at the West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven, for Millom Community Hospital, for Keswick Hospital and for other services in West Cumbria should assemble at Castle Park in Whitehaven at 9.45 on Saturday. The march moves off at 10.00 am. The march was called by the Whitehaven News newspaper but also has support from both the local Conservative and Labour parties, from the health service unions, and from people right across the community.

We need to send a message to the Strategic Health Authority that the entire community in West Cumbria, is united to demand our fare share of the enormous amounts of money which is going into the National Health Service. An area like this one, where there are substantial distances over bad roads between communities, and which contains important national facilities like Sellafield and the Nuclear Waste repository at Drigg, needs local health facilities and for people to have to travel up to fifty miles to hospitals at Carlisle or Barrow simply is not good enough.

Digital TV - what's happening to the next public meeting ?

The so called "Whitehaven" TV area - which actually covers most of Copeland - is the first part of the UK to switch to Digital TV.

Switchover for this area, which will include turning off the existing Analogue signal, has been brought forward to October 2007. From that date, anyone who gets their TV signal from the Bigrigg arial, or the Gosforth and Eskdale "Self Help" transmitters which repeat the Bigrigg signal, will need a set-top box for each pre-digital TV they wish to use. These cost about £25. Anyone who wants to record one channel while watching another would be well advised to buy a digital recorder.

Anyone reading this in the rest of the UK: the same issues which are imminent in Copeland now will still affect you within the next few years when the change reaches your area.

Some parts of Copeland around Parton and St Bees are covered by their own transmitters which will not switchover until 2008. Official publicity so far has given the impression that the Parton transmitter only covers a small area, but it appears that there may be a significant number of homes in the Bransty or Kells area of Whitehaven have TV receivers which point to the Parton transmitter, or to Caldbeck: these families will not need to go digital until 2008.

There is also a significant section of Copeland south of the mountains around Corney Fell and Black Coombe, including Haverigg, Millom, Duddon Bridge and Ulpha which is also served by other transmitters and will switch over later.

However, the majority of Copeland is served from the Bigrigg transmitter, including a large part of Whitehaven, Distington, Sandwith, Bigrigg, Egremont, Cleator, Cleator Moor, Frizington, Arlecdon, Rowrah, Lamplugh, Ennerdale, Beckermet, Calderbridge, Gosforth, Seascale, Wasdale, Eskdale, Ravenglass, Waberthwaite, and Bootle, and will therefore lose the existing TV signal in October 2007.

Anyone in the UK, particularly in the Border region, who buys a new TV from now on would be wise to check that it has the "Digital ready" mark which consists of the word digital followed by a tick in a box. This is different from the High Definition ready mark (HDD ready).

There is a package of targetted assistance available to help older and disabled residents with this change. However, as I have written before, I am concerned that the net for this may have been drawn too narrowly. The package is available to residents over 75 or those registered blind or disabled: it is free for those on pensions credit or receiving disability support, but there is a "small charge" for other residents.

There is a problem with this - it is estimated that a third of the poorest pensioners do not apply for pensions credit, presumably because they have trouble with the many pages of complicated forms. Those people are not going to be happy about having to pay for new equipment to be able to continue to watch their TV. The government needs to look again at eligibility for the assistance scheme.

There was a public meeting in Whitehaven Civic Hall in September to discuss the issues around the switchover. At that time we were promised another meeting in December. Well, it's now the second of that month and I have not seen any details of this meeting yet, so I am chasing to see what's happened to it: any information I can discover will be posted here.

Labour Headline competition - the results

A few weeks ago there was a newspaper headline, "Iraq war could be judged a disaster, Beckett admits."

I challenged anyone who wanted to take part in a little competition to submit similar headlines consisting of a statement of the blindingly obvious with an appropriate Labour minister or former minister admitting that things could be seen that way. I promised a prize for the funniest suggested headline sent to me by the deadline, which was extended to 30th November.

Surpisingly nobody sent me the same headline with "Blair" instead of Beckett - perhaps after appearing to admit that Iraq had been a disaster in his interview with Sir David Frost, Blair then described it as a slip of the tongue.

Anyway, here is a combined list of the entries I received and of the suggested examples ...

"Taxing pension funds by an extra £5 billion a year could be judged to have left them with less money, Brown admits."

"Claiming that your communications officer has resigned when he hasn't could be called 'lying', Byers admits."

"Telling students that you won't introduce student tuition fees or top-up fees, and then doing so, could be judged a broken promise, Johnson admits."

"Telling prison governors to shoot their inmates could be called 'Bonkers', Blunkett admits."

"My relations with Gordon Brown have sometimes appeared to be less than cordial, Blair admits."

"As minister for council tax, people might have expected me to pay my own, Prescott admits."

"Hinting at peerages in exchange for donations of millions of pounds to Labour party funds might be seen as unethical, Blair admits."

"Not everyone agrees that the NHS has had its best ever year, Hewitt admits."

"My wife Pauline is devastated that I told her about the wrong woman, admits Prescott."

The winning entry came from Geoffrey Brooking, and if Geoffrey would like to remind me of his current email I will put through his prize, which is a £10 Amazon voucher.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Dawkins Delusion

Professor Richard Dawkins is brilliant at explaining biology in a way which many people can understand. However, his objection to religion sometimes verges on the unhinged.

Ironically, both his recent book, "The God Delusion" and his plans, if correctly reported in the press, to send rationalist material to schools, are open to exactly the same charge which he has brought with some justice against the supporters of so-called "Creation Science" and those who want "Intelligent Design" taught in schools.

From now on, I shall use the expression "The Dawkins Delusion" to refer to the fallacy that science can either prove or indeed disprove the existence of God.

Science is a means of testing how the physical world works. It is a very effective method, and nobody who is interested in the truth has anything to fear from it.

The scientific method consists of putting forward a hypothesis which is capable of being tested and disproved by real world evidence, and checking that hypothesis against the evidence. If the facts line up with the hypothesis, you stick with it: if repeated tests fail to reject the hypothesis, it is promoted to a theory. But if the facts disprove a hypothesis or theory, it has to be discarded, and replaced either with a completely new idea, or a new, modified version which can explain the new data: and which has itself to be tested against the facts.

However, only ideas which are capable of being disproved have anything to do with science. In the past, various religions used to put forward ideas about how the real world works which were indeed capable of such checking: for example, the idea that Heaven and Earth were created on 26th October 4004BC at 9 o'clock in the morning, or the idea that Winter is caused because the daughter of the Goddess of the Harvest had to spend six months of the year in the underworld. We now have very strong evidence suggesting the likelihood that the origin of the earth is closer to 4000 million BC than 4004 BC, and we can explain Summer and Winter because the axis on which the earth spins is tilted towards the sun for part of the year at any given latitude, and away from the sun at other times.

But while some ideas or religious origin are capable of being scientifically tested, others are not. For example, the structure of ethics which is associated with any religion, and also fundamental to the running of human society, can be assessed using logic, but is not subject to science. How could you devise a scientific test of the principle that murder is wrong, for instance ?

Further, both belief and disbelief in a God are philosopical and religious positions, but not scientific ones. I do not believe that any human test could possible be devised which could prove beyond reasonable doubt that God exists, or that He doesn't. Both the Theist and the Atheist have to make a leap of faith.

"Intelligent Design" does not belong in a science class, because there is no way you could conclusively disprove it. Neither do Professor Dawkins's atheist views for exactly the same reason. His belief that this religious position is scientific is The Dawkins Delusion.

Comments policy restated

Anyone with a presence on the internet which allows comments or response eventually has problems with SPAM, or with silly or offensive posts.

The vast majority of posts on this blog have been interesting and welcome. That includes posts expressing views which differ from mine. I am grateful to anyone who posts interesting opinions on this site, whether right-wing or left wing and regardless of whether I agree with them, provided they are reasonably polite. I would prefer that you use your real name but anonymous posts will not be deleted as long as they are polite and constructive.

However, I have had a small number of comments posted on this blog from people who have nothing better to do with their time than to put up anonymous insults. I do have better things to do with my time than read rude remarks from people who have nothing constructive to say and don't have the guts to sign their own name.

This blog is here to publish and promote debate on views which I consider useful and interesting whether I agree with them or not. Anything which I consider rude or offensive will be deleted, especially if the originator has not given his or her real name.