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Tuesday, February 26, 2002

Doomsday for minister from hell

The events of September 11th continue to resound around the world, interacting with local political systems and producing effects that are often incomprehensible to outsiders. One example is the rapidly disappearing political career of the UK's transport minister Stephen Byers.

Byers' enemies have numerous reasons for attacking him, not least his inability to improve Britain's clogged and dangerous road and rail systems.

But his latest battle concerns not some new rail disaster but his relationship with his own staff. They are quarrelling with such ferocity that it is beginning to have constitutional implications.

The problem started on September 11th, when one of his close aides, Jo Moore, suggested in an email - even as the Twin Towers burned, that it was 'a very good day to get out anything we want to bury'.

When this profoundly cynical message became public (leaked by a Moore colleague) it shocked the nation. But when Byers refused to sack the culprit - a former Labour party official he had himself appointed, it highlighted something else - a change in the character of UK officialdom. Many now see it as becoming over-politicised.

While they are both democracies, the UK and the US have opposite ideas about how the bureaucratic side of government should operate. The UK has a long tradition of keeping the bureaucracy - called the civil service, strictly separate from party politics.

The idea is that civil servants will work loyally and efficiently for whomever the people elect, but that civil service appointments will be decided on professional merit, not by political allegiance. In the UK system politicians have only limited rights to hire and fire people on the public payroll.

But this peculiarly British division of powers has been under pressure since the time of Margaret Thatcher. Tony Blair's government has appointed almost a hundred special advisors, paid from public funds, to what would have once been considered neutral civil service positions. In the Twin Towers case, both the writer of the offending email, and the person who later leaked the email to the press, were such political appointees.

The latest twist is that career civil servants of the traditionally neutral type have now been drawn into the conflict. This is beginning to worry people concerned with the UK constitution - a professional, non-political civil service is often cited as a key reason for the country's enviable record of stability.

The general feeling here is that the unloved Byers won't survive for much longer.

Hence today's Guardian article headed 'Doomsday for minister from hell'. If this were about any other British political figure it would almost certainly result in instant legal action.


Thursday, February 21, 2002

Earth at night

This is one of a great collection of pictures from NASA, with the lights at night clearly showing where humanity is clustered most densely.

For other good pictures try putting 'earth' into the Astronomy Picture of the Day search engine. If slow try the UK mirror.

For less beautiful but more accurate pictures of the lights of Earth at night try the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute at the University of Padua in Italy.

This site is run by astronomers seeking to limit the damage caused by outdoor lighting to astronomers - and wildlife. In the UK for example you have to go to remote parts of the highlands of Scotland to get a clear view of the stars.


Friday, February 01, 2002

How's your grammar?

Will it pass the test? It's hard to resist a quiz - particularly if it's pitched at the right level. It needs to be challenging, but easy enough so that you still pass with flying colours.

The test above is posed on the BBC Five Live radio show's site. It's aimed at native UK English speakers, and focuses on things that still often cause them confusion.

Although I got 10 out of 10 at this test, my problem is placing punctuation marks correctly in relation to quotes (and brackets). I still have to stop and think about it, and even then it often looks wrong even if it isn't.

I found this resource at the Department of Advertising at the University of Texas helpful.

Partly, though, it's a matter of opinion. I'm not sure the Texans are right about the semicolon, for example.

There are differences between UK and US punctuation - this is an excellent UK reference.


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