Tuesday, 30 August 2011

FC Barcelona 2011-12 Even Better?

Despite the late start to pre-season training and the even later return of their South American internationals and their new arrivals, not to mention injuries to key players, Barça have made an incredible start to the new season.  Already two cups have been added to the collection.  The only contretemps came in the final of the Copa Catalunya, which they lost to Espanyol in a battle of their respective youth teams.
However everything else has been wonderful.  The Spanish Supercup was won 5-4 in aggregate over two thrilling matches against a very good Real Madrid.  This was followed by the European Supercup which Barça won 2-0 against a fine Porto team.  In between Barça managed to beat Napoli 5-0 to win their own late summer trophy - The Gamper.  And yesterday they beat Villareal in their opening league match, also by 5-0.  Not bad going and we’re still in August.
The team that beat Villareal gives us a good glimpse at the strengths and weaknesses of the current squad.  One of the many talking points of the summer was whether Guardiola would resurrect the famous 3-4-3 formation of Johan Cruyff’s fantastic Dream Team.  And lo and behold, this was the formation that turned out against Villareal.  However before we all get too excited there are a couple of reasons why this might just be a one off or at best an infrequent choice.  In the first place, the team were missing all but one, Abidal, of their experienced defenders.  Piqué, Puyol, Adriano and Maxwell were all injured, while Alves was suspended for the game.  So with very few players to choose from, only playing three defenders made a lot of sense.  Though a back three of Abidal, Busquets and Mascheranno is unlikely to appear again.  Secondly as this article in Zonal Marking points out, 3-4-3 is the ideal system to counter Villareal’s own unusual 4-2-2-2 formation.
Whatever the reason, the system worked pretty much to perfection as the 5-0 scoreline shows.  The match also put to rest another of the summer’s talking points, namely that Fàbregas and Thiago could not play together in the same team.  Well, both played yesterday and both were outstanding, scoring a goal apiece.  Fàbregas played at the head of the diamond shaped midfield four and pretty much interchanged positions with Messi, causing all kinds of trouble for the Villareal defenders.  Thiago played alongside Iniesta at the heart of the midfield and in addition to scoring the first, set up the final pass for two other goals.  Barça have now done the almost impossible - they have strengthened what was already the best midfield in the world.  With the undisputed two best attacking midfielders in Xavi and Iniesta they now also have, arguably the 3rd and 4th best attacking midfielders in Fàbregas and Thiago.  Awesome.  As Mascheranno is likely to play more often as a defender, Keita , as he did yesterday, will probably share the defensive midfield role with Busquets.
Up front, while Barça have lost two players, Bojan and Jeffren, the one they have gained, Alexis Sanchez, is a much better player and more suited to the Barça style than either of the other two.  He started yesterday and scored a very good goal.  He is strong, pacy and a good dribbler.  Perfect for Barça.  He will provide stiff competition for Villa and Pedro and no doubt will provide Messi with the occasional rest.  In addition the team can welcome back Affellay when he returns from injury.  While unlikely to threaten the first choice four, he is a useful and pacy player to have in reserve.
So, all in all, Barça appear to be have a stronger, more competitive and more versatile squad than last year.  As Real Madrid have already demonstrated, it is once again likely to be a two horse race for the league title.  Real will be even more competitive, if that is possible, than last year.  Guardiola will be hoping to win a fourth title in a row, an achievement to equal the great Dream Team of Johan Cruyff and only achieved once before that - Miguel Muñoz’s Real Madrid of the early 1960s.  They went on to win five in a row, an as yet unmatchable achievement.  The other immense challenge for Barça is to become the first team to win the Champions League two years in a row.  Real Madrid will again lead the challengers along with Manchester United, Chelsea and the riches of Manchester City.  Barça’s first group match is against AC Milan, so that should give us an early indication of how the might fare against the best in Europe.
It will take an almighty effort to retain one of their titles from last season and an even greater effort to retain both.  This squad with Guardiola as their guide has the resources to do so, though as in any sporting challenge you need the Gods to be with you.  Whatever, it promises to be an even more exciting season than the last one.  Visca Barça!

Thursday, 25 August 2011

The Economy - A Double Dip Recession?

Economic news from around the world is not good and is likely to get worse during the rest of the year.  In the UK the news is particularly bad.  Recent figures show that consumer confidence continues its downward slide, unemployment is rising, export performance is faltering and the UK is bottom of the growth league table.  Despite this our nasty government, with Chancellor George Osborne in the lead, continues with its Alice in Wonderland approach to economics.  Despite the shocking figures there is to be no plan B.  Instead we are to suffer even more cuts in public spending.
Alas, this short sighted and counter productive approach is not limited to the UK.  The rest of the EU, along with much of the rest of the world, is also mired in this dash to austerity.  There is very little evidence that this approach will work and much evidence from the past that it will most likely not work.  With great damage to most of us in terms of rising unemployment, loss of services and cuts in living standards.
A major question here is what will happen if the current policies are continued and things continue to get worse for more and more people?  Already there have been significant public protests in Greece, Spain and Israel.  Could these protests spread and get worse?  On this issue I feel that there is a substantial undercurrent of deep hostility lying just below the surface of public opinion.  In particular there is wide disbelief and resentment that none of the key people who were responsible for the current ongoing crisis have suffered or been punished in any way.  Most of this bitterness is quite rightly directed primarily at the bankers whose irresponsibility and recklessness got us into this mess.
So, unless things begin to improve pretty soon, governments will come under ever increasing pressure to change policy tack.  If they refuse this could lead to greater and greater social unrest.  How far could this go?  A lot will depend on how the various political parties respond to a worsening in the situation.  At the moment it is the right of the political spectrum that is making the running and right wing parties run just about all EU countries and since last year control the House of Representatives in the USA.  Alas, it is the right that is most vociferous in calling for ever more austerity.
With the right in power and economies in difficulties, this should be a time for the left to be leading the call for an alternative economic policy.  However the main left wing parties are hamstrung in their opposition, as most of them were in power during the run-up to the crisis.  Indeed none of the left parties showed any serious opposition to the deregulatory, laissez-faire approach to finance which got us into this mess.  And just as the leading bankers have not suffered, neither have the leading politicians in these left parties.  Unless and until they comprehensively reject their past and elect new leaderships willing to consider genuine alternatives to the current austerity, they are most unlikely to regain power.  And even if they did, what real difference would it make?  We badly and urgently need a new left alternative.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Do Israelis just like to kill Palestinians?

I pose this question in light of the recent outburst of killings in Gaza and southern Israel.  In this case the initial attack was launched by three militants in and around Eilat.  A bus with some soldiers on board was gunned down, and in all it seems seven Israelis were killed in the attacks.  What is particularly interesting about this is that the Israelis immediately blamed a specific Gaza based Palestinian group, the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC).  And then of course immediately started to bomb Gaza.  So far it seems that 15 Palestinians have been killed by the Israelis.
However the Israelis have as yet produced no evidence whatsoever that it was the PRC, or any other Palestinian group that carried out the attacks.  It is worth baring in mind that the initial attacks took place in Eilat.  This is an Israeli resort at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba, close to the Egyptian border in Sinai.  This means that it is hundreds of miles from Gaza.  There is also the little matter that no Palestinian group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.  As Paul Woodward explains in an article for War in Context:  “Generally speaking, Palestinian militant groups are not shy about claiming responsibility for attacks against Israelis — especially those that can be described as military operations where Israeli soldiers are killed or injured. Indeed, the problem is more often that too many groups — not too few — want to claim the honor.”
Woodward goes on to suggest that the reason for this is that it wasn’t a Palestinian operation.  There is some support for this claim.  First, the IDF itself refused to endorse the Government’s assertion blaming the PRC.  Secondly eye-witnesses reported that the gunmen were wearing Egyptian military uniforms.  Thirdly the Sinai has been the scene of various guerilla type actions in the recent past.  The blowing up of pipelines for example.  The Egyptian military has been trying to bring the area under control and round up militant groups.  Fourthly there are reports that the Egyptians have identified the people responsible for the attacks and one is a leader of a terrorist cell in Sinai, while another is a fugitive who owns an ammunition factory.   Thus it is quite probable that the Eilat attacks originated in Egypt and had nothing to do with Gaza or Palestine.
Not that the Israelis have ever bothered to let such facts get in the way of killing Palestinians.  Any excuse seem to do.  Israel kills Palestinians all the time. On average, the IDF kills one Palestinian civilian every two days with impunity in the occupied territories, as B'tselem documented last year.  In this most recent case the Israelis seem to have outdone even themselves.  Richard Silverstein details a particularly gruesome killing.  “Today, an Israeli drone performed heroically for the fatherland by incinerating a car (or in other reports a motorcycle) carrying a Palestinian doctor and his family to hospital seeking treatment for a sick child.  The doctor, his brother, and the doctor’s little boy were killed in the attack.  Ynet announced: Oops, we missed.  The drone was aiming for a terrorist cell traveling nearby.  WAFA says the doctor’s brother was an Al Quds commander, which would mean that the IDF is willing to kill sick 2 year old children in order to get alleged terrorists as well.”
So much for the most moral army in the world.  Alas there is mounting evidence that for many Israelis the only good Palestinian is a dead one.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Photo of the Month - July 2011

July was quite a good month for photos, even though it was all spent in and around Dundee.  The garden was particularly bright and colourful, despite the over abundance of weeds.  One of my favourite plants is the fuchsia and here is a rather charming specimen.
During the first two weeks of July we had Liam and Jamie for company for several days and we took them to try out a new café in the Ferry and to some of the local adventure play parks, as can be seen in the two photos below.

We also managed to get in a few trips to some places nearby.  The next three photos show an unusual view of the enchanting garden at Wormiston House, near Crail;  a pheasant on the edge of the driveway to Cambo House and lastly a pair of seagulls who seem to be deeply in love.

I also managed to get in a couple of hikes up some hills.  One was to the Hills of Wirren outside Brechin.  The extensive summit plateau is pretty much covered in deep peaty ruts as you can see below.
During July I finally finished this stitching project to illustrate the Japanese character for Fragrance.
July was also the month for the annual live street theatre programme organized by the Byre Theatre in St. Andrews.  There was lots to see and do and below are three of the stunning and colourful displays.

I end with this photo of Elena as she comes into the finishing straight at the end of a gruelling half marathon.  This was her first attempt at this distance and she did remarkably well to complete the course in the wind.  Well done Elena.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Israel - Social Justice and the Occupation

Israel is currently in the midst of a major social protest which began on July 14th and is thus known in Israel as the J14 protests.  They started as a protest about housing prices in Tel Aviv, but quickly became a mass street protest with hundreds of thousands of Israelis camping out on the streets.  The protests have now spread to other Israeli towns and cities and the basic demand is for profound changes in the socio-economic structure of just about every aspect of life in Israel. 
Except for one thing, the big O - The Occupation.  The protesters and their supporters in the media made it clear from the beginning that the protests and the demands were confined to life within Israel and would not get involved in anything to do with the Occupation.  It is not clear if this approach can hold.
In the first place Palestinian citizens of Israel have participated in some of the protests and there is a joint Palestinian-Israeli tent in Tel-Aviv.  This is because Palestinian Israelis have suffered the same injustices as their Jewish fellow citizens - only much worse.  While many Jewish protesters will continue to call for greater public spending for Jews and to hell with the Palestinians, this may become more and more difficult to sustain.  It would confirm Israel as an Apartheid state, which would conflict with the claim that Israel is a democratic state and would lead to difficulties with its sole backer - the USA.  It may be that through the protests more and more Jews realize that if they are to succeed in changing the policies of the government then making common cause with their Palestinian fellow citizens is the best way forward.
This seems to be the line taken, so far, by most of the Palestinians.  As Ami Kaufman puts it:  “Even the Arab speakers at the various demonstrations, from what I’ve heard (I may have missed some), have not directly addressed the occupation either – or even utter the word. Rather, they point out how they, too, are victims of capitalism and that they have it even tougher because of Israeli policies, of how the wealth is distributed. But the focus is still on money, on how the system screws everybody – equally.”   Kaufman’s line is that this is fundamentally a protest against capitalism and that, if successful, the protests may lead to ending the occupation, but only as a by-product.  His whole article is well worth reading in full - here.
Though the Occupation is not on the agenda as yet, it may force its way through into the consciousness of the protesters.   This is because as Ami Kaufman observes in his article the protest is mainly about money.  And so much of Israel’s money goes into the Occupation.  It is ironic that the one place where Jews can get affordable housing is in the illegal settlements.  Because they are heavily subsidized by the state.  This is just one example of how the costs of the Occupation continue to hurt and blight the lives of most Jewish Israelis.  At some point in the developing argument over how to divvy up the state’s spending, someone may start to question all this scarce money going to maintain the Occupation while most Israelis suffer from poor housing, the lack of good education and health services etc.
It is still too early to know just how these protests will pan out, but they do serve as a useful reminder that Israel is far from some safe haven and that within the Jewish majority there are huge and potentially destabilizing tensions.  Now that the genie is out of the bottle, who knows what will emerge.  For a Palestinian Israeli view on the protests here is the text of a moving speech by Odeh Bisharat. 

Friday, 12 August 2011

Take Five Books - August 2011

Back to this five book challenge, originally devised by Simon at Stuck in a Book.  Once again I have included an audiobook.  So here is my current crop of books.
1. The book I’m currently reading - And the Land Lay Still by James Roberston.  This is an enthralling novel by the author of The Testament of Gideon Mack.  It is a very ambitious book which tries to describe and make sense of the history of Scotland since the 2nd World War.  He does this by focussing on a disparate group of characters whose lives at times meet and overlap.  At 670 largish pages it is an ambitious read in more ways than one.  Just started the fifth and final part, so await with fascination how he draws everything together - assuming he does.

2. The last book I finished - The Death of the Little Match Girl by Zoran Ferić.  This is a fairly short book, though pretty complicated for all that.  Set in an island off the coast of Croatia in 1992, during the violent and messy break-up of Yugoslavia, which serves as a background to the events.   A young girl dies of illness and a Romanian transvestite prostitute is murdered.  Is there any connection between the two deaths?  The novel can loosely be called a crime novel though it is much more as it brings out some of the nasty undercurrents of life in the latter years of Yugoslavia.

3. The next book I want to read -  Un Dulce Olor a Muerte by Guillermo Arriaga.  Mexican author Arriaga is most famous as a script writer for films, some of which, such as Amores Perros and Babel, have become internationally successful.  This book looks like a kind of revenge mystery.  It is also available in an English translation as A sweet scent of Death.

4. The last audiobook I listened to - The Dead of Summer by Mari Jugstedt.  This was my first encounter with Mari Jungstedt, another Scandinavian crime writer.  Is there no end to this phenomenon?   Anyway Jungstedt is Swedish and this is her fifth book to be set in the island of Gotland and to feature Inspector Knutas.  Similar in some ways to the writing of Camilla Läckberg, this murder mystery focuses as much on the characters, the police and the various suspects as on the crime itself.

5. The last book I was given -  In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz  by Michela Wrong.  This is an account of the rise and fall of Mobutu Sese Seko, the former dictator of the Congo.  Last year I read another book about the Congo - Blood River by Tim Butcher.  This was an attempt to retrace the journey of H M Stanley as he sought to travel down the great Congo river.  The book was more about the country itself and I found it fascinating.  So I am greatly looking forward to finding out more about this troubled country.

Monday, 8 August 2011

The Economic Mess - All the Fault of Welfare Spending?

There is quite a long list of people who can legitimately be held to account for the current crisis.   Most people I imagine would put bankers, particularly investment bankers and regulators high on the list.  However it seems that it is welfare spending by governments which is mostly to blame.  At least that is the consensus view of most of the mainstream media.  It is also the determined view of our present nasty Coalition in the UK.  Though of course they blame the previous New Labour government and not themselves.
A typical example of this thinking was to be found in today’s editorial in The Scotsman.  Their leader writer intoned: “The harsh reality is that across America and Europe, huge rises in government and welfare spending have been financed by resort to debt to the point where the ability of government to service and repay these debt obligations has come under question.”  The harsh reality is that this leader writer is talking a load of bunkum.  Let’s try and unpick his or her assertions a bit.
It is true that in many countries there has been a rise in government spending, but it is not true that this rise has been by historical standards huge.  As  Professor George Irvin, Research Associate at SOAS, puts it:  “For thirty years after the war, most major governments carried more debt than they do today. They serviced this easily and eventually reduced the burden because they were able to use fiscal policy to boost and maintain growth.”
What is manifestly untrue is that this rise is primarily down to welfare spending.  While welfare spending will have gone up, this is perfectly natural in an economic downturn.  This is precisely why welfare benefits were introduced in the first place.  To mitigate the damaging effects of downturns or recessions.  What usually goes along with this increase in welfare spending is a sharp downturn in the government’s income, as tax receipts decline due to the downturn.  So the reality is that there has not been a huge rise in welfare spending, but there has been a reduction in government income.
However this downturn in tax returns does not in any way explain the current high levels of government debt.  Here we need to look more closely at where this debt has come from.  And we quickly discover that most of this rising debt has come from the private sector.  Both individuals and companies.  And this private debt of course was financed by our friends in the banking sector, who were more than happy to lend out vast sums of money to all and sundry - no questions asked.  But as soon as the bubble began to burst, well these private banks immediately turned to their governments and begged or bullied them into bailing them out.  Which for some unfathomable reason they all did.  This is what has caused the issue of sovereign debt to raise its ugly head.  In a free market economy, companies, including financial companies that get into trouble are supposed to pay the price of failure.  It is known as market discipline.  And it applies to the shareholders as well.   The companies go bankrupt or get taken over by a competitor at a knockdown price.  And the shareholders lose some or all of their investment.   In extreme cases, where the company is of national importance to the economy, they get nationalized.  Now that is what has effectively happened with the banking system.  Unfortunately for the poor taxpayer, this form of nationalization was designed to protect the shareholders, by keeping the banks afloat.  And to complete the cave in, the management teams that got us into this mess were left in place.  Free to continue to pay themselves huge bonuses.
It is interesting to note that none or little of this gets much of a hearing in the media.  So, in a nutshell, the private sector gets into a critical mess and begs the government to bail out the private banks by taking on more and more debt.  The private sector then blames the government for this rising debt.  Wonderful.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Stitching - Japanese Calligraphy

Since returning from our holiday in Switzerland I have been pretty busy stitching.  Though I have only managed to complete three projects, they have all been quite different.  The first was some more bargello work.  The design for this is my adaptation of a pattern for a pincushion in Brenda Day’s Bargello - A Fresh Approach to Florentine Embroidery.  It is stitched on Aida 18ct fabric and I used DMC cotton floss - two strands.  The colour scheme is made up of delft blues, gold, copper and pinks.  The idea is to insert this into the cover of a rectangular cushion.  But I will need to learn how to make a cushion first.  Unless some cushion maker is looking for an insert.  Anyway here is what it looks like just now.
The design is made up of the one pattern which is repeated in reverse direction - twice over.  It is almost continuous, though there is a slight drop when the pattern begins a repeat.  I can never tire of bargello designs and I particularly like this colour scheme.
For my next work I returned to Louison’s lovely designs for Biscornus.  Though on this occasion I decided to try and use them for something different - coasters.  I choose four different patterns of 50 pts and used each one to make a coaster.  The fabric is a pale green Aida 18ct.  All are stitched with two strands of cotton threads from Les Fils du Rhin.  Two of them are stitched with Alizées and the other two with Zéphir.  Les Fils du Rhin is a one woman company in Alsace and she produces some wonderful hand dyed threads.  Well worth a visit to her site.  Here are the finished coasters.
My last completed project was something completely different and one that took up a lot of time - over 44 hours of work over 20 days.  The idea came from a course on Japanese calligraphy at the DCA.  It was always at the back of my mind to somehow try and incorporate some calligraphy into a piece of stitching.  Flicking through some pictures on the internet I came across an example of a Japanese character which had been turned into a needlework pattern.  So I decided to give it a go.  The character I choose was Hou - which can represent fragrance or full of flavour, according to our tutor.  Here is my attempt at the character.
I then had to work out how to turn this into a needlework design.  After a few false starts I worked out that the best way to do this was to trace the outline directly on to the fabric.  I did this on some cut-off piece and was able to then experiment a bit to work out just how many stitches of what length to use to fill in the outlines.  For my project I decided to use horizontal stitches for this and it was stitched with two strands of DMC cotton thread in plum.  Here is what the finished character looks like.
For the other half of the piece I selected a couple of designs which I hope go some way to reflect the meaning of the character.  The central image is a rose and this is surrounded on three sides by other flowers.  I am not sure what they actually are meant to be as the original does not give a title.  They could just about be plums.  Whatever, both designs come from a lovely Dutch website - Tantes Zolder - which luckily also includes an English language commentary.  Somebody’s aunt had a large box full of handwritten charts for cross stich and these have now been digitised and put up on the web.  I used two of them which I subsequently adapted to suit my needs.  Here is what the completed piece looks like.
For the flowers I again used two strands of threads from Les Fils du Rhin.  Rose d’Été and Mousson for the roses and Quetsch d’Alsace and Brise Marine for the other flowers.  I use a simple, single diagonal stitch for this.    The outside border is a traditional Palestinian design known as Carnations - quite appropriate for the theme.  This was stitched in medium yellow green and medium antique mauve.  Though this piece took quite a bit of time and involved a fair bit of working things out, I am pleased with the result and hope to try something similar with another Japanese character.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Same Old Tories - Help the Rich

In the face of growing evidence that the Coalition’s economic polices are not working, the Tory party is once again displaying its true colours as the Nasty Party.  Their latest wheeze to help kick start the economy is to abolish the new 50p tax rate for high earners.  Which is further evidence of the economic illiteracy of the Tory party.
The new 50p tax rate only applies to people who earn more than £150, 000 per year.  Many of them will of course earn substantially more than that.   And how will this tax increase affect them?  How many goods and services will they collectively have to give up as a direct result of this tax hike?  I would suggest very little if anything at all.  After all these are the richest earners in the country.  They are not in general short of a bob or two.  After they have paid for their mortgage, if they have one, paid for the yacht, the holidays in the Bahamas, the private school fees etc, the residual money the have left, and often this will in itself be quite substantial, is just pocketed away.  Usually in off-shore accounts or private banks.  So the net effect of abolishing this tax would most likely simply give these people more money to invest.  It is most unlikely to result in any significant increase in spending.  Which is the only way that it could benefit the economy.

It is noticeable that one of the cheerleaders for this measure is Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and an immensely wealthy man.  Quite clearly he is more interested in feathering his own nest than helping the country.  So much for "We are all in this together" nonsense.  The Institute of Directors apparently warned that the tax will simply drive top earners abroad, while the CBI decried it as "economic vandalism".  Again little sign from these wealthy bastions of the UK economy that they have the slightest interest in the well-being of their fellow citizens.
Part of the problem is that the right in general have a false idea of how an economy grows.  They always suggest that giving more and more money to the already rich will somehow, magically, result in an increase in investment in the real economy.  But you do not need to know much about economics to realize just how daft this notion is.  Private individuals and companies invest in order to make money, not as a charity.  And they will only do so if they are pretty confident that their will be sufficient demand for whatever it is they are going to produce, be it goods or services.  With current government policies leading to a continuing reduction in demand - just why would anyone invest?  Giving the rich will not make any difference to this fact of economic life - it will just make the already rich even richer.  Which is presumably why the rich are so much in favour of this measure.
The reality is that we are in the middle of a long running investment strike, as companies and financial institutions hoard their money, thus keeping people idle.  See this article for details of this investment strike.  If we are to avoid any further downturns in the economy then what the government should be doing with the likes of Boris Johnson and his wealthy chums is to tax them even more.  Then use the money raised to directly invest in the economy.  Whether it is through improving our railways, schools or hospitals or maintaining good quality public services, the result will be to employ more people who, unlike the rich, will spend all, or nearly all of their income on buying other goods and services, thus keeping more people in work and in turn paying taxes.  Go on Mr Osborne - you know it makes sense!  After all - “We are all in this together - aren’t we?
For a simple explanation of the mess our nasty Coalition is making of the economy try Larry Elliott’s article in the Guardian.