Monthly Archives: October 2010

Day 43 – Speaking At Conference

This year was the first time I attended the SNP conference. I spoke on Motion 4 at the conference, which was on the grow your own movement:

GROW YOUR OWN
Conference welcomes the efforts of the Scottish Government since 2007 to support individuals and communities who wish to grow some of their own food.
Conference notes the many beneficial effects that allotments, private gardens, Community Gardens and orchards can have on the environment, healthy diets, exercise and recreational activities.
Conference calls on the next Scottish Government to build on this work, by working with local authorities to ensure more land is made available for allotments, that schools and schoolchildren have access to garden space, and that support is given to development of Scotland’s orchards and historic varieties of fruit.

This is an issues I have a strong opinion on and which I feel I have a bit of a stake in. First of all, I’d quite like a garden, but as an unemployed 20-something, I don’t have the income to buy or rent a property with a garden. I’ve also spent much of the past 6 years living close to land which is largely abandoned – the site of a former school in Glasgow and the site of Shrubhill Bus Depot in Edinburgh. This land has great potential to be put to use by the community, but instead they sit there looking ugly (NB. I recently learnt that the site in Glasgow is being developed for social house by a housing association).

Good afternoon. I’d like, if I may, to tell you a short story. I was lucky enough grow up in a little village called Ballater, in north-east. Surrounded by Munros and Commission forests and full of Victorian houses, it is a green and leafy place. Nearly everyone has a garden and the horticulture society fête is a highlight of the year for many in the village.

When I was 17, I moved to Glasgow. The dear green place. It is a city I am very fond of. But in many ways, it doesn’t live up to it’s reputation. Adjacent to my flat was an acre of concrete wasteland, the site of a former school. It is only in the last few months, after at least five years sitting empty that building work began to construct social housing on the site.

Five years that land could have been cultivated for. Wooden planters full of veg for the local community, projects for the local kids and the nursery beside the plot of land could have been on the site.

Glasgow City Council, however, prefers to let land lie fallow than to allow it’s use. In the last few months they’ve even forcefully evicted a community group who’d set up a community allotment scheme on apparently abandoned land in the north of Glasgow.

Instead, Glasgow CC is content to let people who wish to grow-their-own to sit on waiting lists for years and in some cases decades so they can get an allotment. they are not the only one. There is useful wasteland and allotment waiting lists in Edinburgh, Ayrshire, Lanarkshire.

I want to see the children in inner city Scotland to have the same experiences I had when I was a child, growing up in leafy, garden-filled Ballater. In order to give them that right we need to give the people of Scotland greater rights to make use of wasteland and vacant plots.

The above wasn’t exactly what I said at Conference. Rather it’s my hasty notes outlining what I intended to say. It comes across as being more openly hostile against Glasgow City Council then I was on the day, as well as placing greater emphasis on my own background.

As for what I’d like to see, well, I recently told a Civil Engineer friend about it and he laughed. I still think it’s possible for councils to put unoccupied land to work temporarily. It’s certainly worth investigating more.

Day 42 – Being Part of Better

The SNP Conference opens in Perth today. I’m back in Scotland to attend as a delegate, so I’ll be commuting from Edinburgh to Perth over the next four days to represent the views of Edinburgh (Central) Branch (and it’s excellent candidate Marco), as well as catching up with various friends in the party.

I will be taking photos and doing some blogging from the conference and it’s fringes. Hopefully it’ll be of some interest.

For anyone not able to attend, the party has already launched the website for it’s 2011 campaign. I can’t say the 2011 slogan completely grabs me, not least because it doesn’t scan terribly well, but then if I had it my way we’d be using “It’s Scotland’s energy” and focusing on fiscal issues. There are good reasons why I’m just a lowly activist and intern of course, and this may well be one of them.

Day 40 – Fiscal Issues

First of all, thank you to everyone on Facebook and Twitter who offered to wire or loan me money. Thankfully, my mother was able to wire me some money via Western Union, allowing me to survive until I got back to Scotland. The most difficult part of this process was probably negotiating the arcane queuing system used by the Belgian post office.

I’ve also found out from the Bank that the payments were made to two companies which own online gambling websites (something which I wouldn’t use, since other then very occasional bets on the horses and the odd lottery ticket, I don’t gamble). Both of these are based in Gibraltar and I’m not entirely convinced that either of them are actually genuine companies, since there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of corporate websites for either of them.

I did try to contact one of them by phone (having gotten their phone number from a WHOIS request). After being shunted around a few people, I was told that there was no-one from the accounting department in the office and given an email address to contact. The other company didn’t have a phone number online that I could find. You can see why I’m suspicious about these companies.

The inconvenient news is that a week later, the payments haven’t been taken from my bank account. My money is now in a limbo condition, where it’s still in my account but it’s unavailable. HBOS can’t apparently do anything about this as fraud investigations can only be initiated once money has left the account in question. Which is a tad annoying.

Hopefully this will all get sorted out soon.

Day 38 – Account Hacked

Lets cut to the chase: if you notice anything at all suspicious in your bank records, phone the bank! Don’t give up on the hold queue because you have other things to do, which is exactly what I did on Friday.

Apparently, sometime in the last few weeks, someone got ahold of either the card-numbers for my debit card or the account numbers for the bank account it’s linked to. I’m not 100% sure how this happened, because I haven’t used my card to pay for anything in a shop since I got to Belgium. I’ve only used it online and at cash machines, which narrows the cause  down to malware, a hacked website or a card-cloning device attached to an ATM.

I only use three different ATM machines here, because not all of the banks will deal with my debit card. One of the machines is in the Parliament itself while the other two are in the city centre and near my flat. While I know what I card cloner looks like in the UK, I probably wouldn’t notice one here because most of the cash machines look completely different from the ones at home.

What I find more likely is that my numbers were stolen via an online transaction. In the last few weeks, I’ve made purchases from the Steam service, iTunes, the EU’s publisher and RyanAir. My iTunes and RyanAir purchases were made on my Mac from home, using a wired connection. I’ve seen no evidence of malware or other exploits on my computer or that any of the other services which I use (such as my email account) have been hacked.

The Steam purchase should have been pretty secure, since it uses a dedicated client and encrypted security. It’s also a large and reputable service. However, I did make it from the Windows 7 installation on my computer, which probably isn’t as secure as it should be (mostly due to the fact that I only use it for playing videogames on).

The purchase which I’m most suspicious of is the one from the EU publisher. I made it in work, on a Windows XP based machine. The Parliament does have security in place, but it’s not unknown for large institutions to be targeted by cyber-criminals. I’m also not sure that the payment details for the book I bought (The Consolidated Treaties of the EU since you asked) were sent through a fully encrypted channel, which means they could have been intercepted.

There are a hundred and one other methods which could have been used. Anything from a hardware key-logger to someone pilfering details from a company which I’ve bought from. Whoever it was and however it was done, I suspect that Bank of Scotland’s fraud office won’t be able to catch them. With luck, they’ll at least be able to get my money back.

The immediate problem for me is that I have no money to get to Charleroi so I can fly back to Scotland on Tuesday. I’ll also be rather hungry by the time the plane lands on Tuesday night, since I was planning to go shopping today.  The bank have sent a new card to my home address, but that’s in Scotland and won’t arrive for a few days. So, I’ll be paying a visit to the British Consulate in the hope of getting a crisis loan. The downside to this is that it requires surrendering my passport in exchange for emergency travel papers until the loan is repaid, which could cause issues when I try to get back into Belgium.

We’ll see what happens though. C’est la Vie.

Moving To Make A Kinect-ion

I remember when the Wii was first announced. I loved the idea. I was even a vocal defender of it’s name. As soon as I could, I went and placed a pre-order with my Friendly Local Video Game Store. I got my Wii not long after launch due to the delays by the time the system went on sale in Europe, and I was blown away by how much fun it was playing Wii Sports with a group of friends. On the other hand, I was left cold by Zelda: Twilight Princess. Not because it was a bad game, but because swinging a controller around in an action-RPG felt clunky and uncomfortable compared to using a keyboard and mouse or a control pad.

My impressions of the Wii remained that it was very much a party machine. The games I had the most fun with were the ones which emphasised group play, like WarioWare: Smooth Moves, Rayman Raving Rabbids and MarioKart Wii. Eventually, I realised that I just didn’t play my Wii enough even when I did have people round. I traded it in when I moved to Edinburgh. I don’t regret selling my Wii for a second.

My experience with the Wii should really be enough to put me off both PS Move and Kinect for Xbox 360. One is pretty much a copy of the Wii’s control system with claims to be more accurate while the other is an unknown quantity with more similarities to unsuccessful control systems for the PlayStation Eye and Xbox Live Vision then anything else. Yet, I find myself vaguely drawn towards both systems.

The game which really has me interested in the PlayStation Move is Time Crisis: Razing Storm. This is a new, expanded edition of Time Crisis 4, released specifically for the Move. It also comes with two other rail-shooter games, including one pirate based one which looks like absurd, silly fun. I had great fun in my student union playing Time Crisis 3 and I’d love to be able to do that with my friends at home. I’m also interested to see how Little Big Planet 2 (the sequel to the PS3’s most successful game) and EchoChrome 2 (sequel to a rather nice PSP puzzle game) will make use of the controller.

Sadly, three games which look pretty damned good just aren’t enough to justify spending £100 on a Playstation Eye, two controllers and two navigation controllers. A few more interesting looking games might have me persuaded, but the list of games which are intended to use Move looks quite uninspiring, with many of the games likely to be perfectly playable with a normal DuelShock3 controller. There are also some games which look a bit rubbish and similar to the shovelware titles which have flooded the Wii games market.

If the line up for the Move is uninspiring, then I’m not sure what that makes the Kinect line-up. Of the games announced so far, the only two which I intend to buy are Fable III and Forza Motorsports 4, both of which are likely to be excellant and work perfectly with my existing gamepads. I have absolutely no interest in any of the other games, although I’m sure that Microsoft’s flagship titles – Adventures, Joy Ride, Sports and Kinectimals won’t actually be bad. I’m also dubious about how well the control system will actually work in the real world.

My skeptiscism about Kinect isn’t helped by the fact that I already own an Xbox Live Vision Camera, which was not a worthwhile investment. It came with two games which it was used as a controller for, one of which was called Totemball. It was pretty much unplayable. To quote GameSpot (via MetaCritic):

If you already have the camera, you might as well download TotemBall. But don’t expect to get much enjoyment out of it.

Maybe I’m being a bit too harsh on Kinect. After all, Microsoft has given me around five years of enjoyable gaming, using controllers which fit my hands comfortably (as compared to PlayStation controllers, the PSP and DS Lite, which I find uncomfortable to use). They’ve also had a lot of good exclusive and first-party games, many of which I still play regularly. Ok, so my first Xbox did RROD (thanks to Fable II), but I can forgive these things.

So I’m not going to write Kinect off altogether…yet. I’m quite open to the fact that it might help change my perception of how to control a game in the same way that the iPad and iPhone changed my perceptions of how we should be interacting with computers (something which is being realised in the form of Microsoft Surface). I won’t be holding my breath…but then I never expected to be as impressed with my iPhone as I was.

Sony and Microsoft are both making allusions to Move and Kinect being extensions of their respective system; a stepping stone which will turn 7th generation consoles into the 8th generation. I don’t really buy that, and I don’t think that either the Xbox or the PS3 are suddenly going to steal the Wii’s casual and party gamer market. Rather, I think that both MS and Sony are going to fail to sell many Move and Kinect devices. Mostly because the number of gamers who own both an Xbox or a PS3 and a Wii is vast. Gamers are fickle creatures however, and the lure of motion gameplay with high quality graphics may be too much for some. We’ll have to wait and see.

Day 37 – Mini-Plenary Retrospective

Most of the plenary sessions of the European Parliament are held in Strasbourg. This dates back to the treaties which founded the European Coal and Steel Community in the ’50s. It was intended to ensure the French retained more power in the ECSC then the Germans did. Since then, various treaties have come and gone and the French Government have vigorously fought for Parliament sittings to remain in Strasbourg despite MEPs being based in Brussels, where committee and group meetings are held. The exception to this are Mini-Plenary sessions, which only last two days, compared to the full Plenaries which last four.

This week was my first Mini-Plenary. It wasn’t originally expected to be too stressful, expect that following an Environment (ENVI) committee vote the previous week, the vote on Thursday was to include a motion calling for a moratorium on oil drilling in EU waters. While this wouldn’t have been binding on the members states, it would have led to a communication to the Commission and Council suggesting that they impose a legally binding moratorium through the Council of Ministers.

Understandably, this meant this it was all hands on deck in SNP quarters: a ban on oil drilling would potential devastate Scotland’s economy and jobs market, as well as cutting the UK treasury’s revenue. Initially, we believed that they moratorium would pass so we prepared damage controls and started to think ahead to what could be done to persuade the Council and Commission that Scotland’s rigs were safe.

When it came down to the vote, the motion which contained the resolution passed, but an amendment which removed the moratorium from it also passed. This makes it more unlikely that the Council of Ministers will seek a moratorium, even though the Commissioner for the Environment is quite enthusiastic about one.

What will happen now is that the EU will look at coming up with collective response strategies for oil accidents as well as looking at increasing the safety standards on rigs. The UK rigs already have very high standards of safety thanks to the Cullen Inquiry on the Piper Alpha Disaster, which put stringent regimes in place. These were tightened by the Health and Safety Executive (a Quango which is essential) in the wake of the Deep Water Horizon accident.

For much of this week, it was just Alyn and I in the office. It was an interesting experience dealing with this without Laura. I’m not sure I did as well as I could have done, but Alyn seemed happy enough with how I coped. Admittedly, by the time he left at 2 on Thursday, I was just about ready to pass out from stress, cold symptoms and exhaustions, but it was great fun. It was also something extremely important and it felt daunting to know that I was lending a hand to a current issue that might affect hundreds of thousands of people.

Next week will be more relaxed. I’m heading back to Scotland on Tuesday for the SNP conference. This years conference is in Perth (as normal) and runs from Thursday to Sunday. After that, I’m take a week off Europe to sort out some stuff for Uni and to visit my Grandfather, who is very probably dying (of old age rather than anything specific, but he’s being very well looked after in a carehome near where he grew up). I may well write a bit about him over the next week, because without him I wouldn’t be sitting in Brussels or heading to the SNP conference next week.

Day 34 – Green Nuclear War

It’s not unusual to arrive at the European Parliament to find a swarm of police cars sitting in the vicinity and various roads closed off. It’s understandable really – the Parliament does get a lot of dignatories who need an escort (in the last fortnight, these have included Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa, and José Ramos-Horta, President of Timor-Leste).

What you don’t expect to see is a swarm of police looking on as people shimmy up the flagpoles.

This was a protest by Greenpeace against nuclear power use in the EU. They targeted the flag-poles of the 16 EU member states which have large amounts of nuclear waste. The signs they put up read “Nuclear Waste, No Solution” in various languages.

They also brought along samples of contaminated material taken from various sites which are either in the EU or used by EU powers during nuclear fuel refinement process. One of the samples is taken from a beach near Stellafield reprocessing facility in North of England. Annoyingly, I didn’t realise they had these samples when I went past and only found out when I was emailed a press release about the protest. Had I realised what the barrels were, I’d have got some clear photos of them. As such, I was only able to grab a few shots of protestors handcuffed together around the sample containers (which were both lead and concrete lined).

I didn’t get a chance to ask Alyn about his opinion of the protests due to the rush surrounding the votes on Thursday morning. The line from the Greens-European Free Alliance group, which the SNP is a member of, is very much in support of the protest and a reduction in the use of nuclear power.

Day 33 – Malta Week

This week is apparently Malta Week in Brussels. I’m not sure why or to what extent, but there is a large pavilion serving food and drinks outside. Some of the tents are selling examples of Maltese gilded clocks, glassware and pottery.

Given it’s heavily sponsored by HSBC and various hotels, I presume it’s an attempt to encourage tourists and investors to visit Malta. Unfortunately, it’s also in-between four of the wings of the European Parliament and features a very loud PA and lots of live music. It does not make it terribly easy to work at times.

The Maltese Pavilion taken from the Office

Day 32 – Brussels Backstreets

Today, I was dispatched to buy a kettle. This is possible the most stereotypical intern assignments I’ve had. It did, however, see me pass the Martyrs Square on my way to an elctrical goods shop.

This square is a fantastic example of the pretty architecture which is hidden away in the backstreets of Brussels.

At one end of the square is the official residence of the Flemish Prime Minister. I’m not sure what the building at the other end is, but judging from the flags outside it, it’s also something to do with the Flemish Government.

The statue in the centre of the square (which is on a plinth within a sunken area decorated with carvings) is dedicated to those who died in the Belgian Revolution of 1830. This revolt led to the independence of Belgium from the Netherlands. In a somewhat unfortunate twist, it also led to the suppression of Flemish language and culture in favour of the Francophone culture during the 19th century. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Flemish gained government recognition in Belgium.

It’s also somewhere that I have very fond memories of. Mostly because the first time I visited it was at about 2AM in the middle of a wonderfully cold winter night. The bar on the corner of the square had a live Jazz band on and it’s doors and windows open, letting the music drift across the square. Coupled with the poor street lighting, it was like something out of a film noir. All very romantic.

I throughly encourage people visiting Brussels to get off the beaten trail and look for places like this. There are all sorts of wonderful hidden places in the backstreets of Brussels.