Monthly Archives: November 2010

Day 89 – St. Andrew’s Day in Brussels

Many national days are acknowledged in Brussels. Since I’ve been working in the Parliament, special dishes have featured in the canteen menus for Spanish, Romanian, Latvian, Polish, Maltan and Lithuanian holidays. Lobbying groups, MEP social clubs and Member State Representations also arrange events for days of national importance.

Unfortunately, there’s a bit of internal politics which prevents the acknowledgement of St. Andrew’s Day in the Parliament: if one devolved nation is recognised, then all devolved nations must be recognised. So there was no haggis, neeps and tatties to be had today. C’est la Vie.

Of course, that’s no excuse for not expressing a bit of national pride.

Day 87 – No Snow Here!

From reports on Twitter, Scotland is grinding to a halt due to snow. Being of hardy Cairngorm stock, I tend to take my sassenach friends’ tales of snow with a pince of salt. The media are, of course, useless when it comes to snow, defaulting to a bizarre “shocked and awed” response to an annual event.

Still, not my problem, because today is a stunning day in Brussels.

Day 85 – Countdown to the Homecoming

It’s less then three weeks until I return to Scotland on the 16th of December. I have to admit, I already have my first night at home planned out.

  • A long bath to wash off the residue of Brussels’ hard water.
  • An Indian take-away, because you just can’t get a good Indian or Pakistani meal in Belgium.
  • Some West Wing, starting with the fantastic Season 1 episode “Mr. Willis of Ohio“.
  • Playing some Xbox games with my flatmate.

These are just a few of the pleasures I’ve particularly missed while being in Belgium.

Unfortunately, it’ll be back to reality with a bump on the 17th, since I’ve yet to find gainful employment.

Day 84 – Some Days, You Can Change The World

One of the things I’ve learnt in the past few months is that actually being at the centre of politics is much more frustrating then being on the fringes. The problem is that the closer to the centre you are, the greater understanding you gain and the more you see the problems which prevent action on a given issue.

To give an example: a while ago, I was reading the Economist in the pub after work one day. The main story was about poverty levels, education and the rich-poor divide in India. It made me very angry. I thought, well what can I do about this where I am just now? The answer, of course, is not much. EU-India trade relations are under negotiation, but in many ways these are the domain of Council and not easily influenced. There is also the small issue that the EU can’t interfere in India’s domestic affairs. India is, after all, a democratic state, a strong military and economic power and in many ways a well governed. For the EU to attempt to dictate policy to India would  be a slight to them, a slight to their sovereignty and likely to set diplomatic relations back.

Indian domestic problems are an extreme example of how you can feel powerless and frustrated when you should be doing something. There have been plenty of other times when I’ve felt the same in the past few months due to letters, goings on in the news or even just walking past a beggar on the street.

The flip-side are the days when you feel like you can change the world. Today was one of those days. Unfortunately, I can’t explain why because it’s related to a constituency letter and is thus confidential. In the greater scheme of things, it’s a small matter, but it’s one which is very much within the scope of the EU. I’m intending to do everything I can to get the powers who be to notice this issue and deal with it in the legislation planned for 2011 (where it fits nicely in with some similar trade and commerce issues).

The days like this are brilliant. They are the days you know you are doing the right thing and genuinely helping people. I had a similar feeling after I spent two days researching the oil moratorium for Alyn, in an effort to ensure that it didn’t pass and have a grave impact on Scotland.  Unfortunately, for me, they are less frequent then I’d like. There are a lot of obstacles in politics.

I can understand why people do this job though. When you know you are doing the right thing, and doing all you can to achieve it, it feels utterly fantastic!

Day 83 – The New Benefits System

This week, I was party to a briefing by a senior civil servent on the future plans for the benifits system in the UK. The plans haven’t been formally released yet, although given the open invite to the briefing, I can surmise that they are in the public domain.

Since the benefit system is of interest to so many in the UK, I’ve reproduced my notes in longhand. It’s worth noting that I may not have all details quite 100% correct.

Situation at Present

  • Approximately 5 million people are jobless and on benefits.
  • The largest group of claimants is those on disability benefits.

Coalition Goals for Welfare Reform

  • Reduce the number of benefit claimants.
  • Get people into sustainable employment.

The New Welfare System

All benifit claimants will be subject to twelve months on Job Seekers Allowance and other benefits as at present. During this time, they will receive support from the Department of Work and Pensions through JobCentre Plus.

If employment has not been found within this period, claimants are handed to private service providers. Private employment providers will receive a small payment for each individual taken on. They will then provide claimants with support in order to find long-term, sustainable employment. This support may include training, provision of treatment for mental health issues or a variety of other services. These will vary considerable depending on the providers.

When claimants have found sustainable employment, the private service provider receives a large payment. It is envisaged by the DWP that companies will lower the required payment on successful employment in order to remain competitive with each other. These payments will come from savings made through getting benefit claimants into work. Free market economics will (in theory) ensure that any inefficient providers will go bust (NB. this was the same argument used during rail privatisation).

There appears to be a high risk of those who are considered too unemployable being left behind as private companies race to make a quick buck using those who are more employable. This may result in those in need of greater support suffering.

This system is intended to be implemented by Summer 2011. Full plans are due to be announced in the next two weeks.

Named Potential Providers

  • Serco
  • Working Links
  • “A Local Authority”
  • “A college”
  • “Various Third Sector Parties”

 

Thoughts At The Kinect Launch

Last month, I laid down some thoughts about Kinect and Move – the second generation motion controllers to hit the video game market after the Wii. This week, Kinect went on sale, and it’s been interesting to read the reviews of it given my pre-launch opinions.

Seeing the short article on Sonic Free Riders on Ars Technica, it seemed that a lot of my fears about Kinect had proved to be true. It isn’t that accurate, the controls require a lot of movement and it doesn’t feel immersive. If you watch the video in the post, the game doesn’t even look particularly fun. In short, that particular article doesn’t make me feel confident that Kinect does anything more then the Xbox Live Camera and it’s awful motion games did.

So it’s probably just as well that that wasn’t the only article about Kinect that I’ve read recently.

From proper reviews of the system, I’m left with the impression that Kinect is a technology which has been rushed to market. The videos of it in use show that the control system for the Dashboard and games is quite slow, the device needs a lot of space to be effective and that Kinect simply isn’t as integrated into the “Core Xbox Experience” (in particular the standard Dashboard) as Microsoft led people to believe it would be. All of this could likely have been improved given another six months development time. It also seems, and this is a recurring theme, that there is little you can do with Kinect which you can’t do with a controller (other then dance presumably).

That said, I am convinced that Kinect still has potential. Developers need to make sure they avoid the pitfalls which Sega fell into with Sonic Free Riders for a start. Microsoft also needs to build on the launch and quickly, much in the same way they built on the initially poor Games On Demand and Xbox Live Arcade services. In the last four years, the overall Xbox experience (as MS refer to in their PR materials) has improved considerably and Kinect may well do the same.

Even if Microsoft and developers fail to build on Kinect’s launch, it doesn’t mean it’s a failure. I could well see Kinect being the next Mega CD: unpopular, but showcasing an emergent technology which may come to the fore.

We’ll have to wait and see. I know I’m not going to be rushing to buy Kinect based on the recent reviews…but that doesn’t mean I’ll never buy it.

Requiem For The PSP

The PlayStation Portable isn’t a dead console yet, but it’s days are certainly numbered. In December, it’ll be six years since it’s initial Japanese release, making it comparatively aged compared to Nintendo’s various models in the DS range. Vultures are already circling, with developers claiming they already have PSP2 development kits and photos of an Android-powered PSP Phone being leaked to Engadget.

Before the media completely consign the PSP to the electronic cupboard of history, I’d like to pay tribute to it for it is: an underrated system which has been plagued by bad management decisions and short-sightedness.

The PSP is a quality piece of hardware. Back in 2004, when the PSP was first revealed the screen was stunning compared to other media devices at the $200 price point. The screen was several times the size and resolution of the screen on the Game Boy Advance and DS, and far sharper then either. In terms of hardware configuration, it’s processing capacity and graphical abilities were closer to the PS2 than to the original PlayStation. PSP models remain considerable more powerful then the Nintendo DS or the released specifications for the 3DS.

Standing at the forefront of gaming technology, the PSP should have been a massive success. It wasn’t. Instead, it has spent much of it’s lifecycle towards the bottom of hardware sales charts with dwindling support in game stores. UMD copies of many games are now quite hard to find, simply because they have been produced in small runs compared to games on other consoles.

So what factors left the PSP in this situation?

  • Lack of a “Killer Game” – The success of the DS was almost ensured by the release of Mario Kart DS and Mario 64 DS. Established titles such as Pokemon and the Final Fantasy III remake helped to cement this. There was no killer title for the PSP. The launch line-up was devoid of highlights, with the established Metal Gear brand being turned into a not terribly popular a card-based-combat game.
  • Short-Sighted Distribution System – The PSP was the first major handheld games console to feature a wi-fi connection and writable media. From day one, the potential existed for the PSP to be used to buy small, Xbox Live Arcade style games online and to access indie games. Sony effectively ignored this potential by allowing the PlayStation Network Store to stagnate for two to three years while Microsoft were forging ahead with digital distribution on consoles.
  • Quashing Homebrew – The PSP is easy to code for and would have been a godsend for small developers. Except rather then supporting them with an online indie game store, Sony continually tried to block people from installing homebrew software on the PSP.
  • Bonding To The PS3 – The PS3 was designed to work with the PSP. Nothing wrong with that. The problems started when Sony made PS1 games playable on the PSP but only available for download on the PS3, cutting out a large chunk of their market. This problem is now resolved, but support for PS1 games would have been something that should have been there from day one and independent of the PS3.
  • Lack of Platform Titles – Platforming games are the bread and butter of handheld gaming. They are sadly lacking on the PSP, despite the potential existing for platformers from defunct consoles to be ported to the system in the same way they’ve been ported to the Wii, Xbox and DS. More homegrown intellectual properties, such as Ratchet and Clank would also have helped the system, although lack of good, first-party titles has been a problem which has plagued Sony.

The PSP is not a perfect system. The analogue ‘nub’ is a particular point of contention, while some have criticised it’s shoulder buttons and battery life. Still, it deserved a far better life then it ended up with. It had the potential to change the handheld market in the same way the PS1 changed the console market. It failed, almost entirely to make an impact however, allowing the Nintendo DS to completely dominate the handheld games market.

There were a lot of brave decisions in the design of the PSP, as there were with the PS3. The choice of a disk drive and the propriety UMD format was one while inclusion of a web browser and the recent release of a version without the UMD driver were others. Some of these worked out and some didn’t. I will continue to use my PSP, no matter what Sony release to succeed it and I am very glad that I bought what turned out to be a very good piece of hardware.

Day 61 – Eine Scot Aus Berlin

Apologies for the silence over the last few weeks. For the week after conference, I was in Aberdeenshire and Edinburgh dealing with personal manners. While some of these may even go so far as to be slightly gossip worthy, they didn’t seem like they needed blogged about at the time.

As far as the conference itself goes, it was extremely enjoyable. Unfortunately the construction of Perth Concert Hall is not conductive to the use of phones. There was also a distinct lack of wifi in the building. These factors meant my plans for frequent blogging were put to one side. Over the next week, I do intend to back-date some posts, with pictures, regarding the events of the conference.

I only got back to Brussels last Tuesday (thanks to the strange operating days of Ryanair’s Edinburgh-Brussels route), so I’m not quite back into the swing of things yet. This isn’t helped by the public holiday on All-Saint’s and All-Soul’s Days, which means that the Parliament building has been closed for the last two days.

Rather then loafing around Brussels, I took the opportunity to visit Berlin.

Day 59-61 – Berlin (Photo Heavy)

The European Institutions take the Belgian bank holidays, which gave me two days off at the start of November for the celebration of All-Saints and All-Souls Day. Being the humanist that I am, I didn’t feel it necessary to acknowledge these particular festivities and trotted off to Berlin for three days.

The trip itself was eventful. Between Liége and Aachen, the Brussels-Köln ICE-3 broke down. This necessitated 8 carriages of passengers fitting into a two carriage local train which looked like it had been built in the ’50s. I take back everything I’ve ever said about Deutsche Bahn’s efficiency and about ScotRail’s diesel Sprinters being outdated. After a horrendous journey to Aachen and a painfully uncomfortable journey from Aachen to to Köln, I eventually got on to another high speed ICE train. Annoyingly, it wasn’t fast enough to get me to Berlin before 11, but c’est la vie.

In defence of Deutsche Bahn’s record, all four of the ICE trains I was on was faster, roomier and more comfortable then the Intercity trains used by East Coast and the Pendalinos used by Virgin. I was particularly impressed by the standing bar area and cheap prices on the train. The main annoyance was the lack of Wi-fi and power sockets, which is something that East Coast and Virgin definitely win on.

Berlin itself was fantastic. Having spent many years studying German history between 1800 and 1939, I spent a lot of time trying to put the events I’d read about into geographical context. This was considerably harder then I had anticipated, as I simply hadn’t realised how much had been destroyed in the invasion of Berlin and then by both the East and West German Governments. While, as a former history student, I do dispair for the lost of so many historic buildings, I can fully understand why the buildings which were used by the Nazi regime were destroyed rather then repurposed (with a few exceptions).

I did, however, take pictures of various streets in what was the heart of the Nazi Government. These are mainly to show my mother, as she also studied German history but has never visited the city.

This street, for example, was the site of the first Reich Chancellery. Hitler and Speer built the Nazi-era Chancellery on a perpendicular to it. The opposite side of the street housed various ministries.

The site where the corpses of Hitler and Eva Braun were bruned, which was once the gardens of Chancellery is now a carpark. This area has a series of signs which explain what went on in each of the buildings which stood there. Some of these can be (rightly) unsettling, such as the sign outside my hotel which explained that the Ministry for Jewish Affairs, one of the main government bodies involved in the Holocaust had soon on the site. I didn’t sleep terribly well knowing that Adolf Eichmann could have signed death warrants meters away from where I was.

There are some remnants of the Third Reich preserved in Berlin.

The German Finance Ministry was the home of Göring’s Aviation Ministry during the Second World War. According to signs outside, many aspects of it’s interior have survived intact (but de-Nazified) and have featured in a number of films since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Prior to the fall of the Wall, it was used as a command centre by the Soviet military then as a government building by the DDR. It was also the site of a major uprising in 1953.

The Finance Ministry features a DDR-era mural, in a particularly soviet style. During the Second World War, this wall held a massive bronze casting featuring marching soldiers. It disappeared in the confusion of the invasion of Berlin and I suspect it was probably ceased by the Soviet Union to be melted down.

Nearby these relics of the Third Reich is on of the best memorials to those who suffered at the hands of Nazis. The Topography of Terror is an open museum built on the site of the SS, SA and Gestapo headquarters. The outdoor section contains photos of the area before, during and after the Second World War, along with pieces of the foundations of several of the buildings. There are also the remains of prison cells which were used by the SS and the foundations of a canteen which was just metres from interrogation cells and a prison yard.

There is little I can say to convey the full horror which overcomes you as you walk around this site, knowing what happened here.

There is also a very large exhibition on the Nazi reign of terror and the Holocaust in the visitor centre at the Topography of Terror. It’s one of the best curated museums I’ve ever been to and I highly recommend visiting it. Entry is free and it has very long opening hours. There are also temporary exhibitions and the longest surviving portion of the Berlin Wall at the site.

In addition to visiting various sites related to WWII and the Holocaust, I also did some more light hearted exploring. Amongst other things, I visited the Berlin TV Tower and the DDR Museum (which featured some amazing mock-ups).

I also treated my inner-child by visiting the world’s largest model railway, which was very, very cool. It has dozens of cameos, including a rave, a movie being filmed, a fire being put out and even Angela Merkel greeting Barack Obama as he steps off Airforce One.

I managed to pack in quite a lot (even managing to take some pictures of the German President). You can check my flickr pages for day 1, day 2 and day 3 for more images of the various things I saw and did. Most of them haven’t been captioned yet and some are unfocussed and need to be deleted, but most of them are pretty good.

I will have to visit Berlin again. Next time, I’ll be certain to give myself more time, because it does actually take quite a while to get between things in the city. There are also a host of attractions nearby which I couldn’t contemplate going to because of travel time required. I’ll also try and take someone with me next time I go, because being in a strange city on holiday from another strange city can be a bit lonely and I was dying for an in-depth conversation by the time I got back (my German is reasonably good, but doesn’t stretch too far). Still, it was a fun holiday, the food was great and so was the beer.