Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Space Time Continuum

For years I've always understood that Space/Time is a continuum which rippled out in every direction after the Big Bang, as space continued to expand over time while time continued to pass as the universe grows and gets bigger every day.

Yet this article from The Independent suggests that the Big Bang created another, completely different universe where times runs backwards, would you believe?  

Now I can just about get my head around this business of Schrodinger's Cat and the notion that certain atomic particles can be in two places at the same time.

But I can't quite grasp, so far at least, how time could possibly run backwards and forwards at the same time - because how exactly would that work?

I was going to read the two links in article which might lead me to a greater level of human understanding, but I've decided to go to the pub instead; the Physical Review Letters can wait for another day.     

'Mirror universe' suggests Big Bang created place where time goes backwards

The 'arrow of time' and the fact that it goes forwards has troubled scientists for centuries, but a new theory hopes to answer some of those questions

By ANDREW GRIFFIN - The Independent

Why does time only go in one direction? And why is the future so different from the past? They seem obvious questions, but they have troubled scientists for over a century. A new theory has proposed an answer — that time doesn’t run just one way, and that there is another universe, a mirror of ours, where time runs backwards.

An experiment to recreate the beginning of our universe suggests that as the Big Bang happened, it sent off another one, the mirror image of ours, with the ‘arrow of time’ running the other way.

The experiment solves a key problem in theoretical physics: that all of it fundamental laws, such as relativity and gravity, work just as well if time is going the other way. And usually, when scientists model the beginning of our universe, it is happy to flow backwards as forwards.
The universe in the first second after the Big Bang. But a new theory suggests that another universe could have been created in the other direction. Source: Nasa

The current theory suggests that entropy — the force of the universe that means that it tends to get more disordered over time — also drives time forwards. Since the universe began as an ordered thing, as it gets more disorganised, so does time.

But that depends on an assuming that the universe was exceptionally ordered at its beginning, according to Steven Carlip, of the University of California at Davis. And while that is many scientists’ working theory, it is impossible to prove.

But the new theory suggests that time doesn’t have to flow in just one direction, which would settle the problem entirely. When the universe began, it could have created another one, flowing in the other direction, write Julian Barbour, Tim Koslowski, and Flavio Mercati in the Physical Review Letters.
A photo from one of Hubble's deepest looks into the visible universe, showing some of the first galleries created during the Big Bang. Photo: NASA/ESA/S. Beckwith(STScI) and The HUDF Team

“Any internal observer must be in one half of the solution and will only be aware of the records of one branch and deduce a unique past and future direction from inspection of the available records,” they write. People think that time moves in one direction because they can only see one half of the universe, in other words.

Fruitcakes and Loonies

The Independent ran an amusing story the other day with some of the best and worst 'foot in mouth' quotes of 2014 including these two beauties from UKIP which make dumb excuses for key party figures.

Now I'm almost never late for appointments, but normal human beings don't blame their travel problems of immigration - nor do they excuse the use of offensive language on the (alleged) use of sedatives.  

Excuse of the Year (Runner-Up)

“It took me six hours and 15 minutes in the car to get here. It should have taken three and a half to four. That has nothing to do with professionalism. What it does have to do with is a population that is going through the roof chiefly because of open-door immigration and the fact that the M4 is not as navigable as it used to be.” – Ukip leader Nigel Farage on why he was two hours late for the party’s first Welsh conference in Port Talbot.

Excuse of the Year (Strong Contender)

“That was a phone call made a long time ago while he was on sedatives and, by his own account, not really speaking or thinking rationally.” – Patrick O’Flynn, Ukip MEP, explains how Kerry Smith, prospective Ukip candidate for Basildon and East Thurrock, came to use the phrases “Chinky bird” and “old poofters” in a phone conversation.

Scottish Character

According to this report in The Sunday Herald normal levels of hostile relations seem to have been restored to the Scottish Labour Party, now that the recent leadership contest is out of the way.

Now I don't know Stephen Low and I certainly don't carry a torch for Neil Findlay, but I find it hard to disagree with the comment that Jim Murphy's "ingrained" Scottishness is just making things up for political convenience, as if the municipal socialism that's on offer from Labour these days is part of Scotland's political and cultural landscape.

No wonder some folks in the Labour Party refuse to go along with this kind of silly talk which tries to claim some non-existent special empathy with Robert Burns while completely ignoring the contributions of other famous Scots such as David Hume and Adam Smith, for example.         

Murphy accused of 'abandoning truth' by former spin doctor of Labour leadership opponent

SCOTTISH Labour's brief period of unity has ended after the former spokesman for Jim Murphy's defeated rival accused the new leader of "abandoning truth" and "making stuff up" about Scottishness.

Stephen Low, who was the spin doctor for leadership candidate Neil Findlay, said Murphy's comments about an "ingrained" Scottish character amounted to him "buying into fantasies".
Murphy beat left-winger Findlay and Sarah Boyack MSP earlier this month to become Johann Lamont's successor as Scottish Labour leader.
Lamont had quit her post in acrimonious circumstances after blasting Westminster "dinosaurs" and accusing UK Labour of treating the Scottish party as a "branch office".
During the contest, Murphy addressed Lamont's claims by stressing his Scottishness and insisting he would take no orders from his MP colleagues.
He said he would hire Yes voters to his team and, 24 hours after winning, promised to rewrite the Scottish Labour constitution to reflect the country's perceived national identity.
Murphy explained: "We are a socialist party yes, but we recognise that our political faith grew out of something deeper which is ingrained in our Scottish character.
"It was there before our party in the ethics of Burns's poetry, the economic vision of New Lanark, the actions of the Highlanders who took on brutal landlords."
However, Low took to Facebook to criticise Murphy's comments, saying of the "ingrained" Scottishness remark: "This is fiction, not history.
"All I can suggest now is that peddling myths - either out of ignorance or calculation, will do us few favours."
He said it was not a "statement that bears any relation to either history - nor the sociology of nations", adding: "We do ourselves no favours by abandoning truth and reality nor buying into fantasies that nations have 'ingrained character'."
Low added: "Are we going to start discussing the ingrained nature of the German or Hungarian or African culture next ... The idea that the labour movement ... arose from a sense of national rather than class identity would get you a bad fail in any history class.
"Jim does, of course, have the right to say what he wants - but when he maintains things that aren't true, the party does have a duty to point these things out."
He accused Murphy of "making stuff up" and concluded with a warning: "We are making a rod for our own backs here."
The leadership contest was broadly good natured but Labour's biggest trade union affiliate, Unite, launched a personal attack against Murphy.
Union general secretary Len McCluskey said Murphy stood for "reheated Blairism", which would be a "sentence of political death for many Scottish Labour MPs" at next year's General Election.
Low was Findlay's press contact during the election and is a policy officer for another trade union, Unison.
SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell said: "The fact that there is a great deal of unease within the Labour party over the election of Jim Murphy will surprise nobody given he is an MP who backs Trident, voted for the Iraq war, campaigned with the Tories in the referendum and has a track record of voting for tuition fees.
"With a recent opinion poll showing that the SNP has actually increased our lead since the election of Jim Murphy, it is clearer than ever that it will take far more than the election of a new leader to address the fact that Labour is fundamentally out of step with people in Scotland."
Low said: "The campaign is over. These views are mine and no-one else's."
A Scottish Labour spokesperson said: "The new leadership team means it's a fresh start for Scottish Labour and Scotland. We will be working together in the new year to take our positive message of radical change all across our great nation."

All Puffed Out

Everyone and their uncle is getting their tuppence worth in about the likely outcome of next UK general election in May 2015. 

Nothing's certain if you ask me, although another hung Westminster Parliament looks all but  inevitable since the voters don't trust the Conservatives or Labour sufficiently to hand either party a working majority of MPs.

Dan Hodges, as a former Labour supporter and GMB union official, thinks that Labour's Ed Miliband is a busted flush; a leader who has finally run out of steam having had very little of substance to say to begin with. 

Ed Miliband’s wind of change is all puffed out

The Labour leader has neither the personality nor the policies to take the Tories down in 2015

By Dan Hodges - The Telegraph

Can you sense it? It’s in the air. Britain is on the brink of change. A new year, a fresh beginning. The old order is about to be swept away. The electricity of renewal. Can you feel it?

No. Of course you can’t. Because it isn’t there.

The year 2015 promises an election. Another of those moments when, for all the spin and sophistry, we will face a relatively simple choice: to continue along the road we’re on. Or turn off on to the path less travelled. Indeed, a path none of us has travelled before.

If you believe the pundits and the polls, we are torn. Labour and the Tories currently each command the support of a third of voters. The support of the final third is fluid. Ukip, the Greens, the Lib Dems – remember them? They swirl in and out of the electorate’s consciousness, clouding minds, confusing the issue. It is, everyone confidently predicts, the election no one can predict.

Perhaps. But for a moment, let’s set aside the polling graphs. Let’s ignore the vagaries of the constituency boundaries, and the thrusts and counter-thrusts of the parties that fight over them. Instead let’s ask ourselves: are we really 132 days from a great leap into the unknown? On the cusp of a new dawn? Something reminiscent of Obama in 2008; or New Labour in 1997?

I’m not entirely sure I can remember exactly what change then felt like. But one thing I do know. It didn’t feel like this.

On Christmas Eve, the three main party leaders issued their festive messages. David Cameron’s and Nick Clegg’s were traditional – if rather bland – evoking the spirit of the season, and “Christian values”. Ed Miliband’s, as even the Guardian acknowledged, was “more politically partisan”. It concluded with the following appeal: “Our country faces a choice next year. Let’s choose generosity and inclusion.”

I didn’t detect partisanship behind those words, so much as a sense of desperation. “OK, I may not have convinced you,” he seemed to be saying. “But please, don’t just think of yourselves. Think of those people who really, really need me in Number 10.”

In a couple of days, we’ll get the leaders’ traditional New Year’s missives, and they will be chock full of freshness, and newness and the repetitive mantra of change. But change isn’t coming. Or if it is coming, it’s arriving by stealth. And for those trying to divine the result of the next election, that represents a significant narrative omission. For the most basic job of an opposition leader is to build a consensus around change. First, you construct a desire for change. Next, you layer on top a sense that change is inevitable. And finally, you present yourself and your party as the agents of that change.

On all three counts, Mr Miliband has failed. He could have opted to attack the Coalition for the botched way they were implementing the politics of austerity. Instead, he chose to try to make the case austerity wasn’t necessary at all. And the British people – rightly – didn’t believe him.

Moreover, his agenda consistently proved incapable of passing the most basic of credibility tests. Take, for example, the famous pledge to freeze energy prices. People said they liked his the policy. But they also said they didn’t believe Mr Miliband would be able to deliver it for them. All too often, Labour’s offer has not seemed aspirational, but fantastical. And if something is seen as fantastical, then by definition, it will rarely be seen as inevitable.

These combined failures have meant Mr Miliband has never been able to adopt the “change” mantle. In Scotland, it has been ceded to the SNP; in England, to Nigel Farage’s People’s Army; and latterly, Natalie Bennett’s Green maquis. As a result of which, Mr Miliband has become neither the change candidate, nor the continuity candidate. He is Labour’s nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody.

Every year for the past five years, a couple of days before his conference speech, I’ve rung Mr Cameron’s communications team for a read-out on the main themes. Every year, I’ve received the same message. Delivery. Continuity. Delivery. Continuity.

Five years ago, Tory strategists bet the farm on 2015 being a “safe pair of hands” election. Mr Miliband and his team bet the farm on it being a “change” election. That election may well now hang in the balance. But from the vantage point of December 2014, it is the Conservatives who look like winning their bet.

Over the past few weeks, Labour has come to recognise this. That is why we have seen the attempt – via their hyperbolic “Back to the Thirties” line – to present the Tories, with their proposed public service cuts, as reckless gamblers, while Labour offers stability and maintenance of the status quo.

It’s worth a try, but I suspect it’s come too late. Mr Miliband has spent too long embracing the politics of the student union for him to take up residence in the Master’s study.

Plus, real political change requires a confluence of circumstance. The stars behind each man – or, in one notable case, woman – who wants to achieve it, must come into alignment with genuine popular support for his or her political agenda. And at the moment, Labour appear to have neither the personality or the policies.

The year may be ending. But change is not in the air. Because of that, I suspect the 2015 election won’t be as close as many people think.

Dangerous Liaisons

Private Eye, the UK's best and only fortnightly satirical magazine, published a spoof diary from Valerie Trieweiler, the former First Lady of France who was dumped in the most unchivalrous fashion by the French President, François Hollande.

So Valerie took her revenge by publishing a 'kiss and tell' book which I haven't read I have to admit, but I presume it provides some of the inspiration for the Private Eye diary, so here's an extract.


"How could I forget those first few years of passion with François. That once in a lifetime passion that devours everything.

I was a young journalist, so wide-eyed and unworldly that I was barely on my second marriage. He was the proud standard bearer of the Left, passionate about equality, liberty and fraternity, but whose life had taken a tragic turn for the worse after he unwittingly fathered four children but he cold, haughty Ségolène Royal.

So concerned was he with the poor and the oppressed that he realised too late that he had been trapped in a loveless union for the past fifteen years.

"It all started so innocently. Our friendship was purely professional. It was a hot summer's day when I asked François to my apartment to discuss climate change.

Passionate about energy conservation, I had long considered it my duty as a concerned citizen to save on air-conditioning by removing my clothes.

I would never have imagined that François would react the way that he did. With his razor-sharp intellect, he immediately comprehended the logic of my stance and hastily removed his clothes too.

"But shall I keep my motorcycle helmet on?"he whispered softly in my ear.

"Yes, François," I said. "But turn it the other way round. You look so much better that way."

Va Va Voom (5 August 2014)

The Sunday Times carried a funny story the other day about the increasingly bitter dispute in French politics between former President Nicolas Sarkozy and his socialist successor, Francois Hollande.

If the newspaper claims are to be believed, Nicolas Sarkozy is having fun poking fun at his rival's dull bank manager image by arranging to have an eye catching photo of himself and his rock star girlfriend, Carla Bruni, taken which then made its way on to the front cover of Paris Match. 

Now that is funn

‘Lovebirds’ saddle up to deride Hollande

Sarkozy’s allies say it is an innocent holiday snap, but his scooter photo seems designed to taunt his rival, writes Matthew Campbell in Paris

Matthew Campbell - The Sunday Times

Flattering shots of Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni

THE former French president and his wife make a glamorous and apparently carefree pair with the wind in their hair on the back of a scooter.

Things are not quite what they seem, however: Nicolas Sarkozy is suspected of choreographing the photograph of him and Carla Bruni in an increasingly bitter and personal quest for revenge against François Hollande, his Socialist successor.

An unusual sequence of events has elevated the humble scooter to a political symbol: Hollande was heaped with ridicule earlier this year when photographed wearing a suit and a motorbike helmet on the back of a scooter, a three-wheeler driven by a bodyguard, after a tryst with his lover, Julie Gayet, an actress.

Sarkozy, by contrast, is seen at the controls of a stylish blue Vespa. He looks tanned and relaxed in his white shirt and designer shades. Bruni, displaying a shapely bare thigh, wraps her arms around him. Neither is wearing a helmet.

“Two lovebirds on holiday” was how a recent cover of Paris Match magazine, whose proprietor is a good friend of Sarkozy, summed up the flattering shot of the couple. For some media commentators it evoked the 1953 film Roman Holiday, which featured Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn and love on a Vespa.

The magazine said that it had photographed the couple on their way to a beach near Bruni’s family home at Cap Nègre on the Riviera, prompting accusations that they had broken the law by not wearing helmets.

A less flattering shot of President Hollande

Some speculated, however, that the Vespa was stationary and in the grounds of the Bruni property when the picture was taken: unlike Hollande, Sarkozy is not known as a scooter fan and has never previously been photographed on one. He prefers riding a bicycle.

Even some of Sarkozy’s friends agreed that the picture was a case of carefully choreographed nose-thumbing at Hollande and evidence of how intensely personal the political battle has become for Sarkozy.

He suspects Hollande of being behind a judicial “witch-hunt” against him, of bringing pressure to bear on magistrates to investigate his campaign financing. It has resulted in his telephones being tapped as well as his humiliating arrest recently on charges of corruption and influence-peddling, an investigation that is likely to dog him for months and overshadow his effort to win back the presidency.

Last week Henri Guaino, his former speechwriter and an MP in his centre-right party, warned that Sarkozy was letting his grievance against Hollande — shared by Bruni, whose nickname for the president is “Penguin” — get the better of him.

Guaino called the scooter picture “disastrous” as it underlines the impression that Sarkozy has narrow “psychological reasons” for wanting to return to politics, motivated mainly by “his desire to do battle with Hollande”.

Sarkozy, for his part, did nothing to damp the impression of his being fixated on Hollande. He was quoted as having told an aide after the picture appeared in Paris Match: “I too drive a scooter. But I’m not a ridiculous president.”

In a curious twist the obsession may be mutual: before running for president, Hollande never hid his scorn for “President Bling-Bling”, accusing Sarkozy of cheapening the office with his glitzy girlfriends and taste for designer jewellery.

In office Hollande has gone to great lengths to undo most of the laws passed by his predecessor, styling himself the “anti-Sarkozy”.

By a cruel stroke of fate, however, Hollande has been unable to escape accusations that he has done as much as Sarkozy, the first president to divorce and remarry in office, to make a lurid public spectacle of the presidency.

After revelations about his love affair with Gayet, Valérie Trierweiler, his official girlfriend and “first lady”, was in hospital for a week with what was called an emotional breakdown. In a brief statement to a news agency, Hollande then dumped her.

Last week speculation was rampant about whether he and Gayet, who are said to have continued meeting secretly, will tie the knot.

It seems unlikely: the president has never previously shown any interest in marriage and lived for 29 years with Ségolène Royal, the mother of his four children, who is now a minister in his cabinet, without popping the question.

It had been rumoured that his 60th birthday on August 12 would be the date to make “official” his relationship with Gayet, who is said to have forsaken holidays this summer so as to remain close to Hollande in Paris. There were also suggestions that he might spend time with Gayet at her family’s chateau in southern France.

On Friday, however, it was reported that Hollande would be spending his birthday with his children at La Lanterne, the presidential chateau near Versailles. The paparazzi will no doubt be waiting outside in the hope of Gayet’s arrival.

Whatever the case, they are unlikely to catch the president again on his scooter.

Va Va Voom (13 January 2014)Peter Brookes cartoon

This Peter Brookes cartoon from the Times gets to the heart of the French President's trouser problems which are laid bare, so t speak, in this following report from the BBC. 

But the sorry saga is more like something out of an episode of Benny Hill than Lady Chattereley's Lover, if you ask me. 

Hollande Gayet: Scandal and the French president

This morning the French people were treated to dramatic pictures of their president, disguised by a black motorcycle helmet, being dropped off by scooter at the apartment of his alleged girlfriend.

Photos had been taken from an apartment across the street. There were timings of his comings and goings. Even his secret service bodyguard was noted delivering the morning croissants. The magazine Closer has seven pages detailing the visits to the building in the affluent eighth arrondissement.

The woman is Julie Gayet, a film actress and prominent supporter of Francois Hollande. She had gushed during the election campaign that "he was humble and a really good listener".

The apartment is no more than 300m (984ft) from the Elysee Palace, but the need for secrecy involved the head of state putting on a helmet and riding on the back of a scooter.

The president's office has reacted furiously. Francois Hollande, it is said, greatly deplores the invasion of his privacy, to which he has a right as any other French citizen. He is looking into the possibility of taking legal action. There was no denial of the story, however.

Very few French politicians have commented. Those who have spoken only underline the right of every citizen to privacy.

Later on Friday the managing editor of Closer, Laurence Pieau, said the magazine would remove from its website the feature about the Hollande-Gayet relationship, at the request of Julie Gayet's lawyers. No such request had been made concerning the print edition, she told AFP news agency,
Restrained reaction

What was interesting, on a brief visit to the street with the apartment, was the absence of media. French channels are wary of pursuing this story, in a country with strict laws on privacy. But the visit underlined a cultural difference between French and British society. A similar story in London would have led to the apartment being surrounded by reporters and cameras. A quick canvassing of street opinion was met by shrugs and the belief that the president was entitled to do what he likes.

The fact that the president has a live-in partner, Valerie Trierweiler, is regarded as a private matter. In recent months there has been speculation that his relationship with The First Girlfriend - as the Americans like to call her - has been under increasing strain.

Whatever the French attachment to privacy, however, there is a further risk to the president's authority. He has the lowest ratings of any president during the Fifth Republic.

Although France seems to have eked out some growth in the final quarter of 2013, the economy hovers close to recession. Unemployment - which the president asked to be judged by - remains stubbornly high at 11%. The country is often referred to as the Sick Man of Europe and other Europeans - in particular the Germans - say that France under Mr Hollande has failed to carry out meaningful reforms to restore its economy's competitiveness.

He campaigned as "Mr Normal" and there will be some who say his presidency lacks purpose, ambition and direction. That is a criticism, however, that cannot be applied to his handling of foreign affairs, where he has been bold and unafraid of using military intervention.

To be fair, Mr Hollande has changed some labour laws, making it easier to hire and fire workers and to reduce their pay and working hours during a downturn. But business leaders want a reduction in taxes and wholesale reform of welfare entitlements.Privacy debate

During the election campaign there was some criticism of the bad blood between Segolene Royal - his former partner and mother of his four children - and his current girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler. Some questioned why the president had not sorted out his private life before arriving in the Elysee Palace.

Some of that criticism will resurface. His critics used to refer to him as "Monsieur Flamby", a wobbly pudding. Some of those remarks may be dusted down, too.

But the French have a history of presidents with complicated private lives. President Mitterrand - Mr Hollande's mentor - had a secret family.

However much the French defend privacy, Closer magazine was sold out at many newsstands. It remains to be seen what the French really make of their president's lifestyle after hours.

Next Tuesday he gives his New Year press conference. It will be interesting whether he is asked about his alleged affair but, perhaps more importantly, whether he can relaunch his troubled presidency with some bold economic reforms.

French privacy laws

  • Among strictest in world - constitution says "everyone has the right to privacy"
  • Publication of private details of someone's life without their consent is punishable offence
  • French media often more cautious than in US or UK about private lives of politicians or celebrities
  • Privacy laws helped late President Francois Mitterrand conceal existence of daughter Mazarine, whose mother was his mistress
  • Main defences - right to freedom of expression and public interest (ie, how an official's behaviour may affect his/her work)
  • Privacy debate was reignited by sex allegations about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former IMF chief and a top Socialist politician

Gavin Hewitt
BBC, Europe Editor 

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Passing the Buck

Whatever you think of UKIP, the party at least has a clear political strategy: the European Union is to blame for all the country's problems, so let's get out of the EU, take control of our own borders and stand on our own two feet.

Bonkers if you ask me, but very simple and easy to understand.

Meanwhile, over in Greece, politics is in turmoil once again and an early general election called for 25 January 2015 may bring a new left wing political party to power, Syriza, which is standing on an anti-austerity platform while blaming the EU for turning the Greek economy into a basket case.  

Yet Syriza's solution is not to leave the EU, but to stay in and ask other member countries to forgive Greece its huge debts while ignoring the fact that the mess Greece finds itself in has much to do with the country's addiction to tax avoidance - a national pastime that is endemic across all sections of Greek society.

In other words, Syriza's solution is that other European countries should pay for the profligacy of the Greek economy over the years including the terms on which Greece joined the EU club which led to great boom years for a while until the bubble finally burst.  

Now I suspect that there won't be too much sympathy across Europe for the dilemma now facing Greek voters because just as in the UK everybody thinks that someone else should pay the price for restoring the national economy to good health; everyone wants to hold onto what they already have and no one wants to pay more in taxes. 

Why should Greece be a special case any more than, say, Spain whose economy is, or at least was, in equally bad shape? 

Arguably, the same could be said for Italy, Ireland and Portugal never mind more recent  members of the EU club such as Slovakia or Hungary.

So it will be interesting to see how these arguments play out in the weeks leading up to 25 January 2015 which also happens to be Burns Night, of course, the annual celebration of Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns. 

Crisis looms over Europe as Greek government falls

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza, proclaimed the end of Greece’s misery at the hands of creditors Aris Messinis/Getty Images

By Anthee Carassava and Charles Bremner - The Times

Greece was plunged into political turmoil and fresh fears about the euro yesterday after the government was forced to call snap elections that favour radical leftists promising to end austerity.

Germany and the European Commission warned Greece to honour commitments to its bailout creditors after Antonis Samaras, the centre-right prime minister, called elections, having failed to win a parliamentary vote for his candidate for the state presidency. Stavros Dimas, the lone candidate in the month-long presidential race, fell 12 votes short of the 180 needed to win in the third round of voting.

In a sign of dismay, the International Monetary Fund suspended talks on unlocking €7 billion (£5.5 billion) in aid until after the elections, set for January 25. Shares on the Athens stock market fell by almost 10 per cent.

The party leading the field in opinion polls is Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras, which is opposed to the harsh terms imposed for Greece’s €240 billion of bailouts and other relief measures granted during the crisis that began in 2009.

A jubilant Mr Tsipras proclaimed the end of Greece’s misery at the hands of creditors whose demands are blamed for mass unemployment and years of depression from which the country has only just begun to emerge.

“This is an historic day,” Mr Tsipras said after the vote. “The Samaras government which pillaged Greek society with brutal measures is history. So too are all of the austerity plans. The future for Greece begins now.”

Mr Samaras, who has been governing for two years in coalition with the centre-left Pasok party, said that he was confident that wisdom would prevail among voters and that Greece would not “undo the sacrifices” it had made to meet its international commitments.

“This is the hour, now, of the Greek people. What parliament did not do today, they will [through the elections] rid the country of uncertainty,” he said. Mr Samaras had warned that a Syriza government could lead the nation to “bankruptcy and exit from the euro”.

The parliamentary defeat was a blow to Mr Samaras, signalling rejection of the fiscal discipline imposed as the price of the lifeline that has kept Greece afloat. Although opinion polls show that more than 50 per cent of Greeks oppose an early election, support for continued austerity has waned, boosting Mr Tsipras and his promises of an end to cuts that have squeezed incomes by 24 per cent and forced one in three businesses into bankruptcy.

Mr Tsipras has toned down his anti-euro rhetoric and insists that he is pro-European, preferring reform to breaking up the EU’s currency. However, he wants to renegotiate a further write-off of national debt well beyond the losses imposed on private creditors in 2012.

Hours after the vote, Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister and the EU’s chief fiscal disciplinarian, warned that it would be “difficult” to help Greece if it veered off the path of reform. He said that Greeks must not abandon reform because they had no alternative.

In Brussels, Pierre Moscovici, the commissioner in charge of the euro, said that a strong commitment to Europe and backing for reforms would be “essential for Greece to thrive again within the euro area”.

While Mr Tsipras is no longer pledging to rip up Greece’s bailout agreement, investors are suspicious of his promises that include a €13 billion stimulus package, the restoration of minimum wages, the creation of 300,000 new jobs, the return of Christmas bonuses and free electricity for thousands of Greeks.

Many Greeks fear a return to the uncertainty that dogged the country in 2012 after the departure of George Papandreou.

Even if Syriza wins a majority, Mr Tsipras is likely to need partners to form a coalition. The most likely would be the moderate left To Potami party.

Greek Perks (30 September 2013)

If you ever wondered why the Greek economy was in need of a big bail-out from the European Union - here's a story from the BBC web site which helps to explain how public spending in certain areas was allowed to escalate out of control.

Now awarding civil servants an extra six days holiday a year just for using a computer sounds completely bonkers - as does the practice of paying employees a bonus just for turning up for work.

But I remember a somewhat similar agreement being struck in Scotland not that long ago - by Edinburgh District Council in the early 1990s, if I recall correctly - under which the Council awarded an extra 3 days annual leave as part of a new local agreement on the use of 'new technology'.

The local agreement applied only to 'white collar' workers - not 'blue collar' or manual workers and the unions representing these groups of staff (NUPE, GMB and TGWU) all regarded the move as a complete waste of money - as well as unfair on their own members. 

So while while the holiday perks of Greek civil servants might cause you to scratch your head in amazement - maybe there's some truth after all in that old description of Edinburgh as the Athens of the North

Greek civil servants lose holiday perks for computer use

Greek Reform Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the annual leave perk belonged to another era

The Greek authorities have scrapped six days of extra holiday awarded to civil servants for using computers, as part of its austerity drive.

The privilege was granted in 1989 to all who worked on a computer for more than five hours a day.

However, Reform Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, speaking on Greek TV, said the custom "belonged to another era",

The decision comes as part of the government's reform of the public sector in a bid to meet bailout terms.

Greece received two bailouts from the eurozone and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) totalling about 240bn euros (£200bn; $318bn) on the condition that the government imposes cuts and implements restructuring.

The working hours saved by scrapping the computer leave would be the equivalent of an extra 5,000 employees, Mr Mitsotakis told Skai TV on Thursday.

He described it as "small, yet symbolic" step in modernising an outdated civil service. Mr Mitsotakis is the man in charge of overhauling public institutions.

Other perks that have already been scrapped include a bonus for showing up to work and passing on a dead father's pension to his unmarried daughters.

In July, the Greek parliament approved plans to reform the public sector, placing up to 25,000 public sector workers into a mobility pool by the end of the year, when they will either face redeployment or redundancy.

The Greek economy has shrunk further than any other in Europe, with an employment rate of 27%.

Greek Cheek (11 February 2012)

I listened to a chap on the TV from Greece the other day with a novel solution for the mess his  country finds itself in - which is that the rest of Europe should just forgive the Greeks for their foolish ways - and agree to write-off their massive debts.

Now the chap wasn't completely bonkers - I have to admit.

Because he did have something of an argument in pointing out that the medicine on offer from the European Union (EU) - a programme of big spending cuts and tax rises - might just kill  instead of curing patient.

The logic being that such big cuts and tax rises might choke off the Greek economy's spending power - creating stagnation and leaving Greece in a vicious circle - from which the country can't ever escape.

Yet for all his sophistry - a Greek word which means superficially plausible, but ultimately specious and empty - the chap had nothing to say about how Greece got itself into this mess in the first place.

Which seems a pretty fundamental point to me - even if you are inclined to be sympathetic about how the Greek people dig themselves out of a hole of their own making.

The reality is that Greek politicians have been lying through their teeth to the rest of Europe for years - cheerfully accepting billions from the EU while allowing their economy to spiral out of control. 

And while it's not necessarily the ordinary Greek man or woman in the street who have caused the crisis - ultimately it's the ordinary man and woman in the rest of Europe who are expected to bail Greece out.

A country which pays so little tax across the board - even amongst the relatively comfortable middle classes - has no credibility in asking law abiding tax payers in other European countries to pay off the Greek debt. 

So given all the dubious practices that exist in Greece - and the fact that the country has been deliberately deceiving its neighbours for years.

Why would anyone believe that they've seen the error of their ways now - and that the country is going to get its act together in future?

Unless of course any new agreement is signed in blood by the Greek government - which is really what's happening just now.

But you've got to admire the cheek of some people - if you don't ask, you don't get - I suppose.

Greeks Bearing Gifts (1 November 2011)


But which people?

Arguably the greatest legacy of the ancient Greeks - was their 'gift' of democracy to the world.

Yet the democracy of Socrates and Plato was for the elite of society - it was not the modern form of 'one person one vote' - as we practice things today.

Most ordinary people were excluded from taking part in the 'democratic' decisions of ancient Athens and - strangely enough - the self-same thing is happening today.

The Greek government has ruined its economy and run up a pile of debts - the lights are in danger of going out - as the Greeks find themselves unable to pay their bills without outside help.

Help has duly arrived in the shape of a bailout from the 17 Eurozone countries - and the banks which helped fuel the Greek spending splurge have reluctantly agreed - to cut their outstanding debts in half.

Yet just as the Greek rescue package is being finalised the country's Prime Minister - George Papandreou - moves the goalposts by announcing that his government will hold a snap referendum - to let the people decide.

Sounds democratic - doesn't it just?

But who has a vote - not the people in other countries around Europe who are affected by the irresponsible behaviour of their Greek neighbours.

Why doesn't the plebiscite extend to everyone who is contributing towards the Greek bail-out?

Seems to me this is just a cynical exercise by the Greek government - to try and squeeze even more concessions from their neighbours - otherwise they will threaten to pull Europe's financial house down on everyone's head.

To my mind that's not democracy - just good old-fashioned brinkmanship - and pork-barrel politics of the worst kind.

Instead of trying to exploit a difficult situation for their own selfish ends - the Greeks should take responsibility for their actions - and clear up a mess of their own making.

And if you put that question in a Europe-wide referendum - I imagine even the Greeks know what the people would say - in a democratic vote.