Tuesday, 2 October 2012

"What Doctors Don't Tell You" - Another Strategy

A quick post on a very encouraging experience.

Interested to see if my nearest high street retailers are stocking the infamous "What Doctors Don't Tell You", I had a look around both Waitrose and WHSmith this afternoon.

Waitrose, Bath, is so dark and gloomy inside that seeing which titles are on display would tax the persistence of a polar explorer. I did my best to do a systematic check and could not see any copies.

I then moved on to WHSmith and spotted them there. I took one down and had a leaf through. It's pretty dodgy stuff, in my opinion. I replaced the copy back on the shelf backwards and upside down as at least a temporary fix, and went in search of the store manager.

I showed him the magazine on the shelves and said, "I realise it's not your decision, but please could you tell me why you are selling this title?" He took a look at it and said something like, "I will certainly feed back your concerns. It doesn't seem an appropriate magazine. We get big deliveries and it's very difficult to monitor everything."

He then did something even better. He grabbed the remaining copies and told me he was removing them from sale. I thanked him very much and, shaking hands, we parted company.

During our brief conversation, it became apparent that he knew about the controversy and certainly I needed to provide no explanation for why I was complaining.

Whether this title stays off the shelf in this branch, only time will tell. His decision may well be overridden. I hope not.

The point is that this illustrates that a courteous engagement with a store manager, person to person, may result in immediate action. In most cases it probably wouldn't. But then, what have you to lose except a few minutes of time? And the possibilities of a good outcome are always there.

Friday, 28 September 2012

On Not Jumping to Conclusions - and Why It Matters To Us All

I have been fascinated by the very mixed reactions to the current media narrative of one single couple during the last week. I refer of course to Megan Stammers and Jeremy Forrest. This mixture has included everything from "lock him up and throw away the keys!" to "good luck to them!". As to the bare bones of the narrative, the BBC has usefully outlined the key events in the timeline.

As well as noting the very mixed public reaction, I have been trying to form an opinion of my own. I may as well say that I don't believe that we always have "a right to an opinion", though this phrase is often used (usually with a hurt tone of voice) in many an argument. It seems to me that we should be slow - treacle-slow - in forming an opinion, especially with such emotive matters. Surely, if we want to have a "right to an opinion" we ought to make some sort of serious effort to dig beneath the surface of the media blarings and try to sift out the facts.

The facts in the public domain this matter are scarce. Megan Stammers is below the age of consent in the UK. Jeremy Forrest was a married man of 30 and a teacher at Miss Stammers' school, the Bishop Bell School in Eastbourne. People in positions of trust, such as teachers, health workers, youth leaders, must not attempt, or form, a sexual relationship with those in their care in a number of situations, even if the person in their care is over the general age of consent, or even if so, the persons in their care are vulnerable. The school was graded "outstanding" in the area, inter alia, of "safeguarding" in an Ofsted report of 2010. The pair left the country on a Dover to Calais ferry at 21.20 on Thursday 20th September. They have now, thankfully, both been found safe and well in Bordeaux, and Mr Forrest has been arrested on suspicion of child abduction.

These are the "hard" facts. There is other relevant evidence, not so easily verifiable to the public, such as the reports of hand-holding on planes, exchanges of text messages and so on. I do not intend to discuss such things, because they are really not my business and I have no way of checking whether they are true, not true at all, or recollections more appropriately examined in any future legal proceedings. I suggest that we should step way back and leave things alone for the time being. Mr Forrest has rights which we should all hold precious. Rights which may help us all one day.

Let's leave Miss Stammers and Mr Forrest out of it altogether. Things must have been immensely difficult over the last week for all immediately concerned.

Let's return to the fact of the mixed public reactions and opinions on this sort of story.

The problem is that human emotions and behaviour are scalable. The law is not. This is essentially why no law can ever be perfect for all cases, and why English Common Law is such a sound idea in principle. In any criminal case there is a binary outcome: guilty, or not guilty. You either did it, or you didn't. Never mind why. Never mind mitigating or aggravating circumstances. Never mind the impossibility of defining such material emotions in criminal cases such as "love", "fear", "hate", "fury", "loyalty", "pity", and so on. It's tough enough to define these words in any debate, let alone one where a person's liberty and reputation may depend on the outcome. That is why good and wise judges are so vital.

It's exactly the so-called "grey" boundary layers of any law that may well be causing such a mix of emotions I referred to. It may be that the statutes involved need to be amended. It may be that they don't.

I've heard a lot of toxic nonsense in the past week - from both "sides".

It seems to me that the truly civilised and humane reaction is to say, "I just don't know enough. This story should make us think. This story should make us realise that, because we are human, we need to think very intelligently about the law and its application - and to realise that gut reactions make lousy laws."

I declare now that, about this particular matter, I have no opinion and have no right to an opinion.

How about you?

Friday, 14 September 2012

Our meeting at Morrison's Supermarket, Bath

The area manager, Jason Lucas, had invited us to this meeting in response to a number of concerns we have recently expressed regarding the continued availability of products during and after the store makeover and he, and the Store Manager, Jeff Gardner, made us welcome in the cafe.

Firstly let me say that it says something for a retailer when they make a real effort to listen to their customers with face-to-face meetings like this.

I am not going to turn this post into a detailed meeting report, but if anyone has a specific question, leave a comment, and I will - if I can - answer it. Though bear in mind, I am just another customer, not an employee of Morrisons!

We started by saying that Morrisons "had it made" in Bath because of the generally poor supermarket offering in the city, and that in any case, we liked Morrisons, could get almost everything we needed there (before the makeover project) and felt that the store was exceptionally well-managed by Jeff and his team. Also we have found that many of Morrisons own-brand products were superior in quality to those of Waitrose.

Our recent problems in being able to buy our routine items at Morrisons, however, had by necessity driven us away. They are very well aware of this as a problem and the possibility that non-availability can cause people to change the supermarket they choose for their main weekly shopping, sometimes for good. For this reason, they do think carefully about the impact of withdrawing low-volume items, but obviously the impact of these decisions is not easy to forecast. In response to a question from me, they are thinking about perhaps making local suppliers part of their local offering in the store, but this has to be very carefully managed.

There have been serious problems at the store recently with the customer-operated checkouts. This, they explained, was not their fault. The supplier of the equipment had changed the specification of the hardware without even telling them. They are just as upset and frustrated about this as their customers. I made the point that one reason I never choose to use these checkouts was an ethical one, to do with the possible reduction and laying-off of checkout staff. The area manager assured me that this was not their policy at all. We shall see. Things can change, after all!

We talked about quite a few other things, such as pricing. But I'm not going into those here. I want to keep this short.

One last point: the appearance of the store is certainly bright, and the food looks very appetising. We understand that the works will be completed next Thursday. Time will tell if Morrisons get the right balance of their lines, both volume and minority, but they appear to be very keen to get it right and to listen. They stressed how important feedback was and  showed today that they valued it.

One last last point! Throughout the Morrisons makeover works, the store remained clean and tidy. In fact Jeff pointed out that they monitored hygiene very closely and took a pre-emptive and cautionary decision to individually wrap certain open-food items while the works were ongoing. This is is stark contrast to what is happening in Waitrose Bath, where the dust is very evident, collecting visibly on things like dark bottles. Yet Waitrose appear happy to continue to sell open foods for immediate consumption, such as salads for the lunchtime and tourist trade.

In conclusion, well done Morrisons for listening. It's all too rare these days.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Disability: An experiment in cool thought

Now, in these rather bleak post-Olympic and Paralympic days, when we realize that the emotions we have all felt are to be replaced by a grimmer set of realities, it's perhaps time to reflect on some less than worthy thoughts I have heard expressed, especially regarding the paralympians.

One thought in particular strikes me as especially unpleasant and difficult to deal with. I have heard people say, "I certainly can't run a hundred metres in eleven or so seconds. Yet these so-called disabled people can. So who are the disabled? Why should my taxes be spent on benefits for them? Where's the logic here?!"

Let's for a moment set aside the politics of this and see if we can approach these questions from another point of view. A cooler, more logical approach may help to reconcile these seeming contradictions and inequities, while justifying the continued state support of people with disabilities. For, make no mistake, continued state support requires that we convince the "able-bodied" taxpayer that it is justified and that it is fair.

Firstly let's agree that Paralympic competition is something which is seen every four years and is not part of everyday living (though of course for the athletes, the training and preparation are part of their everyday lives; but only part).

Next let us acknowledge a clear truth: we all have talents and we all have weaknesses. We are all on a spectrum of ability and disability (in the widest senses of the words). For example, I wonder how many of you reading this post need glasses to see it. Visual impairment is a remarkably widespread purely physical impairment - or disability if you like - so is a good example around which to build my argument. Perhaps, even if you need glasses, you may not think you are disabled. After all, glasses & contacts are so common, and can even be fashion statements and designer status symbols. But stop to think. If your sight was not corrected by these aids, what could you no longer do? I, for example, couldn't drive, read nor write. I couldn't do my present job, except in the most limited way. I couldn't enjoy my favourite pastimes, nor even pursue them anymore. Sounds like a disability, doesn't it? But I don't go around thinking I am "disabled" much less lamenting my impairment. That would be plain weird. I'm just very grateful that there's a solution.

So I feel we should remember this when we think about "benefits for the disabled". Though glasses are a shocking price, we who wear them, "benefit" from them. You can probably think of other common examples where impairments or weaknesses are helped and corrected, while not being normally considered "official list" disabilities. Many helped with state support, either wholly or partly.

A more ethical and logical approach to thinking about disability, it seems to me, is to remember the old principle which, if applied, is good for everyone: maximise talents and manage around weaknesses. This principle does away with the binary classification of abled/disabled and allows for more nuanced solutions. It also allows us to think about people as a valuable and fascinating mixture, and each one unique.

And every one of us deserving of both support and development.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Motorhome Show, Shepton Mallet

The internet is a wonderful thing when you are thinking of doing something you have never done before, such as buying a camper van. Buying a half-decent even small camper van requires the spending of a fair few thousands, so information is essential in reducing the chances of making a sorry mistake.

Many years ago we had a camper van, a conversion built on a Sherpa body, bought in haste, with all the consequences of buying in haste, including - in its later years - a pop-up roof which not only leaked buckets, but would pop-up whether you wanted it to or not if you exceeded about 40 mph. We still have fond memories of the fun we had, though.

Now we want to have more fun, but realise that £2,000 will not get you very much more than what is called a "project" requiring a total re-build.

Yes, the internet is a great starting point, but nothing beats actually being able to climb inside these things and have a good look. Last weekend was our chance. The Motorhome Show at the Royal Bath & West Showground at Shepton Mallet.

Arriving early, it took a while to get our bearings. The place was full of dealers selling motorhomes at breathtaking prices, and plenty of stalls selling every possible gadget for the motorhome or caravan owner. Our two particular "favourite" items were the miniature folding toilet brush and the astroturf and pot-plant, ready-made miniature garden. There were some possibly useful items, too, but not many for people who want to use a motorhome for travelling and seeing things rather than reproducing their suburban home on a campsite, complete with television, a garden and neighbours to compete with.

After about an hour, we actually did find a small motorhome which seemed to fit our essential specs: footprint about the size of an estate car, liveable layout, shower and toilet. And at a price we could afford. We didn't buy it on the spot. Never buy in haste, remember! But at least we discovered that such a thing existed, which was nice.

That job done, it was time to look around in wonder at those crazy American RVs parked up and inhabited by what we discovered was a community of people who showed every sign of political leanings which no doubt would engender in them some uncharitable views on "Gypsies" and "travellers". The pictures give perhaps some idea of both vehicles and inhabitants:

A very common sight was a collection of over-sized cuddly toys ranged behind the windscreens of these amazing vehicles, and, of course, the flags (Cornish flag in the picture above, for example).

At the end of the day (that's actually at the end of the day, not the cliche), we concluded that people who own motorhomes fall into two broad categories: the Way of Lifers and the more or less adventurous holidaymakers, who like a bit of spontaneity and flexibility and who like to leave home behind, not drag it all with them.

A final thought. Some things you Just Know. And one thing I just know is this: when it comes the time to empty the toilet cassette, it will be my job.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Comforts (!) of Bath

I have known Bath since the end of the sixties. Back in those days, it was anything but "honey-coloured". Almost all of its georgian buildings were blackened from the soot of ages and it took four or five hours to drive there from London, the M4 motorway only reaching as far as Reading.

The predominant accent heard in streets and shops was either genuine West Country or shabby-genteel. There was even a rough pub in Widcombe called (as it still is in its overpriced wine bar reincarnation) the Ring O' Bells. Smoke-filled and noisy, seats and tables tacky from years of spilled scrumpy, its proceedings were ably supervised by Rosie, a plump and red-elbowed matron whose good side it was wise to stay on. When not keeping order, Rosie dispensed scrumpy cider. Proper scrumpy, that is, not the artificial muck sold these days. Scrumpy had an odd effect. You could drink a fair amount of it and your head remained sober and clear. The trouble came when you stood up - or attempted to - and tried to walk. If you've ever had proper scrumpy, you'll know just what I mean.

And there was not only proper scrumpy, but proper shopping. Needed one nail or a pound of nails? Go to the ironmongery in George Street. Needed an obscure electrical fitting, or a lamp fixed? Why, good old Nations in York Street was always obliging.

And there was even proper swimming. The elegant and delightful open-air Cleveland Baths at the riverside in Cleveland Row, Bathwick, was just about as close to wild swimming you could get.

We moved to Bath at the end of the sixties and, wanting to save on fuel bills, would have a wonderful hot soak in the public baths at what is known as "Bog Island". It's called Bog Island because there were public lavatories and bath tubs there. (There are still two rather elegant entrances to the under pavement facilities, one for men, one for women, but they lead nowhere these days.) Lashings of lovely hot water and bath tubs so big and deep that you felt like a small child again.

Fancy a read? There used to be a rather inconvenient arrangement. The public lending library occupied the ground floor of the Victoria Art Gallery, while the reference section was in Queen's Square.

Wanted to rent a nice flat in a georgian terrace? We looked at two floors in the Circus, on offer for 30 bob a week. That's £1.50 decimal. Sounds good? Well don't forget the average weekly wage back then was somewhere between £10 and £15. If you earned a thousand a year, you were considered pretty well-off. Well, we didn't take that Circus flat. Thirty bob was a little too much for us!

The only thing in Bath which has improved since these memories of mine from the late sixties and early seventies is the main library, which at least is all in one place, currently hugger-mugger with the mess Waitrose are making of the Podium.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Where The Wind Blows: Did they protest against Atos?

It has been reported today that the hiding of the Atos-branded lanyards by the entire GB paralympic contingent at the Opening Ceremony was not a protest after all. It was simply, the official explanation says, because the wind was causing the lanyards and badges to blow around too much, and the GB contingent therefore tucked them into their clothing.

Leaving aside the vital political aspects of this whole Atos affair for a moment, let's simply consider just how believable this official explanation is.

Firstly, the paralympians from almost all the other countries had their lanyards prominently showing, though there were a few individual exceptions. Presumably the inconvenient wind was blowing for everyone else as well?

Secondly, while people do make clothing adjustments in response to the weather, those adjustments are very variable. The most one can observe is a tendency. See for yourself. Whatever the weather is today, get out in the streets and look. Say it's chilly and wet. While you can see a tendency for people to wear warm and water-resistant clothing, by no means everyone does. In a sample of two or three hundred people, some (for various reasons, such as lack of forethought, personal preference, fashion and so on) will buck the trend.

To issue an official explanation for the GB paralympic contingent, numbering about 300 physically and mentally tough people, hiding their lanyards because of a bit of wind, is to insultingly assume a degree of credulousness in the public of 100%, or close to.

Isn't it far more likely there is another more unifying explanation than the weather?

As to what that explanation really is, we wait for better evidence.
Meanwhile, for me the most likely explanation given the known facts and observations is: the GB Paralympic Team were protesting against Atos and more especially the employers of Atos, the Department for Work and Pensions.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Who is going crazy - the homeopath, or me?

Earlier today I initiated a conversation with the homeopath, Nancy Malik, being intrigued by a phrase in her twitter biography, "homeopathic surgery". This phrase seemed so very bizarre that I thought I would ask the lady herself.


A simple enough question, you would have thought, especially for someone qualified in the discipline.

Here was the reply:

I was still unclear, but keen to give the lady every chance, so:

And - sure enough - I was obliged with a rather scary list:

In a spirit of both alarm and growing outrage, I delved further;


You will notice that my enquiry into how she qualified was elegantly side-stepped, no doubt because she considered me a fool. For good measure, she seems to have favourited her own tweet.

Now reaching terminal exasperation, I replied:

The reply I received left me feeling bereft of hope:

If anyone (including Nancy Malik) can untangle this and make any sense of it, then I would be very grateful.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Picked up at random in the library

A fascinating read. Dashed into Bath Public Library yesterday to get something to read in the park. Grabbed this almost at random. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Prince Harry is no Renaissance Man

Bearing as he does some accidental - and not so accidental - parallels to Henry The Eighth of That Name, it may be interesting to see how these parallels hold up to examination.

The first parallel is, of course, the name. Henry. As far as I can ascertain, King Henry had only one name, while Prince Harry has several (Henry Charles Albert David). The other most obvious parallel is the ginger hair.

Now let's look for others. Both are second sons. Both attended the weddings of their older brothers, whose brides were both called Catherine (or Katherine). Both Prince Harry and Henry (in his youth at least) were fond of physical activity and militarism.

That's about where it ends. The most obvious contrast between the two is that King Henry as a youth had quite a decent and challenging education, as befitted a younger son destined possibly for some high office in the Catholic church. Henry's rebuttal of Martin Luther, Assertio septem sacramentorum, published in 1521, was deemed a competent if unoriginal work and earned him the title Defender of the Faith. Educated in grammar, rhetoric and logic, he would probably have made a stimulating companion, capable of building a serious argument in discussion. He is also known as having other accomplishments, such as composing some pleasant if unremarkable music, and being versed in the arts of the apothecary, often preparing his own remedies. We can imagine Henry developing into an interesting and enlightened Renaissance man, if he were not stressed and corrupted by the power of kingship. But that's another story...

What of Prince Harry? The sheer banality of his recent on-leave activities is numbing, as is the blokey reaction of so many (men, mostly) who assert that he has every right to romp around naked in some stunningly vulgar Las Vegas hotel with other "fun-loving" and empty-headed types since he is a. single and b. an army officer who has served on the front line, risking his life for his country and grandma.

Hang on a minute. He is 27 years old, not some callow youth rejoicing in his first off-leash excursion. I don't deny his right to lark around like this. Frankly I am not that interested.

What I find disturbing is that this adolescent behaviour, where at least some of earth's women were considered merely playthings, has been excused and even admired and envied by so many.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Dog Bites Man

When journalists learn their trade, they are taught some fundamentals, such as, Dog Bites Man is not news, but Man Bites Dog is. In other words, "news" is not a faithful record of events, but instead is an engaging record of the unusual or, better still, the bizarre. Tyros are also taught that most readers only read headlines and of those, only a minority read what follows and if they do, they will read only the first paragraph, and certainly no more than the first four. As one reads a newspaper story, one is given increasing detail.

These guidelines attest to the notoriously puny attention span of the public, and most readers will only read the increasing detail if the story is concerned with sex.

However wise these guidelines are, they simply do not apply to any story involving celebrities and especially that subset of celebrity, the Royal Family. Today the papers - especially the tabloids - are splashed not with Man Bites Dog but Dog Bites Man. Prince Harry, it seems, has been having fun with several young women in a luxury hotel. So. "Rich, young, single prince frolics about with girls shock"

Ho hum.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Hotel Rooms

I've stayed in some of the best, I've stayed in some of the worst. Mostly I've stayed in the middling sort.

However, they all present challenges, some unique, many common to them all.

One almost ubiquitous challenge is figuring out the lights. This can be especially problematic in the larger "chain" hotels, and, in my experience, the more expensive the chain, the more puzzling the lights. In whose perverse brain were these challenges devised? And furthermore, which bright spark decided to implement them?

There you are, the weary traveller, far from home, you have done the check-in thing, the lift thing, the corridor thing, and the key-card thing.

Now for the light thing.

You can tell immediately if a hotel is having a laugh if, even though it's daytime, they've closed the blackout curtains. So in the absence of prior knowledge, you jam the door open with your suitcase so you can find the slot thingy you have to plunge your key-card into to activate the electrical supply.

Now what happens? Why, the lights go on of course. In this illuminated interval, you do the unpacking thing, and the checking that the TV works thing. You fill the nifty little kettle and turn it on so you can have a "nice cup of tea" once you've put your things away. (And that's another irritation. Hotel chains seem to believe that their guests' overwhelming motive for staying with them is to steal hangers. So another bright spark invented the un-stealable hanger, the only removable part of which has no hook. How bloody insulting.)

Returning to the lights, it can take many hours to work out the exact sequence of switching before you arrive at the situation where, when you eventually get into bed, you can turn all the lights off from there.

Before bed, however, you have one more thing to do: hide the Gideon Bible so that, preferably, it is not found until the hotel is subject to archaeological excavation some time in the distant future. There are rules for this. One must not damage the Bible, nor place it somewhere where it might be damaged. Purely out of respect for any book, I would add. This is not as easy as you may think. The best hiding-place I have yet to use was placing one, spine to wall, in the narrow slot between the safe the wardrobe wall. Hiding in plain sight.

And with that accomplished, one retires for the night, reflecting on whether it is possible to find a more uninspiring dinner than that so recently consumed in one's business trip singularity.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Right to Bear Arms

As we all indulge in collective outrage over the dreadful events in Aurora, Colorado, many of us reflect on the wisdom or foolishness of the Second Amendment to the United States constitution which codifies the right of its citizens to "keep and bear arms". It is not a lengthy amendment, and here it is, in full:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Though so brief there have probably been many hundreds of thousands of words of commentary - both scholarly and otherwise - written about these few.

I do not claim to have made any real study of these many works, nor of the historical context, but here are my thoughts.

The first words are key, and are easy to understand in the historical and political setting in which they were framed. It was felt, with some justification, that liberty from despotism and defense against attack by foreign states, required an effective and collective response by a free citizenry, appropriately armed and regulated, at least for the duration of the threat.

The second amendment itself probably had its roots in the English Bill of Rights (1689), which restored many long standing rights to the English after the depredations of Charles I, and particularly of James II. The English Bill of Rights was saying, in effect, why should arms only be borne by the ruling class? Why indeed?

But whatever the intentions of the lawmakers may have been, either in England or the United States, they surely did not include the right of individuals to keep an arsenal capable of equipping a whole platoon, nor to deploy such an arsenal in murderous mass attacks. Many well-intended laws have proved to have ghastly unintended consequences. Clearly something must be done. Repeal the amendment entirely? Re-draft it? Is such a law needed in a modern democracy? Trouble is, democracy is a frail and ill-defined thing and easily destroyed without vigilance and constant checks and balances. By definition, vigilance must be the job of the people, not the ruling class. A working democracy depends upon this vigilance being performed through effective opposition political parties and by a trades union movement willing and able to defend the working person.

It is this which would make second amendments and the like surplus to requirements and which, in turn, would open the door to effective gun laws, both in the United States and elsewhere.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

British Journalism has some proud and decent history after all

This is obituary is from The Graphic, and reading it is worth a few minutes' time. The Graphic was a reforming newspaper and took as its principles the employment of the very best young artists and writers and the covering of news, not only of the doings and pleasures of the mighty, but of the distress and pain of the many.

A brave and successful undertaking by all involved, and not least by William Luson Thomas, its founder.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

You Can Bank On It

Whatever the real cause of the NatWest computing system debacle, the vulnerability of us all to the weakness of money has been exposed. The fluidity crisis - for that is what it is - is now affecting many who are not customers of the affected banks in the RBS group.

The most common problem is probably that of employees of firms which run current accounts at NatWest out of which wages are paid. And what if you are a supplier waiting on a payment from such a firm? A little thought will bring to mind many other everyday types of transaction dependent on a properly operating current account clearing system.  It's easy to imagine the knock-on effects and how terrifyingly quickly they could spread through all our lives. We, like capitalism itself, depend on money, not just the possession of it but the movement of it.

At the heart of capitalism is the movement of money, not the possession of it.

In both co-operative and non co-operative societies, essential things have non-derivative true value. There are not many of these. Food, potable water, adequate clothing and shelter. Then there are what might be called the first derivatives such as land for farming or hunting. In co-operative societies, these first derivatives are held in common ownership for the benefit of all.

Most of us live in non co-operative societies. We have to pursue our lives and seek our wellbeing amid a turmoil of derivatives. And derivatives of derivatives. The concept of value has become individualised, not societal. We "value" things for the comfort or power or status they bring us, rather than for any intrinsic true worth.

When things go wrong, however, most people rapidly encounter their relationship with the essentials, not the derivatives. How to buy enough food, how to pay the rent, how to stay warm and dry. And these were the concerns reflected in the vox-pops on the NatWest news reports.

It would be interesting if people now began to ask the fundamental question, "what is money?"

Perhaps the most radical question of all.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Stolen Day

Sometimes lovely things happen. And when you don't expect them, they are even lovelier.

On Monday we drove back to Steeple Langford in the vain hope of finding a pair of lost glasses. As some kind soul had found and handed them in at the local pub, we had the rest of the day to ourselves, rather than having to spend it at the opticians and dealing with an insurance claim.

The sun was shining and it was warm. So we strolled through the village and out the other side into the delightful Wiltshire countryside.

Crossing a field via a footpath, we ended up in a secluded meadow by one of the branches of the River Wylye and lay watching the white clouds melt in the sun.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Side Show

We are being "treated" to a side show which is known as the Leveson Enquiry. For many weeks now we have been invited to marvel at what is constantly described as a "probing" or "subtle" or (posh word) "forensic" examination by Robert Jay with occasional interjectory enquiries by Leveson himself when he rouses from inevitable sleep. Indeed the endeavour to remain in any useful state of consciousness for anyone watching is challenging.

Occasional excitement is provided. But it comes without warning and one needs to remain in a state of alertness simply not possible for anyone requiring normal levels of stimulation. One can only marvel at the ranks of sometimes recognisable journalists and at their ability to stay awake and even look busy. What can they really be occupying their minds with?

Of course, any sensible person knows what has really transpired between the politicians and the most powerful section of the print press over the last several decades. There's simply nothing to be learned. The thing to fear from the outcome is another sort of Dangerous Dogs Act: benign in conception, disastrous and ineffectual in practice.

But at the moment, the Leveson Enquiry is a side show. Not in itself watchable, but ably distilled for us by the media. We may take pleasure in the apparent discomfiture of our despised politicians as they take the witness stand, but this only adds to the effectiveness of the enquiry as a side show and a distraction from the ghastliness that is actually happening.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Down In the Mosh Pit

I learned something new today: the word "mosh". It, of course, appeared first to my eyes in the preview descriptions of the London Olympic Opening Ceremony.

Like many typically British cynics, I began to have naughty, satirical thoughts. "So this (harumph) is how we are going to be presented to the world, is it? Like we all live in a rural idyll, defer to the local lord of the manor and chew straws in idle moments? An opportunity lost after the fawning jubilee for a chance to celebrate this country's people and achievements. What! No mention of Britain's outstanding contributions in science, the arts and in social justice? (Harumph again)"

I have been dreading this opening ceremony for many months. As its director, Danny Boyle, wisely reflects, "failure is built in". So for him to undertake this is evidence of courage. But the really interesting point is: why should failure be "built in"? Why should this be so? It is, of course, because if there's one thing the British like doing, it's Moaning. And the Olympics have certainly given us an unparalleled opportunity to Moan. Moan about the cost. Moan about the disruption. Moan about the ticket allocations. And now, moan about the Opening Ceremony.

Perhaps this preview is an attempt at expectation-management. Or maybe, more accurately, moan-management. "Let's tell them now so we can get all the moaning over with before the Big Day." This is so intelligent, that it can't be true (and that's a subtle moan in itself).

As a matter of fact, I hope to end up enjoying and being proud of the Opening Ceremony, especially after the debacle that was the Jubilee River Pageant. I'm sure that once the Games begin, there will be plenty to Moan About.

I can at least rely on seeing one thing I have never seen before - a mosh pit.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

How to Survive a Jubilee

First of all, it seems I was wrong in a previous post. The weather for the Jubilee Pageant was not nice at all. Unless you are a journalist in need of a few platitudes, that is. From what I read in The Telegraph, you would have thought that the torrential downpour during the river pageant was God's special answer to a collective British prayer for a soaking.

Yes, the heavens opened and we could all rejoice! Time to show the world how we Brits can Keep Calm and Carry On. Let it never be said that we can't cope with a bit of rain and wind. We welcome it, for it makes the occasion truly British. See how we sing, cheer and wave flags! What a disaster it would have been had the sun shone brightly and the Thames' sparkle eclipsed the Royal Bling.

In our case, see how we flee to the hills to escape it all. Lansdown, just outside Bath, to be precise. By the time we had arrived at our place of escape, the clouds were gathering and curtains of rain could be seen in the distance. At least there was not a shred of bunting to be seen. I suppose it's about a mile from the parking place to Prospect Stile, easy walking with only a few white racecourse rails to duck under. Someone in the far distance was walking a dog. Otherwise, we were alone on this Middle Jurassic flat-top.

Didn't take long for the rain to embrace us. Soaking wet, we carried on, determined to reach Prospect Stile as we cheered ourselves by reflecting on our escape from all the madness.

Suffice to say, we got so thoroughly wet that our return walk conversation was entirely about the logistics of getting into the car without turning its interior into a soggy disaster.

Home at last. Hot showers, tea and television. The river pageant was drawing to a climax. I could scarcely believe my eyes. Was that scowling vision in white our Own Dear Queen? Were those drenched choristers really belting out Rule Britannia in the teeth of a specially imported Atlantic gale? For me, it was cringingly embarrassing, made even worse by the BBC commentary. It was compelling viewing!

That storm, however, was as nothing to that which broke this morning over the report that jobless youth were bussed in to London to act as unpaid stewards for the river pageant, treated appallingly and made to sleep under a bridge before changing in public for their duties. No hot showers, proper shelter and meals for them when it was over. Let alone a fair wage for a tough job well done.

It has taken me several hours to stop trembling with rage.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Avoiding the Jubilee

It trundles relentlessly toward us, like the Juggernaut. The Jubilee. We can either submit to its awesome power and add our little mass to its greater mass, or get out of the way and hide.

But where to hide? And how to get out of the way?

If the weather is really bad (unlikely given the royal family's undoubted hotline to God), it would be a simple solution to simply stay indoors and spend the next few days reading, watching DVDs, sleeping and eating, to emerge blinking into the daylight when the worst has passed.

If, as is far more likely, the weather is lovely, this would be unbearable. And in any case, unless you live on a remote island, the whole of which you own and control (remind you of anyone?) , the persistent sounds of merrymaking from the outside world would seep annoyingly through your windows, and make you want to die.

If you want to completely escape, you must first identify somewhere to escape to - otherwise what's the point? Where could you go? A good starting point would be to identify parts of this country that are the least royalist. Trouble is, at least for the duration, there are no parts of the country that are not royalist, it seems.

I had thought of Antarctica, but no. It would be worse there than here, and besides is bloody cold.

"So unlike our own dear Queen!"

I have on my bookshelves a large volume with the title Sixty Years a Queen. I don't want this to scare off my fellow republicans, so I'd better explain that it is about Victoria, not Elizabeth II, and I bought it because it contains several illustrations by my great grandfather, who was one of Victoria's court painters. The notion of buying such a book celebrating the fact that Elizabeth II has managed to keep breathing for 86 years is repellant.

What is interesting is the soporific effect on the population of Elizabeth's long - and largely sensible - spell as our head of state. We have been lulled into a false sense of security because of her ability to Refrain from Interfering. The truth is, however, that we simply do not know how much or how often she has indeed interfered, since it's difficult to draw boundaries between "offering a view", "influence" and "interference", especially when the actor is of such high social status (can't get much higher, after all). Perhaps it's just spin that she is famous for Not Interfering. Who knows?

What we do know is that the heir to the throne is a career Interferer, and furthermore has had definite and measurable effects on all our lives, and he isn't even king yet! We are due for a nasty shock. In more than living memory, we have "benefitted" from monarchs who have been benign and appealing in various contrasting ways. Edward VII ("Edward the Caresser") was fat, likeable and internationalist. George V, by contrast, was dull but dutiful, and collected stamps. George VI "did the right thing" in the Second World War, according to popular legend. But let's not forget the very close call we had with his brother, the Nazi-loving Edward VIII.

Although she is quite a bit older than I, I am one generation closer to the Victorians than is the queen. Victoria was her great great grandmother, while my great grandfather was Victoria's contemporary. I am fascinated by the 19th Century, which was seminal in founding our modern state and culture, and which saw the Second Enlightenment. So much was wrong back then, but so much was right, too. And at least there was a feeling that - if things were wrong - we could and should do something about it. And things were done, and much was put right.

Now, we're just depressed and tend to throw up our hands in cynical resignation. This is dangerous in the extreme. Just how dangerous will become all too apparent after the death of Elizabeth II, and for this reason, I wish her a very long life.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Lie to me, please!

The more I observe people's keenness to believe patent nonsense, the more I realise that the nonsense is less the problem than the desire to be lied to. Whence comes this desire? What could be its roots?

It is noticeable that certain beliefs seem to "go together" in the same individual. By "belief" I mean the act of accepting some idea as entirely true without sufficient evidence to support it. I would add to that the reluctance, or even active resistance, to research the question at all. The sort of alliance of weird beliefs would typically include the following: fringe medicine, conspiracy theories, cryptozoology (it's never cryptobotany, is it?), alien-operated UFOs and alien-created crop circles, psychic powers, ghosts and life after death generally, political movements which are new and sometimes extreme, cult and other whacky beliefs. Oh, and let's not forget Atlantis!

This list is not exhaustive. And many perfectly rational people embrace at least one of them, or find them credible to some degree. But there are many who buy into the whole lot - or most of it. They seem to have a certain "mindset" which is nourished by outlandish concepts. Why? They frequently harbour a deep mistrust of science and conventional medicine (that is, medicine that works).

The question is, what is so appealing about the weird beliefs? Why are they embraced when science and logic are rejected with a sort of visceral spasm? And does it matter?

It seems to me that common threads which run through the whacky are "total answers", certainty and, ironically, the illusory empowerment of those who embrace whatever weird idea is being proposed. It is the promise of certainty which is the most seductive, I think. Being certain removes a deep anxiety in the psyche and history shows that people can place certainty above everything, including morality and even their own survival.

In contrast, what can skepticism offer? Hard work, thoroughness, self-criticism, vigilance, and, of course, uncertainty! Skeptics live in a mental world of questioning and enquiry where there are few simple answers and no total answers. Skeptics enjoy this. However, for those who crave the comfort of certainty, and easy, if ridiculous, answers, this is hardly attractive. Possibly the reason they often react to skeptical challenges with such vituperative fury is that they feel such challenges are fundamental personal attacks, which in a very real sense to them, they are. They feel afraid because the foundation of their mental life is being undermined and the deep anxiety which comes from uncertainty awaits them. Their very world is threatened with destruction. No wonder they get so angry and reject all reason. No wonder they resort to vicious personal attacks on the skeptic.

No wonder they want to be lied to.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

On Wasting Time

On Tuesday, I did nothing useful. In other words I wasted a whole day. Do I regret it? Yes, a little bit. Why do I regret it? Because I am bothered by all the things I could have done, but didn't.

So what did I do exactly? I went to Kensington Gardens, and in particular, Kensington Palace. I was there early, and it was overcast and chilly, but the forecast was "fine and hot". Indeed one could see signs that the sun was doing its best to burn off the cloud layer. Sitting on a bench, I watched idly as the tourists strolled and the joggers jogged. It was nice just sitting there. The palace itself opens its doors at ten. Folks waited, checked their cameras and consulted maps. Cable guys were working steadily away in the grounds, quietly exchanging banter and carefully avoiding bad language. Everyone seemed in a nice mood. It's a pretty place, good to be in.

Ten o'clock was fast approaching and about a dozen tourists gathered at the front door. I intended to go in myself, but sat for a little while longer. I know from experience that it's wise to sit down every possible minute if you want to avoid "tourist's feet"!

When they had disappeared inside, I wandered over and entered the palace. The staff there are good at welcoming people and suggesting what to see, but I knew what I wanted to see, and where it was.

After an hour or so inside, I returned to the garden and sat in the shade, as by now it was getting hot.

The rest of the day was passed in this lazy and quite pointless manner. In and out the palace, sitting outside under a tree on a hot day. Watching other people. Sitting under a tree. Eating a little. Sitting under a tree.

There must be something truly human about sitting under a tree, so, on balance, I'm rather glad I did.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Little Things Mean a Lot

Sometimes there's so much to write about one doesn't know where to begin. These are news-heavy days indeed. Greece, G8, a new French president, and, of course, the Olympic Torch Relay(!)

But let us rather ponder on our prime minister's alleged predilection for playing games on his iPad. According to The Telegraph this week, he spends scary amounts of time playing something called "Fruit Ninja", having apparently exhausted the possibilities of Angry Birds.

Now although I would be disturbed if someone in charge of a country were to spend a lot of their day playing on an iPad, a little downtime devoted to this is okay. But then Angry Birds has a little wit about it. Its premise is deliciously absurd, its physics feasible, its innate humour beyond question. (You can guess, perhaps, I play it myself from time to time.)

You can also guess I tried this Fruit Ninja thingy. You wait for fruit to appear and then slice it with a screen swipe. You get a point. You need to leave the bombs alone, or it's "Game Over". That, as far as I can see, is it. Does our prime minister really spend "scary amounts of time" doing this?!

I thought I had reached the limits of my dislike of this man. But no. This latest revelation has taken these limits to fresh zones and boundaries. Sometimes it's the little things that mean the most.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

With sincere apologies to Geoffrey Chaucer

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When scholars seek the truth by questions bright
And on some thorny problems shine some light,
Then trolls and quacks in misspelled missives try
The honest scholar's labours to decry.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

"Liam Burns says the law should require academics to be qualified"

Was interested to note that the president of the UK National Union of Students, Liam Burns, is calling for university lecturers to have teaching qualifications, as reported in last Sunday's Observer. On the face of it, this seems perfectly reasonable, especially in the light of the new undergraduate fee structure. Surely for £9,000 per annum, students should expect certain standards?

Here are my thoughts:

I predicted some time back that one of the more serious and corrosive results of the hike in student fees would be that undergraduates would demand better "customer service" for their money, and would in some cases initiate legal action against universities who do not award them the degree class they think they deserve, citing such "failings" as "inadequate teaching".

It's time we got back to embracing the concept that a university's first objective should be to advance knowledge and understanding through high-quality, scholarly research and discourse. Some would argue that should be its only objective. I am not sure I would go quite that far, but almost that far perhaps.

Universities, like all seats of learning from the kindergarten upwards, benefit from teaching and stimulating their pupils, as of course do the pupils themselves. But the balance from what might call "total teaching" to "acting as a mature sounding-board for a new researcher" should change steadily through time. I work with PhD students. They often tell me that this transition to their being required to take significant responsibility for their research and output, compared to undergraduate and master's studies, can be tough, though they find this stimulating and exciting.

Similar is the transition from the A-Level student in their last two years at school to the undergraduate. This transition is, or should be, due to the marked difference between the objectives of the school to the objectives of the good university. The undergraduate finds himself in an environment where his seniors are principally engaged in research in their fields, and their teaching activities are in second place, even if a close second. This, I believe, is as it should and must be. This means that it becomes the undergraduate's responsibility to actively learn, to actively seek scholarly discourse with lecturers, to take responsibility for her, the undergraduate's, timely output of good quality work.

On the point of "teaching qualifications". I have largely been taught by people, both at school and university, who had no teaching qualifications. I went to grammar schools. Teachers there had to be graduates, but were not required to have teaching qualifications in those days. Most were good, some outstanding, a few were hopeless. Teaching qualifications in themselves will never ensure good teaching, by which we mean teaching which not only informs effectively, but inspires and promotes scholarly and critical thinking - and this can start in nursery school!

As an undergraduate geologist, I was privileged to be taught by the great Jake Hancock (then at King's College London). He many years later was my PhD supervisor at Imperial. He had no teaching qualifications. I recall one undergraduate palaeontology practical class led by him. We entered the lab expecting to see the usual fossils-laid-out-on-benches. Instead there was a table strewn with fundamentalist Christian pamphlets. He asked us what we thought of these. We responded with one voice that they were all complete rubbish. I shall never forget his next words, "But why are they rubbish? You must be able to argue why they are rubbish or your objections have no value!" That's what I mean by education.

If Liam Burns wants great researchers such as Jake Hancock was to take time from their research to get virtually useless "teaching qualifications" then he does not understand higher education, nor his growing responsibilities as a student.

Monday, 23 April 2012

HM The Solar Queen

I can't believe just how very close I came to buying one of these today!

Sure to be a smash hit item of tat in this jubilee year - in fact in any year. The version with the crown is about £2 more than the "standard" varieties, which nonetheless come in a range of tasteless colours.

The choice is yours!

Wartime memories podcast

Quite a while back I converted a pretty rough old cassette tape recording of my father in conversation with his brother, George, and sister-in-law, Margaret. The sound quality is quite a challenge to listen to, but it's still worth the effort.

I have taken the time to check out the facts related in the conversation, and they all seem to be correct, so I conclude that my father's recollections are by and large reliable.

There is much of interest here, including my father's recollection of the dock strikes in Malta. One thing I never knew was that he was involved in the clear-up of the Coventry raids. The recording ends too soon for me, as I would love to know "what happened next", in his own words.

Still, the recording is a treasure to me. This is the link.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

In Jane Austen's Bath?!

I am quite sure the worldly-wise Miss Austen would have appreciated this story.

Can't quite recall in which of her works was this quote, "Of Rears and Vices I saw enough", but this is one little snippet that would have her amused I'm sure.

Oh yes, Mansfield Park.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Former archbishop joins the hissy fit

It will come as no surprise that Carey has joined in the Christian hissy fit, is using words like "persecution" and, yes, "homosexual activists" and is generally misrepresenting actions taken to ensure Christians comply with the law as vilification.

Laws enacted in a democracy should be obeyed, or changed through democratic process: get over it!

Friday, 13 April 2012

See. I'm not all that bad at prediction (see previous post)

It didn't take long. Here is a post on the Christian persecution web pages which sits rather oddly among the other stories of genuine persecution that appear on their pages. Acts which are certainly reprehensible and should be highlighted indeed.

Let me make it quite clear: I think that persecution of anyone is wrong. But Boris Johnson taking some action (which may well turn out to be counter-productive) to ban bus ads produced by an organisation which, despite what they say, offers to cure gay people of their gayness, is understandable and certainly supported by many.

The bus ad issue is moot, and I can't say I have completely made up my mind about it.
Update: this excellent article has helped me to make up my mind!

The Big Pink London Bus

Fresh from my encounter yesterday with HOTS Bath, in the news today is the decision in London to ban a particularly troubling ad that another loopy and corrosive evangelical outfit called Core Issues Trust wanted to display on London buses. Their ad is deliberately designed to mimic Stonewall's excellent bus ad (above).

I listened with interest to an interview on LBC this morning with Core Issues' director, Dr Mike Davidson. Like most of these people, he came across as harmless if misguided, unless you listened very carefully. The agenda they have, made very clear on their web pages, is that homosexuality can be changed to heterosexuality with God's help and a bit of psychotherapy. Now they make it very plain that they don't seek to "cure" homosexuality, but logic says that if their message is (go see for yourself) that being homosexual causes you pain, they offer a way to change yourself, then that is a cure, isn't it? Weasel words indeed! To be fair to them, they do put these words at the top of their home page:

CORE is a non-profit Christian initiative seeking to support men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression. It respects the rights of individuals who identify as 'gay' who do not seek change.

There's loads and loads of interesting stuff on their web pages, including a liberal garnishing of PhDs all over the place - it's Dr This and Dr That and Dr The Other. So prevalent is this sort of thing in the evangelical and altmed world that I have reverted to calling myself Mrs instead of Dr.

My reactions and conclusion? No quality research has yet demonstrated that psychotherapeutic interventions or spiritual "therapy" can change people's sexual orientation. Little wonder. Homosexual orientation is Not a Disease. Get Over It! The banned ad seems to me to be offensive and likely to cause distress and confusion in some individuals who may be in the process of trying to work out how they can manage their natural sexual orientation in an increasingly hostile world. After all, it's the hostility which causes the hurt, not the homosexuality. Therefore if there is any "cure" to be effected, it should be applied to those who seek to shun and persecute them, or treat them as "sick" when they are perfectly sound.

My prediction: Core Issues will begin to cry about "militant atheism" and "being persecuted" and "free speech" before next week is out. And if not them, then someone else on their behalf...

Any MPs spring to mind?

Thursday, 12 April 2012


No, that's not a typo for Hot Baths.

HOTS Bath has been in the news of late, whereas I don't recall hot baths making the headlines - unless perhaps on a water-shortage-drought-restrictions kinda story.

I have only become aware of this group in the past few days, even though they operate on a regular basis a short walk from my home. "HOTS" stands for "Healing On The Streets" and is an evangelical Christian group who choose to engage with the "hurting" (their word) public by inviting them to be healed of an enormous variety of physical and mental ailments and illnesses. That long list includes some pretty serious conditions including cancer.

The redoubtable Hayley Stevens initiated a complaint about them to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) on the sole basis that they were making unsubstantiated claims to be able to heal medical conditions in a way likely to mislead the public. Not, as Hayley has made clear, that they hold a belief that God (or Jesus, or whatever apex of the trinity seems to work, I suppose) can heal, or that they were simply declaring their beliefs. She has made it perfectly plain that she is not hostile to Christians in words understandable to the meanest intelligence.

The substance of the complaint was upheld by the ASA and they have substantially modified the wording on the leaflet which they hand out to the passing (and hurting?) public.

Today I went to observe HOTS in action. There they were. There was their vertical blue banner emblazoned with the single word HEALING. There were the folding wooden chairs, all in a nice neat row. There were the team members: some laying on hands and praying, some mooching about the crowds with a silly half-smile, handing out leaflets. I took my place on a bench nearby and watched. After about 20 minutes, one of the team approached me and handed me a leaflet. I said something like, "What's this all about, then? What are you claiming to be able to do?" The reply was well-briefed, I feel. "We are not claiming to do anything." Then some blether about God's love and I have to admit I kinda switched off a little bit here. "Think about it," the kind lady said.

Like the fool that I am, instead of keeping my own counsel, I confessed that I had already given their activities quite a lot of thought, that I felt they were preying on the vulnerable and that some of their material could be argued to breach the criminal law (specifically the 1939 Cancer Act). She wandered away, leaving me to my thoughts.

After a short stroll to clear my head, I hovered around them again. To my completely unsurprised horror, a couple of these people had now begun to work on two children, which they had sat on two of the nice wooden chairs. They were two boys of about ten or eleven I would guess. They seemed to be getting the full-on prayer stuff (but no laying on of hands; these guys are clearly au fait with the law!). Now this got me really angry and outraged. When this nonsense was over, one of the boys was visibly upset (or moved by the holy spirit or crap like that).

Then I walked up to one of the women team members and calmly and politely asked what they were doing to those children. This really put the wind up, and she assured me that their work with children was only with the accompanying adults' consent. A few more words were exchanged before she called over the team leader. He said that they were aware that I had a "few issues" with them today. I made my views perfectly clear that they were making claims to heal, that they were preying on the vulnerable and that some of their promotional material (on-line, including YouTube clips) was arguably in breach of the criminal law, and I quoted the Cancer Act. One of their clips on YouTube clearly headlines cancer at about 3:38 in. I reminded them that holding a "belief" is no defence of a criminal act and that it may be advisable to bear the Cancer Act in mind when providing material or when engaged in acts of street healing. The exchange was serious but courteous on both sides, and my advice was given not because I would love these people to wind up in the criminal courts, but simply because I would like them to comply with a law written, let's face it, to protect the frightened and vulnerable.

If you Google "hots bath" their links are at the top, including a sub-link to their Training Manual (or Manuel, as they say within). This makes fascinating reading, especially if you search within it for the word "cancer".

Monday, 2 April 2012

Back from the Front

It's good to know that there are always some things you can rely on...

The cheapest eggs I could find contained the legend that the contents were squeezed from the contented oviducts of hens which were free to, "stretch, preen and dustbathe". Now my conscience is clear. If only Londoners were similarly treated...

The more prosaic Tetley simply proclaimed that we were getting more of their rubbish for nothing.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

On getting the last bean out of the tin

Beans on toast and coffee for breakfast this morning.

As I struggled to extract the very last bean from the tin, I reflected that getting the very last bean from the tin has been a life long obsession. I imagine that the minutes I have spent chasing the last bean out of its lair at the bottom of the tin would probably add up to about a year of my life.

The rationale for doing this is, of course, "Well, I've paid for every bean, and I'm damned-well going to eat every bean!" Fair enough. But what are all those wasted minutes worth? What might I have done with that accumulated year? How many months and years have I wasted on my other obsessions?

Now, I don't really have too many obsessions and I'm not in any way a sufferer from OCD. Just the sort of stuff most of us do. Here are some examples of common obsessions I have observed in myself and others:

  • Repeatedly checking that appliances are switched off

  • Never throwing anything away because, well, "you never know"

  • When posting a letter, giving the post box aperture a little four-finger shove when you know the letter has dropped "just to make sure"

  • Checking email more than really necessary

  • Needing cutlery or furniture ordered in a certain way

  • Giving the front door a little push to make sure you really did lock it on your way out

  • Checking that all the enclosures really are in the envelope, even though you've just enclosed them - and you know you have

and finally

  • Making endless lists

Sunday, 4 March 2012

You reap what you sow

It pains me to say this, but I am getting a bit sick of people bleating about the performance of the LibDems since their 22-month-old devil's pact with the Tory party. I mean the people who voted LibDem as some sort of febrile "protest" against the Labour Government rather than because they are "natural" LibDems.

I do, however, to a certain extent, understand their point of view. I live and vote in a constituency (Bath) which has never returned more than a few thousand Labour votes and it can easily be argued that a vote for Labour is a so-called "wasted vote". I admit to having flipped once or twice in my own voting record, usually with subsequent regret.

Bath is a peculiar place in many ways, an odd mixture of the "enlightened" and moderately well-heeled middle and upper classes (with quite a few so-called celebrities) and the lower-middles and working classes. The local council is a long-standing flip-fest between the Tories and the LibDems. I cannot be the only natural Labour voter who is middle-class in the whole damn' constituency, but like my counterparts have sometimes made the grave mistake over the decades of tactical voting - the very real cancer in our democracy that has crept through the body politic increasingly since the second world war, largely encouraged by the media and the puerile excitement of the "swingometer" and other election-night silliness. This tactical voting has also been facilitated by the pesky survival of a hopeless third "major" party - "Well if I want to protest against the government, I don't have to go 'all the way', but just sit in the middle somewhere. No harm done."

Well, there's plenty of harm being done now.

Before the last general election, I not only thought long and hard, I did a lot of research, including some tedious hours reading the manifestos. On election day, I walked slowly to the polling station and voted Labour with a truly heavy heart and many misgivings. I hated the Labour government of Blair and Brown. Hated the terrible attacks on civil liberties; hated the unbridled license given to the banks and the energy capitalists; hated so much. So much.

So why didn't I vote in the middle? Why didn't I vote for the LibDems? Why this time did I vote for the deeply degenerated Labour Party, who had abandoned their core principles, attacked the working people, the old and the poor? Well, I had been keeping a close eye on the LibDems for quite a while. Watched their performance. Saw what they were up to. Realised that politicians yearn for power and will find any excuse to get it. Remembered when the Liberal Party very nearly enabled the Tories to stay in power some years ago.

I also realised that one of the post-election debates was going to be about "popular vote". I faced the harsh and bitter reality that no candidate on the ballot sheet represented a party which would represent my views and my aspirations for a fair and democratic and decent society. I had to make my choice on what one of the three used to be, and what its core principles used to be. I had to make my choice knowing that, though my vote would be counted, it would count for nothing - except in my own conscience.

I have never been so glad that I voted Labour.

I happened to have some time off in London during the aftermath of the hung election and took me to Westminster and to College Green where a media tent city had sprung into being. The place was pullulating with journos and politicians as the deals were being formulated and the horsetrading being done. I accosted about half a dozen politicians on all three sides and engaged them in debate. For the most part, they were courteous and gave the impression of listening (apart from John Prescott with whom I had a row, part of which was televised and appeared on the BBC news). The point I made to them all (after introducing myself as an "ordinary Labour voter") was that the Tories should run a minority government and that forming a government in secret was fundamentally dishonest and undemocratic. "Let the debate be in Parliament," was my message. Interestingly, when the TV journos rushed over to Michael Portillo when he and I were talking, he said, "You should interview Dr ... here, not me!" (They ignored him.)

Yes, I know all the arguments against minority governments, especially in times of crisis. I know that the electorate may have had little stomach for a second general election so soon after that one. Yet we have to stick to our demands for open debate in a parliament where there is a vigorous and responsible opposition. Because we don't always get vigorous and responsible opposition does not negate the principle.

Rather than abandoning a major party which is betraying our trust and our (and their) principles, we should engage with them and demand that they truly represent us once again!

Friday, 17 February 2012

Oh no, please no!

Dismayed but not in the least surprised to see this posted on the corridor wall just outside the Print Room cafe at UCL. Not because it's UCL or anything. But because there seems to be yet another "therapy" characterised by all the usual red flags of pure quackery.

And I have also noticed a worrying eruption of ads for endless supplement nostrums all over the place - buses, tube stations, streets.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Oh for Christ's sakes...

Isn't this just exactly the weaseling standpoint you would expect from this excuse for a man?!

Some things can't be measured

Now that the whole world is reeling from the metrical, game-theory approach adopted with enthusiasm by New Labour and others - the approach which states that human beings are simply selfish, decision-making machines and that all our actions, even those which appear to be entirely altruistic, are, at bottom, only performed to increase the chances of our genetic material being replicated - I thought that I would like to refresh my spirit a little bit.

I had earlier watched a programme about the Nazi air raids on the City of Bath in 1942. Very interesting. There were many eye-witness accounts including one about a certain Fireman Leonard Smith, a volunteer fireman who decided to report for duty, even though not on the roster for the evening when he left home, wife and children for the last time. He was engaged in fire-fighting at, I believe, the Assembly Rooms, when he was instructed to go to the Circus, a few yards away, to man the water pumps. There he was instantly killed by a German bomb, his remains only being identified some time later with the aid of his fireman's belt. There wasn't much else of him left. The programme pointed out that the crater could still be seen in the grassy centre of the Circus as a shallow depression.

So. I walked to the Circus to see the remains of this bomb crater and to pay a quiet tribute to a man who I simply cannot believe was simply a "selfish decision-making machine". If he was only motivated by an innate urge to replicate his genes, why would he leave his wife and children on that evening? Why would he go beyond the call of duty because "people might need him"? Not his genetic relatives. Just people.

The depression is still quite evident there in the Circus. That's where Fireman Smith met his end. And that's where I stood and thought of him.

As an atheist and rationalist, how can I explain this? Is there an explanation at all? Yes, of course there is. People are a complex and endlessly fascinating mixture. And people can be heroic and they can be good, and they certainly don't need to believe in magic sky men to be heroic and good. Fireman Smith would probably have said that he believed in god. Yet I do think that, even if he didn't, he would still have acted in the way which he did. And when we at last throw off the shackles of the magic sky men and their agents, people will be people, and that means often being heroic and good.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Is "body language" all total nonsense?

Non-verbal communication is no doubt a fact of life, though the elevation of the study of body language to a consultancy "profession" is maybe stretching things a bit.

It's interesting to look at what has gone on in the past through the visual aid of knowledge of the present, as long as one is aware of the dangers of fallacious interpretation.

That being said and understood, it is nevertheless interesting to look at this.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

I predict...

It might be interesting to see what happens. I am scheduling this post to appear in a couple of days (Thursday 19 January).

Predictions for news:

  1. Some problem to do with the Olympics

  2. The Concordia will be relegated to second-page follow-ups

  3. Scottish independence controversies

  4. Some sort of health-scare

  5. More credit-rating downgrades

So. We'll see...

Monday, 16 January 2012

We are not alone!

This fascinating list will doubtless bring cheer to many hearts - and despair and anger to the many more who are terminally confused.

Big Boats for Business!

I'm not sure whether I can even be bothered to comment on the latest attempt by Michael Gove to contribute to national happiness - the suggestion that the way to Her Majesty's heart on this the year of her Diamond Jubilee is to buy her a new boat to play with.

Thank goodness this mad proposal is doomed to failure from the start. Even if the project was started tomorrow, it would not be ready for launch in time for the celebrations.

In any case, the nation already has a royal yacht. True, it does need a little bit of attention, having been reported to have been leaking and listing recently (now apparently fixed - phew!). It is located in the soon-to-be-independent nation of bonnie Scotland (another mad scheme apparently more supported by the English than the Scots) and is open to visitors as a tourist attraction.

Well - patch it up, bring it to London, re-open it as a visitor attraction (like Windsor etc.), and let Her Majesty use it on appropriate occasions (which the proponents argue is to help Win Business For The Country, even though other nations seem to be able to Win Business without the help of royal yachts and families).

I sincerely wish Her Majesty a long and healthy life. When one considers the dotty successor...

Saturday, 14 January 2012

More honored in the breach...

There are said to be a number of laws still on the books of this kingdom of ours which are relicts of previous ages and which have never been repealed. Examples are the legal requirement for drivers of hackney carriages to carry on board a bale of hay for the horse and another law which requires adult males to perform one hour per day of archery practice (except Sundays).

I have no idea whether this is true or just another urban myth and, quite frankly, can't be bothered to find out. It simply doesn't matter that much.

Much more serious is the 1939 Cancer Act which was drafted in order to protect the public from the depredations of charlatans and quacks. (An interesting sidelight on this is that the Cancer Act was passed during the premiership of Neville Chamberlain, along with some even more important reforming laws such as the Factories Act, the Coal Act, and the Holidays with Pay Act. If he hadn't tried to appease the nazis, he may well have gone down in history as one of our finest prime ministers...)

Inter alia, the Cancer Act states:
"Prohibition of certain advertisements. (1) No person shall take any part in the publication of any advertisement—
(a) containing an offer to treat any person for cancer, or to prescribe any remedy therefor, or to give any advice in connection with the treatment thereof"
(my italics)

Breaches of the Cancer Act are punishable by fines and/or imprisonment and are criminal breaches.

There are numerous websites run by quacks, charlatans and cancer "charities" which - to any sensible person - contravene this act. Some of the more canny among them seem to be aware of this and try to mitigate the crime by posting lengthy disclaimers saying, in effect, well this might look like an advertisement, might read like an advertisement, might walk like an advertisement and might quack like an advertisement, but it isn't an advertisement!

I have reported a number of these sites to the relevant authorities, but - so far - no action has been taken.

Now I don't care if the next London taxi I take doesn't have a bale of hay in the boot. I just want to be taken to where I want to be in safety and comfort and in a reasonable time.

I do care if quacks and charlatans, and the honestly confused who may support and endorse them, endanger the lives of vulnerable, worried and scared cancer patients and their families.

Why won't the authorities invoke and apply the law of this country?

Curious connections?

The City of Bath College seems to really be Engaging With The Local Community (aka the definitely for profit new-ish spa in the city for which the local ratepayers had to pay) by offering a fantastic range of Beauty and Complementary Therapy courses.

Hooray! The college is well set to mop up all those prospective students of quack therapies who can no longer find BSc courses in this rubbish at UK universities.

Forty years ago when I did my A-Levels there, things were rather different...

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Some post hoc interpretation?

Yes. I know. It's easy to interpret things after the event, but this little movie is still intriguing.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

A Silver Lining?

Yes, we are battling with The Cuts. Yes the higher education sector is battling with the quite pointless, quite destructive and very expensive (to the taxpayer as well as the students and their families) fees hike.

Yet - there has been a gleam of joy in all this darkness. In today's Telegraph is an article headlined (in the Kindle edition) "Reflexology and aromatherapy degrees axed as numbers fall". Within the article are the cheery words, "From this year, it will no longer be possible to study homeopathy to degree level in a British university." Apparently - and somewhat depressingly - this is not principally because the institutions offering these degrees in pseudoscience are developing a conscience, but rather because of a significant fall-off in demand. Rather makes one wonder if the previous popularity of these courses was due to the vast numbers of school-leavers without hoped-for A-level grades, yet still harbouring some desire to Be a Scientist with the added bonus of Healing the Sick (try conventional medicine?), turned to these nonsense degrees. After all, the prospects of employment seemed good...

I think we all now approach consumption with a different, more skeptical eye. I have noticed myself that when I am toying with the notion of buying some non-essential item, I have developed the habit of imagining how I am going to view the purchase and the item itself some hours or days ahead. Almost always this leads me to the shop exit. People now seem to have a greater tendency to be Sensible; to consider the actual value of any prospective purchase.

Hence the probable demise of both Hawkins Bazaar and of pseudoscience degrees. Frankly, I would be rather sorry to see Hawkins Bazaar go out of business...