Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Thursday 30 September 2010

'S genetic, innit

The men (and women) in white coats have spoken – ADHD is officially ‘a brain problem like autism’.
'Researchers at Cardiff University ‘compared genetic samples from 366 children diagnosed with ADHD with DNA from 1,047 people without the condition.
They found that 15% of the ADHD group had large and rare variations in their DNA - compared with 7% in the control group.’

Not quite as conclusive, then, as the headlines would have us believe.

Oliver James puts it rather less kindly: "These findings have been hyped in the most outrageous fashion", although, to be fair, Professor Anita Thapar describes it as ‘the first direct genetic link to ADHD’, with the implication that there are more waiting to be discovered.

For many parents, though, this will be reassuring news; the strain of managing a truly hyperactive child is often compounded by uncomprehending and occasionally ill-concealed impatience from other adults.

Unfortunately for these parents, despite their often exhausting efforts to keep things under control, the traits (I won’t call them symptoms) exhibited by their offspring are, at times, virtually indistinguishable from the behaviour of children who are simply spoilt, undisciplined or neglected.

Diagnosis is, at present, a blunt instrument. Typically, a child with ADHD will have had serious sleep problems from birth, with unexplained crying as a baby developing into frequent tantrums and impulsive and occasionally violent behaviour as a toddler.

But in a chaotic household with unstructured bedtimes, who is to say whether a child’s sleep problems or irritability are the result of ADHD or of his home environment? Equally, is repeated pestering of adults – another trait – simply the result of being ignored by indifferent parents?

The problem with this story is that it has gone off half-cocked. It suggests that as-yet undiscovered genetic factors may be at the root of the disorder but gives no certain means of diagnosis and thus no way to distinguish genuine disorder from the results of poor parenting.

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Fun in the sun

As anyone who lives or works in an 'Architect-Designed Building' (aren't they all?) knows, awards for innovative and unique design do not necessarily imply that the result is user-friendly. I should know - I spent the last half-hour at work today dealing with the consequences of a roof leak in a 'state-of-the-art' edifice.

But far from Britain's damp climate, another hazard is plaguing visitors to Nevada. As the Daily Mail explains in its inimitable style:

'Guests at a new hotel in Las Vegas have complained of receiving severe burns from a 'death ray' of sunlight caused by the unique design of the building.'

Due to the concave shape of the Vdara hotel, the strong Nevada sun reflects off its all-glass front and directly onto sections of the swimming pool area below.'

'The Las Vegas Review Journal quotes one hotel employee as saying the building's design causes the sunshine to be diverted 'like a magnifying glass that shines down' over a space of about 10 by 15 feet as the poolside.

And as the Earth rotates, the spot moves across the pool area. The 'death ray' can increase temperatures by around 20 degrees.'

In fact, it looks as if they could hardly have managed better if they had tried to barbecue their guests. I remember some astronomers at my alma mater trying the same thing with sausages and a parabolic reflector but the East Anglian climate didn't lend itself quite so well to the process.

Of course, the management are keen to point out this is not the result of monumental stupidity:

'Gordon Absher, a spokesman for MGM Resorts, which owns the Vdara hotel, said they was aware of the issue and designers were working with resort staff to come up with a solution.

In fact it is claimed that the designers foresaw the issue with the reflecting sun but thought they had solved it by installing a high-tech film on the south-facing panes of glass.

You have to admire their blind and trusting faith in the appliance of science; those magic words 'high-tech' probably justified an extra few thousands on the purchase price as well as giving them a nice warm glow - swiftly replaced by a sizzling sensation and second-degree burns.

Meanwhile, guests at the Vdara can rest assured that their future wellbeing is safe in the hands of the management. With a delightful touch of bathos, the Mail tells us that:

'While the designers work on fixing the problem, the hotel is looking at getting some larger, and crucially, thicker umbrellas to provide better shade for guests.'

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Asylum-seeking asteroids

Typical! You wait ages for a near-earth asteroid, then three of them come along at once.

Following NASA’s announcement three weeks ago of the near miss by two asteroids in quick succession, the Daily Mail today trumpets the discovery of another PHO – that’s Potentially Hazardous Object to you and me – by the PS1 telescope from thePan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System).

Don't start battening down the hatches, though - we aren't set to go the way of the dinosaurs just yet. The catchily-named 2010 ST3 may be a hefty 150 metres in diameter but the closest it will get is about four million miles from Earth in mid-October.

The astronomers involved in the project are patting themselves on the back, however, since Pan-STARRS represents a huge development in our ability to spot asteroids on a possible collision course with Earth.

According to the Director of the Minor Planet Centre, 'It is proof that the PS1 telescope is capable of finding potentially dangerous objects that no one else has found.'

Funnily enough, you could say much the same thing about the Daily Mail.

Monday 27 September 2010

Occam's razor and the little green men

Three cheers for the Rendlesham UFO story, which continues to provide us with a rich vein of blogging material. This time it's a senior USAF officer who's gone public:

'An ex-US air force chief has given an astonishing account of an encounter with a UFO at an air force base in Suffolk.

Charles Halt is one of a number of senior former airmen who went public today over claims that UFOs had tampered with nuclear missiles in the US and the UK.

Mr Halt, who retired in 1991, told a press conference that he was working at RAF Bentwater near Rendelsham in Suffolk in 1980 when he had the terrifying encounter.'

What he saw has become familiar thanks to repeated - and imaginative - dramatised reconstructions over the intervening three decades: following reports of unidentified coloured lights in the forest round the base, Halt took a team out to investigate.

'Mr Halt said: 'Milling around, one of the individuals saw a bright glowing object like an eye. It would appear to be winking and was shedding molten metal and silently moving through the trees and at one point it actually approached us.''

Interestingly - if a little awkwardly for Halt - this is part of a post from September 2009:

This week the truth is out there - way out there - in the guise of a 66-year-old lorry driver from East Anglia whose shady dealings apparently led to 'Britain's Roswell'. The 1980 incident achieved notoriety as an encounter with a possible UFO which left behind physical evidence in the shape of scorched trees and traces of molten metal.

Now Peter Turtill has come forward and claimed that on the night in question he found himself unexpectedly in possession of a truckload of stolen fertilizer which broke down on the Rendlesham road.

Not wanting to be caught with his incriminating cargo, he took the truck into the forest and set light to it, generating a spectacular burst of coloured flames as the chemicals caught fire.

When the armed Americans appeared, he took fright and towed the burning truck away - not surprisingly, since being caught with a lorry-load of hooky fertilizer in the vicinity of a US airbase could in no way be described as a good career move.

Many years ago, I was one of a number of people across Scotland who saw a glowing object hovering overhead one New Year's Eve. Initially dismissed as the result of over-zealous Hogmanay celebrations, the sightings were almost certainly top-secret surveillance craft being tested on a night when reports were likely to be dismissed as fireworks.

Occam's razor tells us the simplest explanation is usually the correct one - nowhere is this more likely to be correct than in the strange and intriguing world of the UFO.

Jeggings, treggings and gastric bands

Once upon a time, people had waists. In the days before shell-suits and tracksuit bottoms, the majority of skirts and trousers stopped firmly at a fixed point, held in place by rigid waistbands – none of this trousers-round-the-buttocks business or comfortable elastic.

And the wearers of these garments sat at dining tables to eat all their meals – something so rare these days that there are many homes without a table big enough to accommodate all the occupants.

Those inflexible waistbands had a noticeable effect at mealtimes – if the seated diner ate too much, they became uncomfortably tight, effectively discouraging the wearer from further indulgence. With a limited space to put food in, the result was a reduced intake. Sounds familiar?

With the NHS spending an estimated £32 million a year on gastric band operations (to say nothing of the ongoing care costs and potential post-op complications), perhaps it’s time to look at some more practical and less invasive solutions.

A television advert currently proclaims special offers on ‘jeggings and treggings for all the family’ – somehow the bastardised words perfectly suit the infantilised, unstructured pull-on garments with elasticated waistbands forgiving enough to accommodate a full meal and a couch-based evening’s grazing.

While much of the current reported obesity crisis can presumably be laid at the door of cheap junk food and lack of exercise, fashion, too, has played its part. The low-slung trousers seen on every high street are so far removed from the region of the digestive tract as to have no effect at all on the constant throughput of food.

So what’s needed is a form of external constriction – something that makes the overindulgent eater reconsider - and I think I have the answer. It’s even readily available in popular clothing outlets*.

There's no doubt that fashion retailers can engineer clothing trends, so why not get them on board now? Since the inexorable rise of sportswear dictates what is worn on the street, what is needed is a fashion for branded weightlifting belts worn tightly on the waist all the time.

Cheap, easy and safe for all - what's not to like?

*Excellent joke from Hugh Dennis (on 'The Now Show'):
"This train will shortly be arriving at Birmingham New Street. For passengers wishing to change for Wolverhampton, there is a JD Sports opposite the station entrance."

Sunday 26 September 2010

Wielding the Knife and Fork

It's no secret that cuts for Universities were in the offing, but the grim reality presents itself this morning in a Sunday Times article headed 'Tuition fees will rise to £10,000'.

As usual, the headline grossly over-simplifies (there are proposals to remove the fees cap and increase the costs of student loans) but what it boils down to in effect, for us at least, is the prospect of the Urchin leaving university with far higher debts than his older brother.

Since both have chosen similar degree courses and are likely to aim for the same kind of employment, where does this leave us as parents? Can we really stand by and see one of our children lumbered with a lifelong debt while the other one clears his within a few years?

And, even if we could help reduce the Urchin's debt, would it be it fair to his older brother to do so?

It looks as if Browne's Fork* is going to be accompanied by a wooden spoon stirring up sibling rivalry of epic proportions.

*Remember Henry VII and Morton's Fork? Browne's Fork goes like this: 'if you went to a state school, you have paid nothing so far for your education so it's reasonable to ask you to meet the full costs' or 'if you went to a fee-paying school, you obviously have enough money to meet your tuition fees in full'.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Cherchez la femme

A combination of family matters and mild blogging fatigue/Weltschmerz (this from JuliaM succinctly illustrates why) may keep posting light for a while longer.

Pavlov's Cat today reports a conversation he overheard at work (in a jobcentre) which could serve as  a metaphor for our times...

Adviser: Can you explain why you didn’t make your signing time today?
Customer: It’s my birthday, right and I was getting a tattoo innit and it took a while.
Adviser: I hope it doesn’t hurt too much?
Customer: Nah mate. it’s alright, I’m taking cannabis for the pain.

By coincidence, this story from the Daily Telegraph takes us into the same territory:

A woman with 30 tattoos claims she was told to ''put a bag over her head'' when she went for a job interview.
Hayley O'Neil, 23, - who also has 20 body piercings - says was also advised to ''stand behind a wall'' when she asked a job centre official what post she could apply for.

You have to admit, he'd got a point raising the question of her appearance - I mean she certainly shouldn't be allowed near magnets or high voltage cables.

Miss O'Neil, who got her first tattoo from her mother as an 18th birthday present said: ''I just felt so humiliated. I couldn't believe what this guy was saying."

It's stretching our credulity too, to think that someone in his position would expect to get away with that in today's climate. If he did express himself in those exact terms, then he certainly wasn't at home to Mr Tactful that day - and, more relevantly, had decided to kiss his career goodbye.

It's true that, when you're stuck behind a desk day-in, day-out, dealing with the the stroppy and terminally workshy along with genuine cases of hardship, the sight of someone sporting tattoos that must have cost more than your month's salary might well make you see red.

On the other hand, of course - always assuming he really did say something of the sort - he might actually have been trying to make a serious point in a humorous way:

"The guy said: 'on first impressions do you think anyone would hire you?' He said: ' look at it this way if you were to stand behind a wall - or put a paper bag over your face do you think you would have a better chance?' "

Considering the picture above....er, yes? At least with interviewers of a nervous disposition. But Telegraph headline writers et al, please note that, if those were his actual words, then far from 'advising' or 'telling' her to do it, he was asking her a question, using a graphic example to get her to consider the impact of her appearance.

The subtlety of this approach, however, seems to have escaped her and 'look at it this way' suggests that previous attempts at explanation had met with a similar fate; all she understood was that he was telling her to put a bag on her head. You might like to consider the reaction on her part that must have led up to this:

"He then backtracked and tried to say that he was sorry and hoped I wasn't offended but I was."

In fact, she was so offended that she went straight to the papers with her story - or rather several versions of it.

Significantly, the earliest report made no mention of paper bags or walls - simply stating she was upset by being told she would find it hard to get work anywhere other than a tattoo parlour and by being advised to remove her piercings. From today's Telegraph:

A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions denied any inappropriate remarks had been made during the interview, adding "Jobcentre Plus offers standard job hunting tips which include dressing appropriately when going for an interview or visiting a potential employer."

So who's right? And why the discrepancy? A clue, perhaps, lies in the Lancashire Telegraph's initial report on the 22nd:

'Her mother Dena, who accompanied her to the interview yesterday, said: “I was very upset.'

How many adults take their mother to the Jobcentre with them? And in the short intervening time, somebody has comissioned a more flattering photograph, lavishly embroidered the story with juicy, headline-grabbing detail and shoehorned it into a national paper, ensuring plenty of publicity. After all, celebrity careers have been built on less.

My money's on Mum.

(Update: this one's obviously touched a lot of nerves - there are plenty of interesting comments on Subrosa's take on it.  Scotland's answer to Boudicca simply replaces my lengthy ramblings with the title 'Today's non-story' - which says it all, really.)

Tuesday 21 September 2010

'ear, 'ear!

The wonderful Gloria Smudd has been sharing her earworm frustrations with us this week.

Update: the link seems to have vanished - Anna/Gloria, any ideas?

Earworms are something we at the Tavern are all too familiar with* - one hazard of writing song parodies is that the necessary repetition fixes them in your mind for ever.

Concensus is that the only way to combat them is to introduce others of your choice; personally I favour the bitter and satirical, or at the very least thought-provoking.

So here's one of my favourites - a cheesy tune with mordant lyrics from Leonard Cohen, whose birthday it is today.

*See also item 7 in this post (and the attached comments - thank you, Demetrius! Sixteen months so far...)

Sunday 19 September 2010

Cut off his X-box!

Romance, it seems, is alive and well on Tyneside. These days, though, the love-struck swain doesn't resort to a ring to demonstrate his commitment, if this touching comment about 25-year-old Keith MacDonald is anything to go by:
We’ve been seeing each other about three or four times a week. He even moved his X-box in”.
Sadly for the girl in question, despite protestations of faithfulness (I think; it’s not easy to tell from his texted assurance: 'I told ya i wud not leave yah hun and i am trying 2 give ya wot ya want'), he moved the X-box out again last week, though he did leave her with a rather more permanent memento - she is expecting his baby.

He’s now planning to move in with another girlfriend, who is also pregnant. Meanwhile, the Sunday Times (paywall – no link, sorry!) has gone to town and rounded up another eight women all of whom claim to have had his children.

In fact, one of his previous partners alleges he told her he already had 12 kids. Her assertion that ‘Men like him should be made to have the snip’ suggests they didn't exactly part on good terms – in fact, he was probably lucky to get away with his X-box intact.

The X-box in question – along with a 28” flatscreen television – is currently housed in the council flat he shares with a friend. Neither of them works -  MacDonald has seldom done so since leaving school: “I never keep a job because it gets too boring for me” – but cigarettes and beer seem to be in plentiful supply.

There’s no incentive for him to get a job; on the contrary, if he stopped claiming benefits, he would be liable for considerably more than the nominal £5 a week maintenance he currently pays towards the upkeep of his children.

If ever there was a case for someone having his X-box removed, surely this is it!

Update: there's more on this (and a novel suggestion for dealing with it) at Burning Our Money.

Quote of the day - relativity special

Light posting at present because of family commitments.

While making the travel arrangements, I stumbled upon this in Transport Direct's website's journey search results:

Note: Certain combinations of outward and return journeys would result in you needing to leave your destination before arriving at it.

Thursday 16 September 2010

"Hi, Jenny, how's it going?"

First they took away the gowns, then the raised desks - too hierarchical - and the right to exclude unruly pupils (or shout at them - or, perish the thought! - make sarcastic comments); now pupils are to address their teachers by their first names.

'The pupils at Boughton-under-Blean and Dunkirk Primary school in Faversham, Kent have been ordered to abandon using teachers’ surnames with the title of either ‘Mr’, ‘Ms’ or ‘Mrs’ in front of it.'

This sort of thing isn't new, of course - it's long been a feature of schools at the extreme end of the progressive spectrum - but it's a worrying development, particularly in the light of incidents involving cyberbullying or intimidation. Not that that seems to have occurred to anyone:

'School bosses say they hope the trial will “enhance the relationship” between the kids and their mentors.'

Is it me, or do the words 'enhance the relationship' ring alarm bells left, right and centre? The relationship between teachers and pupils is a complex one - for the protection of both parties*, a certain distance has to be maintained at all times. It's clear where the blame lies in this case:

'Headteacher Hugh Greenwood, who came up with the idea, said: 'We hope the pupils really take to the concept. "We think it makes learning a more personal experience and allows teachers to come down to the pupils level."'

You know what? I don't want my children's teachers to 'come down to the pupils' level'. I want them to command respect both for their adult status and their superior knowledge. It's damaging enough when parents try to be the child's best friend - when the teachers are at it too, there's no-one left to emulate except celebrities.

It all goes, once again, to prove the principle that head teachers need to be kept busy or they start interfering with the running of the school.

*It doesn't look as if there's going to be much help from the unions here, if this from JuliaM is anything to go by.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Ofsted report - odd, innit?

That’s O-D-D – Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ‘described by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as an ongoing pattern of disobedient, hostile and defiant behavior toward authority figures which goes beyond the bounds of normal childhood behavior.'

According to Wikipedia, that is. The article goes on to clarify:

'Temper tantrums, stealing, bullying, and vandalism are some of key symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder. ODD children may present as negative, defiant, unable to take "no" for an answer, deliberately annoying others, easily annoyed themselves, or blaming others for all that goes wrong.’

See anything familiar here? The examples are too numerous to link to; almost every day turns up news stories of court cases featuring one or more of these characteristics in a sort of antisocial behaviour bingo. Once upon a time, it was blamed on parents who failed to instil a sense of right and wrong; these days it’s a diagnosis.

ODD – and its badly-behaved siblings ADHD* and Antisocial Behaviour Disorder – may well have a place in the professional evaluation of otherwise inexplicable personality traits, but exercises to increase awareness have opened the floodgates for assuming a medical explanation for all bad behaviour.

If Jack swears at his teacher and throws his books around the classroom, is he a spoilt, rude child whose single mother can’t or won’t make him understand what is acceptable or does he suffer from a behavioural disorder? It’s far easier to put him on the SEN register than undo fourteen years of indifferent parenting.

And when his mother arrives on the scene, guns blazing, demanding to know why he was given a detention, do his teachers try to establish with her what she should be doing with him or sympathise that she has to cope with his condition? Thus the school establishes its caring credentials and Jack and his mother are accorded the status of victims struggling against the odds.

So Jack and his mother go home satisfied that his poor behaviour is not his fault – or hers – and Jack ends up on the school’s special needs programme. In time, if he doesn’t swear or throw anything for a while, he may even be rewarded with that old standby, a trip to Alton Towers.

Everybody’s happy – except, perhaps his class teachers, who are warned not to damage his frail self-esteem with criticism of any kind and are thus rendered virtually impotent in the face of deliberate provocation. And there's a lot of it about; nearly a quarter of special needs pupils have emotional, behavioural or social difficulties.

When Ofsted blames poor teaching and pastoral care for needless SEN registration, this should not be forgotten. Everyone knows that there are inadequate teachers out there (everyone, that is, except NUT general secretary Christine Blower;

“Teachers do a great job in often very difficult circumstances to meet the needs of all their pupils, and for Ofsted to suggest otherwise is both insulting and wrong.” )

but a bigger problem is the school policies which have led to over-zealous SEN registration crowding the system and muddying the waters for those with real needs. The sooner the numbers are reduced and teachers can concentrate on helping pupils with real learning difficulties the better.

Wiser bloggers than I have also taken up this issue today - readers who haven't yet done so might like to visit Subrosa and the Quiet Man.

*The advent of Audio Description and High Definition in broadcasting mean that 'Skins', rather appropriately, now appears in the TV listings accompanied by the letters ADHD.

Sunday 12 September 2010

'Elf 'n' Safety in the mosh pit

There's been some hilarity in the Tavern this weekend at the expense of a nephew who returned unexpectedly early from a gig on Saturday night, having been thrown out for 'misbehaving in the mosh pit'.

The nephew in question, let it be said, is a generally polite and well-behaved ex-grammar school boy; though well over six foot, he does not weigh enough to present a significant hazard to others.

His misdemeanour, apparently, was to keep pogo-ing when asked to desist by security guards. Though he was not the only one, he was the tallest and thus became the the target for a firm escort to the exit.

In fact, far from the churning, headbanging mass some of us remember - with varying degrees of accuracy - from our misspent youth, it seems the mosh pits of today present a spectacle more reminiscent of a vicarage tea-party, with any infractions immediately suppressed.

It's all very laudable, and a relief to know our young will not be trampled, concussed or otherwise injured in the melee, but if, for you, the phrase 'men in black' conjures up the Stranglers rather than Will Smith, then I'm willing to bet there's a small part of you, however irrationally, asking 'but where are the mosh pits of yesteryear?'*

*Or, as Jean-Jaques Burnel might put it (to the accompaniment of a moody guitar solo), 'Mais où sont les moshs d'antan?'

A propos of which, the French Wikipedia article, unlike the English one, includes no fewer than 17 'précautions' such as 'Ne fumez pas dans les moshs!' and 'Ne portez pas de lunettes' as well as detailed instructions for a properly-conducted mosh.

Saturday 11 September 2010

Being prepared on a grand scale

“It's all very well and good preparing for a giant earthquake, but in the end you might as well plan for a meteor strike or a volcano.”

That was the opinion of an unnamed police officer after a three-day police exercise simulating a major earthquake striking our green and pleasant – and usually very static – land.

The event was officially described as ‘extremely unlikely’ and ‘unthinkable’; Britain may get between 200 and 300 quakes a year but the vast majority are so small that the only people going to get excited about them are seismologists who don’t get out much.

Granted, the £826,000 cost of the exercise is a lot of money, given the fact that we may never see an earthquake measuring 8 on the Richter scale, but one assumes the lessons learned could be applied in other circumstances:

‘The disaster, recreated near Portsmouth, caused motorways and apartment blocks to collapse, oil storage plants to be damaged and cars to start burning. In Merseyside the mock exercise involved creating an “urban street scene” complete with burning buildings, trapped “victims” and 40 smashed up cars.’

It doesn’t take an earthquake to cause any of these, as the inhabitants of Buncefield or Warrington could tell you. And if I’m ever caught in a disaster of that kind, I’d like to know that there was someone out there who had an idea of what should be done.

And, of course, if Lembit Opik is to be believed, there’s always the chance that there is an asteroid out there with our name on it.

Friday 10 September 2010

Quote of the day - Ankh-Morpork special edition

The BBC expresses itself with unaccustomed ambiguity...

Exeter takeaway find £17,500 for hygiene offences

A judge fined a Devon restaurant owner £17,500 for food hygiene offences and said only rats and mice were safe to eat there.

There's a name for that sort of thing...

Once upon a time there was a very good little girl. She worked hard at school, played all the team games and always, always did her piano practice.

The little girl grew up and, such was the economic climate, found it hard to get a job. Still, there was one thing she knew she could do well, and conveniently, she could do it in her own home. She advertised and set about building up a list of regular clients.

There’s always a demand for the service she provided, so soon her books were full and she had to turn clients away. Resourcefully, she set about recruiting someone else to share the workload and found a recent college graduate willing to help out; a venue was booked and everything arranged.

Of course, the clients were hers – she had advertised and found them – so it was only fair that she should take a percentage of the new girl’s earnings. Demand grew; soon she had several girls on the payroll – all working part time – and began to call her business an agency and look for corporate clients.

Some of her girls were students, trying to make ends meet while studying; others were single mothers whose work had to fit in around the demands of childcare. None of them worked enough hours to warrant the trouble and expense of being self-employed, so they were content to settle for a share of their earnings.

Gradually the business grew, until she registered it for VAT – remember, she was a good girl. This meant the charges for clients had to go up, but the amount she paid her girls remained the same; clients were charged £40 an hour, of which the girls were given just £16.

By now, she had long since stopped working herself – there are things you do for pleasure that are no fun at all to do for money. She married and moved to a nice house in the suburbs. And the money kept rolling in – take off the VAT and overheads and she still pocketed a good percentage of the takings.

And the best thing of all, there was almost nothing to do. With plenty of demand, and clients referring others by word of mouth, she hardly needed to lift a finger, yet she was making a decent income from her girls and setting up new contracts all the time.

So when your child comes home from school this term with a massive bill for music lessons, don’t blame the teacher until you know whether there’s an agency involved. Your child’s piano, flute or violin teacher is doing all the work but someone else may be pulling the strings.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Abandon hope, all ye who log on here...

The Telegraph this week carries the story of a particularly sordid and unpleasant domestic murder. The details of the crime are irrelevant here (so no link); what struck me about the case is the way the couple in question met. When they established contact,

Both were already in long term relationships but they finished with their respective partners and moved into together at a rented two-bedroomed terraced house.

This wasn’t exactly what you’d call an equal partnership, though;

The couple struggled financially with only Joanne working as a security officer. Despite Higgs getting a £5,000 windfall from his mother he failed to get a job and the couple were seen arguing.

And eventually, in a fit of jealous rage, he killed her. Like so many before her, the 41-year-old grandmother had picked herself up a bad bargain on the internet.

Manchester Crown Court was told the couple met in 2009 through playing games of ''social networking poker'' on Facebook which in which users play to meet each rather than win any cash.

There's a lot of it about; people meet online, somehow decide that this forms the basis for a lasting relationship and ruthlessly burn their boats, heedless of the fact that their new partner has admirably demonstrated a willingness to cheat. The grass is always greener in cyberspace.

And it's proof, if any were needed, that any medium can and will be debased far beyond the expectations of its inventor - imagine John Logie Baird confronted with Big Brother, or Alexander Graham Bell's reaction to phone sex lines. Facebook is rapidly coming to mirror Dante's vision of Hell.

And 'social networking poker' surely must have a circle all of its own.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Whoops! There goes another one!

Remember Lembit Opik? Once upon a time, before he got all starstruck, his preoccupation was the rather less flamboyant subject of asteroids, specifically how to detect them and prevent them turning most of us into history (and those nearest the strike zone into geography).

Lembit never got his wish; there is no National Asteroid Agency - which is probably all for the best, as it would surely have been high on the list of the Coalition's potential cutbacks. And in any case, there's reason to believe it wouldn't have been very effective.

With all the technology at their disposal, NASA told us barely hours ago that a couple of asteroids were on their way past. The first passed 284,000 km away at 9.51 GMT this morning and the second was a scant 80,000 km away at 9.12pm GMT.

The first was estimated at 15m diameter and the second at 10m, so even if they had impacted we wouldn't have gone the way of the dinosaurs, but one can't help feeling it would have been nice to have a little more notice - not least because it's a great excuse for a party.

In fact, these fly-bys are far from uncommon in the cosmic billiards game of the solar system - turn out there are little asteroids popping up all the time. Anything under 10m would probably burn up on entry, so we weren't really in any danger from the nearest observed miss to date (6,500 km, 31st March 2004 - 6m diameter).

The thing is, that one wasn't spotted either until hours before its approach. So if the big one is out there with our name on it, when will we know? Will we have enough time to build and stock shelters, and for Morgan Freeman to make philosophical and inspiring speeches? Or will there be nothing but an undignified scramble?

For those of us who grew up in the era of 'Protect and Survive', the idea isn't so unfamiliar - oblivion from a clear sky with almost no warning. Would we handle it with dignity - or would it be better not to know at all?

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Three unmentionable pachyderms - or why children fail

Are you a 'talentless and embittered individual tapping away at your keyboard in the intellectual vacuum of cyberspace'?

Neither am I - even so, I was tempted at first to get irate about Rod Liddle's contemptuous dismissal of bloggers. But then, on further reflection, that would surely be demonstrating exactly the same readiness to take offence that many of us satirize on a regular basis.

Which is a long-winded way of saying this post is bound to offend some people, but only if they allow it to. With the start of the new term, matters academic are permeating the blogosphere once again, and I feel there's something that needs to be said.

It's a tale of two schools, set a few streets apart in an industrial town somewhere in Britain. Highlands is the local flagship with a large sixth form; A level results regularly appear near the top of league tables for state schools and a high proportion of pupils go on to good universities.

Lowlands has no sixth form - like many local authorities, this one has gone down the route of making most schools 11-16 and concentrating the sixth form provision on one site - at Highlands - or in technical colleges.

All pupils in the area have the right to attend the school of their choice and to go on to the sixth form at Highlands. Why, then, do the other schools in the area have near- or below-average GCSE results, while Highlands hovers near the top of the tables?

The contrast is even more striking in the shared catchment area of our two schools - Lowlands has a poor record of GCSE results, despite taking pupils from the same area as its league-topping rival.

There are some obvious conclusions to draw; parents of clever children will obviously aim for Highlands so the school is vastly over-subscribed (though selection isn't officially allowed, this will increase the chances pupils are bright) and house prices near Highlands have rocketed, pricing out 'disadvantaged' children.

And there are also some very large elephants in the classroom. For years I've been waiting for at least one of them to be noticed in the endless results coverage but so far they remain unobserved, unmentionable pachyderms uncomfortably squashed  between the lab benches and the computer desks.

Elephant One is heredity. Current orthodoxy is that all 'learners'* are born equal, with the same capacity for achievement, and subsequent differentials are entirely the result of environmental factors or a 'specific learning difficulty'. And it's wrong - heredity says the children of the successful professionals in their expensive houses might well get good results regardless of environment.

Elephant Two is discipline. As it becomes increasingly difficult to exclude disruptive pupils, teachers are struggling to do their job and keep control with almost no sanctions available to them - even sarcasm is banned these days - and often with little or no support from home (Lowlands has seen several assaults on teachers by parents).

The higher the proportion of these pupils, the less the others will learn, however bright and well-motivated they are. Lowlands has a problem of critical mass; one unruly pupil in a lesson may be ignored or over-ruled by the rest - half a dozen can make life very difficult indeed for their hard-working and conscientious classmates.

And Elephant Three, perhaps the most contentious of the lot, is teaching**. Teachers choose to work in 11-16 schools for a variety of reasons - location, of course, and the availability of jobs - but those who want to teach sixth formers will move on as soon as they can.

The others remain for a variety of reasons, ranging from the laudable (they feel they can make a difference where they are) and the mundane (they can't or don't want to move house) to the disappointing (the ones who aren't up to sixth form work academically) and the downright reprehensible (no A-level essays to mark, so plenty of time for militant union activities).

So Lowlands has some wonderful inspirational teachers, but it also has far more than its fair share of those struggling with the demands of their subject, the terminally disenchanted and strident union activists - NUT membership is well over three times that at Highlands, where most staff belong to less confrontational unions.

And there you have it - three elephants whose existence governs the academic achievement of hundreds of 16-year-olds every year. And until someone points them out, there will continue to be much hand-wringing and lamentation over the inexplicable failure of Lowlands pupils and the social deprivation that must be the cause.

*Current edu-speak for the young person in the classroom. In the most nauseating example, teachers are also required to designate themselves 'facilitators and learners', and school heads to adopt the title 'Head Learner'.

**A representative example from a 2005 study of physics teaching by the University of Buckingham:
  • Pupils’ opportunity to participate in physics and be taught by teachers well-qualified in the subject is reduced if they attend an 11-16 school.
  • Nearly a quarter (23.5%) of 11-16 schools had no teacher at all who had studied physics to any level at university.
  • Teachers’ expertise in physics as measured by qualification is the second most powerful predictor of pupil achievement in GCSE and A-level physics after pupil ability.

Monday 6 September 2010

Euphonious homophones

A few weeks ago, Mrs Rigby took time off from a busy summer to deplore the fate of the humble apostrophe, scattered promiscuously about with no thought for accuracy or grammatical logic.

As the happy smiling faces of parents arrive at primary school gates today, I feel compelled to make a similar point about spelling and vocabulary.

Last weekend, my local paper contained an article on the opening of a nail bar where, it seems, 'the cues stretched as far as the High Street and many people had bought their children'. Readers were also informed that 'Debbie Stark won the grand raffel prize'.

Meanwhile, Saturday's Times, no less, contained a review of the new Dyson cleaner with '18ft retractable power chord' - B flat major, perhaps, revving up for a trucker's gear change.

Now I know we're all vulnerable to the occasional typo, but these examples of mistaken homophones are in another league altogether. Someone - who is being paid to write accurate prose - looked at 'cues' or 'chord' and decided that was the right spelling for the context.

In the early days of word processing, I had an eighth share in a secretary who regarded the spellchecker as infallible. Should she mis-spell a word (and spelling wasn't exactly her strong point), she would obediently accept the first suggestion in the list offered by the computer regardless of whether it made sense.

The merest suggestion that her little tin god might be wrong elicited loud outbursts of indignation; finally most of us took to re-typing our own letters in secret rather than sending out the gibberish she produced.

Alas, she was merely a foretaste of what appears to be happening wholesale in our computer-driven culture and will continue until schools find a way of teaching accurate spelling, a broad vocabulary and the capacity for independent thought.

Saturday 4 September 2010

Drop the Pilot

"I'm Mandy Julia. Let me fly you..."

You have to hand it to Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary. No matter how often they say ‘He’s gone too far this time!’, he somehow manages to go one better in the next interview.

Remember the proposed 1 euro charge to use the lavatories, or the idea of flying standing up, with a rudimentary shelf to accommodate the aching buttocks (a rather less beautiful version of the carved misericordes that propped up medieval monks during long hours of worship - perhaps that’s where he got the idea)?

And that’s without mentioning all the no-frills staples we’ve come to know and loathe – no seat reservations, overpriced microwave food, an extortionate charge for any piece of luggage larger than Barbie’s handbag and grumpy cabin staff (not sure how that last one saves money, but I do know it’s a bad idea to greet them with ‘Cheer up - it may never happen!’).

Now he's had another brainwave and it’s a real humdinger, as he explains to Bloomberg BusinessWeek Magazine. In this climate of cuts, everyone’s looking for ways to reduce staffing costs and it turns out there’s a whole person in the cockpit who’s doing pretty much bugger-all.

What exactly is a co-pilot for, cluttering up the place and consuming valuable meals and coffee and being paid for it? Even in the case of an emergency, O’Leary’s confident there’s no need for a fully qualified second banana up front when you've got plenty of personnel back there in the cabin:

"Really, you only need one pilot. Let's take out the second pilot. Let the bloody computer fly it. If the pilot has an emergency, he rings the bell, he calls her [the stewardess] in. She could take over.”

Ryanair’s stewardesses are, it seems, pretty versatile already – at least if O’Leary’s office decor is anything to go by; ‘Hanging on the wall is a 2010 Ryanair charity calendar, featuring the airline's flight attendants in bikinis’* - although I believe their people skills may occasionally leave something to be desired.

So now the idea is to train them in readiness for an emergency, so that, in the event of incapacity or death of the only qualified pilot, the trolley dolly can step up bravely to the mark. One has to hope, in that eventuality, she has been chosen for her brains rather than her potential as Miss February.

There could, of course, be another solution....

*The article doesn’t actually say, of course, whether they are all female – I may be making an unjustified sexist assumption worthy of O'Leary himself.

Friday 3 September 2010

Blood and sand in Aldeburgh

Events in Suffolk took a somewhat bizarre turn last week when Seamus Heaney was uncomfortably caught by his metaphors in a literary tussle; retired teacher and anti-bullfighting activist Paul Hurt travelled 414 miles in order to protest at an appearance by the poet.

Hurt had seized on references to bullfighting in Heaney's work as proof that the Irish poet is a supporter of the practice, going so far as to label him 'Hemingway Heaney' on the internet. A personal appearance was obviously too good a chance to miss:

'He printed off a number of leaflets and headed off on Wednesday in the pouring rain to make his point at the sell out event the following day. After a rough night's sleeping in the back of the van in a farmer's field he arrived at the hall and set up his one man protest.

He spent two hours outside handing out leaflets and even managed to persuade two guests to tear up their tickets. The organisers tried to persuade him his protest was a folly and the police intervened at one point but he carried on regardless. The organisers even offered him a free ticket but he refused on the ground it would compromise his position.

Eventually he packed up and went home.'

Mr Hurt is, by all accounts, a busy man. As well as pestering poets, he's a member of Compassion in World Farming and an anti-fur protester. The retired science teacher is obviously a dedicated man prepared to make considerable personal sacrifices for the principles he holds.

What he is not, however, is a literary expert. The concept of metaphor, or of extended imagery, seems to have passed him by, suggesting a certain lack of imagination - or sense of humour. This is, of course, borne out by his refusal to accept a ticket for the reading; Mr Hurt's mind is made up, so why would he want to find out more?

It's a useful illustration of the mindset of a certain type of activist; despite denials all round, Hurt maintains that Heaney must support bullfighting since he wrote about it. All literary niceties are wasted here; as Orwell put it, 'Four legs good. Two legs bad', and that's an end to it.

I leave it to my readers to decide whether the brilliant Tom Lehrer is a supporter of bullfighting.

Thursday 2 September 2010

Death in the Afternoon

A riveting programme on Radio 4 this morning told the story of Frank Evans, Salford butcher's son turned matador. 'El Ingles', as he is known in the trade, was gripped by the glamour and danger of the bullring at an early age and resolved to make a career of it.

He's still going strong at the age of 67, despite a knee replacement and a quadruple heart bypass, as well as the best efforts of animal rights campaigners - although it has to be said, a man who goads bulls into charging him for a living is hardly likely to be daunted by the antics of a bunch of urban vegetarians.

A search for further information turned up this video; it's a trailer for a documentary that was never made and for those (like me) unfamiliar with the bullfighting world, it does offer an interesting perspective.

Note: the video contains footage of a bull being killed.

The documentary was never commissioned; El Ingles' liberal use of the F-word may have something to do with it, but it is more likely that no company viewing the final scenes was prepared to go ahead with it.

It's strangely low-key - a matter-of-fact killing accompanied by polite applause - but in today's climate it's hard to imagine any broadcaster taking the risk.

Of course, it's a different matter when the boot's on the other hoof, so to speak; no piece on matters bovine these days would be complete without a link to Mark Wadsworth, who features here and here bullfights that didn't exactly go according to plan.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

"Divorce - never. Murder - often."

I’ve been suffering from insomnia recently, the full-on wide awake at 2am variety – and before you make any suggestions, I’ve eaten more lettuce than Peter Rabbit and had enough milky drinks to float a medium-sized barge but to no avail. The result of this has been much blog-reading in the early hours – thank you all for giving me something to do – and rather too much thinking.

Sometime during every sleepless night, the mind inevitably turns to matters financial, especially when trawling the business pages of the news sites. Like many other people, we have investments whose managers obviously saw ‘the value of your funds may go down as well as up’ as a mission statement.

They’re very proud of themselves; every so often, they send us a nice glossy brochure to tell us what they’ve been up to and how much their bonuses were – with a short footnote telling us the product is now worth rather less in real terms than we paid for it a decade ago.

Reading on in the business section in the darker watches of the night, an interesting thought occurs on the subject of an increasingly present theme; endowment policies are linked to life cover. And while PEPs and ISAs bump around in the shallows, endowment investors have been left well and truly high and dry.

A policy bought in the 80s to cover an interest-only mortgage of £100,000 could now have a projected shortfall of up to £45,000, according to recent figures. With surrender values at an all-time low, the unfortunate policyholders are stuck paying in their monthly premiums with no hope of realising that £100,000 unless one of them dies.

It has long been a source of complaint in the Tavern that modern detective stories draw heavily on abnormal psychology and deviant behaviour for motives. The regulars are pining for the days of good old-fashioned British murder mysteries, where the culprit hoped to benefit from Auntie’s will or achieve some other financial benefit – now here’s a perfect and up-to-date example.

I intend to start work on it as soon as possible. Trouble is, the title 'The Endowment Murders' does lack a certain something, don't you think?

Science fiction fans may recognize the title:
"Haven't you ever thought of divorce?" he had once asked them teasingly. As usual, George was at no loss for words.
"Divorce - never," was his swift reply. "Murder - often."
(Arthur C. Clarke: 2061 Odyssey Three)