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

Tuesday 31 May 2011

Exit, pursued by a bear/lynx/wolf/moose/beaver

Mark Wadsworth has been musing on moose this week - more specifically, the pair that have arrived to repopulate the Scottish Highlands.

The male and female moose are part of ambitious and controversial proposals by a millionaire landowner to recreate an ancient mountain habitat, complete with wolves, lynx and brown bears roaming freely within a vast fenced-off wildlife reserve north of Inverness.

The wolf release plans suffered something of a setback earlier this year but the moose, being vegetarians and thus less likely to help themselves to the local indigenous wildlife/sheep/hill-walkers, have arrived ready to set about their mammoth task - no pressure there, then!
Should they succeed in creating a new generation, motorists will have to deal with the not inconsiderable risk of running into one on a secluded road; not for nothing do Canadian highways carry the iconic moose warnig signs at regular intervals. Still, should a moose despatch you, at least it will not add insult to injury by tucking into your mortal remains.
On last year's trip to the Highlands, we were accompanied by a Canadian visitor who was most amused that the most dangerous animals we encountered were cattle (see Under Siege); her garden is invaded by bears on a regular basis and she found it quite a novelty to be in a wilderness where there is nothing that might want you for lunch (except the midges).
If these plans go ahead, things may eventually be rather different. The beavers released in Argyll - amid much protest from those who want to keep the Border salmon rivers as they are - have survived and are breeding, but the diffficult terrain means researchers are finding it impossible to track them down and their electric tags have dropped off.
Now consider the impact of dozens of top predators wandering at will in the northern glens - they are bound to break out of the planned reserve sooner or later. It's true that these animals already roam wild in populated countries but people there are accustomed to dealing with them - and even so, attacks happen.
A few years ago, on a visit to Canada, we arrived at the idyllic remote lakeside cabin we were renting to discover that there was a bear reservation next door - with no fences. 'No problem', said the owner; 'just make sure you don't sneak up on them. Make plenty of noise and they'll stay away.'
That is the reason that most Canadian hikers wear bear bells on their clothing or hiking poles, though it's advisable to carry pepper spray too. It helps if you keep an eye out for bear scat, so you can get an idea of their movements - and which kind you are dealing with.
As any rural Canadian will tell you, black bear scat contains berries and small pieces of fur, while grizzly scat smells of pepper and contains small bells.

Monday 30 May 2011

Expenses - it's déjà-vu all over again

Once upon a time we had the feudal system. The king and court spent vast sums on elaborate clothing, castles and patronage, secure in the knowledge that the taxes and rents paid by their underlings would fund it all.

And the petty lords and officials aped their superiors, knowing that the labour of the peasantry would keep them in tapestries and wine.

A thousand years later, the same situation exists, though political upheaval has in part replaced hereditary overlords with MPs, and, as the expenses scandal shows, their taste for luxury at our expense is no different.

We still have the petty officials too. Encouraged by its success at breaking the Westminster expenses scandal, the Telegraph now has in its sights the councils of Britain and their taxpayer-funded credit cards, like that wielded by Lord Hanningfield.

Councils up and down the land have been hitching a ride on the gravy train – and the gravy in question is rich, meaty and laced with truffle-oil. Luxury hotels, lavish meals and gifts from high-end retailers abound, along with tables at award ceremonies and champagne receptions.

Meanwhile details are coming out of similar expenditure on the part of civil servants on taxpayer-funded credit cards, most recently, with a certain irony, at the Department for Communities and Local Government. After all, if their masters were enjoying their perks to the full, why should civil servants not emulate them?

There’s a crucial difference here, though; this time, the culprits are effectively faceless – not high-profile Westminster MPs but local politicians and officials barely recognized in their own home territory. It's a fair bet that no colour supplements will be issued, no redacted documents circulated around the internet.

The Westminster expenses scandal provided a rich vein for satirists to mine – your humble host among them – but this fresh scandal, far more wide-reaching and worrying in its implications of a culture of entitlement – may be far harder to pin down because of its sheer extent.

Sunday 29 May 2011

The Sunday songbook - Lord Hanningfield edition

Yet another number for Expenses - the musical. It's not the best song for a parody but sometimes, as with Elliot Morley and Baroness Uddin, there is really only one possibility:

Will they take him down, are they going to, Lord Hanningfield?
Planning to steal the money,not to do without;
Lord Hanningfield’s not so clever.

Living is easy with credit cards; taxpayers fund it all, you see.
You claim allowances all round and it all works out
Travel and dinners all for free.

Will they take him down, are they going to, Lord Hanningfield?
Planning to steal the money, not to do without;
Lord Hanningfield’s not so clever.

Other peers, I think, did just like me; if sleeping in my bungalow
While claiming hotel bills is not a given right,
Surely, I think, it’s not too bad.

Will they take him down, are they going to, Lord Hanningfield?
Planning to steal the money, not to do without;
Lord Hanningfield’s not so clever.

With Essex council funding me, you know I had a clever scheme,
I netted fourteen grand but I’ve done nothing wrong,
Though the jury disagree.

Will they take him down, are they going to, Lord Hanningfield?
Planning to steal the money, not to do without;
Lord Hanningfield’s not so clever.

Saturday 28 May 2011

Gilty, yr hnr

For the past fortnight, a valiant band of men and women have been struggling to separate teenagers from their mobile phones.

GCSE and A Level rules clearly state that pupils may not take phones into the exam room on penalty of disqualification, a rule which frequently prompts vociferous complaining; teenagers are so attached to their phones that being deprived of them feels like a punishment.

Remember Jamie's Dream School? One of the main complaints was that the pupils would not stop texting long enough to listen to a lesson. And when they leave school, little changes.

Geoffrey Robinson QC told the court in London that one woman in the jury had been in regular contact with her fiance, who sat in the public gallery and hung around the court during the trial.

They sent text messages to each other, even while the juror was in the jury box, with one of the man's messages reading "guilty".

This is the trial of the Mears brothers, whose £30-a-ticket 'Lapland' Winter theme park - complete with a broken ice-rink, dodgy fairy-lights and bedraggled, muddy reindeer - led to 13-month sentences for misleading the public.

I've long had doubts about the jury system; reading the confused ramblings of a year 11 class trying to explain the plot of Macbeth doesn't do much for one's faith in their future ability to make sense of a story, let alone evaluate the guilt or innocence of the protagonists.

And since today's youngsters live in a stream-of-consciousness world where every passing thought - however trivial - is instantly communicated to whoever happens to be listening, the idea of concentrating on the matter in hand is obviously obsolete - an ominous development for the jury system.

And as for rules, should someone, perhaps, have explained to this unimaginative young woman that, while texting during double maths is likely to bring about a detention and confiscation of the phone, the consequences of breaking the rules during a criminal trial are rather more wide-reaching?

A judge at the Court of Appeal appeal in London granted them permission to appeal against their convictions after hearing about alleged juror misconduct during the trial.

So thanks to one silly woman, a huge amount of taxpayers' money will be spent on the lengthy appeals process - cui bono? In this case, definitely the lawyers, who are on to a nice little earner. Surely there's a strong case for requiring jurors to leave their mobile phones at the door.

Friday 27 May 2011

Picture Gallery

A busy day today, so I thought I'd share some of my favourite thereifixedit exhibits, chosen in honour of Christopher Lee's 89th birthday.

If Sam had his way, the trip to Mordor would have been very different.

white trash repairs - PO-TA-TOES
see more There I Fixed It

This Is Why They Had To Walk To Mordor

white trash repairs - Classic: This Is Why They Had To Walk To Mordor
see more There I Fixed It

You Shall Not Pass.
No Seriously.
I Mean It.
Stop Now.

Epic Kludge Photo - You Shall Not Pass. No Seriously. I Mean It. Stop Now.
see more There I Fixed It

Thursday 26 May 2011

Heroes of Fukushima

It's one of those stories that can restore your faith in human nature.

180 pensioners aged between 54 and 78 - many of them skilled engineers and construction workers - have volunteered to work on the clear-up at the Fukushima nuclear plant though a website set up by 72-year-old retired engineer Yasuteru Yamada.

'Our generation, who has, consciously or unconsciously, approved the construction of the Fukushima nuclear power plants and enjoyed the benefits of the vast supply of energy ... should be the first to join the Skilled Veteran Corps.'

With impeccable logic, he explains that older people should have priority working in these dangerous conditions; 'Young people with a long future should not have to be placed in a position of having to undertake such a task. Radiation exposure of the generation that will reproduce the next generation should be avoided.'

Now ask yourself what the reaction to this situation would be in Britain. I have no doubt that there are many retired engineers out there who would be equally selfless - I know some who, I am certain, would volunteer immediately - but what of the system, and the country in general?

And after all, if your doctor has carte blanche to stop you smoking/drinking/eating yourself to death, how would the NHS react to a bunch of citizens willingly entering a life-threatening situation despite their retired status?

In the aftermath of the tsunami, Pavlov's Cat commented acerbically on foreign astonishment at the lack of looting in Japan, and gave his reason:

'Because it simply doesn’t occur to them to take stuff that does not belong to them. The sense of community and personal honour will not even contemplate such a thing.'

We have become so accustomed to petty crime that it has become the default setting; anything you don't lock up is fair game to predatory thieves. Ironically for a nominally Judao-Christian culture - Thou Shalt Not Steal - respect for property has become something exotic to be wondered at.

I suspect the honourable and selfless action of these men and women will, in some quarters at least, generate similar levels of astonishment and incomprehension - the Mail dubbing the volunteers 'the Saga suicide squad' isn't going to help - but I, and I hope most right-minded people, have nothing but admiration for them.

Cashing in on the past

They were an earthy lot, our medieval ancestors. After a hard day's tilting, or hawking or oppressing the peasantry, there was nothing European nobilty liked more than a good sing-song or a story.

And one of the most popular subjects for these tales was misbehaviour among the clergy - cavorting nuns, fornicating friars and thieving priests provided hours of entertainment for the baron in his hall.

Seven hundred years later, his modern-day descendants can read in the papers a story that could have come straight from one of these medieval tales:

Pope Benedict XVI has shut down a famous monastery in Rome because of antics which included dances performed by a former lap-dancer turned nun and financial difficulties.

The “questionable behaviour and a lack of moral discipline” of the Cistercian monks in question has seen them dispersed to other monasteries throughout Italy, continuing a crackdown that began when the Pope dismissed the Abbott, formerly a flamboyant fashion designer.

In fact, the  monastery has had more than its fair shair of glittering associations - singers Gloria Estefan and Madonna have both made high-profile visits there - as well as the more dubious cachet of a thigh-flashing 'liturgical dance' performance* by stripper-turned-nun, Anna Nobili.

Vatican II ostensibly dragged the Roman Catholic Church kicking and screaming into the twentieth century, so it is bizarre to encounter in this story that staple of medieval religious satire, the Holy Relic - in fact, not one but four of the things:

two thorns purportedly taken from Christ's crown, fragments of the cross on which he was crucified, a nail used in the crucifixion and a bone from the finger of St Thomas, which the doubting apostle is said to have poked into Jesus's wounds.

Remind me again, what century are we in? The Catholic Church is in the position of someone who has inherited the bric-a-brac of past generations, some of which may be of distinctly dubious origin, but how to tell? And why bother, when the faithful - like Madonna - are happy to turn up and revere the objects in a blaze of media attention.

For every beaming Antiques Roadshow subject who discovers her tatty vase is worth half a million, I expect there are hundred who find that Great-Uncle Ralph was taken for a ride in a Shanghai bazaar. I can't see the Vatican ever taking the risk, to be honest; they'll just re-house the things and make sure the pilgrims keep on coming.

Seven hundred years and some things just don't change.

*Video at the Telegraph via link if you must; actually it's more modern ballet than Folies Bergeres - the girl has obviously trained at some point - but it's certainly not what you might call traditionally 'nun-like'.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Raising a Storm

More Life of Brian today; this time in response to the news (?) story about the parents who have chosen not to disclose the sex of their youngest child.

The couple believe they are releasing Storm from the constraints society imposes on males and females. They claim children can make meaningful decisions for themselves from a very young age.

Leaving aside the fact that they have offered this up to the media as a story, it is a laudable aim in many ways; our society is in the grip of insidious gender-stereotyping from birth that interferes at all levels with people's ability to fulfil their real potential and is positively harmful in some of its effects.

However, the very fact of this pervasive bias means that these parents are taking a very big risk. Storm's older sibling Jazz prefers to dress in pink and has long hair and this has already led to problems:

Jazz, fortunately, was out of earshot on a recent trip to a park when a family friend overheard two little girls saying they did not want to play with a 'girl-boy'. And once Mrs Witterick was forced to rush him out of a store when a saleswoman refused to sell him a pink feather boa because 'he's a boy'.

Canada is, in general, a liberal country as far as gender choices are concerned but even there, hostility is apparent - literal xenophobia, a fear of what is different. However positive the intentions of this liberal couple, they are up against something ingrained.

I once saw a manifestation of this in a neighbour's family. The three-year-old son had been taken to a toyshop to choose his birthday present and had chosen a tea-set, which his mother bought for him; the resulting reaction from his father's family would not have been out of place in a Greek tragedy.

If Storm's parents think that society is ripe for change, they would do well to look at the comments the story has elicited at the Mail - and the level of approval for those condemning not only the parents' actions but their motives and principles. Even those professing a level of support have clearly bought into the stereotyped norm:
'I have two girls. I like to dress them girly (not too girly) as I want them to grow up to be ladies.'

Storm's parents are trying to do too much too soon. Yes, there is much wrong with our society's perception of gender and it would be wrong for those who see it to be complacent or defeatist, but to court media attention is a dangerous and ultimately counter-productive tactic, reinforcing the knee-jerk prejudiced response.

Better to keep the gender-neutral parenting quiet and low-key with the aim of producing increasing numbers of sensible well-adjusted adults - parents and teachers - who can see beyond the stereotypes and change things in their turn; technology advances by leaps and bounds but social reform is a gradual process.

To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life. ~Confucius

Gender issues have surfaced at Orphans of Liberty too, where JuliaM tackles teachers' calls for simpler reading matter for boys (and I have an embarrassingly vehement rant in the comments).

Tuesday 24 May 2011

On injunctions, privilege and Britain's worst-kept secret....

Did today's news headlines make anyone else think of this?

Monday 23 May 2011

Ride 'em, Cowboy!

From next year, GPs will receive a payment for every obese patient they advise to lose weight - on top of money for keeping lists of those who weigh too much. 
 So that's a bounty per head for corralling the obese into the surgery and signing them up – there’s gold in them thar spare tyres!
Under a national payment scheme for all family doctors, they will be able to boost their income if they record giving “weight management advice” to obese patients, or offer them a free place on a diet club, which the NHS would pay for. 
What an incentive, then, for Britain’s GPs - or practice managers – to leave their desks and go out rounding up ‘clients’ for this service, scouring the town’s fast food establishments and bowling alleys in search of its larger citizens. And imagine the scene when they run up against a rival posse from the surgery up the road, hell-bent on adding to their own list. Rustling would be rife - h/t JuliaM – as they struggle to steer their errant droves into the fold.
The plans form part of a desperate bid to tackle soaring rates of obesity in Britain, with two out of three adults now classed as overweight or obese. 
Desperate sounds about right – GPs surely have enough to do without preaching the gospel of weight loss to all and sundry. And who’s to say what qualifies a patient to generate these payments? A BMI of over 30 - generally accepted as defining obesity? It's the most likely, though it's a crude measure at best, taking no account whether the weight is fat or solid muscle. If so, a doctor could theoretically claim these payments for a patient list composed entirely of top sportsmen. The England rugby team doctor must be rubbing his – or her – hands in glee; everyone else will have to go out and find their own.

Count 'em out , ride 'em in, 
Ride 'em in, count 'em out, 
Count 'em out, ride 'em in,

  I am indebted to the Moose for inspiration.

Sunday 22 May 2011

For goodness' sake - it's only meat!

'A lamb which was dumped in a wheelie bin has found a new home - with comedian Paul O'Grady. The month-old lamb, named Winston, was found in the rubbish in Manchester on April 18.

After hearing about its plight*, O'Grady, who already has a small flock of sheep, volunteered to re-home the animal.

The lamb received treatment for an ulcerated eye but was otherwise unharmed. It was bottle-fed by a fosterer around the clock before being transported to O'Grady's property in Kent last week.'

At last, a happy ending; O'Grady, readers may remember, tried unsuccessfully to step in when Marcus (or Market), a sheep reared for meat on a Kent primary school farm, was due for his appointment at the local abattoir and a parent objected, precipitating a media storm.

I think this calls for a song....

A poor little lamb's in the news today,
Baa, baa, baa,
For Paul O’Grady’s got his way,
Baa, baa, baa.
This time he’s pulled all the strings to see
The lamb will be given its liberty
Instead of ending as fricassee,
Baa, baa, baa.

*I have corrected the original Press Association press release which contained - sorry to say - a misplaced apostrophe. What are the requirements for working for a press agency these days?

Saturday 21 May 2011

The Ballad of Elliot Morley - revisited

With apologies to the Beatles

Elliot Morley
Pays off his mortgage and pockets a cool sixteen grand
All cash in hand;
‘Sloppy accounting’,
All a mistake and there’s nobody else he can blame,
Oh, what a shame!

All the crooked people,
Where do they all come from?
All the crooked people,
Where do they all belong?

Abuse of the system
Siphoning money into his investments for years
Ended in tears;
In mitigation,
Downing Street battles and strife with an enemy there,
A good friend of Blair.

All the crooked people
Where do they all come from?
All the crooked people
Where do they all belong?

Ah, look at all the crooked people,
Ah, look at all the crooked people.

Elliot Morley,
said Justice Saunders, had quite thrown away his good name,
Covered in shame.
Sixteen month sentence,
Convicted for making deliberately excessive claims;
The end of his games.

All the crooked people,
Where do they all come from?
All the crooked people,
Where do they all belong?

Friday 20 May 2011

Five Signs You Might Be an Apocaholic

It’s a surprisingly common affliction, though I didn’t have a word for it until I found it mentioned online (via Counting Cats), and has been around for a long time in guises ranging from the Book of Revelations to the myth of Atlantis.

Almost all religions have a clear end-of-the-world scenario, while atheists can enjoy comparing the rival claims of asteroid strike (though high priest Lembit Opik seems to have erred from the faith recently), solar flares, mega-quakes or, for the true cognoscenti, methane clathrate release.

It's mostly fairly distant stuff - though there's always the chance a Vogon constructor fleet might pop up out of the blue - unless, of course, you believe Harold Camping's assertions that the end of the world starts tomorrow. However, those apocalyptically inclined might like to feast their eyes on this at Nourishing Obscurity.

Of course, the true apocaholic doesn’t just recognize the possibility of these events occurring; the main symptom of the condition is a warm, happy glow derived from the prospect of complete global annihilation, preferably in a spectacular geological fashion.

It’s not the actual catastrophe that appeals, you understand – apart from anything else, there’s hardly going to be a safe place to stand and watch – but the contemplation of cosmic forces at their most literally awe-inspiring. If that's your sort of thing, you can have hours of fun at Armageddon Online (h/t Demetrius).

Were apocaholism confined to atheists, one might say it fulfilled a deep-seated need to stand in awe of something greater than ourselves – the fact that it transcends religious differences suggests it is rooted in us at a basic level. Who knows; perhaps one day they will isolate an apocalypse gene.

Meanwhile, you know you’re an apocaholic when:

  • There’s a well-thumbed copy of Bill McGuire’s ‘Global Catastrophes’ on your bedside table
  • The US Geological Survey website is on your favourites list and you have a google news alert for 'asteroid'
  • You have a food and water cache under the stairs
  • You watched Horizon’s Armageddon special last week - and, at the end, you found yourself shouting “Tell me something I don’t know!”
  • Deep down, a small part of you is secretly hoping Harold Camping might be right after all
Update: The Filthy Engineer has picked up another possibility

Meanwhile, the Urchin has come across a fantastic idea - what if all the workmates and neighbours of Camping's adherents spend tomorrow hiding, leaving the place completely deserted? 
"Hey guys, weren't we the ones supposed to be raptured?"

Thursday 19 May 2011

and still it goes on...

It's been over a month since my car 'accident' and the phone is still ringing, as company after company try to persuade me that I must have been injured - in a stationary car 'hit' by one barely moving - and should make a claim;

'After all,' they say, 'the other driver has admitted liability. The money will be sitting there waiting for you to claim it.'

Small wonder, then, that these claims are becoming a serious financial drain on the pockets of policyholders. The Association of British Insurers has described the UK as the 'whiplash capital of Europe', with around 1,200 claims for whiplash made every day.

The ABI estimates that the cost of whiplash claims adds around 20 per cent or £74 to motor insurance premiums.

And the ABI's James Dalton, speaking at the 2011 Whiplash Conference in Leeds (no, really! I picture a few disappointed delegates tiptoeing quietly out when they realise it's only going to be about car accidents), describes the condition as 'a fraudster's dream'. 

It's the old tale of the Sorcerer's Apprentice; the insurance companies allowed - and in some cases set up - claims management companies to handle genuine injuries, little realising that these companies would expand inexorably in search of more cases, real or imaginary; growth, after all, is the essence of 21st-century business.

And now they are flooded out with claims, suggesting, in the words of Mr Dalton, that Britain has some of the weakest necks in Europe. He may be right, but in a more figurative way;  as long as people lack the moral fibre and backbone to resist the siren calls of these claims companies,  the water will continue to rise.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Society prepares the crime;...

...the criminal commits it.
Henry Thomas Buckle

I came across a sad little news story recently about the theft of a gold necklace:

At about 11.30am on Saturday, the elderly woman was waiting at the bus stop in Bridge Street. A woman approached her and took hold of her hand, placing two gold rings in it and telling her they were free. The victim said she didn’t want them and the woman then placed a necklace over her head. The victim again said she didn’t want it and started to remove it. The woman then took the necklace off the victim, removing the victim’s own gold chain at the same time, before walking off.

Something about this rang a bell, so I did some digging around and tracked down a report from the Clacton Gazette in July 2010:

The woman approached the victim, who is in her 90s, and offered to sell her a necklace which she held it up against the elderly woman's neck. But when the pensioner got home she realised her gold necklace - worth about £200 - had been taken and that she was wearing the cheap necklace the woman had tried to sell her.

 A Google later and I had a surprising number of these thefts; for example, the Echo this week reports that there have been five cases in Southampton so far this year:

In the latest case on Wednesday May 4, just before 1.30pm, a woman was targeted on Portswood Broadway. When she said she did not want the necklaces around her neck, the women took her gold necklace worth around £1,400* and left her with a cheap one.

In fact, a brief trawl turns up a similar case in Kent in November, six cases in Ipswich and Lowestoft in December and others in Nuneaton (January), Bromsgrove and  Redditch (February) Camberley (March), Farnborough (April) and Sheffield (May) – and that’s only the ones reported online picked up by searching ‘theft +necklace’.

Perhaps the MSM haven't reported it because it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi of sensation - no violence, no trauma; just elderly women losing a bit of jewellery - but surely there must come a point when the sheer number of such crimes make them a news story? It’s all very strange – the local papers carry warnings to be vigilant but never mention that they are reporting more than a single isolated incident or localised cluster.

The modus operandi is virtually identical in each case. In only five of the 20 cases was the thief alone; all the other crimes were committed by pairs of women – on several occasions, it seems, the same pair - approaching a lone, often elderly victim at a bus stop in broad daylight and carrying out the same distraction routine.

Now it occurs to me that our town centres these days are positively heaving with CSOs, especially on Saturdays, so why has no-one picked any of them up?

Two reasons spring instantly to mind; the first is that Police forces do not seem to pool information on such trivial matters – except where thefts took place in the same police area, they have been reported as if without precedent. Thus a Kent sergeant could say 'This is quite a unique distraction technique’ when Lowestoft, Clacton and Ipswich already had cases on their books.

And secondly, there’s the small matter of the descriptions; the women are, without exception, of 'Asian' or 'middle eastern' appearance’ or ‘darkly tanned’ and most mention headscarves. But how does a CSO go about the surveillance of pairs of women ‘of Asian appearance’, however closely they match the descriptions?

Or more to the point, in today's Britain, who is going to take the risk of issuing that order?

*This has caused much speculation in the comments – who wears a £1,400 necklace to go shopping in Southampton?

Monday 16 May 2011

Bruce Dickinson, you tart!

Bruce Dickinson surely qualifies for the status of Rock God: expert fencer, qualified airline pilot and lead singer of Iron Maiden - the band that has been combining heavy metal with the A-level Humanities syllabus for the past 36 years.

As if that were not enough, he also made what my 14-year-old self would have called the best TV programme ever - 'Bruce Dickinson Investigates Spontaneous Human Combustion'.

Dickinson has been in the news a lot recently - yesterday's Sunday Times carried a behind-the-scenes magazine article following the band on a recent tour and a piece in the main newspaper on one of the other strings to his bow.

He has been backing a British aeronautical firm who have just secured a contract to supply airships for the aerial surveillance of Taliban activity in Afghanistan - something he describes as a prelude to energy-efficient mass air transportation.

Oh, and a plane from the airline that employs him - with Bruce at the helm - is to be leased for commercial flights to Iceland and Denmark this Summer*, according to several recent reports including one in NME.

I have no doubt that all this is newsworthy stuff but why now? The answer is in a link in the NME article, and it's a depressing one. It seems Bruce, like almost any other celebrity suddenly thrust into the limelight, has something to sell - a 'Greatest Hits' compilation - their fourth - out next week.

I have to admit I'm puzzled; after all, it's not the sort of thing Auntie Margaret's going to pick up on a whim. The market for it will consist almost entirely of existing Iron Maiden fans who would surely spot the thing as soon as it came out anyway.

But these days the Juggernaut has gone well beyond reason. Any celebrity with something to sell is trotted through the hoops of chat show, magazine interview and the inevitable incongruous TV appearance - given the timing, my money's on Dickinson appearing on the BBC's coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show.

It's all part of the Faustian pact that is PR - agencies will do anything to get their clients in the public eye and these days, for the cynical at least, the question that springs to mind whenever a celebrity appears is "What have they got to sell?"

*Mind you, given the Scandinavian passion for heavy metal, I doubt he'll be announcing the fact - unless they are prepared for the cockpit to be besieged by hordes of fans demanding to sit on the captain's knee.

Saturday 14 May 2011

Dangling a worm

Oh, the Gazette is a tease! Along with the usual celebrity-opens-a-supermarket stuff this week appeared the following headline:
A FRYING pan fight in Colchester High Street led to several people being arrested.
Do tell! Surely this story couldn't be anything but fascinating...
Surprised shoppers witnessed items being stolen from Robert Dyas Holdings Ltd, a home appliance store, before the items were turned into weapons this afternoon.
The story has a sort of 'let's put the show on right here in the barn' quality - there you are in Colchester High Street when you suddenly need an offensive weapon. Thank goodness for the local hardware shop!

But then the Gazette comes over all coy - that's your lot; if you want to know more, it says, you'll have to buy the paper copy. Now that's fine if you happen to be in Essex at the time but not so easy if you are far away. And not having been picked up by the forces of 'churnalism', the full story has not yet made it onto the internet.

This one was more than a little intriguing - who were these people?* And what were they doing fighting in the street in broad daylight? For those of a curious disposition, there is a little more enlightenment in the comments, from the facetious - 'Police are grilling the subjects' - to the unintentionally amusing:
To be more correct, it was a Wok, A frying pan, A glass dish and a gardening fork [...] . Lovely journalists ;) Get better facts.
However, there's a darker side to this too; according to the same comment - the fight was 'about 20 people against 4', which starts to sound sinister, given the use of weapons (of a sort). Another comment makes a similar point:
My two sons unfortunately witnessed this first hand yesterday afternoon. Although there appear to be a number of jokes posted, it wasn't really very funny for those people who were running trying to get away from them as it wasn't just pans, but knives also.
Amusing as the domestic implements aspect might be, the reality of around two dozen people, some armed with heavy objects, fighting in a busy shopping street is a disturbing one - and not something I want to see next time I'm in Colchester.

I'm not really sure what the Gazette was trying to achieve here; the teaser it put out, presumably in a bid to sell its paper version this week, left casual readers thinking it was a light-hearted piece while the actual story - at least to those who regularly shop in the town - is far more unsettling.

It raises some interesting questions about editorial judgement and journalistic standards. I'll leave the last word to SteveH in a comment from a post by Anna Raccoon on something the local press had entirely failed to notice:
Have you read local papers these days? Those were cut to the bone years ago, if they survived that is, and if our local one is anything to go by, they are now staffed by teenage work experience. The only investigative journalism I expect our local rag to perform would be the cheapest place to buy fags…

*Even though the police made arrests this time, the information may not be forthcoming.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Taking a stand in a skirt

Three cheers for  the 12-year-old boy who went to school in a skirt yesterday as a protest against boys having to wear long trousers in hot weather. He sounds like a young man who will go far.

Chris Whitehead wore a girls’ knee-length skirt to classes at Impington Village College and marched to school through the village as supportive fellow pupils waved banners.

The protest has prompted the Head to review the situation, though, interestingly, his objections to shorts seem to be mainly aesthetic: : “Personally I’m not sure shorts are appropriate. For instance what do you wear with them to look smart? Socks and sandals?"

Perhaps he should have a look at the uniforms in hotter countries - though preferably not on a fact-finding mission at public expense - or even visit the nearest primary school playground (on second thoughts, maybe that's not such good advice these days...).

I suspect the biggest thorn in his flesh is the anti-discrimination policy; Chris was at liberty to wear his sister's skirt to school because the uniform does not distinguish between girls and boys, simply stating that pupils should wear black trousers or a black skirt.

Thus the inclusion of shorts, though allowing the sensible tailored male variety, would inevitably open the door to the sort of endless battles over hot-pants that no head wants to have to deal with.

Even so, I recommend that the Head of Impington College graps the nettle firmly. It may be that adult office workers wear suits all summer, but few schools have the dubious benefit of air conditioning, and precious few office workers want to spend every break playing football.

The modern form of school uniform has its roots in the sports clothing of the Edwardian era - that's why it's called a gym slip - and represented a looser, more comfortable style that the formal clothes children then wore. There's no reason today's school-children should not be offered the same freedom to dress in clothing suitable for an active lifestyle appropriate to the seasonal conditions.

So good luck to Chris Whitehead in his campaign and I hope he is allowed to spend next summer in shorts.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

From the bottle to the ASBO

There's good news for lawyers defending juvenile delinquents today; a study has concluded that breast-fed babies go on to develop fewer behavioural problems than their bottle-fed counterparts.

Only 6% of children who were breastfed showed signs of behaviour problems, compared with 16% of children who were formula-fed.

Ah, you may say, but what about other factors? It is, after all, well established that the mother's age, education and - whisper it softly - social class all play a part in the decision to breast-feed. The scientists,  it seems, have already thought of that:

But even after the researchers, from the Universities of Oxford, Essex, York and University College London, adjusted their figures to take that into account, they still found there was a 30% greater risk of behavioural problems among formula-fed children.

Now I can't imagine that levelling such a playing fields is an exact science but they seem happy with their conclusion, though it presents some difficulty to those trying to report it without seeming to condemn mothers who bottle-feed - a dilemma summed up by the Royal College of Midwives:

"We must not send a negative message to mothers that they have failed, or make then feel guilty because they bottle-fed their babies."

Good luck with that one! I expect Mumsnet is buzzing with self-justification and righteous indignation, though I have no intention of trying to find out. Meanwhile I suggest there should be some sort of prize for the first defence barrister to stand up in court and plead the extenuating circumstances of his client being bottle-fed from birth.

Monday 9 May 2011

Statistical idiocy in the NHS

All cats have whiskers.
This animal has whiskers.
ergo This animal is a cat.

A classic false syllogism? Obviously untrue? Flawed logic? Well not, it seems, for some health professionals in Britain, if the experience of some of my friends and family is anything to go by.

And it can only get worse, to judge from this report concerning breast cancer:

A new report says that as many as 20,000 British women could avoid developing the potentially fatal disease each year, if they took more exercise, drank less and ate better.

So far I have no problem with this per se; I am prepared to agree that they have established links between breast cancer and obesity or lack of exercise and that somewhere between 0 and 20,000 women could avoid developing the disease by a change of lifestyle.

However, that’s not the end of the story: according to the Deputy Head of Science at the World Cancer Research Fund,

“It is very worrying that in the UK there are still tens of thousands of cases of breast cancer which could be prevented every year. Breast cancer can be prevented by cutting down on drinking, being more physically active and carrying less body fat.”

What she means is that breast cancer in cases where it is related to lifestyle can be prevented by a change of habits and losing weight – that is, by the WCRF’s own estimation, about 42% of cases overall.

The other 58% of cases may be linked to environmental or genetic factors or other causes not yet established. Information like this, however, proves a logical step too far for many NHS staff, for whom the mantra runs thus:

Cancer is caused by unhealthy lifestyles.
You have cancer.
ergo You have an unhealthy lifestyle.

In the past few years, several of my friends and family have been diagnosed with so-called ‘lifestyle cancers’, and, to a man (and woman) subjected to lengthy instruction by medical staff about their supposedly unhealthy habits despite a clear family history of the disease in each case.

Thus a friend who walks several miles every day was advised to take more exercise; a non-drinker was repeatedly told to cut down on his alcohol consumption and, most bizarrely of all, a woman who has the healthiest diet I know of was constantly lectured on cutting down on fat and sugar and avoiding junk food – she weighs less than eight stone.

And each of these reported, with varying degrees of fury, a clear and consistent implication by hospital staff that they must have brought the cancer on themselves by their own failure to lead a healthy lifestyle. Their remonstrations were brushed aside - the cancer was proof enough.

It is no secret that doctors receive a ridiculously small amount of training in the interpretation of statistics, given the relevance of probabilities and incidence – I have mentioned before the GP who excused his diagnostic failure with the words, ‘97% of people with this cancer are obese; you aren’t even overweight, so there was only a 3% chance of you having it.’

That being so, how likely is it that the lower echelons of the medical hierarchy can correctly interpret statistical information, given the standard of maths in today's schools? It is a matter of record that numeracy skills are at a frighteningly low level across the population, and I doubt that hospital staff are any exception.

Tell them that cancer is linked to poor diet and lack of exercise and, unless it is clearly explained, some, at least, are going to go on with complete self-assurance to tell cancer patients that it is all their own fault.

Friday 6 May 2011

GCSE Tattooing, anyone?

It's been a while since we had a tattoo story here, and in any case, this one raised some interesting issues.

A Virginia mother is outraged after learning her daughter received a tattoo from another student during class at Virginia's Hampton High School.

16-year-old Timisha Deloatch told her mother that she and two other pupils had received tattoos in art class while the teacher watched:

"She closed the door so no administrators would walk past and see, and at one point she took a picture and sent it to her friend."

In fact any parent would be disturbed by the circumstances, particularly since the conditions could hardly have been called sterile.

"He had a packet of sewing needles and a mechanical pencil. He dipped the point in the ink that he had for everybody."

Not a particularly professional job, then - and Timisha, it turns out, was in a position to know: her mother, Lovella Deloatch (Lovella?), had already allowed her to get two tattoos.

Deloatch let Timisha get her grandmother's initials professionally tattooed on her arm and the words "beautiful nightmare" on her lower back.

Just take a moment to consider that one...

Meawhile, the mother seems to have an interestingly hypocritical attitude to the business of tattooing her 16-year-old daughter.

"She might have made a bad judgment call for herself, but she's 16. The adult was supposed to have stepped in and said no," Lovella said.

Of course she's right; if Timisha is to be believed, the teacher has behaved unprofessionally in the extreme. However, the story certainly furnishes food for thought; after all, tattooing is pretty much the only major growth industry in the UK at the moment.

In the town where I live there are now three tattoo parlours and another is proposed. Since a new tattoo practically guarantees column inches, celebrities are rushing to have them done and the public follow suit, generating ever more work for the artists.

Perhaps it's time the school curriculum was broadened to take this into account; it could add a whole new dimension to GCSE art coursework, for example, and would surely increase the chance of school leavers getting a job. They could even do the basic hygiene training in biology class.

There's only one downside to this, as far as I can see, given the current state of educational achievement; the main requirement for the job is always going to be artistic talent but it does help if a tattoo artist has a firm grasp of spelling and punctuation...

Some Sin
see more Ugliest Tattoos

Thursday 5 May 2011

Statins for all and a death sentence

Professor Sir Nicholas Wald said prescribing cholesterol-busting statins and blood pressure pills based on age alone would be much easier and quicker than the current system.

However, concerns about the side-effects of the drugs mean that the proposal would be controversial. [...]Addressing the concerns, Sir Nicholas said the benefits would easily outweigh the risks.

Once upon a time, there was a fit and healthy man in his early seventies. At his GP's request, he visited the surgery for a check-up, where he was poked and prodded in the customary manner before being told that his BMI and cholesterol levels were 'rising' - not 'high' or 'elevated'; just slightly above the previous reading.

The GP prescribed statins - this was at the beginning of the statins-for-all campaign as media doctors got on the bandwaggon - and the man, being a cooperative sort, obediently took them.

This man had a healthy lifestyle - didn't smoke or drink, ate well and took plenty of outdoor exercise - and was seldom ill, so when he started to feel unwell soon afterwards he went back to the doctor.

'Side-effects, that's all', said the doctor, and changed the brand of pills. Things were no better, so the man went back again and asked the GP to investigate. 'No need', said the GP, 'It's just side-effects of the statins' and the pills were changed once more.

The symptoms multiplied and still the doctor refused to carry out further tests - 'It's just a case of finding out the correct dose'. For over a year, things went from bad to worse until, in desperation, the man sought a second opinion.

The second opinion was unequivocal - aggressive cancer, now so far advanced that there was nothing left but palliative care; with supreme irony, detailed scans showed that the patient's cardio-vascular system was in excellent condition. The statins, now replaced by increasing doses of morphine, had been completely unnecessary.

This cannot be an isolated case, yet I have seen nothing in the concern expressed about side-effects mentioning that they may mask the symptoms of cancer and other serious conditions. I suppose that is one of the risks that is 'easily outweighed' by the benefits of statins for all.

That's the trouble with the way Sir Nicholas and his kind think of patients; as figures on a chart - one unnecessary death from cancer set against the prevention of several heart attacks constitutes an acceptable risk.

Mathematically that may be true, but I wonder if he - and his family - would still think so were he the one?

Wednesday 4 May 2011

For goodness' sake!

You know that white crystalline stuff they keep under the counter? The substance you have to ask for specially, so lethal are its effects?

For years now we've been bombarded with messages proclaiming that salt consumption causes high blood pressure, strokes and heart disease and seen it subject to increasingly draconian restrictions aimed at meeting the future target of no more than 6g per adult per day.

Well, the Belgians may just have blown the whole thing wide open:

An eight-year study by scientists in Belgium found that people who ate lots of salt were no more likely to suffer problems with heart disease or high blood pressure than people who ate less salt.

A turn up for the books, n'est-ce pas? The experiment used data from 3,700 subjects divided into three groups according to their salt consumption and researchers found no diference in the rate of heart and blood vessel diseases. However, there's more:

Participants with the lowest salt intake had the highest rate of death from heart disease during the follow up (4 per cent), and people who ate the most salt had the lowest (less than one per cent).

So, if they are right, not only have thousands of health-conscious people have been eating tasteless food for years for no reason whatsoever (apart from a smug, self-satisfied glow, that is, and a feeling of moral superiority); they may even have been exposing themselves to the very thing they were trying to avoid.

Today I'm having my chips as usual with salt - and an extra helping of Schadenfreude.

Tuesday 3 May 2011

And there goes another one!

What are the chances of that? Just as I was putting the finishing touches to last night's post, the Maritime and Coastguard agency were putting out another press release.

Yet again, three men in an blow-up apology for a boat had been rescued by the RNLI from being swept out to sea. So why is it always three?

There must be some question of critical mass. Two men alone would probably not do anything quite so conspicuously silly as climb into a child's inflatable toy and head out to sea, and four would be too many and too much trouble.

With three, there is also the question of the casting vote - even if one of them thinks it's not such a good idea, there are two left to overrule him.

And so Wynken, Blynken and Nod embark with their carrier bag of booze and their unsuitable clothing and, a few hours later, the lifeboat gets called out yet again.

Monday 2 May 2011

They went to sea in a sieve, they did...

Funny how these things seem to happen in threes; first there were the three intrepid paddling-pool sailors in the Manchester Ship canal, then the three Darwin Award hopefuls who bobbed about in the English Channel all last Saturday night in a toy dinghy with a single paddle.

'Equipped only with a bottle of wine and wearing shorts and T-shirts, the foolhardy men launched their seven foot inflatable craft from the beach at Littlehampton, West Sussex, at 9pm on Saturday.'

'Craft' is perhaps not the word for the sort of flimsy inflatable boat sold in seaside discount shops, at least in terms of one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Luckily for them, it stayed afloat until they were picked up by the long-suffering RNLI at 8am, two miles off the English coast at Worthing.

And last, but by no means least, Tynemouth’s lifeboat was called out today to retrieve three men in a dinghy being swept out into the North Sea.

'Crewmember Jill McCormick said the men, who had gone out to have a drink, found they were unable to row back because of the strength of the tide.'

 So what unites these dopey trinities, apart from a predilection for unsuitable inflatable vessels? The answer, predictably enough, is the hazardous combination of alcohol and a bank holiday weekend.

So what to do? Much ink (so to speak) has been spilled over the cost of this sort of call-out and the fact that recovering it would entail expensive and time-consuming administration. Under the circumstances, it seems very restrained that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency press release simply says:

'We urge the public to exercise caution and remember alcohol impairs your judgment.'

 In fact, they are almost as restrained as the lifeboatmen off Newlyn who went to the aid of a stricken fishing boat, only to find that one of the crew was facing charges for swiping a RNLI collecting tin in a burglary a few months before.

And did they ‘accidentally’ drop him overboard? Or leave the thieving scum to swim? No, despite the overwhelming temptations offered by the occasion, they rescued him just as if he was a civilized human being. Not only do these people risk their lives at the drop of a hat, they somehow manage to stay patient even when rescuing the terminally incompetent on a regular basis.

Members of the RNLI, I salute you!

Sunday 1 May 2011

Omertà - Essex style

A policeman's lot is not a happy one over Bank Holday weekends - even in the isolated Essex resort of Walton-on-the-Naze.

Police were called to a large group of men fighting in Walton on Good Friday. Officers went to Mill Lane at 6pm and found a 23-year-old man with a head injury.

No sign, then, of the 'large group', who had presumably scarpered long before the Old Bill hove in to view - the road to Walton being long, tortuous and incredibly slow. Still, they got there in time to take a statement...

The man, who claimed he tripped and injured himself, was taken to Colchester General Hospital.

Ah, that well known case of the pavement rising up and hitting someone in the face. But surely someone else had something to say about it? What about the person who made the original call?

No complaints of an offence have been reported to the police.

Hmm. Though some way removed, could it, by any chance be related to this story? Or this one? Me, I'm not saying anything.