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 29 September 2011

Eight minutes of heaven

No time to post today; instead, should you have eight minutes to spare, sit down, relax and enjoy the view...

( For film enthusiasts, this has the added bonus of being forever associated with John Boorman's ground-breaking Zardoz.)

For full-screen, you may need to view it at source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZ8tmkDLkLs&feature=related

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Toast of the week

This week, we in the Tavern are raising a tankard to not one but two latter-day worthies.

First there is former pathologist Professor Green, whose cynical view of his fellow-man takes some beating;

"I think if the heavens were striking in cases of spontaneous combustion then there would be a lot more cases."

There would, presumably, also be rather more people in church of a Sunday - for all but the most altruistic, there is a certain satisfaction in the prospect of divine retribution waiting to strike down those who trespass against us.

Increased church attendance would definitely please our second hero, Alderman Alan Graham from Bangor, Co. Down;

A farmer who allowed one of the world's best-selling pop stars to film in his grain field told her to cover up after she stripped down for a video.

In our celebrity-obsessed age, there is something wonderfully refreshing about a man who not merely professes ignorance of a major pop star but has no qualms about ignoring her attendant media circus and asking her to behave properly when on his land.

"I thought it was inappropriate. I requested them to stop and they did," he explained. "I wish no ill will against Rihanna and her friends. Perhaps they could acquaint themselves with a greater God."

While I don't share Alderman Graham's religious beliefs, I salute his refusal to compromise his principles in the face of a celebrity, her entourage and an audience of onlookers.

Alderman Graham and Professor Green, your health!

Monday 26 September 2011

Protest or provocation?

The deed is done; the youngest scion of Clan Macheath has been cast forth to seek his fortune in the world - or at least in a northern university town.

The last affectionate goodbyes said ("Will you two just stop fussing and go!"), we set off yesterday with heavy hearts and lightened suspension in the newly-emptied family pantechnicon, hoping to be home in time for a late lunch.

No such luck, however; we had scarcely got up to cruising speed on the motorway when a car in the next lane suddenly lurched sideways. It was only after taking rapid evasive action that we had leisure to see what had distracted the driver - a column of motorcyclists several hundred-strong pouring out of a service station onto the opposite carriageway.

For the next hour or so, we had to contend not only with delays caused by similar processions of bikers on our own carriageway but also the erratic driving of motorists ahead of us watching the oncoming convoys or swerving to avoid slow-moving bikes.

The radio traffic news mentioned in passing a 'biker protest' but gave no details; it was only after getting home that we were able to piece together the fact that this was part of a nationwide go-slow, with thousands of motorcylists travelling at 45mph on sections of Britain's motorways in protest at EU legislation.

If this was meant to hit the national press, it has drastically failed; although there are some news reports out there, almost all - deliberately or otherwise - focus on one particular region, mentioning in passing that there were other groups out too. For those travelling through several of these regions in succession, however, the disruption was significant.

While I respect anyone's right to stage a protest against legislation they feel to be unjust - I've even done a bit of it myself in the past* - I have to admit to being a bit baffled by this one, which seems to have achieved nothing but considerable inconvenience - and possibly risk - to a large number of increasingly tired, stressed and hungry motorists, most of whom had no idea what the protest was about.

Even when I do not agree with what you say, I will stand by your right to say it - but really, there are limits!

*See 'Confessions of a former Labour acolyte'

Friday 23 September 2011

Fire from Heaven in the Emerald Isle

(No, it's not UARS this time; if that's what you're after, you want the post before this one.)

Here at the Tavern, we are always interested in manifestations of the mysterious and unexplained; today's news has furnished a prime example in the verdict handed down by a coroner in Ireland.

A man who burned to death in his home died as a result of spontaneous combustion, an Irish coroner has ruled.

"This fire was thoroughly investigated and I'm left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation," he said.

Anyone who read 'Fire From Heaven' - the definitive popular book on the subject - as a teenager will instantly recognize the classic signs; an elderly victim, a nearby heat source and the surroundings relatively untouched despite the high temperatures that consumed the body.

Spontaneous human combustion has long been acknowledged as a phenomenon - no need to mention here Dickens' use of it as a plot device (or, for that matter, its appearance in 'This is Spinal Tap') - though this is thought to be the first case of its sort in Ireland.

I refer anyone seeking further information to what may be the most awesome TV documentary ever - 'Bruce Dickinson Investigates Spontaneous Human Combustion'.

Meanwhile, a dissenting voice has appeared in the form of retired professor of pathology Mike Green, who claims that there must have been an ignition source of which the fire subsequently eliminated all trace; something he claims accounts for all cases of SHC.

The pragmatic professor does not agree that combustion could have started spontaneously; not surprisingly, he also dismisses the historical explanation of divine intervention, demonstrating an opinion of his fellow man that I suspect is shared by many of you, my dear readers:

"I think if the heavens were striking in cases of spontaneous combustion then there would be a lot more cases."

Thursday 22 September 2011

The sky is falling!

According to the latest update on the UARS - the satellite dropping out of its rapidly decaying orbit - it is expected to land sometime 'during the afternoon of September 23rd, Eastern Daylight Time'.

A bit of arithmetic places that as sometime on Friday evening for those of us in the UK. Although the exact target area cannot yet be determined, the update is certain that the satellite 'will not be passing over North America during that time period'.

One imagines the good folks of the U-S-of-A breathing a sigh of relief - as any Limey who has spent time there can tell you, there's A-murr-ica and then there's the rest of the world, which doesn't really count (except for a few Canadians, who play hockey and almost talk like real people).

We're not in the clear yet, though. It's a sobering thought that, should 1,200-odd pounds of metal start raining down on some of  Britain's city centres during the usual Friday night Bacchanalia, quite apart from potential casualties, we'll never hear the end of it from the religious fundamentalists.

NASA have calculated the chance of a person being struck by any of it - something that has never happened to date - as 1 in 3,200; worrying, perhaps, for anyone who has ever bought a National Lottery ticket expecting to win. However, according to the Daily Mail (who else!), 'the odds of any one particular person being hit are much lower, around one in 21 trillion'.

So I suppose that means I'm all right, Jack; all the same, it will be interesting to see whether there is any ongoing news coverage tomorrow night, particularly in the likely impact zone.

Health & Safety update: according to latest reports, 'NASA has warned people not to touch the debris if they come across it because it is likely to have sharp edges'.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Seismometers and crystal balls

Up until now, I've always thought that seismologists had an enviable job; plenty of fascinating rock formations and strata, lots of foreign travel and the offchance that some day you might make a discovery of real benefit to mankind.

The study has none of the pyrotechnics of vulcanology, of course, but there's less chance of ending up fried or kippered or even lightly singed in the course of your work. You may, however, face an unexpected hazard;

This week, six seismologists go on trial for the manslaughter of 309 people, who died as a result of the 2009 earthquake in l'Aquila, Italy.

One upon a time, earthquakes were regarded as the work of gods or demons - or the slumbering dragons of Norse and far eastern mythology. As we came to understand the processes involved in tectonic plate movement, the reasons for earthquake hotspots became clear.

Recent advances in technology and data gathering have led to the theory of 'eathquake swarms' along fault lines and the prospect of predicting where the next one is likely to strike, although exact prediction is still the stuff of science fiction.

Not, however, according to the Italian lawyers: The prosecution holds that the scientists should have advised the population of l'Aquila of the impending earthquake risk.

The seismologists are being held responsible for the fact that, following their reassurances that minor tremors did not necessarily mean a major one was imminent, the local population did not immediately realise the danger they were in when the 6.3 earthquake struck.

Current research incorporates the wildly diverse areas of animal behaviour, radon gas release, groundwater levels and electrical field activity, to name but a few, and still no means of accurate prediction has been found; issuing alerts would mean many false alarms for every valid warning.

Given the number of earthquakes that happen every day around the globe, with consequences that vary wildly depending on a number of currently unpredictable factors, it seems unduly harsh not merely to reproach scientists with failing to understand fully the many complex processes involved but to sue them for their inability to predict the future.

Of course, there is always the possibility that this is all a legal convention* - maybe someone must be charged with the blame if the processes of insurance payouts are to be observed, but it seems to me that, if anyone should be standing in the dock over this, it is surely God, Poseidon or a restless dragon.

*Or maybe not. According to the recently updated BBC report, this is both a criminal and a civil case:
The defendants face up to 15 years in jail. Lawyers for civil plaintiffs - who include the local council - are seeking damages of 50m euros (£45m).

Monday 19 September 2011

Full English Breakfast: Prevention or cure?

Some definitions today, courtesy of Wikipedia: first of all, 'bacon':

Bacon is a cured meat prepared from a pig.

Right, that's got that one cleared up; now, in case you were wondering,

Curing refers to various food preservation and flavoring processes, especially of meat or fish, by the addition of a combination of salt, nitrates, nitrite or sugar.

That being so, precisely how are manufacturers supposed to reduce by a quarter the amount of salt contained in bacon?

The salt isn't there for decoration, or as part of an evil plan to assassinate the pork-eating sector of the population (although I can think of some extremists who might appreciate such a purpose) but as a preservative.

Take out the salt, and bacon surely becomes something closer to short-coded, vacuum-packed pork. As Wikipedia explains,

Table salt (sodium chloride) is the primary ingredient used in meat curing. Removal of water and addition of salt to meat creates a solute-rich environment where osmotic pressure draws water out of microorganisms, retarding their growth. Doing this requires a concentration of salt of nearly 20%.

In addition, salt causes the soluble meat proteins to come to the surface of the meat particles within sausages. These proteins coagulate when the sausage is heated, helping to hold the sausage together. Finally, salt slows the oxidation process, effectively preventing the meat from going rancid.

Sounds pretty conclusive to me, but that hasn't stopped 62 retailers, including major chains, signing up to the Government's targets of 1.13g of salt per 100g for sausages and 2.88g for bacon.

Once upon a time, the Full English Breakfast (can we still call it that?) was under fire for the artery-clogging cholesterol it inflicted on the unsuspecting consumer; these days the focus has shifted to the salt content. Whatever the reason, it's been a sustained attack reminiscent of the Puritans' 17th-century assault on maypoles, festivals and dancing.

As it happens, I don't eat meat - my idea of a good breakfast is a bowl of muesli or a croissant - but that doesn't stop me being angry at the way the Government is interfering with the contents of its citizens' breakfast plates .

I may not partake of your breakfast, but I will defend to the hilt your right to eat it.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Down and down and down it goes....

... and where it lands, nobody knows!

Remember UARS? The Nasa Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite is now on its way back to Earth at a speedy 5 miles per second.

According to NASA's latest update, 'Re-entry is expected Sept. 23, plus or minus a day. The re-entry of UARS is advancing because of a sharp increase in solar activity since the beginning of this week'.

The BBC have reported this with the splendidly vague headline 'Nasa satellite UARS nearing Earth 'could land anywhere''.

Scientists have identified 26 separate pieces that could survive the fall through the earth's atmosphere, and debris could rain across an area 400-500km (250-310 miles) wide.

Where this area might be won't become clear until about two hours before it enters the atmosphere, around the 23rd. So far, all they can predict is that the impact will be somewhere between 57 degrees North and 57 degrees South - which doesn't exactly narrow it down.

Normally this kind of thing would have me glued to the computer* but it so happens that I shall be spending most of the 23rd and 24th ferrying offspring plus an assortment of wordly goods to other parts of the country; how frustrating is that?

NASA have calculated that the chances of a chunk of it actually hitting someone are 1 in 3,200, although, as they optimistically point out, no one has to date been injured by an object dropping from space. What I'd like is something a bit more practical; for example, if you see it coming, should you:
a) run like hell?
b) crouch down and cover your head with your arms?
c) call Max Clifford? After all, you're going to have a story to sell whatever happens.

Doubtless this kind of advice won't appear for fear of setting off mass panic; it's probably best not to worry and to think that, should you be unlucky enough to be on the receiving end, at least your place in history will be assured.

*Not that I'm hoping it hurts anyone, you understand - although in an idle moment or two, I have been compiling a little list of those who, should they happen to be underneath, 'they'd none of them be missed' .

Kaspar Hauser - Mysteries ancient and modern

Readers with a fondness for the mysterious and unexplained will doubtless be familiar with the case of the 19th Century enigma, Kaspar Hauser.

On 26 May 1828, an unkempt teenage boy appeared in the streets of Nuremberg, Germany. He seemed unable to express himself clearly but constantly repeated the sentence, "I want to be a soldier like my father was" and the word, "Horse".

Given pen and paper, he wrote the name 'Kaspar Hauser', but otherwise he appeared unwilling or unable to communicate. It was assumed at first that he had been living wild in the surrounding forests but, as he adapted to his surroundings, he told a story of being reared from infancy in a cramped cellar by an unseen jailer who suddenly released him into the Bavarian countryside, first giving him the letter and teaching him his one sentence.

The boy's story captured the imagination of 19th Century Europe, prompting increasingly far-fetched speculation about aristocratic or even royal connections. In the sci-fi mad 1950s, the story was resurrected with the theory that the boy might have travelled from another time or a parallel reality, or even another planet.

There is, of course, no such fanciful speculation about the 17-year-old found in Berlin last week, although his case does present several interesting puzzles.

The 17-year-old, who turned up at Berlin’s city hall, said he had been walking for two weeks but had no idea who he was or where he was from.

He told officers that he and his father moved to the forest about five years ago following the death of his mother and had lived off the land since, sleeping in a tent and remote huts.

He said his father had also died recently and that he had buried him in a shallow grave before setting off to find help.

Detectives said the teenager, who gave his name as Ray, spoke a little German, but his first language appeared to be English.

Hence, of course, the story's appearance in the British press. Unfortunately for those trying to help, the boy does not appear to know his parents' surnames and has no recollection of his life before entering the forest. The only possible clue to his identitiy is his fluent English; his German is described as 'basic'.

Since the boy's appearance on September 5th, nothing has been found to suggest an identity; the search is now being widened in the hope that someone outside Germany can provide a clue. With modern technology on his side, the authorities can be optimistic that this case, at least, may well be solved.

Kaspar Hauser was not so lucky. Amid speculation that he himself may have been responsible for concocting some of the many unexplained events that surrounded him, he died of a stab wound inflicted by 'a stranger' - or possibly himself - in 1833.

Hauser was buried in a country graveyard; his headstone reads, in Latin,
"Here lies Kaspar Hauser, riddle of his time. His birth was unknown, his death mysterious."

Friday 16 September 2011

Don't spare the rod....

A surprise, perhaps, this morning for our liberal times :

Nearly half of parents of secondary school children say corporal punishment such as the cane or slipper should be reintroduced, a survey suggests. Nearly all surveyed thought teachers should be able to be tougher on pupils.

Support for tougher discipline will, of course, be music to the ears of many teachers, not - in case you were wondering - because they have a repressed sadistic desire to beat their charges but because the matter does need to be addressed; it is clear that the existing deterrents simply do not work.

As a recent court case shows, a pupil with a long history of disruptive, abusive and aggressive behaviour is given repeated 'second chances' and is still able to destroy the career of a well-respected teacher with false allegations and walk away scot-free.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said: "The right every child deserves to be taught properly is currently undermined by the twisting of rights by a minority who need to be taught an unambiguous lesson in who is boss."

Well said! False allegations of assault are a powerful weapon in the armoury of pupils caught out in seriously bad behaviour; the Head is obliged by regulations to take them at face value - however ridiculous - and act on them. If investigation proves the teacher innocent, no action is taken against the pupil and - significantly - the original misdemeanour also goes unpunished, obscured by subsequent events.

Support remained high for most traditional punishments, including sending children out of class (89%), after-school detentions (88%), lunch time detentions (87%), expelling or suspending children (84%), and making them write lines (77%).

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted something odd here. If these figures provide anything like an accurate representation, then some 10-15% of parents do not support the use of sending a pupil out of the rooom, detention or suspension as punishments.

So what do these parents advocate? How do they suggest a teacher deals with an unruly, disruptive or downright aggressive pupil? And what sort of parents are they? There's an easy answer to that one - the parents who object to discipline are precisely those whose children are most likely to need it, the ones who march in and confront the teacher at the slightest excuse.

Whether it's the Yummy Mummy who rolls up in her SUV to complain about a telling-off - 'Jacintha never joins a queue; the other children should have let her go first!' - or the thug who punches his son's female teacher in the face for giving the boy a detention (true story - I took over the class afterwards), a minority of parents condone their child's misbehaviour and undermine every attempt to curb it.

What is needed - Michael Gove, please note - is not just full support for teachers in enforcing high standards of work and behaviour but protection against the 10% of parents who are no more capable than their immature offspring of understanding the need for everyone to cooperate if the best possible results are to be achieved.

Thursday 15 September 2011

A worthwhile honour

Dyslexia is not short of high-profile poster boys (or girls - though the latter are thinner on the ground, the condition being far more common in men) but it was good to see one of them, actor Henry Winkler, honoured for his work.

Henry Winkler, who played the Fonz in the classic US sitcom Happy Days, has been appointed an honorary OBE for his educational work on dyslexia in the UK.

Dyslexia has long been a controversial issue; you don't have to go far, even now, to meet highly-educated people who deny its existence, claiming that it is a convenient label for the well-off to excuse their offspring's lack of intelligence. While most people now do accept it exists, it manifests itself in a variety of ways and degrees of severity.

What is true is that many high-achieving dyslexics come from relatively comfortable backgrounds, having attended the sort of school - independent or high-end state - where their difficulties were more likely to have been identified and tackled. Even simple measures by sympathetic classroom teachers - colour-coding notes, extra hand-outs - can help a great deal.

Where dyslexia is causing serious damage is in schools where there is little support from parents and discipline is a major problem. Rather than admit he is struggling, a dyslexic pupil may well turn to disruption or refuse to work at all. A hard-pressed teacher, already dealing with a large class, has little leisure to diagnose his difficulties, let alone deal with them.

There is much talent going to waste as a result; studies suggest that dyslexics often have excellent creativity and spatial awareness - they frequently excel at Art at school - but many will never find employment because their lack of success with written work effectively bars them from many qualifications unless properly taught.

Campaigners like Winkler and the actress Kara Tointon, both of whom struggled with being labelled as stupid before their dyslexia was diagnosed, were lucky enough to succeed; it is a sad fact that far too many dyslexics fail in life and, by passing their negative attitude to school on to their children, contribute to their failure too.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Somebody's watching me....

...I know I'm nervous and I shouldn't be:
Somebody's got their eye on me,
Perhaps we should invite them up for tea.
(Thompson Twins: We Are Detective)

In this case, it's the engine that targets adverts to match recent keywords on the computer. Following today's post on the shortcomings of Virgin Trains, I am being bombarded with offers of railcards or - optimistically, given my finances - the Orient Express, while a post on Forest Lawn cemetery produced an invitation to 'memorialize a Loved One's ashes' in a glass paperweight.

And it doesn't stop there; post on holidays and up pop cruises and villas, post on cars and you'll be invited to test drive half a dozen possibilities. Not as nerve-wracking as the assorted government agencies who drop in when you've mentioned, say, Dubai - Hi guys! Yes, it's me again! - or arms deals, but there's something depressing about tailored marketing.

And I'm starting to wonder whether the same thing applies to television advertising. After all, we're already familiar with the concept of ads targeted for viewer profiles - hair products during 'Skins', Lynx during football matches or Steradent during 'Countdown'.

And, according to the Urchin, those hyperactive music channels with presenters who go 'Yeah!' a lot regularly treat their viewers to ego-crushing advert breaks crammed with commercials for deodorant, spot cream and online dating.

As I write, the Artful Dodger is watching 'The Day of the Jackal' and, every twenty minutes or so, has been invited by a variety of rival concerns to open a new bank account, buy a fast car or travel abroad - enough to wonder whether the same inquisitive software is following the plot.

As the Dodger points out, should he decide to adopt the profession of hit-man after graduation (after all, there will be precious few job opportunities out there) he is now amply supplied with ideas for getaway vehicles and where to stash his ill-gotten gains.

'Space? Thanks, but no thanks, Richard!'

With the 'news' that 'Phase One of the world's first commercial spaceport is 90% complete' - a pointless Public Relations announcement if ever there was one - those interested in joining Branson's happy band should probably start booking soon.

The first Virgin Galactic flights are predicted to take place early in 2013, according to a spokeswoman who appears to be rather indecently excited about the whole affair:
'Christine Anderson, the newly appointed executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, told SPACE.com she was 'jazzed' about the progress made so far.'
That is, I suspect, a new and obscure piece of American business jargon, of which Ms Anderson appears to be a fluent speaker:
'So hats off to all the contractors and architects and everybody else that spent a lot of time and sweat equity in its development.'
I can't help feeling, however, that all this futuristic development has been going on longer that you'd think. After all, Richard Branson was the man behind Virgin's Cross-Country trains.

Clan Macheath being widely scattered about the United Kingdom, long-distance train journeys have been a constant fixture for as long as I can remember. It used to be a not unappealing way to spend a day - a good book, occasional snacks and ever-changing views of our beautiful countryside.

Then Branson came along and changed all that. The first thing to go were the tables for all but a lucky few; everyone else got a view of someone else's seat-back and a flimsy drop-down tray.

This, of course, meant that the conveniently suitcase-sized gaps between each pair of back-to-back seats were replaced by two shelves at the extreme end of the carriage, out of sight of their worried owners and conveniently close to the exit for any opportunistic thief*.

The long-distance traveller, then, had the choice of an unattended shelf holding, at most, six cases or a Damoclean overhead ledge too narrow for a briefcase and too shallow for anything else; inspired design for a train making the 12-hour journey from Penzance to Aberdeen.

And then there were the toilets. Oh God, the toilets! Conforming to disability access rules, these vast hangars took up a huge proportion of the carriage and, the trains having drastically shrunk from their once majestic length, there were three of them. For the whole train. From Penzance to Aberdeen. Enough said.

Now I think I see where it was all going. A vast distance to travel, no luggage to speak of and no need for a working toilet; those inexplicably comfortless Virgin trains were obviously the prototypes for Branson's Spaceships One and Two.

And that (plus, of course, the $200,000 fare) is why I, for one, will be declining Branson's invitation.

*Not idle speculation; a few weeks after this new arrangement came in, a couple in my carriage discovered that their suitcases had vanished without trace somewhere between Birmingham and Newcastle. The reaction of the authorities suggested this was by no means an isolated incident.

Monday 12 September 2011

A worrying coincidence?

It's not a good time to be a patient at Stockport's Stepping Hill Hospital. While detectives swarm over the place looking for clues to the deaths of three patients from saline drips contaminated with insulin, another crisis looms.

In the latest incident, officers were called to the hospital at 20:30 BST on Saturday after staff found that a bottle of milk had been contaminated.

However detectives said there was no evidence of a link to the sabotage of saline drips earlier this year.

For readers of crime fiction, there is a distinct frisson from the fact that a milk-bottle spiked with bleach had been left on a ward - precisely the method by which someone is murdered in a hospital in an early book by one of our foremost authors of detective stories*.

And a quick trawl through Amazon turns up another bit of light reading: 'Insulin Murders' by Caroline Richmond and Vincent Marks.

Insulin Murders is the first book on the market to describe real life cases of murder using insulin (and other hypoglycaemic agents) as a murder weapon. Written by a leading authority on insulin and its use as a murder weapon, this is a gripping account of true life crime, intended for doctors and laypeople alike.

It will appeal to both the medical and non-medical communities, and especially to all those with an interest in forensic medicine or true life crime.

And - just possibly - potential murderers as well.

*Spoiler Alert; this one.

A question of childcare

Say what you like about Aric Sigman, the man has guts.

The author of books on the effects of a drinking culture and television on children is no stranger to controversy, but this week he boldly goes where few men have gone before; he has taken on that most redoubtable of foes, the working mother.
Putting children into day care may change their brain structure and function, according to research. 
The study by Dr Aric Sigman found that 70-80% of children in day care centres showed increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol throughout each day they were there.
Now that's what I call putting your head above the parapet! Up and down the country, I imagine mothers preparing for work were screaming at the radio as Sigman explained his findings on the Today programme, suggesting that sustained raised cortisol levels could have as-yet undetermined effects on the child's long-term health.

Now, I have to admit that there are times when I feel like echoing Ripley's outburst in 'Aliens' - "Did IQ's just drop sharply while I was away?" - and when the issue of daycare comes up is one of them.

It's well-known that taking a puppy away from its mother too early means that you're more likely to end up with an insecure or even aggressive pet; why do so many people persist in believing that the same would not apply to a six-week-old baby suddenly deprived of its mother for most of the day?

And what benefit does the mother see from this? Well, there are plenty of high-flying career women going straight from the labour ward to their desks but its a fair bet they can afford high-quality one-to-one childcare (or follow the example of superwoman Nicola Horlick, who tellingly conducted an interview on how she single-handedly managed a career and a young family with her mother bent wordlessly over a sink-full of washing-up in the background).

The reverse of the coin are those mothers for whom childcare swallows up most of their earnings - my sister once worked for a high-street shop where some of the staff, once they paid for childcare, lunch and travel, had less than £20 a week left over.

So why do they do it? For some, whether by inclination or because they have bought into the 'having it all' culture, it's definitely because they want to - begging the question 'why have a baby at all if you don't want to spend time with it?' - but plenty of women out there are trapped by a phenomenon familiar to anyone who drives on busy motorways.

Ever hogged the middle lane because you know that, if you pull in behind the lorry 500m ahead, you'll never get back out to overtake it? The same thing is happening in employment, with mothers reluctantly heading back to work because they fear that, if they drop out until the child goes to school, they may never find another job.

And of course they are right - because so many of the available jobs are already taken up by other mothers of under-5s. I'm no Mark Wadsworth but even I can see this doesn't make sense at all; if Ms A goes out to work and pays most of her income after work expenses to her childminder Ms B, then why not cut out the middle-man (sorry, woman!) and give Ms B the job in the first place?

The answer, of course, is economic activity, two women in the workplace and paying tax are better than one, even if the workplace of one is the other's home and the childcare is subsidised by the state - it's a bit like the bank wanting us to transfer money back and forth between accounts because it shows up on the books as income and productive banking activity.

If Sigman is right, and babies do suffer long-term ill effects from being put into childcare at an early age, then it could spell the end of a culture that regards infants as so many parcels to be left until called for; the ultimate expression of baby as accessory to a lifestyle.

It would be interesting to see if that correlates with a subsequent improvement in Britain's educational standards and achievement.

Friday 9 September 2011

'We have nothing to fear but the sky falling on our heads!'

Hot on the heels of the announcement of orbital debris reaching a 'tipping point' comes the news that a 6.5-tonne satellite is on its way down and will be liberally spreading debris over a wide area sometime in the next few weeks.

Despite official announcements that the chances of being underneath a piece of it are very small indeed, the Times is getting entertainingly worked up about the potential hazard:

'Britain in path of falling satellite', screams the headline, implying that a direct hit is inevitable; better start looking for tin hats, digging shelters or, better still, think about leaving the country.

Actually that might not be much help; a better decription of the impending situation would be 'Antarctica and anywhere further than 57 degrees North NOT in path of falling satellite' - less catchy, I admit, but it does sum up the predictions in a rather more balanced way.

In fact, unless you happen to be in Alaska, Canada (north of Churchill), Greenland, Iceland, Scandanavia or Siberia - or, closer to home, anwhere north of Braemar - you could be on the receiving end of a sprinkling of NASA shrapnel. Given the price of gold these days and the amount of the stuff that goes into making a satellite, this could be cause for rejoicing rather than otherwise*.

The current eccentricity of its orbit makes it impossible to predict where the 500-mile-long target area will be at this stage but NASA will be posting regular updates for the obsessively worried (would-be Chicken Lickens can get status reports here).

The satellite in question - the snappily-named UARS (Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite) - was actually expected to function for only three years but pluckily carried on for another eleven, gathering data on the depletion of the ozone layer and clearly implicating the release of man-made CFCs.

Perhaps a better name for it would be The Golden Snitch.

*We should point out that the satellite remains federal property and, should you put a bit of it on e-bay, Uncle Sam's enforcers will be popping round pretty sharp-ish.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

The disservice sector

Faced with a recalcitrant mobile phone last week, I set off for the company's local shop - one of five phone shops in a single shopping centre. All the assistants were already occupied with customers so I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

The assistants - all three of them - eyes fixed on their computer screens, resisted all attempts to make eye contact; the customers fiddled silently with the mobiles they were buying or had brought in for repair. Nobody said a word.

With a bustling concourse a few feet away, six people stood facing each other across the counter in stony silence: I started wondering whether I had inadvertently intruded into a piece of experimental theatre.

Finally, after more than ten minute of trying unsuccessfully to catch someone's eye, I gave up and went home. Fortunately the Artful Dodger, being a child of the 1990s, understands these new-fangled things and has since managed to restore the phone to working order.

A ten-minute wait gives you plenty of time to study your surroundings. The piece of shop furnishing that struck me most was a large red sign prominently displayed on the counter, warning of dire consequences for anyone who physically or verbally assaults one of the shop's employees.

If what I experienced is a taste of standard high street practice these days, then no wonder Britain's service economy is in trouble - and no wonder they need that sign.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Per garbage ad astra

There's something rather unsettling about a former NASA scientist admitting 'We've lost control of the environment' - it's the sort of line that's usually followed by the arrival of a bunch of voracious extra-terrestrials and a lot of special-effects gore.

This time we're perfectly safe, as long as we stay put here on earth. For those, venturing into orbit, however, the amount of debris out there has reached a critical point, according to a report submitted to NASA last week.

It seems we've left so much rubbish lying - or floating - around up there that we may have effectively prevented ourselves getting out. (Much the same thing, interestingly enough, seems to happen regularly with the Urchin's bedroom floor - perhaps it's simply human nature.)

Part of the problem is our increasing dependence on satellite technology; with an average of 76 satellites a year launched over the past decade and more planned for the future to feed our insatiable need for communication technology, it's getting awfully crowded up there even without the rubbish.

Add in the myriad pieces of debris, from chunks of rocket down to minuscule flecks of paint, and you effectively have a cage in which we have managed to imprison ourselves; astronauts who honed their skills on games of Asteroids in the pub now apply the techniques for real to evade rogue particles.

And - guess what! - it turns out we've been naughty in more ways than one: 'The extra CO2 pumped into the atmosphere down the years has cooled some of its highest reaches - the thermosphere.

This, combined with low levels of solar activity, have shrunk the atmosphere, limiting the amount of drag on orbital objects that ordinarily helps to pull debris from the sky. In other words, the junk is also staying up longer.'

Well, it never rains but it pours! And it could get worse - though this particular aspect of the situation has not so far made the news. Regular readers may recall that we have mentioned this subject here before, and touched on another aspect of the potential Nemesis floating above us:

'... in ‘The Day of the Triffids’ it was the release of biological weapons from accidentally damaged satellites which ultimately paved the way for the destruction of human civilization as we know it.'

Computer models suggests the amount of debris "has reached a tipping point, with enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures."  Even if we escape the disastrous effect John Wyndham envisaged, we could be effectively marooned on earth until we do a bit of cosmic housework.

Update: The Mail reports this morning that Phase One of  Richard Branson's Spaceport America is now 90%complete, with commercial space flights being planned for early 2013. Should you feel like taking your chance up there in the craposphere, you can secure your seat reservation with Virgin Galactic (yes, honestly!) for a deposit of only $20,000.

Monday 5 September 2011

This Little Piggy

In what must surely be an appropriate fable for our time, Jane Croft, purveyor of handbag pigs to the stars, has gone bankrupt.

Former investment banker and amateur pig-fancier Croft spotted a gap in the market and set about crossing traditional British breeds with miniature Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs to produce 'micro-pigs' with an adult height of  around 14".

A combination of excessively photogenic cute piglets and ruthless PR ensured a surge in demand as Croft appeared in countless media interviews singing the praises of her 'perfect pets'; even her website was liberally sprinked with stardust, carrying endorsements from the likes of Andrew Flintoff, Robbie Williams and Vanessa Feltz.

A best-selling book full of predictably cute images (and, it has to be said, reasonably sensible advice) followed and soon Croft's farm's 50 resident pigs had become a gold-mine; piglets were selling for up to £1200 each and, thanks to massive publicity and celebrity hype, demand was rapidly outstripping supply.

Aristotelian tragedy dictates that the hero (or heroine) has a fatal flaw that brings about ultimate downfall and this was it - the former investment banker, a product of the 'growth is always good' school of thought, expanded her business to seize the market.

“I couldn’t keep up with the demand so I bought extra pigs believing they were micro-pigs. They grew to be massive so I had to offer refunds."

Surely, then, she should have been seeking redress herself from her suppliers; someone was definitely telling porkies here. Instead she took back the expanding swine and refunded the purchase price and soon she was unable to pay her staff, an omission which has now landed her in the bankruptcy court.

It may be that, in years to come, Jane Croft's experience makes an appearance in social commentaries on the early 21st century; a media-frenzy fad for preposterous pets leading to hubristic misjudgement and eventual financial ingnominy gives as neat a summary as you could wish of the risks of a fashion-led business venture in today's celebrity-obsessed age.

Sunday 4 September 2011

Bobbing about in the beautiful briny sea

It hasn't been a good week for sponsored swims.

Last week, Pavlov's Cat highlighted the irony of rescuers being called out to assist 80 swimmers swept out to sea while racing to raise money for the RNLI; this week we have what may be one of the worst-organised mass fund-raising events ever.

Three lifeboats, a helicopter and a coastguard team spent several hours today searching for nine swimmers reported missing after the Pier to Pier swim from Bournemouth to Boscombe, an event which attracts some 1,000 participants.

It gradually emerged that eight of the swimmers had definitely gone home, blissfully unaware of the efforts being made on their behalf, and that the partner of the ninth was accounted for and had left - presumably with her; it's hard to imagine he would be callous enough to set off happily while she was bobbing around in the English Channel.

The organisers had insisted all along that the lost swimmers had simply departed for home since all the baggage had gone but the emergency services can't rely on that kind of assumption (which is reassuring for anyone who may find themselves genuinely at risk in Britain's coastal waters). One imagines that the relationship between the two is now somewhat strained.

After all, the RNLI and Coastguard have enough to do especially at weekends, what with rescuing Darwin Award hopefuls from unsuitable dinghies or complete ignorance of the existence of currents or tides.

Despite the straitened times, there seems to be no shortage of fund-raising events that focus on the experience - Go skydiving for cancer! Climb Kilimanjaro to save the whale! - rather than on the recipient cause; at its worst, the cost of the experience dwarfs the actual sum raised. Whatever the case, it is not unreasonable to assume that the organisers have devised a fail-safe method of ensuring everyone is accounted for.

I don't envy the representative of the British Heart Foundation who had to explain to the RNLI that their volunteer crews wasted an afternoon looking for a bunch of people who were happily tucking into tea and cakes at home.

Saturday 3 September 2011

We don't need no thought control

I consider myself to be an individual and I'm sure you do too. In fact, if you are reading this, there is a high probability that you are a blogger too, and thus something of an independent spirit.

If so, then, like me, you will doubtless be worried by the findings emerging from Nijmegen, where scientists have been trying to identify the part of the brain that determines the conformity of its owner's behaviour and, having tracked down this elusive region - it's in your posterior medial frontal cortex, in case you were wondering - looking for ways to influence it.

It turns out that a burst of Transcranial Electromagnetic Stimulation (TMS) inhibiting the activity of neurons in this area made their subjects less likely to alter their decisions in response to group pressure.

'Dr Klucharev believes this part of the brain is responsible for generating an "error" signal when individuals deviate from the group opinion, triggering a cascade that leads them to conform with the group view; "Individuals differ in the strength of the error signal – which is why some people are more conformist than others".'

Klucharev envisages techniques that can increase immunity to the negative aspects of peer presssure - criminal behaviour, for example or aggressive marketing - but it's a worryingly short step from there to the idea of manipulating neuron activity in the opposite direction to increase conformity.

Far-fetched? The stuff of science fiction? I sincerely hope so, because the thought of such techniques in the wrong hands is a frightening prospect indeed.

While on the subject, I have been wondering whether bloggers - or at least those who offer comment on social and political phenomena - are, in fact, a self-selected group whose 'error signals' are so weak as to be imperceptible. After all, the ability to place yourself outside events and offer an independent view suggests a strong maverick streak.

Or are we all actually closet conformists seeking the approval of an online community of similar thinkers?

What do you think?

Friday 2 September 2011

A paradoxical pinch of salt

Salt has been something of a hot topic here recently but The Moose , Longrider and others have done far more justice to today's 'outrageous levels of salt in bread' story than I ever could.

There's little to add save a coda in the form of a fine piece of television comedy from the past week. 'The Great British Bake-Off' featured a clutch of eager contestants hopefully profferring freshly-baked loaves.

The expert judge solemnly took a mouthful of bread, chewed it thoughtfully and pronounced his verdict; "Not enough salt". Loaf after loaf was dismisssed with the same problem; the lack of salt, he said, affected both texture and taste and the bakers should have used more of it.

Astounding! The baffled contestants gaped at him, obviously waiting for a thunderbolt to strike him dead. You could almost see the cogs whirring as their brains tried to assimilate this violation of public health orthodoxy.

The ultimate loser appeared to have actually halved the amount of salt in her recipe - presumably with a self-satisfied glow at her own virtue; after all, no less an organisation than the NHS advocates "Say No To Salt!"

Meanwhile, for fans of Xeno's Paradox*, there's an interesting quote from the Department of Health welcoming the reductions in salt content many manufacturers have already achieved:

"We look forward to seeing further reductions as more companies meet the targets"

Since we are, as fans of Star Trek know, "ugly bags of mostly water"** and, as The Moose points out, salt water at that, how soon before these reductions reach a point where salt deprivation becomes a mass epidemic rather than an obscure ailment afflicting only the over-conscientious?

*The paradox of Achilles and the tortoise states that if Achilles races against a tortoise and gives it a head start, he will never catch up with it; in the time he takes to move to a point on the track occupied by the tortoise, the tortoise will have moved from that point to another further on, and so on.

**Episode 18 'Home Soil'; I should, perhaps, point out that I remember this phrase not because I am an obsessive Trekkie but because it is teaching the imaginative use of the English language that keeps the wolf from the door.

Thursday 1 September 2011

A musical interlude

A busy week at the Tavern so I apologise for recycling an old post - this blast from the past, however, sprang immediately to mind on hearing that Alastair Darling's memoirs are about to hit the fan...

In a fine example of serendipity, the italicised wording is that of Darling himself.

Alistair's Hell

Whelan was screaming and McBride was howling
And in Downing street the knives were all out;
There was Brown in the shadows with a glint in his eye -
It was a weekend I could do without.
I don’t know why the briefers did what they did,
One day maybe they will explain,
What I do know, and it’s not a great source of pleasure,
What I said, unfortunately, turned out to be true;
We were bound for a recession again.

Well, maybe there’s no better thing in this whole world
Than knowing you've been right,
And wherever you are and wherever you go
There's always gonna be a fight.
And I know there have been some robust exchanges
Between me and Gordon Brown,
But there’s more that unites us than will ever divide us;
Without me
, you know,
He’d really be alone.

And the forces of Hell
Were unleashed
from Number Ten,
When Brown’s two enforcers
Were let loose and set on me again, again, again.
Yes, the forces of Hell
Were unleashed
from Number Ten;
But now the day is done
Then Messrs Whelan
And McBride you’ll see it’s true
That I’m still Chancellor of the Exchequer
And there’s only one left of you.