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

Sunday 29 April 2012

Passport checks out of balance

“It was an incredible sight. There were scuffles, people being knocked to the ground, then a resignation from the powers that be, who stepped aside to let the crowd through.”

Scenes like those described by this eye-witness (quoted in the Times) may become commonplace in British airports over the next few months if the hold-ups at passport control continue. He was referring to events last month, when, after queuing for two hours, 20 or so angry passengers barged through passport control at Birmingham Airport.

Naturally the authorities insist all is well: “The majority of passengers pass through immigration control quickly. Queues are cause by a number of factors, including incorrect flight manifests or early or late planes, which result in bunching.”

Now, the longest queues I have experienced were in the early morning, when five transatlantic flights arrived within twenty minutes, all of them at their scheduled time. I can’t say I noticed any extra staff on duty, or any other measures to deal with this entirely predictable influx of travellers – perhaps they counted on sleep-deprivation rendering us docile for the (extensive) duration.

However, as the Olympic nonsense approaches, I have noticed a vast increase in the number of automatic passport control gates – together with increasingly desperate invitations for us to avail ourselves of them where possible, now, please.

Well, I’m not trying that again. A few years ago, in response to an invitation (in other words, being seized by a uniformed official cruising the queues for victims with new-style passports) I was shepherded towards some disturbingly agricultural-looking machinery – cattle crush? Sheep-dip? - passport in hand.

And would it work? Ha! They tried everything - polishing the scanner, cleaning my photo, even turning the passport upside-down (did that mean I would have to stand on my head?) – but to no avail; eventually they checked the passport manually at a desk and I was spewed out into the concourse with everyone else.

I had another try next time I was travelling and had a bit of time to kill – same result. From then on, I resolved to avoid the things like the plague, amusing myself instead by watching through the glass as other travellers had the same experience. In fact, the gates seem largely unused, despite the fact that all UK passports issued since January 2007 are supposed to work in them.

I suspect the hand of a statistician in this. ‘Let us install the gates!’, was surely the cry: ‘By 2012, 50% of the population will be able to pass through them and we will need half as many officers at the desks. Build it and they will come!

Only they won’t, because their photos won’t scan properly, or because they have children with them (the gates are adults-only), or because they don’t want to be split up from a travelling companion with an old-fashioned steam-driven passport. Or maybe even because they don't like or trust the new machinery - deep down, there's a bit of the Luddite in us all.

So the lines of gates stand idle while the staff, their numbers doubtless reduced over the past five years in anticipation of the glorious march of technology, struggle to cope with a sea of increasingly discontented humanity. Small wonder, then, that turbulence is starting to appear.

And the Olympics may yet unleash a perfect storm.

Update: from the Telegraph, describing lengthy delays at Heathrow over the weekend:
'The difficulties were exacerbated by a series of technology glitches including the failure of a finger print machine, used to check passengers who require a visa to enter Britain.

On other occasions both the iris recognition and new automatic passport scanning gates failed, adding to the frustration of new arrivals.
That being so, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that the director of UK Border Agency operations at Heathrow has demanded that BAA stop handing out leaflets explaining the complaints procedure and told them to 'stop passengers taking pictures of the queues in the arrivals hall'.

Nice work if you can get it!

Should you feel like brightening a rainy Sunday with a spot of music, what could be better than revisiting 'Expenses - the Musical' in honour of this week's news? Just follow the links below and get ready to sing along...

Baroness Uddin and Lord Hanningfield, despite strident claims of penury, have both had a rummage down the back of the sofa and conveniently managed come up with the lump sums they needed to repay their dodgy claims - £125,000 and £30,000 respectively.

Lord Hanningfield is already back in the House of Lords, while the allegedly boracic* Wapping-based  Baroness will return after the Queen's Speech in May; both of them can look forward to claiming the tax-free allowance of £300 a day, which may go some way towards softening the pain of rejection by their respective political parties.

Whether it endears the Baroness to her fellow-tenants of a housing association scheme for low-income Londoners is, of course, quite another matter.

*boracic lint = skint; the Tavern's always ready for an anachronistic bit of rhyming slang.

Saturday 28 April 2012

carpe diem and gaudeamus igitur

Whiler JuliaM has a post on cost-conscious students unhappy about their canteen arrangements, a different message is filtering in from the Urchin's contemporaries.

According to the Urchin, the prevailing atmosphere, at least in the Arts faculties, is a kind of fatalistic hedonism. These youngsters have decided that their chosen careers are unlikely to earn them enough to have to pay back their full loans and, anyway, who cares about a debt that remote?

The inevitable progeny of a buy-now, pay-later society, they are busy spending the vast and unprecedented sums the student loan company has placed in their pockets with no thought for making the money last. 'We'll all be in debt forever anyway' goes the reasoning, 'so what will an extra overdraft matter?'

This has become such common practice that many landlords are now asking for a year's rent up front, trying to get their hands on the money before it is frittered away. Nobody expects an 18-year-old to be an expert at managing money, but whose idea was it to present these youngsters barely out of school with a lump sum of several thousand pounds at once?

A friend recently told me that his niece, against her family's advice, spent almost all her student loan on a new car, which she wrote off in an accident a few weeks later - on third-party only insurance. The clear separation of student finance from family influence - though funnily enough they still take parental income into account when allocating grants - has placed a huge burden of responsibility in the hands of little more than children.

When you add the sense of a lifetime of debt hanging over them whatever they do and a 'because I'm worth it' culture that sees borrowing as a commonplace solution - how many people nowadays actually save up for something they want? (apart from my wise and discerning readers, that is) - you have a temptation to seize every opportunity for indulgence that many experienced adults would find hard to resist.

Incidentally, regular readers may remember this from last August, when the Clearing system broke down under the weight of numbers as candidates tried to get places ahead of the fee increases this year:
'There's a sort of January sales atmosphere about the whole business; desperate candidates grabbing any course they can to beat the rush and universities accepting on a first-come first-served basis rather than selecting students on their potential suitability for the course.

It will be interesting to see what the drop-out rate is over the next year.'
I can't speak nationally - and I have been unable to find official figures - but of the Urchin's class at school, at least six have given up so far, making a drop-out rate of nearly 15%.

Friday 27 April 2012

Quote of the week

From Leg-Iron, waxing satirical on calls for children's libraries to ban books seen as too frightening, immoral or 'inappropriate':

"By the time the aliens arrive, they will find what appears to be the only planet in the universe where evolution operates in reverse."

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Margin for error

A member of Clan Macheath had a blood test last week as part of a routine check-up. Returning to the surgery for the results, she was told she had 'a risk factor of 15%'.

The nurse seemed surprised to be asked for an explanation; "Look, it's here on the chart: your cholesterol gives you a risk of 15%, see?"

"Yes, but a risk of what, exactly?"

Turns out it's a risk of dying of a heart attack in the next ten years. Now it's not the easiest thing to express without giving the lady's age, but generally speaking this looked like not unreasonable odds of survival (her words, not mine); in any case, like most well-educated people, she knows that medical statistics - like boiled eggs - are best taken with a substantial pinch of salt.

But the nurse had not yet finished; under the circumstances, she said, she would recommend a course of statins. Not a good move; the patient is firmly opposed to blanket prescription and has a particular aversion to the idea of statins - and she's not the only one (see my post Statins for all and a death sentence).

The nurse was clearly disappointed; "Then we'll just have to try and manage it through diet". Manage what? The cholesterol reading was well within normal parameters; either the word 'risk' seems to have triggered a knee-jerk response or the 'statins-for-all' movement is alive and thriving in the hands of blinkered zealots.

One thing that interests me here is that our relative was not told whether to fast before the test. This is presumably because a study in 2009 found that 'cholesterol measurements are at least as good - and probably somewhat better - when made without fasting'.

But if that is so, why does the NHS website - reviewed in 2011 - still clearly advise 'Do not eat anything and only drink water for 10-12 hours before having blood cholesterol tests'? Are doctors, in fact, actively seeking raised readings by ignoring this advice?

This suggests at least some difference of opinion - and implies that the cholesterol test is rather more of a blunt instrument that those acting on its results would like us to believe. Given the very real possibility that statin side-effects will mask the symptoms of serious illness, I would question the ethics of prescribing on these terms.

The complexity of the human body means that diagnosis is not a exact science; to reduce it to box-ticking and percentages on a chart is to act under false pretences and with a dangerous complacency.

Monday 23 April 2012

By N E other name

Following JuliaM's post on names at Orphans of Liberty, here is a (genuine!) sign of the times.

A friend's brother - an inner-city clergyman - was recently approached by a young couple who wanted their daughter christened; to his relief, they wanted a relatively conventional name with a surprising suggestion of royalism.

Pleased at the thought of welcoming a new lamb to his flock, he set about writing down the child's details at the mother's dictation. She was, however, not satisfied:

"You've written it wrong; 's a K 'n then an 8, innit?".

Wednesday 18 April 2012

The dead pledge

mortgage (n)
late 14c., from O.Fr. morgage (13c.), mort gaige, lit. "dead pledge" 
from mort "dead" + gage "pledge;" so called because the deal dies either when the debt is paid or when payment fails.

Any blogger knows that timing is crucial, particularly in dealing with the sort of news story you know is just over the horizon. Too soon and you have a damp squib; too late and someone else has got there first.

This looks like being the week the MSM pick up on what they are already calling a 'ticking timebomb' - the question of interest-only mortgages.

In the property feeding frenzy of the late eighties, houses were snapped up as soon as they became available. In some areas, overnight queues formed outside estate agents whenever a new development was released onto the market.

In a competitive mortgage market, the lending vehicle of choice for many was the interest-only mortgage sold with an endowment policy to pay off the final debt; the monthly repayments were lower and there was the possibility of a cash windfall if the a with-profits endowment policy performed well.

Much has been made since of the mis-selling of these policies, but not all lenders disguised the fact that there was an element of risk. However, unwilling to be left behind by rapidly rising prices, people were buying at what would have previously been an absurdly young age with very little capital behind them; this kind of mortgage enabled them to borrow against future age- and experience-related pay increases.

In a scenario now all too familiar from other areas of banking, the earliest investors saw handsome returns; endowment policies maturing in the eighties and nineties provided a substantial windfall that saw homeowners indulging in new cars and exotic holidays - and unintentionally endorsing for the next generation the salesmen's claims that an endowment policy was a worthwhile investment.

That sense of optimism and security was, as we now know, short-lived; repeated and increasingly pessimistic warnings have been issued that the final lump sum will fall well short of repaying the amount owed. What is not known is the extent of the problem; despite all the publicity there will doubtless be people out there who could not - or would not - take steps to meet that shortfall and there is no way of knowing how many they are.

In the next few years, we can expect increasing media coverage of this story - and, more particularly, of the consequences for those unfortunate or imprudent individuals who have no means of paying the debt other than selling their homes. I'm no Mark Wadsworth, but even with my limited knowledge of the property market, I can see this uncertainty could be a potentially destabilising influence in an already volatile situation.

I only hope that the news coverage will not include attempts to solve the problem by other means: regular readers may remember this post from September 2010:
'Reading on in the business section in the darker watches of the night, an interesting thought occurs; endowment policies are linked to life cover. And while PEPs and ISAs bump around in the shallows, endowment investors have been left well and truly high and dry. 
A policy bought in the 80s to cover an interest-only mortgage of £100,000 might now have a projected shortfall of up to £45,000, according to recent figures. With surrender values at an all-time low, the unfortunate policyholders are stuck paying in, with no hope of realising that £100,000 unless one of them dies.'

Thursday 12 April 2012

Now you see them...

On my recent train journey to the ancestral homeland, I discovered a neat trick.

Dismayed by the myriad wind turbines disfiguring the well-loved landscape, I removed my glasses to rub my weary eyes and, thanks to the myopia I had until then deeply resented, they vanished almost without trace. At last, I have found an advantage to being short-sighted.

If only it were really that simple!

Just take your turbines off the highland hills
And the island hills - these are my land's hills!
We want no windmills on the highland hills
Buggering up the hills of home!

Update: From The Scottish edition of the Telegraph:

'Scottish households could be left with higher power bills after independence to fund subsidies for wind and wave farms, energy companies and the government indicated yesterday.

The First Minister's plan for a major expansion of green power projects relies on households in the remainder of the UK continuing to subsidise the schemes after separation as part of a single energy market.'

Thursday 5 April 2012

Slipping through the diagnostic net

Deaths from uterine cancer have increased by a fifth in the last ten years, data from Cancer Research UK has found. It means almost 2,000 women now die annually from the condition. (Telegraph)

Since they report that the number of annual diagnoses has risen by almost half since the mid 90's, this does mean that survival rates are improving. According to Professor Jonathan Ledermann, gynaecological cancer expert at Cancer Research UK,

"the chances of surviving the disease are still better than ever. It’s clear we’re making great progress, but we don’t yet fully understand what’s driving up cases of womb cancer, so there’s still lots more to do.”

Until they solve the mystery (and I hope they are looking very carefully at HRT and synthetic hormones, which the article doesn't mention at all), researchers are falling back on that old staple of weight loss and plenty of fruit & veg, reminding us that being obese 'more than doubles' the risk of uterine cancer.

This gives us some juicy headline statistics, conveniently forgetting that, obesity increases the risk rather than creating it and that lifestyle is far from the only causal factor at work. Yes, folks, it's that old false syllogism again:

Unhealthy lifestyles cause cancer
You have cancer
ergo You have an unhealthy lifestyle

If Professor Ledermann and his team want to reduce the number of deaths, they would do well to consider the inversion of this argument, the application of which nearly cost a relative her life. As applied by her GP in the face of worsening symptoms for nearly two years, it goes roughly thus:

Obese women have uterine cancer
You are not obese
ergo You do not have uterine cancer

With a healthy diet and plenty of exercise, there was, the GP said, no need to bother with an examination. In fact, when the patient complained that she was rapidly losing weight for no obvious reason, the doctor told her she was lucky; "But that's a good thing; I wish I could lose weight like that!"

The diagnosis was finally made by a second doctor at a point urgent enough for the patient to be rushed into hospital within hours for drastic surgery, but the original GP was unrepentant to the point of defensiveness; how could she be expected to diagnose the condition, she demanded, when my 7st relative didn't fit the profile?

Survival rates decline sharply as the cancer develops; the later the diagnosis, the less your chances of recovery. Professor Ledermann doesn't say what proportion of the fatalities are not overweight; it might be well worth his while to find out.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

No way, Galloway!

I'm speechless. Just speechless.

Wear 'Bradford Spring' on your chest wherever you are...

And no, it's not a belated April Fool either - at least if Galloway's twitter is anything to go by.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Tariq Jahan

In the face of a potential flashpoint, Tariq Jahan's restraint in the expression of his grief before the cameras and his refusal to blame the government or police for the actions of criminals stand out as an example of dignity and reason.

Like many others, I was impressed by the conduct of Tariq Jahan, speaking after the death of his son during last summer's rioting.

His appearance in court this week on charges of assault, while causing some embarrassment to those who had subsequently lauded him to the skies and proposed him for, among other things, the (dubious) accolade of bearing the Olympic torch, does nothing to alter my opinion of his behaviour on that day.

It does, however, suggest a motivation unknown to the millions hanging on his words. Jahan knew that, with the assault charges hanging over his head, any appearance of incitement to violence would be disastrous for his case and would, by association, tarnish the memory of his son.

It's a blow for those who like their news stories in black or white, refusing to allow that a single human nature could be capable of both baseness and nobility. There is something pathetic in this insistence - yet another symptom, perhaps, of a lack of maturity in the general population.

Perhaps it springs from a need to follow a leader, to have someone to look up to as an example; there are precious few worthy role models around these days so it's no wonder the masses look to the MSM and popular culture to supply them - and to lead the ruthless backlash should the idol have feet of clay.

Whether Jahan is found guilty or innocent will make no difference to the fact that, in a critical moment last summer, he found the right words and delivered them with dignity.