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

Saturday 27 October 2012

Hey, little goldfish....

...Where you goin' to?
Little goldfish, let me swim along with you.'

Every now and then, a news story comes along that makes me instantly and inexplicably happy. 

In the midst of all the gloom and doom, this week was brightened by news of the safe arrival at the International Space Station of one astronaut, two cosmonauts and 32 fish.

The guppy-sized medaka fish will be living in a state-of-the-art habitat, specially delivered by a Japanese robotic cargo freighter, where they will be studied to observe how they are affected by the zero-g environment.

Fish in space - how cool is that?

In fact, it's even better than the anti-gravity machine for mice.

(And, even more pleasingly, the vocalist lip-synching in this clip of the truly excruciating title song is one Richard Dreyfuss, later to acquire fame in quite another piscine context.)

Friday 26 October 2012

Toast of the week - cosmic paintballing edition

If you believe that we are on borrowed time and that somewhere out there is an asteroid with our name on it, you may be relieved (or disappointed, depending on your view of humanity) to hear of an idea put forward by a graduate student at MIT.

Sung Wook Paek, who works in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (lucky thing!) has just presented the paper that won him the UN's  2012 'Move an Asteroid' Competition.

Possibly inspired by a weekend away from his desk, Paek proposes an interplanetary paintballing mission to blast the approaching asteroid with white pigment, doubling its reflectivity. This, he argues, would change its response to solar radiation sufficiently to alter its course over a period of years.

It's elegantly simple - the paint pellets are delivered in two bursts synchronised with the asteroid's rotation, ensuring complete coverage front and back (I believe the same principle operates in spray-tanning).

The impact of the paint pellets gives the asteroid an initial small nudge to start things off; after that, you just sit back and let the sun do the work, deflecting it sufficiently to pass by at a comfortable distance from Earth.

All we need to do is make sure we get enough warning to send the supercharged paintball gun up there in time - otherwise it's Bruce Willis and the nukes.

Sung Wook Paek, this week's toast of the Tavern, your very good health!

Thursday 25 October 2012

A prescription for liberty

'Its editors, having to meet a publishing deadline, copied the information off the back of a packet of breakfast cereal, hastily embroidering it with a few footnotes in order to avoid prosecution under the incomprehensibly tortuous Galactic Copyright laws.
It is interesting to note that a later and wilier editor sent the book backwards in time through a temporal warp, and then successfully sued the breakfast cereal company for infringement of the same laws.'
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Among the arcane and needlessly petty restrictions governing our everyday lives are The NHS (Pharmaceutical Services) Regulations 2005 & 2012.

These regulations prohibit a doctor in a controlled (ie rural) area dispensing medicine to patients living within 1.6km of a pharmacy as the crow flies.

The reason given for the rule was to protect existing pharmacies from being undermined by a change of practice at local surgeries and - at least in the less well-regulated past - to stop doctors and patients colluding in the supply of inappropriate drugs.

All very laudable, you might say, until someone turned the whole thing on its head and opened a chemist's shop in our main street a mere half-mile from the excellent dispensary that has served the local health centre for years.

Any patient living within 1.6km of this upstart operation is now obliged to take the prescription slip to a commercial pharmacy instead of picking up medicines at the surgery as other patients do.

For sick people, this means an extra journey and more discomfort and waiting time, while those needing repeat prescriptions can regularly enjoy the irony of being handed the slip in a room full of medicines reserved for those lucky enough to live just outside the 1.6km magic circle.

Needless to say, many of us are avoiding using the new pharmacy on principle, but for those with limited mobility it's not so easy. There's also the matter of  'as the crow flies' - crows not being too bothered by such things as intervening rivers and motorways that can turn a nominal 1.6km into a journey of several miles.

What I object to most of all, though, is being deprived of the choice. I need a certain medicine, the dispensary pharmacist has it behind her counter and yet she is not permitted to issue it to me - although she would very much like to do so - because of these petty and, in this case, misapplied regulations.

I am free to have the prescription made up in any pharmacy of my choice as long as it is not the friendly, efficient and convenient dispensary attached to the surgery where it was issued.

I'd call that a distinct infringement of personal freedom; if it's prescriptions today, what will it be tomorrow?

(I'm not the only one to think this; the main reason for this post is an e-petition to be found here.)

Monday 22 October 2012

The L'Aquila Seven - science in the dock

Another landmark today - the 600th post at the Tavern - but no celebrations this time; instead, a news report that will strike fear into the hearts of geologists and forecasters everywhere.
Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L'Aquila.

The judge also ordered the defendants to pay court costs and damages.
Despite the uncertainty that surrounds the science of earthquake prediction, the prosecution successfully argued that the scientists provided "inexact, incomplete and contradictory" information, failing to warn people that the initial minor tremors could be followed by a major seismic event.

At the heart of the case is a question frequently discussed by bloggers; the conflict between scientific assessment of risk and the popular perception. The scientist is concerned with the relative likelihood of given outcomes; the public wants a simple yes or no answer.

And in this case, the public wants someone to blame. One of those bringing the prosecution, a journalist, lost his father and two teenage children in the earthquake.
On the night of 5 April, several large shocks kept his children awake. They were anxious, but he told them to go back to bed, that there was no need to worry, the scientists had said so.
Other witnesses tell the same story; because the scientists had said that a major event was unlikely to follow the initial tremors - there was, according to the head of the Serious Risks Commission, "no reason to believe that a series of low-level tremors was a precursor to a larger event" - residents did not initially realise the danger they were in when the 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit.

The devastating impact of the 309 deaths that resulted has effectively prevented anyone asking whether the scientists should be blamed because those people who remained in their homes chose to rely on what experts had said before the event rather than exercising their own judgement.

We've seen much the same thing at work with the Met Office, where some inept press releases combined with media simplification contrived to translate long-range forecasts expressed in terms of relative probability into definite predictions which turned out to be spectacularly wrong.

The implications of this verdict are chilling. Seismologists, vulcanologists and meteorologists do not deal in hard facts when it comes to future events and to expect them to do so, with the threat of imprisonment if they are wrong, has been compared to the Church's treatment of Galileo.

The case that set six high-ranking scientists and a government official in opposition to an army of bereaved and grieving relatives (organised into the tellingly-named 309 Martyrs Association), with an estimated 50 million euros of damages at stake*, is likely to cast a very long shadow indeed.

*The start of this trial was the subject of a post here in September 2011. Demetrius made a good point in the comments about local buildings not meeting the required safety standard because of widespread corruption in high places - which might argue that some powerful people were looking for someone else to blame for the casualties caused when those buildings collapsed.

Saturday 20 October 2012

The causeway here at Mersea is not drained...

Of all the people in a position to appreciate the number of Darwin award hopefuls in our midst, it is surely the RNLI who see the most.

Their call-out records describe a cornucopia of thwarted opportunities to depart this world as a result of carelessness, imprudence or downright idiocy, from the woman and her son floating far out to sea in rubber rings or the three men adrift in the English Channel in a child's toy dinghy to the would-be weekend yachtsmen bumbling about in the busiest shipping lane in Europe (for all these and more, see the label RNLI).

And if that were not enough, there are the occasions when they have to step in to rescue stranded motorists and pedestrians cut off by rising sea water; latter-day Cnuts for whom tide-tables are clearly a source of ineffable mystery.

This week's spring tides brought us spectacular news footage of waves overtopping harbour walls and lapping at the doors of coastal homes, but, in rural Essex, some rather more mundane dramas were unfolding:
A lifeboat manager has called for improved warning signs at an Essex causeway after 13 people had to be rescued at high tide within 24 hours.
The West Mersea Lifeboat rescued a woman, child and a baby on The Strood, towards Mersea Island, on Thursday and 10 people were caught out on Wednesday.
Like his Northumbrian counterpart, the local lifeboat operations manager is 'fed up' with calling his volunteers away from work or family to deal with the handful of motorists every year for whom the word 'island' is not sufficient clue that some care should be exercised en route at high tide in the absence of a bridge.

As events at Holy Island have shown, putting up bigger and better warning signs will still not deter the true Darwin Award hopeful who clearly thinks such things do not apply to him. The next half-wit to be fished out leads to a call for lights, and the next one, to barriers - how far do we have to go to protect people from their own stupidity?

You can almost sense the exasperation behind the latest press release:
"Essex Highways would like to remind users not to take unnecessary risks on The Strood and to use a common-sense approach when the water is at high tide."
Good luck with that one!

Update: More in the same vein...

Four more years...four more years...

Tonight, the Tavern is raising a glass to...itself, as we celebrate four years since the doors first opened.

In that time, we have observed a change of government (meet the new boss, same as the old....), commented on the ups and downs of the economic climate and rejoiced in the fecund inspiration provided by the expenses scandal.

We have paraded our various hobby horses round the show-ring - the shortcomings of the NHS and local government, the essential and valuable work of the RNLI, the grisly spectacle of shopping in Britain's high streets, passing asteroids and, of course, the occasional tattoo story.

And the Tavern has been delighted to welcome the varied and entertaining contributions of regular visitors to the comments pages as well as occasional gems from those who pass by never to be seen again - though we live in hope.

What keeps the Tavern going, above all, is the knowledge that we are not alone; out there in the blogosphere are like-minded souls who also see the incongruities and inconsistencies of life in modern Britain.

It is you, the Tavern's guests, who make it worthwhile continuing to resist, to offer satire and scorn instead of surrender to the onslaught of idiocy and ignorance. Creating this blog has given me much amusement and I hope will continue to do so for at least another four years, and I thank you for that.

So I invite you to pour yourselves a drink and take a wander through the archives as we in the Tavern raise a toast to you, the readers.

Your very good health!

Friday 19 October 2012

The dog returneth to his vomit

Talk about recidivism! No sooner do we drag Westminster's finest away from one trough than they have their noses buried in another.

This time it's the rent scandal; they're all renting from each other while we foot the bill.

Something about it seemed uncannily familiar, until I realised that it's similar scam to one that was rife, albeit in rather different social circles, when I briefly worked in a housing benefit department many years ago (it involved home-owners swapping unemployed offspring rather than expense-funded flats but the aim was broadly the same).

This ought to call for a new installment of 'Expenses: the Musical', but the muse is elusive and, in any case, the quick-witted Oxfordshire Geek has a sharply-written song parody posted already, while Caedmon's Cat presents the story in his own inimitable style (and provides the title of this post).

So I shall turn my attention instead to George Osborne, who had the bad luck to be spotted in a first class railway carriage with a standard class ticket. Rather than travel with the plebs - oops, sorry; voters - he had his aide pay £189.50 for an upgrade.

Such an occurrence might have escaped public notice but for the wonders of modern technology; a television journalist in the train, who presumably couldn't believe her luck, tweeted the ensuing conversation to a waiting world:
“Very interesting train journey to Euston Chancellor George Osborne just got on at Wilmslow with a STANDARD ticket and he has sat in FIRST CLASS.”
  “His aide tells ticket collector he cannot possibly move and sit with the likes of us in standard class and requests he is allowed to remain in First Class.
“Ticket collector refuses.”
“George Osborne pays £160 to stay in first class!”
Cue an enigmatic silence on the part of Osborne's spokesman while, one assumes, frantic behind-the-scenes damage-limitation talks are being held. For the news to break on the same day as Mitchell's resignation leaves the Conservatives uncomfortably vulnerable to criticism.

Here in the Tavern, however, it has prompted a nostalgic singalong from the days when Sir Nicholas Winterton, too, found second class travel a democratic gesture too far.

Oh the posh, posh travelling life, the travelling life for me,
Comfy seats and lots of tables, complimentary tea;
If you can’t enjoy the benefits then why be an MP?
Proles Out, Stewards at Hand, posh with a capital P-O-S-H, posh

The people there in second class will always make me frown,
Their noisy children anger me, they never settle down
But I am on expenses so ta-ta and toodle-oo
As I board first class and never have to sit with any of you.

Oh the posh, posh travelling life, the travelling life for me,
Comfy seats and lots of tables, complimentary tea;
And all the other passengers are people just like me,
Proles Out, Stewards at Hand, posh with a capital P-O-S-H, posh

In first class I am sure to find an atmosphere to suit me
If there was any justice then the public would salute me;
They’d understand why I avoid all peasants great and small;
When crowded in with hoi polloi one just can’t think at all!

Oh the posh, posh travelling life, the travelling life for me, 
Comfy seats and lots of tables, complimentary tea; 
When I'm travelling at your expense I do it stylishly 
Proles Out, Stewards at Hand, posh with a capital P-O-S-H, P-O-S-H, P-O-S-H, P-O-S-H... 

Thursday 18 October 2012

As nicely chilled as charity

You know that nice warm fuzzy feeling you get from knowing you've done something worthwhile to help people worse off than yourself?

Well, according to the BBC, one bunch of charitable souls seem to think it's enhanced by lashings of free champagne.
An Essex food bank that helps needy people has defended its decision to host a Champagne buffet at its launch.
The Trussell Trust runs 270 food banks in the UK, inviting churches, schools and the public to donate food and money to help people in need.

Appropriately enough, its 'mission verse' is from Matthew 25; the one that begins: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink...”

Well, if the words of the trust's food bank network director are anything to go by, it is the VIP guests at the official opening ceremony of the Chelmsford branch who have been working up a thirst:
"When a project launches, people put in quite a bit of work and this is a nice way to consolidate that and reward them."
And in case they might be a bit peckish too, a finger buffet is to be offered 'out of courtesy to guests':
"People will be coming to the launch from quite a few organisations. The event is straight after work and many people will not have eaten."
Since the charity asks members of the public to 'help stop UK hunger' by giving up 'something small for a day or a week' and donating the money saved to their funds, it seems odd to think their supporters would not be willing to forego a choice of canapes to accompany their champagne.

The champagne itself, you will be relieved to hear, was not purchased at the expense of Britain's needy families:
A spokesman for the project's parent organisation said the Champagne had been paid for by a local church, not from charity donations.
So that's alright then - though it does sound a bit like there's another mission verse in operation - Mark 14:3-6:

Then she broke the flask and poured it on His head. But there were some who were indignant among themselves, and said, “Why was this fragrant oil wasted? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they criticized her sharply.

I fervently hope that this is all some kind of imaginative publicity stunt to generate media attention and the guests will subsequently be seen sharing rather more down-to-earth refreshments with the people they are trying to help.

Otherwise, the situation will have gone so far beyond irony that the word for it doesn't yet exist.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

A definite affirmative

From our old friend the Gazette: a question, presumably, of quantity or quality...

Clacton crews tackle van blaze in Jaywick

FIREFIGHTERS were called to a blazing van
which was 100 per cent alight.

As an added bonus, the next headline's a cracker too:

Dog wardens scoop prestigious award

Thursday 11 October 2012

Er...this is E sharp

I can't be the only one who read this...
Mice can "sing" like a choir by matching the pitch of their voice to that of others, scientists claim.
...and immediately thought of this:

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Darwinian cupcakes

Overdressed, overpriced and over here, the American-style cupcake has, in a relatively short space of time, elbowed its way to the heart of popular culture.

Personally, I can't stand the things, but I am told that, for a certain type of woman at least, buying and eating them bestows an air of New York sophistication with a frisson of 'Sex and the City' decadence.

It seems rather a lot to expect of a lump of sponge cake topped with vast quantities of sickly buttercream, if you ask me, but by all means go ahead, if that's your thing.

Only you might want to go easy on the glitter, judging by the results of a recent analysis by the appropriately down-to-earth West Yorkshire Trading Standards Service.
An investigation into “glitter” cake decorations found that some were unfit for human consumption and suited only for use on greetings cards.
When the plastic glitter was placed under a microscope, it was shown to be made up of hexagonal fragments with jagged edges.  
In one case, the glitter was made of finely powdered brass.
Fans of cupcakes say their appeal lies in the their presentation - the care taken to create an ephemeral object of beauty with the bonus of an instant sugar hit (though I wonder whether the stick-thin fashionistas who claim to adore cupcakes actually keep them down for long).

They are portrayed as the ultimate in affordable self-indulgence; from upmarket bespoke bakeries to my local supermarket, manufacturers compete to offer the most elaborate specimens, lavishly decorated with the brightest colours industrial chemistry can contrive, along with what looks like the contents of an eight-year-old's trinket box.

The flavour, of course, is essentially immaterial; the point about cupcakes is to be seen eating them - well, that and the sugar content, which can be up to 75% of the total weight. One might argue that the reason for all the elaborate decoration is that any adult capable of stomaching something so sweet is likely to have an overwhelming preference for fluffy frosting and sparkles.

Trading Standards warn that they do not know what the effects of eating glitter might be - I can see some interesting lawsuits pending when Yummy Mummies find out what they've been feeding their little darlings - but we can be fairly sure they will be, by and large, confined to that sector of the population prepared to throw common sense to the winds for a sparkly, self-indulgent treat.

Some rather different cupcakes made the news this week (caution: best not to visit the link if you are eating).

Tuesday 9 October 2012

If only she really meant it...

'Victims of crime will be able to decide how offenders are punished, under new proposals outlined by Home Secretary Theresa May today.'


(Too much to hope, I suppose, that she will follow in the footsteps of Peter Lilley and favour delegates with a spot of 'The Mikado'.)

Monday 8 October 2012

Where's a stick with an 'orse's 'ead 'andle when you need one?

Hot on the heels of the Clacton Lion (big and far away) which turned out to be Teddy Bear the Maine Coon cat (small and close up), comes news (via the Telegraph: check out the deadpan picture caption) of a lion prowling round a Bedford housing estate.
The first eyewitness said she came face-to-face with the lion in Thor Drive this week as she walked her Yorkshire Terriers.
Or cocktail snacks, if you happen to be a passing lion. Our intrepid heroine was seemingly undaunted by this unexpected encounter:
“I was stood about four feet away from it and I’ve seen enough National Geographic programmes to know it was on the prowl,” said the woman, who declined to be named “for fear of being mocked”.
Or, frankly, disbelieved - I mean, four feet is pretty close when you're talking about a top predator measuring 7-9 feet nose to tail. It would be unkind, though, to doubt someone so sure of her level of expertise, however vicariously acquired.

Her account prompted another woman to come forward and announce that she, too, had had a close encounter of the leonine kind in nearby Asgard Drive (sadly, I'm sure the occupants of these locations aren't half as exciting as they sound).

Our second Valkyrie also appears to have watched enough National Geographic to volunteer her opinion of animal behaviour:
“It looked like it was in stalk mode and was in a position which looked like it was going to pounce."
Both women are adamant that it was too big to be a domestic cat, which is where things start to look fishy; I mean, if you are suddenly confronted by a large carnivore, fangs and all, at a distance of a few feet, it's not the first comparison that springs to mind, is it?

And if you're asked later whether there's any chance it could have been a domestic cat, the answer would surely be "Hell, no!", rather than pointing out it didn't look like a dog either. Come to think of it, "I stood about four feet away from it" and "I felt a bit strange afterwards" sound like startlingly low-key reactions, under the circumstances.

Sadly for the intellectual future of Britain's couch potatoes, other residents of the estate don't seem to have much faith in the educational powers of National Geographic either:
The animal was last seen heading off in the direction of a neighbouring pig farm.

Locals speculated that it could have been a pig.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Quote of the day

‘They don’t have iPads or Xboxes but they make their own entertainment. We cook together. They take their daddy’s magnifying glass into the garden on bug-hunts.'

On sunny days, presumably. This is from an interview (in the Daily Mail) with Britain's oldest IVF mother, who gave birth to twins at the age of 58.

Insect immolation aside, the interview itself raises some interesting points, not least of which is the implication that the lack of iPads and Xboxes is somehow unusual for ten-year-old children. Most striking of all is the mother's headline conclusion that she 'should not have been allowed to have' IVF at 58.

To pay for private fertility treatment at such an advanced age and yet to fail to make financial provision for the children, so that the death of her live-in partner (when the twins were five months old) meant that his estate reverted to his first wife and left her 'penniless', argues for a certain abdication of responsibility, perhaps understandable given a desperate desire for children.

However, to turn round ten years later and suggest that someone else should have stopped her doing it in the first place almost defies belief.

Friday 5 October 2012

"You get that exosphere tidied up right now, or you're grounded!"

The breasts of scientifically-minded Scots everywhere will be swelling with pride this week at the news that Strathclyde University has been chosen to lead a multi-million pound international research project.

The Stardust programme will examine ways to prevent space debris colliding with satellites in orbit and, more sensationally, investigate possible methods of deflecting asteroids on a collision course for Earth.

OK, so it's not exactly Bruce Willis and a bunch of nukes, but it's exciting enough news and long overdue if you consider that Lembit Opik was calling for something of the sort back in the 1990s, before he was attracted into a rather different orbit.

Unfortunately for the PR side of the project, it is headed by one Dr Massimiliano Vasile who, despite clearly having a brain the size of a planet (and a trendy beard), has not quite mastered the art of the media-friendly soundbite. Here he is on the subject of the twin targets of asteroids and space debris:

“The two share a number of commonalities. Both are uncontrolled objects whose orbit is deeply affected by a number of gravitational and non-gravitational interactions, both have an irregular shape and an uncertain attitude motion, and both are made of inhomogeneous materials that can respond unexpectedly to a deflection action."

It all makes perfect sense, of course, but it's not going to appeal to the man on the Clapham omnibus - or fire the imagination of tomorrow's potential space engineers. And it gets worse:

“Such a significant multidisciplinary technical challenge, with real societal benefit for the future, represents a compelling topic for a training network.”

It's certainly about time someone started a bit of orbital housework; the immediate vicinity of our planetary home is starting to resemble the floor of a teenager's bedroom and it is, frankly, embarrassing (though at least the odds of a visit from the neighbours are fairly remote).

More to the point, there's enough scrap metal whizzing about up there to do serious damage to satellites or manned craft. The scientists have four years to come up with something - ideas so far include lasers, nets and, most intriguingly, a sort of motorised spider with robotic arms, as well as motors to attach to rogue asteroids - and we shall watch their work with interest.

However, should they come up with a ground-breaking discovery and want to see it on the front pages complete with user-friendly quotes, it might be as well to ensure someone takes Dr Vasile out for a long celebration lunch and leaves a more media-savvy colleague to conduct the press conference.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

A very public agony

Is it wrong of me to ask what purpose is served by the parents of a missing child publicly appealing for her return?

Has anyone ever, in the history of press conferences, returned a kidnapping victim purely as a result of a mother's plea? Somehow I doubt it; a kidnapper or accomplice willfully concealing a missing person is unlikely to be swayed at this point.

I know there are other factors - the police have to keep all their options open and, in a world that can produce a Karen Matthews, even the most innocent of parents cannot escape close scrutiny in this carefully  staged situation.

And I suppose there is always an outside chance that it might work - like the life jackets and rafts carried on overland commercial flights.

But is that really sufficient justification for repeatedly broadcasting footage of a woman who has reached the point at which mental and physical pain become indistinguishable?