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 22 December 2012

Still here...

...despite the combined predictions of the Mayans and Nostradamus - 'Gangnam Style's' YouTube video having notched up the prophecy-fulfilling nine zeros (see previous post).

And there's been another reprieve too; remember 2011AG5? That's the catchy name they gave a 140m-wide chunk of rock on course to pass close by in 2040 - so close that, earlier this year, it was announced (by Americans, naturally)  that we were in a 'non-zero impact probability situation'.

It turns out that the phrase - though a delight in itself - was a little premature; further observation has confirmed that it will get no closer that 890,000 miles away.

So - what's new? Well, despite the optimistic forecasts of the hopeful, I can't imagine that there will be any less of Man's inhumanity to Man and I very much doubt that the potential end of the world brought about any  Damascene conversions - though I do wonder whether it played a part in causing the gridlock at my local supermarket on Friday morning; "Quick, Daphne; go and get some more bread in - the world's about to end!"

The combination of approaching festivities, forecasts of bad weather and pay-day would, I suppose, have produced a perfect storm even without the added frisson of a sense of impending doom, however unlikely.

It's odd, when you come to think of it, how this supposed festival has become a major theatrical production with all the worry and problems that entails. Type 'Christmas stress' into Google and you'll be offered a choice of 176,000,000 entries.

Not surprisingly, the Guardian has homed in on this:
Dr Orla Dunn, senior lecturer in health psychology at Coventry, added that there were health risks at Christmas too.
 "In terms of the health effects of stress, people who spend weeks worrying about Christmas can suffer a breakdown in their immune system, leaving them susceptible to colds. Coming into contact with more people at Christmas exposes people to more infections."
And that's without the threat of norovirus and flu - ironic that some will be brought low by an infection that prevents them consuming any of the excessive amount of food they have run themselves into the ground to procure, like songbirds struggling to feed a ravenous cuckoo chick.

Meanwhile, talking of food, in case the Righteous needed a heads-up, Dr Dunn continues with her message of peace and goodwill:
"Eating fattening foods, taking less exercise and stressful situations between family members can really take its toll on your health."
She and her team are 'surprised at the lack of research on the effects of Christmas on mental well-being' - which I think translates as 'we've run out of research projects to do - anyone fancy funding this one?'

Here at the Tavern, we discovered the solution long ago thanks to a timely major power-cut one Christmas Eve; if you don't get the preparations done, it doesn't matter in the least. There is no deficit or omission that cannot be remedied with a hug and a laugh (or - in the case of toilet rolls - a trip to the all-night petrol station).

These days, as soon as getting ready ceases to be enjoyable, everyone downs tools and gathers round the fire with his or her drink of choice and the unspoken agreement that we don't care whether it's finished or not as long as we're all happy and the sherry/whisky/wine supply holds up.

Sunday 16 December 2012

Now this is starting to get creepy...

Basking in yesterday's unaccustomed glory of a posted prediction being proved right thanks to Ed Miliband, I happened to stumble across this in the Huffington Post:
December 21: Mayan's End Of World Calendar Linked To Gangnam Style's Psy
It was a slightly unnerving moment, given that back on the 28th of November - 'Gangnam Style: the beginning of the end?' - I was pondering the baffling global success of this musical homage to Korea's version of the Sloane Ranger and idly speculating about its significance:
And now it's become the most watched YouTube video ever. While eschatology isn't my specialist area, something about this ubiquity is uncannily reminiscent of the kind of inexplicable global phenomena that are supposed by major religions to herald the end of the world. 
Maybe the Mayans were onto something after all....
Now, it seems, that old apocaholic Nostradamus is getting in on the act. According to an interpretation permeating the blogosphere, 'Gangnam Style' uncannily matches a typically cryptic prophecy from among the thousand he published in 1555:
”Du matin calme la fin viendra
 Une fois le nombre de cercles alignés à 9 sera,
Du cheval qui dansera”. 
"From the calm morning, the end will come, once the number of aligned circles from the dancing horse reaches 9."
'Calm Morning' is, it appears, an approximate translation of the performer's name, the 'dancing horse' refers to his signature galloping moves and (a bit tenuous, this one) the number of YouTube visits is getting interestingly close to 1,000,000,000 - nine zeros, see?

Michel de Notre Dame - aka Nostradamus; any self-respecting astrologer needs a catchy handle  - had what must be the ultimate lucky break for a would-be prophet during his lifetime when one of his verses seemed to have predicted the death of Henri II in a jousting accident - at least once he had helped his readers sort out all the allegorical references to lions and cages.

Largely on the basis of this, and the endorsement of his No. 1 fan, the Dowager Queen Catherine de' Medici, he built a reputation as a seer which has lasted over five centuries, leading devotees into fantastical intellectual contortions in their hindsight-fuelled attempts to make his verses correspond to real-life events.

That being so, I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone tried to link him to the Mayan calendar, but the way it seems to have surfaced at about the same time as my facetious post seems just a little odd.

I can't say that I am personally expecting the end of the world at 11.30am on the 21st - among other things, it would be particularly galling for the Urchin, who would then have spent his last few minutes in the dentist's chair - but you have to admit the coincidence is a striking one.

And if the world does end on Friday, how frustrating it will be to have belated proof of a previously undiscovered gift of prophecy!

Saturday 15 December 2012

A case for the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional

One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem in becoming your own father or mother that a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can't cope with. 
The major problem is simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner's Time Traveler's Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. 
It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it.
(Douglas Adams: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe)
I hope Ed Miliband's advisors have a copy of Dr Streetmentioner's book handy, because things are starting to get grammatically complicated.

Yesterday the Tavern deplored the BBC's premature factual reporting of his words in a speech on immigration; 'I'm sure Mr Miliband intends to say these things, and that his autocue is primed and ready, but who can really say that he will?'

Today we are reeling from the unaccustomed shock of being proved right.
Ed Miliband is under fire on immigration after he dropped an admission that Labour’s open door policy had left communities across Britain ‘struggling to cope’.
Despite the BBC's grammatically definite assertion that, among the other points to be made in the speech, he would admit the faults of Labour's immigration policy, the statement was never made.
He had been expected to say: ‘We did too little to tackle the realities of segregation in communities that were struggling to cope.’
Since it was the lack of an appropriate conditional tense that caught our attention in the first place, I doubt the BBC or the spin doctors involved will be able to handle the grammatical implications of this unexpected omission.

So what happened? Did he forget about that bit or, looking round at his distinctly multicultural - sorry, vibrant - audience, did he decide that discretion was the better part of valour? "Look, it's great that you're all here, but it was, you know, a bit of a mistake letting you in".

Naturally the spin doctors are already out in force on this one:
Labour insisted Mr Miliband ‘stands by’ the omitted section of his speech and had simply forgotten to say it.
Though, to be perfectly honest, an admission like that about an aspiring Prime Minister smacks somewhat of damage limitation. 'Oops, sorry!'  is not what you want from a potential leader in any walk of life.

And the BBC? Well, they are just ignoring the whole business and presumably hoping it goes away - either that or a roomful of editors are still busy wrangling over exactly which tense you should use to describe an event you reported as definite before it actually failed to take place.

Friday 14 December 2012

A load of crystal balls

I think it's fair to say I'm not a morning person - though if the Mail is to be believed (as ever, a very big 'if'), I am certainly not alone.

And, as I try to work up the resolve to face the day, there is one thing that is guaranteed to put me in a bad mood; premature prognostication.

The BBC's lamentable habit of regurgitating political party press releases as news is bad enough, but there is an irritating tendency for this to stray into the world of predicting the future:
Ed Miliband will acknowledge... He will emphasise... But he will also say...
Among his proposals will be...
The piece from the Today programme and the BBC website quoted at OoL by the Quiet Man, who has much to say on the actual content of the speech, is typical of the practice.

I'm sure Mr Miliband intends to say these things, and that his autocue is primed and ready, but who can really say that he will?

Those of a religious persuasion often formally acknowledge this uncertainty; the interjections 'deo volente' or 'insh'Allah' exist because of a long-standing and widespread acknowledgement that no one can say for certain that something will definitely happen.

Whether you attribute it to chance or divine intervention, it seems somehow arrogant to ignore the possibility of illness, say, or a traffic jam or - admittedly a long shot - a meteor strike, as if your certainty guarantees that the described event will take place.

It's a subject that has been aired here before (see Mystic Ed and his Crystal Balls) and, since it springs from the arrogance of the BBC and the political machinations of spin doctors, will doubtless surface again (and again, and again....).

Wednesday 12 December 2012

What's next - an offer they can't refuse?

This week's 'Do you know who I am?' award goes, by proxy, to the Culture Secretary:
Maria Miller's advisers warned The Telegraph to consider the minister’s role in implementing the Leveson Report before this newspaper published details of her expenses.
Mrs Miller, it seems, claimed as her second home the Wimbledon house which she and her city lawyer husband shared with her parents. Not surprisingly, given the location and the size of residence this implies, the allowances she claimed for the house between 2005 and 2009 amount to some £90,000.

Despite her assertion that her parents live with the family as 'dependants', this case appears to be identical to that of Labour's Tony McNulty, who was required to pay back £13,000 after the Parliamentary Commissioner described the situation as 'unacceptable'.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has previously ruled that second homes must be “exclusively” for the use of MPs in fulfilling their parliamentary duties and that housing a politician’s parents was “specifically prohibited” by the rules.
It's interesting to note that, having previously claimed £90,718 out of a maximum allowable £90,833 in second home allowances, Mrs Miller stopped claiming for the property altogether when the expenses scandal came to light and has since designated it her main residence.

When a reporter from the Telegraph - which is understandably anxious to retain its crown as Britain's foremost expense-fraud-busting paper - contacted the Culture Secretary's office, Mrs Miller's aide was ready with a thinly-disguised warning worthy of Cosa Nostra:
“Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment. So I am just going to kind of flag up that connection for you to think about.”
It is probably fair to say that Telegraph staff won't be the only ones thinking long and hard about the implication of her words.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

By Toutatis, the sky will not fall on our heads!

Asteroid time again - this time it's Toutatis, an old friend who drops by every four years or so.

The number of close approaches combined with its size - 4.5km long -  officially makes it a Potentially Hazardous Object but don't get too excited - current calculations put the chance of a collision within the next six hundred years as 'essentially zero' and it doesn't get much more likely after that either.

And in any case, 'close' is, of course, a relative term; astronomers start talking about 'proximity' when anything gets with a few million miles of Earth. Toutatis will actually be zipping by a comfortable 6.3 million miles away.

It's comforting, somehow, to know that Newtonian mechanics make some things, at least, predictable; there's quite enough uncertainly about already. To be honest, the chances of an asteroid wiping out civilization as we know it must be rather less than us bringing it about all by ourselves.

Though if the theory is right that human intelligence has been declining ever since we started practising agriculture and living in cities, the end will probably be less than spectacular, accompanied by the much-quoted whimper - or possibly the inane drivel of a world of radio show hosts.

Still, any flyby is a reason to raise a glass or two, so, tonight, we will be drinking a toast to Toutatis - a few days too early to put the wind up the Mayan prophecy lot but a good excuse for a party nonetheless.

Monday 10 December 2012

"Shattered... gutted.... heartbroken..."

The words chosen by one of the Australian radio hosts who perpetrated last week's hoax phone call are, I think, unintentionally revealing.

The phrase is, admittedly, taken out of context, but it looks very much as if, now his thoughtless action has had consequences far beyond those he envisaged, his first concern appears to be for himself and how he is affected by them.

The victims, meanwhile, are relegated to an afterthought: "...and obviously, you know, our deepest sympathies are with the families and the friends of all those affected."

Given the striking linguistic contrast, it would take a generous soul not to see the hallmarks of a management briefing in the formal expression so awkwardly tacked on after the visceral reactions.

This is, effectively, the vocabulary of a hurt child; if he truly feels guilt or remorse, he has couched it in the egocentric terminology of his generation, placing the emphasis firmly on his own suffering.

His excuse - 'everyone does it'  - is childish too; an abdication of individual responsibility which he serves up with the inevitable accompaniment; 'we didn't mean any harm'. It may well be true, but it's a sad confession that they lacked the intelligence or maturity to see anything wrong at all in making a joke phone call to a hospital at 5.30am.

Of course, Mel Greig and Michael Christian do have reason to feel sorry for themselves; a hail of extreme abuse has rained down on them, while we have seen little trace of the senior staff member who apparently approved the tape for broadcast despite no consent having been received from the hospital.

I have to admit to an intense dislike of prank phone calls; inviting a crowd to laugh at the humiliation of an unsuspecting victim is far too much like bullying for my liking. The popularity of such antics has a depressing lowest-common-denominator air, appealing to the baser instincts of the audience for a cheap laugh.

As Mel Grieg explained: "We just wanted to be hung up on. We wanted to be hung up on with our silly voices and wanted a 20-second segment to air of us doing stupid voices."

That is, of course, exactly what the radio station hired her for; this 30-year-old woman has spent over a decade being paid to behave, talk and think like a child, so it's hardly surprising that she and her co-host demonstrate a clear lack of maturity.

There were, undoubtedly, many mistakes made here. From what I have seen and heard of this pair, I doubt they even considered the time difference that meant they would be intruding on tired nurses at the end of a long night shift.

More significantly, though, they seem to have lacked the imagination to understand that, while radio prank calls are, by all accounts, a well-known practice in their own locality, a call made across the world might well be answered up by someone who was ignorant of the phenomenon and unable to recognize their 'silly voices'.

For the next few months at least, it's likely that Australian radio stations will think very carefully about allowing presenters to make prank calls, especially to foreign destinations where the reactions might be less predictable than at home.

Friday 7 December 2012

'Make some criminal’s Christmas miserable'...

... is the headline of the Oxford Mail's current crime-fighting initiative.

In conjunction with Thames Valley Police, the paper is publishing details and photographs of two dozen wanted criminals from the local area in what is memorably designated the 'Badvent Calendar'.

For the third year running, every day until Christmas Eve, the paper will reveal a new 'festive fugitive' suspect and details of his or her crimes.
Oxford area commander Supt Chris Sharp last night said: “It ties in with the advent calendars that are a tradition at Christmas. [...] We want to make sure we gather these people before the end of the year."
Thus, along with the 'Cinderella' shoplifter who left his own shoes behind at the scene and the robber who held up a cosmetic counter with a pair of scissors,
Lurking behind door seven of our criminal Christmas calendar is an Oxford woman suspected of shoplifting and staying at a “high quality” hotel without paying
Now I can't speak as a Christian, but isn't there something just a little odd about linking this rogues' gallery with the expectation of the Nativity?

I have to admit I'm enough of a linguistic pedant to be annoyed at the whole concept of 25-day 'advent' calendars that have less to do with Christianity than with the products of industrial confectioners or Walt Disney, implying that the eagerly awaited arrival in question is that of a materialistic shower of gifts.

And one of the earliest posts on this blog was prompted by the 'advent calendars' for dogs and cats being sold in a local petshop, which take anthropomorphism to a whole new level - although St Francis of Assisi might have approved.

But while this tendency towards the secular and the introduction of chocolate are relatively harmless - if somewhat depressing as a reminder that, for Generation Entitlement, every day is a treat day - I can't help feeling that something about this Thames Valley Police initiative seems just a little bit tasteless.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Darwin Award TV

Television talent shows entered a whole new era this week in Germany, when emergency help was needed for three separate incidents on their equivalent of 'Britain's Got Talent'.
First 16-year-old singer Laura Pinski almost choked to death on glitter confetti as it showered down on her just as she was breathing in to hit the high note for her big finish.
You may detect just the merest whiff of journalistic hyperbole here (the source being the Daily Mail), but you have to admit that it would have been a demise with Zeitgeist written all over it; I wonder whether the 'Casualty' scriptwriters have thought of it yet.
Then opera soprano Simone Ciccarese lost his voice because stunt technicians on the Supertalent show had flooded the stage with too much dry ice.
Stop sniggering at the back there! Though if the Mail is actually correct about Herr Ciccarese's vocal range, I'd have thought that a bit of dry ice was the least of his problems - he was a tenor last week. Perhaps he had an unfortunate encounter with these chaps:
Finally, firefighters had to rescue contestants Leo and Christian from a blaze when their act - smashing up a car on stage - sparked a blaze as the petrol tank went up in flames.
I have to admit I'm struggling to equate this one with the word 'talent'; I'm assuming that it's something to do with angle-grinders, which have unaccountably become a fashionable source of entertainment, at least if you add enough loud music and scantily-clad women.

It is, of course, thanks to this last 'act' that the phrase Darwin Award springs to mind, although anyone who is prepared to risk the slings and arrows of a televised talent show is likely to have a rather higher Darwin Quotient than the general population.

And, to be honest, an audience ready to applaud two men applying power tools to scrap metal suggests that, somewhere out there, a thousand villages are lacking their idiots; had the theatre gone up in flames, some kind of collective Darwin Award nomination would surely have been called for.

Although the presenter of 'Das Supertalent' sounded afterwards like someone trying to make lemonade out of life's lemons - 'Well at least it proves the show is 100 per cent live' - the producers may be viewing things very differently.

This was the first in a new series of a programme that had 'come under criticism of late due to dwindling viewer numbers'; I can't see that being much of a problem next week, as millions tune in expectantly awaiting the next themed mishap to befall an unfortunate contestant.

It's bound to be a sure-fire success.

Monday 3 December 2012

Physician, heal thyself (and thy administrative staff)

In today's news of hospitals 'full to bursting', one figure in particular caught my eye.
Up to 3% of beds are occupied by those with dementia and hospital care would have little effect.
While I can't claim extensive experience in the area, it entirely bears out what I have seen of a system that is far from ideal.

In the first place, the pressures on the system and the fact that some of the agencies concerned function on a geological timescale mean that it can take years to arrange help for someone with dementia, assuming you have actually managed to get a diagnosis.

As a result, the majority of admissions to dementia wards, at least according to nurses I have spoken to, are via A&E, after a fall or being found wandering outside in cold weather. Once they have been restored to physical health, the fun begins.

For those patients who need secure residential care, a place must be found in a suitable nursing home. Thus it was that I had the dubious pleasure of meeting a woman whose job was to match patients with care home places.

It began in a less than auspicious fashion. With a two-hour drive home ahead of me, I was looking forward to getting things sorted quickly; I didn't know then that she and her sort run on what I have since come to think of as 'public sector time'.

More than half an hour after the appointment was due, she finally hove into view at reception, brushing chocolate crumbs from her face. I was ushered into her office, where she resumed her half-drunk cup of coffee and unhurriedly produced a stack of forms.

Over the next quarter of an hour or so, I appear to have got the better part of the deal; while she managed to fill in barely three pages - mostly tick boxes - of my relative's details, I acquired a positive cornucopia of information on the small doings of her four-year-old daughter thanks to her constant chatter on the subject.

At 3pm precisely, she finished her (third) biscuit, drained her cup and stacked the forms on the desk, announcing she had to collect her child from pre-school.

"But what about a care home place?" This was, after all, the whole reason I was there.

She handed me a brochure from the desk drawer: "There's a list of homes in here," she said, "Just phone me when you've made up your mind which one". And with that, she was gone.

Fortunately the story ended well, but she left her mark on the case; one of those boxes she ticked so blithely - I think she was answering her phone at the time - turned out to have been the opposite of what I had told her; had we not been able to find interim funding, the care home place I arranged would have been lost as a result.

It's hardly surprising, therefore, that the dementia ward, according to the nurse I spoke to, was full of patients who should have left hospital long before.

I  wish I could say my experience was unique; sadly that 3% suggests otherwise.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Extracurricular activities, Essex style

Oh dear; looks like the silly season for Christmas stories has begun.
A primary school has outraged parents by doing “away with the manger” in its annual nativity play and making children act out a "politically correct" jewellery heist.
This, you may not be surprised to learn, is from Canvey Island, where staff have apparently decided that grand larceny is more relevant to their local community than the traditional shepherds and stable.
The “Christmas Tale” stars a pair of robbers, named Bob and Bill, who raid a jewellery store in broad daylight to steal a manger full of rubies and emeralds.
You've got to admit they may be right; according to the Telegraph, there have been seven violent armed raids in the area in the past six weeks, making it - probably - a more common occurrence than a teenage mother giving birth in a garage to a baby of dubious parentage.

And, since many of the 'traditions' of primary school nativity plays owe more to sentimental embellishment and renaissance iconography than to biblical sources, one might argue that the story is fair game for a substantial rewrite - if, indeed, it is performed at all.

But isn't it just a little odd, in a community that has seen so many armed robberies recently, to appoint two children to act out the part of modern-day criminals while the rest of them sing a distinctly unorthodox version of 'Away in a a Manger' (with some very dodgy scansion) about their raid on a high street shop?
“They knocked off the jewellers,
Though it was broad daylight,
They stole loads of diamonds,
To their utter delight.”
I fervently hope that the director of this theatrical masterpiece is not a devotee of the Stanislavski Method of acting, where actors seek out real-life experiences in preparation for their roles; in view of the recent spate of armed robberies nearby, perhaps it would be worth taking a closer look at the CCTV footage to look see if the perpetrators were less than four feet tall.