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

Friday 31 May 2013

1998 QE2 - Sailing By

Since we started the practice of raising a glass to passing asteroids, the things have been whizzing by at gratifyingly frequent intervals.

Even more happily, these flybys are often at particularly opportune times for carousing and this week is no exception; 1998 QE2 will be at its nearest point at the undeniably convenient hour of 10pm BST this Friday, with live telescope images on SLOOH starting at 9.30.

Admittedly, at 3.6 million miles away, it's not what you'd call a narrow squeak, but it is an impressive 1.7 miles in diameter (which, by happy geological coincidence, is exactly the length of the tree-eating Dune du Pyla in south-west France which got the Daily Mail so excited on a slow news day recently).

Even more excitingly, it's bringing along its own moon, something that will doubtless be on the agenda today between 7 and 8pm BST, when 'NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver will participate in a White House "We the Geeks" Google+ Hangout. Participants will discuss...' Be still, my beating heart! ... 'asteroid identification, characterization, resource utilization and hazard mitigation.'

This impending close approach has led to some highly entertaining headlines, my current favourite being this one from the International Business Times (Australian edition):

Huge Asteroid Will Pass Earth on May 31, Similar to What Killed Dinosaurs

That, of course, is the 'handle' that makes it newsworthy. For the media, this is a potential Extinction Level Event; the small matter of it missing us by over three and a half million miles has been largely overlooked in the imaginative illustrations the various editors have chosen to depict an interplanetary collision in all its glory.

And, in a fine example of dumbing-down, the coincidental designation, assigned according to clearly-defined protocols, has led all and sundry to express its size in terms of ocean liners - it is 9 times as long as its namesake, if you must know (bonus points to the journalist who adds that the accompanying moon is 'twice the size of an ocean liner'.)

Meanwhile, there's more explosive artwork in reports that, since all the currently proposed methods to deter earthbound asteroids (including the ingenious paintball solution) require at least ten years notice, if anything unexpected pops up in the meantime, it looks as if we're back to Bruce Willis and the nukes.

That being so, I invite you to join me in a toast tonight in the hope that our current run of luck continues to hold.

(I am indebted to JuliaM for alerting me to this flyby in time to drop into the local brewery and pick up a case of  their finest.)

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Toast of the week - pragmatic Darwinism

As ever, the bank holiday weekend sees the start of the coastal Darwin Award season, as landlubbers seek ever more ingenious ways of removing themselves from the gene pool only to be thwarted by the tireless efforts of the Coastguard and the RNLI.

Early aspirants include the two intrepid anglers blown out to sea from Humberside in a child's toy dinghy, together with the usual assortment of clueless jetskiers and overconfident swimmers, 130 of whom had to be fished out of the North Sea when organisers launched a two-mile open-water race in unseasonably cold water and a current so fast the hapless swimmers were travelling backwards.

And, of course, there are always the latter-day Cnuts, who have apparently failed to grasp the essential fact that the sea level around our coasts goes up and down twice a day.

An elderly couple had to be rescued by the rather nifty Hunstanton Hovercraft (if you ever wondered what the RNLI buy with donations, check it out) when their 4x4 was stranded in a foot or so of water, but this is small beer compared to the experience of taxi driver Kryxdztof Tomaszek (H/T JuliaM, via comments).

The unfortunate Mr Tomaszek parked on Brean Beach (complete with pay-and-display ticket) and set off for a pleasant Sunday evening stroll along the sands, blissfully unaware that the car park was of a somewhat impermanent nature and there was a spring tide on the way.
'I managed to get in and tried to drive it away but the engine kept cutting out and two guys helped me out of the car by opening the driver's door and getting some belongings out.'
Despite the Mail's valiant attempts to create a life-or-death drama, there appears to have been little risk to life and limb; not really Darwin territory at all. It could, however, have been a very different story in Dorset, where teenagers have been seen climbing on the precarious piles of rubble that recently fell from the cliffs near Durdle Door.

A local resident reports that boys were clambering about high up on the stones, ignoring the fact that the rocks they dislodged were falling onto people below:
"Their reply was they are not throwing them so it's not their fault."
That sort of attitude has come to be associated with 'vulnerable' youngsters who need to be protected from themselves, so you might imagine that the Nanny State would have swung into action, ensuring everything is expensively fenced off. But no, they make 'em tougher than that in Dorset:
A spokeswoman for Portland Coastguard said the advice to people was not to climb on the rock, to act sensibly and to stay away from the landslip debris. 
"That's our advice, if they ignore it that's up to them," she added.
Well said: Madam, your very good health!

Friday 24 May 2013

Have I said this before?

Still busy, so, this being dementia awareness week, I am recycling a post from 2010 on the subject; sadly, it appears to be as relevant today as it was then.


If you start losing your marbles, you'd expect someone to notice. After all, even if you are blissfully unaware, your nearest and dearest will surely spot when something is wrong.

But not, it seems, your GP. A report in the British Medical Journal accuses doctors of doing 'too little too late' to diagnose dementia. The Chair of the Royal College of GPs agrees, calling the study a 'wake-up call for GPs'.

So what happens when a relative gets more than a bit forgetful and the family try and get something done?

If you live some distance away, it is far from easy. First of all you ask the sufferer to go to the GP, but that's no good; even if they agree, they may get as far as the surgery, if you're lucky or you go with them, but once they're in there, they forget what they were supposed to ask .

So you try again - ring the surgery and ask for help. Tough luck - there's the Data Protection Act: "We can't talk to you about a patient - it's confidential". The same thing happens when you ring Social Services, the local hospital and anyone else you can think of - always assuming, of course, that they bother to answer the phone.

Eventually you manage to convey the idea that you think something's badly wrong - so a GP actually turns up unannounced on the doorstep (not so good if you've advised your vulnerable elderly relative not to let strangers into the house).

The GP has a cursory look (but somehow fails to spot the unread mail piling up in the hall), checks blood pressure and asks whether your relative smokes (got to get those boxes ticked!), and then comes the crucial question; "Do you know who's Prime Minister?" Quick as a flash, back comes the correct answer. Excellent - job done! No need for more, all's well, goodbye.

Only News 24 is on in the background - and loathing of the current PM is one of your relative's favourite and more lucid topics. Had the GP enquired further, he might have been surprised to learn that Bobby Robson captains the England team - on a scandalous wage of £300 per week - and that beer has gone up to 8p a pint, but you mustn't grumble because the Secret Police are listening.

Off the record, a health worker tells me that in some areas, hospital Dementia Units are full of patients who have come in via A&E, having had a fall, injured themselves or been found wandering the streets in a state of confusion.

If you hear about a dementia sufferer in this situation, spare a thought for the family who let things get that far; they may not be neglectful, indifferent or unkind, but just victims of seemingly unbreakable NHS red tape.

Monday 20 May 2013

Meanwhile, some music

A busy few weeks, so posting will be light - in any case, even the darkest satirist would find little in recent news to laugh about;

For example, in any other context, Nick Clegg's evasive wrigglings when asked outright whether he shopped at Primark would be highly diverting, but in the light of the massive death toll in the supplier's factory, silence somehow seems the better option.

I am, however, grateful to JuliaM for alerting me to yet another impending asteroid. We'll certainly be raising a glass or two on the 31st, even though this one is giving us a fairly wide berth; there will be more on the subject nearer the time.

Meanwhile, writing the previous parody got me thinking about songs with a story, so here are a few more, in no particular order...

Saturday 4 May 2013

The Sunday Songbook - UKIPpy-ki-yay

This song was somehow inevitable, given the quasi-mythical status that the media seem to be attributing to this larger-than-life character.

With apologies to Stan Ridgway...

I was sitting in my local, feeling rather down;
I’d been drinking on my own since half past five
It was visiting the polling station left me without hope
With the big three parties hanging around outside.
I was looking for the courage to go back and see who'd won
And I sighed as I contemplated Britain’s fate;
Just then a chap in a fedora, with a shocking purple tie
Appeared there at my shoulder and said "Wait."

He offered me a pint and said "Don't worry, son, I'm here;
If Cameron wants to tangle now, he'll have me to dodge"
I said, "Well, thanks a lot!" I told him my name and asked him his
And he said to me "The name’s Nigel Farage".

Oh, no, no, no! says Farage;
The English aren’t as docile as they seem;
Oh, no, no, no! says Farage;
Things are going to change now UKIP’s on the scene.

Well, we talked all night, side by side, while results came rolling in
And I wondered how the drastic shift began
'Cause the council seats for UKIP seemed to spring up everywhere
And I wondered if this was all Farage’s plan.
"They called us clowns and fruitcakes, but UKIP have the last laugh," he said,
"Perhaps the government now understand
That the British may be tolerant but we’ll only take so much
Of the EU wanting to keep the upper hand -
Just let them try..."


And I knew this was somethin' we'd seen in Brussels,
 'Cause I remember how,
He was pullin' a metaphor right outta thin air
And swattin' von Rompuy with it from here to kingdom come.

When the count finally ended, we shook hands and said goodbye
He just winked at me from the door and then was gone,
When I got back to my family I told 'em about my night
And I told them how I’d met Nigel Farage.
When I said his name, the others gulped and then they took my arm
And said to me, “That really can’t be right”,
And they pointed to the television; “There’s Nigel Farage
And he's been right there on News 24 all night
(Feels like he's been there all week long...)"

Well I know I must have imagined it – I’d been drinking like a fish –
Though as hallucinations go, it’s pretty large,
But it’s certain UKIP’s vote share came to 22%
And we’re all going to see much more of Nigel Farage.

(It's been drawn to my attention that iPads and phones don't always display the embedded videos; if you want to hear the tune, follow the 'Stan Ridgway' link to Youtube.)

Cheap fashion - the untold cost

I apologise to those who have turned up at the Tavern recently hoping for a tankard of virtual ale and a chat.

It's been a busy week at work, but there's more to it than that; the collapse of the clothing factory in Bangladesh last week was too big a story to ignore but raised so many points it was impossible to decide what to say about it.

The scale of this disaster made it a global story, but it is only the latest in a series of catastrophes that can be directly attributed to the developed world's desire for cheap fashion; a succession of fires and lesser building collapses has claimed thousands of lives since the giants of the British high street began a price war with the supermarkets.

In 2008, BBC3 made a series, 'Blood, Sweat and T-shirts', in which a group of young Britons were sent to India and Sri Lanka to find out how high street clothes were made, following the process from cotton harvest to garment finishing by living and working alongside the labourers and sewing machine operators.

At the manufacturing stage, they were initially sent into a large sewing factory, where they complained about the long hours and low wages compared to what they were used to back at home. This was a top factory, they were told; the air conditioning, modern amenities and relatively good pay meant that jobs there were prized. The factory supplied, among others, Marks and Spencer, who were presumably happy to be named in this context - the days when '99% of St Michael goods are British made' are long gone.

Their next task was very different; they were given piecework to complete on generator-powered sewing machines in a roof-top workroom, where suffocating heat combined with fumes from the generator and the smell of the outside lavatory. The workers here eked out a precarious living, working long hours seven days a week to make ends meet; small wonder no British retailers were named this time.

But there was worse to come; for their final visit, the reluctant Brits were ushered along an alleyway that doubled as an open sewer and invited to climb a rickety ladder to a cramped upstairs room where young boys were sewing beads and sequins onto fabric destined for the UK fashion industry, their smaller fingers and very low wages making them desirable workers for such tasks.

I make no apology for recounting the content at length; I have tried several times in the past few years to find a recording of the series but it seems to have vanished without trace from the BBC website; BBC3, after such a promising start, is merrily cultivating a lowest common denominator ethos of reality shows and infantile humour. All that can be found are a handful of newspaper references and short clips.

Meanwhile, there has been surprisingly little media comment on the connection between the factory collapse and the British fashion industry, perhaps because one particular chain is involved. The same newspapers which chronicled the difficult and highly dangerous rescue efforts this week have, for years, been promoting Primark clothes in their fashion pages and even extolling their cheapness - "At this price, you can afford one in every colour!"

While a higher price is no guarantee that the workers' pay and conditions are any better - in some cases, it simply means a bigger mark-up for a designer brand - it seems odd that no-one is pointing out that the extreme cheapness of some high street clothing today may well imply corners being cut somewhere in the manufacturing process.

While the retailers insist they are doing all they can to promote good employment practices, as long as they are buying in from third parties there is little they can do about infrastructure or the widespread practice of sub-contracting, whereby labour-intensive elements such as zips, buttonholes or beading are completed off-site at a cheaper rate. In a competitive market, there must be overwhelming pressure not to ask too many questions.

The jargon-laden ethical trading polices outlined on the fashion retailers' websites do little to address the concerns that should surely be raised by a pair of embellished jeans supplied cheaply enough to retail in the UK for less than £10. In a relatively short space of time, clothing has become so cheap that a t-shirt can cost less than a sandwich, yet little is being done to ensure that consumers are clearly informed about the origins of what they are buying.

It would, perhaps, be far-fetched to assume a conspiracy of silence, but it seems strange that, following the collapse of this factory, so little attention has been paid to the conditions in which clothing is manufactured, given the vast amount of space and attention the media devote to fashion on a regular basis.