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 28 July 2013

The Sunday song book - εξάπόδι

Following the fate of the needle-tailed swift a few weeks ago comes news of another rare creature's early demise:
'A holidaymaker who caught and ate an octopus was "horrified" to learn it was only the second rare six-legged specimen ever found.'

(With apologies to Rodgers & Hammerstein)

Where the skies are all bright, a lucky fellow
Splashing in the waters of his native Greece
Might just find him a tasty octopus
Brought ashore for a family feast.

And it’s too late to rant and rave and bellow,
Now it’s done and the creature is quite dead,
That it sure was a cockeyed octopus;
Only six legs attached to its head.

The creature in the case
Was just the second of its race
Discovered in the waters below,
But our hero had the will
A cephalopod to kill
And serve up with a nice merlot.

You could say that this hungry tourist fellow
Should have known it was rare right from the start,
But there's now no hope;
That American dope
Flash fried it and tore it apart
A la carte.

(As an extra trivial treat, the singer is Reba McEntire, who plays sharp-shooting, vowel-torturing survivalist Heather in the cult film 'Tremors'. Also, if you missed it, here's a link to Mark Wadsworth's inspired plot conflation 'South Pacific Rim - the Musical'.)

Friday 26 July 2013

'Talk no more so exceeding proudly...'

(says a text the Archbishop of Canterbury might do well to contemplate)
'...Let not arrogancy come out of your mouth: For the LORD is a God of knowledge, And by him actions are weighed.' (1 Samuel 2.3)
It's tempting to think of Welby's recent embarrassment as a form of divine retribution for his announced venture into the realms of Mammon, albeit one brought about through a less than celestial instrument.

I have to admit, I'm struggling somewhat with the Church's surprisingly flexible attitude to ethical investment:
The Church's Ethical Investment Advisory Group "recommends against investment" in companies which make more than 3% of their income from pornography, 10% from military products and services, or 25% from other industries such as gambling, alcohol and high interest rate lenders.
We're told that supply increases to meet demand, so why should the CofE, with its huge financial clout, be prepared to compromise? And how, I wonder, did they arrive at those particular figures; was there a meeting at which someone said, "OK, chaps, we're looking at investing in porn, gaming and usury. I think the key question here is, what would Jesus do?"

While I am not a religious person, I do have strong personal opinions on gambling which include the National Lottery (this has led to some interesting conversations about what I would do if the Spouse won - fortunately the ethical dilemma has not yet arisen). Following their example, I could buy a ticket once a year and still claim to be firmly opposed to gambling.

Is something you find morally objectionable somehow less so if sufficiently diluted?

And, more to the point, isn't being 97% ethical a bit like being 97% pregnant?

Thursday 25 July 2013

"But I haven't got a baby..."

It seems there are no such things as celebrations any more; only retail opportunities.

Marks and Spencer, within minutes of the announcement of the royal birth, were e-mailing customers offering a cornucopia of champagne, flowers and party food and a tin of commemorative shortbread inscribed - with an impressive bit of bet-hedging - 'congratulations and warm wishes to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of their beautiful baby, Summer 2013'.

Debenhams, however, have gone one better, announcing to customers, 'The Royal baby has arrived! Let's celebrate with 20% off babywear'.

Personally, I think I'd rather stick with the champagne.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

George Alexander Louis

The thing about being a royal is that, should you ascend the throne, you may choose which of your impressive collection of names you will attach to your monarchy.

After Charles Philip Arthur George has made his choice, we will have William Philip Arthur Louis and now George Alexander Louis.

One day, maybe, just maybe...

(I deferred this post briefly because, had the name been announced as a tribute to Lord Mountbatten, it would have been in poor taste. However, since palace officials have apparently said the names were chosen 'because they liked them...no more no less', it seems reasonable to publish.)

Tuesday 23 July 2013

That sinking feeling

Just when I thought it was going to be a slow news day (except, of course, that a young woman has had a baby and the media seem to have gone collectively insane*), two entertaining stories come along at once.

First there was last night's asteroid, and then this:
Beachgoer's car is ruined after being swamped by turning tide
And, as if that were not enough, it was followed by this:
Three further vehicles rescued from incoming tide in Burnham area
Once again, the sea has demonstrated its dominance over mankind. In fact, it makes you wonder whether we ever intended to leave the oceans in the first place; perhaps, four hundred-odd million years ago, our distant aquatic ancestors were happily foraging in unfamiliar tidal shallows when the water went away.

You can almost picture them, left high and dry, gaping at each other in baffled confusion. Much the same expressions can be seen on today's beaches among families who, having set up a vast and intricate encampment a few feet from the water's edge and gone for a paddle, return to find the waves lapping merrily round the cool-box and their belongings drifting out to sea.

It would be interesting to know whether such incidents are becoming more frequent; presumably the wider availability of cars and better roads have led to more day-trippers from inland whose lack of familiarity with the sea could explain an increase in the number of tide-related emergency call-outs.

And that's not the end of the seaside idiocies either:
Solent Coastguard said it had received about 40 emergency calls in one 10-minute period over reports of adrift inflatables along the Hampshire coast.
A man, who had been aimlessly adrift in the Solent on a child's inflatable dinghy for well over an hour, has been rescued by emergency crews.
To quote a previous post; 'you may have been told at school that there's no such thing as failure, but when you're blundering about in the shipping lanes with a freighter bearing down on you at speed, I think you may find there is'.

And let's not forget this Darwin Award hopeful:
A man who attempted to sail to Ireland from Dorset in an inflatable dinghy has been rescued by coastguards. 
The man, believed to be American and in his 40s, was picked up south of Durdle Door having drifted eastwards from Osmington Mills on Wednesday afternoon. The 6ft (1.8m) inflatable boat had paddles as a mast and rudder and a plastic sheet for a sail. 
The Irish coast is more than 300 miles (480km) from Dorset.
Admittedly, as an American, he may well have grown up further from the sea than it's possible to get in our island nation, but that's not much of an excuse.

And frankly, we don't need his sort here; we've got quite enough home-grown maritime incompetents as it is!

*Not to mention Marks and Spencer; within minutes of the announcement, they were sending out e-mails with links to buy baby clothes and gifts, champagne, flowers and a 'delightfully illustrated commemorative tin' of biscuits.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Fasting - Yr doin' it wrong

Qatar health experts warn of Ramadan overeating

Qatar nutritionists have warned Ramadan fasters against overeating at night as they revealed appointments for weight loss advice traditionally soar by 50 percent after the holy month.

and, previously,

Qatari hospitals have begun receiving scores of patients suffering severe abdominal pains as a result of overeating during the first night of Ramadan, with an average of up to 15 patients expected to be admitted each night during the holy month.

(source: arabianbusiness.com)

Saturday 20 July 2013

The No Hope System (2) - Man vs. Machine

Medicine has certainly come a long way since a doctor would reach his diagnosis by solemnly scrutinising a vial of your urine before sniffing and then tasting it (rather, I imagine, in the manner of a particularly pretentious sommelier; "I'm getting ...hmmm.... asparagus, with just a hint of fenugreek" ).

These days, assuming you have managed to pass the modern-day Cerberus sitting behind the reception desk, you are more likely to find your GP sitting at a computer terminal, ready to access a world of information for your sole benefit.

If it's in the right hands, this is excellent news; specialist appointments or prescriptions arranged at the touch of a button and your entire medical history instantly available without the need for lengthy explanations. In any case, the extent of medical knowledge has long since surpassed the capacity of a single human brain.

However, at least in the experience of friends and family, the availability of medical information online has tempted more than one GP into a lotus-eating lifestyle of intellectual idleness.

There are, it seems, many online diagnostic tools based on the flowchart principle, in which the answers to a series of questions dictate progress through the various options. Much the same things can be found in home health encyclopedias - with the notable exception that, when all else fails the encyclopedia blithely says, "See your doctor".

For the GP attempting to use the system, there is no such cop-out. The anxious patient in the consulting room requires some kind of intervention, so what to do?

In some cases, the answer appears to be run through the options in the chart in the given order, regardless of the individual history of the patient. And in one instance I know of, this course of action was very nearly fatal because these diagnostic programmes are designed by software engineers.

If something goes wrong with an IT system, you start by eliminating the simplest and most obvious faults - is it turned on? Is a cable unplugged? Only when you have removed all these from the list do you start to look at more complex potential problems, leaving until last the really drastic explanations that might require major intervention or even replacement.

This is the pattern of thinking that has dictated the structure of online diagnosis charts and, when doctors ignore the clear warnings to use the tool as an aid to practice and make it instead a substitute for rational thought, it costs lives.

In the hands of an idle or indifferent GP, a life-threatening illness can go undetected for months simply because the computer suggests eliminating all minor possibilities first, or fails to list it as an option because the patient does not fit the usual profile.

But, unlike ailing laptops, human beings have an inconvenient habit of becoming increasingly unwell and incapacitated if their illnesses are not correctly treated - or even dying.

And there's no way to switch them back on again.

Monday 15 July 2013

The No Hope System (1)

Since the spotlight is currently on the shortcomings of the NHS,  I am resurrecting this post from the archives which first appeared in 2010 under the title '10 Ways the NHS is Killing People'.

What Subrosa has to say today on the Scottish NHS and the delays in treating cancer patients suggests that very little has changed in the intervening years. While I'm sure there are plenty of meetings going on among management staff, I wonder how much has been done to find out from patients exactly what is going on.


Over the past few years, several close relatives of mine have been seriously ill in various parts of the UK. In each case, the chances of survival were seriously impaired by a catalogue of mismanagement and inefficiency. In particular, the delays in diagnosis and treatment, if other patients have had the same experiences, could be significant in the UK’s shameful cancer survival statistics.

'No shows' at consultant appointments cost the NHS many thousands every year. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever fully researched why patients miss appointments; they could start by asking members of my family, who, despite their assiduous efforts to attend every appointment, have experienced the following administrative errors:
1. A consultant’s hospital appointment letter sent to an empty house – the ‘client’ being a long-term in-patient in the same hospital at the time. 
2. Several urgent appointment notifications received some days after the appointment date because, according to the staff on the appointment desk, ‘the hospital post-room only operates one day a week to save money’.
3. A vital letter which the consultant never saw – as is standard practice, it was opened by a secretary and placed straight in the filing cabinet.
4. An urgent explanatory letter from a consultant which did not reach the patient in time because his secretary took two weeks to type it up. 
5. The receptionist who failed to mark the patient as having arrived for an appointment so the consultant went home without seeing her. 
6. The receptionist who gave a cancer patient an appointment (requiring an 80-mile round-trip by taxi) on what turned out to be the consultant’s day off.
Of course, you have to get a referral to the consultant in the first place, which is not easy when you are faced with:
7. The GP who, for nearly 3 years, failed to diagnose a life-threatening medical condition because the non-smoking, non-drinking 7-stone patient ‘didn’t fit the profile’. 
8. The GP who dismissed advanced cancer symptoms as side-effects of HRT, saying ‘if people bothered about side-effects, nobody would ever take anything’. 
9. The GP who refused for 5 months to carry out a PSA test (an indicator of prostate cancer) because, he said, the problems were 'just normal statin side effects'– when the test was finally done, the cancer it clearly indicated was too far advanced for treatment.
And then again, there’s the careless lack of attention to detail:
10. The consultant who, we assume, gave a diagnosis of cancer to the wrong person.  The actual patient arrived at the hospital to be told that her name had been ticked off the list earlier and she had already received her test results.
All of the events described here have happened to members of my family and have contributed to at least one premature death. I’m not going to say any more on the personal side here, but I have promised them that I will use any means in my power to publicise what has gone wrong while safeguarding their anonymity.

Sunday 14 July 2013

Return of the Living Dead(ish)

Once again, Sunderland bus-stop Lothario Keith MacDonald has put in an appearance in the headlines;
A love rat alleged to have fathered 11 children by 10 different women assaulted his former partner and their three-year-old child in a spat over sunglasses.
It's quite a surprise to find them still in contact, given that he first came to our attention when he sent her a text purporting to give details of his death.

This macabre attempt to evade child support payment for  their daughter and their imminent second child backfired spectacularly when it was followed a few weeks later by an automatic e-mail sent from his new Blackberry.

This time, according to her version of events, he was making a brief visit to drop off some money - unlikely as it sounds - and, in the course of a rather confused-sounding dispute involving sunglasses and a fridge, he assaulted her and flung open the fridge door, which hit the child on the head.

His version, meanwhile, is that they were back together and 'living as man and wife'; it would appear his opinion of his own appeal has not changed in the intervening years;
"He was leaving and she did not want him to leave and that was the reason for the struggle."
Frankly, I don't envy the jury tasked with sorting out which of these unlikely scenarios is true; either the man who faked his own death to avoid paying child support was voluntarily parting with some of his state-supplied drinking vouchers or this unfortunate woman was foolish enough to want him back even after he deserted her mid-pregnancy (for another woman also carrying his child), then pretended to be dead.

MacDonald initially pleaded 'not guilty' to two charges of assault, even though, according to his publicly-funded defence counsel,
He accepts there was a struggle and, in the course of that struggle, he caused the injuries she stated in her account, with the possible exception of the cut on her right hand, which he does not accept he caused initially. 
These undisputed injuries suggest the struggle was a serious one, which, given that he has a proven history of violence against women, is surely grave cause for concern, as is his seeming lack of care in the presence of his young child. Extend this to all the other women and children to whom he has access and it becomes clear that anger management alone will not be enough.

Nothing about this case quite adds up, in keeping with the chaotic lifestyle of MacDonald and the mothers of his children - an ambiguity that may well have much to do with benefit rules and regulations. However, as past accounts show, in this case there is one way to be sure whether these two were actually cohabiting, a way that incidentally demonstrates just how immature he is.

For MacDonald, wherever he lays his X-box, that's his home.

Friday 12 July 2013

Pinkie's Heirs

'When you met him face to face he looked older, the slatey eyes touched with the annihilating eternity from which he had come and to which he went.'
When Graham Greene describes the seventeen-year-old killer Pinkie Brown in his 1938 novel 'Brighton Rock', the boy's youth is shocking, his vicious precocity part of what gives him ascendancy over older associates hardened to violent crime.

'The Boy', as he is referred to throughout the book, specialises in extorting protection money from small businesses and in the gruesome form of intimidation he applies to the witness of one of his crimes.

'I don't need a razor with a polony. If you want to know what it is, it's a bottle.'
 'You don't drink, Pinkie.' 
'Nobody would want to drink this.' 
'What is it, Pinkie?' '
Vitriol,' the Boy said, 'It scares a polony more than a knife.'*

Today, the casual use of knives by teenagers has become a feature of British society. Regular readers may remember this story from North Essex and there have been others since; last September, for instance, a 17-year-old student was stabbed to death at a party in a suburb of Colchester.

Three suspects aged 18 and 19 are on bail, while a 17-year-old has already been charged with the murder. And, while any violent death is disturbing, the aftermath of this one has taken a particularly unsettling turn:
Two people have been charged with intimidating witnesses following the murder of Jay Whiston. 
Alan Loughlin, 18, of Titania Close, Colchester, was charged with three counts of intimidating a witness. Kieran Marsh, 18, of Creffield Road, Colchester, was charged with two counts of intimidating a witness. 
A 16-year-old girl, and an 18-year-old woman from Clacton have been re-bailed, also on suspicion of witness intimidation until August.
Remember, although these are their current ages, the original crime was committed nearly a year ago, when most of them were probably under 18 and one of the girls under 16.

While the 1947 film of 'Brighton Rock' cast a baby-faced Richard Attenborough in the role, the more recent version chose to play down Pinkie's extreme youth, perhaps because, in today's Britain, it no longer has the power to surprise us.

*Greene's research appears to have let him down at this point; while he is presumably thinking of the Polari word 'palone' (girl), 'polony' (sic: a corruption of Bologna) is a well-established term for a salami-type sausage.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

The heavin' seas of Rye

By way of a coda to Monday's post:
The volunteer lifeboat crew at Rye Harbour RNLI Lifeboat Station were kept busy as the heatwave hit Rye Bay at the weekend.
During the course of the day, there were two changes of crew and 17 incidents attended in total, including searching for nine missing children and more than 10 inflatables.
All the children were subsequently found safe on dry land (a useful tip, by the way; if children wander, they usually keep their backs to the sun so that's always the first direction to try). You'd have thought, though, that given the large number of people there, parents would have been ultra-vigilant:
At 12.30pm there were more than 25,000 people on Camber Sands with still more people arriving. 
Sounds awful! Somehow, I'm irresistibly reminded of this:
'Now that all the seals and their wives were on the land, you could hear their clamour miles out to sea above the loudest gales. At the lowest counting there were over a million seals on the beach – old seals, mother seals, tiny babies and holluschickie, fighting, scuffling, bleating, crawling, and playing together – going down to the sea and coming up from it in gangs and regiments, lying over every foot of ground as far as the eye could reach...'
Rudyard Kipling: 'The White Seal' from 'The Jungle Book' (if you thought it was all singing bears and dancing monkeys, do take a look!)
We've described elsewhere how infant reins seem to have vanished from popular culture in recent years and free-range toddlers are common in our town centres and shopping malls, so perhaps it's natural that today's children are in the habit of wandering off.

But what is it about the good folk of Sussex that such a large number of them fail to keep count of their offspring in such a crowd or, alternatively, set them adrift in a strong wind?

Tuesday 9 July 2013

'Who Goes There?'

Did anyone else see this...

A giant lake buried more than two miles beneath the Antarctic ice has been found to contain a "surprising" variety of life.

...and immediately think of this?

The giant meteorologist spoke again. "The problem is this. Blair wants to examine the thing. Thaw it out and make micro slides of its tissues and so forth. Norris doesn't believe that is safe, and Blair does. Dr. Copper agrees pretty much with Blair. Norris is a physicist, of course, not a biologist. But he makes a point I think we should all hear. Blair has described the microscopic life-forms biologist find living, even in this cold and inhospitable place. They freeze every winter, and thaw every summer - for three months - and live.

"The point Norris makes is - they thaw, and live again. There must have been microscopic life associated with this creature. There is with every living thing we know. And Norris is afraid that we may release a plague - some germ disease unknown to Earth - if we thaw those microscopic things that have been frozen there for twenty million years.

From 'Who Goes There?' by John W. Campbell Jr (writing as Don A. Stuart), published in 1938 and acclaimed as one of the finest science fiction novellas ever written. It has been filmed three times as 'The Thing From Another World' (1951) and 'The Thing' (1982 and 2011).

The text can be found online here (usual caveats apply).

Monday 8 July 2013

Heads of oak

With the hot weather suddenly upon us, the national Darwin Award season is in full swing around the coastline of this once-proud maritime nation.

Along with some more unusual incidents featuring a flock of kite surfers and an injured base-jumper, this weekend has seen a particularly spectacular haul of run-of-the-mill incompetence and foolhardiness. In Essex, for instance, the Darwin hopefuls were clearly out in force:
The volunteer crew of Southend RNLI Lifeboat Station were kept busy over the weekend, launching to people drifting on inflatables, youths jumping into the sea from a jetty, a broken down speedboat, and reports of a missing woman.
Meanwhile, there was a classic trio of incidents further north in Redcar, where the unaccustomed sunshine had obviously gone to their heads. The first involved that perennial favourite of thrill-seeking Darwin Award hopefuls and, in more southerly waters, the preferred vessel of the Romford Navy, the jetski.

Since these are essentially noisy aquatic motorbikes expressly designed to be driven around at high speed just off crowded beaches annoying the hell out of everyone, a capsize is likely to be greeted with cheers of Schadenfreude, especially when it involves several people:
The personal water craft capsized while towing an inflatable ring, throwing all three riders into the sea and leaving the fourth person stranded on the inflatable. A strong offshore wind was blowing all four people quickly out to sea.
Someone called the local lifeboat crew, who fished out the stranded mariners, restarted the jetski and generally set all to rights, pointing out to the clueless quartet the benefits of donning a lifejacket before travelling at speed on deep water.

At teatime, the lifeboats were called out again, this time to one of that special category of Darwin hopefuls who, having reproduced, try to amend the fact by merrily casting their own progeny adrift in an inflatable toy boat on a windy day.

There's a lot of it about, from the southern coast right up to the waters off Western Scotland, where Weekend Yachtsman, commenting on another post, describes repeated coastguard alerts of the kind. This case, however, offers an interesting variation on the usual theme:
An adult who had been in the dinghy had apparently jumped into the sea to assist a second child who was in the sea. This then caused the child in the dinghy to drift further out to sea on an offshore wind. 
Fortunately for the family, if not the gene pool, the young castaway was retrieved by a member of the public, but since this good Samaritan seized the child and left the inflatable to pursue its course on the outgoing tide, the lifeboat still had to hunt it down to avoid false alarms.

Given the weather, it would be easy to blame all this on the sort of people whose only previous aquatic experience had been heavily chlorinated, but the third rescue, the following day, involved a local who should have known better:
Two men became trapped by the incoming tide at cliffs near Saltburn on Sunday 7 July 2013. The alarm was raised just after 2pm after two men, one from Middlesbrough and the other from Saltburn, were trapped by the tide at a location known locally as Penny Hole.
There is a noticeable air of resignation in the RNLI report; you can almost hear the weary sigh:
‘With the weather the way it has been for the past few days, and with the high tide being around tea-time, we could have almost predicted we’d get a call to rescue someone at Huntcliff.
The sole benefit to be derived from these antics is that they give volunteer crews useful practice in life-saving skills, though it would surely be a very good thing if those rescued from self-inflicted peril acknowledged the service by supporting the RNLI in the future.

It will certainly be needed: all the news coverage carries the usual admonitions on the subject of tethering inflatables, wearing lifejackets and checking tide times but only an insane optimist would expect it to make any difference.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Baby, you can punch my car

Remember this, from earlier this month?
A man got out of the Zafira and punched the victim in the face, while a woman, who also got out of the car, punched the Beetle several times.
Not an isolated case, it seems. A public-spirited chap in Berkshire who remonstrated with a child for dropping litter in a DIY store car park found himself under attack from its sire and dam:
The father punched him in the head twice and the mother smashed in the passenger door of his car.
The perpetrators sound similar too; in the first case,
The man was white, in his early 30s, 6ft to 6ft 3ins, of muscle build [sic] with short dark hair shaved at the sides. The woman was white, 30 to 32, of medium build, 5ft 5ins, with shoulder-length blonde hair with dark roots.
While in the second,
The man was white, about 5ft 7ins and of a "very muscular build with a shaved or bald head". The woman is described as white, aged 38 or 39, with long blonde hair tied into a pony tail, and wearing a light pink top.
If it's the same woman, albeit clearly looking a bit rougher, she has managed in the space of three weeks to trade up from a Zafira to a 'new-looking' gold pick-up truck while incidentally changing partners (unless, of course, the first victim exaggerated the size of his assailant).

An unlikely coincidence, you'll agree (at least as far as the car is concerned), which leaves us contemplating the unpleasant possibility that this may now be standard practice in some circles, with the traditional female cry of 'Leave it; he's not worth it' replaced by a spot of impromptu panel-beating.

While we generally applaud equality for the female of the species, it's more than a little worrying to think that these aggressive couples have learned to synchronise their attacks on owner and vehicle alike.

Monday 1 July 2013

Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly...

...turbines just give them a new way to die.

(with apologies to Noel Harrison)

Round. ..
Like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel,
So the turbines of the Islands
Dance their ever-spinning reel.
Then one lone and ardent twitcher
On a sunny afternoon
Gets a glimpse of something special,
Calls his friends and pretty soon
Eager crowds of them are rushing
To that bare and lonely place;
"Hirundapus caudacutus!" 
Eager smiles on every face
Until they reach the spot and find
What the windmills left behind....

(Picture from Fox News)

Meanwhile, you might like to investigate the Guardian Environment blog's unique approach to the story and savour the use of their magic word:
Predictably, some people, who have shown little interest in bird conservation before, have sought to martyr this poor bird for their anti-windfarm cause. This is as offensive as it is irrational.