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 24 August 2013

Lembit takes his eye off the ball

It's party time again! Just in time for the Bank Holiday, astronomers have spotted yet another Near-Earth Asteroid.

2013 QR1 will make its nearest approach this time - at what space.com refers to as a 'safe distance' of 1.8 million miles - at 3.37am BST tomorrow morning, though enthusiasts can watch it in a webcast at the more civilized time of 5.30pm BST on Sunday.

Its recent discovery means that data from this pass will be needed to calculate whether there is any chance of a future impact, and there are still plenty more out there to be discovered, which rather calls into question the recent assurances that, based on current knowledge, we aren't in line for a strike for at least the next century.
“Finding 10,000 near-Earth objects is a significant milestone,” said Lindley Johnson, program executive for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program, "but there are at least 10 times that many more to be found before we can be assured we will have found any and all that could impact and do significant harm to the citizens of Earth.” 
Even leaving aside the question of all those 'unknown unknowns' still whizzing around up there, there's always the chance of a collision knocking one of the known ones onto a new trajectory. On a cosmic scale, it's always going to be a question of 'when', not 'if'.

And where's Lembit Opik while all this is going on? Surely this one-time stalwart campaigner for an asteroid early warning system has something to say on the matter? Unfortunately, he seems to have been occupied with matters rather closer to home:
'Former MP Lembit Opik bitten in the groin by a sausage dog while judging a charity pet show'
I suppose it's too much to hope that this will convince him once and for all that the celebrity life isn't all it's cracked up to be and that he should return forthwith to matters astronomical.

After all, while the USA gears up for an asteroid-based gold rush and runs competitions to find a useful method of deflection, no-one in Britain has yet stepped up to become, as it were, the face of asteroids.

This should leave the field wide open for Opik, once described as the 'Nostradamus of Westminster' for his dire prognostications of asteroid impact. After all, his previous alternative careers haven't exactly left him covered in glory and it's clear he has no future as a dog show judge.

Sadly, I suspect that his media antics have effectively disqualified him from becoming our national authority on the subject; should we one day face an imminent impact, I, for one, don't want to hear about it from an alumnus of 'I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here'.

Sunday 18 August 2013

The Sunday Songbook - Littoral Littering

Britons now drop litter as cows defecate in fields, or snails leave a trail of slime. That is to say, they do it naturally, without conscious reflection.
(Theodore Dalrymple: 'Litter: The Remains of Our Culture')
Recent news coverage has treated us to abundant images of litter strewn across parks and fields in the aftermath of festivals and Bank Holidays. Doubtless this weekend's V festival will be no exception, as thousands of people exercise what they seem to regard as an inalienable right to drop their rubbish wherever they choose.

Perhaps it's because they know that, sooner or later, someone else will clear it up - the more callous might even suggest it creates work for the unemployed - or maybe they want to demonstrate that they are free spirits who can't be bothered with such mundane details, but I suspect it has at least as much to do with simply following the herd.

There's a blackly amusing irony that, if you approached these festival-goers and asked their opinion on, say, Green issues, they would probably sigh over the latest global warming predictions and deplore the plight of the polar bear and Man's impact on the environment while surrounded on all sides by their own carelessly discarded leavings.

It's not just the festivals that generate unnecessary carpets of rubbish; it's a depressing thought that, thanks to this summer's fine weather, Britain's coastline is likely to be strewn with even more litter than usual, and 'usual' is pretty bad.

Even after the poor summer last year, the Marine Conservation Society's annual clean-up produced 924kg of rubbish from just six beaches in Northumberland alone.
The number of cigarette stubs found on beaches between 2011 and 2012 doubled, with general smoking litter, including lighters and packets increasing by 90%. There was also a rise in the number of sweet and lolly wrappers.
Along with the ubiquitous drinks cans and bottles, this suggests a constant stream of secondary indulgence by those for whom a trip to the beach is not sufficiently enjoyable on its own - not to mention a considerable financial outlay.

It's hard to imagine what goes through the minds of the people who are happy to spend a few hours sitting amid the spectacular scenery of England's North-east coastline, then walk away and leave their rubbish behind.

Perhaps it's something like this...

Come here me little Jackie
Now av smoked me baccy
Let wer drop the packet
Dinna mind a bin.

Dance ti' thy daddy, sing ti' thy mammy,
Let fa' the wrapper that yer lolly's in;
Haud thy chip buttie till it’s gan a’ squishy,
Chuck it doon an’ leave it by yon baccy tin.

Here's thy mother sittin'
Lager cans a’ roond her,
Sup thy drink and kick the
Bottle doon the sand.

Dance ti' thy daddy, sing ti' thy mammy,
Dance roond their tab-ends lyin' in a ring;
See in the watter a’ the little fishies
Swimmin’ in wor roobish when the tide cooms in.

Saturday 17 August 2013

Beyond all reasonable doubt

When Anna Raccoon published her recent post on the subject of trial by jury, one of the comments spoke, I suspect, for many:
Having once been a member of a jury [...], what I learned, somewhat contrary to the idea conveyed by newspapers, was that the main job of a jury is simply to make a decision as to who is lying and who is telling the truth. 
To what extent juries get this right, God only knows.  (Jonathan Mason) 
That comment sprang to mind this week when someone drew to my attention a story from the Channel Islands.

Their law courts use a different system to that of the mainland; instead of a jury, cases are decided, under a presiding Judge, by a panel of Jurats, a small group of lay people elected to the prestigious and lifelong honorary position of judges of fact in court. They are expected to have proven ability in their chosen career and, while not trained in Law, to be able to perform a variety of legal and ceremonial roles.

Our nearest analogy (albeit lower down the pecking order) would probably be Magistrates, and, as with our own JPs, one would expect that experience would confer a practiced ear for the truth. The system has the added advantage that they are unlikely to commit such misdemeanours as sending texts during a trial.

Last year, a panel of nine Jurats heard the case of a builder arrested after jewellery missing from the house where he was working was found concealed in his van.
Mr Salgado, who represented himself, said he had not taken any of the items found in his van.
Bearing in mind that the theft occurred on his first day working at the property, his explanation sounds more than a little far-fetched:
He said the prosecution’s case was illogical and he believed that he must have been set up by Mrs Ayres [the client], who was angry at him after he declined her invitation to sleep with her.
Mrs Ayres (with, one imagines, more than a little indignation) denied his accusation that she had hidden the jewellery in a bag of grout to incriminate him, but to no avail; the Jurats acquitted him by a majority of seven to two.

A year later, Salgado was back in court, this time pleading guilty to burgling the house of a fellow-builder who was away on holiday.
He broke into his pal’s home and stole £10,000 in cash and more than £18,000-worth of jewellery. He also, after being arrested, ‘cold bloodedly’ tried to pin his crime on a colleague, the Royal Court heard during a sentencing hearing.
His girlfriend is clearly in no doubt about his true nature and has publicly rejected him, suggesting that her boyfriend has, as they say, 'form':
‘I have stuck by Joe through all the crimes he has committed, but I am unable to do so any more.
Salgado is clearly a plausible and persuasive individual, which may well be relevant to his earlier acquittal. He may - unlikely as it now sounds - have been telling the truth, or it's possible the verdict was necessary because of some obscure Channel Island law or of a lack of corroborating evidence; the news reports are sketchy at best on the subject.

But if it were reached because they believed a fictitious and spiteful counter-accusation maligning an innocent victim, it would be worrying that seven out of nine Jurats were taken in.

If they can be deceived, what hope is there for the rest of us?

(All news references are from the Guernsey Press website.)

Friday 16 August 2013

Toast of the week - animal rescue edition

It's not just humans who get cut off by the tide, you know...
Two young ferrets who were at risk of drowning were rescued by lifeboat volunteers at Newbiggin RNLI lifeboat station.
What makes this story particularly appealing - apart from its furry protagonists - is the tone of the RNLI account of the incident, written by the local volunteer Press Officer, who has eschewed the usual utilitarian style of reporting in favour of a more literary approach:
The ferrets' anxious owners had made desperate attempts to save their animals by wading into the sea on the Cambois Bay rocks but their best endeavours looked likely to be scuppered when neither Tootsie or Lucky responded.

The crew found Tootsie and Lucky minutes away from drowning by the rapidly rising tide.
Fortunately the intrepid rescuers were able to calm the animals (and, by the sound of it, their distraught owners) and lift them to safety from the rocks.

The icing on the cake is the accompanying photograph, taken by the author; showing two seemingly identical ferrets, it is carefully labelled 'Tootsie (left) and Lucky' - a level of attention to detail that some of our national newspapers would do well to emulate.

It may come as no surprise that the Press Officer, who has written a book about the lifeboat station, is also listed as their mechanic; it's surely good news for the crews and those who may need rescuing that the lifeboats are in such meticulous hands.

When every day seems to bring us another news report of man's inhumanity (or indifference) to man, it is reassuring to think there are still volunteers out there prepared to risk life and limb if necessary to save lives - and to rescue the occasional pet.

It's a while since we had a toast in the Tavern, so I invite you to raise a glass tonight to the men and women of the RNLI and to their Press Officer in Newbiggin by the sea.

Thursday 15 August 2013

On the Age of Consent...

...but initially, at least, probably not the one you were thinking of:
The furious mum of a 14-year-old girl tattooed by an unlicensed amateur shopped him to police.
In a story fraught with interesting comparisons, an untrained tattoo artist in Gloucestershire has been fined under the Tattooing of Minors Act 1969 (so much for this being a recent phenomenon).

The court was told that the girl 'pestered' the 23-year-old man into giving her a £20 tattoo 'in memory of her grandfather', telling him halfway through that she was sixteen years old.
He admitted not asking her age but assumed she was 18.
As you'd expect from an inexperienced amateur who purchased his needles and ink on ebay, the tattooist didn't ask to see any proof of her age before starting work.

After that, he had no option but to plead guilty, of course, particularly as she told him she was sixteen; it is illegal to tattoo anyone under eighteen except for medical reasons.

It's not the first case of its kind, and will certainly not be the last, but it does raise the problematical question of girls who appear much older than they are. In a case some years ago, a tattooist defended himself after inking a fifteen-year-old:
He said: “What was she doing here at 2.30pm with £100 in her pocket? We had every reason to believe that she was over the age of 20. She did not look under 18.
With cosmetics and adult clothes, some fourteen-year-old girls can easily pass for late teens or even early twenties. I have even observed, on a school trip, a carefully made up and coiffured schoolgirl being mistaken for the accompanying teacher.

Which leads me to an unpleasant but relevant point. In a recent Channel 4 programme about child soldiers, the narrator explained something which may shed additional light on a recent spate of court cases in the UK.

Few people in Afghanistan, he said, know for certain their exact age. A child's stage of development is judged entirely on appearance; for boys, this means that facial hair proves they are old enough to be soldiers, even if, by our standards, they are barely above primary school age. The programme naturally did not concern itself with girls, but one assumes the same criteria apply.

If that attitude extends beyond the borders of Afghanistan and accompanies immigrants to the UK, it presents us with the problem of a sector of society for whom our child protection legislation may well be effectively meaningless.

Leaving aside for the moment the appalling crimes perpetrated against teenage girls in recent years and looking at the broader picture, how do you explain the age of consent to someone who has no concept of chronological age?

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Zoomorphic quote of the day

Hot on the heels of the tale of stolen shoes comes another glimpse into everyday life in our troubled times:
Two men were arrested at Legoland after around 10 parents got involved in a mass brawl in front of horrified children.
They weren't horrified to start with, mind you, having been reared in a soap-opera-fuelled culture where the boundaries between reality and fiction have become increasingly blurred and screen violence is commonplace:
At first, some children thought the disruption was part of an act for the pirate-themed ride, but as more parents got involved it became clear that it was a fight.
The spectacle, according to one eye-witness, sounds positively Homeric:
'About ten people were involved - even some of the women flew off the ride trading punches'
(in the manner, one imagines, of the vengeful Olympian goddesses descending on the battlefield before Troy, albeit rather less divine in appearance).

The Legoland management, predictably, take a calmer view than the tabloid media, claiming that 'An altercation occurred between a family group and a male guest'.

Meanwhile the police state that  fixed penalty notices for public order offences were issued to two men aged 29 and 30, which is definitely old enough to know better. What hope is there for the offspring of men who behave like this on a family day out?

Under the circumstances, perhaps it's appropriate that Legoland's statement concludes with a phrase that could have come straight from a nature documentary:
'The group of males and their families were removed from the park'.

(The title is the result of a Google search to answer the question this story immediately brought to mind:  'What is the opposite of anthropomorphism?'. It is, perhaps, significant that a lot of other people out there seem to be asking the same question.)

Sunday 11 August 2013

A vignette of today's Britain

From the BBC:
Special orthopaedic boots belonging to the two-year-old daughter of Hollyoaks actress Carli Norris that were thought to have been stolen, have been handed in to police.
The leather boots were handmade for the child; a disabling condition in both feet means that she needs them to walk properly. On August 1st, they were accidentally left on top of a car park payment machine outside Colchester Hospital, where they had just been collected; when the family went back, they were gone.
Police issued CCTV pictures of two people they want to speak to; [...] a man and woman, both thought to be in their 50s, who were a few places behind the family in the queue at the machine.
This morning, the boots were handed in to Clacton police station by a woman 'from the area'.

So what happened during those ten days? Did conscience get the better of them; were the thieves swayed by the public appeal by a celebrity mum? Or was it the little girl's disability that made all the difference?

The shoes could not have been worn by any other child, but that was presumably not evident at first. In much the same way, my prescription sunglasses in their 'designer' case were stolen on a cross-channel ferry; I like to imagine the thief or the ultimate purchaser painfully squinting through them with a truly abominable headache.

I suppose much depends on whether they were stolen to use or to sell - the regular large car boot sales near Clacton may be relevant here - but it's clear they were removed from the hospital surroundings and taken to someone's home; the ten day and fifteen mile interval makes it highly implausible that the intention was to hand them in all along.

It would surely take a distinctly lax morality and a lack of consideration to steal a child's shoes in the first place, yet, for the seemingly unscrupulous perpetrators, the public appeal of a disabled little girl and her actress mother outweighed the risks of being traced when returning them.

VoilĂ : opportunistic criminality, sentimentality and celebrity worship all rolled into one little story.

Friday 9 August 2013

Darwin meets Archimedes

While we're familiar with the role the rising tide plays in assorted manifestations of human error, sometimes it's the receding water that causes the problem.

Take, for example, the case of the young man rushed to hospital in Cardiff on Tuesday night with what appears to be a very nasty ankle injury after jumping off a 20ft wall into less than 3ft of water.

If this comment from the Barry Coastguard facebook page is genuine, at least the boy made a good impression on the people who had to deal with the consequences of his foolhardy behaviour:
"I was part of the ambulance crew that took this young man to hospital and he was very polite well mannered and thanked us for everything we were doing for him which is more than we get from most of the adults we pick up."
Given that he must have been in considerable pain at the time, this suggests a degree of presence of mind and character, which makes it all the more baffling that he was doing something quite so stupid.

It's a truth universally acknowledged, not least by the operators of theme parks, that a generation wrapped in Health & Safety-approved cotton wool since babyhood will seek thrills wherever it can, and the adrenaline experience du jour is 'tombstoning'.

It's been around for a while, but, under the guise of disapproval, recent media coverage has ensured that every impressionable youngster in the country knows that jumping feet-first from a bridge or sea-wall generates an adrenaline rush and, equally important for today's teenagers, looks spectacular in the (abundant) accompanying photos.

And, since these youngsters have been constantly bombarded from their earliest years with dire official warnings covering everything from road safety to healthy eating, the Coastguard's admonitions about water depth and currents become just so much background noise.

With ultra-safe play areas and constant monitoring of their environment, today's children are relatively inexperienced at judging risks and woefully ignorant of the way nature behaves. And, as the forthcoming GCSE results will doubtless show, many of them have a less-than-perfect grasp of the laws of physics.

Add a touch of typical teenage recklessness and some peer pressure and you have a recipe for disaster.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

"I sometimes think we must be all mad...

...and that we shall wake to sanity in strait-waistcoats."

Popular fiction and cinema has long known the power of the vampire myth. Since Bram Stoker hit on the idea of combining Central European legend with a threat to contemporary society, we've become accustomed to the idea of a blood-sucking species bent on world domination.

Yet, with a certain irony, the fictional gore-fest seems to have distracted us from the real-life vampires in our midst, their fangs fastened not in our veins but in our wallets.

On the surface, there are the obvious suspects; the redistribution of wealth through the tax system to deserving and undeserving alike (to the clear disadvantage of the former), the career landlords extracting ludicrous amounts from council Housing Benefit departments or the private care homes that charge 'self-funding' clients with savings a higher rate than other residents for the same service.

And, as JuliaM points out elsewhere (with another 1890s literary analogy), our benefits system is about to see an influx of potential claimants from, appropriately enough, the very part of the world that inspired Stoker's imaginary vampire - though one assumes these ones won't be arriving in boxes of Transylvanian earth.

Meanwhile, in the world of business, a whole culture has sprung up with the sole purpose of extracting a maximum of cash in exchange for very little effort. It's no surprise that the BBC's 'Dragons' Den' and 'The Apprentice' appear to favour business ideas that involve acting as an unnecessary agent in someone else's transaction or providing non-essential and frivolous goods and services.

Like the prudent villager who wears a crucifix or carries a clove of garlic, most of us can avoid the bloodsuckers peculiar to the technological age - the ringtones and premium phone lines, apps that charge online game players £20 for virtual trinkets or online casinos holding out gilded promises to the gullible - but sometimes, whether we like it or not, the vampire sinks his teeth in.

A recent Channel 4 documentary revealed the extent of fake 'likes' on social networking sites. We've long been aware that workers in Bangladesh are hunched over sewing machines producing disposable fashion for the UK market, but it appears their ranks have been joined by cyberserfs tilling the fertile acres of the internet.

This, presumably, counts as technological innovation in a developing country and is thus a Good Thing, even if it essentially involves fraud on a grand scale as they create and manipulate imaginary social network profiles. The 'likes' and site hits they register, bought and paid for by UK and global companies, supposedly attract genuine viewers and ultimately sell the product, while, in the best sweatshop tradition, the workers are paid a pittance.

What is truly shocking is that, along with the expected multinational corporations, this method is being used by publicly funded UK organisations such as local tourism agencies. All over the country, it seems, public bodies are willingly offering our money to PR firms and 'media services consultants' for such ephemera as facebook 'likes' or celebrity endorsement.

The more cynical among us have been accustomed to our money being squandered on new logos and branding, from the BBC's endless self-promotional trailers to the NHS trust letterheads that change every few months, so I suppose this new onslaught on the public purse should not come as a surprise.

Some time ago, I compared the economy to a flea circus, but I now see the inadequacy of the analogy; while it is in the interests of the flea to keep its host alive, the vampire does not care if his victim is bled white.  And it's beautifully democratic too; the bloodsuckers range from top-flight quango heads down to the likes of Keith MacDonald, whose recent acquittal leaves him free to resume his beer and X-box lifestyle at our expense.

The result is a feeding frenzy of national proportions, as those who neither toil nor spin batten onto the nation's veins in ever more creative ways to secure their fill, while taxpayers lose more and more of their hard-earned income in transfusions to keep the patient alive.

It's far scarier than anything from Hammer House of Horror.

By odd coincidence, while I was working on this, Leg-Iron also came up with the subject of vampires in a post that certainly merits a visit.