Monday, September 29, 2008

the bug letter: when 1 is more than 63,000

click to read more on the BBC from the Social Policy UnitRecently, I got a letter from a friend who lives in a nearby old fen and, like me, used to work with people who use illicit drugs. Inside were two letters from the BBC to him, in response to two letters of complaint he had sent about an objectionable song by The Beastie Boys called She's on it turning up on Dale Winton's show Pick of the Pops, which airs on Sunday afternoons from 2.30-4.30.

My friend, Iratus, was unhappy with those of the lyrics he managed to make out, and so looked them up on the web. When they did, he found the vocabulary of a situation that unfortunately is not uncommon today: a young lady (in the song a schoolgirl) being given cocaine in return for sexual favours. He wrote to the BBC, complaining that while he realised BBC Radio 2 did broadcast challenging material, this usually happened later in the evening and always with a warning.

Iratus received a prompt reply from the BBC, stating:

We are of course concerned if our programmes offend people and we never set out to offend but of course our public service role includes reflecting the world as it is...

I appreciate the strength of your views on these matters. Accordingly, I would like to assure you that I have registered your comments on our audience log. This daily report of audience feedback is circulated to many BBC staff, including members of the BBC Executive Board, channel controllers and other senior managers. The audience logs are seen as important documents that can help shape future decisions about future programming and content. They are also published on the BBC's intranet site, so are available for all BBC staff to view.

Thank you again for your interest in the BBC..."
When I took the letters to Professor Calculus to look over, upon reading the first he threw back his head and laughed, exclaiming: "They've given him the bug letter!"

Seeing my puzzled look, Calculus told me a story about a passenger on a cruise-ship who complained to the owners upon finding a bedbug. He got a reply stating that the member of staff responsible had been sacked and the captain reprimanded and, stuck to it, was his original complaint, with the words written on the back: "Give him the bug letter."

It was an amusing story, and when I investigated further I found that "the [bed]bug letter" had an interesting life as an urban legend. Anyway, Iratus didn't need any pointers to enlighten him to the fact that he was being fobbed off, and therefore iterated his complaint, adding that to give cocaine in return for sexual favours was to commit a criminal act.

This nugget appears to have exercised them down at BBC complaints. Their second reply to Iratus stated:

Having considered your further comments...I raised your concerns with senior management at the Radio 2 network. They acknowledge the record was not appropriate and suitable for this show. They pass on their apologies for any offence and thanks for bringing this matter to their attention.
Calculus and I looked at each other significantly like a pair of '70's detectives at this. So much for the "audience log" referred to in the bug letter!

Today, Andrew Porter interviewed Shadow Culture Media and Sports Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who was attending the Conservative Party Conference. Hunt questioned why the BBC should expect to receive a "£3 billion guaranteed cheque" every year and press onwards with a "lack of vision" regarding how it can help people and government tackle the pressing social issues of the day: "the rise in knife crime, gun culture, broken families".

He also referred to the £100 million per year that it takes to run BBC3 for "miniscule audiences". Too right. We bought a Freeview box in not in anticipation of the proposed switch from analogue to digital TV, but because it frustrated me to pay the license fee everynewsreader Fiona Bruce was approached about wearing a cross - click to read more year for so many services - BBC's 3 and 4, the childrens' channels, the digital radio stations - that I was unable to receive.

One way in which the BBC could help heal our broken society, which was Mr Hunt's main topic, is not to attack the backbone of our Christian society, which is still its religion. I'm thinking mainly of its decision to air Jerry Springer: the Opera in the face of the most complaints it had ever received prior to its being aired (it was already in the public realm as a stage musical).

There was some discussion about the actual number of complaints, but this was put to bed by the BBC Press Office, which reported that it received about 55,000 complaints prior to the show's broadcast and 8,000 complaints afterwards, with about 2,200 messages of support.

click to read Ofcom's advice on how to complainIn other words, there were around 30 times more complaints than pats on the back: in spite of this, communications regulator Ofcom found in its meeting on the subject that "The Content Board...suggested that whilst the programme would have offended some people, the requirements of freedom of speech were such that it must be permissible on occasion to cause offence."

I accept the principle, but it isn't practiced. In autumn 2006, a summit looked at the requests of performer Sacha Baron Cohen, who was invited to throw his pet hates into the bin in the BBC's Room 101. Cohen, a fair man, chose kosher food, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bible and the Koran. Almost everybody at the summit, including the show's producer, agreed that all of these items could be binned except the Koran.

Andrew Marr, senior journalist with the Corporation, was admirably honest:

“The BBC is not impartial or neutral...It’s a publicly funded, urban organization with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.”

The BBC, in fact, has also been criticised roundly for its anti-American and BBC caught out in bias: click to read moreanti-Israeli stances from both internal and external sources. William D Rubinstein, formerly of the Social Affairs Unit, asked at the time why no politician was willing to take serious action to tackle the BBC's bias. Perhaps Jeremy Hunt is in the vanguard of politicians who aren't afraid of the big bad Beeb.

Anyway, Iratus should be pleased; I don't know how many complainants got past the BBC's bug letter in the battle against Jerry Springer: The Opera, but in his own fight to get the BBC to admit it was wrong he's succeeded where 63,000 failed.

click to go to mediawatch-uk, who campaign for decency and accountability in the media

Related posts:

what the hell was all that about?

strictly sociopathic - the bbc has bullied us enough

Sunday, September 28, 2008

death, taxes and the comedown

Right now, every time you pick up a newspaper there seems to be news or rumours concerning the collapse of another financial institution and how this will affect the taxpayer. As the burden becomes ever more Sisyphean, I wonder if Labour MP's still sing The Red Flag as each company sinks, as they did with the Northern Rock affair?
click to go to The Tax Foundation homepage
The concept of Tax Freedom Day was first posited by The Tax Foundation, a US educational body, and identifies the day when, if you paid your taxes continually from January 1st, you would stop paying taxes and start earning for yourself. This year, Tax Freedom Day was 23 April in the US, aclick to go to The Adam Smith Institute homepagend 2 June in Great Britain (calculated by the Adam Smith Institute). I expect many will await the setting of next year's tax freedom days in various countries, as a measure of how the present crises have impacted on taxpayers.

In the context of skyrocketing taxes, The Sentinel Stars by Louis Charbonneau poses a unique but dystopian solution to the dilemma of one's tax burden being so high that working it off within one's lifetime may not be an option. Written in 1963, the book is set in a post-apocalyptic world where babies are born with the inheritance of their parent's tax burden, which they must work off - in addition to the tax they accrue through their lifetimes themselves - before they can become Freemen, if they live that long. (Alternatively, a lucky few are Freemen at birth, as they are born with an inheritance which is in credit.)

At 156 pages, The Sentinel Stars is shorter than a Mills and Boon novel, but, like much speculative fiction from the mid-50's to around the mid-70's, is bursting with ideas.

TRH-247 is the 247th person to be born with the name Thomas Robert Hendley in the Organisation, an outfit roughly analogous to Oceania in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, with the difference that conflict has ended in TSS with the Merger of East and West.

Thomas meets Anne, loses her, and meets her again when he is sent to a Freedom Camp for a day as moral therapy - his importunity having been to go for a walk when he should have been at work. Having looked at some extreme sports, such as golf, he finds himself in a nightclub where the clientéle are in search of more lubricious pastimes. Anne explains:

"I have long legs and I'm athletic and I can dance. And I have a pretty face. I was picked out when I was ten years old. Every day since then I've done the right exercises and eaten the right foods and had the right creams massaged into me. Every day! Some of the girls are lucky. They stop growing too soon, or they get dumpy or their skin ages too quickly, or they just don't turn out to be as pretty as they seemed in the beginning. They're transferred out of out section. I wasn't."
Like Rabelais' Abbey of Thélème, there are no clocks in the Freedom camp, and no ruleFrançois Rabelaiss. Thomas, stuck in the Freedom Camp, is besieged by terrible freedom on every side, and finds himself dreaming of a return to too much government to escape the anarchy of too little. Eventually a doctor in the camp arrives at a diagnosis explaining his inability to accept the Organisation's norms. Genetic therapy, which is usually inflicted on the unborn disguised as prenatal screening, has not taken in Thomas' case. He is normal.

Surprisingly, illicit drugs feature only marginally in the novel. A habit-forming opiate called "the weed" is smuggled into Freedom Camps - Thomas asks, rather naively, "here there are no pressures, no worries, no frustrations. Why would anybody be driven to using drugs?" He appears unaware that in describing an anomic society he's answered his own question.

Unfortunately, drugs are a pedestrian reality in our real-life world and infest all walks of life. However, some professions are liable to do more harm when under the influence of mind-altering substances than others. Just over a fortnight before the Northern Rock privatisation story broke, the Financial Times published a piece by Stanley Pignall about drug use at work, in which Pignal stated: "The new data suggest cocaine use is no longer limited to bankers working long hours. Suspicions of widespread drug use in the City are common, but few firms conduct random drug tests." US lawyer and political scientist Ted Becker describes the additional obstacles law enforcers face in bringing higher-functioning drug users to book:

Apparently, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had set up a sting operation with the intent of ensnaring a large number of overwhelmingly white professionals - lawyers, physicians, stockbrokers, professors, CEOs - in a cocaine ring. They were the “buyers” who called the dealers and had amounts of pure powder cocaine delivered to their homes in New York City like pizzas...The DEA had hard evidence on all these elite buyers including “wiretaps, on videotape, on phone records.” It had taken a year to obtain all this evidence

...The result: “Prosecutors are contemplating stern letters to the suspects warning them to keep their noses clean” (Barrett 2001). “Sources say that since the dealer’s arrest...many of the buyers have hired lawyers who have bombarded officials with phone calls, insisting their clients not be charged...”
However the present crisis is resolved, whether it be through a Capitalism 2.0 or by some other means, I think the best we can hope for is stronger structures in place to buffer the bust which will follow the next boom. Those dealers (by no means all of them) who have projected their comedown onto society as a whole will not be caught. If, for example, they were asked to give a hair sample, they would reinvent the skinhead hairstyle.

Maybe I'm being too pessimistic. After all, life's stranger than fiction.

The Sentinel Stars
Louis Charbonneau
pp 155
Bantam, 1963 (US)
Corgi, 1964 (UK)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Links to top 100 Conservative blogs

click to go to the British Political Blogs 2009-2010 poll
I always wanted to have a look-see at the other blogs in the British politics magazine Total Politics' top 100 Conservative blogs, so I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone. It looks like just about everybody else in this group has posted the list, so much so that it seems ungraceful of me not to recoprocate. So here they are - hyperlinked!

1 Iain Dale
2 Conservative Home
3 Dizzy Thinks
4 Burning our Money
5 John Redwood MP
6 Archbishop Cranmer
7 Mr Eugenides
8 Daniel Hannan MEP
9 Donal Blaney
10 Waendel Journal
11 Nadine Dorries
12 Letters from a Tory
13 Shane Greer
14 A Very British Dude
15 Daily Referendum
16 Paul Scully
17 Glyn Davies
18 Croydonian
19 James Cleverly
20 Raedwald
21 Tory Bear
22 Pint of Unionist Lite
23 Ellee Seymour
24 Scottish Tory Boy
25 Matt Wardman
26 Ewan Watt
27 Centre Right
28 Andrew McConnell
29 Hunter & Shooter
30 Alan Collins
31 Sinclair's Musings
32 Mike Rouse
33 Newmania
34 Neil Reddin
35 Zehra in Gloucestershire
36 Angels in Marble
37 Faulkner Journal
38 Web Cameron
39 Andrew Allison
40 Bristow Blog
41 Debatable Land
42 Fugitive Ink
43 Man in a Shed
44 Nourishing Obscurity
45 Iain Lindley
46 Not Proud of Britain
47 West Brom Blog
48 Jeremy Hunt MP
49 Laban Tall
50 Lone Voice
51 Prodicus
52 Tory Radio
53 Cassilis
54 David Jones MP
55 Matt Dean
56 Appalling Strangeness
57 Linguanaut
58 Right Student
59 Antony Little
60 Daily Pundit
61 Free Market Fairy Tales
62 John Moorcraft
63 Douglas Carswell
64 Mike Flower
65 Nicolas Webb
66 Play Political
67 Richard Spring MP
68 you are here
69 House of Dumb
70 Depleted Uranium
71 Dylan Jones-Evans
72 Ed Vaizey MP
73 Fulham Reactionary
74 Havering On
75 James Barlow
76 John Ward
77 Laura Rose Saunders
78 Monkey with a Blue Rosette
79 Rachel Joyce
80 Tory Heaven
81 Bel is Thinking
82 Evan Price
83 Roger Evans MLA
84 The Tap
85 UCL Conservatives
86 Cameron Rose
87 Charlotte Leslie
88 Kevin Davis
89 Tracey Crouch
90 A Conservative's Blog
91 Alfred the Ordinary
92 Andrew Bridgen
93 Conservative History Group
94 Curly's Corner Shop
95 Dave Luckett
96 Maida Vale Conservatives
97 Phil Taylor
98 Prince Park Conservatives - can anybody help find this link?
99 Thunder Dragon
100 Tommy the Tory

UPDATE, JULY 24 2009: voting is open for British political blogs 2009-2010 - you don't need to be British to vote, but only British political blogs are considered for the poll - just click the link above, or the pic at the top of the post. Don't forget to remember your friendly neighbourhood happy yellow dog!

Europe's worst nightmare returns

click for item - about halfway through second half or show of Wed 24 Sept - available online until Tues 30 Sept
On the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2 today, an article was aired that Vine stated he was amazed to hear himself talking about, and I have to say I shared his astonishment.

It appears that there was a Nazi rally in the town of Redhill in Somerset on Saturday, 20 September. Vine interviewed a husband and wife who fled from their nearby house, but who had managed to make a short recording of a lot of male voices shouting "Seig Heil, Seig Heil!" A bit of film was also taken and appears on a BBC news-page, in the section dealing with Somerset.

Vine interviewed a representative of the rally (ostensibly a scooter rally, but there were no scooters present). He justified people shouting "Seig Heil" (a German Nazi salute variously translated as hail victory, hail to victory, or salvation through victory) because the occasion was a tribute to Ian Donaldson, the vocalist for the neo-Nazi band Skrewdriver who died in a car crash in 1993.

Apparently there were a lot of East Europeans at the rally. Certainly Naziism flourished in East Germany (as was), as it was the only substitute for Communism that thrived underground.

Nazis on the continent and in the US are exploiting community tensions centring around travellers and Muslims - and, of course, pushing anti-semitism, which has not a whit more basis in reality than it did when Hitler et al used their slogans to hypnotise and mobilise the masses.
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, with thanks to Peter MacDiarmud
We have community tensions here in Great Britain, which figures such as the Bishop of Rochester and the Archbishop of York having been warning the government about for some time. The fact that these tensions have gotten so bad is due to patronising politicians who assume that tensions shouldn't exist, therefore they don't exist.

This January, I wrote that decent white people are "being pushed into the waiting arms of the BNP" (the BNP is advertised in a side panel of the wArchbishop John Sentamuebsite of the Libertarian National Socialist Green Party). We need to be on our guard for these hate-peddlars corrupting the minds of our children by taking advantage of the rebellion-factor that our children may see in the disgust adults feel at their policies. We need to monitor children's and adolescents' TV, music and magazines, because many mainstream media providers, having thrown morality out of the window, increasingly think that causing publicity makes something right.

The owners of the Bungalow Inn, where the "scooter convention" was held, claim to have seen or heard nothing unusual. Vine put the obvious question to them: as Inez puts it, "how on earth is it possible that I can see the swastikas and hear the "Sieg Heils" in the video, while the pub owners--who were there--can claim that they did not?"

I have another question. Several hundred Nazis in regalia and flags held a rally in Great Britain four days ago. Why has it only made the national news today?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

hpv vaccination: the day I embraced Dawkins

Today, through John Smeaton's blog, I found a blog written by Radagast, Senior Teacher in a faith school. He expresses deep concerns about the forthcoming vaccination of young (and I mean young) secondary schoolchildren, predominantly girls, against human papillomavirus (hpv) - which can cause cervical cancer in the 10% of women who don't spontaneously clear the virus.

Minima has now moved up to secondary school and, despite wars and rumours of wars, loves it. But, now having two girls liable to be considered by the education authorities as liable for the vaccination, this was the part of Radagast's post, entitled Cerevix and sexual freedom, that caught me:

To vaccinate my child against a disease that she is most likely to get from taking multiple sexual partners seems to me to capitulate to a culture in which the image of the human person has become grossly distorted. It is to admit and promote the idea that sexual activity between young people before marriage is inevitable and unstoppable despite being potentially harmful. It is to accept the lie that sexual freedom means being able to act without consequences...
The thing is, for parents to be armed with the necessary knowledge to make a choice, they need proper information, and that was not what was on offer on BBC Radio 4's Case Notes, of which a transcript has been posted on the show's website. What first made me feel uneasy was Professor Jack Cuzick of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine minimizing the range of hpv types that could be harmful:

there are well over a hundred different types now, so it's kind of a stamp collecting activity that people continue to identify new and rare types but in fact there are only a few that really matter.
The number of types of hpv that can cause cervical cancer is variously reckoned between 30 and 40. In their paper on the subject, for example, Muñoz et al put the number of potentially carcinogenic types at 30 in 2003.

Let's look at Muñoz' conservative data in the light of the protection that Ceravix is projected to provide - ie, against hpv types 16 and 18. That leaves: types 6, 11, 26, 31, 33, 35, 39, 40, 42, 43, 44, 45, 51, 52, 53, 54, 56, 58, 59, 61, 66, 68, 70, 72, 73, 81, 82 and the incongruously-named CP6108.

When Dr Mark Porter started discussing the risk of a mutation of the hpv virus arising through natural selection, I was gripped by a biting sense of irony. I've been introduced in depth to the theories of Charles Darwin through Richard Dawkins' exegesis of them, precisely because I oppose Dawkins' conclusion - itself a statement of faith - that embracing the theory of evolution leads ineluctably to atheism.

A not insubstantial portion of The Selfish Gene is given over to Dawkins' espousal of the Evolutionary Stable Strategy (ESS), a statement of game theory whereby the different elements of a population will remain at constant proportions if all other factors remain constant.

And there's the rub: although Ceravix is manufactured in order to take the two allegedly most carcinogenic hpv types out of the picture, it is suspected by Case Notes' participants that "we don't really need to worry about that". In a sense I agree - the risk of a mutant version of type 16 or 18 seems to be small against the risk of one or two of the other 28 types establishing a new Evolutionary Stable Strategy by becoming the new bullies on the playground. The naïveté is stunning: can you imagine taking out the two biggest gangsters in the city and expecting all of the 28 remaining contenders to play nice?

The NHS certainly isn't playing nice in its resources for the campaign. A leaflet for 12-13 year olds advises them, on the subject of consent:

You may be given a consent form that your parents should sign giving permission for you to have the vaccination. It’s important that you return the signed form before your vaccination is due.

If your parents are not sure that you should have the vaccination you should still return the form and speak to your nurse, doctor or other healthcare professional. Having the vaccination now will help protect you against the most common causes of cervical cancer for many years.
The gist of this appears to be that if a girl of 12 or 13 is not allowed by her parents to have the injection, it can still go ahead. Working in the addictions sector, however, we were clear that in English law a child of 12 was a totally different creature from one of 13, in that we were not allowed to give any service whatsoever, either concerning drugs or sexual matters, to a child under 13 without the explicit consent of the parent or guardian because, in English law, consent given by anybody under the age of 13 is meaningless.

So how is a child of 12 or 13 supposed to make a decision about how she will behave as a young woman of 16? As Radagast says: "the assumption that girls will probably become sexually active at the age of 16 is made without considering the possibility that some girls and young men might not." Indeed, the default assumption is that girls will be sexually active at or before the age of 16. The present administration seems to contain many individuals who are threatened by the ability of a young woman to choose chastity, even though if this is not an option, then the concept of sexual freedom itself is a fiction.

Perhaps the fevered compulsion with which this strategy is being pursued signals a quiet admission of defeat in another aspect of "reproductive rights": research reported in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes that when condoms are used during intercourse 100% of the time women have a 20% risk of contracting hpv (by my calculator - work it out yourself: all you need to know is that for these purposes "patient years" means the number of patients in a trial multiplied by the amout in years that the trial lasts). Which raises the old chestnut of the effectiveness of condoms against viral particles - but that's for another day.

I hope that my girls will feel confident enough to speak to their Mum and/or me about this. We'll pray about it, as we have before about matters relating to their developing bodies, as well as looking at the biological facts. They have already told me they don't want the vaccination, when they've heard the subject on the radio. I'm proud of them - but we can't be with them every step of the way to stop them making a mistake or acting under the influence of alcohol or going starry-eyed at a nasty piece of stuff. But to think that a vaccine effective against two types out of thirty of one particular STD is going to protect them from any of that is like allowing them to think that a suit of armour made of tissue-paper (or latex) will protect them from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Anyway, it strikes me as astonishly sexist that women should be left to worry about the unintended effects of sex. Men should take a share of the load if they want a sexual relationship with a woman when they're not sure if she's "the one". For example, circumcision has been shown to lessen the risk of cervical cancer, without altering the balance of power in the virological gangland. Who's first, lads?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Post Offices and the meaning of "election"

click to go to Communities against Post Office Closures websiteWhen the Cambridge News came through our letterbox today, the fact that our post office has been saved from closure actually made me feel a bit guilty that, of the 23 branches threatened with closure in and around the county, only one was reprieved. 22 are due to have their doors closed forever.

This was never an even battle. Based on the profitability of individual post offices in an environment where services were being peeled off like layers from an onion and reconstructed in cyberspace, it was a David-versus-Goliath battle with the country as the doomed giant and central government manically throwing stones.

I'd like to take just four post-offices marked for closure as examples.

Although it had never featured in the original criteria, it had been intimated that post-offices would not be closed if they were the only shop nearby. In fact, all four closures in Fenland, the most remote area of the county, leave residents with no retail amenities of any sort nearby - and I link to Cambridgeshire ACRE's (Action with Communities in Rural England) analyses:

Christchurch, proposed to be replaced with a mobile service for 1 hour on weekdays, nearest permanent branch 5 miles away in Upwell;

Benwick, proposed to be replaced with a mobile service 3 hours per week, to be confirmed, nearest permanent branch 4 miles away in Doddington;

Wisbech Harecroft Road; no replacement - other branches available in this rather large town one-fifth of whose population is retired; and

March - as above, but a quarter of population retired.

The Government's targets in the May 2007 report The Future of the Rural Post office Network are for 95% of the total rural population to be within 3 miles of a post-office, and 95% of the population in postcode districts in remote areas to be within 6 miles of a post office. I've found it difficult to find the official designation of Fenland, but it looks as if we may be up against averages here. Also, it appears that mobile services may count as post-offices, even though, as in the proposed case for Christchurch, they may only be in the village for an hour every weekday.

There's also the issue of post-offices being hosted by pubs: a good idea, but what if somebody for whatever reason has a medical or moral objection to entering one? Again, the above document has suggested churches taking up the slack - but what if a church-run post-office should find that it has, for example, been unwittingly passing on pornography, or material militating against religion?

I don't think it's realistic for a business to be expected to run at a loss. But the post-office isn't entirely a business, it's a government department. If, say, hospitals, police stations or barracks were expected to show profits or fold, Great Britain would be an even more dangerous place to live in.

And yet a postal service can serve its community and make a profit. The United States Postal Service makes a massive profit precisely by providing the services that people need to be part of a connected society. The Post Office could never hope to make as much as we are a small island, but a profit could be made. Whereas the USPS provides 157 services, the PO provides 93 and falling. It doesn't help that providers of some amenities are putting surcharges on any method of payment other than direct debit.

And there's the rub. The Post Office seems determined to collude in the downfall of its rural branches, even though for many villagers it is their main source of socialisation and local knowlclick to go to homepage of the Countryside Allianceedge. A small side-article in the Telegraph of 18 September stated: "[A] study by the Post Office found that families could save...if they...paid their".

This county seems to be perceived as relatively rich by the Government, but possession of a car and/or a mortgage do not confer membership of the Institute of Directors. I suggest that the powers that be at the moment pull out their dictionaries and look up the meanings of "rural" and "remote". Then they might look up "election".

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

a coup from the shadows

I was a member of a Justice and Peace group until relatively recently, growing more and more dissatisfied with the outlook of the other members. For me, the end came when a Lent campaign against climate change was planned as part of preparation for Easter. I brought up the fact that there were two sides to the anthropogenicity debate surrounding climate change - nothing stronger than that - and was met with an icy silence. I left soon afterwards.

The same dark forces in our society who want to stifle argument about climate change are doing the same for the so-called debate which sees faith and science as opposed and irreconcilable.
click to read an Evalgelical critique of Ussher's chronology
This debate is being fought ostensibly on the 4004 front, ie concentrating on Bishop Ussher's chronology which placed Creation as starting on the evening of Sunday, October 23 of that year.

Personally, I don't know anybody who believes this, although I realise there are some members in many Christian denominations who do.

However, the mere fact of issues relating to faith being in the public sphere is raising the hackles of figures who would like to chase religion and religionists out of public life. Thus, Professor Michael Reiss (left), until recently director of education at the Royal Society, Great Britain's premier scientific institution, stepped down from his post yesterday after, as the First Post put it, "he appeared to suggest in a speech last week that creationism should be taught in schools alongside evolution". As he objected on the BBC's Jeremy Vine show on Friday 12 September, when the furore was let loose, this was not what he said. Indeed, he had posted on his Guardian blog the day before:

the excellent book Science, Evolution, and Creationism published by the US National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine, asserts: "The ideas offered by intelligent design creationists are not the products of scientific reasoning. Discussing these ideas in science classes would not be appropriate given their lack of scientific support."

I agree with the first sentence but disagree with the second. Just because something lacks scientific support doesn't seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson. When I was taught physics at school, and taught it extremely well in my view, what I remember finding so exciting was that we could discuss almost anything providing we were prepared to defend our thinking in a way that admitted objective evidence and logical argument...

I do believe in taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution, while still introducing them to it. While it is unlikely that this will help students who have a conflict between science and their religious beliefs to resolve the conflict, good science teaching can help students to manage it – and to learn more science.
So far so fair. But this intellectual honesty forced the real reasons for objections within the Royal Society to Reiss's education post into the open: he is a Church of England priest. As the backlash was being orchestrated, Richard Dawkins stated, as he admitted in a letter he was "working on" getting published in the British press, that "A clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation - it's a Monty Python sketch". (The letter was snapped up by New Scientist. Unlike most of NS's long articles, you can view the whole article without taking out a subscription.)

The letter that seems to have hit the Royal Society's main artery was a letter by Sir Richard Roberts stating that

We gather Professor Reiss is a clergyman, which in itself is very worrisome. Who on earth thought that he would be an appropriate Director of Education, who could be expected to answer questions about the differences between science and religion in a scientific, reasoned way?...Ill-conceived opinions by a representative of the RS will only encourage those teachers, both scientists and otherwise, with a creationist agenda to speak about it to their students in the classroom.
The letter is reproduced by a volunteer for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, who comments on his blog:

Is it possible that Sir Richard has not read Reiss’ actual articles?...criticism of Reiss should be based on his actions, and not speculation or misunderstanding of what he has done...Sir Roberts [sic] sent his letter the day after the Royal Society sent a press release with Reiss’ clarification. My concern is that this whole fiasco will turn into a farce that will not exactly show secularist and those for science education in a positive light."Sir John Sulston
I am sure that the text of any official speech made ex cathedra by a senior Royal Society office-holder would have been made available to senior RS members shortly afterwards, if not before. Pace the respect for reason and truth of Homo Economicus shown above, he doesn't seem to have quite gotten the point of this plot. Rev Reiss would have been pushed if he had said nothing more controversial than "if you boil water ySir Harry Krotoou will get steam". His role as RS Director of Education was scheduled for destruction by virtue of his being an ordained priest and nothing else. Dawkins, the Establishment's pet atheist, and the éminences grises Sir Richard Roberts, Sir Harry Kroto and Sir John Sulston decided he had to go, and Daniel Palmer strained foaming at the leash in his New Scientist blog.

At the end of a series of bogs about Dawkin's series on Charles Darwin, I asked: "Personally, I trust in God. You may have another position, which indeed you have every right to hold: but can you justify it outside the realm of strangling those voices with whom you disagree?"

Dawkins, it seems, is at the service of those who have neither that disposition nor ability.

Monday, September 15, 2008

another attack on excellence

click to go to John Denham MP's home pageJohn Denham, the Universities secretary, has said that Universities have a duty towards society in what, the Telegraph reports, is going to be seen as "a veiled attack on [the University of] Cambridge".

I have to say, right off, that I agree with Mr Denham that excellent universities like Cambridge have a clear duty to society. Their duty is to excel.

Given the current ideologically-motivated pressure universities are under to ever increase their intake of leavers educated at state schools, it's difficult to imagine how Cambridge, Oxford or any other members of the Russell Group of Universities can excel when the same government is interfering with examination setting and marking to an extent that aptitides cannot be deduced with any certainty from certificates.

Cambridge University crestEven though, for example, Cambridge has announced that it three-fifths of its intake will be from state schools this year, those in charge of education are determined to present members of the Russell group as elitist as opposed to élite, a distortion which was a gift to evolutionary biologist Bruce Charlton, who presented pressures put on universities as evidence that working-class children were less intelligent for genetic reasons. Perhaps children from poorer areas might get to the better Universities without quotas if their schools and teachers weren't hobbled by having to overexamine kids in order to tick boxes that will give Government ministers a warm, fuzzy assurance that their policies must be working, because the results are as predicted.

In 2005, Rebecca Smithers of the Guardian predicted that the Government's target of 50% of school-leavers attending university by 2010 wasn't going to be met, because not enough were sitting A-levels. This prediction seems to be behind two statements made by the Labour-party: firstly, that the school-leaving age would be raised to 18 by 2013; and secondly, that A-levels might be abandoned.

(I have to admit, though, that the target of 50% of school-leavers might not be totally about raising the number of graduates; increasing the amount of young people indebted to the state could equally be in the frame. Glasgow's Bath Street Citizen's Advice Bureau was closed in 1999, following a financial crisis which appeared after a senior member of staff stated - perhaps unwisely - he could lay his hand on proof that some instituions followed a policy of ensuring that indebtedness occurred.)

When I was at the end of my time at St Scylla's Comprehensive School in Glasgow, the news that a recent leaver had been accepted for Oxbridge went round the place like wildfire. We were so proud of her, and redoubled our own attempts to study to our utmost ability. We didn't labour under any pretensions that many of us would get to Oxbridge, we were merely strengthened by the news that the possibility existed, and wanted to do well enough to move out of the area, which was becoming infested by the incipient heroin trade.

I would never argue with the importance of education in attaining one'an example of a university offering apprenticeship trainings goals. But what about kids who aren't academic, and may end up truanting should Labour still be in power in 2013 to raise the school age? As my friend Professor Calculus suggests, why not leave the school leaving age where it is for more academic kids, but lower it for those who might do better with an apprenticeship, learning a trade and earning at the same time? It's not as if opportunities for education won't present themselves through the course of one's life, with the Open University, the University of the Third Age, night-school, etc - or, indeed, enrolment as a full-time or part-time mature student at a University.

And the Universities of the Russell Group, if left to excel, will provide the necessary results for other universities to aspire to by competition within themselves and with each other, whether or not they will attain those results. This could even bequeath to the next generation not just graduates able to learn the skills that it needs, but shop-assistants able to count, middle-managers who don't need to be sent on courses to learn how to write get the picture.

Related posts:
don't dumb down Cambridge, smarten state schools up
two plus two makes learning

Sunday, September 14, 2008

why the large hadron collider will find the Higgs boson

The last time I had a jar with Professor Calculus, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN had just been fired for the first time. Given that the world had obstinately refused to end in the face of hysterical objections by the sort of people who become amorous about trees, I put it to him that either the world had not ended, or it had done so and I was, in fact, a figment of his imagination, therefore mine's was a pint. He didn't see my reasoning. Sometimes scientists just don't get it.

The somewhat histrionic coverage of the opening of the Large Hadron collider seems to be in measure with the epithet given to its chosen prey, the hypothetical Higgs boson: the God particle. This has even, in recent times, leaked into popular culture in the remake - starring George Clooney - of the Russian film Solaris, where ghosts are sent to wherever ghosts go when they're killed by a "Higgs beam". In reality, the Higgs boson, if it exists, is estimated to exist for a fraction of a fraction of a second, so it's difficult to imagine it getting up to any of the activities predicated of various deities by different cultures.

The Large Hadron Collider cost around £4.4 billion ($7.8 billion) to build. Many countries have contributed to it - for example, the US gave $531 million (£300 million), Spain €55 million (£44 million/$77 million) and Japan ¥5 billion (£26 million/$47 million); the UK gives CERN £70 million($124 million) per year.

It's difficult to imagine these countries donating such significant sums through the goodness of their rulers' hearts; especially as, in the case of Great Britain, there were 25,700 "excess winter fuel deaths" due to people not being able to heat their houses at the same time as buying food.

On the other hand, perhaps it's exactly the point that our countries are contributing to CERN while older people die. It's not a new phenomenon - in the Who's 1973 album Quadrophenia, Pete Townshend writes in Helpless Dancer: "people die because they're old/or left alone because they're cold".

Steven Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, made a rather strange statement recently:

Both the LHC and the Space program are vital if the human race is not to stultify and eventually die out. Together they cost less than one tenth of a per cent of world GDP. If the human race can not afford this, then it doesn't deserve the epithet 'human'.
As much as I'm an admirer of Professor Hawking, who exemplifies the great potential of people who, like myself, have a disability, I have to to admit to being a bit put out by this statement. Is he saying it's worth spending up to $6.5 trillion (£3.6 trillion - 10% of world GDP) on research into sub-atomic particles and interstellar peripateticism? If he, and anybody else, thinks this way, I recommend a swift dose of Gattaca, the 1997 film starring Uma Thurman and Jude Law which presents a society driven by eugenics wherein engineered humans are free to leave the planet, and the rest are cleaners. (There's a cool twist - check out the film.)

The thing is, unfortunately, there has been a tendency to believe that some people are worth more than others, which in the middle of the 19th century acquired a sheen of respectability with the publication of Darwin's evolutionary theory, incorporating the concept of the survival of the fittest into the Malthusian fable that famine and war are necessary to control population (a travesty of Darwin's concept which horrified him).

Unmasked by the Holocaust, this tendency is rising again with the tendency of scientists and writers, like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, to force science onto the street-corner so that it can lead the unsuspecting curious to be shanghaied into the radical militant atheist army meretriciously peddling the idea that science is a jealous god, and will tolerate no system of belief that posits intuition inexplicable by detectable particles.

This first operation of the large hadron collider was nothing more than a booting-up, and produced a "fuzzy dot". And yet already there's a conflict, with Steven Hawking saying that the results would be more interesting if the Higgs boson weren't found than if it were, and the eponymous Professor Higgs opposing this view; probably only one of them can look forward to a Nobel prize.

The Large Hadron Collider appears to keep 6000 scientists in tea and biscuits. More than this, it is required to find the Higgs boson so that a business case can be made in 2012 for a larger collider.

I wonder how much difference there is between a fuzzy dot, and smoke and mirrors. Anyhow, there are so many careers and reputations riding on the discovery of the Higgs boson that I'm sure it will be discovered, whether it exists or not.

Related post: Solaris - the boson delusion

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Remember with honour

On Tuesday 11 September 2001, I was lying in a hospital bed when I happened to switch on my radio, in time to hear Steve Wright delivering a newsflash on his show, on BBC Radio 2, that "another aeroplane has crashed into the World Trade Centre". As Sally Boazman read the travel report, which said that no civilian aeroplanes were taking off over the UK, my first reaction was, what a terrible accident! Would that it were so. One of the staff went off; I later found out she was trying to phone her son who lived in New York, but there was no transatlantic line available due to the unprecedented load.

As time went on it became clear that this was no accident, after another strike on the Pentagon and a crash in Pennsylvania following a passenger revolt. My thoughts travelled to an American friend of mine. An academic, anxious British lecturers had asked him to transfer to another university some time previously, as radical Muslim students had discovered that he had served in elite forces in the Middle East and were making trouble. He'd returned to the US.

The rest of the day was spent in a sort of dissociated confusion, as the BBC's James Robbins called the attacks "a new Pearl Harbor". The next day, the news announced that President Bush was consulting with his chiefs of staff as to what the response would be: what would come to be known as the War on Terror had begun. And so had the backlash, as Hindu and Sikh taxi-drivers were abused and assaulted.

Another, almost perverse, backlash had also begun. My friend, now back in the US, was told to discontinue a factual study of Bosnian Muslims who had joined the German Army during WWII, because it apparently gave a negative image of Islam. In Cambridgeshire, my daughter's primary-school class were taken to a Mosque as part of a "get to know Islam" campaign. She didn't get to know Islam very well, because of course girls aren't allowed to worship in the Mosque proper. She peppered her hosts with questions about why the boys were allowed to see more than the girls, and came away unsatisfied.

For me, that's how the new phase in modern history began. Many troops from America and Britain and other countries have since been dispatched to far-off lands, from which not all have returned, and still the terrorists plot. One, the bombs in London on July 7, 2005, killed 50 people and threw into chaos the G8 talks which, many had hoped, would make decisive moves in the fight against poverty in third-world countries. A trial of people accused of planning to down aircraft in flight with liquid explosives, that would leave from London in 2006, has just finished with three convictions and the Director of Public Prosecutions seeking a retrial in respect of those who were not found guilty.

On that day in 2001, three-thousand people from 90 countries died in the bombing of the Twin Towers, a number that is almost unimaginable outside of a war situation; and that's not counting the other fatalities -125 at the Pentagon and the 45 heroes of Flight 93. But war was just one of the multitude of things that started to change that day.

In the preface to the 9/11 Commission Report, the authors say: "We emerge from this investigation with enormous sympathy for the victims and their loved ones, and with enhanced respect for the American people." At the start of this new time, the Queen indicated that she knew where the focus of the free world lay, when she ordered that The Star Spangled Banner be played at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

May the dead be remembered with honour.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

enhancement: changing the meaning of disability

Oscar pistorius sprinting to victory in the 100 metres

The victory of Oscar Pistorius in the 100 metres at the Paralympic Games in Beijing yesterday was a triumphal performance by an athlete at the top of his game. It is raising a lot of questions about enhancement in sport that have implications for the meaning of disability as a whole.

Pistorius, whoOscar Pistorius: redefining abilityse lower legs were amputated as a baby because he was born without fibulas, originally applied to represent South Africa in the Olympics, but the "cheetah blades" he uses to run put him at the unusual disadvantage of being, as the New York Times put it, not disabled but too-abled. After a long legal battle to prove that his blades did not confer an unfair advantage upon him - which all but obliterated his 2007 winter training schedule - he was allowed to compete but, perhaps because of the time spent in court, just failed to make South Africa's Olympic team.

The question of enhancement in sports is a fraught one. Steroids have definitely turned what should have been a level playing field into a quagmire, one in which arguably athletes need to be protected from their own ambition, which is so necessary to make it towards the finishing tape.

But then there's erythropoietin, a hormone which prevents breakdown of red blood cells, increasing their number and therefore their ability to carry oxygen to the muscles. If better technology is developed to detect its use, which is illegal, do athletes switch to hypoxic training in an "altitude chamber", which would have the same effect? And if this is banned, what of athletes from countries such as Bolivia, Columbia and Ecuador, who may have no choice but to train at high altitude - do they then have an unfair advantage against which athletes from lower countries are not allowed to compete?

That's just one train of thought, based on the volume of oxygen-bearing haemoglobin contained in the body's red blood cells. Andy Miah of the University of the West of Scotland considers another scenario:

A swimmer, impossibly long arms swinging at his side, takes to the starting block. He has trained for this moment for months. Keeping up with the latest developments, he has endured surgical enhancements to enlarge the webbing in his fingers and toes. He's wearing the ultimate in sharkskin swimsuit technology. He inhales deeply through nasal passages surgically widened to optimize his breathing efficiency -- and dives in.
This may seem an unlikely situation, but surgical enhancement is already upon us. In 1974, US baseball Tommy Johnpitcher Tommy John damaged an elbow ligament in his pitching arm, an injury that until then was the death-knell for a professional career. After revolutionary surgery grafting part of the corresponding ligament from the opposite elbow to replace the injured one, he returned to baseball following a long recovery. The operation, now called "Tommy John surgery", is popular now, with pitchers (and also American football players) saying that the best performances in their careers occur after the surgery. At what point do authorities decide that surgery is required, or that no surgery-requiring injury exists, meaning that the procedure would be an enhancement bestowing unfair advantage?

Alternatively, Arthur Caplan, Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, was not sure if letting Pistorius run for the Olympics might be the right decision, comparing his blades with Tiger Woods' corrective eye surgery - without which, Caplan admits, the golfer was "almost legally blind" - which has left him with better than 20/20 vision.

Miah continues:

another vision [exists] at sports' highest levels. It is rooted in the democratization of technology -- in a world where high-tech training regimens exist even at the junior-varsity level -- and is part of a broader transition we are all making: using technology to improve everything, at every level.
This may be true as regards "able-bodied" athletes - whatever that means whenever enhancements are a possibility - but where disability is concerned any democracy depends largely upon the willingness of the state to empower and enfranchise disabled individuals, including willingness to listen to us, or even recognise our existence.

For example, in China, the country hosting the Paralympics, Townhall News quotes Chinese President Hu Jintao as saying on his country's state TV that "China's people and government have always attached great importance to the cause of the disabled...We insist on putting people first, carrying forward a humanitarian spirit and advocating equality and opposing discrimination." The Telegraph, however, reports the discrimination that disabled people have in accessing education, jobs and healthcare, and Townhall goes on to note that:

The government has long advocated sterilizing mentally handicapped people. In the early 1990s, a draft law was presented to the legislature to reduce the number of disabled through abortion and sterilization, a move that unleashed international criticism...In 1994, China ratified a law calling for the abortion of fetuses carrying hereditary diseases and restrictions on marriages among people suffering mental problems or contagious diseases.Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood.  Listen to their racist agenda - discrimination on grounds of disability is just the same
This is an example of the eugenic madness that gripped the West from the end of the 19th century until the Holocaust forced eugenic organisations to change names and tactics. Or, at least, some of them: when Maxima was expecting Minora, a chart planted square on the centre of the examination-room wall laid out the increasing chance of having a baby with Down's syndrome as maternal age increased.

Pistorius, thankfully, receives the support of his country in sending him to the Paralympics. Cambodia is another proposition entirely. It is a country that has allowed the UNFPA - United Nations Family Planning Association - which cooperated with China's forced sterilization programme aimed at, but not limited to, drastically reducing the number of disabled people, to push reproductive health services, including abortion, in collaboration with the EU.

So Cambodia's contender, Vanna Kim, received no help from his country, having got to Beijing through the largesse of private donors, North Korea and the Games organisers; I don't deny the possibility of philanthropy on the part of Beijing, but they are also desperate to show a good image to the world, in a land where image is almost totally divorced from reality.

For all that, Pistorius' victory displays an example of a "disabled" person outperforming the "able-bodied" to a degree that may require renegotiation of the two terms' significance. Everybody has the same right to hope, to aspire, and to be all they can be regardless of the establishment's prescriptions of what their abilities will be.

Modern technology has an ability to equalise many of the odds that can affect the differently-abled: all that is required is the will and the humility to empower talented people who are "different" to do as well, and sometimes better, than the crowd. The problem for our rulers is that this would prompt swathes of their populations beyond the realm of knowledge, and into that of realisation, of what is being done in their name.

be all you can be

Monday, September 8, 2008

burgers with nostalgia on top

I like burgers.

The other weekend, we - Minima, Minora, Maxima and myself - cycled into Cambridge. Upon locking up our bikes in town, we had a coffee at one of the little kiosks that spring up in public spaces. Later, we went to McDonalds and had four burger meals with drinks. There was scarcely any difference in price.

McDonald's, I think, is a great place to eat. Kids get toys with their meals and can be relatively loud without making you feel that you're breaking the law, the Ten Commandments and the Code of Hammurabi by allowing them to be children. Or, indeed, social conventions about the "done thing" forged in upwardly-mobile dinner parties wherein the great, the good and the gormless gather to gossip.

Many years ago, I remember my Mum taking me to an oriental restaurant up north; the only pub to sell food was shut, the café was far away, and at that time "fast food" would have conjured up a picture of a sarnie on a train. I'm sure the food must have been very good, but we made our way through it silently and uncomfortably.
where's the food?
There have been various styles of cuisine going in and out of fashion, but, although two radishes presented on a bed of chilli-and-banana flavoured ice-cream might make you think, when I get a meal I just want to eat the damn thing, not write a doctoral thesis about it.

Recently, my brother Asinus took me for a burger to thank me for helping his wife Patientia with her tooth-related travails. I was expecting a McDonald's, which would have been good, but he went one better.
click for location
GBK - Gourmet Burger Kitchen - is an eaterie in Regent Street that's been there for over a year, although I've managed to miss it, probably because usually when I'm walking down that way, my gaze is straight ahead as I try to weave my way through the crowd.

Through the door, I felt as if I'd entered a posh restaurant, and started to panic a little. But when I saw the menu, I knew that I'd gone to hamburger heaven. I ordered a beefburger with blue cheese and bacon, declining the offer of chips as I merely wanted to fill a hole that would be empty again in time for dinner. No problem. The staff were friendly, the lighting was subdued and so was the music. Wine or beer was available but we had coffee, which came almost immediately. The burger obviously took longer than a McDonald's, but still came more quickly than I was expecting it to. It was served with the bacon between a good-sized, freshly cooked burger and a thick, melting slab of blue cheese, atop which was lettuce, topped with a subtly-spiced chutney which was fenced in by two semicircles of purple onion. Had Mozart made burgers, this is what he'd have come up with.

Obviously it was pricier than a McDonald's or burger King than such, but I was expecting that - not just for the superior cooking, but also for the ambience (and anyway, Asinus was paying). It was still cheaper than a snack of an equivalent size in an equivalently classy restaurant.

The four of us will still go to McDonald's when in town, but I don't see McDonald's etc and GBK being in competition - they're for different types of eating. And I now know a good place to take Maxima.

When I got home my interest in burgers was piqued. My Gran once worked as a cook - I got her old book of "Plain Cookery Recipes" from the Edinburgh School of Cookery and Domestic Economy (which used to award housewives' diplomas) from the shelf. She had marked it "1929" on the inside front cover; there's no printed date on the book, but the only editions of it that I can find are 1920 and 1932. Inside, there's a recipe for "croquettes", which appears closer to burgers than croquettes as we now understand them. It evoked poignant whiffs of a kitchen at the edge of living memory. Here's some equivalents if you're interested, and here is the recipe:


Half-pound cooked meat.
Half-ounce dripping.
Half-ounce flour.
One gill second stock.
One teaspoonful of chopped parsley.
One teaspoonful ketchup or Harvey's sauce.
Pepper and salt.


One beaten egg.
Dried bread crumbs.

Free the meat from fat and skin, and chop or mince it finely. Make a sauce of the dripping, flour and stock; add it to the meat, parsley and seasonings, and turn the mixture on to a plate to cool. When cold and firm divide into equal-sized portions, and form into croquettes. Brush with beaten egg. Toss in the bread crumbs, and fry to a golden brown in smoking-hot fat. Dish, and garnish with fried parsley. Serve with a suitable sauce.

To fry parsley. - Wash the parsley, pick each sprig from the stalk, and dry carefully. Put the parsley in a frying basket, and cool the fat till there is no smoke rising from it. Put the basket gently into the pan, and fry till the hissing noise stops. Drain well.

it's still about - click for details

Sunday, September 7, 2008

when stone-throwing becomes a blitz

A tangled skein of gender-related issues seem to be in the media lately. For example, the Daily Telegraph reported recently that bosses might be less likely to hire women now that maternity leave has increased to a year, and women are to receive benefits in kind that they would have had they still been at work, for example gym membership. (A single male friend of mine wondered about the gym membership. I told him to talk to women with children in secondary school. He did, and, somewhat wiser, now concurs with the measure.)

There's a lot goidetail from St Lawrence by Fra Angelicong on there, however. For example, is it really the job of employers to maintain their employees' pelvic floors? Saint Lawrence, when ordered by the prefect of Rome to produce the treasures of the church, produced the poor. I don't believe that government should be bigger than it needs to be, but should not the state provide for the treasures of the country - its children - instead of demanding that employers do this and recoup their costs from poor consumers?

In another story, the Telegraph again tells us that HarperCollins careful, nowhave offered an apology to Australian aborigines because, in the Australian edition of The Daring Book for Girls, authors Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz suggest that girls play the didgeridoo, something that is the subject of a gender taboo pertaining to Aborigine culture. Mark Rose, head of the Victorian Aboriginal Educational Association, says that the suggestion is the equivalent of "encouraging someone to play with razor blades", and is warning that girls who do so could "face infertility".

(Gender issues have touched my family's lives as well. When my sister-in-law Patientia attended an orthopaedic consultant as an out-patient regarding joint-pains, once he had ran out of tests he told her: "Your problem is that you are a housewife. You're not busy enough, so you're imagining these pains. Get a job, and get a life." Personally, I'd say that being a housewife is pretty hard work, without a minimum wage and paid holidays, let alone gym membership.)

Gender politics - literally - seem to be on the agenda in the US as well. Something quite remarkable has happened: as a correspondent on Michelle Malkin's website states, "The feminists have suddenly decided that a mother should be home with her children in lieu of a career."

This remark was made in the context of the forthcoming US elections, where Republican presidential candidate John McCain has chosen Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, ie to become Vice-President should he be elected.

Two things are happening here to rain on the ideological parade of those who people the liberal-socialist axis.

Firstly, having trawled through bios, it seems to me that the candidates are more inthe best working class heroes Labour never had touch with people from backgrounds liable to economic upset than presidential/vice-presidential candidates have been for some time. It comes as no surprise to me that this should happen in a right-wing party; in the UK, Margaret Thatcher, a shopkeeper's daughter, was the Prime Minister to see through the cant of union bosses grown fat on their members' hardships. Her successor, John Major, was the first Prime Minister ever to call for a classless society. Now that the nominally democratic socialist Labour party has reneged on its promise to offer a referendum on a European superstate, its pet papers are presenting attempts to consult the people on this as "a challenge from the right".

Secondly, three days after her selection as running mate, Sarah Palin announced (not "admitted", as the New York Times said) that her daughter was pregnant. Wonderful news. But suddenly Democrats and left-leaning folk generally became moralists to an extent that makes Queen Victoria look like Paris Hilton on ecstasy. Their problem doesn't seem to be the pregnancy so much as that the pregnancy is continuing. The Sharp Right Turn blog posted a YouTube video of Obama Barack speaking to a crowd, saying, "If [my daughters] make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby, I don't want them punished with an STD at the age of 16".

There's lots to unpack there, for example the view of STD's as punishments (from whom?), but the description of a baby as a punishment says it all. I'm sure US politics is no Buckingham Palace garden party; but to Mr Obama's credit, on the same day as Mrs Palin announced the news, he gave out the order that families were "off limits", on pain of being fired. That, however, hasn't stopped a miscellany of starlets declaiming on the issue. Some atrocious material has been forwarded which, insulting as it is to Mrs Palin, amounts to nothing less than a concerted campaign of abuse directed at a minor. As high-minded as I'm sure Obama's motives are in calling for a cease-fire, I'm sure he also wants to put a damper on the strange compulsion of left-leaning stone-throwers to bring the fragile edifices of their own construction crashing down upon all their ears.

this is the only member of the Palin family running for electionAs passionate as I am about the prospects for the British election, when it comes, it has to be admitted that the US elections, especially now, are the most important in the world. I pray for strength for Mrs Palin as the most shockingly sexist mores are borne from the scrapheap by people who demand that these same standards do not represent their own - many of them not much more sophisticated than becoming infertile by touching a didgeridoo. And may God bless all of her family.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

instant gold - keep it in the ground

a bookstall in the Cambridge marketOn those occasions when I leave the draughty old fen to visit Cambridge, I like to go to the market. Having been a drugs worker, I have to bite my tongue when passing paraphernalia for using cannabis, in order to get to the really important bits: the book stalls.

I'v'Instant Gold' by Frank O' Rourke - click for reviewe found many a gem there. Something I love is the smell of the book, especially if it's been on somebody's shelf for a long time. And you can come across titles that you might never think to order on, say, Amazon (as much as I value this site), because you can't stand and browse through a book's pages on the internet. Yes, you can look through the text, but you can't stand with the sounds and smells of the marketplace around you and flick through a book to see whether it's got that quality that you can't name, but is essential to enjoy a book.

One such that I found recently was a novel (or novella) by Frank O' Rourke called "Instant Gold". O' Rourke, born in Colorado, was known for writing Western novels (things beloved of my Dad), but this is called science fiction. I looked at the back page:


1 can of powder: cost $500


8 ounces of sea water: free


16 ounces of gold: value $560

My curiosity was piqued, and it's not often that you see a 125-page novel these days, unless it's Mills & Boon.

It's a wonderful piece of writing that lends credence to the old saw that sometimes good things come in small packages. Basically, one day in a residential area of San Francisco, a shop opens up offering "instant gold" in cans, obtainable through the recipe above. The establishment, whose heads are referred to not by name but as "Security", "FBI", etc, try to stop the proprietors, but since they are not selling gold but instant gold, there's nothing to be done. They are threatened and fêted in equal measure. The outcome is predictable, perhaps, but O' Rourke presents it with a lyrical hilarity that is all too rarely seen now:
The rush for California became a stampede reminiscent of forgotten homestead raffles and land races. Tractors were left running in Iowa fields, malingerers leaped from hospital beds, Detroit assembly lines faltered, brides spent lonely wedding nights; fifty thousand people entered the state each and every twenty-four hours, clogging the highways, glutting the freeways, creating a gasoline problem that strained the resources of the giant oil companies...

Remembering that the book was written in 1964, O' Rourke's description of the international scene shows a remarkable degree of observation and prescience, which I read with a sense of "would it had been so...":
People stormed U.S. embassies and consulates, begging for visas. A rumor spread that instant gold shops would open in West Berlin; on Sunday morning two million East Germans rose up, tore down the wall with their bare hands, and crossed over, their ranks swollen by eighty-two percent of the East German Army. In Viet Nam the Communists and Liberals declared an end to war, ripped down the no-dancing signs, and awaited the rumored arrival of the first instant gold ship. De Gaulle made good his threat and withdrew France from the world; the French peasantry formed eighteen thousand village pools and dispatched representatives by sea and air to San Francisco; the British Prime Minister at last proclaimed peace in his time and signed the agreements joining England with the Common Market. Australia and New Zealand, ignoring the jettisoning, flew their Prime Ministers to San Francisco...The directors of the South African gold mining syndicate addressed desperate pleas to Washington, begging the federal government to stop the vicious flooding of an honourable market. The long-expected came to pass in Cuba. A group of inner-circle patriots quietly removed Castro to the nearest asylum, reorganised their government, and sent wires to the American sugar companies, begging forgiveness and throwing wide the ravished gates. Seventy-seven percent of the Russian cadre in Cuba renounced Soviet citizenship and took the Cuban oath of allegiance. The Vatican was reported making a survey of ceilings, statues, and other artifacts in dire need of regilding; at existing prices heaven and edict could wait."
Sometimes O' Rourke sounds like a lecturer who's a little too fond of his own voice, after the manner of Peter van Greenaway; but his dealings in the relationship between language and logic might not lend themselves to any other style, and are not the major part of the book. As it turns out, action and dialogue are exquisitely balanced, and tempered with a hint of a love story. The moral is subtly-presented in such a way that it comes through most strongly after you've put the book down for the last time - that the compulsively acquisitive tend to become their own nemeses.

Many books are described as "laugh-out-loud" that are anything but. This is one of the very few books I've read which actually did make me laugh, which unsettled the cat somewhat (sorry, Magus). I laughed especially at the very end, but then the meaning hit me like a punch.

Perhaps it's not for nothing that President Paul Kruger of the South African Republic (Transvaal), upon hearing of the discovery of gold in the hills, is siad to have cried: "For God's sake, keep it in the ground!"