Thursday, August 31, 2006

Be careful what you wish for, Scotland

Boris Johnson writes a gloriously provocative piece in today’s Telegraph:

As anyone will know who has witnessed the death of a relative from multiple myeloma, it can be a grim way to go. Your very marrow is in revolt, as the cancer takes over the blood-making processes.

Since it could happen to any of us, I hope you will concentrate for a second on the case of a constituent of mine, a distinguished and charming author. When I last met him, he was running the second-hand book stall at the fête, and seemed very cheerful. I did not know it, but he was already well down the track that begins with radiography and then goes on to chemotherapy and stem-cell transplants, and then to courses of melphalan and steroids.

Now he has come to the last drug in humanity's current pharmacopoeia. It is called Velcade, and it is a good drug, fully licensed in this country. His doctors have told him that it would improve the quality of his life, and perhaps prolong it by two to five years.

It is available free in the healthcare systems of virtually every other European country; and yet he cannot get it in Oxfordshire. It is not available to him, or anyone else, on the Oxfordshire NHS.

He says, rather mildly, that he feels this is "unjust". I think that is an understatement. It happens that Oxfordshire is one of those counties particularly penalised by Labour, in that our per capita healthcare funding is only about 85 per cent of the national average. It is true — though obviously grossly unfair — that there are some primary care trusts (PCTs) in England that do feel rich enough to be able to afford Velcade, and today it is still being given to many multiple myeloma sufferers in other English counties.

And yet, in just a few days' time, the position is about to become worse. The injustice will shortly become an outrage. On September 6, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) is expected finally to rule, or "advise", that Velcade should not be dispensed on the NHS, with chaotic consequences for those English PCTs that are still giving it out.

And why is it being stopped? Because each course of treatment costs between £16,000 and £17,000. We must accept, in this country, that there are some treatments the state just cannot afford, and Nice will shortly rule that Velcade is not cost-effective.

Did I say "this country"? Forgive me. There will certainly be one part of Britain, if not England, where the NHS will continue to distribute Velcade, free, to sufferers from multiple myeloma. The drug will be available in Scotland, as it has been for some time; and, much as I love the Scots, it makes my blood boil that they should be so preferred.

Do you remember that deathless moment when a heroic Labour backbencher ambushed Tony Blair at Prime Minister's Questions, and asked him to describe his core political beliefs? The PM went white, and stammered, and, after a hilarious hiatus, he gargled, "Errr … the NHS", and flopped back in his seat. And when Gordon Brown, his heir-presumptive, is struggling to sum up the "spirit of Britishness", the thing that really unites the country, he always goes for the "unique values of the NHS".

In a way, he is right. The NHS is an essential half of the symmetry of British politics. In property and economics, we may be more inegalitarian than some other European societies; but we compensate at the moments of birth, sickness and death with the total equality of the NHS ward.

So let me ask you this, Gordon: how can you call it a National Health Service? I mean, run that National bit past me again. Which nation are we talking about here? There are two nations, and England gets £1,085 per capita health spending and no Velcade, while Scotland gets £1,262 per capita and free Velcade for Scottish multiple myeloma sufferers, among many other benefits.

Gentlemen of England now abed, here is the position. The Scots have free nursing care for the elderly — subsidised, under the Barnett formula, by us, the English — while we cannot afford it in England. The Scots have the luxury of refusing to charge their students top-up fees — since they are subsidised by us, the English — while English students have to cough up. Now we learn that the Scots have free cancer drugs — subsidised by us, the English — while we in England are told they are not cost-effective.

And all this injustice is provoked by a fundamental constitutional imbalance. It was because of devolution that the Scottish equivalent of Nice was able to decide that it no longer needed to obey the rulings of this so-called "National" body. It is because of devolution that Scots are able to make their own health arrangements, in the comfortable knowledge that Whitehall will bung them an extra couple of hundred quid for every Scot.

It is because of devolution that the numerous Scottish MPs, with their small constituencies, are able to vote on questions that affect England, while English MPs have no corresponding say over healthcare in Scotland. [...]

Scottish devolution … has smashed its Mel Gibson broadsword through the NHS.

There's no more NHS. There's an EHS and an SHS. This is no longer some abstract constitutional issue. This is life and death. Unless Labour sorts it out, the shires of England will not be asking for devolution, but revolution, and they will be right.

(read the rest here)

Hey, but the Scots have their legitimate grievances too: after all, the BBC commentators are really biased towards the England football team!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I hope you forl orff yoor hoorse

From the Grauniad:

Zara Phillips' gold-medal winning performance at the equestrian world championships has seen the former wild child hailed as a sporting hero - just like her mother was, 35 years ago. But is she really a major talent, or just a toff with lots of cash and a great horse? Stephen Moss reports

It may be something to do with the BBC's desperate search for a sports personality of the year, but we seem to be witnessing some startling sporting transformations of late. First David Walliams goes from fleshy, decadent comedian to courageous swimmer in the course of one remarkable Channel crossing; then Monty Panesar changes, virtually overnight, from bearded joker to world-class spinner; and now Zara Phillips, daughter of Princess Anne and 11th in line to the throne, has been alchemised from party-loving royal to equestrian superstar by adding the three-day event world championship to the European championship she won last year.

Admittedly, there are still a few doubters. "Oh, you're not doing another piece about Zara Phillips," one of the Guardian's sports staff said to me yesterday. "Eventing is not even a sport; it's like sheep dog trials." Phillips is a toff who has done well in an outrageously expensive and exclusive pseudo-sport run by and for toffs, is the subtext...

(and indeed, the text - Ed)

...At the heart of this is the fact that Britain has an odd relationship with equestrianism: we are very good at it, but it gets grudging coverage in the media. Phillips, who is 25, might be the start of a rise in profile for the sport, or she might be such a one-off that she will continue to be presented almost independently of it - a model in a hard hat.

Yet eventing is compelling. It combines three phases: dressage, a sort of equine ballet in which, through a series of precise movements, the rider has to demonstrate a perfect union with the horse; the TV-friendly cross-country - on a course about as long as the Grand National but even more difficult and dangerous to ride because the fences are solid and grouped in fiendish combinations - and, finally, show jumping, in which, again, control is the key.

I find it very hard to think of something as a ‘sport’ if it is marked on aesthetic merit by judges.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Tiddley om pom pom

Says the BBC:

Come the bank holiday, millions will head abroad or to the countryside. But what of the UK's seaside resorts? After years in the shade, they're making a comeback.

Ah, the smell of fish and chips, the squawk of seagulls and the splash of bracing briney waves. Few childhood memories are as evocative as that of the British seaside holiday, which holds a unique place in the national psyche.

Yet while domestic tourism is in rude health - with walking, camping and caravanning enjoying a revival - and flights to the Mediterranean cheaper than an inter-city train fare, bucket-and-spade breaks seem to have been left behind.

For 30 years there have been repeated predictions that the British seaside holiday is doomed. MPs are currently investigating what action can be taken to save coastal towns gripped by deprivation.

But are there stirrings that the UK's love affair with the seaside may be rekindled?

Traditional English seaside holidays only 'went away' in the sense that they moved to the Algarve, Spain, Greece, the Canaries, the Balearics etc. Dotted all over the Med are Little Britain enclaves, with English pubs, bingo, full breakfasts, and TV screens endlessly running Only Fools and Horses, Dad's Army and Fawlty Towers.

If only global warming could guarantee us decent weather for just July and August, then Margate and Scunthorpe would be as popular as they were in the 1950s.

Monday, August 21, 2006

And just as we were recovering from the devastating pandemic of bird flu…

Mother gives rabbit flu warning

The mother of a man believed to be Britain's first victim of rabbit flu has issued a warning about the potentially fatal disease.

Farmer John Freeman, 29, of Aspall near Stowmarket in Suffolk, became infected with the bacteria pasteurella multocida after picking up a rabbit on his farm

Now that the two-week heatwave has passed and we’re back to grey skies and drizzle, our papers have also forgotton about global warming.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Oroborous swallows his tail...

I think that completes the circle.

My shout

From the BBC:

Buying drinks in rounds can damage your health, says the Scottish Executive. But the round is about much more than drinking, it's a complex social activity that keeps the peace.

Getting a round in is a social minefield, with elaborate unwritten rules and punishments for anyone who gets it wrong.

The custom of buying drinks in rounds has been criticised by the Scottish Executive, with a health minister warning that it can pressurise people into drinking too much.

But Dr Peter Marsh, the co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre, says that below the surface the pub round is a complicated, highly-regulated social ritual.

Being in a round means being accepted as a member of a group. And once inside this group, there are rules to be carefully observed about when and how often drinkers should be heading to the bar.

"Buying a round in a pub marks you out as a member of a very specific group - and by watching who buys drinks for whom, and in turn who receives drinks from whom, you get an immediate idea of the social dynamic there," says Dr Marsh.

There is nothing random about how drinks are bought in a round.

“There's a lot of monitoring - because you don't want to buy the drinks too early, you don't want to buy them too late. There are unwritten rules, such as if half the round are towards the bottom of the glass, that's the time to buy," he says.

The greatest social danger is to be labelled as a round dodger who never finds their pocket - on the surface everyone might be smiling, but they're keeping a careful note on the progress of the round. People who don't buy their rounds become ostracised or pushed to the fringes of the group, it makes them extremely unpopular. It's seen as a deviant behaviour not to reciprocate.

"It goes the other way too, as people who buy too many are equally unpopular, as it's seen as showing off," says Dr Marsh.

If it was just about buying drinks, we would be more like the tourists arriving at a pub who all buy themselves an individual drink, says Dr Marsh. The round-buying is a more subtle piece of psychology….

I don’t know if the round-buying culture is entirely unique to Britain, but, like the business of drinking whilst standing up, I’ve not seen it replicated elsewhere as most places favour the tab and final bill method.

For the outsider, being taken out for a drink in Britain must be a social minefield. It’s hard enough for insiders.

For example, when the group is large enough to cross the critical threshold – ie. so large that it is obvious that even at British rates of drinking you’ll never get all the way round so that the first person to buy for everyone will in turn have one drink bought for him by everyone – then there results an delicate shifting and sifting into sub-groups, decided by such factors as closeness of blood relation and length of friendship, approximate rate of consumption, unfinished conversations, balance of designated drivers and intended flirtations.

The matter becomes yet more difficult where one ‘owes’ somebody in the group a drink. It is customary in Britain to dismiss all offers of recompense for any smallish favour with the phrase ‘just buy me a pint sometime’. And then there are those occasions where a friend might have bought you a solitary lunchtime drink and you are now obliged to buy him one back. British men can’t remember birthdays, but they have photographic memories about the people to whom they owe pints, and it is quite common for someone to reciprocate on a pint several years after the initial favour.

Add to this mix the complexities of financial factors: it is understood that poor students, OAPs, or younger siblings should not usually have to stump up for gigantic rounds, while the pressure is on alpha males to buy the early rounds, since they are generally more expensive, as people drop off through the evening, or switch to halves or orange juices (although since designer soft drinks have become as expensive as booze, the teetotaler card doesn’t carry the weight it once did.)

All of these subtle calculations are unspoken but, strangely, are universally understood.

Nine and no more

If you ever wanted to see how an incestuous series of blogs can rapidly promulgate a nonsensical meme (and I’m sure that’s an ambition nurtured by most of the populace), here’s a good example.

On the Daily Duck I posted an article decrying the International Astronomers Union’s craven decision to save Pluto’s status as a planet by allowing in all sorts of riff-raff, including some chav of a lump of rock named after a TV show about a Warrior Princess. (And if you think the G8 is pompous enough, they’ve got nothing on the IAU for self-proclaimed importance: these guys meet up to decide the fate of whole galaxies).

This sparked an arcane debate about the definitions of planets and moons, which was picked up on by Susan’s Husband in the comments thread, and subsequently by AOG at Thought Mesh, both of whom introduced a level of technicality far beyond my comprehension.

Fortunately, David on his new Secret Blog proposed an excellent solution: if we upgrade the Moon to planet status, via Isaac Asimov’s Double Planet theory, we can ditch Pluto and all these other piddling pretenders, and keep the numbers in the solar system to a traditional and elite nine: Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus.

Henceforward you can do your bit for the Keep the Planets to Nine Campaign by always referring to the Moon as a planet in conversation, and I will take care of the highbrow element by lobbying for Clare de Lune by Debussy to be inserted into Holst’s Planets Suite for all future performances.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Our very own Dubya

From the Times:

John Prescott described President Bush’s policy on the Middle East as “crap”, a Labour MP has claimed.

The deputy prime minister gave his verdict at private meeting of six MPs at his Whitehall office on Tuesday, according to Harry Cohen, MP for Leyton and Wanstead.

Thank goodness British politicians are so much more sophisticated and eloquent.

Wood and trees

From the Telegraph:

A majority of British people wants the Government to adopt an even more "aggressive" foreign policy to combat international terrorism, according to an opinion poll conducted after the arrests of 24 terrorism suspects last week.

However - by a margin of more than five to one - the public wants Tony Blair to split from President George W Bush and either go it alone in the "war on terror", or work more closely with Europe.

Only eight per cent of those questioned by YouGov said Mr Bush and Mr Blair were winning the battle against Muslim fundamentalism.

A majority also wants tougher domestic legislation that would
allow police more time to detain suspects while they investigate complex terrorism plots.

Some 69 per cent said that the police should be able to hold suspects for up to 90 days without charge, rather than be bound by the current 28-day limit.

The only possible explanation I can conceive for the co-existence of the first and second paragraphs of the above is the inability of Britons to get past Bush’s inarticulateness.

Monday, August 14, 2006

So much for charity

From the BBC:

Bank account details belonging to thousands of Britons are being sold in West Africa for less than £20 each, the BBC's Real Story programme has found.

It discovered that fraudsters in Nigeria were able to find internet banking data stored on recycled PCs sent from the UK to Africa.

The information can be found on a PC's hard disk, which is easy to access if the drive is not wiped before sending.

Anti-fraud expert Owen Roberts said simply deleting files was not enough.

Users should instead use a programme to wipe their hard drive before they sell or give away their PC, a process which over-writes what is already contained on the drive.

Alternatively, people should remove their hard drives before they give away their computers, he said.

Is internet fraud the national sport in Nigeria or something?

Friday, August 04, 2006

Au revoir

Think of England is off to Paris for a few days, but will return on Thursday, no doubt full of tales to tell about black rollneck-clad artistes on the Left Bank, strings of onions, queue-jumping at the Louvre, Vichy collaboration and whatnot.

In the meantime, you can pass the pergatorial hours of TofE's absence by perusing the new Greatest Hits section (see the link on the right).

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

No builders, no tradesmen, no remarks passed on you by fellows looking over your wall, and, above all, no weather.

From Ananova today:

Mole Man banned from home

An eccentric known as The Mole Man has been banned from his home after digging a 60ft network of tunnels beneath it.

William Lyttle, 75, spent 40 years burrowing under his 20-room house, removing 100 cubic metres of earth with a spade and pulleys.

It is now feared the street could give way, reports the Daily Mirror.

Lyttle is merely following in the footsteps of one of the greatest of all English eccentrics, William John Cavendish Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland and Marquess of Titchfield (1800-1879).

The Duke took it upon himself to strip all the rooms in his Welbeck Abbey mansion and employ hundreds of workmen to construct a fantastic network of underground tunnels, totalling 15 miles and in some cases wide enough for two coaches.

He also built a series of underground rooms, including a library 250 feet long, an observatory with a large glass roof and a vast billiards-room.

The piece de resistance was a ballroom 174 by 64 feet wide, which had a hydraulic lift that could carry 20 guests from the surface and a ceiling painted to look like a giant sunset. Needless to say, the Duke, who was cripplingly introverted, never had any parties in this ballroom.

Indeed, he only ventured outside in the night and was preceded by a servant lady carrying a lantern 40 yards before him. Servants were forbidden to recongnise him and he would hide behind his umbrella if addressed. He insisted that a chicken be roasting at all hours of the day, and his food was delivered to him on heated trucks that ran on rails through the underground tunnels in the house.

And the many unused overground rooms in Welbeck Abbey? Naturally, Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck painted them all pink and installed a lavatory basin in every single one.

Presently they all sat down to luncheon together. The Mole found himself placed next to Mr. Badger, and, as the other two were still deep in river-gossip from which nothing could divert them, he took the opportunity to tell Badger how comfortable and home- like it all felt to him.

`Once well underground,' he said, `you know exactly where you are. Nothing can happen to you, and nothing can get at you. You're entirely your own master, and you don't have to consult anybody or mind what they say. Things go on all the same overhead, and you let 'em, and don't bother about 'em. When you want to, up you go, and there the things are, waiting for you.'

The Badger simply beamed on him. `That's exactly what I say,' he replied. `There's no security, or peace and tranquillity, except underground. And then, if your ideas get larger and you want to expand--why, a dig and a scrape, and there you are! If you feel your house is a bit too big, you stop up a hole or two, and there you are again! No builders, no tradesmen, no remarks passed on you by fellows looking over your wall, and, above all, no weather. Look at Rat, now. A couple of feet of flood water, and he's got to move into hired lodgings; uncomfortable, inconveniently situated, and horribly expensive. Take Toad. I say nothing against Toad Hall; quite the best house in these parts, as a house. But supposing a fire breaks out--where's Toad? Supposing tiles are blown off, or walls sink or crack, or windows get broken--where's Toad? Supposing the rooms are draughty--I hate a draught myself--where's Toad? No, up and out of doors is good enough to roam about and get one's living in; but underground to come back to at last--that's my idea of home.'

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows Chapter 4

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Orrin explains 'speciation'

The Blogger's Lament

The Blogger’s Lament

Upstairs in the unforgiving
World, the World must earn a living,
Stuggling 'gainst the time and tide,
'Til sun sets on that World Outside
And softly sweet the night is falling,
But the blogger’s lonely calling,
Keeps him to his basement tied.

For the blogger’s work is ne’er abated,
The newsfeed’s greed is never sated,
The blogosphere keeps getting bigger,
And RSI it cramps his trigger-
happy finger, ever-clicking,
Ever cutting, pasting, sticking,
And in the end for what? Go figure!

Is it of his own volition
He endures this strange war of attrition?
Perhaps for his own education?
Perhaps for folks in other nations?
For those whom ignorance has blinded,
Or for the like and unlike-minded?
Perhaps for future generations?

For who can doubt it’s his vocation
To surf this sea of information?
His skill: to find the perfect snippet,
To metaphorically paperclip it
To another view or bent,
Find the balance of the argument,
Then, with his pithy comment, tip it.

But beside his true goal this goal pales:
He hopes to tip the whole World’s scales!
For those who know the blogworld know
A snowball idea can grow and grow!
And in other basements, down below,
By the monitor light’s ghostly glow,
Other bloggers add their snow.
For the blogworld’s ever on the go,
A constant state of change and flow…

…But from himself he’ll try and mask
How great his Sisyphean task.
For the Outside World’s so big, so slow,
And jealously guards the status quo.

Originally posted at the Daily Duck.