Monday, 30 August 2010

Cock and bull stories

As Alison pointed out in her Comment yesterday, agricultural shows provide entertainment for all ages.

Where else would you see middle-aged men of a military bearing, dressed in dark suits, bowler hats and green wellingtons, running across a muddy field and carrying a clipboard? And wearing big red rosettes in their lapels, as though they were prize-winning sheep. Such a sight should be (and maybe was) the subject of a Monty Python sketch. Actually they are the Show Judges, or Vice-Presidents, or even Lord Lieutenants of somewhere or other, and they have the crucial vote in deciding who has the best plate of pickled gherkins and who is the best bitch in show in her first season and not exceeding 19 hands.

Then you can guarantee there will be a plethora of dogs and their owners,most of whom are barking. Some of are there for a legitimate purpose such as hareing across the field chasing a small piece of fur on a long elastic rope, but others seem to be there solely for the socializing. The latter seem to spend a lot of time yapping and trying to mount each other. And that's just the owners. The dogs are usually better behaved but their hair-styles are equally ludicrous.

Our family entered into the spirit of things with gusto, and our shepherd won lots of prizes and cups for his flock of Texels (despite my previous faux pas with the judges (, and the two older grandchildren, who had entered for more or less everything in the children's Art, Decorated Eggs, Miniature Gardens, Make-A-Crown and Vegetable Monsters line, guided by their granny, won £2 each at 50p. per prize. Our budding entrepreneur, aged 4, has decided that this will be his future career and he will live on his earnings from agricultural shows around the country, but since the various deformed vegetables and art materials, 'diamonds', silver foil and other bits and bobs cost about £25 it doesn't seem to me to be a viable proposition.

The beer tent always provides good entertainment, particularly towards closing time, when the farm lads who've been sinking the cider steadily for about 6 hours leave the tent and try to walk proudly through the mud in a stately fashion and in a straight line, burping periodically and trying to remember where the exit is and whether they'd brought a cow with them. "Oh, there you are, Jenny, Hic!". Jenny is not always best pleased, unless she'd been on the cider too.

Which reminds me of one of my favourite Agricultural Show stories:
The Lord Lieutenant's wife (see above) was inspecting the prize bulls, while his Lordship was with his mates ogling the barmaids in the beer-tent. The wife was very impressed by the champion bull's physique, and she could see from the size of his rosettes and his accoutrements that he was obviously kept for stud purposes. She asked the stockman how many times the bull could perform his duties in a year. "Oh I should think well over 400 Madam" he said.
Her eyes widened, "Really! Would you mind just popping over to the beer tent and telling that to my husband".
Five minutes later he was back "Excuse me madam, His Lordship sends his compliments and told me to ask you if its the same cow every time?"

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Whoosh, crash, bang, wallop!

Three of our grandchildren, aged 2,4 and 6 came to stay last week, so we're a bit worn.

The main entertainment was the local Agricultural Show, which has all kinds of fun things on offer, in particular large tents full of farm animals doing various types of poos, farts and wees. This of course is hugely attractive to a 4 year old boy, whose most successful Christmas present ever has been a Whoopee cushion. It's one thing to see your Mummy sitting decorously on the loo, but its quite another to see a cow in full flow. The 2 year-old of course was simply delighted to discover that piggies do actually go 'Oink Oink'. (No, I know they don't really, but I can't spell that wonderful, snuffling up the nose, incarnation of pigginess that our 2 year old can mimic so well, including the smell).

Then there are those enormous tractors which pull cars and horse-boxes out of trenches of lovely sticky, gooey mud. And diggers! And quad bikes you can sit on!! And when all these attractions pale, there's always candy-floss. And then we're all very tired and getting a bit grizzly so let's get home quickly before total melt-down occurs.

We had to steer them away from the fairground rides though, because they are a health hazard for grandfathers.I well remember my effort some years ago with our other three grandchildren, when the eldest boy was accompanied up a rickety and dangerous-looking helter-skelter by his father and the smaller one was left howling at the bottom. Such deprivations hit two-year-olds pretty hard. So hero grandad volunteered to carry him up the very steep ladder and escort him safely down, sharing a mat.

What I hadn't allowed for was the weight of the coconut matting they gave me at the bottom, which I then had to carry to the top. The heavy toddler in one arm and the heavy mat in the other then left no hands free for holding the ladder. A sensible person would have given up then, but how much howling would that have provoked? Anyway I'm still a Northerner at heart and I'd paid my money.

Helter skelters don't look very high from the bottom, but once you get three- quarters of the way up carrying a toddler in one arm and a heavy mat in the other you realize that it's a long way to fall. You also remember at that stage that you have a pacemaker and palpitations and you get very breathless on exertion. One's balance deteriorates as one gets older and dizziness can be a problem too. Moreover there's a queue of little urchins on the ladder immediately behind you so there is no possibility of reversing down.

Fortunately I had read many books about Everest climbs and so I knew that the technique is to climb one step and then pant for about 2 minutes, and then take another step, pant for another 2 minutes and so on. I was greatly handicapped by the fact that I had no ice-axe to lean on and the altitude sickness was pretty bad in the thin air. The pain in the arms from carrying the heavy equipment was quite severe too. It worried me that neither of us had left a farewell note for our family. After about 3,000 feet of this, the South Col hove into view and I began to have a small hope that we might not both perish after all.

One last temendous effort up the Hillary Step and we reached the small platform at the summit, with its totally inadequate guard rail. The problem then was to position the mat on the top of the helter-skelter slide with one hand whilst stopping the toddler falling over the wobbly rail, then sitting on the mat without it swooshing down, taking me with it and thus leaving the toddler stranded at the top. I did eventually manage this feat, with a lot of anxiety and a modicum of muttered profanity, then I had to lift the toddler onto my lap and it was 'Chocks away'.....

Unfortunately the Laws of Physics dictate that acceleration increases dramatically with the mass of the falling body and when there are two bodies, one of them fairly large, the acceleration is amazing and the G-forces on the bends are colossal.

Moreover there is always a crowd of solicitous Mums gathered at the foot of a helter-skelter to encourage and welcome their little ones, who normally weigh about 2 stones and arrive at the bottom at a speed of about 10 m.p.h. My grandson and I, with a combined weight of 16 stones, arrived like a bob-sleigh at the foot of the Cresta Run and scattered these maternal skittles at about 90 m.p.h.

You can imagine the carnage.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Is anybody there?

While we're on the subject of philosophy, and just in case a cab-driver ever asks your opinion on mechanistic determinism, I thought I should mention that the philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) was of the opinion that matter does not exist at all, and things only exist when they are being perceived.

It is doubtful whether he was a lunatic but then again a town in California was named after him, so we can't be sure, although I think the Hippy/Dippy/Gay/Fey/Happy/Clappy crowd only arrived at a much later date,and the University crowd are not mad, although some do seem a trifle strange. Anyway, in George Berkeley's opinion the fact that there is no such thing as matter was a weighty argument in favour of the existence of God, who would be required to perceive everything at all times, because if He didn't, we'd be forever coming and going and things would have a very jerky existence indeed.

The Catholic theologian Monsignor Ronald Knox summarized this view as follows:

There was a young man who said "God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree,
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad".


Dear Sir,
Your astonishment's odd:
I am always about in the Quad,
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be, since observed by
Yours faithfully,

Well, I always knew Catholics priests had a sense of humour. That's why they had the sale of Indulgences (remission of sins for a cash payment). My, how they laughed!

Taxi-drivers and mechanistic determinism

The taxi driver who asked the philosopher Bertrand Russell what Life and the Universe is all about ('The old trouble returns', August 23rd) should really have known better than to look for guidance from such a source. Taxi drivers generally have a pretty good notion of what things are about, whereas no philosopher can distinguish his arras from a doorway in less than 3 chapters and 25 footnotes.

This may seem a trifle harsh, but it is I believe a widely held view, witness this week's New Scientist (28th August p.64) in which Richard Sutcliffe reports that his favourite road sign, often to be seen in Colorado is "Icy conditions may exist". He suggests this should be followed by the sign "Next philosopher 500 miles".

When I was in the Sixth form at school we used to have a subject called General Studies, where we were encouraged to ponder whether the statement "This sentence is false" is true or false, presumably to stop us thinking about big girls and their blouses.

It didn't work, and I retained a passing interest in both subjects until 1961 when I happened to be reading Philosophy XXXVI, pp.112- 127 by J.R. Lucas (as you do),and I came across the following arresting thought.

"Godel's theorem states that in any consistent system which is strong enough to produce simple arithmetic there are formulae which cannot be proved-in-the-system, but which we can see to be true. Essentially we consider the formula which says in effect 'This formula is unprovable-in-the-system.' If this formula were provable-in- the-system we should have a contradiction, for if it were provable-in-the-system then it would not be unprovable-in-the-system so that 'This formula is unprovable-in -the-system' would be false: equally if it were provable-in-the-system then it would not be false, but would be true since in any consistent system nothing false can be proved-in-the-system, but only truths. So the formula 'This formula is unprovable-in-the-system is not provable-in-the-system but unprovable-in-the-system. Further, if the formula 'This formula is unprovable in the system' is unprovable in the system, then it is true that that formula is unprovable in the system, that is 'This formula is unprovable' in the system is true".

It went on of course,.. and on,...and on, but after that I concentrated on the blouses.

I only mention this because some theologians now seem to be saying that since "the bogey of mechanistic determinism" has been overcome(see Philosopy XXXVI, p.112 if you're that interested) this shows there is a God! Crikey!

Another brick wall

In my little rant against first cousin marriages (Monday 23 August) I said that in trying to educate a Pakistani religious leader about the dangers of recessive genes, Tazeen Ahmad 'might as well have talked to the proverbial brick wall'.

My friend Morris has now sent me a story about a CNN journalist who was doing a feature on the power of prayer. The journalist went to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and there she met a very old Jewish man who had been to the Wall to pray twice daily for more than 60 years. She asked him what kind of thing he prayed for.

"I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews and Muslims. I pray for all the wars and the hatred to stop. I pray for all our children to grow up safely as responsible adults and to love their fellow man".

"And how do you feel after doing this for 60 years?"

"I feel like I'm talking to a f*cking brick wall!"

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Queues and pees.

One of my minor pleasures when I was still alive, and writing serious articles for scientific journals (well that's what I used to tell people), was trying to embellish a serious paper with a risque quip and somehow slip it past the Editor's blue pencil and into print.

For example, if a drug firm published a paper in a scientific journal claiming success for their only marginally useful product on the basis of some 'iffy' statistics, a common enough event, they would then train their drug reps. to visit health centres across the country and belabour the poor general practitioners with a flood of pseudo-scientific claptrap about the P (probablility) values which allegedly showed how extremely effective their product was. It is well-known that there are lies, damned lies and statistics and so my subsequent article demolishing their statistics and advocating the need to look at the number of patients in the study as well as the exact statistical tests used would perhaps be entitled 'Let's take the P out of sales talk'.

I rarely succeeded in getting that sort of thing past the fuddy-duddy old editors, and I began to think that I was the peculiar one. Hence I was pleasantly surprised to learn that 'Can I have a P please, Bob?'(from the ITV show Blockbusters) has just been voted the nation's favourite TV catchphrase.

With all this recent talk of deteriorating educational standards and annual inflation of exam. results, I had thought there would be few people left who could still recognize a double entendre when they heard one, but I was obviously mistaken.

Only last week I was in the local pub and this beautiful girl came in wearing a short skirt and a tight sweater, perched herself on a high stool, and said to the the barman 'Can I have a double entendre please?' The barman winked at me, and replied 'Yeah, I'll give you one'.

Monday, 23 August 2010

First cousin marriages

There was another deeply disturbing programme on TV last night (Dispatches: When Cousins Marry, Channel 4, 23rd. August, 8pm).

Doctors have known for many years that when first cousins marry they share the same grandparents and this greatly increases the risk that their children will develop one or more of various genetic diseases due to the inheritance of two recessive genes for that disease. This is not a hypothesis, it's a proven fact, on a par with the idea that water tends to run downhill, except that we understand the causative mechanism of recessive genetic disease much better, since gravity remains a mystery.

More than half of British Pakistanis marry their first cousins, and their children thus have a greatly increased incidence of rare genetic diseases. Their children account for 30% of all such cases in Britain, and children of first cousin marriages have three times the rate of learning disabilities seen in other British children. Having personally witnessed many such cases at medical meetings I can testify that some of these tragedies are heart-wrenching in the terrible physical and mental problems they produce.

Yet many Pakistani parents and their religious leaders continue to be in denial about it, and seem to believe that any criticism of the practice is an insult to their culture and religion. The presenter Tazeen Ahmad interviewed such a married couple, three of whose six children had degenerative diseases. They frankly refused to believe it was a genetic problem, but felt it must the fault of the doctors and it was a ' test from God'.

When she met Pakistani community leaders Tazeen pointed out (in vain) that hostility to first cousin marriages was nothing to do with skin colour or race or ethnic minorities or religion, but was simply to do with trying to prevent suffering due to horrible and largely preventible diseases. She could have made the additional point that inherited diseases due to inbreeding also used to occur in the European aristocracy before they stopped marrying their near relatives. Queen Victoria, for example, passed the recessive gene for haemophilia to the royal families of Spain, Germany and Russia.

It seems very unlikely that education will make any impression on the Pakistani community. Tazeen might as well have talked to the proverbial brick wall.

Ye Gods! Little Green Chickens! Mary, Mary Quite Contrary! or whatever other blasphemous profanity you wish to use, why cannot our lily-livered politicians pluck up the courage to do some good in the world by passing a law against first cousin marriages?

The Health and Safety people already have enough laws against almost everything else.

Please feel free to bring this Post to the attention of your local MP.

The old trouble returns

I'm feeling a bit peeliwally today (Whaddaya mean it's not in your dictionary? It's a perfectly good Scottish word isn't it?).

Anyway I'm usually perky but today I'm peaky, the reason being that I was unable to go to the blog yesterday. I had another bout of the old trouble, contingent syllogisms, and very painful they are too.

It started, as it so often does, with reading Christopher Howse discussing 'argument from design', which is the notion that since Nature is so complex and yet so orderly it must therefore be intelligently designed ('Bertrand Russell versus faith in God', Telegraph, Saturday August 21st, p 27). His general message seemed to be, insofar as any message at all could be gleaned from the philosophical flim-flam, that argument from design shows the need for an extra-cosmic intelligence and that sounds to him like 'God, our Lord'.

Well, that's a perfectly reasonable view, even though it's erroneous, but in order to reach it he had to take us on a tour of several intellectual punch-ups which various distinguished philosophers have had with Bertrand Russell, and that's what brought my old trouble back. At first I thought it was just a lack of moral fibre in my diet, but apparently it's all to do with whether one can 'deduce a necessary conclusion from a contingent premiss'.

Russell, you may recall, was the greatest philospher/mathematician of his age, but even he didn't have all the answers. A taxi-driver with a grasp of such matters, and they're more numerous than you might think, once remarked 'You know I had that Bertrand Russell in my cab yesterday and I said to him " Hallo, Bertie, Wot's it all abaht then?" and do you know he'd no bleeding idea!'

He was however fairly hot stuff on the question of syllogisms (see his 'History of Western Philosophy', pub. Allen and Unwin, 1946, p. 218).

Now a syllogism, as we all know, (and indeed in our Somerset village we talk of little else), is an incontrovertible logical deduction of the form

A+B = C+A, therefore B=C, or if you prefer 1+ 3 = x + 1, therefore x= 3.

You can't argue with that, can you? But was that good enough for Bertie? Oh no, he had to give us various forms of the wretched thing, thus:

1a. 'All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal'.

1b. 'All men are mortal, all Greeks are men, therefore all Greeks are mortal'.

Then clever-clogs Bertie points out that Aristotle was mistaken because he did not distinguish between these two forms. Of course!

He goes on to distinguish between:

2. 'No fishes are rational, all sharks are fishes, therefore no sharks are rational'.

3. 'All men are rational, some animals are men, therefore some animals are rational'

4. 'No Greeks are black, some men are Greeks, therefore some men are not black'.

These four make up the 'first figure' to which Aristotle added a second and a third figure, and other philosophers later added a fourth although the three later figures, according to Bertie, can be reduced to the first by various devices.

You can see how my intellectual sphincter tightened, can't you.

I'm not entirely convinced Christopher Howse understands it either, but he should read my book 'Why Man Made Gods and Dogs' (ISBN 978-0-9565588-0-0) then he would at least understand the Anthropic Principle.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Tell it like it is.

I mentioned the 'no frills' approach of Ryanair the other day (How to reduce the gap, Aug. 18th) and a friend of mine in the airline industry now tells me that Kulula, an African airline, has taken it even further. Their aeroplanes have all the important features such as wings, doors and engines clearly labelled so that they can dispense with engineers and stewardesses and the passengers can more or less look after the aircraft themselves.

Just joking. In fact it is a very respected airline with an excellent record and a great sense of humour. When their pilots and crew make jokes over the PA system the management congratulates them instead of suspending them, as would probably happen in USA or UK.

A few examples will illustrate this refreshing approach:

Flight attendant 'To operate the seat belt, insert the metal tab into the buckle and pull it tight. It works just like any other seat belt and if you have difficulty with this you probably shouldn't be travelling alone'.

'In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, masks will descend from the ceiling. Stop screaming, grab the mask and pull it over your face. If you have a small child travelling with you, secure your mask before assisting with theirs. If you are travelling with more than one child, pick your favourite'.

'In the event of an emergency landing over water, your seat cushions can be used for flotation. Please feel free to paddle ashore and keep them with our compliments'.

Captain (on a flight with rather senior hostesses): 'Ladies and gentlemen, we've reached out cruising altitude and will now be turning down the cabin lights to enhance the appearance of your flight attendants'.

After a bumpy landing in a thunder-storm, a voice came over the loudspeaker 'Whoa, big fella, WHOA!'

After this the flight attendant announced, 'Please take care when opening your overhead lockers as after a landing like that, sure as hell, everything will have shifted'.

This relaxed approach can have its drawbacks though, like the time when the captain was giving his usual soothing announcement over the intercom.
'....the weather is good and we anticipate a smooth and uneventful flight to Cape Town, arriving at approximately JESUS CHRIST, HOLY SH*T, ...OW, ..OOH'.... and the plane went into a steep nose dive, banking to the left.

After a few moments the plane straightened up and resumed a stable course and the captain said.
'So sorry, ladies and gentlemen. While I was talking to you the flight attendant brought in my hot coffee and spilt it into my lap. You should just see the front of my trousers.'

At which a passenger shouted out 'That's nothing, you should see the back of mine!'

Farmers can think fast.

A hoaxer recently reported the sighting of a crocodile in the English Channel off the coast of Boulogne, and the French authorities cleared the beaches.

Very wise too. These 'salties' as they call them in Northern Australia, can thresh out of the water in seconds, grab you by the leg and there may just be time for one short scream before you're dragged into the depths and held there until you drown. If you're really lucky your friends will find an arm some weeks later.

With global warming and changing currents who knows where they'll get to. Before you know it English farmers will start breeding them for shoes and handbags, as they did with ostriches a few years ago.

If you've ever seen the terrible feeding frenzy in a crocodile-farm pond when twenty crocs come tearing in for their daily buckets of dead chickens to be thrown in to them, you'll have no difficulty in thinking 'Jurassic Park'. Compared with that, 'Jaws' is just a film about a sweet little pet goldfish.

Its not all doom and gloom though. An old farmer friend of mine in South Africa has a small lake on his farm, and he was going to his orchard with a large bucket to pick some avocadoes one day when he heard splashing and girlish squeals of delight coming from the direction of his lake. As he peered through the trees he was surprised and delighted to see 3 lovely young women frolicking in the water. They'd been hiking across his land and as it was a hot day they'd paused for a little skinny-dipping. To his disappointment they spotted him almost immediately and quickly moved into the deep water, and one of them shouted, 'We're not coming out until you go away'.

'Oh, don't mind me, girls' he said, 'I've just come down to feed my crocodiles'

Friday, 20 August 2010

Brussels not swayed by pseudo-Swedes.

The Brussels bureaucrats are sprouting and spouting again. They're shooting out dictatorial directives in all directions.

The latest one concerns traditional Cornish pasties, which must contain only beef, potato, onion and swede. The problem is that the Cornish people, bless them, say turnip when they mean swede, and these are two entirely different vegetables. This means that Cornish people can advertize their genuine pasties as containing turnips, so long as they contain swedes and no turnips, but they cannot claim their pasties are Cornish if they actually contain the turnips as advertized.

Albena Dimitrova-Borisova, the European Commission spokesman said "It will be for the control authorities in the U.K. to put in place the necessary enforcement".

I'm not sure whether the European Commission has yet dealt with Scotland. The haggis, which is defined in my Concise Oxford Dictionary as 'minced heart, lungs, liver of sheep etc. (I love that 'etc', the mind boggles) boiled in maw or artificial bag with suet, oatmeal etc. (I love that 'etc.' too)' where a maw is the last of a ruminant's four stomachs. Sounds delightful doesn't it, now if you'll excuse me while I just run to the loo and ........Oooch, yurgh, uuuurgh, uuuuuurgh, ugh, that's better, the rotten thing about vomiting is that you always have to do it again when you think you've finished. Where were we, oh yes, the Scots and their problems (how long have you got?). Well as I recall from my 2 year stint in Edinburgh the haggis is traditionally served with neeps, which can be either turnips or swedes. Or even 'etc.' if you can't afford shoes for the bairn.

And although I'm no expert on these quaint linguistic traditions, I expect the traditional Melton Mowbray pork pie contains diced cucumbers called swedes and Bakewell tarts sometimes have Swedes filling their soft centres, even though they're called tricks. So how will you inspect that, Mr. Dimitrova-Borisova?

Swedes have a long history of causing confusion. I was in a pharmacy once and a Swedish tourist came in and asked the shop assistant, in his wonderful lilting Swedish accent (easy to mimic, but almost impossible to write), for a deodorant.

"Certainly sir", she said with a helpful smile "Ball or aerosol?"

He blushed "Well neither, its joost for my arrmpits actually"

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Thought for the day

Just a small 'Thought for the day' prompted by two articles on the front page of today's Telegraph.

A judge has criticized a council for trying to force contraception on a woman with an IQ of 53 who has already had two babies, both of whom were taken from her by the social services because she could not look after them. The judge warned that the move would have "shades of social engineering".

On the same page, Nick Clegg said that the Coalition Government is to introduce changes to University funding "to promote greater social mobility".

Good to know that members of the Establishment are all reading from the same hymn-sheet.

It's no laughing matter

Richard Dawkins presented a TV programme recently which I found profoundly depressing ('Faith-schools, a hidden menace?' More4, August 19th, 9pm). He was trying to make the point that children should receive a broad education about all types of religion as well as a good scientific education and then eventually make up their own minds, rather than being segregated and brain-washed from an early age, as happens in many faith-schools.

He interviewed a science teacher in a Moslem girls' school who assured him that she taught all her students about evolution as well as the Koran and they were free to make up their own minds once they knew all the facts. She said she had around 60 students who had all decided that the story of evolution was wrong and the creation story given in the Koran was correct. The girls supported this claim and asked Dawkins why, if Man came from apes, were there still apes here on Earth.

Dawkins turned to the teacher and asked her how she would answer this question. She smiled helpfully and shrugged. It was clear to her that there was no answer. Dawkins tried to clarify the situation by saying that we are all apes. You could see the girls and their teacher thinking 'What a load of cobblers, the man's an idiot'.

The Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland wouldn't even let him film the children in their science classes. A rotund rubicund gentleman in clerical garb was interviewed and was as unctuous and avuncular as such clerics often are.

A headmaster of a faith-school then appeared to demolish Dawkins simply by repeatedly asking him, Paxman-style, 'Do you not agree that parents have the human right to educate their children in their own way according to their own faith?' Dawkins has so often been accused of being an angry polemicist that on this occasion he leant over backward to be reasonable and see the other fellow's point of view and so he seemed to agree with this idea. However he didn't make the point that parents have the duty to educate their children, full stop, and children can't be said to be properly educated if they only know about one religion or have been taught that all other religions are wicked, and they have been given a very sparse or even erroneous scientific education. Then there's the small question of tolerance.

Now just remind me what time the King Billy Marching Bands start their procession, because I don't want to miss the art lesson on how to spray-paint a mural with 'F*ck the Pope' in letters six feet high. Then we're taking the grandchildren off to Saudi for the weekend to see the stoning.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

How to reduce the gap.

My pedantic friend Richard has pointed out that the learned Fellows of the Royal Society would be unlikely to use the word 'chuffed' except in its literal meaning (see 'Christmas came early', Aug. 18th.), and he has kindly given me an example of the correct use of the word. It seems that many years ago, he had a friend who was suicidally depressed, but was uncertain how to go about it, so Richard pushed him in front of an old-fashioned steam train and he was chuffed to bits.

On a more serious note, I thought I should give the Government some advice on how to, as Nick Clegg put it yesterday, 'reduce the gap between the rich and the poor', which is of course politician-speak for 'make the rich poorer'.

They simply need to follow the example of Ryanair and other cheap airlines who charge extra for the provision of basic services such as air-traffic controllers, food, water, baggage, seats, seat-belts, and use of the toilet.

The Government have a golden opportunity here, because we all know that Google Earth is already invading our privacy by photographing our homes and gardens from outer space and the police have a great deal of experience in the strategic placing of CCTV cameras.

By combining the skills of the Ryanair marketing team, Google Earth and the CCTV controllers they could repay the National Debt by simply giving us all the option of paying extra for a bit of privacy. They could have a sliding scale - say £100 pa. not to be photographed in your own garden, £500 not to be continually photographed in your kitchen, £1000 not to be filmed in your own bedroom or toilet, and so on.

Those exhibitionists who normally appear on Big Brother and similar reality T.V. shows would of course be willing to pay to have the cameras fitted everywhere in their homes and the rest of us would gladly pay in order not to have to watch the ensuing footage.

It was just a joke, dear.

I met an old friend at a party recently who has recently retired from the Research and Development Dept. at Hewlett Packard.

I reminded him that about 20 years ago, when computers were slow, clumping, great things that did mental arithmetic for you, and telephones were bulky black objects, found only indoors or in telephone boxes, I had asked him to predict future developments in the world of computer science. He had explained that computers would become progressively smaller and faster, and telephones would become portable, so that no wires were needed. 'Oh, that would be interesting' I said.

'Yes, and then eventually computers with a huge memory capacity will be linked into mobile telephones so that you can carry them around in your pocket with all your contact numbers and E-mail addresses in one neat package'. 'That would be amazing' I said.

'Yes, and one day you might be able to get a type of very small telephone that would fit in your pocket and do everything a computer does now but also plays music'. 'No, really?' I laughed nervously.

'Yes, and it would also show television programmes and do library searches and take photographs and store them and send them to your friends, and...'. 'Ha, ha,' I said 'What a joker you are, and I expect it will unpack your groceries too'. 'Just wait and see' he said.

So, meeting him 20 years later I congratulated him on his prescience, and asked him what he would predict for the next 20 years.

He was thoughtful for a while, and then said that in another 20 years time, we should simply have to think of a task in order for it to be done by a superior form of intelligence with no effort on our part, and some jobs such as household chores and the ordering, taking delivery and unpacking of groceries, would be done before we'd even thought of them for ourselves. 'But I've already got one of those' I said 'it's called a wife'.

Actually I wish I hadn't said that now because, if I may be permitted to mix my metaphors, I've just shot myself in the foot by stepping into the Catch-22 trap. I've been trained, you see, to avoid sexist or 'Little Woman' jokes. So that if the above remark was a joke, I'm in trouble and if it wasn't, then I'm in trouble. Perhaps I should have stressed the superior intelligence part?

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Christmas came early

When I opened my morning post yesterday I was not surprised to receive the usual pile of tat that most retired persons receive, namely bills you'd rather not pay, offers of credit you don't need, special offers you can refuse only too readily, appeals for donations from charities you have no particular desire to support, and occasionally a letter from her Majesty's Customs and Revenue Officer, which is either replying evasively to a question you had asked them 6 months ago, or asking you a question about something you thought you'd done and dusted 3 years ago.

And then, mirabile dictu, Christmas and the Good Fairy arrived simultaneously in the form of a cream envelope containing a letter from the Astronomer Royal, who also happens to be the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and the President of the Royal Society, telling me that he had found that my "most engaging book" had resonated with the views he had expressed in his recent Reith Lectures.

Wow, how big a name can one drop! I was, as they probably say in the Royal Society, 'well chuffed'.

So folks, we still have a few copies left. Just E-mail your delivery address, asking for a copy of 'Why Man Made Gods and Dogs' to and it will be sent to you with an invoice asking for payment of £9 (this includes postage in UK).

Monday, 16 August 2010

Always keep your eggs safe

My little adventure in Brighton (see yesterday's blog, 'Almost a night on a bear mountain), where I narrowly avoided a night of bare mounting due to my uncanny resemblance to gay icons such as George Clooney (when I'm dressed in a wet anorak and seen from a distance in the dark), showed me how threatened attractive women must often feel when they walk alone in deserted streets.

My protagonist readily accepted my courteous refusal of his kind proposal, aided no doubt by my 6ft.4in. of bone and muscle and a really ugly scowl, but a petite female in similar circumstances might not be so lucky.

I suppose girls get used to it and have a number of ploys at their disposal. I was very impressed by a true story I heard when I was attending a medical conference in Cairo. One of the delegates was a small but perfectly formed lady doctor who was walking alone along the banks of the Nile, when she was accosted by a large Arab, who parted his djellaba in classic 'dirty grey raincoat' style to reveal his true intentions. Annie simply opened her handbag, fished out her reading specs, put them on, peered closely and then said disdainfully 'And is that the best you can do?'
Fortunately his English was good enough for him to feel totally humiliated and he fled.

Unlike the wee virgin who was once carrying a basket of eggs home from the market when she met the adventurer-poet Robert Burns on a lonely mountain path in the Scottish Highlands. She recognized him immediately from his manly swagger and his beautiful jaunty sporran. 'Are ye the famous Rabbie Burns?' she asked in some trepidation. 'Aye, I am that lassie' came the proud reply. 'Oh dear' she said breathlessly 'And are ye the terrible man they say y'are, that goes round the country seducing young women and then having his wicked way with them no matter how much they resist and call for help'. 'Aye, well it has been known to happen in the heat of the moment'. 'Och, ye wicked man, ye'd best just wait a second while I find a safe place to put down my basket'.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Almost 'A Night on a Bear Mountain'

My wife tells me I need a new raincoat. There is, as usual, something in what she says, although I personally don't think my wardrobe looks as much as though a hurricane has blown through a charity shop as she claims. She hasn't yet realized that anoraks and antique trainers are the new Paul Smith polo-necks and Gucci (or whoever).

Anoraks have so many uses too. There was a story on the radio a few days about a hiker in the Rocky Mountains who came face to face with a large bear as he came round a corner on a forest trail. He knew that bears can run faster than humans, and they tend to knock you down, place an enormous paw on your chest and then eat you slowly, savouring every large mouthful. They don't care how loud you scream. Sometimes they leave you still alive and come back the next day, following the trail of blood, to finish their meal.

This situation, where you have surprised a bear many miles away from anywhere and you have no gun, is where you are glad you wore your anorak. What you should do, as the bear sniffs the air, licks his lips, and moves purposefully towards you, is to quickly remove your rucksack and anorak, jam the tips of your walking-sticks or ski-poles into the two wrist-bands of the anorak, then raise the two poles as high as possible above your head so that you are transformed into a flapping 10 feet-tall monster. You then walk steadily towards the bear, shaking your anorak and emitting your loudest possible blood-curdling yells. The bear will look at you in a puzzled way and as you continue towards him, he will quickly turn around and run away, tucking his hindquarters well in under his tail, as bears do when they are trying to avoid a painful bite on the bum.

I wish I'd known the anorak trick some years ago when I attended a conference in Brighton. A group of us had met for a meal in the evening, and it was pouring with rain when we finally emerged from the restaurant at about 11pm. to go our separate ways. The dark streets were totally deserted, and my hotel was some way away and as I splashed lonely and morosely through the puddles, I saw a man on the other side of the road who spotted me and came weaving unsteadily across the road towards me. I expected him to say 'Have you got a light, mate', or 'Can you lend me the train-fare to Bournemouth' but what he actually said was 'Are you looking for anal sex?' You can guess what I did next ..... looked puzzled for a moment, then quickly turned and ran, tucking my hindquarters well in under my tail.

Don't be pushed around, Richard

My friend Richard is a brave man.

He lives in London and he tells me that he is going to start a campaign to improve the manners of the London populace. He is tired of being elbowed into the gutter on Oxford Street, and when he holds the door open for young people entering shops, they sweep past him in jabbering herds without an acknowledgment, as though he wasn't there. He remembers the time when the English were a quiet, polite race and he is determined to restore this courteous behaviour.

The mainstay of his campaign method is to trip them up as they go by. I think he's learnt this subtle technique from Match of the Day. A judicious clip of the ankle is all it takes. Apparently they often apologize to him, as they stumble into the path of an oncoming taxi.

I have strongly recommended that he continues this campaign as I think the mental exercise will be good for him, and the ensuing fisticuffs which will regularly ensue will keep him fit. And there is a good chance that his widow will get compensation from the Criminal Injuries Board.

I have however also pointed out to him that London is no longer England, and the vast majority of people in Oxford Street are not even British. He should come to live here in Somerset where total strangers will not only thank you for holding the door open, they'll stop for a prolonged chat about tractors or mole-traps.

Unless you're in a queue at the Post Office, in which case it will be an old lady chatting to the assistant about her grandchildren and their recent holidays. If after 10 minutes you cough loudly enough they'll sometimes look round, and if you keep coughing they'll look round again with a frown and drop their change on the floor, which rolls in several directions under the crowded stands displaying sweets and bath salts. It then takes 20 minutes to get every penny back in the purse before the next customer can be served. And even then she won't move from the counter until she's said "Did you give me the stamps, dear? Now, where did I put them?..... Oh yes! well bye-bye dear, remember me to your mother".

What goes round, comes round.

As Boris Johnson well knows, there's nothing like a classical quotation for giving orotundity the spurious impression of great learning, so here's my attempt to tell Gordon Brown where he went wrong

'The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must learn to work instead of living on public assistance'.

Cicero said that in 55 B.C. At least I was told he did, but how many of us can be bothered to check our references?

I used to like quoting Petronius (c. 50 A.D.) whenever the subject of NHS Reforms cropped up:

'We trained hard … but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization'.

It now appears that this quotation is not from Petronius (according to some hero who claims to have read his entire works) and it is now thought that it originated among disgruntled British soldiers occupying post-1945 Germany (Petronian Society Newsletter, May 1981). The true author is unknown. Never mind, the sentiment is true.

As one of the dwindling band of doctors who practiced in the NHS before Margaret Thatcher started the fashion for Reforming the NHS every 5 years or so, I can testify to the fact that more managers have not produced more efficient health care. So far as I am concerned the definition of a manager as 'a person who ages men' is spot on. The 3 greatest lies of all time are
1. 'I'll be working late at the office tonight darling, so don't wait up'
2. 'The cheque is in the post'.
3. 'I am your new manager and I am here to help you'

If I can't rely on Petronius, I shall just have to re-tell the story of the boat race between the NHS team and a team of novice rowers from Oxford. The NHS team were experienced rowers who trained hard and tried their best, but they lost by 10 lengths. They were discouraged and morale sagged, so a working party was set up to investigate the failure. It seems that the Oxford team had 8 people rowing and 1 steering, but the NHS team had 4 people rowing and 5 people steering. A team of management consultants was therefore asked to investigate this further and several million pounds and many months later they concluded that there were too many people steering. Accordingly they recommended that there should be only 3 people steering and 3 rowing, but there would be a director of steering services to ensure they were all steering in the same direction, a performance manager to appraise and audit the work of the rowers, and a chief executive officer to provide motivation and ensure that targets were met.

Another race was arranged and this time the NHS team lost by 20 lengths.The chief executive took immediate firm and decisive action. He suspended one rower whose work-rate was slightly below the average of the other two, sold his oar and spent the money on a 'blue-skies' think-tank.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Now wash your hands.

The Daily Telegraph printed a letter today from Brian Reece saying that he was delighted to discover, in the gents' lavatories in the Advocates' Robing Room at the Central Criminal Court,a notice giving detailed instructions for the process of hand washing, namely 'Wet, soap, wash, rinse, dry'.
"How did we manage before?" he asks.

Doctors are well aware of this educational problem. It is said that two eminent consultants, examiners for the MRCP examination, once chatted to each other as they stood at the urinal in the Royal College of Physicians. As they left, one of them paused to wash his hands and the other didn't. MRCP examiners are a competitive bunch, always trying to score off each other, and the hygienic one couldn't resist muttering "At Guy's we teach our students to wash their hands after micturition" to which his rival replied "Oh really? At Bart's we teach our students not to pee on their fingers".

Actually they would both have known that normal urine is sterile and in the absence of a clean water supply can in an emergency can be used perfectly safely to irrigate (i.e. wash out) accidental wounds or burns which are contaminated by soil or toxic liquids.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Have things improved?

I heard today that my old friend Charles died recently, in his 90s. He was a GP. of the old school, who would cheerfully get up in the middle of the night to attend to his patients. He wouldn't need notes because he already knew all their medical details. Few G.P.s seem to offer that service any more, and many don't even offer a Saturday surgery. If you need attention 'out of hours' you must first run the gauntlet of the NHS Helpline where a nurse will eventually tell you either that you need an aspirin or you should go to Casualty with a painful grimace and a good book to while away the hours until relief is at hand.

Charles also once told me that good G.P.s of his generation would routinely help patients with painful terminal cancer by giving them increasing doses of morphine and if that shortened their lives by a day or two, that was regarded as a blessing by the patients and their families. Few GPs in the wake of the Harold Shipman case are brave enough to take that risk nowadays, more's the pity. You can beg to be allowed to die and doctors still won't help you.

When I was a junior doctor, earning pea-nuts, I used to earn extra money in my 'holidays' by doing locums for a G.P. in my home town, who worked as a single-handed practitioner. He was on call for all his patients 24 hours a day, for 50 weeks every year, taking only an annual 2-week breaks. I asked him how on earth he managed to cope with this incessant work-load and he explained that all his patients had learnt not to waste his time. The first time they wasted his time, he educated them with a short lecture about the appropriate use of a doctor's time. Then if they wasted his time for a second time he would simply cross them off his list of patients. The next G.P. was 5 miles away and most time-wasters would not have a car!
Amazing how quickly they learnt what was not appropriate.

Another tip he gave me was always to visit any sick person at their home at about 10 p.m. if you felt they might call you out in the night. This would allow you adjust their painkillers, sleeping-pills etc. and answer any questions they had. If the patient had been sent home from hospital to die (another good idea) you would explain to the spouse that death was a possibility and if the worst should happen they need not ring you until after 8 a.m. when you would attend to sign the death certificate. We rarely had more than one night call each week.

He had been the brightest medical student in his year at Edinburgh University, but his parents couldn't afford to support him for the many years of poorly paid training required to become a hospital consultant and so he had 'gone into practice'. I realized how good he was when I once did a locum for him and saw one of his patients with indigestion who happened coincidentally to have a rare inherited skin condition called incontinentia pigmenti, also known as Bloch-Sulzberger syndrome. I only recognized it because I was specializing in dermatology and I'd recently seen a case presented at the Royal Society of Medicine in London. Eagerly I scanned through the notes to see whether a dermatologist had ever seen the patient and whether they agreed with my erudite diagnosis. There was no record of it.

When I saw the G.P. at the end of my stint as a locum I mentioned that I'd seen Mrs. So-and-so and I'd been fascinated to notice that she had a rare skin disease, but she had never been referred to hospital. "Oh, you mean the woman with Bloch-Sulzberger disease, I noticed that but there's no treatment for it, so what's the point?"

Even he wasn't perfect though. He told me that he'd once been consulted by a middle-aged man complaining of central chest pains, made worse by eating certain foods. He did his usual thorough examination, and detecting no cardiac abnormality he reassured the patient that it was probably indigestion and prescribed the statutory antacid mixture. In those days there was not an ECG machine in every surgery and reassurance is often the best medicine. The patient left, pleased and relieved that it was nothing serious.

Our first-class GP, then noticed through the window that the patient, as he walked from the surgery door and down the path, stopped, clutched his chest, leaned forward and fell forward into the rose-bushes, stone-dead.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Mrs. Malaprop

Speaking of non-PC (see blog of 8th Aug.) ), I have to confess that I have a problem with some of the great '-isms' of our time, and I wonder how history will view them.

Racism for example is clearly a heinous thing, and I speak as one who has lived in the Southern USA in the 1962 during segregation and also in South Africa just after the end of apartheid. Racism born of ignorance was also common in my home town in the UK during the 1950s, even though the only black people in town were the white men who emerged from the coal mine covered in black coal dust. That type of racism, born of prejudice, anger or ignorance, must clearly be eradicated whenever possible by legislation and education.

This type of hostile racism is however, in my opinion, quite different to friendly jokes about foreigners' difficulties with the English language. Indeed this type of language-superiority humour is not confined to the difficulties of foreigners, as shown by Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop, who consistently amused people by using the inappropriate word....("forget the fellow, - illiterate him from your memory" and "I laid Sir Anthony's preposition before her"). This may be cruel humour (as much humour is) and it may be supercilious, but we know that we are all capable of promulgating and indeed culpable of propitiating Malapropisms which may be amusing or embarrassing depending on the circumstances, but they are not racist. Not nearly as bad as prosopagnosia for example, another of my failings (they all look the same to me). And when I try to speak a foreign language, my every third word is likely to be a Malapropism, though my fault could be something as simple as a properispomenon.

My point is that a lot of 'racist' jokes are not really racist, though I accept that many are the thin end of a very fat wedge (Bernard Manning being at the fat end).

As an example, I quote the Polish man who came to work in England and married an English girl.
("Nah, don't get me wrong, guvnor, some of my best friend are Poles, but I don't see what they're doin' in the middle of them lap-dancin' clubs with half-naked girls twined rahnd 'em".)

Seriously though, Poles are very popular in this many parts of UK. They're mainly hard-working, intelligent, polite and humorous, and many of them are beautiful blondes (oops! more '-ism' problems).

Anyway this Pole had only been married for three weeks when he went to a solicitor and asked for a divorce.
"Are there any grounds?" asked the lawyer.
"Yes, ve hev an acre and a half and a nice little bungalow".
"No, I mean does either of you have a grudge?"
"Vot for do we need grudge? Ve hev carport and plenty street parking".
"Are there any difficulties with the relationship"
"No, no, they all in Poland"
"No, I mean is there any problem with infidelity"
"No, no, ve hev hi-fidelity stereo and DVD"
"Are there any problems with your marriage, does your wife beat you up, for instance?"
"No,no, I start vork early so I always up first"
"Is your wife a nagger?"
"No, no, she white girl"
"So why are you considering divorce"
"Because she trying to kill me"
"That's a very serious allegation. Have you any evidence?".
"She trying to poison me. She went to drug store, bought small bottle and put it on her special shelf in bathroom. I read English pretty good now and it say 'Polish Remover'!

I don't think that's racist, is it? Perhaps we need a new word for language difficulties which cause mirth in others.

What to do if it rains.

Quite coincidentally, after yesterday's blog about conversations overheard in quiet pubs, I was reading 'Down Under' by the inimitable Bill Bryson and I came across this phrase, which he overheard from the people at the next table while he was sitting in a hotel bar in Canberra:

'I tell you, Barry, he was farting sparks!'

Bryson says he believes this was "a colourful Aussie turn of phrase rather than a refence to any actual manifestation of flatulence of an electrical nature". Priceless isn't he!

I suppose most of us hear similar, less colourful but nevertheless intriguing, snippets all the time, often from shop assistants when they're standing chatting to each other instead of serving you. I recently heard a shop assistant say to her colleague "I told her the green ones had more legs but she said that wasn't what she was looking for". I didn't dare ask.

My mother produced a pearl some years ago. My wife and I had taken both our respective mothers to dinner in a boarding-house in Weymouth. Both our mothers were over 90 and both were very deaf, so they had to shout to each other. This being the height of the holiday season, the tables were crowded and close together and it soon became apparent to my wife and me that most of the other guests were following the conversation with fascination. We had a few embarrassing close calls with remarks about other guests as they left the room, such as 'I wouldn't wear that if I were that shape, would you Mary? followed by 'What does she think she looks like!' These caused surreptitious titters but my mother took the prize. The dining-room overlooked the bowling green and as it started to rain heavily the bowlers scurried off the green.

'Oh look, its coming down quite heavily now. They'll have to run'.
'Yes, it is a nuisance for them, George used to play bowls you know and he hated the rain. The first thing he did when he got back in wet weather was get a cloth and rub his balls dry".

Soup on tablecloths everywhere!

In cider veritas

You can learn a lot by sitting quietly in the corner of a country pub. Politicans should do it more often, then they'd be in touch with what the voters (rather than the media and their Party chairmen) really think.

The 'facts' you overhear are sometimes inaccurate and the opinions based on these factoids are frightfully non-PC, but we're all entitled to our opinions and some farmers do have a very dry sense of humour.

Three little gems from last night:-

1. Jim. "Is it just me or does anybody else find it amazing that during the mad cow epidemic our Government could track every single cow and calf and tell exactly where it was being transported to, even if you took it in a truck at dead of night, and yet now we've got 150,000 illegal immigrants and the Government has got no idea where they are".
Fred. "Maybe they should give them all a cow as they arrive".

2. Fred. "They keep talking about drafting a Constitution for other countries, why don't they just give them ours, it's worked well for 500 years and now we never use it"

3. Jim. "Did you know that there's a law that says they can't put the Ten Commandments up in the House of Commons, and yet you can teach the Koran in schools".
Fred. "That'll be because you couldn't put up a notice that said 'Thou shalt no steal' and 'Thou shalt not commit adultery' and 'Thou shalt not lie' and 'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's ox' in a building full of politicians. It would create a hostile work environment".

Friday, 6 August 2010

The pressure of life at the top.

The headline 'Does Concorde cause skin cancer?' didn't worry me unduly, because we can treat most skin cancers, but I was slightly worried that I might have played a part in extinguishing all mammalian life by encouraging the Americans to allow Concorde to overfly their air-space (see yesterday's blog).

In the end though Boeing had their way and kept Concorde out, and it later transpired that it was freons (used in refrigerators) that were depleting the ozone layer, rather than aircraft exhaust fumes. It is often said that science is too important to be left to the scientists, but that episode and many others like it (smoking and health, global warming, home births, vaccination, stem cell research, genetic engineering, animal cloning etc) make me think that politicians and joournalists shouldn't be allowed to take part in any discussions or decisions involving science until they've had appropriate tuition in the subject from acknowledged scientific experts.

The Concorde experience did however give me three small joys:

1. As a reward for my efforts I was given a free trip on Concorde on one of the earliest proving flights to Gander. My co-passengers were journalists, politicians, and assorted influential business leaders who might be persuaded to use or even purchase Concorde. Naturally we were given free drinks before the flight for an hour or so in the First Class lounge at Heathrow. Naturally we were given unlimited champagne immediately we settled into our seats and then naturally we also took wines, coffee and brandy with the meal. And naturally we all needed the loo long before we reached Canada. The problem was that Concorde is constructed like a cigar, with rows of two seats on either side of a very long central gangway and since the drinks trolley was always moving slowly up and down in the very narrow aisle, it was impossible to squeeze round it. The strained look on the faces of the great and the good (not to mention the journalists) was worth seeing, especially as we neared the end of the two and a half hour flight. The obstacle race when the doors opened and they all raced or fell down the steps and then raced (staggered) towards the distant loo in the terminal building was worthy of description by Tom Sharpe (author of 'Blott on the Landscape').

PS. If you're thinking of taking a holiday in Gander, don't. It has some bungalows and a small air terminal, and is surrounded by miles and miles of conifer forest. You can drive for several hours to St. John's where there is a cinema, or you can drive even further in the opposite direction to Twillingate, where there is a whaling museum. Or you can pick berries. If they're in season.

2. The second joy provided by my Concorde experience was the story that the Minister for Aviation had visited Filton one day to see the work in progress on the Great White Elephant and he'd asked whether bird strikes would be more dangerous in a supersonic aircraft. The engineers had thought of that of course and they knew that the engines could withstand the impact of a large bird such as a seagull. This was demonstrated by firing a chicken from a sort of cannon directly into the roaring engine. The chicken was duly converted into a smear of blood and feathers.
The Minister was so impressed by this that he asked for the demonstration to be repeated, and after a short delay the cannon was fired again. But the first chicken had been fresh, the second chicken was deep-frozen. How expensive a chicken was that!

3. The third little chuckle was when I enquired about the great blast of flame which I once observed shoot out of the rear of Concorde's engine during take-off, which then caused a blaze on the tarmac which the fire engines had to extinguish. Apparently it is not a cause for alarm, it is due to petrol spewing out onto the tarmac and igniting. "It's called a 'wet take-off'" said the stewardess, blushing. The things you learn!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Decisions, decisions.

We went to the Fleet Air Museum at Yeovilton yesterday, because one of our friends has just written a book about her father's experiences as a pilot in World War II ('Bomber Jack', by Valerie Ashton). As a result she has recently met a number of younger men, handsome, charming, hospitable RAF types in smart uniforms, and so she's now developed an insatiable interest in everything and anything to do with aeroplanes. I managed to summon up a certain amount of interest in rotary air-cooled engines and the difference between aerofoils and flaps, but what really interested me was the Concorde, which had been used in the early tests at Filton.

As a junior doctor I'd once been told by Professor Ken Donald that the Government often took important decisions on the whim of one person who was totally unqualified to reach such a decision. He gave as an example his own experience in World War II when, as a junior medical officer in the Navy with a modicum of research experience with regard to 'the bends' (nitrogen bubbles in the blood stream), he'd been sent from London to Portsmouth to inspect a new type of escape hatch for submarines which had just been invented. The Government was going to install the new system in all our submarines if he approved the design, but if it was installed and did not work well, then many sailors might die from 'the bends' as a result. He was duly met at Portsmouth station, driven to the barracks to meet the senior officers, given a drink or three before, during and after lunch in the officers' mess, and by 4 p.m. when the escape hatch was finally inspected and discussed he was in no state to understand the finer points of a wooden door, let alone novel escape hatches. And he had to catch the last train back to London. Nevertheless he cobbled together some sort of a Report and some faceless Whitehall wonk then advised the Minister who took this momentous decision based entirely on young Ken's befuddled recollections.

Of course I took this story with a pinch of salt. The Government don't take important decision just like that, do they? Surely the Government is full of clever, caring people and they have masses of well-informed advisors. Haven't they?

Shortly after I became a hospital consultant in 1973 I received a telephone call from the part-time medical officer for the British Aerospace factory at Filton, which was hoping to manufacture Concorde and fly it daily from London to California. The doctor had been asked by the management to advise them about skin cancer because the Americans (i.e. their rivals, Boeing) were claiming that the exhaust gases from Concorde would deplete the ozone layer in the statosphere and this would increase the incidence of skin cancer because it would let through more of the damaging UVR wavelengths. He wanted to know if I could advise him how to reply, as it was a very long document, it involved a lot of technical data, and if he didn't produce a satisfactory written reply to the American Senate hearing within 10 days it seemed likely that they wouldn't be allowed to overfly American airspace. All that Anglo-French Concorde development money would be wasted!

In those days our great nation was affluent, but some people thought Concorde would be a great White Elephant, and so we urgently needed to know whether this effluent from the affluent elephant was really damaging or was this just American bull-shit?

So I was presented with this great tome, around 2000 pages, to read, digest and riposte within 10 days. The skin cancer bit was easy, because I understood it. It was written by all the recognized U.S.A. experts on the causation and epidemiology of skin cancer and what they said was perfectly correct. But there was a much more complicated section on the production and chemical composition of aircraft exhaust gases (gulp), another on the formation of stratospheric ozone and all the possible reactions of oxygen and ozone with numerous nitrates and nitrites (blimey), another on the meteorology, real and hypothetical, of the various layers of the atmosphere all round the world (crikey), another on the effects of previous atomic explosions in the stratosphere (heck), another saying Texas farmers would go bankrupt because of cancer of the conjunctiva in their cattle (this is serious!). Also, almost as an after-thought, it seemed that bees would not be able to pollinate plants because of the UVR disturbance, so crops would fail, palnts would die out and so all mammalian life on earth would probably become extinct (Oh dear!). And I have 10 whole days to criticize this Report, which has taken many of the finest scientists in USA more than 2 years to produce! Of course, said the factory doctor, the whole thing was politically motivated. Unfortunately though it might turn out all to be correct.

So what did I do? I discussed it in broad terms with the members of the MRC Environmental Research Committee, but unfortunately it was August and most of them were on holiday.

Then it was time for desperate lateral thinking. I pointed out in my critique that it was far from certain that the statospheric aircraft exhaust gases would deplete the ozone layer, but if they did, perhaps the Americans could say what quantity of exhaust gases their stratospheric military aircraft had been producing for 24 hours every day for many years, ever since the Cold War. And I also pointed out that increasing the UVR at sea-level might also have beneficial effects (e.g. fewer hip fractures) which their Report had neglected to mention.

And did it make a difference? Did it hell.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

What a relief !

Dr. Samuel Johnson said 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money'.

I usually agree with Sam, the Great Cham, but then I remember that the fly-leaf of my first physiology textbook (Bell, Davidson and Scarborough) quoted an Arabic proverb 'More than the calf yearns to suck, doth the cow yearn to suckle' and being a silly old moo, I have to admit that blogs are kinda fun if there's not too much grouting or ironing to be done. If nobody reads it, who cares, so long as it relieves my over-burdened chuckle centre. There, that's off my chest, though its a funny place to keep a chuckle centre....but a perfectly reasonable site for a suckle centre.

I expect you'll be wondering how I filled the aching, langorous hours of ennui since my last blog. Well, a lot of time was spent on monotonously chipping away at my latest stone bas-relief (see picture below) and it was with relief that I finished it.

You might also be wondering 'Does that depict what I think it does?' Well yes actually, that sort of thing happens quite a lot, here and there (though more there than here, ......personally I can never find a supportive broken stone pillar when I want one). It's perhaps surprising, given the public interest in 'that sort of thing' that there aren't more statues of Queen Victoria in a similar pose. Just think what Rodin might have done with Victoria, Albert and the Crown Jewels.

My effort arose because my neighbour looked at my previous stone-carvings which were entitled 'The Kiss', 'The Pregnancy', 'Mother and Child' and 'Teenage Daughter', and pointed out that I'd omitted a crucial step between 'The Kiss' and 'The Pregnancy'. I felt I had to rise to the challenge and fill the hole, so to speak.

My friend Richard saw the finished work and said he could recognize my wife but who was the lucky man? The cheeky devil wondered if I was likely to need any models in future. I've offered to repeat the work with him and his wife as the models but only if he can hold the pose for 3 weeks. I doubt he'll accept the challenge, because his wife told me that a few weeks ago she said "Richard darling, lets race upstairs and make mad passionate love" to which he apparently replied "You can choose one or the other, but I couldn't manage both".

I was quite pleased with the sculpture, but since it is sandstone and not Portland stone I was unable to enter it for the recent sculpture competition organized by the British Limestone Corporation. I hear that the statue of Casanova won by a long chalk.