Sunday, 31 October 2010

Try again Harriet

It was heartening to hear Harriet Harman, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, trying to shed her image of po-faced sanctimoniousness by essaying a witticism at the expense of the Treasury Secretary by calling him "one ginger rodent who would not be welcome in Scotland". It was disappointing however to hear that she felt she had to apologize almost immediately afterwards, and even more disappointing for her when her victim came back with the immediate riposte that he was proud of being ginger and didn't mind being a rodent, who was busily engaged in clearing up the mess left by other people!

But Harriet was right, squirrels can be a blinking nuisance. Our neighbour has a thatched roof and a family of squirrels are busily engaged at present in chewing away most of the electric cables in his loft. They come for lunch to our house, eating whatever we put out for the birds now that they've stripped the hazelnut bushes and the walnut tree. In other words the Treasury Secretary won't be satisfied until he's had your nuts, and then he'll rob your bird.

I'm not sure though why people should think its an insult to be called ginger. I've heard people say that the most unbelieveable part of the Harry Potter films is the claim that it features 'a ginger' with two friends, but I think most chaps would have been very friendly indeed with the Pre-Raphaelite beauties, if they had the chance. It sounds to me as though this 'gingerism' is yet another regrettable '-ism' which we should strive to combat. After all people with no hair already suffer from 'baldism', brown-haired people from 'boring mouseyism', black-haired people are called spicks (in USA) or half-caste (in UK), and we all know about blondes, although it never worried Dolly Parton because, she said, she knows that blondes are really smart and she knows that she's not really blonde.

And I understand that red hair is already well established in Scotland, and the Celts may not like the epithet ginger rodent.

So, nice try, Harriet, but 'nil point'.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Catachresis, innit?

We old fogeys love to drone on about abuse of the English language. Absolute nonsense of course because the English language has been changing every day since the Normans arrived in 1066, and this constant expansion and change of usage has made English the most expressive language in the world.

All the same, we old fogeys don't like our language to be abused, as I was reminded when I read about the recent review of the Baby P. case in which a child died as a result of "abuse". When I was a lad, abuse was what fish-wives did to each other, with a lot of shouting and swearing. It had nothing to do with beating babies to death. It was nothing to do with sex either, although I do recall there was a thing called self-abuse, which made you go blind. My Mum always used to get cross if she heard people in the street 'effing and blinding' but I'm pretty sure that was something different. As I say, language is a funny thing, but ours was a funny street, so funny things happened. Nowadays though it seems you can abuse anything, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes ...What would you have to do with a cigarette to abuse it? And don't mention Mars Bars.

My dictionary says 'abuse' means 'to make a bad use of'. I suppose you could say self-abuse would come under that heading, but I don't think we could reasonably describe the death of Baby P as 'making a bad use of a baby'.

I was intrigued to note that catachresis, misapplication of a word, is also defined as 'abuse of the language', which is where we came in. I find that catachresis happens all the time nowadays, usually due to a combination of my senility and my ignorance.

It happens to young people too, like the young man who set fire to his sister. He'd confused arson with incest. The Incendiary Magistrate who dealt with the case remaindered him in custard and asked for a psephologist's report. To be fair, he was Chinese, so he knew it was something to do with an election.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Doctors' views

My friend Mike keeps a close eye on political developments and he has just sent me an analysis of Mr Osborne's recent proposal to make savage cuts to improve the health of the economy. It seems that the British Medical Association has taken a survey of doctor's opinions on this therapy, and since this column is called 'A Doctor's View' I thought I should pass these opinions on, even if they make you cringe.

The Dermatologists advised against any rash moves and wanted to scratch it.

The Gastroenterologists had a gut feeling it was going to hurt,

The Neurologists thought Osborne had a nerve.

The Obstetricians felt all politicians labour under a misconception.

Ophthalmologists felt it was short-sighted.

Pathologists yelled, "Over my dead body!" while the Paediatricians shouted, "Oh, just grow up!"

The Psychiatrists thought the whole idea was madness, while the Radiologists claimed to see right through it.

Surgeons knew plenty about cuts, and felt we should wash our hands of the whole thing.

The ENT specialists wouldn’t hear of it.

The Physicians thought it would be a bitter pill to swallow.

The Plastic Surgeons said, "This puts a whole new face on the matter...."

The Anaesthesiologists thought the whole idea was a gas, and the Cardiologists didn't have the heart to say no, but the Urologists were pissed off about it.

In the end, the BMA accepted the views of the Proctologists, and will leave the final decision to those a**eholes in Westminster.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Times are still hard

Having spent most of my life as a townie, I had always assumed that fields and trees and hedges stayed the same for year after year unless you did something to them. When I retired and bought a house with a paddock and lots of trees and many hedges, I was unpleasantly surprised to discover that the opposite is true. Fields and trees and hedges only stay the same if you keep doing things to them. Nettles, thistles and brambles take over your paddock, your hedges turn into rampant 16-foot tall Triffids, and trees shed large rotten branches onto passers-by and grow into neighbouring power lines, thus cutting off the electricity supply to much of the village in windy weather.

There is a cure for all these ills, but it always involves backbreaking effort. Thomas Hardy in one of his novels based on life in Dorset mentions women who worked in the fields as scrattlers, digging out thistles for sixpence a day. Having tried a bit of scrattling myself, I now accept that the function of the gentleman is to provide employment for the worker, so now I always 'get a man in'.

This generally involves a haemorrhage of cash. I was quoted a price of £470 to trim my hedges recently. When I pointed out that the same job by the same firm last year had only cost £300, this required some explanation. It seems that it was all to do with VAT, which hadn't been added.
OK, VAT last year was 15%, so that would have made it £345 rather than £300.
Yes but VAT has gone up to 17% this year.
OK, so that's another 2%, making it £351, but that's still a long way short of £470 isn't it?
Ah, but petrol and wages have gone up a lot in the last year.
Oh dear, what a pity, because my pension hasn't gone up a lot, so I'll need to get more estimates.
OK, Let's call it £360 cash.

This nit-picking over the odd £100 contrasts with the documentary I heard on BBC 4 on the same day about Fine Art sales at Sotheby's. The obviously very well-connected young lady with the cut-glass accent explained that the art market is just about holding up in these straitened times. There are still plenty of people who can afford 3 million for a painting, but the number who can afford 30 million has sadly dwindled since the banks collapsed. Breaks you heart doesn't it!

This reminds me of the banker who ordered a new Porsche from the dealer and posted an enthusiastic message on Facebook to say that he couldn't wait for the new 911. It seems that about 500 Taliban members immediately added him to their list of Friends.

Only joking.....(Nervous laughter. Legend - don't be tempted).

Sunday, 24 October 2010

It's a hard life

I just love 'New Scientist'. No subject is too big or too small for them to tackle, and their writers can make it both interesting and amusing.

This week for example they range from the question of the constancy of constants throughout the Universe to the reason people like the smell of bacon. Most folk might be more interested in the latter subject, but the former is more important if you're intending to travel any distance, say to the other end of the Universe.

The thing is you see, that we have all assumed that the laws of physics are immutable throughout the Universe. You couldn't trust anybody if salt was suddenly found to be harder than diamonds in some far-flung galaxies, or Number 27 buses travelled faster than light in others.

An astronomer called John Webb has now produced data which appears to show that a very important constant called Alpha, which is known to determine how many photons of energy an atom will absorb, changes according to the direction in which you're looking. If you're keen on that sort of thing, and you should be, you can read it in the article by Michael Brooks at New Scientist, 23 Oct. 2010, p. 33. The generally accepted value of alpha is around 1/37, but Webb has shown that if you look in a particular direction across the Universe, which allows us to view photons of light emitted by quasars several billion years ago the value is around one part in a million smaller than it seems to be here on Earth.

How big is that compared with the forthcoming decrease in child-benefits I hear the middle-class Mums murmur. Well, its the principle of the thing. If Mr. Osborne decreases your annual income by 50% you may have to forego holidays, booze or even shoes, but if Alpha changes from one part of the Universe to another, which Webb claims it does, then the normal rules of physics don't apply and life would perhaps be impossible, because if you mess about with Alpha there might be no carbon atoms, and hence no life as we know it. Just keep your wits about you is all I'm saying.

Don't let it depress you. The good news is that we now understand why sizzling bacon smells so good (same issue, p. 65). Bacon is prepared by saturating it in 'curing brine', a solution of salt, nitrites, hydrolysed corn starch etc. and when this is heated to a high temperature it causes a Maillard reaction between the sugars in the brine and the amino acids in the meat, a process analogous to the caramelization of sweetened milk when it is heated for long enough.

The intriguing thing is that there is also a letter on this mouth-watering topic from Yonatan Silver of Jerusalem, who claims never to have tasted bacon, and when he smells bacon he does not find it appetising.

I wonder if he knows the joke about the Catholic priest and the Rabbi travelling in a railway carriage together. It was a long journey, and as they chatted they began to divulge confidences to each other about their religious faith and their personal lives.
"Tell me confidentially" asked the priest "Have you ever tasted bacon?"
"Well, yes I'm afraid I did once, and it was delicious" said the Rabbi "but tell me confidentially, have you ever slept with a woman?"
"I've afraid I did once" said the priest.
"Better than bacon isn't it!" said the Rabbi.

If any of you have a thought about the Maillard reaction in this context, please try to suppress it.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Bags of confidence is what you need

Stately Homes always seem to have a crumbling facade in need of restoration. The Guides are often very little better, even those who have already been partially restored. When you enter those stately dimly-lit rooms there's always an effigy in the corner, which might just be the family ghost, but is more likely a Guide, who's been there for 5 hours already and is bored to tears because there's nothing to do but stare at a bombe commode and a couple of dismal portraits of the 6th and 10th Earls and their dreary wives.

I always try to chirp them up by egging them on to divulge scurrilous confidences about the present Earl and an actress or a choir-boy. "I did hear from a chum of mine who goes to the same London club as his Lordship..." I say, and then pause to judge their reaction before completing the sentence. Often the blue-rinsed response is decidedly frosty,which can be quite amusing in itself, if you adopt the naive but knowing, nudge-nudge Sacha Baron-Cohen ('Borat') approach, but its surprising what juicy details some little old ladies seem to know. I suspect some of them make it up, so in the end we don't know who is pulling who's leg. More fun than staring at Chippendale chairs though.

I went to Tyntesfield House recently, a Victorian Gothic extravaganza in North Somerset now owned by the National Trust. I'm not going to tell you what the Guide told me about the previous Earl of Wraxall, but the story of how the family made its fortune was very interesting.

Antony Gibbs, who started the business empire on which the splendour of Tyntesfield House was built, was the son of an Exeter surgeon, but he decided against following his father into medicine. Instead, he became a shipping trader, and eventually was attracted into the exciting world of guano, the droppings of sea-birds. Mountains of guano many feet deep could be found along the coast of South America. When the first shipment was made in 1842, it was a huge gamble, but the guano was an instant success and it rapidly became Britain's most popular fertiliser. The enormous edifice of Tyntesfield is thus in effect built on a sound financial foundation of guano.

The Guide told me that these shipments of manure had to be kept dry during the voyage, otherwise fermentation would occur and methane gas was formed. Then strike a match down there in the hold and BOOM! a sinking ship. So the bags of dry guano always had to be stamped with the instruction 'Stow High In Transit' so that the sailors would not stow it in the depths of the ship where the bilge-water could reach them.

And thus was evolved the acronym "S.H.I.T.".

I'd always thought it was a golfing term.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Mind how, and where, you go

Schadenfreude, taking pleasure from the misfortunes of others, is a wonderful thing, even if it makes you feel bad to feel so good.

I had lunch a few weeks ago with my friend Roger, who lives in London for 6 months every year but has a small house in South Africa. It was a chilly day and he was at pains to point out that in a few weeks time he'd have left this miserable English weather behind and he'd be sitting in the mountains near Cape Town, in warm sunshine enjoying a splendid lunch with South African wines at a fraction of the price we'd just paid in Dorset. Yes,yes, that's great, lucky old you.

Today I had an E-mail saying that he and his wife were a bit under the weather, literally. They'd both caught colds on the flight to South Africa, as you do, the weather there is very cold and grey, the man they pay to look after their garden (now jungle) has done nothing for a year, the bathroom has some serious plumbing problems (maybe fatal, and certainly expensive), they've had a minor car crash and the other driver was not insured, and the S.A. bank has just charged them £150 for putting their own U.K. money into their own bank account.

As you'd expect, I've sent them a cheerful reply, pointing out that we deprived old folk in Somerset are feeling fine, we're enjoying lovely warm weather, and Mr. George Osborne has decided not to penalize us, so we'll be retaining the free TV licences, the heating allowance, the free bus pass etc. I did mention the need for continued fiscal restraint in the 'fat-cat' London area however, particularly with regard to taxation of second homes, and the heavy taxation penalties regarding non-declared overseas assets. I also felt it necessary to point out that Mr Osborne has decided that the £12 billion cost (billion, trillion, whatever, another few billions or so is small beer) of the Olympics will have to be met by London property owners, as they will benefit from the sport. It will be in the form of a toilet tax. Pay as you go.

The cut-backs in public services, particularly police manpower, are going to cause big problems though. I heard the other day that the police station at Weston-Super-Mare is only open intermittently and whilst it was closed, burglars broke in and stole the safe, the furniture and all the toilets. No arrests have yet been made. The embarrassed police spokesman explained that they have absolutely nothing to go on.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

This is where I came in.

One benefit which might follow from increasing the retirement age by 10 years or so, might be that the accumulated wisdom of the years might be listened to. It is of course well known that once people have retired, their opinion is not worth a bucket of spit. That's why the retired diplomats who advised against starting a war in Iraq were ignored. What did they know about modern American weapons and diplomacy! Old fuddy-duddies.

We're seeing it at present in the NHS. What goes round, comes round.

Shortly after I was appointed as a NHS consultant in 1973, Mrs Thatcher had the bright idea of asking an American expert on Health Care for his advice, and she then instituted the first of the many NHS Reforms which have cost the country so much money for so little benefit.

I remember one suggested reform was to fund hospital departments according to the number of patients they could attract. The more successful departments would then be able to afford more staff and they would see more patients, while the less successful ones would lose staff and would gradually dwindle away to nothing. It did not seem to occur to the managers that there was not an endless supply of experienced doctors and nurses just standing around waiting to be employed by the successful departments, and that the expensively trained doctors and nurses who were made redundant from the less successful departments would either go abroad or be re-employed in the more successful departments. It would take a lot of managers and administrators to make sure the system worked well though, so the plan was approved.

The money would follow the patients, who would choose where they wished to go. Market forces. Marvellous. In the South-West they appointed a senior manager from the airline industry to reorganize the NHS on these commercial lines. It was just a matter of putting people in the operating theatre at the scheduled 'take-off' time and giving the customers what they want. I think it took him about a year to learn it ain't that simple. (It took the military invaders in Iraq slightly longer to discover they should have listened to the old buffers).

Now, some 25 years later, I read in the Telegraph (October 18th) that Martha Lane Fox, the internet entrepreneur, is planning an 'information revolution' in the NHS. Patients will be able to compare doctors across Britain, and will be able to study survival rates in different hospitals. The article says "It is hoped this will help drive up hospital standards as patients choose not to use the services of poor doctors, who will then lose funding".

It isn't April 1st, is it?

The Telegraph does have a good sense of humour (sometimes).

Their final 'leader' in the same issue (A Christian Family) said We appreciate Homer Simpson for his sophisticated understanding of the power of prayer, demonstrated when he lifted up a plate of cookies with this appeal: "Lord, if you want me to eat them, give me no sign"

And may the Lord deliver the NHS from young internet entrepreneurs.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Time your babies.

Statistics can be a pretty dreary subject and I promise not to go on and on about it, but greatly to my surprise I've just learnt something from the Sun newspaper, other than what Steven Gerrard's wife looks like in close-up in a very scanty swimsuit.

I wasn't really wanting to drool over a picture of Steven Gerrard's wife, of course not, but I was on a train last Saturday, and another man had been engrossed in it for 10 minutes or so, and when he reached his destination and left the paper behind it seemed a pity not to pick it up and see what he found so interesting. Hmmm!

Where was I? Oh yes, in the same newspaper there was an article (16.10.10, p. 21) saying that "Mum Barbara Soper beat odds of 50 million to one when her new baby was the third to be born on a date where all three numbers were the same". Baby Chloe arrived on 08.08.08, brother Cameron came on 09.09.09 and little Cearra Nicole arrived on 10.10.10. Barbara, of Rockford, Michigan is not, thank goodness, aiming to produce another child on 11.11.11.

According to the Sun journalist "Statistics experts say the odds of such an achievement are more then 50 million to one".

Well you don't need to be a statistics expert, and you don't even need to have a computer, though a pencil and a small piece of paper helps, to know that the odds are less than 50 million to one, they are in fact 48,627,125 to one.

But as Doug pointed out in his Comment with regard to my last Post in which I took issue with the Telegraph's wild over-estimate for 3 babies sharing the same birth date, the odds change greatly if you don't specify a particular couple and a particular birth date. The odds for a particular couple having 3 babies all born on the same date may be around 133,000 to one, but if you have 133,000 couples each having 3 babies, then you are very likely indeed to have one couple with 3 babies sharing a same birth date. Doug points out in his Comment that you only need 23 people in a room for there to be a more than 50% chance that two of them will share the same birth date. If you have 60 people in a room it is virtually certain that two of them will share the same birth date.

The Sun article illuminated this problem, and I now see why the Telegraph 'expert' claimed odds of 48 million to one, because he assumed they had chosen one particlar couple and one particular birth date, when the odds are indeed 48 million to one. And though the Sun figure is almost correct for a particular couple starting their family on 08.08.08, they haven't considered the possibility of a sequence of 3 babies starting on 03.03.03, 04.04.04, 05.05.05, and so on.

You can see why people talk about lies, damned lies and statistics.

I'm much more exercised by today's poser, which is to calculate the odds of babies being born at a particular time on a particular date so that they have a sequence of the same number. Supposing a child had been born at 20.02hr. on 20.02 in 2002. A woman lucky enough to have already had a baby at that exact time and date might like to try for her next to be born at 21.12hr. on 21.12.2112. Plenty of time to practice.

That should get the journalists' "expert statisticians" going. She'll make her fortune, if she can do it.

Friday, 15 October 2010

The National Debt

I think I've discovered why we have such a huge national debt.

The Telegraph reported yesterday (14.10.10) that a couple were delighted that their third child had been born on October 7, exactly the same date as his two older siblings.
The Telegraph reporter was duly amazed and said "The odds of it happening are said to be 48 million to one"

I wondered who had reached this amazing estimate, because clearly the odds of two children having the same birthday are 365 to one and so the odds of three children being born on the same date are 365 x 365 = 133,225. Not exactly 48,000,000 is it?

How many people on the Telegraph staff read this before it was published?

They were probably the same people who used to order the new computers for the NHS or the Ministry of Defence.

"We've had a quote for the 365 computers, Sir Humphrey, they're £365 each. It comes to quite a lot of money I'm afraid".

"Let me just work it out! Oh yes, call it £48,000,000. That'll do"

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Some things never change

The Catholic Church is at it again! This time they are urging children to dress up as Saints on Hallowe'en rather than witches or devils. "It is time we reminded Christians of what Hallowe'en really is", said the Right Reverend Kieran Conry, the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton.

What it really is, according to historians, is the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which pre-dated Christianity. The name is derived from Old Irish and means 'summer's end' and is sometimes regarded as the Celtic New Year. The ancient Celts believed that the barrier between this world and the next became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits to return to earth. The family's ancestors were invited home to join in the festivities, while harmful spirits could be warded off by wearing costumes and masks to disguise oneself as some kind of evil spirit.

Samhain was the time to take stock of food supplies and slaughter livestock for the winter stores. Bonfires played a large part in these festivities, and the bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames.

Some games traditionally played at the festival could predict the future. A traditional Scottish way of divining one's future spouse is to carve an apple in one long strip, then toss the peel over one's shoulder. The peel is believed to land in the shape of the first letter of the future spouse's name. Unmarried women were told that if they sat in a darkened room and gazed into a mirror on Hallowe'en night, the face of their future husband would appear in the mirror. However, if they were destined to die before marriage, a skull would appear.

Nothing whatever to do with Catholic Saints!

There is however a long tradition of religious women praying to their personal female saint (woman to woman) with regard to their future (or even present) spouse.

My favourite is the prayer to St. Catherine, who listens to maidens at St. Catherine's Chapel on the hill near Abbotsbury in Dorset.

'St.Catherine, St Catherine, Oh, lend me thine aid,
And grant that I nivver should die an old maid.
A husband, St. Catherine,
A GOOD one, St. Catherine,
But arna-one better than narna-one St. Catherine.

Sweet St. Catherine,
A husband, St. Catherine!
HANDSOME, St. Catherine!
RICH, St. Catherine!
SOON, St. Catherine!!'

But don't go up there on Hallowe'en or the witches will get you.

The explanation

Some of you will have heard this on the radio, but it's worth repeating, as it beautifully illustrates the enormous frustration I feel when I talk to devoutly religious people about their beliefs

Libby Purves was interviewing Derren Brown, the master illusionist, who for years has emphasized that none of his 'miracles' depends on supernatural forces, but they are all done by a wonderful combination of trickery, psychology, showmanship, distraction techniques etc.

He is fascinated by the gullibility of the public. While he was still a student he was doing some tricks for a group of his students friends, and when he'd finished, one of them came up to him and said "Yeah, I know they're tricks but it makes you think, doesn't it? There have to be forces we don't understand for these things to happen".

"No, no" said Derren "They're all just simple tricks, anybody could learn to do them" and he more or less told the guy how each trick was done.

"Yeah, you think you can explain it all, but there's more to it than you think. There's got to be something out there to explain it all" and he walked off, triumphant.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Bucolicky pains

I had another embarrassing moment with a sheep yesterday.

It was one of those lovely Indian Summer days, with russet and red autumn tints in all directions, the early morning mists had burnt off, the sun was warm and there was an orchard full of rosy apples to be picked. I took out my large basket and my long ladder, climbed into the tallest apple-tree, and settled into a comfortable fork, having a gentle muse about the meaning of life, where's it all leading to, will String Theory explain everything in the Universe, does it matter that David Cameron is beginning to go bald, is it fair to cut child benefits, is Nigella really as insatiable as she looks, and so on...... Every now and again, I plucked an apple and added it to my apron pouch. The birds were singing, there was no pressure, this was the most perfect of worlds. If this was bucolic, I liked it. I did briefly wonder about the derivation of the word bucolic, as is my wont (to save you looking it up, I can tell you it relates to things pastoral, and comes from the Greek boukolikos, a herdsman, bous being the Greek for an ox). Nothing to do with colic from eating too many green apples.

This bit of trivia seemed very appropriate,since by this time I was aware that a few sheep were clustering around the tree, pushing each other aside to get at the fallen apples which I'd accidentally dislodged. As a trainee shepherd I also knew that if sheep eat too many apples it discombobulates their digestive system, with predictable results for the cleanliness of my orchard. So I shouted at them and threw a couple of apples at them to scare them away. Big mistake! It caused a frenzy of pushing and shoving and my ladder was sent flying.

So there I was, up a creek without a paddle, nobody within hailing distance and no sheep smart enough to put the ladder back in place for me to climb down.

There's always a solution to dilemmas if you're clever enough. My problem was that I wasn't clever enough. I sat and thought, and mused a bit, and thought a bit more, and then remembered that my wife had gone to Bristol for the whole day and wouldn't be back for lunch. When she did get back at 7 p.m., she wouldn't expect me to be sitting up a tree in the gloaming, she'd just start ringing round the neighbours, then various casualty departments and then the police.

There was a time, about 40 years ago, when I'd just have climbed down to the lowest branch, hung from it by my arms and dropped cat-like to my feet, Britain's answer to Johnny Weissmuller (or Johnny Depp in today's parlance).

I have now discovered that cat-like dropping to my feet is not one of my retained talents. I can still do 'sack of potatoes and multiple bruises' though.

Ouch! Bloody sheep!

Sunday, 10 October 2010

What is a man?

A feminist friend of mine tells me I have got the creation story all wrong (Bloody Awesome Sept 4th).

It seems that contrary to popular belief, Eve was there first, and one day she called to God to let him know she was not satisfied with life. She had a wonderful garden and more apples than she could eat and the snake was friendly and kinda cute, but she was just not happy.

"In that case, Eve" saith the Lord, "I shall create a man to keep you company".

"What is a man?", asked Eve.

"He is a large muscular animal with an inflated idea of his own abilities and an inability to see your point of view, and he won't listen to you properly, and ....(We can skip the next few paragraphs, most girls can make it up for themselves)...but he's good at throwing balls and hunting animals and lighting barbeques and opening cans and he'll be fun in bed.

"Hmm!" said Eve, not really convinced, as cans hadn't been invented (and not really understanding the bed bit either).

"Just one other thing", said God, "Because of his enormous ego you'll have to let him think I made him first. That will be our little secret, you know, woman to woman"

Friday, 8 October 2010

Have you got it yet?

It strikes me that cancer of the colon is a bit like digital TV. If you haven't got it yet, you will eventually. Actually about 20% of people get it and half of these die from it. The bowel cancer I mean. For TV the figures are higher, but you'll die of boredom instead of secondary spread, although middle-aged spread due to TV is very common too.

I chose the word 'digital' because there was a time when the only way to detect cancer of the colon was by pushing a finger into the nearest orifice, which since the colon is more than a metre long was usually a waste of time and plastic gloves. Then they invented the colonoscope, which was a thick rigid metal tube. Colonoscopy was like having a telescope shoved up your backside and this led to some very unsavoury jokes which I don't need to repeat here.

The flexible colonoscope was a bit better at getting to the bottom of things, since it went round the bend, and it had a camera on the end to photograph your polyps. That's important because 90% of colon cancers start in large polyps in the wall of the large bowel, and they can then be removed before they turn malignant. Barium enema had been the standard investigation for many years, but it was fairly unpleasant, and missed 40% of polyps. The latest development, C.T. colonography is much safer, less painful, and is guaranteed to show your polyps in a new light.

The small bowel is even more difficult to investigate, since it is around 6 metres long, is unstable and has lots of loops. They're tackling this now with a spiral enteroscope which has screw-like flanges which enable it to get a grip and crawl up inside your innermost parts. I thought you'd like to know that they use a gloopy liquid called 'Probe personal lubricant' which was originally developed for the pornographic film industry.

Once the clever doctors have identified the problem in the pipe they call in the plumbers to fix it. These consultant surgeons used to be larger-than-life characters like Sir Lancelot Spratt of 'Doctor in the House' who would boom, "Key hole surgery boy! We shall open her from here to here" with an expansive sweep of the arm as the patient fainted.

Nowadays surgeons are thoughtful chaps who just use 2 or 3 tiny holes to poke their robotically controlled instruments inside. The ultimate goal is to avoid scars altogether since only natural orifices will be used. Tonsillectomy via the vagina is their target.

All my tasteless medical student jokes about plastic surgeons seem to be coming true!

Thursday, 7 October 2010

A medical disaster

One of the problems with being a retired doctor is that ageing friends still ask for your advice about medical matters, but Medicine changes so rapidly that it's hard to keep up, even when you're working at it full time. It can make you appear stupid if for example you're a dermatologist who has never used laser therapy, or you're a general surgeon who knows little about 'key-hole surgery'.

So it is a real joy when younger colleagues lay on a day's lectures on 'Recent Advances' for the Retired Consultant's Club, as they did at my local teaching hospital recently.

How things change when you've not been back for a while! We knew where all the car parks should be of course, but they'd somehow moved them all, and even worse filled them all, so that one drove round for 45 minutes or so looking for a space. We eventually parked somewhere in South Gloucestershire and then used a map to trek back to the hospital.

We remembered where all the different departments had been located but many of them are now building sites. The splendid new laboratories which were eventually built at a cost of several million pounds about 10 years ago have for some reason already been pulled down and something else is being built in their place. Offices for target administrators I expect.

But the consultants who gave the lectures were fantastic. Modern technology is scary though! And that's just the Power-point presentations.

When I was a lad we had blackboards and some of our most eminent Professors seemed to have developed a technique where they turned their backs to the audience to face the blackboard, then drew complicated chalk diagrams on the board with their right hand, which they then immediately erased with their left hand, meanwhile muttering to themselves in a low monotone. No wonder so many of us 'signed in' and then quietly left the lecture-theatre as soon as the Prof's back was turned. Some lecturers were up to that trick however. They posted a porter at the door whose job was to keep the register of attendees, then at the appointed time he locked the door to deny access to late-comers, and to prevent those inside from leaving.

It's very different now. The various buttons and knobs which control the lights, dual projection slides, videos, computers etc. make the control panel of a Jumbo-jet look simple. This does cause its own problems however.

There was a time when there were only 7 wrong ways to put a slide in a projector (upside down, on its side, reversed etc) but there's much more scope for disaster now.

One of the speakers began in fine style, smiling pleasantly as he said he'd never previously had the pleasure of addressing such a dense audience. We chuckled dutifully, although it would have been funnier if it had been less true. He then confidently switched the equipment on and when nothing happened he fiddled about, panicked and finally had to ask the audience to help him. It took 3 people 15 minutes of trying different combinations of the 20 or so leads and 30-odd switches before they got it right.

Never mind, it wasn't as bad as my effort when I was an Assistant Lecturer in Medicine in Edinburgh. The main lecture theatre then was an amphitheatre with very steeply sloping sides and wooden benches, and in the very centre of the steep slope was the projector, which had two carbon rods. These would only work to spark an arc-light if they were adjusted to the correct distance apart, but fortunately I had previously been shown how to undertake this delicate task.

The visiting speaker was a very distinguished cardiac surgeon from USA, and I had been delegated to shepherd him to the lecture theatre and to be responsible for showing his slides. These were in a box and he pointed out to me that they were not numbered but obviously it was essential to keep them in the right order. Moreover they had to be put back in exactly the same order as he was going to give the same lecture at several other medical centres throughout Britain.

We duly reached the lecture theatre, and the place was absolutely jam-packed with the glitterati of Edinburgh academia. I showed the speaker the switches at the podium and ascended the steep stairs to the level of the projector, carrying the precious box of slides. I had to struggle past a row of seated people to reach the projector and then I put the slides down on a small shelf while I twiddled the knobs to light up the carbon arc.

As I bent to my task somebody knocked the open box of slides off its shelf and they clattered noisily down several rows of seats. Of course people stood up to look for them and there was the sound of crunching glass in all directions.

I tried hari-kari but the surgeons resuscitated me, although several voted against it.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

A place of mystery

The Indian Sub-continent has always been a place of mystery and wonder, never less so than today, where it seems that they are holding the Commonwealth Games and are intending to lay the athletics track on the same day that the races are run.

They'll have to work terribly fast to stay ahead of the sprinters. The street-sweepers I've seen in Delhi wouldn't be up to it. They work at a leisurely pace and just move the dust from one place to another. But maybe this is a well-planned economy measure? Perhaps the track-layers will lay the red sand on one side of the track and as the last runner crosses each patch they'll sweep it up into buckets and nip smartly over to the other side of the circuit and lay it for the approach of the front runners who've had to go the long way round. It will be awfully tiring for them in the 10,000 metres though.

I think the wonder and the mystery works both ways. I had a phone call yesterday from a very pleasant young man who told me his name was David. I wouldn't dispute that but his Indian accent suggested he might also have had another name. He was very interested in my energy providers. I told him I recommended honey sandwiches.

No,no, he meant did I get my gas and electricity from the same supplier?

I explained to him that we don't have gas and electricity in our house.

"Oh, so you don't have gas, but who provides your electricity?"

"Well, we manage without electricity."

"Oh, (pause) but how do you run your television and your lights and your computers?"

"Well we have no TV or computer and we have candles at night."

"But how do you run your fan?"

That's when I knew for sure that he was calling from India.

"We have a punkah-wallah"

Only then did he know for sure that I was pulling his plonker.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Looking good

People who really care what they look like need to know about skin-care.

The British Association of Dermatologists recently launched their own new beauty-brand called 'Ultimate Skin Care'. The product was marketed in a snazzy gold jar by Kindred, an agency known for its message-based marketing strategy, and the House of Fraser kindly allowed the product to be show-cased in the beauty hall of their prestigious Oxford Street store.

Each jar of 'Ultimate Skin Care' contained only a small mirror and instructions on how to carefully check the skin for signs of sun damage and possible pre-malignant changes.

The message is, don't waste your money on expensive moisturisers and nourishing creams, just stay out of the sun. My wife did that and she looks fantastic for (censored).

Of course, most people don't do that, so if you can't be good, be careful. Follow the Australian advice to 'Slip on a T-shirt, Slap on a hat and Slop on the sun-block'.

At least the British Association of Dermatologists know what they're talking about. I'm less confident about the scientific brains behind some other products on the market.

Delta Laboratories, for example, specializes in 'cosmetic formulations'. One of the products listed on their website at is "Placental extract, vegetable or animal". Now which vegetables have a placenta, I wonder?

I suspect the British Association of Dermatologists is wasting its time. Beauty creams, like beautiful shoes, are essential for the female psyche. Some time ago my friend's wife pointed out to him that they had an overdraft and she made him promise to economize on his sizeable drinks bill. After a couple of months he noticed that though his drinks bill had drastically reduced, new beauty products were still cluttering up their bathroom. Not being a New Man (i.e. not yet deconstructed and reconstructed), and being in fact a brave Old Man, he felt he had to mention this discrepancy.

"Oh darling" she said "You don't want me to give up using beauty products do you? They're just to make me look beautiful for you".

"Yeah? What do you think the booze was for?"

I told you he was brave.

Friday, 1 October 2010

What's wrong with modern Britain

One of the many things I may never understand is the female obsession with shoes. I don't think I'm the only man who is puzzled by this.

A few months ago, two of my male friends, both retired Professors, showed me a job-advert in the Guardian for a post-doctoral Senior Research Fellow to work in a British University to study the sociology of women's shoes. The advert was couched in the unique impenetrable jargon of sociologists, but so far as we could gather the intention of this 3 year project was to "explore issues of embodiment using focus groups to look at things through the lens of footwear". Glass slippers maybe? Clearly a burning issue.

The plan appeared to be for the Research Fellow to accompany women on shopping trips, making video-recordings of them choosing and wearing their shoes, asking them to take photographs of their shoe-collection, and "keep a diary of their shoe experiences". The Fellow would also carry out three qualitative interviews with each of the women to explore the part that shoes play in their everyday lives, how old shoes bring back memories of past experiences, how buying, storing and wearing shoes contributes to women's sense of who they are, and "what they are all about".

My two friends and I guffawed at this, even though it was sad to think that money was being spent in this way when sensible science departments were being closed down for lack of funds.

We were so amused by this advert that we decided that, since we all had doctorates and had a long experience of writing research grant applications, we should all three of us apply for the post, using fictitious female names. We felt confident that we could provide what they seemed to be looking for, namely enthusiasm, obscurantism, flannel, and verbosity. The hope was that we would all get as far as the interview stage, and then we would each turn up for the interview in drag, wearing wigs and refusing to give our age, gender,or sexual orientation, as is politically correct. We had great fun trying to envisage the expressions on the faces of the interviewing panel as the three 'lady' candidates minced in, one after the other, on improbably high heels, of the type which I believe a certain Ms. Greer described as F**k-Me shoes. Even if one of us was offered the post, the other two could then complain they were turned down because of the panel's institutional ageism, sexism or homophobia. Should look good in the newspapers!

We never did it of course, partly because of the sheer amount of dreary paperwork involved in filling in modern application forms, and partly because so many women we told of our plan said "No, this is a great research idea, its very important to us women". Really?

I'd almost forgotten all about it until I noticed a newspaper article on Sept. 22nd reporting the results of an entirely different research project from Northumbria University which had studied men's reaction to women in high-heels. I don't know how long the research took or what it cost, but they discovered that, wait for it... men don't notice what shoes women are wearing.

Of course they don't, you dimwits, they never get that far down.

No wonder the country's going to the dogs!

Lucky for some

I suppose we can't really complain about crime in our little village when you hear about the dreadful happenings in other parts of the world.

I was hearing from my friend Richard the other day about a promising young footballer from Iraq who'd been brought over to England and signed up by one of the Premier League clubs. After sitting on the bench for a few months he was given his big chance to play for the last 20 minutes against Man. United.

He was sensational, scored two goals in ten minutes.

When he came off the pitch, he naturally rang home to tell his Mum of his amazing success.

She seemed less than elated. "Aren't you pleased for me Mum, is there something wrong? "

"I should say there is! Your father was shot in the street last night, your sister was gang-raped and beaten this morning and your young brother was caught dealing in drugs this afternoon".

"Oh, Mum I'm so sorry!"

"You should be sorry, it's your bloody fault we moved to Liverpool in the first place."