Thursday, 30 April 2009

Fear and Loathing on Sodor

Psalm 2:11-12 - Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.

I’ve not been doing a great deal of reading lately, except for bedtime stories. Reading bedtime stories to a child is generally a delight, not a chore (at least up to the moment when you realise that the child’s enthusiasm for one more story has precisely nothing to do with or the merits of the book being waved under your nose, or the skill of your storytelling, but everything to do with postponing bed time). So when junior acquired a book of stories about Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends, I was quite happy.

Thomas the Tank Engine was part of my childhood – as well as some books, I had a couple of records of the train stories (voiced, by Johnny Morris, the man who used to give animals “amusing” voices in Animal Magic, a BBC programme for which I had an inexplicable fondness as a small child). Nostalgic, innocent, wholesome, full of steam trains – what could be more splendid?

Unexpectedly, The Adventures of Thomas has become my least favourite bedtime reading. The main thing I dislike about the current stories is how much the railway network on Sodor resembles a dysfunctional society or workplace. For much of the time, the engines are insecure, anxious, harassed, stressed, thin-skinned, dependent, competitive and jealous. They puff around in mortal fear of being replaced or demoted, desperately trying to please the all-powerful Fat Controller. It’s like watching the baby executives on the The Apprentice jumping through hoops in their pitiful attempts to catch the eye of Alan Sugar, replete from gorging on his power-breakfast. The stories are, I think, intended to be very moral, but the lessons to be drawn from them seem rather limiting – don’t get ideas above your station (that pun was as inevitable as it was terrible), but do respect and fear authority figures.

Children’s stories shouldn’t have a big, clunking, moral, although they can painlessly teach some valuable lessons and ideas about life. These stories have what I see as an anti-moral – a perfect recipe for how not to grow as a human being. Live in fear, respect hierarchies, obey orders without question, don’t have autonomy, don’t question authority, don’t think independently, never be proud of what you’ve achieved, just let your life run on the rails prepared for you by a higher authority.

Years ago, when I read Will Self’s My Idea of Fun, a violent, hallucinatory novel featuring a demented marketing consultant and serial killer whose grotesque mind is moulded by the (imaginary?) influence of a figure called The Fat Controller, I wondered what it was about the Thomas the Tank Engine stories that got Will so worked up. Maybe it was just a piece of calculated gonzo-style outrage from the man famous for doing heroin on John Major’s jet during the 1997 election campaign. But now I’m beginning to see the dark side of Reverend Awdry’s jealous God for myself.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Barbecue of the Vanities

Senior cabinet ministers are privately discussing a plan to scrap the Government's £5bn identity cards programme as part of cuts to public spending, The Independent has learnt.

The ministers believe that some "sacred cows" will have to be sacrificed in the effort to reduce Britain's debt mountain. They are raising fresh questions over the future of the ID card programme as the Cabinet faces renewed pressure to find economies beyond a promised £9bn in "efficiency savings".

According to this article in The Independent, maybe there's a silver lining to the huge cloud of debt currently hovering over the country. I'd crack open a bottle to celebrate this particular sacred cow being tossed onto the barbie (but not before checking that the Home Office haven't simply dropped the cards and adopted Blunkett's cunning plan to retain the ID database and make us all buy compulsory biometric passports).

Meanwhile, in local news, I've reluctantly had to abandon the compellingly surreal idea that Milton Keynes might really acquire a 50 metre long cow-based transgender sphinx. My - admittedly cursory - googling of Alex Wells has failed to come up with any hint that she's produced any previous sculptural works and I'm having to face the probability that I've been April fooled (even though the article was datelined April 16th). D'oh! And I so wanted it to be true...

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Sunday, 26 April 2009

Weed crazy

Walking and driving around this weekend, I've noticed that dandelions are everywhere, spreading like ... well, weeds. I've also been struck by how cheerful the grass verges around town look in the sunshine, lush and dotted with sprays of brilliant yellow dandelions and white dasies. They may be weeds, but, for a brief period they can be as much of a treat to the eye as may blossom. Dandelions have one other rather wonderful incarnation - the sight of a meadow at twilight dotted with the ghostly globes of dandelion clocks, a few seeds drifing on the hint of a breeze and catching the slanting rays of the setting sun, can be quite magical.

Having said that, the dandelions currently attempting to put down tenacious roots down in our garden will be exterminated without mercy, as soon as we get round to it.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Comfort eating

Contemplating those zillions of pound of debt could make a person very depressed. Time to raid the fridge, I think...

Ignoring the budget

I've not been following the "serious" coverage of Darling's latest bodge-it. I'm frightened that closer examination would just reveal that he's still way out of his depth. I don't imagine he's any more clueless than Her Majesty's opposition, or most of the other people who entirely failed to see this coming, but I'm getting the distinct impression that he's not ahead of the curve.

There seems to be a general consensus that Vince Cable is the man with a plan, or at least some grasp of what's gone so wrong and what to do about it - but, of course, he's light years away from the levers of power. I've just looked at an interesting review of Cable's book about the crisis, The Storm, (along with Philip Augar's Chasing Alpha, another post-mortem of financial doomsday), which ends with these (now) chilling words:

In a speech at Mansion House in 2004, Gordon Brown bellowed to an audience of bankers: “What you have achieved for the financial services sector, we as a country now aspire to achieve for the whole of the British economy.” The British will be living with that achievement for years.

You can read the whole review here. I'm almost tempted to read Cables's book itself, but who am I kidding? I can't even defeat the slugs or ants or whatever the beasties are that have eaten half the veg we've planted this year (despite having conscientiously thrown old coffee grounds and crushed eggshells on the ground around the tender young plants - supposedly a sure-fire slug deterrent). When I understand garden pests, maybe I'll move on to trying to understand the meltdown of the global financial system and how we all got to be a zillion pound in debt...

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Like a late snowfall

Here are some pictures of blossom lying on the steps leading to North Willen Lake and the Peace Pagoda, Milton Keynes, yesterday.

Thursday, 16 April 2009


Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in Roundabout City
A shape with cow body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Grow shadows of the trees in Campbell Park.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Milton Keynes to be born?

Alex Wells is planning to build a sphinx in Milton Keynes, according to an article published in the Milton Keynes Citizen (not on the first of April). A 50 metre long, 18 metre high sphinx. With the head of Jock Campbell and the body of a concrete cow. What can this rough beast portend but the coming of the End Times?

Police camera (in)action

The chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission said:

"We don't have CCTV footage of the incident."

"There is no CCTV footage – there were no cameras in the locations where he was assaulted."

The IPCC then explained

"Mr Hardwick said there was no available CCTV footage of the incident and we stand by that. Any footage that is available, whether taken by police or by the public, will be fully investigated as and when it becomes available."

The IPCC then clarified the position:

"There are cameras in the surrounding area."

The IPCC also pointed out that their investigators had pieced together Ian Tomlinson's last moments by piecing together "many hours of CCTV" - apparently without establishing the location of any cameras that might cover the places where he was last seen.

So that clears up that little misunderstanding. Nothing to see here, move along...

Good roundups of the latest in this sorry tale here and here, as well as in the Guardian here and here.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

CCTV malfunctions continue?

After the last example of state violence which strangely failed to show up on CCTV, the news is full of another vid of someone getting whacked by the authorities:

A police sergeant seen in video footage apparently hitting a woman during the G20 protest in London has been suspended, Scotland Yard has said.

The officer appears to hit the woman in the face with his hand and then the leg with his baton after she swears at him.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission - already investigating the death of Ian Tomlinson during the 1 April protests - is examining the case.

Let's hope that relevant CCTV footage will be found - it would reassure me that the things are actually working as you'd expect them to (rather than working like this). According to the posters the Met have been putting up, anyone seen examining a CCTV camera ought to be shopped as a terrorist suspect - surely they now have the cast-iron defence that 'I was just wondering whether any of these things actually work, officer.'

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Jacqui pokes Winston

I've never found the time to do Facebook properly - I don't really have the time to blog properly, if the truth be told. H.M. Government have a bit more free time - they're still trying to collect about 60 million on-line "friends" as highlighted by this rather splendid spoof site.

I found this on Boing Boing, (looking at Boing Boing is perhaps a sign that I do, contrary to what I think, have too much time on my hands - to get to the gems you generally have to wade through rather too much self-consciously whimsical content about Californians who have knitted their own Star Wars figures or want to sell you scatter cushions embroidered with the Linux penguin).

Monday, 13 April 2009

High flight

Here's a bit of cutting edge technology from yesteryear - the Bristol 138 high altitude research aircraft. In 1936, Squadron Leader F.R.D. Swain of the Royal Air Force took one of these to a record-breaking height of 49,967 ft (15,230 m). When the Italians broke Swain's altitude record, Flight Lieutenant M.J. Adam took a Bristol 138 to 53,937 feet (16,440 m) on 30th June 1937, regaining the record. Pretty impressive for the late 1930s, considering that modern passenger jets cruise around the 40,000 feet (12,000m) mark.

Unlike modern passenger jets, the Bristol 138 didn't have a pressurised cabin, so the pilot had to use an early pressure suit, based on the Haldane-Davis design. The suit is a pretty impressive piece of kit - a bit like the sort of gear that spacemen wore in vintage pulp science fiction. There are pictures of Flight Lieutenant Adam kitted out in his Dan Dare suit here and here (part of a gallery of photos of Bristol 138 flights here).

The Haldane-Davis type pressure suit was based on a design by the physiologist Professor John Scott Haldane, famous for his research into what happens to the human body under extreme conditions (Haldane died in 1936, before Swain's record-breaking flight). Haldane's researches into the medical effects of gasses and extremes of atmospheric pressure led to the use of canaries in mines to provide early warning of dangerous carbon monoxide levels, respirators for mine rescue workers, decompression tables and decompression equipment for deep sea divers, gas masks for soldiers to combat poison gas used during the First World War and the use of oxygen to treat the victims of gas attacks, as well as setting out a design for pressure suits used by high-altitude pilots. A hands-on sort of boffin, Haldane thought nothing of experimenting on himself and his family, as this review of his biography notes:

Born into a Scottish aristocratic family whose motto was “suffer”, Haldane certainly suffered for his science. His life was, writes Goodman, “the greatest sustained physiological experiment in the history of the human lung”.
In his lifelong quest to understand the secrets of respiration, he became a connoisseur of rare gases, an authority on their detection and effects. After 29 minutes breathing carbon monoxide, Haldane calmly noted that he felt “distinctly abnormal”: he was panting, breathing 18 times a minute, his limbs shook and his pulse was racing. Soon, he began to feel unsteady on his feet.
Once, on his way home from his laboratory after such an experiment, he was stopped by an Oxford policeman who had observed the scientist’s stumbling progress. Haldane explained that it was not due to alcohol but gas. His housekeeper offered her sympathies to his wife, Kathleen: “I knows how you feel, ma’am. My husband’s just the same on a Friday night.”
In his report on the Tylorstown disaster, “Haldane delivered, for the first time, an accurate diagnosis of the greatest cause of death among miners”. It was Haldane who taught miners how to protect themselves using canaries or mice in specially designed cages. Such creatures are affected by gas 20 times faster than a man. According to Goodman, Haldane was “himself such a canary, putting his own health and life on the line to protect others”. He also invented breathing equipment that allowed rescue teams to operate safely. Thousands of men owe their lives to his work.
As a young researcher, he studied the air in overcrowded Dundee slums, turning up without warning in the middle of the night to collect air in bedrooms where eight people were sleeping. When a Select Committee called upon him to “delve inside the lower depths of government and analyse the stink that flowed beneath”, he ventured into the sewers below Westminster Palace. A born iconoclast, he successfully challenged the idea that “sewer air” was a cause of typhoid and other diseases.
Haldane liked nothing better than to explore dangerous mine shafts and sewers. But it was in the specially constructed, air-tight chamber in his lab that the effects of gases on people were revealed. In an age before risk assessments and ethics committees, Haldane was a serial self-experimenter. He also thought nothing of exposing his own son – the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane – to dangerous doses of chlorine and other noxious gases. His young daughter Naomi (later the writer Naomi Mitchison) once told a 6-year-old friend outside their house: “You come in. My father wants your blood.” Her friend screamed and ran away.
Haldane had a profound sense of public service and he believed passionately that the world could be made a better place through the appliance of science. From miners dying of carbon monoxide poisoning and soldiers being gassed like rats in the trenches, to mountaineers and aviators coping with high altitudes, Haldane showed that science could bring light into the darkness.

The full review can be seen here. If dad had used you as a human guinea pig, you could perhaps be forgiven for having "issues", but, Haldane's son, the immensely quotable J.B.S. Haldane, seems to have been made of sterner stuff, going on to continue the family tradition of self-experimentation, suffering crushed vertebrae when an experiment involving high levels of oxygen saturation triggered a fit, and a burst eardrum after a session in a decompression chamber, (he later wrote "the drum generally heals up; and if a hole remains in it, although one is somewhat deaf, one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment"). It was an attitude which he retained to the end of his life - in his will, he left his body to medical science with the words: "whether I continue to exist or not, I shall have no further use for it [my body], and desire that it shall be used by others. Its refrigeration, if this is possible, should be a first charge on my estate."
Retuning to the record-breaking plane itself, it seems to have owed some of its performance to the design of its supercharged Pegasus radial engine which, like the airframe, was manufactured by the Bristol Aeroplane Company (there's a cheekily-titled article about the company's history here). Lightweight plywood construction also played a part, but one of the main features was the plane's immense size. I remember as a small kid having a plastic model of the Bristol 138 in my bedroom (it was manufactured by Frog, a company that will be remembered by former little boys, now of a certain age, as the runner-up to Airfix in the plastic model aeroplane world). For a single-engined aircraft, the model 138 was huge - next to it, an Airfix Spitfire in the same scale appeared like a herring gull flying in formation with an albatross. This impression is confirmed by an article in Flight magazine in October 1936, which observed that "with its large span it seems likely that the machine is the largest single-seater aeroplane ever built."
Looking at the 138 today, one of the things that strikes me is that the wings, although long, don't seem to have a very high aspect ratio (i.e. they don't have the long, narrow shape of the wings of a modern glider or the U2, which are the optimum shape to generate lots of lift). Come to think of it, comparing the 138 to an albatross is rather misleading, as the albatross also has very high aspect ratio wings, evolved for long duration flights as opposed to maneuverability (coincidentally, all this talk of size, scale and dimensions brings J.B.S. Haldane's essay On Being the Right Size to mind). In contrast the general appearance of the Bristol 138 is more like a scaled-up version of a smaller aircraft than a modern high-altitude design. I suspect that this is due to the limitations of manufacturing in the 30's - presumably the techniques and materials available then dictated that a wing of sufficient strength needed to be wider and thicker than one manufactured with more up-to date technology. And that's not the only example of how far and how fast technology has developed since then - just consider that only 31 years after Flight Lieutenant Adam, in his proto-space suit, established a world record by taking the Bristol 138 to 53,937 feet, the crew of Apollo 8 were taking their craft to the far side of the moon.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Death in camera

Everybody who takes an interest in these things will have seen the video which shows of a police officer apparently attacking Ian Tomlinson. We know that Mr Tomlinson appeared to be walking away, hands in pockets in an entirely nonthreatening manner and we also know that he tragically died shortly after the events captured on video.

One thing bothered me about the news reports following the initial video. More video footage and photographs taken by people present subsequently came to light, but nobody mentioned CCTV footage of the incident. This seemed a bit odd - after all, this happened in the heart of the City of London - a prime terrorist target and an area which must have pretty comprehensive CCTV coverage (Metro reckoned that there were 3,000 CCTVs available to look for trouble at the G20 summit- not the most authoritative source, but I'm sure they were right to say that there are lots of them in and around the Square Mile).

A quick flick through the media seems to confirm this. No CCTV footage of what happened to Mr Tomlinson. Very strange. Either:

a) There really isn't any footage. If there is no footage of an incident which took place in broad daylight in one of the most heavily monitored locations in the UK, it does make you wonder how useful all these cameras are at protecting us.

b) There is footage around, but it's so badly organised, or there's such a huge amount of irrelevant stuff in there that nobody's yet waded through it to find the relevant sequence yet. If it takes this long to find something important happening, it's not going to be much good at stopping terrorists, is it?

c) The quality of the CCTV footage is too poor to help - maybe somebody has found a bit of blurry footage, but they don't want to release it and let any watching crims and terrorists know that if they actually did get caught on video, even their mums wouldn't recognise them.

d) A recording of the incident did exist, but it got accidentally wiped due to a clerical error.

e) A recording of the incident did exist, but it looked rather incriminating for the police - so it got "accidentally" wiped due to a clerical error.

These are just a few of the possibilities. I don't claim to know much about the capabilities and operating procedures of CCTV systems, but I do know that there are a lot of them and that they are supposed to be protecting the citizens of this country. Whatever the reason, they don't seem to have been much help in this case. To paraphrase Admiral Beatty, there seems to be something wrong with our bloody cameras.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Cough syrup - the new alternative therapy

Dr David Newman, writing in The New York Times tells that several much-used remedies just don't work:

Recent press reports detailing the dangers of cough syrup for children have noted that cough syrup doesn’t work. True: No cough remedies have ever been proven better than a placebo....

Patients with ear infections are more likely to be harmed by antibiotics than helped...

Back surgeries to relieve pain are, in the majority of cases, no better than nonsurgical treatment...

More than a half million Americans per year undergo arthroscopic surgery to correct osteoarthritis of the knee, at a cost of $3 billion. Despite this, studies show the surgery to be no better than sham knee surgery, in which surgeons “pretend” to do surgery while the patient is under light anesthesia....

Treatment based on ideology is alluring. Surgeries to repair the knee should work. A syrup to reduce cough should help. Calming the straining heart should save lives. But the uncomfortable truth is that many expensive, invasive interventions are of little or no benefit and cause potentially uncomfortable, costly, and dangerous side effects and complications.

The full article can be found here (originally found on Slashdot Science).

Time to chuck out the Benylin? Alternatively, someone in the "complementary and alternative medicine" business could harness the money-making potential of yet another class of unproven and apparently ineffective treatments. I'll be looking out look out for Gillian McKeith's patent expectorant, or Prince Charles adding a "natural" cough syrup to his Duchy Original range...

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Crystal balls

When I listen to news programmes, I’m often struck by how many pundits can be found to make confident predictions about what’s going to happen next. And how consistently wrong many of them seem to be. Someone else has been thinking about the same thing:

Certainly one of the most striking things about the current crisis is the number of people who completely failed to anticipate it, and have nevertheless since gone on to offer many wise words about what the future holds in store.

Better still, Maciej CegÅ‚owski has done something about it, posting testable predictions on the Wrong Tomorrow web site. It’s a useful reminder that “news” isn’t just a more or less accurate account of stuff that has either actually happened, or can reasonably be expected to happen in the near future, given the available facts, but is bulked out with huge quantities of filler in the form of speculative predictions. I’m with those who suspect that most of these predictions, especially ones about such complex issues as what the economy’s going to do over the next year are pretty much worthless. This isn’t obvious because the news is, by definition, about what’s happening now, memories are short and most people listening to an authoritative talking head have already forgotten that the confident prediction he or she made a couple of months ago turned out to be hopelessly wide of the mark.

I don’t know that Wrong Tomorrow will have much impact. If the idea of holding armchair generals to account ever caught on in the mainstream news media, though, I think it would have a massively improving effect. Imagine a world where giving a pundit airtime was conditional on any predictions made being logged and scored for accuracy – as time went on, they could be introduced to the viewer, listener or reader in these sort of terms:

We asked Professor Bernard Madeup of the Luton School of Economics (prediction accuracy rate so far 35%) for an assessment of where the G20 economies will go from here…

It would be nice to think that would sort the men from the boys, although it would probably only lead to an epidemic of bet hedging. But it would be worth a shot – I’d much prefer to see TV or Radio getting tough and rigorous with facts and ideas, rather than humiliating people (even very annoying ones) on screen, in the perverse belief that there’s something admirably tough-minded in the cult of the celebrity bully.

Thanks go to the Overcoming Bias blog for bringing Wrong Tomorrow to my attention.