Thursday 29 January 2009

Joke over

It always amuses me how vaguely plausible hoaxes and frauds go undetected for years or even decades without anyone debunking them. The most intelligent people can be taken in.

An apparent medical condition called "cello scrotum" has just been exposed as a hoax after 34 years. Even the British Medical Journal, which revealed it in 1974, never realised there was no such thing.

Baroness Murphy, who dreamt up the hoax, only decided to come clean when it was mentioned yet again in the BMJ. She first thought of the idea after reading about "guitar nipple" - an equally unlikely condition.

Many people must have wondered about this strange musical hazard, but none of them publicly queried it. And no doubt the overworked journalists at the BMJ never got round to checking it out thoroughly.

There are people out there who devote their whole lives to hoaxing, to making idiots out of the "experts". They find it a lot more exciting than being what they're supposed to be. Why not keep everyone guessing?

I love all those wide boys who can fake just about any style of painting so adeptly they have all the professionals fooled. I'm not so keen on those heartrending memoirs that turn out to be pure fiction and only exploit their readers' emotions. But I have a sneaking admiration for the effrontery and ingenuity of a good hoax, as long as it does no real harm to anyone.

If a hoax is endorsed by enough experts, those with doubts keep silent and the hoax snowballs. Virtually everyone believed in the millenium bug, and we all half-expected planes to fall from the sky and heart pumps to fail. How could so many experts be wrong?

Oh, by the way, did I tell you about that nasty new condition they've discovered? Bloggers' eyeball, they call it....

Cello scrotum: when the size of the cello prevents the circulation of fresh air around the scrotum, leading to numbness and swelling (I think)

Tuesday 27 January 2009

The last resort

With the economic squeeze, extravagant holidays are on the wane and people are taking time-off in their own countries again.

The seaside town of Portrush near the Giant's Causeway is enjoying a bit of a boom, with hotel bookings well up and shops doing increased business.

Quite a turn-up for the books when Britons have been shunning chilly, down-at-heel local resorts for decades in favour of sunnier and more sophisticated climes.

How my own tastes have changed over the years. As a child, I was blissfully happy visiting my relatives at Southend (Essex) and Perranporth (Cornwall), spending all day on the beach where my sister and I would climb the rocks, build sandcastles, collect shells and look for crabs.

Gradually over the years as people got more prosperous, it became fashionable to holiday in Europe, and then farther-flung spots like America, India and Australia.

Now I've been hopelessly corrupted (or enlightened) and my idea of a holiday is watching the New Year's Eve fireworks on Sydney Harbour Bridge, taking a train through the Rockies or visiting art galleries in Manhattan.

We took a two-week break in Connemara a couple of years ago but I came back disappointed. Yes, the scenery was spectacular but it was all a bit dull and predictable after what we had seen and done in other parts of the world.

I've been so spoilt that even if I were stony broke, a fortnight in Portrush would be hard to adjust to. I think I'd just max out my credit card, take off for Sydney and never be seen again. I'm sure Jenny could be easily persuaded to come with me. After all, Portrush or Port Arthur?* It's a no-brainer.

* a historic old settlement on the Tasman Peninsula in Tasmania.

PS: Jenny points out that I'm rather contradicting what I said about greed. So - I claim the right to be inconsistent....

Photo: Portrush on Northern Ireland's north coast.

Saturday 24 January 2009

Paying for grief

There are still so many unhealed wounds from the trauma and grief of the Troubles that any new proposals for dealing with the victims attract instant controversy.

A report commissioned by the British government suggests a £12,000 payment to each family of the 3,700 people killed, regardless of personal circumstances and regardless of whether the person who died was a terrorist or an innocent victim.

Already there's a heated debate over the proposals, with Unionist politicians angrily demanding that the families of terrorists shouldn't get any payment.

The authors of the report, Lord Robin Eames and Denis Bradley*, point out that whether the dead were terrorists or not, those left behind were equally traumatised and bereft. That's absolutely true, and the Unionists are deliberately missing the point for their own ends.

My own objection is a different one, and that is how any sum of money could possibly compensate for personal grief and loss. In fact it's almost an insult to say a wad of cash is an appropriate response.

Surely the more sensible approach is to offer each family the particular help they need, be it counselling, financial assistance, childcare or whatever. And this sort of help should be available in any case from the public services, so there shouldn't be any need for extra initiatives.

I also have to ask whether it makes sense to give £40 million of public funds to people who may not need it or want it, when the many thousands of people knocked for six by the economic slump need help much more urgently to keep a roof over their heads and feed their families.

Of course we need to recognise the dreadful suffering caused by the Troubles, but this proposal is an odd way of doing it.

* Lord Eames is a former Church of Ireland primate. Denis Bradley is a former vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland policing board.

Photo: the aftermath of the Omagh bombing in 1998

Wednesday 21 January 2009


I have many failings, but greed isn't one of them. I tend to be content with what I have and not forever wondering how I can get even more.

It's an odd trait, when everyone around me seems to be piling up possessions as if their lives depend on it. Why I'm immune I don't know.

Perhaps it's because I always see the practicalities of wild longings. If I see a huge country mansion, I don't think I'd like to own it. I just think of the colossal maintenance it must need simply to keep it in repair.

When I read about billionaires, I don't covet those vast hoards of cash. I imagine all the begging letters, all the relatives itching to get their hands on it, and the headache of keeping track of where it all is.

I hear of people who have 500 pairs of shoes or 20 cars and I'm just bemused. Why on earth would anyone want all these things? I've never owned excessive amounts of anything, only what I need or what gives me a bit of pleasure.

I've never had this strange urge to keep adding and adding and adding to what I already have. In fact I have more of an urge to subtract things, to get rid of stuff I don't need that just annoys me and clutters the place up.

I don't believe luxury is the pinnacle of existence either. I take all those images of pampered lifestyles, full of limos, uniformed flunkeys and opulent furnishings, with a large pinch of salt. Behind the glittering facades there's plenty of hidden tension and personal angst. You can buy all the thick-pile carpets you like, but it won't guarantee happiness or peace of mind.

Greed is a luxury I can do without.

Sunday 18 January 2009

Holier than thou

Religious believers who attack atheists only prove the shakiness of their own belief in God. Otherwise, why would they bother about atheists at all?

Some prominent Christians in Northern Ireland have warned the national bus company Translink not to place pro-atheist adverts* on their buses. Or rather, to "think very carefully" about it.

Apart from the fact that they're trying to interfere in the running of a public business, their view seems to be that everyone should believe in God, and if they say they don't, they should be silenced. And maybe jailed, who knows?

So who are these zealous guardians of the truth? Free Presbyterian Minister the Rev David McIlveen (above), the not so moderate Free Presbyterian Moderator the Rev Ron Johnstone and MP David Simpson .

Have they nothing better to do than to hound those questioning souls who've no doubt carefully considered all the arguments for a supreme being, then looked at a planet rife with violence, poverty, suffering and sickness, and concluded that the idea seems rather implausible?

Wouldn't these self-righteous individuals be better employed ministering to their respective flocks and giving the benefit of their wisdom to those people desperate for help rather than persecuting non-believers?

Shouldn't their first priority be the hundreds of mortgage-defaulters, debtors, jobless and pensioners trying to cope with the economic meltdown? Or is their miserable plight not quite high enough on God's "To Do" list?

Believers get endless opportunities to convince us of the existence of God. Atheists are equally entitled to argue otherwise. What's the problem?

* The adverts from the British Humanist Association are already on buses in England, Wales and Scotland. The text reads: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Thursday 15 January 2009

Check and survive

As you know, I'm far more nervous about going into hospital than I am of getting on a plane. Hospital procedures can be so erratic and staff so careless that I might easily come out in a wooden box.

My qualms have been more than confirmed by a new study that says a simple cockpit-style checklist could cut the death rate after surgery by 47 per cent and the complication rate by 36 per cent.

What's amazing is that this elementary checklist (Sample questions: Is this the right patient? Is this the right limb?) has never been standard practice and hospitals have relied solely on the surgical teams knowing what they're doing.

Unfortunately even the most experienced and intelligent surgeons and nurses are still liable to human errors that can be fatal and irreversible. Once the patient has collapsed and died, the surgeon's experience is not much comfort to the grieving relatives.

So the sooner British hospitals introduce this checklist the better, and the sooner I can have a bit more confidence about checking in.

Some of the questions on the World Health Organisation checklist:
Is this the right patient?
Is this the right operation?
Is this the right limb?
Is this the right organ?
Have we got all the necessary equipment?
Have we got enough blood?
(And afterwards)
Have we removed all the swabs?
Have we removed all the needles?

Stunningly obvious, you might think - but also so obvious they can easily be overlooked.

The successful emergency landing of the plane on New York's Hudson River is astounding. It's practically impossible to land a plane safely on water. It usually disintegrates on impact. The pilot's skill and presence of mind was extraordinary.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

Sweatshop bargains

Like most people, I like to get things cut-price rather than forking out the maximum. But I'm also aware that my bargain shirt or pair of jeans may be at someone else's expense.

And not just in grimy sweatshops on the other side of the world. There are plenty of sweatshops right here in the UK where people labour twelve hours a day to churn out cheap clothes for chains like Primark.

People flock to Primark for their unbelievably low prices, a fraction of what you'd usually expect, and they seldom ask themselves how such rock-bottom prices are possible.

A BBC programme put the finger on TNS knitwear in Manchester where, it's claimed, employees work up to twelve hours a day seven days a week for as little as £3.50 an hour - about half the national minimum wage. Some of the workers are also said to be illegal and not entitled to work.

Primark denies all the claims, but the BBC undercover reporter who got a job there wasn't asked about her legal status and was offered just £3.50 an hour.

There was no heating in her work area and employees had their coats on in freezing temperatures. The work was physically exhausting amid ear-splitting noise. Employees said they were under constant pressure to meet orders.

There are plenty more sweatshops just like that around Britain, which the ordinary shop customer knows nothing about. The grim reality is concealed behind glossy advertising and prominent claims that factory working conditions are carefully monitored. In fact monitoring is usually erratic and superficial and allows Victorian conditions to continue unabated.

But what can the average shopper do about it? Even if I insisted on paying the realistic price for clothing (£50 for a pair of jeans?), there's no guarantee the extra cash would end up in the pockets of the workers. It's just as likely it would turn into a bigger profit for the companies or fatter salaries for the owners.

Unless there were strict controls over where all that extra income went, the sweatshops wouldn't necessarily disappear.

Perhaps we should demand the right to inspect the factories where our clothes are made and see just how their employees are treated. An army of beady-eyed customers invading these hidden grindstones would bring a few drastic changes.

I see that even using the internet adds to global warming. Just two Google searches are the equivalent of boiling a kettle. Ye Gods, what do I do now? Close down my blog? Bin my computer?

Sunday 11 January 2009

Job share

Every other employed person seems to be worried about losing their job. Not me though, as I'm already jobless. I'm just worried I might never work again. How many people want a sexagenarian in a recession?

Last year was a bummer on the work front. I was made redundant by a national charity in February, and since then all I've had is a three-month non-job at another charity where I was twiddling my thumbs all day.

I do want to work. I'm not one of those people desperate to retire and go fishing. I need a focus in my life, something to keep the vital juices flowing and the grey cells buzzing. Sitting in front of the telly watching Corrie is not for me.

If I'd been more astute when I was young, I would probably have acquired some essential skill that was always in demand and would guarantee me constant employment. But having always been a bit of a drifter, more interested in short-term pleasure than the rest of my life, that never happened.

I've spent most of my worklife in the dusty recesses of bookshops, discovering a long list of brilliant books but not doing much for my future prospects.

I'm lucky that Jenny earns a handsome salary, otherwise I would have no choice but to take up anything that was going (shelf-filler at Sainsbury's, anyone?) rather than holding out for what I really want.

In the meantime I amuse myself visiting all those brilliant blogs out there, catching up on my reading (have just finished "Confederacy of Dunces"), getting drunk on all my favourite CDs and doing all those domestic chores my overworked partner never gets round to (or runs a mile from).

And I thank my lucky stars I'm not a downtrodden machinist in some suffocating Beijing sweatshop.

Thursday 8 January 2009

Camera terror

Thinking of taking some photos? Just be careful. To official eyes, you might be a terrorist. You might be plotting a serious attack on national security.

Photographers in different parts of Britain - both professional and private - have been harassed by police officers, railway staff and other officials and told they're contravening section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

They're being told it's an offence to photograph public servants, public buildings or even members of the public, as it goes against anti-terrorism provisions.

This is actually complete bollocks, as MPs, the National Union of Journalists and others have pointed out. Such restrictions simply don't exist and the bogey of national security is being used to hound innocent people.

One person was stopped as he photographed a derelict government print works, another as he photographed a traveller wedding in London's Docklands. Trainspotters are regularly swooped on as they photograph old locomotives. What the hell is going on in this so-called cradle of democracy?

Somehow I thought terrorists were people carrying bombs or guns and threatening some sort of mass slaughter or mayhem. Apparently not. What we should really be looking for is furtive individuals with small metallic objects known as cameras, exchanging remarks like "What a beauty. They don't make locomotives like that any more, eh Stan?"

Those who keep warning that new anti-terrorism laws are unnecessary and will only be misused to restrict civil liberties and intimidate innocent people, while the real terrorists still don't get caught, are clearly right.

Those who take a delight in imposing their authority on people they don't like the look of have a wonderful new weapon at their disposal, quoting laws most of us aren't familiar with to send us scurrying away in confusion, worrying that we might end up in court.

So why aren't more MPs making more of a fuss about it and demanding a stop to this nonsense? Are they all completely spineless?

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Twin cultures

To many people, Australian culture means things like going to the beach, surfing, barbecues, sport, physical activity and sheep-farming - in other words, modern-day pursuits enjoyed by 'settlers'.

But references to aboriginal beliefs and traditions are now so frequent in Australia that any true idea of Australian culture has to include both aborigines and settlers.

Everywhere you go in Australia there's fantastic aboriginal art, particularly paintings. There're constant reminders of aboriginal respect for the land and its flora and fauna, and how they should be protected and cherished rather than owned and exploited.

There're regular mentions of the customary aboriginal lifestyle with its slower pace and quiet sensitivity, in sharp contrast to the contemporary yen for consumerism, materialism, hyperactivity and worldly success.

Aboriginal values, which existed many years before the settlers muscled in and imposed their own values, are in many ways more intelligent and more sensible and a positive alternative to the frantic hedonism and go-getting we usually think of as the Australian dream.

Many Australians still regard the aboriginal worldview as totally irrelevant and just a tourist curiosity, but it seems to be growing in influence all the time and actively challenging the limitations of the prevailing culture.

Modern-day Australian culture is not even particularly unique but borrows heavily from Britain and America. Britons were keen beachgoers and sports-lovers long before the Aussies.

And as for that great Aussie symbol, the boomerang, it's actually an aboriginal hunting weapon, used to knock animals out of trees or disable them. Right there you have an emblem that goes way beyond the usual sun and sand image.

Alongside the bikinis, thongs and surfboards, there's a much older and maybe richer way of life.

Painting: Awelye by Minnie Pwerle

Saturday 3 January 2009

Long haul

The big advantage of long-haul flights is that you can get somewhere like Australia fast. The disadvantage is that they're a gruelling pain in the arse.

Jenny loves flying and everything to do with it. She doesn't mind hanging around in airports and she has no problem with 22-hour flights. But I find those long-distance flights seriously stressful. Everything about them is uncomfortable, restricting and unhealthy.

Airlines still make out that flying is glamorous and exciting, but for most people the everyday reality is rather different.

The only way to cram hundreds of people into a plane is to cut down on individual space. So unless you can afford business class, you have limited legroom, a limited eating area and limited storage for your personal clutter. I feel a bit like a cooped-up battery chicken.

Add to this the fact that I can't take any exercise, or go anywhere else, or get any fresh air, or have a change of scenery. I'm rooted to the spot with not many ways of amusing myself.

When it comes to food, I have virtually no choice and usually have to eat what I'm given. There's no way a full range of food dishes can be prepared on a plane. If you get something really tasty, it's a miracle.

If boredom descends, I can't simply walk out and look for a more interesting activity, as I would anywhere else. I can't just make my excuses and leave, I have to stick with it to the bitter end.

If that isn't enough, long-distance flights screw up my digestive system something rotten. But I'll spare you the intimate details of that little issue.

The only reason I submit to such indignities is the chance to visit spectacular countries I would never otherwise visit. It's a necessary means to an end. But one I could well do without. As for the massive surge in my carbon footprint.... well, at least I'm a vegetarian.