Sunday, 27 November 2011

Mitsey’s Diet

Milo resting on the windowsill
I have two cats. Milo is a pretty average tom cat (neutered – I practise responsible cat care, so both cats are neutered, vaccinated and data chipped). Mitsey, on the other hand, a queen, is not what you’d call the Einstein of the cat world. In fact, she is so stupid, she regularly falls off the bed and only remembers the ‘wash paw and look like I meant that’ act when I laugh at her. But somehow, like Milo, she manages to maintain a perfect weight. Not only is she the perfect weight today, but she is always the perfect weight. Every year we go to the vet, he bundles her on the scales and she’s 4kg which is the ideal for a medium size cat. So how come she can maintain her weight and I can’t?

We’re told that one of the problems with the modern world is that we have easy access to food – but so does Mitsey! There are cat biscuits available 24/7, and they are biscuits she likes. I know she prefers the expensive Hill’s T/D and will pick them out of whatever was on offer the last time I was in the supermarket but she does eat the cheap biscuits too.

Mitsey ready for a hard Winter's day
Some people say obesity is caused because we eat so much processed food – but have you looked at cat food? Mitsey had a helping of beef cat food tonight, which is completely unnatural as there is no way any cat smaller than a cheetah could kill a cow! As for the cod she had yesterday – I have yet to see a cat skippering a deep-sea trawler; to be honest, it sounds like much harder work than any sane cat gets involved with. There is also the way so much cat food looks and smells the same – and none of it smells like chicken, duck, rabbit or any other meat that the label claims it contains.

What about snacks and treats? Well, Mitsey’s supply of treats is limited, as she only gets any when she and Milo can actually manage to both be in the kitchen at the same time! She does also get tit-bits from the table (which is meant to be the one thing that results in a fat cat). However, as she will only eat meat from my plate (unlike other cats I’ve known, who’d happily eat any and every thing from my plate) and I have a tendency to live on pizza , pies and pasta these are somewhat limited. However, she still eats more treats than I eat cakes, biscuits or sweets

Then there is eating out.... except that Mitsey is a skilled hunter, routinely bringing home field mice, the occasional house mouse and on one occasion a rat! I do wish she’d actually managed to kill the rat first, but that’s another story. Most cats are also not adverse to going through bins, and scavenging, or of calling round the neighbour’s and learning which of them will hand over a little something, so Mitsey is almost certainly doing her share of eating out. But still she stays a perfect weight.

Mitsey checking out the late Summer sun
What about exercise, I hear you ask? As well as being the stupidest cat I’ve ever shared my home with, Mitsey is also the laziest. Her ideal day involves sleeping and, well, sleeping, a bit of eating and then, well, some more sleeping. All through the Winter she only goes outside when the call of nature forces her into the garden and, as the bush by the backdoor offers suitable shelter from rain and snow, she doesn’t walk down the garden! OK, she does have the occasional funny five minutes, when she hurtles round the house or garden like a lunatic. But I’ve never seen her do that more than once a week, so it’s not exactly what you’d call daily exercise!

The only thing that Mitsey seems to do, that I don’t, is to eat when she’s hungry and stop when she’s full. She doesn’t wait until dinner time – if she’s hungry, then she eats now. She doesn’t bother waiting for Milo to be ready to eat – as they get one bowl of biscuits between them, she may have to wait for him to finish eating! – she just eats when she’s hungry. Plus I do give them treats and their evening helping of meat at times that suit me but, even with her evening meal, if she’s had enough then she walks away and leaves it for Milo to finish.

So, that's the Mitsey Diet – don’t worry about what you eat; just eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Of course, the trick is learning to ‘hear’ when our bodies say they are hungry or full. If only we can manage that, maybe our GPs would be as happy about our weight as my vet is about Mitsey’s!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Who can't draw?

A few days ago I posted a page from my copy of Wreck This Journal on my Flickr account. One of my Flickr contacts, byot commented "You'll be a conceptual artist before you know it!" When I saw my friend's comment I laughed at the idea of me being an artist,
claiming I have no artistic ability. So my friend responded, by saying "we do need to define what you mean by artistic ability". To me the answer is obvious - I can't draw or paint anything that looks like whatever it is I'm drawing! However, even as I typed this reply, I knew there was something inauthentic about it.

The first problem is that I would not say that this piece by Jérémie Iordanoff is not art. I might decide I don't like it but, in my view, it's clearly art. But what does it depict? Where is the artist showing his ability to paint something that exists in the physical world?

If this is art then, clearly, the ability to draw or paint something that looks like anything is not a requirement! Although this wasn't entirely satisfactory as most artists can draw - just look at some of Picasso's early work, to see his enormous skill at realistic painting and drawing! Even Isambard Kingdom Brunel could manage a decent sketch and he was an engineer!!!

The second point was that, for some reason, I was reminded of something I read in Richard Box' book 'Drawing for the Terrified'. At least, I think that's where I read it - I can't find the book, so I can't check the exact quote. But the gist of the piece was that we learn that we can't draw. If you give a young child paper and paints, they will happily paint a picture - they have no concept that they may not be able to paint.

So, if for a moment we assume that, at some point, I did believe I could draw when did I learn this wasn't true?

I'd certainly learnt it by the time I was 13 and picking my options for my 'O' level exams at 16, as I didn't take Art because I couldn't draw! But I did take Technical Drawing - I actually have a grade B at 'O' level in Technical & Mechanical Drawing. But the basic skill required for technical drawing is to be able to use a t-square to draw a straight, horizontal line, and a set square to draw lines at 30o, 45o, 60o or 90o to that line - it's not, exactly, the free-hand sketching I associate with an artist! But, thinking back to my school days, I remembered having to do homework, and being set the task of drawing a ball-pein hammer, and having to ask my Dad what a ball-pein hammer was, and whether he'd got one I could draw! Actually, I recall ending up with a drawing that looked remarkable like a ball-pein hammer. It was certainly good enough that I didn't get in trouble for not doing the homework!

So, at 16 I couldn't draw, but I was happy that I could do a pencil sketch of a tool that looked reasonable. I decided to find paper, pencil and raid the toolbox!

OK, if we're being picky there are several things wrong with this. Firstly the paper ended up filthy - I remember that used to happen when I was studying technical drawing, and my Dad commented that he'd had the same problem when he was a

student! Also I haven't got the ring end quite right but, on the grounds that it'd get me a pass mark for homework, I didn't bin it. These two points (and probably several others) aside, it is recognisably a 5/8" spanner.

So where does that leave my claim that I can't draw?!?!?!

I wonder if there is a niche market for slightly quirky pencil drawings of tools :-)

Monday, 3 October 2011

BookCrossers on the radio!

Ipswich has a community radio station - Ipswich Community Radio - which is always on the look-out for people to interview about local events. I'm not very sure how but one of the researchers - Leona - found BookCrossing and realised there is a local meeting (It's on the second Saturday of the month, from 12:00, in Coffee Link and everybody is welcome). Leona contacted local BookCrossers, asking if any of us were willing to be interviewed. samwiseuk and I went along, very early, on Friday 9th September 2011, and did our bit to explain how BookCrossing works. That was the easy bit.

We were promised a recording of the show would appear on the 'Listen Again' slot on the ICR website within a day or two. It didn't, but the station is run by volunteers so I waited, and waited... then shows from the 8th and 10th September appeared, but nothing for the 9th. I e-mailed the station and was promised a CD, so I waited a bit longer, until I got an e-mail to say the CD was ready for collection :-)

Then I wanted to share the interview with my family and friends but it's too large to e-mail around. "No problem", I thought, "I'll load it on the web." But all the websites I use - like this Blog and YouTube - will allow you to upload a video but not an audio track :-( So I decided to find some photos and attach them to the audio thus making it a video. I even found some software I could use for free, providing that I just wanted to load my finished video on YouTube - "Perfect!" I thought. YouTube will allow me to upload a 15 minute video and the interview is 14 minutes and 38 seconds, so this is going to work :-) I spend ages finding some photos, arranging them in some sort of order, leaving them all on the screen long enough to cover the whole audio, etc. etc. Then I tried to load it on to YouTube.... but the software would only allow me to load a 14 minute 30 second video :-( Well, OK, this can still be fixed - I just download the video from the software site and upload it to YouTube.... except downloading is a feature that, on the site I was using, you have to pay for. After all the hours I'd put into this, I paid for a month-long subscription and down-loaded my video.

So, here is the interview, attached to a random selection of photos that generally have something to do with books, or Ipswich, or - in just a few cases - both!

Monday, 5 September 2011

Why we need legal downloads?

I've been thinking recently about illegal downloads... part of this has been inspired by Demand 5's inability to put the only soap I watch ('Neighbours') up on their website in a reasonable amount of time. This tardiness on their part has resulted in huge numbers of comments appearing under various episodes (episode 6205 being a good example, but that link will stop working in time, as Demand 5 take down the episodes after 30 days) about the poor service from Demand 5 and about how the videos were available on YouTube. Having waited until gone 7pm one evening, for the latest episode, I decided to look at YouTube. Not only are the UK episodes available there, but so are the Australian ones, all without the adverts!

However, I only looked at YouTube because I couldn't legally watch 'Neighbours' in a reasonable amount of time. (In fact, the episode that finally inspired me to look at YouTube took two days to appear!) I can't watch 'Neighbours' on Channel 11 - the Australian TV channel that produces 'Neighbours' - without spoofing my IP address, because I'm in the UK . So I can wait for Demand 5 to get their act together, or go to YouTube.

I did something similar after talking to a friend about 'House MD'. This TV show is owned by Fox, and is broadcast in the US some months before it is shown in the UK. Again, I can't download the programme from Fox without spoofing my IP address. But I can run a search using Google (other search engines are available) and find any number of sites offering me downloads of 'House MD', either for free (providing I'm willing to comply with any conditions the site imposes) or for a small fee. TorrentFreak report  that, when Fox stopped uploading their TV shows the day after they aired, the number of people illegally downloading shows from BitTorrent more than doubled. ToreentFrek went on to state, "If fans can’t get a show through legal channels they turn to pirated alternatives." So I am not alone in looking for legal downloads in preference to the illegal ones - despite the illegal downloads being easy to find if I choose to look for them.

In an attempt to make illegal downloads harder to access, BT were ordered to block access to illegal download sites. But this ruling is doomed to fail, as the block will only apply to specific IP addresses therefore all the download people need to do is move to another address. Given that Newzbin2 - the site specifically targeted in the court ruling - has already gone into administration, been sold and moved to the Seychelles which, among other things, meant they avoided being prosecuted by the Motion Picture Association, is changing their IP address really going to be that much of a problem?

Surely the better way would be to make these downloads available legally? Cary Sherman, the president of the Recording Industry Association of America is reported as saying, "Illegal music download sites will never be eradicated" Equally, it has been reported that the "all-digital singles market is booming - single sales are up 10% so far in 2011 (on top of a 10% improvement the year before)".

As one of my mate's said, "Where is the Spotify for films? Why can't I pay £10 a month and download all the films and videos I want?" I think he has a valid marketing strategy which, for many of us, would stop us checking out the illegal downloads.

The Legacy of 9/11

As 11th September approaches, I thought it'd be a good time to remember the top five (if I can think of five!) people, or groups of people, who, through they actions, have had the most impact on the lives of ordinary people.

Number one has to be the men who flew plans into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, while a fourth plan was going towards Washington before passengers tried to take control of the 'plane, causing it crash near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Thanks to this group of terrorists, Great Britain passed the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 while the USA the Department of Homeland Security was created to coordinate domestic anti-terrorism efforts. There is also the war in Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq, plus the ongoing prejudice against anybody who looks as if they might be able to locate Pakistan on a map, or who have any interest in Islam.

Number two is the "Tylenol Murderer" who, in 1982, injected poison into extra-strength Tylenol capsules, killing seven people. This resulted in all medicines being sold in tablets, rather than capsules, and in the nearly impossible to open anti-tamper packets we now have to wrestle with. This person, or people, have been mimicked in other areas, including where manufacturers have been blackmailed by people claiming to have injected various substances into jars of food, in particular baby food (including Shirley Ybarra in 2009). This has resulted in almost all jars of food having an annoying plastic wrap round the edge of the jar, plus many other anti-tamper measures that now mean it's nearly impossible to open a packet of food without needing a sharp knife, scissors and a pair of pliers and without tipping the food down yourself.

Number three is, in my opinion, Richard Reid, otherwise known as the Shoe Bomber who, in 2001, attempted to blow up American Airlines Flight 63. Thanks to Reid, anybody travelling through many of the world's international airports will have to take off their shoes, and allow them to be x-rayed.

Number four are the IRA who placed bombs in rubbish bins on various British railway stations. This resulted in their being no rubbish bins on platforms or trains for years which, in turn, meant these places were awash with litter. Fortunately, with the coming of the Good Friday Agreement this piece of nonsense is fading, and most stations have rubbish bins of one form or another. Several railway companies have also become aware of the fact that most people will put rubbish in a bin if one is available, and either have bins on their trains or, on longer journeys, members of staff walk through the trains, collecting rubbish.

As I can't think of another single person or group, number five has to be the media for .... well, there are so many things, but I'm going to select "the way they report crime". There are various measures of crime which all tend to indicate that actual levels of crime are falling. But fear of crime is on the increase, such that people's fear of crime no longer reflects the risk they are actually experiencing. Crime, and the fear of crime, has resulted in everything from lockable windows, through doors with five security points, to secure flats with CCTV so residents can see who is at the door before releasing it. In many cases, these security measures do help both to ensure people's safety, and to make them feel safe. But the fear of crime has resulted in many people being too scared to leave their home - including the 42%, reported in the Daily Mirror, who are "too afraid of yobs to leave home at night" and there are people, both in the USA and the UK, who have died when security bars have meant they can't escape from a house.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Do you know the views of the super-rich about tax?

Warren Buffet is one of the richest men in the world so, one might suspect, he'd support tax breaks that help those who make the most money. Interestingly, he doesn't!

Read what he has to say about the American tax system in "Stop Coddling the Super-Rich"

Go on - it's well worth reading, especially if this recession has meant you're paying more tax, have lost your job or have seen your benefits cut.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Cycling in England

Earlier this year there were some calls for harsher penalties for dangerous cyclist, including the introduction of a parliamentary bill in the House of Commons that proposes a new criminal offence be created for dangerous cycling. These calls were generally motivated by an incident where "a 17-year-old girl, was knocked down by John Howard after he mounted a pavement at speed and ploughed into her and her group of friends in Buckingham." This incident is, indeed, shocking and any debate on how cyclists are accommodated on our roads, in a way that is safe for both them and other road users, is to be welcomed.

But the question that doesn't seem to have been asked is, why did John Howard mount the pavement? When I was a child, it was quite simple - you cycled on the pavement until you were big enough to ride an adult bike and then you cycled in the road. Technically, cycling on the footpath is still illegal. But when organisations, such as Pedestrian Liberation campaign about driving on footpaths - which is also illegal - with little success at stopping it, what hope is there for campaigners to get the police to enforce the law with regard to cyclists?

But the other part of the problem has to be cycle lanes. These seems to have sprung up like mushrooms after a heavy rain storm and, personally, I can see more coherence in a fairy ring than I can see in some of the cycle lanes. Let's look at some local examples...

These three all show shared footpath and cycle lanes, but is there really room for both a cyclist and the pedestrians?
This last one is confusing because not only is the path marked as a shared between pedestrians and cyclists but there's also a cycle path in the road:
So where are you meant to cycle? Then there are other ridiculous points, like you cycle along a marked cycle path and then...
Where, exactly, are you meant to go from here? There is actually no legal way to cycle past this sign so, presumably, one is meant to get of the bicycle, push it to the kerb, place it in the road and then re-mount. Let's be honest - who is going to bother?

And the final piece of nonsense is:
 How, exactly, are you meant to judge 10mph? Bicycles are not normally fitted with speedometers, so all a cyclist can do is guess their speed. Plus 10mph is still three times faster than the average walker (assuming they walk at 3mph, and I doubt those two young girls are walking that quickly) so from the perspective of a pedestrian, the cyclist will seem to whiz past, frighteningly fast.

Nobody can condone cyclist injuring or killing other road users. But before we introduce new laws to cater for these rare accidents, lets have some common sense over cycle lanes, and the use of spaces that are shared by pedestrians and cyclists.

Alternatively, we could enforce clauses 211 to 213 of the Highway Code which tells drivers to give motorcyclists and cyclists plenty of room. Then cyclists may feel more inclined to cycle on the road, and to leave the footpath for pedestrians.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Riots and the World Economy

With Cameron's latest announcement, about how Britain's "broken society" is to be his top priority, people seem to have forgotten the initial trigger for the riots in Tottenham. The police shot dead a minicab passenger in a 'planned operation' (as reported by the BBC). This was followed, on 8th August, by a piece in The Guardian, pointing out there were conflicting portraits of the victim, Mark Duggan, with his family saying, "He was a good man. He was a family man," and his fiancée reporting he was "a good Dad who idolised his kids". The Daily Mail reported "But Duggan, a known offender from London’s notorious Broadwater Farm Estate, became aware that he was being followed and opened fire on the officers.", repeatedly referring to Duggan as a gangster. But later in the same week, The Guardian reported, "Mark Duggan, whose shooting by police sparked London's riots, did not fire a shot at police officers before they killed him, the Independent Police Complaints Commission said" Does any of this sound familiar?

The same thing happened with Jean Charles de Menezes. The police shot him, and then claimed he was an illegal immigrant who was fleeing from the police - statements they later had to retract when his residency visa and CCTV footage of him walking into Stockwell Tube station emerged.

For those of us who lived in Hackney, even this story followed a familiar pattern as occurred when the police shot Harry Stanley. Immediately after his death, police claimed Harry was Irish and carrying a gun only for his family to point out he was Scottish and carrying a table leg!

To try and link Mark Duggan's death, and the subsequent riots, to gang culture is to simplify the current situation in Britain to the point of making it a nonsense. Even the Daily Mail felt obliged to report that Duggan "had become increasingly paranoid after a cousin was stabbed to death in a nightclub in March". A murder that, at the time of Duggan's death, remains unsolved. If the police can't protect you and your loved ones, who do you turn to? Is it really surprising that Duggan's Facebook page includes, "Several shots show him in gangster poses; in others he is dressed all in black, or shown gesturing from behind the wheel of a yellow sportscar with headlights blazing." Is this evidence of gang membership, or a young man posturing in the hope that he can scare away those who might him or his family?

There is also the minor point that people have been rioting on the streets of a number of countries, including Greece, Tunisia, Egypt and, of course, Libya where the British Government is supporting the rioters. In most of those cases, the riots have been triggered by rising food and fuel prices and, in some instances, the Government introducing austerity measures - so clearly nothing like the UK then!

Except there has been widespread strikes in June when there was a peaceful protest about changes in people's working conditions. The announcement of an 8% rise in train fares on 16th August was immediately met by demostrations! To suggest the UK is unaffected by the unrest across the wider world is to take an excessively myopic view of world affairs.

Much of the current unrest goes back to the chaos caused by the collapse of the banking industry and the world-wide bailout of banks. These bailouts gave banks 'money in their pockets' which they were meant to loan out to small business and, thus, kick-start an economic recovery. Instead the banks have used this cash to speculate (or should that be gamble?) on the commoditiy markets which has pushed up the price of basic goods, such as wheat, corn, rice and fuel. This, in turn, has lead to increases in prices for food across the world, the riots in the Arab world, the introduction of austerity measures by numerous Governments and the unrest across Europe and the UK.

It is hard to justify the damage and, in particular, the deaths, that have resulted from the riots but in the face of the damage caused by the collapse of the banking industry, and the cuts that are disproportionally impacting the lives of those who had least influence on that industry while those who caused the collapse not only escape, scot free, but still get paid their bonuses, is it really so surprising that people have gone out on the streets, and taken things into their own hands?

Monday, 6 June 2011


This is interesting, if a bit long....

Now, hands up who gets some sort of bonus as part of their annual pay packet?

Thursday, 31 March 2011

More Than a Paycheck

This one caught me by surprise, as I'd half listened to it before the words sunk into my brain...

We bring more than a paycheck to our loved ones and family.
We bring more than a paycheck to our loved ones and family.

I wanted more pay but what I've got here today
is more than I bargained for when I walked through that door.
I bring home asbestosis, silicosis, brown lung, black lung disease
and the Radiation that hits the children before they've really been conceived.

Workers lend an ear because its important that your know,
with every job there is the fear that disease will take its toll.
If not disease then injury, my Lord, may befall your lot.
And if not injury then stress will tie you up in knots
All rights remain with Sweet Honey in the Rock and the song's writer, Ysaye M Barnwell

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Robbing Dawn to Pay the Dusk

From time to time there are calls to move the UK clocks to European Time. A Private Members Bill was introduced earlier this year but was opposed in some areas (and I am getting slightly worried at how often I seem to be agreeing with the Daily Mail) and has now been shelved. (Although there is still a campaign group supporting it and a Private Members Bill going through Parliament to investigate potential costs and benefits of advancing time by one hour for all, or part of, the year.) This, we are told, would result in longer, lighter evenings and, indeed, this is true. What is not mentioned is that it would also result in longer, darker mornings because you can't save time - all you can do is rob the dawn to give to the dusk. So what does this mean in practice?

Well, let's assume that we have to get up every morning for work or school, and we set our alarm clock for 7am. Looking at the data for 2011 - shown in the chart - then our alarm will sound before sunrise until 26th February and - because of British Summer Time (BST) - from 4th October, with a brief reprieve when the clocks change back to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) The dates are highlighted in yellow in the chart. I do appreciate that the difference in available light when the sun rises at 06:01 and 05:59 is barely noticeable but whether or not you need to turn the lights on, when you get up in the morning, depends on a number of factors, including the weather, which are difficult to quantify so I've chosen to just look at the time of the sun rise.

(Click on the image to get it to open up in a clearer version.)

One option is to stick to BST all year round. In 1968 a three-year experiment was initiated to do just this. While people did enjoy lighter evenings, there was widespread concern about the darker mornings - I can actually remember being issued with fluorescent arm-bands to be worn when walking to school in the dark! OK, probably less of a problem now most children are driven to school. But it is worth remembering that, during 1969, there was mounting opposition to year-round BST and the experiment was abandoned in 1970.

Would it make a difference to us now? Well, looking at the data then it would mean our 7am alarm would be sounding before sunrise until 25th March, but would make little difference in the Autumn.

But the current proposition is not to stick with BST all year round, but to move totally to European Time. This means BST all year round with Double Summer Time in the Summer. Again this has been tried before - it was introduced to help the war effort in 1941 but, while it was accepted during the war, it was extremely unpopular in some areas, including the North of the UK and among farmers, so was abandoned as soon as the war ended.

So, what would this mean for those of us getting up in the morning? Well, with Double Summer Time, our 7am alarm would now be sounding before sun rise until 21st April and from 27th August (days marked in red on the chart).

But Ipswich is reasonably far South in the UK and is a long way to the East, what about other places within the United Kingdom? Well, Cardiff, being further West currently doesn't see sun rise before 7am until 28th February which, with year round BST would change to 28th March and with Double Summer Time would stay until 24th April.

The dates for sunrise are not all that much different for Edinburgh. However, the problem Scotland has is not just the number of days when the sun rises after 7am, but how late the sun rises in the Winter. For this year, the latest sunrise will be 08:33 on 16th January, but the sunrise will be after 8am until 5th February and from 5th November. But if we are on year-round BST, this means the sun will be rising after 9am for three months of the year! Not only will children be walking/driven to school in the dark, but they will also be sitting in dark classrooms for the start of the school-day!

We are told that moving to European Standard Time, with its lighter evenings will reduce road accidents and power consumption. However, in 1974 the USA went to Summer Time four months earlier than normal - on January 6th - in an effort to save oil. The Department of Transportation (DoT) used this period to compare energy consumption and accidents with the same two months in the previous year. What they found was a 0.75% reduction in energy consumption in January and February and a 1% reduction in March and April (from 'Saving the Daylight' by David Prerau). But the DoT acknowledge it was hard to separate the effect of changing the clocks from other factors (such as voluntary reduction in energy usage because of the oil crises). On the vexed subject of road accidents, the DoT found no overall change - there were fewer accidents in the evenings, but these were off-set by more accidents in the morning. Forbes report a range of factors affecting road accident numbers, which include more people engaging in risky behaviour (such as drink-driving) at night than in the day.

When I talk to friends about changing the clocks two of my friends are very keen advocates. One because he wants to be able to play golf in the evenings after work and he does play two or three evenings a week in the Summer evenings. Another wants to be able to sit in the pub garden, in daylight, in the evenings but when I ask how often he'd actually do this, I get no reply! Even if I am being kind, I suspect he would actually do this no more than one evening a week. But for some of us getting up in the dark is a real struggle and, if we work, then we have to do this five days a week through all the months when the sun rises after the alarm goes off. If we want to hold on to full-time jobs then there is no choice about this, no option to say, "I won't get up until it's light and go in to the office at 10:30."

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Girls will be Boys and Boys will be Girls

Andrej Pejic
I have long argued that the biggest problem with the fashion industry is that it is run by gay men because - by definition - gay men don't generally like looking at women. Therefore, models are generally over 5'10" - how many women do you know that are over 5'10" tall? I can count the ones I know on my thumbs! Plus the models are so thin they have no hips or bust and, overall, look far more like adolescent boys than women. I was, therefore, not surprised to learn that Andrej Pejic actually is a 19-year-old man!

I was rather more surprised to find my view on the domination of the industry by gay men being an issue printed in an article in the Daily Mail where Liz Jones writes, "These girls have been used as a smokescreen, so that the gay men who run the industry can continue to peddle the idea that women should look like adolescent boys (it was no coincidence that nerdy, weedy boys walked the runway in womenswear this season)." and again, in the same paper where another writer - Amanda Platell - states, "It was an edict by the fashion mafia buyers, trend-setters, photographers, but especially the designers. They decreed that to look good in their creations a model couldn’t look like a woman. She had to be flat-chested, devoid of hips, with collarbones you could hook a clothes hanger on. In fact, she has to look less like a woman and more like a boy."
Martyna Budna

But all this reading about London Fashion Week has meant that, once again, I've actually looked at some photos of models going down the catwalk, and realised that their individual listing photos show their heads only so you can't see, at a glance, how painfully thin they are. But I fail to understand how anybody can think a woman who is this thin looks anything but starved. If she was standing in the middle of Africa, and not on a London Catwalk, the Red Cross would be holding a collection to buy emergency aid to feed her! It is totally obscene, and I can understand why it was reported that, "Samantha Cameron didn't crack a smile yesterday as super-skinny models paraded past at London Fashion Week." and she's the ambassador for Fashion Week!

Monday, 21 February 2011

Arrogance, Ignorance And Greed

Nice to see the Protest Song is still alive and well...

All I wanted was a home; a roof over our heads -
Somewhere we could call our own and feel safer in our beds.
There was a storm of money raining down; it only touched the ground
With a loan I took I can't repay and the crock of gold you found.
At every trough you stopped to feed,
With your arrogance, your ignorance and greed.

I never was a cautious man; I spend more than I'm paid.
But those with something put aside are the ones that you betrayed,
With your bonuses and expenses you shovelled down your throat.
Now you bit the hand that fed you. Dear God I hope you choke!

At every trough you stopped to feed,
With your arrogance, you ignorance and greed.
You're on your yacht, we're on our knees,
Through your arrogance, your ignorance and greed.

The toxic spring you tapped and sold,
Poisoned every watering hole.
Your probity you exchanged for gold.

A working man stands in line, the market sets his price.
No feather bed, no golden egg, no-one pays him twice.
So where's your thrift and your caution, your honest sound advice?
You know you dealt yourself a winning hand and loaded every dice.

At every trough you stopped to feed
With your arrogance, your ignorance and greed.
I pray one day we'll soon be free
From your absolute indifference,
Your avarice, incompetence,
Your arrogance, your ignorance, your greed.

All rights remain with Show of Hands and the song's writer, Steve Knightly.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Are exams getting easier?

To start with, a sample of an 11+ exam:
1968 11+ Maths Paper (taken at age 10)

Originally the General Certificate of Education (GCE) 'O' level was taken by pupils at grammar schools (i.e. those where the pupils had previously passed the 11+ exam) while pupils at secondary modern schools generally took the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE).

Over time, the grammar school system was abandoned in favour of comprehensive schools which left two exam systems with overlapping grades (a 1 at CSE was generally reckoned to be equivalent to a C at O level). For each pupil/subject one of these exams had to be selected, either by the pupil on the advice of their teacher, or by the teacher. To simplify this, the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) was introduced to combine these two exams.

These two links will take you to an example of a Maths 'O' Level and a sample GCSE:
1968 Maths 'O' Level - Paper I
GCSE Mathematics Module, November 2009
And before you point out, this is only one of the papers for the GCSE, the rest, and the marking scheme, are available here.

I leave it to the reader to decide if these two exams are equivalent.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

More on unexpected ingredients

OK, I know crisps will never count as a health food but....

I've recently been eating Walker's 'SunBites' which are labelled as "Wholegrain Snacks; Bursting with the goodness of Wholegrains" on the front of the pack. The back declares:
  • We prepare SunBites with Sunseed oil - which is naturally higher in mono-unsaturates and lower in saturates.
  • Even better, because they're bursting with wholegrains, you get fibre and essential nutrients in every bag.
  • We insist that SunBites are made using no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives.
  • Last but not least, they have 30% LESS FAT than regular crisps.

So what is in these wonders of a healthy snack?
Wholegrains (67%) (whole corn, whole wheat, whole oat flour) - Not entirely sure I understand what 'whole oat flour' actually is, but we'll let that one alone.
Sunflower oil (18%)
Rice flour (13%)
Sugar - Sugar? In crisps? Why? Given the previous three ingredients count for 98% of the ingredients, the sugar could be nearly 2% of the crisps. But crisps are meant to be savoury, so why add any sugar?
Sun ripened chilli flavour (natural flavouring, chilli, soy sauce powder, fennel oil, star anise oil, ginger, paprika, dried onion, citric acid) - well they are sun ripened chilli flavour SunBites but what on earth is 'sun ripened chilli flavour' and why does it contain so many ingredients? It's also worth remembering that paprika can also be listed as E160c and citric acid as E330 - presumably that's why the first ingredient in this flavour is 'natural flavouring'.

I can remember when crisps were very thinly sliced potato deep fried with salt and vinegar added to taste (or not for those of us who don't like vinegar). I also realise these are a snack, not crisps, which is why they are made from ground up whole-grains blended with oil and extruded into crisp-like shapes. But I still don't see why they need added sugar.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Who is to blame for the rise in obesity?

There are many indications that people are getting fatter - sit in a cafe, watching the world go by and you will see at least one person who is grossly over-weight. Feed 'obesity' into any internet search engine and you will be faced with a raft of reports of studies showing an increase in the number of people who are over-weight, obese and morbidly obese. Equally, you will be presented with a range of articles pointing to diet as a leading cause of this rise in obesity. All of this gives the impression that our diet 30 or 40 years ago was somehow ideal, but was it really that good?

When I was a child, if we bought milk we had a choice of three kinds - silver top, which had an inch of cream at the top of the bottle, homogenized which had the cream mixed in so you couldn't see it, and gold top which was half cream! Semi-skimmed milk was unheard of and if you presented skimmed milk to my father he'd tell you, "It's just water!" before demanding a bottle of silver top! Equally, if we wanted a soft drink, then it was fizzy pop packed with sugar and colour - who remembers the Corona lorry delivering big, glass bottles of brightly coloured fizzy pop? I was in my late teens before they even introduced diet coke!

As for low-fat foods - you are joking, aren't you? We ate meat and two vegetables! But even with those vegetables, the meal wasn't a paradigm of virtue - the traditional roast meat for Sunday lunch was cooked in lard. The fat was poured out of the meat tin, and saved in the fridge (and the most delicious jelly formed on the bottom of the dripping as it set) to be used to fry breakfast or to cook next week's joint in. If potatoes weren't roasted with the meat, then they were mashed with a large dollop of butter and a drop of milk to make them smooth and creamy. If there was no gravy to pour over the vegetables, then you'd put a knob of butter on them. Note all the references to butter - people only used margarine if they couldn't afford butter!

But somehow, despite all this sugar and fat, I can only think of one school friend who was over-weight, and none were obese, and my memory is backed up by the statistics on childhood obesity levels. So why they difference? OK, part of it is down to lack of exercise - just look at the mass of cars round the entrance to any school at 9am on a school day! While I walked, cycled or used public transport to get to school until I was given a moped for my 16th birthday and, six months later, decided to go to Technical College rather than into the Sixth Form (thus moving away from the school rule that had prevented me from riding it to school).

But what about the food? I think this is the area we should really be looking at. One of the things that has changed is the amount of food that is now purchased ready to eat in some way, whether it's as meals in restaurants, take-aways, or ready-meals that are just heated in the home. Throughout my childhood somebody in the home spent time peeling potatoes, cutting and washing vegetables, slicing and dicing meat, and then cooking it all. Biscuits were bought at the supermarket, but cake was a treat because it required somebody to have the time and energy to bake it.

Personally, I am very fond of flapjack and it is easy to make - 5oz rolled oats, blended with 3oz of sugar, 3oz of butter and a dollop of Golden Syrup and then baked in the oven until delicious and brown. But like many other people, I now find it easier to buy some. Foolishly I looked at the ingredient list on the last lot I purchased:
1) Oats (36%) - 36%? It should be more than that! (If we say a dollop of syrup weighs an ounce, then about 42% in my recipe.) So what have they padded it out with?
2) Partially inverted sugar syrup - I guess that could mean Golden Syrup, but it's the second item on the ingredient list, so it seems to me we're talking more than a 'dollop' here.
3) Sweetened condensed skimmed milk (skimmed milk, sugar butterfat) - milk? In flapjack? Why?
4) Butter - yes, that should be there.
5) Caster sugar - I've found granulated works as well, although soft brown gives a nicer taste, but yes, sugar should be there.
6) Vegetable oil - oil? You can use margarine rather than butter, but we've already got butter, so why oil as well?
7) Salt - Do what? Why would you put salt in flapjack?
8) Natural flavouring - No, that's just wrong! You're meant to be able to taste the oats and sugar; that's the whole point of eating flapjack!

It is rubbish, isn't it? Just look at all the 'extras' the manufacturer has included. I dread to think what's in a burger, given they are renowned for containing junk. Surely this is the root of some of the obesity issues. How many people look at the ingredient list on food? The vast majority of us have absolutely no idea what we're eating, even if we're eating something that we could make at home, because it is packed out with junk. OK, you could say I should stop being so lazy, and make my own flapjack, but do we really need all this junk in processed food? One of the great things about frozen vegetables is that they are just vegetables, frozen - nothing added and only the time to prepare them taken away. Why can't this be true of other food? Equally, why castigate individuals for eating junk when every supermarket, corner shop and newsagent has shelves loaded with junk that is sold as food? But, of course, tackling the junk that the big food conglomerates sell would mean tackling those manufacturers, and it is just so much easy to blame the individuals.

Maybe we should put the rise in obesity down to political weakness to take on big business.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

More rantings

I am beginning to think I should re-name this blog to "Izzy's rantings" as that seems to be a slightly more accurate title!!!! Especially tonight.....

Back in December, when we had several inches of snow all over the place and Heathrow Airport was partially closed for days on end, a young lady flew over from India to work-shadow me. This month of work-shadowing is the final stage in a three month process of handing my work over to a sub-contractor, before I move on to a new role (which I start on Monday!). Before she left India, this lady asked for my mobile 'phone number but, after pointing out I don't have a business number, I refused to give her my personal one. However, when she did finally arrive - after an unscheduled, three day stop in Paris due to Heathrow being closed, and an over-night stay in London due to the trains being in chaos - her security card had not been delivered and she was having problems gaining access to the building. To be honest, I felt really sorry for her as, not only had her travel plans gone awry, and the weather was colder than anything she'd ever encountered before but the accommodation she thought was all booked failed to materialise, and the heating in the office was less than stunning. She also assured me that she'd respect the fact that it is my private number so, still with some misgivings that one day she would abuse it, I gave her my personal number.

I was out of the office today, at a team meeting (the last I will attend with this team) followed by a late Christmas meal in a local curry house. At 18:40 - so after my usual 5pm finishing time - my 'phone rang, and the display showed it was a call from work. I diverted the call to answer-phone and, a few minutes later, picked up a voice-mail from this same lady, telling me there was a problem in the office.

I always try to look for the best in people and chide myself when I harbour doubts about other's integrity, but, sometimes, people do just act exactly as the more cynical side of me suggests they will. Somehow, it always saddens me to think that people are that predictable.

I wonder if she will be foolish enough to mention it in the office tomorrow.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

War in Iran? Not in my name!

Was anybody else struck by the irony of the Middle East Peace Envoy, Tony Blair, advocating the use of force against Iran? Has this man learnt nothing during his time as Prime Minister?

We were told the war in Iraq would bring peace but, while the British press long ago stopped reporting on incidents, other news agencies including CNN (to name just one of many) continue to report on violence in Iraq. Of course there is also Iraq Body Count who focus on the rising death toll from the war in Iraq.
Iraq Body Count web counter

One of my friends has recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and he refers to it as the forgotten war. Presumably the British press think that, if they don't report any news from Iraq, we'll all forget about it. In my more paranoid moments, I wonder who is driving that stance - did the whole of the British press really decide, as one entity, to stop reporting on events in Iraq?

The other thing that struck me about Blair's statement is he says, "I wanted to make that clear, that of course, I regret deeply and profoundly the loss of life, whether from our own armed forces, those of other nations, the civilians who helped people in Iraq, or the Iraqis themselves and I just wanted to say that because it is right to say that and it is what I feel." So is he saying this because he really does regret the loss of life, or because he thinks it is something he ought to say? Watching the video clip it seemed to me that this was an attempt at damage limitation, and not really an expression of regret.

But getting back to Iran, I have a friend who lives in the USA and he has been telling me for some months now that, as soon as the Republicans re-gain power (and he sees that happening at the next Presidential Election) then the USA will declare war on Iran. Foolishly, I have been saying the Americans won't get British support a second time. However, perhaps Blair's statements to the Iraq War Inquiry are an attempt to 'soften up' the British public to the idea that, once again, we should fall in behind a warmongering American president.

Blair is also reported as saying, "I am out in that region the whole time. I see the impact and influence of Iran everywhere. It is negative, destabilising and it is supportive of terrorist groups". But where is the evidence? Once again, he seems to be hoping we'll believe him just because he says something is so. But some of us asked for evidence to support his claims before the Iraq war evidence that he refused to give and which we now know he couldn't supply for the simple reason it didn't exist! Does he really think people are so stupid they will believe him this time round? Then again, given some people can't even work out how to use a toilet roll holder, maybe they are that stupid.

See Yahoo News or the BBC and many other news reporters, for more information about Tony Blair's "four-hour grilling by the inquiry"

Friday, 21 January 2011

I think therefore I am

One thing that constantly amazes (and occasionally annoys) me is people’s inability to reason, or think through, the simplest of things. Let me give you an example – in the ladies at work there is a toilet roll holder – see photo – that is designed to take two rolls of toilet paper. At the bottom of the holder is a curved plate, that blocks access to one roll of paper. This plate is spring-loaded so that, when you open the holder, it goes back to position shown in the photo.
So, is this holder designed such that you should be able to access both rolls of paper at the same time?

It seems to me the answer is a very clear, “No”. But day after day, the cleaner opens up the holder and threads the paper from the blocked Roll B down past the plate!

Equally, given one roll is covered and the other is freely available, where should a new roll be put? Should Roll A be the new one, or Roll B?

Again, to me, the answer is obvious – Roll B should be the new roll. Then, when Roll A is empty the user can slide the plate across and access Roll B - there is even some guidance to help the user do just this. The cleaner then has all the time it takes to use an entire roll of paper to check the holder, remove the empty roll, move Roll B to Roll A and put in a new roll of paper. But, as you can see in the photo, he is far more likely to make Roll A the new role. Then, when both are nearly finished, he takes out the emptier roll, puts in a new roll, and balances the near-empty roll on top of the holder – one of the very things this type of holder is meant to avoid!

To me, it is so obvious how this holder is meant to work that I find it hard to understand why the cleaner gets it wrong. I can tell every time he has checked the toilet rolls, because there will be two pieces of toilet paper hanging down from the holder – one from each roll. Fortunately, this one is broken (hence the piece of sticky tape) so it is easy to open up and correct the layout of the toilet rolls and holder.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Natural World

I cycled into work today. It’s the first time I’ve cycled since before Christmas – the bad weather, bank holidays and some annual leave over the Christmas/New Year period plus a stinking cold which left me too drained of energy to cycle have all conspired to mean it’s been some weeks since I last cycled, and I’ve got into the habit of jumping on my motorbike rather than my bicycle. However, I’ve been missing it and, as today at least managed to dawn dry, I cycled in. And what a pleasure it was too!

As I left the house, the sun came out. The birds were out in force, singing their little hearts out. I was late enough leaving that the children were all safely in school, so the cycle path was peaceful. The hedges and trees seem to have a hint of Spring in them. It was very tempting to cycle on past the company’s gates, and head for the coast – I could make Felixstowe by lunch time, easily!

But it did make me think about the attitude a number of people seem to have that sees nature as ‘out there’, as somewhere you drive to on a sunny Sunday afternoon, all the time missing the fact that it is here, right under our noses, if only we stop to look. I was speaking to a friend a few days ago, and said about taking time to smell the roses, and he interpreted my comment as meaning taking up an activity such as meditation. But what I really meant was to stop rushing from the house, head down, to jump into the car, drive like a person possessed to the school/office/shop, only to jump out of the car and rush, still head down, back into the embrace of a building with its artificial lights and air-conditioned atmosphere. The natural world contains so much of wonder, and beauty, and charm and it is there, all around us, unappreciated, unvalued and totally free. All we need to do is lift our heads up and look.

Monday, 17 January 2011

After film thoughts

I recently saw a film – The Kids Are All Right – about two children – a boy and a girl - who had been raised by a lesbian couple and who decided to get in contact with their father. At the outset, I thought the film would – at least in part – be about the boy’s experience of growing up in an all female household, with no role model. This had been suggested by the trailers I’d seen, and was reinforced by the fact that the children could not trace their father until they turned 18, but the girl was the older child, so she turned 18 before her brother. However, she was not interested in contacting their father, and had to be persuaded by her younger brother to go ahead and trace him. As the film progressed, the two mothers find out that the children have met their father, and agree to meet him. Almost inevitably, they are disappointed to find out that all the ambitions he’d detailed in his profile as a sperm donor had failed to materialize!

But then the film turned into a simple male fantasy, as one of the mothers is so drawn to this sperm donor that she ends up having sex with him! In turn, the focus of the film shifts entirely to their relationship, while the fact that a young man has recently met his father is totally ignored. However, the most annoying bit about this film was when the woman’s partner finds out she’s been having sex with a man and asks, “Does that mean you’re straight now?” Oh, please! One’s sexual orientation doesn’t change just because a straight person has sex with a member of their own sex, or because a gay person has sex with a member of the opposite sex! The idea that, by giving a lesbian a ‘good seeing too’, one can change them into a straight women is just a pathetic male fantasy with no basis in the real world.

But before this turns into a rant, why do we have this idea that everybody has to be either gay or straight? Is human sexuality really so black and white, that one is either one or the other, with no possibility of, at the very least, curiosity about the other? I happen to know of several people who have had and, in most cases, enjoyed a sexual encounter with a member of their non-preferred gender group. In fact, I know a number of gay men who have been married and fathered children before coming out as gay! Are we really to assume their sexuality changed, somehow, over the years they were married? Surely the more likely explanation is that we all sit on some sort of continuum between 100% straight and 100% gay and that, for the vast majority of people, we have some level of attraction to both sexes. Given our society’s polarized view of sexuality, it takes a very brave person to say, “Well, actually, I like men and women equally”, although even that may be easier to say than, “I am straight, but I enjoy an occasional gay encounter” so, it seems to me that we generally take the easy option and define ourselves by the sexual preference that is mostly true for us while denying that we may ever have any “non-standard” feelings or inclinations.

Of course, this was another area that “The Kids Are All Right” was well placed to explore, and which it ignored in favour of the male fantasy. Oh well, at least my admission fee helped to support the Ipswich Film Theatre!

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Why record myths?

I went to an interesting talk last week, about Celtic Myths. As it's the first in a series of talks, this one was about the history of the myths, and touched on who wrote them down originally. Like Norse Myths, the Celtic Myths were originally part of an oral tradition, so nobody wrote them down. But then, as the relevant religions started to fade away, monks recorded the myths. My question is... why?

Writing anything down in the 9th, 10th and 11th century was not a simple matter - no nipping down to the Pound Shop and buying a notebook. These myths are all recorded on vellum, so first fatten your calf, then slaughter it, then prepare the skin - check out Wikipedia or, if your French is up to it, Le livre de chasse de Gaston Phebus for more details. It's also remembering that one animal skin would only produce four or five double pages - so a book would require the slaughter of a small herd of animals. Then there's the matter of producing the ink - no 'borrowing' a biro from the office for the monks. They had to go out and collect charcoal, gum and other ingredients to make the ink - see Materials and Techniques of Manuscript Production for the details. So these manuscripts took a lot of time, energy and effort... and money!

Many of the Medieval manuscripts that we still have were written by monks because the church was the only institution with the wealth to produce them. There are records of patrons sponsoring the production of certain manuscripts, but these patrons were all wealthy people. There are also records of books being included in wills, in the same way as jewellery, furniture, land and other items of value. Books were not something that everybody could afford - they were luxury items that only the richest in society could afford.

So why did people put all this time and effort into recording the myths of a religion that they did not believe in?