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?