If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday 31 October 2011

Quite a queue!

Apparently, I am the 76,014,082,892nd member of the species Homo Sapiens to be born.

On the day I was born, the world's population was 2,772,772,874. Today it has just passed 7,000,000,000.


Things That Go Bump In The Night

A rationalist post for Hallowe'en.

Are you a believer in the supernatural? Sorry, [gravelly voice]The Supernatural[/gv]? I'm leaving religion out of this for the moment, as it's a special case, and talking about ghosts, manifestations, telekinesis, telepathy and the like.

To most people, it's an either/or situation. Let's say you have a slightly unnerving experience - someone pops into your mind and you think about them, and ten minutes later the phone rings and it is that person, to whom you haven't spoken in ten years. (This kind of thing happens often to Anna.) Most people would respond in one of two ways:
  • It's all quite explicable. You think about people all the time and don't dwell on it, but when someone calls you soon afterwards (as statistically they must occasionally) that's the one you remember.
  • The mind has powers we know not of, and did I tell you Aunt Doris says she's happy and she forgives you for the thing with the hairdryer?
In other words, most people either believe (fully or tentatively) in the supernatural or dismiss it absolutely. There's no middle ground. Anyone who tries to suggest that there may be something in all these things (which, after all, have been reported throughout history and across the known world) is derided by the sceptics as a gullible fool and by the believers as a sceptic who needs to open his eyes to the truth.

There was an interesting interview with a photographer called Graham Morris on BBC Radio 5 Live recently, who attended and photographed an alleged poltergeist manifestation in Enfield back in 1977. His photograph of the girl apparently flying through the air screaming became a brief sensation. (Photo and link to the interview here.)

To me, the photograph shows nothing more than an 11-year-old girl jumping off a bed, but apparently there were things flying about the room, and there were a number of solid witnesses. Morris says something in the interview which struck me as very wise.
You had to see it to believe it. I mean, I am just as big a sceptic as anybody else; in fact, I now still refuse to believe that it's hauntings and ghosts and all the rest of it. I think it's down to something that we just don't know, as we didn't know about gravity and magnetism or all sorts of other things hundreds of years ago, so we just don't know about this.
To me, it is stupid to believe everything you are told; but it is also arrogant to believe that we know everything already, and that everything that we observe must be able to be explained in terms that we already understand, or alternatively dismissed as hogwash. Healthy scepticism is good, but let's also have room for the notion that, although something may be inexplicable today, it will not always be so, and should not be dismissed as fiction just because we haven't got round to understanding it so far.

Man (sorry, Person) is a very clever creature, and our understanding of the world is improving all the time. Where fire was once considered miraculous, and then thought to be the result of the unseen element phlogiston, we can now explain it very readily in terms of widely-known and well-understood chemical and physical processes. There's no reason not to suppose that one day there will be entirely rational explanations for sightings of ghosts and other paranormal phenomena - explanations which conform fully with the state of scientific knowledge at the time.

In other words, there is no mystery about these things; it's just that we don't understand them yet. I fully expect that in the future people will be able to say something like:

"Of course, I knew my cousin in Australia was pregnant before she did, and my congrats card arrived on the same day she got the results. The old Binks Effect can be quite useful sometimes."

Sunday 30 October 2011

Call the Cops!

Tip of the Shoei to Joe Public for the link to this. The bugger thought it was me*. I'll get him back.

Got to say it's a pretty special outfit. I want one.

* Couldn't have been. the guy in the clip is much better-looking.

UPDATE: This isn't appearing very well in my browser. Sometimes it's there, sometimes it isn't. Blogger doesn't like links to LiveLeak, I see. Direct link is here.


Yes, we have always celebrated Samhain, although not as much in the last 1500 years, admittedly. And yes, there is a fine old English tradition of mumming and souling at this time of year. But this obsession (comercially-driven, of course) with Hallowe'en* is very recent. Very recent indeed.

Growing up in the North of England through the late 50s and 60s, Hallowe'en was barely mentioned. I recall some people's parents throwing Hallowe'en parties, where everyone turned up, the lights turned down, ghost stories were told, and things like peeled grapes were passed around the darkened room. They were supposed to end in a session of bobbing for apples**, which struck me as messy and essentially unproductive, and we usually ended up having a game of Sardines, especially if there were girls there. Hallowe'en itself was a bit naff, really. So this modern thing of 'celebrating' Hallowe'en is foreign to me. It's an unwanted import. Rampant commercialism, like Fathers' Day, Great-Grandmothers' Day, and Best-Friend's-Hairdresser's Brother-Who-Once-Played-For-Stockport-County Day.

The main tradition in the North of England for youngsters around this time of year was Mischief Night, always the night before Bonfire Night. The occasional firework was let off, there was a lot of knock and run, and once someone went down our entire street taking the gates off their hinges and piling them in the middle of the road. Annoying, but essentially harmless. That was a tradition I could get fully involved with. It wasn't until the 80s that I became aware of things like Trick or Treat. I lived in a small village in East Yorkshire just outside Hull at the time and the local kids started coming round asking for treats. We used to find something for them, but then one year they threw eggs at the front door without giving me the option, so next year I was waiting, in a stealth navy duffel coat, on top of the flat roof of the porch with a bucket of cold water. They arrived, they started arseing about, they got a big wet surprise, they left. I wouldn't dare today - they would probably return and behead the cat.

I put this down to Hull's fascination with Americana. At that time (and it may have changed) there were several junior American Football teams in the town, and if you had a girl child, you didn't send her to ballet class, but to drum majorettes, where they marched up and down in silly costumes, blowing kazoos and braining each other with lightweight maces. But it seems to have become a nationwide phenomenon, and it is plain that shops like Tesco wouldn't survive without the late October sales rush as people buy their kids Dracula outfits and bottles of fake blood.

Wogan, in the Torygraph, thinks it brings out his inner curmudgeon.
It may be the season of mellow fruitfulness and all that stuff, but for those of us in the autumn of our years, this is a weekend to batten down the hatches and repel all boarders.
Longrider (whence the link, tyvm) is equally unimpressed and is boycotting.
So, as in previous years, there will be a “no trick or treat” poster going on the door tomorrow and the doorbell will be ignored. Oh, yeah, I’ve never given a penny for the Guy, either.
I don't blame him, although for myself I am unmoved either way. If people enjoy it, then good luck to them. If it brings more scantily-clad young ladies out onto the streets in a state of helpless inebriation, then who am I to object? Mind you, living at the end of a track leading off a road which is itself in the middle of nowhere helps - it would be a determined trick-or-treater with a decent torch to venture this far from civilisation.

Bobbing for apples; and, now I remember, we sometimes used to hollow out turnips to make a lantern, mainly to please our Mums. Nowadays it's pumpkins, mummy costumes, ghoul make-up and a night on the lash.

O tempora, o mores!

* Oh, and by the way, Hallowe'en is a contraction of 'All Hallows' Even(ing)', and the apostrophe is therefore necessary. 'Halwe' was the Old English word for 'soul'. It is NOT 'Halloween', whatever Google, Wikipedia and the entire Internets say.

** My favourite Dorothy Parker quote: "Ducking for apples. Change one letter, and it's the story of my life."

State funding of political parties

I thought they had been quiet for a while. Now the idea has been taken out of the loft, dusted off and led blinking into the sunlight once more.
A huge increase in state funding of political parties, worth up to £100m over a five-year parliament, is being proposed by a government-commissioned inquiry.

The funding, which would be shared out according to the number of votes each party receives in a general election, would be presented as a way of compensating them for a huge loss of income as a result of introducing new caps on individual donations to parties. It would also be seen as a way of repackaging state funding that already goes to opposition parties.
The politicians want us to pay them to run their party machines. £3 per vote cast for them in an election, so that they are funded in proportion to their support in the electorate, which gives it a plausible veneer of fairness. No more corporations pouring millions into the Tory Labour Tory coffers, no more Trades Unions chucking their members' 'contributions' into keeping Prezza in pies for the year. We are to pay, whether we like it or not. Pay for the offices, and the chauffeur-driven cars, and the posh stationery, and the logos, and the conferences, and the 'advisers' and all the hangers-on, and all the up-and-coming careerists that have never had a real job and whom parties rely so much on for their bland and featureless battalions of wonks.

Well, let me say this:


There, that feels better.

Political parties ought to be illegal, being as they are a conspiracy against democracy. Let the miners elect an MP to represent miners; let the farming communities elect an MP to represent farmers; let the inner-city media types elect an MP to represent inner-city media types; let the 'travellers' elect an MP to represent the static caravan community; let the rural retired colonels elect an MP to represent all the old buffers in the shires; and let them all fight it out in the House of Commons. That's how it should be. Let them elect one person from their ranks who commands the most support and call him or her Prime Minister and, let's be generous, give that person a secretary to manage the diary. Done.

We all elect who we want to represent us, and those people fight our corner for us in the proper place, and let the best person of non-specific gender win. No MP is beholden to anyone but the people who elect him or her. That's fair, and that's democracy.

Giving political parties a legal right to put their hands in our pockets is a recipe for corruption, special pleading and - what is worst of all - more of the same shite that we have been putting up with from them for the last 50 years.

They just don't get it, do they?

Typical distraction burglary.

Did You Know?

The duck-billed platypus lays eggs and produces milk, and is therefore one of the few animals that can make its own custard.

Saturday 29 October 2011

Jimmy $avi£e, top man

I am very sorry, although not surprised, to hear that Jimmy Savile has died. To be honest, he has looked like an elderly groover for so long that, if you had asked me yesterday, I would have told you he died long ago.
Now then now then.
I was brought up in the same part of Leeds that Jimmy lived in, and my Mum lived there until she passed away a few years ago, so I have a strong connection with the area. And yet I couldn't tell you where he lived - his private life was kept very quiet. We knew he lived with his Mum, posibly in a caravan and possibly a mansion, and favoured tight trousers and a lot of jewellery, so as kids we all assumed he was gay. Not that it made any difference, although I think we shall see a lot of skirting-round of the issue in the obits. But however cheesy his public persona was, everyone knew that he was also a tireless and committed fund-raiser for charities - proper ones - and put in a great deal of his own time as a volunteer hospital porter.
Guys and gals.
My first paid job was as a hospital porter, and that is how I came to hear of his work. I was working at St James's, whereas Savile volunteered at Leeds General Infirmary. But there was a fair amount of cross-pollination between the two, and several times I was pushing an elderly patient down the corridor only to have to swerve violently to avoid a silver-haired tornado pushing a wheelchair at high speed in the opposite direction, exchanging banter with the patient and nurses and anyone else within earshot.
As it 'appens.
One thing I can tell you from that experience is that, although he lent his considerable fame to supporting various causes, his actual physical work helping hospital patients was entirely genuine. He put the hours in, he talked to ther terminally-ill and the terminally-confused, the young and the very old, the patient and the relative, the doctor and the nurse. His energy was phenomenal, and his commitment was total. No-one who worked there and saw him in operation was cynical about a 'celebrity' doing a bit of 'good work' - his contribution was respected by the people who did the same work, day in and day out. That says a lot.
Goodness gracious.
I was back home one weekend helping my Dad plan for Mum's 70th birthday. We had decided to get her a special cake with a picture of the arch at Guisborough Priory which featured in all their wedding photographs, painted into the icing. A local cake shop did the work, and one Saturday morning we went to collect it. We were in the middle of paying when the shop door burst open, and a man and woman rushed in - Jimmy Savile and a very pretty, leggy blonde dressed in not very much. "Now then now then," he said. "Whose 70th birthday is it?" We said it was my Mum, and he asked, no, ordered the girl to pop down the road and get a card. When she returned, he asked my Mum's name and then wrote a message in the card and signed it. I can't remember the message (something like 'who's the birthday girl then?') but the signature was unmistakeable, with the dollar sign for the 'S' and a pound sign for the 'L' in 'Savile'. Before we could say thank you, he was off, with the girl trying to stay in his slipstream.
*Strange ululating stunt with the vocal cords*
He was weird, he was a bit cheesy, and his hairstyles were a crime. But he also gave us 'Top Of The Pops' for good or ill, and he made the idea of celebrity charity work more than just writing a few cheques and opening garden parties. Those who worked alongside him respected him, and that is all you need to know. Every time I see that photograph of the People's Princess's smokey eyes peeping out soulfully over the theatre mask, I think of Jimmy Savile, sleeves rolled up and puffing away at a large cigar, having a natter with an old biddy on the Geri ward.

That wouldn't be allowed nowadays.
How's about that, then?

Protect and Survive, as retold by Wolfie Smith

Anonymous, the web-based activist group, have a new publication - Survival Guide for Citizens In A Revolution (version 1.0). It's here, and it's hilarious.

I'm tempted to fisk it, but Anna Raccoon has done such a superb job that any further comment is unnecessary. Her skewering is masterful, and very funny.

All your bailouts are belong to us

Alice Cook asks some pertinent questions:
The head of the European bailout fund - the EFSF - is on his way to China. He is looking for cash from the Communists.What does this say about the eurozone? At a minimum, it looks desperate.

Do you think eurozone leaders will be raising any human rights issues when they next visit Beijing?

What is the price for silence?
Whatever the price, it will be huge. Never raising the subject of Tibet or Taiwan ever again, perhaps.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Seen In The Post Office

He's, er, diversifying.

I want this on a T-shirt.

Technical conundrum

Technical issue, and car-related, so if that's not your, er, bag, man, please move on.

Ford Mundaneo, 2 litre TDCi. A while ago, the reversing lights stopped working. I traced the fault to the switch on top of the gearbox. Getting at it necessitates removal of the air cleaner and associated gubbins. I removed enough stuff to determine what tools I would need (yup, got 'em) and then put it all back. As it was summer, I then forgot about it. Recently, the reversing lights have started working again, just in time for the dark mornings and evenings. Thank you, whoever you are.


At around the same time (impossible to say for sure), I started getting issues with the car. One was the 'engine malfunction' light, which came on at start-up and stayed on permanently. The other was poor cold starting - the car would start OK, but for the first 10 seconds would run very rough and pour smoke out of the exhaust. After that, it seemed to clear and ran fine thereafter. Performance up to maximum speed was completely normal, fuel consumption normal too. I took these two together and came up with a faulty glow-plug or two - I've had exactly the same symptoms as before on a Land Rover diesel where a glow-plug went bad. As the car was running fine otherwise, I wasn't too concerned. It passed an MoT (with max revs emissions test) in this condition.

When the nice man at Enfield Auto Recovery in St Neots drained the nasty old petrol I had mistakenly put in the car at the weekend, he told me that the air-flow sensor had been disconnected when he looked at the car. Impossible, said I, as the car is running fine: easy cruising at 100 mph and averaging 50 mpg (not at the same time, obviously). Also, the connector for the AFS is on top of the engine, easily visible, and I see it every time I check the oil. The connector is about 12" from the oil filler.

Can I really have missed it every week for six months? What he said makes sense, as I can remember disconnecting it to remove the air cleaner, but a) he was convinced the car would barely run with it in that condition and it was fine, and b) it was replaced for the return journey and the EML stayed on, with no change in performance. Oh, and c) I am pretty rigorous about checking everything is in place after I have finished a job. Working on bikes makes you a bit particular like that.


Yesterday I started the car again for the first time since I returned. It started perfectly, with no rough 10 seconds of throat-clearance. And the EML light is off. I've just tried it again now. Perfect. I am wondering if the garage really have cured the problem and it has taken a couple of heat cycles for the fault to clear in the ECU. I am delighted, of course. But I have a couple of nagging questions:
  • Did I forget such an obvious thing when I took the air cleaner off in the summer?
  • Can I really have missed such an obvious thing for six months?
  • Would the car really have run this well with the AFM disconnected, and even passed an MoT?
I am thinking 'not very likely' to each of the above.

I think it will remain a mystery, but this will not spoil my enjoyment of having a car which starts well and runs without error codes again.

Mind you, passenger and load-carrying duties are over for a while now, so it probably won't be used again for a week or three. Back to two wheels, thank Heavens.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Lib Dems Two-Faced? Surely Not ...

H/t Old Holborn

Head/Brick Wall Interface

I wasn't quick enough and Daniel Hutchinson beat me to it. I had an idea that if no-one else did, I would set up another e-petition asking the same question as the last one. After all, if the EU can keep asking people referendum questions until it gets the answer it desires, why can't we do the same? But it has been done already, so I have merely had to sign someone else's handiwork.
Referendum on the European Union

Responsible department: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

We, the people of the United Kingdom, are dissatisfied with the result of the EU Referendum Debate on 24 October 2011 and would like the House of Commons to reconsider its decision in light of this petition and grant us an opportunity through a referendum to express our desire on the relationship with the EU.
2784 at time of writing. There have been almost a hundred signatures since I started writing this post.

The e-petition is here. Do your duty. And tell your friends. If five people read this and sign, and then each tells five more ...

UPDATE: 10:51 26/10/2011 - reached 5000 signatures.

UPDATE 2: 15:16 26/10/2011 - 6075 signatures.


I ran into a girl I used to work with a few weeks ago while doing the weekly shop. She was with a new partner, very pregnant, and seemed extremely happy. She's a nice girl - sensible, good sense of humour, sociable, pleasant. We learned that we were both on Facebook and later 'friended', as they say. She had the baby recently. Imagine my surprise when today I received this status update from her on my Wall:

Perhaps I am new to this, but ... WTF?

Why These Guys Are Gods

I came home on Sunday night to the sad news that Marco Simoncelli had been killed in an accident during the Malaysian MotoGP at Sepang. On the second lap, Simoncelli was about to lose the front end in a slide at about 100 mph, and had dug his knee into the tarmac to save it. This caused the bike to slew to the right, straight into the path of Edwards and Rossi, who both collided with the fallen bike and rider. Simoncelli's helmet came off in the impact, and that was the end of that.

Simoncelli was a vastly entertaining rider, never afraid to take monumental risks in the pursuit of a place in the race, and this didn't always endear him to the other riders. But he was a colourful character and he will be sadly missed. It is worth remembering that fatalities in motorcycle racing are now extremely rare. Riders are falling off all the time, but the protective gear is so good, and the run-off areas at major circuits so generous, that even minor injuries are uncommon. Once in a while, however, circumstances come together and bad things happen. It's part of the game, and the riders are all quite realistic about it.

By way of a tribute, here is a photo of Simoncelli showing the unearthy skills that the top riders demonstrate day after day. It's a corner, right enough, but look at the orientation of the bike. It's pointing towards the grass in the inside of the track. The rear tyre has come unstuck (intentionally) and the bike is sliding sideways with the rear wheel spinning, the better to get a good drive onto the straight. Not too hard to do in a car (Jeremy Clarkson manages it whenever he takes a fast car onto the track in Top Gear), but much harder on a bike, where you have to balance the grip and power on a machine that wants to fall over. The rider is already hanging off the side of the bike to increase the ground clearance and keep the rear tyre off the sidewalls. All of this at probably 120 mph. The black rubber streaks on the track tell the story.

RIP Marco.

Monday 24 October 2011

Why I No Longer Read The Guardian

I was brought up with the Manchester Guardian, and it was my daily read for a long time. Generally, it was well put-together, well-informed and had enough humour to leaven the more earnest parts of its content. And in Araucaria, Rufus, Bunthorne and Shed it had the most imaginative and intriguing crossword setters of any newspaper. The crozzy alone was worth the purchase price. That was in the days when I still thought of myself as left-of-centre, before the centre moved sharply leftwards and I remained on my little island of well-meaning fluffiness and kindness to animals. I stopped reading it when I realised that the tone of the whole paper had become hectoring, sneering and intolerant - you must agree with this, you must think that - and that it had long changed from the days of C P Scott, when it was Liberal in the sense of, well, proper liberal rather than left-liberal. It is worth remembering that the paper hated Aneurin Bevan, called for Attlee's Labour government to be voted out, and opposed the creation of the NHS because, it argued, universal healthcare would lead to a blunting of natural selection and an increase in the number of deformed and feckless people. Hmmm. The paper also notably blamed the protestors for the massacre on Bloody Sunday - something unthinkable for the Guardian today.

I read The Times for a while - not bad, less dull than I remembered - and occasionally the Telegraph - still dull - but then I pretty much stopped reading newspapers altogether. I now get my news from the TV and a reading of a huge variety of online sources, including both left and right and non-aligned, and I feel I am vastly better informed and much more discriminating than before.

I was reminded of why I stopped reading it when I saw this article in the online edition. Not the article itself, which seems fair and informative, but the comments that follow. The article concerns a poll, which found that 70% of people support a referendum on our membership of the EU, and 49% of them favour a withdrawal, compared to 40% who would vote to stay.

Conservative rebels pushing for an in-or-out referendum on Europe are riding the tide of public opinion, according to a Guardian/ICM poll.

Some 70% of voters want a vote on Britain's EU membership, and by a substantial nine-point margin respondents say they would vote for UK withdrawal.

Forty-nine per cent would vote to get Britain out of Europe, against just 40% who prefer to stay in.

Good journalism - factual, informative and balanced. But the comments - sheesh! All the nasty, arrogant, sneering shits in Islington must have been drafted in to write them. Here's a sample:

Mr Lumpy: God help us all if the unwashed get a vote on something important!

Needs no comment: if you disagree with me you are uneducated - no, unwashed - and therefore your opinion can be discounted. I thought it was only the toffs who sneered about the 'unwashed'. Perhaps left-wing toffs still do.

Baggieofko: Will all those who wish us to leave explain what pieces of legislation they will have to introduce to replace the European legislation they profess to hate? And explain precisely how trading with Europe on Europe's terms is made better when you're not even at the table to decide what those terms are.

Interesting thought, that if we leave Europe we will have to dream up new legislation to replace the old. No question that we could, like, just not replace it at all? And how Soviet to equate trading in a market with 'terms' and agreements - as if no-one will buy anything from anyone else unless the 'terms' have been agreed in an office somewhere.
Finite187: And thank god, that's why we have representative democracy.
Like the lower case 'g' - very edgy and non-conformist. Translation: we vote in MPs to make decisions for us because we are too stupid to think for ourselves. If it weren't for MPs, people might actually vote for doing things the way they want, and that wouldn't do, not at all.
Doswillrule agrees: The reason we elect politicians is that most people don't know what's best for them. Referendums fulfil a lovely ideal but are completely and utterly illogical.
An explanation as to why referenda are illogical would have helped here, as it isn't immediately obvious from the context, but of course that would have required some thinking.
Organicprankster: I wonder how many among that 49% could accurately describe the mechanisms and institutions of the EU.
I wonder how many among the 40% who want to stay in could do that. Probably very few. No-one understands the mechanisms of the EU. That's the whole point, and the EU works very hard to keep it so.
Strummered: EU referendum: poll shows 49% would vote for UK withdrawal. Another unofficial poll also suggests these same people have difficulties tying their shoelaces.

Pointless ad hominem insult, and not even funny.

dv420uk: So that means that the other 51% would vote for remaining in the EU.

Hasn't read beyond the headline.

Strummered, again: I despair, these same people egged on by jingoist tabloid nonsense and Tory Eurosceptic buffoons will have no idea of the abject repercussions.

People who disagree with me just blindly follow the papers and don't understand the real issues. I, and people who agree with me, are enlightened and can see the whole thing clearly. It's a good job we are in charge.

Theunknowing: Fools.

Succinct. And revealing.

It was the feeling of grubbiness at being in the same company as these self-righteous twats that made me stop reading the paper. But there's some common sense as well, though:

Koolio: I suspect a lot of people are rightly expressing anger and frustration over Europe and it's this that needs to be tackled. Note this is valid across Europe, even in France and Germany many voters are exasperated by policies implemented over which they have had almost no say. Widespread reform of the EU can be pro-European, it is not the exclusive property of skeptics.

Thank goodness someone has mentioned that many of the French and Germans are getting very disillusioned with the EU, although perhaps not as publicly (yet) as the UK.

KaiserCelente: Direct democracy - let the people vote. If we did this more often would we have bailed out the banks? Would we have gone to war in Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya? All i know is had the people have been given the vote on all these important issues, in my opinion this country would be in far far better shape than the Sh*t hole it is right now.

I think there is enough collective intellect in the population to always provide a better indication of the best thing to do through a vote than a handful of spoilt toffs in governemnt who are bought and paid for by banks and corporations.

Can't disagree with that.

As a coda, I have to mention a cartoon I saw in the paper many years ago. I've tried hard to find it online without success, so you will have to make do with a verbal description. It sums up the Guardian mindset superbly.

A man is running down the street, money falling out of his pockets, pursued by an attacker wielding a knife. Two men are watching it happen. One says to the other:

"Of course, to the enlightened observer, they are both crying for help."

Making cash illegal?

I like cash. Real money, bits of strangely durable paper and jingly coins. OK, it's not real as the whole concept of 'money' is a human construct, but it's as real as it gets. You want something, and you have the cash, you've got it. It's convenient, it's anonymous, and it's got a physical presence. So far, at least, no-one ever complains about being paid in cash because if you have the cash, you've got your money, no question.

I was brought up with cash (for small amounts) and cheques (for large). I quite liked cheques, as there was a certain element of authority in signing something that ordered your bank to pay someone some money from your account. Then came automation, standing orders and direct debits, and the huge convenience (and danger) of credit cards. It's all been heading in one direction - away from cash and towards automated and electronic transfer of funds. Cheques have pretty much bit the dust now, and it seems that cash may be heading the same way - those funky adverts where people wave their mobile phones at something to acquire it can only spell the end of things you can touch and count. I'm quite nostalgic about cash. I have fond memories of visits to elderly relatives that ended with a florin or half-crown in the palm of the hand or, if you were really lucky, a ten-bob note. If I think of my Dad running anywhere, the soundtrack is the chink-chink of loose change in his pockets as he ran.

I had the idea that cash would slowly die out over time. The 'Tomorrow's World' promise of little cards that we can load with small amounts to spend in the local shop will come true one day, and then there will be no need to carry anything but a piece of plastic. I would regret this, but ultimately it is a democratic thing - if people prefer doing things differently, if it's more convenient or secure, then that's what will happen. But I will still regret the passing of the times when you could legally pay off a debt using any form of legal tender, the only restriction being the reasonable one of limiting the amounts for coins below £1 in value. But if you owed someone £100, you could offer them five £20 notes and they would have to accept, or cancel the debt. I'm not sure how long that little quirk of history will last, what with EFT being so convenient to corporations and the like.

But I never thought that using cash would be made illegal. And yet it has happened - only in Louisiana so far, but a precedent has been set.
If you’re in Louisiana and you plan to buy secondhand goods, cash may be useless.

By order of new legislation in the State, House Bill 195, those who buy or sell secondhand goods are no longer allowed to use cash to complete the transactions more than once a month, according to The Consumerist.

The law puts requirements on any individual who has a yard sale more than one time in a month and will also affect trading posts and flea markets. They will now all be required to keep detailed records of transactions by logging customer IDs and accepting only checks, money orders or electronic transfers.
I'm sure, like all of these things, it will be accepted as 'for everyone's benefit' - after all, the intention is to make it difficult for metal thieves to turn their thefts into cash, and who could object to that? - and people will gradually accept that their right to trade in cash must be restricted if the State is to regulate things properly on their behalf. But Leg-Iron (to whom thanks for the link) sees a much more sinister outcome, and I can't disagree.
So there is absolute control over every transaction and tax on every transaction. How much tax? Nobody knows. An amount is deducted from the buyer's balance and a smaller amount is added to the seller's balance but at no point is the tax amount declared. Neither party knows the actual price, you just buy things, and you are required to explain yourself if you are not buying things because you are hampering the economy. Even if you sell stuff via the fictional equivalent of eBay, the transaction must be electronic and the bid you see on your screen isn't quite what the buyer sees on his. Emails passed between seller and buyer are auto-edited on the way.

How to make this happen? First you ban cash. Then cheques (I know, they started with the wrong one here) so everything is done via a credit card. These already have chips, and already can be integrated into phones. It's only a tiny step to integrate them into your implanted ID chip and just look how convenient it is. You can't lose it, you can't go right round the supermarket and then find you've left your card at home, and it can't be stolen. Perfect. People will fight each other to be the first to get this.

That's the fiction. I wondered how to go about banning cash from this imaginary world. What pretext could I use?

Ah, here it is. Once again, life is ahead of me.
Spot on, as usual.

Thing is, cash is anonymous and (unless you bring in the forensic boys) untraceable. So it's perfect for criminal activity. The problem is, it's also perfect for making perfectly legal transactions by people without a criminal thought in their heads, who simply want to keep their business to themselves. If I go to Tesco for the weekly shop and pay in cash, they can't keep a list of what I have bought, cross-reference it with my spending patterns in other areas, and use it to target me with 'lifestyle marketing' that 'will be of interest to me'. And that's the least sinister of the uses of all that personal data. I can think of plenty that aren't in the least benign.

Cash - use it for as long as you can. Soon it will be illegal or, at the very least, seen as anti-social. Nothing to hide, and all that.

People's Pledge

I have signed the People's Pledge. They ask all signatories to pass on the following message, which I do gladly, as it saves writing a whole post explaining something that I think most people 'get' anyway.

I have just signed up to the People's Pledge, a new campaign that will force MPs to give us a referendum on our relationship with the EU.

The People's Pledge is supported by people with a wide range of views on the EU: those who are enthusiastic about British membership, those who are sceptical and those who actively seek to leave the EU. The campaign is cross party too, with supporters from all the main political parties.

Please add your name to theirs.

Go to http://www.peoplespledge.org/ and sign up to add your name to others in your constituency who want their MP to support a referendum on our EU membership. You will also be able to see whether your MP has yet pledged their support for a referendum, along with details of how they voted on every major EU-related issue over the last few years.

Remember, many MPs have majorities of just a few hundred votes, so every person that signs the People's Pledge WILL make a difference.

I urge you to go and sign. Whether you are pro or anti the EU, I feel that the issue will never be resolved unless and until the British people are asked their opinion and can express it, one way or the other. What we have is not what I and many others voted for in 1975, and anyone under the age of 54 has not been asked their opinion at all. This is possibly the biggest issue of our times, as it relates not to one style of government or another, but whether we govern ourselves or are governed by an unelected and self-selected elite in another country. It's beyond party politics and goes to the very nature of who we are.

If a change to the minor detail of our voting system is worth a referendum, then surely we cannot be denied our voice on this.

Skoolboy Error

Well, up until midday on Sunday it was a wonderful weekend. I collected both daughters and the partner of one, and we travelled to her old University town on Saturday for the graduation ceremony. The whole thing was in Latin, which I rather liked, being something of a traditionalist, and it was fun trying to keep up with what was being said. D1 was duly doctored, we had a pleasant lunch with her Mum and new partner, and then after checking into the Travelodge and having a 'freshen up' (which for me meant a quiet lie down with a book, OK a snooze) we met again for an excellent meal in the city, overlooking the river. Quail for starters, Wood Pigeon for main. Good game, good game. The weather was kind, and everyone agreed it had been a wonderful day.

We set off on Sunday morning and got about half-way to the house they all shared when I decided to get the car filled up for the journey back to the West. £66-worth of Shell's finest on board, and off we went. Six miles later, the car started to misfire, I pulled into a layby, and before the wheels had stopped turning it had conked out for good.

Anyone who has done what I did will have guessed by now. Coincidence? No. Dirty fuel? Unliklely. Look at the receipt ... oh fucksticks.

Yup, having juggled successfully with unleaded for the bikes and diesel for the car for many, many years, having laughed at people who couldn't tell the difference between a green and a black nozzle, who didn't realise that diesel and petrol smell completely different, I made the cardinal error for diesel car owners. I had filled it with unleaded. And then driven it six miles.

This was the point at which I learned that my RAC Recovery subscription (meant to get you to your destination if you break down completely) doesn't cover pilot error, and that a 10-mile tow to the nearest suitable garage is all they will do in these circumstances. Having said that, they had a truck to us within 30 minutes, the garage took around an hour to drain the tank, flush the fuel lines and get the car running under its own steam once more, and a couple of hours after my "Doh!" moment we were on our way again. The only damage was about two hours of a lovely day lost in hanging around, just over £200 for the drain and flush, and £66-worth of perfectly good unleaded taken out and earmarked for the owner's Jag, I should imagine. Thank God for credit cards, because I was spent up.

I blame motorcyclists. I really do.

When we pulled into the petrol station, there were a couple of classic bikes there, a tidy BSA and a Velocette. At the pump next to mine was a very nice 1966 Triumph Thunderbird, and I had a chat with the owner before I reached for the nozzle and ... I think in those few minutes my brain had defaulted to bike mode, that's all.

I was chatting with a guy on a Land Rover forum many years ago, and he told me the story of his father-in-law, who had committed the same silly mistake. His punishment was that his son-in-law made up a sticker to go above the fuel filler, reading "It's Diesel, You Tit".

I've got one on order.

Friday 21 October 2011


When I get home from work, I will be catching a few hours' sleep and then I will be on the road and out of radio contact for the rest of the weekend. I will be spending time with my wonderful daughters, and watching one of them get awarded her PhD, which will make me unspeakably proud.

I'll be back just in time to see that nice Mr Cameron outrageously impose a three-line whip on his party to ensure that the people of the UK don't get a chance to express an opinion on the current and future governance of their country, which wasn't going to be binding on him anyway, but which might have caused him some embarrassment at the next Brussels drinks party with his elite chums.

My guess: motion will be defeated, and another petition will be up and running before the end of the week. Satyagraha: keep coming back with persistence and dignity, and stay in their faces.

Play nicely.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Getting a grip

I have a long journey over the weekend, picking up daughters 1 and 2 and D1's partner, and then taking them to the other side of the country for D1's graduation. And then back. Earlier this week I gave the car a good clean, as it had been used in true estate car mode for ferrying kitchen units to the house and piles of unwanted junk to the tip, and it was filthy. And as the car would be transporting a new Doctor Nowhere and her entourage back to her modest garret afterwards, I felt it incumbent upon me to make the best of what I had.

Part of the process was a quick check of all the usual, and I picked up that my rear tyres were on the legal limit. So today I rose early from my slumbers and visited ATS. £160 later, the Mundaneo had two new boots.

I had been considering winter tyres for the car after last winter's performance of Salchows and triple toe-loops every time it froze (a phenomenon I initially ascribed to the Ford's lousy grip and over-intrusive ABS, but which I later discovered may have conceivably been caused by virtually-bald front hoops), but for some reason winter tyres are all at a premium this year and not covered by any special offers, and were prohibitively expensive. Rosie has fitted a set, however, and I await her comments with interest.

ATS did the business, and I now have new Pirelli P7s on the front, looking very meaty, and the half-worn Michelins on the back. Plus a big hole in my bank account.

If they had been bike tyres, I would have paid the money willingly and been looking forward to scrubbing them in, and then reporting back on speed of tip-in, front end feedback, wet surface grip, squaring-off and all sorts. As it is, they are just car tyres, are phenomenally boring, and I resent every single penny.

Bikes are great, but cars are practical. When you have to get four adults 350 miles away and back in a weekend, nothing else will do. Any bike in the world, or train, or plane, or bus would not have the convenience and modest cost of a bread-and-butter Ford Mundaneo: you and your luggage, door-to-door, and 50 mpg full-loaded at the legal speed limit. The car has now achieved the status of appliance, much the same as my dishwasher. I keep it maintained, and as long as it keeps working I never think of it. I will keep it until it dies, and then I will get another. I like it, inasmuch as I like any machine that does the job it was designed to do, and does it well, but I don't love it, and if it was stolen tomorrow my only regret would be that I lost a few CDs in the process. And those tyres.

My journey to work tonight will be on a ratty old trailbike worth a few hundred quid at most, but I am looking forward to it already. If anyone stole that, I would be doing life for murder.

When I Want Your Opinion I Will Give It To You

It is as well to remember that the Parliamentary debate on Monday is not over whether we should be in or out of the EU. It is about whether the British people should be asked their opinion on the matter.

According to Cameron, Hague and the rest we should not be asked - presumably because there is a danger that we might give the wrong answer.

This tells you all you need to know.

Hurt Feelings

I found this somewhere on the web (no idea where, you know how it is) last night while trying not to do any work, and I had to post it. Click for enmassivisation.

UPDATE: the image doesn't appear to be enlarging as it should - possibly because I converted it from a PDF file to a GIF. No idea. Anyway, the original can be seen here.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

EU Referendum vote

Having reached the required 100,000 signatures, the idea of giving a referendum on our continued EU membership is going to be debated in Parliament. Thanks to OOL, I now learn that the vote, originally scheduled for 27 October, will now be held next Monday, 24 October. Ostensibly this is to allow David Cameron and William Hague, who will be in Australia on the 27th, to participate in the debate, but in reality I suspect it is a ploy to prevent the pro-referendum campaign from building up a head of steam.

Be that as it may, I saw on Snowolf's blog a letter he has written to his MP on the subject. It is so good that I asked him for permission to use it myself. He's fine with that, and with anyone else who cares to use it. I have made some slight alterations to the text - firstly because I am old enough to have voted in the 1975 referendum and Wolfers' letter was from someone who was too young to do that, and secondly because hundreds of identical letters landing on MPs' inboxes smacks of astroturfing, and risks being taken less seriously because of that. Here's my version, sent to Stephen Crabb MP earlier this evening.

Dear Stephen

This is possibly the most important letter I will ever write to my MP. I would be grateful if you would give it your most serious attention.

I note that the members of the Backbench Business Committee have scheduled a debate on the question of a motion proposing a referendum on our EU membership for October 27th.

As a constituent, I am writing to you to ask how you intend to vote following this debate, and to put forward my argument as to why a referendum must be given.

I could write about how I was given the opportunity to vote, in 1975, on our continued membership of the European Economic Community, which was primarily a trading arrangement, and how I felt reassured by the insistence of both Harold Wilson and Edward Heath that membership of the EEC would not involve any loss of sovereignty to the UK. Of course, the progress from the EEC to the EC and then the EU has involved a massive transfer of sovereignty away from Westminster to Brussels, and Edward Heath later admitted that he was aware all along that this was the intention of those promoting a 'yes' vote at the time. I could add that millions of people who were born after 1957 - anyone under the age of 54 - have never had the
opportunity to express an opinion on our membership, and how the Prime Minister’s statement that we have already had a say is therefore disingenuous.

I could point out the fact that the EU has failed to have its accounts signed off for almost two decades now, how whilst the nation states of Europe are reduced to penury, the EU votes itself ever larger budgets, about how the pattern of abuse of the expenses system by some MEPs is well documented, how their fiscal projects have put a number of nations into bankruptcy, crippled with debt repayments unprecedented in history, that this has been done against their own laws and has almost dragged us down with them.

I could state that their behaviour and duplicity when the Constitution/Lisbon Treaty was being steamrollered through (you must keep voting until you give the right answer) is anti-democratic at best and the actions of a Stalinist Soviet at worst.

I could draw attention to the practices of adhering to the regulations as set out by the EU makes life very difficult for businesses, especially small businesses – the life blood of our economy - and in many cases financially impossible.

I could highlight the costs of our membership, both in terms of taxation taken from the public and the expense of complying with ever more intrusive and complex edicts and directives from the EU.

Whilst I believe all these points are important, I think the matter comes down to a basic and vital question; Are we sovereign?

Ever closer union has only one logical outcome – a complete political union where the nation states are reduced to the level of federal states. It is all very well for Messrs Cameron, Hague and Duncan-Smith to talk about re-negotiations, saying no or not allowing any further steps, but they are trying to negotiate a rebate on the lunch money the playground bully has taken from them, and I am not convinced that what is said at conference is said in Brussels.

Mr. Crabb, the question of the UK’s continued existence as an independent and sovereign nation is at stake here, and the citizens of the UK must be allowed to deliver a binding verdict on the subject. It cannot be signed away on the strength of the cabinet at the time knowing ‘what is best’, and that verdict must be allowed to be delivered without fear of retribution or sanction from the EU if Parliament or the electorate return the ‘wrong’ decision in the eyes of the EU.

You will no doubt not be surprised to read that in any such referendum I would vote for our withdrawal, favouring as I do a pure free trade model as espoused by Lord Tebbit. However, those who hold a contrary view to mine simply must be able to express it to get this issue sorted once and for all.

I understand from the BBC today that David Cameron is against holding such a referendum, and that the Government is likely to enforce a whip to ensure that the Government MPs vote the 'correct' way. I would urge you to resist any such tactics and vote according to the interests and wishes of your constituents. I voted Conservative in 1979 and have done so ever since at all elections, in the belief that the party was the best choice for protecting British interests and prosperity, and being the most Euro-sceptic of the big three. However, recent events - including my bitter disappointment at Mr Cameron's failure to honour his 'cast-iron' commitment to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty - have made me re-evaluate my decision. In the next election, whenever it is held, I will be voting for a party that will support withdrawal from the EU or, at the very least, vote to allow the people of this country a genuine say in whether we remain members or not. If that means that the Conservative Party loses my support and another party gains it, so be it. For me, this is an issue bigger than any other, including the debt crisis itself.

I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely

I would urge all people who care about the future of our country to contact their MP by whatever means necessary and express their opinion. Although, sadly, the exercise will probably be utterly futile, it is an opportunity we cannot afford to let slip by.

If anyone wishes to use my version of the letter (above) as a template for their own, they are more than welcome.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Two approaches to speed enforcement

Here's a hint if you are riding a bike and see an unexpected speed camera: DON'T brake so hard that you crash. Courtesy of the online bike magazine Visordown, here we have two unlucky (or incompetent) bikers who did just that. What happened afterwards depends on where you live.

The Swiss biker, one Boris Maier from Bern, bailed out and was photographed sliding down the road next to his bike. The Dutch biker, an unnamed 50-year-old, well ... the same, really. Here's Boris, slowing gradually down from a measured 107 kph (66 mph):

... and here's Mr Nobody, having just been clocked at 137 kph (85 mph):

The Swiss biker was fined and told that another 3 kph would have lost him his licence. The Dutch biker wasn't charged with anything. The reasoning of the Dutch prosecutors was that, as he was technically not riding the bike at the time, no offence had been committed. I wonder how the Swiss justified charging Boris? Is there a law against sliding down the road while looking like a Power Ranger?

Serious point, though: let's say you were caught doing 60 mph just ten feet outside a 30 limit. Have you committed an offence? There is prima facie evidence that you did, as no vehicle on earth could accelerate fast enough to get you from a legal 30 to a legal 60 in that short distance*. But you were not speeding at the time the incident was recorded, so did not commit an offence. You must have broken the law, but you did not break the law. Any legal eagles know the answer to this one?

At one time, I am pretty sure that British law would have taken the Dutch approach - technically not an offence, guy's had his punishment, say no more about it. But now I think we would think like the Swiss: any evidence of lawbreaking must be cracked down on, hard, no matter how humourless or unreasonable.

I've heard a lot of good things about the Swiss, particularly their attitude to gun ownership and their use of referenda. But I wouldn't want to live there and ride a motorbike.

* My maths isn't up to calculating the rate of acceleration needed to do this, so I am making an assumption. If anyone knows better, you are very welcome to correct me.


My doctor says I am addicted to brake fluid, but I can stop any time.

Monday 17 October 2011

Missing the boat

'Tis the old wind in the old anger...

It's been blowing a hooley here today. Leaves everywhere, dustbins randomly distributed around the garden, Rescue Cat scooting round like a Dervish. And I've had A E Housman running round my head all day too. A good poem for a windy day, and a gentle reminder that, whatever troubles your heart today, you're not the first.
On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
'Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, 'twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
A E Housman, from A Shropshire Lad (1896)

No-one will notice, no-one will care ...

... when the staff of TV Licensing go on strike today.

More than 500 staff at sites in Darwen, Lancashire, and Bristol will strike after a ballot by members of the Communications Workers Union (CWU).

The CWU said workers had been offered a below inflation pay rise of 2.6%, following a two-year pay freeze.

Employers Capita said workers had received a "good and fair offer" in light of the economic climate.

So far, so usual. Union thinks rich bosses should share proceeds of ill-gotten gain with downtrodden workers. Employer thinks pay offer is extremely fair in the current circumstances and the union should butt out.

CWU, consider this: Capita won't budge. They have a history of not budging. The only chance you have is for the general public to rise up and demand that Capita renegotiate, a bit like they do when they can't get to work, or when their bins aren't emptied, or when Grandad stays unburied.

I can guarantee that people will not mind in the slightest if they cannot pay for their TV licence. In fact, they may well be overjoyed. The BBC may well portray it otherwise, for obvious reasons, but no-one else in the UK will either notice or care that you haven't turned up for work today.


And, by the way, in the UK, at least ...

'Licence' - noun - I forgot to get my TV licence.

'License' - verb -I forgot to license my TV.

If you get mixed up, remember advise/advice. It's the same issue, but as they sound different it's easier to remember. Practise/practice and prophesy/propecy too, although that's a little more obscure.

Don't thank me. All part of the service.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Getting Hammered

Oh dear.

I don't handle alcohol well any more. Until I was 21, I never even had a hangover. I can remember in my first year exams at Uni, I would go out in the evening and have a few pints, get back to the digs and revise, get up early and revise, go out and do two three-hour exams, and repeat for a week. No problem (and I passed). After 21, I started to get hangovers which lasted a morning or so. Now, if I have a few sherbets it can take me three days to feel human again.

I made a promise to myself a few years ago that I would never get truly, properly drunk ever again. The game just isn't worth the candle any more. The problem with this is, that to keep the promise you have to remember you made it in the first place. And after a few drinks, the memory of such minor matters is the first thing to go. I am reminded of the Japanese proverb quoted in Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice:
The man drinks the first glass of sake. The first glass drinks the second glass. After that, it is the sake that drinks the man.
I like alcohol. I like the taste, and I like the way it makes me feel. I am a happy drunk: I get chatty and convivial, perhaps a little over-romantic, but never melancholy or violent. By nature I am reserved and a bit shy, although I hide it well. After a drink or three, I become the person that usually I have to force myself to be. So it's relaxing as well as fun. No more keeping up a 'face' - the 'face' becomes mine.

But these days I really need to keep my consumption to a modest level - a level that will let me enjoy the disinhibiting effects of the ethanol without making me feel like a rotting corpse for the next 48 hours. And I am generally successful. I haven't been truly out of my tree for years. But I need to be vigilant, and yesterday I wasn't vigilant.

I got up at 5.30 to drive to London. We checked into our hotel at midday, and had a hour to get washed and changed before getting a taxi to my brother-in-law's house, where he was celebrating his Ruby Wedding. He has the affectation of inviting people at very specific times, so it was with some pride in our organisational skills that we arrived at his house at precisely 1.14 pm, exactly as requested on the invitation.

We started with champagne cocktails, of which I had about three before my sister-in-law, bless her, put a can of beer in my hand and said "have one of these; I think you prefer them". As wine aficionados, they can scarcely believe that white wine, and especially champagne, makes me wheeze with asthma - and it does, big time - but they indulge my little foible and keep a stock of cooking lager for the occasions when I turn up. So that's two beers while talking in the garden, then we sat down to eat and the claret came out. I lost count of the number of glasses I had as someone kept refilling it when I wasn't looking, but I was drinking Bordeaux for possibly six hours solid. At least I wasn't there when they were passing round the port. That would have been fatal.

I vaguely remember sharing a taxi with some other guests back to the hotel and then nothing intil 4.50 am, when I woke with a mouth like a parrot's cage, a gut like a slurry pit, and a headache like someone was cleaving my skull with a blunt axe. I drank a lot of water and went back to bed, and then slept slightly better until 8.00 am. Oddly, I was still wearing my underpants and socks, which is and will remain a mystery.

The hotel could only offer a 'Continental' breakfast, which was a pity. A solid, fatty, warmed-over croissant with some catering blister-packs of Flora and generic marmalade was no comfort to a body that was desperately in need of a Full English. We stopped at the first opportunity to fill the car with proper anti-hangover food like nice M&S sandwiches and salty crisps and a bar of chocolate. I also bought a cup of coffee, and I can report that a hot drink purchased at Reading Services is still undrinkably hot at Leigh Delamere. I threw it away in the end and drank several litres of water instead.

By Cardiff I was feeling human again and when I collected the dog from the kennels two hours later I was good to go.

Looking back, I am not sure I should have been driving this morning. It was roughly 12 hours since my last drink and I didn't feel in any way incapable of driving, but I'm not 100% sure I would have passed a breathalyser test. But the journey was incident-free*. I'm glad I was driving Anna's car and not on the bike, though.

I keep telling myself that I won't do this again. What for next time? A set of index cards with messages like "two glasses is enough" or (to quote from Under Milk Wood) "you'll be sorry for this in the morning"? You know, sometimes it's just easier to be the driver and have an excuse not to drink at all. I never thought I would say that.

*I'm lying. There was one incident. There were a lot of bikes out on what was probably the last sunny day of the season. We were passing a group of slow-moving Harleys (but I repeat myself) when they all decided to move from lane 1 to lane 2 to anticipate a junction a mile or so ahead. The guy just ahead of me moved right in front of me, causing me to brake sharply. No signal, and no shoulder-check or 'lifesaver'. As we passed him, we also saw - no mirrors either. He had moved straight into a faster-moving lane without having the first clue about what was behind him. Of course I was looking at him, checking out the bikes even if they were not my type of thing, so as soon as he made his move I was ready. If I had been a sales rep late for an appointment, or looking the other way, I'd probably still be talking to the Police.

Friday 14 October 2011

Parish Notice

Tomorrow I am journeying up to The Smoke to participate in celebrating my brother-in-law's Ruby Wedding. Up in the morning, party in the afternoon/evening, hotel for the night, and back Sunday. I am leaving the lapdog at home, as I fancy a couple of days Away From Keyboard. Bloggery will therefore be non-existent.

Burglars beware: Rescue Cat has been left in charge. She only takes prisoners if she plans to toy with them for a while first.

Merciless is my middle name, worm.

Contributory Negligence?

I seem to be banging on a lot about high-visibility issues here lately. Sorry if that's a bit dull, but with the nights drawing in it seems to be relevant. I was searching the web on a completely unrelated matter when I came across this article on a site called Cyclists' Defence Fund. (The article is unsigned and undated, although the latest date to be referred to is 2004, which suggests that it is fairly recent.) It seems to be UK-based, and focuses on legal matters relating to cycling. The article in question deals with the question of contributory negligence in awards made for death and injury to cyclists where the cyclist was not wearing a cycle helmet. It's a fairly dry bit of work, but the gist is this: in assessing damages for death or injury against drivers who are at fault in an accident with a cyclist, insurance companies will automatically reduce the offer by between 20% and 25% if the cyclist was not wearing a helmet, claiming that by not wearing a helmet the cyclist had contributed to his/her own injuries. This seems to happen whether the wearing of a helmet was relevant to the injuries sustained or not. Worth ploughing through.

A couple of quotes to give the flavour:
It is therefore very important to note that these solicitors, acting on behalf of the claimant, in common with many others, routinely proposed a discount for a failure to wear a cycle helmet, in this case a figure of 20 per cent.


Research suggests that, routinely, there has been a tendency to reduce damages by a quarter when a cyclist was not wearing a helmet. It is suggested that this cannot be right or just, as so much depends on the circumstances. However, in analysing the settlement process, and cases in coroner’s courts, it would appear that cycle helmet wear is also becoming a kind of preliminary legal litmus test in cycle compensation cases.
Of course, insurance companies are businesses above all, and will try anything they can get away with to avoid paying out - or paying out as much. But I am sensing an unhappy comparison with the campaign for bikers to wear compulsory high-visibility clothing. How soon before a biker mown down by a car will have his damages reduced because he wasn't wearing a specific and approved piece of clothing - despite the fact that this had nothing to do with the accident?
It would appear that many personal injury lawyers, insurers and coroners are focussing on the peripheral question of helmet wear, rather than examining the cause of the vast majority of accidents involving cyclists – the negligent driving of a motor vehicle.
It looks like we have common cause with cyclists - people focusing on the often irrelevant issue, rather than the real one, the inability of car, van and lorry drivers to look properly and drive appropriately.
This context of ‘90 per cent driver error’ is therefore the backdrop for the vast majority of injuries on the roads. In any collision with a motor vehicle, it is quite clear that pedestrians and cyclists are susceptible to serious injury.
You can add motorcycists to that list.

The truly worrying thing is that these decisions are being made in an office somewhere, with no regard to the circumstances of the case. It's one thing if the lack of a helmet contributed to the injury: but it seems that this is considered irelevant by some insurers:
The claimant’s expert witness, Dr Nigel Mills, formerly chaired the British Standards Institution committee for motorcycle helmets in January 1994, and has been a member of the umbrella committee which oversees all helmet committees. His conclusions are very noteworthy: helmets are less effective when a cyclist hits a vehicle than when they simply hit the road; helmets do not eliminate injury; serious brain injury is quite common when cyclists are hit a glancing blow by a vehicle, as distinct from a direct collision; the site of the impact on the right side of the face would not have been protected by a helmet; and the claimant’s head injury was due to the right side of his face hitting the road, so a helmet would not have reduced his injuries.
I can see this kind of thing developing with regard to hi-viz and motorbikes. It won't matter if conspicuity was a relevant factor in an accident: if the rider wasn't wearing [add item of choice here] then the award will be reduced because he contributed to his own injuries - apparently.

And, of course, if the EU gets its way - and it probably will - then there will be the added force of the law. The rider was not only foolish, but acting illegally, not to dress like a banana so that Mr Volvo could stay half-asleep on his way to work.

How long before someone argues that the fact that an injury victim was riding a motorcycle in the first place is sufficient grounds for denying a claim? After all, he could have caught the bus!

The cyclists have scored a few victories, though.
This was followed in 2002 by the case of a Walsall cyclist, Alan Millett, who suffered serious head injuries when he was hit by a car on a roundabout. The insurers, NIG (the National Insurance and Guarantee Corporation), proposed a reduction for contributory negligence of 15 per cent for the sole reason that Mr Millett was not wearing a cycle helmet, but later backed down in the face of a massive campaign of letter and emails from CTC members.
The difference, of course, is that cyclists are seen as healthy, right-thinking and middle-class. I wonder if a campaign of letters and emails by bikers would be listened to so readily?

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Brits and Booze

There is a very thought-provoking article in the BBC's website magazine this week, entitled "Is the alcohol message all wrong?" It's by Kate Fox, who calls herself a social anthropologist, and I think she's onto something.
... if you want examples of bizarre beliefs and weird customs, you need look no further than our attitude to drinking and our drinking habits. Pick up any newspaper and you will read that we are a nation of loutish binge-drinkers - that we drink too much, too young, too fast - and that it makes us violent, promiscuous, anti-social and generally obnoxious.
Now I know the Libertarian blogosphere's reaction to this is going to be that she is wrong - we are not a nation of problem drinkers, just a nation with some problem drinkers, and that we are drinking less than ever before, and so on. (This is Longrider's take on it.) That may be true in strict terms, but look at the photo above, multiply it a hundred times every Friday and Saturday night across every town in the UK, and then think about how many times you saw something like that 30 years ago. I work with a lot of young people, and I have seen my own children grow through the teens/early 20s phase, and I can tell you for a fact that they abuse alcohol in a way that I would have been horrified by when I was that age - and I wasn't in any sense a teetotaller. Yes, we got wrecked every now and again, but we didn't drink to oblivion twice a week or more, we didn't 'pre-load' on shorts before we even went out to the pub, and we did it on stuff like beer and cider, not vodka shots lined up on a table. And being so drunk that you couldn't stand up in the street and shat your pants in the taxi on the way home was a source of embarrassment, not pride.

Yes, I think we have a problem, so I agree with Ms Fox so far. She believes, however, that the changes that happen to us when we are drunk are culturally-determined, rather than a simple chemical matter of what alcohol does to the system.

The problem is that we Brits believe that alcohol has magical powers - that it causes us to shed our inhibitions and become aggressive, promiscuous, disorderly and even violent.

But we are wrong.

In high doses, alcohol impairs our reaction times, muscle control, co-ordination, short-term memory, perceptual field, cognitive abilities and ability to speak clearly. But it does not cause us selectively to break specific social rules. It does not cause us to say, "Oi, what you lookin' at?" and start punching each other. Nor does it cause us to say, "Hey babe, fancy a shag?" and start groping each other.

In other words, the ethanol affects us in certain ways, generally pleasurable, but how we translate that into behaviour is a product of what we and our society expect to happen, rather than any intrinsic property of the booze. I'm sure there is something in this. The Northern European nations tend to be the ones who get aggressive after a few scoops - and getting out of it on mead or ale goes right back to the Anglo-Saxons and beyond. The French and Italians don't do this, even though (statistics tell us) they drink far more in terms of alcoholic 'units' than we do.

I never saw my Dad drunk. The most I ever saw him drink was a half of bitter, and that after some persuasion by me. So I had nothing to base my assumptions on. If I had had a father who wrecked the house and hospitalised my Mum after a night on the piss, I might have had very different expectations of what I would feel like and do after drinking. As it is, I get more chatty than usual, more confident, more affectionate (everyone becomes my lifetime best mate) and, in extremis, the beer goggles develop and every female in the room becomes an irrestistible siren worth walking on broken glass for. I'm totally harmless in my cups, although you may have to be firmer than usual in resisting my advances if you are female, have most of your own teeth and don't resemble Shrek.

This basic fact has been proved time and again, not just in qualitative cross-cultural research, but also in carefully controlled scientific experiments - double-blind, placebos and all. To put it very simply, the experiments show that when people think they are drinking alcohol, they behave according to their cultural beliefs about the behavioural effects of alcohol.

But a lot of people in the UK do have problems with drink. They get violent, and they cause endless amounts of disorder, pain and grief. The standard response to this is to make more regulations. Restrict the availability of alcohol, bung up the price, insist on more licenses and permits, close down pubs where the trouble starts, and so on. No-one ever suggests that we just enforce the laws we already have against glassing people, or beating them to a pulp because they looked at you funny. Here's a start: when you commit an offence while drunk, you get exactly the punishment you would have had if you had been sober, and 'it was the drink, yer Honour' is never a mitigation.

I expected (silly me) Kate Fox's article - BBC-approved, after all - to go up a gear at this point and start talking about measures (legislative, not pub), and strategies, and campaigns. I was pleasantly surprised to find her taking a very different tack:

But it is possible to change our drinking culture. Cultural shifts happen all the time, and there is extensive evidence (again from carefully controlled experiments, conducted in natural settings such as bars and nightclubs) to show that it doesn't take much to effect dramatic changes in how people behave when they drink.

These experiments show that even when people are very drunk, if they are given an incentive (either financial reward or even just social approval) they are perfectly capable of remaining in complete control of their behaviour - of behaving as though they were totally sober.

And how are these changes to be brought about?

To achieve these changes, we need a complete and radical re-think of the aims and messages of all alcohol-education campaigns. So far, these efforts have perpetuated or even exacerbated the problem, because almost all of them simply reinforce our beliefs about the magical disinhibiting powers of alcohol.

The drinkaware website, for example, warns young people that a mere three pints of beer (ie a perfectly normal evening out) "can lead to anti-social, aggressive and violent behaviour", that "you might start saying things you don't mean and behaving out of character", that alcohol is implicated in a high percentage of sexual offences and street crimes, and that the morning after "you may wonder what you did the night before".

I would like to see a complete change of focus, with all alcohol-education and awareness campaigns designed specifically to challenge these beliefs - to get across the message that a) alcohol does not cause disinhibition (aggressive, sexual or otherwise) and that b) even when you are drunk, you are in control of and have total responsibility for your actions and behaviour.

I agree with that last bit, a lot.

Alcohol education will have achieved its ultimate goal not when young people in this country are afraid of alcohol and avoid it because it is toxic and dangerous, but when they are frankly just a little bit bored by it, when they don't need to be told not to binge-drink vodka shots, any more than they now need to be told not to swig down 15 double espressos in quick succession.

Even the silliest teenagers would not dream of doing that. And not because they have been educated about the dangers of a caffeine overdose - although there undoubtedly are such dangers - but because it would just be daft, what would be the point?

What we should be aiming for is a culture where you don't need alcohol-education programmes, any more than we now need coffee or tea education programmes.

And to develop the point further:

If I were given total power, I could very easily engineer a nation in which coffee would become a huge social problem - a nation in which young people would binge-drink coffee every Friday and Saturday night and then rampage around town centres being anti-social, getting into fights and having unprotected sex in random one-night stands. [She never hung with the Mods and Rockers, then - Ed.]

I would restrict access to coffee, thus immediately giving it highly desirable forbidden-fruit status. Then I would issue lots of dire warnings about the dangerously disinhibiting effects of coffee.

I would make sure everyone knew that even a mere three cups (six "units") of coffee "can lead to anti-social, aggressive and violent behaviour", and sexual promiscuity, thus instantly giving young people a powerful motive to binge-drink double espressos, and a perfect excuse to behave very badly after doing so.

She concludes by saying that the Government and drinks industry are doing almost exactly the wrong things at the moment. I'm pretty sure she is right in that.

Smart lady.

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