UK News


With the comments about Beatrice, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York, I find myself on the side of Sarah Ferguson (though that dress does nothing for Bea). This is not because I'm a royalist (I'm not), or because I have any great affection for the people concerned (I don't, but then I don't have any disaffection either, I'm neutral on the matter).

Nevertheless, in this case I'm on the side of Sarah Ferguson because of the example it sets.

What do I mean by that?

In the media, healthy is portrayed as chunky and overweight. It's unrealistic and leads to a rise in eating disorders (amongst girls in particular).

Though I don't read these magzines myself (I can't imagine anything more tedious than 'celebrity' gossip) it's hard not to notice the general environment created. we can hear people saying things like 'oooh, hasn't so-and-so got big'. With a constant bombardment one can understand how girls in particular get a poor self-image (stop paying for these magazines, people!)

If I were a parent with a daughter, I would not allow these rags over the threshold. To be honest, I wouldn't want to give these pieces of junk house-room in any event!

Natalie Cassidy (known for playing Sonia on Eastenders) recently did a good documentary on the issue.

By all means, promote being healthy. Promote activity, good eating and so on. However, skinny isn't the same as healthy (nor, obviously, is chunky).

If Beatrice is unacceptably over-weight, then what hope is there for the rest of society?

.... and yes, I realise I'm not a poster-boy for this issue. I don't really want reminding of that, especially when I decided not to cycle to work this morning and wrote this instead - so I'll shut up now.


The BBC 'Have Your Say' on potential compulsory vaccinations has the usual ill-informed rants, such as this from Astrid:

If more parents would actually do some research into the effects of vaccinations and their non-existing benefits there would be a lot more outrage against proposals like this. If anybody has problems due to a disease it is much more likely due to a weakened immune system and an unhealthy lifestyle (fast food etc), when is the government going to make that illegal?

I'd rather not get child benefits than poison my child with totally unnecessary and unsafe vaccines.

Whilst I'm with Astrid that compulsory vaccinations aren't the answer, and whilst I admit the possibility that some new vaccinations may do more harm than good, her reasons are ill-informed at best for the existing vaccines.

Why on earth would so much cash be spent on non-existing benefits? Why would they push it so much?

Compare the (now eradicated, except in labs) Smallpox with the vaccination for smallpox. Smallpox was a contagious disease which killed roughly 30% of those infected. The vaccine wiped it out.

The controversial MMR vaccine has been linked to Autism on anecdotal evidence. 'My child was vaccinated and then got autism' runs the argument. Well, correlation doesn't imply causation. How does that person know that the autism wouldn't have happened anyway? It manifests at about that age in many cases.

When people do a proper study, looking at the incidence of autism in those who have had the MMR against the incidence in those who haven't had it, there is no statistically significant difference.

Couple this with the now forgotten fact that measles is a particularly nasty disease, which used to be prevalent. The rate of complications occurring was low (at least in developed countries), but the rate of transmission is so high that it caused problems. Complications can include encephalitis (swelling in the brain) and corneal scarring. In the last 150 years, it has caused about 200million deaths.

I've had the MMR, and it might be tempting to think "sod 'em, I'm covered". The trouble with this attitude is whilst I'm not going to get measles (unless it mutates), once the incidence of vaccination in the population goes down an outbreak becomes more likely. An outbreak can totally overwhelm local medical services - and as a result has knock-on effects.

The trouble for people deciding about vaccinations is they have two options. Have the jab, or don't. They obsess about the risks of having it, and neglect the risks of not having the jab. It seems to be that people think: 'If I give the jab and there are complications, I'll never forgive myself - but if I don't give the jab and there is a disease then it's act of God'.

Ridiculous reasoning.

If you don't give the jabs and the child is exposed to complications surrounding measles (including brain damage and death), they're exposed to mumps (which can cause sterility), they're exposed to tetanus (which can occur if they're injured, not uncommon for kids)

Inaction is not making no choice. It is choosing to do nothing, and that has risks, just as taking the jab does.

Being the one person not vaccinated if everyone else is vaccinated is the best option - however, being a group of unvaccinated people is the worst option. It's the classic prisoner's dilemma. Being an iterated prisoner's dilemma, the best solution is vaccination. (In a one-off dilemma, non vaccination wins).

Yes, demand the scientific basis for a vaccine. Demand that it has passed clinical trials and doesn't cause more problems than it helps solve - but, Astrid, the vaccinations on offer at the doctors have done this. Look at it this way: The NHS would be spending a lot more money to help care for a sick child than it would to vaccinate, and at the end of the day, they'll do whatever is cheaper. In this case, it's in the interest of their bottom line to spend less and this coincides with your child being healthier.

It's win-win.

Additional: This whole 'debate' has many articles which are prime candidates for spEak You're bRanes!

Weasel Words from Number 10

Recently there was a petition to reduce the VAT on fruit juices with an aim to help people toward their 'five a day'. I thought this too modest myself, if you really want people to eat healthily why not remove the tax totally, making up for it in other areas? It's annoying that healthy is often expensive (as well as inconvenient... surely there is a market for the healthy takeaway/delivery service? - I suppose the difficulty is getting started) The government responded: 'To date the Government has been sparing in its use of VAT reduced rates and has only applied these where they are affordable, and provide the most effective and best-targeted support for the Government's social objectives when compared with other policy instruments.' - to me, that seems fair enough. I.e. it adds complexity without the gain.

However, here's the weasel words: Furthermore, European VAT rules require that in most cases, the same VAT rate is applied to all competing products. This limits the extent to which any new reduced rate could be targeted on the most healthy fruit drinks.

Rubbish! Are they really saying that most people don't know the difference between a cola and a glass of orange juice?

At the moment, all food (including things like hotdogs and crisps) is subject to a zero rate of tax. But people who want to make a healthy choice and buy smoothies and juices get taxed 17.5% VAT.

Are they really claiming that a fruit juice should not be classed as 'foodstuff'?

Records on 25million families lost

This includes bank details for 7 million families, national insurance numbers and so on. The information was sent, by unrecorded delivery, through the post. This is information worth millions, if not billions, in the wrong hands.


The records include parents' and children's names, addresses, dates of birth, child benefit and national insurance numbers and in some cases, bank or building society details.

And then they wonder why I don't trust this government, or any government, with all of my personal information on a centralised ID database?

On the bright side, the discs are 'password protected'. That's all right then, dictionary brute force attacks have almost never been shown to work....

In other news, last week the Information Commissioner’s Office asked the UK to criminalise severe data breaches. Good job for the powers that be that this hasn't happened yet!

Even if this was the mistake of some underling, the fact that the systems were so lapse that this information could be burned to CD is a massive problem.

Update: The banks are advising that people don't need to phone them and say 'give me a new bank account number'. They would say that, it's a lot of work - but on the precautionary principle, there is no reason not to do this. In fact, if my bank said there was no need, I would respond by saying 'if you won't give me a new account number, I'll move my account'.

Update 2: Don't accept 'ID card database would be safe as it's protected by biometrics' - this is so much tosh, the biometric info is just another record in the database.

Update 3: No2ID now has this story

Maths Standards

Nicked wholesale from DoctorVee ... Whilst I do think the card might have been designed better, it speaks volumes that people are too stupid to understand this even when it is explained (e.g. specify 'colder' rather than make it numerical - or have an example such as '-8 is lower than -7)

The rest of this post is nicked:

Apologies. My first post back after a wee break does not involve much input on my part. I usually reserve these kinds of items for the linklog. But there is a quote that I just have highlight here because it makes me want to run along the ceiling in sheer frustration at the human race.

(Emphasis mine.)

A LOTTERY scratchcard has been withdrawn from sale by Camelot - because players couldn’t understand it…

To qualify for a prize, users had to scratch away a window to reveal a temperature lower than the figure displayed on each card. As the game had a winter theme, the temperature was usually below freezing.

Tina Farrell, from Levenshulme, called Camelot after failing to win with several cards.

The 23-year-old, who said she had left school without a maths GCSE, said: “On one of my cards it said I had to find temperatures lower than -8. The numbers I uncovered were -6 and -7 so I thought I had won, and so did the woman in the shop. But when she scanned the card the machine said I hadn’t.

I phoned Camelot and they fobbed me off with some story that -6 is higher - not lower - than -8 but I’m not having it.

“I think Camelot are giving people the wrong impression - the card doesn’t say to look for a colder or warmer temperature, it says to look for a higher or lower number. Six is a lower number than 8. Imagine how many people have been misled.”

HOLY SHIT! This is how bad standards of numeracy have become. Unbelievable.

Incidentally, my time off this blog was due to the fact that I was being educated. A certain Tina Farrell might have benefited from it more.

Via Chicken Yoghurt.

Update: Chris Applegate reminded me of a point that I was going to make here, but I forgot to write it before publishing.

It is the fact that this person just couldn’t resist blaming someone else for the problem. There is not the slightest hint of her taking any personal responsibility. Even worse is the fact that Camelot have actually caved in, which will vindicate this stance in her mind.

On qwghlm we see this thought:

....the sheer bloody-mindedness that illustrates a mentality along the lines of “well, if the laws of arithmetic don’t agree with my own intuition, then I’m going to bloody well complain until they fix it”. It’s not ignorance or stupidity that’s the real problem here, but the stubborn self-conviction that goes with it - the inability or unwillingness for people to ever now say “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know”.

And it’s not only scratchcards that this problem surrounds - virtually every major issue today, from the Iraq war to global warming to immigration, is characterised by people (on both sides) who will never even entertain the possibility they might be wrong, let alone admit to it. In the good old days stuck-in-the-mud irrationality and delusion was usually rooted in ideology or religion (”if Lenin/Smith/Jesus says so, it must be right”), but they are by and large absence from most aspects of modern life - which has created a vacuum into which some weird, fucked-up cult personality of the self (”if I say so, it must be right”) has entered. Add to that a culture where any grievance, no matter how petty, must always be redressed or avenged and it creates a terrifying vision of the future.

Have I Got News For You

Tickets for the new series of HIGNFY (in the UK) are available right now. I, of course, have applied for mine - I wouldn't be so silly as to direct more eyeballs to their site until I'd done the selfish thing, would you?

As I write, all dates are still available - which is unusual 45 minutes after tickets are released.

This BBC show is recorded in the ITV studios on the South Bank of the Thames, near Waterloo.

(Update: All tickets are now taken)

Paxman and Humphries

Jeremy Paxman and John Humphries in the same room at the same time.... Humphries is interviewing Paxman about his recent lecture about the demise of TV. For the record, I'm in agreement with Paxman on much of what he says - I can't remember the last time I saw a decent documentary which didn't have a made-up play to illustrate it's point. It's also all too rare that an interviewer listens to the answers they're given, and responds to that answer - the number of times which I've listed to an MP or minister waffle repeatedly without answering the question and have the interviewer let it slide has been frustrating.

... that said. I do like the concept of the BBC, and generally it's a good thing - but it has got rather too audience-chasey. Witness, for example, the 'reporting' on the BBC news website of the happenings on 'Big Brother' (a production of a rival broadcaster).

For the record: my most used BBC outlets are: BBC News website (and BBC Sport/Weather etc) BBC Radio 4 BBC2 TV BBC4 TV BBC1 TV (this moves up a bit at certain times of the year)

The BBC outlets I wouldn't miss are: BBC Local Radio BBC Radio 1 BBC Radio 3 (though I'd hate to think it wasn't there) CBBC CBeebies Any of those saturday night things involving dancing and ice skating.

The running order for the day

  1. A level results are 'the best ever'
  2. Standards are falling, A levels are being devalued
  3. To question the validity of A levels is to undermine the achievements....
  4. Repeat for GCSE next week
  5. Forget for a year, then redo from start

Number 3 is an argument that really annoys.

To have an examination system which doesn't adequately differentiate at the top end devalues excellence - which is something we should be promoting, and it does beggar belief that we could have have 20-odd years of continuous improvement. An examination system where 1 in 4 people get the top grade is skewed - by rights, most people should be in the middling grades.

One way to help distinguish the top end candidates is to print the 'UMS' on the certificate (UMS is the Unified Mark Scheme, which, in principle, allows you to compare subjects). One might do this for A grade candidates only. As an example, 480 UMS (out of 600) is an 'A' and printing the number would allow universities and employers to tell the difference between a student scraping the 480 and one who gets 600 (it does happen - typically the percentage to UMS conversion plateaus at less than 100%).

Oh, if you got your results today, I hope you've got what you need to go on and do what you wanted to do.

Update: This article has the full A Level cycle in one with 'More than one in four UK A-level entries were awarded the top A-grade this year', 'The steady improvement in results inevitably revives the debate about the standard of A-levels and whether they test the brightest pupils' and 'Schools Minister Jim Knight said ... it was a "real shame" the annual debate about standards undermined pupils' performances.'

Foot and Mouth

I went for a bike ride today (average speed just under 20km/h, with some 24km covered), I looped through the Foot and Mouth protection zone, as it's much nicer country there than going west. Most people could drive through here and not notice anything amiss, most things are normal. In a few places, there are some extra cars due to journalists (but if you didn't know the area, how could you tell?) Outside the Pirbright laboratory, not on a main road, are television vans.

I took a few photos today, and they can be seen here.

Footpath in the Foot and Mouth Protection Zone

Foot and Mouth in the UK

I've just looked at the BBC News site to see that there has been an outbreak of Foot and Mouth in the UK. This one is pretty close. On the site there is a map, with a circle showing the exclusion zone. To the top left of that circle is a red blob showing a train station (on the line going north east to south west). We live two minutes walk from that blob. We're in the surveillance zone.

I wonder what will happen with the local Farmers' Market next week.

Two Years since bombs in London

Given that it's two years since the bombs went off in London, I thought I'd link to a picture of a rail ticket which I bought that day (I had to go into the city on a training course) My Travelcard

Given the history with the IRA in these islands, it will be interesting to see how this event compares with various IRA bombs once both have receded in the public consciousness.

Here is another photograph which I took on that day:

Evening Standard 7/7/05

Aside: I've just climbed up Symonds Yat RockFor those wondering why this site has been quiet - for several days I was away from home - and since then I've not got into the habit of regular posting again!

Uk Visa Refusals Ridiculous

UK Tourist Visas are being refused for odd reasons A common reason for a visa refusal is you wish to go to the UK for a holiday. You have never previously undertaken any foreign travel before and I can see little reason for this trip. This is rather a catch-22!

Another reason for rejection was the applicant not having sufficient command of the language for the purposes of tourism. This is a daft - how many Brits go abroad without having an adequate knowledge of the local language?

Another was rejected as the applicant had little or no idea what you plan to see or do. I often go on holiday with little idea of what I'll see when I get there, that's the point!

Let us hope that countries for which UK citizens require visa do not begin to follow suit!

People unaware of food origins.

So far, so traditional. People don't know where there food comes from according to a survey. I was expecting an article saying things like 'people couldn't tell you exactly what goes into bread', but instead it was '22% of 1,073 adults questioned did not know bacon and sausages originate from farms' and 'four in 10 people did not know yoghurt is made using farm produce, nearly half were unaware the raw ingredients for beer start off in farmers' fields and 23% did not know bread's main ingredients came from the farm.' The ignorance here is amazing, do people really think that stuff magically appears at Tesco?

Of course, it all depends how the question is phrased. If the question is 'where does your bread come from?' then 'Tesco' is a reasonable response. As is 'Hovis'. If it's 'from this list, please tick the items whose ingredients come from a farm' - that's a different matter.

Personally, I find it very hard indeed to think of any food item that doesn't begin life as a plant or animal in some way. In fact, I find myself unable to do so.

Update: There is another piece on this topic:

"We have parents walking around whose children ask what certain animals are, but the adults don't know," she says.

"Some parents see our piebald ponies, which are black and white, and think they're cows."

50% don't know about smoking ban

With the smoking ban due to come into force, some 50% of people do not know the date. I wonder, how many of these are non-smokers?

Personally, I knew it was coming, but as a non-smoker I've not taken much notice of the date.

Surely the relevant figure is how many smokers and business owners know about the ban?

My opinion of the thing? Slightly fence sitting. Whilst I've not got a problem with people who want to smoke, I do object if it's in an environment where non-smokers only have the options of putting up with it or leaving.

I see nothing wrong with the option of creating a 'smoking friendly room' in a pub, leaving the rest of the area smoke free. (A no-smoking area with no physical containment of smoke isn't an option). The legislation doesn't allow for a 'smoking friendly room' as I understand things, and so it goes too far in my view.

I'm not supportive of the view that 'it's my right to smoke wherever I please' - as other people should have the right NOT to smoke - and this should take priority. The one exception to this is in the home of a smoker. Obviously, the home-owner's views take priority.

Drinking Ban for Under 15s?

Alcohol concern is recommending that parents be prosecuted for giving their children alcohol before the age of 15. The law as it stands is that this is legal within the confines of the home. In the UK, alcohol may be bought at 18.

Whilst it is true that we see children drinking in public, this law change will not address that issue - as this is already illegal. Making alcohol 'forbidden' will increase it's attractiveness. If we really want to tackle the binge drinking culture, then a more continental model is the way to go. In france, it is commonplace to have a glass of wine with a meal, and the children often have some diluted wine - why would we criminalise this?

There may be an argument for criminalising the rare parent who says 'here's a bottle of vodka, go and get pissed' - but the proposed law change would also criminalise the parent who is trying to educate their children and avoid binge drinking at the age of 18.

The law change could be counter-productive, as instead of reducing binge drinking, when inevitably children do get their hands on the alcohol they'll drink a lot of it in a short time - and that'll become the norm for them.

Update at 13:10 - there is another article on the bbc site

I understand that some teenagers are going out and binge drinking in town centres, but parents who let their kids do that won't care about a law anyway.

All the law would do is stop responsible parents from trying to educate their children.

It would infantilise parents. It's just silly.