Under Attack: TheTraditional Sounds of Britain’s Countryside:

Jean Arp, the 20th Century German-French sculptor, artist and poet, once lamented that mankind has turned its back on silence. Day after day, he declared, it invents machines and devices that “increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation and meditation”. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has acknowledged that environmental noise represents a major threat to public well-being and so has recommended that it should at least be limited at night to a maximum of 40 decibels.

In practice, the Guardian columnist Richard Godwin noted on 4th July, “comparative decibel levels” (based on statistics issued by Industrial Noise Control.com) are becoming much louder: A normal conversation can reach 55 decibels, the sounds from a motorway at a distance of 15 metres 76dB, a motorbike at 7.5m (90dB), a jet plane landing at one nautical mile (97dB: hence the widespread objections to a third runway at Heathrow Airport) and live rock music (108-114dB).

However, Tony Lewis, Head of Policy at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, quoted by Godwin, has emphasised that people do have a legal right to a reasonably quiet environment, so can contact their local authority if they feel they are being unduly disturbed. The Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council in Wales, for example, states on its website that it investigates around 400 complaints about “noise nuisance” every year. Most of these are related to noisy neighbours (music, shouting, alarms and DIY at unacceptable hours), noise from commercial venues such as pubs and industrial premises (factories and construction / demolition sites), car alarms or loud stereos (but only if the vehicle is parked) and persistent barking dogs. They don’t have the power, though, to resolve issues connected to road traffic noise.

Godwin has observed that, unsurprisingly, all of the loudest locations are in cities: “It’s well established that the more densely populated an area is, the more complaints there will be”. One obvious solution therefore would appear to be to move away from a crowded urban conglomeration to a more peaceful rural setting. It’s a decision that many city dwellers have made – but without taking into consideration the fact that the countryside has its own noises which they might find equally unsettling.

As Thierry Ottaviani, president of France’s National Committee for Victims of Noise and Pollution, told the Daily Telegraph correspondent Henry Samuel, “These are people who could no longer bear the stress of the city. They have bought a house in the country, thinking that they would find absolute tranquillity but forgetting that it’s also a living environment with a working life”.Jacques Bischoff, the mayor of the village of Cesny-aux-Vignes in Normandy, was cited by Samuel as urging city folk to learn to cohabit with the traditional country sounds of tractors, combine harvesters, braying donkeys, chiming church bells and the wildlife which was there long before they arrived.

It’s a similar situation in the UK: On 18th April, Richard Hartley-Parkinson, a commentator for the Metro newspaper, highlighted the case of Stephen Nolan, a farmer from Higher Wheelton in Lancashire, who had become exasperated with “townies” moving to to the countryside and then complaining about the horses, chickens, hens and geese. His response was to post a notice on his gate pointing out that the property is a farm, that it has animals who make funny sounds and smell bad: “If you can’t tolerate all of this (he advised), then don’t buy a property next to a farm”.

On 29th June, Alex Shipman, also a journalist for the Metro, reported that the bells of St Mary’s Church in Fishguard, Pembrokeshire, had been silenced for the first time in 161 years because someone had complained that the “8 am racket had disrupted their Sunday lie-in”. This followed similar circumstances in Sandwich, Kent, in February, when St Peter’s Church was ordered by the local council to stop ringing its bells at night, after 239 years, because one person insisted that its chimes were keeping them awake – despite more than 4,000 people signing a petition to keep the bells tolling. In the view of a Fishguard resident, this is a trend that has been instigated by people “who move to the countryside and then moan about cockerels crowing at dawn”.

There have indeed been a series of recent court cases involving cockerel owners who have been fined because their birds have been crowing too loudly and too frequently. The South Northamptonshire Council specifies that “the law will consider nuisance is being caused if your cockerel is crowing at unsocial hours – namely at night, early morning or late evening – and is crowing for long periods”. According to Danelle Wolford of the “Urban Farming. Healthy Living” website, a rooster may crow between between 12 to 15 times a day; “It’s not possible to silence its crow, but you can decrease the volume by adjusting its lifestyle or placing a collar around its neck”. At night-time, its coop should be well stocked with sufficient food and water and kept dark as this will limit its exposure to light. Furthermore: “Roosters crow to assert their dominance over other roosters – so to avoid crowing contests, keep only one in the roost”.

Filed under: Society | Posted on July 10th, 2018 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

It’s An Emergency! The Food In Britain’s NHS Hospitals:

It’s about 8 am in the ward. The nurses are bustling around, preparing the medication to be administered to their patients, most of whom are now awake. The familiar rattle of the approaching breakfast trolley doesn’t, however, engender any great sense of anticipation. Those patients watching the morning news programmes on their bedside TVs continue to do so. When invited to make a choice between the available cereals, there’s very little response. Why? If they select the rice crispies, it’s piled high in their bowls with very little milk added. The porridge looks and tastes like inedible mush. The toast resembles burnt pieces of plastic. The tea is very definitely not Twinings English Breakfast or Earl Grey.

Any patient who does manage to force some of this down their throat has to digest it fairly quickly, as by noon the trolley will be back with lunch. The meals have been selected in advance from the menu provided, but that doesn’t make them any more appetising. Some hospitals, such as the Royal Free in Hampstead, North London, say they offer flexible meal times, namely 7.30 am – 9.30 am (breakfast), noon – 1pm (lunch) and 5.45 pm – 7 pm (supper). This makes evident sense, as people have very different eating habits. Many NHS hospitals, however, appear to have very rigid schedules and hence insist on their patients being served their food at fixed prescribed intervals, irrespective of whether they are hungry or would prefer to wait a while longer.

The 77-year-old cookery writer and restaurateur, Prue Leith, in an article for The Guardian, has described hospital food as a “ recipe for disaster”. Patients, she declares, deserve so much better than plastic containers filled with sweaty cheese, dabs of margarine and unidentifiable grey slop. In her view, it’s no surprise at all that “80,00 hospital meals are left uneaten every day and two-thirds of staff admit they would not themselves eat what they serve up to patients. You can’t blame either patients or staff: most hospital food is a disgrace”. Indeed, she’s concluded that hospitals have an incentive to provide bad food, that if it’s really horrible, the patients will not ask for it again, less will need to be prepared and the catering bill will go down: “If the grub were better, more people would eat it and the catering costs would rise”.

Due to the long-term outsourcing contracts which many hospitals have signed and can’t now get out of, Leith points out, very few of their kitchen actually cook any food, at least for the patients. A company based hundreds of miles away prepares, for example “ a dish with the cheapest imported chicken, minced, pelleted and freeze-dried, then topped with a packet sauce made of who knows what. It’s cooked, refrozen in portions, then delivered to the hospital to be “regenerated” (warmed up) with boiled frozen vegetables. Finally, it’s kept warm on a trolley before being plonked in front of the unfortunate patient. No wonder it’s disgusting”.

Leith recommends a much smaller range of healthy, filling options, such as vegetable soup, fishcakes with chilli chutney, chicken and leek pie or vegetarian curry and the possibility of ordering a tempting salad or scrambled egg on toast for patients not ready for a full meal. Above all, everything should be cooked fresh and on the spot, perhaps even on the ward itself to cater for patients who cannot eat at scheduled mealtimes: “If anyone thinks this is unaffordable, they should look at current waste rates, which are running at 70% in some hospitals”.

The food journalist, Bee Wilson, has commented in The Telegraph that “our health service has largely lost any sense that food is medicine”. In schools and prisons, she notes, the lunches may not always be delicious, but they must abide by certain basic nutritional requirements: “Yet in hospitals – places where, in theory, we go to get well – meals are still not governed by legal standards”. She quotes the depiction by Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist at Croydon University Hospital, of hospital food as constituting a “toxic environment”.

This same theme was the main feature of an article on 20th April by the New Statesman columnist, Felcity Cloake, captioned “Why NHS catering needs a revolution”. Plate after plate of disappointment, she wrote, is not only demoralising for people who may already be at a low ebb. but overlooks the part food has to play in the recovery process: “Balanced, appetising meals are vital to help weaker patients build up strength during their stay”.

A survey on London hospitals conducted by the Campaign For Better Hospital Food has revealed that only 30% cook fresh food on-site for their patients but 77% do so for their staff, which has prompted the indignant headline in The Telegraph that “doctors and nurses eat better than sick patients”. Furthermore, that 17% serve food to the patients in ready meal packaging and 20% don’t provide them with a hot dish if they miss the mealtime. Recently released official data indicates that £560 million was spent on 144 million hospital patient breakfasts, lunches and dinners in 2016/17 – which equals an expenditure of about £3.68 on each meal.

Filed under: Healthcare | Posted on July 2nd, 2018 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

“The Lightbulb Isn’t Working: Call An Electrician!”: Has DIY Gone Out Of Fashion?

How long does it take to boil an egg? That presumably depends partly on how hard or soft you want it to be. However, a “Home Report” compiled by the British insurance company Aviva has indicated that one in four of millennials (anyone born between 1982 and 2004) isn’t capable of boiling an egg on their own and that 19% of those questioned have “admitted to thinking that an egg can be hard-boiled in less than two minutes”. The “Natural News” commentator, Jayson Veley has observed that “Sadly, the survey has shown that young people are losing the skills that their parents and grandparents possessed: 77% say the can’t fix a bicycle puncture and 68% that they can’t wire a plug”.

Uncertainty about how to cook eggs is not, of course, necessarily restricted to the millennial generation: The British author Tom Bower has claimed in his book “The Rebel Prince” that Queen Elizabeth’s eldest son insists on being presented at breakfast with seven boiled eggs, each cooked to various degrees of softness and lined up before him so he can choose his favourite. Prince Charles has adamantly rejected this “rumour” as a complete fabrication.

Veley quotes the view of Dr Sandi Mann, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, that the problem is “Young people are no longer seeing the importance of being hands-on: They are brought up to be tech-savvy and their skill is in electronic manipulation” What would they do, asks Dr Mann, in a “survival situation” where there is no more government, no more power and no more internet? “They wouldn’t be able to do a Google search to find out how to boil an egg or change a wheel”. He does, though, acknowledge that the situation is reversed when older people have problems with their computers or smart phones and have to turn to the younger generation for help. Nevertheless, the Daily Express has pointed out that, according to Aviva’s survey, “A staggering 70% of millennials would have to summon a plumber to change a washer on a tap while 63% would incur a garage bill for fixing a flat tyre”.

The Daily Mail has noted that “surprisingly, newer technology leaves many of them stumped as well, with 23% not able to use a washing machine, connect a blue-ray player to a TV or (citing a Poundland investigation) hang a picture, decorate a room or iron a shirt or blouse. Its columnist, Alex Ward, has focused on statistics showing that “seven out of 10 young adults don’t know how to sew a button and so many of them often have to pay other people to do both this and other similar chores for them”. A generation that takes technology and the latest gadgets for granted is, he declares “not very good with practical matters.

This might explain why The Guardian newspaper has published a “How To Mend” series of articles, in one of which Lisa Comfort, founder of the “Sewing Cafe” has provided “easy step-by-step instructions” as to how to sew on a button. You are likely to need, she advises, “a tape measure, needle, thread, scissors and toothpick or matchstick” and you should begin by finding the correct position for the button.

The Daily Telegraph correspondent, Philip Johnston, has emphasised that the blame for the decline of “Do It Yourself” in Britain and hence the decision of the DIY giant, Homebase, to close down 25% of its stores by 2019 should not be attributed to either the millennials or their elders. Whereas he used to regularly visit Homebase for paint brushes, rollers, wallpaper, nails, screws and rawlplugs, he now employs someone else to do the work: “A hired decorator gets the material more cheaply and uses it more efficiently. The job is also far less likely to be botched”. Further more, some primary and secondary schools “have dropped traditional craft lessons because their teachers lack sufficient health and safety training to explain equipment such drills, lathes and saws” – which means the younger generation haven’t been instructed in the basic skills required for carrying out home improvements. Also: “Once we were able to open the bonnets of our cars and change the spark plugs or distributor cap. Now the sealed computerised engine is impossible to tinker with unless you have a degree in advanced mechanics”. Since the implementation of the Building Regulations 2005, “fixing a major electrical fault in your home has to be undertaken by a qualified electrician”: You’re no longer allowed to try to repair it yourself.

Meanwhile: Data published by YouGov.co.uk offers rather mixed conclusions about 18 – 24 year olds: Although many, it reveals, are still unsure as to how to replace a fuse in a plug (54%), read energy meters (43%), defrost a freezer (37%) or control a boiler (32%), almost all of them can make a cup of tea (97%), use a gas / electric cooker (96%) and operate a vacuum cleaner (98%). They also know how to do the washing up (98%), clean the kitchen (97%) and bathroom (94%) or change and make their bed (97%). However, it’s not specified how many of them are actually willing to carry out any of these duties.

Filed under: Society | Posted on June 12th, 2018 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

Power To the People: The Online Companies & the New Data Regulations:

“Good night, Good Night: Parting is such sweet sorrow”. So declared Juliet to Romeo in Act II Scene II of the play by the 17th century English dramatist William Shakespeare. From her balcony in Verona, Juliet also expressed the hope that they would see each other the next morning. It didn’t of course, quite work out like that: The play, after all, is a romantic tragedy. From the deluge of e-mails into everyone’s inboxes in the days prior to May 25th – when the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect – it seems that many companies with an online presence have been in a panic that their relationships with all of us might come to a similarly abrupt end.

In his column for The Guardian on 26th May, the journalist Tim Dowling cited some of the “desperate, begging e-mails” he’d received from “companies keen to keep stuffing our inboxes with promotional rubbish”: “Is this goodbye, Tim?” queried one with some anguish. “”Don’t throw our love away”, beseeched another. This imploring tone was reflected in the last-minute messages being sent out by many other companies: “We’re sorry to see you go!” declared the Wigan-based company, Festive Lights on 24th May “but if you’ve realised that you’re making a terrible mistake, today is your last chance to change your mind”. The D&D London restaurant chain insisted that they were not yet ready to say “hasta la vista baby”. One major retailer proposed that we should “hold hands and be friends forever”. The Great Estate Festival chose a more low-key approach, asking us “nicely” if we’d like to stay on their mailing list.

The Guardian’s former technology editor, Charles Arthur, noted that he’d been receiving requests to keep in touch from companies that had never e-mailed him before. Dowling hailed the 25th May as “a glorious day” and observed that “GDPR may well go down in history as the last nice thing Europe ever got to do for us”. His colleagues on the newspaper, Patrick Collinson and Robert Jones, quoted statistics issued by the consultancy organisation Accenture indicating that, “of the total number of one billion GDPR messages likely to hit personal inboxes by the 24th May deadline”, many would go straight into “spam” and so not receive a response and a third would be deleted by the recipients as soon as they arrived. They pointed out that, although each person in Britain is understood to have about 100 “data relationships”, some small business have revealed that their “reconfirmation rates” have averaged only 10% – which meant they are losing 90% of their marketing e-mail lists.

On 22nd May, BBC News reported that, according to a survey of 906 UK firms conducted by the Federation of Small Businesses, only 8% had so far completed their preparations for GDPR. Furthermore, that about 23,000 organisations had contacted the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for advice since it was set up in November 2017. The Daily Mail commentator, Madhvi Mavadiya, observed on 18th April that the new regulations “have been formulated to ensure that organisations like Google and Facebook follow stricter rules amid concerns over how private data is collected and shared” and to resolve the growing concerns about privacy issues following the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal and the “significant data breaches suffered by the likes of Yahoo! and Linkedin over the past few years”. The Economist magazine believes that the main loser will be the advertising technology industry (ad tech) which has “an insatiable hunger for personal data”.

As emphasized in the guidelines published by the “Simply Business” organisation, GDPR applies to “any businesses that processes the personal data of EU citizens, including those with fewer than 250 employees, and thus they must employ a Data Protection Officer DPO). Individuals now have the right “ to access all of their personal data, rectify anything that’s inaccurate or completely erase all the data a company might have about them, for example, if they have ceased to be one of their customers – hence they have acquired “the right to be forgotten”.

Businesses must ensure that all their suppliers and contractors are “GDPR-compliant”, to avoid being impacted by any breaches and consequent penalties, which , if people’s rights are ignored,could amount (remarked the Daily Mail) “to £17 million or 4% of the company’s annual turnover, whichever is higher – a massive increase on the current maximum fine of £500,000. When a data breach does occur, both the people at risk of being affected and the appropriate data authority (The ICO in the case of the UK) must be informed within 72 hours.

One of the key principles of GDPR is “to require companies not to hold on to personal data for longer than necessary or process it for purposes that the individual isn’t aware of”. Requests for consent must not be hidden in small print but instead presented clearly and separately from the company’s other policies – so “ no more pre-ticked boxes and inactivity is no longer a legitimate way to confirm consent”.

The “Small Business” website has attempted to re-assure its subscribers by stressing that “No one likes having their data lost,stolen, damaged or shared without proper consent” – therefore doing everything possible to protect customers and grow their trust could be a unique selling point and bring in more business. As the UK is still a member of the European Union, the new regulations apply as much here as anywhere else in the EU. The British Government has confirmed that, post-Brexit, it will be introducing its own Data Protection Law which will replicate the requirements of GDPR.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Media, Society | Posted on June 1st, 2018 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

“Eating Carrots Helps You See In the Dark”: Myths & Superstitions That Survive In 21st Century Britain:

Which side of the bed do you get out of in the morning? According to a survey of 2,000 people conducted for the iron supplement brand Spatone , quoted by the Daily Mail journalist Alex Matthews, if you choose the right side you’ll take longer to feel fully awake and are more likely to be in a bad mood for the rest of the day – which is why 10% of those questioned say they’ve also tried the left side to see if it makes any difference.

Anna Berrill, a columnist with the same newspaper, has reported that 5.8 million people in Britain admit to believing in “old wives tales” or to being in some way superstitious. She has cited statistics issued by the Betway Group, a leading online gaming organisation, which reveal that more than ten million won’t walk under a ladder because they fear it will bring them bad luck – a myth that apparently dates back to early Christian teaching that an object with three points represents the Holy Trinity. Another nine million worry that breaking a mirror will result in seven years’ misfortune, 4.3 million have a “lucky number” (with 7 being the most popular), 2.7 million are convinced that if they blow out all the candles on their birthday cake in one breath, the wish they make will come true and more than 800,000 confess that they believe in the power of “lucky underwear”.

Among the other “Top Superstitions” in the UK: Don’t open an umbrella in the house or put new shoes on the table, Friday 13th “is a day to beware” (in Latin countries, it’s usually Tuesday 13th) and if a black cat crosses your path, that means you’ll have problems, though in Japan it’s considered by some to be a good sign. In Germany, so bluecross.org states, it depends on which direction the cat walks in front of you: Left to right means good times ahead, but right to left means the opposite. In Scotland, “tradition suggests that if a black cat appears on your doorstep, you could be coming into money”.

The latest study by Spatone, published on May 8th, has confirmed that “almost four in ten adults in Britain continue to put trust in myths about food, for instance that consuming carrots can improve a person’s eyesight. The “Scientific American” monthly publication agrees that the vegetable’s “beta-carotene / Vitamin A ingredient” can be beneficial, but also points out that “it’s not clear how many carrots would be needed to optimize night vision”. Many other widespread myths, say Spatone, have been conclusively proven to be untrue – such as the notion that eggs are “bad” because they contain high cholesterol. On the contrary, the Readers Digest magazine has declared, “more than 40 years of research has shown that eggs are “nutrient-dense” and can absolutely be part of a healthy diet”.

Gemma Francis, a correspondent for The Independent, on 8th May assessed the accuracy of other common assumptions: “You shouldn’t eat a meal after 8 pm if you want to lose weight”:(False). “Sugar is a great source of energy”:(False: The initial boost it gives you is often followed by a drop in vitality levels); “An apple a day keeps the doctor away and chewing them helps cleans your teeth” (True: They are a good source of Vitamin C which is essential for healthy gums, teeth, bones and skin and their fibrous content can act as a toothbrush).

Some other food products, it seems, possess qualities that are less well-known. Honey, so the Daily Mail commentator Angela Epstein has claimed, can heal wounds:”It’s the only natural antiseptic available which does not damage skin tissues and for centuries has been used to treat infections”. The mercola.com website has asserted that eating tomatoes can limit the risk from sun exposure: “In an experiment at the University of Michigan, participants were asked to consume 16 mg of lycopene from tomato paste with olive oil daily for 10 weeks – the conclusion being that this method was able to reduce ultra-violet induced sunburn by about 40%”.

The Readers Digest has noted that only 5% of the sodium we imbibe comes from the salt we sprinkle on our meals. Most of it “is hidden in packed and processed food” that we buy in supermarkets or eat when we’re dining out in restaurants. Dark chocolate “is said to provide antioxidant benefits, but unfortunately is one of those feel-good foods that is high in fat and sugar”.

The Readers Digest also offers advice on other healthcare myths: “Without exposure to the common cold virus, you can go outside with your hair drenching wet and it would be impossible to catch a cold. It’s the virus, not the cold air, that makes you sick”. It acknowledges that “hunching can be bad for your back” but that sitting up straight for too long can also cause strain: Make sure, it exhorts, that “your chair is at a height where your knees are at a 90 degree angle, your feet can rest flat on the floor and you have proper lower back support.”

Meanwhile, Michelle Manetti, a writer for the Huffington Post, has recommended using the oils from walnuts to remove or seal scratches on furniture made of wood and has proposed various solutions for anyone suffering from nocturnal leg cramps: Avoid caffeine before going to bed, increase your intake of potassium, magnesium, calcium or Vitamin E, ingest a teaspoon of yellow mustard, drink a glass of water with a small amount of baking soda mixed into it – and if none of that works, sleep on your back with your toes pointing towards the ceiling.

Filed under: Healthcare | Posted on May 21st, 2018 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

The Next Windsor Wife: From TV Star To Global Royal Celebrity:

Is it really worthwhile these days becoming famous? The main advantage, the British rock singer David Bowie once observed, is that it guarantees you a good seat in a restaurant. In the film “Notting Hill”, the American actress Julie Roberts told Hugh Grant’s character that “ The fame thing isn’t really real, you know”, which coincides with her own personal opinion that it isn’t the individual who changes with stardom, only the public perception of them. Meghan Markle, who will marry Prince Harry in Windsor’s Castle’s St. George’s Chapel on 19th May, has herself acknowledged that fame brings both opportunities and responsibilities.

However, in the view of some commentators, Meghan hasn’t yet fully grasped the extent to which her life will now be transformed – that being the focus of massive and constant world-wide attention will be on a completely different scale from the plaudits she has received for her performances over the past seven years as attorney Rachel Zane in the American legal drama series “Suits”. Her final appearance in the show was transmitted in the USA on Wednesday 25th April.

Rotem Atar, a “beauty influencer” for the cosmetics firm Estee Lauder, has listed on celebs.allwomenstalk.com “Seven reasons why being famous isn’t that great”. First: It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on you to be simply perfect: “You can’t mess up, you have to be fit and you can’t make mistakes”. Second, you lose almost all your privacy: “There are people watching you, talking about you and writing about you every day.”. Third: The rumours: “The media tends to make things up that are untrue in order to make money”. Fourth: “Every magazine, TV show and social media site will be passing judgement on you”. In addition: The paparazzi will taking photos of you everywhere you go – including outside your house and even trying to block your car. You can’t have a normal lifestyle because you will be constantly under the spotlight.

Indeed, the outspoken UK-based Australian feminist author and convinced republican, Germaine Greer, has already predicted – on her country’s 60 Minute’s TV programme on April 15th – that the marriage won’t last. Meghan (says Greer) will eventually “bolt” and be “out of the door” (as she did with her first husband), the “sacrifice” of giving up her Hollywood career, her home in the US, her relaxed social life and her lifestyle blog “Tig” will seem too one-sided and she will rapidly chafe at the restrictions imposed on her as a member of the royal family.

The Sunday Times columnist, Camilla Long, queried in the newspaper on April 22nd whether “ if you don’t feel you can invite all the most appalling members of your close family to your wedding (specifically, Markle’s half-brother Thomas and half-sister Samantha) maybe you’re marrying the wrong person”. Long considers that “it’s unlikely that Meghan hasn’t already mapped out the big sit-down interview with the TV personality Oprah Winfrey after the divorce is over and she’s fled to America”. Until recently, notes Long, Markle was extremely fashionable; now “she dresses strangely”.

Likewise, in February, the former Conservative government minister, Ann Widdecombe, when interviewed on Channel 5 by the Mail On Sunday journalist, Rachel Johnson, expressed “unease” about a 36-year-old divorcee marrying into the “stuffy” royal family – that, due to her background and attitude, she would be “trouble”. The new biography titled “Meghan, A Hollywood Princess” by author Andrew Morton (who also wrote “Diana: Her True Story”) doesn’t do Markle any favours either. He quotes the jewellery designer Ninaki Priddy’s description of her as “very strategic in the way she cultivates circles of friends. Once she decides you’re not part of her life, she can be very cold”. The reason for the rift between Priddy and Markle after 30 year’s friendship is “a close-kept secret”.

By contrast, all these “doomy forecasts” have pushed the Spectator correspondent, Jenny McCartney, “firmly into the Markle camp”. In the magazine’s latest edition, McCartney points out that Meghan “brings with her qualities that speak to a changing Britain. Her mixed-race heritage – a black African-American mother and a white, Dutch-Irish father – places her among the fastest-growing ethnic minority group in the UK and alters the public profile of the royal family”. Equally significantly, “Markle’s combination of Hollywood glitz and campaigning zeal will help to innoculate the Royal family against criticism in a changing age”. McCartney wishes Markle good luck, especially if (as she seems to anticipate) the “cynical” British press “decides to turn vicious”.

Meanwhile: The Government has issued guidelines for anyone wanting to organise a street party to celebrate the royal wedding, which will take place at 12 noon on 19th May. TV coverage of the event will be from 11.30 am until around 2 pm – so won’t overlap with the cup final the same afternoon between Chelsea and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium, where kick-off will be at 4.15 pm. Street parties which are just for neighbours and residents don’t require a licence, even if music is being provided . The local council’s permission is needed for closing a road: “Some of them, advises the Daily Telegraph, will lend you metal signs and cones to help with this, or you can improvise your own. If your road is part of a bus route, the bus company should be informed in advance that it will be temporarily closed for through traffic”. Hanging out plenty of bunting, declares The Street Party website, will help create a festive atmosphere. The occasion will thereby offer the “traditional (but sometimes rare) chance of meeting your neighbours face to face and encouraging them to join in, even if they aren’t particularly fans of the royal family”.

Filed under: Media, Society | Posted on May 1st, 2018 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

Switching Queues Is A Waste Of Time: Stay Where You Are And Get Served Faster:

Which is the better place to live: London or Geneva? This is a question that some companies, financial institutions and individuals currently based in the UK are beginning to ask themselves as the Brexit deadline of March 29th 2019 approaches.There are of course a wide range of other options available– Amsterdam, Berlin, Frankfurt and Paris among them. The Swiss city, however, has a particularly alluring global image, due to (so its main English-language newspaper, “The Local” has pointed out), its strategic location in the middle of western Europe, its proximity to France and the nearby Jura mountains, its “high standard of living, great museums, restaurants and art galleries” and the cosmopolitan atmosphere engendered by the presence of so many international organisations.“

“The Local”, however, also acknowledges that Geneva has acquired a reputation for being noisy, very expensive and even “a bit boring”. Furthermore, Geneva’s transport minister, Luc Barthassat, has recently lamented what he considers to be the lack of “British-like” civilised behaviour on the city’s public transport system. As the Sunday Times reported on April 8th, Barthassat has implemented a “GE-Respecte” initiative, whereby actors dressed as “typical British characters such as the Queen, a Coldstream Guard and a City gent, complete with top hat” have been positioned at bus and tram stops to encourage Genevans to queue, not push each other. By contrast, according to a former visitor to the UK quoted by the Sunday Times, “In London, they let people get off the train first, instead of pushing their way on without looking, they don’t shout and they compete to give up seats to the elderly”.

An extreme example of this “polite British stereotype” was highlighted by The Sun journalist, Olivia Loveridge-Greene, on March 10th. Commuters on their way to work or school were filmed clutching their umbrellas in the rain and queuing up to cross a giant puddle which had formed in Tooting High Street, South London, as a result of a burst water pipe. Research conducted by Professor Adrian Furnham of University College London and cited by both the Daily Express and Daily Mail, nevertheless indicates that “although the British have always been renowned for their love of queuing, this may no longer be the case”. These days, it seems, they will only queue for five minutes and 54 seconds before giving up in exasperation; they are “unlikely to join a queue with more than six people and like to have a six-inch radius of personal space”. Taboos apparently include engaging in conversation with others around them while waiting and accepting an offer by someone to go ahead of them in the queue.

The survey, notes The Sun, claims that the British spend 52 days of their lives waiting in queues, seven out of ten get especially annoyed when someone pushes in and one in six get anxious if the queue is not in a straight line. Esquire Magazine has published a “Definitive Guide” to the UK’s nine worst queues. At No. 1 is the Airport Security Queue. The Guardian columnist, Patrick Collinson, agrees with this assessment: On 14th April, he queried why 87% of men, when they reach the security control “still ask if they have to remove their belt, while 47% are somehow unaware that iPads can’t be left in their bags”. At No 2, the Bar Queue: You’re relying on the ability of the overworked and underpaid employees to know precisely the chronological order in which customers arrived at the counter. No.3: The Post Office Queue: The person in front of you “ has a dozen parcels to send and the staff have pulled down the shutter on the only lane that seems to be moving”; No 4: The Telephone Queue: “You have to wait for so long on the automated system that you eventually forget why you phoned in the first place. That’s before they need to transfer you the correct department”. The other “most heinous” queues on the Esquire list are those in doctor’s waiting rooms, on the motorway (especially infuriating: drivers who keep changing lanes and cut in front of other motorists), at bus stops, outside nightclubs where access is controlled by “bouncers” and waiting to get into Wimbledon Tennis Stadium during the Championship fortnight in July.

Meanwhile: The Harvard Business School, under the direction of Ryan Buell, an expert in service management, has investigated the phenomenon of “Last Place Aversion in Queues”. The stress of waiting is “intensified not only by how long the line is in front of us, but also how short it is behind us – in particular, whether we’re in the last place, which raises the question as to whether staying in that queue worthwhile”. This reaction “doubles the probability of someone switching queues or even abandoning the queues altogether”.

In its analysis of the study, The Guardian noted that “About one in five people grew impatient at the back and switched to the other line. But on average, those who switched waited 10% longer than if they’d stayed put. Those who switched twice ended up waiting 67% longer”. In Buell’s opinion, this doesn’t make any sense: “The number of people behind you (he told The Guardian) has nothing to do with how long you are going to wait, but it shapes our behaviour”. If we see a line moving faster, we might switch without having enough extra information and we can often get it wrong”. He advises us all to remember that the person in front of us was last until we arrived and so we are only in that situation ourselves until someone else joins the queue.

Filed under: Society | Posted on April 17th, 2018 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

No More “Quack Quacks”: The End Of Bath-Times For Britain’s Rubber Ducks?

Which are the world’s most dangerous toys? Anyone who wants to find out can refer to the annual list published by the consumer protection organisation “World Against Toys Causing Harm” (WATCH). It’s most recent “Top Ten”, issued in November 2017 and cited in the Daily Mail, includes several products popular at present with many children – among them the “plastic Wonder Woman battle sword” which, say WATCH has the potential to cause blunt-force injuries and Marvel’s “Spider-Man Drone” whose multiple high-speed rotating blades can “inflict significant bodily damage, particularly to the eyes”. Other items featuring in the latest list are: Nerf’s “Zombie Strike” crossbow, which represents a possible hazard for the eyes and face “because it uses a pressurized, pull-back lever to shoot soft projectiles”; “Hand Fidget Spinners”, depicted as constituting a choking hazard and Razor’s “Heel Wheels”. These last ones are strapped onto children’s shoes to turn them into improvised roller skates but apparently pose a burn risk because they provide “real sparking action”.

WATCH has also previously advised parents to be cautious in purchasing toys “which fire ammunition” such as the “Slimeball Slinger”, the “Warcraft Doomhanger” and the “Flying Heroes Superman Launcher” as well as the “Good Dinosaur Galloping Butch”, whose pointed tail can allegedly produce puncture wounds and also anything with a high element of lead, such as the “Princess Expressions Tiara and Jewellery” set. As the Daily Mail has noted, the US Toy Association has dismissed all these warnings as “needlessly frightening” to parents. Joan Siff, the WATCH President disagrees, giving as an example the “Pull Along Pony” by Tolo Toys that’s marketed for children over the age of 1 but has a 19-inch cord. They don’t need a testing laboratory, she pointed out “to know that it’s a strangulation and entanglement hazard”.

A humbler, less technological and rather more traditional toy has now been portrayed as being equally dangerous: On 29th March, the Guardian reported that a joint study carried out by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology and the University of Illinois had discovered “potentially pathogenic bacteria” such as legionella and “pseudomonas aeruginosa” in four out of five rubber ducks used as bath toys. Both the Huffington Post journalist, Natalie Stechyson (“Your Kid’s rubber duck is probably teeming with bacteria and mould”) and the Thomson Reuters news agency (“Yucky Ducky: Those cute yellow bath-time toys are a haven for nasty bugs”) focused on the revelation that a “strikingly high volume of fungus and bacteria, as many as 75 million cells per square metre, have been found in the ducks”.

This is clearly not a welcome development for the manufacturers of these products. The company “Just Ducks” based in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, describes itself as “The Home Of Quack” and as the largest rubber duck shop in the UK. It offers “dozens of categories, hundreds of styles and thousands of characters”. Examples of it’s current best sellers are: the Superhero Duck, the Cat Duck (with painted whiskers and feline ears), the Yarto President Duck (distinctly resembling Donald Trump), footballer and tennis ducks, Top Gun, Celebrity, Explorer, Surfer and Marathon Runner Ducks. One of it’s main competitors would seem to be the “DuckShop” in Rhede, Germany, which claims to be Europe’s leader in this sector and to have the best selection of rubber ducks available online. “Throw these rubber ducks into the tub for a splash of fun (it exhorts). Make Rubber Ducks Great Again!” Among their 800 + “creative designs” are: Mini Doc and Nurse Ducks, Stone Age, Robber, Wizard and Deluxe Lavender Ducks. Your choice , they declare, will “reflect your mood, hobby, character and situation”. The results of the Swiss Federal Institute’s investigations may, however, have finally pulled the bath-plug on the (until now) thriving and prosperous rubber duck industry.

The Royal Society For the Prevention Of Accidents (ROSPA) website defines “toy” as “any product or material designed or intended for use in play by children of less than 14 years of age”. It observes that the manufacturers have a considerable responsibility to anticipate how their products will be used and to take action at the design stage to prevent injury being caused through foreseeable misuse. ROSPA advises parents to only buy toys that carry the mandatory European Union “CE” symbol as well as the voluntary British Toy and Hobby Association’s (BTHA) “Lion Mark”. They should also make sure they are suitable for the age of the child and check them regularly for wear and tear, disposing of them when necessary.

The British Standards Institute (BSI) similarly takes the view that consumers are well protected by existing legislation such as the “BS EN 71” series. These stipulate that, before they reach the shelves, toys must undergo rigorous testing to ensure they are safe for children to use: “Safety testing a teddy bear, for example, might require tugging its eyes, to make sure a young child couldn’t easily pull them out and swallow them and setting it alight, to verify whether a child holding a teddy bear which caught fire would have time to drop it before being burnt”.

According to the BBC News Business reporter, Lucy Burton, almost all of the 30 “teddy factories” which once existed in Britain have closed down, due to the competition from cheap imported Chinese bears. One has, however, survived: Merrythought Ltd in the Shropshire countryside, founded in 1930. They emphasise that all their bears, which are made from “ a variety of bespoke mohair and other fabrics including alpaca, a range of wools, silks and cottons” are fully safety tested and adhere strictly to prevailing regulations.

Filed under: Healthcare | Posted on April 3rd, 2018 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

International Espionage In The Spotlight: How To Become A Secret Agent:

Which is the world’s most powerful intelligence agency? Most people probably assume that this title belongs to America’s CIA , due to its notoriety and because it features in so many spy movies. In fact, surveys on this topic – such as one conducted by the cable & satellite channel Fox News, with its headquarters in New York – invariably place Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) at No.1. According to Abir Gupta, a commentator for story.pick.com, this organization, founded in 1948, “is so dominant that it practically runs the country, along with the army”.

Also included in the “Top Ten” lists compiled by both Gupta and Fox News are: India’s RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), founded in 1968 and whose main function is “to monitor the movement and activities of its neighbours, especially China and Pakistan; Israel’s Mossad (1949), depicted as “the godfather of all intelligence agencies”; The Federal Security Bureau of the Russian Federation (FSB), widely regarded as just a substitute name for the Soviet Union’s KGB (founded in 1918) and currently one focus of speculation as to exactly who initiated and carried out the assassination attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury on 4th March.

China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) was founded in 1983. This agency, declares Gupta, “has played a major role in curbing any anti-communist or anti-government revolts” and indeed the strength and popularity of the communist party are “quite dependent on it”. Germany’s BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst: 1956) has headquarters in both Berlin and Pullach, a district of Munich: “When it comes to getting inside information about the Middle East and Latin America, there are few agencies that can beat it”. The General Directorate for External Security (DGSE) in Paris “receives a huge part of the French Government’s revenue, has more than 5000 employees, and is relatively young (1982) compared to its counterparts”. The basic interest of Australia’s ASIS in Canberra is “centred on the Asian and Pacific regions. It works with such efficiency and secrecy that for years many people in the Australian Government itself were unaware of its activities”.

As anyone who has watched recent James Bond films will be aware, Britain’s MI6 ( Military Intelligence Section 6) is based on the banks of the River Thames, next to Vauxhall Bridge. The Sun journalist, Tom Michael, noted on 19th January that it’s role is to supply the UK Government with “ a global covert capability” – unlike MI5, which deals instead with domestic security threats. MI6 is now recruiting an additional 1,000 spies, in order to increase its numbers to 3,500. Applicants, comments Michael, can apply to be language specialists, tech experts, intelligence officers or security guards to “watch over the iconic and fortress-like SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) building. He warns candidates that they “will face an exhaustive 6-month selection process, during which they will be thoroughly security vetted, assessed medically and repeatedly tested and interviewed to narrow the field down to the very best”.

Anyone seeking a job with either MI5 or MI6 should be a British citizen (either born in the country or naturalised), at least 18 years old and resident in the UK for nine out of the last ten years. The starting salary for a relatively junior intelligence analyst is around £25,000, for tech experts between £30,000 – £55,000 and for an “explosive chemist physical security specialist”, £53,284. There is an increasing tendency, so the Guardian columnist, Matthew Jenkin has observed, for the secret service “to recruit people who are older, have established themselves in other careers and are looking for a change, not just to take them fresh out of university.

It’s now also a myth, the BBC News reporter Peter Taylor, has pointed out, that to be a modern spy you have to be a white upper- class male who has graduated from either Oxford or Cambridge University. On the contrary, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee – cited by the Daily Mail’s Home Affairs Editor, James Slack – has told the UK’s spy chiefs they should recruit middle-aged mothers from websites such as “Mumset” because “they understand people better and are skilled at relationships”. In the view of the committee, action is required to break through the “very traditional male mentality and outlook” currently dominating the ranks of the intelligence agencies.

There are of course other factors which MI5 / MI6 have to take into consideration. The Military Degree Programs website specifies that in the USA, anyone aspiring to be a secret agent “must pass an in-depth background check and submit to a hair follicle drug test”. Furthermore, that high-level government agencies, including the CIA, often run credit checks to ensure that potential employees are not gamblers or over-investors: “Poor financial management skills can portray an otherwise excellent candidate as risky or imprudent: These are not desirable qualities in a spy”.

According to the former Special Branch Officer, Tony Robinson, ideally a person who accepts an invitation to spy for the security services should be motivated by patriotism and attracted by the excitement of the job: “Anyone who would spy for money isn’t necessarily loyal. They are likely to spy for whoever offers the most money”. You especially need to have an excellent memory for names and facts – not to be reliant on recording equipment when, for example, you’re infiltrating a “subversive meeting”. The BBC’s Peter Taylor has emphasised that “The clothes you’re wearing, how you’re walking and how you’re talking” are all aspects you constantly have to be thinking about if you’re a secret agent: “You have to blend in with your surroundings, be Mr or Mrs Grey – a nobody, a person you might pass on the street but forget in a second”.

Filed under: Politics, Society | Posted on March 20th, 2018 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

Higher Bills & Bigger Profits: The UK’s Utility Companies in 2018:

Which professions are most trusted in Britain today? According to research conducted by “This Week” magazine and the Ipsos Mori opinion poll specialists, doctors, nurses and teachers all feature at the top of the “Veracity Index”, followed by judges, scientists and weather forecasters – who, with a percentage score of 76% are now rated above the police (74%). Television news readers and hairdressers are apparently more respected than members of the clergy (down to 65%), lawyers (54%) and the Chief Executives of charity organisations (50%). At the bottom of the list, predictably, are politicians, government ministers, journalists, estate agents, plus (a new addition to the Index) professional footballers.

This data also reflects the public disenchantment with bankers (38%), the business sector in general and particularly with the private companies which control the supply of the UK’s water, gas and electricity. As the re-nationalisation campaigners “We Own It” point out, “only 32% of the public trust the energy industry and 77% of us believe energy should be in public ownership”. WOI’s mission is to “end privatisation for good so that people come before profit”. Public services, they declare, whether it’s the NHS (National Health Service), schools, water, energy, rail, Royal Mail, care work, or council services “should belong to all of us”.

Allister Heath, the former editor of the City AM newspaper, acknowledges that there is “overwhelming support (68%) for the nationalisation of energy companies”. He considers this to be misguided but unsurprising in view of the “pathetic customer services of many of these firms” and the fact that energy prices continue to shoot up unabated. The “Big Six” – British Gas, Npower, EDF, E.ON, Scottish Power and SSE (Scottish & Southern Energy) – are, in the opinion of “Which?” magazine, largely responsible for the low esteem in which they are held by the public. Which? asked nearly 9,000 energy customers to rate their suppliers on a variety of factors, including customer service and the accuracy of bills. Npower got just one star (out of a possible five) for value for money, British Gas and Scottish Power two stars, E.ON, SSE and EDF three stars, whereas the much smaller energy company “Ovo Energy” received four stars.

On 24th February – just before the “big freeze” hit the UK – the Guardian columnist Adam Vaughan reported that the “Big Six” have been accused of deceiving customers paying expensive “standard variable tariffs” (STVs) by moving them on to fixed deals which supposedly will be cheaper but in fact will cost more.Then, in a front page Guardian article on 3rd March, with most of the UK still covered by snow, Vaughan revealed that E.ON had quietly implemented price increases on the coldest spring day on record. This move, he noted, is expected to be the first in a series of price rises from energy providers and has been described by consumer groups as “ devastating news” for households.

As the Press Association reported on 28th February – based on statistics issued by the energy regulator, Ofgem – there is now a trend for customers who are unhappy with the “Big Six” to sign up instead with one of the many smaller, rival companies such as Green Network Energy, Utility Warehouse, Engie and Ecotricity. “Last year, 5.1 million electricity consumers and 4.1 million gas consumers changed supplier, the highest number for almost a decade”. The “This Is Money” website has pointed out that this option is, however, not currently available in the water sector: “You cannot switch supplier because the 25 water companies across England, Scotland and Wales are responsible for customers in set geographical regions. The only way to save money is to install a water meter or cut back on your usage”. The Independent’s political editor, Oliver Wright, contends that this situation has enabled the water companies “to make gains of at least £1.2bn over the past five years from bills being significantly higher than necessary. Among those worst affected have been the poorest customers, with average water bills now representing 5.3% of their annual income”.

Jim Armitage, a correspondent for The Independent, has focused on what he considers to be the “scandal” of the millions of pounds paid by UK consumers that then go to foreign-owned public services. Swathes of Britain’s energy, transport and utility networks, he has emphasised, “are run by companies owned by other European governments – meaning foreign exchequers reap the dividends which then fund their schools and hospitals while their UK customers struggle with burgeoning fares and bills”.

Statistics published by Graham Hiscott, Head of Business for the left-wing Daily Mirror, have indicated that these overseas energy firms are using the extra money they make in the UK to subsidise their customers in their home countries. He cites examples of the contrast in price increases: E.ON (German owned): UK price rises: Gas 21.6%, Electricity 21.4% , compared to 9.1% (Gas) and 6.7% (Electricity) in Germany; Npower (German owned), + 21.6% (Gas) and +12.7% in the UK, but +11% (Gas) and 0% (Electricity) in Germany; EDF (French owned), +22.9% (Gas) & +12.3% (Electricity) in the UK, though just +15% (Gas) and + 3% (Electricity) in France. Scottish Power is a subsidiary of the Spanish company Iberdrola, but both British Gas (part of “Centrica”) and SSE are UK-owned.

In an article captioned “Britain for sale: How long Before a Foreign Power Turns Off Our Lights?”, the Daily Mail commentator, Alex Brummer, has expressed his firm belief that auctioning off our vital services to overseas interests is a risky strategy that has not been adopted by other countries and takes no account of what might happen in the future.

Filed under: Politics, Society | Posted on March 7th, 2018 by Colin D Gordon | No Comments »

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