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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Christmas?

I came across this very interesting article in The Times on the destruction of Christmas via Natalie Solent. The writer, one Anthony Browne, Natalie informs us is an athiest. That makes the following line very interesing:

Christianity has gone back to its origins, and become the world’s most widely persecuted religion

I am not quite sure I would go that far, but I do thing that Christianity is becoming persecuted once again. And I must say that, simply from a narrow Christian point of view, I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing. Christianity is, in many ways, at its strongest when it is persecuted. Of course, from a wider perspective in society, I entirely agree with the writer of the article, such a persecution will end up being more harmful.

The emotion most associated with Christmas in my mind is hope. Alas, I don't really have much hope that society will work this one out.

Mmm, I just thought of a parallel between what the ACLU and others are trying to do and what Robespierre attempted to do with religion in 1793. But too tired to explore it. Perhaps if I read this tomorrow I'll remember.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Homeless Jesus?

I don't like the image of the homeless Mary and Joseph - I just don't think it at all accurately depicts the situation they were in. But there is an image from the modern world that I do think has a greater Christmas resonance, though again it is hardly exact.

Why were Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem? As Luke tells it (from the New International Version - it's what I have handy):

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the enture Roman world (this was the first census that too place while while Quirinius was governor of Syria). And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galiliee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because be belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him, and was expected a child.

Luke 2:1-5


In other words they were uprooted by the bureaucratic diktat. How similar is this to our everyday experience? I imagine nearly everyone has there own nightmare tale of encoutering government bureaucracy. Most of us will be compelled to do something because of some bureaucratic decree. All of us are required to register this and that - though fortunately we don't have to travel to our "home town" to do so. We may, or may not, physically stay in the same place, but I imagine we all know people whose lives have been uprooted in one way or other by some bureaucratic process. Perhaps even our own lives have been similarly effected.

And that is one of the great mysteries of Christmas, is how human it is. Amongst all the other things it is about and it signifies, and it is about a great many things, it is also about a family struggling to deal with the bureaucratic impositions of its day.

What a surprise

I am often flabbergasted by the reporting of studies that prove something patently obvious to those with a modicum of mental processing power. From the BBC in this article that RADON GAS LINKED TO CANCER DEATHS as the headline pronounces.

Now really? So let's think about this. Radon - which is a naturally occuring radioactive gas (also one of the 'noble' gasses iirc), which particularly occurs in granite areas, is linked to an increased risk of cancer. Well gee, I think we might have figured that out.

In fact, when we read below the headline we find out that this is particularly concerning lung cancer. Now, I really have to question the article here, because it starts comparing non-smokers to smokers, but we already know that smokers have an increased risk of lung cancer. A far more accurate comparison would be smokers not living in higher radon areas, and smokers that are. That may in fact be what the study did, but the article does not seem to make that clear.

Now, although the end result of the study is patently obvious I realise it is important to be able to quantitify these things as much as we can - but the reporting! Sheesh.

Blair in Baghdad

I don't really have much to say about this. I have a whole list of reasons why I don't like Tony Blair, foreign and domestic. But in the final reckoning, all my grievances against him pale in comparison to the thing that he gets right. Part of his response to a question my Andrew Marr of the BBC:

And I will also say this to you, there are people dying in Iraq but the reason people are dying is because of the terrorism and the intimidation and the people who are deliberately killing anyone trying to make this country better.

Now what should our response be as an international community? Our response should be to stand alongside the democrats - the people who've got the courage to see this thing through - and help them see it through. I've got no doubt at all that that is the right thing for us to do.


And this is part of his response to a qusetion by Nick Robison of ITV:

And where should the rest of the world stand? To say, well that's your problem, go and look after it, or you're better off with Saddam Hussein running the country - as if the only choice they should have in the world is a choice between a brutal dictator killing hundreds of thousands of people or terrorists and insurgents.

Indeed. BBC transcript here

Foundation Hospitals

I am rather tardy in this post, since the news is now about a week, if not further out of date. Anyway, DM Andy has an interesting post on Foundation Hospitals - one of the most contentious issues of this Parliament. My own post was originally about Foundation Hospitals, but I went off on a tangent and it has turned into some thoughts more generally on the NHS. Typically I've gotten into mixing analogies half-way through. I apologise in advance for the length.

Anyway, as I understand the whole business Foundation Trusts are meant to be freer from governmental controls in matters financial, the theory being they will be more effective at managing their own affairs. In principle at least I've been in favour of the idea - the idea that generally some bureaucrat in Whitehall knows better than people in, say, Somerset how to deal with the area's health-related problems doesn't hold up for me. In practice I'm warier, at least partly because I don't believe there is the goodwill from the Treasury to allow them to work (admittedly I'm biased against Gordon Brown, but I do think he is the worst offender in that regard). Word of Fondation Trusts complaining about government red-tape do not reassure me in that regard (Andy links to a couple of Guardian pieces).

However, I think in some respects the substance of Andy's post goes to a deeper problem that I think is at the heart of the NHS - that of money, or more accurately that of there not being enough money. Now, I've only been working in the NHS for a little over a year, but I know of a few examples where Peter has been robbed to pay Paul. It is a problem that is largely ignored because the moralities of the business are, quite literally, mortal. The fact is that the British people have been consistently lied to, and led to expect a service for relatively.

You see, the health service is "free" - sometimes politicians qualify this by saying "free at the point of need". Prescription charges demonstrate the lie of the qualification of most people's experiences of going to the doctor, and the tax-bill should explode the myth of the first. Yet for all its unfree nature the NHS is essentially poor - it is expected to do everything, but the public (and politicians) doesn't give it enough dough to make the loaf.

There are two standard responses to this, either increase the amount of dough or try to make it stretch further. Gordon Brown has been piling more dough into the system for the past few years, but the fact is the NHS is inefficient. Throwing more money at the problem is just like throwing water aimlessly at a house-fire - sure enough will get the job done, but hardly efficiently, and if you don't have enough water...

So then comes along the second response - try to make the dough you have stretch further, to make it more efficient. Foundation Hospitals are one of doing this, PFIs (Private Finance Initiatives) are another. There is a new-fangled IT system they hope to bring in to do the same - though with this government's abysmal record on computer systems I'm not keeping my hopes up.

I personally think, to go back to the burning building analogy, that sometimes you have to wonder whether it is wiser to let the building burn down and then rebuild something better than went before. I simply don't believe the NHS is sustainable in the medium to long term (by which I mean 20-100 years). Far better I think that we need to try and address this now, rather than cling to decaying corpse like the fallen kings of Numenor. Or, to use a medically related analogy, if you are lucky enough to have an early diagnosis of a well-defined local tumour it is simply madness to wait for it to metastasise all over the place.

But I admit, on the issue of the NHS I'm long on rhetoric and personal grievance, but short of answers. In general I think I support some sort of national insurance system, which people can mostly opt-out of. In wilder moods I will happily advocate tearing the whole system down completely (along with a reverse "decimation" Whitehall - which means the person who draws the short straw would keep his job). We all have flights of fancy, but even my slightly more realistic views are way out of the currently possible. But, as a left-leaning friend of mine pointed out to me a few months ago that in 1970 nobody suspected that the new Education Secretary would have such a profound impact on British society, or that she would so dramatically shift the political boundaries. Her name, of course, was Margaret Thatcher (to cover both sides of the aisle I wonder how many people in 1900, when the Labour Party won 2 seats in Parliament, that they would be the government just 23 years later).

In the so-called Orange Book a group of important Lib Dems published there was apparnetly one essay seriously arguing the case of such radical reforms. Of course the suggestion was quickly batted away - Charles Kennedy was not about to commit electoral suicide after all - but at least perhaps a true debate about the health service might be, just beginning, to take place.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

A time for everything

I rarely find myself agreeing with the Scottish National Party, or their MPs, but on this occasion I'll wholeheartedly endorse this description of Geoff Hoon:

"Surely it's a massive betrayal of our brave soldiers whose bravery can be contrasted with the defence secretary who is nothing but a backstabbing coward."

In case you are wondering what this is about the Labour Government has once again demonstrated its complete ineptitude in dealing with members of the Armed Forces. Given that under this government British forces are now deployed more widely and actively since Demobilisation at the end of WW2 you might hope it would demonstrate a little more loyalty. Bollocks to that.

The quote by the Army's Chief of General Staff is very revealing:

"We have inevitably had to make some tough choices to keep within the resources allocated."

I'm against violence as a general rule, but for Gordon Brown I could oh so easily make an exception.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

News from Cassini, and space generally

In other news The Cassini spacecraft has made its second close flyby of Titan yesterday, and today has made/is making its first flyby of Saturn's moon Dione. Of particular interest there are some white stripes that appear on the surface. As regards to Titan this is the last chance to inspect the moon before the Huygens release on landing on Christmas Eve / Christmas Day.

Meanwhile let us not forget that both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are still out there. On Thursday Voyager 1 will be just over 94AU out - that is 94 times the distance from earth to the sun. Voyager 2 is a "mere" 75AU out - in a completely different trajectory. I wonder how many of the people who actually built those two spacecraft thought that they would still be out there, operating, nearly 30 years after their launch? Or that there is every chance they will go on operating into their 40s - perhaps until the early 2020s? It amazing to think how little we knew about the solar system until those craft made their journey, and it makes one realise just how much there is still for us to know today.

I do hope it is not too long before we send another craft to Jupiter. On the horizon, on January 12th, they hope to launch Deep Impact 1 - which will deploy a probe to hopefully crash into the comet Tempel 1.

Oh, and remember those Mars Rovers? Well, they're still going strong, where one of the things Opportunity contends with is frost.

I love the internet.

Return of the King: Extended DVD - The Appendices

Well I managed to watch all of these over the weekend. In some respects these were more interesting than the actual extended version, in part because they are just interesting. I mean, it is interesting about how they put these films together, and it's even more interesting to see how they went through the process of creating the background the films - the sets and costumes and music. Plus there is actually some pretty good commentary about the influences on Tolkein's life.

One particularly refreshing aspect of these is that they are willing to admit that Tolkein was a devout Catholic, and maybe, just maybe, his Catholicism was also a powerful influence on the film. It is amazing how many people (mostly athiests I have found) who seem unable to cope with the fact that Tolkien and LotR might have had religious, specifically Christian, especially Catholic, influences.

A particularly interesting segment though was a video about all the horses they used. But even more interesting was a little thing about the person who, in some respects, inspired the song at the end of a film - a young Kiwi filmaker PJ had gotten to know who had been diagnosed with osteosarcoma (primary bone cancer - it's rather nasty). They include also two of his short little films. These are actually really very effective pieces. A truly unexpected, but wonderful addition.

They also include a Visual Effects demonstration - not unlike the Sound Effects demonstration included on the Two Towers extended DVD. It's the Mumakil charge sequence - pretty good. And then there are all the galleries - I've only looked at a few of these so far but looks good.

All in all very worthwhile. I'm now re-reading RotK (I specifically didn't before I watched the extended DVD) and there is something on one of the appendices that rings true. I can't recall which person was speaking at the time, but he made a good point. The LotR compresses the further into it you read. What might have taken a few pages in Fellowship takes only a few lines in Return of the King. The book is so incredibly dense and packed with information. It reminds just how much the film missed out. A picture worth a thousand words? In all honesty I think I could probably read Return of the King quicker than watch a truly faithful film-version.

Monday, December 13, 2004

A follow-up on self-defence

Andy asks in the comment below:

On the self-defence issue, I can easily imagine a situation where someone may be mistaken for a burglar, but would actually be completely innocent, how would you deal with that?

I can imagine a few such situations too - but when "reasonable force" means that if you deign to defend yourself or your property you will probably go to court, and possibly go to jail, for no good reason, then I'm afraid that's a risk I'm prepared to take. I know my thinking is pretty extreme here - but it is honest.

I guess this is an area where I think you can lose sight of the wood for the trees. The object should be about empowering people, but we have gotten lost somewhere in the last 100 years or so. Things are too complicated. Time for there to big storm to clear the house out, so to speak.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Review: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King Extended DVD Edition

What can I say? The only thing that would have prevented me from getting this today would have been, since I ordered it via amazon, Royal Mail. But on this occasion at least I was not let down. I've now watched the extended version, and I'll spend the next few weeks watching the appendices and listening to the commentaries.

My first thoughts on the extended version are quite simple: like my basic feelings after watching RotK in the cinema these three films are good, are very good, but could have been so much more. Am I a purist? Partly yes, but I would rather they had stayed true to the spirit of the tale. Where they did, I had no problems with the changes, but where they varied (such as with Farimir) I felt the story weaken. This is not a tale that needs improvement. As such, I think RotK is the weakest of all the 3 films, because it has the bear a weight that it cannot stand - too many foundations have been shifted.

One of the most frequent comments on RotK in the cinema was that the ending was too long - that does not change, or rather becomes even more obvious just how much Tolkein packed away in those final chapters. The film only nods in their direction, and in this extended version we get several more nods throughout the story, but I feel they mostly just continue to illuminate the weaknesses.

As to the extra bits themselves, Saruman is included. Indeed, the scene of Saruman at Isengard is very well done, considering that Peter Jackson opted not to do the Scourging of the Shire. Frodo and Sam also visit the crossroad of the Kings in Ithilien in this version, something I am very happy about. In the battle of Minas Tirith there is also the confrontation between Gandalf and the Witch-King, and also Frodo and Sam's joining of the orc march in Mordor. There is also a brief moment in the Houses of Healing. We also get an extra Faramir-Denethor scene, and a good one.

OK, there are some other little episodes as well, but I think these are the chief additions of note. They are basically good additions, but the main problems of the cinema version remain: Denethor is a parody, Gandalf becomes a cipher for Aragorn, the whole business with Arwen is weak, and the army of the dead on the Pelennor fields is tacky.

That all sounds very negative, but really it is just an expression of my disappointment. I am rarely disappointed by a film, but FotR had given me cause to hope. Alas.

Anyway, the extended version is an improvement of the cinema, and well worth buying, but the basic weaknesses remain. I'll get round to writing about the extra bits once I've watched them.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Reasonable Force

DM Andy comments on my post below about the news Sir John Stevens is backing a clearer right of self defence. He says:

The current law is that householders can use reasonable force to defend themselves against intruders, I think that's a good balance. Remember Tony Martin lied about his story, that's why he was convicted of murder.

Dave Kopel (guest-blogging at GlennReynolds.com) pretty much gives my answer, and he says it better than I could.

But I basically have one problem with the attitude about "reasonable" force. What is so reasonable about burglars breaking into my home? Why do they deserve to be treated "reasonably" at all? To paraphrase a nasty term, the only good burglar is a dead burglar. Unreasonable of me? Perhaps, but I doubt dead burglars are in the habit of re-offending.

I must sound horribly Neanderthal, but I'm afraid that is just the way I feel.

Incidentall, DM Andy has his own blog here. It turns out he lives in Yeovil, also in Somerset. Not too far away, unless you have to rely on public transport when it becomes a distant object, harder to get to than London (and probably about as long time-wise).

It looks like he's a chappie involved in Unison. I did consider for a time joining Unison, but for various reasons opted not to. He also is involved in the NHS in some way - via Unison I think. Also it is quickly apparent that we appear to be pretty much on opposite sides of the political spectrum - insofar as he is a member of the Labour Party and I'm mostly swimming somewhere to the right of the Tories (but hey, it's a wide pool). But he sounds a pretty cool bloke. Plus he's a roleplayer. That's all to the good.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A shortage of Radiologists

Daniel Drezner has an interesting post on a possible shortage of radiologists in the US, and an outsourcing mething of dealing with it.

He asks about the shortage, and from my experience of working in a UK hospital I can well believe it. It all comes down to advancing technology and time-lag.

The advancing technology is easy. Scanning technology has advanced leaps and bounds. The venerable X-Ray has joined forces with CT (or CAT), MRI, and ultrasound, to name just three of the most common. Not only that, but the uses of scans have changed. These days various procedures are guided by the scanners (CT guided biopsies, for example). All this sucks up radiologists' time.

But there is a lack. There is new demand, it takes time for extra supply to develop. Demand is still growing however, so until supply catches up or demand slows down there is shortage.Of course, in some more rural areas there tend to be greater supply problems because of ordinary economics.

All that is anecdotal, but seems reasonable to me.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Review: The Ethos Effect by L E Modesitt Jr

Well there I was in the bookstore Friday evening, and noticed a new book my one of my favourite writers. Naturally I bought.

The Ethos Effect is pretty much classic Modesitt. That is, deep down it is hardly original, but rather another variation on a well-established theme. It is set in the same universe as The Parafaith war, about 300 years later. The story itself is pretty much the standard foray into the ethics of large-scale destruction, and the costs of waiting, and personal responsibility. Highly readable and enjoyable, this was a very comfortable read.

There are some more hints onto the wider history that Modesitt appears to be constructing - for the first time that I recall there was a definite link at one point to the universe in the Ecolitan books, and this universe has clearly links to the Ghost books and Gravity Dreams - which also means links (probably) to the entire Recluce saga, albeit tenuously. I'm not at all certain that Modesitt actually has a well-worked out system behind this, but its interesting all the same.

It won't be everyone's cup of tea. I rather like Modesitt, but various others don't. If you've never read any of his work before I'd recommend you start with one of The Magic of Recluce (the first book in the Recluce Saga), Archform: Beauty, or Legacies. The last two are more recent.

The Ethos Effect: amazon link.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

There is hope

The Daily Telegraph has an article where Sir John Stevens, Met Police Commissioner, appears to back the right of people to defend themslves in their own homes.

Householders should be able to use whatever force is necessary to defend their homes against criminals, even if it involves killing the intruder, the country's most senior police officer said yesterday.

Actually reading the text of the article is perhaps a little less heartening, but still it sounds positive.

Of course, this doesn't actually mean anything. The government will do what it wants to, and that probably means doing exactly the opposite.

Alexander

I don't even know when this comes out over here, and I no longer care. Seen too many negative reviews, but the one that clinched it for me was by The Uncivil Litigator.

Besides, I was always a little wary of the film because I basically don't like the historical figure of Alexander. It's not a comment on the scale of his achievements, though I do suspect his generals were far more important than the usual panegyrics suggest. The other reason I'm not so fond of Alexander is that I basically don't find too much to interest me in his life.

Now, once he dies, then some really interesting things happen. If only a film could be made about Antigonous One-Eye!

Friday, December 03, 2004

Huygens at the ready!

The BBC reports that the go-ahead has been given for the Huygens probe attempt insertion onto Titan.

If this means nothing to you, then the short version is that the Cassini spacecraft, launched in 1997, has been flying around Saturn since June. Cassini carries the Huygens probe, that will be released to (hopefully) land on Titan. Titan is the largest moon of Saturn, and the only moon in the Solar System to have an atmosphere.

I must admit to being rather excited!

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

British humour

Apparently there is such a thing. I guess I go along with that, even if I have great difficulty (along with everyone else) in defining it. However this post by Norman Geras is, I think, typical of at one major source of British humour.

I did hear this week that the 'Dead Parrott' Monty Python sketch was voted as the best comedy of all time or something. Perhaps most iconic would be a more accurate accolade.

The Hard S

Waddling Thunder opines about his love of how us Brits pronouce the 't' of French words. Personally, I also find quite endearing the pronunciation of St. Louis. Indeed, I have had a couple of people stateside spell my name that way. Funny really.

The wonders of the NHS

People who have followed by occasional ramblings for a few months will know that I occasionally post about how treatment for my ankle is going, though in fact it is mostly a chronicle of long waits. Well, I can now announce that things have moved forward, yesterday at the horrendously early time of 0830 I was sitting in the Orthotic clinic waiting for the (late) Orthotist to actually receive my orthoses. Here's a brief recap of how we got to this point. A brief proviso however - the dates are just from memory and so some of the details might be wrong. The first half of 2003 is particularly vague for me as well, so if there are mistakes, it is that period that I bet they are.

Oct 2000 - I slip on the penultimate step of some stairs and end up in an ungainly heap at the bottom, having hurt my ankle. After a few days of pretty consistent pain I go to my GP, who basically says "these things sort themselves out, see me again if it still hurts in six months' time".

May 2001 - I went to my GP sometime between these two dates, but can't remember when, but basically nothing happened. At this meeting however the GP referred me to some physios

June 2001 - About a month later, I can't remember precisely how long, I had physio appointment. Did variuos exercises, and the physio also used some ultrasound of my ankle. Great improvement. Physio stopped in Sept 2001 with nearly total use back.

Winter 2001/2 - Ankle aches a little over the winter. I don't really think about it much. Cold weather, joint injury, winter aches make sense.

Summer 2002 - Ankle starts to ache more persistently again.

Aug 2002 - Move south.

Sept 2002 - Register with new GP and explain about ankle. Get referred for more physio

Oct-Nov 2002 - Second bout of physio, but less satisfied. Some improvement, but not as great as before.

Winter 2002/3 - Ankle worsens (surprise surprise)

March 2003 - Go to GP again. He again refers me for physio.

April 2003 - Physiotherapist basically says, "it's chronic"

May 2003 - I report this to GP, who basically disagrees, and he refers me to an Orthopaedic Surgeon. Initially I am referred to Mr K, a foot/ankle specialist, but because of waiting lists am transfered to Mr O, a more general joint person.

Oct/Nov 2003 - My first appointment. Am referred for yet more physio, and to come back in Feb.

Nov 2003 - More physio. Interestingly, despite being to the Physio department here several times the physios are all different, and indeed I never recognise one physio from another. Basically no benefit.

Feb 2004 - Saw Mr O again. Over the winter my ankle has definitely worsened. He finally takes on board something I have been saying for months (that my ankle is particularly bad after swimming). This is apparently very unusual in 'ordinary' joint injuries, so he arranges for me to have an MRI scan. In the meantime he gives me an ankle brace, but because of the way this deforms my show I can't really use it most of time (basically it meant by Achilles' tendon was getting rubbed raw - not pleasant).

Apr 2004 - MRI scan. Quite interesting. Glad it was just my ankle though - that meant my upper body didn't have to go into the machine.

May 2004 - See Mr O. There is an abnormality there, so it's clear that I really do have a problem and its not just tendons, and it won't heal itself. Am going to be referred to Mr K, to whom I was originally referred. Much irritation.

Aug 2004 - See Mr K. Talk about surgical option, and orthotic option. I opt for orthotic option since I don't see the point in having surgery if I don't need to, and because surgery is always something that can be considered if orthotics don't prove efficacious.

Oct 2004 - See Orthotist, who before I entered the clinic room didn't even know why I was there. The nurse (actually a HCA) is scrabbling through various pieces of paper trying to find the referral slip, and to top it all off he ends up thinking I've got cancer (which I don't). Anyway, the result is he is going to have a pair of insoles and ankle-brace made for me. We make an appointment for the second week of Nov - I was given the option of going in the first week bit decided against it given the election and knowing I was likely to find it difficult to get up.

Early Nov - The brace is in, but the insoles are not. So appt delayed. Sigh, irritation, random thoughts of doing violence to NHS property just because. Can't fault the lady on the end of the phone though, good service that way - especially since she was clever enough to ring in advance so I didn't turn up for no reason. And no, given my experiences of the NHS I in no way take such common sense as granted.

Yesterday - Go and get orthoses. The insoles feel a little weird. They really just are for the arch and back of the foot, not the front third (indeed there is no bit covering the front). The left sole (my good ankle) is neutral, just to make things level for my right (bad ankle) side. The brace also fits the shoe.

The point of these orthoses is that, because of the original injury, my ankle is a little out of joint. Hopefully they will work to put it back in joint, so to speak, and then hopefully deal with the problem that is causing the pain, which is a small area of damaged bone and cartilige. I have to go and see Mr K again sometime in the New Year (probably Feb/March) to see how things are going.

The problem, as I see it, at the moment is that with winter beginning I would ordinarily be expecting my ankle to worsen. Indeed it already is. To some degree then it will be hard to judge how the orthoses are working. At the very least though I would expect to be trying them for a period of months, to give them a decent go - unless they are plainly making things worse.

So there you have it. The wonders of being held hostage in Britain's National Health Surface.

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