Strange Ontology: Week beginning 24th November

Bit of a quiet week this week – the one on witches was fun though…

Original research

29th November

We took up to £20 of vitamins a month – then went cold turkey

A report on: Bjelakovic et al. (2008) Antioxidant supplements for prevention of mortality in healthy participants and patients with various diseases Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2, Art. No.: CD007176. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD007176.


Slator et al. (2008) Long-Term Use of Supplemental Multivitamins, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Folate Does Not Reduce the Risk of Lung Cancer American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 177: 524-530


Bolland et al. (2008) Vascular events in healthy older women receiving calcium supplementation: randomised controlled trial BMJ, doi: 10.1136/bmj.39440.525752.BE

Causes in brief

25th November

The vital hidden warnings in your ‘health family tree’

“There are certain genetic conditions that can cause liver cancer. such as haemochromotosis – which causes too much iron in the blood.”

“[Thyroid cancer] is quite rare – about 1,750 cases are diagnosed in the UK each year. According to Professor Farid, existing thyroid problems in the family – Katherine’s uncle had this – are a risk factor”

“What raises the risk [of having breast cancer] is having a first degree relative – mother, sister or daughter – with it.”

“Unlike some cancers, brain tumours are not inherited”

28th November

Number of patients seeing an NHS dentist plummets by 1.2m in two years

“Experts warn that [Tony Blair’s] failure [in ensuring that everyone would have access to NHS dentists by 1999] means hundreds of cases of oral cancer will be missed.”

29th November

Green scene: It’s time to dish the dirt on dry-cleaning

“This has the biggest impact, of course, on the people who work with the chemicals directly – dry-cleaning employees, who may be exposed to an increased risk of cancer, and potentially reduced fertility. And there are, of course, traces of those chemicals on the clothes we take home.”

30th November

I had to have a new liver, but I still don’t believe that ‘presumed consent’ is right, says transplant recipient

“[Hepatitis C] hides for decades, but if you don’t get it sorted out, it can mean cirrhosis, liver cancer and, well, you know…’”


27th November

It’s time to raise a glass (of heavy water) to a longer life

This is ‘other’ because it’s based on a story in the New Scientist, in which some guy from a biotech company pimps his product, rather than actual new peer-reviewed science.

29th November

What’s it like living next door to a neighbourhood witch?

“[Suky Anderson] is ambitious with her spells and says she can cure cancer. ‘A man came to me, riddled with melanomas. I worked hard on it, and they went, every one.'””

No longer will we need to watch Life On Mars to relive the drab poverty and political bankruptcy of the Seventies

I’ve been avoiding stories on the economy and the budget, for two main reasons. One is that money isn’t really my area of expertise (in so far as I have an area of expertise), but more important is a sense that no one really knows what the correct answer is, so any speculation is fair. Whether the economy sinks or swims as a result of Darling’s budget remains to be seen – it’s not really something we can speculate on with any great deal of accuracy from where we stand at the moment.

Having said that, we should note a couple of things. The first is that Darling probably wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t think it was going to work. The idea that this was a budget designed to paper over the cracks for long enough to get the government re-elected implies that the government’s sole aim is staying power for the sake of being in power. I don’t believe that anyone operates at that level of abstraction. This isn’t Macbeth. And it’s not like you can do anything particularly interesting with the power, it’s only good if you’re using it for something. In fact, you’d probably be freer and better paid by retiring to a board of executives, or becoming an emissary to the Middle East. Given that the popular opinion of the budget is that it stores trouble up for later, Darling either genuinely believes that to be wrong or thinks it’s the lesser of two evils and something we can clear up later.

The second is that Stephen Glover’s comparison with the 70s is not right. It’s arguably not as off with his previous comparison of the present with the Stasi, but he’s certainly beginning to mark himself out as someone whose analogies are faulty. Let’s start with the scene-setting:

“Viewers of the series are invited to believe that we live in a more enlightened and privileged age. The Seventies, as depicted in Life On Mars, were a drab and dingy decade. The police are supposed to have been unreconstructed brutes.

Whether or not the series is right about that – and I suspect that in some ways the police were more effective then than they are now – it is broadly correct about the Seventies.”

There should be no doubt – we do live in a more enlightened and privileged age. We no longer have the Black and White Minstrel Show, it’s easier to convict men of violence towards their wives, homosexuals can marry and the European Human Rights act ensures that the reactionaries can’t take any of that away from us. And, although Glover suspects that the police used to be more effective, suspicion is no longer good enough to convict them of it¹.

“Economically, the country virtually ground to a halt. Britain was widely seen as the sick man of Europe.”

The extent of this sickness isn’t mentioned, but is the point of the comparison. The 70s was the decade of the Three-Day Week, the Winter of Discontent, bodies unburied, rubbish on the streets and Sunny Jim wondering about crises. Grim though the future might well be, we’re not talking that grim. No one is. Even Glover can’t bring himself to say it’ll be that bad. But this is the association he’s drawing on. There is a chasm between then and now though, making the analogy unworkable.

You can tell it’s failing with the very first piece of evidence produced:

“The trades unions, rapacious then, have much less power now, though they still flex their muscles.”

Presumably he means the public sector unions and the RMT occasionally working to rule or carrying out one-day strikes, which isn’t quite the havoc of the 70s.  Union representation is much lower than it was, secondary picketing is now illegal and, having had the 70s and the Miners’ Strike, unions are a lot less militant. ‘Flexing their muscles’ now consists of withholding money to the Labour Party. For the record, a strike isn’t, in fact, merely a flexing of the muscles, it’s the democratic expression of the will of a union’s members in response to perceived unfair treatment by an employer. Such as when they renege on a deal to abide by an independent pay review body. The language Stephen uses paints a false picture, and an unnecessarily gloomy one.

“As in much of the Seventies, we do not expect the economy to grow or the stock market to rise. Unemployment is certain to increase, as it did throughout that decade.”

This quote has the opposite problem – rather than trying to stretch the point it manages to say nothing at all. If the best your analogy can manage is that in both the 70s and now we had unemployment and inflation, all you’ve managed to prove is that both had recessions. The comparison suggests a similarity of scale and accompanying social unrest, which is a bit of a leap.

“Such people [entrepreneurs] are bound to be discouraged by the new high-tax regime towards which we are drifting under Labour, which after 14 years of being ‘new’ is reverting to its old, high-spending self.”

The gap between the richest and the poorest in our society is wider than its ever been and considerably larger than in the 70s. The argument suggests that people will be put off earning money, for fear of having it taxed. Which is dubious, and implies the equally dubious ‘trickle down’ theory which practice has proven to be false². A better way of ensuring that the engines of the economy kept spinning would be to keep business taxes low, while still cadging a little bit more off those who can afford it. Which is exactly what the Chancellor did. And if Stephen believes that those earning in excess of £100,000 are the ‘not-so-rich’, then I don’t want to know how poor most of us are.

“By 2014, Government debt is projected to be 57 per cent of GDP, higher even than it was in 1976 when a stricken Labour Government had to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund.”

This comparison is slightly misleading, as much of the debt currently held is not debt in the conventional sense but distressed assets which may well turn a profit for the taxpayer. On top of that, the government didn’t look for a loan from the IMF to solve it’s debt problem (that would be silly – a loan, to pay a loan) but due to the precipitous fall in the value of sterling caused by the balance of payments crisis and the high price of oil. Suggesting a link between the two as if the current debt foreshadows another loan from the IMF verges on scaremongering.

“Another depressing parallel with the early Seventies is the absence of strong Tory policies that differentiate the party from Labour.”

Just to finish off, if our impending doom weren’t enough, no one is around to save us. Except politics is very different now than it was in the 70s. The lack of distinguishability between the two parties is a result of the homogenisation around the centre of British politics – Labour have become more like the Tories. The Labour of today, even with their slight retreat from their ‘New’ heights under Blair, are unrecognisable from the party of the 70s. Again the analogy of the 70s suggests a more worrying similarity than actually exists – as evinced by doing a search on the Conservatives’ website for “smaller state”.

An arguments by analogy stands or falls on whether the two things being compared are similar. The present and the 70s are superficially so, in that they both had recessions, but the political and social situations were completely different. Glover goes through his article overlooking that, suggesting by implication that the recessions will have the same paths and same outcomes. The dissimilarities mean he is not entitled to draw that conclusion. I wouldn’t be worrying about burying your relatives yet.


¹ He’s also, very clearly and simply, wrong: upholding the law implies being within it, the fact that the guilty sometimes walk free for lack of evidence instead of being fitted up is a mark of a job done properly.

² The graph covers a period of predominantly low taxes for higher earners, which were ideologically justified on the basis that the best way to make everyone rich was to allow the rich to get very rich. The wealth would trickle down. It hasn’t, as the graph happily shows.

Strange Ontology: Week beginning 17th November 2008

Haven’t heard back from the editor on whether the Mail has any interests in purple tomatoes and we haven’t had them name-checked all week, so we can only assume their regular occurrence was coincidental and not nefariously intentioned. Interesting, we seem to revisit the Cuzick et al (2008) story (Troublesome hot flushes ‘are a sign breast cancer drugs are working’, originally 30th October), but with sufficiently few details that you wouldn’t know it and with the resultant percentages changed. I could be wrong, but I can’t find another study which fits the description. We also get the Mail providing some balance, citing studies to support and criticise a position (Exercise cuts the risk of cancer – but only if you get at least seven hours sleep, study finds) – which
is admirable. The Lahman et al (2007) paper in all of that is open source.

New Research

17th November

Women with breast cancer ‘live longer’ with group therapy and Counselling cuts stress levels to double chances of surviving breast cancer, say researchers

A report on: Anderson et al (2008) Psychologic intervention improves survival for breast cancer patients, Cancer, doi: 10.1002/cncr.23969

Health news: Bad side effects that are a blessing, a bacteria to help the elderly and how to avoid gagging at the dentist

A report on: Cuzick et al (2008) Treatment-emergent endocrine symptoms and the risk of breast cancer recurrence: a retrospective analysis of the ATAC trial, Lancet Oncology, doi: 10.1016/S1470-2045(08)70259-6

18th November

Exercise cuts the risk of cancer – but only if you get at least seven hours sleep, study finds

A report on: McClain et al (2008) Association between physical activity, sleep duration, and cancer risk among women in Washington County, MD: A prospective cohort study, poster at the Seventh Annual AACR International Conference on Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research, 16-19 November


A report on: Leitzman et al (2008) Prospective study of physical activity and risk of postmenopausal breast cancer, Breast Cancer Research, doi:10.1186/bcr2190


A report on: Lahman et al (2007) Physical Activity and Breast Cancer Risk: The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition, Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention 16: 36-42

20th November

Smoker’s friend: How broccoli and cabbages may offer ‘special cancer protection’ to heavy smokers

A report on: Tang at al (2008) Cruciferous vegetable intake is inversely associated with lung cancer risk among smokers, poster at the Seventh Annual AACR International Conference on Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research, 16-19 November

Scientists are a step closer to creating ‘elixir of life’

A report on: Tomás-Loba et al (2008) Telomerase Reverse Transcriptase Delays Aging in Cancer-Resistant Mice, Cell, 135: 609-622


A report on: Fauce et al (2008) Telomerase-Based Pharmacologic Enhancement of Antiviral Function of Human CD8+ T Lymphocytes, The Journal of Immunology, 181: 7400-7406.

Original New Scientist story is here.

Causes in brief

20th November

Big six fast-food chains pledge to slash fat and salt in historic anti-obesity shift

“‘Poor diet is known to influence the risk of cancer, heart disease and other conditions”


17th November

Skin cancer vaccine ‘to be ready in five years,’ says leading scientist

A report on an address Dr Frazer was giving to The Australian Health and Medical Research Congress. His press release on the address is here.

20th November

The text nurse: Mobile phone ‘diary’ allows people with diabetes and asthma to monitor their own health

Although the story mentions a talk given here, it’s essentially an ad for these guys.

21st November

10,000 Britons die needlessly every year as GPs with out-of-date training miss vital cancer symptoms

A write-up of this press release, based on Cancer Research UK’s own research.

see also: MAIL COMMENT: Time to help the many

Cure for cancer may be delayed by years after callous thieves stole top researcher’s laptop

“A top surgeon who has dedicated his career to discovering a cure for skin cancer has lost years of critical research after callous thieves stole his laptop.”

Revealed: Star Wars-style ‘light sabre’ to destroy cancer cells

A write-up of this press-release. The only paper the two authors appear to have written on the subject thus far is Paterson et al (2005) Photoporation and cell transfection using a violet diode laser. Optics Express 13: 595-600.

Exposed: The sinister secrets of Labour’s party list

Were it not for the fact that it’s been a very quiet week, I wouldn’t have bothered with this column by Littlejohn, not least because this blog is in danger of starting to revolve entirely around him. This would be a mistake – his writing is designed to upset people such as myself as much as they are to inspire his disgusted readership – posting on him, up to a point, only gives him attention that his views don’t really merit. Having said that, the opinions of others deserve a fair hearing. So here we go again:

“Back in 1997, Tony Blair claimed that the party was nothing less than the political wing of British people as a whole.”

Which is more or less accurate, but taken out of context. To take a similar example, a part claiming to be ‘the vanguard of the proletariat’ does not claim to be ‘made up of the proletariat’ but ‘vanguard leading the proletariat’. It was a hyperbolic exaggeration even at the time, but Blair’s Labour came a lot closer to having the support of the nation as a whole than anyone had recently.

“But the list of members posted on a website shows it to be a declining rump of lecturers, school teachers, social workers, trade union officials and former councillors.”

Not quite: union officials, lecturers and teachers in particular have left the party in droves, objecting to marshal policies in Iraq (and, before that, in the Balkans), micromanagement in education and PPIs. The rump of the party is what it always was – blue collar workers and those in the public sector. Like nurses, and policemen. Incidentally, what’s wrong with teachers now – how is their support to the detriment of a party?

“Many of them have never had a proper job in their lives and harbour dubious histories, in some cases descending into outright criminality.”

Littlejohn is a professional journalist and broadcaster. History is the past. Having committed a crime does not disbar you from holding political opinions.

“They include a significant number of extremists, including plenty who previously belonged to an assortment of Trotskyite and Communist organisations – facts they have tried to conceal from the public.”

Given the number of ideas that are possible, the probability that the first ones you hold are correct is very, very small. Even smaller if you’re a Trot. The fact that Labour members have moved on (and if you think that they haven’t, you’ve mistread Trotsky) to the point where they don’t really want to be reminded of their student beliefs is actually quite encouraging. We certainly can’t use it as a smear: the fact that someone used to think something but now doesn’t talk about it or act on it is not the same as them still thinking it. By the by, who are these brave socialist extremists? Where is the Revolution?

“Some people may be shocked at the news that one of Labour’s most senior figures had been involved in a massive pensions swindle and is also wanted in connection with the disappearance of billions of pounds’ worth of Britain’s gold bullion and foreign exchange reserves.”

A slight misrepresentation: although you could call Brown’s abolition of dividend tax a  ‘swindle’ because he knowingly relocated £5 billion a year from pensions to the Exchequer¹, it wasn’t actual stealing, merely a decision to tax income that wasn’t previously taxed. It reduced earnings for pensions relative to a future in which the decision hadn’t been made, but that’s not the same as theft. And our bullion and foreign exchange didn’t disappear, they were sold off. Arguably foolish, but not malign. People may be shocked when you put it like that, but that’s because you’ve deliberately misrepresented it.

“Approached by reporters, he refused to answer questions and blamed everything on the Americans.”

Not everything – the comments I’ve come across relate to the sub-prime crisis starting in America, which it did. Again, this may well have been more luck than judgement, but the problems of defaulting mortgages have, so far, been much smaller over here so far. It would also be somewhat unfair to blame Brown entirely for a problem with its roots in policies Labour inherited which encouraged people to own their own home. Property fetishism didn’t start under Labour, however much they failed to restrict it.

“Another leading light is a serial offender who obtained a mortgage by deception, was guilty of an outrageous stamp duty scam and was sacked for selling passports.”

Another misrepresentation: the mortgage provider in question investigated and said “Having completed this review, I am satisfied that the information given to us at the time of the mortgage application was accurate., the resignation related to a potential conflict of interests relating to the source of his second loan². He was also cleared of dodgy dealings relating to passports, having resigned to clear his name.

“He is also suspected of using his previous position at the European Commission to do favours for a businessman who has been linked with the Russian underworld in exchange for lavish hospitality.”

‘Suspected’ is the key word here – as trade commissioner, it was his job to meet foreign metals dealers. The idea that the lavish hospitality on offer that his office provided him with was sufficiently poor that it could be trumped by the mere yacht of a Russian arriviste underestimates the opulence of the EU.

“One of Labour’s most prominent members is a school teacher from Redditch, who has an insatiable appetite for punishment and correction and is known simply by her chat room name: ‘Jackboots Jacqui’.”³

Again with the teachers, it’s mystifying. And is Littlejohn against punishment and correction now? That’s unfair – the death penalty has nothing to do with correction, and the sort of punishment he’s thinking about are fines for failing to obey restrictions on bins and speeding. The S&M jibe doesn’t really cover that – some sort of play on the nanny state would probably have been more apposite – but I suppose it’s his article. Again though, ‘punishment and correction’ is a bit of a misreading of the intention to modify behaviour with stick rather than carrot. It’s not the stick that is the purpose of the exercise, it’s merely the method.

“On the afternoon we contacted her at the address listed, she told our reporter that he had been a very naughty boy, demanded to see his identity card and said everything he did was being recorded on CCTV and may be used against him on YouTube.”

Note, however – when the observation is happening to a private individual at the hands of the press, that’s a fine and glorious thing.

“Another couple, from Yorkshire, collect in the region of £600,000 a year from the British taxpayer. We went to the property they list as their primary residence for expenses purposes, only to be told that they spend most of their time at an address in London, where their children go to school.”

For those that missed it, here is the Parliamentary Standards Committee’s on that particular couple. As previously mentioned, the tax man benefited from Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper’s misjudgement.

“One Labour MP, from Sheffield, threatened to set his dog on journalists attempting to question him about his relationship with a wealthy American magazine publisher and his involvement in fast-tracking a visa for her nanny. He then burst into tears.”

And now we’re getting laughs from a blind man and his guide dog? Although, for once, the point about the minister is correct – Blunkett was criticised by Alan Budd’s report into the nanny’s visa decision, saying “I believe I have been able to establish a chain of events linking Blunkett to the change in the decision on Mrs Casalme’s application.”

“Another veteran Labour member lists his occupation as ‘ship’s steward’, but further inquiries revealed he lives in a turreted, baronial-style mansion with two Jaguars in the drive. How he managed to rise to high office without any apparent intelligence, manners, charm or O-levels, remains a mystery.”

Prescott is an interesting target, as he is actually part of what Richard refers to as ‘the real economy’, and Richard isn’t a fan of intellectuals. The only objection I can see is that he’s a bit nouveau – but aren’t we all? It’s also a fairly weak objection, when set against someone clearly intelligent enough to be repeatedly elected (regardless of O-levels, which don’t measure intelligence but attainment, which is something distinct), and actually quite charismatic if not exactly charming. And can we really claim a man isn’t socialist when the grace and favour house in question is owned by the state?

“The website also records one Anthony Lynton Blair as a member of the party. When challenged about it, at his elegant home in Connaught Square – ‘Chez Negative Equity’ – he laughed at the suggestion.”

He’s lost me – I must have missed that one.

“The leaked details also reveal the staggering fall in membership of the Conservative Party since 2005. The names of everyone considered potentially racist, homophobic, Eurosceptic, doubtful about global warming, or even vaguely Thatcherite, have been crossed out.”

A nice touch this, reminding us that all politicians are dodgy, not just those in power. Although surely making the party less unpleasant to minorities is a good thing?  Eurosceptics still have a place on the Conservative Party website, science supports global warming (presumably making science Tory), and the Tory leader recently said this: “Nearly 20 years after she left office, Margaret’s achievements appear, if possible, even greater than they did at the time.Nearly 20 years after she left office, Margaret’s achievements appear, if possible, even greater than they did at the time.”

“The few remaining members of the party all went to Eton and are alumni of the notorious Bullingdon Club, which specialised in getting horsewhimperingly drunk and smashing up restaurants.

Shortly after the leak became public, all pictures of the Bullingdon Club were bought up by a wealthy benefactor and taken down from the internet to protect their guilty secret.”

And, once more, we’re back to embarrassing student days.

“The website also illustrates the parlous state of the Liberal Democrats. One former leader lists his address as the Last Chance Saloon Bar, Priory Clinic.”

Just to round off, we’re laughing at alcoholism.

Now, I said at the beginning that the ideas of others deserved a fair hearing – if nothing else because otherwise we don’t know that they’re wrong. Sometimes I wonder though. This is nothing more than a collection of smears, half-truths and inaccurate jibes. He’s clearly aware of actual areas of debatable policy – like Jacqui Smith’s sticks or Gordon Brown’s tax adjustments, but rather than engage with them he goes for the easy option of attacking their characters. Badly. Literally the only mud that sticks in the entire thing regards an ex-Minster’s poor judgement as he tried to repair his collapsing love life. As ever, the whole thing is ill-judged and nasty. I just hope I’ll have something more interesting to play with next week.


¹ Torygraph coverage here, Indie here, Moneyweek here and Auntie Beeb here.

² For those who’ve forgotten, Mandelson received a loan from Geoffrey Robinson, a businessman under investigation by Mandelson’s department.

³ As far as I can make out, this is a sobriquet he’s given her himself.

Strange Ontology: Week beginning 10th November

We must be onto three or four references to the purple tomato now – I’m going to drop them a line to see if there are any interests they’d like to declare. Kwak et al. is open source.

New Research

10th November

How your unique body odour could identify you as effectively as a fingerprint

A report on: Kwak et al (2008) Genetically-Based Olfactory Signatures Persist Despite Dietary Variation PLoS ONE 3: e3591 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003591

Health news: Weight-loss surgery in an hour, gas cure for athlete’s foot and alcohol-free beer that’s good for the heart

A report on: Alvarex et al (2008) Effects of alcohol-free beer on lipid profile and parameters of oxidative stress and inflammation in elderly women Nutrition, doi:10.1016/j.nut.2008.08.005

11th November

Window into mouse’s chest reveals how cancer spreads

A report on: Kedrin et al (2008) Intravital imaging of metastatic behavior through a mammary imaging window Nature Methods, doi:10.1038/nmeth.1269

13th November

Eating tomatoes could help fight a painful womb condition that affects 2 million women in UK

A report on: Dbouk et al. (2008) Lycopene a powerful antioxidant with remarkable antiadhesion effects, Fertility and Sterility, 90, s1: 151.

Hope for millions of women as scientists unlock secret of breast cancer ‘wonder’ drug

A report on: Hurtado et al (2008) Regulation of ERBB2 by oestrogen receptor-PAX2 determines response to tamoxifen Nature, doi:10.1038/nature07483

Causes in brief

11th November

Pay the obese to take a walk: Now the nanny state offers rewards just for losing weight in £30m health drive

‘There are lots of reasons, but the simple, everyday decisions we all make about food and exercise contribute hugely to our biggest health problems, including heart disease and cancer.”

12th November

Why eating GM food could lower your fertility

“British scientists recently unveiled a GM purple tomato they claimed could help people avoid developing cancer. The tomato is high in antioxidants – naturally found in other fresh produce such as blueberrys, cranberries and carrots – which are seen as a protection against ill health.”

15th November

Britain’s ‘Erin Brockovich’ wins landmark battle against pesticides being spread on fields near homes

“Symptoms [reported by those living close to fields treated with pesticides] included rashes, itching, sore throats, burning eyes, blistering, headaches, nausea, stomach pains and burnt vocal chords. Many had developed cancer, asthma and ME.”


12th November

The ‘intelligent pill’ that helps the medicine go down exactly where it’s needed

See the AAPS press release promoting their conference here.

Welcome to Britain, land of the rising scum…. We’ve cornered the market on welfare layabouts, drug addicts and feral gangs

Another one I’m not going to spend too much time on, because it says everything it needs to. No point, no arguments, and no conclusion. Just overtones of misplaced superiority, self-pity and nihilistic defeatism.

“Then again, they could just have been scum.

You know what? I’ve just thought about it again. I’m going with scum. Sorry, but there’s no other word for it.”

The word he’s looking for is ‘people’.

For years he made fun of the absurd, gold-plated public sector jobs in the Guardian. As unemployment in the REAL world heads for 3m, Littlejohn’s patience runs out

Rather unimaginative column today from Richard Littlejohn, in that it’s clearly (another) well rehearsed argument¹, but also in the sense that it rests on the premise that if Richard can’t think of a reason for something, that thing must be useless.

“But you have to ask why the NHS needs equalities and human rights ‘champions’.”

Well, off the top of my head: because we’d like everyone to have access to treatment from, and employment within, the NHS. Not only is that demanded by justice, but in the long-run will ensure we’re all healthier.

“Barnet Council, in North London, is desperately seeking a Head of Internal Audit and Ethical Governance, on £80,000 a year, plus the usual perks. How on earth have they managed without one all these years?”

As one of the comments on this column points out – it’s actually a very good question². Without auditors, who would keep a track on spending? If Barnet have genuinely been operating without one, that’s a bad thing.

He even manages to tacitly acknowledge the usefulness of one group in his rogues’ gallery, while busily reaching the opposite conclusion

“There was the great Aids scare, when no self-respecting council could bear to be without an army of HIV prevention workers. At one stage, I worked out there were more people in Britain earning a good living from Aids than were actually dying from it.”

Somehow here the lack of deaths from Aids is proof that the prevention workers weren’t necessary, not that they were a good investment that reaped results – obviously they couldn’t have been, because they were local government employees. This cynicism is circular – the job must be useless, because it was created within the public sector, and the fact that it is useless confirms that jobs created by the public sector are useless. This argument reaches its fulfillment somewhat unexpectedly in:

“Local government, in particular, is increasingly a conspiracy against the paying public, extracting ever more taxes in exchange for an ever-worsening level of provision. They’re more interested in dreaming up exciting new rules, fines and punishments and finding elaborate excuses for not doing what we pay them for  –  such as emptying the dustbins once a week.”

If we were putting together an argument, logically building up from our premises and the evidence we had, and we reached that conclusion, it would be safe to say that we’d got something wrong. What it claims is no less than that public bodies, across the nation, are actively and deliberately deciding that rather than achieve the aims of the democratic bodies from which their legitimacy stems, they will make life harder for people for no better reason than that they don’t like doing what they were originally appointed to do. On the balance of probabilities, it’s not a conclusion that does too well.

The reason conclusion is ridiculous is that the premises don’t stand up, entirely due to Littlejohn’s imaginative failings – local government is necessarily a Utopian exercise and his view of the improved society is very different from that of the person appointing lesbian defence instructors. The latter’s involves vulnerable members of the community being protected so they can play a full role in it; Richard can’t imagine that as a reason, even as he motivates his argument on the vulnerability of the those in the ‘competitive’ economy. The idea that there might be a good basis for these posts is never considered, entirely because he can’t see that there are inequities to resolve. His utopia doesn’t encompass the marginalised, the vision of a better world is this one but with more security and money for the lower middle-classes. The posts don’t benefit him, so he can’t imagine that they are beneficial.

This limited view of the world will ensure that he will always feel that people are misspending his money – as times change, the marginalised change, and so do the drains on taxes for him to object to. I hope for his sake that his patience hasn’t really run out, because there’ll be a lot more to come.


¹ “My columns and TV shows have featured regular Nice Work If You Can Get It sections, diligently spotlighting the ingenious and often hilarious jobs invented by councils and quangos to expand their empires and devour our taxes.”

² Its worth clarifying that the role of internal audit is to help management identify and manage its risks across all parts of the organisation. I am sure you will agree, especially given the global financial crisis, that helping to create a culture of risk awareness and ensure a professional approach to the management of the many risks facing any given organisation (not just local authorities), is in fact a very worthwhile investment.” – Phil Gray, Communications Director, Institute of Internal Auditors.

Beware this Saudi deal to help bail out Britain. It comes with a devastating IOU

In some ways, Melanie Phillip’s column today is quite surprising. It is surprising how many times we must relive global conspiracies to enslave us all: the Elders of Zion were fictional, the Yellow wasn’t a Peril, the Illuminati and the Masons had their eyes set on nothing higher than getting decent tee-times at the country club. Every messianic theory of global infiltration and control by a minority has been proved wrong. And so, to give away the ending, is this fear that the Saudis are coming.

“No, this loan comes with a devastating IOU — nothing less than a big slice of control over Britain and the West by a regime at the heart of the attempt to bring about the Islamisation of the free world.”

Right. Not content with unaffiliated extremists killing a few thousand people in terrorist acts, the Saudis and the wider conspiracy of Islamic believers are trying to buy the UK. At which point, they’ll Islamise it, Changing Rooms style.

This fundamentally misunderstands both the request for investment in the IMF which prompted this fear, and the concept of investment itself. The International Monetary Fund is an international lending body which lends to countries in financial trouble in return for reforms which it believes will prevent the trouble reoccurring. There is a tendency for these reforms to be perceived as more beneficial to the Western backers of the IMF than they are to those  countries receiving the money, making it something of a controversial body. With much of their money tied up at home, traditional funders of the IMF are facing difficulties when the body is confronted by the possibility of several large countries failing at once. Since someone like Hungary collapsing into bankruptcy would cause further damage to the IMF’s usual backers, Gordon Brown went eastward to see if he could find new funding to keep the Fund, and its beneficiaries, solvent. Understandably, putting more money into a body should mean more influence, which Brown took as an opportunity to move the IMF from its controversial past by encouraging new thinking from Brazil, China, India, Saudi Arabia and other potential backers.

If the call is heeded, this should mean a reduction in conditions attached to loans like ‘privatise all state-owned utilities’, ‘remove all import tariffs’ and ‘allow international ownership of your banking sector’. It almost certainly won’t lead to conditions like ‘stone adulterers’ or ‘make women wear veils’. As conditions, those won’t improve the ability of borrowers to repay their loans or avoid requiring them in the future, so aren’t relevant to the IMF’s aims. Were any strings liked to cultural dilution attached to loans, they would most likely be rejected and the system would collapse – while countries could accept bitter medicine which might make them better, no one is going to take something which is just bitter and indebting.

Even if Brown hadn’t been talking about the IMF, but had just been making a direct call to invest more widely in the British economy, as the reference to Manchester City implies, this wouldn’t lead to ‘Islamisation’ but merely to wider ownership and investment by Islamic-owned companies and governments. The needs of the British company wouldn’t change: they would still need to operate at a profit, obey equal opportunities and anti-discrimination laws and justify their actions to markets and existing shareholders. The most influence they could exert on the cultural life of the nation would be through proselytising their workforce, which would be of limited impact.

We could carry on with this level of detail for Phillips’ other examples of creeping and creepy Islamic influence, but would be missing the point. How menacing we find the spectre of an Islamic conspiracy considering the squabbling diversity of the faith and the social and demographic challenges of its heartland is debatable. However, a minimum it would require to be worth worrying about would be a way of achieving its aims. Phillips doesn’t offer this. All we have is an illustration of what things look like through a prism of paranoid fear: the mere fact of funding for cultural studies centres at universities is evidence that something dodgy must be going on; Saudi threats to stop co-operating on intelligence if they were embarrassed in the British courts is proof they want Britons dead; the development of Islamic banking is a deliberate scheme to somehow undermine the current system of non-Islamic banking. How these threats advance ‘Islamisation’ is undefined. They are menacing purely because their source is menacing.

The fear is vague. I don’t think Phillips herself could say why IMF funding is frightening, what control over British lives she thinks it will mean. She just knows that the Saudis are bad, thus what they do must have bad results.

“I fear the British Prime Minister is in danger of selling this country to those who are intent upon undermining our most treasured freedoms.”

I think she can probably relax. Stopping to think about why she is scared would be enough to calm the nerves.

Strange Ontology: Week beginning 3rd November

A couple of things: the Kakizaki paper is open access, wine this week helps you eat what you like and still not die, and I’ve had to introduce an ‘other’ section, for products the Mail is pimping. For the record, other colours of tomato are available. Can we stop now please?

New Research

3rd November

Women who sleep less than six hours a night are more likely to develop breast cancer, experts warn

A report on: Kakizaki et al (2008) Sleep duration and the risk of breast cancer: the Ohsaki Cohort Study, British Journal of Cancer, 99, 1502–1505.

Allergies are the body’s defence against cancer, say scientists

A rehash of the story of 29th October, see last week for details

4th November

The ‘credit card’ health scan that can detect hundreds of diseases

A report on: Nordling et al (2008) Giant Magnetoresistance Sensors. 1. Internally Calibrated Readout of Scanned Magnetic Arrays, Anal. Chem., 80, 7930–7939.


Nordling et al (2008) Giant Magenetoresistive Sensors. 2. Detection of Biorecognition Events at Self-Referencing and Magnetically Tagged Arrays, Anal. Chem., 80, 7940–7946.

6th November

New hope for cancer sufferers as scientists decode patient’s entire genome for first time

A report on: Ley et al (2008) DNA sequencing of a cytogenetically normal acute myeloid leukaemia genome, Nature, 456, 66-72.

Causes in brief

5th November

Imported soft fruit and flowers could disappear from Europe after EU decision to ban pesticides on health grounds

“Euro MPs want the restrictions introduced on health grounds, amid fears the chemicals involved could cause ill-health and even cancer.”

The red wine weight loss wonder drug that lets you eat junk food

“Previous studies have endowed resveratrol with the ability to ward off a host of ills, from old age to heart disease, cancer, obesity and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Although the body of the article is a report on: Feige et al (2008) Specific SIRT1 Activation Mimics Low Energy Levels and Protects against Diet-Induced Metabolic Disorders by Enhancing Fat Oxidation, Cell Metabolism, 8, 347-358.

8th November

Why FIBRE is the one F-word you will want to hear

“However, emerging studies have found many other benefits from eating fibre, particularly in the fight against cancer.”

I caught hepatitis C at birth – but now I’m cured

“Although hepatitis C is often symptomless, some people suffer fatigue, aches, anxiety and loss of appetite. Long-term infection causes liver damage and can lead to liver failure and liver cancer. Left untreated it can dramatically shorten life expectancy.”


4th November

New test could slash ovarian cancer deaths

Essentially an ad for these guys.

8th November

Pioneering all-in-one treatment to ease agony of radiotherapy

I’m stumped on this one, although the Camden New Journal published a report on the recruitment on 4th October.

How my purple tomato could save your life

No longer new research. Please can we move on now?

Why DO women have these tramp stamps?

I almost wasn’t going to blog this column from Liz Jones, because aesthetic opinions can’t be right or wrong, but then I hit the conclusion:

“She [a concentration camp survivor] is proud of her tattoo, an indelible reminder of mankind’s inhumanity to man. Her disfigurement is a badge of courage, not a woolly-headed fashion statement.”

As ever, the column isn’t entirely sure what it wants to be. It starts off solidly enough as a ‘aren’t tattoos awful‘ piece, with tints of ‘isn’t society in decline’ as everyone starts to take on these awful fashion symbols. It then collapses into a list of people who have tats, and where they have them¹, followed by a little history, some ‘tattoos are stupid, in addition to being ugly’ and a barnstorming finish by way of comparing meaningful tattoos to vacuous ones. Liberally sprinkled throughout is some glorious snobbery (“[Tattoos] merely detract from [Angelina Jolie’s] beauty, rendering her cheap and hopelessly common”) and hyperbole (” tattoos, the most tasteless, tacky, tawdry, terrible plague to infect our nation since mad cow disease”²), as we discover that the negative judgement of tattoos has more to do with the sort of people who have them (Dame Mirren’s is fine) than anything actually intrinsically wrong.

To try and pad this out slightly, the second half of the column aims at undermining arguments for tattoos, while resolutely looking past the most obvious one: some people might disagree on points of aesthetics with Liz, and genuinely believe them to look nice. In the same way that expensive handbags do. Or, in the way Angelina Jolie does. In this sense, they need not be any more “a load of self-indulgent b******s” than any other kind of adornment. ‘Scarring’ is, in this light, the wrong term.

Possibly understanding that there wouldn’t be much of a column in ‘aren’t tattoos awful, even if their uptake shows that people disagree with this judgement’, Liz moves on to misinterpreting symbols:

“It is as if the person is trying to say: ‘I love my son/boyfriend/wife more than you love yours.'”

It needn’t be a competition – maybe it is merely an outward sign to the loved one, after the fashion of a wedding ring. Although, obviously, more permanent than a wedding ring (and, arguably, more impressive as a result). The ‘it’s as if’ is entirely Liz’s own take on it – a perceiving of aggressive intent when the benefit of the doubt was a more obvious alternative.

Then she misreads the interplay between belonging and rebellion. Although social mores are a natural target for rebellion, founded as they tend to be by generations other than ones own and thus invested with values that you have not created but merely had passed down, it needn’t be that large scale³. Courting parents disapproval, or challenging the expectations attached to the role of Tory-leader’s-wife would do quite well. Symbols of belonging and allegiance can also be rebellious – combining examples, a teenager wearing the name of their first love is a way of rebelling against their parents through the display of new commitments. Rebelling implies the holding of alternative values, a owning of them and belonging to the group which shares them which you can display in ink.

This lack of understanding of symbols informs the seemingly tenuous conclusion that only concentration camp tattoos are worth being proud about, while a better understanding would have proved the opposite. The Nazi’s tattoos were brands – imposed and unwanted. They symbolise a shared suffering, but also a shared endurance and survival. The pride lies in the object of the representation, not the tattoo which is the representation. In exactly the same way, we can have pride in the commitment symbolised by the name of a loved one, or the achievement of the rebellion in upsetting Tory grandees. One could even take pride in marking oneself out as sharing different ideas from Liz Jones, if one disagreed with her. And if you can do that while adorning yourself in a way you find aesthetically pleasing, I say go for it.


¹ Stat watchers may have noticed 14 of the 40 sentence in the piece (not including picture captions) refer to named individuals, which is a little more than a third.

² And notice the sound of a metaphor breaking as it tries to carry too much weight – tattoos are a plague in as far as they are a bad thing and widespread, but not in as far as they are tawdry, tacky or tasteless. Those aren’t the defining features of a plague, hence them resolutely failing to apply to Mad Cow Disease.

³ Although the very fact that it does still upset Liz shows that tattoos still work as a way of breaking with the values of the previous generation.