Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Cone Man

or "How I stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Cone".

Some jobs are tougher than others. Lion-tamer. Rodeo bull rider. Sewer cleaner. Wacko Jacko's publicity agent. It's tough out there.

My all-time favourite is cone-man. When I was in the classroom, I often launched into my “Cone-Man Routine” in response to the teachers' perennial favourite, “Why do we have to learn English?”

First choice answer was, “Because I said so. Shut up and get on with it!” When that wasn't successful, I might say, “So that you do not have to learn to say,””Would you like fries with your Big Mac?”” - or - “I'm sorry, we only have Macdonald's cola.” My last stop – Cone-Man.

I first saw the cone men in a late night documentary which (to my endless aggravation and chagrin) I didn't tape. It has, to my knowledge, never been repeated on TV. All of us have been annoyed at times by the plastic cones on motorways – used to cone-off lanes so that the road crews can work there safely. Or, perhaps, more safely than standing naked and unprotected in the midst of tons of hurtling metal might be more accurate. Anyway, you get the idea. The cones are there to protect the road workers. But, how do the cones get there in the first place I hear you ask?

I never thought about this until I saw the documentary about Cone Men. The cones don't appear magically, like garden gnomes. Oh no, cone men put them there.

Therefore, in an educational environment, Cone-Man is the ultimate deterrent to poor classroom behaviour and the nonpareil of the motivation stakes. “We are doing English so that you do not have to be a Cone Man when you grow up (aside – if ever!) becomes the ultimate deterrent!!

Here's how it works. Picture a crew of four men and a small open-topped van filled with cones. One man has a brain. He is, thankfully, in charge. He drives along the hard shoulder until he reaches the point where the cones are to be placed. He stays in the van. Told you he was the one with the brain. Say, the outside lane needs to be coned. Smeg-head numero uno hops out of the van, grabs a cone from the back, sprints across the motorway, places his cone neatly where it belongs, sprints back across the motorway, grabs another cone and repeats the process. Oh yes, I forgot. He passes his mates, Smeg-Brain and Numptie-Brain in the process. Much more interesting if you have three lads sprinting across the motorway at the same time. Gives the drivers at least a sporting chance of hitting one of them! Got the idea? Van-man drives slowly down the hard shoulder as they place cones for miles and miles. All the time, cars are being funneled into an ever-decreasing space. What the hell! Somebody's got to do it! To give the Cone Men at least a sporting chance, they do this late at night or early in the morning. It's only fair.

Eventually, they get all the cones out. Unfortunately, that's not the end of it, thanks to the “Cone Hot-line” Remember this one? The public rings a number to report cone problems on the motorway. Cone Men have to fix it.

“Hello, Cone Hot Line, how can I help you?”

“I'd like to report a missing cone, please.”

“Ok, where is it?”

“Junction 8 of the M6.” (For those who are blissfully ignorant, this is the epitome of motorway junctions and to real Cone Men - or Real Men of Cone if you prefer - attains the same mythological status as Davey Jones' Locker.)

“(Groan, groan), Ok, thank you, we'll get it fixed.”

And it's the cone men who have to risk death or serious injury to fix it.

Despite the fact that Cone Men were a marvelous motivational tool for the classroom, there is a very serious side to this. Perhaps cone men are not the most intellectually gifted members of the gene pool; perhaps they have the social graces of a chimpanzee's jock strap, maybe they will not inherit the earth – but they are performing an essential service that few others want to do.

As long as they do not try to dilute the human genome by reproducing, I say, “Thanks a lot guys – keep dodging those trucks!” Otherwise our roads would be in worse shape than they are.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


How fiction mimics real life

Avid readers of this blog (there must be some?) will remember my incisive analysis of how James Michener's novel, Caravans (12 June), echoes some of the difficulties encountered by coalition forces in Iraq as they strive to bring order to what is essentially a tribal and fractured society. Literature often apes life.

Another interesting literary parallel can be found in Dune by Frank Herbert. This is one of the best books ever written. Read it. It is thoroughly excellent.

Herbert's clever use of historical fact to draw the reader into his imaginary world of space and time has never been equaled. His imaginary world is the desert planet, Arrakis, populated by the “Fremen” whose religion is a quasi-distillation of Islam here on Earth – made all the more powerful by exposure to mysticism and the harsh living conditions of the planet. Coupled with their sense of being persecuted, conditions are ripe for jihad as the Freman explode across the galaxy under the leadership of their mystical fanatic leader, Paul Muad'dib.

Sound familiar?

It ought to, for it is similar to the conditions which have been the root cause of much of the violence in Iraq and the sense of dissatisfaction felt by Muslim minorities throughout the Middle East. Dune would be a very popular book if you were a fundamentalist, jihadist cleric seeking to foment anti-western feelings. Perhaps, fortunately, such preachers are unlikely to be fans of science fiction. Perhaps they are. We may never know. What we can say is that the present Muslim population of this planet feels that they are being “got at” and are not happy about it. Today's news that the authorities in the Netherlands are seeking to ban some Muslim dress for women on the grounds that the (normally super tolerant) Dutch need to be able to see someone in order to interact with them will send another shock wave of discontent throughout many law-abiding Muslims.

The tradition of science fiction being in tune with prognostication goes back a long way.

Disregarding Nostradamus the line can be traced from Galileo through Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov to Arthur C. Clarke. Today's science fiction is tomorrow's science fact.

When religion, any religion, becomes entangled with an “accepted” set of science principles; we are in big trouble. The fact that many authors are (seemingly) able to predict the scientific future says more, probably, about science than we care to admit. The “known unknowns” seemingly greatly outnumber the “unknown unknowns” - otherwise it wouldn't be so easy to predict the next great leap forward.

If only we could this principle to the problems in the Middle East, things might be working out much better. In the mean time, if you need a good read find a copy of Dune. You may be surprised at how much of the fiction applies literally today.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Pop or Other Idols?

Perhaps the most enduring, positive feature of blogs is the ability to stimulate debate on topics that may not be popular. I'm into that today.

Yesterday saw the return of the Pop Princess, Kylie Minogue, to the stage in Sydney after a long battle with breast cancer. It would be churlish in the extreme to denigrate her suffering or her determination to overcome disease and return to normal life. I will not do it. But, more important that Kylie's personal victory over disease, is her “power” to inspire others to succeed in their own battles. Here, she has failed – and failed miserably and dangerously.

What is dangerous and miserable about Kylie taking stage in Sydney? She presents not only an unrealistic image of suffering but also a monumental apathy towards the situations and suffering of normal 35 year old women who may be stricken with this terrible disease.

She seems to be saying, “Wow, I've beaten breast cancer, and I'm going straight back to the vacuous life of a pop star.” Is she oblivious to the discordant note she is sounding? Most 35 year old women who conquer cancer return to their family with a determination to pick up their domestic life and make the most of it. Kylie has no domestic life, and she is no “Princess”. She is a 35 year old raunchette. Unrealistic role model raunchette at that. She should grow up and make the most of what time she has left. Hopefully, she is “cured” but that is not a word that is easily applied to breast cancer. She would be a better role model if she quit the pop industry and raised a family. That's what most 35 year olds' might aspire to if they “beat” this terrible disease.

At the same time, Jane Tomlinson continues to astound all. She cycles across the U.S.A. and from Rome to home. She runs marathons. She enters and completes “iron-man” competitions. She tirelessly raises monumental sums for cancer research. She is a marvel.

The real marvel is: this woman has been terminally ill with breast cancer for about six years. Yes, count them, six!

She is the only person with incurable cancer to complete a full Ironman (4km Swim, 180Km bike ride and full marathon – to be done inside 17 hours). Has completed two half Ironmans, the London Marathon 3 times (She’s the only person to do the marathon whilst on Chemotherapy), the New York Marathon and three London Triathlons.

Awarded the MBE by the Queen in 2003, winner of the Helen Rollinson Award at the BBC in 2002, twice recognised at the Sportswoman of the Year Awards, won a Great Briton Award and voted the most Inspirational Woman in Britain in 2003.

A comment from the ubiquitous internet: The terminal cancer tag is just for fund raising, media, publicity.... Go down to the cancer ward and they'll tell you that terminal means a few weeks left to go. Jane (fortunately for her) got the wrong diagnosis and could more correctly termed a 'cancer sufferer' or 'in remission'. Terminal cancer sufferers do not do Ironmans, Triathlons, they die.

This is not the only negative comment you can find about Jane on the net.

My concern is how her heroic exploits – never mind the vagarities of human illnesses (cancer covers a multitude of sins!) - affect the many cancer suffers who are bed-ridden and in terminal decline – too ill to get up, much less run a marathon.

So, whilst I must applaud her charity efforts – she has raised over one million pounds for Cancer research – I'm skeptical about her impact on other suffers. I would be more appreciative of her efforts if she focused more on the debilitating effects of cancer on the majority of suffers rather than her exploits, however courageous.

Last word to a disgruntled netizen: I think it is absolutely disgusting what you have been writing about Jane Tomlinson. She is the most courageous woman I have ever met. Do you realise that her children and family may search on her name and find your website looking for stories about their mum. I am disgusted that there are people out there like you. You should be ashamed of yourselves. What goes around comes around and I hope it certainly does in your case.

You choose!

Friday, November 10, 2006

Burn Your Boats Boys!

Ship Burning

When Cortez landed in North America, he burned his three ships and his soldiers marched -- no going back to Spain.

Right on! That'll teach the squaddies to grumble! I bet. Tough guy that Cortez - or did he know something the soldiers didn't. Namely, that he had signed on a few extra troops - Gen. Malady, Major Smallpox and Corporal Venereal Disease. It would be nice to think Cortez knew what he was doing , but it's unlikely. Most probably he was just lucky – if you call wiping out a thriving culture with a relatively small band of cut-throats lucky, that is.

Cortez was born in Spain. At the age of 19 he sailed for Hispaniola. With Diego Velazquez he conquered Cuba and settled there until 1518 when Velazquez appointed him to lead an expedition to Mexico. With his force of 700 men he landed on the coast of Mexico and founded the settlement of Veracruz. Cortez burned his ships behind him, thereby committing his entire force to survival through conquest.

Bet the troops were happy! Great move, Hernando baby! Here we are, the jolly seven hundred lined up against the whole of the Aztec nation (15 million) and you decide to burn the boats – our only means of escape! Now, that's what we call cajones! We'll follow you anywhere, Big Cajones! And, they did.

In 1520-1521, an outbreak of smallpox swept through the population of Tenochtitlan and was decisive in the fall of the city. It is estimated that between 10% and 50% of the population fell victim to this epidemic. Never mind Hernando's Hideaway – what about Hernando's Takeaway -the speed at which the invaders managed to start a smallpox epidemic is truly breathtaking. The Aztec population was halved in the sixteenth century – mostly through new diseases introduced by the Spanish. The population before the time of the conquest is estimated at 15 million; by 1550, the estimated population was 4 million and by 1581 less than two million. Somewhere the Aztecs seem to have misplaced 13 million people! Thus, the indigenous population of the Central Mexico Valley is estimated to have declined by more than 80% in the course of about 60 years. Now, that's what I call mortality!

If I were less than charitable, I'd guess that Cortez picked some of his minions less for their military prowess and more for their exposure to smallpox. Perhaps he saw what smallpox did to the native population during his time in Cuba. Nevertheless, the result was the complete decimation and destabilization of the Aztec civilization.

Fascinating – I hear you grumble, but where is all this leading?

To a familiar theme I'm afraid. First, a few more statistics (apologies). Only in the 19th and 20th centuries was population increase the norm. Throughout most of documented human history, population numbers have been relatively static. For example: Europe's population fell to two-thirds of its previous levels after the Black Death of 1348. That's a lot of bodies! Big Cajones favourite native-killer, smallpox is a relatively old disease. Only recently has it been considered under control. The disease is at least 3000 years old, confirmed in China and India, with a few isolated cases in North Africa. There is no mention in Europe until the 6th century. This means, obviously, it was unknown in the Americas during the Spanish incursions. Native Americans reached the continent about 12 000 years ago.

During the 17th and 18th Centuries smallpox was the most serious infectious disease in The West and accounted for a substantial proportion of deaths, especially among town dwellers. The mortality rate varied regionally, with 10% in Europe and 90% in America.

These diseases kept human populations relatively stable for millennia. Only recently has population growth become such a destabilizing influence.

To put this into perspective: new research suggests the human race was nearly wiped out 70,000 years ago, when a crisis reduced the population to about 2,000 people. In evolutionary terms, that's not a lot of people and not a lot of years! That's why we are all so closely related, genetically speaking.

And so, we come to bird flu – which is supposed to be the topic today. Told 'ya I'd get there!

We are currently waiting for the bird flu epidemic to strike. We are assured that it is only a matter of time. We are assured that it will be catastrophic. At least a million in the UK will die (that sure puts the Aztecs' suffering into perspective - don't it !). Bird Flu has become the designer disaster; chiefly because it is inevitable, at least that's what the scientists (who should know better) keep telling us. Therefore, we must gear ourselves for the coming crisis. Or, must we?

Of course, if bird flu does jump from species to species it will be a serious event. Many people will die. No amount of preparation will allow us to escape from this threat. It will be a disaster, but not on a biblical scale. Actually, compared to Major Smallpox, Private Bird Flu is a bit like a pimple on the bum of mankind – not a carbuncle.

It is a consequence of our hubris that we “must” believe that a serious natural disaster is just around the corner. What about the mega-volcano underneath Yellowstone National Park? What if the Cumbre Vieja volcano collapses into the Atlantic off Las Palmas – the resulting tsunami (5 – 8 metres would wipe out the East Coast of the U.S.)? What about civilization being plunged into a new Dark Age when the oil runs out? What about mega volcanic eruptions like those that formed the Columbia plateau or the Deccan traps? What about Global Warming, or Global Dimming or Global Thermonuclear War? It's a long list!

Fact is: unless we ascribe to the Cortez solution and burn all our boats, it's likely that it's our own arrogance that is the most likely cause of any disaster – not the myriad of unpredictable and unknowable problems waiting just around the corner.

Bird flu is something to be worried about and prepared for, but it is not likely to be the end of mankind or civilization as we know it. Get over it!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Don't Drop Labour Soap in Your Shower

Is anyone else perplexed by the sudden conversion of “The Tonester” and his new Labour cohorts into the Greenest of the Green? I am. Of course all political parties are entitled to change their tune when they see that the voters have a different hymnal in their hands. But, since everyone knows that governments never plan anything more than a week in advance (a week is a long time in politics) – the spectre of Gordo and Tone “solving” the global warming crisis with a 15 to 20 year plan is more than slightly amusing. It's downright worrying!

After trotting out an “expert” to explain that the whole mess could be “solved” fairly painlessly if we act now, the game was rather given away in the post-match press conference as government spokesman after government spokesman lined up to refuse to rule out the need for tax increases to fund the one percent of GDP that the anti-global warming programme might cost. In other words – watch your wallet. Lots of money (ours) will need to be spent now in order to avert a global warming crisis in 15 to 20 years. Yeah – right!

Never mind that the UK only produces about 2% of global green-house gases. Never mind that the prospect of China, India and the rest of the developing world joining in a plan to limit carbon dioxide emissions is about as likely as George Bush getting the Nobel Peace Prize. Never mind that anyone who questions the need for such a programme is branded as a dangerous nutter! N o, says the government - let's set an example. Let's spend lots of money now on a plan that may not work and may not be necessary. Please, count me out!

Fact is we just don't know enough about climate change to make a plan. A large number of climatologists recognise that the Earth is warming up. Many believe that the greenhouse gases we produce are responsible for much of the warming. Fact is many cannot agree on how much and why the earth is getting warmer.

Trouble is – no one can be sure. We do not have the data. Reliable climate data is a recent development. Past about 150 years ago it does not exist. Yes, we do have tree rings and ice cores – but it's not the same thing as hard data. So, the planet may be warming up. It may be caused by burning fossil fuels. What no-one seems to want to tell you is – it may all be part of a natural cycle we are powerless to stop!

Recognising that I'm not the only one who thinks global warming may (I'm only saying may) be part of the natural cycle of things, I had a quick look on the internet. Have a look at this:

So many people seem to think that what man has done in terms of adding to greenhouse gases has never occurred before in the history of the earth and that we are creating a new process that will 'destroy the world" or some such nonsense. What I mean to point out by distinguishing between the two is that we are functioning within a system that is in continuous flux. There have always been and will always be changes in global temperature, changes in global sea level, etc. What we have to figure out before we cripple our economies and waste trillions of dollars is not only to what degree are we exacerbating the pre-existing process and to what degree we are capable or stopping or reversing that process. For example...if global average temperature has truly changed by 1-2 degrees as some suggest since about 1900, what part of that would or would not have happened without any man-made influence? If our influence only contributed to 10 percent of the change (0.1-0.2 degrees), and we determine that it is only possible to undo about 25% of what we have done through the expenditure of 2 trillion dollars globally, is that reduction of temperature by 0.025 - 0.05 degrees worth that expenditure? or if our models say that if we completely stopped emitting ANY greenhouse gases immediately (impossible obviously) our global temperature will still rise 10 degrees in the next 50 years, would we be better spending our money starting to adapt to the changes that are likely to occur than spending it to undo what we have already done?

Just one of the comments that asks us to consider (just consider) if spending lots of money is really the best plan!!

I admit that this is probably an American gas-guzzling rant; but, nevertheless, there is a serious point here that deserves serious consideration.

Trouble is the government seems to be holding a gun to our head. Anyone who thinks we might want to think about things before we go whole-hog for an ultra-expensive solution is branded as a nutter and told to shut up. Well, it's your money!

Think about it.

Tomorrow I'd like to introduce you to the Little Ice Age – something that no-one seems to be discussing – but something which has a verifiable historical basis – unlike man-made climate change.