Friday, January 31, 2014


It's life Jim, but not as we know it.

Very late in life I have become a philosopher. It doesn't pay much, but it helps to pass the time.

So, what has brought me to this late, great career change?

I was musing (as you do in your dotage) about the arrogance of the human species. Particularly I was thinking about religion and disaster movies. An odd combination – as well you might think.

It seems that humans have an innate capacity for doom-mongering and pessimism. Given a modicum of encouragement, we will cheerfully forecast the end of civilization, the beginning of a new Ice Age, global warming destroying the planet (Soylent Green style!), shale gas fracking causing planetary cataclysms, etc. - and the et etceteras are manifold.

However diverse, these dooms, for which we are seemingly unable to escape, have one unifying feature. We do survive. There is always some remnant of homo sapiens who rebuild the planet and some sort of civilization. We endure. We go on. Our grand children’s grandchildren are born and live their lives. We assume that throughout the débâcle the human species goes on.

It occurred to me that this is not inevitable. There are disastrous scenarios where we do not survive.

For example, take our Sun – Old Sol. It's been cheerfully chugging along for billions of years providing us with all the energy needed for life on our planet to develop and be sustained. It does so with such predictable regularity we assume it's continued predictability is inevitable. It is not. Sometimes stars go “wrong”.

Although this is a remote possibility, it is still a real possibility.

From Wikipedia

“Although no supernova has been observed in the Milky Way since Kepler's Star of 1604 (SN 1604), supernova remnants indicate that on average the event occurs about three times every century in the Milky Way.[5] They play a significant role in enriching the interstellar medium with higher mass elements.[6] Furthermore, the expanding shock waves from supernova explosions can trigger the formation of new stars.”

A comfort, but not an absolute guarantee. Most likely we will have destroyed the planet long before the sun jumps in and does us the favour.

But there is a quantitative difference, other disasters are for the most part survivable. The sun going nova is not.

And here's where philosophy and religion come in. We are often reminded that we are just a speck ( and a very small one at that ) in the cosmos – an insignificant little planet orbiting a very ordinary star.

Except for the earth ending in a kind of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Vogon induced way ( read the book if you don't know what I'm taking about ), we will all die in the nova explosion and, more importantly, so will all evidence that we were ever even here. That's a sobering concept. Imagine some time-warping space traveller arriving in our vicinity some billions of years hence. All that's left is a cloud of dirty dust where our solar system used to be. Everything ever known about the earth and the creatures it once sustained is gone and cannot be reconstructed. It is, for all practical purposes, as if we were never here at all.

This is not science fiction – it's science fact. Nova do occur in the galaxy at a somewhat predictable rate. If we are “unlucky” enough to become such a statistic then it's just hard cheese. We can do nothing about it. Our only hope then is the Voyager 1 ( ) which may, with luck, be found in a distant galaxy in a distant time and cause some real consternation among whichever of God's creatures it ends up.

Training their telescopes on the star pointed out in the diagram plastered on the side of the spacecraft, they might just make out a small nebula and puzzle about who ( or what ) might have made the odd craft they have discovered. ( I suspect our own reaction would be the same should an alien Voyager 1 turn up tomorrow! )

Using the newly acquired Philosopher’s Stone I earlier alluded to religion now becomes far more than the opiate of the people – it becomes imperative for remaining sane.

Leaving aside the objections of The God Delusion and the Voyager spacecraft,
( ) we now need a Supreme Being in order simply to have a little confidence in our existence at all.

This may not scare you – but I confess to looking at things in a slightly different way.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

As Good As It Gets - Open Range

 New Perspectives?

Two American phenomena particularly puzzle the British. Gazing across the Atlantic divide, American's twin obsessions - Obamacare and gun control - seem very hard to understand. Though we may be two peoples divided by a common language, language alone is not sufficient to explain this perplexing and, in many respects, inexplicable conundrum.

Might I suggest that everyone focus on two excellent movies (films for the Brits): Open Range, directed by and starring Kevin Costner; and As Good As It Gets, for which Jack Nicholson won the third of his Best Actor Oscars. If you are not familiar with the work – check out ( and Open Range ( – which many consider to be Kevin Costner's best work.

If you haven't seen both films – I suggest you do: they will give you a neat perspective on guns and docs.

In AGAIG, the crunch scene in my view, comes when Dr Martin Bettes (Harold Ramis) is discovered by Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) – a waitress who Melvin Udall (Nicholson) relies upon to feed his obsessive-compulsive disorder - at her home in Brooklyn and she assumes that a major medical emergency is under-way concerning her perpetually-ill son, Spencer (Jesse James) aged about 10. Why else would a Doctor be at her house?

At the dining table with Dr Bettes and her mother, Carol produces a mountain of medical bills concerning Spencer and explains that he has not been well since he was six-months old. Dr Bettes asks if he has had allergy tests. She replies no – she asked but the “bastard HMO's” said they were not necessary and anyway her medical plan didn't cover them.

Dr Bettes is not upset as he comments that “bastard HMO's” is the technical term for the overworked, hard-pressed junior doctors that commonly treat people in ER.

The Doctor gets a blood sample and his nurse turns up, after commenting she had real trouble finding the house in Brooklyn (same same for Bettes who couldn't find it either). Hey we are talking Brooklyn here not the Moon!

Anyway, he sends the nurse off with the blood and explains that he has to do a lot of tests, but Spencer will soon begin to feel better.

The real humour in the scene comes when Carol asks who she should ring to get the test results and Bettes produces his card (with his home phone number on it) and tells her to ring him. Both Carol and her Mother are flabbergasted that they have a Doctor's home number and offer to become his sex slaves in return.

Carol is quite rightly concerned about the costs involved and is told that they will be considerable, but that Mr Udall (Nicholson) wants to be billed.

The scene has a happy ending as Carol's Mother convinces her that despite her reservations about letting Udall, a seriously crazy man according to Carol, into their lives they must not refuse his help, no matter what.

Although this is just a small part of the film, it is echoed in the predicament of Udall's gay neighbour, Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear) who after being beaten and mugged in his own apartment is forced to move out as he cannot afford the sky-rocketing medical bills.

So, why chose AGAIG to turn the spotlight on Obamacare?

Precisely because it is so unreservedly “upper middle-class”. It gives counterpoint to the idea that Obamacare is just for the poor. It should resonate with any parent who is trying to get affordable healthcare for their family and cannot. The moral here is plain but understated in the film. Good healthcare is only for the rich. If you are a waitress from Brooklyn or a gay artist who has fallen on hard times, tough.

Open Range concerns the other enduring myth - that guns are integral to and inseparable from modern American life. It's the Old West, or at least it's the Old West that Hollywood has so ingrained in our psyche that it has become the Old West that I and millions of Americans believe now to be real.

Costner (Charlie Waite - is the quintessential Western loner, a man scarred by the Civil War who only wishes to be left alone to herd cattle on the open range until his friends are killed or injured by the power-hungry local land owner and cattleman, Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon). He finds love in the person of the local Doctor's sister, Sue Barlow (Annette Benning) and despite his new-found purpose in life sets out with Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) to “set things right”.

The shoot-out which pits Boss and Charlie against Baxter's hired gunman and other assorted henchmen is really the OK Corral revisited. Despite over-whelming odds, Charlie's skill in killing (acquired at great cost to his mental health during the Civil War) enables the good guys to kill all the bad guys and Charlie to redeem himself by marrying Sue. An obligatory ride off into the sunset completes the action.

So, what do we learn?

Europeans have real problems understanding just how effectively the myth of the Old West still endures in America. Getting to grips with guns is not a matter of violating the Constitution - it's even worse – it's the small matter of violating John Wayne. In most States it's still the Wild West where carrying a firearm openly is quite legal if not almost obligatory. In an increasing large number of States carrying a concealed weapon is legal. Why?

Americans believe that carrying firearms prevents crime. Or, more precisely, it deters crime and enables the citizen to protect himself from harm. More importantly it gives the citizen a real stake in his democracy. After all, nothing focus the attention of the citizen more that shooting a bad guy before he shoots you.

In the news today: “EVERYTHING about Curtis Reeves suggested he was a responsible gun owner. A 71-year-old retired police captain and a doting grandfather who once taught gun safety training courses, Reeves had dutifully obtained a Florida state permit allowing him to carry a concealed weapon.
Reeves’s arrest last week on a murder charge, after he pulled out his gun and shot a man who had thrown popcorn at him in a Florida cinema, has added a grim new twist to the American debate about gun control.
Not since Wyatt Earp strapped on a six-shooter and strode off to the OK Corral has American enthusiasm for carrying guns in public become such a contentious issue.
An extraordinary nationwide surge in applications for so-called concealed carry permits has pushed the issue of hidden weapons — and the kind of people who want to carry them to the fore.”

It's essentially the Wild West and until the Hollywood image is overtaken by reality it's unlikely that even tragedies like the above will enable legislation to protect Americans from someone carrying a gun will have any chance of being enacted.
Hollywood has a lot to answer for.

Friday, January 03, 2014

The Road to Hell

South of Thickthorn (revisited yet again)

We got stuck at Elveden again on the way to London to see the folks for Christmas.

I couldn't believe it! It was the middle of the day on a Saturday, December 28th. I kept thinking, “Where are all these idiots going?” (Maybe they were all going to London to see relatives?)

Anyway, being stuck in the jam gave me another opportunity to mull over the progress (or more precisely the lack of progress) of the last bit of dual carriageway to be built, including the Elveden by-pass – opening Winter 2014. Or, if you prefer, another year away.

Snaking along at the pace of a snail with a limp, gives one plenty of time to consider this major road building project. Well, it's a major project if you consider 9 miles of road-building with one small stream to cross a major project. In their defence I must point out that they are taking four years to do it. That alone probably qualifies it as a major project.

One thing I discovered was that they are building at least two fantastically placed devices for the farmers to get from one side of the road to the other. One looks like the Hammersmith fly-over and the other is a very good impersonation of the Dartford tunnel.

Hang on, when the road is completed it's obvious that the farm equipment needs to get from one side to another. Doesn't it?

Wait a minute – the A11 has been struggling through Elveden for a long time – a really long time – like forever. So, I thought, how have the farmers been getting from one side to another in all the years it has been there? I can find no information to this rather puzzling question.

Then I considered other options for the farmer (and ones which might suit the tax-payer more).

First – the geniuses that thought this one up spent a long time building what they called access roads for the farms. In other words, they build nice paved sections a few hundred yards wide of the carriageways so the tractors and such can meander up an down gaining access to the fields.

Wait a minute - how did they access the fields before? I can find no information to this rather puzzling question either.

I have a brilliant solution to this costly problem. At the Thetford end (West side) we build the farmer a nice big storage shed and populate it with all his present machinery. Then at the Barton Mills end (East side) we build another nice big storage shed and populate it with duplicates of everything on the Thetford side – all at the tax-payers expense.

When the day's work begins, the farm workers only have to decide which side of the A 11 they are working on and go to the appropriate shed, collect their equipment and do what farmers do. (If they need to do some work on one side and then move to the other side we have even provided them with a nice new dual carriageway to get from one storage shed to the other) How good is that! And the cost is minuscule compared to the cost of the road – which by the way has escalated from the 30 million original estimate to 110 million.

Brilliant or what!

Whoever planned this project must have learned engineering at the Lego factory and project management at the University of Malawi.

What we have now is a completed bridge at the Barton Mills end, some sections of dual carriageway that are completed (but not joined up) and a bypass around Elveden which may or may not be ready (you cannot tell from the roadway and they won't let you tramp about the countryside to find out).

Here's another plan – a bit too late I readily admit.

First, build the bypass around Elveden first. Then build the one-mile section to join this up to the Thetford end. Then build the rest of the road south of Elveden.

Result? You get around the bottleneck at Elveden before you encounter any hold-up at all.

Make sense? I thought you might agree with me.

Oh yeah, and then think about building poxy little access roads for farmers. In the meantime they can jolly well wait for four years like the rest of us chumps.