Thursday, 20 July 2017

Luci's diary: how to play the puppy. In both senses.

Funny creature, the little one.

I say “little” partly because Toffee really is little, partly because she just goes on behaving like a puppy, which when you get to be nearly eleven months old, you really can’t pretend to be any more. Well, you can pretend, but it fools no one.

Toffee likes to keep playing the puppy
But I'm so mature it sometimes just leaves me yawning
Now me, I’ve put all that puppy-dog stuff behind me. Long since. But then it won’t be long before I’m three. The humans have come to think a bit better of me these days. I can’t go tearing around all over the place like I used to, and Toffee still does.

Not that I don’t miss it, just a little bit. It was fun. Human number 2’s always good for throwing things for a dog. You know, a ball or a soft toy or whatever. But human number 1 always likes to sit at the end of the sofa, near the long end of the room, you know, where the sitting room blends into the dining room. That means when number 2 throw something it has to go beyond her.

Not a problem, of course. We can just jump over her. Or rather, because when you’re a right-sized dog instead of one of those silly giants that seem to inhabit the park these days, you need to have places you can jump to and then from again, once your legs are ready for another effort.

The thing about number 1 is that she has a really nice, comfortable front to land on and take off from again. So I’d land on her before taking the second leap to reach the floor and go skittering and skidding over to the toy, or ball, or whatever that number 2 had thrown.

She didn’t always appreciate that. She’d make a kind of “ouf” noise as though the wind had been knocked out of her, and then, once I’d done it half a dozen times or so, she’d say to number 2, “oh, I think that’s enough now. You don’t need to throw that for her any more. Do you?”

Of course he needed to keep throwing it. But when number 1 says something in that tone of voice, it’s better not to answer the question, but just obey the tone.

“Of course, of course,” he’d say and stop throwing the toy, pretending to concentrate on the telly instead.

Well, these days it’s Toffee that does the jumping. The “ouf” is a little less intense because Toffee is, after all, just a tad littler than I am. As for me, as becomes a near three-year old, I just sit on the back of the couch and watch. With a small trace of envy, I have to admit. It reminds me of carefree times, before I took on the responsibility of a young dog. It would be unbecoming, but there are times when I wish I could do that too.

Still, I think I’ve found a good solution. Now it’s Toffee that bounces on the belly and goes sliding over the slippery floor, her claws scrabbling away, to grab the toy (she particularly favours a little stuffed lion whose nose she’s chewed off). All I do is watch and wait. And when she’s nearly back at the sofa, toy in mouth, panting and expectant, ready to beg number 2 to throw it again, I go into action. Off the sofa I come and dart across the floor like a flash, on an intervention course. And Toffee fails to spot her impending doom every time. Seconds it takes me, sometime barely a second, to grab the toy from her nerveless jaws. Then up I get on the sofa again and refuse to hand if over to number 2 to throw again.

And I growl. How I growl. Toffee knows I don’t mean it but there’s just a little bit of her that isn’t quite sure. So she stays down on the floor looking a bit piteous, and yapping uncertainly from time.

“Grr, grr, grr,” I growl at her, and she lunges briefly forward before backing away again nervously.

Eventually, Human number 2 takes pity on her and takes the toy to throw again. But I don’t mind. Because it’s just a chance to start all over again.

Clever, isn’t it? I can get as much fun as ever, but without making anything like the effort. And without looking like a puppy again. Brilliant.

Having a littler dog around does have a bit of use, then. Sometimes.

Toffee with her silly lion toy.
They're even the same colour

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Medical Science: so hard to keep up with

It’s a lot of fun working for a company that has a product that actually does what it says. Sadly, rather a lot of people selling information technology to the National Health Service seem to regard it as a slightly dull but dependable, and above all uncritical, source of funding. You know, they’ll never make your fortune, but you can dump mediocre systems on them and they’ll buy them, not perhaps at the highest of prices but at a price that’s always paid, and with few questions asked.

Sadly, I’ve worked for a few of those companies. I remember being ambushed at one conference at which I was presenting, when a representative of a client hospital asked, in public, why on earth anyone should trust us, given how badly we’d let them down on another product?

Well, it’s a blessed relief to be away from all that unpleasantness. Today I’m working with an evidence-based medicine product that does exactly what it claims to do: provide rapid access to carefully evaluated, up-to-the-minute information reflecting the most recent understanding of medical knowledge.

To take them or not to take them?
The answer may depend on when you ask the question
It’s just as well it does so. One of my colleagues pointed out at a recent presentation that about 15% of all information affecting medical practice changes every year.

Fifteen per cent.

Every year.

That may seem extraordinary, but I have a personal anecdote which seems to confirm it.

A year or so ago, my general practitioner decided that it was time to have my blood tested and assess my level of risk of having a stroke or heart attack in the next ten years or so. You may well guess that at stake was whether or not I should be put on statins. I had wish to start taking those drugs but, then, I had even less wish of suffering a stroke or heart attack.

Well, the results were clear. My risk was above 10%. That was the threshold level. The doctor prescribed statins.

I didn’t take them for long. My digestion turned lousy, I started sleeping badly, I was getting headaches. Classic symptoms.

However, having looked into it a bit – well, to be honest, my wife did – I rather think the reaction was psychosomatic. I was, at the time, working for the worst of the purveyors of dire quality to the health service. My boss had cut me out from doing any actual work on the software, which was good for my conscience but lousy for my long-term employment prospects. It wasn’t a good time, which I think may have contributed to my poor reaction to the medication.

A year or so on, and in a satisfactory job at last, I felt I should take a look again at whether I ought to be taking statins after all. I made contact with the GP again. Once more, he had my blood tested. And, again, the risk of stroke or heart attack was above 10%.

But, lo and behold! Medical science had changed. As he explained to me.

“We used to think the threshold for statins was 20%. Then it was reduced to 10%. But now it’s back up to 20%. And your risk is under 20%.”

So? What did this mean? Could I still live statin-free?

“So,” he went on, “I’ll not be prescribing any medication for now.”

Wonderful! My conscience is clear. I did all that was necessary. And science made the decision for me.

Isn’t it great? But doesn’t it just underline the importance of keeping current? Because how serious your condition is doesn’t just depend on your health – it also, apparently, depends on when you ask the question.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Tories: a party of integrity

There are moments when I fear I do the British Tory Party an injustice. 

At times, it strikes me as profoundly dishonest, bordering on corrupt. However, this is merely a matter of point of view and that, viewed in a different light, the Tory Party does just what it’s committed to doing, in full and without reservation.

Conservative fundraising dinner.
Where the wealthy buy access to ministers, and get what the paid for
When a flight or a train I’m planning to catch is delayed or cancelled, I don’t just feel irritation at the inconvenience, I also have a sense of being cheated. It feels to me that when I handed over money for my ticket, the train company or airline entered into a contract with me to deliver me, on time, to the agreed destination. When it fails to do that, I feel they’ve broken their commitment to me.

There are, of course, circumstances beyond the control of the companies: they can’t be blamed for an icebound airport or, as happened on a recent train journey of mine, a fire at London’s Euston station. No, I’m talking about the kind of delay explained away as “due to the late arrival of the inbound aircraft”. What? “We’re late because we were late already”? We’re supposed to say, “oh, well, that’s OK then”?

It’s clearly an increasingly widespread belief that such behaviour isn’t acceptable. That’s why airlines and train companies are having to reimburse passengers for poor service. There is a general feeling that it is in the nature of a paid, commercial transaction that the provider of the service enters a commitment to its customers, and must honour it or compensate them.

The British Conservative and Unionist Party is nothing if it is not the embodiment of the commercial spirit. It is just what it’s paid for. Like a good company, it takes payments from its customers and delivers a service to them.

Some voters are na├»ve enough to think that this means it owes a service to everyone. We all pay, after all. But the reality is that we pay the government, through taxation, but even when the Tories are in power, that isn’t the same thing as the Tory Party. A great many of us pay nothing to the Tory Party; some, and I include myself in this number, are even benighted enough to make contributions to a different party. In my case, the one best placed to replace it in power.

How can we possibly expect the Tories to look after us?

Indeed, they don’t. The last ten years have seen the lowest rate of income growth in Britain for – wait for it – drum roll – 150 years. The ten years of weak growth have been covered by three years of financial crash followed by seven years – yes, you’ve got it – of Tory government.

As income growth across the board stalls and inflation rises, the Resolution Foundation – from whose report that figure came – finds that living standards are falling, and have been falling for three quarters now.

This is affecting the vast majority of the income distribution. Inequality is falling across 99% of the population. But that does leave a precious 1%.

It’s what’s happening to that 1% that changes the picture. That is, of course, the 1% at the top. Where I use the words top and bottom in terms of income, naturally, not worth. Their income is now growing fast enough to account, on its own, for growing inequality in Britain, despite the lowering inequality across the other 99%.

Indeed, with 8.5% of the all national income, the top 1% have now recovered to where they were before the crash. That’s just short of the all-time high, back in 2009-2010, of 8.7%.

So the Tories have delivered. Just not to everyone. All that guff about “all in it together” that we were given back in 2010 – well, it was just guff.

Now let’s see who pays for the Tory Party.

According to the Electoral Commission, as the recent general election campaign got under way, in the week of 3 to 9 May, the Conservatives received £4.1m as opposed to the £2.7m that went to Labour. Some of the contributions were particularly striking:

  • John Griffin, founder of the huge and growing taxi company Addision Lee, paid £900,000.
  • John Armitage, Britain's ninth-richest hedge fund manager, stumped up £500,000
  • Sir Henry and Lady Keswick gave £25,000 each. Sir Henry previously owned the right-wing magazine, The Spectator.
  • David Mayhew, who formerly chaired banking group JP Morgan Cazenove, gave £25,000
  • Property developer David Rowland gave £200,000.

So it goes on. The outstandingly wealthy paid for Tory success at the polls. I say ‘paid’ advisedly: these aren’t gifts, they are purchases. And as when I buy a rail or air ticket, the purchaser expects something in return.

The Tories are delivering. No “delayed because we were late” for them. They take the money, they send the wealth flowing back towards the wealthiest.

Which, when you think about, is a kind of integrity of its own. Isn’t it?

Friday, 14 July 2017

A craze driving me round the bend, that may not be so crazy

A girls’ school in England has decided to impose a ban on fitbits and mobile phones from next term.

While it’s generally to do with the damaging effect of social media on girls at an impressionable age, it is also more specifically concerned with how it drives anxiety over body image into bad behaviour. Some girls, it seems, have been counting steps and calories in the mornings and, if they have too few of the one or too many of the other, skipping lunch. Now, that’s a tyranny I understand from personal experience so I sympathise with the school authorities.

Not that I miss lunch or anything. I may be crazy but I’m not that crazy. Not, it’s the way the craze has taken over other aspects of my life that gets me worried.

Recently my colleagues have been taking part in a ‘fitbit challenge’. They record their steps, their flights, their anything else that seems to contribute to fitness, daily, with the hope of winning, at the end of a period – you guessed it – a fitbit. So they can keep on doing the same thing, I suppose. Just as well they’re not at a girls’ school in Stroud, Gloucestershire.

I’m not taking part in this challenge. Oh, no. But its mere existence has somehow influenced me, to no small harm to my quality of life.

I need something from upstairs? Why, I have to look for my phone before I go and fetch it. Can’t miss out on getting another set of stairs counted.

Phone fitness tyranny:
got to do more, got to do more
There was a time when I would blissfully drive to the station if I needed a train. Wow, the joy, the comfort. But – that’s 2500 steps. I can’t forfeit that number. Got to walk. I need my 10,000 steps.

I don’t have to go to the office too often, which is just as well. It’s on the fifth floor. If it were on the eighth, I’d take the lift. But five floors? I can manage that. And if I pop out to lunch – I don’t do missed lunches – why, I have to climb five floors again. I couldn’t take it if I had to do that more than three or four times a month.

Recently, by one of those strange series of coincidences that sometimes happen, I’ve had to go down to the Docklands area of London. Way out to the east. It means changing trains at Stratford International station. Ever seen the steps up from the platform? Let me tell you, they’re impressive. And these days I feel obliged to use them to build my count of flights.

Appalling, isn’t it? Gone is all trace of comfort. Of my pleasant life where what mattered was the gentleness of the moment. Now I too am counting all these senseless measures. And like the authorities at the Stroud school, I’m far from convinced that it’s doing me much good.

Well, I wasn’t convinced. Until, that is, I read an article about Big Sur in California. This is a picturesque but isolated part of the state’s coast, more than usually cut off by the fact that storms have left it completely cut off by road. The result? Residents use a mile-and-a-half long path cut for them to get to schools or shops.

And what has been the effect? Why, a noticeable improvement in health. Including, it would seem, reductions in diabetes. Walking, it appears, really is good for you.

A galling conclusion. It make me feel that, for anyone other than adolescent girls at least, getting those steps taken, those flights climbed really is actually quite a good idea. Which means that the agony must continue.

Oh, Lord. Why don’t I nip upstairs for something? But where did I leave my phone?

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Italians: more in common than I thought

One of the many features that I like about the job I’ve been in since last November is that it takes me to Italy from time to time.

While my roots are unquestionably English, I was born in Italy – specifically in Rome – and spent my first thirteen years there. Each time I return therefore feels like a homecoming. That’s true even when, as on my latest trip, I travel to Milan.

The trouble with Milan is that it isn’t really in Italy. That’s a proposition vehemently denied by most of its inhabitants when I put it to them, but since it’s not unusual for them to assure me earnestly that “Africa starts at Rome” (one told me on this occasion, “a long way north of Rome”), I try to impress on them in turn that Milan is, essentially, in southern Austria. It’s far better organised than most of Italy, cleaner and wealthier, but also – in my experience – just a tad more standoffish and sure of its superiority.

The Milan Duomo: fabulous but just a touch Austrian?
Romans, by contrast, have more of a devil-may-care attitude about them. “Yep,” they seem to say whenever they do something egregiously inappropriate, whether it’s do a U-turn in heavy traffic or litter the streets, “in another, better life I might not do that, but I’m a mere mortal and have none of the purity or the remoteness of the angels.”

Still, as I begin to get to know the Milanese better, I’m beginning to enjoy being with them more. Not that I haven’t enjoyed Milanese company in the past, I hasten to add. My wife and I have a good friend from the city who first introduced herself to us as a ball-breaker, because at the time she was doing life sciences research which involved crushing mouse testicles (not usually while they were still attached to a living mouse, as I understand it). With such a beginning, how could the relationship be anything but a warm and close one? And these days I have an excellent Milanese colleague who always contrives to make visits rewarding and cordial.

What was new on this visit was that I also had some good contacts with complete strangers. One was in the taxi that took me to the airport, which was particularly gratifying as my first encounter with a Milanese taxi driver ended with badly because, as I explained that I needed to get to a hotel near the airport, he decided it was all too much a bore for him to deal with, made a gesture of impatience and drove away leaving me at an empty taxi stand in the middle of the night.

On the latest occasion, on the other hand, we had a perfectly cordial explanation. He explained to me that he wanted to catch up with a friend and colleague of his who was at the airport, but at the part that deals with private planes. I assured him that I was taking a scheduled flight.

“Oh, I knew that, from the start of the trip,” he assured me, and then broke off, clearly concerned that he might be offending me.

I decided that he didn’t mean his statement that way. That, if anything, his comparison between me and most private plane users was likely to be favourable towards me rather than the contrary.

“The private plane types tend to be a bit arrogant?” I asked.

“Exactly right,” he told me. “Why, I had to drive one to a meeting 70 kilometres away. He decided to stop on the way for a meal, and left me kicking my heels in the car park while he had his excellent lunch.”

I made some appropriately sympathetic response.

“The worst of it,” he went on, “is that he was from a bank which we’re baling out of trouble right now. My money. Flowing to a bank which is being rewarded with public funds for running itself into the ground. And the money I’m paying allows a man like him to keep eating fine meals while keeping people like me waiting for him the car park. It sometimes makes me wonder why IX bother to vote.”

A man after my own heart. I too feel upset at the privileged existence of people who see themselves as entitled, and are perfectly happy to have us finance their entitlement for them. It’s reassuring, though not surprising, that at the opposite ends of Europe, ordinary people face the same problems and react to them with the same resentments.

What saddens me is that though we should be making common cause against the arrogance that abuses its power this way, we in Britain have decided that we should cut our ties with those like my Milanese taxi driver. “Bring back control” our Brexiters say, but we’re simply reinforcing the control over our lives of the people who cause this injustice, in England as in Italy. United we might stand a better chance against them; by separating ourselves off, we make the task far harder.

Ah well. We all have our problems. In Italy, it’s to know where Austria ends and Africa begins. In Britain, it seems to be an inability to decide that we’re not a global power – and that illusion is far more dangerous.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Misty's Diary: the weirdness that is Toffee

Right. That’s it. Official.

The new little dog – well, she’s not that new after six months, but you know what I mean – is absolutely the weirdest thing the humans have inflicted on me.

So far, I hasten to add. I don’t want to tempt providence by ruling anything out in the future. I’m not sure there’s any weirdity that’s beyond my particular pair of domestics. You won’t catch me saying, “they’ll never introduce that into our household”. They’d probably go out and get one the next day.

“A poisonous snake?” they’d say, “wonderful! I bet Misty would like one of those.”

Anyway, that puppy Toffee – I guess she is still a puppy, judging by her behaviour, whatever the month count may be – really is bizarre.

Every morning the domestics serve her and Luci the best kibble I know. A bowl for Luci in the kitchen where she does the sensible thing, and just gobbles it down.

“I don’t gobble,” says Luci, “I’m ladylike.”

OK. There’s some kibble in her bowl one moment. There’s none the next. Somehow it’s got from where it was into her stomach (I assume ladies have stomachs, though they probably don’t like to admit it). I don’t know whether the process that gets it from one place to the other is too ladylike to be called gobbling. Let’s just say that it that’s damn fast, and impressively effective.

What about Toffee?

She gets her bowl put in a little bed for her to think about. Breakfast in bed. And that used to be my bed before she muscled in on it.

What? What? It’s my kibble and I'll eat it when I'm ready
Think about it is exactly what she does. She sniffs at it from one side. Walks around behind the bed to sniff at it from the other side. Climbs in and pushes the bits of kibble around with her nose a while.

It’s maddening. I’d like nothing better than to get at it myself. It’s so much nicer than what I get.

“It isn’t any nicer, you know,” Domestic number 2 tries to tell me, “it’s just because it’s somebody else’s that you want it. I know you better than you do.”

He knows me better than I know myself? I don’t think so. I think I’ll be the judge of what kind of kibble I like or don’t like. He’s never even tasked any of the stuff – far too high and mighty to enjoy mere dog or cat food – so how can he possibly tell?

What amazes me with Toffee’s way of nosing around her food for ages and ages is that there are other things she just goes for straight away. Toys, for instance. She gnaws and pulls at them until they fall apart. Domestic Number 1 has even bought a new thing she pushes around to pick up the little bits of toy from the carpet where Toffee leaves them. The dog we used to have here, Janka, the one who went away and never came back, used to rip up toys too but she was a proper size and at least the toy would be dismembered in no time. This one takes forever, like she wants to make their suffering last.

Abused toys, their insides, and the push-around-thing to pick them up
And bits of wood! She just loves them. Brings them in from the garden. If she sees the domestics around she hurries into her little house – what used to be my little house – and gnaws and gnaws and gnaws. If she can get away with it, she jumps up on the couch and gnaws and gnaws and gnaws there. Then she gets bits everywhere and Domestic Number 1 has to get into action with the funny little push-around-thing to pick up the bits.

“Oh, Toffee, what have you done?” she says.

I hope the question’s rhetorical. Because it’s bleeding obvious what she’s done: exactly the same thing she did yesterday.

“Oh, you really are the naughtiest dog weve ever had,” she goes on, which is about right, except I prefer the word weird. In the context. 

So some things she gnaws enthusiastically, but then she walks away from her bowl in the morning, tempting me to move in while she’s thinking about something else. But she comes rushing back to push me away if I make an attempt on whatever’s left of her Kibble. And if she doesn’t drive me off, Domestic Number 2 will try to. 

Still, sometimes they both get distracted.

Determined plunderer in action.
Focus too soft for you? Don’t blame me.
That’s Domestic no 2. Can't handle motion photos
“Especially under a table,” he adds.
I’m a pretty determined plunderer when I can pull it off, so sometimes, just sometimes, I get away with it.

Satisfaction. I got the bed back And the bowl to clear
All the same, I still say she’s weird, that Toffee. I try to keep her a bit sane by beating her up from time to time. But nothing seems to work, not even that.

Ah, well. I live among strange creatures. Including the domestics.

A little beating up helps correct weirdness in a puppy
Still, doesn’t seem to work with Toffee

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The poor get poorer. But a Jewish story lightens the tone

In one of its more insightful headlines, the Guardian proclaimed this morning:

Low income families ‘less able to achieve decent living standard’

Classic headline
That struck me as being roughly on a par with “poverty found to leave you poor”. No wonder the headline had changed in the on-line edition by this evening...

Still, behind the headline there was a serious story. Each year, in Britain, the the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a charity concerned with poverty, commissions a study from the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University. It establishes what various types of family need in income to maintain what is generally perceived as being a minimum decent living standard.

It seems that despite increases in the minimum wage, the assault on state benefits, including those paid to the working poor, have meant that the gap between low incomes and the sum required for a minimum living standard has widened still further this year.

None of this is terribly surprising. The independent think tank, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has estimated that British workers’ incomes will be no higher (in real terms) in 2022 than in 2007. We’ve had seven years of austerity politics from the Tories and the price is being paid by the poor, and it’s a real price even though it’s failed to generate any real benefit – far from achieving the aim of cutting debt, the level has doubled under the Tories.

By contrast, bosses of the major UK companies saw their earnings rise by 10% in 2015 alone. That put them on average incomes of £5.5m, which allows them to keep bankrolling the Tory Party, In turn, that helps focus minds in Tory governments on favouring the incomes of the wealthy over those of the poor.

Still, I didn’t start this post planning to make depressing points, and I seem on the brink of making some. So let me cheer you up with one of my favourite Jewish jokes.

In a sad accident, a Jew is knocked down by a car in a North London street.

A man rushes out of a nearby house and puts a pillow under the head of the injured Jew lying in the street.

“Are you comfortable?” he asks.

The Jew raises a hand and tips it from side to side in the classic gesture.

“Comfortable, I wouldn’t say,” he replies, “but I get by.”

Well, it feels to me as though the British poor have been knocked down. It certainly hasn’t left them comfortable. Though it’s far from sure they’re even getting by.