Sunday, December 31, 2006

A Brief, Vague and None Too Coherent Review of 2006

Basically it has been a good one, better than 2005 on account of that all important score

Death 0 - Life 2

All those I love stayed alive this year, and I gained a new loved-one in the form of Alexander, whose arrival made the year for our family. Life is awarded an extra point because Death had a pretty good go at my friend, but my friend got the better of the bastard. That and the other friends I have gained who were, of course, alive previous to our acquaintance.

Other highlights included still yet unbloggable events of November, Lady Bracknell's Editor getting an MBE and Blogging Against Disablism Day. And many other things. Am very tired today, I didn't realise it was New Year's Eve until just now.

I do know that my health is in a far superior position than it was twelve months ago and I am looking forward to finishing my bloody fucking book in 2007 (if I don't finish it next year, I never will). As for the cultural highlights...

Best Single of 2006: Precious by Depeche Mode.
Best Album of 2006: The Life Pursuit by Belle and Sebastian, thanks to Marmiteboy.

But I am afraid that's not such great praise in either case. Both are good, but I am, alas, no longer down wiv da kids. Who are these Antartic Gibbons again? Of course, I remember when the words were unintelligible, and you didn't have a hope of dancing to the tune - that was real music.

Best Movie of 2006 (working off the UK DVD release date): probably the new The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, essential viewing for anyone who read the Narnia books as a child. V for Vendetta was also respectable and I'd happily watch Pirates of the Caribean: Dead Man's Chest several times over with the sound off. I have watched a lot of movies this year, but the real gems had lain undiscovered from earlier years, often earlier decades.

Anyway, Happy New Year Everybody! Hope that it is a good one for every one of you.

Friday, December 29, 2006

A nice little housewife, who'd give me a steady life and not keep going off the rails

Shouldn't be writing today so this might not make sense, but this is rather irksome:

BBC News: Housework cuts breast cancer risk

Women who exercise by doing the housework can reduce their risk of breast cancer, a study suggests.

The research on more than 200,000 women from nine European countries found doing household chores was far more cancer protective than playing sport.

Dusting, mopping and vacuuming was also better than having a physical job.

This is so lazy. Correlation is not the same as causation. All alcoholics started off on milk.

So maybe there is something in the nature of the exercises people do when carrying out household chores as opposed to other activities.

Then again, maybe there are other things which go hand in hand with doing a lot of housework.

For example, I would speculate that any person who spends significant amounts of time cooking is getting a more balanced and varied diet that someone who takes five minutes to heat something up or order a takeaway. Women continue to do the majority of cooking for couples and families throughout Europe, so I would speculate that a woman who does not cook herself, is more likely to have a poor diet.

We already know that diet is a risk factor in breast cancer.

One reason a woman might not do housework is that someone has already done it for her or she simply chooses not to. However, I reckon many women who do less than average amounts of housework are very short of time and someone who is short of time is also less likely to get good exercise, plenty of sleep, rest and recuperation.

We already know that lack of exercise is a risk factor in breast cancer. There is some evidence that stress is a risk factor in breast cancer.

Women who do a great deal of housework may be able to do so because they don't work or only work part time. Circumstances in which a person is able to be a housewife will generally (though not always) coincide with higher socio-economic status.

Socio-economic status plays a complex role in breast cancer. Women of lower socio-economic status are more likely to eat less healthily, smoke and drink alcohol - all established risk factors. But women of higher socio-economic status are more likely to delay having children or not have children at all, both of which are also established risk factors.

However, it is very rare these days to have a housewife who does not have children. Therefore, it might be reasonable to speculate that women in the research who did the most housework were relatively wealthy mothers, and therefore at reduced risk of breast cancer.

Of course all this is speculation. I am not a scientist. I don't get paid to come up with controversial headlines - I mean, useful information about disease. So when given such an opportunity, when conducting such a massive study, I didn't have the chance to look at these factors along side the issue of exercise. So what would I know?

Anyway, I'm off to do some close embroidery in an attempt to prevent arthritis in my hands. Oh yes, how many people do you know with arthritis in the hands can do close embroidery? Exactly.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

My nephew's first Christmas

Alexander has a cuddle with Auntie GoldfishNaturally, the highlight of Christmas was seeing young Alexander.

Alex has changed a great deal since we last saw him, just six or seven weeks ago. He is much stronger, and is rapidly progressing to a stage where he can sit up by himself. Perhaps most usefully of all, he has developed the ability to take hold of objects (most of which he desires to put in his mouth to see what they feel like; his fingers aren’t nearly so sensitive as ours just yet).

Alex examines jingle bellsThis meant that I only needed one hand to open my birthday cards, as if I got hold of the card and pulled, Alex would take hold of the envelope and begin to eat it while I slid the card free. He was very helpful, and I shall be sure to consider employing him for future tasks which I may need to perform one-handed, where it doesn't matter what gets wet.

Alex enjoys his Christmas present from Superbat and GrandadAlexander has also progressed with those all-important social skills. He is much better at focussing on objects of interest and most especially on faces. Whenever his gaze meets a face – whatever the face or the expression on it – he responds with a broad smile, a giggle and sometimes a scream of delight. This A stranger is a friend I am yet to get to know attitude is a very fine one and should endear him to all but the iciest of souls, people who he probably wouldn’t like to know anyway.

Alex in a state of fascinationApart from the occasional wimper when afflicted by wind, hunger or a wet nappy (and of course, a good cry when very much taken with fatigue), Alex takes joy in pretty much everything he does. His favourite hobbies are dancing, particularly The Hokey Cokey, riding a galloping leg to the tune of The William Tell Overture, bathing, looking at sparkly objects and the oral investigation of texture.

Mummy tells Alexander a secretHowever, all this makes him very tiring to be around and slightly scary. He has so much energy and interest in everything that as soon as he can propel himself by some means, he will be all over the place. If this is the child at four months old, he will be completely out of control by this time next year.

Notice his eyes are getting darker. They started off deep blue, but I think they may be turning brown.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

So that was Sniffmas

We're back home now. Phew! A somewhat stressful, but basically good Christmas.

Part of that stress was that I had a cold, and my immune system responded with spectacular gusto. It started last thing on Christmas Eve, that night was pretty rough. Christmas Day was rough and the following night was extremely rough; no air getting through nose and pain in throat bringing tears to my eyes when I breathed through my mouth. Some sleep, a great deal of delirium. Boxing Day, nose bleeding - not just speckles, but a distinct flow of blood every time I gave it a decent blow - uh, blow as in when I blew my nose, nothing to do with cocaine.

Despite this, I did have a nice Christmas, thank you. I didn't have to do anything and I wasn't particularly ill apart from not being able to breath.

Last night, pretty solid sleep. Today we travelled back up North and I managed that fine, apart from getting rather giddy and musical on some special coffee from the motorway services. This resulted in my performing my one woman impersonation of Linkin Park (not that song in particular, more a somewhat Anglicised summary of all their music), improvising a vegetable-related reworking of Depeche Mode's In Your Room, proceeding down various musical avenues until I finally launched into Jerusalem. Nothing to do with cocaine either, so far as I know.

Never had a cold like that before. Dreadful, but seventy-two hours through and it's pretty much gone. And frankly, I am elated about the fact. Intend to take things easy over the next few days in any case. And lay off the caffeine.

Now I am listening to the Patti Smith my Granny bought me for my birthday. Granny either has impeccable taste, or very good sources.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Merry Christmas everybody!

Occurs to me that this may be - just may be - my last opportunity to access the Internet before Christmas Day, so I wanted to wish you all a great one, whatever you are up to.

We went to Cambridge today in a shopping trip that turned out to be far more fun than you might imagine it would be.

I opted to be pushed rather than attempt navigation myself today because I knew it would be very busy and I don't know Cambridge at all.

Everywhere was busy, but people were friendly and everyone whose ankles had the wheelchair pushed into issued profuse apologies to me, as is the English custom. Naturally we apologise to, but it is our fault. Even the chap sat in the coffee shop with plenty of space behind him and who might have easily poured coffee on himself when we collided with his seat, turned and said "Oh, I am sorry!" and shuffled his seat closer to the table.

It was also more than ordinarily disorientating to be pushed about today. For example, in Boots, not only was there general chaos, my folks weaving me through the crowds at high speed, but there are all sorts of lights and mirrors at my eye-level and at one point I did actually enter another dimension in time and space. Which was nice.

Anyway, we all misbehaved and had a giggle, there wasn't much to get and it was all got. I managed to find a copy of It's a Wonderful Life on DVD for my folks - bizarrely difficult to get hold of, especially at this time of year.

Rosie, Adrian and Alexander are due very shortly and I'm not sure what's happening all weekend but likely to be very busy.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The obligatory "Bah Humbug" edition

Charles Dawson wrote about this year’s annual fuss about this time of year, its meaning and its potential to cause offence. Many bloggers have had a little moan about the season so I thought I would join in.

Before I do though, as you can see, I saw my robin in the garden again today, this time with his mate. Aren’t they sweet? They are extraordinarily tame. Anyway…

There is only one thing which bothers me about Christmas, and that is anyone who tries to tell me what it is, how I should celebrate it and what it should mean to me. Christmas belongs to everybody. So there.

So okay yes, the most commonly used word would indicate we are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ who some folks understand to have been the Saviour of the Universe (or was that Flash Gordon?). But much of what Christmas looks like, including what time of the year it falls, owes itself to our much older pagan traditions. And then there is the Victorian influence; all our idealised images of Christmas festivities borrow heavily from A Christmas Carol, and centre around an open fire and Prince Albert’s Christmas Tree.

And then of course, there is the massive commercial influence (influence more in the sense of applied pressure) of our more affluent times. Lady Bracknell has commented on the bizarre concept that a family might feel compelled a new sofa or carpet for Christmas. As for the suggestions for Christmas presents from various shops that have arrived in my e-mail inbox during the last three months - I have been shocked! And only some of them appeared to be the correct size and shape to fit into a Christmas stocking…

All of which is not to say that the Christians are kidding themselves at all. Personally, most of the things I love about Christmas can be found in Church, adopted from more ancient cultures or not; the peace, the candlelight, the holly and the ivy, the choral music and then those concepts of Victorian philanthropy, updated to the idea that one way or another, Christmas is a time for reaching out to others, for kindness and warmth of spirit. Tidings of comfort and joy.

I don’t know many conscientious Christians who would say that things are of no value without faith in their Instigator. At least I am honest about this. And this is my culture, as I have written about before.

But Christmas as it appears today is a wonderful – if rather long in coming - compromise between the old religion, Christianity and other influences to our culture. So it is entirely in the spirit of the thing to take from it whatever you will. And that’s the most crucial point; whatever you will. Which includes taking a step back, having a peaceful time on one's tod if one so chooses. There shouldn't be any obligations, and there certainly shouldn't be any obligations to spend vast quantities of money, fix a grin in the company of people whose blood is their only commonality and to make merry. The only obligation is that of respect.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Walking in a winter wonderland.

Arrived in Suffolk safe and sound. A very good journey actually, a really bright cold light and the whole world looking splendid. We saw a hot air balloon and a parglider in the sky on the way down, and it did strike me as the sort of day I would like to have spent airborn.

A ceramic face on a treeLast month, my Granny gave us some money which we weren't allowed to spend on anything useful, so we have finally replaced our ten-year-old digital camera. I took it out into my folks' garden to test it out, so here is a picture of one of my Green Men, which needs to age a bit in order to blend in properly, but still. Looked like he was enjoying the sunshine.

I didn't take very many photos as I was on my feet and frankly, haven't worked out exactly what all the levers and pulleys do on this thing yet.

A robin on the branch of a bushBut then, just as I was about to go inside, fancy my luck! A cheeky little red-breasted robin alighted on a branch beside me and sang a little ditty.

How seasonal! I thought, and I quickly snapped this picture before it flew away.

So now I am feeling very Christmassy.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

At that Tower of Babel, they knew what they were after.

A friend asked me about clearer ways of thinking about arguments, and I began to write my take on this stuff, when I decided this was too much to burden one person in an e-mail with and you never know, it might be of interest to somebody.

When you first learn maths, you learn sums as bland pieces of information. You learn that one plus one is two, two plus two is four and so on. And to begin with, this doesn’t have any meaning, just as it doesn’t make much sense why words are spelt in the way they are. You are given this information, you are asked to remember this information, so that’s just the way it is.

However, at some point, you suddenly realise that this means something; that two lots of one added together is in fact exactly equal to two and that's the only inflexible thing - there are other ways of making two and there are all sorts of other things you can do with the ones. You can't go wrong so long as what is on the left hand side of the equals sign balances against what is on the right hand side of the equals sign.

I happen to have a vivid memory of this precise revelation, looking at the blackboard in my second year of primary school – which is perhaps a little late on for this to have sunk in. I could always do sums before then because I had a good memory for the sums I had learnt, but suddenly it wasn’t my memory doing the work any more. I then went through that infuriating phrase of demanding that adults give me a sum, any sum, and I could do it for them there and then.

Other forms of logic or reason or logical reasoning work in a very similar way, but people don’t tend to think about arguments which are expressed in words in this way. On the one hand, the arguments we make with don’t seem that complicated; it’s all common sense. On the other hand, to properly dismantle an idea can seem too much like hard work and it’s all relative anyway, isn’t it?

No. Logic is exact and through logic, the truth can be obtained. Sometimes. It is no coincidence that many of our greatest philosophers have also been notable scientists and mathematicians; Plato, Aristotle, through to Descartes and Alan Turing. One of our most important living philosophers is Richard Dawkins, who is first and foremost a biologist. Excuse the Western bias; I believe the same applies throughout the world.

Like mathematical calculations, arguments can have a shape to them. In fact, all deductive (sound) arguments can be written as a syllogism (a word whose pronunciation would lend support to Monty Python's assertion that Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle).

You would have met syllogisms at school where you had to determine what truth could be extracted from a group of facts like

All pongberry bushes bear purple and pink stripey fruit.
Some of the bushes in my garden are pongberry bushes.

[And you'd fill in] Therefore some of the bushes in my garden bear purple and pink stripey fruit.

But some of them were more tricky, when no truth could be extracted or they tried to mislead you in some way. You remember the sort of thing? The most perfect and sound argument ever written (by René Descartes) comes in the form of a syllogism:

In order to experience a thought, an entity must exist.
I am experiencing a thought.

Therefore I must exist.

In other words, I think therefore I am.

Nothing else about reality is certain. I might be the only one that exists. I may be a butterfly, merely dreaming that I am a human being and having forgotten, for this fleeting moment, that I am in fact a butterfly. I may be inside the Matrix. Who knows? Who cares? I exist! Hooray!*

Truthfully, that could be our only truth (or uh, my only truth, since you might not exist). However, almost all other arguments assume that the world is more or less as we find it, with physical objects and various energies like gravity and so on. That’s possibly because I dreamt it all up and my dreams tend to be consistent within themselves.

In all seriousness, it is certainly the case that in both science and philosophy there are lots of things which we don't know or cannot prove absolutely which we have to work with as premises. Which is part of the reason that our forefathers managed to make so very many mistakes which we can laugh at now, even though they were no less intelligent, wise or virtuous than we are.

But as well as dealing with slightly less information, there have always been and always will be a great deal of other mistakes which were more akin to errors in calculation. Which you'll be pleased to know, I will write about in another post. But not very soon because we're about to head south for Christmas.

* This also leads to the awful joke...
"I think not!" said Descartes and with that, he vanished.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Brief Book Meme

Charles Dawson tagged me with this meme.

1. Take the nearest book and go to page 123.
2. Go to the fifth sentence of the page.
3. Copy down the next three sentences and tag three people.

For some minutes Alice stood without speaking, looking out in all directions over the country - and a most curious country it was. There were a number of little brooks running across from side to side, and the ground between was divided up into squares by a number of hedges, that reached from brook to brook.

"I declare it's marked out just like a large chess-board!" Alice said at last.

Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll

I tag Bunnyman, Diddums and An Unreliable Witness.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A lazy day of links

Not so much lazy, but busy; I've got a Things to do list so long it would take half the day to copy it here. Meanwhile

Disability Blog Carnival #5 is up at Planet of the Blind. I haven't had a chance to read much, but it all looks super.

Agent Fang's Twelve Days of Cripmas is worth a visit to the Ouch Messageboard.

And on the subject of Cripmas, I was going to write a great long essay, In defence of Tiny Tim. I abandoned this idea, but did accumulate some relevant links;

Empowering Tiny Tim - Pathetic cripple? Ha! Crafty little con artist is more like it - by Douglas Lathrop.

A crippled Christmas Carol - by the wonderful Kate Ansell.

or to be more serious

Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim: Some reflections on the cripple as Negro by Leonard Kriegal (1964 - the age shows in the language, but not the sentiment)

Or for something completely different, check out this news story - those poor people thought they were getting a drug which would help them give up smoking, but the drug only made it harder...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Christmas Music

For the more refined listener, one can download Away in a Manger performed by the Pavao Quartet for the cost of £1, all proceeds from which go towards Breakthrough Breast Cancer.

For the less refined listener, one can listen to and watch the video for the Xmas Baarmy Sheep performing Jingle Bells on the Cumbria Tourism Website, for free.

I reckon that's all tastes catered for...

The Goldfish Guide to Avoiding Homelessness

A few too many worthy posts in a row perhaps, but still. I have never been homeless, but having spent a considerable amount of time negotiating the safety net, I am all too aware of how wide the holes are and how very easy it could be for a person to fall through, especially someone with mental health or cognitive impairments. You don’t have to make very many mistakes to find yourself in serious trouble.

Somehow, I cannot imagine that many people reading this will find this information helpful for themselves. However, none of us know when we might have a friend in need. Homeless people are not some underclass who came from somewhere else entirely; they come from amongst us, they are people just like us who have fallen on hard times, made bad decisions or simply found themselves unable, for whatever reason, to ask for the help they need. I know at least one reader who has been down and out in London and Paris, or uh, possibly somewhere less romantic.

One of the most important things we can do for our friends and family members, in this context and many others, is to simply let them know that we are there if they need us. We may assume they know, but sometimes people need telling, especially at Christmas. (please use the paper bags provided)

Most of this advice is stuff I happen to know or to have learnt from my experience. If anyone has anything to add, please add it. Inevitably, this is about the systems we have in the UK, with a bias towards disability issues.

Responding to a crisis.

I guess people most become homeless because there is a sudden chance which they have been unprepared for. So that’s the first step in avoiding homeless; be prepared! If you think you are going to have to leave your current home, for whatever reason, then start acting now.

It is possible to apply for Council Housing as a homeless person up to twenty-eight days before youw ill be without a home. Remember, being without a home is just that – doesn’t matter if you are not yet living on the streets. If you apply for Council Housing as homeless, then they will provide for you in some way, shape or form, even if this means putting you up in a guest house or B&B for a short time.

There are other circumstances where a disabled person is put on the priority list for housing, such as someone whose current residence is physically inaccessible. Also young people whose health conditions make it very difficult for them to live in their current situation; for example, a person who needs rest and peace struggling to live in a chaotic family home. Naturally, having a home, even an inadequate one, makes you less of a priority than someone without a home.

Council housing can be very good for disabled people on low incomes, although luck has a lot to do with it. Some people are fortunate enough to be able to move into a place and have it adapted more or less to their particular needs. Not always.

There is also a Tenancy Support scheme for council tenants, where someone can come, have a chat and help out with basic things like finding furniture, managing bills and rent. Basically to help people to cope living in their home and to avoid those situations where they might become homeless. To find out about this I suggest that you Google "tenancy support" along with the name of your local authority (usually the borough or city council).

Advice about the Rent

Your rent is the most important expense after food. I know this sounds obvious, but I have seen folks in crisis who regard the landlord as their friend but are entirely intimidated by the threatening letter from utility companies. In other situations, folks regard the landlord as an impersonal figure so wealthy that they’d hardly notice a non-paying tenant. No such luck.

In a situation of such crisis that you have to make the choice, utility companies can wait; they may cut you off, they may eventually take you to the small claims court, but there will still be a roof over your head. Chances are that your landlord is relying more heavily on your rent for paying their own bills than any other company you owe money to. Your failure to pay is going to stir up all sorts of shit for them. Should you be evicted, you may not only find yourself homeless, but you will not walk away with shining references for your next landlord.

If you are ever in any difficulty paying any bill, it is essential to remain in communication with the individual or company you owe money to. People - including big companies - can be really very sympathetic and can help you find ways of managing payments, or postponing payments while a particular crisis is overcome.

If you have a condition which makes money and written information difficult to understand or cope with, then this is care need, as real as any physical need a person might have. You should speak to the Citizen's Advice Bureau or the National Centre for Independent Living.

Renting from a Private Landlord

Obviously, council housing restrict the locations that you can live. If you are hard-up, it is also possible to rent from a private landlord and receive Housing Benefit, which will cover all or most of the cost of your rent.

The most important thing to remember when dealing with a private landlord is that the landlord is a human being. If you work on this basis, you are more likely to get on finding a place to live as well as renting a property.

Both flats we have rented stated No DSS in their advertisements; i.e. they did not want people like us, who are dependant on state benefits. This is because the Housing Benefits system is so inefficient that benefit claimants are likely to struggle to pay the rent, regardless of good intentions and money management. The first one also stated they wanted a mature couple and I was still in my teens. This is because younger tenants are more likely to make a noise and trash the place than older people.

However, all the landlord really wants or needs is reassurance. This reassurance can usually be achieved through a combination of charm and hard currency. If you can produce references, the deposit and a month’s rent in advance, you can live pretty much wherever you like.

Always treat your landlord with respect; even if they are a very rich wheelchair-user called Potter. At the same time, you have a business arrangement and you are paying them even if the government foots the bill, so don't stick for unsatisfactory treatment. However, you find conditions intolerable, always best find somewhere else to live rather than allow relations to break down to a point where you need to leave in a hurry. Which reminds me, must send mine a Christmas Card.

Housing Benefit

The Housing Benefit system is the most inefficient and confusing wings of the UK Benefits system. Yes, it is worse than Disability Living Allowance. The first problem is that putting in a fresh claim can mean a wait of months before you get any help, or even know what their decision is. Naturally, you cannot ask a landlord to wait for months without rent while you are living in their property. And this is why landlords do not want to deal with people on benefits - pragmatism, not class prejudice. This must also be a major contributing factor to homelessness.

My advice is:

1. Be prepared for a wait in claiming benefits. That is, beg, borrow or steal the money you need to pay the rent up until the claim comes through. It might not be very long at all; local authorities vary in efficiency as well as the workloads they are dealing with.

2. Apply for Income Support if you are not already on it or if you don't already know that you are not elligible. This can mean automatic entitlement to Housing Benefit and speeds the whole process up.

3. Be prepared by getting all the paperwork you might need together and ready for handing in to them. In some cases, they want everything; one severely unwell friend was rejected her Housing Benefit because she could not prove her possession of a single premium bond (worth £1).

4. If in any doubt about the forms, consult a knowledgeable friend, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau or similar agency for help filling out the forms. They provide an invaluable service.

5. Housing Benefit might vary between local authorities, because it is calculated relative to local rental prices. Many councils have on-line benefits calculators to see if and how much you might be entitled to. Here are some examples from Manchester and Glasgow. Google "housing benefit" and your local authority (again, usually city or borough council) for more information

6. As soon as you know that you are moving and where, put in a claim. You can start your claim up to 13 weeks before the date that you move. This gives you a head start on any delay there is in the decision-making process.

7. If you are bad at handling money, opt to have the rent paid directly to your landlord. This way the money needn't touch your own bank account.

8. If you are not awarded full rent and are struggling to make up the difference, apply for Discretionary Housing Benefit. In this you have to specify various details of your incomings, outgoings and debts. They ask for a great deal of evidence for this, receipts and so on and even demand to know how much you spend on shoes in any given week. The process can be quite intimidating.

But when we were in this position (long story; irony in the system) we simply sent the form back more or less blank with an accompanying letter to explaining our precise situation of crisis and were awarded the benefit accordingly.

At the end of the day, the Housing Executive want to avoid making people homeless or forcing people into serious hardship. It is the system, not the individuals working for them which are at fault (although you get good and bad everywhere).

It can be hard work having not much money. I also advise all people in work to stay in work and to try to stay healthy. And to try to avoid debt. Which is perhaps another post, but I won't bore you with that just now.

I have a feeling all of this is very obvious, so if anyone has anything to add please do so.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Women like me

Women like me, who grew up in the same town and at the same time as me, appear to being picked off by a killer, their bodies dumped in some of the beautiful places that I used to roam. My mother counts her blessings; through that special combination of luck and judgement, her daughters stayed out of trouble, stayed off the heroin, stayed off the streets. But we are still women. Women who sell sex on the street are merely the most vulnerable, the easiest to remove and the women whose situation in life makes violent death seem somehow less shocking, less worrying for the rest of us than if it was nice young women being killed; women like me.

I imagine that’s the only difference in the mind of the person responsible. There ought not to be any difference in ours.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Oh, take me to the slaughterhouse; I will wait there with the lambs

Long and boring warning: this one I have been wrestling with for some time, so I thought I would have it out with myself here and see if it helps to write it down (it sometimes does, I fine).

Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas
Cos' turkeys just wanna hav fun
Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked
An every turkey has a Mum.
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas,
Don't eat it, keep it alive,
It could be yu mate, an not on your plate
Say, Yo! Turkey I'm on your side.

- Benjamin Zephaniah, first verse of Talking Turkeys!

I should start by pointing out that I honestly don’t make any judgements about the choices other people make about eating meat or not. I never have, perhaps because I am myself so ambivalent about it. However, for my own threadbare conscience, this has long been an area of conflict.

For many years I ate no mammals or birds, consumed no food or drink that contained animal derivatives and refrained from wearing or using leather, suede or sheepskin. I did eat fish though and was quite happy to drink all the alcoholic substances denied to true vegetarians on account of the isinglass. Then I changed my mind.

I felt my abstinence from meat was decadent. It made me a greater inconvenience than I already tended to be. It caused a fuss and used extra resources when someone was cooking for me as part of a group. Then there were all the little ethical objections to what food I might be offered. I knew, for example, that it is far better for the planet to eat beef bought from my local butcher than to eat tofu which has had to be flown half way round the world, having had great swathes of rainforest cleared to produce the soybean. I have a habit of picking up that sort of information and worrying about it.

Added to this was my being pale and sickly. This was a time when I was getting progressively paler and more sickly and I was forever being told that I needed to eat meat, had a responsibility to eat meat if I wanted to get better. Then I was asked to take medication where there was no alternative to gelatine capsules – I had to break the rules or suffer the physical consequences for a tiny amount of gelatine.

But a philosophy module about humans and other animals was the real killer. I realised that even people who had thought very hard about this didn’t have any better or clearer arguments than I did. Suitably flummuxed, I resumed the default position.

Naturally, having felt guilty about my not eating meat, I have felt guilty about eating meat ever since.

Of course, we are part of an ecosystem whereby our interests as individuals and as a species are necessarily in some conflict with some of the interests of other organisms. We are forced to consume other organisms, whatever happens – organic matter is all we can eat – and we are also forced to compete with other organisms for our food and our own flesh.

In some cases, it would be in our best interests to annihilate other organisms altogether: it might have been a cave-man’s dream that he should stick a spear in the last sabre-tooth tiger, although these days we’re only intent on killing off our tiniest enemies like viruses and bacteria.

Is there a difference between a sabre tooth tiger and a virus? Well, yes; the sabre-tooth tiger was capable of experiencing fear and pain, a virus is not. A fundamental of most moral codes is that fear and pain are bad things which we ought to avoid causing and prevent wherever possible.

Its death, or at least its subsequent absence also has moral consequences although being the very last one, no offspring would suffer and the effects on the ecosystem would already be inevitable.

I don't see that there is any difference in principle whether fear and pain is experienced by a human being or another animal. But... Peter Singer and others argue that the reason that human interests are generally more important than those of non-human animals rests entirely on our increased capacity to suffer. It is assumed that our capacity for fear and distress is far greater because of our imagination and reason, our capacity to anticipate pain, the strength of our relationships with one another and so on. Singer also famously argues that by this score, the other great apes have just as much or more moral claim than some humans, such as those with severe intellectual impairments.

However, this assessement depends on some sort of measure of fear and pain which could be applied to all organisms. To even imagine that such a thing is possible is simply anthropomorphism (Ping! You were waiting for that word to feature, weren't you?). We can observe behaviour and physiological phenomena which suggest there is fear and there is pain in other organisms, but we don’t have the faintest idea of what that is like.

Many plants have physical or chemical reflexes to injury or even touch. They do not have brains, so we do not entertain the idea that they feel a thing. The humble goldfish exhibits physical and chemical reflexes to injury or any startling event. The goldfish has a brain about one fourteen-thousandth of the size of the human brain and no neocortex. As a result, the scientific community cannot agree whether or not its reaction to stimuli involves can possibly be described as pain. The only reference we have to the experience of fear and pain is our own experience, our uniquely human experience and there is no way that a brain weighing less than a tenth of a gram is going to have an experience comparable to that of a massively larger brain with a completely different architecture.

Which is not to say that a tiny wee brain cannot have a negative experience. Only, any organism, from amoeba up, can have a negative experience. Oh yes, Goldfish, but this is a red herring; you ate fish, you were presumably never unhappy about gobbling a goldfish – or indeed, a red herring? What about fluffy things with big eyes?

All non-human animals have dramatically different brain architecture from our own and from one another’s. Primate and human brains, impaired or not, are quite different, let alone the brains of the sort of animals we might eat. To compare the experience of animals from two different species is a bit like comparing a digital alarm clock and a satellite navigation system – both have certain, very basic components and mechanisms in common, but they are functionally very different.

Hmm no, I don’t like this argument either. We can’t help making comparisons; we know what distress looks like and we have all seen it in non-human animals, particularly other mammals. We just have no means of establishing degrees. And indeed, the selectivity with which we can transfer our experiences onto non-human animals indicates what appalling judges of these things we must be.

This is why our species bond, our need to put people first, is a rational evaluation as well as a defining instinct. Humans are the only animals whose experiences we even begin to understand. Humans are the only ones playing by these rules; the rules of reason and arguments and concern for the welfare of others. We are a squillion times more capable of helping one another, of minimising suffering and maximising happiness within our own species. This very post would be far more usefully and effectively used to talk about human affairs, and any energy I spend worrying about animals would be better spent on concern for my fellow man.

However, fear and pain are bad things which we ought to avoid causing and prevent wherever possible. I am fairly convinced that it is possible to decapitate a chicken without the animal having much idea of what is happening and without there being significant negative consequences to its death; unless it is caring for eggs or chicks at the time.

Yet we know that chickens are not individually taken in the farmer's arms and quickly decapitated after a pleasant life pecking in the dust. Some of the chickens we eat (and whose eggs we eat) have lived and died in conditions which even the most unsympathetic assessment would consider a deeply negative experience.

Hmm, I have run out of steam on this one and I notice that you have lost consciousness. I'm still wrestling.

My vegetarian icon was George Bernard Shaw, who is hero of mine for many different reasons. But he was a veggie ("Animals are my friends ...and I don't eat my friends.") and all along doctors advised him that he was putting his health and indeed his very life in danger. Shaw lived to 94 and finally died... falling off a ladder.

The best philosopher on the subject is Mary Midgely, who at 87 is still rolling up her sleeves to take on Richard Dawkins, another philosophical hero of mine. How I would love to invite those two round for dinner (or possibly, a food fight). Shame I don't agree with either of them.

Friday, December 08, 2006


Some goldfish made of orange coloured chocolateFeeling somewhat more cheerful today after a rather gruesome spell. Not quite sure what set that off, but thanks for your support.

Meanwhile I think I may have finished my Christmas shopping, unless there's something I have forgotten. I found these funky chocolate goldfish, but couldn't think of anyone to buy them for apart from myself. So I did. You get four in the box, by the way and they're not such a scary shade of orange. Don't know what they taste like because I have been very well behaved and wrapped them up straight away.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground

The demons have been out in force this last week or so, nibbling at my toes all day and climbing on my pillow at night to whisper in my ear. Such nonsense, really, but I can’t get away when I am asleep and in the morning it is difficult to dismiss everything that’s been said.

Part of what has brought them out of the woodwork is that the end of the year is hurtling towards us out of the blue – it feels like it was only September five minutes ago. And that’ll be another birthday and another year gone in which I haven’t managed to finish my book. Which I find depressing – would easily find deeply depressing if I thought about it for too long. It is so important to me, far more important than any thing ought to be in a person’s life.

The demons are eager to point out my many other failings; things I meant to do, things I said I would do and didn’t get done or got done a whole lot later than I said I would. Meanwhile I am seriously behind on both electronic and paper correspondences. They tell me I am constantly fucking up and I am.

Looking after [...] has only compounded this feeling. It is hard enough work doing the necessary things, but I drop things, I spill things, I break things, I lose or forget about things. All this doubles the amount of time and energy it takes to do things like cooking a meal. And it is impossible not to curse myself because I might have applied a smidgen more attention at that particular moment in time and saved myself a load of work.

See, it is obvious why they are here. They are here because of approaching landmarks and feeling generally disorientated about the time of year. They are here because I am very tired, not sleeping well and having to push harder than I ought to. They are here because of a mild case of the unbloggibles. They are hear because of a few misunderstandings that have shaken me up a bit. And they are here because I have been spending money, which always makes me feel guilty.

Oh, I'll feel completely different in a few days.