Thursday, 29 November 2007

We don’t do symptoms

I had this itch in my ear, you see. Not really life-threatening but annoying and perhaps a bit worrying. Had an ear-wig burrowed inside, as earwigs are alleged to do, and laid eggs which, when hatched, would come marching out in serried ranks in the middle of the night as fully-grown forficula auricularia*? Even learning, on looking up the things in Wikipedia, that “Interestingly, the male of the species has two identical, fully-functional and independently-operable penises” did not reconcile me to the prospect, and anyway I didn’t think the information was all that interesting, except perhaps to female earwigs.

So I resolved to get help. Some internet sources identified the problem as swimmer’s ear, and the American Academy of Family Physicians went into much detail, recommending a 2% solution of acetic acid; as I had never done any swimming, and didn’t much like the idea of filling my ear up with vinegar, I felt I should look elsewhere for advice, and sent an email to NHS Direct.

I suppose this service seemed like a good idea at the time it was set up, saving busy doctors from having to listen to trivial complaints by providing medical advice on the telephone or through a website, but it seems unlikely to be serving much purpose. I have never heard of anyone who has found it useful, and my own experience of it was not gratifying: I simply said that my hearing was OK and that I had no earache and asked “ why does my ear itch?”, and got back a standard letter saying, in effect, “This is not the sort of question we can deal with”.

This seemed remarkably feeble of them, as in their blurb they invite you to “…Get an assessment of what your current symptoms may be the cause of..**”. I suppose, with over two million enquiries a month, they simply cannot give specific advice to many; one imagines a call centre where hundreds of teenagers sit at consoles with a array of buttons to press from which they can choose a standard pre-recorded message or an email (in any one of the twelve languages they say they use), like the one I had, or others saying Don’t worry, it’ll get better on its own, or Call an ambulance NOW, or Don’t scratch it, leave it ALONE, or even just Dear Sir, You have the pox, Yours faithfully.

In my case they could have said Sounds like a minor infection, see your GP and he will prescribe something which will cure it in a trice. Anyway, I did, he did, and it did.

But of course this would have meant a bit of typing; easier to press the button to send the We don’t want to know email.

All this has reminded me of a very old Jewish joke, but I’ll keep that for another time.

* forficulae auriculariae?
**Get an assessment of what your current symptoms may be the cause of...” This is disgracefully careless writing: symptoms don’t cause anything: they meant to say “..may be caused by”.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Celebrity Cool

It takes a really big star to stay completely calm when they photograph you just after you’ve vomited.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Splendour in Uganda

Thousands lined the road from Entebbe airport last Wednesday to welcome this hat to Kampala.

Opinion was divided as to whether it was more impressive than its sister, a lime-green job which made a big hit when it visited the Ugandan parliament later the same day.

However, according to the official parliament website, this was the one which had arrived outside the parliament building. If this was so, there must have been a lightning change in the lobby, but my guess is that this an attempt to cover up the fact that they couldn’t get a good close-up of the green one.

It has been said that the first two above were inspired, as were many of the Queen’s hats, by the pièces montées of the great chef pâtissier Antonin Carême (1783-1833). These were monumental confections, several feet high, made from sugar, nougat, marzipan and pastry for the crowned heads of Europe. They were rarely eaten and never worn; you can see why, if you believe Wikipedia's note on Carême: Utilizing his previous architectural knowledge coupled with culinary genius, some of his sugar works were so elaborate that court jesters would dance upon them while entertaining the king.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Lovely with buttered toast

Here are twelve things, ten of which are considered edible, though obviously not by everyone:

Fried cockchafers
Sonofabitch stew
Icelandic moss porridge
Cajun wild toad
Prairie dog
Crunchy sand-bugs with honey
Stuffed baboon’s nostril
Apple slump
Wart-necked piddock

Ten of them are in the Oxford Companion to Food (you'll have to buy it: it's not online). The other two are merely creations of a diseased mind; see if you can decide which before you look at further details.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Two Trinities, and a note on Jesus

Carmarthen, Dublin, Hartford, London, Melbourne, Toronto and many other towns and cities have a Trinity College, with varying degrees of distinction. Most people would agree on which are the two most highly distinguished and prestigious, but there is no such consensus about which of the two has the edge. Cambridge’s (Henry VIII, 1546) is larger and older than Oxford’s (Thomas Pope, 1555), though neither of these attributes necessarily confers distinction or prestige; antiquity certainly doesn’t—think of professions.

Since neither I nor any member of my family went to either, there is no reason why anyone would ask for my view, but if someone did I think I would choose Trinity College Cambridge, if only because of Crème Brûlée.

This is the French term for a rich baked custard made with cream (their language is utterly useless for naming food—there is no French word for custard, imagine!). In English, the dish is called Burnt Cream.

It is also sometimes known as Trinity Cream because at Trinity Cambridge they used to impress the college crest on top of the cream with a branding iron. I call that stylish.

In the case of the two top Jesuses it also looks as if Cambridge has it. Their Jesus is not only the older (the Bishop of Ely, 1496; Oxford, Elizabeth, 1571), but has a splendidly resounding full name: "The College of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and the glorious Virgin Saint Radegund, near Cambridge".

However, your typical Oxford Jesusman is totally unimpressed by this. Asked whether he went to Jesus, Oxford or Jesus, Cambridge, he would almost certainly reply: “Jesus”.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Good letters bring success

Most people are aware that if your surname begins with a letter in the first half of the alphabet then you have a better chance in life, simply because having your name crop up near the top of written lists, or having it called out before others, must in some circumstances confer an advantage.

I had not realised before that there is something called the Name Letter Effect (NLE) which is said to work in other, subtler, ways, and involves not merely your surname but your monogram—all your initials. Martin Gardiner in Really Magazine quotes from and gives links to several pieces of research on this phenomenon.

The most recent of them resulted in a paper published in this month’s edition of the journal Psychological Science by Leif D. Nelson of the University of California and Joseph P. Simmons of the Yale School of Management , which they childishly titled Moniker Maladies: When Names Sabotage Success. It found that “law students with initials which represented poor grades in exam results did less well than their colleagues whose initials included As and Bs” and generally “people perform worse when their initials match objectively undesirable performance outcomes”.

I was tempted to download a copy of the research but a glance at the Abstract warned me that it is unlikely be a thumping good read:
People like their names enough to unconsciously approach consciously-avoided name-resembling outcomes. Baseball players avoid strikeouts, but players with strikeout-signifying K-initials strike out more than others. All students want A's, but C- and D-initialed students find initial-resembling outcomes less aversive and achieve lower GPAs, particularly if they like their initials. Because lower GPAs lead to lesser graduate schools, C- and D-initialed students go to lower ranked law schools than their A- and B-initialed counterparts .… These findings provide striking evidence that unconscious wants can insidiously undermine conscious pursuits.

Back in 2005, the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine had a paper entitled Monogrammic Determinism? describing research in which students had to categorise some initials according to unpleasantness. Unsurprisingly, they rated initials such as P.I.G. and Z.I.T. as severely negative. Next, the researchers correlated the unfortunate initials with death records from the California Department of Health Services mortality database stretching back to 1905.
So did having an undesirable set of initials mean that you might D.I.E. earlier? No, it didn’t, so let’s move on.

The concept goes back much further. In 1984 Joszf M Nuttin, the founder of the Laboratorium voor Experimentele Sociale Psychologie, in Belgium, reported on NLE to the General Meeting of the European Association of Experimental Social Psychology. Here again, I cannot comment, because a glance at the Abstract made me decide that Narcissism beyond Gestalt and awareness: The name letter effect was not something I wanted to spend a long weekend with:
Mere belongingness to self is tested as a sufficient condition for the enhancement of the attractiveness of visual letter stimuli….The effect is obtained in the absence of awareness of the Gestalt of any name, thus challenging current understanding of fundamental affective processes.

So there you have it, or possibly don’t. Why was I interested in these enquiries into trivial and probably rather pointless matters, you may ask? Well, because they illustrate the point that sociological research, whatever degree of correlation is found in two sets of data, is never more than generalisation, and tells you nothing about a specific case. My initials, you see, are AAB: I have yet to make my first million, my academic achievement consisted of failing the same degree twice, and my sporting career began when I was ten with the discovery that rugger is a very rough game indeed and that cricket is played with a very hard ball, and went downhill from there.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Here it is again

If you put "Origami Bank" into Google, you will be offered 2,200 versions of the piece below, some of them dating back many months. I couldn’t be bothered to look through them all to see where it originated; it was passed to me by a renegade Englishman currently hiding in Spain.

After all the stress of being tricked about those green Belgian marchers earlier this week I was not inclined to overtire myself today
by trying to think of something original to post, and anyway true originality is out of place in Other Men's Flowers, so here is the 2,201st appearance of the joke on the internet. Maybe there is someone out there who hasn’t seen it.

We all know that the knock-on effect of the US sub prime banking problems has stretched far afield; it is now devastating the banking industry in Japan.
In the last seven days the Origami Bank has folded, Sumo Bank has gone belly-up and Bonsai Bank is planning to cut many of its branches. Only yesterday Karaoke Bank was put up for sale and will probably go for a song.
Today shares in the Kamikaze Bank were suspended after they nose-dived, while investors at the Anime Bank were left wide-eyed. Analysts report that there is something fishy going on at the Sushi Bank and staff there fear that they may be in for a raw deal, after hearing that 500 clerks at the Karate Bank got the chop.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

At the pictures

The modern multiplex adds nothing to the experience of going to see a film. A whiff of popcorn and the sight of a garish display of nasty snacks and sweets is followed by what seems like hours of ads and trailers until finally, in an uncomfortable seat, we get to the object of the visit.

So it was a huge joy to find something quite different. In a very small town called Hawkhurst, twenty miles from where I live, there is a building that looks from outside like an old school, and only some very discreet signs tell you that inside is Kino, the UK’s first entirely digital cinema. To be told that “its state-of-the art technology features a Christie 2K projector and a Dynaudio sound system” and that its “digital content is supplied by the world's first digital networks, the UKFC's DSN [digital screen network] and Brazil's Rain Network” means nothing to me. Brazil?

Digital-shmigital; but what did mean a great deal to me is that after a glass of red wine in the cinema café we watched the film, and nothing but the film, in extraordinarily comfortable seats. And digital programming means that they can have a sort of repertory, showing up to six different films every day, which include the latest movie releases, Hollywood classics and art-house classics. This means that virtually every week something I want to see will be showing several times, on different days at different hours.

There is a second Kino in another small town, Sevenoaks, not far away. Digital cinemas are rapidly spreading in the US, and the UK is home to Europe's first fully digital multiplex cinemas: a couple of digital Odeons opened last February with a total of 18 digital screens. But I bet they’re not nearly as nice as the two little single-screen ones we’ve got in rural Kent.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Suspicion and deceit

A couple of days ago I posted a picture of part of a parade in Brussels featuring some marchers wearing splendid green furry costumes. As I had found this, uncaptioned, on the cover of a tourist brochure, I had no idea who they were or what they were representing: The Gnomes of Flanders, perhaps? Die Grünen? The Brussels Lettuce Growers Association? I was certain that someone living in Brussels would write in and tell me.

Sure enough, within a few hours several comments had appeared on the blog, including one in French and one in Dutch. Both of these informed me that the parade was in fact part of the 2007 21ème Festival Gay et Lesbien de Belgique. The Frenchman not only gave me the website but said that his sister Éloise was on the left in the photo.

Well, fine. And yet…

I am ever mindful of Thomas Paine’s dictum: Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society. So I stifled my doubts and engaged this helpful pair in an exchange of comments. Finally, though, the doubts increased and I emailed a polyglot friend who writes under the name of Grumio. He is an unashamed blackguard and, on being pressed, freely admitted that he had written the comments, and that the G&L people of Brussels, had never, as far as he knew, marched in green fur.

By then I really wanted to know what it was all about, and asked a friend in Brussels for her help. She didn’t know the answer but referred me to a website which posts answers to questions about Belgium.

Bingo! Two anonymous people replied to my query with the totally convincing suggestion that "this could well be a group taking part in the Zinneke Parade (which takes place every two years). The theme changes on each occasion, and this sounds like the ecological theme from a couple of years ago".

That seems extremely likely. Anyway, I am going to accept it as the truth and make no more enquiries, suppressing the thoughts that anyone can send in answers to that website, the comments on it were anonymous, and Grumio is a persistent spoofer with time on his hands…

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Is that water-cannon trained on us?

I find all spectacular hats fascinating, but en masse they can be terrifying. I have no idea where these ladies were off to, or what they were advertising, or demanding; all I know is that they were in Brussels.

Perhaps they were just out to enjoy themselves, though it doesn't look much like it. Anyway, they were tremendously green, which must be a good thing, so let us hope they had a fun day, or a successful outcome, or whatever it was they were after.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Or take precautions while you're waiting

This notice in my local hospital might have been less likely to be misunderstood if the last three words had come immediately after "radiographer".

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

More hat fetishism

This post, the twenty-sixth in the series, features the Seppelhut, traditionally worn at the Oktoberfest, the Bavarian beer festival; this is claimed to be the largest fair in the world, attended by six million people each year. Some years ago I was one of them (by mischance, having gone to Munich for quite another reason) and can confirm that wearing this hat makes the most handsome and distinguished Münchner (or, indeed, anyone else), look a complete idiot.

I can also state authoritatively that the festival is not a fun event for those who don’t much care for beer and dislike crowds. I do not know why nobody in this picture is wearing a silly hat.
(Click on it to appreciate the full beauty of the scene)

[My thanks to Crowbark for bringing the Seppelhut to my attention.]

Monday, 5 November 2007

The shape of evil

In my last post I wrote that I could not really see the connection between the Whore of Babylon and Hudson Bay (which the French, in that sly way they have, call baie d'Hudson). Several readers emailed me with comments on this, none of them, sadly, on behalf of the Cree and Inuit people who make up most of the population of the coastal villages of this 1.23 million square kilometres of very cold water. Most of these correspondents told me that a quick glance at the map should have made it perfectly clear to me that the shape of this closely resembles that of the allegorical figure of pure evil, though one pointed out that the issue is clouded somewhat by the assertion made by some that the Whore of Babylon is in fact the Roman Catholic Church, which by no stretch of the imagination could be called Hudson-Bay-shaped.

Well, maybe. Anyway, there seems to be no agreement as to what shape the W of B actually was. Put Whore of Babylon into Google Images and you are offered over fifty thousand pictures, many of them, frankly, of an indelicate nature, and none looking remotely like any part of Canada. So over to Wikipedia, which has this one; it is a charming German woodcut showing her doing a bit of juggling before an appreciative audience, but it doesn't really get us any further forward:

(Great Britain undoubtedly has the shape of an old woman riding on a pig, but that is quite another matter and has nothing whatsoever to do with the Book of Revelation. Don't know why I mentioned it, really.)

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Forty-one shopping days to go

On Christmas Day this year the volcanic island of La Palma will erupt and the unstable part will fall into the sea, resulting in a mega-tsunami that will devastate the east coast of America, if the word of God is anything to go by. Or, rather, the word of Alasdair T R Laurie, who is, or was, a promising second-year PhD student at the University of Leeds in the UK. He did not finish the course after becoming a fundamentalist Christian.

All this is set out in his website, called unequivocally WorldEnds. Many will find some of his evidence difficult to follow; it is not easy, for example to see just how the date was first predicted by showing that the 666th name in the Bible is Solomon, the number of the beast, and I myself am totally confused by Laurie’s reference to the whore of Babylon being outlined by Hudson Bay (Canada), riding on the scarlet beast (Labrador). He does provide a map but this doesn’t really help much.

But while one may be unable to comprehend the main thrust of his argument, one must admire the way in which he presents it. Unlike many American fundamentalists, he has an excellent command of English: the syntax and grammar of his prose is quite sound, and his spelling is impeccable. If his reasoning is difficult to grasp, this is only because these are complex matters which would tax the exegetical skill of the keenest mind, even that of a bioinformatics PhD student who had actually completed the course.

Another point in Mr Laurie’s favour is that he has taken the trouble to pass on this particular warning to residents of the east coast of America, although the catastrophe lined up for December 25th will presumably affect the whole world, including Leeds. It seems that the tsunami which hit the Solomon Islands on April 1st this year did actually ‘herald an end to the capitalist ideology that is in opposition to following Jesus’, and ‘God is in support of this line of argument, but is giving extra warning to the Americans’. This is a clear rebuke to those who have ever doubted that the USA has a very special place in the affections of the Almighty.

Christmas in Maine, 2007
(actually, a microphotograph of organic crystals
by John Cheslik, entitled "Apocalypse")

Thursday, 1 November 2007

When galaxies collide...

this is the sort of thing you see through the Hubble telescope. At least, it would be if you were orbiting the earth and the Hubble telescope was for looking through and not for taking pictures.

This beautiful colliding pair is called Arp 87 and is 300 million light years away in the constellation of Leo. Phil Plait tells you about it in Bad Astronomy, which in this instance is an inappropriately named website.