“Taking back control”

When Brexiteers talk about ‘taking back control’, they often mean specifically regaining the ability to make our own trade deals. (There are other issues, but trade deals are often mentioned, and this is the main reason for the obdurate refusal to consider a customs union which would be the obvious solution to many of the Brexit problems). Superficially, making our own trade deals might sound like not such a bad idea (apart from the level of bureaucracy involved, duplicating what the EU already does). And indeed if it was just a question of setting import/export tariffs, there would be little reason to be concerned about it.

However, I suspect what they have in mind is considerably more than that – something more like TTIP. A deal, in other words, that would not just cover tariffs, but would also open all aspects of our economy to multinational corporations. This would include our education and health services. We have already seen the corrosive effect of private companies in these areas, but at least at present the government has the power to decide whether or not to grant contracts to such companies.  So we could be prohibited from any attempt to bring back services such as water supply, or the railways, into public ownership. Although it could be argued that EU regulations already impose such conditions, that is limited in many ways, and at least EU regulations are governed by a semblance of democratic control.

Furthermore, such a deal would impose severe limitations on the extent to which our government could restrict the activities of those companies – such as environmental regulations. We might end up being forced to accept fracking, for example. Any attempt to do so would result in the companies taking their case to a quasi-judicial ‘court’ (of members selected by the companies themselves). This is not fanciful scaremongering – we have already seen other countries being fined millions of dollars under similar deals.

And we would not able to back out of such an arrangement. Is this ‘taking back control? We would be permanently putting ourselves into the hands of the multinationals.

TB and Badgers


Some background

Tuberculosis (TB) in people is typically caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis (MTB). This is, more or less specifically, a human pathogen and so you catch the disease from someone who has TB, and not from infected animals. The most common form of the disease affects your lungs, and so you pass it on by coughing, or indeed by anything that generates aerosols including talking and breathing. When you breathe in the contaminated air, the bacteria settle in your lungs. A curious feature of TB is that most (about 90%) of people who are infected never show any signs of the disease (and are not infectious). About 5% will develop symptoms within 12 months of being infected, and the remaining 5% will develop symptoms at some time during their lives, maybe 50 years later. This reactivation of an earlier infection generally reflects a decline in the effectiveness of your immune system as you grow older.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, there was another form of TB in the UK, caused by a very closely related bacterium called Mycobacterium bovis (MB). Unlike MTB, MB is a very versatile bacterium that is capable of infecting probably all mammals. The main way in which people were infected was by drinking contaminated milk. By this route, instead of the bacteria going for the lungs, they move to the lymph nodes that monitor material draining from the throat (neck lymph nodes) or digestive tract (abdominal lymph nodes). These sites of infection tend not to shed material into the environment, so people with this form of the disease are much less likely to be infectious.

This form of the disease in humans was virtually eliminated by two measures: tuberculin testing of cattle, and pasteurisation of milk. Tuberculin testing involves making an extract of killed mycobacteria and injecting a small amount into the skin of a cow. If the cow is infected, it will react – shown by a swelling at the site of injection, That cow is then killed (and the farmer is compensated). This is coupled with restrictions on the movement of cattle until the entire herd is declared free of the disease. Pasteurisation involves heating the milk to a specific temperature, which kills the mycobacteria (and incidentally some other significant pathogens), while producing minimal changes in the quality of the milk. For a while, consumers had a choice of tuberculin tested (TT) milk, pasteurised milk, or ‘ordinary’ milk. Nowadays, all milk in the shops is both TT and pasteurised.

There is also a potential risk from eating undercooked meat from an infected cow. While the tuberculin testing of cattle should ideally prevent this, to make sure none get through, vets at the abattoir inspect the carcasses to make sure they do not have any signs of TB.

So what’s the problem?

Since the existing control measures mean that the risk of human infection with MB is very low, why is there so much fuss about it? This comes mainly from the cost, to the government (and therefore to us as taxpayers) and to the farmers, costs arising from the testing of cattle and the killing of infected cattle. Although farmers are compensated for the cattle destroyed, this does not necessarily reflect the disruption to their business, let alone the loss of morale from the possible destruction of a herd that may have been built up over a period of many years. Understandably, the farmers argue strongly for the government to take radical action to tackle the sources of infection.

How do cows catch TB?

A rational strategy for controlling any infectious disease depends to a large extent on understanding the route of infection – i.e., how the disease spreads. The assumption behind the culling of badgers is that badgers are the source of infection. Is that true? It is undeniable that badgers can be infected with TB, but whether, and to what extent, they pass it on to cows is unproven. In a well-run farm, direct contact between cows and badgers is likely to be uncommon, hence direct transmission is unlikely. The main exception to this is if badgers can get access to cattle sheds, but this can be prevented.

Another possibility is that the cows eat grass that has been contaminated by badgers. e.g. by urine or faeces. However badgers use regular latrine areas, and these are likely to be avoided by cattle. So there are unsolved questions about the possible route of transmission from badgers.

Note that this is very different from the situation in New Zealand, where possums are a significant source of infection of cattle. Possums are very susceptible to TB, and they tend to die in the grazing areas. Cows being curious animals, they sniff at the possum carcass and thus become infected. New Zealand is making progress towards eliminating this by controlling the possum populations. Since the possum is not a native animal in New Zealand, there is less objection to control measures than is the case with badgers in the UK.

Will badger culling work?

If badgers really are the source of infection, then clearly something would need to be done about it. Is culling the right answer? Would it work?

To try to answer that question, a scientific study was carried out in selected areas, comparing what happened in those areas where badgers were culled with control areas where there was no culling. Although this seemed to show that in the culled areas there was some reduction in the level of TB in cattle (provided that a high enough proportion of badgers was removed), there was a rather surprising additional effect: In areas immediately adjacent to the culled areas, there was an increase in cattle TB. The likely reason for this is that the culling disrupted the normal badger population. Badgers are highly territorial, so removing badgers from one area will result in more contact between badgers in adjacent areas as they try to re-establish their territories. The conclusion is that culling could be effective, with two conditions – first, that a high proportion of badgers are removed, and secondly that the culled area should be large enough and surrounded by natural boundaries (e.g., large rivers, mountains) to prevent any mixing of badger populations in culled and non-culled areas. (The current culling programme largely fails on both counts).

What other methods are possible?

Firstly, we have to recognise that badgers are not the sole culprit. Leaving on one side the possibility that other wild mammals may be involved (remembering that MB can infect all mammals), we also have to take into account the transmission of the disease from one cow to another. Modern farming practice often involves movement of animals from one part of the country to another, with the possibility of spreading the disease. In this respect it might be significant that the increase in the number of cases of bovine TB, and the widening of their distribution, followed closely on the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, when there was large-scale re-stocking of farms, involving moving cattle around the country.

When a case of TB is found on a farm, movement of cattle off the farm is prohibited until the herd is declared clear again. This may be inadequate in two ways – infected cattle may have  been moved before the disease was detected, and a ‘farm’ may involve widely separated pieces of land. Tighter control of these areas, and recognition by the farming industry that they have an important role in disease prevention, would help.

The second possibility that is often raised is vaccination of cattle. There is a serious problem here. If you vaccinate a cow with the existing human vaccine, BCG,  then that cow becomes a reactor – in other words it will now react with the skin test in the same way that an infected cow does. So you cannot distinguish between a vaccinated cow and one that has been infected – and since the vaccine is far from 100% effective, even a vaccinated cow can be infected. One important consequence would be that the UK would be prevented from exporting animals or meat to other countries which require all animals to be TB free.

There are two ways in which this could be overcome – either develop a better vaccine that would not interfere with the skin test, and/or develop a better testing method that could distinguish infected and vaccinated animals, (There is a need for a better test anyway). Unfortunately, promising research efforts on both fronts were terminated when the government withdrew its support.

Finally, instead of vaccinating cows, you can vaccinate badgers. This is not straightforward, as the BCG vaccine has to be given by injection. So you have to trap the badgers first, which is a skilled job. But it can be done, and is being done in some areas, by voluntary groups (the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust is involved in such a programme in Derbyshire). Ironically, the only safe and effective way of culling badgers involves trapping them first and then shooting them while they are in the cage. You may well wonder why, if they have been trapped already, they don’t vaccinate them rather than shooting them.

Three time less

I frequently get annoyed by reports in the media that one thing is, for example. three times greater than another. What does that mean? Three times what?

If it is said that John is three times older than Mary, and Mary is, say, 20, then how old is John?  If we said John is 40 years older than Mary, then we would add (20 + 40) so he would be 60. So, as three times Mary’s age (3 x 20 =60), we should add that to Mary’s age, and get 80. But I suspect that what is really meant is that John’s age is three times Mary’s, so he would be 60.

That could be regarded as mere pedantry. But things get worse if we consider less/younger/smaller etc. If “Mary is three times younger than John” what does that actually mean? Three times what? If we agree, as above, that Mary is 20 and John is 60, then 3 x Mary’s age = 60, subtract that from John’s age, and Mary is 0 years old. Even worse, 3 x John’s age = 180 and Mary is minus 160 years old!

Even the respected scientific journal Nature is not immune. I recently came across the statement that a new solar probe will reach seven times nearer to the sun than any previous probe, and I am completely at a loss as to what they actually mean.


Hospital waiting times

When we hear statistics about hospital waiting times, what does that mean? When does the clock start ticking?  The NHS website says it is from the date of the initial referral, but the following case history casts doubt on that.

  • Week 0. GP appointment. Referred to hospital for surgery.
  • Had to wait 3 weeks before it was even possible to make an appointment
  • Week 3. Offered appointment in week 10.
  • Week 10. Appointment cancelled at short notice. Offered appointment in week 14.
  • Week 14. Surgery outpatient clinic.
  • Week 18. Pre-op appointment. Referred to cardiology (low heart rate, ?unsuitable for general anaesthetic)
  • Week 19. Cardiology clinic
  • Week 20. Surgery clinic confirms different operation with local anaesthetic. Told operation would have to be before January (the “breach date”).

This implies that they have re-started the clock at this point, when a further 18 weeks would take it to the middle of January. But this is 38 weeks from the initial referral. It may be that NHS rules do allow re-starting the clock in certain circumstances, which would not ne totally unreasonable, but it does mean that there could be a substantial level of undisclosed waiting.

How to replace a lamp-post

I have been following with interest, over several months, the process of replacing a lamp-post in a nearby street. The task was to remove an old concrete lamp-post and replace it with a new metal one, a metre or two away. You might think that is simple – install the new one, change over the wiring, and remove the old one. But it clearly involved several different activities:

Digging holes and filling them in

Installing the new lamp-post

Dealing with the electrical wiring

Removing the old lamp-post.

As each of these required different people, probably on separate contracts, it became a drawn-out procedure, with each step separated by one or more weeks:

  1. Digging hole for the new post
  2. Erecting the new post
  3. Filling in the hole. Now there was the old one still working, ane the new one, not yet connected. Before connecting it, there seemed to be some preparatory electrical work required. So we had:
  4. Digging out the hole again
  5. Preparing the electrics
  6. Filling in the hole. It was now ready for connection to be made. So:
  7. Digging out the hole
  8. Disconnecting the old lamp-post
  9. Connecting the new one.
  10. Filling in the hole

At least that was what I expected, and should have yielded the new one working and the old one not. Then it would have been a question of removing the old one and job finished. In fact the current situation is that we have two lamp-posts, neither of which is working. I am waiting for further developments. I wonder if it will be finished before the end of the year.

Update January 17 2019

The new lamp-post is now working, but the old lamp-post is still there. After the best part of a year, it is still waiting, like a number of others in this area, for the old post to be removed.

Whitby Folk Week

I’ve been back from Whitby for nearly a week, and, as usual, it’s taken me that long to pick up the pieces.

The undoubted highlight, for me, was Robin Huw Bowen playing the Welsh triple harp. I’ve read lots about it, but I’ve never even seen one before, let alone heard anyone playing it, and playing it so superbly.

I especially remember the comment he passed on, from an old harpist that he had been learning tunes from, who said “Now, you’re getting there. You’ve got the notes, now you need to learn the music.”  That’s a piece of advice that many session players could take heed of! All too often we seem to be just playing the notes, with no sort of feel for the music. I get particularly annoyed when the source material, and the feel of the tune, clearly indicates that there should be a brief gap between the notes – the source notation shows a rest there – but it gets filled in, either by joining the notes or adding an extra one to fill the ‘gap’. Paddy Carey is a clear example.

I didn’t go to so many sessions this time. I decided there were more interesting things going on than sitting in a session playing the same tunes that we always play. People seem afraid to start off tunes that they think others won’t know, and if they do, so many people just sit on their hands and don’t even try to join in. I even heard someone grumble about people playing tunes they didn’t know. For me, that would be a cause of celebration rather than grumble. I want to hear, and hopefully learn, ‘new’ tunes. Otherwise there’s no point in going all that way, except that it’s cheap entertainment.

Furthermore, many of the tunes exist in a number of variants, one of which has become dominant, usually because some band has recorded that version. If you try to play a different version, the chance are everyone will try to play the ‘standard’ one and you will get swamped. Even worse, you may be told you’re playing it wrong! That did happen to me, when I was just starting out, and I was too new to the game to argue. If anyone tried it now, I would point out that if I start a tune, then everyone should try to play the version that I’m playing. If I start it, that’s the ‘right’ version. The focus on ‘standard’ versions of a limited number of tunes means that we are missing out on the tremendous variety of tunes, and versions of them, that exist.



I’m becoming increasingly fed-up with all this stuff about anti-semitism in the Labour Party. I don’t doubt that there are a very small number of members who are genuinely anti-semitic, and perhaps a few more who have made comments at times that could be construed as anti-semitic. But I have seen no evidence that it is any worse now than at any time in the past.

Now the argument seems to be all about whether Labour should include all these supposed examples of anti-semitism. The fact that they are the sort of things that might be said by anti-semites does not mean that these statements are themselves anti-semitic.

Take one example; “The existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour.” Is this itself an anti-semitic statement? Consider the following series of statements:

1. Israel is a state based on racial identity.

2. Israel is a racially based state.

3. Israel is a racist state.

4. The state of Israel is a racist endeavour.

Which of these statements would get me into trouble? Statement 1 has now been affirmed by the Israeli Parliament, and I don’t think they are being accused of anti-semitism, so presumably that is OK. Statement 2 seems to follow inexorably from 1, so that must be OK. Statement 3, I would argue, also then follows logically from 1 and 2; I guess there would be political objections, but I can’t see that it is inherently anti-semitic.

So we come to statement 4, which is the controversial one. To my mind, it requires some detailed semantic analysis to distinguish 3 and 4. So I really do not see the point.

In the end, we have to ask why all this has been blown up now, and why so much attention is being given to this supposed anti-semitism, as opposed to all the other possible forms of discrimination (which are undoubtedly more prevalent)? Are there forces at work that are afraid of the outcome if JC were to get into power? I fear that all this fuss runs the risk of causing some people to actually become more anti-semitic, e.g., by believing that the ‘Jewish lobby’ is powerful enough to manipulate the news in their own interests – which could be said to be an anti-semitic statement. So I wouldn’t want to say that, but I can see the potential for that argument emerging. It could be stirring up a hornet’s nest.