CategoriesEducationPoliticsThought of The Day

Comment Piece in The Yorkshire Post

With the children returning to school on 7 September, The Yorkshire Post published my blog, originally entitled “Carpe Diem, Gavin Williamson” in reference to the Government’s introduction of Latin. The article was trailed on page 2 (not page 3, as my friends have suggested!).

In it, I outline some obvious changes which ought to be implemented to education. If I was allowed more words, I could have gone on, for there is so much which is broken with the system. Because we are a rich country – due to historical reasons – it seems to me that we do not often question why it is that we do certain things. Why do children have ludicrously long school holidays? Because, historically, it allowed them to harvest. There are countless other examples of such poor thinking and poor governance.

The titles of the online and print versions vary. The online version can be found here.

Page 2 of Yorkshire Post on 7 September 2021

Andrew Gray

Page 15 Yorkshire Post 7.9.21
Article by Andrew Gray
CategoriesEnvironmentInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Us and Them

Accompanying the scenes of the Kabul evacuation, Pink Floyd’s Us and Them plays on a continuous loop in my head.

“Us (us, us, us, us) and them (them, them, them, them)
And after all we’re only ordinary men.”

In recent weeks, this troubling issue – of ‘them’ and ‘us’ – has dominated my thoughts. Why do some people matter to us, but others do not? Imperilled people at Kabul airport who have had our help, are just as important as humans in, say, sub-Saharan Africa who have not, right? Former soldier and Tory MP, Patrick Mercer, wrote in The Yorkshire Post on 29 August 2021:

“If ever there was an unimpeachable reason for offering safety and sanctuary to our friends, this is it. We need to get those people out – all of them – and help them here in Britain just as they stood by our boys when the bullets were flying over there.”

Since the invasion of Afghanistan twenty years ago, I do not recall the British media suggesting that any Afghan was on our “side”. Deaths of Afghans – either in “collateral damage” or otherwise – didn’t seem to matter much. Only the deaths of our unfortunate soldiers ever made the news. Until now. Now, Afghans who worked on our side, or who benefitted from our presence, have quickly become ‘us’ in a matter of weeks.

Perhaps we now care for some Afghans because “our” people got to know some of them, fighting and dying together. Because those Afghans picked our tribe over “theirs”, they are now friends for life, as Mercer says. Our tribe owes their tribe, goes the logic. Difficult shared experiences develop strong bonds between people.

As I hope to treat all people equally, this rapid volte face in the media, though welcome, causes me concern. And if these Afghans can quickly change sides in our consciousness, are there any useful lessons for how we could shine a spotlight on other unfortunate people, equally deserving of our help? What methodology and logic should we use for determining who deserves our assistance?

Yuval Noah Harari’s magnum opus – Sapiens – which ought to be compulsory reading for all – traces the development of our species. Like many of his readers, I now understand myself better because I recognise my DNA code. Harari spends much time explaining the ‘them’ and ‘us’ phenomenon. He writes:

“Evolution has made homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Us’ is people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for ‘them’. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely even human.”

A challenging read, because it is true for many people.

In 2016, at the suggestion of a Quaker friend, I travelled with him to the Calais refugee camp – The Jungle – together with some members of a Pentecostal church in Leeds. Our mission was to distribute food and other assorted items.

At that time, in the British gutter press, The Jungle had become notorious. If France was so civilised, why not stay there? – went the narrative. The gutter press’s answer: only because Britain was a soft-touch, ready to help others rather than “our own”. Charity begins at home, they intoned.

In The Jungle lived Afghans, Syrians and many other nationalities – mainly young men – who wanted a better life, escaping war and poverty. If, through fate, I had been in their position, I imagine I would have done likewise.

Here are some photos of that trip.

You might expect that such an experience would leave a lasting impression, but it did not. Rarely do I think about The Jungle, however, frequently I think about the people whom we travelled with: they became part of my tribe. Perhaps this is because I did not (frankly, because of fear), spend any meaningful time with any of the inhabitants of The Jungle: it was intense, overwhelming experience – one that I do not wish to have again. I cannot tell you any of their names of the people we helped. In my head, they didn’t enter my tribe.

Harari’s work helps humans to understand our still-primitive minds. If we are all encoded to really only care about ‘us’, if we want to break-free from such thinking, answers can be found in religion and ideology (taken as one) and philosophy.

Although religion unquestionably sows division, it is also a great unifer, by increasing the size of the ‘us’ pool, extending the size of our tribe. Don’t just care about Christians in your town in affluent Harrogate – goes the logic – care about the plight of Christians in Kurdistan, too. Furthermore, if an omnisicient creator gave all things life, assuming that humans are at the zenith of the importance hierarchy (which is quite an assumption), then religions are a helpful antidote to humans only caring about the people whom they know. For example, the Christians from Leeds, who led The Jungle odyssey, were inspired by their faith to help those in need. And for these Leeds Christians, upliftingly they did not care for the religion for those whom they helped.

Similarly, communism encouraged the working classes to care about the class struggle throughout the world, extending the working class tribe. Communism and the reaction to it certainly caused much bloodshed, but it also spawned human connection.

In philosophy, I draw great strength from Peter Singer – the inspiration behind the animal rights movement. Together with my instinctual predilection for utilitarianism, Singer’s Drowning Child Experiment has shaped how I see the world. His thought experiment goes as follows:

Imagine that you are walking through an empty village – empty except for a young child. That child is about to drown in the village pond. You are the only person who can save it. If you wade into the water, through the mud, to make a rescue, then you will permanently ruin your best clothes. The financial cost would be modest. Morally, should you wade in?

To which everyone answers – of course! Singer asks why it is, then, that most people in rich countries would not spend only a small sum of money to save the life of a child – or perhaps a few children – in a developing country, a country that we will in all likelihood never visit. Why does it matter that we cannot see, in the flesh, the child drowning in another land? Singer challenges us to ignore distance, to apply logic – a life is a life wherever it is – and to make that donation.

Inspired by Singer’s reasoning, the organisation – The Life That You Can Save – ranks charities who make the greatest contribution to saving lives. I encourage all readers to subscribe to their newsletter.

Drawing lessons from Harari, religion and philosophy, how should we, in rich countries, act? My personal recipe is to get to know one developing country – in my personal case, Myanmar – and give a fair proportion of your wealth (including your time) to achieving the maximum return. We cannot know all people, or we would exhaust ourselves. Alternatively, we could let the Life That You Can Save direct our giving, but you will never get the warm feeling of knowing the people your money helps, perhaps leading us to give to the local donkey sanctuary instead when we get bored.

Perhaps more intelligently and compassionately still, our money and time ought to be focussed on environmental matters: allowing us to be both local as well as global, acting in the knowledge that the people who will be hit worst by environmental collapse are always the most needy. This requires long-term thinking, something which does not come naturally to most of us.

CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Taliban 2.0?

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, my good friend went to the Iranian Embassy in London to collect our visas. In what was a foreboding experience, we had completed the requisite paperwork in the embassy several weeks before. With our plane tickets booked to Athens, the plan was that we were to make it overland – from Greece to Thailand, flying home from Bangkok. By this point, we had obtained visas for Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. The back-of-a-fag-packet plan was to apply for a Burmese visa when in Bangladesh. The Iranian visa was the missing piece.

Due to 9/11, with the world in a pickle, with travel insurance invalidated for Iran, we were only able to safely visit India.

Watching the Taliban press conference, a few days ago, I thought I would revisit my Lonely Planet Guidebook to Central Asia, printed in 2000. My friend and I would have ventured into Afghanistan, had it been safe at that time. The guidebook reads:

At the time of writing the sound of gunfire and shelling still reverberates over parts of Afghanistan as it has done with depressing regularity since the late 1970s. Hopes are high that the latest faction to win control over the war-torn capital, the Islamist Taliban fighters, may eventually succeed in bringing peace but for the time being Afghanistan is unsafe to visit.

The 19th century was a period of often comic book confrontation with the British, who were afraid of the effects of unruly neighbours on its great Indian colony. The rise of Great Game tensions and the internal weakness of the Afghan Kingdom resulted in a series of remarkably unsuccessful and bloody, preventative wars being fought on extremely flimsy pretexts.

In 1841 the British Garrison in Kabul found itself under attack after Alexander ‘Bokhara’ Burnes was hacked to pieces by an Afghan mob. The British attempted to retreat to India and were almost totally wiped out in the Khyber Pass – out of 16,000 persons only one man survived. The British managed to re-occupy Kabul and carried out little razing and burning to show who was boss, but Dost Mohammed ended up back in power, just as he had been before the war.

Following local wars, from 1878 to 1880, Afghanistan agreed to become more or less a protectorate of the British, happily accepted an annual payment to keep things in shape and agreed to a British resident in Kabul. No sooner had this diplomatic mission being installed in Kabul than all of its members were murdered. This time the British decided to keep control of Afghanistan’s external affairs, but to leave the internal matters strictly to the Afghans themselves.”

History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes, so said Mark Twain.

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In strict legal terms, the initial war in Afghanistan in 2001 was lawful. Morally, there was a casus belli – just cause. The “occupation” also had legal cover, as the foreign troops were invited to remain in situ by the Afghan Government. But was there a duty to nation-build – and, if so, at what cost and for how long?

My view is that our shameful colonial legacy, rather than the invasion of 2001, obliged us to help. The boundaries drawn by colonial officials many years ago split communities, artificially creating this country and that country, sowing generations of division. As a former Burma/Myanmar expert, this pattern is familiar.

With regards to the US, any obligation to the Afghans stems not from their invasion in 2001, rather from their proxy war fought against the Soviet Union during the 1980s, flooding Afghanistan with weapons. Such obligation does not last twenty years, nor should it cost $2 trillion, 2442 dead and 20,660 wounded.

President Biden has come under sustained criticism due to the manner of the collapse, but he was elected on a pledge of ending the “forever wars”. I shall not join in with the condemnation, for he was democratically elected, with his rival – Trump, who made the deal with Taliban – also promising likewise. Had the US remained, in breach of the presidential promises, the US taxpayer would have shouldered additional considerable expense. If such cost had been met by the UN, fairly split across the G20 countries, given that no US soldier had died in 18 months, such continued involvement would have been equitable to the US, but it was not. Expecting the US to act as the world policeman, with the expectation that the US spends a higher proportion of her GDP on defence than other NATO allies, is the root cause of the scenes at Kabul airport. Look to Germany, France, other NATO countries and to the UN, if you want to allocate blame.

Certainly, the intelligence assessment of the capability and durability of the Afghan National Army (ANA) proved wildly inaccurate, but such predictions were always educated guesses. Just as the intelligence errors which led to Pearl Harbour did not bury Roosevelt, the CIA assessment of the ANA shouldn’t finish Biden. In fact, the speed with which the ANA collapsed, when faced with an inferior force, gives credence to Biden’s position – that the US job in Afghanistan could never be complete, leading to many more trillions to be spent to little strategic or economic gain.

However, politics is an unfair business. Images of Taliban fighters in US fighter planes and driving around Kabul in Humvees, which will drip-drip for years to come, will pummel Biden on a daily basis. Given his age, Biden will not seek re-election, paving the way for Harris. Harris’ success may rest on her ability to distance herself from the withdrawal. This may wash with the US electorate, who know that Biden has always been opposed to US military adventurism. As the Taliban always say, “You may have the watches, but we have the time.” Foreign expeditions on behalf of a democratically elected Government – in this case, the US – can only ever be time-limited affairs.

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Combined with the angst that we in the West feel for those caught up in these unfortunate circumstances, my (likely unpopular) view is that we feel embarrassed – humiliated even – that “our side” were so easily swatted away, often without a fight, by fighters whom many regard as primitive. Furthermore, the Taliban leaders whom we now see on TV, do not so far appear to be the monsters which we were led to believe that they were. This is not to ignore their multiple atrocities, rather it is comment on their appearance and actions as de facto rulers thus far.

My sense is that many people in the West feel discombobulated: everything that we thought we knew was wrong. To make matters more disorientating, my view is that many in the West now feel unsafe: our soldiers were beaten (when they were not); our allies are incompetent and untrustworthy; refugees and terrorism will soon be brought to a street near you; our prestige, shattered.  As George Orwell wrote: “We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” Our “rough men” have gone, though most of them left years ago.

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Watching the Taliban take Kabul without a fight, pondering the reason why it was an effortless coup d’état, instantly I thought of my favourite organisational thinker, Simon Sinek. Sinek created the third most-watched TED Talk of all time. Sinek’s simple message is that organisations need a shared Why: i.e. a culture – a mission – that all participants subscribe to. Through adhering to that vision, an organisation can achieve great things.

Sinek highlights how the little-known Wright Brothers somehow managed to fly the first plane despite being pitted against Samuel Pierpont Langley – an eminent astronomer who was bankrolled by the US Government and who assembled the brightest minds of the day. As Sinek states about the Wright Brothers, “they were able to inspire those around them and truly lead their team to develop a technology that would change the world.”

My view as a non-expert (though with some foreign policy acumen – I submitted written evidence to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee) is that the ANA were without a mission that the foot soldiers and their leadership bought into. Though well-trained and well-armed, they were no match for purpose-driven Taliban fighters. Without purpose – because Afghanistan, though a nation state in legal terms, has little cohesivity. This mountainous country, with few roads, makes for insular, autonomous areas, rather than a joined-up whole. This is not to criticise the Afghan people, for a national identity cannot be forced. Why, then, as an ANA solder would you risk your life for an idea that you do not – to your core – believe in?

……………………………………………………

Do we in the West have a moral or legal duty to evacuate anyone who is queuing at the airport? Have “we” spent enough? Should we aid the brain and financial drain, which is taking place, hampering the country for years to come? If so, who do we bring over and for how long? Because our taxpayers funded Afghan engineers, should we take their whole families with us, depriving Afghanistan of their skills?

The moral answer perhaps lies in our analysis of what may happen to such people if they stay, but then we have already witnessed the issues with predicting what will happen in Afghanistan. Applying a risk-assessment methodology, temporary residency should be provided for those with cause. If Afghanistan does not descend into reprisals, then Afghans would need to return, supported by turbo-charged foreign aid. Whilst in the UK, all Afghan should have the right to work – a right that refugees have but asylum-seekers do not. If safe, Afghanistan will need most of the people back who are now departing.

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But has the Taliban changed in twenty years? Early indications suggests that they have. The world has changed in that time. Their leaders have experienced life in other countries. A generation of Afghans has experienced democracy, women’s rights, and the internet. The country they now govern is a different prospect from what they knew. Taliban leaders will still scan the sky for drones, perhaps tempering some of their activities.

Sadly, what I expect to see is some reprisals and a dramatic reduction in women’s rights. I expect that the West will make it difficult for the Taliban to access banking and international aid, so I expect to see – as has happened in Burma/Myanmar – the march of the Chinese into Afghanistan. Iran, Russia and Pakistan too will all look to curry favour, with minerals to exploit and border zones to influence. The Great Games – as mentioned in the extract from my guidebook above – continue. Everything changes, but nothing changes.

CategoriesHealthThought of The Day

The Good Thing About Suspected Heart-Attacks 

Although my robust heart has seen me through a lifetime of sport, including two marathons, this last six months she has become increasingly unruly. In the week that my umpteenth ECG revealed some minor niggles, she decided to run amok. Occasional, manageable chest pains; failing to pump faster when walking; then running wild when she shouldn’t be. When your heart misbehaves, it’s hard to think of anything else.

One Sunday evening, several weeks ago, she reached a crescendo of petulance: sharp pains into my shoulder; breathlessness; rapid beats, when lying down; and sweating. According to the 111 website, I should summon an ambulance immediately. Nah, it wasn’t that serious, I thought, so I called 111 for a second opinion, going through their more detailed questions. Ambulance en route!

Paramedics arrived promptly, performing another ECG: they were unconcerned by the results, even though my heart was running at double its normal speed, yet within a range that they deemed acceptable. Understandably, they were unaware of dysautonomia, but I cannot fault them. On the contrary, I am grateful and full of admiration for their professionalism, humour and dedication. The work of the angels, every paramedic should – at the very least – receive an MBE. Their very existence is a comfort.

Lying in bed awaiting an ambulance – which someone else regarded as potentially life-threatening – I decided to text my brother with my wishes, in the unlikely event that this was The End. Calm, I tapped away. Not so calm, my brother opened his messages: sorry, bro.

You’ll forgive me for not detailing my wishes, however, what I want you to know is that I did not have any deathbed regrets. Unlike clichéd regrets in such circumstances, I did not wish that I had tried harder at school, nor spent less time at work. I was – and remain – grateful for my lot. I demanded that everyone moved on quickly, with my wife encouraged to start the quest (should this be what she wants to do) for my replacement, commencing at the wake.

My tip, therefore, is to imagine such a situation for you. If there’s regrets in that list, fix it with utmost haste. I’m grateful for the clarity which this scary situation gifted to me.

(More thorough heart examinations have given it a near-perfect bill of health: it’s the autonomic nervous system which continues to fire inconsistent, erratic messages to my heart as well as all my other organs, causing havoc.)

CategoriesPoliticsEssaysThought of The Day

Carpe diem, Gavin Williamson

At the request of The Yorkshire Post, for whom I occasionally write, I have penned this comment piece. Perhaps they will publish it. Time will tell. I was limited to 750 words, but there is far more that I could say on this subject! Enjoy.

 

I’ll admit it: middle-class parents, like my wife and I, had a good pandemic. Working from home, deliveries, Zoom and a garden, we never had it so good. Our children – girl and a boy – aged 11 and 9, fared well, thanks to devices and internet. To supplement the lamentable online “schooling” from their state school, we hired a teacher for daily online lessons. When one child was learning live, the other was completing homework.

Encouraged, we challenged our children to find an additional tutor – in any subject, in any country. Using an app, my son selected an Argentinian-based coding teacher, whereas my daughter instructed a drama tutor, all the way from Lancashire. (The pound goes further in Argentina!). These weekly lessons continue. Through making their own choices, our children have reconfigured their view of education.

Naturally, I have inexhaustible sorrow for the children whom Covid eternally penalised. The gulf has widened. So, what to do?

Treat Covid as an opportunity. Historians will declare this time – revolutionary: a promiscuous, Catholic Prime Minister; furlough extravaganza; exodus from the cities; Brexit; amber lists; space races; UFOs; wild climate; Tories in Hartlepool; national sporting success; and Natwest in profit.

Meanwhile, over at the Department for Education, for Gavin from Scarborough it’s business-as-usual.

The aftermath of WW1 delivered women’s suffrage. WW2 spawned the welfare state. Post-Covid, here is my uncosted education bucket-list, emanating from a new Education Rights Bill.

First, fundamentally restructure education and the status of educators: teachers should be atop the status hierarchy. Education should become a life-long process. Double the pay of state schoolteachers and make it harder to qualify. Private school advantage will haemorrhage. Empower the teaching regulator. Looking back, all of us remember a teacher who saw something in us that nobody else did. Similarly, most of us remain embittered by a poor teacher, who caused our shameful grades. In future, those who can, teach. Then, pay school governors, encouraging the best to apply, removing the cosy relationship with the Head.

Lengthen the school day. I recommend six terms. Half the summer holidays, given that children no longer harvest. To improve traffic flow in an area, vary school start times. Country-wide, to end the extortionate cost of foreign holidays, term times should vary. And scrap fines for taking children out of school, too, if under ten days. To foster a better balance of genders and ages of staff in primary schools, legalise positive discrimination.

Each child – state school or private – should be given a budget, managed by their carers, to purchase their schooling, as well as any extracurricular activities, additional lessons, clothing and school meals. Want to learn fencing or horse riding, fine. Higher budgets for poorer children and those with special needs. Parents can add to the pot, as they do already. Granny can buy Latin lessons as a gift. The State should have a statutory obligation to provide a free device with free internet.

Each citizen – not just children – should be given an encrypted, personalised education dashboard – a repository for all our educational activities and results, from cradle to grave. One-third of lessons ought to be streamed, available for anyone in the world. If children are poorly, isolating or on holiday, they can watch later. Private schools could maintain their charitable status, only if they stream one-third of their lessons. Want to know what Eton is like, then attend their lessons, either live or watch on-demand later. Didn’t understand the lesson, then go over it again in your own time.

Whilst a British education remains prized, with English the world’s lingua franca, by exporting our online lessons for free to our former colonies, and at cost to others, we can culturally lead. A bulwark against Chinese domination, with its impenetrable Mandarin. To offset the drop in our foreign aid budget, newly qualified teachers must spend their first-year teaching abroad.

Trip-advisor-style reviews from pupils and carers should inform school rankings. With so many online lessons for anyone to view, the best teachers will become celebrities. Scrap Ofsted, SATs and GCSEs. Employers which received furlough cash must provide work experience, allocated by lottery, opening-up the professions. On top of that, I want to see mandatory CPR, sign language, and philosophy lessons, with Shakespeare the preserve of higher education.

School buildings and playing fields must be opened-up to their communities. And like at Hogwarts, children should be allocated a House, with online competitions. Finally, as a right, our children demand clean air, both inside and outside of school.

 

CategoriesHealthThought of The Day

Tears For Fears

Men like me don’t cry: we aren’t supposed to cry. But we do. I do. I have, and I will.

Four times in the last week I have been moved to tears.

When my blood tests came back to indicate that I might well have Addison’s Disease, then I cried. Not so much about the impending doom which Addison’s may bring, but more for the reduced life expectancy. (Forthcoming blood tests will confirm – or not – the Addison’s; either way, my cortisol levels are far too low, with my body attacking itself).

Telling my son that we couldn’t go on holiday as a family unit, I squeezed him so hard, with tears rolling down my face. He didn’t see them, I think. They are now away, having a wonderful time.

Then I received a letter – yes, a letter! – from a friend. Previously she had emailed, receiving my out of office reply. Undeterred, she then copied and pasted the email into a letter, posting it, of course. What a palaver! Her efforts moved me to tears. Unlike the email, I shall keep the letter forever.

The fourth occasion is almost too embarrassing even for me to admit to, but given that I have become overly “sharey”, I shall confess. Watching A Place In The Sun, an adorable new couple from Halifax – soon to retire – found their dream home in Spain. He had just survived lung cancer; she had worked all her life, raising a family, too. It made my day. They were chuffed to bits.

Happily, though most of my plans and hobbies are now on the likely back-burner of perpetuity, I have never been more excited. A new world has opened-up, a creative world. Two novels to finish writing; drawing to learn (not knitting, as someone has suggested!); nature to investigate; blog-writing to perfect; photos to take; lyrics to conjure; Yorkshire to explore. And as this metamorphosis develops, there will be tears to cry, because that’s what we creatives are supposed to do.

CategoriesLegalEnvironmentHarrogateThought of The Day

Lord: where’s the flies?

As a teenager, during the summer holidays I would wash cars with my mates, for cash. Never have I felt so flush, handling all those one-pound coins. Great times. Although knocking on the doors of strangers was nerve-jangling, without question the worst part of this job was cleaning dead flies from the front of the cars. Awful. My sponge would change colour, from yellow to black, so many flies had met their end at speed.

(That reminds me, my favourite joke as a child would go: “What’s the last thing to go through a fly’s mind as it strikes the bumper of a car at 70mph?…..It’s butt!)

When not washing cars, I was more likely to be found playing football, often until quite late into the evening. During balmy summer’s evenings, the midges – those buggers! – were so numerous that they would follow a player around, buzzing into the ear, ruining the match, attracted to the sweat. Players could be seen swatting the air with rage, their enemies invisible to everyone else. If the swarms went for me, then I would surreptitiously amble over to another player, in the hope that the swarm would latch onto them instead. Those were the days.

Cycling home, you’d better close your mouth, or else you’d swallow a few. Yuck!

I miss those days.

Take a look at any car bumper today: no dead flies. Go for a walk in the evening, even near the trees: again, no swarms of midges, just the odd one or two flies, conspicuous by their scarcity. Walking across The Stray in Harrogate – genuinely – I am more likely to see a bird of prey, usually a Red Kyte, than I am a swarm of midges.

Whilst of course inextricably bound-up with climate change, the decimation of biodiversity in my lifetime (I’m 41) should lead the news, on the hour, every hour. Like a boiled frog, as a species we don’t seem to notice the extinction event before us.

As Professor Dave Goulson writes in The Guardian:

“Few people seem to realise how devastating this is, not only for human wellbeing – we need insects to pollinate our crops, recycle dung, leaves and corpses, keep the soil healthy, control pests, and much more – but for larger animals, such as birds, fish and frogs, which rely on insects for food. Wildflowers rely on them for pollination. As insects become more scarce, our world will slowly grind to a halt, for it cannot function without them.”

As to the percentage of decline, he writes:

“In 2015 I was contacted by the Krefeld Society, a group of entomologists who, since the late 1980s, had been trapping flying insects on nature reserves scattered across Germany. They had amassed insects from nearly 17,000 days of trapping across 63 sites and 27 years, a total of 53kg of insects. They sent me their data to ask for my help in preparing it for publication in a scientific journal. In the 27 years from 1989 to 2016 the overall biomass (ie weight) of insects caught in their traps fell by 75%. In midsummer, when in Europe we see the peak of insect activity, the decline was even more marked, at 82%.”

This mirrors my own estimate of the decline during my lifetime. What is your estimate?

Goulson argues that we should urgently do the following:

  • Create a society which values nature, by educating the next generation.
  • Greenifying our urban areas.
  • Transforming food production, by reducing pesticides.
  • Properly funding groups, such as Natural England.
  • Improving legal protection for rare insects and habitats.

I’m no scientist, but I fear that we moved well beyond the tipping point some years ago. Whilst the political class catches up, on an individual basis, we all urgently need to do much more. I need to do much more.

CategoriesHealthEssaysThought of The DayBusiness

Surely, we can do better than this, right?

Wired-up to a portable ECG monitor whilst I type, I feel like a hybrid human-cyborg. Doubtless this state-of-the art gizmo is cleverly reading all the electrical signals going to my heart, but the contraption’s poor wearability contrasts sharply against the brilliance of the tech. When my heart plays up – or, when I think that it does – I press the green button on a small, dangling pad. The pad is the end point for all the wires criss-crossing my torso. The pad will attach to a belt in such an ungainly manner, wires hanging everywhere. Even more cackhandedly, the pad might just squeeze into a pocket, with the wires protruding as if I’m wearing some form of suicide vest.

Design-wise, clearly what would be optimal is if the pad could be strapped to the body – somehow – because when, say, one needs the bathroom, down goes the trousers, which in turn yanks the pad downwards, straining the wires stuck to my chest. What a palaver! Should the wires become disconnected from the pad, the ECG test fails, to be repeated next week, probably. Showering or bathing is out of the question, which again is a preventable inconvenience. If the pad attached to my chest, then I could then wash waist-down, but no.

Not in the least do I feel put out by this minor imposition, which will only last 36 hours or so, but what has fired me up is that the solution to the dangling pad is so very simple. Over the years hundreds of thousands of people will have gone through this process, but nobody has yet thought to improve its user experience. Why is this? Is it because the user – i.e. me, the patient – doesn’t purchase these things, rather it is the medical practice which does?

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Famously, from its seemingly impregnable position as the leading player in video rental back in the 1990s, through foolishness, Blockbuster didn’t become Netflix. When Blockbuster’s CEO recommended to the board that they moved into streaming services, the Board poo-pooed the idea, stating that they made too much money from late returns – returns which wouldn’t happen with a streaming service. Goodbye Blockbuster Video!

Similarly, due to inertia throughout all car manufacturers, a start-up electric car company, founded by someone who knew nothing about cars or manufacturing products, became the most valuable company in the world: Tesla. The other car manufacturers continue to play catch-up. Thank goodness for Elon Musk.

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Speaking to a senior paramedic recently, I asked him – just how invaluable did he and his colleagues find the health apps stored on smart phones, available to emergency workers? He had no idea what I was on about, so I showed him what I meant. (If you don’t know, your smartphone should allow you to record some basic health information about yourself, ideal if you’re unconscious and someone needs to know why that might be.)

Of all the thousands of paramedics, most will have smartphones. Of these, many will be aware of the healthcare app functionality and, I imagine, a fair percentage of these will have updated their own information. Despite this, it has not become standard operating procedure for paramedics (and police, we think) to access such information. Why has this happened? It seems so obvious to an outsider. Does the culture of ambulance services stymie positive change?

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Since Facebook became omnipresent, most users realise that they are the product; that data is a new currency. The more in-depth a platform knows its users, the better it can allow third parties to sell to their users. Mass data is powerful.

Though the internet is readily available in the West, I am only aware of Stuff That Works as a means of collating vast amounts of data on health conditions and using AI to link various conditions, for the benefit of all humans. This is a new entity, set-up by a lady whose daughter had a chronic health condition. Spending hours scouring the internet for tips, with a background in tech – having helped found the awesome app, Waze – she created this tool which I predict will revolutionise medicine. Watch this space.

But why did the NHS, or a similar organisation somewhere in the world, not create this? Why has an outsider – a non-medic, like with what Elon Musk did with electric cars – create this game-changing health tech, rather than an insider?

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Three interconnecting theories spring to mind.

First, as Tony Blair talked about in his famous 1999 speech to the Labour Party Conference – The Forces of conservatism speech – he outlined that in all elements of society, including within the Labour Party itself, forces of conservativism hold back progress. Many people don’t like change, goes the argument, blocking improvements in all sorts of organisations – be they public sector, private or third sector. Conservatism, with a small “c”, delays human development.

Blair said:

“And it is us, the new radicals, the Labour Party modernised, that must undertake this historic mission. To liberate Britain from the old class divisions, old structures, old prejudices, old ways of working and of doing things, that will not do in this world of change.

To be the progressive force that defeats the forces of conservatism.

For the 21st century will not be about the battle between capitalism and socialism but between the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism.

They are what hold our nation back. Not just in the Conservative Party but within us, within our nation.” My underlining.

Blair was right.

Second, as David Epstein argues in Range, often the most successful people in a given field, hadn’t specialised in that field early on in their careers. Citing numerous, compelling examples, Epstein posits that the generalist is more likely to make a breakthrough in a field than someone who has been working in that field for far longer. He says that generalists deploy orthogonal thinking to solve problems, drawing on their wider knowledge of often unrelated areas.

Third, in the case of the ECG machine’s dangling pad, capitalism isn’t at work here in the traditional sense, as the user isn’t directly parting with their money. Had Amazon reviews been an option, the minor adjustments needed for the ECG would have been made long ago.

Well, that’s my take on matters.

CategoriesHealthHarrogateThought of The Day

A New Vocation

This chronic illness lark is like having a new job. So many appointments to attend. So many biological readings to document. So much research to undertake:   a never-ending, insurmountable amount of research to perform. So many Facebook groups to scour for information, lending support to others when I can.

So many medical experts to juggle. So many letters – yes, letters! – to write. So much evidence to archive. New tablets to collect, to ingest and then the impact thereof, if any, to document. All the while, my I-watch tells me how little movement I have done, how few steps. And food – did I eat the right stuff and at the right times? And is there an alternative medic – a witch doctor will do! – with the silver bullet, just waiting for me locate?

I could do with a break from this job. It’s knackering – and then there is the illness to contend with, and my obligations unperformed.

Of course, my chances of recovery are far higher than for any person in preceding centuries, but I do wonder whether all these burdensome, self-centred tasks are in some ways detrimental to a recovery. In years gone by, perhaps some people in my position would go to Harrogate to “take the water” just as Karl Marx did with his daughter, Eleanor, in November 1873, staying for three weeks. I’m already here!

CategoriesThought of The Day

Chickens and hedgehogs

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We’ve had chickens in back our garden for over five years. The original three chickens are – miraculously – still alive. In fact, they’re in fine form!

Now with more free space in my life to ponder the majesty of nature, for the first time in decades, I really immersed myself in our garden. I appreciate that we are fortunate to have a multi-faceted garden, teeming with nature. Without our garden, lockdown would have been far tougher.

Given that our broody chickens needed extricating from their hut – for they would sit there all day on non-existent eggs, if they were not moved – today was the first time that I felt the urge to pick them up. Simple.

Up close, chickens are majestic animals. If you have never studied a chicken, I suggest that you do so. Perhaps I wouldn’t have eaten so many over the years had their glory been so plane to me before. Handling a live chicken wasn’t on my bucket-list, but gently plonking our family friends down on the ground, free to roam, it did feel as I had secured a small victory.

Whilst relaxing in the garden this evening – at only 5:30pm – I was visited by the bravest of hedgehogs. Watch him sniff my feet in the video above! Hedgehogs don’t normally do this, particularly when there is a dog in the garden.

Although this is trite to write it, it feels as if my close encounter with our spiky friend wouldn’t have occurred had I not today made friends with the feathery occupants of our garden. Karma in the garden.