Monday, December 25, 2006


To all who come by here. And let us reflect thankfully on our Judeo-Christian heritage which mandated kindness and impartial justice (Exodus 23), among many other things.

David Irving, the Walking Controversy

I probably should not admit that David Irving does rather give me a laugh at times. I think that, like Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore, he is to a significant degree an entertainer. His latest comment, describing a particular colour of brown as "n*gger brown", was obviously a big tease, and it got him the headlines he wanted. He is what Australians would call a "stirrer".

Like Chomsky, however, he lets off his verbal grenades among other sensible-sounding utterances and he has certainly got a point with this:

"You can't have a genuine consensus about histories about a subject like the Holocaust... if the proponents of one argument are given the knighthoods and the money and their opponents are locked up in prison."

The pity of it is that Irving is actually an extremely knowledgeable historian as well. I doubt that there is any other historian who has immersed himself in the Nazi period as fully as he has. His books show that and he was also the only historian who immediately fingered the Kujau "Hitler Diaries" as a fake. I say a little more about Irving here.

Bell-ringers are prime suspects

Heard the one about the Tory shadow minister who wanted to dress up as an elf in Santa’s grotto? (Well, they are all going green.) Sadly the punchline is not as funny as the Lib Dem MP lending a hand to the Cheeky Girl. Tim Loughton, the Shadow Minister for Children, was prevented from displaying his elfin charms at a charity children’s Christmas party, because he had not been vetted by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB). Welcome to the spirit of Christmas present, where Santas, party helpers, choir members and bell-ringers can all come under suspicion of being undercover perverts, and children must be protected from an honourable, but unvetted, elf.

A report entitled How the Child Protection Industry Stole Christmas, published by my friends at the Manifesto Club, lists seasonal horror stories from around the country. A fat old man offering children gifts if they sit on his lap in a cosy grotto — that’s “grooming”, isn’t it? So Santa often has to be vetted, and even then probably won’t be allowed to put children on his knee, ask for a kiss or do anything more than shake hands under bright lights and even CCTV cameras. All it needs now is for the Santas to claim that they cannot have chubby children on their knee anyway because of health and safety regulations.

Elsewhere, unvetted volunteers are barred from some Christmas parties, photographing Nativity plays is frowned upon, and some churches require all adults in mixed-age choirs to be vetted. Oh succumb, all ye faithful. As for those notorious church bell-ringers they not only need CRB-vetted supervisors, but also parents must be informed that an adult may touch their child’s hand, and young campanologists are given warning not to wear anything “overtly provocative”, presumably in case it rings somebody’s bell.

As Josie Appleton, the report’s author, says: “This isn’t about ‘PC gone mad’. Sadly, these procedures have become entirely normal in schools, churches and community centres across Britain.” Whatever the intentions, the effect can only be to spread bad will and mistrust towards all men. One mother selling letters from Santa on eBay even assures customers: “The magic of Christmas is here . . . I am CRB-checked.” Magic!


New drugs 'could halve treatment'

A new generation of antibiotics could halve the length of time people need to take medication, scientists say. London researchers are developing what they hope will be the first of these - a compound to treat the hospital superbug MRSA in the nose. It tackles bacteria currently "left behind" because they are resistant to standard antibiotics. The anti-MRSA drug will be tested in humans next year and may be available in five years.

It is hoped similar compounds being examined by the team will also prove effective against Staphylococcus bacteria, which cause sore throats and tuberculosis. Developing a way of tackling antibiotic resistance is important because it could mean the antibiotics which already exist could be given a longer life. At the moment, years of work can be put into developing a conventional antibiotic but it may be possible to use it for around only 18 months before resistance develops.

HT61 is being developed as a cream to tackle persistent MRSA bacteria in the nose, the most important part of the body where it is carried. Many hospitals already test people before they come in for operations to see if they are carriers of MRSA. But, like all bacterial infections, it is made up of two forms of bacteria - the fast-dividing sort targeted by existing antibiotics - and non-multiplying, or persistent, bacteria. It is this latter form that lurks in the body and causes repeat infection, and can lead to resistance if it is exposed to medication. HT61, which has been tested in the lab and in "very successful" animal trials, is effective against persistent MRSA bacteria. It will be tested on around 60 people next year.

The team may later seek to tackle MRSA once it has got inside the body. Sir Anthony Coates, professor of medical microbiology at St George's Medical School, who is leading the research, said research so far showed it was "potent against MRSA". Clive Page, professor of pharmacology at King's College London, who is also working on the study, said the work opened up the possibility of a whole family of drugs which could treat persistent bacteria in a range of conditions. He said: "It may lead to us providing a combination of drugs - one to target the dividing bacteria and one to target the persistent form. "If you take something like penicillin, and put this with it, you might be able to get a treatment course which lasts one or two days, rather than the current five to seven."


UK: Millions 'cannot read well enough for karaoke'

Millions of adults have such poor reading skills that they will struggle to keep up with karaoke lyrics at Christmas parties this year, government research has found.

Research for the Department for Education's Get On campaign found classic songs like Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" require the reading skills expected of an 11-year-old, lacked by more than 5.2 million adults. Other karaoke hits, such as "Angels" by Robbie Williams, pose a harder challenge, which nearly 18 million adults will fail.


There's more to childhood than counting calories

The obsession with expanding waistlines is narrowing horizons for children - and replacing adult guidance with health tips.

Last week, in Britain, Sainsbury’s announced that it was financing a £3million programme to help 5,000 obese children and their families. In addition, ‘nutrition nannies’ will be treading the aisles to advise families on healthy eating and staying active. This week, the Chicago mayor asked restaurants with over $10million in annual sales to post calorie counts on their menus, so that kids can moderate their intake. This comes a year after Democratic and Republican heavyweights joined forces to announce a 10-year programme combating childhood obesity.

Increasingly everything that children do is assessed with reference to body mass index (BMI). Indeed, the obesity issue seems to be one of the few areas where adults feel they can give some moral guidance. Adults today have a hard time telling kids what is right and wrong, how they should develop themselves, or why they should exercise self-control. Good now equals active, low fat, and smaller waistline; bad equals inactive, full-fat and bulging belly.

Childhood obesity has become the bottom line justification for children’s activity. A few weeks ago, the government proposed that kids should go on school trips to help combat childhood obesity (see Who killed the school trip?, by Josie Appleton). The same justification is given for why children should also play sport, play outside with their friends, and walk to school on their own. The need to combat obesity apparently also means that they should eat good food, and eat with their family at mealtimes.

Conversely, it is said that children shouldn’t play video games too much, sit at home not doing anything, or eat on their own whenever they like, because that will make them fat.

This signifies a profound narrowing of vision. Questions of self-development and self-restraint are posed in one-dimensional terms of weights and measures. Children’s activity is judged in terms of narrow goals and ends, the numbers of calories that it burns, rather than being seen as simply a normal party of everyday life, or as useful as an end in itself. So long as their arms and legs are moving, it seems, that is okay.

Increasingly children are encouraged to engage in ‘active lifestyle programmes’. The Department of Heath gave some children pedometers to measure the numbers of steps that they take in a day. Schoolchildren in Denver received similar pedometers back in 2002, and have been counting their steps ever since. Experts try to work out what is an acceptable pedometer reading: ‘How many steps per day do children need?’, asks one article, plumping for 12,000 steps for girls and 15,000 for boys.

In Minnesota, an obesity researcher designed a classroom that encouraged children to fidget. An article reports: ‘all of the desks have been replaced with adjustable podiums. Instead of chairs, children stand, kneel or sit on big exercise balls while they work and they are actively encouraged to move about the space.’ The children are adorned with sensors to measure their every movement. Another US company designed a toy known as ‘Fizzees’ (Physical Electronic Energisers), digital pets that children care for by moving around. Lots of jumping makes for a happy Fizzee.

Here, the authorities are trying to attach meaning to children’s everyday mundane activities; government targets are being pursued through activities such as children walking to school or running down to the park, or even just fidgeting. Video games are okay, apparently, so long as they involve activity. Groby Community College in Leicestershire introduced the game Dance Dance Revolution to encourage reluctant girls to exercise. The Nintendo game Wii received cheers from some quarters because it increased kids’ activity levels. Meanwhile, McDonald’s is considering replacing play areas in some of its US restaurants with kiddie gyms, to help them burn off the calories.

Even the question of obesity itself is seen in very flat moral terms. Gluttony was a sin because it meant gorging the self at the expense of higher spiritual goals, such as praying and doing good works. The problem was not so much the kind or quantity of food that sinners ingested, but their motivation for doing so. It was a question of character and inner life, not just of digestion.

Although obesity is now the number one sin with which to scare children, it’s seen in peculiarly pragmatic terms. There is an obsession with measurement. The UK Department of Health released cutting edge advice on how to measure child obesity levels, and called on headteachers to carry out these measurements in primary schools. The problem with obesity reduced to bald statistics: it causes X amount of damage to children’s health, and costs the NHS Y million pounds per year and the economy as a whole Z.

Researchers are busily working out all the various ‘factors’ that influence childhood obesity. One Bristol researcher found that it was influenced by lack of sleep, while another academic found that it was caused by watching more than eight hours of TV a week at the age of three. There are lots of complicated programmes to encourage families to create a new environment for children, with all the correct factors in place. The question is not just that Johnny is greedy and needs to eat less. Instead, there is expert advice on micromanaging families’ every lifestyle choice, from food to mealtimes to weekend routines.

MEND - the charity financed by Sainsbury’s - aims at ‘involving the entire family in healthy eating and an active lifestyle programme’, including everything from ‘changing family attitudes towards healthy eating and physical activity’, recommending ‘practical ways to remove unhealthy food triggers’, and ‘learning to be a healthy role model’. All this is apparently about ‘empowering them with the knowledge and skills to overcome obesity’. This interfering jargon almost makes you miss the Ten Commandments.

These policies are in danger of breeding a new nation of self-obsessed gym goers, who are forever counting their steps and calorie intake. Kids shouldn’t be thinking about their weight, even - or perhaps especially - if they are fat. They should be thinking about winning a game of football, improving their tennis serve, playing games with their friends. They should be having fun, chilling out.

There is more to childhood than not being fat. School trips broaden the mind, sport is fun, walking to school teaches you independence, eating good food with your family is more satisfying and sociable than eating alone. Adults need to work out how to give kids more substantial guidance - on what it means to be a good person, how to develop yourself and exercise self-control - beyond waving your arms and legs around to reduce your BMI.


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