Sunday, March 09, 2008

Personal responsibility takes another dive in Britain

Lampposts on East London's Brick Lane have today been wrapped up in padding to protect Britain's clumsy texters. The renowned capital curry haunt has been highlighted as the most dangerous place for mobile phone users to be texting with Londoners frequently picking up injuries ranging from bruises to fractured bones.

Whether it be the perils of walking into a lamppost while not keeping your eyes on the road or careering into a bin after a couple of drinks at a local drinking establishment, the street apparently poses many menaces to dozy phone users. And in order to stem the flow of ailments anything potentially harmful is being wrapped in cotton wool, or at least brightly coloured padding. Brick Lane has now become the first 'Safe Text' street in the UK, with rugby post-like cushioning put around the 10 of the road's higher-than-average number of lampposts.

If the trial proves a success then other capital danger-zones, including Charing Cross Road, Old Bond Street, Oxford Street and Church Street, Stoke Newington, will also be set for some extra padding.

According to a survey of 1055 Britons by text information service 118118, which is overseeing the pilot scheme alongside public space charity Living Streets, one in ten Britons has injured themselves while walking and texting in the last 12 months. Nearly half (44%) of those asked said they would be happy to see protective pads put on lampposts, and one in four Britons (27%) would support a 'Mobile Motorway' - a coloured line on the road to keep texters out of trouble.

Fending off suggestions that the scheme was moving Britain further towards becoming a 'nanny state', Alex Wood, a spokesman for 118118, said it was backed up by the accident figures. "Ultimately you're never going to stop people from walking and texting so this is about pedestrian protection," he said. "We've had one case of a fractured cheekbone when someone went straight into a lamppost and another of a fractured knee."

Polls will be conducted on Brick Lane to gauge the response of locals and a nationwide rollout is likely - with streets in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Manchester earmarked for protection - if the scheme is well received. "We're updating Britain's streets to take into account a modern way of life - perhaps it's time for a change," Mr Wood added.


The above is probably just an advertising stunt but who knows in today's Britain?

Will the British ID card be Britain's biggest bureaucratic bungle yet?

Comment by Ian Angell, Professor of Information Systems at the London School of Economics

The ID card project is still on track - more or less. Jacqui Smith is just the latest in a long line of Home Office ministers to sell us the benefits of ID cards, while casually informing us of the latest rise in costs or slippage in its implementation schedule. Ms Smith is also yet another Home Secretary who subscribes to the "pixie dust" school of technology: computation is a magic substance to be sprinkled over problems, that, hey presto, then vanish. Little wonder that Britain has an appalling record in government IT projects.

The ID project is one of the biggest computer systems envisaged - far more complex than the failing NHS system. And it's another disaster waiting to happen. Still the politicians naively claim there will be no problems: it will be totally secure because of biometrics. Apparently iris scans, fingerprints, face-recognition software will all work perfectly, be amazingly cheap to implement - and all foolproof. It must be true, as they've been told this by those selling the technology. Baroness Anelay of St Johns, with a group of parliamentarians, was once given a demonstration of a facial recognition system. It failed; indeed the system subsequently crashed, twice. The reason? The baroness was told her face was "too bland".

The only property that all systems have in common is that they fail. And the bigger the system - 60 million entries on a compulsory ID card database - the greater the opportunity of failure. Systems are much like any life form: they degrade over time, they entropy. In the case of databases, the pick up errors and then build data error upon error. The DVLA in Swansea in 2006, for instance, admitted that a third of entries contained at least one error, and that the proportion was getting worse.

We've all had encounters with computer systems that get it wrong. Barclays once refused one of my transactions because they said I was accessing an account owned by a teenage girl named Ian Angell, who lived at my address and was a professor at LSE. I still had to take a morning off work to explain that a 14-year-old couldn't own an account that, according to their own records, had been open for 35 years.

And however scrupulous the managers might be, errors leak and take on a life of their own. They are sampled by other databases, known as "farming": errors, even when corrected in the original database, live on elsewhere.

But the ID project will be different, we are told. According to the rhetoric, an ID card, one central point of reference, will be so much more efficient and beneficial than you having to prove your identity daily, by producing driving licences, gas bills and so on. Its proponents fail to see that if any of these documents is erroneous, then we don't use the one with, say, a mistake in the address to prove our identity. With the ID card, we won't have the choice. Even if the card is not compulsory, all financial systems will converge on it, and anyone without a card faces great cost and inconvenience. Just like Oyster cards on the London Underground, you're not forced, but it's so much more expensive and tiresome without one.

However, the ID card itself isn't the real problem: it's the ID register. There, each entry will eventually take on a legal status. In time, all other proofs of identity will refer back to the one entry. If the register is wrong - and remember fallible human hands will at some stage have to handle your personal information - then all other databases will be wrong too. Given the propensity of officialdom to trust the details on their computer screen, rather than the person in front of them, you will have to conform to your entry in the register - or become a non-person.

In effect, your identity won't reside in the living flesh and blood of you, but in the database. You will be separated from your identity; you will no longer own it. All your property and money will de facto belong to the database entry. You only have access to your property with the permission of the database. Paradoxically, you only agreed to register to protect yourself from "identity theft", and instead you find yourself victim of the ultimate identity theft - the total loss of control over your identity.

Errors won't just happen by accident. It's possible to imagine that workers on the ID database will be corrupted, threatened or blackmailed into creating perfectly legal ID cards for international terrorists and criminals. Then the ID card, far from eliminating problems, will be a one-stop shop for identity fraud; foreign terrorists, illegal immigrants will be waved past all immigration checks.

At a recent Ditchley Park conference on combating organised crime, a persistent warning from the law enforcement authorities was that criminal gangs had placed "sleepers" in financial sector companies, and they were just waiting for the one big hit. The perpetrators of 80 per cent of all computer security lapses are not hackers, but employees. Cryptographic systems don't help if the criminal has been given the keys to the kingdom. Why should the ID centre be immune, especially when there will be nearly 300 government departments logging in. Furthermore, the register will be the No 1 target for every hacker on the planet: the Olympic Games of hacking.

So why is the Goverment so keen to force ID cards on us? Is it because ministers are control freaks who, having read 1984, only saw it as a wishlist. John Lennon may have been right: "Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we're being run by maniacs." More likely, ministers have been dazzled by the myth of the perfectibility of computers.


Dead rat OK in British hospital

A PATIENT was told there was no reason why he couldn't have surgery in a British hospital, despite the smell caused by a dead rodent trapped in the building's ceiling. Andrew Cowper was due to have an operation at the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Hertfordshire when staff "were made aware of a dead rodent in the single storey unit's roof space", the hospital said.

The hospital said its experts concluded that the dead animal was outside the operating theatre and posed no risk. But "despite being told that the trust's infection control experts had stated that Mr Cowper was not being exposed to an infection risk, he decided not to proceed with the operation," it said.

Mr Cowper, 19, told the Sun newspaper he had waited 11 months for the operation, and the doctor told him he could go ahead despite the stench. "He said the smell didn't represent a health risk, but I was appalled," Mr Cowper said. "I asked him: 'If you were me, would you have the operation?' He looked at me and said 'no', so I decided there and then I wasn't going to go ahead."


Young dentists desert the NHS

The boom in teeth-whitening and capping has led to a further drain on young dentists who appear to be switching from the NHS to highly lucrative private cosmetic treatment. Gordon Brown is among those who are said to have their smiles improved by professional teeth-whitening but the growth in the business could be exacerbating the lack of availability of NHS dentists. Figures produced from the NHS Information Centre showed that dentists under 35 years old in 2000-01 earned 65 per cent of their income from the NHS but, by 2005-6, that had nearly halved to 36 per cent.

That compares to dentists in the older age groups who have seen a much smaller change. Dentists aged 55 and older received 58 per cent of their income from the NHS in 2000-1 but by 2005-6 the share from the NHS had declined to 47 per cent. A note of caution was added by the dental profession who said the study was a small sample, but it reinforces fears that a new contract for dentists has failed to reverse the exodus of dentists from NHS care.

Ann Keen, the Health minister responsible for dentistry, will be questioned this morning about the figures at a hearing of the Commons select committee on health, which is carrying out an investigation into the shortage of NHS dentists.

Dr Howard Stoate, a GP and the Labour chairman of the all-party Commons primary care committee, said: "If it is true [that] a large number are switching to private care, it would be worrying. The primary care trusts take the view that there are enough dentists coming forward because it does seem that they are able to offer a dental service that does seem to be better than before."

Young dentists who are benefiting from the trend to more cosmetic treatment include Ben Atkins, 32, who has built up his own nine-dentist Rocky Lane Dental Practice. The practice earns 80 per cent of its income from NHS patients but Mr Atkins says "patients are exercising more and more choice". He said patients were prepared to pay for the extra services and time they can get through private consultations which meant they were opting out of the NHS. "Lots of people want cosmetic dentistry and that is their right," he said. "Many patients will say they do not want the silver fillings and are prepared to pay for white fillings."

But Mr Atkins denied younger dentists are wilfully turning their backs on the NHS. He believes younger dentists still want to do NHS work, but are often faced by a lack of opportunities.

Government figures last month showed that more than 500,000 fewer patients were seen in the past two years, compared to the 24 months prior to the introduction of a new contract in 2006. The new statistics were published as evidence emerged that complaints about NHS dental treatment are on the rise. A survey of primary care trusts for the Patients Association found widespread problems following the introduction of a new dental contract in 2006.

It sent questionnaires to the chairmen and dental commissioners of 150 PCTs in England, and 112 replied. The report - The New Dental Contract: Full of Holes and Causing Pain? - found problems with funding, prevention work and patient experiences. It said: "PCTs complain there is a widespread lack of funds for orthodontics and other specialist treatments and cite this funding gap as the reason for not implementing best practice. There is increasing concern for the preventive role of dentistry in detection of oral health disease."

The report found that complaints had risen, with more than half of PCTs admitting an increase in the number of complaints. Of these, 60 per cent were about charges, 37.6 per cent about access and 28.2 per cent directly about orthodontics.

Peter Ward, chief executive of the BDA, said: "The new dental contract limits the amount of NHS dentistry that primary care trusts can commission. The result is that some dentists who want to provide NHS care are unable to do so and that millions of people who wish to access NHS care cannot."

GPs are also expected today to reluctantly support changes to their new contract which will pay their practices an extra 1.5 per cent for longer opening hours at night and at weekends. The results of the ballot will be announced by the BMA, which last week said it was backing this option. One Labour MP said GPs were choosing "the least worst option".


British government refusal to recognize the grim and dangerous state of many State schools

Caring parents have good reason to avoid certain schools. In their brainless way the British government think they can fix it all by allocating school places randomly (by a lottery)!

What is this middle-class panic over school lotteries really about? Does it stem from fear about long-off GCSE results, expecting a place at the league table equivalent of Chelsea but ending up with Crewe? Or is it something more primal and tribal, something never explicitly acknowledged for all its un-PC implications of snobbery and racism: anxiety that our children will not be educated among People Like Us?

It is an impulse that, when given a religious expression, garners unquestioning support from the State. Of course Catholic parents should be allowed to raise children among fellow reciters of the rosary or Muslim parents to choose Islamic faith schools where their properly shrouded girls can be educated free from uppity secular ways.

Yet what if your beliefs are not religious, but amorphous (if heartfelt), encompassing any or all of the following: piano lessons, harvest festivals, emotional continence, the power of books, a bristling at Margaret Hodge for attacking the Proms (though you'd rather put pins in your eyes than go yourself), a repulsion at slutty kiddy clobber, a bossy sense of responsibility for public spaces, an absolute belief in education ... How hard it is to express what being middle-class means, yet how obvious when you see it.

The reason such folk move to the country or suddenly fill church pews or buy houses around a chosen school like wagons encircling to keep out Injuns is not to perpetuate their own privilege per se, but to ensure their type of children constitute a majority and thus their own values remain uppermost. In London, when a state primary school is signalled by the bush telegraph as "up and coming" it may mean the new head is magnificent but more likely it means that Parents Like Us have established base camp. There will be a few other mums with Orla Kiely bags to talk to in the playground. Little Josh is guaranteed playdates with an Oliver and a Fred. And so a tipping point occurs, as aspirational parents rush into Foxtons waving catchment area maps.

In my experience of an inner London primary school, there can be deep respect and goodwill between different ethnic groups and social classes. We smile hellos, chat at the school fair, gladly exchange favours. But deeper interracial or cross-class friendships are rare. Children have a hardwired instinct to seek out those like themselves, a suspicion or at least unease with difference. Yet understanding that disparate folks can coexist is a vital lesson; and children educated wholly in the white prep-school bubble - and with a vile, largely unchallenged tendency to mock poorer kids as "chavs" - are, for all their nice manners and grade 8 piano, in this sense less equipped for adult life.

But the question the lottery idea throws up is: do middle-class parents hog the best schools or are schools best because middle-class parents hog them? The Government assumes the former and demands that the most coveted places are more evenly divvied up. Yet it also counts on lesser schools being improved because middle-class parents are randomly forced on to their rolls. At primary level this task is not so irksome: parents are perpetually in the playground, can agitate for improvement, raise cash for nicer loos, nag a head to raise her game. (Although they also demand teachers give their precious ones a disproportionate amount of energy.) But above all their children helpfully skew a class's number of keen, manageable pupils.

But at secondary level, who feels equal to improving a failing local school? So big and daunting and scary. The odds so stacked, the culture so alien. At one open evening the head boasted how new CCTV cameras had made his school less prone to intrusion by gangs and emphasised that pupils were only permitted one piercing and no tattoos. A bubble of warm feelings about the fab new science block and improving results abruptly popped. Was this induction day at a borstal? You could sense other hopeful, socially minded but aspirational parents scrub it from their list.

Yet it is often said that bright kids with supportive parents thrive anywhere. Don't worry, we're told, they'll be fine. Indeed, professors of education from three British universities, studying 124 middle-class families from London and two other cities with kids at average and below-average comprehensives discovered they mostly achieved brilliant results, a clutch of places at top universities. Teachers leapt to help them to fulfil potential, even devising special courses so they could stay on.

But, blimey, the investment of parental time and energy required. Many were already activists politically committed to state education, more than half became governors, all monitored their children's progress hawkishly. And ironically, although enrolled in melting-pot schools so they would be better socially integrated, these middle-class students clustered together in the top sets, making few friends with poorer peers.

So is that "fine"? Is it OK for your son or daughter, in practice, to have only a tiny pool of potential pals? Maybe they'll get lucky with classmates or stick to their best mate from primary. Blessed with social dexterity they might develop that unteachable, priceless life-skill of getting on with anyone. But what if they are eccentric, bookish, off-the-wall? Will a few years of mockery and bullying knock off their corners, put a little grit in the old oyster? Or will it break their spirits? Fine if they are the kind of easygoing yet focused child who can zone out anti-learning static. But what if they are budding alpha males, magnetised towards the bad boys?

Frankly they all have less cause for sympathy than clever, potentially high-achieving working-class children who lack financial resources and parents confident and wily enough to work the system. A friend of mine, a Jewish grammar school boy from Leeds, is writing a book about social mobility. Where today, he asks, are the stories of local boy/girl made good, the inspiring heroes of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Room at the Top, A Taste of Honey, who burst through the limits of their backgrounds? Now all we have is Shameless, rap videos and other nihilistic, ghetto wallowings.

But if the Government believes middle-class parents are useful agents of change, they should address their fears and stop treating them like the enemy. In Brighton, the rush of the disaffected into the private sector is a catastrophe for state schools. And, at root, it has surprisingly little to do with education.


Aspirin could help to reduce risk of breast cancer by 20%

But aspirin routinely causes stomach bleeding! Surely we can't have that? Ban aspirin!

Drugs such as aspirin may help to reduce the risk of breast cancer by about 20 per cent, according to a review of past studies. Experts analysed 21 studies involving more than 37,000 women and found an overall decreased risk for those taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). They could also play a role in treating women who have breast cancer.

The researchers said that more studies were needed on the ideal type of drug, dose and duration, and that they had not considered the side-effects. High doses can increase the risk of heart attacks and other health problems. The researchers concluded: "There may be a role for NSAIDs in combination with endocrine therapies as either an adjuvant or palliative treatment for women with established breast cancer."

Ian Fentiman, Professor of Oncology at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, carried out the study, published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice.


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