Sunday, January 18, 2009

A sad day

The loss of a great entertainer

British writer John Mortimer, creator of the curmudgeonly criminal lawyer Rumpole of the Bailey, has died at 85, his publisher said. Mortimer combined a career as a lawyer with a prolific literary output that included dozens of screen and stage plays and radio dramas. Among his most famous creations was Horace Rumpole, the cigar-smoking, wine-loving barrister who appeared in a television series and a string of novels and stories.

"It's hard to think he's gone," said Tony Lacey, his editor at publisher Viking. "At least we're lucky enough to have Rumpole to remind us just how remarkable he was."

Born on April 21, 1923, and educated at Oxford University, Mortimer qualified as a lawyer in the 1940s and worked as a barrister in the British courts. A lifelong supporter of the Labour Party - sometimes dubbed a champagne socialist by his critics - Mortimer took up several freedom of speech cases. He defended Penguin, the publisher of Lady Chatterley's Lover, against obscenity charges in the 1960s, and later represented the radical magazine Oz at an obscenity trial.

He combined legal and literary careers, writing early in the morning before heading off to court, and produced novels and radio plays from the 1950s.


Left-handers not right in the head?

There is a longer summary of the findings below here. There are plenty of studies showing Left-handedness as a brain abnormality but the story below seems to go beyond what the journal article actually shows. Just the fact that it concerns females only is, for instance, not mentioned. The study is Wright, L., Hardie, S.M., & Wilson, K. (2009). "Handedness and Behavioural Inhibition: Left-handed females show most inhibition as measured by BIS/BAS self-report". Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 20 - 24.. One would think that self-reports were a rather poor substitute for direct measurement in this case too. I have probably grumbled enough about the study already but I feel a slight personal involvement with it because I too have had lots of articles published in the selfsame journal. So let me go on to make the further rather obvious point that attributing the effects to brain differences may be correct but the findingds do not show that. The results could equally well be attributed to socialization effects. Leftists might be more hesitant simply because they know they are different

LEFT-handed people make up only 10 per cent of the population, but they are more likely to be inhibited, anxious, shy and embarrassed than right-handed ones. This is according to researchers at the University of Abertay in Dundee, Scotland who compared lefties and right-handers.

The participants were given a behavioral test that assesses personal restraint and impulsiveness. The results showed that left-handers are more likely to feel anxiety, shyness or embarrassment about doing or saying what they want. Left-handers were more likely to agree with statements such as "I worry about making mistakes" and "Criticism or scolding hurts me quite a bit."

The findings could be due to wiring differences between the brains of left- and right-handers, said study leader Dr Lynn Wright. "Left-handers are more likely to hesitate, whereas right-handers tend to jump in a bit more," Wright said. "In left-handers, the right half of the brain is dominant, and it is this side that seems to control negative aspects of emotion. In right-handers, the left brain dominates."


Embryo screening funding is 'postcode lottery' in Britain, researchers say

Handicapped children are a better deal, apparently. Amazingly short-sighted thinking. But that's governments for you

More than half of couples seeking embryo screening to protect their offspring from inherited genetic diseases such as breast cancer are being prevented from doing so, researchers say. Evidence from one of the country's leading gene-screening clinics suggests that local health authorities frequently refuse to fund treatment for patients who wish to avoid passing defective genes to their children.

Scientists predict an increase in demand for the technique, known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), after the start of a pilot programme screening an entire adult community for faulty genes. The Times revealed last week that the London community of Ashkenazi Jews is being offered screening for BRCA genes that raise risks of breast, ovarian and prostate cancers. Britain's first baby screened to ensure that it was free of a genetic risk of breast cancer carried by a parent was born last week, and hailed as an important advance in the fight against genetic disease. The girl was born after embryos created through IVF treatment were screened to exclude the faulty BRCA1 gene.

PGD, which costs between 5,000 and 20,000 pounds, depending on the number of IVF cycles required, is available to dozens of selected couples each year who wish to have children but do not want to run the risk of passing on potentially fatal disorders to their offspring. It is licensed for more than 60 different conditions, including cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease and some forms of cancer, which are triggered when a child inherits a key genetic mutation from one of its parents.

Joy Delhanty, Professor of Human Genetics at the University College London PGD centre, said that many couples were being refused NHS funding because the technique had not been considered by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), the value-for-money watchdog. "Funding for the procedure is a postcode lottery. More than 100 couples a year are referred to us from all over the country but more than 50 per cent have problems with funding in the absence of guidelines from NICE. "If local PCTs [primary care trusts] do not see this as a priority then they do not provide funding, it is as simple as that, but they do not consider the potential money they save by ensuring a child will be free of a disease."

Professor Delhanty declined to name individual trusts but said that couples living in the North of England seemed to have a greater chance of PGD applications being funded by their local PCT, while those living in London and the South East may be forced to pay thousands of pounds for private treatment.

Only a few hundred couples a year are eligible for PGD. To benefit from the technique, families must first know that they have a defective gene, usually discovered through a recurring family history of illness. Once the risk is confirmed by a clinical geneticist, embryos generated and fertilised through IVF treatment can then be screened and implanted in the womb if they are free of the faulty gene.

The Department of Health said last night: "PGD is available on the NHS but is considered on a case by case basis."


Wanted for hate crime

Sooty and sweep above

After a week which has seen 11 football fans arrested for alleged homophobic chanting and the royals embroiled in a controversy over racist language, how long before the 'hate crimes' vigilantes widen their net still farther? The Home Office definition of a 'hate crime' is: 'Any incident... which is perceived by the victim or any other person (my italics) as being motivated by prejudice or hate.' On that basis, Prince Charles could have his collar felt for referring to his polo partner as 'Sooty' - even though the gentleman in question has no problem with his nickname. The fact that no offence was either intended or taken would not be enough to stop him being charged, provided someone - anyone - made a complaint.

This puts the power of prosecution in the hands of any self-righteous, malevolent mischief-maker, of which we have no shortage. For instance, one phone call to Kent Police could close down Margate's Winter Gardens. The coming attractions at the seaside theatre feature not only 4 Poofs And A Piano, but also Sooty In Space.

In my capacity as a gay icon, I once worked with 4 Poofs And A Piano, who have been sadly absent from our television screens recently as a result of Jonathan Ross's little local difficulty. I've still got the T-shirt to prove it. They turned up on one of my old TV shows after they were refused permission to register the name 4 Poofs And A Piano as a trademark. The authorities said that someone could find the name offensive. The 4 Poofs protested that, given they were the poofs in question, no one could possibly take offence. If that's what they chose to call themselves, what was the problem? None of this cut any ice with the Trademark Taliban, who continued to insist that 'poofs' was intrinsically insulting and therefore could not receive official endorsement.

As for Sooty In Space, the possibilities for prosecution are two-fold, both racist and homophobic. Not only is 'Sooty' considered to be an outrageous racial slur, but Sooty himself spends the entire show with someone's hand up his backside. One phone call to the Old Bill from the Margate branch of Stonewall and it would be: 'Izzy-wizzy, let's get busy!'

Think I'm kidding? Log on to the Kent Police website and click 'diversity'. The only difficulty would be knowing which branch to complain to. You're spoiled for choice. There's the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Action Group, which gives lesbians, gays and bisexuals an 'influential voice that will be listened to' and guarantees 'a dynamic forum for positive action'. This isn't to be confused with either the Gay and Transgender Action Group or the Kent Police Gay and Lesbian Support Group. If they don't take your complaint seriously, you could ring the Kent Homophobic and Transphobic Reporting Line on Freefone 0800 328 9162. Be assured: 'We know in Kent that homophobic crime is still going unreported. This needs to change!' Then there's the Hate Crime Action Group, the Minority Ethnic Action Group and the Fairness Action Group, all of which come under the umbrella of the Diversity and Fairness Strategy Board, part of the new Citizen Focus Performance Gold Group, chaired by a Deputy Chief Constable.

They all have to justify their existence-somehow. Which is why they are urging you to report any potential 'hate crime', however trivial. Between them, they should be able to cobble together some kind of charge that will stick and ensure that Sooty and the 4 Poofs are banged up in Maidstone nick for the next ten years.

I dread to think what all this is costing, both in terms of hard cash and the monumental waste of police time, sitting around in committee meetings, talking bollo and ticking boxes. And this madness isn't confined to Kent, it's replicated in every police force across the country, in triplicate. (I hesitate to say 'in spades'.) Remember this the next time some Chief Constable complains about 'lack of resources' and says he can't afford to put bobbies on the beat or investigate burglaries. What's that, Sooty? Bye, bye, everybody. Bye, bye.


Half of civil servants deserve to be fired, says former UK trade minister

Many civil servants deserve the sack, a former government minister has said. As many as half could be axed, delivering better value for taxpayers, ex-trade minister Lord Digby Jones suggested to MPs. He admitted the civil service was ' honest, stuffed full of decent people who work hard' but added: 'Frankly the job could be done with half as many, it could be more productive, more efficient, it could deliver a lot more value for money for the taxpayer. 'I was amazed, quite frankly, at how many people deserved the sack and yet that was the one threat they never ever worked under, because it doesn't exist.'

The comments from the one-time head of the Confederation of British Industry were seized on by anti-waste campaigners who said his suggestion would slash the cost to the public purse of pay, perks and gold-plated pensions. But union chiefs said he was 'naive and insulting', while the Cabinet Office said the civil service was already making savings of 26.5billion.

Lord Jones was among a number of non-political experts appointed by Gordon Brown to be part of his ' government of all the talents', or GOATs, in July 2007. He was handed a peerage to allow him to take a ministerial post because he had not been elected. He resigned during last October's reshuffle after apparently becoming disillusioned with his role. His outburst came while giving evidence to an inquiry by the Commons' public administration committee. He told the MPs that the job of junior minister was 'one of the most dehumanising and depersonalising experiences a human being can have'. He added: 'The whole system is designed to take the personality, the drive and the initiative out of a junior minister.'

The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents 300,000 staff in 200 government departments and agencies, said civil servants would find Lord Jones's remarks 'grossly insulting'. General secretary Mark Serwotka said: 'These are narrow minded and naive comments which show a complete lack of understanding of what the civil service does. It has already suffered 80,000 job cuts, which has damaged service levels.'

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office, which oversees the civil service, said staff numbers had fallen while 'efficiency gains' had topped 26.5billion. 'They are doing more for less,' she said. 'The civil service is leaner while remaining the driving force behind excellent public services.'

But Matthew Elliott, of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: 'Lord Jones is right - there is serious overstaffing and woeful mismanagement in large tracts of the civil service. There is plenty of fat that could be trimmed.' Lord Jones's appointment as a minister was criticised by Labour MPs because he was not a member of the party. He hit back by saying promoting trade and investment 'should transcend' party politics. But he found himself at odds with Government plans to tax 'non-doms' - British residents based abroad so they pay less to the Exchequer. Earlier this month he said Mr Brown's VAT cut would not help the economy, claiming it was 'pointless, fatuous and doomed to failure'.


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