Wednesday, 26 August 2009

As we are in the silly season


Our offices used to be in Holborn and I remember struggling through hordes of tourists who would pour out of the tube station and then congregate on the pavements while they worked out which way to go. The boot was on the other foot when we visited Florence earlier this year and I snapped this on the wall of a building in one of the side streets...

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive....

Ok, so that is a bit over the top (and Wordsworth wrote it about the French Revolution!). I don’t care all that much about sport and yet sat glued to the television all day on Sunday watching England thrash Australia at the Oval and bring the Ashes home. The tension was great and the excitement high. For me the highlight of the match was when Andrew Flintoff (in his last test match) ran out Ricky Ponting – Australia’s captain and leading batsman. Once Number One husband who is a sports fanatic explained to me exactly how far he had thrown the ball and knowing how narrow the target is – words fail me!

It is curious how something like this can lift the spirit – and the interviews with all the players after the match were a succession of gracious speeches with no-one wanting to take credit but dish it out across the team. Wish that other walks of life (or even sport!) were the same.

For those of you who know even less about cricket than me, Wiki says that: The Ashes is a Test cricket series played between England and Australia. It is one of international cricket's most celebrated rivalries and dates back to 1882. The series is named after a satirical obituary published in a British newspaper, The Sporting Times, in 1882 after a match at The Oval in which Australia beat England on an English ground for the first time. The obituary stated that English cricket had died, and the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia. The English media dubbed the next English tour to Australia (1882–83) as the quest to regain The Ashes.

During that tour a small terracotta urn was presented to England captain Ivo Bligh by a group of Melbourne women. The contents of the urn are reputed to be the ashes of an item of cricket equipment, possibly a bail, ball or stump. Some Aborigines hold that The Ashes are those of King Cole, a cricketer who toured England in 1868. The Dowager Countess of Darnley claimed in 1998 that her mother-in-law, Bligh's wife Florence Morphy, said that they were the remains of a lady's veil. So now you know more than most of the cricket fans.

Work is a bit strange at the moment – our offices are being refurbished after ten years so people are packing up stuff as we move to temporary desks as one section is done after the other. Quite a number of colleagues are on holiday but those that are here are working flat out as this is a crucial time of the year for us as we ramp up to October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is our major fundraising “season” of the year. I move on Friday to a temporary desk for a few weeks – be nice to sit with colleagues for a change.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

More than chocolate and cuckoo clocks

Just back from a few days in Basel, Switzerland, with Number One daughter and family which now includes a new puppy. Reminded me no matter how much I miss our dog I don’t miss the responsibility. Bit like grandchildren – wonderful to have all the fun and none of the responsibility!

It is difficult when you visit somewhere several times a year not to make comparisons – and I don’t just mean about the trains and trams running on time. It is a slightly unnerving experience, being used to London Transport, arranging to meet someone at 10.15 and knowing that you will be there exactly at 10.15 because that is the time that it says on the timetable. This was reinforced when I flew back into City Airport to find that the DLR was suspended. Pity the unsuspecting tourists who are then left to puzzle out what to do next with staff who speak only English. City Airport – a joy as it is the closest airport to home, very quick check-in and the fare is surprisingly reasonable – hardly a budget airline but pretty cheap compared to rail travel within the UK. Fortunately, I had ordered a mini-cab and the door-to-door journey took three hours and forty-five minutes – less than to many UK destinations.

Number One grand-daughter started at the local Swiss school last week. The children are taught in High German but speak Swiss German in the playground. She speaks neither and was treated with courtesy and care and a couple of children who speak English or French (as does she) were happily translating for her. She starts extra German classes (provided by the school) next week and is happily watching Dora the Explorer and Mickey Mouse in German. Primary school starts a year or more later than in the UK and handcrafts, music and other “non-core” subjects are very much part of the curriculum. Does this give us more rounded children under less pressure? Time will tell. In the mean time she will speak three languages – English which is home language, French which she has already learned and two varieties of German.

On Friday night was the Basel Jazz Festival. The centre of town was packed with people, most of the roads closed; make-shift bandstands were set up on various corners and bands played a set or two and then moved to the next one. Restaurants and bars had put up trestle tables on every inch of pavement (and road) and some had groups playing inside as well. Much, much alcohol was drunk Рand food eaten. But the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed, there were no police to be seen and all generations were represented from some rather elderly matrons tucking into giant ice-creams at Mövenpick to young people spilling out of the bars.

There were no drunks throwing up in gutters, groups of men or women lurching around “out of it” nor any aggression, and walking home alone posed no threats to personal safety. As a nervous Londoner I had the strap of my handbag around my ankle with my foot on the bag while I ate dinner, while the Swiss had their mobile phones lying on the table, handbags left available to grab – and no one did.

A survey of Breast Cancer Campaign colleagues revealed that 40 per cent have managed to escape having their wallet/purse stolen and the rest have had theirs stolen any number of times from once (most) to 10 or 12 times or “too many to remember”. Basel is starting to win me over.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Yuck, yuck, yuck!

Breast Cancer Campaign lent its voice to Bowel Cancer UK’s excellent campaign for a screening programme for bowel cancer. Like with many cancers, early detection is very important and very often symptoms do not appear early enough or are missed by the individual and the doctor. A pilot programme was successful and this is now being rolled out across the country for individuals between the ages of 60 – 69.

For more information have a look at Bowel Cancer UK’s website -
and also the NHS website.

Being of mature years I received my envelope in the post in late June. I read it through briefly, it seemed complicated and somewhat distasteful so I did what I normally do with all unpleasant and important things, I “filed” it in the pile of papers on my desk. I kept noticing it and thinking that I must do something but did nothing. I then received the follow up mailing saying that I had 13 weeks to respond and then my name would be removed from this round. Panic – I can’t NOT do it.

So I read the instructions again more carefully and it isn’t that complicated. I have dealt with my fair share of pee-ing into a plastic container (surprising what levels of accuracy you can attain over the course of a pregnancy where this happens at every check-up – the gals will know what I mean, the guys will be bemused). I have also changed hundreds, if not thousands, of nappies for children and grandchildren but catching your own poo reaches levels of yuckiness not yet attained. There is also some interaction with little strips of cardboard - no - too much information.

Anyway, the deed is done (three deeds if that isn’t too much information) and it will shortly be in the post. It is a darn sight less uncomfortable than having a mammogram but I wonder how many people will just be put off by the yuckiness. Intellectually I know how important it is to do this but despite that I was more driven by guilt of how I could own up to not doing it rather than by my own health. Curious and irrational!

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Diminishing talent: rise of the professional politician

Groucho Marx once said, “I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.” Who would want to be a politician now?

As an immigrant of many decades, I am very protective of all the reasons why I chose to come and live in this country and like any convert can be very passionate about it. Faith in the Parliamentary system was one factor. I am not bothered by the odd bad apple – goodness there have been enough scandals over the decades, although the latest expenses scandal is overwhelming. It is also profiteering with tax-payers money rather than exploiting position and influence which many past scandals have been.

I am now troubled by what seems to be a gradual but relentless shift from being served by people who had a vocation for public service, in addition to whatever the day job was, to professional politicians. It actually doesn’t matter whether the day job was trade union official or merchant banker – if there was a big enough spread, the best interests of society would be served within the limits of the governing party’s policies. If you didn’t like the policies you voted that lot out.

We are now gravitating to a situation where we will be governed by professional politicians who won’t have jobs in the “real” world which we all live in and what is more, may never have had jobs outside politics.

Thanks to Iain Dale for pointing me to this article by Paul Goodman, who is standing down as an MP at the next election, in the Daily Mail yesterday. He confirms all my worst fears and he is speaking as an insider. He says, “In short, the Commons is set to become a chamber of professional politicians, dependent on the taxpayer, and remote from the millions of Britons who aren't.”

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Organic food and nutrition

We do not live our lives based on evidence – we are governed by custom, superstition, belief and irrationality (amongst others). If you want to understand just how irrational we are I recommend getting hold of a copy of Irrationality, the enemy within by the late Stuart Sutherland. It is a brilliant book written for a lay audience which sets out very clearly how our behaviour is influenced and gives examples of common failures of human judgment.

However, evidence does matter, and matters hugely in some areas. We need very good evidence before drugs are allowed to be prescribed and Breast Cancer Campaign, as an organization, bases every statement we make about breast cancer on evidence. This is why we sometimes hedge our remarks on recommendations on areas such as diet. There is some evidence and lots of supposition.

I am on an external committee for the Food Standards Agency called the General Advisory Committee on Science – GACS to its friends. It was established in December 2007 and provides independent advice on the Agency's governance and use of science. The Committee's work includes horizon scanning, science governance, developing good practice and informing science priorities.

I mention this because there are always conspiracy theorists out there who ferret out connections no matter how tangential – so let me now state that I had nothing to do with the FSA report on nutrition which was published last week and everything that follows is my own personal view – not representing the FSA or Breast Cancer Campaign.

The review clearly states: This systematic review of the available published literature was designed to seek to determine the size and relevance to health of any differences in content of nutrients and other substances in organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products. This review does not address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs or the environmental impacts of organic and conventional agricultural practices.

It then goes on to say: No evidence of a difference in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products was detected for the majority of nutrients assessed in this review suggesting that organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content.

Ref: http://www.food.gov.uk/news/newsarchive/2009/jul/organic

There is a key phrase here – “broadly comparable in their nutrient content”. That’s it – that’s all – but given the outpouring from the press, the Soil Association and anyone with an interest in organic food, you would never have believed it. Much of the focus was on what the report didn’t say or even attempt to say. All the report states is that whether or not you eat organic food you will receive roughly the same nutrients.

The press was full of all the things that the report didn’t say – they looked at the research, they eliminated the research which was not well done, they didn’t do new research, they reviewed what was there. If you believe that organic food is the only way forward nutritionally (we are not discussing the environment, animal husbandry or anything else here) then commission well constructed peer reviewed research and let’s see the results.

I actually don’t care either way personally – the FSA has a duty to make sure that food is safe to eat (gross simplification I know), and I buy an organic box every week because I like the idea that independent farmers are supplying food that, on the whole, tastes better without having to ensure that every apple is exactly the same size. I can tell from the condition of the soil on the carrots that they have just been picked and I can wash them the way I want to. I still buy stuff from the supermarket but I don’t do any of this because of nutrition.

Thank goodness for Ben Goldacre (Bad Science in the Guardian and online). Ben is prepared to plough through the 200 odd pages of the FSA research, understand it and determine whether it is good research or not. He has been through the paper and also the negative media outpouring that followed and says: The Soil Association’s response has been swift, receiving prominent and blanket right of reply: this is testament to the lobbying power of this £2bn (organic food) industry, and the cultural values of people who work in the media. I don’t care about organic food. I am interested in bad arguments. Thank you Ben – please read
http://www.badscience.net/.

Last year one of our researchers published some very exciting results. We sent out a press release which excited one of the journalists on a national daily so much that s/he recommended to the health editor by email that it be a major news story. The editor replied to the journalist’s email and mistakenly copied us in as follows:

“You’ve read a press release! A very complicated press release about drugs you have never heard of. You don’t even know what the study results are. Honestly (name deleted), just at least wait until we know what the paper says, basing a splash on a press release is a bit premature!”

Wish that all editors were as meticulous! As it happens the story did hit the front pages so instinct was right but backed by evidence.