Monthly Archives: March 2010

Why did this ‘health care’ revolution take so long?


The Guardian today carries an article about the problems of the so-called death-tax, the white paper on social care, and government proposals for reform, all of which seem to stretch long into the future without a decision in sight.

As someone who has personal knowledge and experience of a (German) government who  foresaw the care problem and did something about it 15 years ago, I find it impossible to understand why our present (English) government should be flailing about clutching at straws such as a ‘death tax’, as if none of them had seen the care problem looming until yesterday.

Within a year of moving to Berlin to work in 1994, the amount of compulsory contributions going out from my salary increased by around 2%, owing to the ‘Pflegeversicherung Beitragssatz‘ – the Care Insurance Contribution. Introduced in January 1995, this was a pre-emptive measure by the German government for whom it was plain that an increasingly large elderly population and improved longevity would result before very long at all in a situation where significant numbers of old people might require care. AARP have a clear, brief summary of the German care insurance situation in English.

It doesn’t need a lot of arithmetic skill to work out that over 15 years, an extra 2% of contributions from everyone’s salaries (especially those overpaid bankers) would add up to quite a decent amount, available to fund care for people who need it now.

If there’s a need for drastic measures in the UK like a ‘death tax’, it’s to make up for  years of bad planning and head-in-the-sand social policy. The 15-year old German compulsory care contributions scheme is just one proof of that judgement.

Music in ‘Alone in Berlin’


Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada

I remember listening to a lecture on teaching by the philosopher David Carr, in which he noted (I’m paraphrasing what I remember, so I hope I’m not misquoting) that literature was often a better place than educational textbooks to find out about what makes a good teacher. You can see his point: Jesus and Gradgrind are just two potent examples of teaching that stick in the popular imagination.

I thought of this, but in relation to music,  as I was reading Hans Fallada’s novel about Berlin under the Nazis, Alone in Berlin. It’s a merciless book, in every sense: you know from the outset that there can be no happy ending, and there’s no light relief from the vileness of most of the characters. Even the good ones are misguided and fallible or rendered powerless by circumstance, and there is no honour among the Nazi thieves: they’re all weak, drunk, opportunistic bastards and nutters who can’t even trust each other to be good Nazis.

And then quite unexpectedly towards the end of this impassioned, bilious tirade, there’s one of the most moving accounts of the power of music. Otto Quangel, a factory foreman convicted of disseminating anti-Nazi messages ends up in a cell with Dr Reichardt, a similarly dissident conductor. They have nothing in common except the cell and their dissent. Quangel finds it hard to understand what a conductor is. He can understand the value of his own job, but finds it difficult to know what Reichardt’s is about:

” ‘First class carpentry, pinned and glued, things that will last a hundred years. But music – the minute you stop playing, what have you got left?’
“There is something, Quangel. The joy in the people who hear good music, that’s something enduring.’ “(p.471)

Reichardt himself is one of those people: in the face of humiliation, imprisonment and death, he remains calm partly through humming quietly to himself the music he remembers: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach.  Quangel, for whom this music is remote and unfamiliar, is nonetheless moved and positively affected by its power, ‘unable to avoid its influence, however basic the doctor’s hummed vocal settings might be.’ (p.473).

It’s an extraordinarily pure and positive moment in a book which otherwise reeks of blood, alcohol, violence, weakness and betrayal. Even though I tend to resist the idea that music transcends reality, this is one of the moments that could most easily convince me otherwise.

It sounds remarkably similar to something that ‘flow’ author  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says about music somewhere (I wish I could remember where) – that one of the benefits of having spent time engaged with music is that you have a store of meaningful and engaging internalized musical experiences which you can enjoy and relive in solitude.  In other words, instead of staring vacantly at the GMTV sofa  or grinding your false teeth on Frinton Pier waiting for death, you could be playing a Bach cantata in your head, because it’s there.

At the moment, I have a little variation on a theme by Dvořák written by Oskar Nedbal going round my head, a constant companion because I’ve been practising it. I don’t even think about it (until now, for a moment), but my mind is in an almost constant state of music, and if it’s not, I can put it in one.  It’s not whistling in the dark to make myself feel better, it’s just a much richer alternative to waiting for Eamonn Holmes to entertain me. Until I read Alone in Berlin and heard Csikszentmihalyi, I didn’t realize how fortunate I was.

Mark Simpson: “the world’s most perceptive writer about modern masculinity”


I have been saying this ever since I bought It’s a queer world in 1996, and I say it every time I read another book, another weblog, every time I see him on one of those otherwise inane  100-top-this or 50-worst-that compilation documentaries. But who am I to say? Thankfully, I have the full weight of the ‘science of cool’ website to back me up, since they’ve just listed him as No. 1 of their top reads for the weekend on the topic of males, and published this near-perfect eulogy to my hero:

Mark Simpson is probably the world’s most perceptive – and certainly the wittiest – writer about modern masculinity. Mark Simpson is by far the sharpest mind when it comes to changing masculinities. With a worldwide reputation, a long story of excellence and many international publications he is simply world wide leading.[from here – nice article, too]

They go on to give an overview of his books and a selection of his best bits to get you salivating. My favourite is still his article, ‘Walk like a man’, which I quoted in another blog post (Why we need Stonewall), and I still pick up and savour It’s a queer world often. His ideas are so singularly perceptive and against the tide, reading him is strangely like being listened to at the same time as you’re listening to him. And as befits someone who thinks and writes so incisively about masculinities, I have to say I find something deeply erotic in his  unique balance of  insight, intelligence, humour, strength, vulnerability, balls and gentleness, gravitas and worldliness, moral courage and healthy filth. Whenever I read his work, I think of the way that Sontag praises Barthes:

He always wrote full out, was always concentrated, keen, indefatigable. […] it is work that, strenuously unwilling to be boring or obvious, favours compact assertion, writing that rapidly covers a great deal of ground.
(Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes reprinted in Where the stress falls, p. 65)

It’s writing that has a punch and a musicality that inspires me and that I aspire to, even if I rarely achieve it.  Good on you, Mark, and thanks for letting us know.

A fat lot of good ‘choice’ is….


You know it when you see it, but how hard it is to come up with it yourself: a bank of data just sitting there on a plate (literally, in this case) waiting for the imaginative researcher to recognize its worth and find a way of making use of it.  The perfect example is this research into the portion sizes depicted in representations of The Last Supper over the last 1,000 years:

Brian and Craig Wansink teamed up to analyze the amount of food depicted in 52 of the best-known paintings of the Last Supper (Phaidon Press 2000). After indexing the sizes of the foods by the sizes of the average disciple’s head, they found that portion size, plate size, and bread size increased dramatically over the last one thousand years. Overall, the main courses depicted in the paintings grew by 69%, plate size by 66%, and bread size by 23%.

I found this after reading an article about the 1lb Double Six Dollar burger (1400 calories, $5,49) which is pushing up sales for creators Hardee’s in the US, while other chains are nudging customers in the direction of salads and lighter chicken and fish versions (Fast Food Chains Buck The Healthy Trend).  The CEO of Hardee’s says, predictably “…the issue is simply about choice, the long-held American value of letting people make their own decisions.”

At the same time, I was wondering why on earth the UK government didn’t kill two birds with one stone (obesity epidemic & huge deficit) by bunging a whopping great tax on nutrition-free foods that are high in sugar and fat like sweets, fizzy drinks, cakes and biscuits. Either obesity is a bad thing as the government keeps telling us, or it isn’t: if it really is that bad, then we need disincentives to nudge us into better eating habits, and this is one that the government could benefit from at the same time as being kind to humans.

I use the word ‘nudge’ purposely, since it’s the title of a recent book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein about the whole concept of ‘choice’ in politics. To summarise their argument, it’s virtually impossible to offer completely ‘free’ choice, because things like recency and primacy effect, for example, will make certain choices more appealing than others: we rarely make rational decisions. For this reason, they advocate a kind of paternal libertarianism, where you get choice, but the order in which those choices are given, and the way in which they are presented, nudge you towards doing stuff that is eventually going to be good for you. (See for more). I’m not saying it’s a great book – it’s repetitive, and they tend to drone on for pages about stuff that you already understood having read the back cover, but it’s difficult to disagree with the premise, and it’s very helpful to know about some of the insidious uses that the theory is used for (for example, those questionnaires that ask you whether you intend to buy something in the next year – it’s a psychological trick, because research shows that if you even think about it, you’re more likely to actually do it at a later date. Scary).

And indeed, there is a study which suggests that junk food taxes are more effective than health food subsidies. In short, when healthy food is discounted, buyers spend the resulting spare cash on junk food. When junk food is taxed, buyers avoid it and spend what they save on healthy food. Read the article for the detail, but the gist is that although there’s a balance to be achieved between taxing and subsidy, taxing junk food wins out every time.

I keep having to remind myself what ‘disingenuous’ means, because although it’s a pejorative term,  it always sounds vaguely positive (a mixture of ‘ingenue’ and ‘ingenious’). The Hardees story is maybe the one that will finally make me remember: nothing defines ‘disingenuous’ more than someone who claims that what is clearly a targeted marketing campaign that capitalizes on unhealthy cravings is offering choice. A year ago, even a McDonald’s representative admitted that it was salt and fat that was the recipe for McDonalds’ success.

As an ex-smoker, I applaud the smoking ban: it makes it a hundred times easier not to smoke when everywhere you go, there are little incentives not to light up: if you can’t smell cigarette smoke, you don’t want to smoke. Likewise, it’s a lot easier to eat healthily when the choices you have nudge you towards better nutrition.  And for the absolute last word on the subject, the recent article in the Guardian (Obesity: the killer combination of salt, fat and sugar) is clear about the degree to which we can talk about ‘choice’ with regard to food that is knowingly designed to be the perfect combination of salt, fat and sugar:

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the relationship between the dopamine-driven motivational system and our behaviour in the presence of rewarding foods. But we do know that foods high in sugar, fat and salt are altering the biological circuitry of our brains. We have scientific techniques that demonstrate how these foods – and the cues associated with them – change the connections between the neural circuits and their response patterns.

Rewarding foods are rewiring our brains. As they do, we become more sensitive to the cues that lead us to anticipate the reward. In that circularity lies a trap: we can no longer control our responses to highly palatable foods because our brains have been changed by the foods we eat. [Guardian, 13/3/10]

Trololo, it’s meme heaven


Thanks to Maria via Facebook for this one:

And if you’re thinking what on EARTH is that, that’s just what I thought, while recognizing instantly that this had all the ingredients of an internet meme. So many thanks to the awesome, here’s the whole history of the Trololo meme, complete with graphs and explanation.  I used to love the net, this stuff makes me adore it.

Information is beautiful is beautiful


If, like me, you are an Edward Tufte fan, and like nothing more than to see graceful and meaningful illustrations of data, you’ll love Information is Beautiful. Hard to know where to start with the recommendations, but the  Scientific Evidence for Popular Health Supplements bubblegram is one of my favourites – make sure you try out the filter on the right of the page.  Number three of the Four Infographical Morsels uses Google autocomplete to find out the most popular completion phrases for “How do I get my girlfriend/boyfriend to…” Another favourite is the pictorgram of the distribution of major/minor keys in Beatles

There’s a dark side to my love of beautifully displayed information: it’s a necessary antidote to the crud that people churn out when they are mistakenly given a computer to do a job which would be better done without one, unless you happen to be a genius at displaying information visually.  It was Donald Norman in The Design of Everyday Things that pointed out the problem of ‘affordances’ – printers, for example, print things, so give a person a printer, and they’ll start printing things out, whether that’s strictly necessary or not.  I’d add to that, give them Microsoft Office and they’ll start turning everything into a table, a spreadsheet or a document, even if what you need to know would be better communicated with a smile and a touch on the arm.  People attach documents to emails because they can, not because it helps.

Please, everyone,  buy Tufte’s books and look at Information is Beautiful just to get a sense of what meaningful data looks like.

All hail Lizzie & Sarah


Nice to see the Guardian berating the BBC for failing to make a big enough noise about one of its best writers and comedians, Julia Davis, and for putting Lizzie and Sarah in a graveyard slot at 11.45 on a Saturday night. Lizzie & Sarah is brilliant, and as with the best comedy (as the writer points out), you don’t know whether to laugh, cry or join a protest group.  It’s dark humour, but in my view, there is nothing so dark, offensive and vile as, well, just about anything else on TV that fails to take a critical or comical look at itself (reality TV, ‘talent’ shows, double-act ‘news’ shows).

Send yourself to sleep with your own sleepy track


Totally the wrong thing to be trying out at coffee time on a Sunday morning, but it’s hypnotic and wonderful: over at you can choose, mix and pan five channels of various relaxing sounds such as birdsong, rain, oceans, drumming and mystical flute into your very own continuous, sleep-inducing soundtrack.  As long as the act of mixing and trying out different sounds doesn’t keep you awake, I can vouch for the effectiveness of the results, because I’m starting to fall asl…..