Thursday 23 April 2009

Bad Bad Science.

Ben Goldacre's Bad Science site is excellent in a great many ways. His columns are undoubtedly the best thing in The Guardian, possibly ever. He does a brilliant job of ripping apart the dodgy and often dangerous pseudoscientific claims of charlatans. He, like, totally analyses the heck out of those guys. And most of the commenters on his blog are quite astoundingly knowledgable about a whole bunch of scientific fields. It's probably the only blog on the Web where it is always worth reading the whole comment thread of every post. Go science!

And yet, there's a problem.

Firstly, Ben sounds like the kind of man I'd like to have as a GP myself. He happily admits to being a geek who trawls through as much medical literature as he can get his hands on, analyses the results of studies, etc. This is evidence-based medicine, and he understands it. And he devotes a lot of time to trying to understand why it is that patients go to see quack doctors instead of proper scientific ones, and his answer is never "Because they're thick!" But the point I have never seen him address is that a major contributing factor to people losing faith in conventional medicine is that most GPs are not like him. As practised by your average GP, conventional medicine is based on assuming all your patients are morons and hypochondriacs, failing to read their notes, and not bothering to keep up with scientific discoveries when there are perfectly good baseless prejudices to use instead.

After all the crap that happened to Vic two years ago, our local surgery made her one of their highest-priority patients and told her that she should always call if she had any chest pains. Two of the GPs have since retired and one of the new ones clearly can't be arsed reading her notes, has misdiagnosed her, has given her a test which the hospital later told us was pointless, and told her when she had serious breathing problems that she was just trying to avoid going to work. There's a big heap of evidence in his office — Vic's notes — and his medicine is not based on it.

I'm a migraine sufferer. Long after the invention of Sumatriptan-based drugs, doctors would still tell me to avoid eating cheese and chocolate (an old wive's tale) and stop wasting precious NHS resources when they had real patients to see.

In short, there is, in practice, a big difference between conventional medicine and evidence-based medicine.

The other problem with Bad Science is caused by Ben's writing for The Guardian. For all their scientific knowledge, his commenters are mostly Guardian-readers, and they tend to be a tad intolerant of dissenting political opinions.

For instance, if you can be bothered reading it, here is an excellent example: in a piece about screening for Down's Syndrome, Ben wrote that it's wrong to speak out against aborting babies because they've got Down's because that makes the decision all the more harrowing for the parents. Now, Ben's main criticism of the stories circulating at the time was that their statistics were wrong and the claims they were making were therefore false. But he concluded with this:

If I terminate a Down syndrome pregnancy, is that proof that society is not a warm caring place, and that I am not a warm caring person? For many parents the decision to terminate will be a difficult and upsetting one, especially later in life, and stories like this make a pretty challenging backdrop for making it. This would have been true even if their figures had been correct

While I have plenty of sympathy for parents in that situation, this isn't science; it's an attempt to stop a debate via emotional blackmail. Even if the claims are true, we shouldn't make them because... well, because they make it more difficult to support the Left's pro-abortion agenda. Quite what that's got to do with science is never explained; it is assumed.

Then some genuine disabled people turned up in the comments and proceeded to argue that they had a teensy bit of a problem with the prevailing attitude that having a child like them was some sort of disaster to be avoided if at all possible. This seems to me like such an obvious point that it's quite amazing how many evidence-obsessed scientists simply couldn't get their damned heads around it. Brainduck — a blogger previously praise by Goldacre for her excellent science work — put it best:

I find this pretty ironic in the light of what Ben’s previously written about me ...
It is not a Bad Thing that I was born. The birth of more people like me should not be something that society tries to prevent.

... I never want to be in a position where I’m told I’m irresponsible for having children like me / my brother.

Genetic *testing* is NOT treatment. Killing people isn’t the same thing as treating them, and I don’t understand how the two can so often be confused. Genetic screening is looking at two embryos, and deciding that the one more like me deserves less of a chance at life than the one less like me. Why the hell should people NOT be made to feel guilty about that? Systematically wiping out everyone who thinks like me is wrong, and I should be free to say it’s wrong.

... If you choose to have a baby at all, you don’t get a guarantee that they will be ‘perfect’. They could have the greatest genotype ever, and be affected by birth hypoxia or a car crash or whatever and need 24-hour care for the rest of their lives because of that, and you’d just have to deal with it. If you can’t, don’t have children at all. Deciding that loving your child is conditional on it having the right chromosomes is wrong.

My brother is affected to the point that he’s not managed several attempts to live independently, get a degree or job. I’ll probably have to look after him when our parents aren’t able. So what? This isn’t a ‘tragedy’, it’s just life.


This isn’t being discussed, it’s just being allowed to happen under a banner of ‘individual choice’ without any thought for the wider social impacts, and often as not without much if any input from the people most directly affected by it. Yep, selective abortion / embryo destruction is an uncomfortable topic, and people don’t like you discussing it. Ben has managed to call the mother of someone with Down syndrome ’scumbaggy’ for saying that her child is as worthy of life as anyone else. If you say that selectively wiping out people with disabilities is wrong, you’ll be told you are being ‘judgemental’ and shouldn’t make people feel ‘guilty’. But this effectively shuts down a wider discussion of the issues. I’m not about to start waving placards outside clinics. That’s not what the DSA were doing. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to say that actually, life with Down syndrome can be good?

It is instructive to read the way that comments thread went. I turned up and made the apparently controversial points that killing your disabled adult child makes you a bad person and that telling your kids that parents who kill their kids aren't necessarily bad falls short of ideal parenting. For this, I was accused of all sorts of things, including, inevitably, finally, trolling. The commenter who calls himself The Nameless was quite thoroughly obnoxious, behaving in a way that would get him banned from quite a lot of sites out there, but it never occurred to anyone to accuse him of trolling because he clearly believed in the standard Guardian-readers' orthodoxy. Me, I stayed civil, and was pretty much screamed at for my trouble. I invite anyone who can be arsed to read the comments there and let me know if you think I've mischaracterised the conversation.

What was interesting about it for me was that I entered the debate without a particularly strong opinion on the subject of pre-natal screening, and those who absolutely unequivocally support it persuaded me very quickly and effectively that it's wrong.

And we have another example today. This week, Ben Goldacre has written about the story that The Daily Mail has a different editorial stance to The Irish Daily Mail. Apparently, this is shocking and amazing for some reason. The shocking amazing story was noticed by a guy called Martin who blogs over at The Lay Scientist. He's another Guardian-reader, and clearly under the impression that he's a scientist who believes in evidence and rationality.

Now, Bad Science people have been shocked by this type of story before. Despite the fact that an hour spent browsing The Guardian's website will reveal so much disagreement that you'll start to think that every left-winger forms their own separate faction of one, its readers express amazement whenever exactly the same phenomenon can be observed in any other media organisation. I don't get it. And so I made this point at Martin's blog:

People only find this sort of thing suprising because of their insistence on thinking of [insert organisation here] as monolithic. The Daily Mail is made up of a large number of journalists, and, like any other group of people, they disagree with each other about all sorts of things. Ben Goldacre has now linked here, and seems to be similarly baffled by the phenomenon, despite the fact that he himself has had a big fight with his own paper, taking them to task at great length for the crap they put on their front page. The Mail are no more baffling than The Guardian in this respect — less so, in fact, as we're talking about The Irish Mail and The British Mail, two different papers. Why on Earth wouldn't some Irish journalists disagree with some British journalists, just because they're working under the same brand name?

This prompted what I mistakenly thought was a debate. It certainly looked like one: each side raised further points to try and back up their side of the argument. But I was wrong. Should have remembered that, when arguing with a left-winger, you either convert to their cause as quickly as possible or You Are A Bad Person. Here's Martin's eventual response:

"This story is uninteresting! It should be banned! I'm going to come back every few days to repeat again how uninteresting I find this story!111!!! You're all stupid!!!11!"


To which, here's mine:


I just commented earlier that I find this interesting.

I don't know what you think I think should be banned.

I haven't shouted at you.

And I thought I was just debating an issue with you here. Do you get upset when people who agree with you visit your blog every few days? I think I just got the wrong end of the stick when you responded to my points as if you were actually interested in discussing the issue or something, and so I stupidly responded in kind. If you really just want anyone who disagrees with you to fuck off, you could save yourself a lot of time by stating that in your blog's header. You know, "Comments from non-sycophants unwelcome." Something like that.

Far too much of this amongst the Bad Science crowd, to be honest. For all that everyone likes to claim that it's evidence that's important, anyone who fails to toe the Guardian's political line on that site tends to just get invective hurled at them. Which is a great shame, as you're driving away a lot of people who agree with you on the scientific points.

Finally, at least I'm civil.

Go on, say "*yawn*" again. That'll prove that you're right and I'm wrong, using evidence. Yay science.

'Course, most people, unlike me, wouldn't bother. Most people would get shouted at by the site's owner and sod off, never to return. Not necessarily a problem if you're just running a fun club for your friends, but the science blogs are supposed to be persuasive. You know, like science.

Seriously, what is wrong with these people? They all claim that they want to advance the public understanding of science. That's a noble goal, and one I back to the hilt. But aren't they aware that some members of the public are interested in science yet don't agree with their politics, and some even read [gasp!] papers that The Guardian looks down upon? Doesn't it occur to them that routinely shouting at all such people that they're idiots won't persuade them to join the cause?

Or is the cause really just an excuse to run yet another self-congratulatory clique?


Brainduck has pointed out two mistakes in this post. Firstly, she's a woman of the female persuasion. Something about her chosen alias made me think "male" — quite wrongly, as it turns out. And secondly, I implied that Ben Goldacre was a GP himself, because I was once informed — I forget by whom, but, again, wrongly — that he was. I have amended a small handful of words in this post to reflect reality.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

The exception to the rule.

One of the things that made Google successful in the first place was that they're just so damn fast.

Well, looking at this series of Streetview photos —

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12 - 13 - 14 - 15 - 16 - 17 - 18 - 19 - 20 - 21 - 22

— it turns out that getting stuck behind a Google car is Worse Than Tractors.

Tuesday 21 April 2009


Here's another good piece by Gary. But he's wrong.

The idea that Section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act makes photographing the police illegal is pure fantasy. It doesn't mention photos at all. Rather, it says that it's illegal to gather or publish information about the police or armed forces that is "likely to be useful" to a mad bomber, foreign spy or Osama Bin Laden.

... it's easy to see how that phrase can be misinterpreted

But it's not being misinterpreted. If you're planning to kill policemen, then photos of policemen on duty contain information that is useful to you. So the Act clearly outlaws the taking of such photos, whether it explicitly mentions photographs or not.

There's no problem with the law being misinterpreted here. The problem is allowing a law with a phrase as vague as "likely to be useful" in it onto the books in the first place. It can be used for anything.

Shahid Malik, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, on 1 April 2009: "... the taking of photographs in a public place is not subject to any rule or statute. There are no legal restrictions on photography in a public place ..."

From this, we can conclude that Shahid Malik hasn't read the Act. Or didn't understand it.

As Malik told Parliament: "Our counter-terrorism laws are not designed or intended to stop people taking photographs.

Oh, great. I eagerly await HMRC giving me back all my income tax, since the law establishing that was never designed or intended to do anyting other than fund the Napoleonic Wars.

It doesn't matter what a law is designed or intended for; it matters what it actually says — and I'd expect an Under-Secretary of State to know that. A whole bunch of people raised this problem back when the law was being written and debated, and were caricatured as paranoid extremist lunatics who didn't care if terrorists killed all our children. The fact is, Parliament had the opportunity, having been warned of precisely this outcome, to design a law intended to stop the police doing this — and to stop the myriad other abuses of RIPA. And they chose not to. The Home Office's protestations of innocence now should be seen as nothing more than, at best, admissions of gross incompetence.

I say "at best" because, of course, no incompetence has occurred. The Government itself demonstrated just a few months ago that it was perfectly willing to use anti-terrorist legislation against non-terrorists and non-criminals for something it was never designed or intended for, when it froze Icelandic assets. The Government, it seems, were quite happy to have such a usefully vague law on the books. Which is hardly surprising, since they put it there.

So I think it's safe to conclude that we're allowed to take photos of the police and bus-stops and bakeries and so on unless someone in the Cabinet decides it's inconvenient, at which point it will immediately be reclassified as terrorist activity. Just like moving money from a branch of your bank to its headquarters, or sending your child to a good school that's a little bit too far away from your home, or dropping litter.

Friday 17 April 2009

What you need.

I've been meaning to write this for ages, but the very reason I know what to write is the same reason I haven't got round to it. That's right: it's a list of stuff that's useful if you have a baby on the way. Half the stuff the baby magazines tell you is Absolutely Vital is in fact a big fat waste of money. Best thing to do if you're expecting is to ask any recent parents you know for their tips. But be careful of the mummy-fascists: if your "friends" start telling you that theirs is The Only Way To Raise A Baby and if you don't do what they did You Are Doing It All Wrong, politely make your excuses and never talk to them again for as long as you live. Even better, kill them and steal their child.

On that note (the ignore-the-pushy-parents note, not the murder-and-kidnapping note), the Dr Spock book really is good. So many baby books tell you the one ideal way to do it. For every topic, Spock tells you the handful of different good ways to do it, and leaves you to decide which to go for.

Anyway, here are my top tips. Take them with a pinch of salt. I know what was best by our criteria, but yours will be different.

For what it's worth, we got a Quinny Buzz pram, and I thoroughly recommend it. On the other hand, it's the only pram we ever had, so it's always possible that all the others are even better. But it certainly has one feature which the others don't (or didn't at the time): it uses hydraulics to unfold itself. This is not a gimmick; it is incredibly useful. You take the pram out of the car, you've got a baby in one arm, a bag to carry — once you have a baby, you always have a bag to carry... tapping the pram so that it unfolds itself instead of having to pull levers or whatever suddenly becomes the most important thing in your life. It also has easily detachable and reattachable wheels, so could be stowed in a very small space: we could get it and enough luggage for a holiday into the boot of an A-Class. Doesn't come cheap, though, but was definitely the single best value expensive thing we bought — or persuaded a relative to buy for us, I should say. We were also lucky enough to be buying them just as Quinny changed their range and so got a huge discount just by picking a discontinued colour — worth keeping an eye out for that sort of opportunity, as I imagine it happens a lot. Also, I would recommend (assuming you drive) going for a pram to which a car-seat can attach. When the baby's asleep, you want to leave them be, so taking the car-seat out of the car and putting it onto a wheel base — or vice versa — is good. The Maxi-Cosi car seat is dead good (it has a built-in sun-shade, which is highly useful, especially since clip-on parasols are universally crap), and attaches to loads of different makes of pram.

It's probably not worth caring about whether the pram will double as a buggy. Apart from anything else, when your toddler's ready for a buggy, it's because they're getting independent and have Views on things like how far they should be from the ground and whether they should be travelling in some conveyance that's for bloody babies. The Quinny's buggy attachment did get used a lot, but not as much as the labelling claims: in theory, Daisy could use it another year or so yet, but try telling her that. Our buggy attachment got used a lot, and we're dead glad we had it, but a simple buggy probably would have been fine. Dedicated buggies are cheaper and lighter and fold up smaller than prams. If you're looking to save some money and don't have an in-law willing to buy the thing for you, this is a good place to economise a bit. When your baby's ready for a buggy, just get one and put the pram in the attic.

The Moses basket pram attachments, though... well, it depends on your situation. And we weren't typical, of course. But Vic was in hospital for months after the birth. The basket attachment for the pram was fantastic: it meant I could bring Daisy into hospital to visit her mum and she could sleep in a proper bed there. If you find yourself in any situation like that (not necessarily ending up in hospital, but you might, for instance, be regularly visiting someone who doesn't have a basket you can use — leaving the baby with grandparents two days a week, say), then it might be worth having. And Moses baskets are insanely overpriced anyway. If you are going to splash out on one, it might be better to spend about the same money on one that attaches to your pram, just for the adaptability. Definitely not worth having one of each, unless one of you ends up so ill she can't carry the pram attachment upstairs to the bedroom. We borrowed one.

Once you do switch to a buggy, the little sleeping-bags designed to attach to buggies are overpriced but fantastic.

An electric steam steriliser is an excellent thing. And cheap. Sterilising things by boiling them on the hob or cold-sterilising using Milton's fluid are both major pains in the arse in comparison to bunging the stuff in the steriliser, turning it on, and waiting a few minutes.

If you're using formula, electric sterilisers can also be used for terminal sterilisation, which can save you loads of time. What you do is you mix the formula using cold water straight from the tap, then put the disk and teat on the bottle but don't tighten it fully, then put the bottle in the steriliser. Not screwing the top on fully tightly stops the bottle exploding. Then, as it cools, the disk gets sucked tight onto the top of the bottle, sealing it. Take the bottle out of the steriliser, tighten the top fully, and put it in the fridge. You now have sterilised milk that'll keep for twenty-four hours. And you can use this method to do a whole day's milk in one batch. Incredibly convenient.

Mothercare sell packs of plain muslin cloths, which are about the most useful thing you can get after nappies. Chuck them over your shoulder when burping, put them on your lap when feeding, tie them round the baby's neck as Mafia-napkin-type bibs, put two or three of them down as an impromptu changing mat, throw them over your kid's head to play peek-a-boo.... We're still using them for everything, including cleaning Daisy's new blackboard now.

And baths. The standard baths are OK unless your baby has hair. And Daisy had loads. Washing a baby's hair while supporting them properly in a bath takes three hands, minimum. We eventually solved this by getting an inflatable bath: designed for travelling, but has the added advantage that the baby cannot hurt their head if they hit the side. A friend of ours has a huge sponge with a baby-shaped indent, which leaves both your hands free and can also be used to take your baby into the shower. And another friend has just got a big plastic bath with a sort of baby-shaped moulded platform built into it. They haven't actually got a baby yet, so I can't report on how well it works, but it looks good to me.

The same friend has also got a cot where the top half detaches, turning it into a bed. We would definitely have got one of these had we known they existed. Saves you buying a bed when the child grows out of cots.

Sudocreme is good (and a friend of my mum's says it's also the best stuff available for rubbing onto horses when they've been bitten by horse-flies, so it has a handy dual purpose), but there's some even better stuff for bad nappy rash called Weleda. We buy ours when we're in Germany, but you can order it off the Web. However, sometimes what nappy rash needs is to be dried out, and none of these moisturising-type lotions are any good at that, obviously. So also get some Metanium, which is. Oh, and Kamillosan's great, too. Sudocreme, incidentally, does not come out of carpets. Not even with a Vax. So you'll want to avoid your toddler covering herself head to foot in Sudocreme and then throwing a tantrum when you try to take it off her, hurling herself to the floor and beating her Sudocreme-covered fists against the carpet. Which still isn't as bad as The Lip-Balm Incident.

Oo, a Vax or some other variety of carpet-washing device is well worth having, by the way. Or wooden floors, but carpet is obviously safer for toddlers to fall over on. Or you could always just get a tarpaulin, though it's not the most decorative accessory.

Should you need bottles, they all seem good, but Nuk bottles have one big advantage over the competition: they make non-spill teats. As soon as Daisy figured out how to hold a bottle for herself, she refused to let anyone else touch it. And, when she'd finished with it, she'd just throw it to one side. It rarely landed the right way up. Non-spill teats were what prevented her from living in a pool of fermenting milk. Again, I've not seen them in shops in the UK, but you can order them from Germany off the Web.

If you're going to travel, don't get a traditional travel cot. They're only marginally more portable than a cot made of stone with an anvil in it tied to a mammoth with no legs. Go for one of the snazzy new tent-like ones, which fold up properly small and are really light.

Don't believe the stuff in nappy adverts about some makes being better fits than others. What actually happens is that, as your baby grows, she changes shape, and will require different fits. We found that Tesco nappies would be the best fit on Daisy and then, suddenly, we'd get three disgusting leaks in a day and have to switch to Pampers. When you have a baby, you will receive loads of vouchers for free stuff, including nappies. Keep them all. Don't throw out the Huggies vouchers just because Huggies don't fit. In a couple of months, Huggies might be the best fit. When it looks like the nappies aren't fitting as well as they did just the other day, switch brands.

Asda make the best wipes, in our opinion: not too wet and not too dry and they come in an unscented version. Scented wipes, of any brand, smell Bad. Johnson's are so wet you need to dry your baby afterwards. Oh, and baby wipes can be used to clean anything. Anything. There simply is nothing they won't clean. Except Sudocreme out of carpets, obviously.

When you've got a new baby on the way, don't buy any clothes in blue or pink. This is because everyone you know and a whole bunch of people you didn't even think you did know will buy you baby clothes, and everything they buy will be blue or pink, depending on which flavour of baby you've had. If you want a bit of variety in your child's wardrobe, make sure the stuff you buy is some other colour. In fact, when buying baby clothes, don't even buy much new-born stuff, as, again, that's what everyone else will buy for you. Seriously, people are so generous and babies grow so fast that you'll end up with outfits that only get worn once, if at all. So buy some stuff for three months and up. Or ask people to get you stuff for older babies. Otherwise, your baby grows a bit and suddenly goes from having a wardrobe that makes Whitney Houston's look a bit stingy to one pair of shorts, two string vests, and a sock.

If you don't have a spare CD player for the nursery, get a cheap one from a supermarket. Music is amazing stuff. Former Lover by Saint Etienne was a guaranteed way to get Daisy to settle and to sleep for over a year. (Not to sleep for over a year. You know what I mean.) She was also a big Madeleine Peyroux fan. Don't know what she's into these days.

Places like Mothercare have their set prices (which are often quite good), but, if your town's anything like ours, it contains an independent baby-stuff emporium. And, if it's anything like ours — the quite fantastic McCullough's of Bangor — they're open to a bit of bartering and they like to reward good customers to keep them out of Mothercare. If you can afford to buy a lot of your baby stuff in one go, go to one of these places and see if you can get some money off.

This sounds like a huge list, but, really, it's not. Magazines and mummy-fascists will tell you you need hundreds and hundreds of things just to get by. You really don't. Being a parent is not as expensive as some would have you believe. You're going to need a pram and a car-seat and a bath and, pretty soon, a cot. They're big one-off expenses, but, once they're out of the way, it settles down to nappies and wipes, nappies and wipes, more nappies, more wipes, and then jars of baby-food. It's all pretty cheap. And think of all the money you'll save by never going out ever again.

Above all, don't fall into the trap of believing you need a truck-full of gear just to leave the house. You don't. You need a little bag with a changing mat, some nappies, some wipes, and a spare baby-grow in it, plus a sterile bottle if you're using bottles and a carton or two of ready-mixed formula if you're using formula. And scissors to open the carton. Keep such a bag ready at all times, and it'll only take you a couple more minutes to go out than it would without a child.

Oh, one last thing: caffeine. Vital.


Some helpful additions are appearing in the comments to this post, including something from Cleanthes that I can't believe I forgot to mention: Spoons! The effect of a teaspoon on a baby — preferably a metal one — is a thing of wonder. They just absolutely love the things to bits. Just handing the kid a spoon does an unbelievable job of calming them down and keeping them entranced for a good long time. Best baby-toy ever.

The only downside is that you get home to discover you have inadvertently stolen from cafes.

And another update:

Can't believe I forgot to mention this. It's very important. Poppers versus buttons.

You will see a lot of baby clothes that look dead nice but are in fact hell. The reason they are hell is that they have buttons instead of poppers. A lot of little girls' clothes go even further and have cutesy flower-shaped or heart-shaped buttons. No matter how nice the garment may seem, avoid these like the plague. When the time comes to either put them on or take them off, especially in a hurry, even more especially when your baby gets a bit older and starts struggling, you will rue the day you bought them. Poppers can be undone quickly with one hand. As a general rule, once you're a parent, you always want the fewest-hands-using option in everything you do.

On a similar note, bibs with nice laces for tying behind your baby's neck are pure stupid. Bibs should fasten with a popper, ideally at the side of the head, not behind it. Even better, some bibs don't fasten at all and simply have an elasticated hole to pop over your baby's head. If you see them, get them: they're ace.

If you're about to become a parent, you'll be amazed at the number of things that you could have sworn were two-handed jobs — or even two-person jobs — which you can in fact manage perfectly well with one hand while using your other arm to fight a struggling toddler.

Wednesday 15 April 2009

Breasts and idiots.

Here's a good post from my friend Gary about the way that the promotion of breastfeeding has turned into a rather distasteful moral crusade in which those who do not comply are given a good solid kicking. Much like every other aspect of modern life, then. Gary gives this example of, amazingly, one of the more reasonable and less OTT objections, by Morgan Gallagher:

But when I see a media image of a baby bottle...

...I see death.

I see all the the real maggots crawling in all the real bottles.

I see the tiny white bundles being put in the shallow shallow graves.

I see corporate greed and profiteering, being put before baby’s lives.

Of this, Gary, says:

It’s a bit dramatic for my taste, but she does have a point.

And I find this puzzling, because, as far as I can see, it's very much the sort of crap Gary is quite rightly complaining about. Thing is, Morgan also says this:

Fighting for informed, equal choices in infant feeding.


Inevitably, many comment that it's an attack on mothers who formula feed, and use bottles to do so. And every time this is raised the hoary old spectre of The Women Who Can't Breastfeed is also thrown into the mix.


The biggest misunderstanding about all this, is that when we object to images of bottle feeding, we are objecting to women's choices to formula feed. Nothing could be further from the truth.

OK, so imagine you're a woman with a new baby and you're discovering that, for whatever reason, you can't breastfeed. It happens. My own daughter, Daisy, just refused to do it (and is absolutely fine, by the way). Now imagine you come across Morgan Gallagher's description of bottle-feeding:

when I see a media image of a baby bottle...

...I see death.

I see all the the real maggots crawling in all the real bottles.

I see the tiny white bundles being put in the shallow shallow graves.

You further see that your own situation is dismissed as a "hoary old spectre" with what certainly looks like a clear implication that Ms Gallagher doesn't really believe you. I know exactly what you'd be thinking: "Now, there's a woman who'll fight for informed, equal choices in infant feeding, has absolutely no objection to my using formula, and is in no way attacking me."

And this from a post the entire point of which is that the implications of the words and images we put out there are important. Absolutely clueless.

Obviously, having had a child, Vic & I have been exposed to a fair amount of this crap ourselves. What annoys me about all the people who insist that everything should be done naturally — no formula, no caesarians, no painkillers — is not so much that they're pushy intolerant unsympathetic self-important overbearing bastards (if only that could be avoided merely by not having kids) but that they're so profoundly and unimaginatively pig-ignorant.

Take formula. By concentrating exclusively on whether formula is better or worse than breast milk, they miss rather a huge bloody great point. In many cases, the alternative to formula isn't breast milk; it's nothing. For every other species on Earth, the baby either suckles or dies. Thanks to technology, we humans do not have that problem. It's all very well discovering that there's a slightly increased risk of SIDS among formula-fed babies compared to breast-fed, but you know what? Without even needing to do the research, I can exclusively reveal that, in the group of babies who can't or won't breastfeed, there is a massively decreased incidence of cot death among those who are fed with formula compared to those who are given fuck all.

And then there's one of my pet hates: people who reckon they believe in evolution but haven't taken in any of the implications of Darwinism. We've been saving babies who won't breastfeed for millenia now, feeding them on goat's milk or cow's milk or formula or whatever. Any baby that lacks the genetic urge to breastfeed gets to pass that lack of inheritance on, instead of dying like it's supposed to. If a few of your ancestors did this — and they might well have — chances are your kid just might not breastfeed. This is not something to be ashamed of. On the contrary, using technology to overcome certain death should be something to be proud of.

And then there's the fact that breastfeeding in primates is learned behaviour, not instinctive, so every single person, including midwives, who tells you that babies and mothers just "naturally" know how to do it actually has no idea what they're talking about. It's not true of chimps, and it's not true of us.

Back to Gary:

Most women who don’t breastfeed are ill-informed, the argument goes. Which may be true, but most is not the same as all. Not all women who choose bottle feeding are doing it because they’re uninformed ...

In this country, I'd go further and say that not a single one is. You don't give birth in the UK without going somewhere near the maternity ward of a hospital, every wall of which is plastered with posters telling you that breast is best in fifteen languages. Every single member of staff in that maternity ward will go out of their way to tell you the same thing. And there is no such thing in the UK as a carton of formula that doesn't have a label on its side telling you that it's not as good as breast-milk. This is like the anti-smoking lobby: "Some people are still smoking! They must not know that it's bad for them! It's the only explanation! Make the text bigger!"

Now, I'm not an idiot. I am aware that, as well as the mothers whose babies won't breastfeed, the adoptive mothers, the gay adoptive parents, and the widowers with small babies but no breasts, there are people who could breastfeed but don't for often entirely stupid reasons. I happen to think they've made the wrong decision. But there is simply no way that they've made that wrong decision because they genuinely hadn't heard the news that breastfeeding is better than formula. The message is ubiquitous.

There are even adverts now aimed at the stupid people who don't care what's good for their baby but might respond to some other line of reasoning. "Breastfeed and you'll get your figure back more quickly so that young men will fancy you!" Seriously.

Should formula companies be ashamed of themselves for the way they’ve marketed their products? Sure.

Well, since what's prompted Gary's post is affluent Western women slagging off other affluent Western women, no, I don't think so. What those firms' marketing may be like in the Third World is immaterial here. (As an aside, I will say that the outrage against that tends to be based on the assumption that poor foreigners don't have free will or intelligence.) In the UK, there simply isn't a problem with their marketing. And neither are people as susceptible to advertising as some would have you believe. In the hospital, we were provided with free SMA for Daisy when we needed it. And I believe I may have seen a handful of SMA adverts in my time, but certainly not enough to remember. Daisy, once out of the hospital, was brought up on Aptamil, a product for which I have never seen an advert in my entire life. SMA's marketing appears not to be working too well on me. Course, I could conclude from that — as so many seem to — that this is because I'm some sort of superhuman and mere mortal plebs don't have my amazing powers of marketing-resistance. But I don't.

And, let's remember, this is a life-saving product they're making. Why the hell shouldn't they advertise it? I'll advertise it for them, right here and now.

My daughter wouldn't breastfeed. She's alive and healthy today thanks to Aptamil powdered infant milk formula stuff.

Should more effort be devoted to encouraging mums to breastfeed? Absolutely.

Again, I don't think so. As mentioned above, it's hard to see how much more effort could go into this. And, while our experience of midwives was in most respects very good, on this one issue they fall down: when it comes to breastfeeding, they are overbearingly pushy — the importance of their moral crusade overrides any thoughts of common decency. Seriously, just try having a baby in a British maternity ward and telling them you're not going to breastfeed. You'd get less hassle if you just stuck used syringes in the kid three times a day.

Furthermore, in case you're wondering who'd be doing all this encouraging, what Gary's talking about there is "the issue of whether governments should promote breastfeeding". And I don't think anyone will be particularly suprised to hear that no, I don't think they should, and they can stop promoting any other kind of feeding while they're at it. This is not what governments are for.

Should mums who can’t or won’t breastfeed be made to feel like Hitler? I’d like to think not.

Well, OK, I agree with that. What an anticlimax.


For some reason, I omitted to mention our own situation. As I said, Daisy wouldn't breastfeed. But this was only relevant for the first week of her life. After that, as long-time readers of this blog may remember, Vic was diagnosed with multiple pulmonory embolisms and put on Warfarin in order to keep her alive. Warfarin not only thins your blood but also turns your breast-milk into poison. Once you're on it, you must on no account attempt to breastfeed your baby. In this situation, formula saves the baby's life and also, by giving her the option of not breastfeeding her baby and therefore making it possible for her to take life-saving drugs, the mother's.

Blood clots are apparently quite common after births, especially caesarians, so there are quite a few new mums out there on Warfarin. I imagine there are also other conditions which necessitate other drugs which make breastfeeding impossible. I struggle to see the advantage in telling all these parents, who surely have enough on their plates as it is what with nearly dying and all, that bottles equals maggots equals shallow graves equals death.

Update to the update:

Vic has reminded me of something I'd clean forgotten: there was disagreement between doctors over this. The doctor officially responsible for her care at the time believed that Warfarin made breast-milk poisonous and said on no account should she breastfeed. The obstetricians and the haemotologist — i.e., the ones who knew what they were talking about — said this was nonsense and that Vic could breastfeed all she liked.

All of which became moot shortly afterwards, when Vic was given a CT scan. When they give you a CT scan, they inject dye into your blood. The dye gets into your breast-milk and is poison. And then, of course, Vic got put into a medical ward so full of highly infectious diseases that you can't possibly take a newborn into it.

That's the thing about that period of our lives: just considering one aspect of it inevitably leads to more and more memories of disaster. Tsk.

Friday 10 April 2009


This story by one Nicki Defago is just brimming with smugness, stupidity, arrogance, and self-absorption, but I think I need only quote it twice:

In the past I have snarled at self-important mothers and their oversized buggies on the Tube.

I ... am thinking of beginning a campaign to make all cafes, restaurants and cinemas dog-friendly.


Organised crime.

In the comments to my post about Google Streetview, Tim Almond points out how stupid the residents of Broughton are:

Rather than images of their houses appearing on Street View (where the odds of a burglar stumbling across them was close to zero), they've instead had their village plastered across the pages of various newspapers about how they're all very affluent and scared of getting their rich houses burgled.

Well done, idiots.

In case you have no idea what we're talking about, here it is:

Village mob thwarts Google Street View car

A spate of burglaries in a Buckinghamshire village had already put residents on the alert for any suspicious vehicles. So when the Google Street View car trundled towards Broughton with a 360-degree camera on its roof, villagers sprang into action.

What? Just read that crap again and see what the journalist's trying to imply here. Because of burglaries, the residents were looking out for suspicious vehicles — perhaps vans with "SWAG" written on the side. And then they spotted a car with a huge bloody great camera mounted on a tripod on top of it and "Google" written on the side — just like a burglar would drive!

Forming a human chain to stop it, they harangued the driver about the “invasion of privacy”, adding that the images that Google planned to put online could be used by burglars.

Then, for good measure, to make absolutely sure they got no more unwanted attention from outsiders, they talked to the national press about it.

As police made their way to the stand-off, the Google car yielded to the villagers. For now, Broughton remains off the internet search engine’s mapping service.

It was Paul Jacobs who provided the first line of resistance. “I was upstairs when I spotted the camera car driving down the lane,” he said. “My immediate reaction was anger; how dare anyone take a photograph of my home without my consent? I ran outside to flag the car down and told the driver he was not only invading our privacy but also facilitating crime.”

He then ran round the village knocking on doors to rouse fellow residents.

Notice the missing bit there, at the start of that last paragraph? The detail that has to be there for it to follow on sensibly from the previous sentence? "Because the driver ignored him for some reason..."

While the police were called, the villagers stood in the road, not allowing the car to pass. The driver eventually did a U-turn and left.

I like that "eventually". I've seen a few reports of this incident, and reckon that, much as the media would like to portray it as some sort of grand stand-off, perhaps with Google's driver aggressively revving his engine and trying to force his way through the crowd, he probably turned round after about twenty seconds. I just doubt, somehow, that his Googlebosses ordered him "Get Broughton! We've got to get Broughton. That village is key to our plans! Key!" I suspect that photos of whatever the next village down the road is were just fine.

Mr Jacobs said: “This is an affluent area.

Because he's stupid.

We’ve already had three burglaries locally in the past six weeks.

What? Without being on Google Streetview? How on Earth could that even be possible?

I love the way that Mr Jacobs clearly thinks that telling the world about burglaries that were demonstrably not in any way caused by Google in some way backs up his case.

If our houses are plastered all over Google it’s an invitation for more criminals to strike.

Because that's what burglars do. Your typical burglar isn't sure where to find actual houses and has no idea where wealthy people live, often mistakenly breaking into hovels full of shit and making off with hauls consisting of little more than toenails and cheese, so will travel thousands of miles if he sees evidence of that Holy Grail, a house with some decent stuff in it. Burglars are very rarely local.

I was determined to make a stand, so I called the police.”

And I'd just like to take this opportunity to thank the police, who are so reluctant these days to deal with minor crimes such as gunmen killing innocent people in cold blood, for turning up to the scene of this particular atrocity so promptly.

Tim has now been proven even more spectacularly right than he already was:

But not only has the village now become the focus of national attention, it has raised the ire of Internet users, who are now campaigning for Street View enthusiasts from across the UK to descend on the village to snap their own perfectly legal photographs.


They have already begun posting pictures of the village online and used the photographs to post tongue-in-cheek 'masterplans' on how to plot robberies, by climbing on red phoneboxes and swinging off tree branches.

Ah, you've got to love the Web.

Anyway, what I really wanted to say before I went on a bit was this. Burglars, broadly, come in two varieties: the everyday, petty-crime, semi-inept ones the police know all about, and the ones who plan meticulously and commit perfect crimes and very rarely get caught. And I've been trying to work out what use Streetview might be to either.

Firstly, you've got the amateurish ones. These are your common-or-garden local crims who get caught when the webcam on top of the PC they're nicking automatically uploads their photos to the Web while they're at it. They don't generally stake out their targets all that thoroughly. They're opportunists, as a rule.

And then there are the Danny Ocean types. Just imagine one of these highly organised gangs. They're planning a big burglary. Every detail has to be just right. The boss tells one of his men to go photograph the target property thoroughly — every angle, every detail. The minion comes back a couple of hours later, saying, "Hey, look, I didn't need to go out with the camera in the end — got these photos off of Google. And they're only eight months old!" Do you think this minion would still be a member of the gang the next morning?

A nice bit of ambiguity.

That being said, I have to go and buy a hat and then take it off to the BBC for this bit of headline genius:

PM challenges Pakistan on terror

There are so many ways to sum up that story, and some genius of a sub-editor has chosen probably the only one that could be misinterpreted as Gordon Brown saying to Pakistan, "Call those terrorists? Ha! You couldn't blow up an orange! Once again, Britain leads the world. You want carnage of innocents, you come to us."

Which, under the circumstances

"Around 40 per cent of CIA activity on homeland threats is now in the UK. This is quite unprecedented."

— would be rather apt.

Between the lines.

The BBC have reported this exciting story — or, at least, it would be exciting if the BBC's reporters weren't so bloody boring. Honestly, what's wrong with journalists these days? They seem to think it's their job to believe people's versions of events or something.

Look, journalist people, you're supposed to report The Truth. Not "facts" — whatever they are. The Truth.

Here's the BBC's version, in all it's gloriously workmanlike nonentitiness:

Runaway scooter carries off woman

An 87-year-old Cornish woman was rescued by police five miles from home when her mobility scooter sped off out of control.

Eileen Bishop, from Perranporth, and her husband Anthony were on their way to church when, he said, she "disappeared off the radar".

Officers later found her heading along the A3075 towards Newquay.

A police community support officer (PCSO) rode the scooter back and said it appeared to be working correctly.

'Full tilt'

Mr Bishop said the incident began when he and his wife set off for St Michael's church.

He said the scooter, which "hadn't been going that well", was set to three-quarters speed.

"Suddenly she passed me at full tilt," Mr Bishop said.

"I shouted after her but she is a bit deaf. I couldn't chase her as I've had a triple heart bypass.

"She just disappeared off the radar."

Mr Bishop said he and a neighbour searched for his wife and then went to the police station to report her missing.

"I was just about in tears," he said.

Officers found Mrs Bishop after a motorist reported a mobility scooter "swerving" across the road near Pendown Cross, five miles away.

Mrs Bishop said she was not sure how she got separated from her husband.

"I just lost him. I was half asleep to tell you the truth," she explained.

It took PCSO Michael Ginnelly an hour to drive the scooter back to Perranporth.

"I think Mrs Bishop just gripped the controls and went too fast and held on for dear life," he told BBC News.

Now, what a proper reporter would do with this is to spot the vital keyword: "Cornish". They're all crazy down there, you know. In a nice way. Understand that, and The Truth just appears, like a snake in a loo:

Runaway pensioner makes off on scooter

An 87-year-old Cornish woman was captured by police five miles from home after she sped off on her mobility scooter like a gin-crazed polecat.

Eileen Bishop, from Perranporth, and her husband Anthony were on their way to church when, he said, she "disappeared off the radar". Mr Bishop had purchased the small portable radar "after last time."

Officers later found her heading along the A3075 towards the Mecca Bingo in Newquay.

A fake policeman (PCSO) rode the scooter back and said it appeared to be working correctly, as if he were some kind of scooter expert.

'Full tilt'

Mr Bishop said the incident began when he and his wife set off for St Michael's church.

He said the scooter, which "frankly, I should never have bought her", was set to three-quarters speed "after last time."

"Suddenly she passed me at full tilt," Mr Bishop said. "She must have figured out how to turn the speed-limiter off."

"I shouted after her but she was in one of her moods and pretended to be deaf. I couldn't chase her as I've had a triple heart bypass, after last time.

"She just disappeared off the radar."

Mr Bishop said he and a neighbour hunted his wife with dogs and then went to the police station to report her escaped.

"I was just about in tears," he said. "And so were the police."

Officers found Mrs Bishop after a motorist reported a mobility scooter "swerving exuberantly" across the road near Pendown Cross, five miles away.

Mrs Bishop fooled no-one when she said she was not sure how she got separated from her husband.

"I just lost him. I was half asleep to tell you the truth," she claimed, unconvincingly.

It took PCSO Michael Ginnelly an hour to drive the scooter back to Perranporth, as Mrs Bishop had turned its limiter back on again.

"I think Mrs Bishop is just bored of church," he told BBC News.


Can I work for The Sun now?