Monday, May 25, 2009

Hay on Why Did It Have To Be So Brief?

Pottery/Poetry, originally uploaded by Dave Gorman.

To Hay on Wye yesterday for what felt like the longest of days.

Last year (when I took this photo) I was there for a week. It rained. A year's worth of rain. More Hay in Wye than on it. Roads were closed and the days became long and difficult to fill. My trip had been arranged at such short notice it meant many of the events I wanted to see were already sold out. There was fun last year for sure but it was two day's worth spread out over a long, wet week.

Yesterday I went to the other extreme. It was sunny. Gloriously so. And I was there for only a few hours. Everything I took part in was fun but because of that I'd rather over-committed myself and had a day with little or no respite.

If I was more organised it would have been better. But I didn't manage to get any breakfast before being picked up at 8.30am so by the time I arrived at the festival site - at about 12.15 - all I'd had to eat was a chocolate bar picked up at a petrol stop en route.

I walked out of the car and made my way through the crowds to the Sky Arts Zone where I was whisked straight into make-up. I snaffled some fruit from the green room before going on set for a Sky Arts interview show with the alarmingly handsome Marcus Zuzak, David Starkey and myself being interviewed by Mariella Frostrup. Marcus and David should do a double act together, partly because they're both relaxed, witty and charming but mainly because they could call it Starkey and Butch.

The moment it was over I was whizzed with great urgency to the Guardian Yurt (and the fact that the Guardian has a yurt there says everything you need to know about festival in general) so that I could meet up with the brilliant John Crace (author of the ace Digested Reads) to record a Guardian podcast... or HayCast as I believe they're calling them.

We recorded it as we strolled down Hay's High Street at a nice genteel pace before jumping in a car and careering back to the festival site where I made the same urgent walk through the same crowds and straight into the same make-up chair to have my face re-caked in time for another Sky Arts show.

This time it was What The Dickens with Sandi Toksvig as chair, Chris Addison and Sue Perkins as team captains and myself and Robin Ince as the guests. A lovely bunch of people - which is just as well because I could feel my energy levels flagging. I snaffled more fruit.

Two make-up sessions, two apples, a banana and a chocolate bar... I was living the life of a supermodel. Only one that had been severely underpaid for getting out of bed that morning.

When the show finished I was relieved to discover I had fifty minutes before I needed to meet someone from the festival to sort out my event - the real reason I was there.

At 5.45pm, by now gibbering quite incoherently I sat down for my first meal of the day. I'm sure if I'd been able to make proper sentences I'd have bored Chris and Robin with my tale of tiredness. As it was they just looked kindly at me and then spoon fed me cake. It was the sugar rush I needed.

I was surprised by how big a venue I was in for the reading. Also by how ghastly a title it carried. The Barclays Wealth Pavilion. So brazen. Almost whorish. A Hay Ho'. Heigh ho. It's almost admirable for a bank to be so honest.

I discovered later that the reading had been moved from another venue. I only found out when a lovely old lady bought a book and told me that she'd had a ticket but missed the event. It turned out she'd gone to the original venue and been let in so hadn't realised I wasn't speaking until the thing had started. "I saw a quite interesting political discussion instead," she said.

I wonder how many of my audience had come for the quite-interesting-political-discussion and been surprised when I walked on.

The reading lasted an hour and then the queue for books was lovely and chatty and lasted another hour. By 9.15 I was back in the car and on my way home.

I left home at 8.20am and walked back through the door in a bit of a haze at 12.30am. I really don't feel like I properly saw Hay at all. I'm not complaining - well, I was when it was 5.30 and I hadn't had a meal yet - but in general I'm really not. It's just strange to be there without feeling like I was actually there. An hour on the lawn with an ice-cream and a book would have made all the difference.

I probably had about two days worth of fun but it was all squeezed into nine hours. The lesson here is that, if possible, I should go to Hay on Wye for two days, not nine hours and not a week. It's a lesson learned.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Thanks Carl Irwin... whoever you are...

A comment from someone called Mojo on my last post (Chiro-bullies) pointed me in the direction of this ruling from the Advertising Standards Authority who have upheld a complaint against a chiropractic practice for, amongst other things, implying they could treat colic.

It's worth reading. Go on. Then come back.

The bit I find most interesting is this:
We considered that, whilst some of the studies indicated that further research was worth pursuing, in particular in relation to the chiropractic relief of colic, we had not seen robust clinical evidence to support the claim that chiropractic could treat IBS, colic and learning difficulties.

On these points the ad breached CAP Code clauses 3.1 (Substantiation), 7.1 (Truthfulness) and 50.1 (Health and Beauty Products and Therapies).
Now, I'm not a lawyer but surely this casts a really interesting light on the case currently being brought by the Britsh Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh.

I'm trying to keep my thoughts in order here... so I'm going to walk myself through this in baby steps... apologies if you're already familiar with the case and feel I'm just retreading old ground.

I'll start with a rough timeline of events...
1: The British Chiropractic Association produced a leaflet, Happy Families, in which it claimed chiropractic was an appropriate treatment for colic.

2: Simon Singh wrote about this and described the claim (alongside some others) as bogus. (A term he went on to define in the next paragraph.)

3: The BCA sued Simon Singh for libel contending, it seems, that the phrase "happily promoting bogus treatments" meant "knowingly promoting treatments they knew to be bogus". (I don't think that was SS's meaning at all... something I thought was clear from the way in which he defined his terms within the article.)

4: Justice Eady's ruling at the preliminary hearing means that the focus of the case is not whether or not the claims are true, but whether or not they were dishonestly made. (Oh dear.)

5: In the meantime - I'm not sure when - Carl Irwin & Associates (a chiropractic practice based in Edgware) have placed their advert in a magazine mentioning, amongst other things, colic.

6: Someone has complained about the advert and the ASA have upheld the complaint. Carl Irwin & Associates are not allowed to run the ad as it stands again and have been told (amongst other things) not to mention the treatment of colic in future ads.

This much, I believe we know. But I'll continue by offering a few of my thoughts about how this could affect things...
7: Having a complaint against you upheld by the ASA is not good for your business or its reputation.

8: The BCA is a professional body whose role is to look after the best interests of its members. It is not in the interests of its members to have the ASA rule against them.

9: In light of the ASA ruling, it seems to me that when the BCA produced the Happy Families leaflet they were in effect giving their members bad advice - however sincerely meant it was at the time. Surely the BCA should now make best efforts to correct it. I think the only responsible action would be to tell their members not to make such claims because they cannot be substantiated. This is the only responsible thing to do until there is new evidence that can substantiate such claims. To not do so would be to fail to act in the best interests of their members.

10: Which surely means that, even if they believed the claims made in the leaflet at the time, don't they now have to concede that the information was, dare I say it, bogus?

11: Which in turn makes their lawsuit against Simon Singh look, if nothing else, petty. Rather than suing him for - as they see it - calling them liars, they should be acknowledging that he was right - the claims are not substantiated - and offering him thanks for pointing out the falsehood of their well-intentioned but incorrect belief.

12: Had they seen Singh's point at the time, they could have corrected themselves earlier and offered better advice to their members earlier. By failing to do so and filing their libel action they were failing to act in their members' best interests. The longer their leaflet was out there promoting unsubstantiated claims - and even if the leaflet was withdrawn - the longer it remained uncorrected - the longer they were doing their members' a disservice.

I really don't see how they can fulfil their role of serving their members' best interests and not warn them against advertising their services as an appropriate treatment for colic, having previously suggested they could. To not do so would surely be to let their members - and their patients - down. How that can be squared with suing someone who simply tried to point out the fallacy of the claim is beyond me.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


The Simon Singh meeting last night was strangely enjoyable. I say 'strangely' because while it obviously would have been far better if it hadn't been necessary the event was simultaneously informative, funny, heart-warming and energising. When a large crowd turns out for something like that, if nothing else, it confirms that you're not mad for thinking the way you do.

If you're interested there's a decent summary of the evening on the New Humanist website and the New Scientist piece ("there was a sense last night that we are at the start of something important") is good also. I was, inevitably, far and away the least informed of the speakers. Nick Cohen, Dr. Evan Harris MP. and Simon Singh were all fantastic in different ways. This really isn't about one case - Simon just happens to be the unfortunate soul at the centre of this particular whirlwind - there's a far wider issue at work and for freedom of speech to prevail both here and abroad it's obvious that Britain's libel laws need to be changed.

I'm tempted to write up everything I learned last night but it would turn into a 100,000 word dissertation if I'm not careful and there are bound to be far better sources of information out there for things like this. Suffice to say that when an Icelandic bank can bully a Danish newspaper into silence by using English courts something is clearly wrong with our system. Google the phrase 'libel tourism' if you really want to see how bad it is or read this article from the Times for a snapshot of the frankly embarrassing situation we're in.

Anyway... I don't think I expressed myself as clearly as I'd have liked last night and with the benefit of some sleep I thought it would be worth clarifying what I think about the situation in specific and general terms. (That said Jack of Kent remains the best source of information for this case - go and subscribe.)

Here's a thing. A couple of weeks ago I genuinely didn't know that chiropractic was a form of alternative medicine. I just thought it was another word for - or a distinct branch of - physiotherapy. I really did. I mean, they help your bad back by manipulating your bad back don't they? Don't they? If you've read America Unchained you'll know that my first director, Stef, was forced to leave the film because of a bad back. You'll also know that before her health forced her to leave, we were forced to take some not-really desirable detours so that she could visit a succession of chiropractors. Well at the time, I genuinely believed she was seeing what I would call 'proper-doctors.' I'm embarrassed by this gap in my knowledge.

Now I'm not suggesting that alternative therapy doesn't work at all. If it floats your boat that's great. My personal belief is that half an hour of kindness has a greater placebo effect than 7 minutes with your GP... and oddly, I reckon paying for it, increases the effect even more. But that's only really applicable to illnesses of the basic will-sort-themselves-out-eventually variety.

I think it's hugely concerning that the British Chiropractic Association produced a leaflet suggesting that chiropractic treatments were an appropriate way of dealing with colic or childhood asthma. I mean... if you're treating colic you're talking about treating babies. And if you're talking about manipulating the spine and/or joints of babies I think it's natural to be concerned. It makes me wince just thinking about the manipulation of a fully grown adult's, developed spine... but a baby's? Seriously? (Maybe there's some other chiropractic treatment that doesn't involve that sort of thing, in which case some clarification would be great. As would a new definition of chiropractic.)

Anyway, I only know about this leaflet having been produced (I believe it has since been withdrawn) because of this law suit and the attention it has brought to the case. If they hadn't sued Simon for libel, I wouldn't know anything about this. I'd still be under the more positive impression that they were 'proper-doctors-for-when-you-have-a-bad-back'. More fool them.

Of course there are other ways they could have reacted. Now, I'm not a doctor or a chiropractor or a baby so I don't know whether chiropractic offers a genuine treatment for these childhood complaints. I know what my gut instinct (and basic, layman's knowledge of how the body works) tells me... but putting that aside and entertaining both possibilities... here's how I think a reasonable organisation should behave:

1) If there is evidence for chiropractic being an effective treatment for colic and/or childhood asthma: Put the evidence forward and engage in a debate on the subject. No matter what side of the debate you fall on I can't honestly see an argument against this course of action. If you wholeheartedly believe that chiropractic offers an effective treatment how could you want less investigation of its efficacy? Who would possibly argue for less enquiry into something that involves manipulating babies' bones? More research = More information = Better treatment.

2) If the evidence suggests it isn't an effective treatment for colic and/or childhood asthma: Then surely you have to withdraw the leaflet and apologise. When a supermarket sells something that has the potential to be dangerous - say, a faulty kettle - they don't just stop selling it, they also make best efforts to ensure that anyone who's bought one returns it. This normally involves some pretty big adverts in national newspapers. If I was responsible for advertising a medical treatment that I later realised wasn't proven and could be dangerous I'd feel a huge responsibility to publicise and correct any misinformation that might be out there.

As far as I know, the BCA haven't taken either of these steps. (As I said above, I believe that the leaflet has been withdrawn but I have no idea if that is as a consequence of anything having been written about it or for some other reason.)

What they have done is sue a science writer who wrote an article offering his opinion on such practices. In doing so, they don't just intimidate one man, the message they send is that they do not welcome critical investigation of what they do. Which seems ridiculous to me because a) critical investigation of things is how science and medicine move forward and b) surely anything relating to medical treatment - especially treatment of children - should be open to scrutiny as a matter of public interest.

Who are chiropractors? What do you think they think? I imagine them to largely be of the caring, woolly, liberal type. (All adjectives I'd be happy to carry myself.) I think that's certainly the image they would choose to project. Which, to me, makes the BCA's decision to sue for defamation a mistake. It has changed the way I feel not just about what they do but also who they are.

No matter what you think about chiropractic, whether you dismiss the entirety of it as hogwash, believe it can sort out your bad back or believe it can cure 95% of illnesses in men, women and children alike, I simply can't see an argument for trying to silence its critics. It seems to me that an organisation that would best represent its members by encouraging debate has done them all a huge disservice by instead resorting to libel law; the blunt weapon of the bully.

EDIT: to add that Nick Cohen has since blogged on the subject also:

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Two Wheels Good

I said I'd write something about my 270 mile bike ride... and it's taken me til now to find the time. Here goes...

When the tour happens I'll be doing an average of between 40 and 60 miles a day but there's at least one day where the ride is over 80 miles (a genuine oversight where a town got overlooked but shows were booked and we can't bend time to put a new day in) and another of 70+ so I wanted to get some long days in the saddle under my belt to see how I'd feel.

Using google maps on the walking setting I looked up the journey from my house to my Dad's and it came up as nearly 80 miles. Then I looked up the journey from there to my Mum's. It came in at around 90 miles. Then I looked up the journey from there back to mine and it came up as 130 something miles. So I figured I could make that a four day trip. My plan was to get to my Dad's on Day 1, to my Mum's on Day 2 but to make no plans on Day 3, just see how far I could get, then find a B&B and complete the journey on Day 4. Simply put the idea was to find where my limit was by the simple method of, um, pushing myself to the limit.

I spoke to my folks about it and tried to find dates that were convenient for them and for me... and there was basically only one four-day window where it could fit in - from Tuesday May 5 to Friday May 8. I had an early start on the 9th to look forward to, as I had to get to Belfast in time for an afternoon book-reading. I figured that so long as I ensured I left a really small journey for Day 4 that wouldn't be a problem. Besides, I needed to learn about myself, my bike and my equipment.

The first lesson learned came when I packed my bags. I had two panniers and was carrying what I thought was the bare minimum. A toothbrush, enough changes of cycle gear, a spare inner tube, my smallest, lightest camera, a puncture repair kit, a pump, some powdered sports drinks to help hydrate and replace salts etc. and that was pretty much it. It weighed way more than I want to be carrying. Without apology I'm going to go all David Cameron about it when it comes to the tour. I'm cycling, but some of my stuff is going to travel on ahead by car.

Here's the thing; there's going to have to be a car. There's a tour manager. His job is to make sure things run as smoothly as possible at each venue. He's there to help avert disaster. He has to carry equipment with him. He won't be cycling. Having a tour manager cycle would just be a way of doubling the chances of disaster striking. He won't be driving at 10mph alongside me... he'll be going on ahead and meeting me at places. And he can bloody well carry some spare clothes for me.

You might well say that I should carry my own clothes and do the sensible bike touring thing: wear-one-wash-one. Which is what I would do if I was just doing the coast-to-coast-to-coast-to-coast ride that I was originally planning. But now that it's become a tour as well as a bike ride it rather changes things. I don't have a day off. I don't have much spare time in my schedule at all. The time I would have spent washing my smalls in a B&B basin will be the time I'm spending on stage. There's no way I'm going to come off stage, mentally and physically exhausted by the day's twin challenges... then go and do some laundry.

Nope... the tour is the reason I'll have less free time to attend to biking matters and the tour is also the reason there's going to have to be a car in the vicinity. So the car will help me out. It's going to be hard enough as it is.

But, for these few days the fact that I was doing the journey with heavier than normal luggage was no bad thing. It made sense to me in the same way that doing more miles in a day than the tour will require of me made sense. It just added to the well-if-I-can-do-this-then-I-must-be-able-to-do-that sense of experiment. Obviously nothing can really prepare me for the intensity of 30+ days of back to back cycling, but in the absence of 30+ days for training, this kind of thing seemed to be just the ticket.

For what it's worth, here's a rough shot at picturing my journey on Day 1:

I've managed to get my Sat-Nav to talk to my computer but for some reason it won't upload the route from this day so I've filled in some of the blanks myself. Still, it's pretty close.

I'm not sure why the Sat Nav took me so far out west - all the way to Reading - before starting to climb north to Witney. I'd like to think it was doing something very clever and deliberately finding a less hilly route. If so, I dread to think how bad it would have been if it had been more direct. The route I took across The Chilterns was plenty hilly enough for my liking. (Chiltern's Feet Warmers? Thigh Burners more like. (Hello Jazz fans).)

Weirdly I'd used the Sat-Nav to ride to Windsor and back a couple of weeks earlier and it chose a completely different route out of London that time. Even though on both journeys I passed the same roundabout out near Datchett. How it can have two different best-routes from my house to that roundabout is beyond me?

I remain suspicious of the Sat Nav. There is lots to like about it - just having a computer telling you how many miles you've travelled and what speed you're doing is good for motivational purposes if nothing else - but there are also problems with it. But I think I've worked out how to best deal with some of them.

I had the thing set up with the standard settings... and that meant that, under these circumstances, it appeared to freeze from time to time. Every time I strayed even minutely from the prescribed route it would suddenly give me a message to say it was recalculating things. For example, to get from Piccadilly to Knightsbridge you can either go round the roundabout (Hyde Park Corner) or you can take the underpass. I prefer the roundabout for two reasons. a)cars aren't travelling at 60mph as they go round it and b)because you don't go down, you don't have to climb up either. By taking the roundabout I'm probably never more than 20 yards away from the underpass. But even that tiny diversion sends the Sat Nav into a spin and sets off the recalculation.

When it does this, it provides a status bar showing me the progress of the recalculation and then, when it reaches 100%... well, most of the time, nothing happens. I just get a screen with a status bar saying 100%. On two or three occasions I ended up giving up on it and turning the thing off and on again. I wasn't very far into Day 1 when this forced me into an unwanted 15 minute break at Hammersmith while I waited for it to make its mind up on the route to Witney.

I later discovered that it wasn't freezing it was just lying to me when it said the calculation was 100% done. If it's calculating a ten mile route it zips through it in no time at all. But when it's working out a complicated 90-something miler... it can take a minute or so to say it's done the calculation... and then another few minutes to actually finish it.

I only worked this out at the end of Day 2 when I was at my Mum's house in Stafford. I asked it to calculate the route from there to mine in London. I thought the thing had frozen with that annoying 100% status bar on the screen but instead of turning it off I just left it on the side while I did something else. It was a full fifteen minutes before the thing suddenly beeped and told me that it had calculated the route and that it was going to be 180 miles. (And not the 130 miles that Google maps reckoned it would take on foot.)

This gave me enough motivation to dig around in the settings and see if I could improve the functionality. I'm relieved to say that I did. It was simple - and obvious - to set it so that instead of automatically going into recalculate mode it now asks me whether or not I want it to do so. I say no. Then when I rejoin the route of choice, it just carries on... so no 15 minute recalculation is necessary. Phew. Me and the Sat Nav are friends again now.

Anyway, apart from the hills, the ride on Day 1 was pretty much a pleasure. Beyond Reading the scenery was pretty special and it was nice seeing parts of the country I haven't seen before. I passed the most stunningly vast bluebell wood I've ever seen - a carpet of bluebells went on for as far as the eye could see - and the town of Streatley, set on the banks of a nice wide stretch of the Thames was so ridiculously picture-postcard in its beauty that part of me suspects I've made it up. It's on the map though.

But I was always shy of stopping and losing momentum and so did my best to just power on through such places instead of breaking to take photos. Which was a shame and - with hindsight - I suspect, a mistake. But then again, that part of the ride was a constant run of peaks and valleys; long slow punishments followed by swift and exciting rewards. There's no way you can stop at the bottom of a hill. You don't want to start the climb from a standing start if you can possibly avoid it.

My favourite placename of Day1: Kingston Bagpuize.
Interesting wildlife seen: Red Kites: 12. Rabbits: 20 alive. 2.75 dead.
Miles cycled: Difficult to tell precisely because of the Sat Nav's down time. Approximately 90.

It was, I should note, my first experience of saddle soreness. I've done journeys of 40, 50 and 60 miles without ever feeling any discomfort in that department... even if I'm not wearing the right gear. But on this occasion I found it wasn't long after 60 miles that a bit of soreness started to affect me. Hmmm.

Here's Day 2. (With similar blank-filling-in-to-make-up-for-Sat-Nav downtime)
When I set off I was a bit worried. Because while I felt strong at the close of Day 1 things had definitely tightened up overnight. But about ten miles in I started to loosen up and it got easier as the day went on. There were still some awfully unpleasant hills to contend with in the early part of the day mind.

I even, whisper it, broke the speed limit on one occasion. I wasn't trying to but there was a village at the bottom of a steep hill (I think it was Finstock (they should have a festival of Crowded House cover bands)) and it was pretty hard not to build up quite a speed on the way down. I was aware that as I passed the 30mph sign I was doing 34.9mph. Not recommended. Obviously. That would be irresponsible.

My favourite road junction name on Day 2: Camp Hill Circus
Interesting animals seen: Ostriches: 2. Rabbits: 20+ alive, 3 dead. Fox: 1 dead. Ugh.
Miles cycled: Difficult to tell precisely because of the Sat Nav's down time. Approximately 90.

Day 3. This time, having come to a good working arrangement with my Sat Nav, it's been able to upload it to my computer and this is the exact route that I took.

Incidentally, a quick note to the schoolgirls of Tamworth: smoking on the way to school makes you look more childlike, not less. Honest. It really does.

I didn't feel anywhere near as tight in the muscles at the start of Day 3. I reckon I can put that down to the magic of my Skins recovery tights. I slept in them overnight and I'm pretty convinced that my legs started the next day feeling better as a result. Odd. Tingly-odd. But if it works...

The biggest improvement I made as I went on was in stopping, eating and drinking. On Day 3 I think I realised that time wasn't really the enemy as I'd made my previous destinations in the early afternoon both times. (I took between 6 and 7 hours each day). So on Day 3, I took more breaks, sitting on more patches of grass and eating more snacks. I also drank more throughout the day. It's a habit I know I need to get into. Drink before you're thirsty, eat before you're hungry is the advice I've been given. I need to remind myself.

I didn't weigh myself at the end of Day 1 but I know I didn't drink enough. When I got to my Dad's, I'd sweated so much away there were dried salt crystals on my face. I felt fine but that can't be right. I tried to drink more on Day 2. I weighed myself when I got to my Mum's. I was over a stone lighter than I'd been at the start of the Day 1. Criminy! On Day 3 I think I managed to double my liquid intake. At the end of Day 3, my weight was exactly where it had been at the start of the day. I reckon I did okay on Day 3.

Anyway, by the time I got to Northampton - about 2.30 pm I'd done just over 90 miles again and the Sat Nav was telling me that the journey from there to mine was another 90 miles. I was hoping to leave something much smaller for the fourth day - say 30 or 40 miles - so that I'd know I could do it in the morning and still have the afternoon to make my arrangements for the Belfast trip... but seeing as the journey back to London had become 180 miles instead of the predicted 130 that was seeming unlikely. I knew I didn't have another 50 miles in me that day - saddle soreness seemed to kick in at around 60 miles each day - and so there was no way I could make any meaningful dent in the remainder.

I thought about ploughing on to Milton Keynes (has anyone ever thought of that before?) but that would still leave me with 70 miles to do on Day 4 and that didn't seem like a good idea. I was pretty sure I could do it... but a few what-ifs had started to enter the equation. I had to be up at 7am on the Saturday morning. What if I got a puncture 50 miles in to Day 4? What if that - or other delays - meant I didn't get back to London til the evening? Would I still put on a good show in Belfast?

As it wasn't possible to leave a much smaller journey for Day 4 I decided to cut my losses and run. I'd done 90 miles a day for three days running and that seemed like plenty enough to prove a point to myself. I took the train the rest of the way. Well, all the way to Euston - I cycled again from there.

Which is the point at which a potentially useful thought occurred to me.

I'd whizzed round the back of Kings Cross and got on to the canal tow path and was using that to head east using the cut throughs and so on that I know to get me through Islington where the tow path disappears for a wee while. I was cycling differently here. I was back on home turf. I was using my local cycling knowledge. It was a route that the Sat Nav wouldn't have given me. But it was definitely the best route. Which is where this thought comes in.

There's nothing that technology can do to replace local knowledge. I know better routes from A to B on my patch than any computer's ever going to suggest. And the same must be true for other people all over the country.

And there has to be a way of me tapping into that local knowledge when I embark on this tour. I've had a lot of people asking if they can accompany me on certain legs of the tour. Which I've not known how to deal with. Part of me thinks it would be a good idea and part of me worries about feeling responsible for others when I know I'll have a head full of other things to deal with. I don't want to become some unofficial tour guide when it's obvious that I - of all people - don't know what I'm doing. I don't enjoy being "in charge."

But I can see massive benefits in tapping into local knowledge. I don't want to be a tour guide but I don't mind being guided. I don't know how to best organise this but I'll give it some thought.

Yup, the idea of starting the journey from Lizard Point to Grampound in the knowledge that I'm with someone who knows the area and has done the route before sounds pretty damn good to me. And if the next day I meet a new guide who knows the best way to cycle from Grampound to Liskeard... and then...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Two Things (Part B)

I've split what was one post with two subjects... into two separate posts. Revisionism! Yes. That's right. Good isn't it? Only I wasn't expecting it to garner quite so much attention. But if people are linking to this because of what I've written about the Simon Singh case, I figured it would be easier if that was all they found when they got here.

So... here's that bit:

There's a science writer. His name is Simon Singh. He writes great books about science (one of which inspired a stand-up routine of mine a while back) and writes articles that I think successfully convey the beauty of science and maths to people whether or not they have a sciencey background. I like Simon Singh. He's a good man.

Now... I'm going to tread as carefully as I can here because I'm discussing a legal case. Now, while chiropractors can help with some problems there is, as far as I'm aware, no medical evidence to suggest that they can deal with certain other things... like children suffering from colic or asthma. But the British Chiropractic Association were (and might still be) making claims that their members could help deal with these and other problems.

This seems to me to be an interesting area for discussion and certainly something that a science writer (especially one who has, with the world's first professor of complementary medicine, co-authored a book on the subject) should be writing about. It's important that people know what can and can't be treated in what way. Some complementary treatments have their place in the world but they're harmed if there is obfuscation and/or misinformation about them which if nothing else only helps to bolster the view of cynics who then might overlook the genuine good than can come from other parts of what they do.

Now - I hope I'm treading carefully enough - Simon wrote about this. As I read it he was careful to define his terms. If I was the BCA and I wanted to challenge him about it I'd bring forward the evidence supporting my claims. After all, that's what should be debated. Can they help a child with colic? Are there tests that say they can? If not, why not? Etc.

Instead they have sued him for libel. Which seems like a heavy handed way of silencing a critic. And the preliminary hearing - which helps to define the nature of the case - does not appear to have gone well. It seems the judge has decided what Simon meant when he used the word 'bogus' - even though the judge's view of the word's meaning is a) different to the dictionary definition and b) different to the definition contextualised by Simon in the article. But because the judge has decided that his version of the word is what Simon meant... the case now has to proceed on that basis. Lawks.

One wonders what hope there is for journalism when a science writer cannot describe as bogus, something for which there is no scientific evidence. I mean... we'll end up with nobody able to question anything... and isn't questioning things what both science and journalism are sort of about? I mean, really?

Anyway... I fear I haven't explained this very well. There's a far better explanation of it on the brilliant Jack of Kent blog. As well as taking in that particular entry, I'm going to be using Jack of Kent to help me follow the case as it progresses. It's a free-speech thing. Worrying times.

Two Things (Part A)

I've split what was one post with two subjects... into two separate posts. Revisionism! Yes. That's right. Good isn't it? Only I wasn't expecting it to garner quite so much attention. The thing is, people were linking to the original post because of stuff I'd written about the Simon Singh legal case and it was confusing because they found me gushing about Misty's Big Adventure instead. I mean, I love MBA... but I wouldn't want someone to walk away from a debate about Freedom of Speech just because they thought they'd followed the wrong link or something.

So, what follows is the fun bit about MBA. The scary bit about Simon Singh being sued by the British Bhiropractic Association is in another post (Part B) if you're interested.

First: I've just discovered that Misty's Big Adventure are touring. They're aces. Here's one of their latest releases. Cool video too:

And here's another one. The fact that the two videos have a little relationship - so to speak - is just a lovely example of the attention to detail and joyful silliness that so endears this band to me. Ahhh.

Anyway... they're playing in Sheffield tomorrow, London on Thursday (hoo ha!) and then, with days off here and there they play in Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, Oxford, Norwich, Southampton, Cardiff, Bristol, Birmingham ending in Tunbridge Wells on June 12. If you can get to a gig, I highly recommend you do. If you can bear to look at a myspace page (I know, it's difficult) you can find more details here:

Friday, May 8, 2009

And I would ride 300 miles... and I would ride 300 more...

The title's a bit of a lie. But in the last three days I have cycled 270 miles.

I'm going to Belfast in the morning and I have a bag to pack... which means I don't really have time to write about it now.

But I will. When I'm back.

In the meantime, know this: my arse is numb.

Hopefully, I'll see some of you in Belfast for my reading on Saturday afternoon.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


I love living in London. It makes me very happy. If pushed, the one thing I can think of that lets London down is the water. It's hard. I was used to soft water before moving to London. I was used to soap that lathered with ease and a kettle that wasn't in permanent need of descaling.

I hate limescale. If you've only ever lived with soft water you probably don't know what I'm going on about. If you've only ever lived with hard water you probably just accept limescale as a fact of life and struggle to see how I can actually hate it. But I do. And I reckon anyone who's lived with soft water and then moved to a hard water area probably does too.

There are products that help to get rid of it... but they only ever bring temporary relief. A day or two later and limescale will have crept back to your showerhead, your taps and anywhere else that water reaches. Got a glass shower door? In a hard water area it'll never, ever, ever look anywhere near as nice as it did when it was new. Once water hits it, no matter what you do to try and prevent it, hard water will leave its mark. You show me a Londoner with a sparkling clean, limescale free bathroom and I'll show you someone who doesn't wash. Their taps might be glistening, but believe me, so are their armpits.

It strikes me that limescale creates its own special economy. I assume people in soft water areas aren't bombarded with adverts for Calgon. Well there's no reason why you should be spared the annoying jingle. Go on. Watch this.

Now try and sleep at night without hearing that choir singing the "Washing machines live longer with Calgon!" jingle every time you close your eyes. Go on. Try.

I hate limescale so much that I recently thought about buying a Scale-Beater II. It is - as far as I can make out - a small magnet that clips on to your cold water inlet pipe. It gets rid of your limescale by... hang on, I have no understanding of quite how a magnet can get rid of limescale. Nope. It makes no sense to me whatsoever. But that's how much I hate limescale - enough to consider a completely irrational purchase. I might as well buy a magic incantation or a limescale voodoo doll... and I'd consider those too.
A quick google reveals that the scale-beater II is (or has been) a Reader Offer for The Times, The Independent, The Daily Mirror and loads of local newspapers too. I could go on about how these organisations should be embarrassed to associate themselves with a product as shonky as this but I won't bother with that today. Instead I'll say this: if putting a small magnet on my cold water inlet pipe removes the limescale why don't the water companies put a massive big magnet on their cold water outlet pipe and just soften the water for all of us instead of pumping us this calcium rich, washing machine destroying, iron killing, bathroom defacing, kitchen spoiling rot.

I don't really know how rational the whole anti-limescale economy is. It's certainly motivated in large part by fear. Ads like the Calgon one above work by persuading us to spend a few quid protecting our washing machines - something that costs hundreds of pounds to buy. I've never actually met anyone who's had to replace their washing machine because of limescale build up but I'm persuaded by this culture of fear that it happens and as a consequence I add stuff to my wash to prevent it. (Not necessarily Calgon, mind you, I tend to just use some soda crystals.)

If limescale is as damaging as it is unsightly then it seems to me those of us living in hard water areas are caught out financially one one way or another. If we don't spend money on products designed to fight the stuff - there's a never ending list of special gels, powders and liquids on the market all aimed at your loo, your kettle, your shower, your dishwasher, your washing machine, your taps, your iron etc etc - then we surely end up spending our money on new washing machines, new irons, new kettles and so on. Those of you who live in soft water areas don't just have nicer looking plumbing (missus!) you also have a few extra quid in your pockets that we hard-water victims don't have.

If there was a way of softening the nation's water it's not only limescale that would be wiped out. This whole economy of fear would be wiped out too. Sales of kettles would fall. Washing machines would last longer with or without Calgon. Calgon itself would be gone.

A year ago I'd have been in favour of this. A year ago we weren’t in a credit crunch. We can’t let the economy slow down any more than it has already. As I type this, below-average-looking-women-with-above-average-singing-voices is Britain's only growth industry. The government goes out of its way to protect the car industry. Incentives are discussed to stimulate growth in the new car market... well why shouldn't washing machine retailers be given the same attention? And what about plumbers?

I might hate limescale but I'm prepared to take one for the team here. I have a plan to help rescue us from financial doom and gloom. It’s simple. We need Hard Water For All.

As far as I can tell, in Britain the soft-water areas are Devon and Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and parts of North West England. Well they've had it too good for too long. Let's pump calcium and magnesium into the water supply for the whole country! Scotland: your whisky might taste better with soft water but your plumbers need the work! Come on Devon and Cornwall, your soap might lather up with ease but you're simply not buying as many washing machines per lifetime as the rest of us. Come on Wales, your bathrooms might have effortless sparkle, but if each of you bought just one bottle of descaler that’d pump some much needed cash back into the system. Come on Manchester… your water’s soft. It wears a coat in winter and likes doilies. You can’t be happy with that.

Come on Britain. We need to spend our way out of trouble and if the only way to do it is to make everyone’s lives more limescaley, I for one am prepared to go with it. And if it works for us there's no reason why this can't be rolled out across the globe. After all, the recession is global.

In Australia, Adelaide has hard water... but Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra have it soft. Time for that to end. The water in Canada is generally quite hard - except on the West Coast. 85% of American homes have hard water - but that still means there are 15% of homes that can join this new economy with just a little chemical adulteration to the water supply.

Come on world. Let's make our water - and our economy - harder together.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Tonight! 10pm! BBC2!

The final episode of Genius goes out tonight. 10pm. BBC2. The title for this entry was your clue.

Here's a preview clip:

As you can see, Stewart Lee is the guest. I think Stewart might well be the finest live stand-up in the country. If you've seen his recent BBC2 series you'll know just how smart and clever he is. It was certainly a real pleasure to work with him.

He was a guest on the first series of the radio show too. Because the show was brand new back then people were sometimes suspicious of the format, perhaps thinking it was a combative show (in which case, bringing in members of the public to spar with a professional comic would be ridiculous) but Stewart saw that they were the heroes of the piece straight away.

"This is bound to go to TV soon," said Stew, "can I come back and do it again if it does?"
"If it does, we'd love to have you," said I.

And four years later we did just that. It's nice when the world works. Fab.