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ZX Spectrum – Eighties icon

Keyboard30 years ago this week the ZX Spectrum was released upon the unsuspecting Eighties; very quickly it claimed a huge chunk of market share and many happy hours of my childhood. At £125 it was cheaper than it’s rivals and looked it; anyone that has ever used one will still miss the iconic grey rubber keys with their bouncy/sticky feedback, the rainbow slash, the separate tape player and that signature tune as the screen border flashed and frazzled whilst loading some of the most wonderfully BASIC computer games ever devised. Yes kids you had to wait for a program to load back then, there was none of this instant clicking of icons, you had to load software via tape cassette every time you wanted to use it. A full 5 minutes of growing excitement with only a heavily pixellated screen still for company – it was almost always worth it. Released during the employment famine of the early eighties when £125 was a proper investment, it was the enfant terrible of Clive Sinclair, later knighted for his efforts. His mission was simple and audacious: to bring home computers into the UK mass market. He achieved this by keeping the price down and giving us the barest of bones: a black box of RAM and a tiny processor. And I do mean tiny. To give you some idea of the genesis of the home computer and a snapshot of how far the PC has come, I am tapping this article out on a MacAir which has a processor speed of 1.7GHz and SDRAM memory of 4Gb – very modest by today’s standards. In 1982 my ZX Spectrum had a processor speed of around 3.5MHz and an 8-bit memory, in other words my laptop is getting on for 500 times faster and with a staggering 4,000,000,000 times more SDRAM memory.

JetPac game loading screen

The loading screen.....

And yes of course my laptop has many features that the “Speccie” didn’t have, but it doesn’t have the kinky rubber keys, it doesn’t run on a computer language so basic it was actually called BASIC: a language so easy to programme in, that at the age of 7, I was writing rudimentary programmes. And that was the real joy, it was a computer designed for you to tinker with, to see what you could make it do. It willingly led you behind the curtain, admitted there was no great Oz and said it doesn’t matter, tell me what to do and I will do it, my limitations are your challenges. It trusted you. Weekly magazines were available which published lines of code that were there, ostensibly, for you to change anyway you wanted. A generation of coders became very talented at getting around the limitations of the hardware, producing classic games like Horace and the Spiders, Manic Miner and my personal favourite: JetPac.

When the more powerful machines came along the UK had already grown some very talented programmers with a real problem solving mentality, well placed to take advantage of the burgeoning software market and the unstoppable tide of the games consoles.

spectrum 16k

A proper rubber fetish.....

And then, in the late eighties, admitting that it’s time was up, the black slab of dreams wished them well and went the way of all computers. But unlike other computers, the ZX Spectrum still retains something that has never been seen since, surely the most elusive quality for any computer: charm.

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The University Without Walls

Open University students graduating from the MBA programmeIf I told you that there is a way to get a degree without A levels, would you believe me?  If I told you that the university accepts all students, and that you can study at home, in prison, on an oil rig or anywhere else that you might happen to be?  If you could study how and when you like, whether that be in bursts of activity with gaps inbetween, steadily in short bursts on the bus or when the kids are in bed, or full time?  That you would get support off a tutor, optional tutorials and online social support?

The Open University is a wonderful organisation.  Launched in 1969, it currently has more than 260,000 students, mostly in the UK.  A network of nearly 7000 tutors support these students, often alongside working in a traditional university, and 1.6 million people have studied with the university since it was founded.  The university has a stated aim of helping people acheive potential despite barriers that would prevent study at many universities – 12,000 disabled students a year study with the OU, and up to 44% of the student body started without the qualifications that would normally be needed for university study.  However, the degrees and other qualifications are well respected – studying with the OU shows a determination and level of self organisation that many employers find very attractive.

The university produces television documentaries and study resources for other universities and schools.  It also makes a huge range of learning resources freely available at OpenLearn, which is well worth a look for anybody interested in thinking and learning, as well as through iTunes and YouTube.

It is now at risk.

Due to changes in student finding arrangments, the university is having to stop providing the financial support system that it has been helping thousands of students with.  Fees are increasing for all students across the university – a student starting an honours degree in September 2012 will pay approx 15 thousand pounds for their degree in total, around three times the full fee the year before. Many students currently pay either a reduced fee or no fee at all, depending on income, and all students have access to a budgeting account to spread the cost.

What’s more, students will now have to apply for funding through the student loans system, meaning that students who already have a degree or who are otherwise barred from student loans will have to find the money themselves.

Studying with the OU is still much cheaper than study at many traditional universities, and the nature of the courses means that working full time alongside study is very possible.  Still, the university is suffering from the increase in fees, and many students that could have changed their lives and achieved their potential will be put off by the cost.Scene from educating Rita, a play and film about an OU student and tutor

I really hope that the university can continue to provide this wonderful service for all of us non traditional students.  If you feel the same, please sign this petition or, even better, why not register on a course?  It is still the cheapest and most flexible way to get your degree, and might just change your life.

Anti-Abortion Groups – Just Cut It Out

At worst, unsolicited junk mail just annoys me. Three menus for Mick’s Curry Pot coming though my letterbox in one week may be taking just that – the mick – but the owner of this takeaway isn’t actually hurting anyone (unless they risk ordering anything.) But laying on my welcome mat this week was an innocuous enough looking colour printed, folded sheet that made my girlfriend feel physically sick and chilled me to the bone.

Little could be less welcome than the leaflet headed Abortion: What everyone has a right to know, kindly (?) provided for me by the people at SPUC (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.) Although never mentioned in the text, the whole thing stinks of religion, as I can’t credit this comically acronymed organization having taken this crusade upon themselves out of a genuine regard for women’s well-being.

I’m aware, as I write, that in this instance it would be more appropriate if I were a woman. I believe in a woman’s right to choose. As father to any theoretical offspring, my input, although valid, would be overruled by the owner of the body in which it is brewing – the mother. So the final decision on whether or not to abort is a woman’s. Had a woman written this article its points may have been more valid. Just rest assured when it comes to this disgusting pamphlet that I am trying to be of the same mind.

In the guise of being helpful, and very much in the style of the health advice leaflets you can pick up at your GP surgery, the pamphlet features a photograph of a young, anxious looking couple and promises to contain ‘information about abortion’ with the aim of preventing someone ‘making a decision which could end in regret.’ In fact, the whole piece is filled with prophecies of regret and remorse. True, you may end up regretting having an abortion, but you may also regret going through with the pregnancy and end up raising a child you resent. A terminated pregnancy is not necessarily the last chance a woman will have to have children – there’s no medical evidence that having an abortion affects future fertility – a baby is more final.

Within is a time line of significant development dates – the heart starts beating at three weeks, liver forms from six. But at what point does a cluster of cells deserve the label ‘baby?’ I think of it like this: at what point does a bowl full of ingredients become a cake? Not to make light of what is a serious and often traumatic decision, but sometimes ridicule is the best way to combat facile and ill informed arguments.The argument that possession of hair and fingernails makes a tiny, partially formed homunculus into a person, and its termination into murder, for example.

Nowhere does this set list mention the development of the nervous system, which I would use in the argument of equating suffering. Surely, a foetus without a nervous system, that therefore cannot feel pain, suffers considerably less (if at all) than a mother who is forced to go through with the pregnancy. All sorts of what if scenarios can be thrown into the mix here; what if the woman was raped? What if she or the father has a disease or debilitating condition that will be passed onto the child? What if she or they are simply not able to raise the child? The mother, father and child could spend years or their whole lives suffering from the consequences of the decision not to have an abortion. Anyone able to take a balanced look at both sides of the suffering argument would see the burden of suffering is against the minuscule organism that cannot feel anyway.

The analogy of the cake was for comic effect, as I stated. The moment of birth is not the first point at which a developing offspring can be considered a baby. Appropriately, a deadline for termination is set well before this. In the UK this is 24 weeks, although 90% of abortions occur before the 12th week and usually are given after that only for strong medical reasons.

‘Women deserve better,’ we are told by these SPUCers. ‘Evidence points to increased risk in some women of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress and eating disorders.’ Nowhere is this evidence made explicitly clear. These predictions are such that they almost seem like a threat. You will go mental if you have an abortion, they seem to say. Women certainly deserve better than information like this. It’s an insult to their intelligence and a perversion of the facts.

On the rear, some further facts and figures are given. I’ll not question the numbers, as they’re pretty irrelevant in regards to the conclusion they are used to support. There is apparently one abortion in Britain every three minutes, 570 a day (mathematics is clearly not their strong point either, as 24 hours divided by 3 minutes equals 480) and 4,000 every week (again, a distortion of their own figures.) The denouement to this little tally is that ‘if current trends continue, 9 million children will have been killed under the Abortion Act by April 2018 – the 50th anniversary of the law coming into force.’ It is here I have the biggest issue, and it is with their choice of language. Certainly the killing of millions of children would be a tragic and appalling practice. But it is not killing, and they are not children. They are children in potentia. The accompanying illustration of an embryo, with the label ‘unborn baby at 8 weeks’ says it all. Even though the illustration is half the size of a mug coaster, it is still stated that the picture is enlarged. If these people knew the first thing about embryology, they’d know that in no sense can this tiny, barely noticeable life form be described as a baby.

The whole leaflet is a piece of distorted scaremongering. If it’s facts and figures you want, here are some scary ones this misleading organization omit: worldwide, 70,000 women a year die from illegal, back street abortions, mostly in countries where they are not legally available; around a quarter of all pregnancies end in abortion – as the world is over-populated as it is, with resources stretched, can you imagine what would happen if you added 25% to it? Think of the starvation, the disease, the pollution that would ensue. I’m not prophesying doom, but I’m not sure, were these children to be born, they would thank you for bringing them into that kind of world.

The overriding raison d’etre of these kinds of organization is to protect the foetus until the moment of birth, but after that it’s the parent’s responsibility. They care not a jot that the child may be raised in poverty, in an environment of abuse or neglect, subject to disease or disability, hunger and pain. As the pamphlet is keen to point out, ‘every life is worth living.’

Abortion is neither the beginning or the end of the world’s problems. Certainly, I would rather the traumatic and painful decision to have an abortion did not have to be taken by any woman. If SPUC have funding available for such a campaign, it would surely be better spent at the other end of the process – in preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place. Contraception, freely available to those that cannot afford it, is your friend there. But education about its availability and uses is often blocked and the subject of other negative and misleading campaigns, often by religious bodies, such as the Catholic church, and unfortunately very often from the same groups who are against abortion.

What it boils down to is this: These groups hate the idea of a woman’s sexual freedom. Sex is for making babies, not for fun. If you get pregnant, it’s your own fault, and if you have an abortion you’re a murderer. What I think is this: enjoy your sex life, as long as you in doing so hurt no one else; take precautions and take care of your body; know your own body and know when something is wrong; accidents do happen, and if they do there are options available. Abortion isn’t an ideal solution, but we live in a far from ideal world.

Once this piece is published, I’m going to take great pleasure in ripping this leaflet up, and burning the shreds. Unless an actual dead baby had been shoved through my letterbox, I don’t think I could have been more revolted at an unwanted delivery.

(Source of some information: http://www.abortionrights.org.uk/ )

Gross Anatomy

I went to Medical School in 1987. It was an incredible experience, crammed full of learning from inspirational Professors at the peak of their careers. My stand-out memory is the first day of Gross Anatomy. Faced with dozens of cadavers in shrouds, fresh-faced students in crisp, clean white coats, and that smell – I couldn’t wait to get started. Such a privilege.

Each precious body had been donated to medical research, to help train doctors, nurses and physiotherapists. We stood next to our allocated body, four students in a group, and recited a modified Hippocratic Oath. We were to dissect the body over the academic year, 565 hours of dissection, in detail, covering all organ systems, blood vessels, nerves and the brain. Our bible for the year was Man’s Anatomy by Tobias and Arnold, in three volumes. Professor Tobias and Professor Arnold were the big beasts of Anatomy. We were in awe of them. They were known affectionately as PVT and JCA (behind their backs of course)!Diagram showing a skin flap incision for anatomy students

Getting started was a hand-trembling affair, guided by this illustration. Skin preserved in embalming fluid is very tough. But once you’re in, you’re in – and the delights of the human body were ours to explore. Over the weeks and months, we committed to memory all the arteries, veins, nerves and bones (oh, my poor parents had that box of bones in their living room); using mnemonics to remember the long lists. For example, Peter And Paul Masturbated So Much Their Balls Shrank refers to the branches of one of the thoracic arteries (I wish I could remember which one)! I can remember, though, that this one refers to the twelve cranial nerves: Oh Oh Oh To Touch And Feel A Girl’s Vagina Very Happily (or something very like it). The point is, we were drunk on anatomy for that year. We were walking encyclopaedia of lists of body parts, our text books were marked in wax pencil (I still have one I used in 1987), and nobody would share the lift with us because the smell permeated our clothes and hair. We knew it and we didn’t care. We were doing something that not many people ever get to do. It would shape our lives in the future. Some would go on to be world class surgeons, some physicians, sports scientists, pharmacists. I decided on a career in research.

Who knows how a career will turn out. I didn’t even do Science at school. I was expected to study Languages at University. I’m grateful to a Biology teacher for showing me something different, and changing my life. She asked me to help her clear out the cupboard in the lab. What we didn’t find in there. And lurking at the back, in a dark jar, was the most gorgeous pig foetus. We changed the preserving fluid, to reveal the tiny, perfect animal; when was he put in there, kept for me to find? I was hooked.

Page from an anatomy textbook, featuring student anotationsAnd so, standing in the dissection hall, several years later, in the basement at Medical School, I knew I was in the right place. I grasped the scalpel with both hands and made the first cut. Nine months later, the Technician was standing over the cadaver we had been working on. It approaching the final Lesson – the brain. He used a tiny, whirring saw to remove the cranium. He revealed a clean, shiny brain in situ. In order to complete the study, we had to remove the brain, with all the cranial nerves in tact. I had the smallest hands and I put them on either side of the brain, inside the skull. I tugged gently and felt around the base of the brain, to free the nerves from their restraints. A little more tugging, and I had the brain in my hands. We prepared the dissection and made 1cm slices through the brain, sectioning it in cross-section. I have never forgotten that moment. And neither will countless other medical students. That brain, sectioned, preserved and displayed can still be seen in the Anatomy Museum at Wits Medical School.

Gross anatomy? I don’t think so. Stunning, wondrous anatomy, is more like it.

A Broadly Christian Debate

My daughter attends an excellent school.  It was the only one in the area with a place, but after a few nail biting weeks on the waiting lists, we were over the moon when it was the school offered.  It is also Catholic.  We are not.

I have had a few people ask me how I reconcile my belief in separation of church and state with sending my daughter to a school where prayers and church services are part of the school day.  I have no problem at all with there being Catholic schools, and with them including aspects of their religion in the school day (as long as the children are not restricted from finding out fair information about other belief systems and are not encouraged to make harmful choices).  We could have home educated her, or held out for a school that is less overtly religious.  What I have a problem with is the lack of choice for parents who wish to avoid religious instruction altogether.Nun with 1960's Catholic Schoolchildren.  Photo: Vin Crosbie

I start from the general principle that everyone should be free to practice their own religion or none at all.  As long as you are not harming anyone, you are respectful of others and you allow members of your religion access to other beliefs, then I don’t see why anyone could object.  I also feel that, if you use the facilities provided by a group, you should abide by the rules of that group, and as such you should also be able to get basic services with no special conditions.  This is why I do not think that the “collective worship of a broadly Christian nature” in mainstream schools is at all fair.

If we had not been ok with our child going to a school that does not fit with our beliefs as an atheist/agnostic family, we would have had to home educate.  There is no option in the state system for a school where no religion or religious practices are imposed on the children.  To me, the default should be no religion, as that leaves it to the parents and child to add on whatever they believe at home, or to find a school that does provide religious instruction.  As it is, in a country where an active belief in Christianity is very much in the minority, nearly every child is expected to take part in worship at school.

My primary school was a mainstream community state school, yet we had ministers from the local evangelical church in assemblies, holiday clubs and classrooms telling us that evolution was impossible and that non-Christians would burn in hell, which leaves a strong impression on an eight year-old.  We also had the standard vicar-with-guitar-and-beard singing hymns at us, and a teacher who told us that global warming is just a test from God.  I left primary school in 1996, but websites like Mumsnet are full of the same kinds of stories.  Of course, these people are more than welcome to hold whatever beliefs they like and to worship how they feel, but they shouldn’t be able to essentially force children to join in.

Yes, there is the option to withdraw your child from assemblies and religious practises, but why isn’t the default position that of the beliefs of the vast majority of the population?  A child is not given the option to refuse to participate, and so is dependant on their parents being aware of the school’s level of religious instruction.

I have no problem with teaching about religion.  In fact, call me Gove, but I do think that children should be familiar with the Bible, and the King James version is particularly useful.  I also feel that children should be familiar with classical mythology and the stories of other religions too – without religion, much of history and the arts would make very little sense.  I would encourage children to respectfully visit churches and other religious monuments, and to meet believers and leaders of all different faiths.  I just think that the beliefs of one particular religion should not be taught as fact in the vast majority of schools, unless the parents have specifically opted in by sending their child to a school affiliated to (and partially funded by) that religion.

Anecdotally, it would seem that most schools have very little religious instruction in the curriculum.  However, it is something that schools are assessed on by Ofsted, and a parent has no way of knowing if a school will suddenly start singing hymns or having religious talks. If a school is about to start sex and relationships education – in which a child will be told facts about their own body and how to keep themselves healthy – the parents are called in to discuss it and are given the chance to ask questions and raise objections.  Why can’t parents be given the same option when it comes to matters of a far less scientific nature?

A Book or eBook?

E-reader and Paperback Book. Photo: IslesPunkFan

I used to believe in the humble book. There was a time I was certain that nothing could come between us and our fistfuls of musky scented yellow pages; that undeniable sense of character imparted by time and the tender hands of countless companions. Somehow I was sure that no matter how technologically advanced we became, nothing could possibly replace an authentic and unassuming hard cover.

There’s something deeply romantic about the book; a physical collection of words and sentiments, whose compilation is tangible evidence that as a people, we have existed. Through the book we happily accept the love and laughter, tears and tragedies of others; a testament to the human condition. Then when we’re done, we pass it on so that those words that shook us might wake the senses of a new reader. In that moment when we hand it over, we send our own story wordlessly with it; an unspoken yet undeniable shared history that can be sensed in the margins of every page. The happy knowledge that the leaves you now turn have been caressed by some number of others, binding you with your humanity, like the linking fingers of a best friend.

I was wrong, of course. I have always been, above all else, embarrassingly naive. How green to imagine that, while the rest of the world became increasingly clinical, uninterested in their brother and the intimacy of breathing someone else’s air, the defenceless book could survive. No one wants to own something that’s been handled by an unfamiliar other any more. We want to live apart. Possess our own things. Selfishly believe the world is ours; that we are the only one. Populations are booming, but even as we’re forced to dwell on top of one another, moving ever higher into an unconquered sky, we are slamming tight our shutters.

Needless to say, there will always be stories. We’re too governed by ego to let the story die; we see ourselves in every narrative and our sense of self importance is affirmed. But books and stories, those words that were once synonymous, are about to be broken apart. Driven by our need for efficiency, we can now download our own version of the texts we wish to read. These days we need not even leave the house. What a blow of cruel irony when the interwebs adopted the phrase connectivity.

Like so many things, it’s come to pass that every book you own can be uniquely yours; you read it once but do not pass it on. The pages are ever crisp and white; untarnished as a surgeon’s scalpel. But the romance is gone. In our hunger for perfection and instant gratification we have sliced off and slaughtered the glorious romance.

It’s been estimated that within this decade, electronic books will have completely replaced commercially available paper publications. There are of course, many advantages to the electronic book. Affordability is one; for the time being, they are certainly cheaper. Owning an electronic reader also means you can have countless titles at your finger tips. Many people are also citing the environmental card, claiming that the e book is better for the environment. I’m not sure I buy this one. While I’ve done exactly no research on the subject, I can’t believe the process involved with constructing these little gadgets is particularly sparing on the fossil fuels.

What do you think about our move toward electronic books?

Have you taken the leap to e-reader?

How do you feel about the humble hard cover being made redundant?

Ethics and Consent in Research

In general terms, we expect that people who ask our permission, who require our consent, will have the morals and ethics to respect our wishes and do the right thing. Recently however, I have seen a few examples where, frankly, the people concerned have the morals of a snake. I’ll say no more on that, but it prompted me to think more widely about these terms; ethics, morals, consent, permission.

Doctor and patient discussing consent forms.  Photo: GC CommunicationIn my own field of life science research, no research may be undertaken without a prior favourable ethical opinion. It used be ethical approval, which implied that a peer-reviewed process had taken place, and an important group of senior people had carefully considered the application and deemed it ethical to conduct the research. Now, it simply means that a committee has spent a few minutes of the agenda discussing the merits of the work, and no responsibility or blame can be put their way should the experiment turn out not to be ethical, either in its design or in the outcomes. A matter of semantics, perhaps, but important none-the-less.

Important because many of the subjects for my research are human volunteers who trust us, the scientists, to do the right thing. Now, I don’t want to put anyone off contributing to a research project; we do still need to do research using human subjects. But I do want to point out that the administration of the rules is not what it should be. To my knowledge, there is no enforcement of the consent. I have seen inspections. I have seen paper records. I know that biological material collected years ago is still lurking in the bottom of freezers in research laboratories. Consents and research records belonging to PhD students who have long-since moved on lingering on dusty bookshelves in study rooms. There is almost no way of knowing which material should be destroyed, ethical opinion and consents having long-ago expired. And that’s just in small university laboratories. Surely in large pharmaceutical and biotech organisations the record keeping and ‘policing’ of the research consents is more robust?

Well, yes it is, and that results in a different problem. Large organisations who embark on long term research require consent from participants to be able to follow up on the outcomes of the research over a very long period of time, decades in some cases. With changes in technology, particularly in genetic research, where even five years ago the cost of this work would have prohibited it, that is no longer the case. Cost are down, through-put is up. In short, scientists can analyse more data, more quickly, at much lower costs. If the material already exists, if the methodologies are the same, there are also no start-up costs. Results could be coming within days. That means that if you volunteered ten years ago, donated a tube of your blood, approximately 10ml, and gave scientists permission to keep cells, plasma and DNA, they will still have all those bits of you in storage and on file.

I mentioned genetic research, for this is where I am most concerned. When you donated that small amount of blood all those years ago, you were probably young, in your twenties (most lab volunteers are), and too young to be showing any sign of disease. Your parents would have been young too; too young in most cases to have cancer or heart disease. You wouldn’t yet have had children either. And now, what if you are told that scientists have just worked out that your DNA shows a variation recently found to be associated with cancer – would you want to know? What would you do about it? Cancer cannot be treated if it hasn’t formed a tumour yet. This is the proposal of researchers, owners of these so-called ‘bio banks’, because origMicroscope slide being used for research.  Photo: CBSCinal research is too expensive and largely unfunded. Would you still give your consent for your material to be used?

I believe that material collected more than five years ago should either be destroyed or re-consented. Yes, that will cost money, but it keeps science honest and transparent. It makes sure that scientists’ personal ethics and morals are not tested. It introduces a check that the material we think is there, has been stored correctly and will be useful in the research. Very often, biological material degrades over time and is useless. Better then to destroy it.

And finally, I must reveal here that I never allowed my cells or DNA to be stored. I have never used my own blood, cells or DNA in any experiment I have conducted. I do not want to know that I have a particular genetic variation. Until scientists are clever enough to re-program my genetic material, there are some things not worth knowing. Of course, there are some conditions for which there are extremely good genetic tests, and with the correct counselling, it is very helpful to do these tests. But these tests have made the transition from research to clinical application. We can’t change what has gone before, but we can make sure that we are informed about the future. Research must be done, human biological material must be used for research wherever possible. Don’t take ethics, morals, consent and permission for granted in science, or anywhere else for that matter.

Mindless Vandalism

Mining Family Miners Memorial statue in Concord, Washington.  Photo: Alicia Duffy

On a sunny but windy Saturday 31st March, residents of Washington, young and old, gathered along Concord Front Street to witness the unveiling of the new Miner’s Statue in the heart of the town. With speeches from Councillor Kelly (Portfolio Holder for Safer City and Culture), Sharon Hodgson, Member of Parliament for Washington and Sunderland West, the Chair of the Durham Miner’s Association and the Deputy Mayor of Sunderland City Council it was a day that many had been eagerly anticipating.

I stood with the crowd and watched as the statue was unveiled, people filled with anticipation waited to see what the end product would be and it did not disappoint. The statue was greeted with a warm round of applause and a gentle undertone of genuine appreciation. A few of the comments I overheard included: ‘What a wonderful, traditional statue’ and ‘It has been a long time coming’.

Indeed this statue has been a long time coming!

For a few years now, individuals and community groups have been raising money to get the statue erected in Washington and support has been coming from many different organisations to the cause; from the Durham Miner’s Association to Sunderland City Council. I, like many others, donated money to the Miner’s Family Statue through buying a miner’s lamp key ring a few months ago.

Yet this day of commemoration has been marred by recent events. Not even three days after the statue was unveiled on Saturday afternoon, an unnamed suspect tried to ruin the statue. News broke this morning on Facebook that at around 1AM the statue was targeted by metal thieves trying to hack off the leg of the child – a part of the statue portraying a miner and his family. This news comes as a major blow to everyone who was involved in the planning, fundraising and campaigning to bring this statue to Washington and to all those people who attended the event to see the statue unveiled.

It is sad to think but it was inevitable that some where down the line the statue would be defaced but sadly things like this happen to statues in busy public areas. I spoke with a few local councillors afterwards who had these fears but every one felt that the statue represented something so special to the community of Washington that no one would deface it. How wrong we all were.

Damage to Washington Miners Statue - Photo:Alex Cargill

This mindless criminality is exactly why people feel that doing projects like the Miner’s Family statue are worthless. Why should we spend money on something we know is going to be ruined by some thug? No doubt this thought will cross many people’s minds over the coming days, but we should not have this attitude towards future projects.

Firstly if we let this deter us from future projects then we have let who ever did this win. Secondly, the way the statue has brought people together. The statue represents a sense of community and a sense of worth that we lost decades ago.People are proud of the statue and the past that it represents in a time when people feel that society gives us nothing to feel proud about.

Why should we punish ourselves for one persons evident disengagement from the significance of the statue? Simple answer, we should not.


Twitter and Fabrice Muamba – It’s All Kicking Off

I hope, should the hammer ever have cause to fall upon me, I am not caught between it and the anvil of public outrage. Fair and cold justice is a cornerstone of democracy, and the least, should any of us transgress the law, we could ask. Occasionally, a crime ignites public opinion, and, fuelled by a certain kind of tabloid journalism (naming no names,) the application of mob justice is demanded. Paedophiles or crimes related to children are a common theme, and a kind of contemporary witch-hunt ensues.

Another subject that seems to elicit responses disproportionate to the offence caused is racism, particularly very public racism, and so I approach this article with caution, aware it’s likely to garner a certain kind of unthinking response. It’s a sensitive area, so I’ll set out my stall now to avoid accusations of defending racism or racists. I am not, and will not.

I’ve so far avoided writing about the fate of Bolton’s Zaire-born footballer Fabrice Muamba lest I pre-empt his demise and as a result seem crass and unfeeling. Thankfully, due to the efforts of medical staff both on the scene of his collapse and later in the ambulance and hospital, he is making a remarkable recovery. Although considered the national game, and even though it made front page news for days after the event, there are sections of the public who couldn’t care less about a football related story. For those whom this passed by, here is a quick summary of events:

On 17 March 2012, during a game against Tottenham Hotspur, the 23 year old Fabrice Muamba suffered a heart attack on the pitch. After receiving lengthy medical attention with the game paused, and while tens of thousands of fans looked on concerned, he was transferred to hospital with his outlook not looking good. His heart had stopped for well over an hour and he was, effectively, dead. For me, I’m sure like many others, comparisons with Mark-Vivien Foe, who died during a game for Lyon in 2003, were inevitable. Muamba’s condition slowly improved in the following hours and days, and it now looks as though he will make an eventual recovery, although it is unlikely he will ever resume his sports career.

The response from the wider community of professionals and fans within football was warm and supportive, with cross-club expressions of good will. One of my favourite moments was the placing of a Manchester United scarf – an object I, as a Liverpool fan, might normally be expected to spit on – with the message “one game, one family” outside the Bolton ground. It summed up much of my feelings about the incident.

Inevitably, as the world isn’t lacking in mean-spirited idiots, not everybody echoed those sentiments. Liam Stacey, a student from Pontypridd, took a different view. He used Twitter to post messages of a racist, vulgar and threatening nature to Muamba and to those who expressed their understandable revolt. This is where I risk the greatest chance of being mistaken. I only read his exact words second hand, as no decent publication (the only kind I read), or this website, would repeat them, and they appall me. But, I can’t help but feel some of the resulting public outcry far outstrips the seriousness of the crime.

When charged at Swansea Magistrates’ Court, Stacey pleaded guilty to posting the abusive comments and was sentenced to 56 days imprisonment. It seems, on the surface, a fair judgement, but part of the magistrate’s closing statement set me thinking. “I have no choice,” he said, “but to impose an immediate custodial sentence to reflect the public outrage at what you have done.” Since when has the legal system paid heed to the degree of public opinion of a crime? If it did, the lynch mobs would be out to hang all paedophiles and child murderers. Justice should be even-handed, regardless of what the public think.

In addition, the University of Swansea, where he was studying biology with the aim of becoming a forensic scientist, have suspended his studies, saying he was “not welcome” on campus, and that his attendance may be a disruptive influence on other students.

A quick opinion poll I conducted amongst friends turned up a variety of opinions on the subject. Some thought it lenient, or at least not extreme. Others thought he was being made an example of, and that it would make others think twice about committing a similar crime – a common misconception of how criminal justice works, hence why countries with the death penalty, such as the US, actually have high murder rates, rather than it acting as a deterrent as you would expect.

The short prison stay, eight weeks of low security incarceration, probably with Sky TV and other home comforts, seems inconsequential to me. Far more damaging, and by far the best punishment for this kind of idiotic crime, is the permanent stain to his reputation. A very public humiliation, using the same media tools he used to spread racial hatred and abuse, is the key to dealing with racist morons. Embarrassment is a powerful tool.

In regards to his seclusion from university, I have my reservations. Rehabilitation is necessary for any criminal, and lack of employment opportunities after a prison sentence is one of the major factors in reoffending. This action by his alma mater risks seriously stunting his entire future – a potentially longer and more severe punishment for what is, when you get down to it, a small and twatty crime.

It would be nice to think this was an isolated incident, perpetrated by a single moron, but apparently this kind of behaviour is catching. Manchester United fanzine, Red Issue, sparked further controversy with a cover which could easily be taken as mocking the Muamba situation, with the headline “Grief Junkies Run Riot” and tasteless comments such as “I’ve tweeted my condolences just in case,” and “Is he dead yet?”

Are we, as a society, becoming overly sensitive to public outrage, or is it just a matter of having the means – via social networking and 24-hour news access – to express our opinions? Either way, these incidents seem to occur with tedious regularity. They make me just want to grab the whole internet community, shake some sense into them while telling them to calm the fuck down and get some perspective. I’ve never believed the idiom sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Words can hurt, deeply, and they usually take longer to heal than many wounds. That’s why the correct response to hurtful, or incendiary words, is to use words in response.

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