Friday, November 28, 2008

This weekend was another trip down to Worthing. We met friends of lisa’s, Suzanne and Richard, for dinner. It was a nice evening, and I always feel a bit sorry for them, because they don't really ever cook fish or vegetables -- they are committed carnivores, a so they are always a bit stuck when it comes to dealing with me.

Lisa's parents are away. They're having a couple of weeks of well earned rest, and spending Thanksgiving with Lisa's brother in America. This meant at least, we had a bed in Worthing. It was actually good to be able to spend a little bit of time with the children -- we went out shopping with Morgan -- I helped Ethan with his homework -- and Lisa was able to have a bit of a chat with Kieren on the way back from Scouts. It seems Kieren is really missing all his friends in Manchester, and that seems to be manifesting itself in him getting into trouble. Helping Ethan do his homework -- although it took about two hours for him to write a page -- was good fun. He was writing an essay, and since that's pretty much what I do for a living a lot of the time, it was interesting trying to explain the process and lead him through it without telling him what to write or how to structure it. What he came out with in the end, I think was imaginative and funny.

On Sunday, we came back and spent most of the afternoon at Sam’s. She decided, for reasons I'm not quite clear on, to prepare lunch in the style of the American deep South. I never had grits before, but it's actually very nice. Most of the food we had seemed to be made, mostly of corn.

where’s all the money?
Woolworths went into receivership today. So did MFI. For the first time in this whole financial crisis, the BBC's correspondent Robert Peston (a reporter who’s really come into his own during this crisis as the only person who seems to be able to not only understand what's going on, but also explain it in terms that most of us feel we can understand) sounded genuinely upset. At least it seemed that way. It is quite hard to tell because he has a very odd delivery, stressing apparently random words by drawing them out to four times their usual length.

You'd think that the Woolworths would do well, being a bargain hunter's paradise in this current climate. However, it seems that people are turning to supermarkets and the Internet instead. I wonder what all the empty stores will become. I can't think of any retailer who will want to buy up 800 odd stores, right now. So they could well end up simply empty. Big holes in the middle of every shopping high Street in the country.

And another set of government backed rescue plans have cropped up. Another few hundred billion dollars, thrown into the ring in an attempt to reverse the global economic slowdown. Which makes me wonder a couple of things: firstly, where is all this money actually coming from -- I mean, if the government has got to borrow stacks of money to give to the banks, isn't it borrowing it from the banks in the first place? The government does not have these huge piles of money just sitting there waiting to be spent. It's got to get it from somewhere, so somebody must have it. The idea is that there is supposed to be a shortage of money, but that can't really be true -- there always is the money out there and somebody must have it. The banks may not be lending each other money, but unless there’s some elaborate game of musical chairs going on, even with no lending between banks going on, the money still has to be there. It's a closed system - nothing in nothing out.

Secondly, the whole idea of refloating the economy with injections of cash presupposes that the boom we were experiencing before all this happened was the natural state of things. And that this downturn is some kind of blip that needs to be corrected. I'm not at all sure that's true. In fact, I don't think that the rabid spending, fuelled by debt. We've had over the past few years is something we should be attempting to get back to -- though we may have built our economy on it and though the end of it might cause a great deal of trouble, I think it probably has to happen. And just throwing in more money to artificially hold up the crumbling system isn't going to work.

Doing my taxes
I decided really quite responsibly to spend Friday getting all my accounts up to date. In preparation for doing my taxes. I managed to do some of the dull and irritating work in the morning, popped out to grab something for lunch, and returned to discover I'd locked myself out. Lisa had gone to IKEA, with Sam (the only other person with a set of keys), and I knew they'd be there most of the afternoon.

It was raining, far too hard to do any Christmas shopping. So reluctantly, I was forced to spend the afternoon, sitting in the pub reading a book I bought on Lordship Lane.

Its book called “bad science”, written by a guy named Ben Goldacre, who writes a column I always read in the weekend Guardian. Basically it's about the way people get intentionally or unintentionally hoodwinked by pseudoscience or badly done science. So, the column covers everything from how to fool fingerprint detectors using household jelly to why people end up dying unnecessarily because they abandon proper medicine in favour of homoeopathic nonsense.

I always find the columns entertaining, if a little shocking.

The first part of the book was concerned mainly with homoeopathy (apparently a really good homoeopathic “cure” is one where the active ingredient has been diluted to a level at which -- and this is no joke -- if the entire universe was filled with water, there would be one molecule of the ingredient in it) and the way clinical trials can be skewed by the researcher’s subconscious intentions.

It's fairly obvious that if in a trial, you don't take care to make sure that neither the doctor nor the patient knows who is taking a placebo and who is taking a real drug you’ll mess up your results. However, I was quite surprised by the degree to which this kind of mistake is made in real trials, and the degree to which the results are affected.

Apparently they've actually done analysis, to discover that simply by letting the person doing the testing know which patients are taking which drugs, even if they don't tell the patients, the results could end up being skewed by 40%.

The power of the subconscious is pretty impressive - which made me wonder how it was that I managed to lock myself out on the one day in the year when I was supposed to be doing my taxes, rather than a job I actually wanted to do.

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