Friday, 30 September 2011

Why the Need for Speed?

Much in the news today (30th September 2011) is the proposal that speed limits on motorways be increased from 70 mph to 80 mph. This seems to be for no better reason than that the present speed limit is broken so regularly and so flagrantly. And it is justified on the grounds that there has been a 75 percent drop in road deaths since the last change in the law – the introduction of the 70 mph limit on motorways in 1965.

            Simply changing the legislation would, of course, be much more straightforward and less costly than attempting to discover why drivers need to travel at such speeds. And it would be much less costly than enforcing the current speed limit, or even enforcing a speed limit that is less than the current one. Yet it is reasonable to surmise that there will be more deaths on the roads if the proposal goes ahead, not least because more drivers may chose to exceed even the new limit and habitually drive at, say, 90 mph. I believe that there is good evidence than many accidents are caused by driving at excessive speed.

            Looking at many of the vehicles on our roads, it would seem that there is more than a little of the element of the macho about them: the “boys’ toy” and the frankly garish and aggressive: spoilers fitted purely for effect, loud exhausts, garish colours and what-have-you. For many, our road are there for much more than getting safely from A to B.

            I passed my driving test in the year that the 70 mph limit was introduced. So I have long experience on the roads. I have been as guilty as anyone of breaking the speed limit, but in recent years I have curbed the tendency. This is largely because I avoid setting off in a hurry – that is, if I have to reach a destination by a certain time, then I allow extra time to accommodate unforeseen delays that certainly happen often enough. Driving to London from Wiltshire it takes me 10 to 15 minutes longer if I keep to 60 mph rather than on the limit. Most of the other traffic overtakes me, so I keep in the slow lane and up my speed from time to time to pass the occasional truck. It is quieter, much less stressful, it saves on fuel and reduces pollution.

            No – the proposed increase will do no more good than did allowing the pubs to stay open all day. The proposal is, in my view, perverse. It verges on the insane.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Crop Circles

I live in Wiltshire (England), and Wiltshire, if anywhere, is the beating heart of crop-circle country. And it is in north Wiltshire, in the area that includes Avebury, and the Vale of Pewsey that the greatest concentration occurs.

But it was only last month that I saw my first crop circle. I was walking on the southern flank of Milk Hill, the highest point in Wiltshire. The photographs I took of it  gave a very foreshortened view, but it was impressive enough. I checked it out on a website I visit from time to time -

Now, what really interests me about this and similar web sites are the explanations given with regard to possible causes of these phenomena. It would seem that there are, broadly, four points of view:

  1. That crop circles are a man made phenomenon – guys going out in the fields while no-one is looking, and making pretty patterns with ropes, planks or whatever.
  2. They are natural, but terrestrial phenomena, e.g quirky weather conditions.
  3. They are supernatural – essentially the work of spirits, gods, fairies or whatever you like.
  4. They are the work of extraterrestrial intelligence, very probably in an attempt to communicate with we earthlings.

I find them all fascinating. For myself I am a hard scientist, and think that all such phenomena are going to be explained, if ever they are, in terms of the activity of earthmen and women. I was going to say “intelligent” activity, but I don’t know. It seems a pretty dumb thing to do with one’s time. And I am quite sure that the farmers whose crops are mucked about would agree.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Why do Children take up Smoking

A recent report on BBc Radio 4 has drawn attention to the fact that Philip Morris International – a tobacco company that manufactures Marlboro cigarettes - has tried to force the University of Stirling to hand over data gathered from research into the smoking habits of young people. The researchers are considering recommending to the Government that cigarettes are sold only in plain packets and are not on public display in retail outlets licensed to sell them.
One fact that has been established is that virtually all adult smokers have taken up the habit when they were children or teenagers. That is, it is very unusual indeed for people to take up smoking in their twenties and beyond.
The other established fact is that, even with the reduced prevalence of smoking, 100,000 people in the United Kingdom die from smoking related illness every year.
One may speculate as to why Philip Morris International is so anxious to obtain this data. It is difficult to ignore the possibility that it may have an interest in ensuring that young people continue to take up the habit, in order that their very considerable revenues be sustained. For if children and teenagers could be effectively discouraged from smoking, then there would be a dramatic fall in the sale of tobacco products. On the premise that the highly addictive properties of nicotine will ensure that they will continue to buy cigarettes into and throughout adulthood, it is a reasonable to conclude that the tobacco companies get people started on their products while young.
For whatever reason, adults would seem to be much less inclined to take up smoking when they have not smoked as children or teenagers. But if young people are being perceived as a legitimate target for the tobacco companies then there has to be cause for grave concern. Because it is their lives and health that are being put at risk.
I ask myself – just how long must this cynical and perverse approach to be allowed to continue in order that money might be made out of vulnerable young people? For the price that the children and teenagers pay is not counted in cash alone: for the majority of them will pay, in the end, in suffering and early death.