Sunday, December 29, 2013

Not-So-Happy New-Year

Foodbanks: cowardly coalition can't face the truth about them | Nick Cohen | Comment is free | The Observer | December 29, 2013

I went to the Trussell Trust food bank round the corner from the Observer's offices just before Christmas. If I hadn't been reading the papers, I would have assumed it represented everything Conservatives admire. as at every other food bank, volunteers who are overwhelmingly churchgoers ran it and organised charitable donations from the public.

What could be closer to Edmund Burke's vision of the best of England that David Cameron says inspired his "big society"? You will remember in his philippic against the French revolution, Burke said his contemporaries should reject its dangerously grandiose ambitions, and learn that "to love the little platoons we belong to in society,, is the first principle (the germ, as it were) of public affections". Yet when confronted with displays of public affection—not in 1790 but in 2013— the coalition turns its big guns on the little platoons.

It would have been easy for the government to say that it was concerned that so many had become so desperate. This was Britain, ministers might have argued, not some sun-beaten African kleptocracy. Regardless of politics, it was a matter of common decency and national pride that Britain should not be a land where hundreds of thousands cannot afford to eat. The coalition might not have meant every word or indeed any word. But it would have been in its self-interest to emit a few soothing expressions of concern, and offer a few tweaks to an inhumanely inefficient benefits system, if only to allay public concern about the rotten state of the nation.

But the coalition is not even prepared to play the hypocrite. Iain Duncan Smith showed why he never won the VC when he was in the Scots Guards when he refused to face the Labour benches as the Commons debated food banks on 18 December. He pushed forward his deputy, one Esther McVey, a former "TV personality". All she could say was that hunger was Labour's fault for wrecking the economy. She gave no hint that her government had been in power for three years during which the number attending food banks had risen from 41,000 in 2010 to more than 500,000. Her remedy was for the coalition to help more people into work.

If she had bothered talking to the Trussell Trust, it would have told her that low-paid work is no answer. Its 1,000 or so distribution points serve working families, who have no money left for food once they have paid exorbitant rent and fuel bills.

But then no one in power wants to talk to the trust. As the Observer revealed, Chris Mould, its director, wrote to Duncan Smith asking if they could discuss cheap ways of reducing hunger: speeding up appeals against benefit cuts; or stopping the endemic little Hitlerism in job centres, which results in unjust punishments for trivial transgressions. In other words, a Christian charity, which was turning the "big society" from waffle into a practical reality, was making a civil request. Duncan Smith responded with abuse. The charity's claims to be "non-partisan" were a sham, he said. The Trussell Trust was filled with "scaremongering" media whores, desperate to keep their names in the papers. But he had their measure.

O, yes. "I understand that a feature of your business model must require you to continuously achieve publicity, but I'm concerned that you are not seeking to do this by making your political opposition to welfare reform overtly clear."

Ministers will not confess to making a mistake for fear of damaging their careers. But it is not only their reputations but an entire world view that is at stake. Put bluntly, the Conservatives hope to scrape the 2015 election by convincing a large enough minority that welfare scroungers are stealing their money. They cannot admit that a real fear of hunger afflicts hundreds of thousands. Hence, Lord Freud, the government's adviser on welfare reform, had to explain away food banks by saying: "There is an almost infinite demand for a free good."

My visit to the food bank showed that our leaders' ignorance has become a deliberate refusal to face a social crisis. Of course, the volunteers help working families and students as well a the unemployed and pensioners. Everyone apart from ministers knows about in-work poverty. As preposterous is the Tory notion that the banks are filled with freeloaders.

You cannot just swan in. You get nothing unless a charity or public agency has assessed your need and given you a voucher. The trust is at pains to make sure that the beggars—for hundreds of thousands of beggars is what Britain now has—receive a balanced diet. To feed a couple for five days, it gives: one medium pack of cereal, 80 teabags, a carton of milk, two portions of meat and fish, fruit, rice pudding, sugar, pasta and juice. That this is hardly a feast is confirmed by the short list of "treats", which, "when available", consist of "one bar of chocolate and one jar of jam".

Sharon Cumberbatch, who runs the centre, tells me that she is so worried that shame will deter her potential clients that she packages food in supermarket bags so no one need know its source. The clients, when I met them, reinforced her point that they were not the brazen freeloaders of Tory nightmare. They trembled when they told me how they did not know how they would make it into the new year.

Most of all, it was the volunteers who were a living reproof to a coalition that cannot correct its errors. They not only distribute food but collect it. They stand outside supermarkets all day asking strangers to buy the tinned food they need or hand out leaflets in the streets or plead with businesses to help. Sharon Cumberbatch is unemployed but she works to help others for nothing. Her colleagues said they manned the bank because hunger in modern Britain was a sign of a country that was falling apart. Or as one volunteer, Richard Moorhead, put it to me: "I am gobsmacked that people are going hungry. I'm ashamed."

The coalition can call such attitudes political if it wants—in the broadest sense they are. But they are also patriotic, neighbourly, charitable and kind. They come from people who represent a Britain the Conservative party once claimed a kinship with, and now cannot bring itself to talk to.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

As I Was Saying . . . .

The Guardian, Christmas Eve, 2013. Click on picture to enlarge.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Quote for the Season

Peace is having a hard time at the moment, which is why we pray for it more earnestly. At Bethlehem, God repudiates the "legions of angels" approach to peace and offers something longer, harder, more bewildering. The frailty of the gift and the way that follows from it, seems a little thing with which to lever the world and its hatreds. It is, however, enough. You cannot imagine with what fervent hope, I wish you this Christmas, this peace that passes all understanding and expectation.
                                    —The Rev Dr Alan Gregory 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Happy Christmas to All

Although it's a day or two early, I won't be near a computer on The Day, so I would like to take this opportunity to wish all the readers of this blog a happy Christmas and a blessed New Year.

'Behold' seems to be catching on in a lot of places—not always in the context or with the meaning discussed in this blog! This morning I came across a Time magazine article on the Winter Solstice that began with 'Behold!' Curious how the word is appearing more frequently in secular contexts than religious ones!

On a darker note, today's news carries many articles decrying food poverty in Britain. Food banks of necessity are springing up everywhere, even in the conclaves of the rich such as the Cotswolds. Of course the conservative politicians who have brought about what doctors are calling a malnutrition emergency refuse even to address the issue, to answer questions, or, worst of all, to do anything about the crisis they have created with benefit cuts, with brutal reassessments of very sick and disabled people that designate them as able to work when clearly they cannot.

With the rise in technology and increasing dependence and isolation of people hooked on gadgets, the world seems to be reverting to a level of cruelty that so-called progress was supposed to have eliminated. To the contrary, the levels of callous indifference seem to be escalating at a geometric pace. As one article put it, the politicos are bandying the praise of deficit reduction, and ignoring the cries of pain and destitution, of adults and old people starving because their benefits have been cut, because the iniquitous 'bedroom tax' has forced many people from their homes. For those who don't know what this is, it is a tax on empty rooms in social housing, so that even if someone is disabled and needs a spare room for medical equipment, they are grievously taxed because someone isn't sleeping there. Evidently the Tories want working people to be crammed into housing like sardines, while the rich rattle about in absurdly large mansions. And it should also be mentioned that what little housing is being built often has rooms far smaller than the recommended minimum for human welfare.

So let us pray this Christmas that a miracle will take place: that the conservative ideologists will somehow be confronted with the nightmare they are creating. I cannot help but think of the scene in Dickens' Christmas Carol  when the Ghost of Christmas Present opens his cloak to reveal the skeletal children who are named Want and Ignorance. 'Beware them,' says the spectre. They are of greater danger to Britain than any external threat.

The warning has been echoed by the wild weather of the last few days, and the forecast for more destruction and chaos in the run-up to Christmas, the effects of climate change. Always we seem to wake up much, much too late, and, as of this writing, the number of those awake and aware seems to grow ever smaller.

Someone (not the first time) the other day, only half-joking, called me a Cassandra.  But I hope and pray that we all will open our eyes and look in our hearts this Christmastide, with the resolve that the New Year will see changes, big changes, in the way we live our lives and care for one another.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Advent Hilarity

Thursday, December 12, 2013


The end of the year always seems to yawn wide, to bring up from some hidden abyss memories long forgotten. As one gets older, this seems to happen more often, and the memories upwell from an ever more distant past.

They aren't always, or even frequently, welcome, these memories. They arise in a similar way that thoughts arise during meditation, only one is in 'ordinary' self-consciousness and preoccupied with walking, or reading, or doing some daily manual task.

But they're there, and they have to be dealt with. No use saying 'go away'; they will just come back. No good saying, 'why now'; there is no why. And like thoughts that arise in meditation, these memories, good or bad, embarrassing or shameful, have to be appropriately accepted in as dispassionate a way as possible—which doesn't obviate feeling deeply the emotions associated with them.

These phantoms can jerk you back to some of the unhappiest moments of your life. The saving grace—and it is all grace, the memories and the emotions—is that you both are and are not the same person. The memory is woven into your past, but you are not limited to that past.

There's an old saying that the part of life we commonly refer to as 'retirement' (whether or not one is retired from a profession) is an opportunity to 'make your soul'. It's a phrase that authors from the first part of the twentieth century such as Elizabeth Gouge used quite often in their novels. They never explained exactly what they meant, though the narratives often gave hints.

But I am coming to believe that learning to welcome the opportunities that these old memories present, however painful, is precisely that: making one's soul. It's a chance to give these memories their due, whether that means understanding that the reality of the situation was probably even worse than you had realised and forgiving all the same; or whether allowing for the contexts and hopes and fears of the other people involved in these memories; or, whether, for the worst ones that have entirely to do with oneself, to acknowledge full culpability—or not, as the case may be—and ask forgiveness, or give it—yes, even to oneself. It is only through this process that the clutching hands of these memories can be loosed.

Perhaps one of the hardest lessons we have to learn is not patience with others but patience with oneself. Healing takes place in God's good time, not sooner, not later, and always out of one's own sight.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Another Country Heard From

Why it's time for brain science to ditch the 'Venus and Mars' cliche | Science | The Observer | Robin McKie

As hardy perennials go, there is little to beat that science hacks' favourite: the hard-wiring of male and female brains. For more than 30 years I have seen a stream of tales about gener differences in brain structure under headlines that assure me that from birth men are innately more rational and better at map-reading than women, who are emotional, empathetic multi-taskers, useless at telling jokes. I am from Mars, apparently, while the ladies in my life are from Venus.

And there are no sights that this flow is drying up, with last week witnessing publication of a particularly lurid example of the genre. Writing in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia revealed they had use d a technique called diffusion tensor imaging to show that the neurons in men's brains are connected to each other in a very different way from women's brains.

The point was even illustrated by the team, led by Professor Ragini Verma, with a helpful diagram. A male brain was depicted with its main connections—coloured blue, needless to say—running from the front to the back. Connections between the two hemispheres were weak. By contrast, the female brain had thick connections  running from side to side with strong links between the two hemispheres.

"These maps show us a stark difference in the architecture of the human brain that helps provide a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks and women at others," said Verma.

The response of the press was predictable.  Once again scientists had "proved" that fro birth men have brains which are hardwired to give us better spatial skills, to leave us bereft of empathy for others, and to make us run, like mascara, at the first hint of emotion. Equally, the team had provided an explanation for the "fact" that women cannot use corkscrews or park cars but can remember names and faces better than males. It is all written in our neurons at birth.

As I have said, I have read this sort of thing before. I didn't believe it then and I don't believe it now. It is biological determinism at its silly, trivial worst. Yes, men and women probably do have differently wired brains, but there is little convincing evidence to suggest these variations are caused by anything other than cultural factors. Males develop improved spatial skills not because of an innate superiority but because they are expected and encouraged to be strong at sport, which requires expertise at catching and throwing. Similarly, it is anticipated that girls will be more emotional and talkative, and so their verbal skill are emphasised by teachers and parents. As the years pass, these different lifestyles produce variations in brain wiring—which is a lot more plastic than most biological determinists realise. This possibility was simply not addressed by Verma and her team.

Equally, when gender difference are uncovered by researchers they are frequently found to be trivial a point made by Robert Plomin, a professor of behavioural genetics at London's Institute of Psychiatry, whose studies have found that a mere 3% of the variation in young children's verbal development is due to their gender. "If you map the distribution of scores for verbal skills of boys and of girls, you get two graphs that overlap so much you would need a very fine pencil indeed to show the difference between them.  Yet people ignore this huge similarity between boys and girls and instead exaggerate wildly the tiny difference between them. It drives me wild."

I should make it clear that Plomin made that remark three years ago when I lasat wrote about the issue of gender and brain wiring. It was not my first incursion, I should stress. Indeed, I have returned to the subject—which is an intriguing, important one—on a number of occasions over the years as neurological studies have been hyped in the media, often by the scientists who carried them out. It has taken a great deal of effort by other researchers to put the issue in proper perspective.

A major problem is the lack of consistent work in the field, a point stressed to me in 2005—during an earlier outbreak of brain-gender difference stories—by Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College London, and the author of Y: The Descent of Men. "Researching my book, I discovered there was no consensus at all about the science [of gender and brain structure]," he told me. "There were studies that said completely contradictory things about male and female brains. That means you can pick whatever study you like and build a thesis around it. The whole field is like that. It is very subjective. That doesn't mean there are no differences between the brains of the sexes, but we should take care not to exaggerate them."

Needless to say that is not what has happened over the years. Indeed, this has become a topic whose coverage has been typified mainly by flaky claims, wild hyperbole and sexism. It is all very depressing. The question is: why has this happened? Why is there such divergence in explanations for the difference in mental ability that we observe in men and women? And why do so many people want to exaggerate them so badly?

The first issue is the easier to answer. The field suffers because it is bedevilled by its extraordinary complexity. The human brain is a vast, convoluted edifice and scientists are only now beginning to develop adequate tools to explore it. The use of diffusion tensor imaging by Verma's team was an important breakthrough, it should be noted. The trouble is, once more, those involved were rash in their interpretations of their own work.

"This study contains some important data but it has been badly overhyped and the authors must take some of the blame," says Dorothy Bishop, of Oxford University. "They talk as if there is a typical male and a typical female brain—they even provide a diagram—but they ignore the fact that there is a great deal of variation within the sexes in terms of brain structure. You simply cannot say there is a male brain and a female brain."

Even more critical is Marco Catani, of London's Institute of Psychiatry. "The study's main conclusions about possible cognitive differences between males and females are not supported by the findings of the study. A link between anatomical differences and
cognitive functions should be demonstrated and the authors have not done so. They simply have no idea of how these differences in anatomy translate into cognitive attitudes. So the main conclusion of the study is purely speculative."

The study is also unclear how differences in brain architecture between the sexes arose in the first place, a point raised by Michael Bloomfield of the MRC's Clinical Science Centre. "An obvious possibility is that male hormones like testosterone and female hormones like oestrogen have different effects on the brain. A more subtle possibility is that bringing a child up in a particular gender could affect how our brains are wired."

In fact, Verma's results showed that the neuronal connectivity differences between the sexes increased with the age of her subjects. Such a finding is entirely consistent with the idea that cultural factors are driving changes in the brain's wiring. The longer we live, the more our intellectual biases are exaggerated and intensified by our culture, with cumulative effects on our neurons. In other words, the intellectual differences we observe between the sexes are not the result of different genetic birthrights but are a consequence of what we expect a boy or a girl to be.

Why so many people should be so desperate to ignore or obscure this fact is a very different issue. In the end, I suspect it depends on whether you believe our fates are sealed at birth or if you think it is a key part of human nature to be able to display a plasticity in behaviour and ways of thinking in the face of altered circumstance. My money is very much on the latter.

Monday, December 02, 2013

One of Those Things You Always Knew

Male and Female Brains Wired
Differently, Scans Reveal (Guardian)

Scientists have drawn on nearly 1,000 brain scans to confirm what many had surely concluded long ago: that stark difference exist in the wiring of male and female brains.

Maps of neural circuitry showed that on average women's brains were highly connected across the left and right hemispheres, in contrast to men's brains, where the connections were typically stronger between front and back regions.

Ragini Verma, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, said the greatest surprise was how much the findings supported old stereotypes, with men's brains apparently wired more for perception and co-ordinated actions, and women's for social skills and memory, making them better equipped for multitasking.

'If you look at functional studies, the left of the brain is more for logical thinking, the right of the brain is for more intuitive thinking. So if there's a task that involves doing both of these things, it would seem that women are hardwired to do these better,' Verma said. 'Women are better at intuitive thinking. Women are better at remembering things. When you talk, women are more emotionally involved—they will listen more.'

She added: 'I was surprised that it matched a lot of the stereotypes that we think we have in our heads. If I wanted to go to a chef or a hairstylist, they are mainly men.'

The findings come from one of the largest studies to look at how brains are wired in healthy males and females. The maps give scientists a more complete picture of what counts as normal for each sex at various ages. Armed with the maps they hope to learn more about whether abnormalities in brain connectivity affect brain disorders such as schizophrenia and depression.

Verma's team used a technique caused diffusion tensor imaging to map neural connections in the brains of 428 males and 521 females aged eight to 22. The neural connections are much like a road system over which the brain's traffic travels.

The scans showed greater connectivity between the left and right sides of the brain in women, while the connections in men were mostly confined to individual hemispheres. The only region where men had more connections between right and left sides of the brain was in the cerebellum, which plays a vital role in motor control. 'If you want to learn how to ski, it's the cerebellum that has to be strong,' Verma said. Details of the study are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Male and female brains showed few differences in connectivity up to the age of 13, but became more differentiated in 14- to 17-year-olds.

'It's quite striking how complementary the brains of women and men really are,' Ruben Gur, a co-author in the study, said in a statement. 'Detailed connectome maps of the brain will not only help us better understand the differences between how men and women think, but it will also give us more insight into the roots of neurological disorders, which are often sex-related.'