Manchester as I saw it

Tim Worstall links to a piece in The Guardian about thieving Mancunions stealing bikes. As Tim says: well, yes, it is Manchester.

As my regular readers will know, I lived in Manchester between 1996 and 2003, with the first four years being spent at the university. I have no idea what it is like now – perhaps it’s improved – but I knew what it was like then. Any student living in Fallowfield, Withington, or Victoria Park would have quickly learned what Manchester was like, firstly when they applied for home and contents insurance and got told “we don’t cover M14 and M20”, and again when somebody broke into that home and made off with those contents. Everybody I knew in Manchester got burgled at some point, and it happened to me twice.

I went further than the average student in discovering Manchester, though. In the summer of 1998 I responded to an advert looking for a part-time car driver, ideally suited to somebody semi-retired. I’d recently passed my test but had no actual driving experience, but I didn’t let that stop me. I arrived for the interview in Old Trafford, conducted by a chap with a passing resemblance to Jaap Stam (who was playing just across the road at the time) and a thick Mancunion accent. I got the job immediately, learning afterwards it was because I “could string a sentence together”. This wasn’t the high-end of the Manchester job market, although looking back, perhaps it was.

My new boss Danny ran a car hire company which would lease a car to anyone who’d had an accident and claim it back from the insurance company of the person at fault. It was basically a branch of the ambulance-chasing industry, but I didn’t care. Some loophole in the law made it all possible and Danny made his living renting out cars, and I delivered and collected them. The only problem was we were serving the absolute bottom of the market. We weren’t hiring out Range Rovers in Alderley Edge, we were supplying Puntos and Fiestas to council estates. My job wasn’t only to deliver the cars, but get the customer/whiplash “victim” to sign the lease agreement. Most of them couldn’t read, and those that could wouldn’t have been able to understand it how the arrangement worked. I know I couldn’t.

My new job was a good one by student standards. I was provided with a bus pass (saving me £15 a week), a PAYG mobile phone (an unheard-of perk in those days), and at weekends I could sometimes take a car home with me. I would normally work afternoons, Danny fitting the deliveries around my timetable. For my efforts I’d get paid £10 per delivery, and if I did 4-5 in a week that was my beer money easily earned. At some point Danny realised I had a car park outside my flat and used to store cars there occasionally, leaving my neighbours to wonder why this student owned four identical cars with sequential number plates.

The downside of the job was that it would take me to the terrible areas of Manchester and into the absolute worst housing estates, where I would find my way there with an A to Z (no Google Maps or GPS in those days) and get home via public transport. I delivered cars to Openshaw, Rochdale, Oldham, Wythenshawe, Levenshulme, Middleton, Moston, Ancoats, Ashton-Under-Lyne, Dukinfield, Eccles, and other absolute shitholes whose names I’ve forgotten. North of Manchester city centre is a total dump with two exceptions: Prestwich, which is the Jewish area and has lots of nice, big houses in immaculate condition, and Bury which is a posh suburb.

I’d deliver the cars then walk the streets and ride the buses, trains, and trams through the most God-awful areas of Manchester, often after dark, usually in the rain. I visited a garage where the proprietor was jailed a short time later for kidnapping somebody who wouldn’t pay an illegal clamping fine. I stood on doorsteps of council houses with people reeking of alcohol, trying to get them to sign the blue-and-white form before handing over the keys. I sat on disgusting sofas, trying not to breath. I walked through filthy streets with a mosque at each end, which are nowadays referred to as no-go zones. For whatever reason, nothing ever happened to me. Whatever one says about the Mancs – and they are a dodgy bunch – the vast majority are good people. I remember feeling nervous, but was never in any danger even in the worst places. But they were bad: In Ancoats, the roof of the corner shop was covered in barbed wire, and you’d get served like in a bank, with bullet-proof glass and a rotating carousel: you’d need to give a list to the bloke behind the counter and he’d fetch everything. This was to buy milk at 2pm.

In the summer of 1999 I quit working for Danny because I had to do an industrial placement as part of my Masters. Most people’s placement was organised by the university, but for some reason I went through the yellow pages and sent a letter to anyone calling themselves an engineering company asking for a job. I found one called Technical Automation based out in Weaste, a suburb of Greater Manchester between Salford and Eccles. And by Lord, was Weaste the biggest shithole I’d ever seen before and have ever seen since. It was so bad the betting shop, pub, and off license were boarded up. Our workshop was protected by spiked railings, bars, steel doors, and alarms yet still it got broken into. Later in my career I met a guy whose wife worked as a nurse in Hope Hospital just down the road. He told me a bouncer of a nearby pub (one that was still open) had been rushed into hospital with gunshot wounds, the victim of a drive-by shooting. When they cut his jacket off him, a claw-hammer fell out of his sleeve. Nice pub.

I went back to work for Danny after my placement, raking in the tenners for tramping around Manchester’s sink estates. I left the UK in 2003 and travelled the world, walking the dodgy back streets of Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Yalta, and a dozen other cities where visitors are warned to be careful, but I never saw anything that was a patch on Manchester. Even in Lagos people would rob you for a reason: they want your money. The Manc scallies were decked out in £300 Hilfiger jackets and Rockport boots and didn’t need money, they just wanted to beat someone up. Never in my life, anywhere else, have I seen a bunch of teenagers wrecking a bus stop, or have I climbed aboard a bus and found somebody has sandpapered the windows and set fire to the seats. In Manchester, this was all perfectly normal. Even now, when people tell me to be careful somewhere, or ask if I was afraid in (say) Paris, I laugh and say “God no, I lived in Manchester, FFS!”

Despite all that, and the fact I never went back, I loved my time there. I am still in touch with Danny – he’s no longer in the dodgy car-hire business and has turned all respectable, so he says – and occasionally I joke about the shitholes he sent me to at 6pm on a wet Tuesday night in November, helpfully telling me there was a tram stop a mile away from the address. It was “character building”, he says.

Yes, it was.

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In Memory of Steve Gerrard, SSI

There were two or three people who had a substantial and positive influence on me when I was in my mid-to-late teens, all of whom worked at the boarding school I attended.

Participation in the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) was compulsory at Seaford College, situated in the South Downs near Petworth, West Sussex. On my second day there I was sent to the “corps office” to collect my uniform, which might have caused me some concern had I not been in the Dyfed Army Cadet Force for the past year and taken to it like a duck to water. The Seaford College CCF was commanded by one Major (cadet force rank) Keith Woodcock who was also a geography teacher, part-time fireman, and all-round good bloke. He had no military experience, and so the unit was assigned a School Staff Instructor (SSI). This came in the form of a stocky, tough-looking individual with a moustache, hairy hands, and a voice which, when raised, would scare the absolute shit out of you. He was Steve Gerrard, a former Warrant Officer 2 (Company Sergeant-Major) who had completed 25 years regular service in the Parachute Regiment (2 Para) following 2 years in the junior army (also as a para).

I walked into the corps office, a skinny, insecure kid who couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and found the SSI, as he was known, behind the desk. He asked me where I was from and I said Wales, and from thereon he addressed me as “Taff” or “Taffy”. He took me into the stores, gave me my uniform, and for the next four years served as a sort of mentor to me. He was an extremely tough man – a veteran of the battle of Goose Green, he’d both boxed and played rugby league for the army – but he showed not the slightest aggression towards anyone. If he needed to assert his authority he only needed to raise his voice slightly, and anyone within earshot – child or adult – shit themselves and paid attention. You don’t get to be a sergeant-major in the Parachute Regiment by being unable to project authority. Occasionally I was on the receiving end of a sharp word of his, and it brought me to heel pretty fast.

His language was appalling and his eating habits worse: he would sit in the school canteen and wrap bread around whatever was on his plate and stuff it into his mouth like a sandwich. He told me he learned this in the army: you never know when you’re going to be kicked out of the canteen, and if you’ve got it in your hand nobody can take it away from you. But for all his rough exterior he genuinely cared about the welfare of the boys and girls who were placed in his care. He would obtain for them (meaning, steal from the nearest army barracks) the best kit he could lay his hands on, arrange special activities (such as firing machine guns we weren’t supposed to), and do his absolute level best to ensure everybody enjoyed themselves, learned, and were kept safe. I participated heavily in the CCF activities and went three times on the adventure training weeks in Wales and Exmoor. Steve arranged all the logistics, including doing all the catering. He was outrageously funny, mainly because none of us knew a character quite like him: he’d walk into a room of fifteen year old boys and say in his thick Derbyshire accent: “That were fooking lucky, if I’d been a minute later some humpty-backed c*nt would have taken my parking space!” None of our parents or teachers spoke like this.

Looking back, he was probably the first adult to treat me like one. I wasn’t an adult, but he spoke to me in a way that, in hindsight, was highly respectful: he would fire instructions at me, ask for help with CCF activities, teach me things, answer questions, and have conversations without the slightest hint of condescension, pomposity, or arrogance of being in a senior position. He treated everyone equally, and spoke to them in much the same way. Perhaps it was his having a short childhood himself, joining the army at 15, that made him understand that if you want young lads to behave as men you have to treat them like men. For dozens of us, it worked.

I spent a lot of time with the SSI, sitting in the corps office or in the stores, having conversations which were probably very immature on my part. I even met his mother and stayed in his childhood home when he gave me a lift up north one weekend when I was 18. I admired him immensely, as did most people who knew him. He left the army after 27 years somewhat lost – diabetes prevented him from getting a commission – and found a new purpose in teaching young boys and girls things which went way beyond his military remit.

Last week I heard from a schoolfriend, who had followed in Steve’s footsteps by joining the Parachute Regiment, that he had died. Diabetes plagued him even back then and apparently his health had been suffering. I regret I never saw or spoke to him once I’d left school: living abroad meant I rarely went home anyway, and his sharing a name with a famous contemporary footballer meant finding him online was impossible, assuming he was even there to be found. I wish I’d been able to let him know what a great help he was to me at a time when I needed it. I’m sure I’ll not be the only one.

Rest in peace, Sir. You really were one of the very best.

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Of Sub-Letting and Scams

Back when I lived in Lagos I had an English friend who was married to a Nigerian-born British lady. Because of this, they interacted a lot more with the locals than the rest of us expats. We lived in a compound on a private island in accommodation that by any standards, let alone those of Nigeria, would get called luxury (lest you think we were spoiled, one of the issues that plague developing world cities is that there are generally two types of housing: total shitholes and ludicrously expensive luxury apartments).

My friends got chatting to some Nigerian neighbours and discovered that one of their income streams was sub-letting council properties in London to other Nigerians. They’d gone to the UK, got themselves a council house or flat, rented it out to somebody else, then came back to Lagos. When my friends started getting cross at this, the response of their neighbours was along the lines of:

“Why are you mad at us? Why aren’t you mad at the idiots who put this stupid system in place that allows Nigerians to get council houses and rent them out? Frankly, we can’t believe that they let us do this!”

They had a point. One of the worst aspects of the British welfare system isn’t that so many people game it, but that it does not adequately provide for many of the deserving poor either. Yet we’re always being told it’s a funding issue, rather than an organisational one.

I was reminded of this story when I read somebody on Twitter saying that in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, some poor sod is going to have to work out who was actually living there. I don’t know the mix of private and social housing in the block, but you can be sure that sub-letting of council flats was going on. Although disallowed, the practice is widespread, particularly among immigrant communities. Even identifying the dead might be difficult if the person living in a particular flat wasn’t the person whose name is one the lease. No doubt insurance claims will be affected as well, assuming they even had any.

This in turn reminded me of something else, bringing me back to Nigeria again. On the only occasion I flew from Lagos to Port Harcourt, i.e. an internal flight, I was surprised to find my boarding pass – handed to me by a Nigerian who was assigned to “look after me” – had somebody else’s name on it. Apparently middle-men buy up all the plane tickets the moment they’re issued by the airline and re-sell them at a marked-up price. That this is allowed to go on says everything you need to know about Nigeria, but it’s not just a cost issue. It occurred to me as the plane lurched and weaved its way towards Port Harcourt that if it crashed nobody would have any clue who was on it. There was no record of me being a passenger, some chap with a Yoruba name was supposed to be in my seat. People would assume he’s dead, which I’m sure would open up all sorts of opportunities for additional scams.

I’d not be at all surprised if opportunists seize on the Grenfell Tower tragedy to perpetuate various scams, either.

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Mind Boggled

Commenter Simon Jester provides possibly the most ludicrous example of government stupidity that I have seen in a long while, and the bar is set high:

I once worked (in West London) in an office where there was an underground car park, in which half the spaces were cordoned off to prevent people parking in them – the local council insisted that only half could be used, as part of their efforts to combat Climate Change.

You can bet that the people at the council who approved this ensured their own personal car parking spaces remained close to the entrance of their nicely air conditioned offices.

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Why NHS Food Is Crap

One of the things you notice if you work long enough for large companies is that the quality of any given support service suddenly becomes a lot better if the people managing it are themselves users of that service.

When I worked in Africa, the senior management had their own company-supplied vehicles and drivers to take them to and from the airport; everyone else used a shuttle bus. With no senior management ever having to see what taking the shuttle bus was like, you can imagine the state of it.

You sometimes see a similar thing with travel departments. The administrative staff who work in them are usually local employees who generally don’t have to go on business trips in far-flung cities taking flights that leave at 7am. When you come to deal with them, this becomes painfully obvious.

Last week I saw somebody on Twitter complaining about the food in the NHS, and naturally somebody leaped in underneath to claim that this was a result of the catering being outsourced to private companies. There exists a mindset among some people that private companies cannot possibly provide a better service than public bodies because of the profit factor, the veritable planet of evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. But in the case of the NHS the food really is terrible, at least from what I’ve seen and heard.

Thanks to a decade or so traipsing around oil and gas offices, installations, and construction sites I’ve seen a lot of mass-catering and it ranges from extremely good to absolute shite. In most cases the catering has been outsourced to one of two companies: Eurest (a subsidiary of Compass, which is British) and Sodexo (which is French). I don’t know if they supply the NHS with catering services, but I’d be surprised if they don’t. What I found is that the quality of food is dependent on two things:

1. Budget

2. Whether the management or the management’s close colleagues eat it.

One the first point, the budget is the difference between reasonable food and very good food. With the oil industry swimming in money until fairly recently, the food in the canteens was generally pretty good, and offshore it could be outstanding (the food on the Safe Astoria was superb, thanks to a Singaporean chef).

But it is the second point that makes the real difference. The one place in the whole Sakhalin II construction project where the food was absolutely woeful was at the transit camp in Nogliki, halfway up Sakhalin Island. As the name suggests, it was a camp set up for people to spend a night or two in transit between Nogliki, where the train from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk terminated, and the various construction camps that lay further to the north. Aside from a few poor bastards who were based there permanently, people were only supposed to be there for one or two nights, and it showed. I spent a night there between coming off the Lun-A platform and going to inspect the Piltun lighthouse.  The beds had been bought second-hand from the folk who dismantled the barracks at Auschwitz and fitted with dark brown sheets that were supposed to be that colour. Dinner consisted of a slab of grey meat and watery gravy by an Indian who told me that’s all there was. By contrast, the grub on the actual sites was excellent. Senior managers never, ever stayed at the transit camp.

The reason why the NHS food is crap is not because private companies are providing it, but because the people who administer the catering contract do not eat it. I’d be surprised if even the NHS staff eat it; if they do, they are low-level staff who don’t have much clout with the people in charge. Or perhaps the staff are fed in separate canteens? I don’t know, but the reason it is crap is because those who eat it have no influence over those who pay for it, and those who pay for it don’t eat it. If people want the food in the NHS to improve they should insist that the middle management eat it as well. It would improve overnight at no additional cost.

Of course, this is a long-winded version of Milton Friedman’s four ways to spend money, but it’s fun to spot examples of it in the wild.

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Yet More on the Wiretapping of Trump

About ten years ago, back in the days when I was flying between Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Moscow (a flight of 9 hours) in economy class, I was involved in an altercation with a stewardess of either Aeroflot or Transaero, I don’t remember which. I was with my good pal and colleague Andrei and we’d just boarded and put our hand luggage in the overhead locker when the stewardess came to us and demanded we hand over the bottle of vodka we had brought on board. Andrei and I said we didn’t know what she was on about, and she told us she’s seen me in the airport putting a bottle of vodka into my backpack which I then brought on board, and this is not allowed. I protested vehemently and swore that she must have been mistaken because I did not bring a bottle of vodka on board and I most certainly didn’t have one in my backpack. She stopped short of insisting I open my backpack and let her inspect the contents, but the kerfuffle was enough to attract the attention of the senior steward. He listened to the stewardess and then turned to me, and once again I swore on all that is holy that I did not bring a bottle of vodka aboard. This seemed to satisfy him and he told the stewardess to drop it and leave us in peace. She went away absolutely fuming. Your humble blogger is not a pathological liar and he was indeed telling the absolute truth when he said he did not smuggle a bottle of vodka aboard the flight.

I did, ahem, smuggle a bottle of rum aboard, though.

I was reminded of this little incident when I read Streetwise Professor’s take on the Trump-Obama-Wiretapping accusations (I’ve linked to this before):

What Obama and his minions (and the Democrats and many in the media) say is likely to be correct, strictly speaking, but fundamentally misleading. In contrast, what Trump says is often incorrect, strictly speaking, but captures the fundamental truth.

When I said I’d not smuggled aboard a bottle of vodka I was, strictly speaking, telling the truth but my words were fundamentally misleading. The stewardesses accusations, while incorrect, captured the fundamental truth.

(Before I go any further, I might as well explain: Andrei had a mate who had a mother who worked at the airport and could get a bottle of something around the security check and hand it to him in the departure lounge. Fortunately Andrei prefers rum to vodka and so I was able to lie with a straight face. I don’t take any moral high ground here, but then I wasn’t looking for any: I was simply trying to make it through 9 hours of an internal flight across Russia in economy class. Andrei, being utterly shameless as many Russian men are, immediately called for the stewardess when we were airbourne and asked for two glasses, a bottle of Coke, and a lot of ice. Fortunately we got a different stewardess or I’d have died in my seat.)

Anyway, where was I? That’s right, the Trump wiretapping. I didn’t mention this at the time, but I found the GCHQ response to Trump’s claims to be rather revealing:

GCHQ rejected the allegations as “utterly ridiculous”. The unusual move by the agency to comment on the news came after Mr Spicer cited claims first made on Fox News earlier this week.

A GCHQ spokesman said: “Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense.

“They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”

At the time I thought “the lady doth protest too much, methinks”. If they weren’t hiding something, why break with precedent to comment? And why the outraged language? A simple denial would suffice, no? Commenter “Nemo” makes this remark at Tim Worstall’s:

GCHQ’s statement was a classic public sector equivocation that looked like a denial as long as you didn’t actually read it. Reduced to its salient points it said:

‘We were never asked to wire-tap the President-elect.’

So the US Government Party only had to ask for intel acquired at GCHQ’s own volition.

And as another commenter notes on the same thread:

“Wire tap” is indeed shorthand. It does however give an out, in the sense that they can say they weren’t wiretapped – and it would be true, technically, if you don’t make the sensible conclusion that Trump is using it as short hand for generic surveillance.

I say all this in response to a comment that Polkamatic left under my own post on the subject yesterday (his comments are more than welcome, by the way, as are everybody’s):

Trump claimed unambiguously that it was Obama who was targeting him with surveillance. How is this even remotely the same thing?

To which David Moore replies:

Do you think that in making that claim Trump meant that Obama was the one in the van with his ear to the headphone?

And also:

The Streetwise Prof was bang on the money with this one. Trump was, loosely, right and the Democrats/Media have been playing a game of semantics.

Indeed. Now I don’t credit Trump with some Machiavellian genius such that he chose his words carefully to entrap his opponents. I think he knew, probably from his own supporters inside the NSA, FBI, and CIA that his communications were being monitored one way or another and just hurled out the accusation against Obama to be annoying and, perhaps, get them panicking and off-balance. Whether he intended it or not, he’s now got the FBI Director, most of the media, and a whole load of others backtracking furiously. That’s not a bad effort for a single tweet.

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What Companies (Don’t) Want

Via Adam, this article:

Surveys of the key skills employers seek in graduates continue to place so-called “soft skills” – like verbal and written communication skills, the ability to work collaboratively in teams and to influence others – in the top ten. But a 2016 report found that other skills – such as critical thinking, problem-solving, attention to detail, and writing – top the list of missing skills among job-seekers.

These skills are rated as being important across all jobs and industries. And employees not having these skills costs businesses thousands of dollars per year.

A US survey has found miscommunication costs businesses with up to 100 staff an average of US$420,000 per year. Even more staggeringly, in another study, 400 businesses with at least 100,000 employees each claimed that inadequate communication cost an average of US$62.4 million per company per year.

I can well believe that having employees with the ability to explain themselves clearly, write a concise and understandable email, and prepare properly-structured and well-written reports is of great benefit to a company. I can also believe that such skills would make the top ten in a list of what employers desire.

What I don’t believe is that such “soft skills” are considered in the least bit important when it comes to recruitment, retention, and promotion. Sure, they might make the top ten but one must bear in mind that Mecca Cola probably makes it into the top ten best-selling cola products. There will be two, possibly three, key skills that companies require and the rest are largely irrelevant. For all the talk about the important of “soft skills”, they only ever get mentioned when an HR department is talking up its own importance, someone is peddling a training course, or you’re getting a bollocking for upsetting somebody. A look at the average email or report will tell you that written communication skills aren’t considered very important in the modern business world.

I have my own experience to offer up in support of this statement. I don’t think I’m getting too far above my own station when I say I have pretty good writing skills, and I have the ability to convey quite complex information in a structured, logical, and clear manner. There are better writers around than me, far better, but not many of them are engineers. Back when I was doing my A-levels my chemistry teacher told me I was rather uncommon in that I was a scientist who could write, and advised that I make use of that. I can honestly say that being able to write quickly and accurately has helped me a lot in my professional life, but insofar as it has been recognised by any employer over the past 17 years I might as well type with my fists when drunk. There have been one or two occasions, three at the most, where my writing abilities have been recognised in passing but they’ve certainly not contributed in any way to the positions I have been offered or the tasks I have been assigned. I might be a very, very average engineer who rubs people up the wrong rather too often but I would bet that I’ve been one of the best writers of English in any of the companies I’ve worked for (yes, even the big ones). Out of the technical staff I reckon I’d win that contest hands-down. Nobody even noticed, let alone put it to use.

In short, I’d not pay much attention to what companies say they want; I’d instead look at what they actually do. Revealed preferences, I believe these are called. And they’re not in the least bit interested in whether you can write.

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Lambing

There’s a thread over at Tim Worstall’s about sheep breeding, and I’ve thrown in my contribution as usual. The thing is, I know a bit about this (I grew up in Wales, after all) and this isn’t the first time I’ve described it. So just for the hell of it I’ll turn it into a blog post.

Firstly, to get sheep to breed you need both ewes and rams. With me so far? Good. A flock of a hundred or so ewes can be serviced by two or three rams, no bother. If you ever see a ram you’ll notice it has enormous bollocks for such a small animal. There are reasons for this. Normally you’d keep the ewes in one field and the rams in another waaaaaaaaay over the other side of the farm, otherwise your lambing season is going to be somewhat lengthy. When the right time of year comes around (autumn, I think) you send the rams in and they get to work. But before you do that you strap a large, rectangular crayon to their chests using a nylon harness, with each ram getting a different colour. This is for keeping score. When the ram mounts a ewe and starts humping the crayon leaves a mark on her back. At the end of a few weeks the farmer can see which sheep have been humped and which remain un-humped, and see which ram has been putting in the hard yards and which has been loafing under a tree snoozing. If a ram isn’t pulling his weight, chances are he’ll be replaced for the next season with one a little more enthusiastic. So if ever you wake up captured by aliens with an odd crayon strapped to your belly, you’ll have an idea what is expected of you to survive.

At some point later on, I forget when, the farmer may enlist the services of a guy who, for a per-sheep fee, uses one of those ultrasound machines you find in antenatal wards to determine how many lambs are inside each ewe. I’ve watched somebody do this and how he can determine anything from the grey mess that appears on the screen is beyond me, but we wrote down his predictions against the tag number of each ewe and his predictions were bang on. At this point the farmer will be paying close attention to which ewes are not “with lamb” and what colour mark is on their back. If too many ewes with red crayon marks are not carrying lambs, then that particular ram is out of a job for next season. If all the ewes with a red mark are carrying lambs except one or two, then those ewes might be barren. We’ll see next year.

Lambing season starts sometime in spring and you prepare a lambing shed which is warm, dry, and divided into pens. You keep your flock in a field nearby and when any is showing signs of imminent birthing (I have no idea what the more subtle signs are, but forelegs sticking out the back of a ewe is not unheard of) you catch them using a pickup truck and a young, fit, and slightly idiotic local boy who for some reason likes farms and get them into the lambing shed. You then wait for them to give birth, and this can take a while so sometimes the shed is rigged up to CCTV and fed back to the farmhouse. I should point out that all of this is what went on back in the early-mid 1990s, so perhaps things have moved on now and there is an iPhone app for all this. Anyway, when a ewe starts to give birth it usually needs human help.

This is particularly the case with multiple births: most ewes carry two lambs, three is common, four less common, and occasionally five. Single lambs are common enough but a little disappointing from the point of view of the farmer. Ewes often struggle to give birth and so somebody must assist by grabbing hold of the protruding forelegs and giving them a yank. If the lamb is facing the wrong way around then somebody must roll up their sleeve, wash their arm in soapy water up the elbow, reach in, grab the legs, and yank it out. I have never done this myself but have held the animal when this was being done many times, and I was about 12 or 13 years old at the time. No city boy, me.

Sometimes when you pull a lamb out it is not breathing, and you need to try to revive it. First you tip its head back and clear its airway of mucus, and then you stick a piece of straw up its nostril. This will sometimes cause it to sneeze and it will start breathing. If that doesn’t work you grab it by its hind legs and swing it in an arc (taking care not to smack its head against a wall or something) so that its head is flung back and air forced into the airway. I swear I’m not making this up, but don’t take this as a manual for what you should do: ask a vet. You do that a few times and then massage its heart. Sometimes it will cough into life, other times not. If not, you get the corpse away from the mother ASAP: you want her attention focused on the lambs that survived.

Even distribution of the lambs is important. A ewe may feel overwhelmed by more than two or three lambs and you’ll notice straight away if one is lacking attention. If so it stands a high risk of being abandoned, and ewes are prone to lying on top of their unwanted young and smothering them. So any that is looking like an outcast is taken away and an attempt is made to wean it onto a mother with only one lamb of her own. This is done by taking the afterbirth of the adopted mother and wrapping it around the foster lamb immediately after she has given birth in the hope that she will smell it and be tricked into thinking it is one of her own. This works surprisingly often and the lamb is adopted and looked after. If she doesn’t fall for it then you have an orphaned lamb, which is immediately thrown to a pack of hungry dogs you keep outside just for this purpose. Nobody has time or patience for orphaned lambs.

I’m kidding, you don’t do that. The orphaned lambs – nicknamed “mollies” on the farm I used to play around on – are kept in a separate pen under a strong heat lamp, and cared for by hand. If you have a farm dog that is female, chances are her mothering instincts will kick in and she’ll lie in beside them. When kids come around wanting to see the lambs, these are the ones you show them because there are no protective mothers and they are used to human contact. You might have to wrap them in towels for a while, and two or three times a day you feed them warm milk from a bottle of the exact type you use on a baby. These things are as cute as you can imagine and feeding them is a lot of fun with lots of “Aaaw!” sounds being made. You can put milk on your fingers and get them to suck so hard you can almost lift them off the ground (they don’t have teeth yet), and they are still so small you can pick one up in each hand easily. They can stand up within about an hour of being born, but they are very unsteady on their feet at the beginning. This only makes them cuter.

When the weather gets warmer and the lambs a bit stronger, they’re kicked out into the field where you see them playing and my experience with lambs converges with that of everyone else. I did a lot of this sort of stuff when I was a kid, and you don’t forget it.

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When Food Poisoning Isn’t

Sometime commenter Bloke in Spain makes the following remark at Tim Worstall’s:

I suspect that “food poisoning” is a lot less common than reports of it would suggest. I’ve lost count of the visitors down here who reckons they’ve suffered “food poisoning” eating much stuff as the rest of us.

I concur.  When I was a kid we had things called “stomach upsets” that would make you vomit and give you diarrhea for a day or two and (in our household) would see you confined to bed on a diet of dry Ryvitas and lemon squash until you got better. We’d also be given kaolin and morphine, a brilliant medicine which is now hard to find and has been replaced with Imodium which just bungs you up like concrete and does nothing for the pain.

Anyway, everyone got these upset stomachs from time to time and in my adult life I get one about once every two years.  However, as part of a general trend towards irrationality, ignorance, and increased use of hyperbole among the general population I noticed some time ago that most people now think a regular stomach upset is food poisoning.  The first time I heard this was back in my catered halls of residence in Manchester University around 1997 or 1998 when a female student got sick after eating the grub that was served up in the canteen.  She claimed it was food poisoning, whereas the chef – who wasn’t student and hence had some sense – pointed out that several hundred other residents had eaten the same food and had not fallen sick.

I remembered this when I was in Sakhalin in 2008 and I ate a meal in the canteen at the LNG plant that had me throwing up in the snow on the drive back to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  I felt ill the minute I’d finished eating and the pain only got worse, and I wondered if the baked beans with bacon strips that I’d covered my mashed potato with (hey, this was on site in Russia) had been bad.  The illness barely lasted 24 hours and when I inquired two days later I found there was no mass outbreak of food poisoning among the staff and contractors so I concluded it was just a stomach bug.

Food poisoning is fucking serious.  I’ve fortunately never had it, but I have spoken to people who have and aside from being easily capable of killing you it is something which lasts for several days and makes you wish it would get on with it and kill you.  Just like a migraine is not a headache (another false equivalence people draw), and a cold is not ‘flu, an upset stomach is not food poisoning.  So whenever I hear people say they were off work for a day with food poisoning, I mark them down as a hysterical idiot or an ignoramus.

A few years ago I was flying back to Lagos from Phuket and felt a surging pain in my stomach on the flight between Phuket and Bangkok.  I tried wishing the pain away and pretending it was indigestion but on the transfer bus from the plane and the terminal I felt so nauseous I almost passed out.  I found the nearest toilet and threw up mightily, making a right racket as I did so.  I then spun around 180 degrees and emptied myself from the other end.  You know how it is.  I had an hour or so to wait until my connecting flight to Dubai, and so took some Imodium and Alka-Seltzer hoping these would settle my stomach.  I kept these down for a few minutes and then threw the lot up again.  In such situations I simply stop eating believing, correctly or not, that if you don’t eat then the bug has nothing to feed on and will starve.  Even if this is bollocks I have found that eating nothing for a day will cure any stomach upsets I typically encounter.

By the time I came to board the flight I was feeling a bit better, and so took my seat.  Only when we started rumbling down the taxiway I began to feel queasy.  I was sat with the window beside me on my right side, an empty seat beside me (thank God) and a middle-aged man was in the third seat beside the aisle.  As the engines roared for takeoff I felt the pain in my stomach flare up and for the first time in my life I reached for the air sickness bag, into which I threw up just as the nose wheel parted company with the tarmac.  I mentioned before I made a racket being sick, and for some reason I do.  Something to do with the air being pushed past the vocal chords, but I sound like I’m roaring like wounded bull.  I made so much noise that I could be heard by everybody on the lower deck of an Airbus A380 over the noise of four General Electric jet engines on takeoff mode.

Unsurprisingly, once we’d achieved the altitude at which the stewardesses can take off their seatbelts and stand up, they all came running through the cabin asking “Who the fuck was that?”, only using slightly more polite language.  I put my paw in the air and ‘fessed up (before handing them a lovely bag full of sick) and then somebody showed up with a clipboard and started bombarding me with questions.  They asked if I was airsick, and I said no, I have an upset stomach.  They asked if I was feeling ill before boarding, and I lied and said I merely felt queasy.  They asked me whether I’d eaten anything before, presumably thinking there was a possibility I’d gotten to my age on a diet of fresh air.  I told them I’d eaten part of a pizza back in Phuket, but those who’d eaten the rest of it were fine (I’d called them and asked).  The stewardess with the clipboard looked at me and said “Okay, we’ll put it down as food poisoning from eating a pizza, then.”  She then told me I ought to have seen a doctor rather than get on a plane sick, which was sound advice if I’d fancied spending 24 hours in the airport hotel at my own expense because any doctor would have yawned and said “nope, don’t fly” because it’s no skin off his nose.  I then got a bollocking for getting on the plane with “food poisoning” because we might have had to make an emergency landing, and there aren’t many places that an A380 can do that.  That was a good point in general, and an A380 being severely restricted in terms of where it can land in an emergency never occurred to me, but it annoyed me because I obviously didn’t have food poisoning.  Apparently there is no such condition as a stomach upset which can be put on the forms the cabin crew have to fill in every time a passenger gets sick.

As it happened, I ate nothing and drank only water for the rest of the flight and by the time I was in Dubai I felt well enough to eat a little soup.  By the time I caught the next flight and arrived in Lagos, I was feeling fine.  That would not have been the case if I’d had food poisoning.

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Cubans in Angola

A good piece on Fidel Castro from Bayou Renaissance Man, who is originally South African:

I was standing in the Angolan bush, along with a group of UNITA rebels.  They were cleaning up after a firefight – which meant leaving the enemy bodies where they had fallen, but stripping them of their weapons, uniforms and supplies.  Everything would be washed, cleaned, repaired if necessary, and reissued to new owners, who would use it to kill more of the enemy.

Among the dead were two very young Cuban conscripts, some of the tens of thousands of troops sent by Fidel Castro to prop up the brutal pro-Communist regime in Angola. They were probably well under 20 years old.  They hadn’t even finished growing;  they still had that gangling, slightly disjointed look of late adolescence.  Both looked as if they didn’t yet need to shave every day.  They never would, now.  Their AK-47’s were still half-slung.  They hadn’t even managed to raise them to a firing position before the RPD bullets found them.

A grizzled NCO looked down at them, and an odd look came over his face. He spat to one side, very expressively, and murmured, “Just one more. That’s all I ask.  Just one more.”

I looked at him, and my eyebrows rose.  He caught my expression, and nodded.  “I want the bastard who sends kids like this over here to die.”

It makes you wonder how many of those who complain about American forces deployed around the world had no problem with Fidel Casto sending his army to Angola.  The fact that Cubans had no choice in the matter makes it that much worse.

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