Notes From a Small Planet

2 Conversations

In deep water

Suddenly, talking about the weather isn't boring... it's alarming. In Britain this week, phenomenal rainfall has caused chaos. In York, hundreds of people had to be evacuated from their homes as the River Ouse broke its banks and the flood waters rose. More torrential rain over the weekend has brought flooding across the south-west, and yet more downpours are predicted across the country over the next couple of days. At the time of writing, severe flood warnings had been issued at 28 different places in the UK; and there have been comparable tales of torrent and torment across Europe.

If there is one crumb of comfort in the midst of the chaos, it's this: maybe, just maybe, it might convince a few more people that global warming really does exist and really does concern them. It may seem like a faint hope, at a time when quite a number of sensitive souls have driven out to the scenes of the worst flooding in Britain to gawp at the devastation... but it's there nonetheless.

Over the past week, Tony Blair's government has at least started paying some lip-service to environmental concerns, describing the weather conditions as 'a wake-up call' to do something about atmospheric pollution. Who knows - with enough public pressure, might they actually try to suit some urgent action to the words?

It will be little consolation to those who've already lost loved ones or homes in the flooding, but there is a World Climate Summit taking place in The Hague in the Netherlands from November 13-24. Dutch Environment Minister Jan Pronk will be chairing the meeting, and if you go to the environmental organisation Greenpeace's website - you can leave a message for Mr. Pronk.

I imagine that many of the messages sent from Britain will be fairly strongly worded. Whatever, one thing's for sure: after the past week, Mr. Pronk and the other delegates at the Summit will have no excuses for complacency.

She drives me crazy

Last Friday, I was stopped in my tracks by a short story in my local paper. The story said:
'MPs and peers find pictures of Margaret Thatcher more arousing than images of semi-naked women, scientists have discovered...'

The story went on to say that the Members of Parliament had also been shown pictures of glamourous UK TV star Denise van Outen in a skimpy outfit, but that Ms. van Outen's charms had
'...failed to provoke as strong a reaction as the Iron Lady.'

It concluded:
'When the same test was carried out on the public, the TV star was the winner.'

I'm used to feeling that I'm being governed by cynics, idiots and incompetents. I was, however, shocked at the story's clear implication that Parliament was full of perverts of a particularly extreme and alarming kind.

It was only later, when I saw the story explained more clearly and fully in another newspaper, that it all began to make sense. The tests had measured temperature, blood pressure and heart rate. They had not specifically measured sexual arousal. If the pictures provoked stress or anger, that would also register as 'arousal'. Now that I could understand. The sight of Thatcher has long provoked those kind of feelings in me.

Still, the contrast between the two different editions of the tale did strike me as an extreme example of how news stories can be 'spun' to give a misleading impression. How appropriate that the story thus spun and doctored should concern politicians.

Let them eat software

Machines like the one you're looking at right now are overrated. Computers can't solve the world's problems, and even to suggest that they could solve the problems of the Third World is rather crass and offensive.

Who says so? None other than Bill Gates.

The man who gave us Microsoft was speaking in Seattle, at a conference specifically dedicated to the question of how the computer industry could help the world's poorest people. The answer, he forcefully stated, was to send them money and medicines, not computers. Said Bill:
'The world's poorest two billion people desperately need health care, not laptops. Mothers are going to walk right up to that computer and say 'My children are dying, what can you do?' They're not going to sit there and, like, browse [URL removed by moderator][the online trading site] or something. What they want is for their children to live. Do you really have to put in computers to work that out?'

Gates has been putting a fraction of his money where his mouth is. In the past year, he has given over $200 milllion of his spare change to health-related causes. In doing so, rather than sending computers, he has angered some of his fellow prosperous philanthropists from the computer industry.

John Gage is chief research officer for Sun Microsystems and the head of Netday, a charity that aims to provide Internet access to schools. After the meeting in Seattle, he raged:
'After three days of serious analysis and work, to have Gates rather flippantly say 'You've got to have clean water and food' - that wasn't exactly furthering the point of the entire meeting.'

No, it probably wasn't, insofar as one unspoken point of the meeting must have been to make a lot of very rich people from the computer industry feel good about themselves. It was, nevertheless, clearly true.

I have often cursed Mr. Gates, usually while trying to use his software; but on this occasion he was surely right. Computers in classrooms are great in places where there are classrooms and children well enough to reach them. Elsewhere, food and medicine is more important.

How strange that it should take one of the world's richest men to point out this obvious truth, and how sad that some in the computing industry are too self-absorbed and egotistical to admit that their marvellous machines can't solve every human need.

Spot on

Even after all these years I can still remember the misery of adolescent acne. It is a particularly cruel quirk of nature that makes our skins erupt at the very point in life when our raging hormones make us most desperate to be attractive.

I was, therefore, intrigued to see a new private clinic near my home offering what would appear to be a revolutionary new treatment for this distressing condition. A sign painted on the clinic's wall offers the treatment of 'acne scaring'.

The clinic hasn't actually opened yet, so I don't know how it works. But once I've found out exactly how they plan to frighten spots and pimples away, I'll certainly tell you. .


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