Saturday, 28 June 2008

First sexual experience

After my last post on sexology, I received a number of very interesting comments. Laurie initiated the discussion and it went on from there.

This was the first time (and perhaps the last) that I inspired someone to blog out how it was for them. But from her and others it soon emerged that innocence about, and ignorance of, sexual detail was fairly widespread, and had not been confined just to my adolescence as I had believed.

I thought it would be interesting to explore first sexual experiences to see what triumphs and disasters people had to recount.

Then I remembered that my daughter reads this blog and I changed my mind. Children! Even grown up ones.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Sexologist: a tough job, but someone's got to do it

I grew up in what can only be described as the black hole of sexual knowledge. I've got that wrong. I mean that I was outside the black hole and all the sexual knowledge in the universe had been sucked into it.

Yes, folks, I'm talking about the 50s. Actually it was probably a bit patchy before then, but compared to the halcyon times to follow, it was a sparse period indeed.

I received absolutely no sexual information from my parents, and I think that was true for most of my contemporaries. However, between us we gleaned and we pooled what little information there was. The outcome was not a happy one. There was talk of having to put excretory organs together, of weeing, of tadpoles escaping and goodness knows what else.

Interestingly enough, these new and rather disgusting theories did not displace the prevailing theory, that one prayed for babies. In fact one of the polls we took on a regular basis was who would use which method. Most of us decided that we would pray for babies when it was time, and looked askance at those who professed otherwise.

The mother of a friend must have had an eroded cervix, because we were assured by him that after his parents had "done it" there was blood on a towel. We were horrified, and I don't think any of us looked at our obviously brutish fathers in quite the same way again. Though of course almost all of us were convinced that none of our parents were doing it any more. I mean, why bother after the birth of the last sibling? I think we felt very sorry for any child whose parents were sufficiently depraved to continue such practices after the necessity had passed.

Literature was of little help either. There were only three sources that I knew of.

The first was the problem page of my mother's magazine, which may have been called "Woman". Since both the problems and the advice were veiled, they tantalised rather than informed. "The best thing would be to hold your breath and cross your legs. If you need more help, please write again enclosing a self-addressed envelope". Or "If you find that you cannot help yourself, you might try wearing gloves before you go to sleep". What on earth was that about?

The second was an infamous book called "What Every Young Boy Should Know". Despite the title, it was a deeply unhelpful book and scarred most of us for life. I think it was published late 19th century but was still doing the rounds when I was a lad. To cut a long story short, we were to avoid, at all costs, a self-stimulating activity that would lead to a "spasm of the nerves" which would surely result in imbecility, madness or even death. From the same source I learnt that a drop of semen was worth a pint of blood. No wonder I'm so anaemic.

The last was "Ideal Marriage" by van de Velde. This wasn't such a bad book in fact, just constrained by the times. In those days books couldn't extol the "joy of sex" directly; they were required to take the form of text books of the medical genre. It thus featured some details you would rather not know, but also an intriguing illustration of a woman with three pairs of breasts. Apparently we have a "milk line" as other mammals do (such as cats and dogs) and while more than one pair along the line is unusual, it is not impossible.

By the time I got to university and was doing psychology I was able to buy such books openly (I have to admit buying van de Velde mail order when I was 17 - far too embarrassed to do so across the counter).

And thus a new world opened to me, the world of sexology. First, an important aside, the phenomenon of self-selection. Why are people drawn to (that is self select) certain professions? To be a surgeon, minister, psychologist, whatever? And what the heck are the self-selection dynamics for sexologists?

Consider for example Havelock Ellis, one of the first well known sexologists, who was breaking the mold back in the late 19th century. Difficult times. A bookseller was prosecuted in 1897 simply for stocking a book he had co-authored on homosexuality.

In many ways Ellis seemed more like a candidate for treatment than one to administer it. He married Edith Lees, a writer, in 1891. He was 32 and still a virgin. She was a professed and openly practising lesbian. After their honeymoon, he went back to his bachelor pad, and she stayed where she was. He was also impotent his whole life, but that changed when he was 60 when he discovered that he was sexually aroused by the sight of a woman urinating. There was a possible link with his childhood. His devoted, yet clearly insane mother, used to slap him playfully in the face with his wet nappies.

Slightly predating Ellis was Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing, an Austro-German sexologist and psychiatrist. He wrote Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). This documented different forms of sexual perversion that he had encountered. I read parts of this as a student, and the juiciest bits were in Latin. This was not so in the first edition, but its fame was so widespread that "ordinary people" began to buy it. It was to protect them (and me, alas) that the Latin was instituted.

Although it may not sound like a fun book, and to be honest it wasn't, a lot of people benefited. If you were a shoe fetishist in the 19th century, you probably thought you were the only one on the planet. It was of genuine benefit to people like that to realise they were not alone.

Enter Kinsey. Alfred Kinsey is generally regarded as the father of sexology, and immortalised in the Kinsey Reports starting with the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948, followed in 1953 by Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. According to some authorities these are still the bestselling scientific books of all time. Curiously enough, before sex, his scientific interest had been focused on the Gall Wasp.

These studies were statistical - and we were to learn, as never before, who did what to whom and how often.

Less well known was that Kinsey (it has been rumoured) participated in unusual sexual practices, including bisexual experiences and masochism. He encouraged group sex involving his graduate students, wife and staff. Kinsey filmed these sexual acts in the attic of his home as part of his "research".

Masters (him) and Johnson (her) took this a stage further. Questionnaires and statistics were one thing. Actual hands on (ahem) laboratory research another. Between 1960 and 1990 they delved into the Human Sexual Response, which was also the title of the book they coauthored and published in 1966. They had a busy life and documented something like 10,000 episodes of what were euphemistically described as "complete cycles of sexual response". Nice work if you can get it.

But, as with all the others, good things came from it. They established inter alia that older people did have sex, that there was no difference between vaginal and clitoral orgasm, that there were clear stages to sexual arousal and probably did more than anyone else to establish workable sexual therapies.

So there you have it. In one lifetime (mine) we have gone from woeful ignorance to more sexual information than you can shake a stick at. In fact there is probably more sexual knowledge in one issue of Cosmo than in my university library when I was an undergraduate.

Has it helped? Without doubt. Has it done harm? Without doubt.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, I never did become a sexologist. It was all just prurient curiosity. My speciality was visual perception. Ho hum.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Weeds update, and a chance to gripe

Following mouse's suggestion I have been back to the Globe Thistle (thank you for the ID blossomcottage) to check progress. They are looking splendid, some half covered, a few fully covered with dainty white flowers. Here are two views (as usual you can click for a bigger image).

In common with some other parts of the globe, we started with a very cold and wet spring / early summer. However, the clouds have parted the last two days and the furnace is still functioning.

The pool has turned a very interesting bottle green colour. I have had to ditch whatever green credentials I can claim and am dosing it up with various noxious substances.

Which brings me to my gripe.

The government knows how much money I have and they tax me accordingly. I have some savings, and those are "after tax" savings, i.e. from earnings that were fully taxed at the time.

OK, so I've taken some of those savings and built a swimming pool. The stuff I bought I paid purchase tax on. The water I filled it with I bought from the water company. What little energy the pool uses, I have paid for too. I hope and believe that various enterprises and their employees have benefited from my spending.

And now I'm taxed extra because I have a pool. A pool can be seen as a luxury, though I don't think that I've suddenly become richer. Poorer actually. I cannot think of a single way in which my pool is a drain on the resources of the local or larger community. So what is the possible justification for yet another tax?

Gripe gripe gripe gripe gripe.
Smile. (I made that last one up).

Friday, 13 June 2008

In paradise, even the weeds are lovely

I'm not sure what these are going to turn out to be - they are clearly some kind of thistle, but look like they want to be cotton ball type things. (Those who read this blog do already know that my botanical knowledge is pathetic at best. But I know what I like looking at).

This poor little chap was rescued from Cupidon this evening; I locked Cupi up and returned in 30 seconds to find that Min had it now! There are times I could throttle my normally beloved cats.

I scouted around looking for distressed looking parent birds, but could find none. Leaving it outside at the moment is just writing a death warrant. I'll see how it does tonight and see if it will take some food tomorrow. It's not that far from being independent. If I can keep it alive for a couple of days it should be OK. Here's hoping.

Next morning update: The fledgeling died in the night, but peacefully. It was still comfortably and neatly reposed. No signs of struggle, flapping or derangement.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

The land that crime forgot

This afternoon I took my wife to the airport and was gone about 4 hours. I'm doing some work on the house so there's lots of stuff lying around. Stuff that any casual visitor would see. I'm a "drop and go" type; I like to pick up on a job when I get back, so I don't want to have to put things away.

I'm so used to doing this, and not having it nicked, that I tend not to give it a second thought. This evening, just for fun, I made an inventory of what was lying around, available for stealing (and is still out there now, as I write this):

  • new block and tackle
  • 2 nice aluminium ladders
  • workmate (folding table)
  • 2 extension cords
  • socket spanner set
  • chain saw
  • 2 laser levels
  • laser range finder
  • jigsaw
  • cordless drill
  • electric drill
  • various hand tools
  • car battery charger
  • mini-digger with key in ignition (not a fast getaway I must admit)
  • 2 Kubota compact tractors with keys in ignitions
  • John Deere mid-size utility tractor, key in ignition
  • cement mixer
  • nice two axle trailer to take it away on
  • steel wheelbarrow
  • garden shredder
  • tank of diesel fuel and pump

And my experience is nothing unusual. Two farmers near me have well-equipped workshop sheds - without doors.

I don't know why folks around here (rural Dordogne) don't thieve, but I am truly grateful. It makes life feel completely different.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The Law of Unintended Consequences

There is a golden rule which says that when the State does something to improve your lot, protect you from yourself, make sure that your children come to no harm, prevent you from getting fat (and so on and so on) the actual results will not only be unexpected, but perversely, may result in the opposite.

I'll kick off with an agricultural example from rural France. I think you will recognise that the agricultural lobby, in the West anyway, has done very well since WWII. They have enjoyed subsidies, protective tariffs, guaranteed prices, and compensation when things go wrong with their businesses.

There is one extraordinary bit of protective legislation that I know about, since it directly affected us (though we have been able to resolve it). It is an ideal illustration of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Because farming operates on an annual cycle, farmers, reasonably enough, want as much notice as possible of changes that will affect them - like the reallocation of land they might be renting.

Now this can be safely left to the free market. People with land to let, but who are unreasonable about time frames, will find it more difficult to let that land, and will find that they can charge less for it. In like vein, farmers who are prepared to take land for one, two or three years will find more land available to them than those who are looking to tie someone into a 20 year contract.

However, in France, the State likes to protect agriculture, and this is how they have "helped" farmers in their struggle with unreasonable landlords.

First, land is now let for a minimum nine year period. That is hefty enough. However, at the end of that nine year period, the renting farmer has the option, by right, to extend the contract for a further nine years, for nine years after that, and so on to perpetuity. Which is pretty scary for the landlord.

It makes no difference if the land is sold in the meantime. For a start, the farmer is protected for the nine years anyway. At the end of the nine years you, the new owner, can petition to get the land back, but if you're a townie say, you can kiss your chances goodbye. Even if you wanted to farm it, it would likely go to a tribunal that could easily rule against you. So you can end up owning, and paying taxes on, as asset that you have no reasonable chance of ever getting back.

OK, let's get to the unintended (but by now quite predictable) consequence. Farmers are kicking and screaming because they can't find land to rent. Oh, the land is there alright, and there are people who would love to rent it out. But because some functionaire can't trust two adults to work out a reasonable contract between them no one dares to let their land.

Another. What turned the British into a nation of home owners, rather than tenants (which many were happy to be)? And in the process turned them into one of the most indebted nations on earth who measure their happiness almost entirely in terms of house prices?

The desire to "protect" tenants against landlords.

This took many forms, almost all of which deterred people from letting property and so ultimately hurting the rented sector. When rents are controlled, the sector gets less profitable and shrinks. When you cannot terminate rental agreements, the sector is less attractive and shrinks. When tenants can be more easily removed from furnished properties than unfurnished ones, the unfurnished sector shrinks so you can only rent something with the cheapest and most hideous furniture imaginable (I did). All the above happened in the UK in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

I know there are unreasonable landlords, but the free market will punish them. They will find it harder to get tenants and will have to charge less for their rentals. As it happened the government played right into their hands by (unintentionally!!) shrinking the sector so that the remaining landlords had people grovelling to get a place, any place.

I confine myself to one more example, road straightening to reduce accidents. Well, you guessed it. Drivers increase their speeds which increases the accident rate, and increases the chance of fatalities among cyclists and pedestrians.

There are many other examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences, but rather than bore you I will invite you to look out for them, and maybe post them in comment form. The key characteristic almost without fail is the state doing something to protect someone, but hurting them by so doing.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Blue Foot: in memory

Blue Foot died today, aged just under three years. She was a chicken. Those who keep chickens will understand why we are sad.

She was so-called because her left leg was yellow, but her right leg was a slate blue colour. I got to know her well because she had a morbid fear of heights. I'm talking here of anything over five centimetres. Really. She would stand on the edge of the dog's basket, or a flower bed, and not know how to proceed. I would have to rescue her. We formed quite a relationship and she would indulge me by sitting on my lap and having a snooze.

Her fear was well-founded. When she and her five sisters arrived as young hens, the French peasant delivering them said we should clip their wings. French peasants are almost always right about these country things. Not on this occasion. He clipped their right wings quite radically. The result was that they were very unbalanced trying to flutter down from any height; Blue Foot seemed to lose her confidence more than the others, and was never the same.

Chickens are very individual. Blue Foot was a high status hen, probably at the top of the original six. But she was gentle and did not bully (as some will). Chickens have friendships. Giselle was her special friend and where one was, the other would usually be close.

Anyway, something went wrong. I found her on the floor of the chicken house one night. I left her there till morning so that she would not be disorientated. In the morning I could see from her posture and her immobility that she was injured, possibly a broken pelvis.

Now some chickens will attack a sick or injured fellow. A relatively new chicken, the inappropriately named White Angel, was indeed having a go. We took Blue Foot inside and considered our options. We know from experience that French vets won't treat chickens, at least not individually. This makes sense. The replacement cost of a chicken is a fraction of the cost of veterinarian treatment, so they just don't do it. Luckily our vet friend The Builder (I will call him that to protect the innocent) helped out and left me with a syringe and antibiotic. She stayed indoors until she was almost fully recovered. She rejoined the flock and all seemed fine, but may have fallen a second time, for after a couple of days she had a serious relapse with similar symptoms.

This was really touch-and-go. But, with with The Builder's help and several weeks of tlc she once again staged a recovery and was returned to the flock. After these absences, she and Giselle would invariably team up again. In the photo Blue Foot is on the left, Giselle on the right. This was taken just a few weeks ago during her recovery phase.

After about three weeks of normal behaviour she showed signs of weakness, but with no discernible cause. We had her back inside, but there was a steady decline. It became clear that she was likely to die this time; she soon was not able to eat, and after a while, not drink either. I would have euthanased her, but couldn't think of a non-violent way of doing this, and I didn't want her last seconds to be violent. The Builder I know would have been able to dispatch her without pain, but he was away. She was mostly unconscious during her last two days; I don't think she was suffering.

So this morning she finally stopped breathing and is buried under one of our apple trees.

This is written as a short tribute to her. I rather like the idea that, aided by industrious search robots, her name will live for some considerable time.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

The hyper guide to inflation

Inflation. Like the poor, always with us. Just one of those things? Well, no.

Chances are you haven't given it much thought. Prices go up a bit (apparently about 2.5% a year if the Bank of England are to be believed), you get paid a bit more, blahdy blah. Dull? No, absolutely not. Read on to the end to see that a crime is being committed.

So what causes it? Greedy merchants? Unproductive industries? BoE getting interest rates wrong?

Nope. It's much, much simpler. The government is increasing the money supply, in effect by printing more money. Can such a simple thing can be true? And if so, why is it allowed to happen?

Can it be true?

In econo-speak, the marginal utility of an additional "something" declines as the supply increases. One glass of water is great, but the 15th is not. Amazingly the same is true for money - you actually can have too much of it. Try this thought experiment. Those friendly martians call again and leave a mountain of fivers on each street corner. Try buying something, anything, the next day. I think you'll find that a can of baked beans will have greater buying power than a shedload of money.

The current best example is Zimbabwe which is in the throes of hyperinflation (about 150,000%), not seen since the days of the Weimar Republic.

Zimbabwe has had to introduce a new bank note: Z$10 million. Bear in mind that back in August 2006 they slashed off three zeros anyway, so this is really a 10 billion dollar note. It is the equivalent of about $4 at the black market exchange rate. (In 1980 a Zim dollar was worth more than a US dollar).

(Text added 5 June 2008 - after a comment by absolute vanilla I looked up the latest conversion rate. I was WAY out of date. Today Z$10 million will get you, not US $4, but 2 cents).

The government seeks to blame everyone but themselves. In February 2007 they declared inflation "illegal". Anyone raising prices or wages would be arrested and punished. But the actual cause is the simple one, the government is printing money on a vast scale.

On 1 March 2008, it was reported by The Sunday Times that the Munich company Giesecke & Devrient (G&D) was receiving more than €500,000 (£382,000) a week for delivering bank notes at the astonishing rate of Z$170 trillion a week. Which looks like this: Z$170,000,000,000,000. Or this much a day: Z$24,000,000,000,000. Which is why prices keep doubling every few days.

Why does Mugabe do this?

Let's start with Zimbabwe, but the logic holds for all governments where there is inflation. The Zimbabwean government prints money to pay its bills. The process, though mad, works, and it works on the marginal utility basis.

Say Mugabe wants a new Merc, or needs to pay the army before they go apeshit. He prints a couple of trillion. Because those notes are not "in" the economy yet, they have the same worth as other dollars up to and at the point at which they are spent. However, after they are spent they cause the money supply to increase, and the value falls proportionately. So he gets a free lunch, but no one else does. And then he goes and does it again.

It's weird. He's like a kid who has a fiver and a colour photocopier, who actually thinks that he can generate value that way. The only difference is we can make the kid stop.

Why do other governments do this?

Governments have no money of their own. They get it three ways. They take ours by tax, they borrow someone else's or they print it. Excessive taxation turns voters against them, debt needs to be serviced, but hey, printing money is like fat-free cake.

Remember marginal utility? When the government has a pet project, or stupidly commits to bailing out a failing bank no matter what, it can finance it by printing money. It has full value up to the moment the government spends it; then, after it is spent (i.e. enters the economy), it dilutes all money pro rata. Note that the government gets the full value benefit, we get the devalued currency.

Now most governments don't go crazy like Mugabe. They do it at 2.5% like in the UK. It's pretty clever really. It transfers 2.5% of everyone's wealth to the government, every year, without anyone noticing. Much like a "victimless" crime.

Postscript 1: Wars are followed by periods of high inflation. This is one of the ways governments pay for them, i.e. with devalued currencies. The cost of the war in Iraq is now about half a trillion dollars, or getting on for 10% of the entire cost of WWII. I don't know what the UK's share of this is, but its citizens had better brace themselves for some upcoming inflation (see Postscript 2).

Postscript 2: The markets know about devalued currencies long before the rest of us, sometimes before the government I suspect. Have a look at this chart for the Euro/Pound pair. It shows that for the last several years it used to cost about 67p to buy a Euro.

From the middle of last year that changed and it now costs up to 80p to buy the same Euro. Which means the Pound has fallen some 20% against the Euro. (See Postscript 1).

Click image to enlarge it.