Sunday, 15 February 2009

Broken Britain

A journalist's catchphrase, and not the economic crisis this time but a depressing if familiar story about teenage pregnancy.

The dad is 13-year-old Alfie Patten, and the mother is his 15-year-old 'girlfriend', Chantelle Stedman. Or alleged dad, since two other lads have now come forward saying that they too have had intercourse with Chantelle - who was just 14 when she became pregnant.

The part that depressed me most is not the particular case - it is unusual only in that Alfie is so young - but that lack of critical thinking in our politicians and those who craft our social policies.

Let me digress ever so slightly to mention Signal Detection Theory by Tanner and Swets, which was the product of research done at Bell Labs in the 50s. They looked at the problem of detecting a weak signal in the presence of noise and they reached an important conclusion. If you wanted to detect most of the signals, you would also generate a lot of false alarms. If you wanted to avoid false alarms, you would miss many signals. It's a law of nature and you can't avoid its consequences.

So consider social policy. If you will put up with a lot of discomfort (moral, social, financial) around teenage pregnancy, you would have few of them. If you protect those teenagers from the consequences of their pregnancies, you will have more of them.

If you are willing to allow unemployment to be unpleasant, you will have more people willing to work. If you cushion unemployment, you will end up with more people out of work.

Now don't get me wrong. I don't like people to suffer, not at all. But what I don't like is policies crafted without both sides of this equation being looked at. And it's not even that the policies we do have prevent suffering. Both families are completely dysfunctional. Alfie's dad seems to have had nine children, every one I believe by different partners. Chantelle's family seems to have condoned the two of them sleeping together. And now we have a new poor innocent entry into the dysfunctional stakes. This child is not going to have a good life. For a start, I wouldn't leave her alone in a room with her father for five minutes.

Matt Dunkley, director of children's services at East Sussex County Council, said: "Any birth to parents this young is a cause of great concern to us and in these circumstances we will always offer substantial support to the families involved". Well, that's nice of course, but let's just rephrase that as "We will make sure that the individuals concerned and shielded from the consequences of their behaviour".

There have been the usual bleatings about sex education. Frankly that has nothing to do with it. When I was that age we had virtually none, but we also had no intercourse and no pregnancy.

And shame, regret, remourse, guilt ....?

Not a dot as far as one can tell. It's a pity. I don't know where the idea has sprung from that guilt is a bad thing. It is the surest sign that you do actually have a superego and that you have a modicum of maturity.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Living on the edge

Living on the edge ... something we all do every day it seems, whether we realise it or not.

We had a severe storm in SW France recently - high winds which did a lot of damage. Hundreds of thousands of homes were without (a) electricity and hence (b) water, since the pump stations could not function and (c) telephone, so no access to the god Google.

Everything stopped, and it made me wonder just how small the calamity would have to be to wipe much of mankind off the map.

How many days supply of food and water is there in a city like Paris? (Or London, New York or Calcutta). Two days? Three? Five? How long would it take for crazed millions to start pouring out of those cities and into the countryside?

And paradoxically, though I guess obviously, the less technology you have, the less you are affected.

For example, no electricity means no heat for most people, since the electronics and pumps in heating systems stop working. However, for us, heat means a wood-burning stove, so it was business as usual.

It's a bit limited, but we can use the top of the same stove as a cooking hob.

Water pressure started to drop almost immediately after the storm, as water towers began to empty. It wasn't long before we needed to collect and drink water from our "source", a spring that is in a cave directly under our house.

Therefore we were luckier than many. However, no running water means no flushing toilets, no baths and no showers, and it wasn't many days before I would have parted with a large denomination banknote in exchange for a soak and a hair-wash.

Anyway, services were restored in a few days, except for our comprehensively thrashed telephone line - got that back in 10 days. I like the pragmatism of the telephone engineers. There's about half a kilometer of line down (three or four separate trees came down on it), but they've repaired the break on the line as it lies there, forlornly, and will string it up later when they have more time.

So there you have it. Our predecessors, who have lived here since the 12th century, would have noticed little different after the storm, apart from a few trees down. For us modern types, life suddenly became a whole lot more challenging.

It does not bode well, methinks.

On a more cheerful note, no heat, light or computer = heading off to the Pyrenees for a few day's skiing. Nothing remarkable about that, except for the charming honesty of rural France. We stayed in a tiny hotel for two nights, car parked on the street outside with five pairs of skis on top (just held by those elastic things) and not a worry in the world that they might disappear.