Sunday 28 June 2009

Warning: May contain nuts

The un-Doctored Gillian McKeith is selling a product for weight loss that purports to make the fat burn off while you're asleep. 

Gillian McKeith Cellfood Slimmers Formula, which costs £29.99 for a 118ml bottle is available from her website and from the usual suspects. It comes with Tesco Clubcard points, too.

Her Cellfood range is, according to her website, an oxygen and nutrient supplement that uses a proprietary water-splitting technology delivering 129 nutrients to your cells.

As far as my basic biology goes, I don't remember anything about your digestive tract being able to absorb oxygen. Even watching a few episodes of ER teaches me that if you need more oxygen, doctors tend to give it to you through a mask or a pipe aimed at your lungs (tube her, stat), not through a pipe down into your stomach.

However, according to McKeith:

Many scientists believe cells cannot malfunction if there is enough oxygen in the body.

Hoorah! A cure for cancer!

Back to the miracle fat-buster. The product 'works' because:

Slimmers Formula combines natural ingredients that decrease fat storage and increase the body's metabolic rate to burn more calories. It can help you lose inches from areas of your body with the most excess fat. Best of all it works naturally while you sleep and it couldn't be easier to use: just add the Formula to a glass of water at bedtime and go to sleep.

However, there is the instruction:

Slimmers are urged to stop eating three hours prior to using the product and to combine it with a healthy diet and regular exercise.

Many diet and stomach 'health' products like pro-biotics (Oh dear, I keep getting this bloated feeling, wince, wince) are advertised with the healthy diet and regular exercise message. These are the royal family of weasel words.

Basically, stop stuffing your face all night, get up off your lardy arse and move about a bit, and don't eat so many pies. But that couldn't possibly work on its own, could it?

I have another theory. It works because when you buy it, McKeith comes to your house at night and nibbles away the fat. Like Santa or the Tooth Fairy, she can get round the whole world in a night. Kind of a tooth fairy with a taste for lard.

It's good to see that the Scotsman has taken her on.

Friday 26 June 2009

The World Mourns, Apparently

The circus is in town, lead by ringmaster Uri Geller - who said that he wouldn't comment until doctors had confirmed Jackson's death. So much for his psychic powers.

Jackson had no emotional resonance for me and I didn't like his music but his cultural resonance and place in music history can't be ignored. It's quite an achievement to slow down the whole Internet. 

As with any death, there is a whole range of responses.

A lot of people are confusing 'I'm sad' with 'It's sad', which is generally followed by 'isn't it?', making it hard to disagree without appearing callous. 

I don't buy the equally subjective 'It's sad when anyone dies' line. A celeb death may be a memento mori for some people but there's also the peer-group pressure to join in the feel-good inclusiveness of feeling bad. Not being sucked in makes you cold, hard, unfeeling and so on. It also makes those who have succumbed feel judged. Rather than consider that they may be investing too much for the wrong reasons, they cast any dissenter as the bad outsider who is easily dismissed. 

It's also a lot easier to lament when you don't have to deal with the practicalities of a death as you do with someone you know (someone you really know).

If someone I admired died, I would feel passing sadness but to be honest, it would be a selfish reaction - sad that they would be producing no more films/books/songs/ideas etc for me to enjoy.

The flip side of the hagiography is the backlash (Jacklash?). Some people take great pleasure in evidence that being talented, rich and famous doesn't bring happiness. It's kind of the Revenge of the Ordinary. And of course there are the jokes. But not giving a toss, pretending to be bored by the coverage and the man, is cynical and facile, as much of a pose as wallowing in the 'tragedy'.

There will be great fun for the conspiracy theorists. My favourite so far is that he was going to cancel the London gigs and send everyone a refund cheque signed by him personally, banking (literally) on the fact that people would keep them either as a souvenir or as an investment. Genius.

I'll probably be coming back to this post as the bloated corpse of media coverage festers on.

Ah yes, apparently he invented being black. That's useful to know.

Sunday 21 June 2009

London Ukulele Festival 2009

A very odd and strangely uplifting day.

There is a whole world of ukuleles out there, varying in size, shape and colour. I saw all sorts, from a triple strung soprano to a tenor to electric ukes, banjo-ukes and some home-made ones in odd shapes. The mass of people turning up with black cases made it look like a convention for old time gangsters with very small machine guns.

The people playing them were equally varied, from very small children to pensioners. There were a few people who were a bit 'look at me, I'm so quirky' and some overly serious 'I'm a proper musician' types (mostly with beards) who played flashy transitional chords while the rest of us stuck to the three, but mostly it was just regular people.

The uke is one of the more democratic instruments as they start at about £20 and it's not hard to learn the basics - I got the hang of the three chords necessary to play the song (Sloop John B) in a very short time, and a few others too. There was a man there who makes bespoke ones from (ethically sourced) Brazilian mahogany that cost around £600 and they were lovely but pretty much anyone can buy a basic uke to get started.

We had a discussion on the right way round to carry the case - the body or the neck pointing forward. Neck forward looks a bit too much like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

After a bit of a haphazard start, we registered, had a label with a number stuck on us and our photos taken holding our ukes to make it official. Then we watched a few performers in the outside area, most of whom were more than slightly strange. One very fragile-looking woman with a big voice belted out Talking Head's Psycho Killer; Megan and I spent her whole act hoping the wind would blow her frock up as we decided she was probably wearing huge grey pants. A rather unsavoury looking man sang a morally dubious song about premature ejaculation. Inside on the main stage, a duo belted out Ace of Spades and then the Ukulele Orchestra showed how cover versions should be done.

When it was time for the record-breaking attempt, we were herded around a bit pointlessly for a while and then marshalled in the main area for a rehearsal. The sound system was terrible but we managed to get through the song.

The attempt itself went without a hitch although a lot of us (me included) hadn't managed to learn the words to all of the verses; the volume increased considerably on the choruses. We sang it twice through as the attempt had to last at least five minutes.
The original record stood at 400 plus, set in Sweden, and there were well over 800 of us there (the announcement at the end was too muffled to catch the exact number).

I met some new people and caught up with someone I thought was MIA as well as spending time with some old friends. The evening ended with a Brick Lane curry and even at 10pm when we left, there were still people in the area carrying the black cases.

The atmosphere was superb, a mass of people with pretty much nothing else in common singing and playing together, mostly not taking it too seriously, in a high-vaulted covered square full of light and greenery. It was pleasing that the event happened in the heart of the financial district, a corporate area with money oozing out of every stone. It would be easy to over-analyse the day and get into all sorts of metaphors; most of all, it was a laugh.

There is going to be another attempt in Chicago in August that will probably beat us - but that's just a challenge for next time. As Roy Castle used to sing, we are the record breakers. And my right shoulder is on Youtube.

Thanks again to Babs and Kate (in the photo) for inviting me along and to Jon for lending me a uke.

UPDATE: August 2009. The Chicago attempt failed to break the London record. We rock.

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Ukulele Lady

Is it possible to learn the ukulele in two days? Or, more precisely, to learn three chords? 

On Saturday in Devonshire Square, London EC2 is the London Uke Festival and, as part of it, there will be an attempt to break the world record for the most ukes playing together in one place.

I used to play guitar but have never attempted the uke (see, I have picked up the jargon). But several friends of mine (who can play) are going and have a spare uke so somehow I am now going to join them.

The song is Sloop John B. The chords are very basic indeed so it shouldn't be any problem. I hope. My finger tips have lost the hard pads they once had, for a start. And my hands are not exactly tiny.

I don't even have the uke yet, I may get it tonight or tomorrow. I've been practising in my head, which is just as good - isn't it?

One thing we are decided on: we will not be dressing Hawaiian as they suggest. No loud shirts for us.

There will be proper players there and various other events and uke-related stuff. It's a whole new world. I shall report back.

I Believe Part Two

Incidentally, on the American website version of this same testimonial, the photo is of a black woman and her 'son'.

Tuesday 16 June 2009

I Believe

The United Church of the Kingdom of God was started in 1977 in Brazil. It is now in 176 countries and has been in the UK since 1995, based at what was the Rainbow, Finsbury Park.

They have put the billboard pictured up on Seven Sisters Road, as a member of the NSS alerted us.

The text reads:

My son was born with a heart problem. After a party he started bleeding from the mouth. I rushed him to hospital and the specialist said he had 16 loose arteries. He went into a coma, his heart stopped and both his lungs collapsed. Doctors and specialists expected him to die. At the UCKG I was given some blessed oil to anoint my son with. Now that his heart and lungs are better I thank the UCKG for all the spiritual support I received. Julia Caro.

A slightly longer version of this testimony appears on UCKG’s American website.

Along the bottom edge, in white text on pale cream background, and tucked into the frame, is this disclaimer:

In accordance to the CAP code, point 503, the uckg helpcentre's spiritual advice is to be seen as a complement to scientifically proven [torn - medical treatment?] you are receiving.

This refers to an item in the Health & Beauty Products & Therapies section of the Code of Advertising Practice.

50.3 Marketers should not discourage essential treatment. They should not offer specific advice on, diagnosis of or treatment for serious or prolonged conditions unless it is conducted under the supervision of a doctor or other suitably qualified health professional (eg one subject to regulation by a statutory or recognised medical or health professional body). Accurate and responsible general information about such conditions may, however, be offered.

What the hell are ‘loose arteries’? A close reading of this adverts shows that the anointing oil is not directly accredited with the cure, which of course would contravene advertising regulations, but the implication is clear. It was the oil that cured him. How does this constitute accurate and responsible general information?

This is not the only extraordinary claim they have made. Their website has the following testimonials:

I used to suffer with a burning, itching sensation in both my legs. I had this pain for years. I used my faith by using the blessed handkerchief which was consecrated in seven different Holy places in Israel. After rubbing the handkerchief over my legs, I made a prayer believing that I would be healed and the pain immediately stopped.


My son Chris had a skin infection and needed constant treatment. Sometimes wounds filled with pus would spread throughout his body, causing his skin to itch all the time. I used the handkerchief on my son’s head and prayed for him. Four days later, I noticed that the problem was gone! During a doctor’s appointment, it was confirmed that the problem was really gone - it simply disappeared.

The Blessed Handkerchief is another ‘treatment’ they offer. In the first instance, the word placebo comes to mind. In the second, there is no indication whether the sufferer was receiving medical treatment, how long he had been suffering or whether this was a condition that would heal in time anyway. Mentioning the doctor is just a feeble attempt to lend credibility to the hanky. All the doctor did was observe that the complaint had healed. But ‘disappeared’ is so much more dramatic.

There is another example of what the oil can do:

Being told that I had meningitis and knowing that I could die at anytime was the scariest thing I’ve had to live through. It all began when got a sudden stiff neck, severe headaches and immediately went to the doctor after experiencing double vision. A lumber puncture (a process of taking fluid from the spine) confirmed the meningitis and I was immediately given a Hickman line (a tube that goes through the chest into one of the major blood vessels). Every time I was discharged, I relapsed.

It was during one of my stints in hospital that two volunteers from the UCKG visited me. 
They returned on a weekly basis to encourage, anoint me with the Holy Oil and pray for my recovery, as a compliment to the medical help I recieved. Now that my vision has returned and the headaches and stiff neck have gone, I am so happy for the support I received. When the doctors discharged me, they assured me that I was no longer in danger of a relapse. They’ve told me that I am free from meningitis.

So, over a process of several weeks in hospital, the meningitis went away. That never happens normally.

The UCKG also offers spiritual cleansing, their term for exorcism.

They do offer a mild disclaimer:

Anyone claiming to have been healed whilst attending one of the UCKG centres is invariably referred to their doctor because UCKG does not recognise a healing unless it has been confirmed by a qualified medical practitioner.

However, this does mean that if anyone gets better, if their illness ‘disappears’, they can claim it as a healing. They don’t expect the doctors to do any more than note that the condition has gone. They will not agree it is a healing because

Many [doctors] do not accept that the church and prayer can heal but tend to conclude that the illness is just not there anymore.

On top of all these insults to science and rationality, I am personally deeply offended that the place I once saw The Buzzcocks is now a temple of superstition and exploitation of the vulnerable. The title of this post is a Buzzcocks’ song.

See also here for a brief addendum.

Update 18 August 2009: Since this post was written, the link at the top has stopped working. The site has been revamped but many of the testimonials are the same. It is now here.

Sunday 7 June 2009

Human Remains

According to Professor Bruce Hood, a psychologist at Bristol University, one in three transplant patients believes that they take on some characteristics of the organ donor – preferences, memories and other personality traits.

 The idea that essential properties exist and persist in body parts isn't new; there are horror films about people taking on the characteristics of donors, becoming murderers (inevitably), like the 1946 film The Beast With Five Fingers

 What may be surprising is that so many people still believe this is possible.

 Although the numbers vary according to the source, there is plenty of evidence of how widespread this phenomenon is. As just one example, the Daily Mail ran a story about a woman who used to read trashy novels but began to read Austen and Dostoevsky after her kidney transplant. The article also cites a U.S. woman terrified of heights who became a climber and a seven-year-old girl who had nightmares about being killed after being given the heart of a murdered child. Not surprisingly, a lot of these stories are in a similar sensationalist vein; ‘Transplant patient now likes peas’ would not be much of a story. Although certain papers could probably make something of it.

 The Mail article describes 

cellular memory phenomenon, which claims human cells contain clues to our personalities and tastes that somehow bypass our brains. Academics and medical experts have dismissed the theory as "nonsense" but it has many supporters, not least among transplant patients themselves.

At the end of March 2009, there were 16,124,871 people on the British Organ Donor Register . That’s over 16 million potential personalities waiting to be transferred to a new home. The same website states that in the last two years, over six thousand people received donated organs. If Hood’s figures are correct, that’s two thousand who think they are sharing their bodies with some sort of supernatural parasite.

 The idea that our essence, what makes us who we are, is imprinted in every cell requires quite a leap of faith. If this were true, when we give blood, do we become temporarily less ourselves until our bodies make up the blood? If we lose a limb, are we permanently diminished? How do babies develop unique personalities when they are made up of cells from other animals (unless the mother is vegan) and fed in the womb by the mother’s blood? And what about when people have sex without condoms or even kiss? Do they absorb some of each others’ identity? Is our personality permanently in flux, expanding every time food is turned into part of our bodies and shrinking every time we poo? Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman takes this idea to an interesting place.

Back on more scientific ground, while scientists do not find any evidence for cellular memory (which sounds suspiciously like water memory theory espoused by homeopaths) there is no doubt that it occurs for solid scientific reasons.

It’s not ignorance or social conditioning that causes us to commit the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy like the people in the Mail article or to see connections where there are only coincidences. Our brains are hard-wired by evolution to seek patterns, to ascribe significance to coincidences and to infer causal links. The brain is constantly processing and interpreting the world and not always correctly. We like links, because they give a sense of order, a way to predict the future and reasons for things happening – and sometimes someone or something to blame for unpleasant phenomena.

One of the ways we can make mistakes is believing in mind-body dualism. Research by Hood and others has shown that pre-school children too young for social conditioning think that the mind is separate, that even after death, something persists, some sort of essence. There are always human remains. More explanation for this from Hood himself is in an audio clip from his talk at the Cheltenham Science Festival (2009).

 The effect of this essentialism is also seen in beliefs about inanimate objects. For example, Hood ran an experiment where he asked people if they would be prepared to put on an old cardigan that had been thoroughly cleaned. Most were willing. Until he told them that it was Fred West’s cardigan - nearly all of them changed their minds.  He comments: 

There are always the exceptions, of course. Some people resolutely keep their hand raised. Typically, they are male and determined to demonstrate their rational control. Or they suspect, rightly, that I am lying about the owner of the cardigan. What is remarkable is that audience members sitting next to one of these individuals visibly recoil from them: how could someone even consider touching such an appalling garment?

 The same mind-set is in action in people who collect memorabilia or autographs of famous people or historical figures – the essence of the original owner or the autographer is somehow transferred into the object or signature. Of course, feeling a close bond with someone not physically with us can be a positive experience. It’s not necessarily an evolutionary flaw to feel wrong about ripping up a photo of someone close to us.

 If people have such beliefs about inanimate objects, then they are likely to feel much more strongly about something that was once part of someone’s body, like an organ. Hood reports that:

 In a second study, based on a hypothetical scenario, 20 students were asked how they would feel about receiving lifesaving organs from a range of possible donors. When students were told that the donor was a murderer they were strongly opposed to receiving the organ. When told that the donor was a good person, their responses were more positive. (op cit)

 There are other ramifications of this belief; racists who do not want to donate or receive organs (or even blood) to or from certain people, for example. On the positive side, some people may be more inclined to donate if they think it’s a way of living on after death in a real sense although the idea of hitchhiking in someone else’s body, influencing their lives, warping their personalities to be more like theirs is hard to see in anything other than a sinister light. And what if someone receives blood or organs from more than one donor? Will there be a war of influence or will some sort of multiple personality develop?

 This kind of essentialist belief permeates everyone’s lives to some degree. Even though we may know that such beliefs are not rational, it’s not easy to shake them off because we have evolved to think in ways that help us survive and some of these ways have side-effects. We are linking animals who naturally join up the dots. We just don’t do random.

 Whether Thing in The Addams Family ever had a body is open to conjecture.




Tuesday 2 June 2009

The One True Faith

As I said at the outset, there will be carb-based posts here and this is the first of many. 

I have finally found my spiritual home. It is here,  a Jaffa cake based belief that fills the god-shaped hole inside me. Only 1 gram of fat per religious experience.

And lo, it was good.