Category Archives: Comment

Churg-Strauss Syndrome – Warning Signs

The rare but potentially fatal condition of Allergic Granulomatosis, also named Churg-Strauss Syndrome after the two scientists who discovered it, is generally not recognised or diagnosed until a life-threatening bleed has occurred inside a major organ of the body.

The primary method of diagnosing Churg-Strauss is not however from the deadly bleed itself, but rather through the results of a particular blood test called ANCA (anti-neutrophilic cytoplasmic antibodies). It takes about a week for the results to come back from this test and most surgeries and many hospitals will have to send the blood away for this analysis. Because of the duration that this test takes it is particularly important to have the test done as soon as there is reasonable cause for concern.

For Ladan, my wife, the results arrived after she had started bleeding in her head and less than an hour before she fell unconscious. Most of what I am about to write is based on what were, with retrospective vision, probably symptoms of Churg-Strauss, in the hope that if you have found this article by searching for symptoms in a search engine, and the picture seems to fit your case, you might ask for an ANCA test to be taken as a precaution. These symptoms are summarised toward the end of this article.

It is important to note that I am not a doctor and the symptoms listed in this article are not necessarily recognised by the medical community as being related to Churg-Strauss Syndrome, however given the devastation that this rare condition can cause I believe that existence of two or more of these symptoms together would make it prudent to check for Churg-Strauss or a similar disease of the auto-immune system. Most web sites dealing with Churg-Strauss Syndrome do not suggest what the early symptoms may be beyond asthma, I can see, retrospectively, that there were many signs of a worsening vasculitis and greater awareness of such signs may help to save others from developing the syndrome to the point that it threatens their lives.

Incidence of Churg-Strauss Syndrome is thought to be less than 1 in 100,000. It is classed as an auto-immune disorder as it flares when the body’s auto-immune system becomes self-destructive. It is a rare form of vasculitis that causes swelling in the smaller blood vessels of the body, generally focussing itself in a very localised fashion. It may affect other parts of the body before inflicting itself on part of a major organ which can then result in an internal bleed which, in turn, may result in death.

It seems that nobody is entirely sure what causes Churg-Strauss but a favourite theory is that a dependence on steroids may be partly to blame, and a group of people who seem particularly at risk from the disease are asthma sufferers, who tend to take inhalers containing steroids on a frequent basis.

Some studies have shown that asthma sufferers have often developed Churg-Strauss shortly after changing their inhalers, this raised questions over whether or not the new inhalers were causing the disease but further research suggested it was more likely to be the cessation of using the previous steroidal inhaler that was bringing Churg-Strauss to the fore.

Inhaler changes tend to be made following bad asthma attacks, therefore bad asthma attacks are often part of the recent history of a Churg-Strauss sufferer. It is also however widely thought that Churg-Strauss can cause asthma or asthma-like symptoms, so an apparent worsening of asthma may well be caused by Churg-Strauss itself, and if, in those rare cases, the steroidal inhalers are not working well then the change to a non-steroidal inhaler is likely to make the Churg-Strauss much worse. Perhaps paradoxically, Ladan found that her new non-steroidal inhaler worked wonders for her asthma, which perhaps suggests that it is the asthma that was worse rather than Churg-Strauss causing it.

Following a few severe asthma attacks which led to an inhaler change, Ladan’s first physicsl symptoms of something not being quite right were sharp pains in her arms and legs, these were fairly short lasting but occurred several times a week.

Next came the swelling. At first it was thought that an unusual insect had got a bite at Ladan’s right foot and ankle as they swelled up slightly, not like a balloon, but it was red and painful and several blisters formed in the effected area. Shortly after this the same pattern started to occur, though to a slightly lesser extent, on Ladan’s left foot and ankle. A cortico-steroid cream was used which helped alleviate the pain and a course of oral steroids eventually made the problem go away very quickly.

Another symptom that started developing around this time was a tingling and numbness in the fingers which sometimes also extended to the fore-arms, again slightly more prominent on one side but often reflected to a slightly lesser extent on the other side. As with the sharp pains this symptom started occurring regularly but it could last for quite a prolonged period of time. This was never really diagnosed as anything with a non external cause.

Ladan also found that her sense of smell went, whether this was a permanent thing that she becamew aware of occasionally or an occasional symptom I am not sure.

Swelling then also occurred in Ladan’s wrists and hands, again red and painful with several blisters forming in the affected areas, and again more prominent on one side but reflected to a slightly lesser extent on the other. In both the swelling on the wrists and on the feet the skin was raised by about 1 to 3mm with the redness. The combination of swelling and tingling aroused suspicions of an allergy, perhaps to a soap or washing powder that was in use, but again an oral course of steroids brought the swelling down.

Blood tests showed that Ladan had a very high eosinophil count (an inflammatory marker in the blood) while the swelling was active which came down quickly with steroid use. This is typical of Churg-Strauss but can also be caused by many other conditions.

The above symptoms were bad enough to be causing serious distress to Ladan, for example the swelling in her feet and ankles made driving and too much walking very uncomfortable. But the most distressing symptom was an agonising stomach pain that hit her about 5 weeks before the condition reached its life-threatening peak.

The stomach pain was in the top centre of her stomach, just below her ribs. It would start hurting about 1-2 hours after eating any food and would only be alleviated after a lot of vomiting. Barely any food stayed down during this period. Ladan had previously suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, another condition for which she had taken steroids from time to time, and knew that this pain was something quite different. It kept her bed ridden and was misdiagnosed consistently as gastroenteritis, though the possibility of a stomach ulcer or appendicitis were also considered.

In addition to typical treatments for gastric problems, an oral course of steroids was attempted at one point during this period but it is possible that many of the tablets did not stay down long enough to have an effect.

The tingling sensation in the fingers started to become more prominent to the extent that for a lot of the time the two fingers nearest the thumb on each hand, but particularly the left hand, felt almost completely numb.

A similar irritation occurred in Ladan’s face the night before a morning where she suddenly had a very severe headache with slurring of speech and blurring of vision, while a migraine can apparently cause these symptoms the actual cause was a stroke, the beginning of a brain haemorrhage that was to make Ladan’s condition critical before the doctors were even certain that she had anything more than an upset stomach. These last symptoms, of headache and effected vision and speech, are typical of a stroke and in any case (not just where Churg-Strauss is suspected) where you are experiencing these symptoms – and do not suffer them regularly as part of a diagnosed migraine problem – they should be reported to a doctor immediately as an emergency. Even doctors themselves are good at misdiagnosing strokes as nothing more than a bad headache, they initially made that mistake with Ladan and I have heard of other cases where people have walked into their GPs, following advise of posters on the wall at their local doctor’s practise, and gone home having been assured that they had a bad headache only to fall prey to what was actually a stroke later in the day. If you have such symptoms and they do not feel right then ask your doctor to rule out the possibility of a stroke as best they can, this should involve some strange tests such as having something scraped on the soles of your feet and being asked to hold your arms up and keep them level in the same position with your eyes closed.

Finally, one symptom that Ladan had before all those I have mentioned already, which persisted to the last, was frequent and vivid visions of something terrible happening to her. This may not sound like a scientific symptom but since Churg-Strauss could be causing very localised symptoms in the brain it may have had a physical cause, but in any case when you have clear visions of impending calamity and you cannot identify a good reason for them I don’t think it should be ignored. Ladan didn’t think so either so she talked to a GP about it, unfortunately it was just thought to be related to stress.

I hope I have painted a sufficient picture of what Ladan went through to assist anybody with similar symptoms in deciding whether to ask for an ANCA test.

Unofficial potential symptoms of Churg-Strauss Syndrome
Initial localised symptoms of a vasculitis will vary greatly between sufferers, I would recommend asking for an ANCA test when two or more of the following symptoms are present:

  • Recent alteration of a long-term regime of steroids, eg. changing from an old asthma inhaler to a newer one.
  • External redness and moderate swelling, possibly accompanied by blisters, localised to one location or mirrored to the same location on the opposing side (left/right) of the body
  • Tingling or numbness in the fingers and/or fore-arms. (Not from external pressure such as clothing, furniture or resting fore-arms on bars). This is also called neuropathy.
  • Tingling or numbness in the face.
  • Severe stomach pain that is not alleviated by treatments for sickness, ulcers or gastroenteritis.
  • Frequent vomiting that is not alleviated by anti-sickness medications.
  • Troubling visions
  • Temporary relief of symptoms by steroids
  • Stroke symptoms (severe headache and/or blurred vision and/or slurred speech)
  • Frequent sharp pains apparently coming from organs or deep inside limbs.
  • Loss of sense of smell.

With exception of the first symptom, most of these warrant a visit to the doctor in themselves, if two or more are present and particularly if there is asthma or a history of frequent steroid use which has changed within the last year then it would be worth having a doctor carry out an ANCA test. ANCA results vary according to how active the Churg-Strauss is at the time of the test and the results will not look as bad following a course of steroids when the syndrome is causing external swelling as the ANCA results will look just before a life-threatening bleed will take place, but the results should still show some evidence of the syndrome if it is present and a suitable immuno-suppressant treatment and/or monitoring can be started to ensure that the condition does not worsen. Once diagnosed the syndrome is not very difficult to keep under control.

This blog entry allows for comments, if you feel you can add additional useful information to this article, for example to help people recognise a potential case of Churg-Strauss syndrome, please do comment.

Link: About.com – Churg Strauss Syndrome
Link: BBC Health – Churg-Strauss Syndrome
Link: Churg-Strauss Syndrome International Support Group

Telephone Preference Service

Link: TPS Registration

The Telephone Preference Service (TPS) helps you to make sure your telephone number is no longer available to organisations, including charities and voluntary organisations who may telephone you with offers and information you do not wish to receive

Not many people here in the UK seem to know about this service, but within one month of registration you can drastically reduce unwanted sales calls to your land-line number, whichever network provider you use.

Patientline

Having spent so much time in a hospital over the last nine months I feel I must write a blog entry about Patientline. It’s probably more of a moan than a contribution to the wealth of useful news and information on the Internet.

Patientline is probably installed by most NHS Trusts as a solution to providing bedside entertainment and communication facilities such as TV, telephone and games, yet with inbound calls costing 39p or more to concerned friends and relatives, outbound calls costing at least 10p per minute and TV costing up to £108.50 per month it could be argued that while the facility exists it is not really available to those on low incomes, or even no income due to the very fact that they are in hospital. Once you have spent at least £147 on six weeks of television you become eligble to receive the service at half price, about £51 pounds a month, this is a fact that is not advertised but if you ask the operator for cheaper TV and you meet this criteria then they will arrange this for you.

Still, even £51 a month, or £1.70 per day as it is charged, is £10 more than Sky currently charge for their most expensive channel package, a package which offers all the latest movies and sports events. Patientline’s offering consists of 11 channels which are free through other providers (BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, ITV2, CH4, CH5, BBC News24, CBeebies, CNN and Extreme Sports) and 7 additional channels (Bravo, Cartoon Network, TCM, Trouble, UK Drama, UK Gold and UK Living). Some of the most popular channels, even free ones, available on other multichannel platforms are missing, such as BBC3, E4 and Sky1.

Having a daily rate for TV viewing makes sense when a large percentage of your patients are only going to be in hospital for a short stay, but the fact that each payment only lasts for 24 hours regardless of how much TV you watch makes the service an unviable solution for longer term patients or their visiting relatives, even if the only thing you want to do is keep up with a daily BBC or ITV soap for half an hour each weekday it will cost you £75/month. Where such high premiums are charged for the most basic of viewing I think it is unfair not to offer a better selection of content, either by including a wider range of popular channels or by including premium content such as movies and sport for what is, after all, a premium price. Better still, make the money last for a certain number of viewing hours, rather than a period of time from the moment of activation. Or, even better yet, offer a good selection of free UK channels for no fee whatsoever and then a good selection of premium channels for a premium fee.

At least 39p/minute off-peak and a minimum of 49p/minute peak rate for incoming calls is obviously designed to earn Patientline a lot of money, and when a relative is particularly concerned about somebody they may not listen properly to the warning about the call charges which last for about 50 seconds before you are connected to the patients room. What adds some extra frustrastion is that the service does not always work and the caller is cut off or put through to voicemail after 50 seconds. My Mum and Ladan’s Dad have both spent a fortune trying to call Ladan’s room when I have been here and the phone has been free and not set to go to answerphone but the Patientline service has kept failing to put them through after the recorded messages. Because there is nothing to indicate that the error is with Patientline callers will keep calling and giving more and more money to PatienLine without being able to speak to their loved ones. When such problems occur it is often possible to make a call via the operator by pressing 0 for operator assistance rather than entering the extension number for the room, on these occasions the operators are rarely apologetic for the inconvenience and expense that their system’s faults are causing. 50p/minute is overpriced even if the service will reliably do everything it is supposed to do, but its frequent failings make the high charge rediculous.

There is a payphone on most wards, ironically operated by Patientline, that allows patients to make outbound calls for as little as 30p for 15 minutes to UK land-line nunbers, so 10p/miniute for outgoing calls (with a minimum of 20p per call) is again very expensive, but not prohibitively so.

In reality, watching any amount of television with Patientline quickly becomes prohibitively expensive for those who are in hospital for a while, and incoming calls are so expensive that loved ones simply don’t call the bedside phone anywhere near as often as they would like nor do their calls last as long as they would wish. If Patientline could cut the cost of calling the bedside phone a reduced profit margin would probably mean increased profits as more people would feel comfortable using the service for inbound calls.

Patientline is a service with some merits, its headphones mean that people can watch tv in private without interrupting other patients and the phone facility means that you can get through to a patient (when its working) without having to call the main ward. The biggest problem is the pricing structure that makes it too expensive to use for a prolonged period of time.

Voice over IP Revisited

It’s been a while since I wrote about VoIP and while things haven’t changed very much there are a few things worth noting. Quality is always improving and for the most part you will not detect much difference between VoIP and land-line calls, though the delay is just slightly greater and you may need to repeat things once or twice in a call.

Pricing

In my last article I stated that the cost of PC to Land-line calls using VoIP was still not as competitive as some cheap telecoms services which use only landlines, such as Call 18866 who allow unlimited duration landline calls within the UK for just a 2p connection charge, or international calls for as little as 2p per minute. Now VoIP is catching up a little, a service which is currently still in beta testing (not fully launched yet) offers free voice to land-line calls to many countries. VoIP Buster will allow anybody to make a 1 minute call through their network using their PC to any of several countries free of charge, or if you buy credit (from as little as 1 Euro) which can be used to call anywhere in the world for very low rates, then your calls to the free countries are of unlimited duration. Of course, PC to PC calls are still free between any two users in the world, but I had problems answering an incoming call using their software. Take note though, their rate card does not always match the special offers listed on their home page, and the rate card lists the tarrifs that they actually charge.

Number Portability

Call 18866 are also available via VoIP software now. Any compatiable phone software can be configured to dial through their network. Again you have to register to benefit from it but their call charges start from as little as a 2p connection fee for an unlimited duration UK call. Call18866 is more generally used, however, from a land-line phone rather than a PC, users therefore register to the service with their main UK Land-line phone number. When outgoing calls are made using the VoIP service that main land-line number is used as the Caller ID, so anybody receiving a call from you with Caller Display enabled, such as mobile phone users, or anybody using 1471 (on BT phones) to check where you called from, will get the impression you are calling from home. This is regardless of where you use the service from, so you could be connecting to the Internet at a friends house or from a hotel abroad and still appear to be calling from home.

The devious of mind may envisage heading off to Paris for a few days and calling in sick from the hotel using their own home phone number as the Caller ID, but this number portability carries a lot of potential for businesses with mobile workers. The portability actually works both ways, for a small fee, or with some services for no fee, you can get a telephone number assigned to your VoIP account which enables anybody to call your computer from a normal land-line, these numbers can be 0870 or 0845 numbers or even numbers that indicate you are in a major city, perhaps even in the centre of a city on the other side of the world if that is the image you wish to portray. That number can be presented on your outgoing calls, made using VoIP, from any location and whenever you hook up to to the Internet you can receive calls on that number and check the voicemail on it.

In the past if a worker was to revieve business calls when working from home a company had set up call forwarding between geographical locations at an extra cost to themselves, now that numbers can be assigned to Internet users who can simply log-in to use them, and the Internet takes care of Geography, it is easy to set people up to use the same phone number from home as they do in the office, and even when they are travelling and away from both.

Spread of WiFi

WiFi is the service that allows you to connect to the Internet without plugging in any cables. This is becoming increasingly popular in homes, businesses, pubs and cafes, meaning that in order to use the Internet, and therefore VoIP, you do not need to be near an appropiate socket and run a cable between that socket and your computer, instead you can just switch on from where you are seated and make and receive your calls. As WiFi coverage increases a computer can also be used as a very large mobile phone which can make and receive calls from every location that it is able to connect to the Internet. Of course, most (though not all) public WiFi hotspots require some kind of payment for access, so this does increase the cost of using VoIP in this manner.

More Hardware Options

Keeping your computer on and wearing a headset may be the perfect way of working for many companies, but for the average individual these are not ideal ways of using a phone. If you’re looking for something to hold to your head there are a now wider selection of USB phones that plug into your computer and either imitate a standard desk phone or mobile phone in their design and sometimes in their features. There are also an increasing number of phones which connect directly to a router, and some which connect to wireless routers using WiFi, which can be used to make and receive VoIP calls without leaving a PC switched on. These WiFi phones will also work in free to access “open” public WiFi hotspots but will not function in ones where a device has to register via a web interface before it can be used. Furthermore there is software that will turn a PDA, such as a pocket PC, into a SIP or Skype phone and, as many of these are WiFi compatiable these days and will also be able to register with commercial WiFi operators, these gadgets can already be used as portable phones both in and away from the home and office. WiFi VoIP phones start from about £100 at the time of writing, if you already have a wireless standard phone then a slightly cheaper alternative is to get a VoIP analogue telephone adaptor which will allow you to use any existing telephone to directly dial through your Internet router using VoIP, there are also cheaper versions that connect your home phone via USB to a PC for the same purpose.

Below are a couple of links to the kind of equipment I am referring to here, if you’re interested in buying then ebay is also a great place to look, but be warned, prices are often higher than from the distributors below (once you add postage) and there are a lot of phones around which look like they have LCD displays but just have a piece of plastic on the front that does nothing… this is not a problem, but the picture may lead you think your phone will have more features than it really does.

Near Future

Communication technologies have been merging for a long time, I often check email from my mobile phone (using wapmx.com) and occasionally make phone calls from my computer. I expect that very soon there will be a wide selection of portable devices which are both mobile phones and wireless computers, for which software will be available that can detect wireless networks and calculate the most economic routing for a call, checking whether your recipient is currently available via their own VoIP device or will need to be called via land-line and choosing between VoIP and the mobile service provider to make the call. Increasingly people will be able to talk to others around the world for next to nothing not only from home or the office but also from the train station, the cinema lobby or the cafe.

When I last wrote about VoIP I was impressed to discover how good it had become, with this update I am impressed to discover how well it is developing. If you do not currently have a Skype account I suggest you get one, just to reserve a name of your liking on the system. I would not predict that Skype will be the main VoIP system in the future, but at this stage it is probably the easiest to use and configure and is well integrated into a lot of VoIP hardware, so reserving a name and seeing which of your friends you can find with Skype accounts may be prudent. I would also recommend looking at VoIP Buster if you want to cut your call costs and some of the providers I mentioned in my last article of you a interested in number protability with VoIP.

Links: Skype, Gossiptel, FreeWorldDialup, SIPPhone

There are some areas I have touched on here where a hands-on guide may be of more use to you, if you think you need more leave a comment.

My previous article on VoIP can be found here.

Bumper to Bumper on the M1

This evening I drove down to Tunbridge Wells from Newcastle and made excellent time. The roads weren’t quiet as such but they were moving very well. When you take a drive of over 300 miles it is inevitable that you will see some dangerous driving along the way, lately it seems very common to find two cars involved in a high speed road rage showdown on the M1, driving bumper to bumper not because of slow traffic but in a tit-for-tat battle between two angry drivers who keep undertaking and cutting in front of each other at speeds of between 90 and 110mph. It is insane, not only do such drivers put themselves at risk through such frivolous driving but they put all other road drivers at risk too, just because they can’t let it go when another driver acts irresponsibly. If a bad driver isn’t going to be reported to the police then it is best to put as much distance between you and them as possible, rather than letting him or her provoke us into being bad drivers too.

Of course these men and woman with their fast cars do benefit from high response breaking systems as well as incredible acceleration, the equally fooolish are those who drive in standard cars and abide by the speed limit but still drive very close to the tail of the car in front. Again, this endangers the passengers in that car, the car in front, and several surrounding cars on the road. If it were possible I would favour removing speed restrictions on motorways in exchange for enforcement of the 3 second distance rule being sctrictly enforced by technology and heavy fines. Today I saw a couple cruising happily just as metre or two behind a large truck, they would not have been able to see what was in front of it, they would probably not have survived if the truck was brought to a sudden halt, and the truck driver wwould probably not have known there was a car so closely tucked behind his truck. Speed may make accidents worse but accidents are caused by careless driving, you’re not driving safely just because you are sticking to the speed limit. The three second rule involes counting three seconds (try “one elephant, two elephant, three elephant “at a moderate pace) from when the car in front passes a particular point and ensuring that you do not pass that same point before the three seconds are counted.

I’ll be on the road again tomorrow, same journey in the opposite direction. My wife has been admitted to hospital in Newcastle because nobody has been able to work out what is causing her intense stomach pains and vomitting… no, she isn’t pregnant. Nobody thinks it is too serious but after two and a half weeks she has barely kept any food down, the doctors best guess at the moment is that the underlying cause is a parasite picked up on our honeymoon in Egypt, but we’ll know more as the tests take place. I’ve come back briefly to grab some things and save the fish from starving.

Review: Blockbuster DVDs by Post

It’s some years since Mailbox Movies started DVD rentals by post in the UK, now there are loads of companies offering the same kind of service and I have set out to review a couple of them.

DVD rentals by post work on a monthly fee basis. Once you have paid your fee you can rent an unlimited number of DVDs per month within the limits of your package. You are sent a number of DVDs in the post and once you have watched them you return them, there is no maximum duration for your rental. Once you have returned the DVDs some new ones are sent out to you. DVDs are chosen by creating a wish list of films to watch, the company then choose DVDs from your list and send them to you, it is often possible to state further priorities within the list. This wish-list system is probably the greatest down-side of all DVD by post monthly subscription services, can you think of 20 films you have a burning desire to watch right now?

With Blockbuster you get a one month free trial, this is twice the length of the trials that most companies offer and each DVD is sent out under separate cover so you can send back the first DVD you watch before watching all the others. Blockbuster boast over 18,000 titles in their catalogue, this sounds impressive but in reality there are a lot of films missing, particularly more artistic or foreign titles. When it comes to maintaining a wish list over a period of time you will soon have seen everything you had a burning desire to watch and the availability of less popular films that you are willing to take a chance on becomes quite important. Compared to some offerings this service does seem to be rather limited to very popular movies and may not satisfy the hungrier movie fanatic. Another drawback of Blockbuster’s service is the turn-around time for getting a new DVD. When you send a DVD back they almost always spend the day of their receipt “processing” your next DVD before sending it out the following, so it takes three to five days to swap a current DVD for your next one. Finally, the ability to specify priority requests in your wish list seems almost counter-productive with DVDs generally beinmg sent from quite far down the list.

Blockbuster are very good with their online accounting, opening and closing accounts is seemless. They have sleeve images for all their videos and user ratings out of 5 (which you can add to) to guide in your decision making process when choosing DVDs.

In summary Blockbuster’s DVD’s by post service is run by professionals and is very easy to use. The speed of processing DVDs could be improved and their library would benefit from being extended. If you want a subscription that will ensure you get to see every popular film at a steady pace and you like the idea of a known brand being in charge then this is a good service. If you want more artistic or foreign films, or a fast turnaround, then this may not be the service for you.

Link: Blockbuster UK DVDs by Post

Pulver Communicator

The pendulum swings toward SIP

pulver.communicator – Download!:

From their site: “Using pulver.Communicator/XP, subscribers to the FWD Communications Network can enjoy Instant Messaging with their SIP contacts, as well as with their buddies on the four most popular IM networks as well (AOL, Yahoo!, ICQ, and MSN). And not only that, but pulver. Communicator supports multi-party chat across the different IM networks”

I couldn’t get this to work very well but it is only in beta. This new SIP client has some good new IM functionality which may help promote VoIP among the current IM community. Messaging functionality was a distinct feature of Skype but now they are only really ahead on free voice conferencing. See here for more on VoIP.

Essential Pollution?

The rising cost of fuel in the UK

It’s happening again, fuel prices are steadily rising toward the point where they can cause serious and unexpected damage to personal financial planning. Four years ago the cost of commuting by car went up by £50 per month for me within a matter of weeks, this time I am working from home so I am not so directly affected, but what concerns me most as I see fuel prices rise again is that I am not convinced any lessons were learned four years ago.

It has been common practise for the government of the day to announce in its annual budget that the tax paid on fuel would rise by some small amount. Currently when I pay 83 pence for a litre of fuel about 61 pence of that goes to the government and the UK has one of the highest rates of tax on fuel in the developed world. Generally the Chancellor of the Exchequer uses the preservation of the environment as the excuse for raising taxes as an incentive for us to stop driving cars, but when lorry drivers blockaded fuel depots in 2000 there were no politicians praising the good this was doing to our environment, instead it was proven that much of the countries infrastructure relies upon fuel and that many who rely on it cannot simply switch to using public transport.

Of course, that blockade of fuel was not expected and therefore it caused more problems than a planned-for shortage would. What has always seemed silly about the environmental incentive argument for fuel tax is that the cost of fuel (and thus the tax paid on it) in large cities, particularly London, is substantially cheaper than it is in rural areas, yet public transport into and within these cities is very good while public transport in more rural areas is very poor. In south east England a commuter can easily commute any number of miles toward, or directly away from, London but travelling less than ten miles east or west can often require a car or an 80 mile train journey via London. So where the choice really exists to leave your car at home and jump on a train or a bus there is substantially less incentive to do so, while those who have no choice are hit with higher and higher living costs.

When the fuel protesters rolled up in 2000, however, and suggested that the government drop tax on fuel by just 2p per litre, the governments response was very revealing. The government informed us that losing 2 pence from fuel tax would require a public spending cut of over one billion pounds in an essential service such as education, health or the emergency services. What this information suggests about the UK’s reliance on fuel is that the government needs the public to buy fuel just as much as the public need it to operate their lives. Simple mathematics suggests that if just a few percent of UK drivers were in a position to stop using their cars completely for the sake of the environment then the government would be in that same predicament of lacking funds for essential services. So long as the UK government needs the tax from polluting fuels to fund the rest of the economy they are not going to have an incentive to make real improvements to public transport or offer powerful incentives to speed up the take-over of cheaper and cleaner fuels on our roads.

Back in 2000 there was talk of change from the government, a ten year plan had been introduced to improve transport throughout the UK, one suggestion in the plan was that Britain’s most congested roads might benefit from using tolls, but we were pomised that public transport would be greatly improved before this plan would be considered. Now, in 2004, the suggestion of tolls for congested roads is being considered again but without the promises of an improved public transport system. I worry for M25 users because this must be one of the most congested roads in Europe, nicknamed the M25 car-park by many regular users. One of the main reasons that the M25 is always so busy is the lack of alternative transport moving in a direction other than London, if there were such alternatives I think it is obvious many people would choose them over hovering between the break and the clutch in the bottom two gears for an hour. Most regular M25 users already suffer enough having to face the congestion nightmare twice every day, forcing them pay more for it just doesn’t seem fair and will likely make getting to work too expensive for some of them.

Obviously pollution is a problem that the people of the UK take very seriously, most people proudly switched to unleaded fuel as quickly as they could when it was introduced because they thought they were making a big difference. If the incentives and advertising were put in place to encourage drivers to convert to LPG (Gas) and it was sold at every fuel station then I am sure this would also be a popular move for most Britons. Even with cleaner fuels in place we still need to discourage non-essential travel that pollutes the environment, and some kind of toll charging may still be a good idea, but I would want it to be made conditional upon needs. If you can prove that your journey to work, or your actual work, or even your shopping trip or school run reasonably requires that you regularly use certain motorways then you should have free access to those sections of the road network, on the other hand if you are using your car for those purposes when there is a public transport alternative, or you are on a journey outside the part of the network that you require use of for your day to day life, then I think it fair that a charge would be made for occasional, luxury or liesure use of Britain’s motorways.

Ideally, of course, taxation needs to be re-thought so that tax taken from polluting transportation fuels that we should be trying to be rid of is only used to fund and improve transport and environmental projects and the funds required for our essential services are raised from other sources which we, as responsible and environmentally friendly citizens, would want to see available as a source of funds in the longer term.

UK Two Pound Coin

Standing on the shoulders of giants

For a long time I have had a web page about the origin of the inscription on the outer edge of the UK two pound coin “Standing on the shoulders of giants”, so I have recorded the most important information from that older page here before removing it.

The quote is generally attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, the famous physicist, mathematician and more, who wrote in a letter to his colleague Robert Hooke on 5th February 1676:

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”

The phrase is understood to mean that if he (Sir Isaac Newton) has been able to discover more about the universe than others then it was because he was working in the light of discoveries made by fellow scientists either in his own time or earlier. There is some suggestion that the phrase may have also had a sarcastic undertone as some historians report that Robert Hooke began to disagree with many of Newton’s theories and Hooke himself was reportedly of quite short height.

Whilst the exact phrase above is attributed to Sir Newton, the main idea to which it refers can be traced back many centuries earlier, at least to Bernard of Chartes who died around the year 1130. The following is attributed to him:

“We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more than they do, indeed even farther; but not because our sight is better than theirs or because we are taller than they. Our sight is enhanced because they raise us up and increase our stature by their enormous height”

My thanks to Alan Williams for leaving a note about the quote from Bernard of Chartes in my old guestbook.

FREEVIEW doesn’t cover my area

…at least that’s what their website says.

A couple of years ago I had that longing for 24 hour news and more chances to see my favourite BBC comedies but Freeview were insistent that they did not cover my postcode and they had no plans to do so in the near future.

I started studying the information that this section of the Digital Television Group web site provided me with, it still claimed I would not receive all the channels but has a link for more details displaying exactly which channels I might get if I did have a Digital Terrestial Television receiver. Depending on which receiver my aerial was pointing at it became clear that I should receive at least a few extra channels with a receiver.

Now, I have often taken the dangerous attitude that I know better than the staff of many companies about their own product, and so I decided to ignore the advise from Freeview and grab myself a receiver anyway. In Dixons, where I bought it, they said I must do a coverage check before purchasing one, so I said I had done it online… which I had… I didn’t mention the check came up negative. The freeview web site, the DTG website and my, then new, Grundig GDT2000 box all had warnings that I may need an aerial upgrade in order to receive the digital signal, but I figured that although my aerial must be at least 5 years old it gets a pretty good signal on channels 1-4, so I ignored that warning as well as the advise that there was no coverage where I live. On opening the box to my new toy I was faced with a warning again… an Important Notice… that before I unpack the product I must check my postcode for reception and even if the postcode is covered I may need an aerial upgrade… I had it in mind I might buy a signal booster to see if that worked rather than a new aerial, but by now I was starting to worry that I had been very foolish in spending 90 pounds on this box out of some blind faith in this new DTT technology that was not shared by Freeview, Grundig, or Dixons and only vaguely shared by the DTG (Digital Television Group).

Still, as foolish as my actions had come to seem I plugged it all in and watched the auto setup sequence commence… I stared at the screen as it searched for channels… “0 new services found” was written at the bottom as the red bar slowly moved across from left to right, it was taking a very long time, it was more than half way across and still reporting no channels when I decided to pop out of the room nd make tea in the hope that if I didn’t look at it everything would be fine, in the same way that sometimes when something above you starts to fall you might flinch, scrunch up and close your eyes as if not seeing the object fall will mean that it can’t plunge down and hit you on the head. When I came back into the room – I can’t remember exactly what it said on the screen now – it had clearly finished searching for services and there was TV coming through my new receiver.

I paged up and down the channels, I had Channel 5 which was previously unobtainable where I live, I had BBC 3 so I had the comedies I wanted, I had Sky News so I had the 24 hour news I was longing for… it was a success! In fact, it was a huge success… no aerial upgrade and I was receiving every channel that Freeview offer, not just a selection from one transmitter. I do live fairly high up and one of the transmitters is in line of sight from my roof, which is a factor that fed my blind optimism in the first instance, but I am sure this is true of everyone in my postcode.

I believe that many retailers now use the DTG website to do their coverage checks so that they can show people which channels they might receive (and make a potential sale) rather than warn people away because they might not get anything.

Two years on and both the Freeview and DTG sites continue to say there is no coverage where I live, yet I am enjoying the benefits of being a DTT viewer almost daily. Every channel that has been launched since has been succesfully added to my channel lineup, clearly Freeview does cover my area.