Ten weeks to go

This year was probably my last White Good Friday, and I won’t be sorry if I never experience another White Christmas either.  My heart’s desire is never to see another snowflake for as long as I live.

Swapping continents involves keeping a lot of balls in the air at once, and between now and the end of June I will have constant anxiety about dropping one of them.

Planning our relocation, I’ve found the British Ex-Pat forums invaluable. With the help of the forum I’ve managed to keep the cost to under £10,000, which is remarkable given that we spend nearly £13,000 in ’06, though then we were spending a generous relocation allowance from Ian’s employer.

The biggest expense is for a 20′ container, which will transport our books and household goods. The cost of transporting our two cats is the next most expensive item, more than our own airfares; they travel on the same aircraft as us, but as cargo. The remainder of the expense is made up of car and van hire and a hotel for our last few days in Canada after our house has been emptied.

The whole of my time in Alberta has been overshadowed by the fact that our life here is subsidized by an industry, the tar sands, that I think should be closed down. There isn’t any way the industry can be made sustainable.  Being here has meant living a contradiction and it has made me unhappy.  It was a huge relief to me last year when the sale of our house meant that I no longer had a significant financial investment in the economy. But I’ve also made friends here, and how genuine can my friendship be when I wish their economy, and with it their careers and financial security, to blazes?

I think the outlook for Alberta is grim whatever the future holds. If the world is going to deal with climate change then Alberta is going to become known as the province of stranded assets.  If the world doesn’t deal with climate change then the outlook is grim for all of us including Alberta. While I’ve been here, I’ve been very disappointed by the British government’s backing for Canada on the EU Fuel Quality Directive. A true friend to Canada would not give it a helping hand on the path to perdition.


Leave a Comment

23andMe — a review

Last year a relative of my husband’s asked him to get a genetic screen done with the company 23andMe. His results were more interesting than I expected, so I ordered one for myself.

23&Me testing is affordable; I paid USD $99. It is also easy: they send you a kit, you spit into a test tube, seal it in an envelope, and DHL collects it.  Then a few weeks later you get the results by email.  My first sample was no good (I blame the sardine sandwich I’d eaten a couple of hours before — I should probably have flossed before spitting), but they sent me a second kit free of charge.

Results come in two parts, Ancestry and Health:

The Health report is subdivided into Health Risks, Inherited Conditions, Traits and Drug Response. My report says that I have a slightly heightened risk of eight risks, none of which have been suffered by any relative that I know of.  On the other hand, it says that I have a slightly decreased risk of eleven risks, two of which have afflicted relatives of mine. I tested negative for all the Inherited Conditions that 23andMe tests for but they do not include the two that run in my family. The Traits section was utterly uninteresting (it correctly predicts that I have brown eyes, and incorrectly that I have curly hair). I suppose the Drug Response report might be worth storing away for future reference.

So, overall I don’t find the Health report very valuable. But my family background gives me no reason to fear inherited illness.  If I came from a family with a lot of cancer, for example, I might find the report reassuring, or a substantially increased risk might lead me to seek further advice.

Since I am a family history nerd, the Ancestry report was what I was paying my money for. I’m a Londoner with roots in the East-End, so when I started researching my genealogy I expected it to be as cosmopolitan as my native city.  If your grandfather had a bakery on Cable Street and your great-great grandfather presided over a sweat-shop in Wapping, you don’t expect your ancestors to all be WASP, but to my surprise and disappointment that was what I found.  I have a family tree that would make a member of the English Defence League swell with pride, so it is a relief to find that my genetic profile tells a different story, which is more PC.

The 23andMe report says that while most of my ancestors were from Northern Europe, I have Ashkenazi (0.1%), Iberian (1%)  and West African (0.1%) ancestors too. That’s nice, but is it accurate? At least it fits with the research I’ve done so far:  I’ve traced one branch of my family to London in the eighteenth century, and I’ve been pursuing clues that suggest they were merchants trading with Portugal, which would explain the Iberian ancestor, and roots in eighteenth century London could easily account for the Ashkenazi and West African ancestors as well. My husband’s Ancestry Composition, however, was much more surprising and bafflingly at variance with what we know of his family history.

My biggest criticism of 23andMe is that they provide very little information about their methodology, so it is difficult to know how much reliance to put on the results. My second criticism is the way maternal and paternal haplogroups are presented.  23andMe say that I am ‘related’ to Benjamin Franklin. Franklin and I have the same maternal haplogroup (actually not quite the same, since his is V and mine is V2).  All that means is that we share an ancestor 15,000 years ago.  On that basis everyone of European descent is my ‘cousin’. 23andMe even provide forums for members of the same haplogroup to exchange messages as if they were long lost relatives.  This is nonsense that can only appeal to the arithmetically challenged.

Leave a Comment

The Tell-tale Heart

This afternoon I’m having an echocardiogram, and I am feeling very nervous about it.  I know it won’t hurt or be uncomfortable, but I’m frightened they will find something wrong with my heart. Or to be more precise, something wrong that I don’t already know about. This is ridiculously irrational, of course.

I’ve been told that the machine is wonderful, and produces a moving, pumping image of your heart in 3D. I really, really don’t want to see that.  I once spent a night in hospital wired up to one of those beeping machines they are fond of in medical soap operas, and spent the entire time terrified it would flatline, as if the machine was controlling my heart not monitoring it. Nor do I want to see the face of the medic looking at the echocardiogram  screen, in case  she goes pale and shakes her head while giving me a pitying look (that’s how I imagine it). Maybe it would be a good idea to take a blindfold.

Alberta is not a good place to have a cowardly imagination like mine, because the medics test you for everything, which means that in the eight years I have been here,  I’ve had fearful fantasies of at least half a dozen deaths. As my dad used to say, the problem with doctors is that they are always finding things wrong with you.

I’ve commented before on Alberta’s superior (that’s my perception) health testing and screening compared with the NHS.  The clinic where I’m having the echocardiogram is part of the health system run by the province.  The laboratory that does my blood tests and electrocardiograms, however, is a private company contracted by the province. I do not have to pay for tests, but my drugs are paid for through health insurance. Even though there is a welfare safety net here, the requirement for insurance does mean some people fall through it.  As far as I can tell they are mostly low earning self employed, who were responsible for insuring themselves.

What there isn’t in Canada, is a private tier of healthcare as we have in the UK. If you want private care here, you head south of the border. As in the UK, there are waiting lists for operations and crowded A&E wards. The logistical challenges of providing comprehensive health care in this huge and sparsely populated country is also much greater than in the UK. For those reasons, I’m not sure I’d want to rely on the Canadian health system in old age, yet I’m also going to miss my Canadian doctor. My experience of living here has influenced my views on reform of the NHS.  Most importantly, I have no problem with private firms tendering for NHS work.




Leave a Comment


Caron Lindsay has rejected a comment I’ve made on Lib Dem Voice, on the grounds that I use profanity and am impolite, which I own up to, but also that I have generalized about parents of kids in poor areas, which I reject.  I was going to leave it at that, but on reflection, the point is not an unimportant one.

The discussion was about Jeremy Browne’s proposal for educational vouchers.  Caron had put forward a hypothetical child from a deprived area, who would have to travel a long way to a leafy suburb to get to a good school.  It was a good point, but what I wrote was:

“…never mind the point about how the deprived four year old gets to the school in the leafy suburb, the kid’s first hurdle is getting parents who give a ****.”

First of all, that is not a generalization.  A generalization would be “parents in derived areas don’t give a **** about their children’s education”.  I would never write something like that, because it isn’t true and I don’t believe it. But generalizations such as “all parents love their children” and “all parents do the best for their kids” are also untrue.

The amount of effort any parent goes to, to get a good education for their child, depends on a lot of factors.  One is how much they care about their child.  Another is the value they place on education generally and for their child in particular (as an illustration of that point — when  going to university no longer depended on your parents signing your grant form and being means-tested,  the number of middle-class girls taking up university places went up). The parents’ social standing in the community, which might be affected by a failure to get their child into a good school, would be another.

Parents are also going to have to be together enough to have the time and energy to make their children’s needs a priority, so things like a secure job, stable marriage and lack of other stress factors also count.

And all of that means that you can make some qualified generalizations about class. Middle-class parents are more likely to have sharp elbows, parents in deprived areas are more likely to have crab-bucket attitudes to their children’s education.

I know what I am talking about from personal experience.

So, I repeat my point, with language amended.  The first hurdle any child faces in getting a good education is having parents who care. It isn’t a hurdle that can be removed completely, but it can be lowered by making sure that every child is offered a good education at their local school, and not making it dependent on the choices that their parents make.


Comments (2)

Race Plan by Jeremy Browne.

A  brief review.

I was delighted to discover that I could download this book from Amazon.ca the day it was published in the UK.  This was quite an achievement for a UK publisher.  Normally I have to wait several months for British books to appear on the Canadian site.

Jeremy Browne has interesting things to say about foreign affairs. The chapter on foreign policy is both informed and trenchant; for example his contention that our diplomacy in Asian countries is often inept. His overall message is that we have a lot of soft power, and we must use it to promote liberal values in China’s century, both for our own good, and for the preservation of those values in a world in which the dominant world power is a dictatorship.

The rest of the book, however, too often reads as a formulaic setting out of problems and solutions by an ideologically inflexible economic liberal.  Sometimes Browne gives the impression that he hasn’t been prepared to think about the issues he is writing about, other than to place them within the parameters of his ideology.  For example, does it really matter that a minimum price on alcohol would interfere with the free market?  Surely the only important criteria is whether or not it would work to reduce alcohol abuse? Blind adherence to any creed kills common sense.

What I found most disappointing was the almost complete absence of any consideration of the environmental implications of policy:

“The comforting truth is that, just because one country gets richer, it does not follow that one country gets poorer.  Global economic growth is not a zero-sum game: we can all get richer” (my emphasis).

True for Adam Smith perhaps, but not in the world of finite resources we live in now. For some resources it is in fact a zero-sum game: there isn’t enough pasture land for us all to eat red meat, and so if China is going to eat more, we may have to eat less, for example.

Browne’s blind spot on the environment is most apparent when he is talking about Britain’s infrastructure needs. He supports a new airport hub for London, new roads, rail and housing on green belt land — and they’d get it all built so much more quickly in China.  But you can’t possibly understand the complex issues of infrastructure on our crowded island unless you also consider greenhouse gas emissions, smog, preservation of landscape and biodiversity.  If, as a nation, we spend time considering the options and sometimes prefer infrastructure solutions which are not optimal for the economy, but less damaging for the environment, surely that is just our nation practising the same liberal values that he thinks are our strength?

I found parts of the book  just plain irritating.  There is  a section where Browne comes over all Niall Ferguson about our past and tries to out-jingo Michael Gove.  If he did some more reading, he would discover that there are other factors to explain the Industrial Revolution, than our intangible ‘national disposition’, and personally I’m not swelling with pride at being part of a nation that built the largest empire ever known.

The reason that supermarkets ran out of products in the nineteen seventies was because high inflation led to hoarding and runs on food. So  if that does not happen now, it is not an example of how commercial institutions improve their performance; though bread, which he mentions specifically, used to be a morning product, having been baked overnight.  But maybe an ambassador’s wife didn’t do her own shopping often enough to know that?  I remember because I was a grown-up in the seventies, not a schoolboy shopping with his mum.

Leave a Comment


Recently, Ian and I have been starting WW3 every day over breakfast.  Today we decided that if Russian troops enter Eastern Ukraine, NATO should bomb them with drones.

I guess that proves we are just not morning people.

Leave a Comment

The pensioner’s top-up

I’m one of the people who could take advantage of the pensioners’ top-up just announced.  It looks very generous, offering an index linked annuity of 5.84%, compared with the 3.5% offered commercially.

But, the question that is puzzling me is this:  Why would I take advantage of this offer, when the government offers a much better deal through pension deferral, since every year of deferral increases my pension by 10.4%?

I reach pension age on 6th March 2015.  I am entitled to the full pension of £110.15 p.w. So, if I put off claiming my state pension for two years, until 6th March 2017, I will have foregone £11,455.60. But, I will have gained a pension increase of 20.8%; that is £22.91 per week.

Alternatively, if I use the pension top-up scheme to gain an additional £23 a week, the premium I’ll have to pay on 6th March 2017 will be £20,470, more than £9,000 extra for the same result.

So why would I do that? Will someone (Mr Webb?) explain?

It occurs to me I should add some links:

Deferring the State Pension

State Pension Top Up Calculator




Leave a Comment

Older Posts »

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.