Sunday, September 27, 2009

Herbology expert

Beloved Wife and I spent Eid in Cyprus. We had commissioned a government-approved surveyor to mark out our plot boundaries in accordance with the official Land Registry records. Having met the surveyor on site, noted the lengths of rebar that he had banged into the ground at the corners, and paid the money, we are now in possession of an accurate survey. We have precise co-ordinates of the corners, a contour plan and the whole thing in AutoCAD as well as on paper. This ought to be enough to get an architect started on the planning permission for the Dream Home. But that won’t start in earnest until Beloved Wife and I agree the basic size, shape and orientation of the building.

Unlike defining a plot in town, where measuring off existing buildings and walls easily defines a plot, up in the boonies the surveyor had to measure half of Cyprus in order to ensure that our particular corner or a foreign field was precisely defined. And that, we were told, is why he wanted such a thick wad of banknotes. I was of course shrewd enough to get in writing beforehand that the price quoted was fully inclusive of all taxes, disbursements and those niggling extras that have an unfortunate habit of bunking up the bottom line so that it resembles the GNP of a small country.

The good news is that the plot is unexpectedly larger than we originally anticipated. The original advert said it was around 3300 sq.m; I’d measured the area using existing hedges as seen on Google Earth and discovered a disappointing 2740 sq.m. The survey reveals the actual plot fully includes one of the hedges and extends further south than expected, yielding 3578 sq.m, or 0.884 acres in old money.

I took hundreds of photographs of the land, the views, the existing herbaceous borders and the survey markers.

And this, dear reader, is where you come in: identifying the plants. Essentially, we’d like to retain as much of the mature planting as possible, but if it’s diseased or toxic to goats, it’ll have to go. Hopefully the greenery that remains will be pretty to look at, provide useful windbreaks, and might even produce edible fruit or something that gives a glossy coat.

No.1 and No.2
The first one is easy. It’s probably a carob tree Ceratonia siliqua and might even bear usable fruit. I could get hold of some wild honey and do a John the Baptist impersonation. The second plant appears to be some sort of parasite hanging off the carob. Its fruit is small black berries. No hints in any of our Mediterranean Plants and Gardens books or, so far, from the Interwebs.

That this is an oak of some sort is obvious from the acorns. But which one? There are holly oaks Quercus ilex around, but this one dares to be different. The leaves aren’t wobbly-edged as per the ‘traditional’ oak leaf, so which species is it?

The fruit smells of apple, so I suspect a crab-apple of some sort. But is that indeed the case, and is the fruit edible?

It seems that this one finished flowering a little while back and has perhaps gone to seed. Is it some kind of wild rose? There aren’t a load of thorns on the stems.

I think this may be Cistus ladanifer. But I'd appreciate the opinion of someone who knows more about plants than I. Most of the population, then.

I suspect this one is pistachio Pistacia lentiscus. The small berries are red and green. I guess they’re turning from red to black as they mature. Are these what eventually produce pistachio nuts?

Absolutely no clue at all with this plant.

Nor this one.

I found this page of the University of Reading's website of some use. Again, those who know and understand plants might get better use out of the page.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Off? Ah, you can't re-fuse

The other evening Beloved Wife and I were heading home after discovering that Geeekfest 2.0 had been postponed to October. While rummaging in the dark trying to plug in the phone charger, a coke can ring-pull fell into the socket and shorted the circuit with a briefly thrilling flash and a fuse blew.

We stopped at a petrol station to avail ourselves of the available light, I dug out the owner’s manual and found the fuse box. The task was not made any easier when Beloved Wife recovered her emergency wind-up torch from the boot and discovered that it was FUBAR. Neither was the job facilitated by the blue 15A fuse, as per the manual, mysteriously not being blown. It turned out that the relevant fuse as fitted by some German mechanic back in 2007 was a yellow 20A fuse. So much for Volkswagen’s dire injunctions against fitting fuses with different ratings from those stated in the manual. And the petrol station shop hadn’t got any blade fuses anyway. Loads of cuddly toys and phone accessories, but no automotive fuses. In a petrol station. Is there no limit to mercantile idiocy? Just as well the burned-out fuse only affected the fag lighter. If it’d been on the headlight circuit that night, there might have been more of a problem.

The following day it took four further attempts to buy a replacement fuse before I finally succeeded. Three car accessories shops, whose stock includes flashing lights, radios, spotlights, replacement lenses and any other related electric paraphernalia, didn’t stock automotive fuses. So they all fit aftermarket electrical accessories without any fuse protection, eh? And we wonder why in this country there seem to be so many cases of cars spontaneously combusting. I eventually found a tiny hardware shop where the man had a cut-down Masafi bottle full of 20A yellow blade fuses. He charged me a dirham, and then guiltily gave me a handful rather than just two. (One to use and one to lose.)

Anyway, back to the previous evening. I was fuming by the time we got home. Why? Well, Beloved Wife’s wind-up torch has never been used in anger. It has lived in a bag in the boot along with some jump leads for two years. And this evening the winding mechanism had mysteriously become broken. Come to that, the yellow case had also magically become battered and bruised.

What I suspect is that some unknown person who owned an old and broken wind-up torch swapped his with the decent one that he found lying around in someone’s car. It appears this could only have been the Volkswagen mechanics at Al Naboodah or the car valets at Yellow Hat. Except at the car wash where we stand over the cleaners, no-one else has had access to the boot, as far as either Beloved Wife or I can ascertain.

It isn’t the cost of the torch that I’m whingeing about. They’re cheap, and yes I can easily afford a new one. Unfortunately, when you need to use a torch, it’s dark, probably in the middle of nowhere and likely throwing down with rain too. And the inconvenience of changing a wheel by Braille easily outweighs the monetary value of the torch.

I guess this sort of petty theft goes with nicking small change: a perk, a tax on rich idiots who are careless enough to leave anything in the car that’s not bolted down.


Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Your money for your life

Much debate is to be heard especially over on the left bank of the Pond regarding President Obama's proposed reforms to the financing of healthcare. I shall try to put aside Michael Moore’s Sicko, in which he sought to portray the British National Health Service as a charity and its French equivalent as the same but more so, and the American system as being populated solely by money grabbers who would rather see people die than pay medical insurance claims.

First, I’d like to establish that medical practitioners, including doctors, surgeons, nurses, anaesthetists and pharmacologists do a lot of college, carry out hugely difficult and responsible jobs, and deserve to be remunerated appropriately. There is no justification for paying a doctor a pittance. British general practitioners seem to do all right under the NHS system. ‘The average family doctor earning over £100,000...’ does not seem to me to be a pittance. Yet this is what we’re told is the inevitable consequence of social medicine.

Any attempt to finance healthcare within the taxation system must, we are informed, surely produce under-resourced, third-rate medical care that has barely progressed beyond leeches and amputations without anaesthesia. Witness Fox and Fiends trotting out cases where MediCare failed, and we're to infer that if the poor unfortunate had only paid for his treatment, things would have turned out better. That the individual is poor and can't afford to pay isn't discussed. Neither are cases where top-quality hospitals screwed up.

The only way to ensure a decent level of healthcare, we’re advised, is to pay for it at its point of delivery. Actually, it’s paid for up front as medical insurance, with the insurance company ultimately footing the bill.

The problem as I see it with medical insurance is that the insurance company is a commercial enterprise. And like all commercial enterprises it exists ultimately to make money. Frankly, that company which promises you a first-rate healthcare plan has absolutely no interest in any individual’s fate. Provided that on average the premiums received exceed the claims paid, the insurance company and its shareholders are happy. The year the shareholders don’t get their payouts is the year everybody’s premiums go up.

And to this end, the insurance provider gets to set a few rules, such as:

    “We won't insure you if you have any of this long list of pre-existing conditions”

    “The Insured is not covered for any pre-existing condition that he didn't declare”

    “The Insured is not covered for kidney dialysis because he didn't tell us he had his tonsils out 30 years ago”

    “The Insured has to pay the first $2000 per year”

    “The Insured has to pay 20% of each and every claim”

    “The Insured is not covered for the consequences of HIV/AIDS howsoever caused”

    “The Insured is too fat/has diabetes/suffers from spina bifida/is haemophiliac and is therefore not covered”

So what do you do if you have some medical condition that is treatable but expensive? Go broke or die.

I did a little on-line research. I was offered medical insurance in Virginia at rates ranging from $170 to $294 per month, with various conditions and copayments. As these are the advertised rates gleaned off the Interwebs, I suspect that the actual amount spent by Muggins would creep up.

Compare these rates with the British National Health Service, whose current annual budget is around £90 billion. That means a monthly cost of around £200 ($320) per taxpayer, or £125 ($200) per person living in the UK. And this compares I think rather favourably with the above American insurance quotes. Particularly when you consider that there’s no pre-existing condition exclusion, no copayment, no consultation fees and no annual deductible. And it includes dental and (if you live in Scotland or Wales) prescription medication.

The NHS is not answerable to any shareholders. All the income can be directed at healthcare, without an annual rake-off given to people who are essentially profiting from the victims of illness or injury.

I guess the concern and alarm being expressed in the States is based on the difference between every individual paying the same number of dollars for medical insurance, versus taxation-based funding where the rich pay more and the poor pay less.

Where the NHS system goes wrong is when a particular specialist works part time for the NHS and in his private practice the rest of the time. My uncle was incensed to learn that he’d have to wait for over six months for his new titanium knee, yet if he were to go private – that is, to pay many thousands of pounds in cash immediately, that same consultant would carry out the same procedure in the same hospital within the week. The waiting list for NHS treatment was being caused in part by the consultant busily using the facilities for private jobs.

I think a doctor should either work in a private practice, funded by client payment or insurance, or the doctor should be salaried and work exclusively for the NHS.

That said, I have never personally experienced any delay in medical treatment. Perhaps I've just been lucky.

A final thought. My medical cover is a company insurance scheme and is fairly comprehensive with only a Dh50 deductible per visit. What I object to isn't paying the Dh50. Neither is it having the premium paid whether or not I make a claim. I object having to argue with the clinic, and potentially with the insurance company, about whether or not my condition is covered. Surely how poorly I am and what constitutes appropriate treatment is best decided by a doctor, not an accountant. If I’m ill, I just want to get better, not argue the toss from my sick bed.


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Bargain basement

Why does the nonsensical phrase “until stocks last” keep popping up where special offers are advertised? The phrase has amused and bemused me ever since I first encountered it in about 1996. I think I understand what the message seeks to convey: that the ‘two-for-the-price-of-one’, or ‘half-price with this coupon’ offer is only valid provided that the shop has still got supplies of the relevant items. According to Wikipedia, ‘...every reasonable person knows that goods advertised or displayed and [sic] shops are implicitly available “while stocks last”.’ The implication of actually writing it on the advert is that the offer is such a bargain that if you don’t drop everything and head for the mall this minute, it’ll all be gone.

But “until stocks last”? What on earth does this mean?

My understanding of the word ‘Until’, which is shared by Messrs Webster, Collins and others is that it indicates continuance up to a specified time or event. The word might also mean ‘before(a specified time)’.

And “Last”? Ignoring sillies such as the metal thing that cordwainers use, ‘last’ as a verb means ‘to continue in existence or in force’, or ‘to be enough for the needs of’, or ‘to keep adequately supplied.’

So according to the advert, the offer is valid up to the point when the stocks exist? Eh? So the ‘Buy One Get One Free’ (with the wonderful acronym BOGOF, but I digress) offer only applies if the shop has none in stock. Then, when new supplies arrive, the BOGOF is no longer available.

In the words of Inigo Montoya: “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

How about rewording the disclaimer to read “while stocks last”, “limited supplies”, or even “until we run out”?

On the subject of things that do not mean what they say, there was recently Sharaf DG’s paradoxical offer: “If we don’t have it, you get it free!”

I see. You will give me - for nuppence - the item I request, provided that you haven’t got one. In that case, I’ll have my free Princess 46 motor yacht.

Of course, the offer only applied to items normally held in stock, there were time limits on how long Sharaf DG would be allowed to obtain the requested item, and there was a comprehensive list of rules in the small print explaining how there was, in practice, almost no way to get something for nothing. This was no surprise. As Marvin the Paranoid Android quipped: “What does it remind me of? Ah, I remember: life.”

Beloved Wife and I are pleased to note that some of these special offers have been good for a long time and show little sign of abating. For this reason, we regularly BOGOF to Billy Blues on Sunday evenings for steak dinners.


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