Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Diesel cars and wood-burners

Update 26th January 2017: Wood stove fad is blamed for pollution

I have spent quite a bit of my younger life in cities full of diesel cars. The fumes from these cars made me quite ill. As such I could not understand why the UK government was giving incentives to drivers of diesel engines.

"Diesel was supposed to be the answer to the high carbon emissions of the transport sector, a lower emitting fuel that was a mature technology – unlike electric or hydrogen cars. In the early 2000s the Blair government threw its weight behind the sector by changing ‘road tax’ (vehicle excise duty) to a CO2-based system, which favoured diesel cars as they generally had lower CO2 emissions than petrol versions.

It inspired British car makers to invest heavily in a manufacturing process that most countries outside Europe have ignored. In 1994 the UK car fleet was only 7.4% diesel. By 2013 there were 10.1m diesel cars in the UK, 34.5% of the total.

But studies have since shown that diesel cars’ emissions of other pollutants can have serious impacts on the health of people exposed to them."

Source: The Guardian

What about wood-burners? Again I lived with my frugal mum who used charcoal to cook for much of the time we shared our flat. Those choking fumes are not so great when it is not for the occasional open-air barbecue.

Now living in Greater London where we are never cold enough to require a real fire and, as I also understand, there is a ban on polluting wood and coal-based fires, why has the wood-burner been touted as an 'eco alternative'?

I could not get my head around it.

On one hand I am telling people to stop using paper tissue made from wood, and on the other we were told that burning wood in wood-burners was eco-friendly. ??? How? It just did not add up. But fearful of being told that I was stupid, or worse, being trolled, I had kept my opinion to myself all this time.

Now we are told about this new 'inconvenient truth':

"But the cold truth is that — at odds with its perceived green credentials — the wood-burning craze is posing a real danger to the environment, and to our health.
Air quality experts say the stoves contribute to an ever-thickening cloud of smog engulfing our towns and cities, which is increasing the risk of cancer, lung disease, heart attack, stroke and even dementia.

Exacerbating the problem is the seemingly innocent habit people have of throwing open the doors of the stove to recreate the effects of an open fire or to warm up a room more quickly — thereby flooding the air with a deadly cocktail of noxious gases and toxic wood smoke particles.

Wood smoke is a cocktail of gases and dangerous microscopic particles. Some of these blobs of soot, called PM2.5s, are 100 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair and can get deep into our lungs. They’re so tiny that experts think they may even be able to get through the lungs and into other organs."

Source: The Daily Mail 

We want to care for the environment. But let us not be too hasty in trying to resolve one issue without considering its impact on the rest of the situation. Or, as social anthropologists would say, we need a holistic approach.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Living with an invisible disability

For personal reasons I would like to highlight invisible disabilities.

I live with someone who has Ulcerative Colitis. Recently I was physically quite 'disabled' in that I could not move my arm very much in any direction. Yet I was too embarrassed to use priority seats on public transport.

This link here is a good reminder:

10 things you need to know about Crohn’s and Colitis

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


My ex-colleague at Accenture came up with the best quip: is my husband tired of being given the cold shoulder?

It was soon after Christmas 2015 when I noticed that the intermittent pain in my right arm was getting more frequent. I am right-handed. Went to the GP in January 2016 and for the best part of this year I had been suffering a lot of pain, loss of muscle strength and spent many hours in hospital and clinic waiting rooms.

Not nice.

I had to give up that bit of my voluntary work which required a lot of note-taking. My right hand was so weak that I could barely sign my name, let alone write. Even working at a computer took a great deal of effort and I had to stop after every hour or so to recuperate.

(I took on a new voluntary role to teach 'laptop' to senior citizens. Instead of note-taking, all I had to do was point and talk, and occasionally pressed a button or two. It gels with my desire to help older people cope with loneliness by connecting them via the internet especially when the weather is inclement.)

I recently found this post (below) and thought it describes very well the pain, anxiety and embarrassment that I had gone through.

Embarrassment, yes. For a long while I had no strength in my hand to cut up food. Husband had to cut up food for me, at home, at restaurants, etc, so that I could pick the pieces up with my left hand. I could not raise my right hand to my mouth without pain. Instead I bent down to it! Looked like an idiot, I did.

I had to stop driving. But I got anxious about getting on public transport. I was embarrassed to sit on priority seats because outwardly there was nothing 'priority' about me (unless you can count my grey hair). I was anxious about not being able to reach the bell and propel myself to the front of the bus using just my left arm. The right was held in a permanently bent position (fist to shoulder) to prevent jerking it by accident. Any sudden movement on the right arm would have caused me a lot of pain.

I was fearful of getting up escalators because I could not raise my hand far enough to hold onto the belt. I 'crossed over', using my left hand instead. Awkward!

Thankfully I am recovering. I am no more in constant, constant pain. The stiffness is still there, but I can do a lot more after going to a new physiotherapist. I can now cook, without having to wait for husband to get stuff out of the oven for me.

Praise God!

If you are in HR, or have friends and colleagues (usually menopausal women) who are suffering a frozen shoulder, this blog would put things in perspective. Be kind! Be very kind. :)

My frozen shoulder experience

I quote the first paragraph from her blog here which says much of what I went through:


Your life is 100 times harder, you struggle to dress yourself, can’t wash your face or hair or brush your teeth (with the arm involved), can’t get your hand to your face, can’t put a shirt over your head, you struggle to tuck yourself in if wearing jeans or skirts (I stopped trying), you can’t lift things, can’t move your arm more than a few inches in any direction, you can’t put your bra on, can’t even shrug your shoulders (the most basic thing of all!).  You can’t go through any kind of drive through (for food or the bank) – or if you do you have to park away from it, get out of the car and walk to the ATM – you can’t feed yourself properly, you can’t sleep, using a hairdryer in one hand and a brush in the other is out of the question – it’s hard to even wash your hair unless you do it one-handed. You start walking funny because you ache all over, your neck aches, your shoulders ache because your body is “out of whack” and distended – it starts affecting every aspect of your life, both waking and sleeping – it is just a horrible, horrible predicament.   It is still somewhat of an enigma, nobody REALLY knows what it is, what causes it or how to cure it, there are lots of opinions, and myriad medical doctors who will offer expensive surgery.  There are multiple options out there for other types of treatment, most of them (I believe) are detrimental to the healing process.  Sure, some of them may help, but some of them may hinder, but the most important thing is that you are not bullied into having surgery or doing anything that doesn’t feel right for you.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Nurturing talent

I have been helping out at a children's holiday club run by my church.

I have been so amazed by some of the talent shown by my six-year-old charges. One played football very well. A couple of the girls showed superb abilities in their colouring.

I was quite taken aback because my son was still drawing stick figures when he was eight or perhaps even ten. His colouring was quite atrocious. No amount of  'colour within the lines' had any effect on him.

He dreaded doing art and sport most, I think.

With the exception of three-dimensional art. He is fascinated by origami and has created some most spectacular origami structures.

When I looked at them -- they connect and can be manipulated and transformed -- I realized that this was not origami as in 'folding art'. This was origami as in 'paper engineering'.

Back to these talented young people.

I hope that they have the space and support to develop those innate talents that they clearly possess.

Just as their drawings had given me so much pleasure in the last few days, I hope and trust that, in due course, they would be bringing much pleasure to many others when they are older.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Extreme navel-gazing?

I have been very lazy and had not kept up with posting here.

The last few years saw me kind of trying -- but not too hard -- getting back into academia. Nope. Still unsuccessful in convincing a university to take me on.

The writing is doing a bit better as I had been getting published in various academic journals, including some with quite impressive 'journal impact factor'.

Healthwise I had been suffering a pain in my shoulder connected to my writing arm. Sometimes it hurts a lot and I cannot do a lot of things I used to do. A real 'bummer'!

Two things of significance in the last three months:

  1. I am coming to an age where I could have been researching myself. Yes, I will soon qualify for retirement housing and I could have been one of my own research respondents. (I studied sheltered housing for the elderly for my PhD.) How's that for extreme 'navel-gazing' as some anthropologists are sometimes accused of doing?
  2. I am enjoying teaching computer skills to senior citizens as a volunteer at the local AGE UK. In contrast to undergrads that I used to teach, my students are now usually very keen to learn.

What I have found very concerning in my research on ageing is that there is a lot of loneliness. Being able to use the computer and internet is one way of getting around this problem of loneliness.

If you know someone who is reluctant to learn, and if this someone is aged above 60, encourage him/her to seek out a course at an AGE UK or some other charity. They will find it very useful.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Gifted children, a mother's heartache

There is a new editor at Straits Times Forum page

I have not been keeping up with news in Singapore for some time for various reasons. Something struck a chord with the recent debate on IQ testing. I asked my son if he wanted to write a piece on 'the heartache of a gifted child'. No. So I wrote 'the heartache of a gifted  child mum' instead.

The editor was very good and gracious and let me look at her edits before running it.

I am amazed at the lack of reports in Singapore on how difficult it is to parent a gifted child. Am I the only one with this problem? So it was good that after this letter was published, another parent shared how it has not been a smooth-sailing journey for him and his son either.

It is a myth that when children are gifted they would be able to sort themselves out. No, they are still children and parents must be there for these children.

Also in my experience, the last thing a parent needed to worry about is 'enrichment' in terms of doing more (piano, drama, sport, foreign language, martial art, etc). Some of what I read about 'kiasu parents' made me feel really inadequate.

Like the other parent mentioned, it is the emotional stability that I needed to worry about.

(24th June 2015) (this link is a bit wonky)

THERE has been much debate among readers on gifted children.

But be prepared for lots of tears if your child is gifted.

Giftedness can be defined as having extraordinary prowess in one or more areas of life. It is not limited to academic giftedness.

In my ideal world, we would support every child who shows giftedness in sport, music, drama and so forth. But Singaporean parents and politicians seem to be fixated on the academically gifted.

Giftedness can be a curse. A gifted child may be very advanced in a narrow area of ability. They are better at maths, say, than most of their peers, because they grasp the concept the first time.

But these peers will catch up eventually, should they choose to do so.

Meanwhile the gifted child is out at sea, lonely and bored, waiting for the slowest learner in class to catch up, so that he can move on to something fresh and challenging.

Frustration sets in for the gifted child when his mental development is not in sync with his physical, social, emotional or psychological development.

Such children may have a huge vocabulary. They may be able to think long, flowing sentences. But they may not be able to write quickly enough to "catch" those thoughts in a legible script. They look at the scribbled page and they tear it up. Again and again.

Gifted children need challenges within a loving context.

They will face many obstacles and fall because of their asynchronous development.

The good news is they do eventually learn to get on with life as a normal(ish) person.

We, parents, must be there to pick them up.

I have "been there, done that", and am still anticipating my son's next big obstacle. He was nearly expelled from school at age six. It turned out that he had a very high IQ for his age.

I have shed lots of tears coming to terms with his "special education needs" which necessitated giving up an academic career.

An intelligent child who does not fit in with his age mates can make life difficult for the family.

Lee Siew Peng (Dr)

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Deborah Ross: With their cheap milk the big stores have us by the udders

This is a copy from a column in The Times:

I think this is important enough for supporters of ethical trading, sustainable farming, ethical farming, etc. to know.
Last updated at 12:01AM, January 8 2015

This week, Asda and Sainsbury’s fired the first salvos in the new year supermarket price war with the promise of £450 million worth of cuts designed to keep Tesco off the top spot and see off discount stores such as Aldi and Lidl. Great, I didn’t think, but maybe you did. Maybe you clapped your little hands and performed an exuberant celebratory dance, as you may do every time food gets even cheaper, but my heart sank. These price wars always screw everyone over one way or another. As it is milk has already been reduced to 22p a pint in Asda — and you think that’s all you’re paying?

As a rule, and because I am tight by nature (I wash up paper coffee filters; I’ve had the one filter going for about a decade now) I am all for cheap produce, but probably not when it amounts to subsidising vastly profitable supermarket chains or results in farmers fighting back with “battery cows”.

Last month, a “zero-grazing” dairy unit, where cows are kept indoors 24 hours a day, 52 weeks a year, was opened at Grosvenor Farms in Cheshire, Tesco’s largest milk supplier. This is a super-mechanised system designed to up production and, basically, milk cows until they drop. The farm is owned by the Duke of Westminster, who is worth £8.5 billion. Even so, it appears he wishes his business to be profitable, and if he’s not eligible for “working tax credits”, as I must assume he’s not, then what other way?

Milk does not cost your average dairy farmer 22p a pint to produce. Milk costs 34p a pint to produce and the farmer receives 27p, because supermarkets sell it as a “loss leader”. Most dairy farmers must apply for working tax credits to bridge that gap and survive — tax credits funded by the taxpayer.
That is: me and you. No, you’re not being asked to drop off a tenner at Morrisons every now and then (“Here you are. To help with the milk”), but you might as well be.

Maybe I’m slow, although that seems unlikely — you can’t keep a coffee filter going for as long as I have without having your wits about you — but I had absolutely no idea this was a thing until I saw The Moo Man. This is a documentary (now available on DVD and to stream) about Steve Hook, who runs a small family dairy farm in Hailsham, East Sussex. Hook is not super-mechanised. Hook operates a boutique business selling “raw” milk to markets and for doorstep deliveries.

The documentary hit me powerfully, not just because of the bond Hook has with his lovely, characterful cows, whom he knows individually by name — “Hello, Daisy”; “Hello, Katy” — but because I hadn’t previously known about the price differential. It was a major factor in Hook’s decision to go it alone. He didn’t want to raise his family on these tax credits, which are, as he puts it, “an indirect payment straight to supermarkets”.

How has this happened? I don’t know and can’t seem to find any information, so I phone Hook, but he’s out with the cows. So I phone him again, but he’s still out with the cows. He seriously loves his cows. I wish I was as lovely and characterful as one of his cows. Five hours later, I finally have him. He is fascinating, but I don’t have room for it all, so can only give you the highlights.

He says prices first started being dictated in the 1930s, with the advent of pasteurisation. “Sell it to us for this price,” said the pasteurisation industry, “or we won’t collect your milk and you’ll have to tip it down the drain.” In response, in 1933, the government set up the Milk Marketing Board to guarantee a minimum price, which operated until 1994, when the milk market was deregulated. And now the taxpayer is expected to pick up the tab. Why?

“Because,” Hook says, “supermarkets are powerful and have shareholders and politicians have no balls.” What would he do if he were in charge of dairy farming in this country? “I would get the head of Defra and all the supermarket chiefs around a table and I would bang their heads together and tell them the price of milk has to go up in stores because it’s just not sustainable.” And also: “These price wars must, must stop.”

So, whoop over the 22p pint of milk if you so wish, but as is always the way with food getting even cheaper, you can be sure you’re paying for it somewhere down the line.