The Killer from the Cold

Source: Wiki Commons

This weekend, my attention was drawn towards what looked a straightforward toxicological problem: Antifreeze kills.

Antifreeze is mostly used to prevent your engine coolant from freezing in winter. It lowers the freezing point of water (and, incidentally, raises the boiling point), so you can still use your car when winter hits. It’s also used as an additive to a lot of other products such as paint or window cleaner, but in far lower concentration than the concentrate you need for a car..

Most antifreeze products use organic substances to obtain the necessary properties of the anti-freeze product. The two most popular components of antifreeze are ethylene glycol (EG) and propylene glycol (PG). While PG is a harmless substance used in food and drinks with extremely low toxicity and does not form a health hazard, EG is completely the opposite.  The Environmental Protection Agency files EG as hazardous, and the list of effects in humans is quite long. The estimated toxic dose lies around 1 mL / kg body weight in humans (for a 50% EG solution), and most likely similar for animals. which means that a 10 kilo pet could die after ingestion of 10 millilitres of antifreeze product.

But before we move on to pets, let’s get one thing off the table straight away: EG and PG get confused. A lot. And while it is easy to confuse two substances so much alike in form (and  antifreeze use) as those two, their completely different toxicology should be enough to keep them apart. And yet. Confusing two compounds on purpose can be a very efficient strategy to spread wrong information, and pushing people towards so-called ‘natural’ solutions.

Take, for example, this site. At first, it looks like an valid information sheet on PG, but if you look closer, things go wrong. First of all, compare it with the ATSDR toxicity report to which I linked above. The information on the ‘good human’ website is rubbish. But wait, you might say. Didn’t they just confuse it with EG? Not really. Because they go on to cite numerous products that contain PG. Including skin care products. And by coincidence, there are links to ‘natural’ (more expensive) solutions without PG. It’s interesting to read the comments below the article. All the sensible comments were completely ignored. One person mentions the confusion with PG, and is ignored completely. And that’s just one example of deliberate false information. While many good articles on the facts are available on the internet (like this one).

Where safety is concerned, people want to believe whatever truth looks scarier. Hold that thought.

What about pets?

But let’s just look at the big killer, EG, and concentrate on pets.

And what’s better to get an idea about what’s happening than to google it? A quick search on “Ethylene glycol pets” gives 710,000 results, “Antifreeze pets” gives 1.4 million. Those results can be put into two categories: scientific reports or hazard warnings on the one side, and what i would call ‘concerned citizens’ on the other. The scientific reports usually consist of a list of lab tests that where done  to see how toxic EG really is. Most of them on small mammals. Which is how we know it kills animals too.

The other group, the vast majority of the hits, consists of the vast and treacherous wasteland where fact and fiction blend: “common knowledge”. Half of those hits are discussions, either under articles such as the one mentioned above, on facebook, or on forum threads about pet care. The other half is a blend of pet care websites, kennels websites and petitions (like this one called “Blue Death”, which mixes up EG and PG. More on them later)

Looking for the facts

So what do these people talk about? Why is EG a concern for pets?

From the noise and clutter of the conversations, the following reasoning can be distilled:

1.Antifreeze is poisonous
2. Sometimes antifreeze leaks or spills onto the ground during a refill
3. Dogs and cats are attracted to antifreeze because they like the sweet taste
4. Dogs and cats will drink antifreeze, even if water is around.

As to the death toll, most cite 10,000 pet deaths every year (in the US) as a result of EG poisoning through antifreeze. None of the sites cite a source for that, but let’s just assume that they are right. To be on the safe side, let’s double that. 20,000 dogs and cats every year in the US. There are approximately 80 million dogs and 90 million cats in the US. A quick calculation learns us that it’s 1 pet in 10,000. By comparison, most websites on pets cite 1.2 million dogs run over by cars per year (in the US). That’s one in a hundred.

On all of the sites I’ve consulted (50 or so), on EVERY single one, those 4 statements were stated as solid fact. None of them, not a single one, made references to the basic science to prove those fairly simple statements. All they did was copy the exact same text from somewhere else, adding some comments about how sad and cruel poisoning is (it is. it really is. I’m not disputing that). If this goes on for a while, you end up with thousands of webpages (1 million, in this case) blurring out the same unreferenced statements as facts.

But it can’t be that difficult to check the facts, can it?

Let’s do some science!

If we have a look at statements 1 to 4, it’s immediately obvious that 1 and 2 are true. EG is poisonous, as we have proven before. No doubt about that. It’s poisonous to mammals in very low doses. No problem there. And of course sometimes EG spills onto the ground when you refill the car. So far, so good.

Statement 3, however, is a problem. From a biological, human point of view, sweetness is a good thing . Sweetness attracts us, because it signals the presence of sugars. Energy. But is the sweetness I taste the same as the one you taste? and is sweetness to us also sweetness to cats? Or dogs? To avoid philosophical discussions about sensory input, let’s just assume that the concept (and the meaning of) sweetness is a universal thing among mammals. That’s the reason why statement 3 consists of both the attraction and the preference for sweetness. We assume they like sweet things because we do.

Fair enough. But wrong.

Cats, it seems, can’t taste sweets. The full story can be found in this “Strange but true” feature in Scientific American. Cats exclusively eat meat, and lack the ability to taste the rich sugars present in plants. They even lack key enzymes to digest them.

At least for cats, statement 3 is false. For dogs, the situation is more complex. This article in the Journal of Nutrition states that dogs lack the ability to taste some sugars, but still respond to most sugars. Dogs are partly omnivore (mostly carnivore), so there’s no real evidence that EG wouldn’t taste sweet to them.

But there’s another problem. The attraction. Let’s assume dogs like the taste of EG. If they can smell it, perhaps they can be attracted to it. EG does not evaporate that easily (it has a high heat capacity), but dogs have sensitive smell, so perhaps it might be true. However, and this is crucial, there is NO evidence whatsoever to believe that dogs (or cats) are attracted to EG puddles. Nada. None. Everything is based on the assumption that pets will eat anything sweet they come across. Which for cats isn’t true because they can’t taste it, and for dogs highly unlikely, as most of them are overfed.

**UPDATE**

Hold the (Word)press!

There is a 2006 study on rats and dogs (both of which can taste sweets) which rejects the hypothesis that animals are attracted to anti-freeze.
It’s an interesting read, and it points to the impact of water content and water deprivation, which I discuss below.

Source: wikimedia Commons

Ethylene Glycol (EG), main component of anti-freeze

An inconvenient truth?

But let’s just, for the sake of argument, proceed to statement 4. That animals will prefer EG over water. They might. But there we come to a point that, on all those websites, is plainly ignored. Why, in an environment where dozens of water sources are available to every single pet, would they happen to stumble upon the tiny puddle of EG that lies near a car? Unless you spill enormous amounts of the stuff, which would be plain stupidity, the amount of antifreeze that ends up on the ground is minimal. Most of those websites and petitions will let you believe it’s an extremely common thing.

But think about it. Imagine that by some accident you spill antifreeze liquid on the ground, outside or in your garage. What are the chances that it will form a puddle on the ground? It’s my guess, but an educated one, that 9 out of 10, a spill of EG (and how common is a spill of EG on the ground, anyway? doesn’t it all end up on the engine block?) will hit the ground, splatter in all directions, and form tiny droplets that will be absorbed by the soil or surface.

So chances for encounter are small, the chances to have deadly puddles of EG even smaller. Will a cat, not attracted to antifreeze, really stumble upon deathly amounts of EG every time she puts a paw outside her sleeping basket (or box)? Unless she’s forced and deliberately poisoned, Not really.

The only logical reason I can think of to increase the accidental probability for an animal to stumble upon antifreeze is when all other sources of water are not available. It’s just a hypothesis, but it seems obvious to me that the two moments when this could be the case is during heat of summer, when antifreeze avoids boiling of the engine and water sources are more scarce, and during winter when antifreeze avoids freezing and all the water outside is frozen. That’s a testable hypothesis. Checking cat behaviour and liquid source preference can’t be that hard.

One last thing about the US death toll of 10,000 each year. Allow me to doubt those numbers. When I read a number like that without a source, alarm bells start ringing in my head. Deliberate antifreeze poisoning (by animal-hating neighbours for example) is quite common (and sadly, efficient), but remember: those 10,000 deaths are supposed to be accidental. How did they count that? Is there any source among vets that can confirm this? If so, please put it in the comments, and I will gladly stand corrected.

I’m not an animal hater, as many of the chief defenders of the EG-sweetness will probably throw me in the face after they read this (if they read this at all)

One more thing…

Why did I start my short research into EG in the first place?

Well…because of Blue Death Org UK (the people from the petition mentioned above). They have a Facebook page where every voice of reason is blocked and removed from the webpage, dismissed as “trolls”. The admin of the page uses violent measures to remove every other (scientific) argument that dares to contradict the 4 statements I discussed here. What’s more, other related issues are wiped off the table as well.

Rock salt, another antifreeze for road surfaces, is much more dangerous to animals than EG. The risk at poisoning is actually much higher (it get’s mixed with snow). But dare to suggest it, and you’re forever denied the right to discuss the issue.

This is, in my opinion, appalling. These people have started a petition to force the EU/UK to add bitterant additive to anti-freeze. That, in itself, is a noble cause. It helps avoid poisoning of children, and might in its wake also avoid the occasional pet poisoning. In fact, the US has just approved a decree that forces bitterant additives in most states two days ago.

Where they go wrong, however, is their basic understanding of science, and most of all, their attitude. The motivation texts for the petitions are a mix of urban legend (people died after their drinks were spiked with EG!), insufficient knowledge (mixing up EG and PG), and exaggerated reasoning based on a very emotional reaction.

And I can understand that people get emotional when their pet dies. I really do. And i would sign any petition based upon solid facts. But this? A combination of hoaxes and confusion? No. Emotions are not a good indicator of scientific value. Especially when that means refuting every scientific evidence to the contrary.

Remember, these people are backed by several charities, have a website, gather money. And the EG debate is just one of the examples. Many more can be found. And in every case, the underlying science is dodgy. How can you hope to convince EU officials when your basic facts are wrong? Emotion? Think again.

Think again. Then Act.

Travelling the slow way, on iDBUS

These are dark times for European rail travel.

While the annual timetable change on the 9th of December was a memorable day for high speed rail, a large number of long distance trains were shortened, confined to one or two days a week, or axed altogether. No more Amsterdam-Beijing with only one change of trains in Moscow, for example.

I can image that, for a lot of national railway companies, night trains are something of a puzzle. Until recently, France had an extensive network of night trains, bringing you from Paris to every corner of the country with their Lunéa trains. And while they still exist today as ‘Intercités de nuit’, their number has been decreasing each year. Advertising by the national rail operator SNCF ranges from poor to non-existent, as high speed daytime services on the same routes give them easy money and more passenger turnover. Why cater to the slow traveller anyway?

For this reason, among all these cutbacks, it was quite interesting to see SNCF launch a long-distance bus service, iDBUS, which does exactly that: it creates a slow alternative. And, of all routes, they chose Paris-London, and Paris-Brussels. Two routes where Eurostar and Thalys trains bring you from A to B in under two hours. So why would people take a bus that travels 9 hours from London to Paris?

Cheaper?
Well..yes, but not in a spectacular way. At least not if you book two months in advance. I use Eurostar frequently, and if you book a few months in advance, the price difference between iDBUS and Eurostar is not that large. If you want to travel to London tomorrow, however, it becomes interesting. A Eurostar ticket for today or tomorrow costs at least €120, an iDBUS ticket will set you back about €55 for the London-Paris trip. Even 1 hour before departure.

But if you book two months in advance, is it really worth travelling the slow way..on a bus?

To find out, I decided to test it on my way back from Yorkshire to Belgium.  Instead of taking the last Eurostar of the day, I booked a seat on the overnight iDBUS from London to Lille (halfway on the London-Paris route), and made notes along the way:

Image

22:00 London Victoria Coach Station, Gate 6
Coach stations are quite special. Wherever you go in the world, there is nothing more interesting than a place where people are waiting for a bus. I travelled through quite a few bus station in China, and they were all indistinguishable from each other: Victoria station could easily have been one of them. It is not the most attractive spot in London, and it looks like something from a by-gone age, but it communicates exactly the kind of atmosphere you associate with coach travel.

My coach is not due until 23:30, but I spend my time observing. The next bus at the gate is the 22:30 to Aberdeen. It takes nearly 12 hours to go all the way to Scotland, 7 more than the fastest train, but tonight it is full. Mainly elderly people and students, it seems. The man sitting next to me, a 85-year old northerner from Carlisle, opens a tin of biscuits and tries to seduce the two 70-somethings across the aisle, but they fend off his advances by claiming that Scottish shortbread does not agree well with their false teeth. As the departure bell sounds, both pepperpots and Don Juan de Carlisle stumble off towards the coach outside.

At 23:00, the iDBUS staff arrives, and does a quick passport and ticket check. Perfectly bilingual. Very polite. A few moments later, all passengers (there are only 7) are led towards the coach, where the driver scans my ticket and shows me where to leave my luggage.

One thing that is immediately apparent  when you board the coach is the smell. Everything smells new and leathery. Like an expensive taxi service. I suspect it is part of their client-binding strategy, and a way to distinguish themselves from the 48 hour Eurolines bus to Kiev, but it does work. It creates a sense of security and trust. The seats are excellent and very large. There’s a 220V plug on every seat. And on-board Wi-Fi. Included in the price.

23:30 iDBUS
After a short introduction of the on-board facilities by one of the two drivers and a brief ‘sleep tight’, the bus sets off across midnight London. One of the nice things about night travel, either by train or by bus, is the way you travel through suburbs, cities and countryside as a silent observer. The first hour or so, the coach travels through London, past Battersea, Vauxhall and the southern suburbs towards the M20 to Kent. You can see the city slowly falling asleep, as people leave pubs, walk drunk along (or on) the road, and go home. The best way to see a city alive, is by travelling through it.

1:15 Folkstone Channel Terminal
Here, I should point out the difference between the day services and the overnight service. iDBUS uses the Chunnel to cross the Channel to France, so the time spent waiting at the Channel Terminal depends on the availability and timing of shuttle trains. During the day, this takes only half an hour or so. At night, there’s a 90 minute pause on the parking lot, because there’s one train every 2 hours. But this isn’t really important, as you’re asleep anyway. In very much the same way as night trains sometimes spend a few hours at a station to change locomotives (or simply to stretch time to make you arrive at your destination at daybreak).

3:10 Le Chunnel
The bus drives through Customs (from what i’ve heard, passport checks occur on board on some coaches) and into the awaiting Shuttle train. What follows is all very futuristic. Train closes, spaceship health and safety announcements are made, and 30 minutes later (or 90 minutes, if you count the time zone) the carriage opens up again and you drive off on the wrong side of the road. You can leave the bus during the crossing to stretch your legs, but really, the shuttle train isn’t that interesting. It’s really just a hollow tube on wheels.

6:24 Lille Europe Station
14 minutes later than the scheduled arrival time, the iDBUS pulls into Lille, and stops on the upper part of Lille Europe. The driver makes it a ‘point d’honneur’ of saying goodbye personally to everyone leaving the coach here. In fact, he’s leaving the coach as well, as another chauffeur team boards for the remaining leg to Paris. Nevertheless, it’s a service you don’t get on a TGV.

Image

The Catch?
There is none, really. Though, if you’re not used to travelling by night in a bus, then it might be a bit tiresome. I admit I didn’t sleep a lot, but that had more to do with the excitement of discovery than my discomfort. As there were only 7 persons on the bus, I could spread my little travel ecosystem over the seat next to me. I can imagine that a full bus is something quite different. Then again, there’s more comfort and leg room than in a 1st Class seat of a TGV.

Overall…
Excellent slow alternative to the Eurostar. Almost spot on time. Well-trained staff. Leg room.
What more can you wish for?

A few thoughts on a Hobbit’s Journey

*very minor spoilers ahead, but only for those who haven’t read the book*

The story, i suppose, is known to all:
Hobbit leaves home to go on a quest with a company of beardy and grumpy men to find a mountain in hostile territory. (Sounds familiar? Why, yes!)

But while Lord of the Rings (LOTR hereafter) consists of three books, each a JK Rowling-sized volume of a few hundred pages, the Hobbit is a single book of 250 pages. The critics, without even having seen the film, were furious: “surely, they said, “it is merely a commercial move to make three films out of such a short book”.

And that is where they were wrong. Yes, the first film, “An Unexpected Journey”; does indeed consist of a third of the book. And yes, it’s 2 hours and 50 minutes long. But there is no discrepancy between these two facts. The Hobbit, as a book, did not have to deal with the burden of explaining a great number of things. Why, exactly, does Gandalf disappear so often? Who is this Necromancer? All those questions are left unaddressed in the book because, at that time, even Tolkien himself did not know why. While writing the extended mythology of Middle Earth many years later, he filled the gaps in the appendices to LOTR, weaving the story of the Hobbit into a larger context: the return of evil Benedict Cumberbatch..er..Sauron.. to the scene.  In fact, he planned to rewrite the Hobbit entirely, with the new bit and pieces included in the framework, but he failed to do so before he died.

The burden on Peter Jackson’s shoulders is far greater. He has already made LOTR, and therefore has to construct the Hobbit as a prequel. Which means filming the Hobbit as a standalone with all the gaps left in, would be very odd indeed. He wants the six films to fit into one story. And that means giving context, and adding a film within a film. Yes, there are flashbacks, there’s the obligatory prologue, and there are a lot of things where a sentence of text from the Appendices is stretched to an entire scene. But every bit of it is essential in providing context and in building towards the connection with LOTR at the end of the three films. From the introduction of a guano-covered wizard (with pet hedgehogs) to a brief meeting with Cate Blanchett. 

Another criticism often heard is the addition of an ugly orc with a grudge against Richard Armitage. In the book this side plot is completely absent, and many will cringe at the “heresy” of including it in the film. But that would be missing the point. A book needs a story arc spanning the length of the entire book. A trilogy of films (or indeed, two films) needs a story arc in each film. An Unexpected Journey has two. Not only is it a film about leaving home, leaving a safe life to take risks, it is also about trust. And that means introducing plot devices that are absent in the book to enable the characters to come full circle in some way at the end of the film.

These additional scenes serve another purpose as well: introducing suspense in a story that has very little. The Hobbit is an excellent book. But unlike LOTR it is a children’s book, avoiding a lot of the violence present in its sequel. The action-heavy scenes in the book are, again, at the very end (story arc and all that). 

Nevertheless, the Hobbit has a lighter tone than the three LOTR movies. There is humour  there’s singing (but it never feels out of place) and there are a few visual gags that work extremely well.

The reason it all holds together so very well is not only the merit of Peter Jackson’s storytelling, but also of the cast. There are a lot of ways in which you can make a company of dwarves, hobbits and wizards look ridiculous on film. But there’s chemistry here you won’t find in other films in the same genre. At the end of the film you will believe that the quest for the dwarves’ homeland matters. That Martin Freeman really wants to help them.

I sincerely hope George Lucas will be watching this film in envy.

Splitting Panda Hairs

I have a Kindle.

This might come as a shock to you. Apparently it really does shock people to find out that their closest relatives, their friends, their neighbours, perhaps even their pet hamsters suddenly come out of the closet, so to speak, and admit to owning, and (*gasp*) using an electronic device to read a text. 

 

A Literary Standoff

I write this because, as a matter of fact, this happens to me at least once every week. Usually on a train. The antagonist in this nerve-wrecking rollercoaster of a tale usually sits at the other side of the table, casually leaned over a book. A paper book.  And as the train departs i then open my backpack and produce my Kindle.

Now, before we go on, i wish to make clear that this works with any device. Kindle or Nook, or whatever. The main point is that it’s an e-reader. Not an iPad, nor any of the other tablet PC’s. An e-book. 

As i start reading, the antagonist suddenly looks up from his book and produces a Smile of Discomfort, and then continues reading his novel.  This goes on and on and on for 5 minutes or so, after which the magical phrase is uttered, usually with a slight hint of utter contempt. 

“Does it REALLY read that easy from a computer screen?”

Before i can deliver the riposte, the next sentence has already been flung across the airwaves

“Gosh, i REALLY love the smell of books and paper, i couldn’t do without it. It’s all about the entire experience, you know. Reading. The perfume of the pages. I’m really more of a book person. Wouldn’t be able to read on a computer”

Before moving on in this story of book-to-book combat, let’s make a short jump in history. Somewhere around 105 AD, in ancient China. To the invention of paper.

 

New problem, same old Story

Traditionally, the invention of paper is attributed to a certain Cai Lun, official at the court of the Han Dynasty. In fact, it might even be older than that (much older), but for now let’s say the oldest sources give Cai the credit.It doesn’t really matter here anyway, because the point i want to make is that the use of paper was a serious improvement on the way people had been writing and reading texts before.

Before the invention of paper, people had been writing on bamboo. Texts were written on bamboo sticks cut in half, and several of those sticks were then sewn together into a bundle to form a text. You then had to roll them up into a bundle. Confucius wrote his Analects in this way, and if you wanted to carry his texts with you to be able to quote interesting citations at innocent passersby, you had to have a carriage full of bamboo bundles, each well numbered to keep them in the right order. You would think that the advent of paper would have been applauded, then. No more bamboo, make way for sheets of wood fiber! 

And…no. Viscous comments were to follow, and the practice to write on bamboo remained for quite a time. Old habits die hard. Of course, there was the usual problem that some habits were first adopted by the court, and not too widespread on the countryside, where bamboo was easier to find and where paper technology hadn’t reached yet. 

But i can easily picture a scene where two scholars of the Han Court sit in a room together. One rolls out his bamboo book on a large table. The other takes his bag, and produces a copy of the very same Imperial edict, on paper. 
The Smile of Discomfort. The Gaze of Contempt. 

“Oh, i REALLY love the smell of bamboo, don’t you? And those little panda hairs you can sometimes find on the back of the sticks. Just wonderful.” 

“I wouldn’t be able to read on PAPER, mind you. That white background. The feel of those fibers? No, i really prefer a 12 kilo stack of imperial edicts on bamboo that LIGHTweight paper”

 

Ink and Incapability

So let get this straight once and for all. 
I don’t read on a computer screen. I read on a Kindle, an e-book, a device that holds ink in small microscopic
capsules in very much the same way cellulose fibers hold ink inside paper. By sending a small current through the capsules you can change the configuration of the ink, and form different letters than the one’s you were reading one second before. That’s it. No magic, no computer, no hocus pocus. No screen. 

The text on an e-book appears on paper.  

“Sure, but really… i really like a library, with real books, books you can touch and browse”

Indeed. And i have one of those at home. Two, in fact. One for scientific books, one for fiction. And the books i really want to keep, to read for a second time, and browse are in there. But don’t expect me to buy pocket books in a shop anymore, if i can buy them for one third of the price on Amazon, and download them directly from the mobile phone network to my e-book, wherever i am in the world. And i can carry 2000 of those in my backpack, in one device.

Like music and films, books have entered the digital era. And holding on to paper books for “the feel and the smell and the panda hairs” is OK, it really is. But all too often people using new technology are criticized for using it and for ‘destroying the old ways’. We will have to find a solution for illegal copying, just like we have to do it for the other media, but I am convinced that ten years from now people will have made the transition.  

 

 

Language and writing are one of the younger elements of human culture, but in the few thousand years people have written marvelous things. First on rocks, turtle shields, then on bronze and finally on paper. The common trend in all this is the increase in accessibility. 

30 years ago, to read a text only available in a library at the other end of the world you would have had to travel there or ask for a paper copy to be sent. Only yesterday i read a series of very old documents, describing the construction of a village road somewhere in the Dordogne (France) early 18th century, hidden in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, freely available online in an online database called Gallica

And while it would be more authentic to read them in Paris, smelly paper, panda hairs and all, the power of the text lies in its words. 

And in our imagination.

 

The Alien World of Britannia

Ah, yes. Britain.

Until last summer, i had never visited the exotical remote island that had been lying there, across the Channel, all my life, just a small jump in a plane or a bowel-stirring ferry trip away. Stories had of course reached my ears before through various channels. Tales of culinary horror, mystery and enchanting landscapes; of a ruthless barbarian wasteland filled with sheep far North, where strange people mutter words in an incomprehensible language. Yet, for all those warnings, i was curious to see which part would actually reveal to be true. And with my girlfriend studying in England, i was soon to find out.

First of all, Britain is…well…    different.
You can’t look beyond it, really. Cars drive on the wrong side of the road, people drink their tea with milk, and
for some reason pies, as opposed to their counterparts on the continent, contain meat. Meat and potatoes. In a pie. Really…

Then there’s the annoying message shouting at you from every milk or water bottle, slice of meat, coockie bag and tea leaf: “This is a product of Britain”. Usually accompanied by a little (and equally annoying) union jack flag on the side. Now, although i’m Belgian, i’m used to chauvinism. France has it’s fair share of national pride, and advertises wildly through symbols such as wine, cheese and perfume “Made in France” all across the globe. But you won’t see “Guaranteed French Cow” on a milk bottle. (“French milk” is more likely). While I appreciate that the cow whose milk i drink was lovingly bred and milked on this lovely island, i care more about the quality of the milk itself. Or that of its meat. For all i know she could have grazed a bit too close to an old mining site.Or Windscale.

An equally annoying feature of Britain is Health and Safety. Don’t get me wrong, there has to be a kind of H&S regulation. But i KNOW that underground trains have closing doors, i KNOW they will depart at some point, and i KNOW i have to hold the handrail when standing on an escalator. Or mind the gap. No need to shout it at me. Let alone let people specially trained to do so shout it at me.

But there is some good news as well. Contrary to common belief, trains DO run on time quite often. (haven’t tried them yet when it snows, though).  Everything is more efficient and slightly less disorganized than mainland Europe. You can actually get food and buy stuff on a bank holiday. And then there’s the food department of Marks and Spencer, which makes up for all the small, tiny little problems you might have with the British cuisine (the cheeses alone are a fascinating universe, not to mention the beer and cider).

All of this, of course, depends on the region you’re in. Although i enjoy London a lot, there is something special about the North. Yes, the North, with its sheep-filled rocky hills and people with funny accents. To me, Britain’s North (and i mean North England AND Scotland) is like France’s South.

I don’t know if it’s something in the food or the cider, but somehow people here are more…well…relaxed. I spent 45 minutes this morning talking to a complete stranger about different types of Belgian Beer, and how they compare to British ales and lagers, and all that while taking my morning tea. This stranger (the owner of the small café; Cafe Lento, Headingley, Leeds. Go there.)   turned out to be a retired school teacher, and now a full time specialist in the art of making English Breakfast and baking quite excellent muffins, as well as being a jazz aficionado. Over tea we talked as old friends.And while this is far from the busy City of London, there’s no place quite like it.Although the local accent can be quite funny, and communication isn’t always that fluent as a result, it really feels like home.

And while this island has some strange traditions and very odd habits, Britain wouldn’t be Britain without them. From the “Mind the gap” calls to “We cannot show this mummy on photographs because of the laws regulating depiction of human remains” signs, it is part of something larger and ungraspable. Something beyond cider, mince meat and fish and chips.

Part of something we, in Belgium, have lately forgotten.

An identity.

 

Palms and Prejudice

While religion does not necessarily serve as a direct motive for every war or every conflict, it sure does make starting one a lot easier.

Example…
Last week, Egypt and Israel had a minor diplomatic incident over a delivery of palm leaves for a religious festival. No just a few, though.  700 000 palm leaves are imported every year from Egypt into Israel for use in the Sukkot, a festival to commemorate the 40 years in the desert after being led out of Egyptian (!) slavery by a man who supposedly looked a lot like Charlton Heston.

One of the aspects of the Sukkot includes eating your meals in a small self-made dwelling covered with palm leaves. And there, of course, is the rub. Ever since the change of government in Egypt, things haven’t been that cheerful between the two nations. Hostilities have resulted in childish name-calling on the Egyptian side, and calling back the Israelian ambassador from Cairo after an angry mob attacked the embassy.

So, no palm leaves this year. As a result, Israel will have to provide its own leaves and ‘boost production’. Exactly how they are going to manage that still remains a mystery to me, though. You see, you don’t just ‘boost’ a palm tree.

It would have been interesting to see though, one country starting a small armed conflict with another over botanical issues. But of course it’s not about botany. It’s about religion.  Announcing cancellation of a delivery of leaves one month before the start of your neighbours religious festival really doesn’t look that much as a coincidence. You don’t cancel a very lucrative sale like that if there isn’t an ulterior motive.

In fact, religious pressure has been very popular throughout the ages,and  in almost every religion. It can be used to exert and extend power (‘convert yourself…or die!’), to send people on interesting citytrips with an all-inclusive Club Med pillaging and slaughtering option (‘let’s go to Jerusalem with an army to kill some heathens!’), or, in general, just to send them off to certain death in various other and usually very original) ways.

In fact, it is being neglected a bit as a strategy these days. It would be interesting to see France stop all export of Holy Tapwater from Lourdes to the religion-fanatic Italians over a diplomatic incident involving Carla Bruni, Berlusconi and 600 grams of Gran Padano. To see the Middle East lock off oil supplies to America (imagine that, eh..!). And of course to see the Belgians stop all export of chocolate Easter eggs to the rest of the world due to a lack of government (‘Easter’s cancelled this year, sorry’)

True, leaving religion out of the equation would make geopolitics dull, but it would at least make things slightly easier…

The Tree of Life – The Abridged Script

EXT. SOMEWHERE IN THE US IN THE 1950’s

BRAD PITT and some UNKNOWN ACTRESS are playing in the garden with THEIR CHILDREN. Judging by his facial expression, he is obviously playing a domesticated version of his INGLORIOUS BASTERDS character. MYSTERIOUS MUSIC plays offscreen and no dialogue is heard. This goes on FOR AGES.

THE AUDIENCE
Whoaa this must have some deep meaning about the origins of mankind.

TERRENCE MALICK
It’s just Brad Pitt, playing in the garden. He paid the movie, so i have to give him some screentime, no?

CUT to a similar scene, which goes on FOR AGES. DRAMATICAL MUSIC plays. The UNKNOWN ACTRESS has a WHISPERING VOICE OVER which goes on FOR AGES.

UNKNOWN ACTRESS (voice over)
I don’t have any dialogue after this until the end of the movie, so i will fill my time with incoherent phrases to confuse the half of the audience that came to see Brad Pitt, and mystify the other half.

She DOES.

THE AUDIENCE
Whoaaa! There is a symbolic meaning to this!

TERRENCE MALICK
All right. We are now 30 minutes in the movie. Let’s repeat the previous scenes twice and then let a character we haven’t even met die in an offscreen accident, followed by a scene with the reactions of his parents, which we haven’t really met either.

He DOES.
INT. PRESENT. SOME BUILDING IN MANHATTAN

SEAN PENN is staring in the DISTANCE, uttering INCOHERENT PHRASES about the PREVIOUSLY DECEASED CHARACTER mentioned before, which has to make clear to the audience that he is BRAD PITT’s SON. DRAMATICAL MUSIC plays offscreen. CUT to SEAN PENN in the DESERT. CUT to SEAN PENN on a SALT PLAIN. CUT to SEAN PENN in his office. This goes on FOR AGES.

SEAN PENN
What the…. How did I end up in the desert? And how did i end up in this movie?

TERRENCE MALICK
I paid you, didn’t I?
OK. Now that we have introduced the main characters…

THE AUDIENCE
You did? When did that happen?

TERRENCE MALICK
Nevermind. Now that we are 20 minutes in our movie…

THE AUDIENCE
20 minutes? You made this look like one hour!

TERRENCE MALICK
Stop interrupting me!

THE AUDIENCE
but….

TERRENCE MALICK
OK, you’ve asked for it. Time for Amoebae!

The HISTORY OF OUR SOLAR SYSTEM and LIFE ON EARTH is shown through recycled images from NATURE DOCUMENTARIES underlined by DRAMATICAL MUSIC. One sequence of a WAVE crashing to SHORE is repeated FIVE TIMES.
THE AUDIENCE
Amoebae? In a Brad Pitt movie?

TERRENCE MALICK
This is MY movie, folks. And watch it, Or i will introduce bad CGI dinosaurs.

THE AUDIENCE
Nooooo….!
He DOES. We see BAD CGI DINOSAURS on screen.  ONE DINOSAURS shows MERCY.

THE AUDIENCE
Wait, did he just try to show us the main message of the movie with Dinosaurs????!
How deranged is that? We want Brad Pitt back!

TERRENCE MALICK
Those are Palme d’Or winning Dinosaurs! Ha!
But alright then… Asteroid time!

A sequence follows copied STRAIGHT out of 2001:A SPACE ODYSSEY. We then, finally, return to the MAIN PLOTLINE

THE AUDIENCE
Plotline? Oh. Thát plotline. That was one hour ago.

TERRENCE MALICK
No..30 minutes…still 1.5 hours left.



EXT. US 1950’s

BRAD PITT behaves BADLY to HIS CHILDREN, teaching them AMBITION, SELF RESPECT and PERSEVERANCE.

BRAD PITT
Praise the Lord!

UNKNOWN ACTRESS
I’m here to fill those gorgeously framed images of Terrence, and Brad Pitt behaves like a jerk, but i keep smiling.

This goes on FOR AGES. After a series of REPETITIVE SCENES that involve a YOUNG BOY WITH ONE FACIAL EXPRESSION and violent agression towards PATCHES OF GRASS and HEAVY SYMBOLISM about the RELATION OF MANKIND to GOD (featuring WHISPERING VOICES), we cut back to SEAN PENN on a SALT PLAIN.
EXT. SALT PLAIN

SEAN PENN
Wow. This movie was a 2 hour dream sequence to symbolize my broken father-son relationship. Nevertheless i will now walk on a metaphorical beach towards a metaphorical sunset together with the rest of the cast.

He DOES.

THE AUDIENCE
We want our money back!

TERRENCE MALICK
Hey, i just reunited science and religion in 137 minutes. You should thank me for that.

THE END