Against the closure of small Highland maternity units

Season's greetings to the medical team assessing maternity services at Caithness General Hospital. If it is decided to close them, Mary's stable could seem less a scene of primitive hardship and actually quite attractive to the women of Wick.

Women there are protesting against an outcome that could lead to them travelling 100 miles by ambulance down the A9 to Inverness while in labour. After all, at least Mary wasn't
hurtling along at 60mph when she gave birth but relaxing in a warm and dry abode, comfortably furnished with hay. According to the journal Science in Society, roadside births have a mortality rate of 68 per 1000, eight times higher than hospital births and 16 times higher than home births.

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America's threadbare safety net

Leaving a train station in a suburb of Boston in a white-out one evening recently, I trudged my way through falling snow to the main street. I hailed a passing cab - but did a double take on opening the door.

In the back seat there was a three-year-old girl in a car seat watching TV. Her grandmother was in the driver's seat, a tiny woman whose head was at the same level as the steering wheel.

The pair of them saw me safely to my destination in a full-scale blizzard before setting off to look for other fares. It was 10pm.

Grandmother Julie, in debt after bringing up six children on a low wage, will be 72 before she can claim a state pension. For now, she is doing what she can to make ends meet.

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Keys to Wisdom Keys

Keys. You may have some jingling in your pocket or handbag. Take them out. Look at them. Describe them. Collins dictionary remarks that they are metal instruments that, when rotated, open locks. But there is more to them than that.

In a recent survey, one group used the adjectives "little", "lovely","magic", and "intricate" to describe them while another chose "awkward","worn", "jagged", and "serrated".

This cleverly designed study, reported in this week's New Scientist, attempted to prove scientifically what poets have always known. Language matters. The first group of describers were Spaniards, who see keys as feminine; the second were Germans, for whom they are masculine. The words they used were identified by "gender-blind" English speakers as gender-linked.

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Light pollution

WHAT have we lost if we lose the night sky?

Spending this Christmas on the highly-developed coastal fringe of Tenerife, I looked up from my balcony into a sky no darker than whisky to see not a single star.

The flashing of fluorescent Christmas decorations combined with light pouring out from a series of gigantic hotels, apartment blocks and neon bar signs completely to blot out the black.

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I wouldn't put my shirt on house prices

Note: A house price crash hasn't happened yet, a gentler correction is underway, but a fall may still come.

Why have property prices doubled in five years? The government has bought the idea that it is because there are not enough homes to meet demand. This is rubbish and John Prescott's pledge to build one million homes in the south-east of England is a stupid way to try to bring down house prices.

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