Now that gold is losing value, hopefully we can put the "Brown's bottom" myth to bed

Should the Chancellor really be a day trader?

The gold market appears to have well and truly peaked. The Perth mint puts the all-time high way back on 6 September 2011, when the bid price per ounce was $1915.55. It's now plummeted to just over $1600, and appears to be on a steady downward trajectory.

None of which will be much consolation to Gordon Brown, who famously sold most of Britain's gold reserves near the bottom of the market, between 1999 and 2002. He may have made $3.5bn from the sale, at an average price of $270; but if he'd sold on to the same reserves and sold them the day before the 2010 election, he'd have made the country just over $15bn. And he is never allowed to forget it; cries of "Brown sold the gold" are common even today.

But it's unfair to hold Brown to standards only visible in hindsight. After all, he's not magic. So what critics are really saying is "Brown should have known beforehand that gold was a good investment". And if we're holding Brown to that criticism, we have to hold his Osborne to the same standard.

When the chancellor took power, gold was selling for $1170; 18 months later, it had hit its peak. If Osborne had bought back the quantity of gold Brown sold, he'd have had to spend $15bn; but then, 18 months later, he'd have made a profit of $9.7bn, selling the gold for $24bn. Even if he'd just bought back the value of what Brown sold, spending $3.5bn on gold in 2010, he could have sold it for $5.7bn, a $2.2bn profit.

Brown didn't lose money in 2003; he just failed to make money in the years after. Osborne didn't lose money in 2010; he just failed to make money in the 18 months after. Unless we want to punish all our chancellors for not moonlighting as day traders, holding them liable for the money they didn't make is nonsensical.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear