The right-wing American talk-show host, Rush Limbaugh, has made many millions of dollars out of being provocative and outrageous. But this week, he overstepped even the generous margin of latitude he allows himself. He accused Michael J Fox (right), the screen actor turned Parkinson's disease campaigner, of exaggerating his symptoms for political purposes in a television advert attacking the Republican Party for its opposition to stem cell research.
The video of Fox, jerky, uncoordinated movements and all, was subsequently in great demand on the internet. Voyeurism being one unfortunate by-product of the web culture, this does not necessarily mean that Limbaugh's underhand efforts to discredit Fox will rebound. As the wife of someone with Parkinson's, though, I am ready to state on oath that Fox was absolutely not guilty of hyperbole.
The only question - with Parkinson's, as with other chronic conditions - is how far the symptoms derive from the disease itself and how much from the side effects of the drugs that make living possible. That such drugs - powerful and expensive - are essential was a point Fox had set out to illustrate in an earlier appearance before Congress, when he deliberately reduced his intake beforehand. This was the "precedent" Limbaugh disgracefully quoted when he grudgingly apologised for his remarks.
All this, however, is by way of saying that the value to charities and medical research establishments of "celebrity" campaigners cannot be overestimated. And it is to Fox's credit that he has chosen to lend his name to the cause. If Limbaugh has helped to promote it, however perversely, so much the better.
And in one respect Fox is fortunate. Having earned well in his acting days, he and his family will be secure. The same cannot be said of many other Americans, who become uninsurable and risk bankruptcy if diagnosed with a chronic disease at the peak of their earning power. In Britain, and other countries with a public health system, this is not so - which is one reason the NHS is so revered.
For all the awe in which the NHS is held, however, I increasingly notice little incursions at the edges. It is not just dentistry, which has spun so far out of the "free at the point of delivery" orbit that we seem to have written it out of the NHS script completely. Nor is it just items of equipment that the NHS seems to regard as luxuries that individuals must fund for themselves or wait so long that the need will have long passed by the time their number comes up.
Such items, for your information, include lightweight wheelchairs, those natty little "mobility" scooters, walkers with convenient little baskets, and digital hearing aids, as opposed to the far less effective traditional variety. It is like NHS spectacles used to be: if you want anything better than standard, or you want it now, you are out there on your own in a largely uncharted free-market ocean in which, believe me, sharks prey on the vulnerable.
The incursions I notice are smaller and more prosaic. Last week, at the GP's surgery, for instance, there was a shiny new notice on the counter, listing charges for such services as issuing sick notes, providing documentation for disabled stickers and a whopping £88 for a certificate to certify that you are well enough to drive. This is apparently quite legal - look it up on the BMA website (under "patients and public", by the way) - and it is all to do with GP clinics being run essentially as businesses contracted to the health authority.
Now it seems to me that the very people who need these certificates will often be the very people least able to pay. But no one seems to have challenged the practice before it was introduced. All you can do now if you don't like it is fill in one of the complaints forms your surgery is obliged to supply. You will not be surprised to learn that these were not as conspicuous, at least not at my surgery, as the menu of services requiring payment.
If there is one word to which I am fast developing an aversion, it is "treat". How often do you find "treat" applied in a male context? No, "treat" is a gender-shaded word applied exclusively to women. It assumes a particular type of female self-indulgence, enjoyed privately as a guilty extra. "Treat" implies that women can be persuaded to buy something, eat something or bathe in something only if it is presented as a reward for the hard life they live the rest of the time. Snap out of it, girls. You've earned it. Go out and spend it with as little guilt as the guys.
* The tail end of morning rush hour in one of the capital's epic bottlenecks, where demolition, construction and traffic lights vie for space. A car with Belgian plates is stationary at the kerb, its hapless driver on the pavement. He waves one hand in despair, in the other he holds a street-map closer and closer to his eyes.
Like the transport minister, Stephen Ladyman, who described this week how he found himself down a cart track and up to his wheel-arches in mud somewhere in his High Peak constituency, my lost Belgian motorist was just another victim of the sat-nav - this year's favourite male avoidance system for asking an ordinary member of the public the way.
Sat-nav junkies are now road companions almost as threatening to the rest of us as drivers who stutter along with a mobile phone at their ear. They suspend their native sense of direction; the last flickers of map-reading ability are next to go. Is this how our species of hunter-gatherers will end?
* Until recently, I was more likely to read 00 as an international dialling code than a dress size. The furore over stick-thin supermodels such as Esther Canadas, pictured, has changed all that. Size 00 is now a term of abuse, synonymous with being anorexic and heroin-dependent.
It may be a stretch when the other current health obsession is obesity, but spare a thought for those of us whose short stature makes 00 - well, alas, not quite - pretty much what we ought to be. Before high street chains introduced "petite" ranges, the options for us boiled down to sew your own or hit the Paris departments stores. Most of us have probably developed a near-professional sideline in hemming, tucking and sleeve-shortening.
The panics over 00 and obesity are more connected than might appear. The only reason why a 00 size has become necessary is because British sizing has been so inflated. A standard size 10 in the Eighties is now down to a size 4 or thereabouts - and all to save the self-esteem of our larger sisters. Anyone who has remained a size 12, say, for 10 years or more has actually put on rather a lot of weight.
And now the "petite" concept is being devalued, too. The outrage voiced recently by girls who cannot find a size 18 at their preferred fashion store is more than matched by my frustration at finding sizes 16, 18 and even 20 in the "petite" range, and not a 4 or 6 in sight. Petite? How about a new "honesty" range called "short and wide"?
There could be worse in the offing for us miniatures, too. Size 3 shoes - real size 3, not continental 36 - are becoming extinct. I may have a sideline as a seamstress, but cobbling is a more forbidding proposition.Reuse content