Loss of a Parent

Sunday, 31. January 2016 10:08 | Author:

I’m guessing this photo was taken around 1964, give or take. The woman in the photo is my mother, Jean Jacobs, born Jennie Maddison, and among the seven children pictured (two of which are not hers) are the five she had with my father: me, my three brothers, and — arriving last like a bold, italic exclamation mark — my sister.

My mother was born in Leeds Jean Jacobs 1964on Boxing Day 1921, a middle child sandwiched between an older brother and younger sister, fiercely proud of her Yorkshire roots. She had two families, nine children in all: five girls and four boys. When my father died in 1969 she was left with five of us to raise, aged from six to thirteen. It was hard work, and she worked hard.

Parents can sometimes seem like strange people when we’re young, doing the oddest things for what seem the dumbest reasons. As we ourselves grow old and become parents and raise our own children, I think we make more sense of our parents and come to understand them better.

When I was ten she told me the most important thing she could ever do for me was to make sure I received a good education, and she delivered.

Most of us experience losing our parents at some point in our lives, and I think losing your mother is for many perhaps one the toughest things life will throw at us. Today, January 28th, is exactly 25 years since my mother passed away, and it’s comforting for me that I was able to be with her at the end in the hospice, holding her hand as she left this world. It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed already, it truly seems like yesterday.

For those who have lost a parent more recently, I have good news: time really does heal the pain, and the love never fades. For those yet to lose a parent, you know they won’t be here forever. If you love them, now is a good time to tell them. But if for some reason you don’t get to tell them, don’t worry. They already know.

(Originally posted on Facebook, 28th Jan 2016)

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Jamboree Bags

Monday, 18. January 2016 21:19 | Author:

When I was a kid I used to buy something called a Jamboree Bag with my pocket money. They cost just a few pence, old money, pre-decimalisation. You knew you’d always get a bunch of sweets and a cheap tacky toy, but you never knew exactly what, and that was part of the attraction. Whatever the contents, though, it never put you off buying another one the following week.

Celebrity Big Brother is a bit like a Jamboree Bag. You know you’ll get a bunch of (so-called) celebrities, including some (perhaps many) that you’ve never heard of, but you never know quite what you’ll get. No matter what the mix, though, it never puts you off watching the next series. The bunch that Channel 5 have pulled together for the latest series must be the worst bunch of maladjusted individuals ever to grace the house. Few of them seem able to go more than 24 hours without running to the diary room and wailing that they want to go home, and these people are paid extremely well just for turning up. None of them, surely, will come out of the process looking good. None of them come across as being close to normal. Maybe it’s time Celebrity Big Brother went the way of the Jamboree Bag.

I start a new contract tomorrow, another six-month contract as a Scrum Master. In a way, contracts are like Jamboree Bags, too: you know vaguely what to expect, but you never know exactly what you’re going to get. Like opening a Jamboree Bag, like a Celebrity Big Brother launch episode, it’s quite exciting.

Wish me luck.

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So Long, Lemmy, and Thanks For 1980

Tuesday, 29. December 2015 20:57 | Author:

Lemmy’s dead. Days after his seventieth birthday.

I saw Motorhead in July 1980 at Bingley Hall, Stafford. I have a good memory (I think) so 1980 still feels like yesterday to me, and it takes me a minute to accept that the guy I saw on stage yesterday is, or just was, seventy years old, but he was. It still surprises me sometimes that some of the so-called hell-raisers from the seventies and eighties are still kicking around, but they are.

Back in 1980 Motorhead head-lined a concert also featuring Saxon, Girlschool, Angel Witch, Mythra, Vardis, and White Spirit. Not all of those became household names. The music started in the afternoon and went on late, but I remember one of the guys I went with was comatose through alcohol before the first note was played and spent the whole gig in the first aid room.

Bingley Hall was just that, a hall. No seating. You stood and you swayed and you headbanged. There were other concerts at Bingley Hall where I was close enough to the stage to have my head almost inside the speakers, being blasted to death. My ears rang for days afterwards. There were those who said such stupidity would see me deaf by the age of thirty. Ha! But for the Motorhead gig I was about two-thirds back from the stage in the vast hall that was Bingley, and Motorhead were still almost too loud to bear. When people say Motorhead were loud, it’s no exaggeration.

I’m not a big fan of so-called celebrity culture. I don’t go ga-ga when celebrities croak. Not even ones I’ve seen in concert. Still, I tip a nod to Lemmy in passing. Those were fun days, and Lemmy was a part of that. He was a character, larger than life, but very much what you see is what you get. I can’t say that Motorhead’s music evolved much since those Overkill and Bomber days. The last Motorhead album I bought was Aftershock which came out in 2013 and the songs on the album could have fitted onto Overkill or Bomber. But that’s part of the appeal; you knew what you were getting.

Knowing what you’re getting is so often a good thing. Lemmy was diagnosed with cancer just a few days before he died, and I doubt that he had time for anything much between diagnosis and last breath. My mother on the other hand, who died a year younger than Lemmy almost twenty-five years ago, knew what she was getting. Her cancer was diagnosed some months before last breath, which left a lot of time for those things that people want to do, want to say, before they pass.

In the end, it is what it is, and we don’t usually get to choose.

So long, Lemmy, and thanks for 1980.


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Dry Run – Results

Saturday, 18. October 2014 12:38 | Author:

I mentioned in my last post that I’m due to start a new job in London on 27th which means commuting by train, or cattle truck, and as it happens I’ve spent the last two days on a course in London with an almost identical journey, which is a good dry run for what’s to come. So, how did it go?

Well, the first morning I was due to catch the 07:18 and decided I’d walk to the station, which I calculated meant leaving the house around 06:40. I was up at 05:15, did the usuals, had breakfast, and got myself dressed and ready, but by the time I went out of the front door it was already 06:50, so I was running about 10 minutes late. Not to worry, I thought, I’ll just walk at a brisk pace and I should be okay. So off I went. But 10 minutes later it was obvious that I would never make it, I was going to miss the train, so I had to phone my wife and ask her to collect me and get me to the station, bless her. Not a great start.

The train to London was busy but not initially full, so I had no trouble getting a seat, and it ran on time and without incident. The queue for the Cirle Line in the underground wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be, certainly not anywhere near as bad as it was when I went up to London for the interview (and two young women almost came to blows in front of me). The underground was pretty packed, but no problems, and I arrived at the venue for the course in plenty of time. Good result.

We got out of the course slightly earlier than expected. The underground was busy but fine, and I found that when I got to St Pancras the 17:42 was still in the station with about five minutes to spare. Marvellous, I would be home about 30 minutes earlier than I’d expected. The downside (there’s always a downside) is that the train was packed and there was standing room only for most of the journey. Bah, humbug. But at least I was home early.

The next morning I planned to take the car to the station rather than walking. Armed with a pocketful of change, I left the house about the same time as the previous day, which gave me plenty of time. The car park adjacent to the station was full, so I headed into the overflow car park and parked up okay. Unfortunately, the machine wouldn’t take any coins, so I walked to the car park the other side of the station, bought a ticket, and walked back again to put the ticket in the car. I was almost into the station afterwards when I realised I didn’t have my mobile on me. I was pretty sure it was still plugged in and charging at home, but I had to go back to the car and check, just in case I’d left it in there, where it would be visible. Nope. No phone. Okay, a day without the phone isn’t a disaster. It was actually quite a novelty.

After that things ran pretty much like clockwork. The 07:18 was on time and I had no trouble finding a seat, and the underground was busy but got me to the training course with time to spare. On the way home I got to the station before the 17:42 was in, and a lot of people were waiting for it by the time it arrived, but I managed to get on and find a seat without any hassle. My car was waiting for me when I got to Cantervbury and I was home in good time.

So, that was a pretty good dry run. Come a week on Monday I’ll be doing the same journey except that I’ll be getting off the underground one station earlier, but it’s shown me that I should have plenty of time to get the 07:18 and get into work in time for 09:00. By the time I get out of work I’m more likely to be getting the 18:42 rather than the 17:42, but I know what to expect.

Roll on 27th!

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Let The Train Take The Strain

Wednesday, 15. October 2014 22:19 | Author:

Just over two years ago I was made redundant. It’s not an incredibly exciting experience.

I’d spent nine years commuting between Canterbury and Hastings by car, and spent a fair amount of that time driving between the south-east and south Wales. Cars are great. You have your own personal space. Your own personal music. Your own personal air con. It’s like your own private space suit, with more space.

With redundancy came change, and one of the changes was that I moved from being a permanent employee to being a contractor. I didn’t choose contracting; it chose me. I was going through the selection process for a permanent position when I got a call about a six month contract in Portsmouth. I didn’t jump at it, didn’t really think it was worth going for the interview to be honest, because I wasn’t a contractor. But, I was talked into going for an interview and then – I got offered the contract, all before the permanent position process concluded. So I took it.

I had to set up my own private limited company, get an accountant, and start paying the VAT man. That is actually quite an exciting experience.

In some ways the Portsmouth contract was similar to what came before, because I was still travelling around the south of England in my own space suit. I worked away from home during the week and came back for the weekends, often for a long weekend because I was able to juggle my hours. But because I took accommodation close to work I was able to walk to work for the first time in decades. That changed when the office moved to Southampton and once more there was a daily commute in the space suit, but it wasn’t so very far.

The Portsmouth contract went on for twenty-one months, and very enjoyable it was, too. But all good things come to an end.

What’s next?

Well, I now have another contract. For the next six months, starting on 27th October, I’ll be working in London, which means travelling to work on the train. The cattle truck. Gone is my personal space, my personal music, and my personal air con. But it is an opportunity to just sit — if there’s enough seats, that is. To sit and read, or sit and write, or sit and listen to music on the Kindle, or just to sit and think.

I don’t think I’m going to like it. I don’t think shuttling to and from London on a cattle truck is going to be much fun, that spending the winter on draughty stations is going to be very stimulating, or that fighting my way into tube trains is going to make me feel good about my fellow passengers. But it’s an adventure. I’ve never commuted by train before.

Although I don’t start that contract for more than a week yet, I have a two-day course to attend in London starting tomorrow, so it’s going to be something of a dress rehearsal for what’s coming. And who knows, I might even enjoy it.

At the very least, after the many thousands of miles of car travel over the past decade, I’m going to let the train take the strain.


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How big is your pizza?

Sunday, 13. July 2014 8:36 | Author:

I had lunch at Frankie & Benny’s in Westwood Cross yesterday and chose a 10” American Hot pizza. The pizza was delicious, I can recommend it, and at £9.95 it’s not bad value, but I couldn’t help noticing that the guy at the next table had a 15” pizza and couldn’t finish it, so they boxed up the remains for him to take home. At £13.95 I’d say the 15” is pretty good value too, but only if you can finish it. If you end up throwing half of it away, maybe it’s not such good value. Or is it? Just how much bigger is a 15” diameter pizza than a 10”? It’s not actually a difficult question, I worked it out for myself in a matter of moments over lunch. No doubt you can work it out too, it’s primary school maths, so why not go ahead and have a try.

Done it?

Okay, hands up if you worked out that the 15” pizza is half as big again as the 10”. You’d be wrong, of course. The size of the pizza, given that it’s round (the clue was in the use of ‘diameter’ in the previous paragraph) is represented by its area, and can be calculated using the trusty old formula you probably learned in primary school:

area = π x r2

where r is the radius and is half the diameter, and π is a constant (approximately 3.14 and a bit). Because the 10” pizza has a diameter of 10, the radius is 5, so:

Area of 10” pizza = π x 52 = just over 78.5 square inches.

Pretty impressive for only £9.95, and works out at around 12.7p per square inch. The 15” pizza will be larger than that, obviously, but by how much? Half as much again? Double the size? Less than double? More? What do you think? The radius of the 15” pizza is 7.5, so:

Area of 15” pizza = π x 7.52 = just over 176.7 square inches.

Compare the two and we find that the 15” pizza is equivalent to 2.25 (two and a quarter) 10” pizzas, all for just £13.95, around 7.9p per square inch, which I think is great value — if you can eat it. But if you make the mistake of thinking it’s only half as big again, you could be biting off a lot more than you can chew.

As an aside, I once memorised the value of π to about 25 decimal places, simply because, well, why not. It’s not hard to do (though I’ve forgotten it now), but there are people who have memorised π to thousands of decimal places. Why? Well, why not, but I read somewhere that you only need π to 39 decimal digits to measure the circumference of the observable universe (which, let’s face it, is very, very big) to the width of a hydrogen atom (which let’s face it, is very, very small), so for most practical purposes that’s about all you’ll ever need. So here they are:


Of course, if you know your maths you’ll know that you don’t really need π to determine the relative sizes of the 10” and 15” pizzas. If you take the 52 and 7.52, that gives 25 and 56.25, which again gives a relative size for the larger of 2.25 times the smaller.

Now, would you like fries with that?


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How to kill a loved one

Friday, 27. June 2014 20:12 | Author:

It’s more than fifty years since I drew my first breath, an event no doubt witnessed by my mother, having just given birth to me. Some years later I sat with my mother’s hand clasped in mine as she drew her final breath. She had what I suppose might be called a ‘good innings’, though she scored few notable runs and was struck by the ball more often than she would have liked. So far as I know she had no awareness during those final moments, but it was what one might call a dignified end, and made more so by the care and dedication of the hospice staff who were simply marvellous.

She was not a churchgoer, my mother, she carried her faith privately, but in those final weeks and days she spoke often of how much she looked forward to re-joining my father who had died twenty-odd years earlier. Though I’m not a man of faith myself, who knows, perhaps she got her wish.

That same hospice announced recently that it would close in two years’ time, an announcement that met with public outcry, and the decision has since been put on hold. My instinct is that it will indeed close, but only after enough time has elapsed for local people to become resigned to the idea — that’s how these things usually work, after all, with unpopular ideas. We shall see. But what a wonderful thing a hospice is, a place where those who are terminally ill can spend their final days in relative comfort, treated with care and tenderness. We can’t all choose how we will spend our last days, but my mother’s passing is one I think I could accept for myself and for those I care about.

My brother’s passing, by contrast, was at a time and in a place and by a method of his own choosing. He died alone and without dignity, his innings cut tragically short.

Sometimes we can choose our death, and sometimes we can’t.

Which brings me to the topic of assisted suicide, which has been in the news again recently. It’s a topic that I’m sure won’t go away any time soon. There’s a groundswell of feeling around this, creating a pressure that I’m convinced will eventually blow away all obstacles in its path. We’re not there yet, but my instinct is that it’s coming.

People are demanding the right to choose the time and place of their death.

People are demanding the right to assistance in doing so.

I’m not generally a big fan of rights. Too often I find them to be transient, arbitrary, or politically motivated, and I dislike the whole mind-set we’ve developed whereby we accept rights as privileges handed down to us by someone else. Who the hell is anyone to tell me, or you, whether or not we can die?

One of the problems with assisted suicide though, I think, is in the assistance. Repeatedly I hear this topic discussed in terms of doctors or other medical staff assisting someone in dying. This seems to be a reversal of what we have long traditionally expected from our medical professionals. The focus has always been on them preserving life, where there is life to be preserved. It’s asking a lot, perhaps, to flick a moral switch and have them start sending people on their way. But if we’re not to ask this of our medical professionals, if we wish to keep separate those who preserve life from those who terminate it, how else should we to facilitate assisted suicide?

If we consider the hospice, we already have an environment in which people are, if not actually sent on their way, at least made comfortable for the journey. And perhaps that’s what we should be steering towards, places dedicated to assisted suicide, places where our loved ones can be despatched, processed, teased off their mortal coil, where live but fading people enter and dead people leave.

And that in turn raises the question: How ought we to despatch our loved ones, exactly? By what method?

Now, I appreciate that thinking about such details can be unpleasant, but at some point the question must be asked, and must be answered. If this is a subject you find difficult then this is the point where you should stop reading and do something else instead, because I’m now going to talk about killing people.

The point of assisted suicide must surely be to bring about a rapid death with minimal suffering, minimising pain and distress. There are of course numerous ways to achieve this, and a two-stage process perhaps offers an optimal solution. The first stage would involve rendering the subject unconscious and insensible to pain but not necessarily dead (stunned). In the second stage the subject would be brought to the point of death (killed).

Several effective methods already exist for stunning. One of the simplest and cleanest is electrical stunning in which current is passed across the brain or heart, rendering the subject unconscious. An alternative to electrical stunning is asphyxiation using CO2 gas, the subject typically rendered unconscious within less than 30 seconds. A further alternative is blunt force trauma through the use of a captive bolt pistol with a non-penetrating bolt. The pistol is applied to the subject’s forehead and produces a severe non-penetrating concussive force to deliver a shallow but forceful blow, concussion rendering the subject quickly unconscious.

Once the subject is unconscious, they can be brought to the point of death through exsanguination, or “bleeding out”. Methods include a cut to the throat, or inserting a chest stick into the subject’s chest close to the heart, either of which will allow main veins or arteries to bleed.

I’m sure there are people who feel uncomfortable thinking about their loved ones being stunned with a captive bolt pistol before having their throat cut, but these methods are in fact already in use. They’re used to slaughter the animals we eat. Pigs, cows, goats and sheep are already despatched using processes such as those above. In fact, most of us probably not only have eaten, but continue to regularly eat, animals killed using these methods, in the form of steak, sausages, bacon, burgers, chops, and so on.

These methods are considered humane, and as they are considered humane, if pigs, cows, goats and sheep already have the right to be stunned and bled, surely we deserve nothing less than the same.

Of course, if you think these methods are not appropriate for your loved ones, if you think these methods are not humane, then you might want to think about how the animal on your plate tomorrow was despatched, processed, teased off its mortal coil.


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Friday, 31. January 2014 16:21 | Author:

I’m reading Hemingway. Yay, me. Actually, when I say reading Hemingway, I mean his short stories. Yeah, I know, he wrote some great novels, but I’ve not read them. I read a lot of his shorts about ten years ago and now I’m reading them again. He’s brilliant, of course, which is why a lot of people say, “He’s brilliant”. He wrote in a minimalist style, which he described as the Iceberg Theory: he describes the surface details, but much of the story lies beneath the surface. To be honest, Hemingway’s surface details do it for me, I’m a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of guy, which means his shorts are a perfect lunchtime read. I’m not against looking below the surface, but that’s more than a lunchtime for me and lunchtimes tend to be short. I don’t get paid while lunching.

I wrote a very short story a few years back titled Hemingway’s Ashtray. If you’re interested, you won’t even need a lunch break, it’s a fag-break kind of story and you can read it here:


I read a lot of Heinlein in my twenties. Robert Heinlein, that is. Novel length. Perhaps best known for Stranger In A Strange Land, he was one of the so-called Big Three science fiction authors way back when, before Star Trek, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. In fact, I probably got bitten by the science fiction bug by reading the likes of Asimov and Clarke when I was in my teens, their short stories appearing in a magazine around that time. Heinlein came later to me.

He was a popular author back then, Old Heinlein. I once flew from Dusseldorf to Milan, and while I was waiting to leave the plane some American guy, who introduced himself as Randy, noticed I was holding a Heinlein novel and we talked Heinlein all the way through arrivals. It turned out he’d been in Dusseldorf for the same medical systems exhibition that I’d been to and was down in Milan for another one of the same, like me. I was there as an engineer to keep a particular piece of kit working during the exhibition and spent my time on the stand with the marketing team from the Italian national company, none of whom I’d met before. In fact, I knew no-one in Italy at all. They treated me well, these marketeers, they were good hosts, and I never had to pay for anything, not one dinner, not even a lunch.

A few days into the exhibition in Milan a group of people from an (apparently) important client company visited the stand. As the group moved onto the stand, Randy suddenly burst from the middle of the group and headed straight for me. He shook my hand and greeted me enthusiastically by name, like an old friend. It turned out he had a good position within the client organisation, and the way he greeted me threw my Italian colleagues into confusion, much to my amusement.

I read a Heinlein novel once in which a character kept shifting between alternate universes. Each universe was almost exactly like the previous one, but different in some important way. Years later, long after I was through my Heinlein phase – I’d read most of his stuff by then – I thought I’d give his novels another spin, so I went into town and walked around the bookshops (this was back in the days before we had Amazon and there was a choice of bookshops in town). I couldn’t find a Heinlein book anywhere. Not one. I tried again the next time I was in town. And the next time. No luck. It was as though I’d shifted into an alternate universe that was almost exactly like mine, but in which Heinlein had never existed. Fortunately, though today most bookshops around here tend not to carry many of his books (perhaps two or three), everything is available online. Even Heinlein. (Yay).

There are two things in particular that have stayed with me from Heinlein’s stories. The first is the word ‘grok’, which comes from Stranger In A Strange Land, and you probably have to read the book to really understand the word, though you’ll find definitions if you Google it. The second is TANSTAAFL. If you’re familiar with Heinlein you won’t need me to explain that. Not that Heinlein originally came up with it, but it appears more than once in his works, and it stands for There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. A simple concept and a simple truth, one that I’m often reminded of.

Speaking of lunch, there’s an item on the BBC web site news page today titled, Outrage after student lunches thrown out at Utah school. You may have seen it. If you haven’t, you can find it here:


The article centres on an incident in which a bunch of students queued up for and were served a school meal and went to the till, only to find that their parents were in arrears on meal payments. Someone at the school made the decision to take the meals away from the students. At this point the food, having already been served, could not be offered to other students, so it was thrown away.

Parents were outraged and said their children had been humiliated. One parent said the way the school handled the situation was needless and mean.  Two state senators vowed to address the school policies if the school officials fail to. One senator said it amounted to bullying.

Now, far be it for me to disagree with a senator, but I like to do a little root cause analysis in situations like this. Sure, you can take it up with the school. Go ahead. But it does say in the article that the previous day someone at the school had tried to contact parents who were in arrears to recoup payment because of the high number of negative balances.  That seems pretty reasonable to me, and not at all like bullying. Besides, you can change the school policy, but that doesn’t solve the problem of children taking meals when their accounts are in arrears. You see, the school policy wasn’t the real cause of the problem.

So we have to look at why the accounts were in arrears, and for that we have to turn to the parents, the same people accusing the school of being mean. If we want a solution to this problem, surely it’s the negative balances that need to be addressed. If you address those, the school policy doesn’t even have to change and the state senators can spend their time dealing with bigger issues. So come on, Utah parents. Take responsibility. Take responsibility for the humiliation your children suffered, take responsibility for making sure your childrens’ meal accounts are in credit, and stop blaming the school.  After all, TANSTAAFL.

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Danielle Steel Is Still Writing!

Saturday, 10. August 2013 19:06 | Author:

I’m about to cover quite a lot of ground, albeit briefly, including but not limited to: Danielle Steel, Ben Goldacre, gambling, stupidity, critical thinking, the success rate for treating mental health problems (but not really), the suicide rate of Indian farmers (Eeek! Really!), booker prize gender bias (pffft), and, to bring us full circle (and because I like circles) Danielle Steel again. I should add that it might be handy to know before we begin, for reasons which will become obvious, whether you have a pair of testicles dangling between your legs, so if you’re not sure please check now. Ready? Good. Wash your hands and make yourself comfortable.

Danielle Steel Is Still Writing!

 Let’s start with Danielle Steel. According to the Wikipedia page bearing her name Danielle Steel is currently the best-selling author alive and the fourth best-selling of all time. Her books have sold a staggering 800 million copies, have been translated into 28 languages, and 22 of them have been adapted for television. Whether you enjoy her books or not (I don’t happen to read them because they’re not my thing) her success as a writer is beyond question. Danielle, who apparently celebrates her 66th birthday next week, has been writing since she was 19 years old. And for those of you with testicles dangling between your legs (you have checked, right?) get this: Danielle Steel is still writing!

Ben Goldacre Changed My Life!

 Okay, more on Danielle Steel later. But first this: Ben Goldacre changed my life! Maybe you’re already familiar with Ben’s Goldacre’s book, Bad Science (or maybe you’re not), but it made me begin to question some of what we’re asked on a daily basis to believe. It’s not the only book that has contributed to this, I’ve read several others since (there’s no shortage of them) but it started me out on questioning a lot of what I might otherwise take for granted. Not that I previously considered myself to be gullible, of course. I believe my past history has shown me to not be completely stupid — I’m reasonably well educated and have successfully held down a string of technical jobs in which I’ve largely been respected, and I know how to programme a DVD recorder.

Gambling & Stupidity!

 Some people are in fact stupid. Eeek! I was listening to a radio programme a few years ago in which the subject was gambling, and during the discussion the person being interviewed talked about the need to warn the public that gambling can be addictive. The interviewer then asked, “But surely you’d have to be stupid not to know that gambling is addictive?” to which the person replied – without skipping a beat – that a lot of people are in fact stupid. I admired him for not skipping that beat. He’d thought about this. He stated it as a simple fact.

 Think about it. If we take the view that a lot of people are stupid then the world we observe starts to make more sense, doesn’t it? But who are we to judge who are the stupid ones, and aren’t we all capable of behaving stupidly at times? Aren’t we all capable of being wrong, of basing our opinions on flawed data, of not understanding what the data is telling us? Sometimes it’s not the data that’s at fault, perhaps it’s just our perception, which is far from fool proof. We’re only human, after all. Still, somehow we get through the day without making complete fools of ourselves. Mostly.

Critical Thinking & The Success Rate For Treating Mental Health Problems (not really!)

 On to mental health problems (but not really). I want to make you think, and this is from a critical thinking podcast from The Critical Thinker Academy that I listened to a couple of years ago. Ready? Okay. Suppose Doctor Jones has a 90% success rate in treating patients with mental health problems. Let’s assume for this example that these results can be checked and confirmed as accurate: two weeks after treatment 90% of patients report an improvement in their condition. The podcast presenter then asks, does this evidence support a conclusion that Dr Jones’s treatment is causally responsible for the improvement in their condition? In other words, does it show that his treatment make them better? What do you think? Would you send your relative to Doctor Jones?

 The podcast reports that when students are asked this question about causal responsibility about a third of students believe that yes, the evidence does support the conclusion, while about two-thirds believe the evidence doesn’t support the conclusion. The two-thirds are correct (you knew this didn’t you) because correlation does not imply causation; there may be some other factor involved in the correlation. The presenter suggests, however, that if members of the public were surveyed they might give a stronger response supporting causal responsibility for the improvement in condition. (Well, let’s not forget, a lot of people are in fact stupid.)

 The podcast then goes on to ask whether the evidence even supports correlation. Eeek! Does the fact that there is a 90% success rate prove a correlation between Dr Jones’s treatment and the improvement? In other words, if you go to Dr Jones for treatment are you statistically more likely to see an improvement than if you don’t seek treatment. Here most students believed the evidence did support some kind of correlation with more than half thinking the correlation is — or is close to — 90%, in other words that you’re 90% more likely to see an improvement if you go to see Dr Jones. What do you think? Would you send your relative to Doctor Jones?

 You probably guessed (because you’re not in fact stupid) that the evidence does not support any correlation at all. Eeek! How so? Because we’re only looking at part of the story, the confirming evidence, and there is no disconfirming evidence available. What we need to know in addition to Dr Jones’s success rate is how many people show an improvement after two weeks without going to see Dr Jones. If, for example, that figure was also 90%, then there would be no correlation at all. If, for example, it was 80%, then there would be a weak positive correlation of 10%, which is certainly much smaller than 90%, isn’t it. Having only half the information, the confirming evidence about Dr Jones’s success rate, is a form of confirmation bias, and confirmation bias, as we can see, can lead to incorrect conclusions.

The Suicide Rate Among Indian Farmers (Eeek!)

 Let’s talk for a minute about the suicide rate among Indian farmers. I know it’s not a very nice subject, but stick with it and you’ll see where I’m going. In a BBC debate on food prices one person angrily challenged another with the following: “Several million farmers in India have killed themselves in recent years because they couldn’t make a living. I would like you to go to the widows and say to them, should the prices have been higher or lower?” Dramatic stuff, and I’m sure you can understand why. Several million Indian farmers have killed themselves. Eeek! That’s a very large number. I find it shocking, don’t you? Shocking.

 Now, the BBC radio programme More Or Less looked into this claim and it turns out that the man who made it, who was speaking from memory, was probably out by a factor of 10. There is a unit used in Asian countries called a Lakh which represents 100,000, and it’s often written thus: 1,00,000, so it’s thought the man making the claim confused his Lakhs with his millions. The actual figure, from public records, is a figure of around 270,000 going back to (an arbitrarily chosen) 1995. Well, he may indeed have been out by a factor of 10, but I’m thinking that 270,000 is still a lot of dead Indian farmers. It’s tragic. The number might have been wrong, but the sentiment is right. Right?

 As More or Less went on the reveal, there are a lot of farmers in India. According to figures from 2010 when 19,000 farmers killed themselves, the rate of suicide among Indian farmers was about 7 per 100,000. I know, it’s still sickening to think about, isn’t it. I’m thinking that other guy should still have to face the widows and ask about food prices. But hold on to your testicles. Remember Doctor Jones? We only have half of the evidence. There’s an important piece of information that we’re missing, and it’s this: the rate of suicide among the general population in India in 2010 was about 15 per 100,000. In other words, the rate of suicide among Indian farmers was about half the rate in the general population. Eeek! Seen in that context, with that additional information, doesn’t it paint a quite different picture? Was the guy even right to be angry?

Booker Prize Gender Bias (Pffft)

 Here’s something else. Back in 2010 in an article in the Guardian about women’s work being pushed to the margins, the author (no testicles, trust me) includes the statement that “in 41 years of the Booker prize the jury has been male-dominated 30 times. There have been 28 male winners and 15 female winners.” This implies a bias in the selection of male winners by the male dominated juries, which is consistent with the tone of the article, and I have to say it’s reasonable, in the absence of any contrary factors, to assume that men and women write equally well and that the number of male and female winners should in an ideal world be close to equal. With me so far?

 But hold on to your testicles. I went back through the list of winners and, allowing for joint winners on a couple of occasions, the percentage of female winners was, by my reckoning, 36.6%. This appears to support the perception of a bias, doesn’t it. But I also worked out the percentage of shortlisted books, from which the judges had to choose the winner, that were written by women and came up with, by my reckoning, 37.1%. If these figures are accurate, and they should be about right if my maths is up to it, then the percentage of books written by women and selected as winners by the male-dominated juries matched the percentage of books by women that were shortlisted to within one percent. So now where is the bias? I think it’s gone. I think the male-dominated juries can hold their heads high in mixed company. What do you think? That’s not to say there aren’t questions to be asked. For instance, why are books by women under-represented in the shortlist? Are there more books written by men to begin with? Are the books by men simply better? Is there a bias elsewhere in the process? Unfortunately, without further information it’s impossible to draw any conclusions.

Danielle Steel Is Not Happy!

 Let’s close the circle and return to Danielle Steel, the best-selling author alive and the fourth best-selling of all time. Danielle, I’m sorry to say, is irritated. She is. She’s so irritated that she had to write about it on her blog in a post titled, “Are you still a brain surgeon?” The cause of her irritation is those of us with testicles. Eeek! Okay, perhaps not all of us, but some, and exclusively those with testicles as it appears those with a vagina are exempt. The cause of Danielle’s irritation is people with testicles turning up at events and asking, “Are you still writing?” Apparently people with testicles have been saying this to her since she was 35 (she’s about to hit 66, remember) and in that time only people with testicles have ever said it. That’s right. In thirty years no-one with a vagina has ever said this to her, and after all these years it’s driven her to become irritated. Actually, I’m not entirely convinced, necessarily, that no-one with a vagina has said this to her over the years, it’s possible that Danielle has simply forgotten them if they have, memory can be selective like that sometimes, but this is her story and I have no evidence to the contrary.

 But it’s not merely that simple. Danielle finds this question insulting because writing is her job, you see. After 800 million copies, translated into 28 languages, and with 22 adapted for TV, this — she tells us, rightly — is her job. This is her work. This is how her family eats. Eeek! But there’s more. Danielle goes on to say that the question is an immediate put-down. Yes. She believes that when people with testicles say this to her, what they are really saying is that what she does is not very important. Indeed. They say this, she reasons, because they are very uncomfortable with her success. In fact, she thinks they are very annoyed by it.

 So only people with testicles, or some of them at least, are uncomfortable with and angered by her success and have to put her down, and no-one with a vagina. Which could still be a coincidence, I suppose. Why they should feel uncomfortable with her success, why they should be angry about it, why they should feel the need to put her down, and why they should choose to do so by walking up to her and asking, “Are you still writing?” is not something that’s entirely clear to me. I mean, I have testicles and I don’t think I would ever say that to her. If I felt the way these people feel, if I felt that what she does is unimportant, if I felt uncomfortable with her success (whatever that means), if I felt annoyed by it, I would probably just avoid her at parties (assuming I could even get close to her anyway) and find someone with a vagina who is far less successful to insult.

 I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think it’s a bit of a leap from “Are you still writing?” to “I am putting you down because I think what you do is unimportant and I am uncomfortable with and angry at your success.” And I can’t help wondering what would happen if, at the next event, someone with a vagina were to walk up to her and say, “Hey, Danielle. Are you still writing?” Would this crossing of the gender line change her perception of the entesticled ones in some way, or would this person with a vagina simply have something horribly wrong with her, like an urgent need for a sex change operation?

 But Danielle’s perception here, apart from being just one person’s experience, is only half the story. What we don’t know is whether there are writers with testicles (or even without) who are approached by people with a vagina who ask them, “So, are you still writing?” Without knowing this we can feel sympathy for Danielle, insulted so, but we can make no real judgment about people with testicles, can we? For the record, I have been approached at events by more than one person with a vagina who has asked, “Hey, Bob, are you still writing?” And I don’t recall ever being asked that by someone with testicles. I will admit, though, that I’m no Danielle Steel, and writing is not how my family eats (Eeek!) or Pot Noodles would be an extreme luxury in our house.

Danielle Steel Is Still Writing!

 So, Danielle Steel is still, still, still writing, everyone, writing very well from what I gather, and her success as a writer is beyond question. For that she has earned the respect of us all, including those of us with testicles. So please, guys, if you run into Danielle Steel show her the respect she deserves, and don’t be a vagina.

Category:General | Comments (9)

National Flash Fiction Day 2013

Saturday, 9. February 2013 10:06 | Author:

One of my favourite events of 2012 was National Flash Fiction Day, the first of its kind in the UK. It was such a great success that they’re doing it all over again this year. The main date to remember is 22nd June, but keep an eye on the web site for details of competitions, deadlines, and associated events.

Already listed: details of the NFFD2013 100-word competition, free entry, with a closing date of March 8th.

Full details unravelling here:


Check the web site regularly for updates.

Category:Writing | Comments (4)