Thursday, 30 December 2010

Home births

I heard a piece on the Today programme about home births. It was a follow up to a statement from the Royal College of Midwives. According to these various reports, only 2.4% of women in England have home births, because they are being scared out of it.

It made me think back to a period when I used to do night calls for a GP locum agency. At the time I also worked as a GP part time, but I didn't do home births. One night I was called up by the agency and asked to see a woman who needed sutures, having delivered a baby at home. I protested somewhat, on the grounds that I didn't sign up for that sort of thing, but they insisted that no one else was available. In the end, I went to the agency to collect a suture kit.

I found the house OK and was shown into a bedroom upstairs where a woman was lying in a big double bed, with a small baby lying in a little cot. The lighting could best be described as romantic, certainly not bright. There appeared to be no way of getting it to be any brighter. Luckily, I had a big torch. Usually I used it to be able to see house numbers from the car. It is surprising how small some people make their house numbers. No doubt they are discrete and artistic, but damn hard to see from the road.

Any way, there I am staring at this woman lying in a double bed that sags a lot in the middle. If she moved, it sagged wherever she lay.

I'm not going to go into the gory details as to exactly what has to be sewn to what, but it needs both hands to do it, and you can't hold a huge spotlight in your teeth.

With the torch balanced on the bed, I started off by putting in as much local anaesthetic as I had, because the last thing I needed was the poor woman to feel anything as I worked.

Of course, the main effect of the local was to remove any anxiety from the woman and transfer it to me.

Cold beads of sweat really do run down your back.

It all went together very well; maybe it was a good thing that I did more than 80 episiotomies when I was a medical student. I also worked Monday nights in a busy casualty department for five years and learned a few plastic surgery techniques. So, as far as I could see by the light of a powerful torch, it all looked beautiful.

That's when the really scary thing happened. As I was clearing up, and to the accompaniment of a very small gurgling baby the lady said, 'I had my last baby in hospital and it was awful, and really painful being stitched up. This time it's been lovely and I didn't feel a thing when you did the stitches. I'll definitely have my next baby at home.'

That woman was making a rational choice, based on the information that she had; information seriously distorted by all the local anaesthetic that I had available.

She wasn't scared - I was.

I’m not sure whether it is mothers who are scared into hospital delivery or doctors who are scared out of home births.

I am sure there are midwives who will say that doctors are not needed for childbirth, which may be true enough so long as all goes well. The real problem is that a whole system is needed and successive governments seem to be doing their best to break everything up into little pieces that are bought and managed separately.

If we really want to know the right number of home births and give mums and families the choice they should have, then we all need to work together. Any chance of that in 2011?

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Bob Dylan 1966 - a piece of nostalgia

Despite my reservations about Rupert Murdoch, there is something wonderful about Sky Arts. This morning I accidentally listened to Mickey Jones, Bob Dylan’s drummer on the 1966 tour talking about that tour and showing bits of his movies taken at the time.

It took me right back. I was at the concert at the Odeon in Birmingham, not the one where someone shouted Judas - that was Manchester.

The first half was Dylan doing an acoustic set, pretty much like the previous tours, except better sound than the old town hall in Birmingham.

When the curtains came back for the second half there was a massed bank of amplifiers and speakers, and I mean a massed bank. From where I was sitting, it looked like a ten-foot high stack, and it may have been bigger than that. The band rolled in with isolated twangs and strums, almost as if they were tuning up.

Gradually the isolated notes begin to pick up, one guitar, then another and then the organ and more instruments coming in and gradually coalescing into a rhythm and then a massive crash on the drums that almost hit you off your seat, with everything else coming in at the same time in a huge wall of sound - probably the loudest that any band had ever played in Britain at that time.

‘Tell me Momma.’

I can still hear that crash now.

Then they just slammed on, weaving complex, intricate and very, very loud, melodic, intoxicating, rhythms around Dylan’s words. I remember being completely blown away from the first note.

The audience fragmented into two groups, or maybe three - if you count the ones who started walking out as a group. Among the rest there were many who boo-ed, some standing on the seats to boo louder. The rest, like me were clapping and cheering. I think maybe the boos won; but I knew was that I was hearing the best music ever. All the wild and rebelliousness of rock and roll woven together with the poetry of Dylan’s words.

By the end of the concert, I was exhausted and flying high at the same time, without the aid of any illegal substances, I might add. Back then I was an impoverished medical student living in a little flat, and the only sound system I had was an ancient portable record player. For days I sat and played my old Dylan records, over and over and over. I only had the acoustic albums, because the electric ones had not come out. Listening to those tracks with the concert still pounding in my head, I could imagine that sound in Dylan’s mind all along. I think it was always there, in the cadence of the words, the strumming and picking on the guitar and the harmonica breaks.

I watch as Mickey Jones talks about how the audience didn’t get it at the time and I’m almost shouting at the TV.

‘I got it.’

I got it from the first note.



A note added afterwards - the programme is actually incredibly boring, as a programme, and Mickey Jones is a somewhat self indulgent commentator, but none of that matters if you were there.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Telephone insanity

My mum’s phone has an intermittent fault. It sometimes cuts out in mid conversation and sometimes it doesn’t ring.

I have tried to report this.

I rang BT. They ask me what number I am calling about, then take me though umpteen menus ending up by telling me that it is not a BT line, so they can’t help.

After four attempts, trying different menus and coming at it via the 100-operator number or through the 0800 route I always end up being shut out in the same way. So far, all I have talked to are tape recorders.

So, I phoned Tesco, who do my calls, after a couple of false starts when their tape recorder told me they were closed, but open every day at times that included my call, a conversation with a friendly human actually took place. They couldn’t help either unless I knew who was the provider for my mum’s calls.

Why don’t I phone her up and ask her? because her phone isn’t working. I am reminded of that song, ‘there’s a hole in my bucket.’

My next attempt was to call Ofcom.

Why can’t BT or Tesco pass on my fault report to my mum’s provider? because it would infringe competition rules. One provider can’t know who is providing to other numbers. So, it is official policy to have a fragmented system that does not connect.

All they need is a central fault service that is independent of the phone providers. I suspect that a computer and a few tape recorders could do it.

How did we manage to set up a telephone service where competition is more important than service?

The insurance companies have a central fund to deal with car crashes involving uninsured drivers, and all those companies are in competition – ask any Meerkat. So why can’t the phone operators have a way of dealing with faults that is foolproof.

I at least have done my bit and suggested to Ofcom that they might look into it. It is their responsibility to regulate the whole system. My guess is that I won’t hear anything from them and nothing will be done. I suspect that the underlying assumption is that we all have mobile phones and can fend for ourselves.

The Ofcom chap implied that I should know who was providing my mums calls, so I asked him if he knew the provider of his mum and anyone else he cared about. No answer to that.

‘Can’t you phone her?’

There’s a hole in my bucket.

Happy Christmas everyone.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

The riddle of Santa Claus

I watched part of a movie last night in which Whoopi Goldberg is persuaded to become Santa Claus. I woke up early dreaming about Santa Clause, which is why I’m writing while it is still dark. Whilst it is somewhat improbable, I'm sure Whoopi would make a great Santa, though she did take some persuading. While she was resisting the idea she did ask the obvious question, how do you get to three billion children in one night?

Assuming that night lasts about six hours, (though there’s no night at all around the south pole at Christmas, but fortunately no children live there) and being aware that time sort of moves around the globe on a daily basis I reckon that gives about 30 hours to get the job done, so a billion children every ten hours.

What is the average distance from one child to the next? I have no idea. Some children live very close together, but what about the little boy who lives down the lane? If we make the wild assumption that kids are on average a tenth of a mile apart, it keeps the arithmetic simple at least. Santa would need to cover a hundred million miles every ten hours - ten million miles per hour.

Light travels at 186282 miles per second, so at that speed he could cover the distance in less than a minute, leaving 59 minutes every hour for dashing up and down ten million chimneys and dropping off the parcels. At least that accounts for why we can’t see him, he’s going way to fast for the human eye to register.

It is possible therefore to conclude that Santa Claus doesn’t have to actually break any known laws of physics in order to get the job done, assuming he only has to do our planet. He could cover the distance and we wouldn’t see him if he did. Like Whoopi Goldberg being Santa it is improbable but not impossible.

That gets me on to the second part of my dream.

Douglas Adams invented the Infinite Improbability Drive. I’m not sure if invented is the right word, he included the notion in fiction, in the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Universe series. A spaceship fitted with the drive could visit everywhere in the universe, pretty much at the same time. To work it, all you had to do was know when to get off.

In the case of Santa Claus, all he has to know is what to drop off. I woke up being somewhat surprised that Santa didn’t feature in Douglas Adams’ books. The great thing about the notion of infinite improbability is that it fills the gap between very unlikely and impossible. Think of a place that is so hard to get to that it is almost impossible, and that’s where Santa Claus lives. Infinitely improbable but just possible.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

A novel look at novels




I guess I am a sucker for playing with data, but the new Google thing called Ngram viewer is too much fun to resist.
As many people know, Google has been digitising all the literature that it can lay its hands on for some while. They have now made available a new tool based on this stuff. What it lets you do is explore the use of words and phrases as they have occurred over time in the sample that they have made available. They are caling this culturomics, see www.culturomics.org
My first instinct was to explore the word novel. Here I am trying to write them, so I need to knowwhere they sit in the culture. The first graph (fig 1) shows you what comes up. It looks like they are going out of style. I am fifteen years too late.
Like any investigator finding a disappointing result, I immediately began querying the data. How do I know that the sample means anything? According to the paper in Science, (Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1199644) this tool looks at about 5.2 million books, 4% of all the books ever published. It could still be a biased sample and the bias could change over time. I emailed the authors of the science paper about it and they agreed that I had a point and gave me some more information, but not enough to resolve the question in my mind.
I am stuck with the elephant in the room that so often is never talked about in popular writing in the media; can I rely on the data?
What things are constant? I asked myself. I fell back on Benjamin Franklin who said “nothing is certain but death and taxes” and he said it in 1789, before the Google sample starts, so I’m not adding bias or double counting by relying on it. Franklin said this in a letter to one Jean-Baptiste Leroy. By an amazing coincidence, one of the authors of the Science paper is also a Jean-Baptiste. Jean-Baptiste gets no score at all and Benjamin Franklin varies widely, peaking in 1940, so I stuck with death and tax.
Franklin may be right that they are certain, but if this literature is to be believed, our interest in them is not constant (fig 2). I’m still left with the elephant in the room, so I tried elephant, alongside death and tax (fig 3). Elephants live a long time and I don’t think they go in an out of fashion much, so perhaps it is no surprise that they give a relatively constant score.
I tried running novel against elephant, it shows a rise of popularity, as compared to elephants, but it still peaks fifteen years ago. Is my writing career really doomed?
I tried running thriller against elephant because I write thrillers, and I did get some encouragement, thrillers are a lot less popular than elephants but are clearly on the up. Finally, I ran thriller on its own, and it gets better still. I leave you with thriller in the American English data (fig 4), because that’s the most encouraging graph, while I rush to get back to writing before they go out of style.

Friday, 17 December 2010

No fear

A woman from Iowa has no fear, because she has damage to her Amygdala. For those of you who did not study the anatomy of the brain, that is a chunk of grey matter deep in your brain. There are two amydaloid bodies, one on each side a few inches back from your eyes. It has been known for some time that it is associated with emotional learning.

Following the press reports we find that this woman has no fear and apparently as a result has been in several life threatening escapades, from which we are told she is lucky to have emerged alive.

So what this tells us is that being fearful has survival advantages, it is OK to be scared. Actually, that is pretty obvious, I guess. If being scared had no purpose, it is hard to see how it would have survived as a human trait.

I am reminded of that little poem by Piet Hein, (he called them grooks).

To be brave is to behave

bravely when your heart is faint.

So you can be really brave

only when you really ain't.

There is speculation in several of the reports that this knowledge might somehow lead to a cure for fear, or possibly for PTSD. You have to love our media; first they tell us the woman is lucky to be alive and that having no fear has almost killed her. So what do they conclude? That a drug to get rid of fear would be a good idea. Can I suggest that it ought to be tried out on reporters and editors first?

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Luck, skill, books and films

Nassim Nicholas Taleb was on the radio this morning. Some while ago I read his ‘Fooled by Randomness’. Apart from being very smug in parts, the book is a good read with some important lessons. What impressed me most was the way he dealt with skill and luck.

If you think you have been skilful when in fact you have been lucky, then you are making a very unsafe error. If you do the same thing again, and because you thought your success was down to your skill, then you might expect it to work the next time. You are unlikely to be successful, knowing how luck works.

The safe thing to do is to assume that you have been lucky when in fact you have been skilful. That would tend to make you continue to try hard and not expect too much.

Taleb takes his examples from the stock market, where skill and luck can lead to big rewards and also to big losses. How does it work for writing? When an agent turns me down, do I put it down to bad luck or to my lack of skill? The safe thing to do is to assume that it is because of my lack of skill. That should make me try harder, keep revising and produce a better product.

If in fact my lack of success was down to bad luck then there is a reasonable chance that I will do better next time. If my skills improve then that should help too.

What this makes clear is that it is a bad idea to assume that I am a good writer but I’ve been unlucky, which is what people tell me. Why do they tell me that? Because they think it will make me feel better, but feeling better won’t make me a better writer.

Trying to write better is not helped by the huge success of badly written books. I used to be a bit shy about saying that, but I’m helped by a polemic in the Observer (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/dec/12/genre-versus-literary-fiction-edward-docx). I’ve read all three of Stieg Larsson’s books and seen two of the films. The books are so full of telling not showing that they ought to become textbooks for what not to do. They are also padded out with a lot of stuff that has little to do with the plot of the story. It is worth noting that both films start about 60+ pages into the book. I remember one of Elmore Leonard’s nostrums being that writers should take out the bits that feel like writing.

I’d like to propose another rule: - Take out what the film will leave out. I have two reasons for suggesting this, one is that it will make the book shorter and more dramatic, the other is that thinking about the film may provide a bit of added inspiration when the writing is proving hard.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Cafe Rouge


My wife Lois blogs about food, (http://blissglutenfree.blogspot.com) gluten free food to be precise. Recently she’s taken to the road or more exactly to restaurants armed with a new phone.

For the last year or so she has been very wary about eating anywhere away from home because it only takes a tiny amount of gluten to cause a couple of days of symptoms.

This picture was taken at Café Rouge in Worcester, her blog gives the details but the upshot is we will probably go there again. This is something of a turnaround because we ate in Café Rouge a long time back and had a bad time. The waiters were rude, the food took a very long time to come and wasn’t worth the wait. It felt like they were trying to replicate the worst of classic French café dining. Arrogant, tardy waiters may be essential to a holiday experience, giving the English something to moan about when they get back home, but it doesn’t work in Birmingham. There are too many other great places to eat, so we never went back to Café Rouge. Advertisers and management consultants take note; one rude waiter might lose you a thousand pounds worth of business over the years. Multiply the thousand we might have spent by all the other people who may have been similarly offended, and it comes to quite a dent in any business model.

So why did we go back? Because Lois came across a feature about a gluten free menu somewhere on the web and felt honour bound to try it, complete with new phone and ready to blog.

Of course our pleasant experience may be down to just one nice waitress in that particular branch of the chain, it’s not proper market research we are talking about here. We are not collecting statistics and we are probably biased.

What is fascinating is that Lois's blog post about Café Rouge has had more hits than anything she has ever posted and for a brief period yesterday had her up as far as the second page of hits on a Google search on Café Rouge. Why are so many people searching on Café Rouge? Perhaps it’s because it’s the Christmas season and lots of people are looking for places to eat.

My impression was equally favourable, speaking as someone who has no specific dietary problems apart from hating cucumber. I’m happy to report that there was no cucumber in anything I ordered. This is slightly surprising, because it seems to get added to a lot of things for no good reason that I can discern. Maybe that’s a seasonal effect as well. It’s a bit cold for growing cucumbers at the moment.

The picture (taken with my iphone) shows Lois composing her blog on an HTC Desire Z, an Android phone. The little keyboard works well, but she still hasn’t cracked how to get material from there to her blog in one seamless move. I’m sticking with Apple.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Gmail spam scam?

I just recieved the following email.
It seems to me to be very unlikely that it has in fact come from anone at Google.
If they really were having congestion on their servers it would be a big surprise.
Surely Google of all people can afford a few servers.

It seems to me that this is an obvious scam.
In fact it is so obvious that I am amazed that google don't have some automatic way of
detecting stuff like this.
How hard can it be, given that their name is all over it?



Gmail

to support.info
show details 14:28 (45 minutes ago)
We are shutting down some accounts due to congestion in our database system and your account was chosen to be deleted. If you are still interested in using our email service please click reply and fill in the space below for verification purpose:-

Full Name:

Pasword:

Occupation:

Year of Birth:

Country of Origin:

Note: This email is only for Gmail users (Users should reply within 48 hours to avoid "Permanently Lockup" Account)

Thank you for using Gmail !

The Gmail Team


So there it is. I'd be interested to know if anyone else has had anything similar.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Winter


Today was symbolic of winter. Snow and heating oil both delivered on the same day.

I appreciate that parts of the UK are under a foot of snow, have schools closed, trucks stranded and are standing by for the TV cameras to arrive and film their misery or snowball fights. We are in the Vale of Evesham, however, and it hardly ever snows here.

We have about one inch of snow. Yesterday the temperature got down to minus 10 Centigrade, again rather unusual and we spent the day putting fleece around the fig trees in the hope that the poor things will survive the winter rather better. Last year we had a long cold spell that actually killed off the ends of some branches and we had no figs at all. The trees did try hard and started making figs towards the end of summer, but they didn’t make it to being ripe before the leaves started falling off. I don’t know if wrapping the trees for the winter will help, we will no doubt find out over the year. Actually the snow has warmed things up, it’s only zero outside now.

The other amusing ‘event’ of the day was a comment on here that I decided must be spam. The comment included what looked like a phone number. I put the number into Google and found a number of similar comments attributed to the same name on a range of different sites. When I searched on the name I found other sites with similar comments including one where this name contributed 85 comments, actually all the comments on that particular post. Some of them have proper text and some are repeats of the sort of thing I got.

Up until now I have pretty much been pleased to get any comments at all, and although I have the moderating box ticked, I have published all the comments that have come my way. It now seems that I will have to have a comment approval policy. Heady stuff. I actually went on a course on blogging where this was discussed, the lecturer has a five-point policy that she published on her site.

So here is my policy, at least for the moment.

My inclination is to publish all comments unless they are offensive, libellous, or look like robots have sent them. I might even publish those if they are amusing.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Radio

I'm often up by 6am. At that time of day you can catch some interesting stuff on the radio. This morning as I made coffee I heard three presenters talking from inside an oak tree. I suppose they do sound a bit muffled, but they have the mike in there with them. They are discussing fungi, some of which they can see as they stand or sit inside the hollow of this tree, which is apparently seven hundred years old.

All this is on the radio. I am reminded of the day when I was about seven years old and first heard the Goon Show on the radio.

'This is the sound of Eccles riding along on a wall,' followed by a sound I’ve not heard since, presumably because Eccles no longer travel by moving wall.

I remember that line, I guess because the sheer incongruity would impress a kid that age. I also recall that my mum was ironing – that’s how the mind works.

Now I hear the sound of three naturalists talking inside an oak tree. So not much has changed in fifty odd years, except now they don't call it comedy. Once they have exhausted the possibilities inside the tree they move out to discuss the landscape.

Don't you just love hearing about a view on the radio.

Actually one of the funniest pieces of radio I've ever heard was a discussion about the proposed route of the Midland Metro on the Ed Doolan show. For those who don't live around Birmingham, UK, where I used to work, ED has a radio programme with the biggest audience in the region. OK why was such a mundane topic so funny? Try to imagine the sound of four people in a radio studio arguing about a map.

'No, no, it's further over to the left.'

Sounds of rustling paper.

'By the fold there.'

Sound of chair moving.

'No, past the end of that road there.'

And it went on, for about five minutes, until Ed managed to curb their enthusiasm and get things back under control. Quite clearly none of the participants had any conception of how impossible it was for anyone outside the studio to understand any of their discussion.

I actually laughed so much that I had to pull over.

That kind of radio is dangerous, as the Goon Show knew only too well.

OK so some radio is ridiculous, but when it’s done right it is brilliant because it feeds directly into your imagination, and the best radio makers know that. Think of that line from Educating Rita.

‘How would you stage Peer Gynt?’

‘Do it on the radio.’

Good literature does the same.

Television, on the other hand is so often much more boring because somehow it seems to assume that the viewer has no imagination. They add a picture to everything. Radio and literature know that the real picture is in your head, TV feels obliged to show you an actual picture. It’s fabulous when they show you something that you could never see otherwise, but so often it’s mundane.

They seem determined at all costs to avoid 'talking heads'; yet facial expression is what we all use a lot of the time to decide if we thing we are being told the truth.

When I used to be interviewed about health issues there seemed to be an obsession with filming standing outside a hospital - as if that had anything to do with health.

If you fill the viewer’s head with mundane pictures the chances are that their head will fill up with mundane thoughts. What radio and literature do is give us images. TV so often just gives us pictures.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Google analytics tells me that some people read this blog in far-flung places, well far flung if you are flinging from here in the UK. Places that are as far apart as the USA or Vietnam, if you believe the graphs. Could any of you tell me about radio in your part of the world? Do you ever get anything as much fun as three naturalists inside an Oak tree?

Saturday, 27 November 2010

IPad triumph


While shopping in Worcester we went into the boutique that supplied the dress that Lois wore at my daughter's wedding. The stepmother of the bride dress. I had some pictures, one of which is attached, on the iPad and with me, so we showed the owner of the shop. End result, I think her husband will want to buy an iPad. All staff suitably wowed by the pictures and I end up giving technical explanations to husband. The iPad is a transforming technology. OK, so I could have shown them pictures on almost any breed of smart phone but the impact on the bigger screen of the iPad is dramatic. I've shown pictures on a phone and it does not produce the OOs and AAHs that we got in the shop. Not just from the sales staff either, a couple of customers joined in the general eyeballing and eyebrow raising.

The picture also shows the cupcake tower that Lois made for the wedding. 120 cupcakes, all gluten free, plus a big one for the cutting ceremony. A useful tip for anyone contemplating the same sort of thing, nicely patterned cases wrapped around the cakes after baking make it look a lot prettier. Lois had made lovely sugar flowers as decoration on all of the cakes, but you can't see most of them when you look at the tower from the side, so the stylish cases make the whole thing look much more elegant.

I wasn't certain that there was much point in putting lots of pictures on the iPad and I only loaded a few just to see what I would do with them. It was a pure accident therefore that I happened to have pictures of the dress and cakes when we visited the shop. I can see how this could turn out to be very useful in situations where instant access to pictures or diagrams was needed. The fact that you can email to the device by 3G phone probably adds to the usefulness. It can only be a matter of time before we see iPads woven into TV crime dramas. I can imagine a plot, probably involving a serial killer who is working across country or state boundaries. The whole thing will turn on someone being sent crucial pictures on his iPad that he rapidly compares with the new crime scene.

Of course I could have imagined a female detective, but somehow there is an expectation that it will be blokes rushing around with new tech, unless the iPad is full of pics of the mother of the bride of course. Apologies also at this point to Suzi Perry, from the gadget show, because she does a brilliant job of proving that women can handle tech.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Happy and Sad day

Today is Lois's birthday, so anyone reading this please pop over to her blog and wish her a happy birthday. http://blissglutenfree.blogspot.com This is very magnanimous on my part because her blog is rapidly catching me up on page views.

It is also the anniversary of my brother Laurence being killed, see the earlier post 'The day the music died' for more about that. It's a bad thing, the two things happening on the same day, but Lois didn't have much choice about when she was born and Laurie had no choice at all about the day he died. That's just how it goes, I guess.

I still miss him. Laurie was brilliant at maths and physics and computers, he had worked for IBM and Microsoft, though never Apple, which is a pity. Whenever anything weird happened to my PC I would ring him up and similarly he would phone me about medical problems.

Fortunately, he was a bit of a hypochondriac, so he phoned me about as often as my PC played up. Just as well I've switched to Apple since he died. I still have a load of stuff he wrote, it sits on my hard drive with the notion that someday I will figure out a way to use it - the bits that I understand, anyway.

For the moment I'll just remember him, and if anyone who ever knew him is reading this, please remember too.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Andrew Marr on Kennedy

I would not normally blog while annoyed by something, but for once here goes.

I have just watched Andrew Marr telling us how awful John Kennedy was in the way he campaigned and I'm struck by how often the programme seems to require lingering shots of Andrew Marr sailing, hanging about in scenic views, standing by impressive buildings and generally displaying his Andrew Marrness for all to see.

Does this make him more believable?

I am all agog to see whether he owns up to this cynical manipulation before the end of the programme.

I would have thought it was obvious that Kennedy exploited his personal charisma in a way that Nixon was unable to do. Does that make him bad or smart? Or is it bad to be smart if you are president of the USA? I fail to see how this is sensational, didn’t Hitler do the same thing? Wasn’t Churchill a bit that way inclined? OK so Churchill used the radio rather than the TV, but that was what was available.

Let me make clear that I am not objecting to Andrew Marr because he was rude about bloggers at the Cheltenham festival; and for the record, I am 65 and not writing from my mother's basement, in fact she does not have a basement, she has a house of her own and so do I.

As I write we see Andrew walking, Andrew going up in a glass lift, Andrew staring meaningfully into the middle distance accompanied by some nice jazz. Did they commission too long a show, so that we have to have these fillers or did he not have enough things of substance to say?

Another Kennedy crime is revealed, he faced up to issues and tackled them head on. Is Andrew seriously trying to get us to believe that is a bad thing?

Now we have Andrew eating chilli, in order to talk about race, was there no other photo shot anyone could think of?

Finally he manages to end by suggesting that it a bad idea to emphasise style over substance. Quite right Andrew, so why do you do it?

Slapdash perfectionist

I keep coming across people talking about procrastination. Is it the time of the year? Is there something about the run up to Christmas and the New Year that says, lets put it off till January?

An alternative might be that because I wrote something about it a few posts back I am now tuned in to noticing the word. Kelly Diels said

‘I procrastinate in three ways: I delay making a decision; I delay responding to people (usually because I haven’t made a decision); and I delay doing.’(www.kellydiels.com)

She says that the last one of these may just be part of her creative process, not really procrastination but incubation.

‘I grow and warm an idea until it springs fully-formed from my head. (Usually at the last possible minute before a deadline.)’

That last line made me start to wonder if it is all just part of personality, I mean is procrastination something we learn or just something that some of us do?

Personality tests are a bit of a minefield. I’m always surprised by how many people are scared of them, but I have an advantage. In addition to spending her life blogging and cooking about Gluten Free food my wife Lois has a couple of degrees in psychology and the relevant badges to do lots of these tests. You can guess who she practiced on.

According to one test, done on my once as part of a job interview I was described as a slapdash perfectionist. You might think that the two descriptions are so opposite in substance that they could not exist in one person.

Actually it is true in a sort of way. The fundamental problem was that this was a pretty crummy psychometric test. If they had done a different one, say the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory MBTI to those who know, then they might have been able to make sense of me. Of course I know that you are not supposed to use MBTI for job selection, because it is possible to fake it, if, that is you wanted to get a job on false pretences and be someone else for the rest of you working life. Stay with me. On the MBTI I am an ENTP, mostly. Without going into the whole thing (put MBTI into Google if you are curious), the bits that matter here are the N and the P. P means perceptive – the way they use the word means seeing possibilities and that’s where my procrastination comes from. I hate finishing things because it is the end of all the possibilities. A finished project has lost all it’s life, it can only be what it is and all the other wonderful possibilities are down the drain and forgotten. That’s also where the perfectionist bit comes from.

The N stands for intuition (which begins with I, but I has already been used for Introverted, which I’m not, mostly). What intuition means, to me anyway, is that if pressed I will come up with something. I’ll come up with it fast, very fast, so fast that a poorly devised psychometric test will think I’m slapdash.

So there you have it, I am a slapdash perfectionist. I procrastinate when I can, and when the deadline gets near I hit the intuition button, and it is part of who I am. I have the tests to prove it.

There are of course other personality types who have an inner need to make up their minds quickly, (the types that end in J on the MBTI) they are the ones who give procrastination a bad name.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Breakfast blog


This is not an advert for a load of bloggers to meet for croissants in some nice coffee bar with free WiFi – though that’s not a bad idea.

Lois, my wife, blogs about gluten free cooking - http://blissglutenfree.blogspot.com .

I appear on her blog as Mr Taster. This morning I had my breakfast photographed. Fortunately my actual plate came out blurred and I’d eaten it before she had a chance to take another picture. The items you see on the griddle are little gluten free pancakes. My dad used to call them drop-scones but looking at Google I see they are also known as Scotch pancakes - odd that, given that my dad was Welsh. They are a bit like blinis, except no yeast is involved.

For the pedants out there Blin is apparently the Russian word for pancake and therefore blini is already the plural – who would only eat one anyway – so blinis has a somewhat unnecessary ‘s’ on the end; unless you really want lots and lots of them – there again why not.

I digress; having your breakfast photographed is only one part of the action. I frequently have to fill out evaluation forms on new recipes, taste, crunchyness (not relevant for drop scones), after-taste; the list goes on.

As a writer is it an interesting challenge to find words to describe taste, a bit like all that stuff that wine buffs come out with. The big difference is to factor in texture and time because nothing tastes quite the same or feels the same after you’ve chewed it for a minute or two. Gluten, the stuff Lois is avoiding at all costs, is quite remarkable stuff. It sticks everything together, not like glue between two bits of wood, or the sticky stuff on magic tape, but by weaving itself among the molecules of whatever else is in the recipe. Take it out and food tends to fall apart.

Many gluten free cooks add Xanthan gum to try and achieve the same trick, but that’s also quite useful as a laxative, which is one good reason to try to avoid it.

Here’s another: Xanthan gum is a polysaccaride made by fermenting sugar with a bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris. Xanthomonas campestris is the same bacteria responsible for causing black rot to form on broccoli, cauliflower, and other leafy vegetables. The bacteria form a slimy substance that acts as a natural stabilizer or thickener. I’m partly quoting that from someone called Wisegeek http://www.wisegeek.com - it sounds really appetizing doesn’t it.

Lois experiments with a range of flours made from things like Lentils, tapioca, quinoa and no black rot or slimy substances. See her blog for more details.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Made in Dagenham

Last night I had a really amazing experience. We went to see Made in Dagenham, the film. OK so such things are a little late coming to our rural backwater but it did only come out this year. In our part of Worcestershire the population votes Tory, by about 60% but I was surprised to see that the place was packed. There was hardly an empty seat.

This film, for those who haven't seen it, follows the story of the women machinists at Ford's Dagenham plant, who went on strike for equal pay, back in the time of Barbara Castle and Harold Wilson. What I found astonishing was the way that this audience cheered as these women took on the establishment in the trades-union movement and the Ford management.

OK so I guess the audience was at least two-thirds female and mostly over 55; so in some ways this was their history. They laughed when the women beat the union officials and made managers look stupid, they roared at snippets of black and white TV as they flashed by - Sooty even got a cheer.

The film is very good, lots of neat little touches that take the action past just a little industrial dispute and out into the whole of society.

I loved the final resolution of the dispute as Barbara Castle wrestled with deciding a percentage of the male rate that should be paid to the women; 92% as it happened. Putting a percentage on it exposes the hypocrisy of the whole thing. While the management could hide the injustice in the technical speak of job grades, semi skilled or unskilled, and all that stuff, it was easy to hide the ridiculous prejudice that was being acted out. Put a percentage on it and that just makes totally clear that it is the sex of the worker that determined the pay, and nothing else. As soon as that percentage existed it became indefensible. If two people were doing the same job they should obviously get the same pay.