Wednesday 27 June 2007

Beware statistics

How sceptical we've all become about statistics. We just assume straightaway they've been massaged, fiddled and adjusted ad nauseam to give the desired result rather than the real one.

The health service is improving by leaps and bounds? Schools are doing a fantastic job? We've all got more money to spend than ever? We just don't believe the figures any more, there's a funny smell about them.

A lot of the time, they just don't chime with our personal experience, or our friends' experience. The health service has never been better? So how come Uncle Ted has been waiting six months for a heart op? How come I've been waiting nine for physiotherapy?

The fact is that too many people have a vested interest in cooking the figures to their own advantage. Politicians looking for votes. Drug firms dependent on safe medicines. Police forces expected to solve crimes. If the stats look bad, they'll give them a little tweak in the right direction.

We all know examples of people being caught with their pants down. When A&E waiting times dramatically decreased it was discovered that senior managers had stealthily improved them by falsifying admission and treatment records. The figures were worthless.

Individuals are no more reliable. If someone's asked how often they have sex, "Several times a week" is a lot more likely than "Actually, I can't get it up. I've been a washout for six months." Who freely admits their failings and weaknesses?

Statistics gathered by reputable academics with no axe to grind may be 100% legit. Unfortunately these principled souls are thin on the ground.

So those precise-looking figures may look good in a newspaper headline. They may be presented by a jolly authoritative chap in a smart suit from the Institute of Something-Or-Other. But most of us take them with a bucketload of salt and think "Sure. So who stands to gain? Where's the pay-off?"

(Bet you didn't know that 57% of estate agents are transvestites, 23% suck their thumbs and 39% are satanists? Who'd have thought it?)

NB: This post was completely rewritten on 17.10.08

Sunday 24 June 2007

Challenge the bullies

I could have reacted in different ways to being bullied at school - getting my revenge by turning into a bully myself or doing my best to protect other victims.

It never occurred to me at all to put on the bully's hat and make someone else's life wretched, make them suffer the same way I had to. I don't know how people can harden themselves like that, freeze their emotions and become tormentors in turn.

No, in my case it bred a life-long sympathy for victims, not just of bullying but of any misery or hardship inflicted on the innocent by abusers of power everywhere. Knowing what it's like to be belittled and humiliated, knowing how much psychic damage that can do, I wanted to defend others in the same trap.

As a journalist in my younger days, I was always keen to write about people in rotten circumstances, neglected by officialdom or their own families. I exposed decrepit housing, health service cock-ups, lonely old people, unemployed youngsters, loan sharks. Hopefully I righted a few wrongs and freed a few people from anxiety and fear.

Later I took part in political campaigns to support women, homosexuals, council tenants and access to abortion. I joined in protests against the Vietnam War, poll tax and the National Front. It felt good to stand up and be counted, to be voicing my anger with hundreds of others rather than sitting at home shrugging my shoulders and saying "Well, that's the way of the world."

For five years I was a trade union rep, rallying my workmates when the management was up to something sneaky - trying to freeze wages, extend working hours or cut holiday leave. We'd dig our heels in and say a collective no to their relentless asset-sweating. Sometimes we won, sometimes we lost, but I felt ecstatic those times when the bosses retreated.

If enough people stand up to the bullies, they can always be defeated. But it's easy to be intimidated by the sheer ruthlessness of those who regard treating other people badly as the natural order. If you're picked on time and again, it's hard to fight back, especially if you're left to flounder by those who could help. So don't be shy - throw someone a lifebelt.

Wednesday 20 June 2007

Excited to death

Is this a sad story or a happy one? John Parsons, a 71 year old retired engineer from Barry in South Wales had dreamed of having a motorbike for years - but his wife Myra wouldn't let him.

After her death from cancer last summer, he finally bought the bike and was really excited about riding it.

But the day after it was delivered, going out on his first ride, he had a heart attack, fell into the path of an oncoming Range Rover and died. The excitement was too much for his heart.

You could say it's a sad story because he died prematurely from an unlucky accident. But there again it's a happy story because he'd had a good life and died fulfilling a dream. I go for the latter.

And before you ask, I've never wanted a motorbike so Jenny has nothing to fear.

Picture: John and Myra Parsons

Sunday 17 June 2007

Absent friends

A lot of women complain they can't find a suitable man - either they're stuck with a useless dickhead or they know a really bright, considerate guy who's giving them the brush-off.

Luckily I've fared pretty well with sexual relationships, but I have a similar problem when it comes to making friends - they're either liabilities or non-starters.

I really envy those people who have a wide circle of friends to give them support and encouragement at times of personal crisis or triumph. Right from my childhood I've never stumbled on the simple knack of forming deep and lasting friendships that go beyond the initial chatty bonhomie and light-hearted banter. There's a connective threshold I've never managed to cross.

I've tried often enough. Plenty of people have struck me as potential friends, people whose company would be rewarding and inspiring, but if we got together at all, too often it would be for weeks or months at best. Then inevitably something would go adrift, our meetings would lose their impetus and we would gradually lose touch.

On the few occasions when a friendship has lasted longer, the seeming friend's chronic unreliability, neediness or plain craziness has finally turned it sour.

I feel embarrassed and bemused that I lack this simple universal skill so routine to everyone else. It's discomforting when other people announce casually that they're "going out with friends" or they've "got a friend in a million", and I'm unable to reciprocate with my own happy tales of friendship. I always suspect they're secretly pitying me for my backward personality.

But no matter how much I watch other people effortlessly chattering to their friends, trying to work out how it's done, I'm left as baffled as ever by their social dexterity - like someone who's tone-deaf trying to understand music.

There it is, though, and I've learnt to be philosophical about my blind spot and to appreciate those gifts I do have. There are far worse traits than a failure to connect.

And at least I have one solid, enduring relationship that transcends friendship and gives so much extra meaning and significance to every aspect of my life. Jenny and I clicked instantly and we never looked back. A wee miracle.

Thursday 14 June 2007

Titanic's fatal flaw

A big dilemma for defenders of the Titanic, as new research suggests the ship was so fragile it could have sunk easily in stormy weather, with or without an iceberg.

Researchers for a new documentary 'Titanic's Achilles Heel' believe the ship had already broken in half by the time the stern had risen by 10 degrees - which could have happened in any heavy seas.

So even if it hadn't hit an iceberg, it could still have sunk on its maiden voyage or soon afterwards. A hurricane or violent weather was all it needed to finish it off.

It has always been believed till now that the Titanic only broke in half when the weight of incoming water forced the stern to rise to 45 degrees.

But footage of newly-discovered sections of wreckage convinced the researchers this was wrong and that the ship had substantial design and structural flaws from the start.

A naval architect on the team described the design of the expansion joints in the hull, which allowed the hull to flex in choppy seas, as 'unimaginably crude'.

What this means of course is that if the Titanic had not split up so quickly, and had stayed afloat for longer, hundreds of passengers and crew could have been rescued instead of perishing in the icy waters.

What's more, if it had gone down in a violent storm, with no iceberg anywhere in sight, the cause would have been a total mystery until such time as incriminating fragments were found and the failings revealed.

But the knowledge that 1,500 people confidently set sail on this glamorous new liner, unaware that structural botches could kill them in an hour or two, sends a shiver down the spine.

Even the accumulated riches of wealthy globetrotters are no protection against a fatal miscalculation by an unknown craftsman.

(from report in the Belfast Telegraph)

Tuesday 12 June 2007

Fur and whiskers

A lot of people have pets as substitutes for children or lovers, but since I've never wanted children and I already have a very affectionate lover, a pet is not on my shopping list.

When I was a child, my parents had a Scottish terrier but the poor dog was driven neurotic by my super-strict father who would punish him for vices like not sitting patiently in his basket while we ate.

In his later years he would pad around nervously and cringe whenever my father approached him. My father used to say it was the dog's fault for being rebellious.

I know several people utterly devoted to their dogs or cats, which clearly enrich their lives and give them immense pleasure.

But I find it odd when pet-owners say they prefer animals to people, that animals are always loyal and friendly while people are treacherous and two-faced. Well so they are but they do have their attractions too - you can't have a conversation with Rover about the emotional impact of Mark Rothko or the narrative skills of Ian McEwan.

I feel sorry for pets that are treated like accessories and playthings and denied their proper dignity and respect. At one time it was the height of fashion to dress dogs in fancy coats and I would see all these humiliated tartan-clad dogs trying desperately to make themselves invisible.

Worse still, the dressed-up dogs might then be trained to do party tricks like standing on their hind legs or jumping through hoops, while their owners beamed with pride at these demeaning feats.

And as for the trend towards ever-tinier miniature dogs, so small you trip over them and their fragile bodies are subject to nasty afflictions like chronic arthritis, that's a sort of canine equivalent of Chinese foot-binding.

No, I love watching the neighbour's ginger cat prowling our garden imperiously, sniffing for traces of alien cats invading its territory. But one of my own? No way. I still prefer rock and paperbacks to fur and whiskers.

Friday 8 June 2007


I've never been ambitious, never been one of those thrusting, go-getting, ladder-climbing individuals who can't rest until they're at the top of every heap and not just one of the toiling masses.

Or rather I've never been ambitious in the job sense of wanting an important, influential position with a fat salary and lots of people under my wing.

I'm sure my parents were always disappointed by my missing ambition gene and wanted to boast that their wonderful son was now Editor of the Daily Trumpet or Chief Executive of Toptome Bookshops. They probably thought I was wasting my potential or shying away from challenges.

But no, the only ambitions I've ever had were the more prosaic ones of just wanting to have a good time, stretch my mind a little, fall in love and earn enough to be comfortable. The prestigious corridors of power never seemed that glamorous to me, more like precarious thrones that other people were always plotting to usurp.

I've always been quite happy as one of the toiling masses, doing low-level jobs that others turn up their noses at. For one thing, I rather like dealing with the general public. I like the constant novelty of personal quirks and eccentricities and general loopiness. I'm fascinated by the strange things that go on in people's heads and how seldom they do what you expect them to do.

I've no wish to hide away in an office all day, shuffling papers, drafting targets and mission statements, monitoring sick leave and dreaming of a bigger BMW.

I remember a bookshop manager I once worked under, who was burning with ambition and desperate to be recognised as the steely-eyed executive he knew himself to be. He was permanently hyper-active, whizzing around like a dervish and introducing a new procedure every half-hour.

He chain-smoked incessantly and always looked as though a pack of wolves was snapping at his heels. This compulsive frenzy alienated the entire staff and we were forever trying to engineer his departure by fair means or foul. How his wife lived with him I can't imagine.

I'm glad I never turned into someone like that. Ambition? A volatile substance I'd rather not handle in case it explodes in my face. I'll leave it for those better equipped to play around with it.

Image courtesy of Time Magazine

Tuesday 5 June 2007

Ian's gay blinkers

I was pleased to see that other politicians leapt on Northern Ireland government minister Ian Paisley Junior as soon as he described gays as 'repulsive' and said they harmed themselves and harmed society.

Not so long ago they might have taken no notice and accepted his defence that he was entitled to voice his own personal opinion on a matter he felt strongly about.

Today however such vicious abuse is considered not only unacceptable in itself but also hugely damaging to the department he represents, which is responsible for equality issues.

Assembly members are so disgusted they've drawn up a censure motion against him and want an unconditional apology. So far he has refused to apologise and insisted on his right to heap insults on an already much-maligned group of people.

He's quite oblivious to the elephant-sized blunder he has committed. He's stuck in some 1950s gay-bashing time warp and hasn't noticed that public opinion has moved on and left him behind in his Janet and John utopia.

As Danny Kennedy of the Ulster Unionist Party pointed out: 'The reported comments would not be acceptable anywhere in mainstream British political life.'

Unfortunately Ian Paisley Junior thinks he is a law unto himself and can casually disregard equal opportunities provisions.

If anyone is harming society it's people like him pouring further contempt on vulnerable, insecure homosexuals who are already prone to self-doubt, distress and in some cases suicidal tendencies. What they badly need is not condemnation but reassurance, support and human decency.

And how about the harm from those heterosexuals who think nothing of abusing children, committing adultery, beating their wives and mistreating prostitutes? That's more than repulsive, it's deeply sickening. Those who live in glass houses....

Sunday 3 June 2007

Dress codes

I'm always bemused by workplace dress codes. As far as I can see, asking employees to wear special clothes that conform to some arbitrary company image is almost entirely pointless and misguided.

For all the effort people put into finding the right suit, not looking too sexy, choosing sober colours, or toning down the jewellery, how much difference does it actually make to the business they're working for, or the customers?

The idea is that chaste, decorous clothes inspire confidence in whoever you're dealing with and get the cash flowing, but I have my doubts.

After all, suits are the norm for some of the least respected jobs - politicians, estate agents, car salesmen - but they don't cut the mustard there. And no intelligent adult is going to swallow some dodgy mortgage deal just because the man in the bank is in regulation pinstripes rather than a racy shirt and chinos.

On the other hand, casual clothes are routine in some of the most successful businesses ever, like IT and online shopping. And nobody doubts a plumber's expertise when he walks in wearing stained jeans and a torn T-shirt.

I suspect the motive for dress codes is not so much company credibility as controlling the staff and showing them who's boss. Give them too much personal freedom and they'll just get too bolshy to do a proper day's work.

Believe it or not, I've only possessed one suit in my entire working life! I've spent most of that time in bookshops where just about anything goes clotheswise. I could have worn a gorilla suit and it wouldn't have stopped Harry Potter flying off the shelves.

In fact the female staff would often wear eye-wateringly short skirts and low-cut tops, and the only effect on trade was a marked increase in the number of goggle-eyed middle-aged men buying unlikely titles from Fiona or Natalie.

And it wasn't just lack of ambition that made me opt out of management - it was more the awful thought of the obligatory white shirt, sombre tie and neatly-pressed suit. To my mind, not so much high-flying executive as slicked-up ticket tout. Thanks but no thanks.