Correlation, causation and chocolate labradors

I have been subject to an unrelenting and highly targeted form of lobbying in recent years. To give you a sense of the intensity of the campaign, those responsible could teach Russian social media bots a thing or two about psychological manipulation. Normally, I would be immune to this sort of thing. Being a contrarian by nature, my usual reaction is to assume that any attempt to sway my opinion one way or the other is really just a smokescreen to mask the weakness of the case being promoted. Unfortunately, my natural defences are not enough on their own to protect me when the people running the campaign are my wife and daughter.

puppy

Their aim is to persuade me that what we really need in our lives is a non-contributing, utterly dependent, mess generating, allergy-inducing, four legged friend. Others call such things a dog, apparently. I have been implacably opposed to agreeing to this proposition for as long as C. and I have been married (which is a long time now). However, recently, and possibly as a sign of my own weakening mental capacity, I may have given a non-time-bound commitment to allowing a chocolate labrador into our lives in the future.

There are lots of reasons for my historic hostility to the idea of allowing a dog into our house. I do have a minor fur allergy (although admittedly this seems to be triggered more by cats than dogs); and it strikes me that dogs (unlike children) remain dependent on you for ever, never opening up the hope that eventually they’ll grow up and start drinking all the milk and ice cream in their own homes. To be honest, there’s also a part of me that doesn’t want to open myself up to the distress that results from injury, illness or (worst of all) the death of a ‘surrogate child’.

My objections are not helped though, by news reports of research that seems to show that owning a dog is actually good for you. The most recent such report was covered by the BBC news website earlier this week. Summarising a study from the University of Uppsala in Sweden, the article claims that : “Dog owners have a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease or other causes”. This is an astonishing claim – owning a dog apparently means that your chances of contracting heart disease are reduced and you will live longer.

The reality of course, is much more complex than the headline writers would have us believe. In the first case, it’s far from clear whether it’s dog ownership that makes people healthy, or if healthy people tend to own dogs. The correlation between dog ownership and improved cardiovascular health is greatest among owners of hunting breeds – the very people who are more likely to live active lives in the first place. It’s a good example of the maxim that correlation does not imply causation – that just because two data sets may have a statistical relationship, it does not mean that one causes the other.

In contrast, there is a causative relationship between the incessant pressure applied by wife and daughter and my diminishing resolve in holding out against a dog. And chocolate Labradors are really good looking dogs – but not just yet.

choc lab

Advertisements

Greggs misadventure, or genius advertising?

There are times when the only response to a news story is a dumbfounded : “What were they thinking?!” That was my response to the news that Greggs, the high street bakery and convenience food chain, had this week released promotional material for their branded advent calendar with a picture of a sausage roll replacing Jesus in the manger. I know that you may find this hard to believe too – so I’ve included the marketing image here.

sausagerollnativity

Aside from the obvious crassness of placing a pork-based food product at the scene of a Jewish birth (thus achieving the double-whammy of offending both Jews and Christians), it’s not even a particularly attractive image. (Let’s be honest, Greggs sausage rolls are ok, but they’re not a patch on the chicken bakes!)

Wholly predictably, the campaign launch prompted outrage amongst Christian groups. An Evangelical Alliance spokesperson accused the company of deliberately courting controversy, generating “processed outrage to sell processed food”; while the Chief Executive of the Freedom Association called for a boycott of Greggs products “to protest against its sick anti-Christian advent calendar”. (As an aside, is it just me who sees the irony in a representative of an organization of the Freedom Association calling for a boycott of anything? Oxymoronic much?)

A spokesperson for Greggs issued a standard response in cases of this type : “”We’re really sorry to have caused any offence, this was never our intention”. In truth, though, it’s hard to see how anybody with even half a brain cell could have thought that substituting the baby Jesus with a sausage roll was eve going to be anything but offensive to those who believe that this was a divine event. How did the marketing strategy meeting go? “Um – guys. Are we sure about this whole sausage roll instead of Jesus thing?” “Yeah, man – why not? It can’t be offensive. Look if you write ‘Lord Jesus’ backwards – Susejd rol – why, it almost even spells sausage roll.” “Oh hey – that’s so cool – no-one’s going to mind about it now.”

Some Christians sought to see the funny side of the whole thing, arguing that religions and their adherents need to be able to laugh at themselves as part of a mature understanding of their place in the world. Writing in a letter to the Guardian, the Very Rev Richard Giles stated that : “When a faith tradition loses the capacity to laugh at itself, it is on the slippery slope to the hardline fundamentalism which brooks no comment or criticism.”

Others turned their ire on the Christian organisations whose outrage had served to propel the story into the mainstream media in the first place. One such piece was written by Peter Ormerod. In a really well argued piece he states that “anyone who claims to take Jesus seriously should really be finding literally hundreds of other things to get outraged about instead. There’s child poverty; there’s the rise in food bank use; there’s environmental degradation; there’s the surge in hate crime; there’s profound inequality; there’s warmongering; there’s slavery”. And his conclusion is surely the only sensible one : “At the heart of Christianity is a critique of religion itself. It tells us that God is not who, what or where any of us ever believed God to be. We’ve long buried this radicalism under layer after layer of cloying sentimentality and deadening pomposity, to the point that it’s taken a sausage roll to remind us of its significance. And for that, if not for the steak bakes, thanks be to Greggs.” I have to say, I can’t agree with him about the steak bakes, but for the rest, I’d suggest he’s spot on.

So where does that leave Greggs? I somewhat spitefully suggested earlier that their marketing team may not have been the sharpest tools in the box when coming up with this campaign. But if you stop and think about it for a moment, the coverage that they’ve achieved has been astonishing. I can only assume that as the story was picked up by the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Independent, and a whole host of other media outlets, so sales of sausage rolls, pasties and cream-filled Belgian buns were sky-rocketing.

belgian bun

A cream-filled Greggs Belgian Bun can’t be beaten!

In the final analysis, then, this particular manufactured outrage wasn’t so much mis-advent-ure as genius marketing.

 

 

(With thanks to J. for the inspiration for today’s post)

The grizzly world of teddy bear deaths

teddy bear“More people are killed by teddy bears than by grizzly bears.” That was the Tweet that was first on my timeline when I woke at 2am this morning. I know that checking social media in the graveyard hours is a bad idea, but I’ll admit that I was shaken by this bald statement, put out by the folks @qikipedia with no further context. I was left with a vision of killer bears sitting around all furry and cuddly and like butter wouldn’t melt, before turning into frenzied murderers during the wee small hours in the first phase of the moon. (I had eaten quite a lot of cheese before bed, which may have contributed to this fevered interpretation).

 

Of course, on further investigation, the truth is much less fantastical. ‘Teddy bears’ in this context is used as a short hand for toys in general; and the deaths (which are not at all common) are usually the result of choking on the glass eyes or other plastic components that are sometimes used in their manufacture, or a consequence of trips and falls over toys left strewn on living room floors. Just for the record, 82 Americans have been killed by real bears in the last 89 years; and there are 22 deaths a year linked to toys in the US (most of these, children).

In researching this blog post, I came across a blog dedicated to recording unusual deaths from around the world. The accounts are helpfully organized by country. They are gruesome but fascinating reading. There is the death of a man from Croydon who consumed a litre of carrot juice a day for 10 days, poisoning his body with excess vitamin A, and destroying his liver. Another account that caught my eye was titled : The London Beer Flood of 1814 – caused when several large vats of beer broke simultaneously sending 600,000 litres of fermenting brew into the nearby streets, knocking down walls and destroying several houses and (ironically) a pub. Five people attending a wake at the pub were killed in the debris of the collapsed building. One that appealed to my particularly dark sense of humour relates the tale of a 67 year old woman in the north east of England who decided to feed her flock of sheep by tying a bale of hay to the back of her electric bike and riding around the field allowing the bale to unravel behind her. The sheep – presumably ravenous – rushed the bike as a flock, forcing both it and the woman over the edge of a cliff that formed the boundary of the field. Remarkably, the woman appears to have survived the fall, but was killed when the bike landed on top of her. I’m sure I’m not alone in recalling this classic scene from Naked Gun when reading this one.

Of course, each of these deaths was an individual tragedy for the people involved, But sometimes, it’s hard to respond with anything other than a shrug and the question : “What were they thinking?!”. This is where the Darwin Awards come in. The awards “honour those individuals who improve the species by their departure. RULES: (1) adults, who remove (2) themselves, from (3) the gene pool, in a (4) spectacularly clueless manner, that is (5) true.” There are some spectacular accounts of truly innovative and monumentally stupid ways of fatally injuring yourself on the website. Among recent entries are the two Mexican women killed by a landing aircraft when attempting to get a selfie of themselves on the runway; and the Colorado man who climbed a tower crane, attached a length of rope to create a massive swing, before leaping off, and arcing out, across the neigbouring street and smack into the equally tall building on the other side. If the impact didn’t kill him, the resulting fall to the pavement certainly did.

All of which serves as a salutary warning. Take care out there everybody – and watch out for those teddy bears!

Wildernesses still exist

The account of Benedict Allen’s disappearance in the interior of Papua New Guinea, reads like something from a boy’s own adventure book. So far he has only been spotted by plane near an otherwise inaccessible air strip, and a helicopter evacuation will take a further 24 hours to arrange. Doubtless, there will be much analysis of the wisdom of embarking on a mission to locate remote tribes-people without the back-up of a satellite phone or (apparently) any clear plan for returning afterwards.

However, the striking thing for me in the story is the fact that there are still places in the world that are ‘off grid’ in the fullest sense of that phrase. It’s easy to assume that there are now no unconquered spaces on out planet – that everywhere has been visited and catalogued and mapped. It’s somehow uplifting that there are still people living as they have for hundreds of years, unaware of and free from the shackles of 24:7 connectivity, social media, and commercialisation.

Given the news this week that carbon dioxide emissions are on the rise again, its a sobering thought that the remote peoples that we currently think of as backward or primitive, may in fact turn out to be the only ones who are remotely able to survive a superheated, post-industrial planet.

Barenboim to Penylan in six steps

One of my favourite posts of National Blog Post Month is my annual Wikipedia-inspired six degrees of separation quest. Today is the 75th birthday of conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, so he is my starting point.

Barenboim was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in November 1942. He began piano lessons with his mother at five years of age, and following a move to Israel in 1952, he attended classes with various virtuoso pianists in Salzburg and Paris. He initially performed as a classical pianist, travelling throughout Europe and North America, before turning to conducting following a debut recording with the English Chamber Orchestra in 1966. Barenboim is widely acknowledged as among the foremost experts on the music of Beethoven, and his interpretation of the 9th Symphony is held in particularly high regard.

Barenboim met Jacqueline du Pre on New Year’s Eve 1966 and they were married in June 1967. du Pre was born in Oxford in 1945, the daughter of an accountant and a mother who was a concert pianist and tutor at the Royal Academy of Music. du Pre began cello lessons at the age of five and started attending the London Violoncello School, before eventually enrolling at the Guildhall School of Music. du Pre quickly established an international reputation as a solo performer, at one stage performing at the Proms for seven consecutive years from 1963 to 1969. In 1971, du Pre began to lose sensation in her fingers and other parts of her body, and was finally diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1973. du Pre stopped performing that same year, and died in 1987 at just 42 years of age.

From 1956 to 1961, du Pre was the recipient of a Guilhermina Suggia scholarship to support her lessons at Guildhall and with virtuoso cellists. Suggia (full name Guilhermina Augusta Xavier de Medim Suggia Carteado Mena) was a Portuguese cellist who learnt her instrument at school in Paris before spending large parts of the 1920s and 1930s in the UK. She grew particularly fond of the area around Lindisfarne Castle in the north of England. Following her death in 1950, her Stradivarius cello was sold and the proceeds held in trust to provide scholarships for talented young cellists.

As well as being a prodigiously talented musician, Suggia was also a striking woman, by all accounts. One of those to be commissioned to paint her portrait was Welsh artist Augustus John. John was born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire in 1878, and moved to London after school to attend the Slade School of Art. He was acknowledged as amongst the most talented draughtspeople of his generation, and he initially developed a style that drew heavily on the post-impressionist school. In his later years, however, his fame grew around his talent for portraiture. Amongst others, he was commissioned to paint  T. E. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, and George Bernard Shaw.

However, perhaps his most famous portrait is of fellow Welshman, Dylan Thomas. In fact, it was John who introduced Thomas to Caitlin Moran, the woman who would go on to marry the poet. Much has written about the life and times of Dylan Thomas. In many ways, he typifies the troubled artist, hugely talented but equally emotionally fragile, drinking heavily and seemingly uneasy with the world. Despite, or perhaps because of this, he produced some of the most evocative poetry and verse-prose of the 20th Century, inspiring a whole generation of Welsh writers.

Among these was Dannie Abse, born into a Jewish-Welsh family in Cardiff in 1923. I have written about Abse’s semi-autobiographical book Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve on this blog before. It’s a beautifully written memoir of a young boy growing up in suburban Cardiff between the wars. But Thomas’ role in inspiring Abse to write the book is perhaps less obvious than might have been thought. In an interview for the Wales Arts Review in 2013, Abse explained : “Then I realised that there were two things that were not in Thomas’ book; he was not Jewish and there were no politics at all. Therefore, I thought it would be useful to stress those aspects quite particularly in Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve. I wanted to bring in the whole world and scream about the war that was going on in Spain, as it does in that book. So Dylan Thomas had an influence on me, negatively, I wanted to avoid being too much like him.”

And so to the final connection in this Wikipedia odyssey. The Abse family home was in the Penylan district of Cardiff – something less than 5 miles from where I was born and raised in Splott, and from where my family home now is in Old St Mellons. Happy birthday, Daniel Barenboim!

Ordinary, everyday tragedies

Looking for inspiration for today’s post, I stumbled across one of the most poignant things that I have ever seen. There is a Twitter feed and Instagram account dedicated to the chronicling of lost footballs.

Many of the images are framed in quasi-tragic terms : the deflated football abandoned in a deprived neighbourhood; the ball stuck immovable in the branches of an impossibly high tree; the one caught on rocks in a fast-flowing river at the bottom of a treacherous ravine. There is an aching sadness that attaches to the lost potential represented – the hours of fun that that football could have provided; the epic battles that would have been played out in formal matches on manicured pitches, or scratch games on stretches of scrub land; the journey home under the arm of a sweaty, exhausted child, placing the ball safely in a corner of the garden ready for the next game.

But some of the images prompt an altogether different response. There are those that show a fully inflated football floating across the sea, like a fugitive from the harsh life of constantly being kicked around. This example of the ball from Aberdeen that washed up in Denmark has all the hallmarks of a footballing ‘Great Escape’. This one may have been recaptured but “most of the balls that go into the river are never seen again”! This conjures up the image of a football nirvana, where escaped balls gather on soft sand gently rocked by the breeze and occasionally bobbing about in the shallows.

And then there are the photographs of footballs hiding in plain sight. On top of a bus shelter in a busy urban street; nestling in groups behind high-level advertising hoardings at an old-fashioned stadium; or sitting nonchalantly in the middle of glazed roofs – visible but utterly inaccessible. These are the drop-outs and misfits of the football universe. They are of the mainstream but separate from it – occupying the neutral spaces where footballs aren’t meant to be.

It’s been an eye-opener to see the vast array of places where footballs end up. I’ll be sure to keep my eyes open for footballs in strange places in the future, and adding my own contributions to the lostfootballs social media sites.

Working from home : an informal guide

In common with many people, I occasionally choose to work from home rather than going into the office. Admittedly, the distinction between home and work had become more blurred for me in the past 15 months. ‘Home’ during the week has been a University hall of residence less than 15 minutes walk from the office. Nevertheless, I do occasionally still choose to stay in my apartment and work there, and this raises some interesting questions that may have a wider resonance with the reader of this blog.

What to wear?

There is a whole world of advice available to the modern man on what to wear in the office. But there is very little on what is appropriate attire for working from home. Historically, this would not have been a problem. However, we now have Skype (other video-conferencing services are available). This is a nightmare for the home-worker. Whereas I’d prefer to be sitting there in pyjama bottoms and a T shirt, there is the outside chance that my boss will call me up on screen at any moment. It’s a kind of sartorial Russian roulette – smart casual or full-on slob?

Breaks

It is beyond debate that productivity soars for those working at home compared to those working in the office. I’ve conducted extensive research with all of the people who I know who work from home occasionally, and we all agree that : “Gosh! I get so much more done when I don’t have all the – you know – interruptions of the office.” So there’s no doubt that my employer gets their full value from each hour that I spend slaving at my dining table. In fact, because my work intensity goes up, I need to take longer breaks to avoid burn-out. This presents a major headache : is it best to time your break to coincide with Homes Under the Hammer, or should you wait until Bargain Hunt? (Non-UK readers may need to substitute alternative daytime TV shows here, but I promise that the dilemma will be the same). I have now adopted a contingency approach. Thanks to the frequency with which daytime television programmes are repeated, it’s possible to take a micro-break at the start of HUTH, and then convert it into a full break if it’s one  haven’t seen before.

Food

I’ll confess that this blog post was prompted by a tweet from a colleague who is herself working from home today. She wrote simply : “How many mince pies is acceptable when working from home? #askingforafriend”. Amongst a stream of replies from people who were ‘working’ in the office at the time (I’ve taken all their names for future reference) was my personal favourite : “They come in boxes of six for a reason”. Nothing more needs to be said. Working at high intensity all day burns enormous amounts of calories that only cake, sweets and fizzy drinks can ever hope to replenish.

Availability

In addition to the perils of Skype, home workers must also balance the demands that will be placed on them by all manner of other communications devices and routes when working from home. Instant messenger software, e-mail, landline telephone and mobile phone will all be used by resentful colleagues as a means to try to ‘catch you out’. Fortunately, the rapid expansion of free, high quality wifi in most major coffee shop chains means that – with judicious selection of your seat – it’s possible to replicate the home ambience whilst enjoying a cappuccino and slice of carrot cake (which must be kept out of view of the video camera at all costs!). Whatever you do, make sure you select the same seat each time you visit though. Trying to explain away the regular changes in your living room wallpaper will raise the suspicion that your ‘work’ from home is actually interior design!

I hope that these few words of advice will prove helpful for both novice and more experienced home-workers. And if you’re reading this while ‘working from home’, then you have my utmost respect.