Category Archives: Life & Philosophy

It’s not all equally bad news

It’s been too easy recently to assume that we are all going to hell in a hand-basket. Austerity and its impact on the poorest members of our society; Brexit and the feral, anti-immigrant sentiment that it stirred up; abuses of position and sexual harassment in the corridors of political power – all suggest that we are becoming less tolerant, less social, less equal as a society.

Its good to be able to reflect on two pieces of very positive news today. The first details a change in maternity and paternity leave policy by the UK’s largest insurance company, Aviva. In future, both parents will be able to claim up to 26 weeks leave at standard basic pay in the first year following the arrival of a new child or completion of an adoption. Where both parents work for Aviva, this could allow a full year of child care to be provided by the parents without any reduction in basic pay. This is not only great for the child, but has the potential to significantly reduce the negative impact on the woman’s career of taking time out of the workplace after childbirth. What’s particularly encouraging about the Aviva initiative is the recognition that changing the policy alone won’t achieve the sort of cultural shift that they are seeking to achieve. “Aviva [will] use male role models to show it is acceptable to take up the offer of parental leave, to encourage a change in perceptions and foster a cultural change. Otherwise, male employees may still be reticent about taking time off, even if paid.” I genuinely hope that this is the start of a wider review of maternity and paternity leave policies across the private and public sectors. It’s in everybody’s best interests to support women and men equally as parents and employees.

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The second ‘good news’ story this Friday comes from an unusual source. Swansea City FC and AFC Bournemouth have become the first Premier League football clubs in the country to formally recognize transgender and non-binary supporters in the way that they are addressed. In future, supporters will have the option to choose to be addressed as “Mx” as an alternative to the more ususal Mr, Miss, Mrs etc.. Explaining the change in policy, Swansea City’s equality and diversity manager said : “We’re continually looking at ways to make our services more inclusive. Language plays a really important part in delivering this and ensuring that everyone feels welcome – regardless of age, gender or gender identity, sexuality or ethnicity.” Too often, football and football clubs are associated with a laddish culture in which minorities and ‘difference’ are seen as fair game for ridicule or humiliation rather than celebration. It’s great to see some clubs now taking a much more enlightened attitude to these issues. This weekend also sees the launch of the Rainbow Laces campaign, promoted by Stonewall, and designed to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic attitudes in sport more generally. Of course, as with the challenges of cultural change at Aviva, adding Mx to a list of prefixes won’t suddenly lead to premiership football becoming a safe space for transgender and non-binary fans, but it may encourage those have been reluctant to attend football matches for fear of how they would be received, to go along. And that’s good for the fans and the clubs.

Have a good, equality-filled weekend!

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Intimations of mortality

My knee is really painful. It started about two weeks’ ago when I’d been crammed on a Cross Country train from Birmingham New Street to Bristol Temple Meads for two and a half hours. I’m quite tall, and public transport isn’t designed with me in mind. I thought that I was fine, until I cam to stand up and found that whilst most of my body had reverted to standing shape, my right knee was still at 90 degrees and seemed reluctant to revert to straight without an encouraging shove. Initially, I assumed that it was just a reaction to having been stuck in the same position for too long. Now though, I am fearful that I have done something more serious. A trip to the doctor’s is required (a bit of a challenge when I’m in Bristol Monday to Friday and my doctor is in Cardiff). On ringing the surgery, I am non-plussed at the suggestion that the next bookable appointment is available on 12th December (do we have to predict when we are going to need medical intervention three weeks in advance now?). On further questioning, it transpires that if I need to see somebody before then (YES I DO – did I mention that my knee hurts?) then I can report to the surgery at 8.30am any morning and I will be allocated an appointment for some time that morning. Thank goodness I have an understanding boss. So, I will be dragging my sore knee (it really hurts, you know) to the doctor’s surgery next week and sitting with all the sick people waiting for one of that day’s appointments. There’s a good chance that in 10 days’ time, my blog will be about the chest infection I contracted while sitting for 2 hours in a waiting room next to somebody with borderline tuberculosis.

In the meantime, here’s a poem from John Whitworth on the theme of growing old, and dedicated to Alan Bennett, who – let’s face it – was born old.

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ps I aspire to “dismal b*st*rd” status, and I’m moving very nicely along the pathway to achieving it!

Thoughts from my virtual notice board

improve the silence

It’s been two days of back-to-back meetings. Most of them have been productive and interesting, but not all. Some decisions have been taken, lots of information has been shared. Data has been pored over and questions raised. Projects have progressed – not always to the extent hoped, but they’ve moved on a little. I’m not one for talking a lot in meetings unless I have something worthwhile to contribute to the subject under discussion. In general, if I have nothing to add, I’m very happy to add nothing. It’s a function of my introverted thinking style and preference – I don’t need to think out loud and generally I’m not comfortable externalizing my thought processes. The Borges quote sits very comfortably with me, although I acknowledge that it infuriates those extroverts who work (and live!) with me. I do try to adapt my style sometimes, but I’m very happy with the silence.

achieve great thingsThe university that I work for is in the midst of a lot of change. Having spent much of the last two years working out where we want to be in the next five years, the pressure is now on to do the things that will get us there. There are some very large projects under way. A £300m plus new campus in the city centre; a £90m new library and learning commons building in the existing Clifton Campus; and new information systems to better manage student and financial data across the institution. Beneath these, there is a host of smaller initiatives running : new teaching programmes; small-scale improvements to existing buildings and facilities; process improvements to improve the service to students and academic staff.

All of this generates a significant additional workload for many of us alongside the ‘business as usual’ day job (which has to be done in addition to the sexy, project stuff). There are often days and weeks where there are simply not enough hours to get it all done, and this is where the Italian proverb comes in handy. It’s always worth remembering that a good plan well executed is always more effective than a perfect plan that never gets off the shelf. Implementation done well enough is always preferable to perfect intentions.

dalai lamaAnd finally, there’s this quote from the Dalai Lama. It’s a timely and necessary reminder that however busy things get, you must always make the time to live. When busy-ness gets in the way of life, then it’s time to review what really matters and to re-focus on what’s important.

 

 

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.

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.

Quite disappointed and rather upset about this

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This report resonated strongly with me today. My natural preference is to write in the passive voice. I try to avoid writing or speaking in absolutes. This is because there is rarely a position on anything that I am comfortable in taking absolutely. I like to weigh both sides of an argument. It’s often instructive to try to see and understand things from the other person’s perspective. I may disagree with you, but I am much more likely to be able to find common ground with you if I have some appreciation of why you may be feeling the way that you do. It’s also why I struggle with the concept of ‘no-platforming’, or denying a voice to opinions that may be abhorrent to many people. Allowing opinions – however distasteful – to be heard, challenged and held up to close scrutiny, can be an effective way of testing the extent to which they have any validity. This shouldn’t be confused with the current obsession with ‘balance’ in our media. Holding a demonstrably wrong opinion does not entitle you to equal air time to voice that wrong opinion – whether it’s about climate change, smoking, autism and vaccinations, the holocaust, or any other topic.

In the article pictured at the head of this post, Prof Baker, Linguistics Professor at Lancaster University, suggests that the decline in use or gradable adverbs may be linked to a desire not to be associated with a middle- or upper-class way of speaking. I would suggest that another factor may that social media, political soundbites, slogans and strap-lines now so dominate our discourse that there is no longer room for nuance and finesse in the way that we communicate. “£350m for the NHS”, “Make America Great Again”, “Oh! Jeremy Corbyn!” are all examples of the way in which chants and slogans have become the pre-eminent way in which politics and political discourse is now conducted in the UK and US. In this atmosphere, those who seek to develop a more considered commentary are dismissed as ‘experts’ or the ‘elite’ who are somehow trying to hoodwink the public with clever words and complicated thinking. It’s the Orwellian vision of Animal Farm realised : “”Four young porkers in the front row uttered shrill squeals of disapproval, and all four of them sprang to their feet and began speaking at once. But suddenly the dogs sitting round Napoleon let out deep, menacing growls, and the pigs fell silent and sat down again. Then the sheep broke out into a tremendous bleating of “Four legs good, two legs bad!” which went on for nearly a quarter of an hour and put an end to any chance of discussion.”

In this context all discussion gets boiled down into binary distinctions : are you for us or against us; for Trump or against him; Leave or Remain; White or Black; Man or Woman; Gay or Straight; Muslim or Christian; and so on. The concept of common ground, of finding what unites and how to build from that, becomes anathema to the sloganeers.

For myself, I rather long for the day when demonstrators will rally around banners proclaiming : “What do we want? The best for us all. When do we want it? Once we have all agreed what it is!”