Monthly Archives: July 2007

One clut at a time

Clutter gives one such a distorted view of lifeI’m intimidated by the number and complexity of the things that need doing to my house. Most of them are trivial: install a hanging airer, put up a baton and a curtain rail, replace the catflap. This is where I miss my ex. I feel a fool that I don’t want to do them and these are all things I can do well enough up to the point where they go wrong but I don’t have the patience to sort out mistakes if I make them with a drill and a spirit level.

I’ve also got a lot of jobs which are well within my abilities but which just seem to big to tackle, like decorating the kitchen, painting the kitchen cabinets, stripping the paper and decorating the living room. And then there’s the Bookcase saga. We won’t go there.

Finally there are the Great Big Jobs which are exactly what they sound like. Great, big and jobbie. These are:

  • replacing the gutters – essential if I don’t want the house to dissolve into its component minerals and wash away into the valley
  • fixing the electrics – fuses have been blowing at random and it isn’t ghosts
  • knocking the two bedrooms into one – yes, I know it’ll reduce the nominal value of the house, but I’m the one that lives here
  • replacing the boilers – I have no idea why there are two
  • fitting double glazing and, when everything else is done
  • replacing the kitchen.

So why on earth did I buy this particular house?

This is why I bought this particular house:

The View, coming over all Dramatic for effect

I happen to be completely crazy about the view.

I’ve already got a quote for the guttering, and I’ll get one for the electrics. I don’t want the house to decay and I don’t want it to kill me either.

In the meantime, I still have all the small and medium sized Intimidating Things, so I’ve made three resolutions:

  1. I’m going to get a bloke in for a day to do the straightforward jobs like fitting the curtain rails and replacing the catflap. Sod feminism. I’ll bake as many quiches as you like if I can just get someone else to put up the damn shelves.
  2. I am doing at least some tidying each evening, the objective is for it to be tidier at bedtime than when I get in.
  3. I am going to dispose of something every week. The house is woefully full of clutter, and I think the only way to deal with it is one clut at a time.


This weekend I have

  • Freecycled:
    • a load of scatter cushions,
    • some crystals,
    • a bunch of half-burned candles,
    • miles and miles of voile,
  • Offloaded an assortment of unwanted “gifts” onto a charity stall organiser, including:
    • a photo-album covered in varnished leaves
    • a set of vanilla scented candles and
    • a thing you put in a frying pan and break two eggs into so that you can serve up fried eggs in the shape of a willy – tres droll
  • Signed-up as a reseller on Amazon Market Place and made my first sale from the stack of books 18″ high which I have listed there for reselling
  • Decided that 35 quid is too much to pay to clean and scotchguard a suede handbag that I bought for a fiver even though it was a glorious shocking pink; I am going to take it to the tip – eco-terrorist that I am
  • Bought a table for my TV, video recorder and DVD player and moved them from the cardboard box they were sitting on

This has been brought about by the sudden arrival of a sofa-bed.

Unfortunately I don’t live in a Tardis: my previous domicile was on a larger scale than this one with furniture and bookshelves to match. When I moved in I had to recycle my previous sofas and I’ve been making do with an enormously high day bed ever since. Overnight guests needed oxygen cylinders and crampons. It was ok pro tem, but that was 18 months ago and this is now. Dismantling the daybed uncovered boxes of stuff – hence the need to unload.

I’ve still got more boxes than I’d like in my living room, but at least we are down to essentials like books.

Charlotte poses some questions

I cannot pretend this is anything more than a bit of self-indulgent blog-streaking but the answers Charlotte gave the questions put to her in the Interview meme are illuminating and fun so I decided to give it a go. Besides which, I thought she’d ask interesting questions. Guess what – she did. The answers of course are another matter.

1. Social justice is important to you. When did you first become
aware of injustice in the world and what was your response to that?

I had a nice long answer that encompassed being the youngest of four, feminism, the Miners Strike, Live Aid, and the Countryside and Anti-War Marches of the Blair years. But then I realised that although I don’t like injustice, what really gets me going is dishonesty. It is the moral and intellectual dishonesty of the Blair crowd that enrages me, not to mention the Tory sleazeballs before them.

For me, the first political question is “what is government for?” Surely it is there to make life for the people fairer, easier and safer. To support and protect, if you like.

How dare they take us into a war which – entirely predictably – caused the deaths of 56 people in London on 7/7? And there’s more, it seems, to follow. This will go on for generations. In what possible way is the world a safer place because Blair has spent the last five years wanking all over Iraq at Bush’s behest? And the junior doctor thing? How does instituting a Cultural Revolution against doctors improve our health-care exactly?

Honesty is part of who and what I am. I tend to stare reality in the face to see which one of us blinks first, and I have very little patience for people who are self-serving and self-deceiving. I’ve had my moments, my years, of self-delusion but I am never comfortable with it once I realise it. And the self-serving arrogance and abuse of power of those in power continues to enrage me. I think I have voted for the government only once in my life.

2. You love words, and yet you seem to work in an industry that involves software/numbers. Is this your dream job? If you could start your career all over again, would you take the same direction or do something radically different?

Well, I love mathematical and systemic elegencies too. Besides which, a lot of it is words: my job is to sit between business people and technical people and stop them wanting to throttle each other. I’m a go-between, a buffer zone and a translator.

Actually, it is my dream job. I get an intellectual challenge from my work which I can’t get elswhere and which I miss when I’m not working. I am a compulsive asker of questions and maker of connections and much of my job involves understanding systems. It is easy enough to understand explicit systems that are known about and documented. The fun is in uncovering implicit systems. I like uncovering how things would work if you made this group of people accountable for those decisions; what would happen if that team had access to this data; why does this group behave in this counter-intuitive way and so on.

If I could start again I’d like to live in a world where I could have got a good first degree in maths and modern languages and started off by working for an emergent technology firm like Lotus. But I’m pants at languages and not good enough at maths so I am where I am. Which isn’t a bad place to be.

I think there’s a parallel universe where another Aphra is an estate agent, but that’s another thing entirely.

A very young Buster

3. Who has been your favourite cat and why?

Right pronoun. Hard call.

Buster was fearless and inquisitive, friendly and fun.

Slasher looking serene

Slasher was a zen master apart from the killing things bit which we won’t discuss; he could appear and disappear at will and was an intensely private cat and loving and peaceful company.


Tiger is very sweet. another serial killer of course, but very affectionate.

There have been others: Madam, another Tiger, Archer and Aitken, and Curly, but for sheer cheek it’s probably Buster.

4. Aphra and the WI. Discuss.

Hoo hoo. What’s not to like about an organisation of middle aged women who heckle Blair by slow hand clapping him and making him sweat? Oh, and the nuddie calendar shots too, don’t forget those. I’m a country woman, I’m also a subversive and I like the company of women.

5. If I could guarantee you an all-expenses paid, no strings attached, month-long holiday on your OWN, where would you go and what would you do?

This is the hardest question of all.

With company, I’d go on a road trip; possibly in the Australian outback, possibly trying to do Scandinavia justice. A month isn’t that long, to be honest. But I’m not sure about a road-trip on my own, I like my own company but I like my own company in my own home.

I could probably do two or three weeks on a beach, but not a month. Perhaps it would be interesting to do one of those Mediterranean cruises where clean, young, gay academics provide lectures about Canaletto and the Mycenaeans. I would avoid those life-style holidays on a Greek Island where desperate, single women paint each others’ auras and have emotional crises brought about by too much oestrogen, not enough sex and too close a proximity to the scuba-diving instructor’s bum.

I’d probably visit friends and relations like Rabbit in Winnie-the-Pooh. Meet up with a few Internet Wierdos. Shoot a few breezes. Down a few glasses. That sort of thing.

But I’d rather have a companion, a car and an atlas, to be honest.


  1. Leave a comment saying, “Interview me.”
  2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. Please make sure I have your email address.
  3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
  4. You will include this explanation and offer to interview someone else in the same post.
  5. When others comment, asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

Farewell to flakiness – or why I’m not entitled to my own opinion

A FlakeI was raised by people of great personal and moral integrity with reasonable intelligence who had no exposure to science or scientific thinking at all. This didn’t stop them having Opinions on things so it is no surprise that they were Flakes one and all. Bless ’em.

Flaky thinking is cozy, it provides comfort blankies such as “everything happens for a reason”or “someone was looking after me that night”. It also provides explanations which appear to be simple and easy to understand: ” stimulating the body’s natural healing processes” or “bright lines of golden energy”.

I’m not going to rip into acupuncture, auric photography, biomagnetic bracelets, biorhythm charts, cranial-sacral therapy, earth energy lines, feng shui, food sensitivity analysis, homoeopathy, osteopathy, reiki or any of the other forms of flakiness which I’ve spent money on in my time. To be honest, I cannot be bothered. Either you consider me to be foolishly narrow-minded because I dismiss them or foolishly forebearing because I don’t critique them and we both have better things to do with our time than argue the point.

Let’s just say that I spent my money on all of the above, probably thousands of pounds now that I look at the list, but I don’t feel ripped off; every one of them brought me a good 40 minutes of someone’s undivided attention and a nice warm placebo effect. I was lucky; it was a life-style choice not a fearful attempt to ward off cancer. But I wouldn’t spend my money on any of them again.

So what undermined my warm fuzzy view that the word “energy” means something when used metaphorically, that there are forces which cannot be measured by science, and that there is more to life than meets the eye?

Lots of things. Feel free to skip the list and cut to the conclusions at the end of the piece.

  • I check out the Asthma UK site and realise the approaches described are infinitely more cautious, detailed, rigorous and robust than the approaches of the herbalists I’d instinctively turn to.
  • My father, with cancer, is dramatically better after a stay in hospital which grants him at least another year of good quality of life.
  • A crystal healer describes the “lovely warm lines of yellow energy” flowing through her treatment rooms. When I ask her if she can see them she says “no, but Gordon has dowsed them and told me where they are”. The inane warmth in her voice sets my alarm bells ringing.
  • I read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.
  • I have to describe my symptoms to the German pharmacist rather than selecting the herbal tinctures and ointments I’d choose in the UK; I find myself thinking “These German pharmaceuticals are very effective” and then realising that they might work well simply because they are pharmaceuticals and being German has nothing to do with it.
  • I work for a large petro-chemical company and find that the individuals there are responsible and serious people, and not in fact the spawn of satan who just don’t “get” it.
  • I acknowledge that the scientists working on GMOs are (a) intelligent and (b) not malicious. I think that they are wrong about genetically modified organisms being good for the planet, but acknowledge that if they are wrong then it’s not because they are stupid.
  • A friend sends me a link to and I realise just how easy it is to writes spurious science-speak which is manipulative and emotional.
  • A friend of mine compulsively adds and subtracts numbers to find co-incidences and meanings without noticing that if you manipulate any date enough you can reach the number 7, or 26.
  • I read something which explains that the phenomena described in all documented near-death experiences (tunnel vision, a distant light, etc) are also consistent with specific forms of neurological shut-down.
  • I develop an increasing respect for the methodologies in my own field, and by extension for standards’ based methodological approaches in others. In other words, I come to prefer rigorous testing to instinct.
  • I have a relationship with a statistician.
  • I come across evidence that a feeling that there a ghostly presence in the room can be reliably triggered by certain localised electro-magnetic phenomenon.
  • I read The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan.
  • I regularly flick through copies of the British Medical Journal and discover that the research studies are of varying quality but explicit about their limitations and scope.
  • Triptanes provide effective migraine relief.
  • I read Snake Oil by John Diamond.
  • I start a post-grad degree and within a few months become imensely more picky about authorities and references.

Ok. It’s not a particularly impressive list: a lot of it is based on a distaste for poor critical thinking in others which of course doesn’t demonstrate any improvement in my own, the books are pop-science even if the scientists are credible, the rest of it is un-referenced and at this distance in time I have no way of checking where I got the information about near death experiences and ghostly presences from.


But I think that the real epiphany is that I am only entitled to an opinion on subjects where I have some expertise. Guess what – experts really do know better. It’s a matter of knowing my limitations. I cannot bake cakes, design power stations or diagnose illnesses. I have no choice but to delegate those tasks. Generic intelligence is not the same as experience, training or qualifications and this is hard for people, particularly those educated in the social sciences or humanities, to accept.

Not all experts are equal, of course. Gillian McKeith’s “doctorate” is a tad light-weight to say the least, though the woman is undoubtedly sincere. We cannot accept the word of experts unquestioningly. We must continue to challenge and ask the pertinent questions – how did you arrive at that conclusion – how large was your sample-size – how well conducted has your research been – where do you get your funding, and so on. But challenging does work: 20 years of hindsight bias, selective memory, anecdotal evidence and the placebo effect do not equal one double blind controlled trial. Sorry.

Some people argue that science is just as much a matter of belief as religion is. It isn’t of course. I’ve argued that you have to trust the scientists but as Reagan put it you “trust but verify”. You can by definition repeat and test a scientific experiment or demonstration. You cannot test bach flower remedies, post-modernism or god. In fact there’s even a commandment against it.

This of course means that the opinions of true experts whose conclusions are based on testable and repeatable methods vastly outweigh yours and mine. We are entitled to doubts, concerns, worries, uncertainties and even rage, anger and disgust. Those are emotions and emotions are not opinions. We must also remain entitled to challenge – that is what accountability is.

Comfort blankies - do not forget to boil them to keep them sterile, otherwise they can harbour germs.  Unfortunately boiling may damage the warmth and softness of your blankie.To some extent I do miss the warm fuzziness of flaky thinking, but on the other hand if you acknowledge that real life is unfair, that shit happens, it becomes much easier to deal with. Nastier, but more straight-forward. There are a few flaky things I still adhere to: meditation, NLP and yoga specifically, though I’m not going to defend them here. The only school of “alternative” thought which I have not yet found to be intellectually undermined is the Buddhist approach to re-incarnation. To be honest, I doubt it’s got any validity to it, but does have the merits of being (a) internally consistent and (b) not yet countered by harsh scientific enquiry. However you look at it, the idea that bad things happen to good people for no reason is a nasty one.

I had been going to illustrate this with one of the Cadbury’s Flake ads but I couldn’t find the girl painting a picture in a poppy field in the rain, so I decided to show you this instead which did at least make me laugh.

5 reasons why I blog

Severine has tagged me with the meme asking for five reasons why I blog. I realised I didn’t actually know the answer to that one, so I thought about it for a bit, and here they are.

I blog to help me think – Some people think in images, some people work on gut feeling, I think in words. Sometimes I don’t know what I think until I hear myself saying it. If the level of background noise is too loud, I lose the ability to think. So working through thoughts as writing helps me define them and refine them. But any kind of writing would do that, and I certainly didn’t keep a journal or a diary as regularly as I blog, so why do I blog?

I blog to spark conversations – Blogging is not just about writing, it is also about reading, and I like it when people read and post comments. I came here from a cyberplace which was much more conversational and I miss that to be honest. But I do like to talk about ideas with people, and if I write to help me think I post it in cyberspace to start a conversation. But you can have conversations in pubs or chat rooms or any one of any other kind of social space. So what’s different about blogging?

I blog for the attention – The very first words I posted here are: “I want to see what happens when you start over again in a place where you have no history and no credit”. In other words, I want to see just how much attention I can generate. But if it was as simple as that I would blog very differently. The blogs which have garnered the most attention are the medical ones, and if I was nothing but a stats-tart then why would I post things which I know will reduce the stats?

I blog to indulge myself – A photo here. A haiku there. Commentary, poetry, analysis. I could claim it is to try out different forms of self-expression, but if you ask me it’s just a matter of self-indulgence. But if that was all it was, would I put so much effort into making it easy to find specific posts?

I blog to influence others – The ridiculous, incredible, Kafkaesque cock-ups of the recruitment of hospital doctors in the UK have outraged me, and still worry me sick. In less than a month’s time thousands of junior doctors will be out of a job and thousands of hospitals will have unfilled junior doctors positions. The rotas are going to fall apart, because they don’t have the doctors in place to staff them. This terrifies me as a patient, disgusts me as a tax-payer, and enrages me as a voter. But the issues are complex and run completely against any kind of common sense, so people don’t believe those of us who talk about it. I wanted to explain them. But that doesn’t really explain why I blog, because if it was a matter of campaigning, then a campaigning blog would do it better than this one. So what else is in it for me?

I blog as a displacement activity – two, three, hours of an evening spent puttering around the internet rather than painting the house, reading or studying. Shockingly, it used to be more when I hung out in a writing community. I’m aware that I could have got myself at least one post-grad degree in the time I’ve spent hanging out in cyber-space. At any given moment, I’d rather be blogging than doing the ironing, and once I’m sitting at the PC I’m hard to shift. I’ve just bought myself a sofa to replace the awkward and uncomfortable day-bed I’ve got in my living room, so maybe I’ll start watching TV instead.

Ok, that’s six reaons, but another nice thing about blogs is that there’s no word-count.

So how about you. I’m very shy of tagging, but I am genuinely curious why these folks blog:

  • Santra
  • Dr Z
  • Teuchter
  • Paddy K
  • You – if you don’t really know why you blog and fancy thinking about it for a minute or two.

Doctors’ Arrests

The Elephant in the RoomIt is hard to know what to make of the recent arrests of the Indian and Iraqi doctors.

The foreign press in particular express some surprise that the presumed terrorists are neither ignorant nor uneducated and this is briefly echoed in some of the UK reporting. We should remember though that Mohammad Sidique Khan was neither ignorant nor uneducated. He seemed to be the epitome of a well integrated, westernised muslim right up until the point where he set off the Edgeware Road bomb on 7/7.

But this is more middle class, closer to home. What is so hard to assimilate is that these are doctors working for the NHS. They are proximate: as with the McCanns, as with Christopher Janaway and Matthew O’Donnell who were killed on the M25 in May, there’s only a degree or so of separation. They are trained as scientists; they should not be influenced by ignorant, rabble-rousing muslim clerics. Most confusingly of all, these are men dedicated to saving lives, not taking them. While I find it comprehensible that someone should feel sufficiently powerless, threatened and angry to commit indiscriminate acts of terrorism (or “resistance” as it was termed in war-time France) I find it almost impossible to comprehend that doctors should do that.

It seems that I am not alone. The Telegraph is running a predictable leader entitled “Muslims must raise their voices in anger“. Well yes. But why aren’t they running one entitled “Doctors must raise their voices in anger”?

The GMC, the BMA and Remedy are noticeably silent on the subject. So are all of the medical blogs that I’ve read recently. This is presumably because it is just too alien to understand. It is unsettling and challenging that people we are used to trusting could do this, and I suspect that the Medical community simply cannot comprehend that one of their own, eight of their own, could do such a thing.

This leaves me with so many questions about assumptions, prejudice and denial that I don’t know where to start.

First day back…

Mr RedFirst day back… and the world at work has not imploded!  Given my doctrinal differences with my boss, I am both delighted and surprised at this.  Heaven’s above – Mr Red may be right after all.   On the other hand, there is still a lot of low flying brown-stuff scheduled to arrive next week or the week after and if you ask me, there’s precious little protecting those fans.  I’ve started looking at the internal vacancies on the intranet.