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Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Backwards and in high heels

Jocelyn Bell, just after she discovered the pulsars
I'm sure you've noticed there are far fewer women than men on any list of famous scientists through the ages.  

There's a reason for this imbalance. Female brains are not up to the job. Science is too hard for them, especially physics, the hardest science of all. 

At least that's the story a senior male physicist presented to a roomful of young researchers, mostly female, during a conference at CERN recently on gender issues and high energy physics.

Not surprisingly his presentation went down like the Titanic. CERN promptly disowned it and suspended Prof Strumia "from any activity at CERN", pending an investigation.

Now I'm not and never have been a woman, contrary to what my friend Al saysNot in this life anyway. As a Buddhist, I probably was in a past life and will be again, which is nice. So instead of applying my currently male brain to the issue I decide to consult my friend Ann, who besides being a woman is also a physicist and a feminist. 

I have no doubt she can give me the facts and the female perspective.

But I have to admit to a slight problem with Ann. Tall, confident and clever, she scares and attracts me in equal measure. Which means when I chat to her my savoir-faire sometimes crumbles, like a gluten-free roll.

I once made the mistake of telling her she reminded me of an Amazon. "You think I sell books and don't pay tax?" she said, with a frown that pushed my panic button.

"Strong, scary warrior-women, enemies of ancient Greece, thought to be a myth but some evidence that they existed, I only meant ..."

She pats me gently on the back, cracking a couple of ribs. "Stop burbling," she says. "I know what Amazons are. Why did you want to talk to me about female brains? Are you struggling to understand them again?"

"Not me," I say, leading the way to the table in the corner of the Burnbrae, where Al and I usually take lunch after a session at the gym. "This Italian prof who claims there's loads of evidence that it's men who are discriminated against in science careers - and in life generally - and not women." 

"I saw that," she says, studying the menu. "What do you recommend?"

So we order veggie breakfast and coffee for two from the young waitress who, convinced by our constant bickering that Al and I are an ageing gay couple, studies Ann with surreptitious interest.

"Are you going to take notes?" she asks me. 

"If you don't mind. Means I can quote you accurately."

"No problem," she says, popping a mushroom in her mouth. "Let's start with the reaction from CERN and the audience of young scientists. To me it looks incredibly ineffectual. 

"This guy trots out graphs and charts and quotes scientific papers that he claims supports the idea that women are under-represented at the top of the physics tree, because their brains aren't up to climbing it, and what does CERN do?"

"Apologises for any offence caused," I say. "Then removes his presentation from its website."

"Exactly," Ann says. "They stick their fingers in their ears and go 'Na na na, can't hear you.' They try to shut down the discussion and sidestep the lorryloads of shit headed their way for hosting this guy in the first place. Does that work? Of course it doesn't. All it does is feed the knuckle-draggers' conviction that they're being lied to. That it's political correctness gone mad. That the 'cultural marxists' that Strumia explicitly blames are covering-up the truth."

I have no idea what a cultural marxist is. Maybe I'll ask her later. Right now I'm more concerned by the vigorous manner with which she's brandishing a vegetarian sausage to punctuate her points. I guess no one's ever died of vegetarian sausage wounds, but I don't want to be the first.

Moving my chair back six inches I put the key question to her. "So what is the scientific truth about female brains?"

"I'm glad you asked me," she says. "Here is what we know."

To be continued.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Head of a chicken

I don't recommend playing chicken with a bull. I really don’t. A male adult Ayrshire – that guy in the picture – weighs around three quarters of a tonne. I'm barely a tenth of that, soaking wet.

So a contest between me and a bull can have only one outcome, you might imagine.

But you're forgetting that I'm close to the pinnacle of four billion years of evolution and the bull isn’t. Well technically he is too, I suppose. But us monkeys had it harder so we should be smarter.

You have to wonder then why I'm running as hard as I can, straight at this stupendous specimen of malehood. Basically I'm playing chicken with one of the most dangerous animals in Scotland. And I'm not making this up.

Here's the explanation I figured out later. At the time I wasn't doing much real thinking, as you'll see. 

Running is like writing. If you're easily discouraged - if you need a sunny day, perfect conditions or warm words of encouragement  - you will never get anywhere.

So this morning I'd bounced out of bed resolved to increase my distance, in this comeback programme, from three miles to six. And that remained pretty much the only thought in my head all morning. So I changed into running gear, drove to the start of my usual route, parked the car, walked for five minutes to warm up and started running. 

Fifteen minutes later, as I reach the part of the track where Loch Lomond appears, way down to my right, brooded over by dark Grampians, I notice a dozen adult Ayrshires, on and around the track up ahead, chewing the cud and shooting the breeze.  

They all turn their heads to look at me with that disbelieving, “What the Hell is that?” expression cows reserve for anything that isn't grass.

The altered angles allow me to see clearly, by the fact that his head is as wide as my front door, that the cow in the centre of the track facing me is actually a well-muscled bull, with terrifying testicles the size of a sackful of turnips.

At this point, about fifty paces out from the herd, a few sparks sputter in my four billion-year-old brain, eliminating right - a barbed-wire fence – and left – a steep ditch then heather moorland. Finally they also eliminate - and here's where the runner ape-brain misfires - turning back. Because we’ve only done two miles and the plan was six.

It's a clear decision with no options. Keep running. Now 20 paces from mister bull and going well, I do my best to seem harmless, by making shush-shush sounds and easing slightly right of the centre of the track, as I run towards him without slowing. Most of the herd is to his right, my left, and I don’t want the big guy to think I’m going after his women.

At the very last moment the bull takes a grudging half-step to his right, giving me space to ease past, so close that I'm tempted to pat his ample bottom in a bonding gesture that would cement our friendly encounter. 

A lonely brain-cell, briefly sparking, tells me not to be an idiot, so I don't. I simply run on, feeling like someone has painted a bullseye on my back and dropped me in a field of archers.

After a nervy few seconds I risk a look round, to discover the entire group has lost interest in me and gone back to contemplating the meaning of grass. I relax and run. At exactly three miles out, I turn. By the time I reach the cows again, the bull has wandered off across the heather. 

I make it home entirely – though perhaps undeservedly – safe and intact.

And the moral of this story is? 

I don’t know why you’d ask a misfiring ape-brain. But perhaps this old Japanese proverb fits the bill - and I’m not making this up either: 

“It is better to be the head of a chicken than the arse of an ox.”

Monday, 16 April 2018

Different strokes

Your life is meant to flash before your eyes when you're dying.

But I seem to have suffered some kind of brain damage, so mine doesn't flash so much as flicker fitfully, and I haven't got past the time my brother wrote 'Miss Bryan is an arse' on my English jotter, getting me into terrible trouble, when we arrive at the hospital, the ambulance crew manhandles me into a wheelchair, and we hurtle along the corridor into A & E at Forth Valley Hospital.

Larbert is a place I know only through road signs, so I'm pretty vague about where I am. Who I am and how I am are also questions to which I have no clear answer. Dongles Something and not so good, I'm guessing, or I wouldn't be here.

I try to relax in the comfy bed, as smartly-uniformed young women bustle around, taking blood from my arm and measuring its pressure. Not the same blood of course. Once outside my veins it's at atmospheric. Inside my arteries it hit 180/150 in the ambulance, but is now back at a high but survivable level of 150/100. 

Having poked, pricked and questioned me, the doctors and nurses depart to deal with other patients, while using their test results to ponder what happened and how they're going to respond. 

One slim young woman, who got her nursing degree last year from Stirling University, takes my right hand in hers and tells me to squeeze as hard as I can. She repeats this with my left. "Yes there's some loss of strength in your right hand," she declares. 

"I wasn't squeezing as hard as I could," I confess. "I didn't want to hurt you."

She tut-tuts and shakes her head. "As hard as you can this time please," she says and the habits of a lifetime kick in as I follow a female's instructions exactly.

"Fine," she says and strides off, leaving me to lie on the bed and reflect on how I got here, now that normal brain activity seems to have resumed. 

The day had begun so well, as the rows and columns on the giant spreadsheet I created when I became self-employed danced into line, summing consistently in all directions. This meant I was ready to transfer the incomes and expenditures to my tax return, and submit it. 

But then a small, strange incident occurred, like the fluttering leaf that's the first sign of a violent storm approaching. 

I lost peripheral vision at one side. My right hand coming in to the keyboard kept taking me by surprise, appearing out of nowhere as if it belonged to somebody else. I'd had a similar episode a couple of days earlier, which passed uneventfully, so at first I wasn't concerned. I did email Rachel to say "I've got vision disturbance again." 

When she read "I'be got vidion disturvance" she figured there might be something going wrong, smart cookie that she is, and Skype phoned me.

The second leaf fluttered down when I tried to explain the incident as a result of visual stress caused by peering for hours at thousands of numbers. "There's 500 rows in my spreadsheet," I told her. "And 50 columns. So that makes ....."

I couldn't do the sum. Only blankness lay in my brain, where a number should have appeared. Rachel insisted it was a hard sum. But I knew it wasn't. My brain is below average at many things, such as organising, talking sense and understanding what it's told. But it is good with numbers. For simple sums it just sees the answer. 

Blankness is scary. So I'd guess this was when my blood pressure began to rocket. Suspecting a stroke, Rachel started asking questions, such as my sons' names and the current Prime Minister. I got the former but not the latter, but encouraged her to continue, hoping the mental activity would help me recover.

The third leaf came tumbling down when I started stumbling over the words I was trying to say. Clear in my head, they were coming out garbled from my mouth. Rachel asked me to count in threes and I didn't understand. She simplified to "What is 3 plus 3?"

I had no idea and the gathering storm engulfed me. I slumped to the floor, convinced my brain was suffering irreparable damage and I'd be confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak, for the rest of my life. I hoped I'd die instead.

Rachel phoned an ambulance, which came within 10 minutes, and brought me to Larbert hospital, while the paramedic sat in the back, chatting calmly and monitoring my blood pressure. My speech slowly returned and by the time we reached the hospital my brain was still fuzzy but just about working.

After all the tests and talking, the hospital staff sent me home late that day, with a driver and a diagnosis of transient ischaemic attack, also known as mini-stroke. 

The diagnosis was probably wrong, the doctors decided two weeks later. But that's a story for another day.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Friendly but forgetful

Photo by Jeff Moriarty
So I just spent 15 minutes looking for my running top, and getting increasingly frustrated because it wasn't anywhere I'd expect it to be. 

Minutes earlier I'd had it in my hand when I answered the phone. So I knew it couldn't be far away. But could I find it? I could not.

I searched the living-room, my bedroom, the bathroom, the understairs cupboard and the car in the drive. By the second time around I was getting really frustrated at this waste of time, because I've a list of things to do before Christmas as long as my python-shaped draught-excluder (that's not a euphemism, by the way). 

I was also getting annoyed with myself, both for putting the sweater somewhere stupid and for not being smart enough to figure out how stupid I could be. Getting annoyed with yourself is inevitable at these times, I find. But it's far from helpful. 

"You're an idiot."

"I know. But that means so are you."

"You're a bigger idiot."

"Shut up."

It's even less helpful if this conversation with yourself - about the only unfriendly encounter I have, since ageing suaveness eased out youthful angst - takes place when you're searching your car, within earshot of your next-door neighbour. Who's had doubts about my mental stability since she saw me refilling the bird-feeder in my underpants. (And no I don't have a bird-feeder in my underpants. Don't be a smartarse.)

In the end I give up and do an internet search on the difference between dementia and absent-mindedness. (I'll start saying 'googled' when they start paying their taxes.) 

Turns out I've nothing to worrry about because they're completely different. Dementia is far more than ordinary forgetfulness or occasional foggy thinking, according to Professor June Andrews of the University of Stirling. "You need to start worrying only if you experience a significant, progressive downturn in your mental capacity." 

So if your mental capacity never turned up in the first place you're fine, is how I read that. 

Which is reassuring. But to tell the truth I'm still a little worried. Eventually I found the sweater and I went for my run. And I was still wearing it when I returned. Which is all good. But where I found it is the worrying part. 

You'll have figured it out already, I'm sure, because surveys show that Friendly Encounter readers are in the top percentile for intelligence. And good looks.

It's a small comfort that I also worked it out eventually. I didn't stumble across the sweater, while hunting around in an increasingly haphazard fashion, searching places it couldn't rationally be, like the oven, the fridge or the dog. No, I stood still and asked myself what Sherlock Holmes would do in these circumstances.

"When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

"You think I'm wearing it?"

"I think you should consider the possibility."

I look down. "You're right, I'm wearing it. Damn and blast. I've just wasted 15 minutes searching for a sweater I already put on."

"What are you?"

"Shut up."

Once again this conversation with myself should ideally have taken place inside my house and not in my drive.

"Are you all right?" asks my next-door, rather atttractive neighbour. "You seem to be falling out with yourself a lot these days."

"I'm fine thanks, Stevie. I'm going for a run."

"Very impressive in this weather. Is that a bird-feeder in your running shorts or are you just pleased to see me?"

"Have a nice Christmas, Stevie."

"You too, Douglas."

And off I went on my last run before an afternoon of mince-pies and excess, to demonstrate our joy at the baby Jesus, undoes all my hard-earned fitness and means I start the coming year with the same pot-bellied arteries I did last year.

So I'd like to take this opportunity to wish a merry christmas to all our readers, in the words of Tiny Tim: "Tiptoe through the window, by the window, that is where I'll be. Come tiptoe through the tulips ..."

No, hang on. Wrong Tiny Tim. Here's the one I want:

"A Merry Christmas to us all; God bless us, every one!"

See you next year, guys. I'm looking forward to it and I'll tell you why.

It's not 2017. That's something we all want to forget.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Blown out of all proportion

It's hard to know what to say when the first thing a guest encounters, on entering your house, is a white packet in the hall, bearing the words "Inflatable cow pump".

A quizzical eyebrow, a tightening of the lips and a foot wedged firmly in the front door, to prevent its closing, convey her reaction clearly, without words: "You better have a good explanation, son."

As regular readers know, thinking fast is for me practically a superpower. But I take my time over this one. Rejecting my first thought - to lead the way upstairs and show her the inflatable cow standing perkily on the cabinet beside my bed - I decide on a full explanation of how the little chap got there in the first place.

"Why don't you come in, close the door and I'll tell you all about it?" I suggest.

"I'm fine here," she says.

"It's starting to rain."

"I like rain."

I sigh, take a seat on the bottom step of the stairway leading up from the hall, and cast my mind back to yesterday's expedition. "It began when Linda, my son's fiancée, sent us out to buy a bed for my grandson."

"You went out to buy a bed," my guest says, raising the other eyebrow. "And returned with an inflatable cow?"

"It seemed a good idea. My son thought so too. It was a joint decision."

"I haven't met your son. Is he a lot like you?

"Some say so."

"Does Linda have grey hair and a worried expression?"

"No, why would she?"

"Just a thought."

"Well, it wasn't only a cow. We also got a wee book, a hat with a fox's face on, and a plastic telephone with little wheels, so he could zoom around the floor with it."

"But no bed?" she says.

"No bed. The shop had a white one and a black one and we couldn't decide." 

"Was Linda happy with your haul, when you got back?"

"Not happy, exactly. I wouldn't say happy. She wasn't jumping for joy."

"How would you describe her?"

"Tell you the truth I didn't see her. I'm only going by what my son told me later. By the time we got back to the flat he was looking kinda pensive. He said maybe I should go home and take the cow with me, as it might push Linda over the edge. 

"I dunno what edge he meant. But I said I would and that's why it's in my house, where my grandson can play with it, any time he comes to visit."

My guest shakes her head. "It's a good story," she says. "It has the ring of truth to it. But I haven't been here before, so for all I know this inflatable cow is your best friend and you talk to her all the time."

"What if I do?" I say. "Writing is a tough job. Plenty of writers talk to inanimate objects. It helps us concentrate."

She pulls her collar up, takes her foot from the door and turns to leave. "I'm sure it does," she says. "I'm just worried that sometimes the cow talks back to you."

"Of course the cow doesn't talk back to me," I tell her. "That would be nuts."

She gets into her car and, just like that, she is gone. I wander through to the kitchen, make myself a cup of black coffee, climb the stairs to the bedroom, pat the cow on the head and say, "That didn't go well, old girl."

"Never mind, you've still got me," Ermintrude replies. "Would you like some milk in that coffee?"

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Pigs' penises and horse manure

Some pigs' penises look almost human
Those of you with long memories might recall the very first Friendly, inspired by a rant from my son, released in December 2012 for heaven's sake doesn't time fly.*

I enjoy rants. They make me laugh. But since my son got a car, a good degree, a son of his own and a girlfriend - not in that order I suspect - he seems to have mellowed, and the rants come far less frequently than before, forcing me to look further afield for my amusement.

Last weekend on an enjoyable writing workshop in London, a group of us were asked to compose a little rant, in the style of someone we knew, on a topic assigned to each of us randomly. 

I got Organic Food, heard my son's distinctive voice in my head and wrote the following. 

"Well first of all it's a daft name. All life is organic so all food is organic. What would inorganic food look like?

"Welly boots. They're inorganic. A light bulb. That's inorganic. Slabs of sodding concrete. They're inorganic. Try eating any of those pal, and see how long your teeth can take it.

"The whole thing is ridiculous, if you ask me. Organic is just a label for luring gullible, middle-class housewives into Waitrose, to buy carrots shaped like pigs' penises and mushrooms with lumps of horseshit stuck to them." 

The guy running the workshop, a louche writer and actor called Paul Bassett Davies in pink corduroy trousers - I don't know what he's called in jeans - then asked us to reverse the rant, using the same character's voice.

Once again my son, who's capable of arguing either side of a position, and would have made a great politican if he wasn't a human, spoke clearly in my head and his words ran down my arm, through my fingers and onto the page:

"You can't beat organic food. It's packed with vitamins, minerals and big lumps of horseshit. Who wouldn't want to eat carrots shaped like pigs' penises? 

"I've had nothing but organic food for a year now, and just take a look at this body. Feel how hard that muscle is.

"No not that one. Up a bit. That's it. Rock hard isn't it? Well, that's what organic food does for you, pal."

The man in the pink trousers commended me on my sense of humour, but he didn't realise that I don't make this stuff up. It comes straight from my son's brain, usually via his mouth and my ears, but not necessarily, I have just discovered.

So the plan now is to try to tune in to other people's thoughts, and see if they can communicate with me in the same way. Then I'll never have to leave the house again. 

*My favourite ancient Chinese proverb, often attributed to Confucius: "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."

** Harry Confucius from Auchinleck. 

Thursday, 9 November 2017

The physics of big girls

We all have our feminine side, science tells us. Even women, although theirs is often harder to find.

My own was obvious from an early age, when I used to pick wild flowers and take them home to my mum. She loved them. The bigger boys I met on the way home were less impressed. I'm not a fast learner, but eventually even I managed to associate the blossoms in my hand with the lumps on my face, and stayed away from the flowers.

I went further and tried to suppress my whole feminine side. But you know when you push down on a bubble in an omelette, it just pops up somewhere else? I started dressing differently to other boys and soon I was getting gigs as a male model. That's a photo of me on the catwalk in my early twenties.

Soon though I had to choose between fashion and physics and it wasn't hard. You can reconnect with your girly side at any age, but if you don't stuff tensors into your brain when it's young and vibrant, they just won't stick.

Females are in the minority in physics, but physicists are the least sexist people I know. They're more interested in brains than body parts, so my colleagues wouldn't have batted an eyelid, I'm sure, if my feminine side had come out to play with them. But I kinda lost touch with her, over the years, even cracking jokes about her absence.

"I got in touch with my feminine side once," I'd say. "But she didn't like me. Last I heard she was shacked up with a spot-welder in Cowdenbeath."

It made a few folk laugh but it wasn't true. She was still in there, beavering away, if you'll pardon the expression. And in recent years she's been re-asserting herself. I know this because people have been breaking off in the middle of a chat with me to say stuff like, "Don't be such a big girl, Douglas".

I'm thinking this is one of those perspective-dependent epithet situations: I'm assertive. You're pushy. He's a grizzly bear. I'm curvy. You're buxom. She's a hippopotamus. I'm sensitive. You're touchy. He's a big girl.

Maybe I am sensitive, but so were Keats and Shelley and no one accused them of being big girls. Why? Because Keats and Shelley wrote romantic poetry and were young and handsome, that's why. If you have smouldering good looks then it's fine to have a sensitive side. But if your face looks like it's gone well past smouldering and burst into flames, which someone then beat out with an empty fire extinguisher, they call you a big girl. That's my experience anyway.

So by now you're thinking, where's the science? Well, I'll tell you. I took a test recently to see how much of my feminine side had survived, and it was reassuring. Turns out I'm 67% feminine and 78% masculine, which is well above average on both scores. (They don't add to 100%, as you'd expect, because each is a separate percentage.)

Some of my friends have taken the test, but I'd like to encourage all my readers to do so, and post the result in the comments below or on Facebook.

Come on feminine sides. I bet you can't beat mine.

There will be prizes.

Gender role test