How sure are you? Pascal and “Bad Conscience”

clouds sun(image from

I was just playing on Twitter, retweeting the occasional thing I found interesting, typing in bad French with no accents on my letters in response to some, the usual. I found a Tweet that caught my interest and followed the link through to a blog.
It was called “Bad Conscience“, and linked on the sidebar to “Bad Science”, the Ben Goldacre site that picks apart the media’s lazy approach to science reporting. So that’s good. Presumably inspired the name.
It’s the 201st most read political blog in the UK, apparently.
The first article looked like it might be worth reading, so I was about to add it to my RSS feed to read every so often at my leisure.
Then I spotted the strapline.
Straplines are important. I know mine’s not perfect yet: “Politics, Europe, Parenting, Faith, Life… because the most interesting things need deep thought and high heels“… I’m working on it still – after all I’ve only had this site a month.

So what’s the big deal? Well, the Bad Conscience website strapline was that old punk slogan “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine“. That’s fairly definite. Can’t get clearer rejection of the Christian faith than that.

For me, there’s a key point in history on which everything rests.
If Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead then that is the most important thing that has ever, ever happened. If he was who he said he was, did what I think – based on all the available evidence – that he did, then it matters.
Everything else – exactly which creation myth you believe in, what your priorities need to be in life, all that sort of thing suddenly becomes clear, and you are free.

If you’re unsure that Jesus was who Christians think he is, then fine.
You could always try an Alpha course if you don’t know enough to make a decision, but if courses are not your thing, I’d urge you to do some reading. Particularly if you are someone that thrives on intellectual persuasion. Try Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God” as a much better starting point than the perhaps over-simplistic Alpha course.

If you think Christians have got it wrong because you if you think Jesus was just a historical figure, or a myth that never existed, that’s ok, it’s your choice… well, that’s ok if you’ve bothered to look at the evidence and you’ve found nothing to convince you that he was more than he was just another rabbinical teacher.
I personally find it hard to come to that conclusion based on what the gospels say that he said (as CS Lewis put it “either he was mad or he was God”) but if you approached the history with an open mind, knew that there were some non-gospel sources too (not just Jospehus whose work may have been amended later) recognising the limitations of first and second century historical records and the purposes of writings at that time and the way that rabbinical teaching worked, then there’s little more that I can say.

If you think he was the prophet that Islam identifies, or the not-quite-what-a-Messiah-should-be-error of Judaism, then I guess you’ve done the kind of thinking that I’ve done and come to a different conclusion.

But to put a line up in public that says in effect that you know that Jesus died for someone’s sins, but that you reject the idea that it was for you? Why would you do that?
i) you’ve reviewed the evidence that’s available and you’ve come to the conclusion that Jesus was real and believed that he was dying for people’s sins, but of course he didn’t rise from the dead;
ii) you don’t really know much about any of this and just think it’s a witty thing to write;
iii) you don’t like the idea that God holds people to account and would rather be held responsible for the consequences of your sins than have anyone pay that debt for you, or for those who sin against you;
iv) you really don’t care whether Jesus was real, a myth, what he said or didn’t say. It’s all a long time ago and we’re very sophisticated now and have digital watches and the internet. Pretty good for fish that grew legs, huh?
v) You really do think that Jesus died for someone’s sins, but this simply doesn’t and won’t apply to you…

But how sure are you?
Probably the most sensible comment that can be made- if you can even conceive that once, in the whole of history, a man died and came back to life having said he would do so and why- was by Blaise Pascal. 

Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, bless yourself with holy water, have Masses said, and so on; by a simple and natural process this will make you believe, and will dull you—will quiet your proudly critical intellect…Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.

Essentially, if you’re not sure, you’ve less to lose by choosing to believe (Mother theresa is clear in her letters that that’s a choice she made when she could no longer feel God talking to her so I don’t feel that’s living a lie or in any way to be sneered at). 
But Pascal explains it much better and you can read the key paragraphs on Wikipedia
(NB every so often people try to come up with a “knock down” argument against Pascal’s wager.  sometimes they misunderstand: he’s not trying to “prove” God. Dawkins argument is overcome by Pascal himself and Richard Carrier’s argument assumes it’s the doing good and seeking out truth elements that would bring pleasure to the god he mentions – which is not the justification by faith salvation that Christians believe in and so I wouldn’t be making his wager!)

According to Wikipedia:

“Historically, Pascal’s Wager was groundbreaking as it had charted new territory in probability theory, was one of the first attempts to make use of the concept of infinity, marked the first formal use of decision theory, and anticipated the future philosophies of pragmatism and voluntarism”

but if you are finding all that a bit heavy going, Terry Pratchett does a brilliant comic version in his book “Hogfather” (ISBN 0-552-14542-4 please do buy it!)…

“This is very similar to the suggestion put forward by the Quirmian philosopher Ventre, who said, “Possibly the gods exist, and possibly they do not. So why not believe in them in any case? If it’s all true you’ll go to a lovely place when you die, and if it isn’t then you’ve lost nothing, right?” When he died he woke up in a circle of gods holding nasty-looking sticks and one of them said, “We’re going to show you what we think of Mr Clever Dick in these parts…”

The key point is that, as Pascal points out, there is no “I’m not playing” option.  In deciding our position on faith, and on Jesus, we are all in effect placing a wager on who he was and what he did. 
If God demands perfection, is the source of all that it good and pleasurable and sin separates us from him, and if Jesus was God paying the price of that sin for us then it’s the most important decision you’ll ever make. 
And it’s not just a case of betting your life.  
Choosing that separation will never make you happy and filfilled.
I don’t think that having a faith automatically makes you a credulous fool.  Sometimes, if you’ve reviewed the evidence, thought freely and come to the conclusion that the evidence shows X to be fact as far as it is possible to accertain, then to disbelieve would be the position that was not that of a freethinker.
So if Jesus died for someone’s sins, why not yours? 
If you’re aware now that there is a wager that is part of this life, how sure are you?

The Sugababe and the philosopher’s axe

philosopher's axe

The philosopher’s axe is a nice shorthand for an important idea.
The axe has been in the family for generations, in constant use for wood chopping. Over time, the handle falls off and has to be replaced, and then again, and then the head wears out and needs replacing. It’s been used all that time, but the question is, is it still the same axe?

So, the Sugababes.
No, this isn’t a subject change.

It’s just been announced (via Twitter and the band’s website of course – this is the 21st century) that Keisha Buchanan, the last founding member of the Sugababes has left the group.
Here’s the BBC’s coverage
But leaving aside the who-said-or-did-what-upsetting-whom stuff, look at the band line up.

In 1998, Keisha Buchanan, Mutya Buena and Siobhan Donaghy formed the Sugababes (they were not a manufactured group, hence the stupid, teenagey name).
Siobhan left in 2001, replaced by Heidi Range (formerly of Atomic Kitten). Mutya left in 2005 and was replaced by Amelle Berrabah. And now Keisha’s left too – to be replaced by Jade Ewen.
Jade was the UK’s 2009 Eurovision entrant – it’s all getting a bit like football transfers, isn’t it?

So who are the Sugababes?
Are they the singers (although none of the original three are now in the line-up)?
Are they the songs and the back catalogue (most of which were written by the band members and from which presumably they’ll continue to get royalties)?
And if you see the new line-up performing songs from before Heidi joined, are you in fact watching a tribute band?

Feel like dancing? Try Antwerp Central Station

Just seen
via an NLP practitioner’s website – it’s a stunt for “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” – the search for a cast for the Sound of Music in Belgium. I know it’s from March, but sometimes it takes a while to find stuff on youtube…

Flash mobs seem to be a very effective way of advertising.  But I don’t care it’s an advert. Definitely makes me smile.

Slop Buckets at the ready

or why this stupid wasteful attitude needs to stop.  Really.

The Daily Mail today ran an odious story christening kitchen caddies – that’s food waste recycling containers to those of us that don’t yet have them in our homes – “slop buckets”.
The story was about huge fines to be imposed on households that decide not to recycle food waste via a government scheme designed to make it as easy as possible when and if the trial scheme that’s in place at the moment is rolled out nationally.  The article talked about smells, fly and maggot infestations and generally presented a negative image of the initative.

I’m really, really cross about this for several reasons. 

1) Recycling your food waste is NOT a stupid idea
I grew up in the countryside.  We didn’t keep pigs – although actually I remember clearing our plates of food waste at primary school into a scrap bucket for the pigs on one of the local farms.  This was pre-turkey twizzlers, obviously. 
No, we had a compost heap in the garden and we put kitchen scraps into a lidded bucket until we had enough in it to merit a trip up the garden to the compost heap. 
I’m not talking Victorian poverty when I talk about scrap buckets, I’m talking twenty years ago and an activity that’s perfectly normal. 
Food matter rots down – with the help of those flies and maggots – to make a very useful fertiliser to grow guess what?  More food.  Circle of life and all that.  Plants grown in compost grow better, generally, so can have higher yields.  And you can use it to grow your very own organic veg in your garden without what I suspect the Mail considers the rip-off prices of organic in supermarkets (I could go into more complex descriptions but I’m keeping to the Jack and Jill description as it seems that that is all that those involved with the Daily Mail would understand on this issue).
Yes, I know that there are sometimes rats, mice etc. in compost heaps.  Not a big fan of those.  But even in a city there’s supposed to be a rat no more than 6 feet away from you at all times (I think that’s a estimate of reality rather than a new Euroepan Regulation by the way). Point is that they are everywhere, part of life and it would be stupid to send food waste to landfill because you’re afraid of a bit of wildlife.

2) Hygiene is in your hands 
We’ve just come back from a holiday in Devon.  We borrowed a little cottage there from a friend and in the instructions she put details of the recycling regime: South Hams District Council provides both a kitchen caddy and a brown wheelie bin for the caddy to be emptied into when full.  It provides biodegradable liner bags for the caddy so that it is easy to keep clean and easy to transport the waste from one to the other.
Waste and the creatures that aid its breakdown go hand in hand.
The trick is to be hygienic, but not obsessive. 
If you are the sort of person that has completely cut themselves off from the big wide world out there, who doesn’t like to get muddy, or wear wellies, or who uses all those antibacterial products for everything (you know, not just the soap or the surface cleaner but those plastic chopping boards that are impregnated with an antibacterial bug killer), or who uses a Glade plug-in in case of unexpected elephants dropping in for a cup of tea (I might be getting a bit confused by the advertising there)… then you may well read the Daily Mail and be opposed to recycling food waste because of the mess.
By the way, old ready meals decaying smell considerably worse than e.g. vegetable peelings.  Or may be not if you’ve got so used to them that the smell of raw veg is really off-putting to you.
The whole fortnightly bins collection debacle is clearly colouring the debate here. 
There is no requirement in European law that bins should be collected fortnightly no matter what you might have read to that effect.  However, there is an obligation to increase levels of recycling and cut the amount of waste going to landfill. 
It is possible that in order to do that, and to cut the cost of running recycling house-to-house collections in addition to normal domestic waste collections, some councils decided to do each every other week.  That’s just not sensible – keeping the sort of waste that can’t be recycled hanging around for a fortnight is going to cause exactly the sort of bugs and smells that people complain about.   Complain to the council, heck, vote’em out if they impose that sort of policy.  But don’t write off recycling because of a stupid bureaucratic decision on bin collection….                                         

3) The world does not have infinite resources
The thing is, for me, I can’t understand why this kitchen scrap recycling is thought to be a bad thing. 
How have we got ourselves into a position of thinking that what we do is without consequence? 
If we say “why should I recycle?” what we are in effect saying is “why shouldn’t I be able to use the planet’s resources with no thought for future generations?”  
I’m no saint on this. 
I own far too many clothes. And books.  And things in general. 
I use a car (I use public transport where possible altohugh admittedly this is mainly because I hate driving in London).
I feel really bad about having used disposable nappies rather than “real” ones (buckets of napisan+ living in small first floor flat and going back to work = just not going to happen) but at least I understand that this was a decision to make.
I’m just watching Economy Gastronomy on BBC2, reintroducing families to the concept of cooking for yourself rather than buying ready meals and using up leftovers.  My husband and I are both good cooks, but are terribly time-poor which means we do have a rather better knowledge of the ready meals available out there than we ought to.  But when we cook proper food we overcater and save and freeze portions of bolognese, or fish in a sauce or whatever it might be to turn into other meals later on.  If we cook too much, there’s almost always enough for my son to try it in a toddler friendly version the next day.  Why would I bung my hard effort in the bin when we can eat it up?

There’s a lot of people out there who don’t seem to care, who think that only the latest, most fashionable thing is worthwhile.  As if a house furnished entirely in IKEA is better than one with revamped, personalised older furniture – that old is somehow less asthetically pleasing. 
We’re going to have to stop this, we really are. 
There’s not enough raw materials in the world for us to treat clothes and furniture as if they are disposable. 

4) The Cbeebies factor
I feel the Daily Mail needs to get with the programme.  Literally. 
If you want an idea of what our kids are likely to think about this, take a look at the CBeebies channel.  Barely a programme goes by without a character doing some recycling, planting something in a window box, making a rain catcher, running around outside, cooking something from scratch…
Basically my toddler and thousands of others around the UK are being indoctrinated. And I thoroughly approve.  If recycling can be normal for them, then they can respond to things like the Daily Mail’s article with the outrage it deserves.

5) The State we’re in…

But, you might ask, why does the state need to get involved? 
Why should there be prescribed buckets and a system of fines? 
Surely people are entitled to have a compost heap, or not, but shouldn’t be forced to keep disgusting waste in their otherwise immaculate, antibacterialised, gleaming kitchens rather than hide it in the Brabantia and have someone take it away without having to think about to where?
Well, the liberal part of me thinks so.
I’ve lived in Belgium where you not only get fined for putting the wrong sort of waste in the wrong bin bag, to add insult to injury you have to by all of the different coloured bin bags yourself, no subsidy.  Belgium is very much a police state (albeit one that is big on bureaucracy more than efficiency) with e.g. complusory carrying of ID cards etc. so the idea of a fines system and more stick than carrot seemed quite normal to me there. It works, but it works because everyone does it.
But people need to understand that their actions are the result of choices, that the information is out there for them to use to make those choices, and that they owe it to themselves and the wider world to make informed decisions.  That takes time, effort and a not-so-self-centred view of the world. 
Sometimes the cheaper, quicker fix is just to do as the Belgians do.

I saw a poll earlier this week (here and here) that shows that the UK is a nation of climate change sceptics. 
We’re happy to do the little things, but not put our lives on hold.
And that’s the thing. 
We can be nudged, but try to lecture us, or fine us, and you risk the sort of ludicrous reaction that the Daily Mail has had to something as sensible as recycling food waste.
Oh, and if you still can, vote “yes” in the poll on the Daily Mail’s site in favour of having a kitchen caddy. The link’s up at the top of this page.  The Twitter @polljack campaign has got the “yes” vote to 77% so far but more always a good thing…

Feminism: as I was just saying…

Just seen this via twitter… the tweet in question from @chris_coltrane reads “Attention feminists: new tv show My Ugly Best Friend has set the cause back 50 years.

Suspected it was a joke but sadly no.
The programme’s blurb:  “My Ugly Best Friend is a brand new show where a glamour puss nominates her ugly duckling best friend for a makeover and we need men to rate these two girls!
Whether you like blondes or brunettes, tall girls or short girls – if you have an opinion and know what you like, then we’d love to hear from you!
You will be watching video footage of our two friends and then being asked to comment on everything from their noses to their clothes but don’t worry; you won’t have to meet the girls in the flesh.
We are shooting on Sunday 20th September and if you fancy taking part, then apply now!

Oh deary me no.  No no no no no. 
I’d love to believe that no women would volunteer to take part in this.  Other makeover shows have as a minimum the decency to allow the participants to believe that they are doing it for themselves, to improve their self-esteem, and the consultees are family and friends. 
This show does not make clear whether the women know that they are going to be rated by an audience of men (rated via video, note, not getting a chance to meet and identify whether their opinion is worth listening to). 

But the sad truth is that there is a strong body of women out there who really do think that a makeover to attract men is empowering.  And that in going on this programme, even with the word “Ugly” in the title, they’re somehow showing their love for their friend. 

So I think Chris is right, but do you know what?  I’d be willing to bet the producers etc. dealing with this programme are women…

A few thoughts on feminism…

MotherhoodImage(Image from the brilliant

I’ve joined the British Mummy Bloggers social network. While the new blog hasn’t covered much parenting yet, it will do.
I was struck by the categories used as forums on the site, and joined the foodie, writing and feminist groups immediately.

Yes, I feel a bit uncomfortable with the word.
Here’s my comment on the forum in all its glory…

For me, feminism is not about being and acting like men, but about gaining respect for things that are important to me as a woman.
The dungaree-wearing, man-hating, bra-burning stereotype seems to me to be fading away, but feminism still seems to be a dirty word.
It tends to be used rather than in the equality sense as a way of portraying strong women as being in relentless pursuit of men to put them at a disadvantage, or used by usually younger women that take their clothes off in public to justify what is essentially titillation as something that makes them feel less uncomfortable ethically about something that’s earning them a lot of money…
I feel inherently uncomfortable with the term – having gone to a girls school and having had it thrown at us as an insult and often used as if it were a synonym for lesbian as opposed to a political position.

The most obvious issue on which I feel feminist is work – while of course my workplace is pretty good, why does it continue to be acceptable in the main to require parents (or others with caring responsibilities) to fit to a working pattern than causes stress and complication in their lives?
Surely you’d get the best out of people by acknowledging that they are in fact people and have lives outside the office?
Why isn’t there more term-time working/ work patterns that fit with school or nursery hours?
Do workers that work flexibly and/or part-time get taken as seriously?
Is working long hours a prerequisite for good annual reports and/or promotion prospects?
And is enough being done to help younger women focus onprofessional jobs with prospects and a future rather than just hairdressing, childcare, etc.? I hope so these days, but this is in itself complicated because in order to work I need some people providing childcare that doesn’t cost so much that it’s not worth me working…
These are the issues that I feel are what the modern feminist should focus on.

I also think that feminists need to be making the case that having children is not a “lifestyle choice” but an essential part of the continuation of the human race, and raising them is as valid a way of spending time as pursuing a “career” (I say this as someone attempting to do both, of course) but that we have the right to do both to the best of our abilities.
Women are our own worst critics – we seem to trumpet the superiority of our personal situation over those of our sisters (older women saying that younger shouldn’t have it easy because they didn’t, the constant SAHM – v- working mum rivalry, the look our best -v- accept us as we are arguments…)

But it’s more complicated than that, of course. I don’t think that being taken for fools by fashion that’s designed with an eye on women changing their bodies to fit an unattainable flat shape rather than the curves we’re meant to have (size zero? The UK average is a 16 – who are we kidding?) is something that we could or should accept – fat is a feminist issue as it used to be said.

And to continue on from that, I think that feminism has lost its way a bit.
It’s not about a right to be near naked in public or to sleep with as many men as possible and not be called a slag when theres no real male equivalent term.
It’s not about telling Muslim women not to wear a headscarf (more about listening to each woman’s reasons for choosing to do so or not, and being supportive either way).
It’s not about championing abortion as if it is a consequence-free event, ignoring the support that women need if they choose to end a pregnancy (which is a lifechanging event).
It’s not about coveting the next designer bag, latest clothes, perfect hair and grooming – we should be valuing women no matter what model of beauty they do or don’t conform to.  (I myself am Reubenesque and so a few centuries out of date…)
For me, it’s about championing the idea that women, collectively and individually have as much right to do things their way and develop as individuals and members of families and society as men do and to be encouraged, supportedand taken as seriously as men are while doing it.

I simply cannot understand why we have fewer women in politics than some in some developing countries (and was horrified by the comments from one man that only pretty women would make it past selection procedures), and so few women in very senior management roles etc. unless timeserving counts more than anything else (such as decision-making ability, leadership) and unfair selection procedures are in play somewhere in the process.  Of course a good way of doing something about this would be to incentivise men’s flexible and/or part-time working so that there was a more equal balance of men and women taking on caring roles so that this element could not be built into decisions on employing a woman as opposed to a man so easily as there would be a much more even “risk” of them needing not to work all the hours God sends…

I think feminism will either get a bit of a shot in the arm – or will be susumed into a wider set of issues of a similar nature – once you get more Generation Y in the workplace… bear with me on this.
There seems to be an expectation amongst employers that the current attitude that is perceived in GenY will eventually be replaced and that they’ll knuckle down and conform, as if thinking they can have it all their own way is youthful naiveity.
I disagree – I think that in a world where there’s no job for life, no final salary pension etc., the attraction of being a corporate drone is much less than it was say a decade ago.
This is a generation used to downloading what it wants to, instant communication with friends, mixing the personal and professional with confidence.  They’re a product of the 1980s and 1990s in which they grew up – consumerist but green, individualist and (perhaps because of having spent more time in educational or childcare environments?) more used to being indulged by working parents.  They do no easily accept being told “no”.
The only downside if you like is the constant exposure to rap music with its objectification of women and the risk that this passes over into the generational attitude… but then my husband points out that “Skins” is not actually a documentary…

So let’s hope in particular that GenY women kick up one hell of a stink if they feel they’re being treated unfairly in the workplace, or in life.  And let’s hope the men do too – after all a fight ofr recognition of the needs and diversity of the individual applies to them as much as to women.
And as the generation before them, let’s be helpful, supportive feminists to help them get there.

Onanism – or books, popularity and self-esteem

Last week I was at number 2 in the charts. 

 A book I have written – “Oren and the Art of Onanism” – was at number 2 in the Harper Collins Authonomy website chart.  Of religious books. 

Authonomy is the latest wheeze for publishers to find new talent and road test it on the way.  Aspiring authors can upload their books – whether complete or not – as long as there is at least 10,000 words. 
From there, it is up to you to publicise, draw in readers via your participation in the forums and commenting on the books of others etc.  Your ranking goes up depending on the number of people that “shelf” your book (put it on their top 5 list of books they are reading online) or add you to their “watchlist”. 
If you are lucky you get comments from people who read your book, some suggesting grammatical or spelling changes, others commenting on the story arc, some praising it and increasing your ranking. 
Once a month, the top 5 books on the site are considered by Harper Collins editors.  After all, books that have made it into the top 5 have already demonstrated that there’s a substantial number of people that would considered reading and buying them. Ok, the chances of getting into that top 5 are miniscule.  But it beats the slushpile and the soul destroying search for an agent.  
A friend of mine who posts occasional comments here (Spinster of this Parish) has a fabulous book on the site (“Looking for Buttons” – a bittersweet chick lit romp) which reached number two in the chick lit chart and is getting stonking reviews from everyone that reads it.  Seeing this encouraged me to put my own far more esoteric effort onto the site. 
“Oren and the Art of Onanism” is the story of a rather privileged upper middle-class man drifting through life, when everything gets turned upside down by him witnessing the death of a motorcyclist.  Affected by this, by the actions and reactions of his friends and family and other changes in his life, he feels the need to find out if there really is more to life than this. 
And the title?  Well obviously there are some scenes of a sexual nature.  But people get it wrong about the story of Onan in the Bible. 
Onan’s sin is not actually the “spilling of his seed upon the ground”, the act of self-gratification for which his name has become a byword.  It’s going against God’s word  in marrying his brother’s wife, the disobedience to God who had spoken to him that is Onan’s sin – and also Oren’s. 

My friend who read it critically for me felt it was well-written and a very subtle way of telling someone that I once knew that I thought he was a w**ker…  you can judge for yourself.    If you want to read the first 5 chapters of Oren, they are available for free online here

You can choose the categories under which your book can be found.  As my book is “fiction”, “literary fiction” to be more precise, and has a “religious” theme, I put it under those three categories.
So after a week, it reached number 2 in the religious books chart.  It reached about 300 in the literary fiction chart, the one that for me would “really count”.  but no matter.  I was feeling pretty good.  Very gratifying.  1200th most popular book in the whole of the Authonomy, so again, not too bad given that it’s not exactly a mass market publication.  If you loved the Da Vinci Code then this book is not for you. 

But this weekend the chart was updated again.  Loads of new religious-themed books have been added to the chart this week and I’ve fallen 28 places!  Not just out of the top 2 but out of the top 30!   

The lesson in all this is that you can’t set yourself up to depend on other people for your self-esteem.  While I’m immensely pleased that I achieved a top 2 ranking, I’m also sensible enough to realise that it was only going to be until something better, or at any rate more popular came along. 
But it really brings home to me that the reason that popstars appear to have either depression, egos the size of Jupiter, or both, and why politicians often seem to be paranoid, or teflon-coated, or both. 
I’m grounded by my “real life” – I’ve got things in my life other than my attempts to be a novelist (whether my family, my faith or my paid work) that are not solely reliant on selling the concept of “me”.  So a drop in the chart position that my book holds is not the be all and end all – it’s not losing an election and therefore not having a job and it doesn’t directly affect my income (other than furthering me from the dream of one day being published and living in a big house writing for a living…).

But if you have nothing else – if you are completely dependent on the applause and the positive reinforcement… then hanging onto it would become an obsession.  To lose it would either leave you slightly unhinged or deeply depressed.  And if you stayed at the top and became used to that feeling, if you kept getting that public confirmation that you were right, or that what you had to offer then you’d do everything you could to keep it – popstars giving more and more personal, revealing interviews, politicians going for more and more populist policies…  

So it’s ok.  It’s still a damn good book that deserves a wider audience.
And I can choose either to promote it further, or I can switch my focus to the Wuthering-Heights-if-Jilly-Cooper-had-written-it-as-a-bonkbuster comedy chick lit thing that I’ve got underway…

Getting competitive… getting in to the European Commission

Berlaymont building - European Commission headquarters

Who’d want to work in the EU institutions? 
Thousands, apparently, including me. 
It’s not easy to describe the job of a European Commission official, but in reality the actual work is not so different to the work of the civil service in any of the EU Member States.  And the pay, the tax rates and final salary pension – despite the recent reforms – are pretty attractive too.

So how exactly to you whittle down thousands of applicants to the couple of hundred you need to fill the vacancies that are available in the EU instututions?  Until recently the answer was essentially this: set a multiple choice quiz on EU related issues, and a numeracy test.  Put all prospective candidates through this in their second language (preferably English, French or German), then get them to write essays against the clock on EU-inspired subjects which, despite all the research and practice would not actually be marked unless the candidate passed the multiple choice and numeracy parts of the test sufficiently well…  there were further rounds with interviews etc, but as I didn’t reach them that aspect’s a bit less familiar to me.
Julien Frisch had a very interesting post over at on the criticism of the European Personnel and Selection Office (EPSO – interesting to note that the Commission uses “personnel” long after other adminstrations have swtched over to “human resources”) by the Court of Auditors.  It’s worth reading, even if this post is a couple of weeks old now, not least because ESPO officials have actually joined in the debate below.
It is clear now that future methods of staff recruitment will be via Assessment Centres, a process familiar to many job applicants.  And the new approach is aimed at ensuring that it’s not just a way of identifying those with the time to study EU trivia (e.g. those still in educational environments).  Instead, the approach is supposed to allow demonstration of skills that would be required when doing the job.

So, with a decade of relevant experience, relatively good French (some remaining Spanish – and I’d have to improve at that in order to get a promotion within the Commission once in) and having entered my career for the purpose of gaining the skills to do this, am I actually going to enter the next concours?
I’ve been taking some time on my holiday to think about this.  Basically we’d be happy about a move to Brussels and I want to sit the concours.

But there’s a but.

I’m working part-time in the office and full-time as a mother.  While the UK Civil Service is actually pretty good about recognising the contribution that I can make, it’s not actually as easy as I’d hoped because face-time in the office does still count for something, especially as you get more senior. 
So I’m not sure the Commission would want me. 
Unless they’ve changed the rules that were in place when I did my stage that as Directives (e.g. those covering maternity rights) are addressed to the Member States so they don’t actually have to be exemplary in terms of employment law when it comes to part-time and flexible working?  They must’ve done – I gather there may even be some jobsharers now, but no one’s yet been able to point me to where within the Commission they work (and at what level).  
And with many highly qualified candidates attempting to find themselves the ideal post by appealing to the relevant DGs, who’d take on someone that only wanted to work part-time?  Several of the people I knew that passed the last concours have given up on trying to find a post – in other words they went through all of the stages I mentioned above, officially “got the ticket” but still have not got a job at the end of it.
Could I really put myself and my family through the extra stress of preparing for the different stages of the concours? And the extra stress of trying to get a job as a part-time employee?

The other thing is that, with 10 years experience, I’m not terribly keen on starting at the bottom again (moving from middle management to policy administration without a team).  Now, if there was to be a Head of Unit concours in the near future I can imagine that that would really be of interest…  So unlike my normal work-self, I’m feeling a bit indecisive.

There are probably people out there thinking that I’ve no right to expect to be employed as a part-timer.  That by having chosen to have a child and – let’s be honest about this- the likelihood that I’ll want to have another at some point, I somehow forfeit the right to be pursuing a professional career too.  Especially when you read some of the comments that are attracted by articles on this sort of subject on the Daily Mail’s website or even Comment is Free at the Guardian’s site. 
My brain hasn’t switched off.  I’m no less good at the decision-making or subject analysis or line management aspects of my job than I was before I had a child.  
What I can’t do any more is work more than my official conditioned hours, unless there’s a real emergency and/or I’ve had a chance to arange alternative childcare. 
My childcare is timelimited.  Even if it wasn’t, there’s a tiny little person who loves me and is dependent on me, and would not understand if he suddenly couldn’t see his mum.  
But the thing is, should there be an expectation that you’ll work more than conditioned hours on anything other than a rare occasion?

May be I’d better go and try to find the latest version of the Staff Regulations, and then think about it some more.  I’ve got a few months to find out…