Having our say in Europe – but will we get anywhere?

You may not have caught it on the main news bulletins today (though kudos to Radio 4’s World at One for covering it) but today saw the launch of the European Citizens’ Initiative
Despite the name, which has slight Orwellian overtones in English, the policy which was introduced under the newly in force Lisbon Treaty is actually designed to increase the direct access that citizens have to the EU level.

So what do you have to do to get your idea considered by the EU?  Well, the Treaty says you need:
– one million citizens;
– a third of EU countries represented amongst the million (so nine at the moment)..

But it’s not as simple as that.  Today’s announcement was related to the clarification of the rules that the European Commission has just launched following several months of public consultation
Presumably in order to stop the accusations of token representation of some countries by having one or two signed up (see the formation of the ECR Group in the European Parliament for the type of debate I’m talking about), the Commission proposes that the number of signatures from each country must be proportional to its size – “4500 for the four smallest countries up to 72,000 for the largest, Germany”.  So if I’ve got, say, 60,000 Germans in amongst my million, that may be an awful lot of individualsbut not enough to count as having representation from Germany and being able to tick off Germany as a Member State where interest has been expressed?
I guess what’s trying to be overcome is the idea of having 995,000 French farmers, or British hunt supporters or Greek public servants or Danish students or whatever on board with the remaining 5000 made up from a ragbag of other people who think the idea is interesting.
But is there anything so wrong with that?
Inside a country, if one part of that country felt so strongly about a specific issue, would it really escape discussion at the national level…?  Or are other Member States with more federal structures (that’s federal as it’s really meant, with decision-making at clearly defined and subsidiarity-applied levels, rather than the perjorative sense in which UK Eurosceptics tend to use it) immune to discussion issues at the wrong level of decision-making?  
And in the internet age, it might actually be quite straight forward to get 4500 Cypriots interested in something (via Twitter, Facebook etc.) whereas 72,000 is a big ask for anyone – this seems a small country bias? 

The Commission is proposing quite a sensible mid-way stage – “once at least 300 000 signatures from citizens in a minimum of three countries have been collected, the petition will be registered with the Commission and a decision made on whether the initiative falls within the scope of its powers. From that point, the organisers would have one year to provide the outstanding signatures”.
As Michael Mann pointed out on the radio earlier “if a million people called for Mickey Mouse to be President, we couldn’t do that as it is not within the Commission’s powers“. Quite.

The antifraud measures are likely to be the ones that cause sensitivity to this idea in the UK.  We’re used to having to provide our names and addresses for petitions but without a compulsory identity card we are unlikely to have passports on us and as for handing over our National insurance number for a petition… I feel slightly incredulous!  Expect to see headlines about the huge potential for identify fraud with this proposal, ironically just what the Commission are striving to avoid.  If anyone publishes anything on this at all in the UK, of course.

The “who’s the money?” point is a good one though.  It would not be good if this worthy intitiative became an exercise in big companies buying influence.

Finally, once all of the signatures are in place and the request meets the criteria (another is apparently being in the spirit of the EU so I guess that stops one million “federalists” fed up with UK recalcitrants getting together a proposal to kick us out? 🙂 ), then the European Commission has four months “to investigate and decide to pursue legislation, launch a study or forgo further action. It will need to explain its decision publicly“. 
At this point there’s a new feature of decision-making.  Although the Commission is the only Institution with the right of intiative, the idea is that the “proposed rules must be approved by parliament and council”.  This is not the case if, for example, the Commission has some ideas in a White Paper – those might be presented at a Council but they don’t have to be endorsed (I’m happy to be corrected on this!)

I really want to believe that the Commission are going to get some initiatives under this scheme “potentially as early as 2011”.  After all the requirements are setting the bar quite high.
And I hope that there will be a technological level of support for this initiative – will there be a section of the Europa set up to enable this?
My starting point for this is the “petitions” section of the Number Ten website, the UK Prime Minister’s website named after the official residence.  While most petitions tend to get an answer along the lines of “yes the government recognises that this is an important issue and is doing x about it/  which is related to it/ which is nothing really to do with it but the civil servants really hope you won’t notice”, it is important that each petition is on there from a starting point of no one except the originator being signed up to it, and can grow virally (through promotion on subject related internet forums or social media campaigns, mentions in the press, friends telling each other, bake sales etc. etc.) and that the gvernment is seen to be facilitating this.

So that’s the challenge for the Commission now – it needs to be facilitating this process and making it as easy as possible for citizens to meet the criteria, and to be seen to be doing so.  If it succeeds, then it can genuinely say that it is bringing Europe closer to the people.  If not, then the EU remains that thing over there that imposes things on us in the popular perception.  That’s not a challenge I’d want to see end in failure.

Don’t panic! It might be a hung parliament!

button image from www.isportacus.com

A survey quoted on Channel 4 news just now said that 56% of the civil service are expecting a hung parliament.  Civil servants of course know no more more about the results of any forthcoming elections in advance than any other intelligent observer, but nevertheless it may given an indication of what the general buzz in the Westminster village might be.

This was immediately followed by a report about the economic implications of a hung parliament.  But watching the report I’m quite concerned about the constant pumping out of the message about how a hung parliament is unpopular with the market, could lead to a market attack on sterling and will be bad for the UK economy.
It’s an eyecatching line but it doesn’t seem to be a universally held view – the Evening Standard on 16 March listed Namura, Citigroup and Forex supporting this stance, with Capital Economics (described in the Evening Standard as “cooler heads”) and Moody’s rating agency less concerned and pointing out that they would be expecting action to address the deficit from just about any government formed.  

The general gist seems to be that when the UK last had a coalition government, in the late 1970s, the ultimate result was an IMF bailout. 
But the situations are not really comparable, because the world is a very different place and not just a bit more complicated but massively more complicated in terms of potentially affecting factors. And the last two recessions accompanied by large fiscal deficits have taken place under single party governments in the UK.

If markets prefer a strong government with a workable majority of seats, then they have to be confident that the fiscal policy being pursued is the right one. 
That said, having also watched “Ask the Chancellors” this week, I’m not sure that it is clear that there’s that much difference of approach on offer in terms of a fiscal recovery plan – and that should surely be reassuring? 
The main issues of difference seems to be whether to cut tax or to cut spending, and the speed of doing it. 

In addition to this, the economy can surely not be helped by the threat to downgrade the UK’s soverign bond rating, which would raise significantly the cost of financing government debt.  Basically who ever finds themselves in power needs to be impressive on fiscal plan to keep AAA rating, but this threat in itself should focus minds.
But there’s no reason why a coalition government couldn’t come up with a strong plan that could be delivered? Julian Astle, Director of CentreForum quoted in the same edition of the Standard pointed out that:
the broader the political support for fiscal retrenchment , the broader the likely level of public support. Around the world, coalition and minority governments have proven entirely capable of dealing with debt.”

So I don’t really see that a hung parliament should necessarily mean that we should all be panicking, nor that the markets should do so either. 
Unless our politicians are incapable of doing what their opposites in other EU Member States are able to do and find ways of working together despite labels?   But that would be ridiculous.  After all, as the Spectator pointed out, UK political parties are indeed broad churches, or, to put it another way, coalitions themselves, so presumably they are used to needing to work to balance different interests and perspectives…   

I read last week that some UK politicians believe that the public prefers strong government (politicians certainly do!) and are expecting that all the talk of hung parliaments should spur the small “c” conservative electorate into giving either Labour or the Conservatives a workable majority. 
That may be the case, but there’s what I like to think of as the Jedward factor that comes into play here – we also love a novelty here, sometihng a bit different. 
At least until we get fed up with it (like October 1974 all over again…)

The latest thing… the right thing?

brilliant image of a glass of water from www.freefoto.com

Just been listening to a fascinating programme on Radio 4 which, although primarily focused on teaching children, has implications for trainers everywhere.  You can pick it up on BBC iplayer for the next few days here.

Like many trainers, I’m fascinated by what enables us to learn, and in particular the science behind it.  The programme said that the general public has a huge curiosity for understanding more about how the brain works and, to digress for a moment, looking quickly at the BBC iplayer science list reveals a programme on what science tells us about our need for religion, on the Guardian website there’s a whole section on neuroscience, and type “how we learn” into Google and you’ll get at least 194,000,000 results! 

The programme warned of the dangers of pseudoscience, ideas seeping into the public consciousness that are not fully tested and pursuing an idea too far.  

One of the best examples used was the six to eight glasses of water a day thing.  We all know (always a dangerous phrase!) that drinking 2 litres of water a day is good for us, don’t we?  Depending on what we read it can give us clear skin, healthy looking hair and nails, keep us bright and alert and better able to concentrate… yes, 2 litres of water a day is indeed miraculous.
And it is also untrue.  We need about 2 litres of fluid a day, yes, but it can come from fruit, veg, in fact any food, and from other drinks (another myth that accompanied this was that “bad for you” drinks like coffee, tea etc. didn’t count as they were diuretics… well yes, but surely you’re not meant to retain the water?  Water retention is also bad!)  The programme pointed out that while being a tiny bit dehydrated makes you less able to concentrate, being overhydrated is, according to research from the University of Bristol, just as bad! 
The reality is that you should drink when you are thirsty – in children this means having water dispensers or water bottles at school that they can help themselves to – for training adults, having some water in a dispenser in the classroom is a pretty good idea. 

Another was the visual/ audiatory/ kinesthetic learning split.  While trainers who have done the CIPD Certificate in Training Practice know that while learners have preferences, to fully learn you need to take a learner right through Kolb’s cycle of experiential learning, it seems some people are seriously taking things to extremes if you have classes tailored via session planning at at individual level to just one learning style to suit that individual’s preference.  The programme maker also stressed that the most memorable learning experiences can be those that are outside the familiar.  Hear hear.

And overextrapolation can be potentially more widely problematic at a societal level.  There’s a learning theory for small children that has been translated to older children, and indeed adults, that exercise increases memory.  That’s how it’s come across in the press in any case.  But actually the theory was related to infants and toddlers. 
We know (see, that phrase again?) that in infants, every learning experience makes synaptic connections and that these are confirmed or overwritten based on life experience.  The theory is that, for boys in particular, cross lateral movement such as crawling strengthens their abilities to make these connections because there’s a connection between physical and neural development and left-brain right-brain interconnection (NB this is not the same as saying that there’s some people that use their left-brain more than their right-brain). 
Now, if this is being used to mean that a bit of running around is necessary for children who have had bad experiences and overwrite them, then that seems to be serious overextrapolation. 
If it’s about making sure that a rounded learning experience means some activities involve some moving around, and that this might reinforce learning overall, then actually that’s just good training practice appealing to those with any Honey and Mumford Activist preference… 

But the Active Movement theory is a theory, and  even if it is wrong, it’s good for small children to crawl, be upside down a little bit, practice the muscle movements that strengthen them and enable their physical development.  And if there’s no real evidence that exercise  increases memory, whether child or adult, at least it’s physically good for you. 

So is following the latest information about things that can help students learn always the right thing to do?
Well, it depends.  As with all things science, we have to remember that neuroscientific theories of learning are just that – scientific theories. 
And the point about a theory is that it is not “true”, it’s the best idea that we can come up with based on the evidence that we have. And if we have new evidence we change the theory that we apply.  Public understanding can lag behind the movement in theories in academia. So what we think is the latest thing might not always be the right thing.

What do you think?  Have you referred to or made use of any of these types of theories in planning your training?  Let’s talk!

Hen nights! Thoughts after a hangover…


I’m now pretty much recovered from last night’s hen night.   My cousin is getting married soon and this was actually a pretty sophisticated hen night – while hen nights I’ve been to in the past have had the male strippers and willy straws (and I insisted mine had the latter, when else do you get the chance to have really tacky sexist tat around in the name of innocent fun?), this was parent-friendly with 5 over 50s in attendance, and me weirdly about 10 years older than the younger hens and a good 15 years younger than the youngest of the parent generation.

Actually this gave me pause for thought – much as I love my mum, there’s no way I would’ve wanted her to be at my hen night. 
My hen night was the first opportunity for my female friends from different parts of my life to meet and see if they got on.  Happily they did (after all they’ve all got me in common!) but adding my mum into the mix too would’ve made this a bit more complicated. 
I wanted to be able to let my hair down, drink, laugh, dance if we needed to (we didn’t – we went to the theatre and laughed ourselves silly at The Producers) and I would’ve felt more inhibited with my mum there.
But it seems that’s a bit of a different relationship between some of my friends and their mums, a kind of best friend relationship where dancing til you drop and being carried home drunk is part of the deal (and just as likely to happen to either party).  I wonder whether that different relationship develops if you either go through a parental divorce, or if you move home after university and have to adjust to being two adults sharing a house?
Anyway I’ll get to find out a bit about the mum on a hen night thing – she’s coming on my other cousin’s hen night in July…  

Anyway, as I was saying, sophisticated.  No veil of condoms, no L plates.  Not much point all that stuff when most people live together first. 
The theme was pink, and we were allowed to embrace it as much or as little as we wanted.  I’m not a big pink fan and had to buy something specially so I went for a raspberry silk top and matching tights (and nails), teamed with silver-grey skirt and shoes that felt much higher after two hours of  salsa dancing.  I had to work hard actually – post-baby and with the stress of work and study too I find it a lot harder to feel glamorous and slightly underestimated the time I’d need to get ready.  Many of the hens had that 20-something easy gift of ironed-straight hair, perfect make up , minidress and heels – I felt quite old and fat in comparison.
But champagne is a great leveller -the pink champagne really fitted the theme and I soon got to know a few people.

We had a fab time – drinks at the Loft then dancing at the Cuban in Canterbury. Minibus door to door made it very easy indeed.

The Loft is… cool.  There’s no other word for it.  DJ, blue lights on the bar, exposed brick wall, no lock on one of the two ladies loo cubicles, if it wasn’t for the absence of a Madame Pipi it could almost have been in Brussels.  And no we didn’t feel guilty at getting the dare game going and singing baa baa black sheep and getting the bride to be to do starjumps in a strapless dress…

Top tip as someone who has not been out partying for a bit but used to live near Brixtonbut was never once offered anything – if random men come over asking if you want a snog, there will come a point where they say sotto voce “do you want anything?” and it’s not a snog they’re talking about. 
We scared the dealer away with a mask of the groom’s face. Yes really.
We had a bit of a “Being John Malkovich”  theme going – we had masks of the groom and almost every guy that came over to the group was persuaded to put a groom mask on and pose for a photo with us. So did bouncers, a band  leader and, in a fab bit of community policing, even one of the Saturday night police van policemen agreed to be the groom for a bit.

I learned to salsa with my son (see here and here), and last night at the Cuban that turned out to be really useful.  While we’d managed to book tables at the Loft, by the time we got to the Cuban it was fairly intimate standing room only, and the only way to handle that is to dance.  And drink, obviously, but mainly dance.  The band was brilliant, the dancing was great, and according to my aching muscles today, pretty good exercise as well as fun!

I’m sure that there are hen parties that snog everyone and even know the back alleys of party towns very well indeed (are they the ones that all wear cowboy hats and don’t feel the cold?) and the honeypot effect that we had suggests that this is so, but actually what we mainly wanted to do was have a drink, and a chat (hard with the volume of music in the bars on a Saturday night) and a bit of a boogie. 
Somehow the men that were out and about just didn’t get that inserting themselves into the centre of the group and trying to dance with the prettiest girls wasn’t really what we were looking for in an evening out (and as they were 30s-ish and balding what they actually got was not the 20 year old that looks like a model but 50-odd year old Aunty Bev who can salsa the boots off anyone!)  I guess my point is that, if there’s a group of girls dancing together it does not necessarily mean they are in want of a man to dance with.

So I suppose the hen nights I go to are tame in comparison with some: I’ve been to everything from picnics to kareoke and most involve dinner and a bit of wine. I’ve never been away to a hotel, or abroad for a weekend, and I guess it says something about my friends and me that the “last night of freedom” idea means time with friends doing things we like rather than random snogging and sex.

Several of us said it though – going out last night was a reminder of how little we’d actually enjoyed being single.  I know there are people that love being single, that have a thriving social life and are not out to find a life partner. 
I was never one of them.  I hated being single and the desparation that you could feel radiating from some of the people, especially when their pressing themselves that close to you reminded me why. 
I met my husband in a bar, but it was early evening, we were both there with the same group of friends, and all went off for dinner together afterwards.  But the idea that you might try to meet your partner as a stranger in a drunken, sweaty noisy bar while trying to avoid trampling the feet of a couple of dozen people around you – I wonder how often it really happens? 

If I was designing the ideal hen night venue, I’d have a room with big tables to let groups eat together, plenty of seating in the bar to allow chatting and resting of feet worn out in high heels, outrageously extensive but not expensive cocktail menu and cava not just champagne, music that doesn’t leave you with tinnitus, a safe place for bags and coats, a little bit more personal space on the dance floor,  spa treatments available (even just back and foot rubs), sofas in the rest room and everything else in there working properly… and party bags with something sparkly in to leave.  Because if there’s one time in your life that pink is just about acceptable, it’s on a hen night.

Epigenetics and the Guardian, or what happens when science becomes religion?

There was a fascinating piece in the Guardian today by Oliver Burkeman entitled “Why everything you’ve been told about evolution is wrong“.  Essentially a review of the ideas in a book by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini “What Darwin got wrong” and another “The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told about Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong” by David Shenk (although the immediate riposte by Adam Rutherford said Burkeman had not been tough enough in critiquing the books), the article asked what if – 150 years after the theory of evolution was published – what we think we know about it actually inaccurate?

Burkeman stresses that while what’s being talked about in terms of epigenetics is not new, and is not a filip to creationists, but that it is likely to drive evolutionary biologists mad.   And when you read the comments below his article on the Guardian online, how right he was.  What vitriol!  What scathing nastiness – at one point a G2 subeditor intervened to point out that the article had in fact been read by two scientists with phDs prior to publication – and even this was attacked.

Rutherford attacks him for the Darwin Was Wrong type headline. 
But Burkeman’s article basically says that – Darwin knew he was starting the process of understanding the world in a new way, not delivering a complete package that would remain untouched.
Reading the article, it seems to me that the point Burkeman is making is not primarily that Darwin Was Wrong, but that a simplistic understanding of popular science means that the general public’s understanding of genetics affects means that something like learning more about epigenetics means that thinking about its implications feels revolutionary (probably doesn’t if you are a geneticist scientist, but most of us are not).  In that way, he is not, as Rutherford suggests, saying that evolutionary biological science cannot already encompass the idea that modifications to the structure of DNA changes its behaviour. He is saying that the public understanding of evolutionary biology is unlikely to be able to cope with such an idea in its simplistic understanding of genetics.

Burkeman’s carefully balanced article is quick to point out that it only the simplistic understanding that is overthrown.  He points out that we are taught to believe that genes are permanent and unalterable other than by random mutation. 
We’re further taught that natural selection is from a random selection of these potentially randomly mutated genes and cannot be affected by environmental factors.  And we’re told that it is simply not the case that certain genes are more likely to be naturally selected to give the next generation a survival advantage, but actually that those genes that are passed on to offspring may or may not confer advantage to an individual offspring, randomly, and that offspring is more likely to have a “better” set of genes for the environment in which the offspring later finds itself and from which their offspring in turn will be produced (the less well adapted for the environment offspring die out).  

He uses incredibly derisory language about pro-creationist author Ann Coulter but noted that her comment that treating survival as the only measure of fitness in “survival of the fittest” was effectively a tenet of faith in the American scientific community “perhaps uniquely among all arguments ever made by Coulter, feels persuasive” (you’d think he’d endoresed her as a champion of evolutionary biology if you only read the comments…)
He admits that it’s possible that Fodor’s thesis (essentially that not every trait a creature possesses is necessarily adaptive, that pop-Darwinists separate traits into those that are selected randomly and those that are selected for their usefulness, but that this can’t be the case because selecting for implies some sort of consciousness in the process) might be nonsense, and even points out that natural selection  is

 probably not a bankrupt concept, as Fodor claims. But nor should laypeople assume that it’s self-evidently simple and exhaustively true.

And basically, I’m with Burkeman in not being sure that everyone understands that it’s not about “selecting for” i.e. that there is something wrong with the idea that “science proves that polar bears that have white fur because they live in a place where passing on the white fur gene is advantageous”. (NB that’s white meaning colourless, in the sense that the horrible “grey” hairs I have are not really grey but colourless and only appear grey against the lovely brown ones that remain, really weird that the commetns board went wild on that one…)
But even if I underestimate the great British public’s depth of understanding of genetics, it seems that, guess what?  It may all be a bit more complicated than that. 

How do those that believe we simply pass on our genes and that the circumstances are pitiless, blind and indifferent explain the bred-for-generations scatterbrained mice put in a stimulating environment and producing later generations of offspring with superior memory skills even though the offspring are not kept in the stimulating environment?  Surely that shows that how the grandparent mice were nurtured affects the nature of the later generations (or were those grandparent and parent mice demonstrating nurturing behaviour learned from their environment in raising the younger generations? Some how I can’t think that the experiment included giving the chance to the mice to practice their parenting skills and to encourage the baby mice to do braintraining exercises…) 

Take the issue of viruses.  Viruses seem to play a role in affecting organisms at a genetic level too, not just genes.  We may all be a bit more interconnected with other species and other organisms than we perhaps thought. 
Rutherford says that knowing this enhances evolutionary theory, rather than contradicting it.  It probably does, if you have a deep enough understanding of it. 
But this in itself raises a question about whether we are simply the product of our genes which are unconsciously fulfilling their purpose (selfishly, to be replicated) and morality is therefore something that we invent for ourselves and therefore timebound and relative.  If viruses affect our genes and their likelihood of being passed on, then restricting the likelihood of viruses that could impact negatively on future generations might be important.   
And more widely, if environmental factors affecting the genes that our offspring inherit could include the learning that we undertake as well as our diet, our stress levels and more, then the political and social case for combatting poverty, educating to the very highest standard possible and a whole range of policies need real reconsideration. 
Nurture could be affecting nature.
Or is this a case of a little knowledge being dangerously over interpreted?

So it’s the common misuse of the genetic evolutionary story to make pronouncements on moral behaviours (ach, well, men are more prone to sleeping around because you can’t overturn milennia of evolution) and, similarly, the apparent eagerness of some of the high priests of the Darwinian scientific atheistic faith group to treat each of these pronouncements as another nail in the coffin of any theist worldview that  Burkeman was criticising.

But Rutherford’s response is worth considering a bit more too. 
He seems basically to be saying that by even daring to talk about Fodor’s book as containing interesting ideas that – to the general public with a superficial understanding of genes and evolution rather than deeply knowledgable evolutionary biologists – might seem “mindblowing”, that Burkeman is boosting the case of creationists.
Utter rubbish.
I’ve heard that sort of argument before. 
Usually from fundamentalist creationists themselves, to whom the sort of stripped back New Testament matters more than Leviticus, no death penalty, gay life partnerships are a good thing Christianity that Protestants in Europe increasingly tend to believe in is anathema.
Or from believers or clergy that say that that women priests are against women’s nature and that Jesus would not have wanted them.
It’s basically saying that unless discussions on issues that you may be feel are already settled are headlined “Why the people raising about this are credulous fools and don’t understand why we’ve proved that our view is right” then they are implicitly condoning the subject of the discussion. You’re either completely with us, or you’re against us.

Well, ok. Actually a little bit of me has some sympathy. 
If you accept that for some people evolutionary biology is in fact a belief system, and that belief systems are both simple on the surface and quite complex, and that they matter to believers because they are true and the basis on which you build your life, then you can begin to understand the somewhat agressive approach that believers can sometimes take when someone misunderstands the more difficult concepts.  

As a Christian, it worries me that people profess Christianity, but don’t actually seem to understand it.  
If my faith is just about a sky god, and that if you live a good life you’ll go and live with him forever and see everyone that’s died before you again, then a huge number of people are Christian.  
But that’s a simplified version that makes no attempt to understand Jesus’s death and ressurection and why it happened, and what it means for us in terms of how we get to spend eternity with God and what being good actually means. People don’t often really know about the age of the gospels, the reality of crucifixtion on a human body,  the fulfillment of the Jewish law… and without all that stuff, you either have a weak or a bad God not worth worshipping.
It worries me, because it’s important that people know so that they have the chance to accept Jesus’s gift to us, but it doesn’t anger me as it often does really dogmatic Christians (and yes there’s a fair few out there). 

I think it is important to discuss, to debate, exegesis or midrash has long been part of the religious tradition of the Abrahamic faiths (I may have mentioned this before…).  It means engaging with believers to sort out what you believe, discussing new ways of looking at it, new ideas and evidence.
But these days it probably also means engaging with non-believers, people of other faiths, some of whom you may find common cause with on some points but accepting that on some you probably won’t. But usually you can try to end up in a place where you can have a discussion and not just hurl insults at each other – call it interfaith dialogue if you must.
Science also has a way of doing this – when a new discovery is made that challenges the old, it is examined (in journals, in the press, in debate, in books) and eventually, if robust enough the old goes, or is adapted to accept the new and so the new becomes the norm.  In that old John Maynard Keynes quote that I love you can sum it up as:

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

But Rutherford concludes:

Unfortunately though, to the knowledgeable, it is a disappointing combination of at best misleading distortion, and at worst plain wrongheadedness. Now we have to clean up the mess.

Believe me, people of other faiths know this too. It’s how most Christians feel about the God Delusion which presented not only a distortion of our beliefs but old discussions as if they were new and knock down arguments.

But then we also know that Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship with God.
And evolutionary biological atheism is in the eyes of its believers not a religion either, it’s science. 
But it’s funny how the language is so similar, don’t you think?

Brussels mon amour

 photo from fab site http://bars.blogueur.info

Have just had a day working in Brussels for the first time since February 2007. 

The sun was shining, it was warm, I even managed to squeeze in a swift coffee in a street cafe (cheers Jon!) before dashing to the Eurostar that takes me practically door to door and just about got me back in time not to be fined by the nursery.

There are many things that annoyed me about Brussels when I lived there – from the randomness of the cobblestones which procluded heels on all but the most important occasions, to not being able to buy stamps anywhere but the post office which was never open when I was free to go, to the need to return to the UK to go “proper clothes shopping”,  the water supply being so cleaned with chlorine to meet water quality standards that it upset my skin (and my husband’s), to the weeks of delay to get cable TV fitted…

But I loved the restaurants, the people I met including some of my truest and best friends, the real sense of community in being an expat, the sort of apartments available on a reasonable budget when compared to London, the way that TVBrussel kind of made sense after midnight even though it broadcasts in a language I don’t speak, the sort of jobs I did when I lived there – which I’d find nigh on impossible to do these days when I work part-time.

Oh Brussels I’ve missed you. 
Even though your metro system got so messed up earlier that I almost missed my train.

I really enjoyed the meeting I was at too – a combination of Brussels residents and interlopers like me, but conducted in a proper Brussels Eurocrat manner, recognition of each other’s expertise, positivity, genuine seeking of a conciliation and compromise helping each as much as possible to get what they were looking for. 
It can be hard to explain sometimes why that is a good thing when to many people here in the UK compromise is a dirty word, and the word Brussels is itself anathema.

Life in the UK is good, familiar, I know (roughly) how to handle local bureaucracy (probles here tend to be less with public authorities, more with the private companies that – oh, I’ll post about Northern Rock another day…). 
But life in Brussels was fun, oddly exotic and dipping my toes in the EU politics pool again today just reminded me why I enjoyed it so much before.  Perhaps more so now, having had a break from it all.

A recurring theme of my personal reflection blog posts is that I have a life with a husband and a son and a house and a job and that these things are good and I would not have it otherwise.  Life in Brussels now would not be the same as it was for us before as we’re parents and the hard bits of life (which to be honest are mainly logistical!) would still be with us. 
And -as the second earner- the idea of upping sticks to Brussels because I might want to is just not realistic.

But today, just for a minute, I felt properly like EU me again. And I liked it.

I wonder whether our toddler would be good at Flemish?        

PS apologies for the stream of consciousness style, but the title should’ve been a warning 🙂

Politics: What Women Want?

There are a lot of things not to like about Mel Gibson, but “What Women Want“, his 2000 movie also starring Helen Hunt and Marisa Tomei was actually quite funny.


Throughout the centuries men have been asking what women want, and while the answer from Mel (not to be taken for granted) differs slightly from the answer that Chaucer’s Wife of Bath gives ( “Wommen desiren to have sovereyntee. As wel over hir housbond as hir love, And for to been in maistrie hym above”) the core is the same.

But despite the fact that the answer has been out there for so long,  it seems that this is again being asked, this time in the context of politics.
While the newspapers wage the war between what they describe as “real women” and “ardent careerists who should be in the kitchen having babies” (although I might have misread this last point), the politicians are vying for the female vote.

Netmums, Mumsnet and other female-led online communities are the battleground.  Yesterday – Mothering Sunday – Gordon Brown appeared live on Netmums.

There are 16 pages of discussion to read, if you want, but it’s interesting to note that while Mumsnet was accused recently of being the internet home of middle class Boden wearers, Netmums was keen to point out that a quarter of members that had filled in a survey were on under £15000, and half on under £25000.

So what are mums interested in?  Well a quick scan reveals the following topics got time and attention: tax credits too complex, what’s happening with childcare vouchers, children centres, cost of childcare, maternity services, decline in maternity services, child internet safety, more support for stem jobs, new plans for improving maternity services, childminders early years training costs and tax breaks for looking after own kids, breastfeeding, benefits – v- working , marriage, public sector jobs, mums returning to work, nightmare neighbours, supporting mums to stay at home with their kids… ok I got bored after 4 pages.

 A lot of the time, comments were about the posters’ personal circumstances, and the Prime Minister did offer to put a few in touch with the right minister to get the the information they needed.  A lot of the time the answers looked like standard briefing text – and fair enough, personalising everything in the time necessary for an online debate is a real challenge – but if, for example someone complains about childcare provision in their area and the difficulties it causes the in their day to day lives, telling the that there’s more childcare than ever and some of it is now paid by the state doesn’t actually help them. 

But what the various leader’s debates have shown, bearing in mind that the people that actually coment in these discussions are only a small subset of mums, let alone of women, is that the interests and issues affecting women are incredibly diverse. 
And that “women’s issues” are not a simple box that can be ticked.

The National Equality Panel report showed that there is almost as much disparity between top and bottom earning women as there are between top and bottom earners overall. 
Contrary to what the Daily Mail tried to say this meant, it doesn’t mean that there is no gender pay gap or that it is not important in terms of sorting out the inequalities in this country (it does however mean with inequality on this scale it is not simply restricted to disadvantage by gender).  It also means that women may not all individually think that the top priority for them is addressing the barriers to women reaching the boardroom, or even have a view on the level of income at which tax credits apply.

Women’s interests are affected by their differing situations, just like the interests of men, but with added experience of using the NHS, schools, childcare and all the things that get pigeonholed as “women’s interests” when actually everything is a women’s issue (yep, even men’s health. You think if something happened to my husband it wouldn’t be a priority for me?)  

And while the audience of the discussion forums can suggest that women’s issues are special and selective, women can have views on the economy overall (some of us are perhaps more likely to admit that it is not immediately obvious how something so complex actually works- but then isn’t that the problem that the banks didn’t admit to, that they didn’t know either?), heavy industry, the appropriate structure of the labour market and all the things that apparently are “male” issues and keep these thoughts in their pretty little heads along with which shoes goes with which outfit, the state of the Beckhams’ marriage, which kid is doing which after school activity when just as well as a amn can keep football scores, engine capacities and recipes for his most impressive pasta dish in his (because we’re not into gender sterotyping, are we?)  

The women’s vote in 1997, the apparent fact that women changed from moderate conservatism to supporting Tony Blair’s New Labour, was instrumental in bringing about a change of government.  With all the courting of the women’s vote, the striving to appear a nice an as well as a leader who loves his family, and the talk of a hung parliament it is clear that it’s thought to be decisive again. 
But don’t patronise us. 
We don’t need to know that you are a loving husband and father – if you have a wife and kids we should jolly well expect you to be.  
Some people might want you to be “ordinary” and know the price of a pint of milk and what’s happening on Corrie, but others may not be convinced those are great indicators of leadership.  If you actually understand economics, the way in which our various relationships with other countries and international institutions functions and amplify each other, recognise the professionalism of people doing their jobs and treat the that way, then you might be worth voting for. 
Of course you could just mainstream equality: recognise the value of the contribution that women make to the world as well as men, talk about the things that affect our lives more than those of men as normal not an add-on or a luxury.  You don’t have to be a woman to recognise the value of that (though a few more in parliament challenging ideas through that filter might be a good idea). 
Listening to us, and enabling us to do some of the decision-making too. Enabling us to make the decisions about who we want to be without barriers that are there not through design but overlooking because someone that knows best didn’t take that consequence into account.  I could go on, but I won’t for now.

I don’t think that’s too far from what the Wife of Bath’s Tale set out, is it?

What the EU has done for women…


Have you ever tried to find a list of what the EU has done for women?
It’s International Women’s Day today… while Sarah Brown (in this odd unelected First Lady-type position that appears to have been evolving for Prime Ministers’ wives which rankles a little when celebrating issues of women’s equality) is leading the UK events for IWD, CSW (the UN Commission on the Status of Women) is meeting in New York, and the EU is… well, let’s see.

Did you know that the European Commission had launched a Women’s Charter on Friday, in advance of IWD?  Here it is.
The Charter was accompanied by a Eurobarometer survey on gender equality. Interesting for me was that, while the UK participants surveyed shared a common set of priorities with the other EU Member States for addressing gender equality, when asked which sort of organisation (NGO, EU institution, national government, or others) had done most for gender equality, only about 10% of Brits cited the EU institutions.
Not really surprising I suppose, given the UK ambivalence towards the EU and tendancy to simply bank any good thing that the EU does…
So I decided to try and help out and post a link to the Commission’s list of what the EU has done for women. I Googled the phrase (amazing how quickly that has become the first port of call for all information searches these days) but nothing came up from the Commission’s own website.

Actually, the best source of information has turned out to be the website of Arlene McCarthy MEP – from four years ago. So with apologies to Arlene (much of this is hers, but I’ve removed the party political commentary), here’s a quick list of what the EU has done for women:

1) Moving towards Equal Pay

  • Equal pay for women workers: this was included in the original Treaty of Rome, the first EU Treaty in 1957
    (NB this was 13 years before the UK legislation on equal pay. Given that the UK was looking at EEC membership at that point could it have been the prospect of joining the EEC that prompted the UK to adopt its legislation?)
  • Equal pay for work of equal value: despite the equal pay legislation, many companies classified jobs done by men and women differently, paying higher wages to men for doing jobs that actually required similar levels of skills. Many women since have won equal pay claims, some backdated years including school dinner ladies, hospital and factory workers.
    (Some people still seem to think that heavy lifting and digging is “worth more” than hanging out in a warm classroom with a bunch of snotty 5 year olds… despite the fact that the latter is sometimes like an exercise in germ warfare)
  • Equal rights for part-time workers, better rights for agency workers: nearly half of British women workers work part-time, four in five of the part-time workforce, and about 5 million women. In the past, many women lost out but since July 2000 part-time workers have had equal rights to pro-rata paid leave, pensions, maternity rights, access to training and other company perks and benefits.
    (Jolly good thing too. Ridiculous to assume that people are less capable and less clever if they have other responsibilities outside the workplace – unless the hidden job criteria is soul-selling and working all the hours God sends to the glory of the company?)
    And via the Agency Workers legislation, temporary workers have more clearly defined rights too (UK rules set out here).
  • Minimum wage: love it or hate it, there’s no denying that when the UK opted into the European Social Chapter the biggest winners were those on the lowest pay, for whom the basic rights it guaranteed brought about the minimum wage. This is particularly important for women – 70% of low paid British workers are women (including a disproportionate number working part-time hours) and over a million British women have since benefited.
  • Equal rights to a pension: Pensioner poverty is a real problem for women, many of whom were excluded from company pension schemes because they worked part-time or had career breaks to have children. EU laws prevent pension discrimination and guarantee equal rights for all to social security benefits.

2) Better rights for women as parents

  • Maternity rights: About 70,000 women have babies in Britain each year, and that number is growing. The EU sets a baseline of a year working for an employer in order to get maternity rights (but UK law is actually better and the directgov website has a fantastic calculator setting out the minimum requirements in the UK).
  • Parental leave: Since 2002, a new EU law means that any parent with children under 5 has the right to a minimum of 13 weeks parental leave to be taken whenever they choose over the 5 year period. That extends to 18 weeks for any parent of a disabled child under 18.
    (This is ideal if you have an ill child – though I wonder what would happen if just before a child hits 5 all parents who have not used the 13 weeks unpaid leave actually took the time to go once-in-a-lifetime travelling or similar? Seems a great opportunity, but is it even possible?)
  • Right to return to work: I take this so much for granted that the idea that this is a new element of maternity rights law is shocking. Discrimination against pregnant women is outlawed (doesn’t mean it is not still happening though) and, importantly now, particularly in the recession, a woman’s job (but not her specific post) must be held open so she can return to a post without loss of pay or status. Many older women will remember the days when getting pregnant meant losing your job (heck, there are people that remember when as a woman you had to leave the Foreign Office when you got married! And if you read any of the Jilly Cooper short stories from the 1970s you’ll see that it was a cultural expectation among the middle classes even if it wasn’t a requirement). EU laws have put paid to that.
  • Paid holidays and a shorter working week: Since 2000, workers have been given the automatic right to 4 weeks paid annual holiday, and a guaranteed at least one day off per week (which was not a given for part-time workers in sectors such as cleaning, who often only got one day off every fortnight). (How on earth do people function on less than 4 weeks holiday a year? I know it’s only 2 weeks in the USA, but when do working parents get to see their kids? And who looks after the children in the school holidays?)
    And under the Working Time Directive, employees can no longer be obliged to work more than 48 hours per week, are guaranteed breaks and night shifts are restricted to 8 hours. Despite the right to work shorter British workers work the longest hours in Europe. One in eight mothers work more than 40 hours a week, 30% of fathers more than 48 hours, taking its toll on family life.

3) Protecting women

  • Protection: the EU is working on legislation against Female Genital Mutilation, and Gender Based Violence as well as combating human trafficking (which is the fastest-growing criminal activity in comparison to other forms of organised crime).
  • International protection: by working together on relations with third countries, in EU foreign policy and within international organisations, the EU Member States can help women in developing countries too.

4) Combating the Gender Pay Gap

If you are a fan of bus campaigns, then you might have noticed the Gender Pay Gap campaign on the buses in capital cities across the EU. But what’s it all about?
One measurement of whether equality has been achieved is the gender pay gap, that is the difference between the average pay of women and the average pay of men.
The gender pay gap can be contentious when discussed with some businesses, so it needs to be remembered that it is a crude tool and the contributing factors are (in the words of the Women and Work Commission in the UK) “complex and multi-faceted”.
But if anyone tries to tell you it only exists because women take time out of the labour market to have children or to work part-time (and that part-time jobs “ought” to be lower paid as part of a lifestyle choice being made), then its worth noting that the National Equality Panel report out this year said that new graduates in the same subject from the same university experience a statistically significant gender pay gap within three years of graduation.
So the EU has also launched a gender pay gap calculator so you can measure the inequality where you work (the UK Government Equality Office has had a methodology on their website for a year).
The new Women’s Charter promises a number of measures, legislative and non-legislative, to tackle the gender pay gap – no idea what these will actually be (but it’s worth keeping an eye on this to ensure that the measures are about valuing women and men equally, because if the drive to get the headline figure down starts to become the end in itself then we could end up with daft ideas like restricting access to part-time work which would be to the detriment of women who would lose the ability to organise their family life as they would wish…)

So the EU has actually done quite a lot to the benefit of women.
And, as the Women’s Charter indicates, there’s still more that can be done.
I come from a Member State that is at the forefront of women’s equality, even if we’re a bit embarrassed to talk about it in those terms. And even here, women are still not able to live the fulfilled lives that they should be able to if we were truly free to balance our working lives and families lives as we wished without constraints forced on us by others (e.g. availability of childcare).

So a very happy International Women’s Day to you.
And, as it is a women’s day and we’re free to do things our way, an air kiss on both cheeks and a gentle hug to each and every one of you.

Guest post day: Don’t put your daughter on a pole, Mrs Worthington

   (image c/o www.meltormes.wordpress.com)

In line with the #guestpostday stream on Twitter, I’d like to introduce something a bit different today – a guest post by a friend @parishspinster prompted by my blogpost on women and violence.
Please give it a read, and encourage her to keep writing…

In this age of instant celebrity, it’s becoming less and less likely that Noel Coward would have urged against child stardom in such an old fashioned medium as the stage. 
When you can post your angel’s every waking moment to Facebook and YouTube every child can be flashed around the world in less time than it takes to say ‘mind the paedophile’. 
Most parents are convinced of their offspring’s innate talent, genius and beauty.  With these springboards, there should be no limits to their achievements. 
So why do so many aspire to nothing higher than being ‘famous’?

Fame these days is a very transient state.  To reach the pinnacle, you need to have that something extra that will keep you in the public eye.  It’s hard to predict the alchemy that produces this longevity.  Still, not to worry.  You can always sell your soul to the media.  Others will follow your example.
There’s no need to be any good in your chosen area of fame.  Mediocre is fine.  Believe you can be a star and a star you will be.  Start acting like one now.  No time to waste.

Be orange.  Never mind that all your friends are orange too.  You know theirs came from sun beds or bottles but they will believe yours came from your jetset lifestyle. 
Straighten your hair until it doubles as a plumb line.  Handy for those little DIY jobs around the house, but your nail extensions are so long you can’t unzip yourself to go to the loo, let alone wield an electric drill.  Anyway, that is what men are for.  Whatever you do, be thin.  If you can’t be thin, hate yourself.  If you have daughters, make sure they learn to hate themselves too.  A girl is never too young for pierced ears, or for false eyelashes and lipstick for that matter.
Because a daughter is more than a human being in her own right.  She is the embodiment of your hotness.  She exists solely because you were so damn sexy that you got yourself impregnated.  So it’s only right to celebrate this fact, to dress her up in tiny tight tops with ‘kiss me, I’m gorgeous’ appliqued across the area her breasts will occupy in another decade or so, to see her totter across the room, her still-forming feet wedged into glittery stilettos.  It doesn’t get much cuter than that.  And it does no harm.  Everyone else does it.  Suri Cruise just looked so adorable.

And when she’s older she can go into HMV and buy a button badge that reads ‘Dirty Whore’.

And when she’s a bit older than that she can choose her wedding dress from the bridal shop next to the gentlemen’s club, the one advertising pole dancing lessons.  A nice bit of symbiosis, that.  Buy the dress and get the stag night special offer thrown in.  The boys’ll be okay, they can warm up at the pub over the road.  Erotic dancers every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.  £3.50 entry.  Over 18s only, of course.  Doesn’t matter about the advertising hoardings (or should that be whoredings?), they’ll have already seen worse on the internet.

Sorry, what did you say?  Treating women as sex objects?  What do you think all this was in aid of?  The tanning, the hair, the  nails, the clothes, the absolute horror of not being like everybody else.  This is image we have chosen.  We’re all porn stars now.

Fame is just around the corner.

Is society structured against mothers?

(NB this lovely image is from www.allfreelance.com which currently has an interesting article on the issue of being a working parent… more soon)

Man Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel’s “contraversial” question about motherhood is now on Comment is Free in the Guardian Online.  She commented in the Sunday Telegraph that:

“I was perfectly capable of setting up a home when I was 14, and if, say, it had been ordered differently, I might have thought, ‘Now is the time to have a couple of children, and when I am 30 I will go back and I’ll get my PhD.'”

CiF asks for comments on whether she is right. 
Of course she is right. In part.

Not about setting up home at 14 – my idea of being grown up at 14 was so far from what I now know to be what being adult actually is actually about as to make my diaries from that time both embarrassing and naively charming.  
And it’s time spent “growing up” – either in the world of work or learning to live away from home at university that makes it possible to deal with the complex and multiple demands that you have to handle both in raising a child and running a household.

Commentators have tried to turn her words into a row about teenage sex.  Just to be clear, in my heart of hearts I don’t think that people should be having sex outside marriage (or civil partnership) and that a lot of heartache and pain could be avoided by people not doing so. But I also live in the real world and realise that they do, and will.  As a former student of history, I also know that 200 years ago people were betrothed and married in their early teens. What they were not doing was using sex as a form of social communication.  But I digress.

I think that Hilary Mantel’s point is not that people should be choosing to have babies on their own with no visible means of support aged 14, but that currently societal norms are structured against female biology. 
Women are most likely to have problem-free births and pregnancies in their 20s.  But if you have gone through school and university, in your early 20s you are only a couple of years into a career. 
There is in any case a gender pay gap that appears between male and female graduates within three years of graduation, but we also know that significant time out of the labour market early on in your career and the need to work part-time seriously affect your ability to “get on” in your career.

The jobs market is still broadly structured around the (convenient for men) idea that you get educated, take up a career (whether via an apprenticeship or not), work at it, taking on more and more responsibility until either the Peter Principle kicks in (or indeed the Dilbert Principle) or you become the boss.
Needing to take time out in the middle of that to ensure that there is a next generation that can pay for your pension when you are old doesn’t really fit and leave millions of women these days in a daft situation: have kids and accept that either you’ll take a lot of time out and perhaps never attain a position matching your ability level, try to work part-time in an environment of fine words but ultimately scepticism about whether your are truly “committed” to your career and straddle the two worlds uncomfortably, take the male executive route i.e. have kids but never see them, or don’t have kids.
This is such rubbish.

At the moment many women are putting off having kids until their late 30s, or later.  There are articles in the press about getting eggs frozen, about how it’s your “right” to have kids when you want, how many cycles of IVF you should be entitled to (or if you read the other sort of newspaper, how women should not be working but running the house and popping out babies and getting homecooked dinner on the table for their man). 
But the truth is that having a baby is more difficult as you get older, that it is harder and more risky for both mother and child, and the risk of Down’s Syndrome and similar increase exponentially. 
There was a story in the press a year or so ago about the rise in births of children with Down’s, saying that the “caring UK” was a more accepting place in which to raise disabled children than in the past.  But the rise of the older mother is also a factor, and while you love the child you have you do wonder if all of the people that put off having a child until so late in their reproductive lives fully realised the potential impact of that decision.

Besides, getting woken up at all hours of the night is hard at any age, but even harder as you get older. 
How much better to have your kids when you are physically at the optimal point to do so?  

Of course there are arguments too.  How would it be possible to afford to raise children without a decent salary behind you?  How will you ever get women at the top of businesses if they don’t even get going on their careers until their 30s?  What about more equal sharing of parenting responsibilities?

And doesn’t the structure of the modern relationship also argue against this alternative model? 
If I’d been having kids in my very early 20s, I’d have been having them with one of my university boyfriends and we’ll never know if that relationship would have endured with children involved (it didn’t with none, obviously, and that’s something of a relief for both of us). 
But while I’m a monogamist who believes in marriage for life, many people see it as until divorce does us part, a situation rendered even more painful and complex when children are involved. 
Would that, too, be changed by following a different life pattern?

The rush to condemn Hilary Mantel as condoning teenage pregnancy (a curious target which the government surely cannot really be held responsible for bringing down directly unless there are taskforces standing by to invade teenage bedrooms, bathrooms, parks and wherever else couples-of-however-transient-a-nature are trying to get it together…) risks overlooking her fundamental point that society still does not operate to the benefit of men and women equally.

For me, this is so obviously true, I can’t believe that anyone would even try to deny it or defend it as self-evidently the way things need to be. 
But it’s not just women alone that are being overlooked. 
Until we value motherhood (and fatherhood too) as necessary for the rearing of well-rounded children best able to achieve their potential rather than as an inconvenience that takes people out of wholehearted pursuit of money, and children are not treated as an irritation, a “choice that other people have made that I should not have to pay for” or worse, as a threat, then we will keep having this ongoing issue of arguing whether women should be in the workplace or the home, or whether there is a gender pay gap and if so why and can and should anything be done about it.  Can’t we just accept that raising the next generation is actually a very important job and value it as one?