NEUROBOLLOCKS AND FALSE POSITIVES

 
Remember way back when I posted about how there’s no such thing as a “male brain” or a “female brain”?  Well, today I was sent an article that:

a) Illustrates one of the ways in which brain scans can mislead if not viewed in context, and with full information of the stated assumptions;

b) Is flippin’ hilarious.

It’s this one: What a dead fish can teach you about neuroscience and statistics, sent to me via my friend Claire Witch File.

That’s right, they put a dead salmon in an MRI scanner! But all in the name of science. This has got to be the most creative way of proving a point about statistics that I have ever seen (and this is coming from the person who did their ‘A’ Level stats project on Smarties in order to prove that you can both demonstrate intellectual rigour, and fill your face with chocolate at the same time. I got an A on that coursework, and the world’s biggest sugar crash. Joke’s on you, Mr. P!).

As silly as it sounds, it demonstrated the care that must be taken in such experiments to set the appropriate significance level, and to be sure you’re interpreting the results correctly.

Three things I learnt as a result of reading this:

      1. I knew that these scans show blood flow to regions of the brain, but I didn’t know that what you’re seeing on the scan is the blood flow resulting from what happened up to 6 seconds ago.
      2. The images from an fMRI scan show a statistic – which must be viewed in context and measured against specific criteria with robust controls.  Basically, it shows which brain regions are likely to have activity – but it tells us nothing about that activity – yet.  There’s a lot about the brain and the mind that we don’t know, but we’re amassing new knowledge quickly.  We may one day be able to discern that sort of information with brain scans; we already know quite broad information on what’s going on in there – we need to refine it.
      3. Studies that sound really outrageous will get you a lot of media exposure.  They even won an Ig Nobel for their work!

 

SCHOOL DAZE

 

I’d been reminiscing about a few things from my youth of the 80s / 90s, and it turns out that just about everyone on the Internet is too.  I began high school over 20 years ago (this thought TERRIFIES me – babies born in that year are now old enough to go to the pub, and some of them are parents themselves – or grandparents where I come from, hehe).  I’ve found some really good articles by others, so follow the links below to relive your misspent childhood!

Clicky The First: The Power of Style | Things I Wish I had Known When I Was 15

Ah, when all around us are writing serious lifestyle pieces about our own teenage mistakes, thank f*ck we have someone who just wants to take the piss.  Although I remember from my high school days that my some of my observations of my peers were just as cutting.  The first time I read the article (on a mate’s FB timeline), I was indignant with rage at the crass stereotyping… and then remembered that I was just as bad as everyone else.

Clicky The Second: 15 of the worst 90s fashion trends you hope you’ll never see again | Metro UK

What are you talking about, Metro?  These were 15 of the BEST 90s fashion trends!

Clicky The Third: If Destroyed Still True | Putting my teenage diaries online is a pretty daft idea but I can’t quite bring myself to chuck them on a bonfire after years of writing EVERYTHING down

Ok, this is awesome!  The author is posting their original diaries from the 90s on this blog, along with present-day annotations.  Just goes to show, we all thought we were the odd one out, but actually we were all the same.

Clicky The Fourth: World of Crap | Nostalgia, Humour and Shite | 10 random things from 1991

The whole of the World Of Crap blog is amazeballs (I laughed so hard that I cried at the “10 random things from the 1986 Argos catalogue” article), and you should definitely read more than just this one article that I so carefully selected to match the 1990s theme.

Clicky The Fifth: Don’t Look Back In Anger | A 90s Nostalgia Blog

Just loads of random pop culture things from the 90s.  It’s not been updated since 2010, but given that I’ve only just discovered it, I still have loads more to read through.

Clicky the Sixth: 33 Things You’ll Only Understand If You Started Secondary School In The ’90s | Buzzfeed

Buzzfeed’s always good for an inoffensive chuckle, although this isn’t one of their best articles.

I’m going to stop now because trawling the Internet for nostalgia of any form is a black hole from which it is very difficult to emerge. But it doesn’t mean that I can’t jump on the 90s bandwagon; yesterday I bought myself one of these tattoo chokers from Rowfers (right).  All the Goth Girls (including me) had one of these that we wore under our shirt collars until we were asked to take them off… and they then went back on again when the teacher’s back was turned.

Extreme Largeness are also great for funky retro and alternative jewellery. And if you’re lucky enough to live in Manchester, you can visit both these stores in Affleck’s.

 

HIGH HEELS

 

Last time I posted about experimenting with make-up.  Today, I’m going to talk about another fashion experiment I participated in as a teenager: ridiculously high heels.

Between the ages of about 12 and 19, I wore heels for 95% or more of the time, and bizarrely found it difficult to walk in flats. This made P.E. lessons very interesting. Those days are long gone, and during my twenties, I’d wear trainers whenever possible, and smart flat shoes (usually men’s) when the occasion called for it.

I had a pair of boots just like these, and because we were permitted to wear trousers at high school (how progressive), I could conceal the fact that they were boots and not the regulation shoes (let’s be honest, I was probably committing a greater uniform transgression by wearing 6″ heels, a ton of jewellery, and a Teletubbies badge on my frayed school tie).

And now, in my mid-thirties, I am That Woman Who Doesn’t Know How To Walk In Heels.  I had to re-learn!  Seven years of near constant stilt-walking, and my leg muscles had forgotten it all.  But because I’m feeling more confident and interested in my appearance, I really want to give them another go.  And anything that can boost my tiny stature can only be a good thing.

I’m definitely not a Girly Girl (hell, I’m not even sure if “girl” / “woman” is the right term), usually dressing in a very masculine style.  But, you know, sometimes we all just want to be a sparkly princess.

I have a special shoe drawer at work (one of the pairs in there is my site boots, so I can totally justify this), with the full spectrum of heel heights.  I have a pair of 6″ stilettoes which are very much Indoor Shoes – for now.  I’m hoping that with enough practice, I will once again be able to strut through the streets of the city in the early hours, safe in the knowledge that my balance is intact, in spite of any alcohol imbibed.

So far, I’ve progressed from “newborn deer” to “wonky horse”, and long may my progress continue!  The next step: high heels outdoors.

 

SELFIE QUEEN

 

Some of you may know that I’ve been struggling with my mental health recently.  One slightly more visible sign of this is when I fail to look after my appearance properly.  When I felt like my true self, I dressed up, wore make-up, and always, always, painted my nails.  But recently it has seemed like an effort to even get in the shower in the morning.  The days spent in my pyjamas, without washing or brushing my teeth, were signs of an underlying malaise. Yesterday, I went shopping for make-up and accessories, and I had a little bit of an experiment with groovy eye makeup.

And another thing that makes me feel great, and also is a sign of me feeling great, is taking a ton of #selfies!  The chattering classes may look down on this medium, but I think it’s an underrated art form.  I take them when I’m feeling strange, feeling happy, in new and exciting places I’ve discovered, when I’ve achieved something, when I’ve had a tattoo or piercing, and just whenever the hell I want, really.

I went a bit OTT with todays selfie sesh, but look at how fabulous I am!

 IMG_0602  IMG_0601  IMG_0600  IMG_0599
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I love Stargazer’s products, they’re super-bright and they really stand out. And they’re not just lippy & eyeliner, they do everything from hair paint to body glitter (more pics to follow).  I love to flaunt it, and I’m making the most of this period of high self-esteem.  Bring on the bling!

 

CORPORATE FEMINISM PART 2

 

Ages ago (well, here, actually), I posted about successful women who reject feminism because they think they don’t need it any more.  Social changes have helped them to get to where they are, and they become blind to the problems that other women encounter. They buy in to the idea of a true meritocracy, where we are 100% responsible for our own successes and failures, and that your background, education, connections, wealth, etc. have nothing to do with it.

I’ve been in this situation myself, I grew up in a family that I hesitate to even call working-class (because they didn’t actually work), I left the dead-end town I grew up in, and went to University (against my parents wishes).  I now have a great job, I’m comfortably well-off, and my life is completely different (and better) to what I would have had if I’d followed in my family’s footsteps.  It feels like everything I’ve done, I did for myself.  But that’s not quite true.  I was very lucky to have received such a good education (my teachers were way better role models than my parents), and the drive to get more people attending Uni from lower social classes meant that my study was subsidised.  I wouldn’t have been able to access the same opportunities if steps hadn’t been made in the name of equality.

Which brings me back to one example of rampant internalised misogyny, so blatant it sounds like I must have made it up.  But no.  This was no satire or Poe, these were genuine actual successful women, lording it over the rest of us, as follows:

I was invited to attend a Women in Engineering event (it wasn’t run by one of the big engineering institutions, and I’m not telling you which one it is anyway, for self-preservation reasons), and I expected it to be fairly similar to most other evening do’s I attend professionally: a talk, networking, fancy canapés.  Well, it did have those three things, but some extra bonus items too!

A presentation on how women can become more successful and ascend the career ladder more easily, with literally no advice on answering that question.  It did, however, have plenty of snarky in-jokes about how men get all uppity if women start promoting themselves or demand recognition.

The networking post-presentation was part-good, part-bad.  There were some people there who were involved with Engineers Without Borders (like Medecins Sans Frontiers, but with bricks and steel beams), who talked about their work overseas, and how it can be a good way to advance your career (Yes! Solid, specific and useful career advice! At last!).  Those individuals were all women under 30, and they saw two important challenges that they could overcome with their projects:

1. There are places around the world that not only need investment and innovation, but they are also full of opportunities on a personal, industrial and political level;
2. Women and young people are under-represented in our sector, and they have found a niche to get around this problem.

Good work guys! This was definitely the most inspiring part of the evening (excluding the free wine). And then there were some other people, at director-level, who basically talked like a bunch of old, white men straight out of the 70’s. When I spoke about feeling limited and underestimated, they said that this was impossible, because they’d never experienced it. If we spoke about the problem of women being viewed as aggressive when they are assertive, that was a myth too, because they’d been doing fine for the last 30-odd years. Us silly girls must be over-sensitive or something.

And all of this hurts, not just me, but all of us. Because sexism and other prejudices and biases are very real. While my school education was genderless, I encountered a few strange attitudes when I arrived at university. Generally my tutors were 100% normal human beings with no discernible biases, but one in particular used to “compliment” me (repeatedly) for being a woman studying the subject. Yes, I was probably a bit of a novelty (er, twenty years previously, even then), but it wasn’t the only thing that defined me.

In the workplace it got even weirder, like some of my colleagues had been brought up in another epoch or something.  Things have come a l-o-n-g way over my short time in the industry (15 years).  And this is in part due to huge effort by the government, engineering institutions, and individual firms, to attract a more diverse workforce into the profession.

When we say that we’ve outgrown the support systems, or that they are no longer important because some individuals have achieved success against the odds,  we are dismissing the needs of those who aren’t as fortunate as us.  Because there are still real barriers in the way, for all sorts of reasons.  Empathy is important here, because in order to effect social change, you have to understand things from another’s perspective, and acknowledge that not everyone achieves success purely on merit.

Is it a protective mechanism? Like if we admit that the system helped us to get over hurdles, we’ll reveal that we didn’t do it all by ourselves and are some sort of fraud?  We need to be more honest about this, and not begrudge those who have been luckier in life, but accept and understand that their life took a different path to that of many others.  And that it’s ok to make up for it in other respects if you started off with less.  And that it’s our duty to support and advance each other for the success of humanity.

As an aside, the next event I was invited to by this group was a shoe-shopping trip.  No, I’m not making that up.  No matter how much I love shoes, I somehow don’t think I would have fitted in.  I declined their invitation.

 

TO-DO LIST, OR, HOW DO YOU EAT AN ELEPHANT IF YOU CAN’T BOIL THE OCEAN?

 
The above are two phrases I’d never encountered before, but they mean the same thing.  For when you have a seemingly insurmountable task, or if you’re taking on too much, they seem apposite:

“How do you eat an elephant?”

“One bit at a time”

Your task may be complex, long or overwhelming, but you can break it down into smaller chunks.  And once you start, you’re a tiny bit closer to finishing.  You’re not going to eat that elephant in one go, so you’ll have to budget for at least the next month’s meals.

When I find myself pulled in many directions at once, and not actually making progress at anything:

“You can’t boil the ocean”

No, I can’t. There’s too much of it, not enough resources, and only one of me. In this case, it can’t even be broken down, so I begrudgingly have to admit that the task is too big for me to tackle alone. Delegation is the key here. Letting go of a little bit of responsibility and authority, and trusting others to do the job well. It’s tough, it goes against all my ingrained beliefs, but rationally it’s something I have to do to make any progress at all.

It’s also a good leadership skill, and having been in a “producing” role for most of my working life, it’s one of those skills I can only learn by unravelling some of the other methods I have been taught previously.

It’s weird, our brains are complex and capable of extraordinary things, and yet it takes a snappy message to give my brain the direction it needs to be productive.  At least next time I’m eating an elephant or boiling the ocean, I’ll stop and think about what I’m doing.
 

HOW ARE YOU TODAY – THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE PART 5

 
Another post about language, but not in the manner of previous posts. I won’t be spouting poetry, or analysing turns-of-phrase. This is about communication, connection, and companionship. I’ve written before about Manchester’s homelessness problem (let me stress here that it is not the homeless that are the problem, it’s homelessness), which is something that us everyday folk decide to not engage with every day.

I cross the city centre every day.  I live here, I work here, I go to the shops here, I study here, go to the gym here, go for a midnight walk here (more to follow on this seemingly controversial matter), live out my whole existence here.

At first, like so many other new Mancunians, I just accepted homelessness as an unfortunate consequence of living in a large city.  But as the years passed, the economy dwindled, and the political climate became harsher; and it became more noticeable.  Today, you cannot avoid it.  No amount of averting one’s eyes can hide the fact that we have a monumental level of homelessness in our city.

An integral part of the problem is the social deprivation that breeds the disillusion, unemployment, addiction, poor health, and non-participation that makes one more likely to become homeless. We cannot solve the rampant social malaise by putting a roof over people’s heads, but the preferred course of action is currently “do nothing”, which doesn’t seem to be fixing those problems either.

Anyway, back to language. I went off on that particular tangent to illustrate that homelessness is everywhere and most people don’t seem to give a toss about it (yep, sounds harsh, but if you can find any evidence to the contrary, I’d love to hear it – I’m not holding my breath). From my point of view, I do care, but I feel powerless to do anything. The structure of our society isn’t conducive to benevolence (I’m expecting John Galt to stroll in any day now), and as I said in my last post on homelessness, I would bankrupt myself if I gave just a tiny amount to each of the needy. So what then? Who gets my spare change? On what criteria should I pick and choose who deserves a meal or a bed tonight? No matter what choice I make, someone is screwed.

And because I can’t give to everyone, I apologise a great number of times per day to those doing the asking.  And things started to happen.  Often, I’d walk past someone, apologise, and be on my way.  But I’d receive acknowledgement, and a word of thanks, or wishing me a good night (I have NEVER had a bad experience with a homeless person in my decade-and-a-half here; the thousands of society’s leftovers that I’ve encountered are just trying to get on, like the rest of us).  And then one time in Piccadilly Gardens, a particularly persistent gentleman accosted me for more than the usual two seconds, and he told me a little of his story.  I listened and chatted for a few minutes, and as we parted, he thanked me for speaking with him.  “Most people wouldn’t” he said; and I don’t doubt that.

Nowadays, I give not just my spare change, but my spare time.  I’ll take a couple of minutes to sit and talk with homeless people.  I’ve learnt so much about other humans – many stories are tragic, but many are fascinating, and delightful.  The elderly man who carries all his possessions in two shopping trolleys and some carrier bags?  He was a historian.  The dreadlocked Big Issue seller I met in Cambridge?  He was a graduate of the University.  Everyone has a story to tell, and no-ones is worth more or less than anyone else’s. When we walk on past beggars without even looking them in the eye, we reinforce the idea that they are “other”.  I don’t always have money to give, but just a little human contact and a few words can make the difference between feeling human, and feeling cast aside.

 

CLUBBING IN YOUR 30s – SANKEY’S SOAP

 

During my undergrad days, Sankey’s was touted as The Place To Go on a night out.  If you were serious about House Music (yes, yes I definitely am), this was your sanctuary.

Unfortunately, during my initial time at university, I was a bit of a Shrinking Violet (hard to believe, I know), and I didn’t really end up with the type of flatmates I actually got on with (or even liked, tbh). It was a self-perpetuating cycle: not going out because I didn’t have many good friends; not having many good friends because I didn’t go out. I finally decided to do something about my miserable predicament in my mid-twenties (more on this in another post), and started exploring the awesome city I’d lived in for Ten Damn Years.

I found some friends (in the office – who says it’s all work and no play?) who did want to go on a proper night out, and so we embarked on an adventure.

Now in my uni days, it wasn’t the case that I never went out, it was more that I went to the safe, pedestrian venues that all the other preppy clones were going to.  There was plenty of bad behaviour and fun to seek out, but it was in a controlled environment, never straying too far from the interests and venues of the predetermined middle-class student experience.  I craved more, but didn’t have the boldness to go out and get it.

In my thirties, the opportunity for adventure aligned with my spirit for novelty, and I joined the heaving, sweating masses at Da Club.  Most of the patrons are younger than me, but there is a substantial minority of thirty-somethings trying to capture that last flush of youth prior to middle-aged spread.

But there is one Universal Truth:

In the club environment, there are exactly two topics of conversation.  Due to the fleeting nature of our interactions, and the audibility of nothing except some dirty beats, brevity is essential.  These talking points are:

  1. “Have you got any drugs?”
  2. “Do you fancy a f%&k?”

And that is it.  No great philosophical debates to be found here – save these for the pub or the after-party.  But it actually suits me as a clubber in my thirties – in my more naïve and non-confrontational guise, I had a severe aversion to the word “no”.  In some respects, it gave me some incredible experiences, in others it led me to some icky and dangerous places.  But now, at this time of my life, I just want to go and dance, and coexist in indifference with my fellow humans.  No, I don’t have any drugs, and no, I’m not going back to yours.  I’m just here to dance.
 

THIRD-PERSON SINGULAR “THEY” – THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE PART 4

 

I’m not going to touch on the “correctness” of the use of “they” as a preferred pronoun – I enjoy arguments over prescriptive vs. descriptive use of language, but that’s been done elsewhere.

I want to talk about why the use of “they” to describe an individual (in a gender-neutral sense) has practical uses for everyone; it’s not just useful for trans* and non-binary individuals. That’s not an apology – when we recognise rights for a minority, the change often improves things for everyone.

Scenarios in which third-person singular “they” has its uses:

Number One

So, there’s the obvious reason of “they” being fairly inoffensive if you’re ‘not sure’ of someone’s gender identity (it’s a balancing act between asking and waiting to be told, sometimes – none of us are perfect, and we sometimes find ourselves in social situations that we have no clue how to navigate). It’s better to be vague than wrong in my book.

Number Two

In my work, I deal with colleagues and collaborators from all over the world. Plenty of these people have names that I’ve never encountered before. And the rules that divide names into “masculine” and “feminine” in English don’t necessarily apply elsewhere. Sometimes you just don’t know – especially if you’ve not met yet, or have only ever communicated by email. In this situation, I again go for ambiguity over misgendering – it saves a lot of embarrassment.

Number Three

Now it’s time to get political. Third-person singular “they” is useful for eliminating the default designation of a professional as male. In my line of work, we will talk about “the architect”, “the builder”, “the electrician”, etc, without knowing the individual we’re describing (maybe they’ve not yet been appointed, perhaps we’ve not dealt with them until now for contractual reasons, perhaps we’re talking about a profession in general terms). Trouble is, there’s often a default to male, which

  1. Feeds into the perception that there are “male jobs” and “female jobs”, which belongs in the 1950s;
  2. Is wrong more often than our use of language implies, e.g.

“when you saw the nurse today, what did she say about your [insert embarrassing bodily ailment here]?”

“Er, HE said to put this cream on it and come back in two weeks.”

Number Four

Just, why not? Seeing as we’ve already established that it’s not grammatically heinous (to most of us), we could use it in far more interactions than we presently do. No reason why you couldn’t interchange “he” and “she” with “they” – unless the person you’re describing has expressly said that they (um,) do not want this. We might find its use becoming more commonplace as we step away from the use of pronouns at all (in our work email signatures, and those of many firms, honorifics are omitted completely, and sometimes post-nominals too). Tom Scott has produced a video on this, in the link below. He does a load of other stuff on language and esoteric knowledge – you should check out some of his other stuff if you have the time.

None of us know what the future holds, and we don’t know if there will be a rise in gender non-conformity or an abolition of gender. But what we do know is that we can find ways to address people without putting our foot in our mouth.

 

I DIDN’T NEED TO KNOW – THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE PART 3

 

Another poem written by my friend Jenna.  It’s about dating as a trans woman, and in her words, dedicated to “all the guys who decided to blurt out their sexual preference on discovering I used to have a penis”:

I Didn’t Need To Know

You walked up to me, eyes so bright,
Said your name was Bradlee and asked if I was alright.
I smiled right back and perked up at the convo,

Knew where this would end, but’d been drinking on my own, so,
I answered all your questions, even those that seemed quite personal,
I figured “what the heck, this life is ultimately terminal!”

You asked if I had kids, I said “No, but one day maybe,
I’d like a son and daughter, but I can’t carry a baby!”.
The look you gave me, it was pity and you reassured,
“Don’t worry, there are stem cell trials – many illnesses’ll get cured!”

I thought right then “It hasn’t clicked, he doesn’t know my story,
This is where I scare him off, by getting super gory.”
Instead of describing the state of my axewound, I decided to lay it on gently,
I told you I used to be a boy, in an instant you spoke to me differently.

“I’m not into men, not gay, don’t like cock,
It’s a shame you’re not a woman, I’d be hard as a rock.”
You laughed and grinned nervously, exited silently,
leaving me feeling non-human, unsurprisingly.

I didn’t need to know, that you didn’t want a blow, from this ex ho, on your down-below.
I didn’t need to know, that your penis lost it’s flow, when you thought about my past sperm-filled pants-arrow.
I didn’t need to know, that you thought of me as a sideshow, or a game show joke prize that nobody wants, though.

I didn’t need to know, but remember for next time, I may be a freak to you, but I’m not after your white slime.
I was flattered by the attention, enjoying the conversation, now I’m sat here all alone, waiting for the bus at the station.

Whenever this happens, it reinforces the lie, that all men who speak to me, just want to stroke my inner thigh.
It makes me reclusive, afraid to converse, makes me feel like existence is more of a curse.
Please be kind and remember, whatever your dick bites, I don’t need to know, I’m a person, not a fleshlight.

The end