F*CK YOU, 2016.

One thing that pretty much everyone can agree on is that 2016 has been universally shite.  All the best celebs have died, we voted for Brexit, and Donald Trump was elected President.  I’m almost convinced that there could be a God after all, due to 2016 looking like an elaborate practical joke contrived by a mischievous overlord.  And that’s just a brief summary of all the terrible things that happened last year up until the beginning of November (I’ve probably missed a few, so much bad shit went down last year).  Also, these are things that were of note in the white, middle-class, Western world.  That’s just the frame of reference that I have.  Things might have looked a lot rosier in other cultures (every cloud, etc).

On 12th November, Twitter user @christhebarker created a Sgt. Pepper-themed montage of all those that 2016 had stolen from us (although 2016 really wasn’t done by this point).  Hover over the picture for more info about those in the image.

Denise Robertson Ed Stewart Carla Lane Garry Shandling Johan Cruyff Prince Buster Sir George Martin Anton Yelchin Howard Marks Leonard Cohen Arnold Palmer Harper Lee Pierre Boulez Gareth Thomas Erik Bauersfeld Glenn Frey Keith Emerson Burt Kwouk Sir Jimmy Young Paul Daniels Sir Terry Wogan Cliff Michelmore Jean Alexander Muhammad Ali Frank Kelly Caroline Aherne George Kennedy Maurice White David Gest Gene Wilder Lemmy Kilmister Prince David Bowie Pete Burns Alan Rickman Zaha Hadid Ronnie Corbett Victoria Wood Robert Vaughn Jo Cox MP Sylvia Anderson Kenny Baker Tony Dyson The Toblerone Travesty Donald Trump PEOTUS Leicester City Premier League Champions 2016


But after that, we needed to add another whole damn row, because 2016 is a right bastard, apparently:


Is 2016 all that unusual?  Yes and No.  The number of celebrity deaths, international incidents, wars, and other human-induced clusterfucks is no more than in any other year, proportionally.  But as I said at the start, the events that have caught our attention have been skewed to the Western middle-class span of interests, and so it looks like we’ve been particularly hard done by this year.  And there are other confounding factors.  Think about when we started to define people as “celebrities” by modern standards – it was around the time that television really took off, from the 1950s.  People who made their name in early TV are well into old age now, and those household figures who have become so familiar are just like any of us, mere mortals.  So this might be the start of a wave of well-known figures dying off.  Which would make 2016 seem less exceptional in a few years from now.

Some of those celebrity deaths have been of relatively young people – Carrie Fisher, Prince, George Michael, David Bowie – but even though most of us will make it into old age, there is a sizeable minority of any population that is just unlucky and dies young.  I know people who’ve died in their 20s, 30s and 40s.  All of these deaths are tragedies, but they’re not as unusual as we think.

And even if 2016 is a statistical blip (which it probably isn’t), such is the nature of chance.  If all deaths occurred at a uniform rate, then THAT would be unusual. So whatever it is; more celebrities getting to an older age, more people being recognised as celebrities, better media reporting, whatever – we are just going to have to accept that Shit Happens.  And 2016 was really shit, wasn’t it.


This is one of my favourite songs (I do like a bit of Kenny Rogers), mainly for the meaning I attach to it (it was part of some advice a friend gave me before I delivered a speech to a packed-out lecture theatre).  And because it’s a song I hold in high esteem, I feel it deserves the sceptical treatment.  It’s jam-packed with beautiful metaphors. So let’s take a look at it, line-by-line:

(Lyrics courtesy of lyricsfreak.com)

On a warm summer’s eve
On a train bound for nowhere
I met up with the gambler
We were both too tired to sleep
So we took turns a-starin’
Out the window at the darkness
The boredom overtook us,
And he began to speak
A nice way to set the scene.  I’ve been that person on the train many a time, awkwardly avoiding eye contact with other passengers, until one of us summons the courage to see what will happen if they break the very British taboo of engaging in conversation with a stranger.
He said, “Son, I’ve made a life
Out of readin’ people’s faces
Knowin’ what the cards were
By the way they held their eyes
So if you don’t mind me sayin’
I can see you’re out of aces
For a taste of your whiskey
I’ll give you some advice”
Our stranger has some valuable advice to impart: his experience has taught him to get the measure of other people, to suss them out and use that information to his advantage.  He can tell from our traveller’s demeanour that they are down on their luck.  He’ll pass on some information, but only as part of a fair exchange – the gambler knows which currency to use to get a good deal.
So I handed him my bottle
And he drank down my last swallow
Then he bummed a cigarette
And asked me for a light
And the night got deathly quiet
And his face lost all expression
He said, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy
You gotta learn to play it right
The trade takes place and our gambler begins his tale:

Our traveller has to take life seriously and learn to make the right decisions to get what they want in life – to game the system.

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for counting
When the dealin’s done
It’s important to recognise which risks are worth taking, which ones are not, and to realise when you’re about to get conned.

Don’t put make yourself vulnerable by revealing what assets you have, take stock of your own situation in private so that others cannot take advantage of you.

Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away
And knowin’ what to keep
‘Cause every hand’s a winner
And every hand’s a loser
And the best that you can hope for is to die
In your sleep
Experience will teach you how to make the best of every situation.  You can use some of what life throws at you to your advantage, and some thins you have to just let go.  And sometimes that means making unpleasant and ruthless decisions.

Whatever situation you find yourself in; you can choose to make the best of it, or not.  Life’s a gamble and you have to learn the odds.

Life, and death, are uncertain and inevitable.  Hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst, and play whatever hand you’re given.

And when he finished speakin’
He turned back toward the window
Crushed out his cigarette
And faded off to sleep
And somewhere in the darkness
The gambler he broke even
But in his final words
I found an ace that I could keep
The old gambler has given his advice, lived his life to his satisfaction, and now his time has come to die.  He succeeded at life, and death, and so broke even.

Our traveller takes on board the gambler’s advice, and sees a moment of purpose in the gambler’s death.  His legacy will live on in the wisdom he gifted to the traveller.

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em (when to hold ’em)
Know when to fold ’em (when to fold ’em)
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done

Songwriters: SCHLITZ, DON
The Gambler lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

And here it is, on YouTube.  I’ve had this on repeat so, so many times.  Resist it, I challenge you!


There’s a bloke in my office who has a mild obsession with the theory that the number of deaths in Manchester’s canals over the six years could be down to an undiscovered serial killer. I was a little sceptical of the idea – 61 deaths in canals over a six-year period sounds a lot, and it’s certainly 61 too many – but it’s not such a huge number that I might think it remarkable.

Here’s the original story, from The Independent.

And in this article from the Manchester Evening News, GM Police are quick to rubbish the notion – and maybe they have a point.

In the 23rd January 2015 episode of More or Less on Radio4 (it’s about two-thirds of the way through, at minutes 18:13 to 23.22), Tim Harford covers the actual likelihood of this being the case – compared to the number of bodies you might expect to fish out of the canal during a typical period of time.

So is there a serial killer at work? Only if they’re also a damn good statistician, it seems.


I was discussing relationships with a good friend of mine (let’s face it, we were having a good old gossip), and we spoke about the concept of “The One”. My friend asked me if I thought there was such a thing, and my answer was…. Sort Of.

You see, I think that there are many possible Ones. I’m currently with someone who I think qualifies for that title, and I’ve gone out with people who I previously thought were The One. Maybe if things had worked out differently I might still have been with one of them now. But life isn’t a fairytale, and it doesn’t make our feelings any less real or valid, or some relationships worth more than others.

I’m in love now, and I was in love before. There’s no mystical secret behind finding love, and we’re only predestined in that our past experiences and upbringing shape our future lives. Most people end up with somebody (or somebodies) similar to them, and statistically speaking, there are thousands of people similar to me, and the same goes for you. Out of those there might be hundreds who are truly special in some way. And one of those, for me, was there in the right place at the right time. It’s not fate; it’s probability.

Tim Minchin expresses the concept far more eloquently than I, in the song “If I Didn’t Have You”:


staffy teeGiven how much I detest dogs, you may be surprised that I’m writing another post about them.  Dogs.  And sharks.  Because that’s the next logical step, yes?

Anyway, the inspiration for this post comes from something I saw posted on Facebook – this t-shirt (right):

And this got me thinking – which would be more dangerous (assuming that the shark could somehow survive being taken for a walk on a lead)?

How many deaths per year can be attributed to dogs?  And to Staffordshire Bull Terriers in particular?  What about the number of shark-induced deaths?

Well this is a tricky one to answer, not because the stats aren’t available – they are – but because we need to define the problem properly.

If we only consider the UK, there aren’t a lot of shark attacks.  According to The Shark Trust, there have only been two unprovoked shark attacks in British waters since 1847.  So dogs would appear to be more likely to cause you injury in that case.  And the figures back it up: During the last five years, 17 people in the UK have been killed as a result of being attacked by dogs, and there were 6302 hospital admissions in 2012 – 2013 from dog attacks.

But what about worldwide?  There are certainly a lot more sharks in other countries, but there are also different laws and cultural norms governing the keeping of dogs.  Add to this the fact that in other parts of the world, diseases like rabies are prevalent, and the question becomes more complicated. This page from worldmapper gives data on the number of deaths from rabies worldwide.  Most human deaths from rabies can be attributed to dog bites, but the page doesn’t give an actual figure for this – maybe it is difficult to attribute all deaths from rabies to a particular cause,or maybe the data is not well-kept: According to the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, in many countries where rabies is more common it tends to be under-reported but that 99% of human deaths from rabies can be attributed to exposure to rabid dogs.

Well, that’s an awful lot of rabies deaths from dogs. The WHO reports that globally around 55,000 people die every year from rabies, and 99% of that is 54,450.

What about attacks from dogs per year, globally? The WHO state that they just don’t know the precise number of people attacked by dogs every year, but it is estimated to be in the tens of millions. Statistics on deaths caused by dog attack are just as hard to find, but it is estimated that in the US up to about 20 deaths per year can be attributed to dog bites, with similar figures for other developed countries. In the US, approximately 4.7 million people will be bitten by a dog annually, and only 0.0002% of those people will die from it.

So let’s take the wildly imprecise figure of ‘tens of millions’, call it 50 million, and multiply it by 0.0002% – this gives us 100 deaths from dog bites worldwide, but as previously mentioned, this figure might as well have been plucked out of thin air. It might be more, it might be less. But it isn’t many. It seems that in countries where rabies is rare or non-existent, you are very unlikely to die as a result of canine activity. In a country where rabies is a problem, you have a better reason to be more wary of dogs.

So let’s look at the total number of shark deaths worldwide. In 2013 there were 72 recorded unprovoked shark attacks on humans. 55000 is sure looking a lot bigger than 72.

But let’s get a bit of perspective. Being attacked by either a shark or a dog is a terrifying thought, but it is pretty unlikely to happen to you. In the UK you do have a virtually zero chance of being killed by a shark, but also only a 0.01% chance of being bitten by a dog in any given year. Dog attacks make for great newspaper stories, but we never hear about the many thousands of cases where a dog was perfectly well-behaved and injured no-one.

Worldwide the story is a little more complicated; your chance of dog-induced death depends on where you live, whether rabies is a problem there, and what your country’s healthcare system is like. However, there are plenty of things that are far more likely to kill you, such as cows and bees, an every year the newspapers run a story quoting statistics from RoSPA, with at least a smattering of human-interest-comedy-anecdotes to make it more readable (and hence, less boring). Did you know for example, that in 2002, 11,500 people in the UK were admitted to hospital with injuries sustained while trampolining

And don’t forget, that most accidents occur in the home. Statistically, you’re safer going for a swim in shark-infested waters (I’m really not advocating this).

Maybe one of the more interesting aspects to this is why we find certain animals and certain breeds of animal so scary in the first place, and why we would happy carry out relatively risky day-to-day activities without a second thought. Compared to the chances of other disasters befalling us, what is the risk really like? The reason why we are frightened of, say, dogs or sharks, is (apart from over-zealous media reporting), that these incidents happen frequently enough to be aware of some level of risk. Using the example of being struck by lightning, you have a 0.0003% chance of this happening to you. But multiply the global population of 7.186 billion by 0.0003% and you get just under 24000 people. Which is a substantial and visible number. Like Terry Pratchett said, “million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten“.