Month: August 2015 (page 2 of 2)

If slugs were cute

Would we keep them as pets? This is a weird thought I had while observing the spell my cat casts over the hearts of passers by. Our cat is a very sociable cat. She loves people. She loves us all equally. She’s an egalitarian cat. She’s also quite a lazy cat. She spends much of her day either asleep on one of my children’s beds or next to me while I work. She greets guests to the house with the same amount of attention and affection she reserves for us when we return home. She is the Beverly Moss of the cat world. She would offer them bowls of nuts and Martinis if she had opposable thumbs.

Our cat in human form

Our cat in human form

People like her back. Strangers stroke her. House guests pet her and tell her how lovely she is. The reason? She is lovely. She’s cute, she’s furry and she smells of clean cat. She’s vain (all cats are) and she’s charming.

Our cat in cat form

Our cat in cat form

Were she to be a slug, would she get the same reception? If we had a pet slug, would house guests rush to stroke it (him and her)? I suspect not. So my weird thought is: why do we only want our pets to be cute?

‘How about snakes, rats and lizards?’ I hear you cry. ‘Those are popular pets but they aren’t cute.’ I disagree. Not everyone finds snakes, rats and lizards cute but some people do. Rats are furry. They are intelligent and interesting. Snakes are smooth to the touch and move with elegance. Lizards have beauty and grace. ‘What about stick insects then?’ It is, I must admit, harder to argue against the yuck-factor of the stick insect but I don’t think anyone since the 1970s has kept a stick insect as  a pet.

That vast web of knowledge, the internet, tells me that the reason we prefer cute animals for pets is evolutionary.  We particularly find animals that have a baby-like quality cute (vulnerability, high-pitched voices, soft body, big head, big eyes) because we are hard-wired to want to protect the young of our own species and so similar qualities to our babies seen in other species turns us into surrogate mothers and fathers. We are transferring that need to protect orphans of our own species to the desire to protect orphans of other species, so in other words, cute furry animals. The Germans even have a word for it: Kindchenschema. At the sight of our cute cat, visitors will get a hormonal boost which will bring on their nurturing side and make them feel good. She’s a drug dealer.

Look at me, I'm gorgeous!

Look at me, I’m gorgeous!

Animals that have some degree of human baby characteristics are at danger of becoming our pets. So no chance of a slug as a pet then? This is a shame because I’d have the pick of the bunch after filming them entering our home one night last year.

Ten things that annoy me about Excel

I love Excel. I couldn’t do my job without Excel. It is a thing of beauty. It is geeky. It is simple yet so very clever. Spreadsheets are my working life. Oxford Scholarship Online could not operate as smoothly as it does without Excel. This is not an exaggeration. The lists of forthcoming titles are all kept in Excel spreadsheets and the master copies of these all live in a server in Shrewsbury. I like Excel because I can use colour – for text or background. I like it because I like numbers and I like statistics.

However, there are ten things about Excel that make me want to throw it out the window sometimes, or at least put it on the naughty step for a few hours.

1. If I copy some text, then type something before I need to paste that text, Excel forgets what I copied so I have to do it again. In other words, it doesn’t retain data in the clipboard in the way that Word does. It also forgets if I accidentally type control+C instead of control+V when I want to paste.

2. If I press page up when I am only a few cells from the top Excel tells me off with an annoying bong as if to say: ‘stupid idiot, how can I go page up from here?’

3. I’m not clever enough to use Excel to its full potential. For example, if I copy and paste formula to another cell and to relate it to a different row or column of data Excel gets confused. I know the $ sign can be used for such needs but I don’t know how to do this. I wish I did. I have tried using Excel Help but it always serves to disappoint as it is a maze of interconnected questions and answers.

4. My version of Excel (I’m not sure whether this is universal) won’t let me name a tab ‘history’. This is very annoying as for my job I need to name tabs by subject, e.g. Economics and Finance, History, Literature. If I try, I get this message:

Why? Why? What is wrong with History?

Why? Why? What is wrong with History?

5. At the bottom of the above annoying window, the text ‘Was this information helpful?’ appears. NO!

6. If I accidentally select a range of cells, and accidentally place the mouse near the corner of the cells and move it, I get asked this:

I hate this message

I hate this message

The answer is always ‘no, isn’t it obvious I just have poor mouse control?’

7. Excel tries to be intelligent but fails. It doesn’t always work out what range of cells I want to add up if I have copied and pasted a formula from one sheet to another. This annoys me. Surely it should be obvious that if I added up previously from cell A1 to A20 in sheet 1 then I will want to do the same in sheet 2?

8. It crashes more frequently than Word, especially when I have huge enormous spreadsheets full of superfluous data.

9. More than once I have accidentally saved an older version of a spreadsheet over a newer version and it doesn’t ask me if I’m sure I want to save the older version over the newer one. It should do. I am human and it is very unlikely that someone would actually want to do this. I once lost 12 hours work by doing this. This is actually the one time when I would appreciate a pop-up window asking me ‘are you sure?’

10. This might be just me but sometimes, if I have two spreadsheets open, it only seems to think I have one open. I have to keep returning to ‘open recent’ to locate the second spreadsheet even though it is open. I have no idea what this means.

There are more things that annoy me about Excel (such as if my top line is bold, why does it think I want the next line of data to be bold as well?) but that is enough for today. And my love of it outweighs the annoyances. After all, it can be used to create art as well as data.

Bored of data? Create art instead.

Bored of data? Create a portrait of your geeky friend instead.




Speed awareness – thoughts!

Today I had to attend a speed awareness course in sunny Telford because a few weeks ago I was caught on camera travelling at 34 miles per hour through and 30-mile per hour speed limit in Church Stretton. I’d been late returning from Craven Arms to Crowmoor School fuelled by good coffee. I hadn’t seen the man in the van.

The course was four-hours long so I had plenty of time for quiet, in the toilet, contemplation about the course during the breaks. I had three thoughts.

Where I went today

Where I went today

Dads in disguise

Of course my experience is limited to just one occasion but we had two trainers and they both taught in the style of dads. The course is delivered in a way as not to admonish or judge but to advise and pass on the wisdom of years of experience. There is something secondary school like about the course. It is made simple to make it palatable and also to aid retention of information. This was a good thing. Both trainers were men in their late 50s or early 60s. Both were driving instructors. Both had a vast knowledge and experience of driving (just like your average dad) and a bucket load of anecdotes. So both taught like dads giving their grown-up children tips on how to be safer drivers.

My dad

My dad

Tips they gave included:

1. Wheels on Tarmac

If you can see the wheels of the car in front of you on the tarmac when at a junction (i.e. when stationery), then you are at a safe distance. Well done, you!


Coast is an acronym that will help you become a better driver, my child. It stands for: Concentration, Observation, Anticipation, Space, Time.

3. The 2-Second Rule

This rule is your most useful rule, it will apply in any speed limit. This is the amount of time that should pass between the car in front of your passing any given object and you passing it, in case you aren’t sure.

4. Stop and Give Way signs

These are the same sizes all over the world, except in one awkward country – Japan. Oh how much I wished I’d driven when I lived in Japan because then I’d have known this.


People resort to their fourteen-year-old self when they are on a course

This includes me. I hate this about myself but whenever I am on a course I become the class clown. I’m the joker who has the cleverest answer (and never the right answer). I’m the one that makes everyone laugh and I get a boost when everyone laughs. I am also the distractor. I have to fight the urge to pass a note to the person next to me with a factitious comment about the course leader. In addition, I have to sit on my hands to stop myself either fiddling or drawing the course leader. This, I find really hard.

My school photo - can you spot me?

My school photo – can you spot me?

I’m not the only person who struggles to fight off their fourteen-year-old self I am sure.

Today we had the popular girls who immediately spotted each other and sat together looking all perfect and tanned, swapping stories about boyfriends and cars. And this isn’t the first time they’ve been on this course of course. Sooo boring. Here we go again.

We had the vocal know-it-all who knew more than that course leader: ‘No, that’s not right, today tractors can get up to speeds of 60 plus miles an hour.’ ‘I’ve definitely seen signs of 70 miles per hour speed limit in England, it was in Nottingham.’

Also, we had the token silent but deadly know-it-all who also knew more than that course leader. Rather than shout it out though and embarrass the poor chap in front of the class, he had a habit of muttering the correct answer under his breath so the class could all just about hear but the course leader could not. In a way, he is kinder than the vocal know-it-all type.

And a course will always have its confidents. Today these consisted of a group of young twenty-something men. They sat, slouched, and oozed through their pours ‘we should not be here, this is stupid, we know how to drive, thanks’. I think they left with their opinion changed at least a little.

There’s more. Every course will have the eager-to-pleases. We had one of these today. These are the swots of olden days. They read the Highway Code the night before. They know all the answers, even to the very hard questions such as: ‘How long can a temporary road sign remain temporary before it has to be put on a post and made permanent?’ (I bet you don’t know the answer without googling.) They glow with pleasure when the course leader praises their knowledge.

It doesn’t matter what course you are attending, whether it be a computer course, a how-to-be-a school governor course (the last course I attended) or a speed awareness course. Sane, normally mature, grown-ups will turn into their fourteen-year-old selves. I do it every time.


These courses are GOOD

Finally, I hate to admit it, because I went today with a heavy heart and my tail between my legs ready to feel ashamed of my reckless behaviour but the course is a good thing. I learnt a lot. The two trainers were enthusiastic (despite probably teaching this course a lot with little variation in content). They were good dads. I hope I will be a better driver as a result, at least one who is more aware of their surroundings than they were before. And I got to meet some interesting people from Telford including the very knowledgeable lorry driver called Mark who really did know a lot about driving.

Know your signs

Know your signs

I just hope I don’t get to do it again. Once is enough for obvious reasons.




Inside Out – science fiction or science fact?

Today I took my children to see Inside Out at our local cinema. I knew that I was going to like it. I didn’t know much about the film before I went but I just had a feeling that I would like it.

Our local cinema

Our local cinema

And I was right. I loved it.

My weird thought today is: is there an element of truth behind the philosophy of this film or is it all just made up?

Reading up on this film on the Internet after returning home, I find out that the writer and director, Pete Docter, first approached psychologists five years ago to talk about his idea for this film. The premise of the film is the story of how an 11-year old girl deals with moving house from Minnesota to San Fransisco. Most of the film happens inside her head and the main characters are five emotions: anger, disgust, joy, sadness and anger. While she is coming to terms with the move, the emotions in her head have quite an adventure.

Even Pete likes cats

Even Pete likes cats

There are in fact more than five emotions in our heads, as science sees it, but Pete Docter decided that the film would only tackle five of them. (Others include surprise, courage, anticipation, pride, trust, guilt, love and envy.)

What I found interesting about the film is that sadness turns out to be the hero of the film. This is the emotion that shows the girl how she can get through the stress and sadness she feels about moving across the country. All through the film the viewer expects joy to be the hero as logic dictates this to be so, and in fact for the majority of the film joy indeed leads the way. We expect the message of the film to be that if we embrace the positive of life we will find happiness (as that is what we are often told in the real world). However, the real point of the film is to illustrate that we need to embrace sadness in order to move on to a place where joy can be found. In my experience, I have found this to be true. I love a good cry and until you go down, you cannot get back up.

I also like the association of colour to emotion in the film. It might seem obvious but it is important. Joy is yellow, sadness is blue, fear is purple (interestingly), anger is red (obviously) and disgust is green (the colour we turn when we are about to vomit). The film also seems to associate personality with emotion. Joy is, well, annoyingly happy all the time. Sadness mopes and lives by sloth. Fear is a skinny, creepy guy with too much energy. Anger a small stocky well-built square-headed man with fire coming out of his head. As for disgust, she batters her eyelids in horror at the mere mention of broccoli, and she does it with such disdain.

The five emotions of the film

The five emotions of the film

The film is colourful and clever. On one level it is a fun, heart-warming family film about love and family. On another, it is about emotion and memory, the colours and personalities that we give emotions, and how they shape our responses to events to create memories in our lives.

I feel though that it is my duty to point out one inconsistency with this film that niggled me a little bit. Riley’s emotional personalities did not resemble her at all and they were of different genders, shapes, sizes and apparent ages. Her mother and father’s emotions, as those of the dog, cat, pizza girl, school friend, all resembled their host and matched the gender. Why? I suspect it was for the sake of exaggeration. The personalities of the five main emotions were made more extreme, and noticeable, by their gender and stereotypes. The film might not have worked so well if they had all been 11-year old girls.

I suspect this film will have me thinking weird thoughts for a while.


Keltner D. and Ekman P. ‘The Science of Inside Out’ July 3 The New York Times 2015.

Were men hairier in the 1970s than they are in the 2010s?

This was my weird thought last night as I lay in bed trying to sleep. I was thinking about the power of television to influence young people in their developing beliefs and ethics (I don’t know what provoked this thought). This isn’t restricted to television of course: books, magazines, the Internet and films play their part too. I’m not sure we realise the influence television has on teaching us as children and our children today about the big wide world. I know that it had a big influence on me. It acted as a window to the real world. There wasn’t much of the gritty reality of life going on in Stafford in my tiny world of home, school and town on a Saturday. So it was down to the power of television to teach me about what being a grown up might be like.

Most importantly to a nine year old, as I remember now many years later, television taught me that if I wanted to get married and have a conventional heterosexual life (the only life I knew at that time) I’d have to be naked some of the time under satin sheets and I’d also have to caress hairy chests and kiss hairy chins. At the time, I was fairly horrified by this realization. I didn’t mind the chin so much but caressing the chest? No thanks.

So last night as I had my weird thought I started wondering if men on TV now are as hairy as those in the 1970s. At least, the men that starred in Dallas, Dynasty, Hart to Hart and Charlies Angles in my memory were fairly hairy. Those were the programmes that taught me the most about adulthood and adult relationships.

They seemed to spend most of their life kissing - yuck

They seemed to spend most of their life kissing – yuck

Related to this thought, I also pondered last night (since all the TV programmes I’ve cited are American ones), are American men hairier than British men? I don’t remember much bedroom action coming from the British TV pogrammes of the 1970s so perhaps I didn’t get to see the chest hairs of British actors as a child. However, I don’t think Frank Spencer, Tom Goode, or Benny Hill were particularly hairy.

Not many hair poking out of that shirt

Not many hair poking out of that shirt

I was relieved to find as I did grow up that not all men are extremely hairy (at least not British ones). I can’t say that I have a huge experience of American chests so I can’t comment at this point about trans-Atlantic hirsute  differences in general. I suspect that in fact there are hairy men the world over.

Doesn't that look so caressable?

I bet he doesn’t need to wear a jumper in the winter



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