Dec 17 2014

Still watching and waiting

Good news from the hospital this morning. My blood test results are similar to those from 7 weeks ago and the tumours don’t seem to be getting any larger. I therefore remain on watch and wait until February.

What a great early Christmas present!



Dec 16 2014

A visit to A&E

A few days ago I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing how well Royal Derby Hospital’s A&E department works.

Unexpected, because I fell on an ice patch in the office car park, managing to bang my head and elbow as gravity took its inevitable course. A pleasure, because although it was very busy (I suspect that rather a lot of their patients had done similar things to me that morning), their systems worked beautifully. Over the course of the three hour wait that was estimated accurately on arrival, I saw seven different people on my way around and every single one of them was helpful and courteous.

Fortunately, I didn’t do too much damage to myself. My elbow was sore, but unbroken, but I was warned that my golf swing and double-handed tennis strokes will probably never be as good as they were. This news made me very happy that I don’t play either sport!

When I arrived home, I tweeted about my positive experience. I’m pleased to report that the hospital’s social media team are also on the ball.


Anyway, it’s back to my routine visit to the same hospital tomorrow morning to see how far the lymphoma has progressed. The haematology team is great too. All of my experiences of Derby Hospitals during the last six months (and there have been too many of those) makes me value the NHS even more than I did previously.


Dec 09 2014

Autumn statement analysis: the impact of postgraduate loans

It’s interesting to see that the postgraduate loan scheme announced in the autumn statement is now starting to attract some coverage. The IFS has published some analysis today, which seems to suggest that it is reasonable to believe that the scheme will pay for itself.

In other words, unlike the current undergraduate loan scheme where around 43% of the value of loans made are not currently expected to be recovered, this scheme will be cost-neutral to the public purse. So does that mean that everyone’s a winner?

The IFS make this observation:


While the proposed postgraduate loan scheme does not link loans to fees in the same way as it does at undergraduate level, institutions with high market power might still respond to the increased availability of credit by raising prices, which would reduce the effectiveness of the policy in making the upfront costs of postgraduate study cheaper.


Earlier on this week, I made a similar warning in an article I wrote for Post40Bloggers:


… I’m certain that universities seeing a ‘guaranteed’ £10,000 loan for all students under 30 will be tempted to inflate their fees rather more than they otherwise would have been able to. If they do raise their fees in this way, it will be older postgraduates without access to these loans who will feel the biggest (negative) impact of this change.


Sadly, both sides of the coalition have been nothing but consistent in believing that only “young people” go to university, when the evidence demonstrates this naive belief to be entirely false. Surely access to loans (if it is not possible to make them available universally) should be on the basis of need, rather than on a person’s age? It is, after all, unlawful to discriminate in this way in most other spheres of life.


It’s therefore a difficult call as to whether we should cheer or worry about the impact of government-backed postgraduate loans. I want to cheer them, as they ought to have a positive effect improving social mobility and opportunity for poorer, younger students who are currently denied the chance through being unable to access funding. However, the change could well have the opposite effect on social mobility for poorer, mature students. Perhaps the fairest way of splitting the available funds for loans would have been to offer them to all poorer students first, regardless of their age.


You can read the full text of my article considering the impact of postgraduate loans on mature students over at Post40Bloggers.


Dec 07 2014

The Firth of Forth before the road bridge

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Forth Road Bridge. Until it opened vehicles either drove the long way around or queued to use the ferry. The photograph is from my father’s collection of slides taken in the mid 1950s. It shows the ferry at the same moment a steam locomotive starts to cross the bridge.


Nov 30 2014

Can you help me identify where this photograph was taken?

I’m sure that someone will be able to recognise where this photograph of my father’s was taken fairly easily, but it’s defeated my brain as well as the well-known image search engine I’ve tried.

Devon village - 1950sThe picture is from the mid-1950s and is most likely to be somewhere in Devon, probably South or East Devon judging by the other slides in the box that it came from. The two most obvious landmarks are the Beach House Hotel, opposite what is presumably a restaurant or tea room called The Lobster Pot. Unsurprisingly, there are far too many hotels called ‘Beach House’ and too many restaurants or tea rooms called ‘The Lobster Pot’ to sensibly refine the search.

The church steeple looks distinctive and there also appears to be something worth taking a photograph in the right foreground. I think that’s what the person in the raincoat stood in front of the Morris is doing. Another sign that it might have been a cold day is the smoke coming out of the chimney on the left hand side … but maybe not, as there’s someone in shorts by the Beach House Hotel too!

Any help would be gratefully accepted – please leave me a comment if you think you know where it might have been taken.


Nov 26 2014

Why is it so difficult to report an illegible number plate?

I have a pet peeve. Well, ok, I have more than one pet peeve as regular readers will know. But this one is reasonably high up the list. I’m thinking about people who deliberately misrepresent their number plates and more specifically, people who misrepresent them to such an extent that they become illegible, offensive or both.

I followed one such miscreant driving a blue BMW through the centre of Derby this morning. When it was safe to do so, I pulled over to the side of the road, parked, and took a photograph of their number plate with the intention of reporting it later to either the DVLA or the Derbyshire Constabulary. Much as the practice of misrepresenting number plates annoys me I’ve never thought about reporting someone for it before, but this particular misrepresentation made what should have been a fairly innocuous registration mark both illegible and offensive.


However, I’ve now reluctantly given up on reporting it.

It would seem that neither the DVLA nor the police are particularly interested in the issue, even though there is a fine of up to £1,000 for the offence. It’s important that vehicles have legible number plates as if the car concerned was to be involved in a future incident, a witness being able to accurately recall the registration mark may become significant.

However, the DVLA don’t provide any mechanism I can find for reporting such offences (online, by telephone or in person) and it appears that there’s no easy way to report anything other than some very specific concerns to Derbyshire Constabulary online. So reluctantly, I decided to try the 101 non-emergency number. It seems ridiculous that the only way of reporting a petty offence is to either do it in person at a police station or to have to wait for ages on the ‘phone to talk to someone.

In the end I got fed up of the hold music. The incident will go unreported. I hope that the car saw isn’t involved in any future incident where someone’s inability to understand the number plate turns out to be important.


Nov 12 2014

The Samsung whistle and cocktail parties

Yesterday, on a train traveling between London and Derby, I very nearly snapped. The reason? I had to listen to someone’s ‘phone constantly alerting them using the five notes that form the “Samsung whistle”. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an even more irritating noise than the Nokia tune made infamous by Dom Joly on Trigger Happy TV at the turn of the century.

The composer, Joongsam Yun, is quoted in a Guardian article from 2013 saying that the ringtone was designed to represent what customers think of the Samsung brand – innovative, friendly and trustworthy. Really. Well, I bet he’s not been stuck on a train for the best part of an hour and a half being force-fed the wretched thing tens and tens of times. I certainly wasn’t ascribing those particular values to Samsung by the time the train reached Leicester and the miscreant got off. Every time I thought I was going to get a few minutes peace to concentrate on a particularly tricky presentation that I’m trying to put together, my attention was completely disrupted by this truly appalling sound. Until it is banished from their equipment forever, I’m going to make a specific point of not buying anything (else) from them. (I’m looking at these words as I type them on a new Samsung monitor, so that threat is a little hollow at the moment as they’ve already had my cash).

In the end I gave up working on my presentation and thought instead about why the whistle seems to grab all of my attention every time I have the misfortune to hear it. Other ringtones don’t have this effect on me, so why is this one so intrusive?

Auditory attention is unlike visual attention as we don’t really have much of a choice about the sounds that reach our ears. If we don’t want to see something we can avert our gaze. That’s not possible with sounds – we can’t help but hear every noise in our immediate environment. However, our brains have evolved a neat trick which means that we can attenuate the sounds we don’t want to listen to and concentrate on the things we do want to hear. There are some neat psychological experiments which show that if two different stories are played through headphones, one into the right ear and one into the left, people have little difficulty in understanding and repeating the story they’ve been asked to follow, even if the experimenter switches the stories around between the ears part way through the task.

However, the story of auditory attention isn’t that simple. Imagine you’re talking to a group of friends and someone on the other side of the room says your name so that you can hear it. You weren’t expecting your name to be said, but your attention is immediately snapped away from the conversation you were having. Rather pleasingly, cognitive psychologists call this “the cocktail party effect”. One of the explanations for this is that because our name is a particularly important to us, when someone says it, even if we aren’t expecting it, our automatic systems take over and we can’t help but shift our attention away from what we were originally concentrating on. And of course, it’s not just hearing our name that can have this effect, but anything that is particularly salient to us.


So perhaps the “Samsung whistle” is, for some reason, particularly salient to me. The problem is, I really don’t buy that explanation. I don’t have a Samsung ‘phone, even if I did I’d never use that ringtone, and I’ve spent the last couple of years studiously trying to ignore the noise. It doesn’t mean anything to me at all.

It would seem to me that the “cocktail party effect” explanation therefore doesn’t apply here. I’ve no idea what psychological mechanism is at work, even having done a brief trawl of the literature this lunchtime.

But if someone could put me out of my misery and explain it to me, I’d give you my undivided attention while you did. Truly I would. Unless, of course, someone in the room had a Samsung ‘phone switched on.


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